aking place these days on Tor.com, writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode consider the results of the various summoning monster spells, as described in the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide's Appendix M…
Actually, Tim and Mordicai are making their way through the inspirational and educational reading list as given in Appendix N. In their series, Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons, they "take a look at Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons& Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today."
We spoke with Tim and Mordicai about the origins of the series, and the takeaways so far.
To start with, what prompted your series: Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons? Was it more from the game-playing side of things, to look back at that era of sword-and-sorcery fiction, or some alloy of the two?
Tim Callahan: It started back in the late spring of 2012, after I found myself really getting back into Gygaxian lore -- and I was dabbling back into some older editions, specifically the Gary Gygax-penned AD&D books, which were, along with the Tom Moldvay basic set, my ur-texts in roleplaying back in 4th and 5th grade.
So I ended up rereading all of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide in preparation for an Old School one-shot I was going to run for some friends, and when I reached Appendix N I realized how few of those books I had actually read. Dungeons & Dragons had been a major part of my life -- off and on -- for 30 years, and yet I’d barely read any of the authors who had so deeply influenced Gary Gygax in the creation of the game. I joked on Twitter about wanting to read all the Appendix N books, even though I didn’t have time to do anything of the sort, and Mordicai, my colleague at Tor.com, saw my post, and I’ll let him take it from here...
Mordicai Knode: Is that how it happened? We’ve been doing it for a while now, so I’m a little “we’ve always been at war with Eurasia!” about it.
Tim: Yeah, it was your idea to do it as Tor.com posts. Then we turned it into a team-up!
Mordicai: The best team up. Sorry, Superman and Batman! Or at least equal to The World’s Finest. I get to be the Superman, you can be the Batman. That’s cool, right?
Tim Callahan: Batman always wins, so that’s cool with me. I mean, Superman’s fine, but Batman…
Mordicai: I think, like Tim, I was going through an “Old School” renaissance when we came up with the idea; I had recently started playing in an AD&D game -- playing! A rare treat for me, since I usually run the game – and I’m always interested in going back into the nooks and crannies of science fiction & fantasy that I missed. There is just so much of it, that unless you make it your whole raison d'être (an admirable task) it is almost inevitable that you end up with these big swiss cheese holes in the “canon.” The fact that Mister Gygax left a roadmap of how to fill in those gaps made it seem like the obvious way to go about plugging some of them.
Can I ask about your own experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons, past and present. You both play D&D—what specific campaigns or editions are you currently playing, and how did you get your start in the hobby?
Tim Callahan: I grew up in a town of about 3,000 people in western Massachusetts and in 4th grade my life changed forever when a new kid moved to town, coming from the big city (of a whopping 50,000 people) with talk of some game where you could kill monsters and get treasure. I couldn’t understand how it worked, based on his description, but it sounded amazing. And my elementary school was filled with ex-hippy teachers who included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as major elements of the curriculum (which I didn’t realize was unusual until I met other people who grew up where they had to read books about mill children and Pacific Islands and frontiersmen in the early grades -- nope, we read about the Dawn Treader and Bilbo Baggins). So I was primed for the D&D experience. And when my new-to-town friend busted out Keep on the Borderlands during indoor recess one day, I was hooked.
I bought whatever I could find that said D&D and AD&D -- which I assumed were related, but the latter was a lot harder to figure out -- and we played for about a year or two, infrequently, before everyone else lost interest.
I never lost interest. My interest just went into hiding, bubbling to the surface again in middle school, then again in college -- with some excursions, temporarily, into other roleplaying games -- and then again after my own kids were old enough to start playing. It’s been a lot of gaming ever since. I run a couple games every week now -- either on G+ Hangouts or face-to-face with my two kids and their friends or in the after-school program where I work -- using 1st Edition AD&D rules or OGL games (like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea), and I play in a bi-weekly Rolemaster game that uses 2nd Edition AD&D rules and the Rolemaster magic system and combat charts. My ranger has only lost one appendage so far, but it was reattached via some magic herbalism, don’t worry.
