In just a few short weeks of reading influential books from fifty years ago, we’ve seen magic that could reduce civilizations to chaotic wastelands just on the basis of the incentives it created. We’ve seen clerics boldly face down alien marauders, secure in the knowledge that demons and devils cannot harm them. We’ve seen science and myth collide, elves fall back at the sight of a crucifix, and medieval knights subdue an interstellar empire. It’s downright astounding. Fantasy back then was actually… fantastic. It just wasn’t the kind of world where Greedo would need to shoot first, where vampires and werewolves would be tamed into overwrought boyfriends, or where anyone would feel that Frodo had to be reduced to mere baggage at the Ford of Rivendell instead being able to turn and face five Nazgul as he lifted his sword, and cried, “by Elbereth and Lúthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!”
The way that we’ve allowed our most cherished myths to be neutered like this really betrays just how wrongheaded what passes for culture today has become. There is a wonderful raucousness about the literature that inspired the earliest role playing games that is even more remarkable when compared with today’s standard fare. It compelling, no doubt, but it quickly devolved into something else. While the nineties were almost uniformly noxious, I suspect the real damage was done in earlier decades. There’s plenty of speculation with regard to the actual cause of the changes. A lot of people would be inclined to blame the gatekeepers, for instance. I’m sure a guy like Neal Postman could argue these sorts of cultural shifts are purely a function of technology. My own pet hypothesis would be that the cult of the new has had much the same effect in literature that it has had in board games.
While I realize that there are a lot of different angles on this, I’m going to set all of these speculations aside for now and and try focusing in entirely on trends in fantasy from the perspective of tabletop gaming alone. The first thing you need to know that the guys that laid the groundwork for the role playing hobby had an incredible appetite for books. You may have been in a comic book shop on a Wednesday when the new shipment came in and the most dedicated fans in your town are right there to get the latest installment of everything they’re into. Well, Gary Gygax and James M. Ward were like that with books:
One fateful Tuesday, I was poring through the racks, picking up the newest Conan and Arthur C. Clarke novels. When I reached the end of the racks, I had seven books in my hand. There was a gentleman doing the very same thing beside me. When he got done, he and I had the exact same books in our hands. We laughed at the coincidence and he started talking about a game he had just invented where a person could play Conan fighting Set. I was instantly hooked on the idea. A few weeks later I was regularly going over to Gary Gygax’s house to learn the game of Dungeons & Dragons.¹
Note that the main selling point of the game at its inception was that it was not merely an adaption of their favorite stories to game form. No, the “lightning in the bottle” that Gary Gygax had gotten ahold of was in fact the apex of genre fiction.² He was opening up an entire new method for creating worlds and allowing people to enter into them. We take it for granted today, but J. Eric Holmes was not exaggerating when he declared that it was a “truly unique invention, probably as remarkable as the die, or the deck of cards, or the chessboard.”³
Its influence is pervasive. At the time of the release of E.T., it was nearly ubiquitous. Hardly a multi-million dollar video game is released today that does not incorporate design concepts that were pioneered in Gary Gygax’s basement. And while a great many authors got their start playing tabletop role playing games⁴, many more picked up their basic assumptions about what fantasy was all about indirectly from people that practically ate, drank, and breathed Dungeons & Dragons and its descendants. (George R. R. Martin is exactly that sort of person.) Given all that, it’s ironic that a great many people that pontificated about the shortcomings of “Vancian magic” back in the day would have been unfamiliar with Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series. It’s crazy, but an author of Vance’s caliber was, in effect, obscure during the eighties…!
