Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Browsing the used book store

Yesterday I had a few minutes to stop by a used book store that I pass on my daily commute.  It's been literally several years since I'd been in there; and several years since I'd browsed any such venue at all, for that matter.  With Amazon, of course, it's pretty easy to get what you want in terms of used books, but by the same token, it's easy to forget the joy of browsing the shelves and not having anything in particular that you're looking for.  This was like browsing the shelves at the old Half-Price Books when I was a kid, or even the shelves of the sci-fi section of my local public library in the 80s—back before it was only full of bland, fairly modern mush.

I did, however, actually go in looking for a few things—or at least wondering if I could find them—but I didn't, and so I ended up simply browsing.  Sadly, I only had a few minutes to spare, so I couldn't do as good a job as I'd have liked, but I did what I could.

After locating the sci-fi section (and being surprised that it was actually split between fantasy and sci-fi, although of course for some works, it's hard to decide where they "should" belong, so I had to look at them both anyway) I looked for some Leiber.  I have the first two books, Swords and Deviltry and Swords Against Death "omnibussed" together into Ill Met in Lankhmar and published by White Wolf in the mid-90s.  I was hoping to find the next one, since it's actually kind of overpriced and generally just not as available as one would think on Amazon.  I also looked briefly for Leigh Brackett and Edgar Rice Burroughs, just to see what (if anything) they had. I was also hoping against hope to find volume 4 of the James Silke Horned Helmet series—I actually picked up the first three volumes here years ago, and now (finally) I'm reading through them again.  I never finished the entire series when it was newish.  I found very little of what I was looking for (they did have some ERB, but I'll get to that in a moment) but of course, I found much that I wasn't looking for.

If you've never experienced the joy of discovering some forgotten classic on the shelves of a musty old library or used book shoppe, then you're really missing one of the great joys in life.  And I use the word classic somewhat loosely, of course.  If they were truly classic, they probably wouldn't be forgotten, but there is a lot of really good material that doesn't quite make the cut as classic, and it's a shame that it's little-read and hard to find anymore when that happens.

I ended up walking out with Sworn in Steel, the second novel of the Kin by Douglas Hulick—sadly, I don't own the first, although I have read it and its readily available at my local public library.  So is the second one, by the way, but because my reading is often sporadic, I prefer to buy and then read leisurely and at my own pace anything that I really want to make sure that I read anymore.  I also walked out with two entries in the Thieves World series—five and six, if I recall—that I stumbled upon kind of randomly.  I actually bought another entry in the series at this same store years ago (I think it was even the first one, although I'm not sure that I remember that correctly anymore. Sure would be awkward if it turns out it's either 5 or 6!)  General consensus and my own memory of the series was that it started out strong, but weakened rather quickly, so I'm not sure that volumes 5 and 6 were really the best ones to pick up, but meh.  It only cost me a few bucks.  Eight bucks in fact for all three books, which is still much more than I used to spend at used book stores, but then again, the cost of books generally has about doubled from what I paid as a teenager.

Books that I came close to buying, but ended up putting back on the shelf include the following:

