Friday, May 5, 2017

The "Formula RPG" and the Open Philosophy

Rob Kuntz recently released a book called Dave Arneson's True Genius. It's a frustrating book, because it's written in specialized language of systems thought and references to a further as-yet-unfinished book. While I can't read the next book yet and don't agree with the systems theory parts, there is an assertion core to the first of its three essays that I want to comment on.

The essay, called "From Vision to Vicissitude: The Rise and Reversal of Dave Arneson's RPG Concept," follows what Kuntz sees as the change from 1974 original D&D with its "Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" ethos to Gygax's 1978 Dragon Magazine editorials that say "Those who insist on altering the framework should design their own game."

Rob summarizes what he sees as the crucial change (emphasis in original):
Moreover, and in summary, this systemic change moved the previous concept (Arneson's, 1971; and as reiterated by Gygax/Arneson in print, 1974) of DMs as absolute and omniscient creators of content for their individualized systems to a demoted position akin to an administrator of TSR's system-and-premade-adventure interface. The reader should be able to parse the two philosophical extremes by way of comparison alone.

In due course the design tenets/philosophy from the original game, now ignored, faded against an immense and growing foreground of TSR doing the imagining and creating of pre-determined/pre-structured scenarios for the consumer. The sustained promulgation of this disposable and repeatable model caused all but scattered remains of the original RPG philosophy as it was then forming to be lost. This 180 degree reversal abruptly issued in the Formula RPG experience that persists to this very day as a strictly closed form expression; and this was (and still is) a direct, and glaring, contradiction to the genius of its original manifestations: First Fantasy Campaign and the commercially successful Classic Dungeons & Dragons.
To try and unpack this, Kuntz is arguing that the philosophical shift between OD&D (which he labels as "classic" D&D) and AD&D is a philosophical shift from an "open form" to a "closed form" system, where in the former there are endless creative possibilities and in the latter there are only rules and prescriptions for what the referee is to do.

Kuntz isn't the first person to make this point. Matt Finch's influential A Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming makes a lot of similar points between an open, discursive style of play, and a closed, rule-bound approach. In practice, though, the idea that there was a "great transition" from an open to a closed game system is a hunt that has no real end. Even a definition as strict as Kuntz's could be improved on; OD&D, after all, is an attempt to systematize the open-ended game that Arneson was running.

But more importantly, what we've seen is that just about any RPG can be run with an open/DIY philosophy. Look at the game Microlite20 – that took the system-bound and rules-heavy 3rd edition of D&D and turned it into an elegant, rules-light game for referees who like the basic mechanic but don't want to be bound by thousands of pages of rules bloat. If that can be done in 3.x D&D, it can certainly be done in first edition AD&D.

Short of converting the game into a board game like the Milton Bradley HeroQuest, I don't honestly think that an RPG can truly be "closed form." The players in B2 Keep on the Borderlands can always kill the monsters in the Caves of Chaos, but they can avoid the Caves and sack the Keep instead, or they can wander off down the road, outside the established map, and the DM is then obliged to answer the question - "What now?"

This is the philosophy that animated the Braunstein games, and the Blackmoor campaign, and that made Dungeons & Dragons such a phenomenon. It allowed "What now?" to be the question, the imperative, and opened up the floodgates of imagination. And it's always been the dirty secret of RPGs that you don't need the book at all. A skilled referee can wing more or less anything if they choose to; the books are there to save you work.

It's particularly ironic that Kuntz chooses first edition AD&D as the incarnation of "Formula RPG", because the grognards who have been running AD&D forever (the "orthodox Gygaxians" if you will) have long been the biggest devotees of the GM as the "absolute and omniscient creators of content" for their individual games. In a sense, Rob is saying here that the Pope was insufficiently Catholic.

When Kuntz presents the idea of the "formula RPG" as a betrayal of the basic RPG idea, he disrespects the long tradition of kitbashing in gaming as a hobby. Indeed, the true genius of Dave Arneson was as a kitbasher, taking ideas that had been present in games like Wesley's Braunstein and the Gygax/Perren Chainmail, and creating in them a synthesis that opened up a much richer type of experience than, I expect, anybody thought would be present at the time. And if you read The First Fantasy Campaign, you will find a surprisingly large amount of matter about the fairly "conventional" wargame campaign that Blackmoor became over time.

Once someone understands the open philosophy - which, rather than a creation of Dave Arneson, I would say is present in at least the 1870s free Kriegsspiel - there is no such thing as a truly "closed" system. The referee simply needs to open it up and ask the players, "What do you do next?" Even a game like HeroQuest could be used in a radically new way, as I'm sure it has been. (If you don't know what a free Kriegsspiel is, I'd suggest reading Playing at the World.)

The truth is that dungeon modules are often treated as parts to be kitbashed. You can take them and use parts that you like in your own dungeon, or take the map and restock it, or reskin the whole thing as a completely different affair. Gus L at Dungeon of Signs frequently looks at ways to use modules outside of their original purpose, and if you spend enough time around the OSR you'll find that this is a normal thing. If you look at the great OSR books that I've pushed over the years, like Carcosa or Red and Pleasant Land or Yoon-Suin or Veins of the Earth, most of them contain a lot of ideas and tools (particularly charts and generators) that can be ripped out and used elsewhere.

Of course, there is gaming that is rote and bland. It is not accidental that I am not an enthusiast for Pathfinder or adventure path type gaming in general. But this is not preordained from the system or the existence of modules; it's just a way that people play. Some people just like dungeon bashing, and there is nothing wrong with that. I have a coworker who loves Pathfinder gaming, and carefully planning his PC, and then setting that up against a mission from a module. It's not my fun, but he clearly enjoys it.

But - the open philosophy that animated the Blackmoor campaign is not "lost" in "all but scattered remains." It is a rich idea that continues to animate games.down to this day. The OSR has done a lot for "sandbox" and open world types of games, and I think Kuntz, long distant from the RPG scene, is simply ignorant of the realities of the games people are playing, because open philosophy in gaming is in no way lost and scattered.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Hacking Through the Tunnels

You can now buy the fifth edition of Tunnels & Trolls on DriveThruRPG from Flying Buffalo. T&T is Ken St. Andre's response to original D&D, and in many ways represents a complete and immediate reaction to things that people didn't like about D&D.