You see, by the time most people had stumbled into tabletop role playing games, most of the books that had inspired the games were long gone. When we were watching, you know, actual music videos on MTV, those books would have seemed downright old. As old as the Beatles, even, who would have been considered to be ancient history by the average teen at the time even if they had The White Album and Abbey Road on compact disc. Classic, pulpy fiction was from another era, and if our parents had ever gotten into that sort of thing, they were liable to have treated their magazines like the disposable entertainment that they really were. (One is reminded of the time when Jack McDevitt’s aunt that helpfully cut out all the naughty pictures from his pulp magazines as a favor to him…!⁵)
There was no internet. There was no Amazon. For a lot of people, if it wasn’t on the book store shelf, we didn’t know about it. Most of us didn’t even know that they didn’t know about it. Of course, picking up a copy of Space Gamer magazine, you could even then have seen Lewis Pulsipher opining on Appendix N literature in almost exactly the same fashion as the game bloggers of today.⁶
Even so, the consequences of someone being fluent in golden age literature would have completely escaped most peoples’ notice at the time. It’s blindingly obvious now in retrospect; at least it is when you read something like Marc Miller’s review of the classic Traveller adventure Leviathan.⁷ Even though he had done almost no preparation for the a game session, he was able to immediately improvise an adventure on the spot with only two paragraphs of world description to guide him. His secret? He just so happened to remember an old Fritz Lieber story that was a perfect fit for the situation! Gaming challenges that would stymie novice game masters for decades crumble away in the face of that particular brand of literacy.
While the games were designed by people with that level of fluency, they were mostly played by people that lacked even a cursory familiarity with anything less popular than Middle Earth or Narnia. And the people digging through esoteric articles in the game magazines were not in fact the ones that set the course of gaming history. It wasn’t even the dedicated Dungeon Masters that organized and mediated the games that did that. You see, the rules that most influence actual play about eighty percent of the time are the sections character generation. The players, more than anything else, set the tone and they make almost all of their decisions based on what they see on the character sheets and the sections that explain how to fill them out. You can tell this is true because character oriented rules that don’t appear integrated with this particular portion of the rules are largely ignored in practice!
It’s an open secret that Dungeon Masters don’t actually need rules to run a game.⁸ (The impression of rules are sufficient. Everything else is theater.) Eighty percent of the rules they care about deal with adjudicating combat… and the rest pretty well boil down to general advice on more or less makeing stuff up. Indeed, it doesn’t take all that much to entertain players. With just nine pages adventure information, G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief can easily keep a group gaming for fifteen hours or more. Something like B2 Keep on the Borderlands can keep a party engaged over the course of a year of games sessions if the Dungeon Master is willing to let player characters die while also restocking portions of the dungeon occasionally.
You can run entire sessions built around a single very simple monster encounter. By the time the players get their equipment, gather rumors, make their plans, and figure out how they want to handle it, a couple of hours or more are liable to be gone. When I make up my own adventure material, I usually have to omit the more complicated aspects of my outlines and generally end up trying to make up a game on the spot about whatever it is that the players actually grasp of the situation. You generally don’t want to put anything into an adventure that is hard to explain because it can bring play to a halt and snap players out of their sense of immersion. In running games regularly, you quickly find that clichés and common tropes are essential if you want to keep gameplay moving. At the same time, nothing is harder on player engagement than the times when they simply don’t know what to do. But give them a straight ahead dungeon crawl with standard monsters and typical assets, and the players immediately start developing elaborate plans to maximize every asset at their disposal. While this turns out to be a severe limiting factor for adventure designers, it must be noted that the constraints increase geometrically when the form transitions to the computer.
In a sense, the entire hobby recapitulates Darwin’s “Descent of Man” in reverse. The type of literature that inspired role playing games was already obscure when the games were achieving their first big wave of popularity. That literature was itself looted for ideas that could translate to the tabletop environment. The wilder and more imaginative stuff was simply left out because it couldn’t make the transition. But then another set of cuts were made: anything that didn’t make sense to the gamers (and there was a lot of that) did not get used in actual play. The sieving process was complete when role playing transitioned to computers where the improvisational aspects of the hobby could not be effected at all. In the new medium, there was no way to make up new situations, locations, and objects in direct response to the group’s particular approach to gaming. There was no way to reframe the tone of the campaign in direct response to unpredictable events at the table. There was no way to modify the rules in the course of play. The attitudes and assumptions of computer gaming was then folded back into a new generation of tabletop games which were far more procedural and far more like board games than anything extant at the dawn of the hobby.
Combined with the narrowing of fantasy in general, these trends mean that reading the literary antecedents of Dungeons & Dragons is almost always going to be disproportionately astounding today. It’s like being able to get your fantasy straight rather than in some kind of slurry with a little paper umbrella sticking out. In the case of Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld, you can see many things that clearly inspired various aspects of the old games, but which are now in unnerving opposition to our more current tastes and expectations.
