Once More Unto the Breach: The Appendix N of Appendix N

Sunday , 14, May 2017 10 Comments

Commenter “instasetting” has this to say in response to my recent post on some particularly stupid characterizations of both Gary Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons:

Cecelia wants to exalt the players; you want to exalt the canon of books Gygax loved; and I exalt the DM.

Or, nice to have good players; nice to have a deep understanding of important things; but it is essential to have a good gm.

Now Oakes Spalding has gone into much greater depth than I did, going far beyond the opening paragraph that I focused on. But there are a couple of things here that I want to address. First up, this phrase “books Gygax loved” is really dumb. I’ve been over this before. People from all over the political spectrum reach for this sort of thing when they comment on this, especially when they have no idea what they are talking about.

These books are important not because Gary Gygax and Tim Kask put them on a list. They are important because they defined fantasy and science fiction for pretty well everyone up through to the seventies. It wasn’t just people at TSR. You see basically the same list of books and authors referenced by other game lines, Traveller and Tunnels & Trolls not being the least among them.

In my lifetime, the fantasy and science fiction narrative has been rewritten. A lot of the books and authors I write about have been either written out of history or actively torn down. But again, if you look at those books and say, “oh yeah… that’s just a list of books Gygax loved,” you have no idea what you are talking about.

Just a few examples:

  • Lord Dunsany was so synonymous with fantasy, he is the guy that most authors imitated when they sat down to write it. In the seventies, Tolkien was a late bloomer and the new kid on the block. (See Ursula Le Guin’s “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” for evidence of this.)
  • Tarzan may seem hokey now, but he was a sensation in his day for good reason. Go read the original works an see for yourself. Robert E. Howard liked him well enough to infuse whole swaths of him into Conan.
  • A. Merritt is almost completely unknown today, but almost every major sff author in the generation following him was directly inspired by him. Just as the most recent example of this to come up, check out Recalcitrant Male’s comments on the genesis of Dr. Fate.

These authors form what can only be described as being the DNA of fantasy and science fiction. And yet… you can look at people that are active in the field today, and they have no idea about any of it. They talk as if things like Star Wars and superhero comics and D&D all just spontaneously sprung into existence fully formed. It’s as if these things don’t have literary antecedents that both presaged them and informed them.

It’s weird.

Now instasetting has one more criticism:

One of the great misunderstandings you have is that the Inventor Controls his Invention. Not in the least. Inventions are frequently a rock tossed out that bounces all over the place, usually does nothing, and when it does something often does something totally different than its inventor every even thought of.

The inventor of the Gatling gun wanted to make it to make peace. The fax machine was invented in the 18th century I think.

I have to say, this really is stupid. If someone is saying things about Gary Gygax and the game he helped design and what it was like… then absolutely, the nature of what he actually created at the beginning and why it was the way it was is pertinent to the discussion. It is especially relevant when the early games were in practice far better at what the newer games are being praised for accomplishing.

The point of knowing the history of fantasy, science fiction, and game design is not so much to tell people “the right way to do things.” If you are aware of how things came together, you gain the option to consciously go back to an earlier point in the development, alter an axiom or theme that was established there, and then move forward to something new. If you don’t have this kind of insight, you will be stuck fumbling around reinventing the wheel. Or worse, you will “create” something that is merely a reflection of a contemporary cultural pulse. It might feel “creative” or revolutionary, but it will in fact be constrained by a very limited range of possible ideas.

I wrote my book specifically to go uncover things that could help with my game mastering. I was just stuck. I knew I was not able to run the classic games quite as they were intended even if I didn’t know why. As I worked my way through the books, I highlighted anything that spoke to that agonizing dearth of imagination that I did not know how to deal with. By the end, I’d found all kinds of things that I never expected to find. I had an entirely new bag of tricks that made the lion’s share of my old game mastering problems evaporate.

Then the unexpected happened.

The stuff that was causing me to “block” in my hobby…? It turned out to have some relevance to people that were writing fantasy and science fiction. A literary movement spontaneously emerged that had nothing to do with anything I had actually intended. Even better, some of the best contemporary short fantasy and science fiction started to come out of it!

My very personal game mastering problems turned out to be connected to a much larger issue: the problem of people going into the local big box book store and walking out with nothing much good to read.

Maybe this stuff doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re trying to accomplish at the table. Hey… there are plenty of good games out there and plenty of cool things going on. I can really only cover about ten or twelve games in any kind of depth. For some people, the sort of extended palette I discuss is going to be useful. Other people? Not so much.