  • The Eternal Savage by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I'd never read this one, and it sounded interesting.  A woman, traveling in Africa to meet with Tarzan for some reason, instead comes across some kind of temporal displacement.  A cave-man comes into our time and fights lions and black African savages and whatnot (I suspect) before both of them are drawn back to the Stone Age.  I later discovered that this was originally titled Nu of the Niocene, then retitled The Eternal Lover before being retitled yet again (presumably so it doesn't sound like a romance novel.)  Curiously, the girl is posited to be the sister of the protagonist of The Mad King, a Ruritanian romance written by Burroughs which I have read (although not recently) and the two were written together in tandem, and published serially in Argosy kind of as a set.  Anyway, I didn't get this one, but it is available on Project Gutenberg, so I might get it as an ebook instead.  As an aside, I've picked up a bunch of public domain ebooks recently—including many by ERB—which I haven't added to my reading list.  I should probably get on that...
  • A few books by Elizabeth Boyer.  Curiously, I was thinking about her (or her books, rather) just a few days ago. I remember clearly reading her books from the library when I was younger, and enjoying them quite a bit, but I couldn't remember her name or the name of any of her books—just that she was near the front of the alphabet, and that the books featured a setting that was basically mythical Scandinavia.  It was a real find to stumble across two or three of her books at the used book store, and rediscover who she was.  I'll probably eventually go back for these, and if they're as good as I remember them being when I was 13-14 or so, then maybe I'll look up more of what she wrote.  On her Fantastic Fiction biographical blurb, it says she went to BYU, by the way, where she studied English Lit and Scandinavian mythology.  Given her age, if she went to BYU, she was almost certainly LDS (that's actually still true today, but would have been even more true in the 30s).  And given the heavy preponderance of English and Danish settlers who make up the traditional Western Utah/Idaho/northern Arizona/Southern California population of LDS members, she may well have had very recent Scandinavian roots herself.
  • Although I have The Book of Three and The High King in an old trade paperback printing (with weird cover art that kinda sorta resembles an old tapestry) I found those two plus The Black Cauldron in a very small, pocket-sized mass market paperback edition.  Missing were volumes three and four—but I almost got them anyway, because I remember distinctly liking these three volumes the best, and volumes 3 and 4 can be skipped if you read the summaries of them on Wikipedia, or in my case, just try and remember what happened.  My copies are literally falling apart.  This mass market paperback edition must have been published near to the release of the Disney movie, since the copy of The Black Cauldron features cover art that looks like the movie poster.
  • A couple of Fighting Fantasy Game Books—although in this case, the series title was a misnomer, since these were two of the black-covered non-fantasy books.  The only one of these that I still own (and I had to re-buy it from Amazon a few years ago) was City of Thieves, one of the first two that I originally owned, and if I'd seen the other of the first two I originally owned (Forest of Doom) or maybe some of the other older fantasy versions, I would have bought it in a heartbeat.  As it was, I picked up and seriously thought about the two that they did have—one was either Rebel Planet or Space Assassin (I can't remember which) a space opera, and one was Freeway Fighter, a kind of Mad Max or Car Wars post apocalyptic story.
I'd love to go back when I really have the proper time to browse—man, did I really love the browsing! But it's also curious how browsing leads me to search for things that I didn't find.  I might well go look for some of the old Fighting Fantasy Game Books again.  I might well look for more Thieves World anthologies.  I might well get the three Alexander books and then buy the missing two on Amazon.  And I might well finally pull the trigger on some other Amazon purchases that I've been meaning to do but haven't yet—the last James Silke novel, some more Leigh Brackett, some more Fritz Leiber.

But most of all, I'm delighting to kind of rediscover, to some extent, how much I enjoy discovering new books.  How much I enjoy reading, even if I don't always have as much time anymore to do it as I'd like, how much I enjoy old skool sword & sorcery—how much fun all of this always was to me, and why I always liked it so much from the get-go!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sword & Sorcery, a critique of the definition

I'm a bit of a stickler for using labels correctly, so I've often been a bit miffed at folks who use the label sword & sorcery in a loose and inaccurate way.  Sword & sorcery is a specific sub-genre of fantasy, and it has some very specific tropes and conventions that make it sword & sorcery and not some other form of fantasy, such as high fantasy, or contemporary fantasy, etc.

For my money, the Wikipedia entry on sword & sorcery is pretty good (Wikipedia tends to do pop culture fairly well in general) but not perfect.  So, here's my own take on what the genre means, serving in particular as a kind of critique of the Wikipedia article.  My interest in posting this about the genre is largely due to the fact that I've been re-reading some of it lately, and Jeffro's Appendix N series of articles have also brought it out again to the forefront of my conscious, and sent me on a further search of other discussions about the genre.

For many years, although I had read and enjoyed a lot of sword & sorcery, I was really more a fan of high fantasy—a legacy of my love of Tolkien, of course.  Like many fantasy fans, even if I'm much more widely read than Tolkien and Tolkien-clones, it's hard to get out of the shadow of the master.

Sword & sorcery, especially among the D&D playing crowd (and especially among the OSR contingent of the D&D playing crowd) is usually contrasted with high fantasy, but that's not entirely accurate.  Lloyd Alexander coined the term high fantasy and when he did so, he made the point that it meant the presence of a "secondary world" as the setting, as opposed to the "primary" or real world, but just with magical and/or supernatural elements added to it.  If this is the case, than iconic sword & sorcery stories, like Conan (the Hyborian Age qualifies as an entirely fictional world in my book), Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and Elric—among others—qualify as high fantasy.  Since high fantasy has evolved to pick up more than what Alexander originally defined it as, then I think we can certainly say that sword & sorcery is not a subset of high fantasy, but in some ways is an opposite corner of the foundation of the fantasy genre overall.

