Snappy Answers to Stupid Claims, Appendix N Edition

Sunday , 28, May 2017 29 Comments

You know, it was always a bit of a mystery to me why it was that Appendix N discussion seemed to arbitrarily evaporate several years ago. Just like it was strange to me when the audience for my material turned out to be much more the sort of people that were looking for decent fantasy and science fiction to read rather than the folks that might be looking for insight into getting a better game out of their Dungeons & Dragons material.

Granted, every Dungeon Master knows more about running Dungeons & Dragons than every other Dungeon Master. That’s the nature of the beast!

That said, now that the book has been out for a while, we’re starting to hear comment from regions of the game blog scene that had until now been silent on the explosion in Appendix N related discussion and analysis. The nature of this new discussion is, I think, quite telling. Let’s take a look!

Here, then, are a few choice bits from a recent thread at the OD&D Discussion boards:

cadriel: I haven’t read it cover to cover, but it makes the same mistake that a lot of Appendix N analysis makes when it tries to link books in Appendix N to specific ideas and mechanics in D&D. The connections are as often as not errors of pattern-matching; D&D didn’t pull that directly from its literary antecedents.

Right. Right! It’s an error of pattern-matching to surmise that the AD&D Thief skills owe a significant debt to Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows. It’s an error of pattern-matching to think that the AD&D spell system owes as much to Chronicles of Amber and also the Harold Shea stories as it does to the Dying Earth Series. It’s an error of pattern matching to think that the architecture of the OD&D mega-dungeon owes more to Margaret St. Clair’s Sign of the Labrys than it does to the Mines of Moria. It’s an error of pattern matching to recognize the D&D green slime in the work of Sterling Lanier, D&D’s white apes in A Princess of Mars, and AD&D’s trolls in Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Of course! The Alignment system has nothing to do with the work of Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock. And it’s just a coincidence that Steading of the Hill Giant Chief resembles situations and locations from The Roarding Trumpet. It’s all errors of pattern-matching. Yes!!!

cadriel: It has a bit of charm in its enthusiasm, but there’s a lot of rambling, for instance in Jeffro’s attempt to score points against Star Wars by comparison to things in A Princess of Mars that are, frankly, cliches. There’s never any reflection on how a lot of the authors, including Burroughs, wrote with such transparent formulas that you could see the tracks in the story halfway through. (That doesn’t mean Burroughs isn’t a fun read, but you have to put that aside to enjoy him.) So I mean, I wouldn’t at all equate it to a work of serious history like Playing at the World.

Ah, this is a good one. A guy who parrots the party line regarding the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs poo-poos the guy that is bringing positive attention to John Carter, Tarzan, Pellucidar, and Carson Napier– to a generation that has only every heard bad about them if they’ve heard anything at all! Yes, my book emphasizes the positive for the vast majority of the Appendix N authors. And no, it doesn’t repeat the nonsensical talking points of the weenies that are responsible for memory holing them. This is a book for the people that are going to go read these authors and then exclaim, why didn’t anyone tell me how good these people were?! 

hedgehobbit: Appendix N is just a list of authors and books that Gary liked. They are inspirational reading, not the “literary history of D&D”. These works were, at the time, contemporary fantasy. D&D wasn’t a game about “classic fantasy”, that’s just all they had at the time.

And Gary Gygax was lying when he wrote that “the most immediate influences on AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, REH, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL, and A. Merritt….” And understanding how fantasy and science fiction tended to be viewed by the designers of role-playing games in the seventies is of no use whatsoever to people that are interested in why early versions of D&D are so strange to most people under the age of forty.

cadriel: Ernie Gygax said of Appendix N, “These are just the novels that Dad had on the wall in his den.” (Sanctum Secorum podcast, quote around 2:11)

There are a few places where D&D obviously steals from – particularly The Lord of the Rings and Three Hearts and Three Lions. But when people start to try associating X mechanic with Y putative literary antecedent, without documentation of clear inspiration, it’s as likely to have come from wargaming or movies or history or some other source in parallel. Treating Appendix N as the key to D&D is a poor way to do D&D history.

Oh, this again. Because this error in pattern matching argument is so good, we don’t need any examples where the author we are criticizing actually made this error. Seems legit!!

Oh, but yeah. It’s an error in pattern matching when you realize that the Cubic Gate magic item being made of carnelian is an homage to a book by de Camp and Pratt. I’m with you here, man! Totally just some books on the shelf in Gygax’s den!

hedgehobbit: Nobody is suggesting that Gary lied. Just that the list is simply inspirational and not the basis of D&D. Sure, an idea from a book here or there might have been plucked to create a monster, magic item, or spell, or even a whole adventure plot. But that doesn’t mean that these books hold some special power today, 40 years later.