Oakes Spalding is doing an in-depth review of the original edition of T&T over at Save Versus All Wands (nb: the blog header contains the topless amazon picture from OD&D). It's quite in depth, and goes to lengths that I'm not going to bother with. But it's a good review, both in terms of discussing how T&T works, and in comparing and contrasting it with OD&D. In fact, the review is credited as an inspiration for releasing 5e in the T&T blog announcing that the 5th edition is available for download.

The first five editions of Tunnels & Trolls came out in rapid succession, and basically were minor expansions of the original. 5e was the pinnacle of this development and sat as the edition of T&T supported by Flying Buffalo for decades; it's the one I've used for all my solo T&T gaming. It was also the version that was properly typeset and looks nice. Deluxe T&T (a Kickstarter that took years to come out) is a nice book if you want to kill a bug, but it's just not necessary. It changes and adds things and tries to fix a game that just worked.

T&T came out of the idea that OD&D, as presented, is an overly complicated game. Ken St. Andre chose to simplify from it, getting rid of things like Vancian magic, armor class as to-hit numbers, and twenty-sided dice. It's an ironic thought given that OD&D is often praised for its simplicity and flexibility relative to AD&D and later editions of the D&D game. But when the games are compared, it becomes clear that Tunnels & Trolls is simpler, but by no means simplistic. In many ways it's a rich game.

For instance, Tunnels & Trolls combat reduces monsters down to a single number, a Monster Rating (MR). (There is a more in-depth method presented making them similar to characters.) But what makes this interesting is that a monster's MR is not necessarily the same from encounter to encounter. You could decide that a particular orc is scrawny with a measly 30 MR, or a tough guy with 60 MR or better. More importantly this method makes it dead simple to improvise monsters, or change them to suit your needs.

Combat is likewise simple without being simplistic. Because it winds up with a death spiral as monster dice and adds (the number added to the die roll) decrease, or player adds fall away with damage, it makes avoiding combat or running away an important point. Armor is also much more significant, as it reduces damage when you're on the losing side. So if you prefer ablative armor, here's your game. Also, there's a reason to wear a helmet, which reduces damage taken; no D&D edition has ever made it so simple.

I also can't pass without mentioning saving rolls (SRs). Originally all SRs were based on the Luck stat, which can be increased (all stats can). You roll 2d6 against a target number based on the level of the Saving Roll; so a first level Luck SR is 2d6 vs 20-Luck. But for characters with low Luck scores, the rule is "doubles add and roll over." This is weird mathematically but creates a decent shot for anyone to make a SR even when it seems impossible.

Liz Danforth's art sets the tone for T&T. It is well executed, has a sense of humor about itself, and is deeply DIY. The sense that RPGs are not all VRY SRS BSNS was snuffed out of gaming by the early 1980s and has never really made a full comeback; certainly every version of D&D after the AD&D books got the gold spine covers is stripped clean of any sense that this may be a piss take.

That doesn't mean that it can't be played quite seriously; the adventures are definitely dangerous, and the system will work for an intense game, as Ron Edwards has noted. But there is even playfulness in the spell list and entries like "Take That You Fiend" or "Curses Foiled." (A few are unfortunate, like "Yassa Massa" which should be renamed.) No game introduced by Grimtooth can be all glum.

T&T also has a really interesting system for getting Adventure Points (APs). Characters get APs for going out on an adventure, based on dungeon level; they get the Monster Rating of any monsters slain as APs; they get points for every Saving Roll attempted (successful or not), and for casting spells. It explicitly avoids GP-for-XP, but makes up for it by explicitly rewarding characters going out and getting into the dungeons.

Advancement is a way to increase ability scores. That's pretty much what it does.So when you reach 2nd level, you can choose to add 2x the level number to Luck - that's 4 Luck points. Ability scores are not capped at 18, so this could bring a PC as high as 22 Luck (although it's not likely). That translates straight into Personal Adds. Other stats help with wielding weapons (ST and DEX), casting spells (IQ), taking damage (CON), and relating with NPCs (CHR). This works out because of the importance stats have in the game.

T&T is, above all, a very open game. It embraces a strong referee with a creative vision, although ironically the game is very well known for solo modules. (You'll want to start with Buffalo Castle.) If nothing else, giving a run through a few solos will change how you think about old school gaming, and it's one of the few experiences that any RPG gamer can have "out of the box" even in 2017.

Tunnels & Trolls 5th Edition: Recommended.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Frequently Missed Point on Saving Throws

For most of my gaming career I've never really cared about the saving throw categories in old school D&D and AD&D. They're not really great for abstracting or expanding the concepts they cover. Well, okay, I've always loved that there is a save against 'Death Ray" in OD&D. But mostly the categories left me cold,

But what I noticed when I was looking at OD&D's saving throw table recently was the general trend of the numbers. Take a look.

Without getting fancy about it, the OD&D chart has a clear tendency to have lower numbers on the left side of the chart. Sure, it's a little backward with high level magic-users, but for the most part the easier saves are further to the left. And at the same time, these are the saves that are more likely to take a PC out of the game. A fighter with decent hit points can take a Fireball or the breath of a smaller dragon on the chin, but poison and Finger of Death are save or die. And polymorph / paralyzation is a remove-from-game save.

The charts in AD&D are surprisingly similar. The categories run: Paralyzation, Poison or Death Magic; Petrification or Polymorph; Rods, Staves, and Wands; Breath Weapon; Spell. Basically Gygax re-shuffled the things that are on the right and left, keeping all of the ideas that take PCs straight out of the game on the left, and ones that mitigate damage to the right, with lower target numbers on the left side of the chart. B/X D&D follows OD&D in the placement of poison and Death Ray saves, but moves paralysis over to the middle with Stone. Still, we see the general pattern at work.

