Tuesday, 7 April 2020

The Implied Appendix N

I expect most of the people reading this blog know what Appendix N is. It has tended in my experience of reading blogs, forums and so on to have been reduced to a kind of canonical list of influences on Gygax when he was creating AD&D 1st edition. Gygax obviously never intended it to be that way, and in his own framing of his list, his love for those authors and works was built on a foundation formed from the stories his father told him as a child, comic books, movies, fairy tales, and books of mythology and bestiaries.

In other words, the Appendix N 'canon' has to be understood as floating on a great sea of fantastically-oriented cultural products with its far shore in the very ancient past, and which probably informs D&D just as much if not more than its purportedly direct influences.

I think of this as the 'implied Appendix N' - the vast ocean of stuff from which the Appendix N books, and hence the many implied settings of D&D, emerge, like clumsy early quadraped things from a Devonian vista. What I mean to say is: Gygax had his direct and explicitly-acknowledged inspirations, but those inspirations were part of a milieu of gargantuan scope and which had great implicit influence on what D&D came to be.

One of the fields of literature which I think undoubtedly influenced Gygax (and Arneson and the rest, of course), probably more than he knew, was that swathe of belle epoque SF and 'boy's own' adventure stories that in my head begins with Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and ends somewhere around the publication of The Hobbit (1937). This was a truly astonishing era, responsible for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912), Sir H Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), HG Wells' The Time Machine (1895), perhaps even Machen's "The White People" (1904), and many, many other bona fide classics with which you will undoubtedly be familiar; what interests me about so many of these books is that, as well as being great things in their own right, they also sort of comprise the building blocks of what D&D is all about.

You have adventuring in search of treasure (Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines); you have dungeon exploration (King Solomon's Mines again, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Pellucidar' books); you have wilderness exploration leading to exotic weirdness (The Lost World, The Land That Time Forgot); evil humanoids living below the earth (The Time Machine); sinister cults and black magic ("The White People", The Great God Pan, The King in Yellow); and most of all you have daring and derring-do performed by atomised individuals, usually 'men without pasts', who, lacking families or relationships or geographic ties, seem to appear just like D&D PCs, from the ether, to pursue their goals.

Many of these novels read like they could be mid-period TSR adventure modules, the only difference being that they tend to be plotted around one protagonist rather than a group of PCs. The classic example of this in my mind is HG Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau; you could practically run the novel as a mini-campaign of three or so sessions if you didn't mind a bit of railroading. The PCs are shipwrecked on a mysterious island owned by an eccentric wizard who has some odd-looking servants, and go from there. And many of the great novels of that era are of the same ilk.

What TSR-era D&D and the novels of that era also share in common is an innocent sort of optimistic, diet/caffeine-free machismo: TSR D&D PCs, like Wells or Verne or Doyle protagonists, are active and energetic sorts who believe in action and making the best of things - that where there's a will there's a way, and that to a certain extent one makes one's own luck in life. They get on with it. There is something appealing and refreshing (in an era of sensitive and moody anti-heroes) about that willingness to just get up and go off on an adventure which I see write large on the fiction of those days and the 'vibe' of D&D in its formative stages.

3 comments:

  1. Couldn't agree more - Appendix N seems more branch rather than root; its Runequest equivalent - also Appendix N - had more in the way of 'roots' with Snorri and Malory. But the intermediate stuff that you identify - the trunk, if you like - is really important.

    I'd add Dracula to the list as a pre-Tolkien example of the adventuring (or at least villain-thwarting) party with complementary skills.

    But on your point about heroes: isn't there a sense in which Conan and John Carter are the end of the road for the optimistic hero of a lot of Victorian and Edwardian fiction, because they exaggerate that outlook (and its already exaggerated two-fisted pulp incarnation) to such an extreme degree.

    Decades later, Moorcock playfully inverts the trope in Stormbringer, et al. But since then, a lot of derivative fantasy fiction has been struggling under what might call the 'baleful influence of Elric'. And it's baleful in that it dilutes the trope to an absurd extent. Elric can be sympathetic, but he's often monstrously cruel and murderous (with varying degrees of culpability). In short, he's a real *anti-hero* - a bit like Poul Anderson's Skafloc, one of his immediate antecedents.

    What's pervaded a lot of derivative fantasy fiction since then is a kind of 'anti-hero-lite' - where the moodiness of Skafloc and Elric is combined with a dull sort of common-or-garden heroism.

    From what I've seen of the TV series, The Witcher embodies this. The titular character's backstory seems to involve being blanked by first the distressed damsel he's rescued; Elric's backstory involves brooding on his throne as innocents are tortured for his entertainment.

    So all those 'sensitive and moody anti-heroes' are awful not only because they're dull and derivative, but because they're not even anti-heroes in the first place. They're essentially teenagers in cosplay!

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    1. Yeah, that's been a theme for a long time. There does seem to be a strong backlash in random against "whiny" protagonists but authors keep on giving us them anyway.

      They're especially a problem when their moodiness causes them to be passive to the extent that they only do anything interesting when goaded into it.

      I don't need nice protagonists but I need proactive ones. Take Cugel for example, towering asshole, but at least he did shit.

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  2. I think you are right on the mark with these observations. Treasure Island and the Time Machine are there! (My family occasionally does read-alouds together and we recently read those two, and I was thinking then about the D&D versions of hidden treasures and Morlocks.)

    I think it's odd how some gamers have turned Appendix N into a biblical canon.

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