Mordicai: I grew up in one of the countless homes in America gripped by the moral panic around Dungeons & Dragons, complete with parents convinced that pretending to be an elf was somehow a secret backdoor for a conspiracy of Satanists to destroy capitalism, or whatever. So there was the allure of the forbidden at first, but really it was inevitable; I was the kid obsessed with fantasy novels and board games, so ending up a gamer was more or less a foregone conclusion. It was the D&D Red Box and the Palladium game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness that got me in the end, when I was around ten or eleven, and after that we were off to the races.
I vacillate between wanting to be the “weirdo” and wanting to be the player who helps anchor the stories, so in a more freeform campaign I might play the gnome wild mage on a secret away mission from his Spelljammer, but in one of the more meticulously researched campaigns I’ll generally try to plug into the existing hierarchies and organizations of the setting. My classic trick is to combine two otherwise normal things into a new kind of paradigm; like I’ll play the monk whose order is Manichean and has both a “good” and an “evil” god, or a character from an established nation but from a sort of unexplored area of it, like a wood elf from the Bone Orchards of Barovia. Which was my last character; we played The Temple of Elemental Evil and I played an elf thief from Ravenloft named Curulókë who stole the title of Queen of Slimes and Fungi from Zuggtmoy before, in an amazing conclusion, Zuggtmoy herself was killed by a roll of a natural 100 from a rod of wonder.
I like playing orcs, goblins and tieflings; that is my meat and drink. After that, my second tier races are little guys, your halflings and gnomes. Classes... I like crazy-quilt multiclass characters, I guess. I am the guy who decides to level up based on what his character did the most in-between levels, so if my paladin/warlock is making packs and dealing with creepy fairytale spirits, I’ll level in warlock, but if he’s painting the dungeon walls red, I expect I’ll level in paladin. Psions, thieves, spontaneous casters, and anything with elegant class mechanics, that is my speed. Settings? Easy. Planescape and Spelljammer, hands down.
My own campaign -- a world of fairy tales, space elevators, witchcraft, alien god-things and alchemy that replaces orcs with Neanderthals and elves with Homo superior, was originally a d20 campaign; one of those 3rd Edition games that used so many various house rules (generic classes, spell points, armor as DR, the list goes on) that it was a living testament to the OGL. I switched to using the World of Darkness’ Storyteller System a while back, though, since it had gone so deep into the Weird Fantasy genre that it became almost a Dark Fantasy game. I’ve since gone through and added a whole host of house rules to that, so I guess I’m a tinkerer when it comes to mechanics but really, the world-building is the thing.
When it comes to the works and authors of Appendix N, were these largely re-reads for you, or were you coming to them for the first time (putting in your dues, as I believe you mention at one point)?
Tim Callahan: As I mentioned, Tolkien was literally part of my formal education when I was a child, so I had read his stuff before, but other than a sampling of Robert E. Howard and the tiniest bit of Lovecraft, the authors in Appendix N were new to me. Sure, I had heard of many of them, but by the time I hit high school, I started to become weirdly-snobby about my reading habits. And though I’d read comic books, when it came to prose fiction, I stuck mostly to “literary works” and majored in English Literature in college, where I would be disinclined to read trashy genre fiction of the sort that Appendix N revels in. These days, I’d much rather read Jack Vance or Fritz Leiber or Lin Carter than the tepid works of realism that I thought were so important a couple of decades ago. I have reverse-snobbery now. “Why waste your time with Richard Ford or John Cheever and suburban malaise? You could be reading about barbarians in giant flying birds fighting necromancers, you know!”
Mordicai Knode: Totally a mix, for me, though I wasn’t an English major (I studied forensics and anthropology) so I missed the canon of non-"genre" English literature, too. Some of the books are old favorites -- things you’d expect, like Lovecraft, Howard and above all Tolkien -- and some are books that I read later in life, like Leiber, Vance and Zelazny. That means that there is still a pretty wide swath of the books that I hadn’t read, especially the less famous. For my part, I read a lot of boring non-fiction, but predominantly I read books with wizards or spaceships in them. I don’t like the term “genre” when put in contrast to “literary.” Personally, I feel like a lot of what people call “literary” could just as easily be called the genre of “drama.”