No attempt that I've seen to rationalize saving throws has followed Gygax in this. Saving throws organized by the result of failure seems counter-intuitive and overly fiddly, even though it has the effect that fighters have a 45% chance to save versus poison, as opposed to only a 25% chance to save versus a Charm Person spell thrown by an enemy magic-user. Using, say, the Swords & Wizardry single saving throw, a fighter has a 35% chance of either, even though the fighter's player may well prefer the extra 10% against poison.

This isn't intended to be a deep observation, but I find that it salvages the saving throw categories from the earlier editions. It's certainly changed my opinion, which (before I looked at the chart and noticed the trend) had been in favor of the single saving throw.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Initial Thoughts: Veins of the Earth

Veins of the Earth
Print + PDF Bundle (LotFP)
PDF Only (DriveThruRPG).

Buy this product. In print if you can afford it, in PDF if you can't.

"Dungeons are puddles of darkness. This is the sea."

I have a standing policy that I will buy any Lamentations of the Flame Princess book immediately upon release. This policy has not generally let me down; the products are top notch. But I can't say that it has ever been vindicated as strongly as with Veins of the Earth.

I've admired Patrick Stuart's work for a while now; his previous collaborations with Scrap Princess, Deep Carbon Observatory and Fire on the Velvet Horizon, have been automatic Lulu recommendations for some time. And just last year he released Maze of the Blue Medusa, a collaboration with Zak S. So I was hopeful that Veins, his first Lamentations project, would be up to the same level of quality.

It isn't. It's better.

As much as I like the content and ideas of Maze, it seems like you're cheating by cribbing a better referee's dungeon, fully imagined and laid out for you. His other work is impossible to fit into some other vision or campaign without dominating it completely. Veins of the Earth is raw vision, but presented as a toolkit to create your own underworld and use it as a basis for games that are still ultimately yours.

Cave systems are uniquely generated, as are larger systems of caverns and routes through the underworld. It is a vast darkness that is inhabited by strange and incredible things. Light is the resource; hunger and cold and strange death threaten at all times. There are civilizations, cities, art, things of beauty and wonder and horror. There are different types of darkness. Madness lurks.

None of that is why you should buy this book. I mean, they're all good reasons. There are over a hundred pages of new monsters. Each is described, including sound and smell. Each is illustrated. But beyond that, each of them is written. And I don't mean the kind of dry technical writing that you see in RPGs. Patrick evidently never got the memo that this was meant to be a sort of exercise in presenting stripped-down utilitarian monsters. He puts ideas, and feelings, in his monster entries - things that haunt you, that amuse, that make you wonder how you never thought of them before. They are beautiful and horrible.

The writing in this book is good writing. Like, that wouldn't be ashamed to be in a book that wasn't an RPG book. Writing that kicked my ass several times reading it. Patrick is able to impress his ideas on you when you're reading a monster section. And when you're reading about darkness, or cultures, or items. And the art by Scrap Princess is deeply evocative.

I haven't even read a third of the thing, skipping around to find impressions of it and meeting amazing content at every turn. It's a monstrosity of a book, 375 pages of PDF. The book is the longest that LotFP has released. And from what I've read so far it may be the best.

My initial thoughts? Jesus. It's love at first sight.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Mythic Underworld: Chthonic Deities

The Greek word χθόνιος (chthonios) referred to the ground, but in a specific way, meaning "underground" or what we would call the underworld. Today we refer to Hades, Persephone and other underworld gods as the chthonic deities. Despite any superficial resemblance, the word is unrelated to the work of H.P. Lovecraft; it's pronounced "thonic" or "k-thonic".

Even in antiquity, Hades was referred to as Zeus Chthonios, giving him a role as an underground ruler. This is reinforced by his staff, a symbol of authority, which typically had two tines, as opposed to the three of Poseidon's better-known trident. The Romans particularly conflated him with multiple other chthonic gods, creating the distinct god Pluto.

Generally we treat the Roman gods as simply renamed versions of their Greek counterparts, but even the name "Pluto" came from a separate Greek god, Πλοῦτος (Ploutos). The conflated deity symbolized both the underworld (which took on the name "Hades") and wealth, which of course originated from mines deep under the earth. Pluto was also combined with the Roman chthonic god Orcus; while the name is familiar to D&D fans, the image of the god itself is even weirder:

(This is taken from a 16th century monument, the Gardens of Bomarzo, but I didn't feel like I could do chthonic gods justice without it. And it's a great dungeon entrance.)

Aside from his obvious D&D namesake, the name "Orcus" is probably the inspiration for such diverse creatures as ogres, orcs, and the killer whales called orcas. Not surprisingly, he was less of a stoic underworld-ruler and more of a black, hairy death god, surviving from the ancient Etruscan myths. As a bonus, Orcus was the son of Eris (Roman name Discordia), thrower of the infamous Golden Apple that initiates the Trojan War. Pluto more generally was not a death god, however; that function went to Thanatos, a relatively minor god.

The combined Pluto has a symbol of a key, which he also shared with Persephone, and a cornucopia - a horn of plenty. The key was also a symbol used in the Eleusinian Mysteries; the initiate was sealed with a golden key, variously described as on the tongue or the lips, indicating the secrecy of the mysteries they had been taught. Keys could also indicate the riches that would come from the earth, both in crops and in underground mines.

In some myths, Hades is the father of the Erinyes, or Furies, also known as the Eumenides (the Kindly Ones). This literal euphemism is an ancient way of not referring to deities by name. The Erinyes were vengeance deities; of course, they also have AD&D analogues. Persephone is said to have had a daughter Melinoë, also identified with the goddess Hecate, who is described in the Orphic hymns as "Now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness," and is said to give men nightmares and drive them mad.

There is obvious gaming material here, even aside from Orcus and the Erinyes showing up. I really love the symbolism of a golden key related to underworld secrets. The key can unlock secrets of the underworld, hidden treasures, or truths of life, death, and immortality. It can also be a common bond among characters who have truly been to the underworld and survived - its secrets may not be passed on lightly to every foolhardy newcomer, but to someone who has the key it is revealed. And of course the form may be either physical - a key or key-shaped artifact, or a symbol, drawing, poem, book or other entity that serves as "the golden key."

