Reaction Time: Old School Gaming and Appendix N

Thursday , 1, June 2017 14 Comments

Over at Save Versus All Wands, a post about a throwaway blog comment of mine has gotten record levels of traffic. Which is ironic, because I would have thought such sentiments would have been completely unremarkable among “old school” gamers. Fortunately, some people get it. I find Steve Queen’s comment there to be particularly cogent:

I love the description of OSR. Seems spot on to me. As a DM I definitely give the players “every benefit of the doubt”, with “every ruling and interpretation is made in their favor.” That’s because I want them to succeed, try new things, and get deeper into the world, etc.. But that doesn’t stop them from feeling like TPK is always just around the around, and that the odds are stacked against them. There is no ‘game balance’, and they know when to run. Most plans do go haywire. How they react, and the results that surprise both them and me are the most fun.

When I was a 0th/1st edition player back the 80’s, we died A LOT (every character did eventually), but I can still say that the player’s story grows with time if they survive for a bit (ever heard of Tenser? Robilar?).

First level PC’s are fairly disposable, but make 2nd level and your chances of continuing to survive grow quickly. All my players are super-cautious, and very reluctant to take risks with there 5-7th level PCs—because it’s taken them nearly two years of weekly play to get there.

Every time the players try to synthesis a grandiose back story, it always feels contrived and quickly gets forgotten. However, they absolutely love meeting up with NPCs and telling them all the amazing adventures they have (actually) had. The ‘true’ events of their past games are way more improbable and interesting than anything they could have concocted up in a vacuum.

PC wish-fulfillment (in terms of character identity) always comes off as a sad frog-claiming-to-be-a-prince. Better to be defined by their actions than any fabricated “past”.

Meanwhile at the OD&D ’74 boards, long time gamers struggle to grasp the point of my book on Appendix N. This comment by The Perilous Dreamer there is a rare example of someone using the book in the way that I actually expected to happen:

This book is a gold mine summary of a few of the ideas found in each of these hard to get your hands on books and therefore of great value to “Do It Yourself” gamers. I personally in reading the book, came across dozens of ideas that I have used and was reminded of where those ideas came from (in some cases books I read under the age of ten and then used the ideas when I discovered OD&D in college). I also was reminded of ideas that I did not use, but now with the memory jog may use in the future. I have also been inspired to go back and re-read some of these and other books that are not on this list.

That’s quite an endorsement!

It’s quite a contrast to the overall reception there, which is more along these lines of this comment from hedgehobbit:

I had to step away from this forum because this thread made me so angry.

The “literary antecedent” of the “Gygaxian dungeon” is Dave Arneson. This isn’t even up for debate. The original 1972 prototype of the Dungeon! board game still exists. Pictures of it are all over the internet. And just about everything attributed to Sign of the Labrys is present there: multiple levels, secret passages, themed levels, etc. We have a first hand account of the original dungeon expedition so we know how exploration worked in that game (and it’s little changed from today) and we even know the leaders of the various faction involved in the Blackmoor dungeon. Lastly are Dave’s own words about what inspired him to create the dungeon in the first place (and it ain’t this book!). Dave introduced Gary to his D&D concept through the Dungeon board game. There is nothing leftover that needs explaining.

I don’t hold it against Jeffro Johnson for not knowing this. 99% of D&D players don’t know the story of D&D and are just repeating the common myths. But HERE!?! Where the actual originators have posted? I can’t understand why we aren’t collectively trying to debunk these obvious errors before they make it too far into the mainstream. How many people are going to read this book and end up thinking that Gygax invented the mega-dungeon?

If you were wondering why it was that David R. Megarry dropped by to object to the concluding chapter of my book, this is why. If the Appendix N books are given any credit for inspiring the Dungeons & Dragons game, then this is seen as coming at the expense of the pioneers of fantasy role-playing that have unfairly been written out of rpg history. Of course, the fact that Fritz Leiber and Roger Zelazny had a part to play in the genesis of the game does not take away from the contributions of Dave Arneson and David R. Megarry. But these people will tie themselves in knots behaving as if that really were the case.