Tim Callahan: Yeah, I don’t even know how any of those terms have any real meaning anymore, though they are still used, and people kind of know what you mean when you use them. Let’s just say that when I went to college, you could study sci-fi and fantasy novels as a form, but not for any particular insight into any art-of-fiction-within-the-works-themselves. I think that’s narrow-minded, ultimately. Though it’s pretty obvious that L. Sprague de Camp is a terrible writer by any standard. (I couldn’t resist one more shot at the guy who helped make The Carnelian Cube a thing that we forced ourselves to read!)
You've also clearly done your background check on the game's development, citing original campaigns and their players; what sources did you rely on? Is there a definitive backstory to the game that you'd recommend, or has that yet to be written (and if so, what burning secrets would you hope to have addressed)?
Tim Callahan: I think I’ve read pretty much everything Gary Gygax has ever written, not just with his game books and Dragon magazine articles, but his Role-Playing Mastery and Master of the Game volumes, along with every interview I could find, every page of his lengthy Q&A on the Dragonsfoot forums, and even... well, okay, not everything. I haven’t read his Gord the Rogue books yet. And I’ve also read many of the things Tim Kask and Frank Mentzer and Rob Kuntz have written about online, and those guys have been particularly enlightening about the development of Dungeons & Dragons. Plus, Shannon Applecline’s Designers & Dragons is full of interesting stuff, though what I resent about that book is that every page features information that compels me to rush to Amazon Marketplace and see what kind of used game books are available, from pretty much every roleplaying game system. That book makes shopping into an addiction, for me at least. And then there’s the “Roll for Initiative” podcast, which is, by now, hundreds of hours of AD&D insight. Great for listening to on my commute to work, or when I’m sitting on the couch, or staring off into space, thinking of what I need to do to stock up the next dungeon.
Mordicai: I wish I had an easy answer to this... I guess my answer is just being immersed in the hobby, in Dragon and Dungeon magazines, in geek culture in general. Well, and lots and lots of Wikipedia. My primary resource is my own experience and my secondary resource is going “wait, I remember hearing about something…?” and then looking it up online. That being said, I have both Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World and David M. Ewalt's Of Dice & Men on my short list to read.
Gary Gygax writes that the "most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp and Pratt, REH [Howard], Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, and A. Merritt." What from you've encountered so far, would you agree with this self-assessment?
Mordicai: I’m a little bit biased here, since I haven’t liked anything of de Camp’s or Pratt’s, but I think I have to say that Fafhrd and Gray Mouser really are the definitive “D&D fiction.” They just feel the most dungeon ready, they are the most easily described as adventurers. Vance certainly has a huge pull on Dungeons & Dragons, especially as it gets more “high fantasy.” Wizards, particularly, owe him an infinite debt. Robert E. Howard’s barbarian is the quintessential barbarian, and he adds tone to the mix, a certain heroic je ne sais quoi, but he is so solitary, most of the time, that he makes a hard case. Those three are huge, but frankly it is a little silly not to have J.R.R. Tolkien’s name in the mix there.
Tim Callahan: Because I came from a Tolkien-first background, and I think a lot of fantasy authors during my lifetime also came from that kind of background (and overloaded bookstore shelves with twice-xeroxed Tolkienisms), even if they didn’t have the luxury of being taught The Fellowship of the Ring in reading class, I can’t help but think of the default backdrop of D&D as being something akin to Middle Earth. I know that’s not exactly true, and Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk was more of a setting that mashed politics and pseudo-history into madcap underworld antics -- I mean, Dungeonland is the antithesis of Tolkienesque fantasy -- but the synthesis of myth and legend and literature and adventure-fantasy that is The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings overshadows any one work by the other authors. So while Gygax’s own games, as played, may have been more crazy anything-goes sword & sorcery, I think Dungeons & Dragons, as played by the multitudes, orbited Tolkien maybe more than it should have. It was just the common touchstone for so many players that I don’t think it could have been helped.