I don’t expect that everyone will get just as excited about this stuff as I do. But I do insist that people admit that getting the history right matters.

  • Thanks for the shout out!

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Writers are limited by what they themselves have read. Images, themes, characters, color, detail are all dependent on what we read. Just to give an example: John C. Wright is one of the most powerful writers in SFF today. Part of that power comes from his vocabulary, which is immense. (Yes, I have vocabulary envy, but I am DEALING WITH IT. Ahem.)

    Mr. Wright was not born with that vocabulary, he spent considerable time and effort building it by reading history, mythology and the work of other authors.

    If you don’t read what was written before 1980, you are writing SF and F in a barrel. If you don’t know the history of Science Fiction/Fantasy in the last century, you have no idea who built that barrel and what their goals are. HINT: they are NOT your friends.

    Getting the history right DOES matter.
    Do not let them win.
    Now, READ, damn it!

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Thank you for the link.

    “A lot of the books and authors I write about have been either written out of history or actively torn down.”

    With Heinlein’s deconstruction of Carter/Tarzan in Stranger in a Strange Land, GRRM deconstruction of Conan in Game of Thrones Abercrombie’s deconstruction of Lord of the Rings with The First Law books and the seeming unending deconstructions of Lovecraft’s mythos coming out of today’s Pink SFF I do wonder if one can reverse engineer Appendix N out all the deconstructions found in SFF that has come after.

    It really is gobsmacking how all the weirdos, perverts and communists hated this stuff so much and in such a way they felt compelled to destroy it in their own fiction.

  • Bigby's Typing Hands says:

    I’m 50 so had grown up reading a lot – not all – of the earlier sci fi and fantasy, and had been playing D&D from 1979.

    I understand much of what you’re writing here and am a big fan. I had wondered why I was so bored with both reading and gaming and never realized both occurred in concert with the same period of change when it was all torn asunder.

    One difficulty I have is this: Role-playing became much more about “role” and character around 1990 or shortly before, and that is what I’d ascribed the boredom of gaming to. I never understood games like V:TM for example. There just isn’t any draw whatsoever for me.

    Hack n slash, loot and glory, that’s where it was at. I can only find similar now in things like miniatures games. Its not the same.

    • Jeffro says:

      I dropped out of rpgs for the usual reasons during the nineties… but when I dipped back into them again I lost d10 sanity. Backwards was the only way forwards for me. I sure wasn’t going to be playing GURPS Vehicles or Brilliant Lances anyway….

  • instasetting says:


    Are you saying that having a deep understanding of important things is not what you’re trying to convey with your exaltation of Appendix N? I get some people at your link say ‘Bah, Appendix N, stupid.’. I didn’t say that.

    I just read Oakes Spaulding’s bit. What I felt knowledgeable enough to judge, I liked. I guess I’m supposed to hate it, but hey, he was going on about player freedom, and Veneration of the GM. Why would I hate that?

    Your new modesty is much more sensible. But you gained it after I bashed you about your lack of it.

    As I said before, perhaps your theory of the greatness of Pulps is true. Because of what you and others have said, I have The Moon Pool on my Kindle.

    I would like to apologize. I took marketing as a serious statement of fact, a fault that I have done before to other people.

    That said, a good DM is the most important, by a long shot, element of an RPG game. Other elements such as good players, good rules, an interesting setting, or even a knowledge of the deep roots of the game are all secondary, or tertiary.

    • Jeffro says:

      If you have any substantial criticism to offer, please do so. I have no idea what this “marketing” you’re referring to is. Seriously, no need to be coy about it.

      • instasetting says:

        You shouldn’t get in arguments when you’re wrong. Substantial enough? I know your pride is hurt, but thats a consequence of your own choices.

        What you have been doing is a standard Internet marketing technique. “Opponent X is evil, stupid, horrible, or really bad. My way is the Right and True Way.” Its trolling to gain an audience.

        Now, I, for whatever reason, tend to see this, and think ‘thats dumb’ partially because I take such trolling at face value, by instinct. Its a fault of mine to think other men are up front. The fact that this sort of thing is a well understood game, I assume, by the players, probably means its not dishonest. It just throws me for a loop. But, in this case, and other cases, I am learning the ways of the troll. My Troll-Fu is weak, but I gather strength.

        • Jeffro says:

          Well, smart guy, if you have anything substantial to add on any of these points, I am happy to explain why what you’re saying is dumb and/or ill-informed.

          Thanks for dropping by.

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