An Appendix N Conversation with Jeffro Johnson

Monday , 30, January 2017 9 Comments

Scott Cole:    What prompted you to research Appendix N?

Jeffro Johnson:    I just wanted to understand why early D&D was so strange to me. I wanted to solve problems I faced in running games– problems that I now see stemmed from a stunted imagination. Several people have commented on this, but as I dug into the project… it did steadily turned into something else. And then things started happening!


SC:    What were the negative facets of popular culture and entertainment at that time that stifled your imagination?  Were there any positive influences beyond D&D?

JJ:    The internal logic of the movies and television I grew up with is entirely different from that of the old pulp stories. But D&D, Gamma World, and Traveller presume a familiarity with the old ethos. The people that wrote those rules could not imagine science fiction and fantasy any other way… while a child of the eighties could not imagine what those game designers could take for granted! This leads to all kinds of house rules and supplements and editions that address this gap in understanding. But the result of that is going to be an entirely different sort of game.

The original role-playing games did not have any modules or supplements or magazines… and yet that first wave of game masters was still equipped to run them. They had seven decades of pulp stories in their heads. So they were never baffled by the game in the way that I was.

The old games were designed to be run without a bunch of supplements. Today’s gamers are largely unable to imagine role-playing without them. For a long time I thought, “if I just get one more supplement, I’ll understand how to run a campaign…!” I bought game after game, supplement after supplement, read them and reread them… and the answer just wasn’t there! I was a real pest on the gaming fora because nobody could help me. I began to suspect that a lot of those guys weren’t actually playing, because everything the told me just weighed me down, making it harder to get a game off the ground.

It really upset me because I loved these games and I really thought I should be getting more play out of them. Nothing really clicked until I threw out my GURPS Traveller books, picked up GURPS Prime Directive, and then ran it with a wide open mentality where anything was possible. I took the universe of Star Fleet Battles as a baseline… but gave myself the license to throw in the most off the wall elements from the original series of Star Trek. Greek Gods. Gangster world. Space princesses. Then my gaming started to take off! That should have been my first clue that the pulp ethos was the key to unlocking my game mastering problems… but I had no idea of that at the time. I was just doing what worked!

SC:    Do you have an example of the internal logic difference between the popular entertainment at that time and pulp stories?  

JJ:    The biggest difference is the lack of leading men. They were ubiquitous up through the sixties and then they just evaporate. Luke Skywalker is a dweeb next to the heroes of the twenties and thirties. Ender Wiggin’s romantic arc is downright humiliating. I grew up hearing a whole lot of sneering about awful it was when guys get the girl in the end, but I kind of missed what all people were complaining about. I did see old Star Trek episodes and also on Tron where the characters introduce kissing to these alien cultures. It’s like the most awesome thing ever. Nowadays, it’s as if the censor from Cinema Paradisio has taken over. (When I was in theaters watching the relatively recent Tron sequel, the teenaged girls in the row behind me actually screamed in frustration when the hunky protagonist failed to kiss Olivia Wilde at the very end. It’s bizarre.)

You can see how bland and derivative everything is with NetFlix’s Spectral. There is absolutely no hint of romantic tension between the engineer and the CIA analyst. She’s just there to translate and look… I dunno… professional or something. The two big plot points of the film come directly from television. The protagonist “reverses the polarity” on his camera to turn it into a spotlight. And then right before the big video game style showdown, they have the typical A-Team style montage where they jury rig all their equipment. The ghosts turn out to have a purely naturalistic explanation. Everything looks good, but there’s no soul no dynamism and no chemistry. It’s fantasy made by people that have no concept of how to induce wonder or convey a thrill.


SC:    In Chapter 3: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson I like the point you made about the cleric class, that is, if you’re going to be faithful to the game’s medieval roots, then clerics would be as as central to that milieu as the fighter class.

I have to admit and this goes right to your admission of a stunted imagination, that it wasn’t until reading your book that I wished I thought of developing a rich religious aspect in my campaigns. There are boundless scenarios such as conversion, inquisitional or heretical goals, religious struggle races, etc. & etc.

JJ:    Pretty much all of our fantasy in the West– the real stuff– is predicated on a Catholic paradigm. If you look back at, say, Genesis and Black Sabbath records… you can see these guys still invoke that sort of thing like it’s natural. They never got the memo from the literary scene, so war pigs go to a very real hell, Satan has wings, and witches lure weak willed knights to their destruction. In a matter of years, you really do see a new generation that simply doesn’t think that way at all. In fact, the Christian approach to fantasy would be shocking to them!

Editor.    Ref: Black Sabbath. Heaven and Hell. Warner Brothers, 1980.

Or for purists, Ref: Black Sabbath. Black Sabbath. Vertigo, 1970.



SC:    John Wright’s Moth and Cobweb series is bringing it back in a big way. Do you know of other contemporary authors that successfully incorporate religious themes or influences into entertaining stories?

JJ:    Until I’d read Iron Chamber of Memory I would have said that nobody was writing fantasy even remotely in the same vein as what you see Lord Dunsany, C. L. Moore, and Poul Anderson were doing. But John is the making the real thing. I honestly don’t know of any other living writer that is doing anything like that at the level that he delivers. It’s astonishing, but he writes like the Appendix N era never stopped.