I also find the idea of Melinoë tempting. As a granter of nightmares, such a character explains why the PCs can't constantly hole up and camp in "cleared" dungeon rooms. Haunting dreams and potential insanity wait for those unsound enough to sleep in the underworld. Her shifting, elusive character also seems like it would be ideal for monsters, and she is tied in with witches and necromancers, which fits perfectly. If you wanted to use a "Petty Gods" approach where low-level deities were actually present in the game world, Melinoë would be a good fit. The Erinyes are an interesting fix for murderhobo type activity that goes beyond normal cruelty.

Lastly, in spirit the triad of judgmental Hades, generous Pluto, and savage Orcus are a brilliant match for how a dungeon should be designed. It should be serious and otherworldly, but with great riches hidden in secret places, and sudden terrible violence should be a norm. These are very much the gods who direct the underworld of a D&D dungeon.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Appendix N Madness: We Have A Winner!

Of course it's Robert E. Howard. The single strongest contestant in all of Appendix N was the author of "Conan," "Solomon Kane," and dozens of other adventure stories. Jack Vance put up a fight but still trailed Howard by 50 votes at noon on April 1.

I think that running the tournament specifically related to "Appendix N" was what gave Howard the edge. The famous Appendix, of course, is the inspirational material for AD&D - and there is no purer source of the game than those original Conan stories. Conan can be a fighter or a thief, but he is what so many PCs aim to be. Howard's Hyborian Age is the kind of gritty, reference-but-don't-copy kind of place that many D&D adventures are set, and let's be honest: most Neutral PCs pretty much act with Conan style morality.

The Texan was the father of sword & sorcery, and a successful author in several other genres. He was compelling in crafting an adventure tale and had a knack for the kind of vivid prose that pulp fiction thrived on. It was a deep shame that he died when he did; had he lived several more decades he might have created wonders we can only dream of.

I'd like to thank everyone who voted and discussed all the authors in this project. A month is a long time to stick with something, but it was tremendous fun to discuss authors that are very dear to me (and clearly to some other fans). I learned a tremendous amount, and did a lot of reading to catch up; I hope if nothing else this inspires D&D fans to discover some of the tremendous authors out there.

And I'll leave you with the following, from "The Phoenix on the Sword":
What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs—I was a man before I was a king.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Appendix N Madness Final: Howard vs Vance

Appendix N Madness Final: Robert E. Howard vs Jack Vance

Ernie Gygax recently listed his father's absolute favorite authors on the "Sanctum Secorum" podcast. One was Robert E. Howard, whose Conan stories were the pinnacle of fantastic literature. The other was the author of his favorite series of sci-fi adventures, Planet of Adventure: Jack Vance. So it seems altogether fitting that this challenge should end with Vance versus Howard.

Robert E. Howard was the most influential fantasy writer of his time. He created a world so compelling that writers have tried to recapture it for decades; sadly, like lightning in a bottle, it cannot be found again. But in the interim many wondrous vistas have been revealed. Howard's were still absolute, still elemental, in a way that none of his epigones can ever claim to have reached.

Jack Vance was the finest wordsmith of all of Appendix N. Very few fantasists have had the same talent at creating images through their diction and vocabulary; some have tried to imitate this, only to fall on their faces. Vance's unique talent extended to the creation of a world that impresses itself strongly on the brain long after you've forgotten the incidentals.

If Howard wins, it is the triumph of a Conan - the strongest fighter in the mix, winning by pure talent and overwhelming strength. He defeated David C. Smith, John Bellairs, J.R.R. Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft to get here.

If Vance wins, it is the victory of the pen mightier than the sword. A Cugel, getting through by skill and cleverness. He defeated Lin Carter, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, and Poul Anderson to reach the final.

That's my peace. Here are the authors' arguments.
“What great minds lie in the dust,” said Guyal in a low voice. “What gorgeous souls have vanished into the buried ages; what marvellous creatures are lost past the remotest memory … Nevermore will there be the like; now in the last fleeting moments, humanity festers rich as rotten fruit. Rather than master and overpower our world, our highest aim is to cheat it through sorcery.”
- Jack Vance, "Mazirian the Magician," The Dying Earth
“I can resolve your perplexity,’ said Fianosther. ‘Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.’ ‘No need,’ said Cugel. ‘My interest was cursory.”
- Jack Vance, Eyes of the Overworld
“On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Iucounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colors.”
- Jack Vance, Eyes of the Overworld
“It occurs to me that the man and his religion are one and the same thing. The unknown exists. Each man projects on the blankness the shape of his own particular world-view. He endows his creation with his personal volitions and attitudes. The religious man stating his case is in essence explaining himself. When a fanatic is contradicted he feels a threat to his own existence; he reacts violently.”
- Jack Vance, Servants of the Wankh
"Since like subsumes like, the variates and intercongeles create a superpullulation of all areas, qualities and intervals into a chrystorrhoid whorl, eventually exciting the ponentiation of a pro-ubietal chute; the 'creature,' as you called it, pervolved upon itself; in your idiotic malice, you devoured it."
- Jack Vance, Eyes of the Overworld
Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyberborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
- Robert E. Howard, "The Phoenix on the Sword"
Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.
- Robert E. Howard, "The Tower of the Elephant"
The sun sank like a dull-glowing copper ball into a lake of fire. The blue of the sea merged with the blue of the sky, and both turned to soft dark velvet, clustered with stars and the mirrors of stars. Olivia reclined in the bows of the gently rocking boat, in a state dreamy and unreal. She experienced an illusion that she was floating in midair, stars beneath her as well as above. Her silent companion was etched vaguely against the softer darkness. There was no break or falter in the rhythm of his oars; he might have been a fantasmal oarsman, rowing her across the dark lake of Death. But the edge of her fear was dulled, and, lulled by the monotony of motion, she passed into a quiet slumber.
- Robert E. Howard, "Shadows in the Moonlight"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
- Robert E. Howard, "Queen of the Black Coast"
You can vote in the poll here. If there is not a decisive winner (at least 10 votes or 15%) by noon on April 1, I won't call the final vote until midnight.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 30: Anderson vs Vance

Mighty Conan has slain even Great Cthulhu to advance to the final round of Appendix N Madness.

