Above you will find a passage from The Dungeon Masters Guide, written by Gary Gygax and published in 1979. You will note that Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are on the list. You will also notice a lots of other books and authors, some well known, some not. You will also notice that Tolkien did not make the cut for “The most immediate influences upon AD&D.”
Jeffro Johnson, over at his Space Gaming Blog, has done something amazing and read a large swath of the the books an that list. I’ll leave it to you to go read his reviews and responses and how they fit into the schema of early Dungeons & Dragons. However, I am going to point you directly to his essay on Tolkien’s books and how they did, and did not, influence D&D in the early years–and how all that changed in later years.
I recommend you read the whole thing, but here’s the first card Johnson lays out on the table:
Original D&D is explicitly wide open for adaption to almost any conceivable setting. There is nothing remotely like Tolkien’s Middle Earth that is to be taken as sort of the default background of the game. The projection of a Tolkienesque style certainly overwhelmed the line during the eighties, but the game’s original purchasers were simply not expected to sit down and work out a Forgotten Realms style campaign map loaded with various kingdoms and adventure hooks and demi-human strongholds carefully demarcated more or less in imitation of the maps of Middle Earth. They weren’t going to necessarily create their own fantasy languages as Tolkien did or work out elaborate campaign plots after the fashion of the Dragonlance novels, either.
Because I wanted to run a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game (an OSR game that goes back toward the early roots of the hobby), as well as being inspired by Johnson’s essays, I decided to read some of the authors on the list to see what I might find. And since I’m working on digging into the first three books of Traveller, I began reading the authors that inspired Marc Miller and his creation of Traveller.
My thinking was that there are, in both early Dungeons & Dragons and original Traveller, certain elements that don’t always make sense to a casual reader. But by reading the tales that inspired the designers of the games, these things might become more clear in reading the games and in play.
These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite you to read on and enjoy a “world” where the fantastic is fact and magic really works!
E. Gary Gygax
Dungeons & Dragons
Volume 1: Men & Magic
Here’s a thing:
When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons I had read little of the fiction on the list of Appendix N, and none of the authors that Gygax cites as the primary influence. I had read The Hobbit, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Chronicles of Prydain, and other thoughtful, high fantasy tales. When I say thoughtful I mean stories that took a character and walked his emotional life through a journey that we tracked with care. And by “high fantasy” I mean stories built upon a romantic view of fantasy and its setting. Purposes were noble. Terrors were terrible, but not grotesque.
I also knew the stories of the Arthurian Knights, was fascinated by medieval Europe, and in general had not one single clue about the kinds of fiction that inspired the feel, tone, and logic of Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, when I tried to read the tales of Conan or Elric when I was in high school, they never found purchase in my dreams.
- The tales I read posited a social order that was worth defending. The tales at the heart of Appendix N posited lands of disorder, fallen empires, and barbaric wastes.
- The protagonists of the tales I read had hearts like soft clay, with lessons to learn and adventures to learn them within. The tales of Appendix N were filled with heroes of hearts already burned with experience, hard hearts in men and women, capable of kindness, but already forged.
- In the tales I had read, the emotional journey with the protagonists and their realizations about life formed the core of the tale. In Appendix N what changes most, story to story, are the exotic and unique monsters and settings, while the protagonists remain mostly unchanging in all things but perhaps wealth and station in society.
- The tales I read were generally novels, whereas Appendix N stories are for the most part short stories. This difference is subtle in appearance, but actually a big deal! In first we are following a long journey of a tale that has to begin in one place and builds appropriately over many incidents, shaping story, theme, and character. In the second, we get to reach a series of extraordinary circumstances, encounter exotic and unique characters, monsters, environments… and then finish it. We then head on into the next tale to do it again.
I re-watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy over the Thanksgiving weekend. Let me tell you, it was a weird experience watching that story unfold with the pulp tales I’d recently read echoing around in my head. Because one thing became clear:
Trying to use the rules of Dungeons & Dragons to recreate the feel of The Lord of the Rings is one of the weirdest things anyone could try to do. I mean it make no sense at all.
I’m not saying one couldn’t try to do it. I’m not saying someone might not even pull it off. I’m saying that after reading a lot of weird fantasy stories and putting them up side-by-side with The Lord of the Rings, it’s really clear what kind of fiction was the most heated inspiration for roleplaying games in the ’70s.