For example, Gary used Vance’s idea about spells being memorized to create a simpler mechanic to replace Dave’s more complicated item-based spell system. But that doesn’t mean that Gary sat down to design a “Vancian” magic system nor does it mean that we can learn anything of significant about D&D’s spell system by reading Vance. Memorization is an idea to explain a game mechanic that was designed primarily for simplicity, not genre emulation.

I’d go so far as to say that the spells, items, and monsters in OD&D/AD&D hold no special significance other than being an example of how such create such things. You can, and should, remove them all and replace them with spells, items, and monsters of your own creation that have meaning to you and your players. Why let Gary do your imagining for you?

Tricksy, hedgehobbit! So tricksy!

But yes, the argument you’re making really does hinge on Gary Gygax being a liar. Also, it would take an entire book to explain what got looted from the science fiction and fantasy canon and knit together to make the Frankenstein’s Monster of a game that is AD&D. (

That last bit is more of a challenge, I admit. And yep… that is the spirit with which OD&D was delivered to us. For people today that have no idea why classic D&D editions are the way they are and where so many chunks of the rules originally came from, it’s actually danged hard to take the skeleton of the game and go off in a totally original direction.

Someone that’s only recently become familiar with the literary underpinnings of the game will have a tremendous number of options for revisiting the elements of the game and tuning them up in order to go do something completely different with them. Here’s why: a breakdown of what got lost in the translation from pulp story to rpg design is essentially a treasure map leading readers to a whole range of awesome and mind-blowing things.

cadriel: I find Jeffro’s ideas fairly repulsive. For instance, bashing Star Wars on the grounds that it is not sexist enough (as he does in his paean to A Princess of Mars) is the kind of thing that would make me throw the book violently if it were in print. It makes me feel unseemly for liking the adventure literature that I like.

Okay, let me tell you: this is serious business here. Making someone feel unseemly for liking a book? We gotta nip that in the bud right now. Let’s start by not making people feel unseemly for liking my book. Bwa-ha-ha!

cadriel: 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, if you wouldn’t want an alternate reality Star Wars where Princess Leia is in a metal bikini for the entirety of all three movies, then we’re just going to have to agree to disagree!

strangebrew: Having read PatW and the chapter you posted above, I think the comparison is doing Peterson’s book a disservice. PatW was a meticulous work full of research and a lack of subjectivity (to the point where he only used contemporaneous interviews, since memories can’t be trusted over time). This chapter reads as a dude ranting about his opinions and preferences (essentially a long blog post) with a new cringe-worthy lines thrown in.

Might be a good book, but based on your sample I don’t see how it compares to PatW in the way you describe (“precisely the same thing” – seems almost an opposite approach), nor that it contributes to the hobby in nearly the same way (which you didn’t directly claim).

Excuse me, sir. Your monocle seems to have popped off.

Rafael: No offense to you, personally, Brother Oakes – you know I always appreciate your input: But on this premise alone, Johnson shows he has no clue what he is talking about, in my opinion. I’ve read the book; it’s not without entertainment value, but its premise is just plain wrong.

Had Gygax written D&D ALONE, then, yeah, a list like Appendix N would be generally useful in a direct way, as a literary history. But he was not alone – because if had been, we wouldn’t need all the Braunstein, Chainmail, and Blackmoor discussion any more, or would we?

There are a few titles right away that I can name that demonstrably had a massive impact on D&D that the Appendix N doesn’t list:

– A. E. van Vogt, “The Voyage of the Space Beagle”.
– Robert Adams, “The Coming of the Horseclans”.
– John Norman, “Tarnsman of Gor”, and “Nomads of Gor”.
– Robert Silverberg, “The Tower of Glass”.

…And, obviously, there’s that critical, almost comical underplaying of the importance of “The Lord of the Rings”.

Why so? – Because Mr Gygax didn’t know about them, or considered them unimportant for his version of D&D, or rather AD&D – or, and don’t underestimate that, because he had just lost a lawsuit against Saul Zaentz. ;) That doesn’t necessarily mean that Mr Gygax was being completely untruthful – but it’s an appendix of HIS D&D; he certainly does not speak for the entire generation of “the founding fathers”.

And the funny, yet terrible thing about this topic is that, pretty much since the publication of the AD&D DMG, most of these founding fathers have most decidedly – and consistently – spoken out against this version of D&D’s literary tradition. Like, plainly said it wasn’t so, and provided ample explanations, and proof.