Cugel strode down a sweep of circular stairs into a great hall. He stood enthralled, paying Iucounu the tribute of unstinted wonder. But his time was limited; he must rob swiftly and be on his way. Out came his sack; he roved the hall, fastidiously selecting those objects of small bulk and great value: a small pot with antlers, which emitted clouds of remarkable gasses when the prongs were tweaked; an ivory horn through which sounded voices from the past; a small stage where costumed imps stood ready to perform comic antics; an object like a cluster of crystal grapes, each affording a blurred view into one of the demon-worlds; a baton sprouting sweetmeats of assorted flavour; an ancient ring engraved with runes; a black stone surrounded by nine zones of impalpable color. He passed by hundreds of jars of powders and liquids, likewise forebore from the vessels containing preserved heads. Now he came to shelves stacked with volumes, folios and librams, where he selected with care, taking for preference those bound in purple velvet, Phandaal’s characteristic color. He likewise selected folios of drawings and ancient maps, and the disturbed leather exuded a musty odor. (p 9-10)
In all my years of gaming, I have never seen a treasure haul that could compete with this. It’s reminiscent of how James Raggi made this point in his particular take on the original fantasy game: “Because monsters should be unnatural and hopefully a little terrifying, using stock examples goes against the purpose of using monsters to begin with.”⁹ This is no doubt in response to how the nature of tabletop gaming is impacted by players having memorized the Monster Manual, but in the above passage, Jack Vance makes the same case in regards to magic items. There are no sword+1’s or wands of fireballs in his world; everything is unique. Sometimes frighteningly so.
Cugel proceeded along the beach, well pleased with the events of the morning. He examined the amulet at length: it exuded a rich sense of magic, and in addition was an object of no small beauty. The runes, incised with great skill and delicacy, unfortunately were beyond his capacity to decipher. He gingerly slipped the bracelet on his wrist, and in so doing pressed one of the carbuncles. From somewhere came an abysmal groan, a sound of the deepest anguish. Cugel stopped short, and looked up and down the beach. Gray sea, pallid beach, foreshore with clumps of spinifex. Benbadge Stull to the west, Cil to the east, gray sky above. He was alone. Whence had come the great groan?
Cautiously Cugel touched the carbuncle again, and again evoked the stricken protest.
In fascination Cugel pressed another of the carbuncles, this time bringing forth a wail of piteous despair in a different voice. Cugel was puzzled. Who along this sullen shore manifested so frivolous a disposition? Each carbuncle in turn he pressed and caused to be produced a whole concert of outcries, ranging the gamut of anguish and pain. Cugel examined the amulet critically. Beyond the evocation of groans and sobs it displayed no obvious power and Cugel presently tired of the occupation. (p 46)
While Gary Gygax did include a section on artifacts in his 1979 AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, there’s really nothing in there like this. It’s not mentioned above, but possession of that artifact automatically gives you the status of rule in a nearby town. The only thing in gaming that I’ve seen that is even remotely close to this in deviousness is in Infocom’s Enchanter. Indeed, this passage (and the many passages mentioning grues in passing) indicates that the renowned implementors of the iconic interactive fiction company were directly inspired by Jack Vance rather than just the tabletop games themselves.
Pharesm made a peremptory gesture. Cugel fell silent. Pharesm drew a deep breath. ‘You fail to understand the calamity you have visited upon me. I will explain, so that you may not be astounded by the rigors which await you. As I have adumbrated, the arrival of the creature was the culmination of my great effort. I determined its nature through a perusal of forty-two thousand librams, all written in cryptic language: a task requiring a hundred years. During a second hundred years I evolved a pattern to draw it in upon itself and prepared exact specification. Next I assembled stone-cutters, and across a period of three hundred years gave solid form to my pattern. Since like subsumes like, the variates and intercongeles create a suprapullulation of all areas, qualities and intervals into a crystorrhoid whorl, eventually exciting the ponentiation of a pro-ubietal chute. Today occurred the concatenation; the “creature” as you call it, pervolved upon itself; in your idiotic malice you devoured it.’ (p 116-117)
Have players in your games ever encountered wizards that were undertaking centuries long projects? I haven’t seen much if anything in that vein. This particular bit is relevant to one of those things that were in the original rules of Dungeons & Dragons but which got culled from later iterations. In the OD&D wilderness rules there were castles placed wherever there were pools on Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival map. (Yes, the original rules assumed you would have access to two other games that a lot of people would not have even heard of at the time. You could not even understand the combat rules without one of them!) Anyway, you’d roll to see what type of person occupied the castles and one of the results was some shade of magic-user. The notes on handling these domains are quite terse, but after reading Jack Vance, you’ll understand exactly what these guys are up to, what could go wrong if you encounter one, and what sort of quests they’ll send you on if they happen to geas your party! This sort of thing can make your game world far more paranoid and inscrutable than the typical eighties era fantasy milieu.