James Maliszewski made an insightful post about all this back in 2008. Here’s a pertinent bit:
It’s important to realize that there are common elements that undergird all pulp fantasy stories and it’s these elements that D&D picked up and built a game around. They’re the underlying assumptions that, taken as a whole, (largely) explain why D&D is the way it is and why it has an affinity for certain types of “stories.” As I read pulp fantasy, the assumptions D&D takes from it are the following:
- The protagonists are “rogues,” by which I mean outsiders generally of low station (though not necessarily birth) who live on the margins of society.
- Said society is generally corrupt, or at least venal.
- Consequently, the protagonists generally pursue personal betterment (whether monetary, secret knowledge, position, etc.) rather than more “noble” goals.
- Despite this, the protagonists sometimes achieve noble, or at least broadly beneficial, goals in the course of their pursuit of personal betterment.
- The world is generally humanocentric, with non-humans relegated to the margins, which is why the protagonists often interact with them.
- Magic is (at best) unreliable and (at worst) downright dangerous (if not morally dubious).
I would also add that pulp fantasy stories are generally episodic in nature, with each one being discrete. Likewise, characters and setting elements tend to be strongly archetypal, even clichéd. Both characters and setting may “grow” and change over time, but such things aren’t the point of the stories; they are consequences of them. Thus, pulp fantasies are generally not written to recount the biography of a great man, even though, when taken as a group, many stories may, over time, be read in that way. Of course, there’s no necessity that they will or even can be, as a great many pulp fantasies are “just a bunch of stuff that happens.”
With the exception of the last two entries in my bulleted list, there’s a strong affinity between the pulp fantasy story and the picaresque, which is probably no accident. The picaresque is a clear antecedent of “adventure stories” of all sorts and many pulp writers latched on to the Picaro archetype as an ideal vehicle for telling lurid, sensationalistic tales set in far-away lands. I contend that it’s here that we find the thematic core of D&D and that the game was written on the assumption that most characters would come from this mold. I see, for example, few alternative explanations for why characters improve in D&D through the accumulation of wealth.
My feeling is that one’s level of dissatisfaction with D&D is closely related to one’s dissatisfaction with picaresque stories. If your preference is for something more “epic” than a bunch of rogues — possibly with hearts of gold — on the make, then you’re likely to see D&D as lacking in some way. And many gamers have from the very beginning.
Eventually, whether by nature or nurture I can’t say, the vast majority of fantasy gamers wanted something more out of fantasy than Picaro in a wizard’s hat, which is why we saw the growth and popularity of things like Dragonlance and many of the myriad campaign settings TSR published during the 2e era. But I contend that, in most cases, D&D is simply a poor fit for these settings, because its thematic core evokes the picaresque rather than the epic. To do the latter, one must change D&D in various ways — and so its publishers have, either by modifying it on a campaign-by-campaign basis (as was commoner in the past) or by modifying it permanently (as has been done in recent years).
For years I was one of those people who had a “dissatisfaction with picaresque stories.” And for this reason, as Maliszewski properly guesses, I saw “D&D as lacking in some way.”
Unexpectedly, as I dig into (and enjoy immensely) the Lamentations of the Flame Princess game I’m running for my friends, I’m really coming to enjoy the pulp tales. I’m no longer dissatisfied with them, and really loving the rules for doing what they’re doing.
And what do they do? What do these rules create if the yarn is not epic, if the tale created through play is not about the struggles of the human heart?
This blog post over at Methods & Madness addresses what is the focus of play if the tale told (and, specifically, found) through play is not about the protagonist’s transformation:
Now, look at the appendix N again and I think you’ll agree with me: most of the main characters in the Appendix N (and specially in the “most influential” list) are often uninteresting when compared to their surroundings. In fact, Type A, “Shakespearean” characters are the exception and not the rule. Badass characters are common, but often shallow and “picaresque” in most aspects. “Disposable” characters are obviously not special by themselves.
Yes, many of these characters are awesome, but we don’t care much about their inner thoughts and feelings, or even about their backgrounds (what they did before their adventures), that are often reduced to a few sentences or paragraphs. How much did Howard write about Conan’s issues with their parents, for example?
Instead, we want to see the strange lands these characters explore and the bizarre monsters they encounter. Even when Fafhrd (a barbarian somewhat reminiscent of Conan) becomes an ascetic and gives up drinking and women, there is little character development, and he ends up quite unchanged. Elric has a few great moments, I’ll admit, and even Conan has to face some philosophical dilemmas (“The Phoenix on the Sword”), but the focus is still on their surroundings most of the times – or at least this is what Gygax used when building D&D.