It’s an unusual perspective, but I’m actually thankful for it. The whole time I was writing the book, I couldn’t get over how lucky I was that I’d have a chance to break a story as big as the one surrounding Appendix N. The veritable Greek Chorus that shouted down anyone within the OSR that began looking into this topic was actually doing me a tremendous favor!

This is not to say that all of the negative comments at the OD&D boards are this “principled.” Some of it is downright bizarre, such as this claim from cadriel:

A book that doesn’t discuss Tarnsman of Gor isn’t a literary history of D&D; it is at best a book about Gary Gygax’s personal favorites.

You know I’ve seen Appendix N dismissed for failing to include C. L. Moore and Ursula Le Guin. I’ve heard countless objections to my claim that it is essentially the lost canon of fantasy and science fiction. But this really is a new one on me.

Is this guy for real? I seriously doubt it. Just the other day he lodged this complaint against my piece on A Princess of Mars:

He complains that Princess Leia wasn’t in a metal bikini until Return of the Jedi, and that a better space princess would have worn nothing but skimpy outfits like Dejah Thoris.

I have a daughter to raise, I can’t put up with that stuff, man.

Hey man, whatever you say. Whatever you say!

  • PCBushi says:

    Amazing how someone can get so angry that someone else who they don’t even know plays/thinks about a game differently than they do.

  • flyingtiger says:

    To be fair, The Gor series was new. Maybe Gygax was too busy creating D&D to notice.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      Gor heavily borrows from Burroughs, too; for example, some of the stuff in At the Earth’s Core (slave girls, Mayhars, primitivism, etc.) was implemented in Gor.

      • Andy says:

        I can’t say I’ve ever read Gor, but everything about it sounds like a masculine equivalent to the original Wonder Woman comics, because of the philosophical approach to bondage games. Not my thing but it’s at least interesting.

        • Terry Sanders says:

          The first few were rather Burroughsian. Then he seemed to figure out who was buying–and that he could play with any ideas he wanted to, as long as he put in enough bondage filler.

          Even then, it was okay for a while–he really was having fun with the settings. But in the long run…

  • NARoberts says:

    “cadriel” thinks Gor is essential to the literary history of D&D but doesn’t like Princess Leia’s bikini?

    What? I am baffled.

    Also, isn’t your book called “Appendix N?” Is Gor on the original Appendix N? If not than why bring it up? It isn’t relevant in this context.

    • Jon Mollison says:

      Bear in mind, the context is, “Jeffro is a doo-doo head that doesn’t know anything about the early days of D&D.” The latest round of attacks on Jeffro’s thesis are based on the notion that Appendix N can be ignored because OD&D was influenced by things other than the books listed therein. Arguing that Gygax was influenced by Norman’s oeuvre is an attempt to disqualify Jeffro’s arguments as being based on incomplete data.

      It’s a silly straw at which to grasp, but it’s pretty much all the naysayers have left.

  • I’m pretty sure the overall reception of Appendix N on OD&D Pro Boards is quite positive. Actually, I know that to be the case. But the minority of opponents with bees in their bonnets are very vocal, and they just have to get their comments in, etc. That shouldn’t be taken as a barometer of anything. Many people are afraid to step in because the conversations on the boards are usually very civil, and they don’t want to risk making enemies or offending their friends, etc. The chief anti-Appendix N instigators are, indeed, usually polite and rational, and, as far as I can tell, they are otherwise well-liked. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be well-liked. They just have this weird tick when it comes to Appendix N…

    • Jeffro says:

      This new thread is significantly better, but that first one was unlike anything I’d seen outside of the WorldCon set.

      • That first one was like all of my memories of Crazy & delusional how your posts’ intentions were inferred.

        I just want to game, talk about gaming, and learn more about role-playing gaming from others. To Hell with this nigh-religious Arnesonian and Gygaxian hero worship and superficial disputes that arise from it.

  • Why not follow up your Appendix N book with the story about its effect on the OSR community? Treat it like a quest or a journey through ruined psyches, troll lairs, and ultimate salvation 😉

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