Many of the other Appendix N authors seem like weird outliers because the Tolkien influence has remained so strong. I like the weird outliers more, of course, as do many folks who have gone back to Appendix N and added the strangeness and the not-typical-high-fantasy touches to their games. In the games I tend to run, the characters are all humans and there are no orcs or halflings or anything of the sort. Instead, they find themselves terrorized by sub-human monstrosities from the deep caves and feral pygmy-men. They might be the same stats as orcs and halflings, but the flavor makes all the difference. I don’t think most players want to give up the Tolkienesque flavor and the grandeur that accompanies it, and I understand that completely.
Mordicai: I think something that D&D has helped people do is to create stories where all of the different influences are layers. Tolkien’s world-building, his elven forests, dwarven mountains, human plains and hobbit shires exists on one level, but then on a smaller level, Leiber’s Lankhmar would work perfectly as a city within it, and Norton’s futuristic ruins would work just as well the next town over, while Vancian starfarer wizards would exist beyond it, and Amber’s multiverse exist even above that. I’m all about having my cake and eating it, too.
With the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide published in 1979, do you feel there are any notable omissions from that era in Appendix N?
Mordicai Knode: Oh, a great one is The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rücker Eddison, which is sort of “the” book that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, or so the story goes. Sort of like when J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion, instead of being about elves it was about John Carter of Mars. That is a backwards way of putting it, since it predates and inspires the other two, but it is an interesting mix of floral courtly prose mixed with planetary romance. It has bar none the best manticore fight I’ve ever read, one of my favorite fights, period. The good guys are the lords of Demonland, the bad guys are the lords of Witchland, and the story gives equal time to the both of them. Fantastic stuff.
Tim Callahan: The big name everyone mentions is Clark Ashton Smith, but I know Gygax never read any of his stuff until after D&D had already been released, so it’s not a surprising omission. It wasn’t an influence, even if it seems like it should have been.
Mordicai: Oh yeah, CAS, but then, honestly -- while I adore some Clark Ashton Smith -- if you’ve got Howard and Lovecraft on your list you’ve kind of already nodded in that direction. And Vance; I always think of Smith as being a cross-bridge between Lovecraft and Vance.
Tim Callahan: I came to Smith late -- as I did 95% of the Appendix N authors -- but Smith is so similar to D&D as I’ve experienced it that it’s eerie. I feel like I have played in Smith’s world already, even though I’d never read a single one of his stories before this year, and even though I’ve only ever heard of his name in conjunction with not-in-Appendix-N-but-probably-should-be.
For me, Smith is less of a bridge between Lovecraft and Vance, though I can see how he plays that role, than he is an America writer who seems to have grown up on Jorge Luis Borges and Dungeons & Dragons. But that’s impossible. He wrote his stories before Borges was translated into English and way before D&D ever existed. He’s a precognitive poet, traveling paradoxically through space and time.
Mordicai: That is also a personal quirk of mine; I am always quick to describe something by mashing up two other things, even if the timeline doesn’t make sense. I’m being descriptive, not prescriptive, more than anything. Heck, I would even say Frankenstein is like an Olde Timey Michael Crichton “science has gone too far, oh the hubris!” novel. Sometimes I think it results in an interesting viewpoint, but just as often it can be reductive. I do the same thing in my campaign, actually: sometimes I’ll brainstorm a culture by putting together two unusual ideas, “druidic ancient Egyptians” or “nautical Mongolian hordes.” I think I learned it from Tolkien’s “Vikings with horses.”
While these writers influenced the early game, how might you say that D&D has gone on to influence a later generation of writers? Are there writers or works you theorize have been impacted by their time around the gaming table?
Tim Callahan: I can’t imagine George R. R. Martin writing any of his fiction without his gaming experiences. His Wild Cards books started as spin-offs of his Superhero 2044 game, if I remember correctly, and I’m sure he’s talked about the world-building of his fantasy roleplaying games contributing to what would later become the Game of Thrones stuff.
And then there’s someone like Dan Harmon who has not only thrust D&D into his fictional (and non-fictional) worlds, but seems like someone deeply influenced by the gaming structures of collaborative storytelling, DM fiats, world-building, and the randomness of chance. And, of course, the heroic quest. He’s talked about that a lot, and, in my experience, it’s the gamers who go back and read Joseph Campbell when they hit a certain age, and Harmon has made no bones about his incorporation of Campbell’s structuralism into everything he writes.