Appendix N Madness Semifinal B: Poul Anderson vs Jack Vance

Poul Anderson defeated Fred Saberhagen, Fredric Brown and Leigh Brackett to climb to the semifinals. Jack Vance had a much harder row to hoe, besting Lin Carter, Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock to top the SAGA / Amra bracket.

Jack Vance was made a Grand Master by the SFWA in 1997. The very next year, 1998, Poul Anderson was the recipient of the same award. Vance's first short story appeared in 1945, "The World-Thinker" in Thrilling Wonder-Stories. Anderson's first, "Tomorrow's Children," in 1947 in Astounding Science Fiction. Anderson died younger than Vance, but both men lived and wrote in similar times and compare well to one another. Both wrote works that were more science fiction and works that were more fantastical.

The similarities are, of course, far from complete. Vance's fantastic writing, particularly, was infinitely more romantic in its tendencies, while Anderson never abandoned rationality. Even Three Hearts and Three Lions is immersed in scientific ideas. The Dying Earth is much more willing to handwave the fact that its magic is, to use Arthur C. Clarke's term, "sufficiently advanced technology."

In the 1963 L. Sprague de Camp anthology Swords and Sorcery, Anderson was one of the eight featured authors. His story "The Valor of Cappen Varra" tells the story of a minstrel who defeats a troll through, well, his own valor. Cappen would later be worked into the Thieves' World shared-world  In the next de Camp anthology, The Spell of Seven, Jack Vance's "Mazirian the Magician" appears. It would later be featured in The Dying Earth.

Anderson was a science fiction writer who was fascinated with mythology. None of the fantasy that I've read fails to have a real-world mythological referent, whether the Matter of France in Three Hearts and Three Lions (Holger Carlsen / Ogier the Dane) or his more frequent stops in Norse myth (The Broken Sword, Hrolf Kraki's Saga, "The Valor of Cappen Varra," etc).

Vance, on the other hand, wrote science fiction that blended seamlessly into fantasy. This is clearest in the Planet of Adventure series, which could have been a weird fantasy work had it not started in a spaceship. His Dying Earth series, undoubtedly his masterwork, took this further: it was a world where science had gone pear-shaped and everything was basically magical. He did write the Lyonesse trilogy that was thoroughly fantastical, and possibly linked to the Dying Earth over millennia.

Of our two authors, Vance was by far the superior wordsmith. It is difficult to over-emphasize the way he uses decadent language and razor-sharp wits to create the Dying Earth - it is simply a central component of the series. Both beauty and horror are evoked in a way that would make most of the other authors in this tournament flushed with jealousy.

The other thing to distinguish Vance is that he has had a few genuine followers among literary authors. Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun takes its cue from Vance's The Dying Earth. Michael Shea had written an authorized Cugel novel, The Quest for Simbilis, before Vance wrote Cugel's Saga. Shea's Nifft the Lean and its sequel The Mines of Behemoth are also in the same vein. And recently Matthew Hughes has been writing high Vancian stories in his Archonate universe; in May his Raffalon anthology will be published and I'll write about it here.

You can vote in the poll here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 29: Lovecraft vs Howard

Jack Vance defeated Michael Moorcock and will advance to the semi-final.

In the Weird vs Fantasy semi-final, the man from Providence faces off against the two-fisted Texan in a battle of the immortals.

Appendix N Madness Semifinal A: H.P. Lovecraft vs. Robert E. Howard

This could have been the final round, if they didn't meet in the semifinals. Lovecraft has overcome Margaret St. Clair, Manly Wade Wellman, and Edgar Rice Burroughs to justify his spot atop the Weird bracket. Robert E. Howard was barely troubled by David C. Smith and John Bellairs, and defeated J.R.R. Tolkien decisively.

Both are titans in Appendix N and their influence and reputation barely have to be justified. They appear of course on the "short list" of Gary Gygax's particular influences, and both of their works have been adapted to D&D as well as inspiring multiple independent RPGs.

Biography links these two authors tightly, even though they never met in person. Lovecraft kept an extensive circle of correspondents, and Howard was a member of this group. They both had major successes in Weird Tales, which Howard was increasingly part of toward the end of his life. And Lovecraft would pass on less than a year after young Howard took his own life, cutting the golden period of the magazine woefully short.

With each of them I'd be hard pressed to pick only one favorite story. I dearly love "The Colour Out of Space" by Lovecraft, and probably would pick "Tower of the Elephant" as a favorite Howard yarn. But any of their works is dripping with inspiration both as fantastic literature and for roleplaying gamers.

Howard's written output, at least in terms of short stories, is several times longer than Lovecraft's. And it is actually worth climbing into; Del Rey did a series of trade paperbacks in recent years that includes not just Conan, but also volumes of Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, El-Borak, and general collections of Howard's historical and horror stories. (Long-time readers of the Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan will recognize some of these stories, although the comics added Conan to them.)

Lovecraft's fiction fits in three modest volumes from Penguin, which I prefer because of the footnotes by S.T. Joshi. They show how closely Lovecraft grounded some of his work in the real world, particularly with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. This is a stark contrast between Lovecraft and Howard: where Lovecraft's work was deeply set in the contemporary world, Howard used his settings as a backdrop to add color to the adventure.

The difference in philosophy strikes me as similar to this comic:

Lovecraft prefers to dwell on the nihilistic elements of scientific materialism. He uses alien horrors to show the irrelevance of human life and endeavor when viewed against a bleak and unknown cosmos. Howard looks at similar horrors, shrugs, and creates Conan, who is going to carve his own meaning into this empty shell of life.

By far the best examples are two famous quotes. Lovecraft's from "The Call of Cthulhu":
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
And Howard's from "Queen of the Black Coast:
He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
(It is a great shame that the real Conan's philosophy, which is quite sophisticated, is forgotten in favor of the quote from the John Milius Conan the Barbarian.)