Sword & sorcery as a label is credited to Fritz Leiber, one of the authors of some of the most iconic stories within the genre, in 1961 where in fanzine Ancalagon and later again in fanzine Amra he described where the term came from.  the term deliberately mimics the genre labels of cloak and sword (historical swashbuckling adventure) and cloak and dagger (international espionage) and almost certainly also mimics the genre label sword & sandal (which was popular in cinema at the time).

Immediate sources (which brought traits that are inherent to the genre) include the picaresque stories, which James Maliszewski noted in a post I linked to last time, as exemplified by the anonymously published Lazarillo de Tormes or Guzmán de Alfarache.  This includes a kind of incipient noir-like bent; charming roguish protagonists, decadent urban wretched hives of scum & villainy as a setting, and a kind of worldly, individual-stakes type story at the heart of it—bildungsroman type stories, or save the world epics aren't really very appropriate.  Very similar historical swashbuckling romances, like that written by Dumas, Sabatini, Kipling, Mundy, Lamb, or even Robert E. Howard himself also feature strongly into the origin of the genre; it's fair to say that Howard created the Hyborian Age largely because he wanted the freedom to tell the kinds of swashbuckling heroic historical adventure stories that he was already writing without the constraints of putting it in an actual historical time and place gave him; in fact, he very specifically said as much.

Other fantastic stories of the time, such as Haggard or Burroughs' descriptions of an exotic and fantastic Africa as explored by Allan Quatermain or Tarzan are also influential; the notion of being an outsider exploring a society that—to the readers, and even to some extent to the protagonist(s)—is strange and exotic is crucial to the genre.  As Eric Diaz noted not too long ago, you can almost say that the entire point of a sword & sorcery story is to explore the setting; sometimes even at the expense of an interesting protagonist, but certainly at the expense of a protagonist who undergoes any type of real transformation.  The stories are less about the person and more about what he does.

A heavy dash of Orientalism (before Said ruined the term by applying the absolutely ridiculous critical theory and deconstructionism techniques to it to basically call it racist—the last salvo of the non-intellectual narcissist looking to ruin anyone and everyone happier than himself) is usually apparent.  The Arabian Nights-like stories, and their imitators such as Beckford's Vathek are hugely important; from here we get not only more of the picaresque setting, but also such staples as the monsters and other supernatural elements in the wilderness, the shady, untrustworthy sorcerers lurking on the outskirts of society.  Note the contrast between the Arabian Nights and Vathek inspired magicians and the more high fantasy style, which owes much to Merlin, official adviser to King Arthur, and Gandalf, a benevolent and friendly wizard.  In sword & sorcery, there's very rarely a friendly wizard, and even if there is, he's weird, inhuman, inscrutable, and his motives are untrustworthy (for great examples here, see Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face from the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories.)  This evolved somewhat over time, so that some sword & sorcery heroes, such as Elric and Kane are accomplished sorcerers.  However, I will point out that the whole point of the Elric stories was that it was stereotype reversal—Elric was meant to deconstruct sword & sorcery to some degree by being the anti-Conan counter-stereotype, and as such, doesn't really deviate so much from the form as reaffirm it.  And Kane was specifically called, by his author, as "not a sword and sorcery hero; he is a gothic hero-villain from the tradition of the Gothic novels of the 18th and early 19th centuries".

It's worth noting that while the supernatural horrors outside of society is a strong feature of the genre, as borrowed from the Arabian Nights type story, in its original form (i.e., as told in stories written by Howard, Smith and the first wave of sword & sorcery writers who invented the genre) these horrors are specifically Lovecraftian monsters, not Gothic horror type monsters.

My own label, SWORD & SANITY, which I borrowed from Shane Magnus who coined it, is meant to reiterate this very basic, original form of the genre; it's secondary world fantasy, told with a sword & sorcery style, and Lovecraftian horrors.  This is only necessary because as other writers dipped their toes in the water, the Lovecraftian horror became very watered down, and few subsequent writers continued to develop it.