I’d also like to cite Bill Willingham here, as someone who has gone on to great fame (well, my wife is an enormous fan, and if she knows who you are, then you must be pretty famous) as the creator of the comic book series Fables. We, as D&D players from the old days, remember Bill Willingham as an artist, but he’s also been a lifelong gamer, and his experiences running role-playing games have surely shaped the mythology and overall plot structure of Fables. The whole thing is like an elaborate role-playing game setting, and it’s a pretty spectacular piece of work. Without D&D, would Willingham’s imagination sparked the way it did? I can’t imagine it.
Mordicai: I always like to play “spot which author is a gamer” when I read fantasy, and I feel like more often than not, the answer is “probably.” I mean, the obvious one that leaps out is China Miéville, who not only runs a very “post-D&D” world, but even has those hilarious adventurers in Perdido Street Station, where everyone is like “watch out for those sociopaths, they’ll do anything, no matter how crazy or how bloody, for money.” I think we’ve all probably played in that campaign. “Suicide mission to the Tomb of Horrors? How much does it pay?”
There are a lot of other people who you can see went through the crucible of gaming. David Petersen’s Mouse Guard comics are so gaming related that they spun off a game about it. Felix Gilman is someone I suspect has a big fondness for Planescape. Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont went so far as to bring their campaign setting to life in the Malazan series. Dungeons & Dragons is a cultural institution; the usual places are swarming with its disciples, and I don’t even blink anymore when people like Stephen Colbert or Vin Diesel publically talk about being fans. Of course they are. It is the best hobby, if I do say so myself.
If the appendix were written today, what books might you add (if not directing the game's outright development, then encouraging an old school sword-and-sorcery atmospherics for players)?
Mordicai: Gene Wolfe is immediately the first name that springs to mind, though I confess that Gene Wolfe’s name frequently springs to mind. Still, his Book of the New Sun is like, a grimmer version of Vance’s Dying Earth, and comes complete with really trippy labyrinths and the original mercurial greatsword. Creepy guilds, alien monsters, giants and cannibals, the works. Tim mentioned Borges; Wolfe brings Borges and Vance together and then runs with it.
Dune, there is another one; you’ve all read it, and maybe you don’t like as much science fiction in your fantasy as I do (“you got chocolate in my peanut butter!”) but the Fremen, the various noble houses, the braces of defense -- I mean, force fields -- the strange landscape and setting defining monsters... you could do worse than ripping of Dune for your next campaign. Or you know, running Dark Sun, which is way more complicated than just being a Dune knock-off but is still a place where you could ride a giant worm into battle against an oppressive noble caste.
If Three Hearts, Three Lions invented the paladin, and Conan invented the barbarian, and Vance invented the wizard and Aragorn invented the ranger, than I think everyone should probably read Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind, which should become the template for the bard, going forward. Game of Thrones is a great example of a sandbox campaign turning into a glorious bloodbath because Ned’s player wouldn’t violate his alignment restrictions. Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series is a good example of a “smart fighter” in an anachronistic world. Which brings me to the fact that there are plenty of non-literary sources of inspiration, with Order of the Stick obviously springing to mind... but I think comics would need to be Appendix O, then movies would have to be Appendix P, and television would be Appendix Q… and we’d be at this all day.
Tim Callahan: This is a tough question for me, and not just because I’ve mostly avoided fantasy fiction all my life, but because I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to include an appendix of strictly prose novels in the 21st century. The first iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, from OD&D up to 2nd Edition, I would say, were games in which players explored literary worlds. And here I’m using the word “literary” a bit differently than I did before, to mean “something based on a book.” By the late 1980s and certainly over the last couple of decades, cinematic depictions of fantasy worlds became increasingly important at defining the genre. And then video games gained prominence. So a 2013 Appendix N would have to include some books, some movies, some television shows, some comic books, and some video games to have any kind of accuracy. That’s what whirls together to shape our conceptions of fantasy worlds.