Yet, in 2017, we get a book that essentially cherry-picks the facts on the matter yet again, in order to fabricate a catchy sales pitch for itself.
– What shall I say? The title makes me feel nostalgic, too. But that’s about everything this book can offer; a catchy title. :(

Look, man. I’m reliably informed that these connections are as often as not errors of pattern-matching. And hey, I want to hear about the bad old days as much as anybody. But if anyone is going to pay attention to these “founding father” types, they are going to have something a little more substantial than Ernie Gygax’s claim that Appendix N is just a bunch of books his dad had on the wall in his den.

Certainly, argument from authority isn’t going to persuade a whole lot of people. Especially when so much of what people assume about how fantasy even works can be traced back to a collection of hardback books with Gary Gygax’s name on the spine!

29 Comments
  • Bigby's Typing Hands says:

    I confess to having trouble understanding their arguments – although, granted, I’m reading only what’s excerpted here.

    It might help if they could stand back a bit. Everybody used elements of popular/geek culture freely. Take a look, for example, at the 1974 “Minneapolis Dungeon” – you’ll see a game independently developed and based on slightly different elements and coming from a non-wargaming background. And yet, its broadly similar. How could that have happened if Gygax were just creating something out of whole cloth?

    http://www.unreason.com/files/RulesToTheGameOfDungeon.pdf

    There’s no mystery to be had here. Yes, its possible to make too much out of it just as its possible to take too little notice and thereby be worse off. Of course Gygax used tropes and themes from novels. Of course. And the resulting rules play best within those frameworks. Of course. Its a product of its time.

    • Jeffro says:

      Here’s the question I have:

      Did the people that designed the first wave of tabletop rpgs have a different conception of what fantasy and science fiction even was– compared to most people today…?

      If so, how would that impact their design decisions and the assumptions they made about the people that would be running their creations?

      • Anthony M says:

        Come on Jeffro, of course it didn’t impact their design decisions and assumptions at all! If you think that, you’re committing an error in pattern matching!

      • Bigby's Typing Hands says:

        I can only answer for my own experience, which does bridge the eras before and after D&D appeared.

        Before D&D, before Star Wars, geek culture was Greek mythology, Dr Who, and the authors of Appendix N, though to be sure not everybody read every author.

        After D&D [and Tolkien to a lesser extent] there was a noticeable and troubling shrinking of the horizons. I distinctly remember being bothered by how it became impossible to find anything outside of conventions within RPGs or intended for RPGs. There was a suspicion that some newer and very bad fantasy lit were mere transcriptions of gaming campaigns, and a real exasperation with the whole of fantasy publishing was the result.

        Tolkien was particularly egregious in his influence. Everything became this …goo, I guess. Everything was Trilogy, everything had to be a fleshed-out world with languages and such. Why?

        • NARoberts says:

          This is not a problem with Tolkien though. Blame the fifth-rate imitators of the master, not the master himself. Everyone tried to imitate him because he was SO GOOD. That’s on them.

          • Jeffro says:

            Yes. When you look at his contemporaries, you can see how much overlap there is there. But the new stuff borrows selectively and omits the older themes. Also, the stuff they “copy” is just weird. Trilogies, for example– when LotR was a single book broken up into three volumes.

          • Bigby's Typing Hands says:

            Yet I’m not blaming him at all. I’m saying the horizons shrunk in a noticeable way.

            Jeffro gets me thinking this over in new ways. I know what I saw and thought about during the time. I loved Tolkien but the book business became far too imitative after his commercial success. And, thus, authors too. It was boring. Boring. An unforgiveable sin.

          • Bigby's Typing Hands says:

            Here, trying a different tack.
            Back in the day there wasn’t a “geek culture” in a monolithic sense and being a nerd was social suicide. There was no gaming and what camaraderie you had was through the literature.

            Not everybody read the same things. My crowd did not read Howard, for example, but did read Anderson and Lovecraft, McCaffery and Heinlein, Hamilton and Poe.

            After Tolkien and D&D it was like a grand unification of nerds but the variety of types went away. You weren’t talking about this great new author with cool ideas but about one game and how to incorporate XYZ into it. Not the same thing.

  • NARoberts says:

    I’ve not had the chance to play a role-playing game myself.

    Before finding the Appendix N discussion here I had no conception of D&D as a device for actual storytelling with an emergent plot. I had watched and enjoyed the Critical Role show, which was my conception of how a game was supposed to play.

    Now I find it harder to watch, the players seem too flippant, and the campaign’s story too contrived and meandering. But they are having fun so I can’t criticize their way of doing so. But my conceptions of what it COULD be–more than just a “game,” have broadened, I think.