Finally, it's worth noting that although the high fantasy mode is novels—often series of very long novels, in fact—the original mode of sword & sorcery was the short story or at most the novella.  This isn't necessarily true; James Silke's Horned Helmet series, for example, is a series of four novels that is quintessentially sword & sorcery, not high fantasy.  The list of examples given in Wikipedia is fairly useless; many of the works cited are not really sword & sorcery at all, but rather represent SJW entryists who came to the genre seeking to remake it rather than exemplify it.  I mean, really—Samuel Delaney?  Imaro is an important figure in the genre; the stories that for years and years and years nobody could really sell (a condition which persists, by the way)?  The article then goes on about other banalities, like women characters and women writers—stuff that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the genre, and is only of interest to purveyors of agitprop.  It does, however as a footnote, make note of the fact that by substituting super-science for supernatural, as in planetary romance or sword and planet, you get material that looks exactly like sword & sorcery, yet which doesn't qualify, because arbitrarily it is binned to science fiction instead of fantasy, but the article does, almost inadvertently, make the point here that the Weird Tales tradition from which all of these sprang did not make much of those distinctions; those are the constructs of those who came later.  And since the "science" of such science fiction is more often pseudo-science, the difference becomes even more esoteric and arbitrary.

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...

Friday, December 18, 2015

My spoiler free Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

So, I saw the movie last night.  Technically, it opens today, but there were lots of shows last night.  Let me say first off, that I was "concerned" about the movie.  Part of this, of course, is that the prequels were all mediocre movies... and that's being charitable to call them even that good.  The problems had to do with sloppy, careless plotting, stilted, unconvincing dialogue, really bad pacing and bad acting with characters that were unlikable and had no chemistry with each other—and all, if not most, of those problems could be laid squarely at the feet of George Lucas himself.  Who, of course, was not going to be involved in any significant way with the new movie.  But still; the legacy of that kind of failure is still enough to be concerned about.  It's not like even the older movies were flawless, although at least they were quite fun.  Most of the time.

The previews also made me nervous, due to the obvious possibility of the SJW Convergence Theory.  What in the world happened to all of the white men who starred in the original Star Wars movies (as would be expected in a movie made in America?)  Was this going to be Diversity™ Star Wars?  This fear was exacerbated tremendously when I read Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy's blatant SJW entryism, as quoted here:
They are really, really making a huge effort across the company to put more focus around casting women and putting women in positions of responsibility, with directing and various other positions inside, different lines of business in the company. It’s not just about casting female protagonists. It’s gotta be across the board throughout the industry. I think Hasbro, who’s making toys for a while, they were perhaps a little reluctant to move too quickly with something that’s been such a successful boys line. I think they’re recognizing that selling to girls is just as effective as selling to boys. More and more the lines are being blurred as to deciding ahead of time that some things are for boys and some things are for girls. I think that’s a big part of the conversation. It’s all of these areas that are contributing to change really happening. Over the last several years that I’ve been in the business it seems to me that this has been a topic of conversation every few years. Then everybody thinks it’s a trend or that it’s a significant change. And then it doesn’t really move the needle. I think that’s — hopefully— what’s going to begin to happen now. It’s going to be real change. And not just perceived change.
This had the potential to be very bad.  This is Sad Puppies all over again, except writ very, very large on a cultural phenomena.  This is The Lone Ranger all over again; a movie that failed mostly because it couldn't stop continuously insulting its own primary target audience.  Kathleen Kennedy is more worried about being "inclusive" to women than in creating a quality product.  As Vox Day puts it in SJW's Always Lie, this is the social justice convergence in action.  To whit:
The public schools can no longer educate, so people are turning to homeschooling. The universities can no longer provide liberal arts educations, so people are becoming technology-assisted autodidacts. The banks no longer loan, the state and local governments no longer provide basic public services, the military does not defend the borders, the newspapers no longer provide news, the television networks no longer entertain, and the corporations are increasingly unable to provide employment. 
Even as the institutions have been invaded and coopted in the interests of social justice, they have been rendered unable to fulfill their primary functions. This is the great internal contradiction that the SJWs will never be able to positively resolve, just as the Soviet communists were never able to resolve the contradiction of socialist calculation that brought down their economy and their empire 69 years after Ludwig von Mises first pointed it out. One might call it the Impossibility of Social Justice Convergence; no man can serve two masters and no institution can effectively serve two different functions. The more an institution converges towards the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice, the less it is able to perform its primary function.
This was a very worrisome development for Star Wars.  And it couldn't have come at a worse time, with the CEO of Sam's Club in the news for openly admitting that she discriminates against white men, and her boss, the President and CEO of Walmart Stores, Inc. doubling down and backing her up in the news literally this week; the Diversity™ Star Wars which has gotten rid of all white men that it could, except when casting them as villains?