A piece of the greatness of both Howard and Lovecraft is how accessible they are. You can sit down in an hour or two and read "The Call of Cthulhu" or "Red Nails" and you will have an immediate connection to these authors and their work. Yet they are infinitely rewarding for re-reading; I've sat down and read every single word of "Shadows in the Moonlight" closely, just to get a feel for how Howard built that story, and every three or four sentences throbs with life and creation. And every time I re-read Lovecraft's work (at least the ones from 1926 onward) I find new connections and threads that I hadn't seen before.

This is a battle of the titans.

You can vote in the poll here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 28: Moorcock vs Vance

Poul Anderson triumphed over Leigh Brackett in the Sci-Fi final and advances to the semifinal round, where he will take on the winner of today's match-up.

SAGA/Amra Region Final: Michael Moorcock vs Jack Vance

The second Appendix N book I ever read was Elric of Melniboné. (The first was The Hobbit.) A classmate, the same one who introduced me to Dragonlance and AD&D, loaned me the slim Ace paperback. It was weird, and dangerous, and had chaos gods and demon swords and sex and albinism and all kinds of things that set my sixth-grade imagination afire. It even had horseriding which was normally boring but worked here.

I don't remember exactly when I read The Dying Earth; it was probably about six or seven years later, and I'm certain that I had read it by my sophomore year of college. I remember the cover, a yellow Lancer edition that I had bought second-hand, a shocking yellow with a weird swordsman and a strange creature. It stuck with me, as book covers often do. That picture became entangled in my mind with the word-drunk stories of Vance, infinitely stranger than I had expected, tales of antiheroes in a strangely aged world with a bloated red sun. My father, a Tolkien fan from before I was born, wound up reading Eyes of the Overworld when I had left it lying around at home (during a summer break, as I recall) and found Cugel a rather unheroic figure.

I'm not sure anyone ever got word-drunk reading Moorcock. For that a good series is probably the Corum books, not listed in Appendix N but eminently worth reading, inspired by Moorcock's own discovery of a Cornish-English dictionary, and words like vadhagh and mabden. The multiversal adventures of this strange, haunted hero have some of Moorcock's better prose - although at times one is reminded that Moorcock writes at blinding speed and some of the results are more inspired by others.

Not every Vance book is equally witty and decadent in its prose as The Dying Earth, either; Planet of Adventure, while it's a ton of fun, is written closer to the register of science fiction. But Vance was, of our two writers, the one whose work you can read simply for the joy of the words on paper.

Moorcock builds worlds by speeding between interesting places, often invoking a huge shared multiverse. He will throw his protagonists across gulfs of land and sea, or space and time, to take them to a location that makes a memorable backdrop for adventure. They will be as varied as Melniboné with its cit of Immryr, or the eternal city of Tanelorn, and many in between, but all serve the purposes of his story.

Vance's worlds are built impressionistically; a map of the Dying Earth seems like an absurdity, but it offers up a variety of locales and as often as not itself challenges the protagonists. The planet Tschai is likewise practically a character itself, and the four books are each named after the four weird species living on the planet.

Both Moorcock and Vance are notable for using antiheroes in their fantasy work. The best examples, and the most illustrative, are Elric and Cugel. They are good symbols for the choice between the two authors: Elric is ultraviolent, tragic, gloomy, and has tremendous power but crippling weaknesses. Cugel is thrust into going on quests against his will but principally uses his wits and lack of morals as his weapons. It's not the starkest choice we've faced in this tournament, but it is a real contrast between two of the giants of fantastic literature.

You can vote in the poll here.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 27: Anderson vs Brackett

Robert E. Howard has tread the jeweled thrones of Middle-Earth beneath his sandaled feet and goes on to face H.P. Lovecraft in the semifinal round.

Sci-Fi Region Final: Poul Anderson vs. Leigh Brackett

Our previous region finals were contests between authors whose ideas and philosophies were stark contrasts. This one is between two solid classic sci-fi authors who also did other interesting writing.

According to the story, Leigh Brackett was called up by Howard Hawks to help contribute to the screenplay for The Big Sleep, being called "This Brackett guy." For the English majors in the audience, one of her cowriters was William Faulkner. The other was Jules Furthman; Hawks would call upon Brackett and Furthman again for the John Wayne vehicle Rio Bravo. Robert Altman had her write the screenplay for The Long Goodbye and her final screen work was an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back.

Poul Anderson doesn't have anything so popular or dramatic to his name, but he did take breaks from his sci-fi work to write several classic fantasy novels. He also wrote an essay I've found tantalizing called "Uncleftish Beholding" that describes atomic theory from a hypothetical English purged of French and Latin loanwords. It defines out many words in etymological forms and uses the German-derived terms for them.

I persist in feeling that it's Eric John Stark who gets Leigh Brackett's work in Appendix N. Her work combines post-Amazing Stories type science fiction with the high-adventure planetary fantasy that typified Mars before the 1950s and "little green men." Stark was in a way the opposite of the hyper-rational sci-fi protagonist, a mix of Mowgli and Tarzan in the John Carter role. She earned the title "The Queen of Space Opera" for her work.

Anderson, of course, had his works listed: Three Hearts and Three Lions, The Broken Sword, and The High Crusade. Reading all three is a series of incredible tonal shifts; Three Hearts and Three Lions is a solid adventure but with its nose in the science; The Broken Sword is a thundering Germanic tragedy; and The High Crusade is something of a farce. Anderson's science fiction also does an admirable job of switching tones and registers, even in the space of a single story.

This is a choice between a Grand Master and a Queen; a decision of whether the rationalistic characters of Anderson's stories and his starfaring work compares with the primal hero of Brackett's planetary romance and her incomparable screenwriting work.

You can vote in the poll here.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 26: Howard vs Tolkien

The Weird Region Final was won by H.P. Lovecraft, who will go on to face the winner of today's match-up in the semifinal round.

Fantasy Region Final: Robert E. Howard vs J.R.R. Tolkien

Is there a starker choice in all of fantastic literature than Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien?

Howard was a Texan who wrote short fiction by the ream. While he is remembered mainly for his creation of Conan across eighteen stories published in his lifetime, he published literally hundreds of others. He was prolific in the way that only a writer paid by the word can be, even though Howard never padded his stories. He left dozens of unfinished fragments, and when his work was popularized in the 1960s it created a craze for "Barbarian" fantasy that was of absolutely lower quality than Howard's original.