In this kind of play, as a Referee I am encouraged to come up with unique and novel monsters. Unique and novel situations. Unique and novel problems. Unique and novel opportunities.
By turn, the Players are encouraged to come up with unique and novel solutions and actions to all that is set before them.
In other words, the point of this play is to create that which has not been seen before. To create the unexpected. To invent. To reveal who the Player Characters are by how they go about being themselves in outlandish situations and their own outsized actions and choices.
In other words, play of this kind encourages invention.
Instead of the characters facing off against goblins and orcs again and again, due to history, culture, and ancient conflicts (as the Fellowship does in the Tolkien Trilogy), Conan in one story meets a particular creature, in the next story meets a particular priest with a particular power in this story, in the next story meets a particular sorcerer with a particular familiar, and so on…
The Referee, then, inspired by the fiction listed in Appendix N, is encouraged to come up with his own unique monsters, enemies, problems, and so on. The Players will come up with their own unique solutions to the problems at hand. And in doing so, they will be inventive in turn.
The point of the reading material, then, is not to “recreate” any particular kind of story. It is as an example for you to be inventive and create your own material.
Here is a segment of an interview from White Dwarf Magazine, Issue #23. The article is from 1981.
I want to point out that the core books Miller references are similar in tone and structure to the books of Gygax’s Appendix N, which follow the patterns of the picaresque tale mentioned above.
We didn’t define picaresque earlier, but here it is now:
According to the traditional view of Thrall and Hibbard (first published in 1936), seven qualities distinguish the picaresque novel or narrative form, all or some of which may be employed for effect by the author. (1) A picaresque narrative is usually written in first person as an autobiographical account. (2) The main character is often of low character or social class. He or she gets by with wit and rarely deigns to hold a job. (3) There is no plot. The story is told in a series of loosely connected adventures or episodes. (4) There is little if any character development in the main character. Once a picaro, always a picaro. His or her circumstances may change but they rarely result in a change of heart. (5) The picaro’s story is told with a plainness of language or realism. (6) Satire might sometimes be a prominent element. (7) The behavior of a picaresque hero or heroine stops just short of criminality. Carefree or immoral rascality positions the picaresque hero as a sympathetic outsider, untouched by the false rules of society.
If I may, the above quote sounds like a perfect summation of the Player Characters and the general form of several sessions of play of game of Classic Traveller if one is using Books 1-3 out of the box. (Even if a Player ends up with a noble as Player Character, one must ask, “Why is the noble out in the middle of nowhere engaged in such outlandish exploits with these other riffraff?”)
And if one reads the fiction that inspired the 1977 edition of Traveller, one can find a certain kind of fiction, a certain kind of protagonist that is not at all like the tales and characters found in Dune or Star Wars.
Moreover, look to the points above:
In most of the fiction Miller mentions above, the characters move from one exotic world to the next. The rules of each world are fresh each time,the challenges challenges of each world are fresh each time. The beasts are fresh each time. The Science Fiction inspired puzzles are fresh each time. The protagonists travel from world to world facing off against unique and exotic environments again and again. In doing so they must come up with unique and exotic solutions, with bold and unexpected actions.
It is my thesis that this kind of storytelling is at the core of the kind of stories that created early RPGs.
The point of all this?
It is not to say people should play with D&D and Traveller only one way or another way.
Nor is it to trap these games in some sort of nostalgia bubble. (A strange accusation flung at people who enjoy digging into the game from the early days of the hobby to find out what pleasures can be mined from them.)
Instead, the purpose of these thoughts is three-fold:
First, to acknowledge that some rules do some things well, and do not do other things well. And that what Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller do is help emulate fiction of a certain type. And a lot of people don’t know that fiction. (I certainly didn’t until recently!)
Second, once one acknowledges the first point, all sorts of things become easy when playing the games when you are aware of the source fiction. Things that seem weird or make no sense in terms of “logic” or “reality” can quickly fall into place.
For example, the Traveller Main World creation system is often criticized for not being “realistic” in terms of its astrophysics and for the random nature of the worlds which rarely produce “logical” worlds that humans would settle. In other words, the lack of “realism” is seen as a bug in the design. Many people have spent a lot of time rebuilding the system to be “realistic”–to reflect astrophysics and to make the choice of human habitats for settlements more reasonable.