Luckily, however... Kathleen Kennedy had enough sense not to mess with talented people.  And the talented people, who lack some sense, didn't let it keep them from writing, casting, directing and otherwise making an enjoyable movie.  The new Star Wars is quite good.  Very good, in fact.  I'll be seeing it again at least once more this holiday season, probably twice more, and it now became only the third "must buy" Blu-ray released in 2015 (the second Avengers movie and Jurassic World were the other two.  Yes, I already have them.)

To address the specific problems with the prequels and how this compared:

  • The plot was relatively tight.  It left plenty of questions unresolved, but that gave the movie more of a cliffhanger like feeling rather than a, "wow, the writers are really, really sloppy and maybe even kind of retarded" feeling, like we had in the prequels.  There weren't any weird open loops (that weren't obviously deliberately left open for subsequent movies in the series), there weren't any truly gaping plot holes, there weren't any "wait, what in the world is happening, and why?" moments.  On further reflection and viewing, will I find some holes?  No doubt.  Star Wars is and always was the visual representation of pulp fiction.  But it was a competently structured plot.  The same was not true of the prequels, at all.  About the only one I can really think of after watching it once, late at night, was that Finn's defection (which was obvious from the trailers, so I'm confident that I'm not spoiling anything significant here) seemed more like a just-so story that had to happen almost immediately, so we really have no idea why he came to that conclusion.
  • The dialogue and chemistry between the characters wasn't quite as infectious as between Han, Leia and Luke, but it was pretty well done.  The characters are likable characters, and they talk and behave like real people.  They're even funny, quite often, although not in an overtly comedy type fashion.  My wife commented on the chemistry specifically between Rey and Finn; the characters played by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, the two leads.  I actually didn't necessarily get a sense of romantic interest chemistry between them, though—they kind of came across to me a bit more like a buddy movie relationship, or at least the beginnings of one.  Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, maybe.  They were too unevenly built to be credible romantic interests: Rey was bizarrely hyper competent and successful at pretty much everything that she did, while Finn was more the comic relief—despite his on the surface more serious background.  To be fair, if I hadn't been a bit red-pilled by now, I might not really have been able to put my finger on this, though.  It would have left me with a vague sense of cognitive dissonance that I couldn't quite figure out.
  • The movie was exciting and paced quite well.  Stuff was always happening.  It wasn't always action, but it wasn't ever really much in the way of boring, talking heads exposition.  This was probably the single biggest killer of the prequels—although that's not meant to diminish the impact of numerous other fatal flaws.
  • The prequels were generally completely ignored.  I can't really recall anything that specifically referenced something from the prequels, and it didn't really feel anything like the prequels.  In fact, remember watching Jurassic World earlier this year?  It was as much an homage and a remake of Jurassic Park as it was a sequel to it, and it also made basically no reference to JP2 or 3.  This has that same feel.  There are many beats in the script, the overall structure of it, and even numerous specific scenes that almost feel like a remake and update to Star Wars as it does another movie simply set in the same setting.  (As an aside, when I was a kid, and the movie came out, that's what it was called.  There was none of this Episode IV: A New Hope business; it was simply called Star Wars without any subtitles at all, and that carried forward beyond the release of The Empire Strikes Back (it was about a year later that the Episode IV and A New Hope stuff was added.) Since I'm a rather crotchety, opinionated and stubborn old fart, I tend to refuse to use the subtitles and just call the movie by its original title.)
  • As an aside, it didn't introduce anything at all that would invalidate my "1,000 years after Jedi RPG setting" either, which was a bonus.  Then again, it didn't really give me anything new to use, either, like the Knights of the Old Republic games did.

A few Contest of Champions updates

I've picked up a bunch of new 2-stars, for a variety of reasons.  Most of them, I'm not sure that I want to keep.  I'm also thinking that the expense of leveling up a lot of 2-stars is getting to be prohibitive, and their utility is getting to be relatively low, other than in the 2-star 3x3 competition that I'm in (which, if I do well enough, will give me a 3-star Rocket Raccoon here in the next few days.  So I want to keep at it, but I don't want to keep getting more 2-stars.