Tolkien was an Englishman who taught Beowulf at Oxford. He published two major works in his lifetime, as well as a few minor pieces. From his convalescence in a war hospital in 1916 until shortly before his death in 1973, he worked on the legendarium that was published in wholly inadequate form as the Silmarillion and in various drafts as The History of Middle-Earth. This work of over 50 years involved endless re-framing and revisions to the mythology. The Lord of the Rings was, in part, an attempt to use the success of The Hobbit to show a further tale in the same mythology, and also to publish the Silmarillion.

Ace Books manages to be responsible for controversial editions of both Conan and The Lord of the Rings; the former because L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter wrote a good chunk of the material, the latter because they were using a loophole in copyright to publish without paying any royalties to Tolkien and incorporated a great number of typographical errors. Both editions contributed greatly to the popularity of Howard and Tolkien, and of fantasy in general.

It was The Sword of Shannara in 1977 that started a craze for Tolkien imitations in fantasy publishing, and began to close the period of Conan imitations. While I generally reserve critique on these epigones, those imitating Howard did have at least the minor virtue of writing much shorter works.

Middle-Earth and the Hyborian Age bear a striking symmetry. The story of Númenor was a deliberate parallel to the sinking of Atlantis, and set up the Middle-Earth of the Third Age as an immediate pre-historic precursor to the current age of history. The Hyborian Age is explicitly between Atlantis and the coming of the Aryan people into the Indus Valley. Both story cycles, then, are set on Earth in a lost prehistory.

But they are set to opposite effect. Howard's Hyborian Age was an excuse to use various historical periods like the sound stages on a Hollywood backlot, interesting and flavorful backdrops for his stories but with a breezy disregard for historical details and gleeful use of anachronisms. Tolkien's Third Age, on the other hand, is the conclusion of his mythological cycle, chosen precisely for the exact mythic resonances that its elaborate history creates.

Their prose, too, diverges almost completely. Howard's words leap from the page in a vivid gush of color, painting a world that is rough and brutal and immediate, savage in both its joy and destruction. He uses a wide vocabulary because ordinary words fail to create the pictures he is painting. Tolkien's language is almost infinitely patient, describing details and landscapes to root the reader as fully as possible in the world he imagines as clearly as a photograph. For his action scenes he elevates it almost to a mythological pitch, reaching its absolute apex when Éowyn slays the Witch-King of Angmar.

Philosophically there is an utter contrast. Conan has a personal set of morals that is the only thing that matters to him; he has utterly no compunctions about killing or stealing, but he has a strong sense of honor that he will not violate. Tolkien, particularly in the character of Gandalf, strongly enforces Judeo-Christian morality, and even a creature such as Gollum must be spared. Conan would have dispatched him and used the Ring, we can be sure.

(As a brief aside: I find that none of the films of either Howard's stories or Tolkien's, except maybe the Rankin-Bass Hobbit, demonstrates a deep understanding of either author or his work. I understand that there is a wider appreciation of the same, though.)

Writing about the influence of either Howard or Tolkien on D&D is silly. Between the two of them they are the sine qua non of the game; Gary wouldn't have written it if not for Conan, nor would fantasy have had a mass audience without Tolkien.

In short, Howard vs Tolkien is the battle for the soul of fantasy. Is it in Conan or in Frodo?

You can vote in the poll here.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 25: Lovecraft vs Burroughs

Round 2 of Appendix N Madness has ended with the top of the bracket in high style. Round 3 has shaped up as a clash of titans.

Weird Region Final: H.P. Lovecraft vs Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs was a phenomenal success in his lifetime, although the popularity of his stories has waned somewhat. H.P. Lovecraft wasn't; he had some success in Weird Tales magazine, but it took decades for his writing to catch a mass audience. Now it has.

Both Lovecraft and Burroughs looked at our solar system, but what they took away was infinitely different. Burroughs saw in Mars and later Venus places to set some rip-roaring adventures, full of strange civilizations. His Barsoom is a place rife with ruined cities and secretive enclaves, letting him build strange new creatures and customs into each adventure he wrote. It was a place where John Carter, his morality based on a long-past code of honor, could carve out an empire.

When Lovecraft looked up he saw the "black seas of infinity" between the stars.The discovery of Pluto in 1930 was not cause for wonder but a sign related to bizarre cosmic entities, in this case the fungi from Yuggoth. Being transported beyond the cozy confines of modern Earth in Lovecraft is not an adventure but a cause for horror and madness.

Burroughs wrote in a picaresque fashion, adventures fine tuned for pulp magazines. His writing style is adapted to this, using occasional flourishes but focusing on the relentless pace of action. This is the direct opposite of Lovecraft, who wrote with a dense, obscure vocabulary to evoke the strange and unfathomable nature of the beings he had contemplated. His style had been widely derided for some time, but scholars such as S.T. Joshi have rehabilitated it to a significant degree.

Burroughs preceded dozens of authors of sword and planet adventures; there was, after all, a magazine called Planet Stories. Many other Appendix N authors are considered to have written major sword & planet works - Robert E. Howard's Almuric, Leigh Brackett's Mars and Skaith novels, Gardner F. Fox's Llarn novels, Michael Moorcock's Kane of Old Mars, Lin Carter's Callisto novels, Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series, even Manly Wade Wellman's Sojarr of Titan. He had a supposed rivalry with Otis Adelbert Kline, whose Venus stories are among the best known sword & planet rivals to Burroughs. (Kline was Robert E. Howard's agent and put forward Almuric; it has been widely speculated as to whether he had some hand in its writing.)

If Burroughs was imitated in print in his day, it took years for Lovecraft. In his life, he had a close "circle" of authors around him: Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Frank Belknap Long were the "core" authors. We know, of course, that Derleth made a great deal of hay out of this, and while he did yeoman's work in popularizing Lovecraft, he also put out an anthology (The Watcher out of Time) with attribution to Lovecraft that stretches the definition of "collaboration" to the breaking point. CAS, of course, is the author whose omission from Appendix N is most egregious.