But the Main World generation system is not supposed to be a scientifically accurate or reasonable. It is there to create strange, exotic, and unexpected worlds, like those found in the tales that inspired Marc Miller.
Here’s an example of the kind of world that might be created to justify a randomly rolled world from Book 3. It is from Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1957)
BETWEEN MARS AND JUPITER is spread the broad belt of the asteroids. Of the thousands, known and unknown, most unique to the Freak Century was the Sargasso Asteroid, a tiny planet manufactured of natural rock and wreckage salvaged by its inhabitants in the course of two hundred years.
They were savages, the only savages of the twenty-fourth century; descendants of a research team of scientists that had been lost and marooned in the asteroid belt two centuries before when their ship had failed. By the time their descendants were rediscovered they had built up a world and a culture of their own, and preferred to remain in space, salvaging and spoiling, and practicing a barbaric travesty of the scientific method they remembered from their forebears. They called themselves The Scientific People. The world promptly forgot them.
You might think that this ranges from the ridiculous to perhaps over-the-top.
Yes. You would be right. And that would be the point. The point is to create a collection of about 40 worlds in a subsector ranging from rather rational to the ridiculous. In this way, the Referee is invited to participate in acts of invention and the Players, trapped in such inventions, are invited to invent extraordinary means of dealing with extraordinary problems.
Now, where on the dial between the rational and the ridiculous the Referee wants to set his dial is his business. My only point is that worlds in the unique and specific range of the one described above were the meat-and-potatoes of the SF writing that Miller drew from for Traveller.
And this means there’s nothing “broken” about the Main World generation system. It is doing exactly what it is designed to do.
Third, the fact is that all the inspirational material for both OD&D and Traveller, respectively, is contradictory and the tales cannot be cobbled together into some sort of cohesive whole. Thus, there was no “setting” to speak of for either game (a point both Gygax and Miller made in interviews again and again over the years).
The point was not to “recreate” and setting or story, but for the Referee to be inspired by the acts of invention of the Authors of the books at hand and do the same with the settings they created.
The fact that the RPG publishers short-circuited this strategy by creating their own specific and nailed down setting doesn’t change that that this is how the games were supposed to be played.
Do you need to concern yourself with these three points? No.
Does understanding them open up doors to “getting” the rules right away, and creating adventures and scenarios that use the rules as written rather than working against them? Yes.
Finally, while I was writing this post, Jeffro Johnson completed another post on this topic.
The authors of Appendix N had a far greater impact on the design of D&D than they get credit for. The scope of Andre Norton’s influence even spilled over into Tunnels & Trolls, Gamma World and Traveller, but the debt that gaming owes her is largely unrecognized. Far from gaining an appreciation for the roots of the hobby, a lot of people coming at the old games after the seventies and the early eighties instead saw something that looked to them as being outright broken. And by 1990 or so, a new generation unfamiliar with the old pulp stories would have largely been unable to appreciate the fact that the older games could allow you to play virtually anythingfrom the classic works of fantasy and science fiction.
It wasn’t just that rpg creators had a large incentive to develop sprawling self-contained settings and supplements hard wired to support them. The transition from pulp and new wave fantasy to the pink slime of the eighties meant that not only had peoples’ expectations regarding world building changed, but expectation regarding things like characterization and plot diverged as well. An entirely new genre called “fantasy” emerged practically overnight blotting out the old canon on the basis of sheer volume as much as anything else.
The fact is, the style of those bloated and interminable fantasy epics is unlike anything that the first generation of role-playing game designers would have had in mind when they sat down to guide players on their first adventures at the tabletop. Consequently, if you’ve struggled with running the old games, chances are part of it is due to a mismatch between your genre expectations and the assumptions the designers were making. Just as one example, people coming to Traveller expecting the science fiction to be more or less like what they saw in Star Wars and Star Trek movies were necessarily going to face an uphill struggle. The novice Gamma World referee that had never read Andre Norton or Sterling Lanier is liable to be downright lost. The fact that these games often seem so inscrutable and unplayable to the uninitiated is because they are not in fact standalone games. They are supplements to the entire canon of classic fantasy and science fiction that came before them!
Have you seen the “DM of the Rings” comic? It’s a highly-entertaining take on LotR interpreted as a tabletop game.
I have. I loved it.
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