    Can an experienced D&D player weigh in on what it is be like to play old school vs new? I’m just grasping the idea that it is difference at all.

    • Jeffro says:

      The difference between old school and new school in a nutshell:

      Old School: The players are given every benefit of the doubt. Every ruling and interpretation is made in their favor. They have planned for an hour, coming up with a sort of Rube Goldberg type scheme to do something. They go into the dungeon and things look like they will work. Then… something unexpected goes wrong. Something goes sideways. One player panics. Then another does something stupid. The dungeon master rules what happens next and the players are not surprised by any of the die rolls that are required– they knew the odds for various things from the beginning. But then an awesome conjunction of player choice, dungeon design, rules, and chance conspire to create something no one expected. Player morale plummets as things fall apart and player characters start to die. The party splits up to flee the dungeon at different movement rates, with wandering monsters greeting the stragglers as the mage and thief make the exit. When the delve comes to a close, players roll up some new characters while everyone argues excitedly about what a newer and better plan would entail.

      New School: Everyone knows that there is some sort of “boss encounter” they are being shepherded toward. Players are almost guaranteed to level up after the first session– and maybe level up after the second encounter. Nobody dies and no one is surprised when the party has just enough hit points and so forth to defeat the big baddie at the end of the session. Everything feels linear and pre-plotted. Choice doesn’t seem to matter except at the tactical level. People don’t imagine anything, they just make skill checks for everything. There isn’t the same need to learn how to cooperate because everything is set up in advance for the players to pretty well win.

  • Ah, yes, Old School (I was there, started playing in 1976, using the original white box plus Greyhawk). We called a lot of that “notplaying.” Yes, it could be frustrating trying to get people to get on with the game, but it was also a lot of fun doing all that stuff of shooting the breeze, character creation, and discussing every geeky thing in sight. It was a method of socializing for the socially challenged, which I freely admit to being as a teenager.

    Old School was a highly inconsistent experience. I remember horrible sessions and great ones, which is what today’s New School Pathfinder and similar systems (based, I think, on trying to recreate computer RPGs on the tabletop) lack. They lack the highs and the lows, instead delivering a consistent consumerist experience tailored to sell more supplements.

    It’s axiomatic that the “wild west” period of any new thing is the most fun and the most frustrating, and that early adopters will always look back with great fondness on the intersection of youth, newness and unbridled imagination. This has been true of the early days of steam, electricity, SFF, the microcomputer revolution, D&D, Storyteller-style games, Magic: The Gathering, clix miniatures games and derivatives, ebooks, etc. Every new and disruptive thing begets fantastic creativity.

    It’s also axiomatic that the later parts of anything either fade away and become ossified, or they grow into commercialistic, consumer-driven slogs designed to extract maximum money from people ever more desperate to recreate their best days. Unfortunately, that then becomes the default standard. We’re surrounded by a surfeit of mediocre after computer games bled off many of our fellow geeks that would have been playing tabletop RPGs and wargames, and now we’re left largely with commercial products.

    • I started playing almost a decade after than you, David VanDyke. But I can sincerely attest to your rundown.

      *upvote*
      here’s some reddit gold barkeep

    • Jeffro says:

      Well there is a happy ending here. Thanks to the internet and sites like Lulu and RpgNow, it has never been easier to get old games or new games created by amateurs. Add in an extremely active blogging scene, and today’s rpg hobbyist has an embarrassment of riches.

      Adventure Conqueror King System, Dwimmermount, Stonehell, the various Tunnels & Trolls rule sets, the latest Call of Cthulhu edition, classic Traveller reprints, etc.– it really is the best time to be gaming!

  • Aaron B. says:

    I’m late to this whole discussion, but I’m puzzled: why does the idea that Gygax got specific ideas for D&D from specific sources, and that these can be identified, seem to offend some people? Are they invested in the idea that it was all original for some reason?

    It hadn’t occurred to me that the magic system looks a lot like magic in Amber, but you’re right, it does. Merlin doesn’t carry around a spell book, but he prepares spells — usually during a rest period — so they can be cast in a moment with a single word or phrase. What’s funny is, if I had noticed it, I probably would’ve assumed Zelazny got the idea from D&D rather than the other way around, simply because I played D&D long before I read those books.

    • NARoberts says:

      That question came into my head while reading this as well. But perhaps the fourth and fifth quotes from “cadriel” offer a clue. Maybe these folks don’t want their beloved D&D to have roots in the bad/old/regressive stuff. I don’t wanna believe that is the motivation though. Cultural Politics can’t be everything to ALL of these critics, right?

    • Re: “why does the idea that Gygax got specific ideas for D&D from specific sources, and that these can be identified, seem to offend some people?” That’s a GREAT question.

