Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 22: Tolkien vs Leiber

Despite some late tightening, Edgar Rice Burroughs defeated Lord Dunsany and will continue to take on H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos in Round 3.

Day 22 of Appendix N Madness is one of the match-ups I have anticipated ever since I set up the bracket: J.R.R. Tolkien versus Fritz Leiber.

J.R.R. Tolkien

The "party line" about the development of Dungeons & Dragons is that J.R.R. Tolkien is less important than other influences on the game. Which sounds very nice, but it wasn't just an accident that OD&D had dwarves, elves, hobbits, orcs, goblins, ents, Nazgûl, and Balrogs. Gary Gygax was said prefer The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, which is totally fair and valid, but Tolkien was a huge influence on the players, especially once D&D got out of the narrow circles around Dave and Gary. I also think the cease & desist letters of the late 1970s caused some of this to be political.

Tolkien's reputation is solidly on his world-building. Middle-Earth has a deep history built up over a lifetime, and it really shows through in The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately the 1977 Silmarillion is possibly the worst way to package to the backstory; it is literally an annalistic history overlaid on top of a written summary, and comes off resembling the writing of the Bible in a negative way. The earliest drafts in The Book of Lost Tales are in rough form but make much more entertaining reads. The recent fix-up books, The Children of Húrin, and with any luck the forthcoming Beren & Lúthien, are far more accessible forms of the great stories Tolkien invented.

It is remarkable that you can actually learn enough Quenya or Sindarin to write some poetry in the languages. This was Tolkien's great passion, and the languages of Middle-Earth are quite beautiful creations in their own. "Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen, yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!" (Namarië, written in Quenya) or "A Elbereth Gilthoniel, silivren penna míriel, o menel aglar elenath!" (A Elbereth Gilthoniel, written in Sindarin)

Fritz Leiber

Like his father, Fritz Leiber was a Shakespearean actor. This shows through in his lucid and evocative prose, and his rapier-quick wit. Among Appendix N authors, only Jack Vance had a similar knack for sentences that you could read for pleasure on their own.

Leiber created two exceptional things. One was the pair of friends that he envisioned, tall barbarian Fafhrd and small swarthy Mouser. Their partnership and work together is legendary. Over the years Leiber created a full lifetime of their adventures, and clearly reflected a partnership that changed and grew. Even when they were rivals like in "Lean Times in Lankhmar" they still looked out for one another in a way. It's quite touching that their friendship was based on Leiber and Harry Otto Fischer's real-world friendship.

But even more impressive is the city that was a constant hub for their adventures. Lankhmar, the City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes, with its Thieves Guild and the Silver Eel and Plaza of Dark Delights and the Street of the Gods and the Gods of Lankhmar. The city is a character in itself, one of the greatest cities in fantasy literature. Both of D&D's biggest cities, Greyhawk and Waterdeep, are clearly reflections (or if you prefer, cheap knockoffs) of Lankhmar through their individual creators. Some places in Nehwon are interesting, such as the underground city of Quarmall (a great mega-dungeon inspiration), but Lankhmar looms over all of them.

You can vote in the poll here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 21: Burroughs vs Dunsany

Jack Vance dominated in a victory over Roger Zelazny and will go on to Round 3.

Day 21 brings us to a battle of two of the earliest authors in Appendix N: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

The foreword to the original D&D set described the game's purview as fantasy, and its first example was "Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits." OD&D had a distinct Barsoom flavor in the encounters section, which listed various Martian foes that Carter fought in his adventures, although later editions would downplay these connections.

Edgar Rice Burroughs's prime work, particularly the Barsoom novels, is rip-roaring adventure. If you read too much of it at one time, it becomes fairly obvious that he was working off of a straightforward outline and the plots can be formulaic. But it was all in service of his worldbuilding, which was endlessly inventive. John Carter (or one of a half-dozen others) finds himself lost in some new land, where a new threat presents itself. Then there's some helpful exposition and some desperate plan that gets him out of one problem and into a deeper one, and this continues until the book resolves neatly.

Of Burroughs's worlds, Barsoom was by far the best imagined. His Venus lacks the same feel, and Pellucidar is somewhat derivative. Tarzan keeps getting recycled but the racial implications seem to have put a damper on the once massive appeal the character had. Certainly Barsoom, where the races should be treated as pure fantasy, remains the most fertile ground for gaming inspiration, and the first six novels are the best reads.

Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany

A lord in what became modern Ireland during his lifetime, Lord Dunsany was a fantasist of rare imagination. He created a unique mythological cycle in his short story collections, The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, The Sword of Welleran, and The Book of Wonder. The first two are in a very "high" register, almost Bible-like in both scope and in their language. Particularly The Book of Wonder contains tales that relate more directly to D&D-ish fantasy, such as "Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller" and "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles."

Dunsany returned to these themes in the 1920s with his masterwork The King of Elfland's Daughter, which carries both his rich language and his high fantastic concepts for a full length novel. Here he relates the fantastical Elfland to the more mundane "fields we know," although when the book starts out with a witch gathering thunderbolts to craft a magic sword, exactly how mundane those fields are is up for question.

Altogether Dunsany was a prodigious writer of what can only be called very pure fantasy. It would be impossible to have the "big three" of Weird Tales without him, particularly Lovecraft who started out trying to write pastiches of Dunsany (what is now known as the "Dream Cycle"). His work is inventive in ways that very little fantasy has ever tried to reach.

You can vote in the poll here.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 20: Vance vs Zelazny

Leigh Brackett managed to come out ahead on Day 19 of Appendix N Madness.

The match-up for Day 20 is two heavy hitters of SAGA / Amra: Jack Vance versus Roger Zelazny.

Jack Vance

While Appendix N lists only The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld by name, if you read the Dungeon Masters Guide it is quite clear that Gary Gygax was also a fan of Vance's Planet of Adventure series, as he describes "Dirdirmen" in the Castle Greyhawk dungeons. In a recent interview his son Ernie described Vance as a particular favorite.

Cugel the Clever of The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga is a particular archetype of scoundrel and ne'er-do-well; I've seen many murderhobo PCs who fit his template exactly. Many of the magicians of The Dying Earth are likewise scoundrels, but of a wizardly type.

It also has to be noted that Vance was one of the better prose artists of this whole tournament. The Dying Earth RPG had to incorporate a whole system of repartee to match the wit the stories' protagonists display. And simply in his ability to craft sentences, Vance can be intoxicating.

Roger Zelazny

The scene in Nine Princes in Amber where Random and Corwin drive through the ever-shifting Shadow toward Amber is one of the great chase sequences in any of the Appendix N books, and it alone would mean a film or TV adaptation of the Amber Chronicles would be, understandably, ambitious. Zelazny's masterwork is this series of epic intrigue and nearly godlike power, which is such a fit for today's television market that it should be no surprise there is serious talk about an adaptation.

It's not an accident that there was an Amber roleplaying game, nor that this game bears a close resemblance to the game Diplomacy. Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz were absolute fanatics for the latter and their play of NPCs was equally cut-throat. If your group isn't up for that, then Amber might not be the right RPG influence for you.

Zelazny was a masterful storyteller. I found the first five Amber books to be compulsive page-turners, each new twist burying Corwin in further trouble that he has to work his way out of. Zelazny's ability to write smooth, readable, modernist prose was a major factor in that. Though I do have to fault him for nicknaming the protagonist of Lord of Light "Sam" when, given a character identified with the Buddha, the opportunity to call him "Sid" is right there. But every Zelazny book I've met goes down smooth and keeps you hanging for what the next twist will be.

You can vote in the poll here.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 19: Norton vs Brackett

Robert E. Howard won somewhat predictably in his match against John Bellairs and will advance to face the winner of Tolkien / Leiber in Round 3.

Day 19 brings us to a battle of two of the great women writers of science fiction: Andre Norton and Leigh Brackett.

Andre Norton

One of those Grand Masters who wrote for simply decades, Andre Norton was a true master of the adventure form. She had a particular penchant for taking a character (or sometimes a few characters), stranding them in a strange world, and having them discover strange wonders, encounter relentless foes, and find occasional allies in the wilderness. That's right, Andre Norton wrote hex crawls.

