Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Considering Appendix N

Occasionally people discuss the merits and importance of the Dungeon Masters Guide’s infamous “Appendix N” and its corollary in the Moldvay edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons, the “Inspirational Source Material” list (henceforth referred to as the “ISM”). Are they “required reading” for Dungeons & Dragons? Do some titles and authors deserve to be on the list? People’s taste in fiction varies widely, even within a specific genre; not everyone enjoys the literary aspects that inspired roleplaying games. Like many elements of D&D and the Old School Renaissance (along with adventure gaming and other geeky pursuits in general) it generates a good number of heated arguments fueled by strong feelings and the usual irrational contrariness that seems to typify most online debates and, disturbingly, more real-world discussions. Various people online have attempted and encouraged others to read every book listed in these resources; occasional debates flog their relevance and the merits of individual titles and authors. I find the occasional focus on these resources surprising given the size of both Appendix N and the ISM relative to their sourcebooks: one of the many appendices in the Dungeon Masters Guide, Appendix N takes up about a quarter of a page (still not even half a page if you include Gygax’s comments on works that inspired D&D) in a 240-page rulebook; the ISM offers a somewhat more substantial list that covers an entire page in the Basic D&D rulebook, just one out of 64 pages...a somewhat more significant contribution than Appendix N, but still relatively small. I find both resources more useful as inspiration than instruction, a suggested reading list for those who also dabble in fantasy literature who might appreciate these titles both for ideas to integrate into a fantasy roleplaying game and the pure literary enjoyment they provide.

At its most basic level, Appendix N offers gamers some insight into the literary works that inspired the original creators of D&D. This remains relevant even more than 40 years after the advent of the first roleplaying game as the past informs the present and the future A few of these resources demonstrate an affect on game systems (Vance’s influence on how magic works in D&D is quite clear); however, most provide insight not into the origins of armor class, hit points, and treasure tables, but into the themes and elements that contributed to the medieval fantasy game world itself. While none of these books provides an exact road map on how to run D&D the “right way,” they offer some idea on the kinds of scenarios one might undertake, elements to integrate into campaigns, and a sense of the spirit of adventure D&D seeks to evoke.

I’ve enjoyed examining the materials that inspired D&D’s original designers. While Appendix N and Moldvay’s ISM offer some literary inspiration, more recent sources like Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World provide analysis about exactly how some of these literary works influenced game concepts, particularly the “visitation theme” – a person from contemporary times transported to a fantasy realm, like The Wizard of Oz, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, John Carter of Mars, and certainly the seminal Three Hears and Three Lions – mirroring the gamer’s temporary “visit” to a fantasy world within the game (with the last title, of course, also contributing the vivid version of the regenerating D&D troll). Peterson’s book also examines other influences on D&D’s creators, particularly numerous wargame elements that evolved into game system components.

I did much of my reading of fantasy and science fiction in my high school years after I’d immersed myself in D&D and other roleplaying games; I’ve continued exploring genre literature on my own with guidance from various sources. I remember reading both Appendix N and Moldvay’s ISM when I first got those rulebooks, but I didn’t really pay much attention to them. My exploration of fantasy literature was informed more by my browsing the well-stocked shelves at my local independent bookstore, taking recommendations from Dragon Magazine’s book reviews, and following my own esoteric interests. I’d expect my own reading list and those from Appendix N and the ISM to overlap in places; I see that as a fortuitous coincidence rather than any evidence I’ve been playing D&D the “right” or “wrong” way.

Looking down the Appendix N and ISM lists I spot a number of works I’ve read, some in my distant past, before discovering D&D, and others I’ve read more recently in my efforts to expand my knowledge, particularly about the core works that inspired D&D’s creators. Here are some of the titles I found:

Burroughs, Edgar Rice – A Princess of Mars, At the Earths’ Core, et al: I got a used copy of Savage Pellucidar from a neighborhood tag sale as a kid and absolutely loved it. It might be the first genre novel I read, and it certainly drew me into its amazing fictional world. I’ve returned to Pellucidar and explored John Carter’s Mars over the years.

Le Guin, Ursala K. – A Wizard of Earthsea: I don’t recall exactly when I read this, but it was sometime during my later years of high school (and quite possibly inspired by the English teacher who offered the Science Fiction/Fantasy Literature course I enjoyed my senior year). It didn’t resonate with me as it did with some folks, but I hold it as an example that readers should try new authors and genres (much as we encourage kids to try new foods because “you might like it”).

Anderson, Poul – Three Hearts and Three Lions: I only recently read this, less inspired by any recommended reading list recommendation than its role in Playing at the World, where it serves as a good example of the “visitation theme” and other story elements that made its way into D&D (particularly the troll, but also a basic alignment system and what some might consider the paladin class).

