Monday, December 21, 2015

D&D and the Picaresque (more Appendix N discussion)

I actually remember reading James Maliszewski's D&D and the Picaresque post years ago, although not when it was new, I don't think.  I remember following Grognardia when it was still active, at least (I even had it linked on my blog roll at one time) but it was already a Big Deal™ when I found it, with a lot of backlog to read.  This one I always thought was kind of interesting, and since Jeffro recently brought it back to light, I thought I'd add my uncalled for 2¢.  Let me first quote part of Maliszewski's original post as it relates to pulp and picaresque fiction elements that are (at least according to him, and Jeffro) inherent in the assumptions of D&D:
  • The protagonists are “rogues,” by which I mean outsiders generally of low station (though not necessarily birth) who live on the margins of society.
  • [...] 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).
  • [...] 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."
This is interesting, because, of course, it stands generally in contrast to the notions of the High Fantasy subgenre which has infused much of modern D&D, and which is probably the default assumption of most D&D players.  The OSR guys, of course, are strongly anti-high fantasy as a general rule, and prefer the conventions of sword & sorcery.  Maliszewski even goes so far as to say that the game doesn't work very well if it doesn't assume the same assumptions that Gygax brought and which he himself interpreted, which is actually a bit absurd, and I'll get to that in a moment.  Jeffro was more modest, stating that such was obviously part of the milieu in which Gygax operated, and that the original assumptions were such; without stating that if you didn't get that, you mistakenly assumed that the game was "broken."

How can the game be broken if you don't like, for example, Vancian magic?  It might be because you are a high fantasy fan and want the game to resemble high fantasy, as Maliszewski assumes.  On the other hand, many I've talked to who want magic changed, for instance, to more closely resemble something else that's also on the Appendix N itself!  As a modest example, I've changed magic in my m20 derivative game (which was done even earlier in my d20 derivative game for the same setting) to more closely resemble magic as described (such as it is) in the works of Lovecraft or Howard.  Vancian magic is something extremely specific and peculiar, that bears no resemblance to other fictional works either within or without the pulp milieu.  In fact, with regard to Maliszewski's dot point above on magic; he goes out of his way to bend over backwards and try and reconcile that point with D&D, but it doesn't really work.  That doesn't describe magic in D&D at all, nor the milieu in which D&D is expected to operate.  It does describe magic in several of the pulp story source materials: particularly Howard, Leiber, Lovecraft, and maybe Clark Ashton Smith (a notable "miss" in the Appendix N, but clearly part of the same oeuvre generally) but otherwise, it's a unique bit of D&Diana which comes specifically from Vance, but not from anywhere else.

In other words, D&D fails, or can be perceived as "broken" not just by Johnny-come-more-lately-than-Gygax's-crowd high fantasy fans looking for watered down Tolkien, but really by anyone who wants anything other than the very specific setting assumptions of D&D.  The notion that D&D doesn't have an implied setting, or that it's in any way generic, is laughably false.  You may be able to use D&D to create a wide variety of settings, but the implied setting details mean that there's a much wider variety of settings that you cannot create without house-ruling fundamental core concepts within the rules.  And contrary to Maliszewski's (and others') implication, this really doesn't have anything to do with the generational divide between older sword & sorcery fans and newer (or younger) high fantasy fans.  It's something that exists completely independently of that generational divide.
On a slightly different, but not too much so, topic: Jeffro's posting series on the Appendix N seems to have sparked a renewed interest in blogging about the Appendix from many in the blogosphere, myself included.  One point that Jeffro has made repeatedly, but which still seems to bypass the thought processes of many, is that the Appendix N is not meant to be a generic survey of the fantasy genre as it existed in the early 70s—it's meant to be a specific catalog of works that influenced the design of D&D.  This can be seen in the perennial debates about why such and such work was "missing" from the Appendix, such as the aforementioned Clark Ashton Smith, or more infamously, Ursula Le Guin.

I think perhaps my own history with regards to the genre was that I managed, for whatever reason, to get "indoctrinated" in the out-going generation's work.  Keep in mind that I was born in early 1972 and became a fan of the fantasy genre specifically easily within ten years.  While by then, the early signs of the conditions that would lead to the generation gap Jeffro refers to had been laid, it would yet be a few years before they came to fruition, meaning that I had a chance to become steeped in the older generation of fantasy fiction before it became harder to find.  But this was kinda sorta accidental.  I had no direction, no mentor, nobody to point out works to me and say, "this is what it means to be a fantasy fan."  There was no internet, I didn't go to conventions or join book clubs, or anything else of that nature (both because by personality I'm not much of a joiner, and because I would have been too young anyway.)  The majority of my discovery of the genre came from merely browsing the sci-fi section of my local bookstores and especially my local public library, and voraciously reading anything that looked vaguely interesting.  This continued into junior high a few years later, where I'd bike to a nearby Half-Price Books and do the same thing there; Half-Price Books (and used bookstores in general) tended more to favor older mass market paperbacks, so again, I got more of the stuff that was published in the 60s, 70s, or at most recent, early 80s—the pulp resurgence that happened at that time, mostly.