Ed.    See Jeffro’s take on religion in role playing games for more.


SC:    Who and what do you think influenced A. Merritt and his contemporaries? John Wright mentioned he gets ideas from Shakespeare which is going way back and tapping a vein rich in ideas.

JJ:    A. Merritt dropped Sigurd into Ship of Ishtar in almost precisely the same way that Gygax looted books to cobble together D&D. Burroughs knew more Latin gammar than English. Lovecraft insisted that writers should study the King James Bible.


SC:     Did you have a favorite character class to play and did that change as you read more of the Appendix N works?

JJ:    I always ran the game, so I never played much. Just in terms of the dynamics involved in how they function, the thief with d4 hit dice has always been my favorite. They look completely useless to most gamers today, but somehow they survive to level three when everyone else is rolling up new characters. The literary inspirations from this class by Vance, Zelazny, and Leiber make this class only that much more awesome. Knowing that the fighting man class was lifted directly from Edgar Rice Burroughs makes it far more intriguing than I would have given it credit for… but d4 thieves are still what makes game!


SC:    There was a time that I was pretty much the Dungeon Master by default. One way I could enjoy some of the game play was to invest myself in some of the party’s NPCs.

JJ:    You know I hate to be “that guy”, but that’s a big no no out in the game blog scene. They’re called “GM PC’s” and they’re universally reviled. When I’m running a game, I am so busy keeping up with what the players want to do, what they player’s think is happening, what’s actually happening, deciding whether to look something up or not, keeping notes, and making sure every ruling I make is consistent with everything that’s been played previously– I don’t have anything like a spare moment to even consider doing something like that. It’s intense!


SC:    On your blog you have a solid post advising players on the best way to go about the game (here also). Do you have rules of thumb or advice for those wanting to be a great DM? And how about game management? You mentioned the intense tracking of multiple streams of information and the need to keep it all consistent. Any tips or tools on doing that effectively?

JJ:    Game mastering is a really, really weird thing. The most important thing you need to know is that you have to do a LOT of it in order to get even mediocre. If you’ve got kids, that’s perfect because they just think it’s awesome to be doing something with dad. Session reports are absolutely essential. Back in the eighties, Aaron Allston actually had a newsletter to keep everyone up to date on his Champions campaign! If you’re at a loss, though… the best thing to do is to go back to the roots: just run Keep on the Borderlands with the Moldvay Basic rules– and play as much by the rules as you possibly can. Everyone wants to change everything about it: give the thief d6 hit dice, give the cleric a spell at first level, let players have extra hit points at first level, change the attributes from 3d6-in-order to 4d6-drop-lowest-arrange-to-suit. That stuff is stupid. It breaks the game. It distracts everyone at the table from the sort of thing that the game is really intended to teach them.

Ed.    Recommend checking out the Dungeon Fantasy topic posts on Jeffro’s blog for in depth comments on game play.



SC:    Did any of your thief characters have a great escape or skillful deed that the novices in the guild still talk about?  

JJ:    The thief that snuck into the Steading of the Hill Giant with a magic jar is probably the biggest one.


SC:    What was the setting for the campaign that you felt came closest to the spirit of Appendix N?

JJ:    I have never been that creative when it came to role-playing games. Most game masters liked cooking up their own stuff, but not me. I was surprised when I did it, but when I finally tried my hand at making a hodge podge setting like Traveller or Gamma World the results were surprisingly gameable. If you build your adventures out of stuff from a dozen old stories, it really does “click”. The results are more amenable to actual play than these Tolkienesque world-building exercises everyone else seems to get hung up on.


SC:    Thanks for turning me on to Jack Vance, specifically, The Eyes of the Overworld. The Cugel excerpts were outstanding. I went ahead and ordered a copy (note: not sure if recent interest in Appendix N is driving up the price but for this book there was none of the usual .01 cent pricing for a long out of print, used paperback). Talk about a lack of imagination, never in my time as a DM or player I thought about a treasure haul and the follow on campaign that could ensue from a haul like Cugel’s.  Can’t’ wait to read it.

JJ:    Vance is definitely one of several “why didn’t anyone tell me” authors from the list. It’s mind blowing how good he was… and even more mind blowing that I wouldn’t really know about him if I hadn’t been following the old school game blogs. You know… when I was writing those retrospectives I caught a lot of flack for insinuating that you can’t really understand what classic D&D is without reading some of these old novels. But the more people’s minds are blown when they are introduced to the old science fiction and fantasy canon, the less you’re going to see people saying stuff like that. It just makes so much more sense when you can see where all the parts come from!


SC:    When reading a new SFF novel what are some indicators that the book is written in the spirit of, or enjoyable as, Appendix N works?

JJ:    Oh, that’s easy. There is a weird set of rules that our culture imposes on all works of adventure fiction at the moment. Appendix N style fiction breaks ALL of them!