    • deuce says:

      I got the same feeling from the comments. Good question.

    • Cambias says:

      Note that Merlin appears in the second Amber series, which was first published in 1985. D&D came out almost a decade earlier, so I think one can make a case that Zelazny was referencing D&D (I’ve heard he was part of a game group which included a certain George Martin among others).

      If you read the original Amber series, magic is less structured, and I don’t recall a “spell preparation” requirement for the characters.

      • Jeffro says:

        The illusionist spells in AD&D make reference to “the shadow” from the earliest Amber novel.

        • cirsova says:

          Which also explains why Illusionists and Magic Users are so different that they cannot use or learn each others spells except, in the case of illusionists, by creating facsimilies, and by Magic Users at significantly higher levels.

          Also, almost as if to troll gamers, Vance eventually defined magic in the Dying Earth setting as actually being point-based.

    • Mr Tines says:

      Not only was there unashamed Barsoomian material in the original three books, but you’d have to be wilfully blind not to see Dying Earth mages and embryonic Jack of Shadows illusionists.

      I suspect it’s a matter of perspective though. In the early ’70s, had you passed around a copy of the (then years in the future) Appendix N, it would have been seen as an entry-level reading list. A decade later, the field of fantasy was already being swamped by variants of the LotR formula and the older material was falling out of print. As time went on, I recall it getting to the stage that the options were narrowed down to nth-generation hearsay copies of LotR interspersed with bad remakes of Hamlet (to the extent that I stopped reading new fantasy in the mid ’80s).

      AD&D also marked a schism in the RPG world, with EGG’s pontifications being taken by some as the One True Way, and the rest of us saying “Stuff that, we’re playing Traveller/RuneQuest/Champions/… instead”; a generation and more down the line, I’m not surprised that there is a latter-day OTWist strand of thought that takes EGG as a source of all these notions rather than a collator.

  • Vlad James says:

    Most of this seems like self-righteous justification for their own ignorance of these books.

    People have a hard time admitting “hey, I DON’T know that!”

    • Jeffro says:

      Ah, I forgot this one:

      Rafael: First of all, I don’t read the bloggosphere – I bought the book on kindle, back when it came out. (In March?) I was extremely disatisfied with it, because Johnson either tries to amplify his readership by oversimplifying – or because he doesn’t know much about literature, in general. It’s essentially opinion pieces masking as “literary criticism”. Damon Knight could pull that off, sometimes, sure – but Jeffro Johnson can’t. Johnson has obviously read “The Hero’s Journey”, and “The Writer’s Journey”, and a few more standard books of genre theory, but that’s not enough for a work like this one. – Or, in other words, I appreciate the effort, but I want my money back.

      The guy claims it is obvious I have read books that I have not read. Also, he claims my criticism is inferior to that of a guy that is responsible for Appendix N authors being unfairly obscure today. (Damon Knight’s bogus claims about Lovecraft and Howard are pretty well the default perspective on them outside of consciously pro-pulp circles.)

      • TPC says:

        Also, Amazon allows for returns of ebooks within 7 days of purchase, so there was no obstacle to getting the money back if he was unsatisfied.

  • Sam says:

    Did these guys just claim, straight faced, that Vance has nothing to contribute to understanding magic in DND? Well sure. If you want a fantasy world with no flavour or texture, where everything is “just a game mechanic” but a mechanic that doesn’t exist to create, evoke, or inspire any interest whatsoever…. if, in fact, you’re only playing DND because your friends wouldn’t hang around while you rolled a D20 over and over while drooling a little from the corner of your mouth… well, then, yes. Sure.

  • Sam says:

    If people want an RPG recommendation, try Burning Wheel. If you’re looking for Tolkien and Medieval, it has it in spades. It isn’t rules light, so if you’re one f THOSE people… one of those rules are bad we should just tell stories people… you won’t like it.

    But it’s brilliant.

    • Taarkoth says:

      “But [Burning Wheel is] brilliant.”

      Not really. It’s very much a modern game, with all that entails.

      Also you’ve confused the rules light people (usually OSR folks that prefer the older games) with the story gamers. That’s not actually a lot of overlap there.

      • Sam says:

        Well there’s more than one kind of rules-lite, I just didn’t want to go essay-length. As for “not brilliant”, sure, ok. But calling it “very much a modern game” is pretty bizarre.

  • Sam says:

    Specifically, most modern games force you to play either risk-averse mode or “the DM isn’t going to let me die” god-mode, whereas Burning Wheel forces you to take risks. In any case, I’m not here to preach, so I’ll leave it at that.

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