Not everything that came out in this period was a classic (my own review of the "sword & planet" genre about ten years or so ago unfortunately put that myth to rest; much of what I read simply wasn't really very good.)  But for another take on what the "corpus" of fantasy fiction could have been, to fans of the genre, my own interpretation was heavily influenced by Troubador Press' Tales of Fantasy.  This was published in 1975 completely independently of anything going on in D&D, was meant to be exactly that—a brief take on what the canon was of the fantasy genre.  Not that it was meant to be comprehensive, of course, but it was meant to be an initial survey; a list of the ground-breaking works that established the genre, by and large.  I went on a bit of a lengthy quest myself to find and read pretty much everything listed in this book.  It took a few years for some of the more obscure stuff, but I'd finished it before I graduated high school in 1990.

Troubador Press was a publisher of "artisan coloring books", I guess you could say; oversize, printed on high quality card stock, illustrated with really good, temporally significant counter-culture artists (like Larry Todd, who was an illustrator for indie comics at the time) and accompanied by well-written, not-for-children textual blurbs.  Tales of Fantasy could be seen as the final volume in a three-volume set; the first was famous monsters, the second would have been classic science fiction, and fantasy was the third.  Calling it fantasy in the modern sense may have even been a bit of a misnomer, given that it started  talking about stuff that certainly predates the genre.

Curiously, this whole thing kind of comes full circle, as Troubador Press later published, along with Gary Gygax and Greg Irons, The Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album in 1979.  I got the two of them together, when the former would have been a few years old at the time, but the latter was probably quite new.
Front cover

You can find scans (albeit in very low quality) of the entire Tales of Fantasy book here and here, and I encourage you to look at it yourself and read the text.  It's intriguing what Larry Todd chose to include, and interesting to compare and contrast that with the Appendix N.  To whit:
  • Atlantis—while not referencing a specific work, it talks of course about Plato, Pliny and Ignatius Donnelly.
  • The Odyssey by Homer.
  • The stories of Daedalus, without referencing a specific writer at all.
  • The stories of Siegfried as told in the Völsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied.
  • Merlin the Mage, as described by—among others—Tennyson, Malory and T. H. White.
  • The Sinbad stories from the Thousand and One Nights—which of course highlights the immense importance stories like this (and Vathek) had on the foundational writers of sword & sorcery.
  • "The Jabberwocky" which is reprinted in its entirety, from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.  Carroll was, I take it, highly regarded by the post-hippy drug culture of the 70s, which overlapped to a fair degree with the growing fantasy fan culture (yet another reason why I didn't want a mentor or conventions.)
  • "Descent Into the Maelstrom" by Edgar Allen Poe (a curious choice, since this is one of his less fantastic works. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket would have been a better choice, in my opinion.)
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum.
  • The Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs—very fertile ground indeed; if it hadn't been for this entry in this coloring book, I probably would never really have discovered Burroughs and read most of his vast corpus of work.  This in spite of the fact that Filmation's New Adventures of Flash Gordon and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle had been among my favorite cartoons when I was yet younger, both of which owed such a strong debt to Burroughs that I should have known about him.
  • "Tales of Dreamland"—referring to the entire corpus, but especially The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath of H. P. Lovecraft's Dream Cycle.  Because of this, when I went to look for Lovecraft (who I otherwise wouldn't have heard of) I made sure first to find a volume of his work that included Dream-Quest—because that was the one that I specifically wanted to read, and in spite of everything else that I've discovered since, it remains my favorite of his works.
  • The Lord of the Rings. I was on the cusp of discovering Tolkien anyway—I had friends in 5th grade who were devouring the works of Lloyd Alexander, and they then turned to The Hobbit (as well as the Moldvay and Holmes editions of D&D, which were current at the time)—who influenced me, but after reading those, I rather quickly turned to The Lord of the Rings, which of course I had already heard of because of this coloring book.
  • The Conan stories of Robert E. Howard
  • The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany.
Back cover
It's curious to see that this list is even more truncated than the Appendix N, of course.  And it's missing a lot of stuff that is rightly seen as foundational to the genre by most fans.  Luckily, I had a bunch of friends in middle school who were also fantasy fans and gamers, so they introduced me to, not only Lloyd Alexander as I mentioned above, but also stuff like Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber.  I don't know for sure how they found those works, but it might well have been via that Appendix N itself.  I personally have never owned a copy of the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide, so I never really had a lot of awareness of the Appendix N itself until much later.  But luckily for me, for completely different reasons, I had been drawn to at least some of the same work, at a time when it was still relatively easy to find.

The 60s and 70s prints of Burroughs and Howard, for example (with the Frank Frazetta covers, in many cases) were still readily available.  Tarzan in particular was recently reprinted in those beautiful black mass market paperbacks with the Neal Adams (and Boris Valejo) covers and the Barsoom books with Michael Whelan covers.  Conan was himself undergoing a bit of a Renaissance; not only where his old Frank Frazetta printings still hanging around, but new novels written by the likes of a younger Robert Jordan (and others) were coming out.  Sure, they may have missed the point occasionally of Conan, but the concept is simple: this stuff was easy to find when I was in middle school in the mid to late 80s.  On top of this, other works with similar artwork and a similar sword & sorcery vibe was easy to find; I remember quite a lengthy bit of shelf space at my library devoted to John Norman's Gor series, Robert Adams Horseclans books, or even Andre Norton's Witch World books—all three of which would shortly go out of print and out of circulation, and turn up essentially forgotten today.

Again; perhaps somewhat independently of the Appendix N, although showing a great deal of overlap with it, and eventually even published as a series of essays on Wizards of the Coast's own website (since taken down, sadly); the Classics of Fantasy presents yet another list as written by John Rateliff, which purports to be a "canon" if you will of the fantasy genre that pre-dates the generation gap.  But this post is already long enough; I'll come back to that another time...

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