Asprin, Robert LynnAnother Fine Myth, et al.: Although I read and thoroughly enjoyed the Myth Adventures series during my high school years, mostly for its humorous approach to fantasy literature, I found more game inspiration from the Thieves’ World shared-world anthologies Aprrin edited (particularly the first two volumes). Oddly enough I bought Chaosium’s Thieves’ World boxed set first, then dove into its literary origins, both to fuel my interest in running city-based D&D games.

Brackett, Leigh – The Ginger Star, et al.: Brackett was always at the back of my mind, but her involvement in the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back screenplay (writing a script whose surviving elements remain shrouded in mystery) recently inspired me to hunt down some of her novels at the regional used book store. While most of what I read were various science fiction pieces, I tracked down her three Skaith novels (The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, The Reavers of Skaith), which paint a vivid picture of a once high-tech world fallen into medieval squalor amid drastic climate change. Both Appendix N and Moldvay’s ISM mention Bracket as inspiration; reading her Skaith novels broadened my view of science-fiction influenced medieval fantasy and proved satisfying reads.

Howard, Robert E. – Red Nails, People of the Black Circle, Hour of the Dragon, et al.: Like much of my interest in fantasy literature, my curiosity about Howard’s Conan writings came initially from the 1982 John Milius Conan the Barbarian and later Marvel’s comic book series, both of which I discovered in my later college years. I read the stories much later in life; they offer many ideas to integrate into game campaigns in addition to sheer sword-and-sorcery entertainment.

Lovecraft, H.P. – At the Mountains of Madness, et al.: Once again my interest in a fantasy author evolved from a different source first. After playing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu game with the knowledge that it was only a horror roleplaying game, I quickly immersed myself in the genre literature. I was helped at that time (my high school days) by a Del Rey collection of Lovecrafts “best” tales, which satisfied my curiosity and exposed me to a full range of Lovecraftian madness. I still integrate Mythos elements in my game-writing today to evoke a creepy and disturbing atmosphere.

Moorcock, Michael – Elric of Melnibone, et al.: I discovered Moorcock’s Elric books and others featuring the Eternal Champion at the local book store that nurtured my interest in fantasy and science fiction literature throughout high school. While the setting seemed grounded in medieval culture, I was fascinated with the astounding elements he integrated into the stories (some of which I might consider of the “gonzo” genre of OSR play today) and some of the serious themes his characters must confront.

Pratt, Fletcher – The Well of the Unicorn: I’m actually reading this right now. Like Three Hearts and Three Lions I picked this one up after reading Playing at the World, less for anything connected with roleplaying games and more to do with Pratt’s involvement with Fletcher Pratt’s Naval Wargame and its influence on D&D’s evolution (armor class, hit points).

Tolkien, J.R.R. – The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, et al.: The Hobbit remains one of my all-time favorite books, having read it as a kid and having read it aloud numerous times at bedtime to my own son. Unlike Tolkien’s heavier works, The Hobbit possesses a fairytale quality, far more accessible language, and many tropes that resonate both in legends and the D&D setting.

I prefer Moldvay’s ISM over Appendix N because it’s far more comprehensive, recommending authors and titles, and because it includes non-fiction reference material. Two of his suggestions influenced me early on:

Macauley, David – Castles, Cathedrals: I received paperback versions of these as a gift from my distant German cousins on a visit in the early 1980s. They were in German, but I knew enough back then to read most of them...but what really inspired me were the wonderful illustrations. They helped me visualize practical people and architecture from medieval times to transpose into my fantasy roleplaying endeavors.

Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend: My parents kept a shelf of reference books accessible in the living room bookshelf (includinga three-volume dictionary and both geographic and biographic dictionaries). Next to these sat the two-volume set of Funk and Wagnalls. Before I discovered D&D I nurtured my imagination browsing and cross-referencing entries that interested me, first about Greek myths, then about Nordic and Germanic legends, digesting all the other tidbits I found in between. It’s proven an invaluable reference and occasional inspiration.

Gygax and Moldvay were quite clear as to their intentions listing titles and authors that inspired them. “Sometimes a little research is useful to improve a dungeon, flesh out a scenario, and provide inspiration for a campaign,” Moldvay wrote in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rulebook’s “Inspirational Source Material” section (page B62). Gygax mentions some nurturing elements that go beyond a mere reading list: his father’s made-up tales told to young Gary; comic books; fantasy and science fiction films (including the wonderful stop-motion works by Ray Harryhausen); and cultivating a lifelong habit of avid reading. “From such sources, as well as just about any other imaginative writing or screenplay you will be able to pluck kernels from which grow the fruits of exciting campaigns. Good reading!” Gygax concluded Appendix N with this note: “All the above authors, as well as many not listed, certainly helped to shape the form of the game. For this reason, and for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartily recommend the works of these fine authors to you.”

I’d encourage D&D or OSR gamers of the more literary persuasion to use these lists as a starting point, but would emphasize them to explore fantasy literature on their own – particularly material published since the early 1980s when these lists were published – to find those “many not listed” titles that best appeal to their sense of fantastic wonder that fuels their roleplaying game experiences.

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