I'm kinda thinking that I want to keep it down to 3 2-stars per class.  Any more than that is too many.  I have one class for which I'm still one short of that—the Tech class.  There, I only have Iron Man and Star-Lord.  I have two classes for which I'm at the right number right now; Skill and Science, with heroes in Skill being Punisher, Black Panther and Black Widow, and heroes in Science being Yellowjacket, Ant-Man and Rhino.

And in three classes, I have four 2-star heroes, meaning that I need to do some pruning.  For Cosmic, I have Superior Iron Man, Ronan, Black Bolt and Thor.  Three of those I literally just got in the last day or two and haven't even spent anything on them yet.  Ronan I've actually got twice, so rather than getting two of him, I've had him unlock some special ability.  That means he probably makes the cut.  Superior Iron Man is leveled way up, so I don't want to can him.  Thor or Black Bolt?  I need to decide.

For Mutants, I've actually had four for a little while: Cyclops, Deadpool, Wolverine and Storm.  One needs to go.  Too bad; I've spent money on all of them.  But I can't let sunk costs deter me at this point.  I've got too many of them.  Cyclops may be the one I get rid of, just because I like him the least.  Too bad; he's probably my most advanced, although all four are roughly at parity.  That said; when I sell an upgraded hero, I get more for him than if I sell a fresh off the lot non-customized 2-star.  Either Cyclops or Storm, though.

And I'm in the same boat for Mystic heroes, although Scarlet Witch is easily my least favorite; I kinda like my Juggernaut and Unstoppable Colossus well enough, and between Scarlet Witch and Iron Fist, it's an easy decision to make.

So Black Bolt and Cyclops or Storm (probably Cyclops) and Scarlet Witch all need to go to make room (and cash) for upgrades to guys I want to develop more.  But before they go, they can participate in one last 2-star 3x3 for me.  Except the new guys with no upgrades.  They're getting overwhelmed in the matchups lately, so it's probably maladaptive to even use them right now.

I've now gone through all of the class based Catalyists except Tech (which should be tomorrow) so I've ranked up all of my 3-stars (except Hulkbuster.)  Of course, that means that now I need to level them up, and that's pricey.  I've switched to spending all of the units I earn on gold crystals, just to try and keep my budget afloat.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Space opera via superheroes

Well, the new Star Wars is all set to come out very shortly.  My wife and I have tickets to see it on Thursday evening.  However, for a variety of reasons, my excitement in space opera is in settings that are more like the Cosmic Marvel arena.  If you've never read the entire saga of Vulcan and the stuff that follows, you should.  Although the now-famous Guardians of the Galaxy make an appearance in some of the crossover stuff that appears in War of Kings, it's really more about the Starjammers, which I would easily have called more well known (and more interesting!) than the Guardians prior to the release of the unexpectedly excellent movie last year (or was it the year before now?)

Also, I got a new phone recently, and on a whim, I installed a small handful of games (three).  However, I've only actually played one of them, because it was sufficiently engaging that I haven't bothered clicking on an of the others yet.  This one is Marvel: Contest of Champions, which takes place in the "battle-realm"—a pocket dimension created (I presume) by the Collector, for him to pit champions that he's collected against each other.  You play the role of a "Summoner" and you collect your own stable of champions (which are drawn randomly, with some qualifiers).  You go through a loosely told (and somewhat incoherent) story; but really the point is that you fight duels in a game that's a little like a simplified version of Capcom's old Marvel Superheroes line of video games.  These battles earn you stuff that allows you to improve your champions, and expand your stable of characters, as well as improve your own ability to play the game at a somewhat meta level as well.

While I find the game as an RPG of sorts with a story of sorts to be dreadfully lacking, and as a guy who grew up on the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series, I don't find the actual fighting to be particularly tactically rich necessarily, the game provides just enough of a lot of fun elements that it's been quite engaging to me for over a week now.  Collecting and improving your heroes, and managing the resources necessary to actually play the game, combined with the fighting itself, has been reasonably fun.  And, of course, half the fun is that these are Marvel characters, and I've been a Marvel guy for as long as I've been even halfway interested in comic books.  Because the movies have been so spectacularly successful, pretty much everyone knows who a bunch of these Marvel characters are, even formerly really kind of bizarre and esoteric ones like the Guardians of the Galaxy.

