In the back of the Dungeon Masters Guide for Dungeons & Dragons first edition there are appendices marked with letters. Number 14 is Appendix N. It is a list of fantasy and science-fiction authors along with some notes from Gary Gygax. Gygax’ notes state that the authors and titles in the list were the inspirations for D&D and he recommends them as a source of ideas for D&D gamers. The appendix has been reproduced online to make it more accessible. I heard little about this list for years. Every once in a while it would be mentioned among hardcore D&D fans but most would, oddly, dismiss it as a list of Gygax’ favorite books.
In the middle of last year Jeffro Johnson released Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons (June 2017). I downloaded it as an ebook and was amazed. Each chapter covers an Appendix N author and not only discusses their influence on D&D but also on fantasy fiction. Along the way Jeffro points out how these authors were well-known before the mid 70’s but most have become forgotten (or covered up) in recent years. The fantasy fiction scene has changed between then and now. Many themes and points of view have been pushed out of the picture. Also, the wall between the genres of fantasy and science-fiction used to be much lower. The argument that Appendix N was nothing more than a list of Gary Gygax’ favorite books was forever put to rest.
What does that mean to us? Not only is the book a great read (I highly recommend it) but it opens our eyes to many things about the first roleplaying game. D&D’s odd, idiosycratic rules suddenly have a context in which they fit. We can now see where Gygax and the others from TSR’s early years were trying to take the game. The intentions and notions of play style that Gygax had in mind are now open to us.
I have two reasons to get excited about Appendix N. First, I hadn’t heard of several of the authors and didn’t know why I should read several others. Now I’ve taken the time to read a number of books from the list and I’m really enjoying them. Jeffro’s notes let me identify two authors that I’m certain wouldn’t interest me so I don’t have to waste time.
Second, although a gamemaster can get ideas from any work of fiction the books that helped form D&D are (unsurprisingly) a really rich source of inspiration. What’s more, I’m getting excited about using rules, monsters and other things from D&D books that I never had any interest in before. Disparate elements now look more like parts that fit together.
I’m not the only person over the years who has observed that Dungeons & Dragons sometimes looks like an unstable mixture of elements. Page 22 of Monsters & Treasure (1974) lists robots and androids. The 1980 module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks has characters explore a crashed spaceship. The reason is D&D was a mashup before that term was coined. Gygax took elements from many different books and tossed them into the mix. It isn’t the problem I used to think it was. Gygax assumed that everything would come out right in the wash. That is, each campaign was supposed to be a law unto itself. This means each gamemaster had the job of deciding which stuff from the D&D books would be used and which would be left out. Over the years people working on new editions of the game didn’t properly understand this and felt that everything had to constitute a coherent whole. Now we have game developers and players who do mental gymnastics to explain why outlandish player character races, bizarre monsters and character classes designed for focused campaigns all rub elbows at the local bazaar.
I would be missing an opportunity if I didn’t share the literary inspirations of TSR’s other classic roleplaying game. Gamma World was first released in 1978 and was one of the first science-fiction roleplaying games. Four books helped shape it:
- Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss (1958)
- Hothouse by Brian Aldiss (1961)
- Star Man’s Son by Andre Norton (1952)
- Hiero’s Journey by Sterling E. Lanier (1973)
I read these four and can attest they help a gamemaster get an intuitive feel for how to structure a Gamma World campaign.