Passing through a portal, the travelers entered an office overlooking the central yard, where pens, cages and stockades held beasts of so great variety as to astound Cugel….
Garstang, who had been surveying the compound, shook his head ruefully. ‘I confess to puzzlement. Each beast is of a different sort, and none seem to fit any well-defined categories.’
The keeper admitted that such was the case. ‘If you care to listen, I can explain all. The tale is of a continuing fascination, and will assist you in the management of your beasts…. In a past eon Mad King Kutt ordained a menagerie like none before, for his private amazement and the stupefaction of the world. His wizard, Follinense, therefore produced a group of beasts and teratoids unique, combining the wildest variety of plasms; to the result you see…. [Mad King Kutt] loosed the entire assemblage upon the general countryside, to the general disturbance. The creatures, endowed with an eclectic fecundity, became more rather than less bizarre, and now they roam the Plain of Oparona and Blanwalt Forest in great numbers. (p 164-166)
Is there anything on your campaign’s wilderness map that is the result of some crazy magician’s mucking around eons ago? Does it impact not only the wandering monsters tables, but also the local economy in terms of what sorts of things are available? Is it mind-numbingly strange and almost painfully bizarre? In most peoples games, the answer is going to be “no” for most of those questions. They’ve traded in the vibrancy of uniqueness for the blandness of accessibility and consistency… and that’s okay. As a game master, you’re responsible to create a playing field that allows the players maximum latitude to set their own course and become the stars of the show. If you want to create a world chock full of stuff this crazy, you need to just become a novelist and have done with it, right?
But then there’s this:
The spell known as the Inside Out and Over was of derivation so remote as to be forgotten. An unknown Cloud-rider of the Twenty-first Eon had constructed an archaic version; the half-legendary Basile Blackweb had refined its contours, a process continued by Veronifer the Bland, who added a reinforcing resonance. Archemand of Glaere had annotated fourteen of its pervulsions: Phandaal had listed it in the “A,” or “Perfected,” category of his monumental catalog. In this fashion it had reached the workbook of Zaraides the Sage, where Cugel, immured under a hillock, had found it and spoken it forth. (p 198)
While there are rules for spell research going back at least as far back as first edition AD&D, you certainly don’t hear of players contributing to anything like this particular chain of development. And while you do see spells like Tenser’s Floating Disc or Bigby’s Grasping Hand, you certainly don’t see elaborate backgrounds like this for any of the canonical spells of the game. Spell research is not something players tend to mess with because the rules on it are tucked away in the back of the Dungeon Masters Guide or in an odd corner of the Expert Rulebook. Dungeon Masters do not incorporate the rules into their adventure or setting design because it’s not something that players expect or clamor for. Without a lot of initiative and effort, the rules are not much more than cruft for most gamers.
Days went by and Iucounus’s trap, if such existed, remained unsprung, and Cugel at last came to believe that none existed. During this time he applied himself to Iucounu’s tomes and folios, but with disappointing results. Certain of the tomes were written in archaic tongues, indecipherable script or arcane terminology; others described phenomena beyond his comprehension; others exuded a waft of such urgent danger that Cugel instantly clamped shut the covers.