D&D purposefully evokes a great deal of Burroughs. Picaresque adventure, strange locales, and bizarre creatures are naturals, even though D&D isn't set on Barsoom. Philosophically it is much further from Lovecraft; it puts forward an optimistic metaphysics that seems incompatible with the nihilistic Cthulhu Mythos, even though they were in the early printings of AD&D. Certainly Lovecraft's monsters can be used as enemies in the game, although this bears with it none of the spirit of his mature stories. Some of his "dream cycle" is ripe for inspiration, although this is not his finest work as literature.

Choosing between Lovecraft and Burroughs is fundamentally a question of what you want in literature. Lovecraft was one of the most original thinkers in horror writing of the 20th century. Burroughs crafted pitch-perfect adventures in thrilling worlds.

You can vote in the poll here.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 24: Moorcock vs de Camp

Day 23 was 75% less exciting than Day 22, with Poul Anderson easily whipping Fredric Brown. Anderson will go up against Leigh Brackett in round 3.

Day 24 is Michael Moorcock versus L. Sprague de Camp.

Michael Moorcock

If only the Hawkmoon and Corum and Jerry Cornelius novels existed to represent Michael Moorcock's fantasy output, he would be well regarded. The Eternal Champion series provides a rich tapestry of ideas, from the thoroughly 60s/70s oddity of Cornelius to the post-apocalyptic Hawkmoon to the rich Celtic overtones of Corum. But, of course, he launched his career with the most enduring of his characters, Elric of Melniboné.

For D&D purposes, the most important thing Moorcock did was to take the Law and Chaos conflict in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions and run with it. D&D proceeded to do likewise, and alignment has shaped its universe in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Elric's runesword of course is copied in the classic module White Plume Mountain, although D&D has never been good at the kind of summoning magic he performs.

The Elric novels are mostly fix-ups, and recent re-releases have included the earlier forms. Moorcock is the sort of author who always has room to tinker with his past creations, and filled out a surprisingly long backstory for his albino sorcerer. But in terms of sword & sorcery anti-heroes, he remains one of the most compelling, his glooms the deepest, his savage bouts with Stormbringer among the best action.

L. Sprague de Camp

If you judged merely by what he did before 1966, L. Sprague de Camp would clearly rate as a significant fantasy author. His collaborations with Fletcher Pratt are among his finest work: the Harold Shea works, Land of Unreason, The Carnelian Cube, and so on. And his anthologies such as Sword and Sorcery and The Spell of Seven were important in defining swords & sorcery as a genre.

But de Camp also edited the 1960s Conan paperbacks. This would seem to be a good thing - after all, they popularized the tales of the Cimmerian and brought Frank Frazetta's iconic art to the character. Had these books not also included original stories by de Camp and his protégé Lin Carter, and had they not rewritten unfinished Howard stories, de Camp's reputation might have been sterling. Instead he is heavily disliked by Howardian purists.

de Camp's work was credited by Gygax as a major inspiration, even if his rationalist streak seems a bit too skeptical for D&D. His Viagens Interplanetarias series was used for GURPS Planet Krishna, and his Harold Shea books are a solid go-to if you want to incorporate elements of myth and classic fantastic literature. He was, deservedly, a Grand Master in his lifetime. But one must decide where they stand on his editing work.

You can vote in the poll here.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 23: Anderson vs Brown

In a tightly fought battle, J.R.R. Tolkien triumphed over Fritz Leiber with 72 votes to 70 votes and will go on to face Robert E. Howard in round 3.

Day 23 takes us back to Sci-Fi for Poul Anderson vs Fredric Brown.

Poul Anderson

The relative handful of fantasy books that Poul Anderson put out all have some science fiction touches to them. The paladin protagonist of Three Hearts and Three Lions is an engineer from Earth who finds himself in a fantastic realm; the scene where Holger tosses a bucket of water down the gullet of a dragon is one of the strangest such fights I can think of. Even the more explicitly fantastical The Broken Sword justifies its elves' allergy to iron in pseudo-scientific terms. In both, you can see Anderson's love of medieval lore (the Matter of France in Three Hearts and Norse myth in Broken Sword) strain against his instincts as a SF writer. In The High Crusade he just goes whole hog and throws medieval Englishmen against aliens.

Gary Gygax stole a bunch of concepts in complete detail from Three Hearts, so its influence is transparent. Michael Moorcock also was explicitly inspired by the fight between Law and Chaos in that novel, so you can blame it for everything from alignment to Arioch. Yet D&D oddly doesn't draw any of the scientific conclusions that Anderson's novel would. Paladins are purely taken at face value, and dragons don't end badly if you use a bucket of water against them. A Sword +3 Flame Tongue isn't made of magnesium, either. The borrowing winds up being shallower than one might think. And while The Broken Sword makes a stronger impression as a novel it leaves much less direct, verifiable evidence in D&D.

Anderson, with Norton, is one of the best SF writers in Appendix N for fans of Traveller. His cycle of the Polesotechnic League and the Terran Empire with merchant-explorer Nicholas van Rijn and space spy Dominic Flandry are terrific. But for D&D purposes, it's really his fantasy output that is worth considering.

Fredric Brown

If there's an author in Appendix N who didn't make an appreciable mark on D&D, Fredric Brown (his name is misspelled in Gary's list) is that author. His finest work was in his short fiction, which tends to be stories heavy on irony and moral lessons. Brown's "Sentry" is the archetype of the story that ends with the reveal that the protagonist is an alien fighting against humans. His "Knock" is entirely structured around the lines: "The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door..."

An enterprising referee could grab the "roller" from Brown's "Arena" or the more famous Gorn from its Star Trek adaptation as a go-to monster (I included a picture of the latter because I don't have any good Fredric Brown inspired art). And Gary Gygax, being the sort who loved puns and jokes, probably got mileage from Martians Go Home for monster inspiration. Brown is a fine short story author but I can't see him making an Appendix N drawn up on any principles other than "Gary Gygax's bookshelf."

You can vote in the poll here.

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.