That's a little dismissive of her work, which is absolutely terrific reading, but I can't think of a better inspirational author to read if you want your characters to hop from place to place and have adventures. And between Daybreak 2150 A.D.Witch World and Forerunner and Solar Queen, she can inspire Gamma World, D&D, and Traveller campaigns. You'll generally want to pick up a Norton novel when you have a bit of time free; she's an easy read and her books are most enjoyable when read straight from start to finish with few interruptions.

Leigh Brackett

Planetary romance fell out of favor for various reasons as the Space Race showed what the Solar System actually looked like, and there turned out to be a disappointing lack of green men, whether 3 or 15 feet tall, on Mars. Leigh Brackett started off as a writer of the old style of romance, setting the adventures of Eric John Stark on the Red Planet. When she returned to the character she had to set him up on a remote world named Skaith.

Stark is basically a planetary Tarzan, and has rip-roaring adventures whether you pick the early Mars works (Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman) or the later Skaith books (The Ginger Star, Hounds of Skaith, Reavers of Skaith). It's no surprise that from this author we also saw The Empire Strikes Back, which has several memorable worlds (Hoth and Bespin) that were in Brackett's first draft, or putting the heroes into an action sequence in an asteroid field. Sadly, Brackett didn't survive to see that vision realized, but she left a worthy legacy for generations of science fiction fans.

You can vote in the poll here.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 18: Howard vs Bellairs

H.P. Lovecraft is the winner of the first Round Two event, and will go on to face either Lord Dunsany or Edgar Rice Burroughs in Round Three.

Day 18 of Appendix N Madness is the second round two matchup: Robert E. Howard versus John Bellairs.

Robert E. Howard

One of the peculiarities of Appendix N is that only Conan is listed from among Robert E. Howard's dozens of creations. Fans of other Howard characters, particularly Solomon Kane, have called this into question. The Puritan Kane, whose adventures fit more squarely into the mainstream of <i>Weird Tales</i>, is an excellent archetype for the cleric class. Other characters such as the adventurer El Borak or the Valusian king Kull are also obvious inspiration for D&D material.

But Conan was unique among them, and it is not an accident that he stands head and shoulders above. Gary Gygax was particularly a fanatic for the Conan work; the point he sold Jim Ward on was that D&D is a game where you get to be Conan. And this is why Gary expected most players to want to play a human fighter, because after all who wouldn't want to be Conan?

More than any other character, Conan exemplifies D&D's arc, moving from an anonymous adventurer, becoming a reaver and cutpurse and slayer, and then moving on to be a ruler of men. That was in the game from the get-go, after all.

The Conan stories, more than any of Howard's other works, are unique in their literary quality. It was here that the Texan's sense of visceral conflict played out most completely, in an idiom that was often imitated, but the imitators rarely reached the same heights of descriptive writing. Poul Anderson eventually had to decry these knockoffs in "On Thud & Blunder," and the most infamous example is the purple I-have-a-thesaurus prose of "The Eye of Argon." But Howard's original words still leap out and Conan comes to immediate, vivid life. No other fantasy character is as imitated or as iconic.

And so, yeah, Appendix N only listed Conan. What else is there to say?

John Bellairs

The Face in the Frost was a well received debut novel. It's a romp following its duo of wizards through a very strange adventure in the semi-anonymous South Kingdom that switches fluidly between suspense and humor. He never finished the sequel, The Dolphin Cross, although the draft is apparently available for purchase today.

The wizards from Face in the Frost are quintessentially English. The viewpoint character is Prospero, who shares a name with the protagonist of The Tempest, William Shakespeare's last play and the one that deals most with magic and fantasy. Of course, this Prospero has not broken his staff and doesn't have a Caliban. Instead he is accompanied by Roger Bacon, who appears well patterned on the famous Franciscan friar and reputed wizard. Their magic is odd but has a good flavor for real-world occultism and would be a good place to look for inspiration when one wants to detail the fights between powerful sorcerers.

After The Face in the Frost, most of Bellairs' output was in the "young readers" demographic, and outside of the general "Appendix N" purview. Yet - that one book certainly was something.

You can vote in the poll here.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 17: Lovecraft vs Wellman

Day 17 brings us around to Round 2. I'd like to thank everybody who has been taking part in the discussion and voting, it has really been a fun project to go through all of these authors. In Round Two I'll touch more on their impact and legacy. You can see from the bracket above that Appendix N is ... well, it's top heavy. We have some real thrillers of match-ups in the second round and going forward, though, so buckle up.