One or two of the work-books he found susceptible to his understanding. These he studied with dreat diligence, cramming syllable after wrenching syllable into his mind, where they rolled and pressed and distended his temples. Presently he was able to encompass a few of the most simple and primitive spells, certain of which he tested upon Iucounu: notably Lugwiler’s Dismal Itch. But by and large Cugel was disappointed by what seemed a lack of innate competence. Accomplished magicians could encompass three or even four of the most powerful effectuants; for Cugel, attaining even a single spell was a task of extraordinary difficulty. (p 214)
This passage is particular passage is of interest because Cugel the Clever is not actually a magic-user. He’s more of a dashing rogue without a heart of gold. While you don’t see a character class like this show up in any of the older D&D rule sets, he does in fact turn up in the earliest versions of Tunnels & Trolls where “rogues can both fight and use magic, but they don’t know any spells to start with and they must and must be taught each spell they learn separately by a magic-user.”¹⁰ They have the “innate ability to be ability to be magic-users, but never got the training.”¹¹ As a consequence, they cannot create new spells of their own devising; they just don’t grasp things well enough to do that. In contrast, Tunnels & Trolls magic-users start with all of the first level spells from that game and may purchase higher level spells from their guild when they are able to cast them. While this is a more free-wheeling take on thieves and magic-users than is normal in D&D circles, it’s clear that Ken St. Andre took at least some inspiration for his rogue class from Jack Vance.
Consulting the work-book, he encompassed the spell; then, pointing and naming Fianosther, he spoke the dreadful syllables.
But Fianosther, rather than sinking into the earth, crouched as before. Cugel hastily consulted the work-book and saw that in error he had transposed a pair of pervulsions, thereby reversing the quality of the spell. Indeed, even as he understood the mistake, to all sides there were small sounds, and previous victims across the eons were now erupted from a depth of forty-five miles, and discharged upon the surface. Here they lay, blinking in glazed astonishment; though a few lay rigid, too sluggish to react. Their garments had fallen to dust, though the more recently encysted still wore a rag or two. Presently all but the most dazed and rigid made tentative motions, feeling the air, groping at the sky, marveling at the sun. (p 218)
From the standpoint of the raw design of the early role playing games, this passage is probably the most surprising of all. This is perhaps the original source for the concept of reversing spells that is a common trope in the old games. I doubt that designers were overly concerned with the implications of making it easy to do this. Rule books were spartan at the dawn of the hobby, and it would have simply been convenient to be able to create a quick-and-dirty necromancer type that could cast Cause Light Wounds without having to make up new spells or class details. The real surprise here is that the spell reversal here was accidental– it was a result of a rogue attempting to cast a spell that was beyond his aptitude! Critical spell tables with results like this would have been a common modification by the time Steve Jackson incorporated one into his first edition of GURPS Fantasy in the mid-eighties, but while such an approach was natural and obvious to a certain type of gamer then, it was not in line with the design choices of Gary Gygax and Ken St. Andre in the first two role play games. Skill checks and critical failure effects are simply not a part of how they set things up at the ground level of the hobby.
But take another look at that last passage. Everyone in a very large area that had ever been put away by the Spell of Forlorn Encystment and imprisoned deep in the earth was suddenly set free. Who knows what things they would remember that had been long forgotten by the people of the dying earth! What if they remembered spells that were otherwise lost? Would they be able to transcribe them into spell books from memory? What would happen to all those people? What happens next? I can barely even begin to guess about that, but I can surely say that I’ve never seen anything even close to that awesome happen as a side effect of some game’s magic system.¹²
Jack Vance was not simply ahead of his time. Game designers simply haven’t gotten around to catching up to him, yet.
¹ This is from the James M. Ward interview in Fight On! #12.
² This insight is from S. John Ross.
³ This is from Dragon Magazine #52 where J. Eric Holmes reviewed the new Moldvay Basic D&D set and compared it to his edition.
⁴ A Game as Literary Tutorial, The New York Times, July 13, 2014.
⁵ See Jack McDevitt on John Carter, Pulp Artwork, and NASA for details, but alas… it looks like his journals are gone now.
⁶ “Notes for Novice Dungeon Masters” by Lewis Pulsipher, Space Gamer #35. (And by the way, based on this article it looks like Dr. Pulsipher was aware back then that Michael Moorcock was merely the popularizer of the idea of the struggle between Law and Chaos.)
⁷ “Aboard the Leviathan” by Marc Miller, Space Gamer #40.
⁸ My own session report A Role Playing Game… with Imaginary Rules and Dice illustrates this.
⁹ Legends of the Flame Princess ref book, p 48.
¹⁰ Tunnels & Trolls fourth edition, page 9.
¹¹ Tunnels & Trolls fourth edition, page 30.
¹² Jeff Rients’s treatise on Fireballs and Dragonbreath is still pretty cool, though.