Heightened Brain Talent: Tabletop Role-playing’s Debt to Brian Aldiss

Thursday , 24, August 2017 6 Comments

One of the first role-playing games I ever owned was third edition Gamma World from TSR. For those of you that missed it, it’s a weirder, crazier variant of D&D featuring all manner of mayhem in a wild post-apocalyptic future. Instead of fighters, clerics, thieves, and magic-users, players take on the role of pure strain humans, mutant humanoids, mutated animals, and mutant plants.

One of the more baffling elements of the game– and there were many, mind you– was something called a Symbiot. The rule book describes it this way:

A symbiotic plant does not possess strong limbs or manipulative digits. These include grasses, mosses, and fungi. Its mode of movement is often slow and ineffective. However, when combined with a living, nonintelligent, mobile creature, a symbiotic plant becomes very mobile.

A symbiotic plant lends its intelligence and natural mutations to its host, and the host provides its natural abilities and defenses. The GM should allow the symbiotic plant to inhabit only common animals when it first begins in the game. A symbiot may not change hosts until the original host dies.

Now, in those days I considered myself to be a connoisseur of the strange and bizarre. But I simply could not wrap my head around something that weird. I would revisit that passage from time to time trying to imagine how it could work. Mainly I just couldn’t comprehend how the designers could just so casually throw this sort of thing at gamers as if it were obvious to all how to just take this sort of thing and run with it. I mean… who comes up with this stuff anyway?!

Well it turns out that the game designers had a little help. This element was taken wholesale from a novel by Brain Aldiss. And that’s not all they took! The off-kilter tongue-in-cheek take on far future politics and social institutions was pilfered as well. And the robots! Why are they continuing on doing as programmed in the absence of the civilization that created them? That comes from another Brian Aldiss story…! Heck, the impetus for the entire game system was pulled from the first science fiction themed role-playing game evar, which was itself a means of getting inside of another Brian Aldiss novel!

And let me tell you, these are really good books. If you come away from the book store, distraught over the fact that you just can’t seem to find another classic author that created something on par with Dune, Foundation Trilogy, Starship Troopers, The Mote in God’s Eye, and Ender’s Game… then do yourself a favor and put both Non-stop and Hothouse in your queue.

They’re incredible.

You don’t hear too much about these works these days for some reason. It’s baffling to me that someone this talented and influential could lapse into obscurity, but it definitely happened. Like A. Merritt and C. L. Moore, Biran Aldiss is the sort of author you pick up and read… and then ask your self why no one insisted you do so before.

That was certainly my reaction. It’s astonishing to me that I could spend decades captivated by some of his creations before I even found out he had anything to do with them! If you’re a fan of the granddaddy of all science fantasy rpgs, you’ll discover why what looks so insane today was simply taken for granted as natural by the designers. But reading the books for yourself, it will also be obvious why they were synonymous with great science fiction by the guys that first unleashed the full force of that genre upon tabletop role-playing.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    I liked The Malacia Tapestry and Frankenstein Unbound, but never got into his SF, for some reason. Maybe I should fix that.

    I did not know he was a veteran of the Burma Campaign in WWII.

    RIP Mr. Aldiss.

  • PC Bushi says:

    This is why these kinds of blogs and posts are so important! Even now – I’ve got my big consolidated list of Appendix N, Moldvay Basic inspirations, Traveller inspirations, Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, etc., yet writers like Aldiss still slip through the cracks to me.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Welp I never heard of him.
    First confused him with Anthony Burgess then when seeing the name of the A clock work orange author was not even similar confused him with Aldous Huxley.

    Aldous and Aldiss are kind of similar.

    Any way for the ignorant, like me, here is a link:


  • Robert says:

    Greybeard is another Aldiss that is supposed to be one of his best, though it is not one of my favorites. Aldiss is also one of those who, as in Trillion Year Spree, dismisses Howard and his dullard muscle bound barbarian Conan, which is hard for fans like me to read. It is always horrible when your favorite authors just can’t agree on certain things! He also dismisses Clark Ashton Smith as pretentious and Aldiss is a bit too taken with Freud and all that entails.

    However, while I believe that there are missteps in their analysis of the history of science fiction, Aldiss and Wingrove (the other author of Trillion Year Spree) were great authors themselves, who put their work on the table to justify their right to criticize,and proved their worthiness.

    That they are both considered rather ‘problematic’ in the post-modern vernacular, is an indicator of excellence.

    • Gaiseric says:

      Aldiss admits that his only salvation from a boarding school career of being bullied was having sex in the closet with a teacher as a teenager. Some of his biases make more sense based on that observation. Still, he wrote some great stuff, too. His was a name that I saw frequently in a lot of short story anthologies from the 60s and 70s.

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