SC:    My son is getting into D&D and recently, I bought him the new Monster Manual and Player’s Handbook as a gift. Didn’t get much of a chance to compare them with earlier rule sets but I found the artwork moving beyond a  well intentioned appeal to a broader market into overbearing “inclusiveness”. Beyond virtue signaling artwork do you have an opinion on the latest D&D rule set?

JJ:    This will hurt a lot of people’s’ feelings, but I can’t stand anything about that edition. Now I say that, and I want to make it clear that I made sure not to ever come right out and say that in the book. A competitor in this topic included a dig against the old style of play right in his introduction and I have to say… I really took it personally. (Hey, I try to behave in mixed company!!) But recent editions of D&D are sort of like Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films and any Star Wars films except the original theatrical releases: they’re not allowed in my house.

Why such a strong reaction? Well… every table I’ve seen playing it seems to have this “nobody dies, everybody levels up after every session” mentality. The players seem to be more concerned with what’s on the battlemat than what’s in their imagination. Judging by what has been added into this edition’s analog to Appendix N, the people that made it have no idea what makes the game actually work, where it came from, or what kinds of stories adapt well to tabletop play. And speaking as someone that followed the old school gaming blog scene closely for years, I have to say… the idea that this system at all accomodates the old style of play is patently ridiculous.

Now… if you are playing it and having a blast, that’s awesome. Go have fun. If your players are coming back and talking up how awesome your campaign is, then that’s the ultimate standard and the only one that really matters. For me, though… 5th edition is very much a #NotAtMyTable sort of thing.


SC:    Are there other games beyond D&D that you recommend?   

JJ:    As far as I’m concerned, Adventurer Conqueror King System  is the best thing on the market. It preserves the great things about the old style of play while also accommodating people that are coming in from the more recent stuff. If you want state of the art… you’re going to have to look at the stuff Doug Cole over at Gaming Ballistic is working on. His Dungeon Grappling is out now, but his Dragon Heresy is really going to be a big deal when it finally comes out.


SC:    Besides the Castalia House blog do you have any projects or books in the works or are you taking a break after Appendix N?

JJ:    The response to Appendix N has been so tremendous, it is difficult to imagine not doing a sequel. Jasyn Jones and Neal Durando already have the title: “Beyond Appendix N”. Although that’s a bit more ambitious than anything I would have thought to tackle…!

A lot of people are asking us to get the lost classics back into print somehow. And P. Alexander is working on something like that himself with a lavishly illustrated volume of Leigh Brackett stories.

I see building up the Castalia House blog as being primary, though. Everything else is secondary to that. That won’t make sense to a lot of “real” writers out there– they see blogging as something to do on the side. Something you do just to promote your stuff. Sometimes they’ll complain about how the coverage from the established science fiction and fantasy sites is completely divorced from reality. But they don’t see why they would really need to pitch in to help build a replacement.

That’s something I expect to change over the next couple of years. Journalism and criticism is shifting from being something we delegated to professionals and academics to something more like a civic duty. Watching this happen is very exciting because it’s like seeing a sort of mass mind come into being. The stories have primed us all to be afraid of the moment when the computers become intelligent. The thing nobody seemed to consider was that a network of human beings could achieve a similar type of sentience. This is all the more entertaining because none of the would-be Psychohistorians allowed for anything like this in their projections.

  • Thanks for the plug! I surely appreciate it.

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    I was Jeffro’d by my gaming group even before I read Jeffro or Appendix N.

  • PC Bushi says:

    Nice interview.

    I’d just point out that Luke was arguably weaksauce, yeah…but Han was an action hero! But I know, it’s cool to hate on Star Wars these days. 😉

    • cirsova says:

      Mid 40s and earlier, Han would’ve been the main character and the story would be about him. Late 40s and on, Han exists as a deconstruction of the pulp hero to make the protagonist look bad and possibly cuckold him.

      • Hooc Ott says:

        In 1986’s The Warrior’s Apprentice the protagonist is a cripple who gets cuckold by a nobody (I think he is some lieutenant who just appears out of nowhere in the 2nd half of the book and whose sole purpose is to take Miles’ true love away from him)

        The main dames excuse for going with the nobody over Miles’?

        I shit you not; she was afraid she would lose herself with him.

        “No Tarzan you are just to Alpha for me” Said Jane.

        “I think I will just get with one of D’Arnot’s Sargent’s standing around on the beach or something. You will come to wedding won’t you?”

        First and last book by Bujold I will ever read.

        Between Bujold and Robin Hobb I am eating glass over the living “mistresses” of SFF .

        Heck the movie skin suit Mary Sues of Twilight and MockingJay are preferable to this junk.

  • cirsova says:

    She may have been a d6 thief, but with a max HP of 9, my DCC character was the longest-lived, highest XP character in the party when the campaign wrapped.

  • Christopher says:

    “That’s something I expect to change over the next couple of years. Journalism and criticism is shifting from being something we delegated to professionals and academics to something more like a civic duty.”

    You could argue that between a slavish devotion to Critical Theory, the New Criticism, and Constructivism they all but abrogated their right to exclusive ownership of both journalism and literary critique. They’re taking it awfully hard.

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