But if I sit back and think about what I would want to see -- tonally -- in a sword & sorcery game, I’d want one influenced by Jack Kirby Asgard and Fourth World comics, Brandon Graham’s Prophet, Brotherhood of the Wolf, directed by Christophe Gans, Lin Carter’s Ganelon Silvermane books, China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels, Wai-Keung Lau’s The Storm Riders, and Ben Marra’s Space Barbarians of the Ultimate Future Dimensions. A game influenced by all those things would be the greatest game ever created by humanity. That’s a game I’d want to play. I should probably step away from this interview and start work on it immediately!
Mordicai: Everyone should read Jack Kirby, for everything, always.
While you're still in the midst of covering Appendix N, are there any overall thoughts about the books covered so far? You've identified some common tropes, whether with the worst offenses of misogyny or a heavy use of A Connecticut Yankee-style time/world travel… but are there other common elements from these books that compose this era of sword and sorcery? Has the genre completely moved away from this style, as it (hopefully) has moved on from its worst offenses?
Tim Callahan: First of all, I'm glad to have read all the books I did, even if I'll avoid rereading some of those authors for the rest of my life. I've definitely found some new favorites among the Lin Carters and the Jack Vances, and I'd say some of the most common tropes revolve around the exploration of the unknown. Either the characters are thrust into a strange world or the world in which they live operates by strange physical laws. That's not at all surprising, but it's notable that most of the Appendix N novels are not quest stories. That's something I didn't expect, given that most fantasy novels I have read seem to fall into typical quest patterns. But not the Appendix N books. Not most of them, at least. Folks on those stories were just trying to survive or escape or explore or experiment. The heroism tended toward the less-than-epic.
I don't know how much of that kind of storytelling lives on in prose fantasy. I haven't seen much of it, but we also don't see a lot of slim volumes of fantasy faction in the sword & sorcery mold, not on the drugstore spinner rack, which is where that stuff used to live. And it's unlikely that a Hollywood movie is going to go gritty with its fantasy, when teenage audiences and first-weekend grosses are the target.
Honestly, other than some of my suggestions for a new Appendix N for today, Old School fantasy probably lives on in SyFy originals and Asylum productions and similarly-schlocky straight-to-streaming imports. But that stuff isn't much fun to sit through, so that leaves us with the game. The game's the thing.
Mordicai: It is a little disheartening that everyone fixates on our discussions of problematic race and gender stuff. Yeah, we are going to end up talking about it, because it is there, and we are talking about it. It isn’t some sneaky censorship plan, and it doesn’t mean we hate (for instance) Robert E. Howard, just that we are mindful and think critically about things we like. And things we don’t like, for that matter. The point is to have a discussion, isn’t it? And it is a discussion we have to have; playing ostrich isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.
I think there are plenty of places to get your sword & sorcery fix, besides new media solutions like Skyrim or Game of Thrones on HBO. I’ve been really digging Dave Gross’ Pathfinder Tales novels, and those are... slightly influenced by Dungeons & Dragons, from what I understand, but they are also fun modern take on the subgenre. I mentioned Eddie LaCrosse before; that is another great example of “fun pulp fantasy.” That being said, it would be incredibly remiss not to include all of the different media that fantasy has spread into. We should have an Appendix O, P, Q, et cetera. It is even more interesting now then it was when Gygax wrote Appendix N, because it has become a feedback loop -- Dungeons & Dragons influences fantasy, and then fantasy influences Dungeons & Dragons, and the system just gets more layers and more complex. It is a really great time to be a geek.
Tim Callahan works as a full-time educator and a part-time-writer-about-comics-and-games. His first book, Grant Morrison: The Early Years, is now in its 3rd edition, and he writes regularly for Comic Book Resources and Tor.com. He has been a Dungeon Master far longer than he’s done any of those other things.
Mordicai Knode works in publishing, and blogs for Tor.com. He thinks he’s too much of a soft-touch as a DM, but then his players remind him of limbs lost, heartplugs installed, curses given, sanities shattered and incurable diseases bestowed, and he feels a little better.