David Pulver on How RPG Settings Killed the SFF Canon

Tuesday , 2, August 2016 7 Comments

David Pulver is among the most prolific role-playing game designers around, and when his name appeared side by side with Steve Jackson and Sean Punch on the covers of the Fourth Edition GURPS core books, his status as one of the leading developers in the field was secured. He also witnessed first hand the trends I have been commenting on during the past couple of years, so I was doubly pleased when he dropped by Castalia House to clarify a few points that I’ve found particularly difficult to convey to people:

Another bit on the Burroughs popularity:

In the late 70s Heritage miniatures released an entire line of Burroughs 25mm lead Mars figures.

They were widely distributed enough that even my small town hobby shop (not a game store!) stocked them circa 1978. I bought a bunch for D&D.

My impression was that the supported availability of coherent game worlds, often with their own fiction lines, killed the canon. This was not really the intent of Gygax et al originally – worlds like Greyhawk or Blackmoor, or GDW’s Imperium or even Glorantha, were mostly very lightly sketched out.

But pressure from fans to learn more about these worlds, from companies to publish content, and from game designers to find work led to huge explosions in the detail available for “in house” settings. The same thing happened to Star Trek and Star Wars, of course.

So in the 1970s and 80s to “get” RPGs you really needed to read a decent chunk of the canon. Gamers stole ideas mainly from popular SF and fantasy.

By the 80s and 90s in the Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, BattleTech, Warhammer, etc. era, there is so much content available for the licensed in-house universes that it was quite possible and indeed necessary for fans of their universes – like the Star Wars and Star Trek fans before them were driven, almost by necessity, to focus only on the new game-specific content. With scores of Forgotten Realms novels and supplements around to master, who had time or energy to read Burroughs or Vance or Conan?

Now, if I mention in mixed gamer company that, really, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the J. R. R. Tolkien of the seventies, I am liable to get some serious “cold pricklies” in response. It’s a claim that simply doesn’t compute for a lot of people. And if I were to go onto my personal blog and announce that fantasy settings were handled differently in rpgs of the seventies, and that to really “get” the old games you’re going to have to read a pile of old paperbacks, well… there’d be a meltdown.

Why is this stuff so controversial? Hey, I don’t know. But David Pulver happened to have addressed one other claim that has come up since he dropped by here: that back in the “real” old-school days, no one cared about the Appendix N books and most people didn’t even read them:

Among my peers in the high school and university gaming club c. 1979-1980 the Appendix N authors that were read were:

– Jack Vance
– HP Lovecraft
– Robert Howard
– Michael Moorcock
– Poul Anderson
– Roger Zelazny
– De Camp and Pratt
– Fred Saberhagen
– Tolkien

Some of us had read others of these authors (even Lanier, Bellairs, etc.), but the above were “everyone read them” with the exception of REH, as some of the more SF-fannish tended to avoid due to the “big dumb barbarian” and Conan comic stereotype. But they all knew him.

If you don’t recognize many of the names on that list there, it may well be because their place in our collective consciousness was annihilated by a deluge of setting material produced for the very games those authors inspired in the first place. How’s that for irony?

7 Comments
  • Kenny Cross says:

    This is such a great point. When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in 7th grade, 1980-1981 with my friends that I grew up with we all had read Moorcock & Tolkien and REH and knew most of the rest of those authors either from older brothers or in my friend Peter’s case his dad who was a Math Professor. Skip forward 20 years and a whole new gaming crew/group of friends that were mostly in their early 20’s and some early 30’s all of their “core” fantasy that they grew up reading was R.A. Salvatore and all the Dragonlance novels. They had heard of Tolkien of course and even one or two had read him but that was it. Moorock? Zelazny? Jack Vance? Who?!? At least one of my new friend’s had been fed Lovecraft as a child by his mom, but that was it.

    Great post!

  • Gaiseric says:

    The only complaint I have with the analysis of the generation gap is that I think the older stuff still lingered well into the 80s. In the middle to later 80s, there was a huge Burroughs shelf on every bookstore I walked into, and the public library had almost all of this stuff, and most of my gamer friends read at a minimum, Howard, Moorcock, Leiber and Lovecraft.

    I think the cut-off is closer to 1990 than to 1980, although throughout the 80s the changes in the industry that would cause the generation gap were certainly already starting to happen.

  • Read the RPGPundit’s post. None of my friends cared about the Appendix, most probably didn’t even know about it, but, man, did we all read many of the books on it. Pulver’s list of Vance, Moorcock, etc. mimics the standard reading list of me and most of my friends in the 70s and early 80s. When TSR started putting out novels, people read one or two and then stopped.

  • Jon M says:

    You realize that ten years from now there’s going to be some guy born in 1980 that reads a series of Forgotten Realms novels on a lark and makes a solid case that publishing was foolish for ever turning its back on game tie-in novels, right?

    You’re just asking for it, Jeffro.

  • Christopher says:

    I think this post nailed a huge insight, one that moves the discussion further forward. The sheer volume of lore, much of which depending on the setting DOES owe a great deal to the earlier canon, crowds out the older works. One case where I think the lore is done right, at least in the hands of certain authors, but where the IP holder would do their entire audience a huge service by revealing the sources, the historical and fictional precedents is 40K. If you’re knowledgeable about European history, you can spot all of it, from the Greeks through the early 20th Century. When Dan Abnett and some of the other writers with something of a grasp of military history especially handle the material, it works well. I have a master’s in military history, and I grew up reading ERB, REH, Lovecraft, and many of the Appendix N writers (not all, the series here is introducing me to ones I wasn’t familiar with), so I can spot the references, I can spot the themes, whether they’re being eulogized, satirized, parodied, or celebrated, but most of active fandom probably doesn’t have that sort of background.

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