Round 2 begins with: H.P. Lovecraft versus Manly Wade Wellman.

H.P. Lovecraft

It's hard to remember that Gary Gygax was mentioning a moderately obscure pulp author when he listed H.P. Lovecraft in Appendix N. Cthulhu was not yet a worldwide phenomenon (certainly plush versions were not available) who was a sort of cult figure known and admired among many fantasy and horror authors.

Of course, decades of relentless popularization and imitation have changed that. Now "Lovecraft" or "Cthulhu" is shorthand for "tentacles and madness." His vocabulary mistakes have metastasized; "cyclopean" seems to mean mammoth or simply haunting rather than a specific type of architecture, and "non-Euclidian" doesn't just mean doing geometry on a globe or other surface.

"Cthulhu" is a genre of writing, with two or three anthologies being published each year, some addressing specific Lovecraft stories, others trying to capture the strange vibrations of his cosmic horror. But CoC Sandy Petersen on a recent interview with The Good Friends of Jackson Elias described his allure, which I think few of his imitators grasp. Lovecraft's protagonists resist the reality of the cosmic horrors that they face so obstinately that the reader comes over to Lovecraft's side and roots for them to believe, rather than requiring their own disbelief to be overcome. It's quite a trick.

Manly Wade Wellman

If you think American folklore is rich gaming material waiting to be tapped, the Silver John stories by Manly Wade Wellman are among the best sources you can find. And if your tastes run toward Dungeon Crawl Classics, Michael Curtis created a setting in the module The Chained Coffin that is a long love letter to John the Balladeer and his adventures. (The module also contains a small gazetteer and several mini adventures set in the Shudder Mountains.) Wellman's work would also be a sound basis for a Call of Cthulhu campaign that wants to deal more with Satanism and the "traditional" occult than with Lovecraftian horrors from beyond space and time.

It's a bizarre cosmic coincidence, by the by, that today's episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff mentioned Wellman in the context of understanding American folk magic. Ken Hite, in discussing the German-American magical grimoire The Long-Lost Friend for a "Ken's Bookshelf" segment, compares it to the Silver John tales as a source of understanding this type of magic and its Biblical and occult origins.

As always, vote in the poll here.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 16: Moorcock vs Derleth

Fredric Brown made an impressive showing and defeated Stanley G. Weinbaum on day 15; he will go on to face Poul Anderson in Round 2.

Day 16 is the last day of Round One of Appendix N Madness. It pits Michael Moorcock against August Derleth.

Michael Moorcock
Lived: 1939-present (currently living)
Notable Works: Elric series, Hawkwind series, Jerry Cornelius series, Corum series

Michael John Moorcock is the sole surviving author listed in Appendix N, and one of the great living fantasy writers. His debut was with a sickly albino sorcerer wielding a vampiric runesword, the last emperor of the inhuman and decadent empire of Melniboné, Elric VIII. Elric and Stormbringer are both in their own right iconic fantasy characters. Dorian Hawkwind, Jerry Cornelius and Corum and generally all the incarnations of the Eternal Champion are all fascinating but in this regard they fall short of Elric. This is an ironic parallel to Conan, since Elric was devised as an anti-type to Howard's powerful, pragmatist barbarian. He represents everything Conan is not, and as such is one of the few heroes of similar standing.

August Derleth
Lived: 1909-1972
Notable Works: various Cthulhu Mythos stories

August Derleth was a prolific writer. He wrote a Proustian epic called the Sac Prairie Saga that is a sort of attempt to create an American version of a Proustian roman fleuve. Derleth was a correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft and wrote a number of stories imitating his more celebrated friend (including an anthology, The Watcher Out of Time, that carries a spurious attribution to Lovecraft). His work is widely considered too optimistic and good versus evil, fundamentally misunderstanding HPL. He founded Arkham House to publish Lovecraft's work, and is generally credited with transforming Lovecraft's creations into the "Cthulhu Mythos." He also had a Sherlock Holmes imitation named Solar Pons. Derleth's main credit is that he is, single-handedly, the reason so many people have read Lovecraft.

You can vote in the poll here.