So it makes it easy when I've got two space opera settings under development to turn to the superhero-themed one rather than my 1,000 years after Jedi Star Wars one, even though the Star Wars movie is literally right on the horizon.  Plus, my STAR WARS work is fairly complete, at least in terms of what I want to do with it right now—I've got a complete rule system in place, and a setting outline.  Until I'm actually playing it, why do I need more?  My AD ASTRA which is more Guardians or Starjammers like in intent is nothing more than a high concept: superheroes in space.  So, it's time to turn to that one and get some development done!

First, though—let me quickly review what I've got on this Contest of Champions game, just because I'm kinda interested right now.

Characters are ranked from 1 to 5 stars.  I'm not really at the point where I'm expected to have any 5-star heroes, and sure enough I don't.  If I'd been more lucky, I might have 4-star heroes, but as it happens, I haven't been lucky enough (my son has only 1 himself; he got his game the day after me, and has probably spent more time on it already.)  I've long ago divested myself of any 1-star heroes, but I've got a big pool of 2-star heroes and five 3-star heroes—a pretty decent roster given how long I've been playing.  Advanced 2-star heroes can be significantly better than newbie 3-star heroes, but no hero can ever acquire more stars than it starts with, and of course, 3-star heroes can be advanced to well beyond the capability of a 2-star hero.

Characters come in one of six classes: Cosmic, Mutant, Mystic, Science, Skill and Tech.  This refers to the source of their powers, for the most part: a cosmic hero has an alien source (black Spider-man's alien symbiote suit, or Drax—who is an alien, for instance) while Captain America, Spider-man and the Hulk are science heroes, because their powers came from a science experiment; either gone awry in the case of Spider-man and the Hulk, or working as intended in the case of Captain America.  There's also a rock/paper/scissors aspect to the classes; while certainly no class automatically beats another, each class has an advantage against another class (and is neutral against all others.)  When you have the opportunity, which is most times, you need to make sure that you position yourself for the class advantage.  If you can't get advantage, at least make sure that you aren't putting yourself in a position where you're disadvantaged; fighting against a class that has the advantage against you!  If you can't swing it, well all isn't lost—it's a nice thing to have advantage, but it usually doesn't make or break a match.  The pairings are as follows:

  • Cosmic champions are advantaged against Tech champions.
  • Tech champions are advantaged against Mutant champions.
  • Mutant champions are advantaged against Skill champions.
  • Skill champions are advantaged against Science champions.
  • Science champions are advantaged against Mystic champions, and
  • Mystic champions are advantaged against Cosmic champions.
In addition, many quests have "gates" that can't be passed unless you have a character of the correct class in your "adventuring party."  So it's clearly to your advantage to have characters of every class at a reasonably competent level (or at least parity with the rest of your group.)  Of course, since the champion drops are randomized, this is much easier said than done, and you sometimes have to try an awful lot of times to get what you need.  I can make do, but as I said earlier, I've only got five 3-star heroes.  Luckily, they're all of different classes, but that still means that I'm missing one of the classes in 3-star format (Science, in my case) and I have to make do with a 2-star Science champion when I need to have a Science champion.  This kinda sucks sometimes, especially as some of the characters that I'd most like to have are Science characters (Hulk, Abomination, Captain America (in his WWII outfit), Spider-man, Spider-Gwen).  But I'm lucky to have one 3-star of every other class, even if I don't necessarily have the champion that I'd pick if I could pick.  For instance, my 3-star roster is:
  • Daredevil (Netflix version)—Skill: My first 3-star, and a decent character, I suppose.  I'd prefer to have Moon Knight, the Punisher or Winter Soldier, but I do have 2-star versions of the Punisher and Black Panther.
  • Ms. Marvel—Cosmic: My second 3-star champion.  She's actually pretty cool, although given the options in Cosmic characters, I'd probably have preferred Drax, Spiderman (black suit), Superior Iron Man (wearing a silver liquid suit of adaptive armor, so he's basically wearing a Terminator from T2) or even Thor.  I had a 2-star Black Bolt, which I ditched before I realized that I needed to keep hanging on to my 2-stars for the time being, and I have a 2-star Superior Iron Man.
  • Magneto—Mutant: The next 3-star I got was Magneto—sadly, the original suit version, not the Marvel Now version.  For whatever reason, I've got a ton of 2-star mutants: Cyclops, Dead Pool (red suit, not white X-force suit), Storm and Wolverine.
  • Hulkbuster—Tech: While it isn't necessarily obvious, since in the comics, Hulkbusters have been all kinds of things, this one is basically Iron Man in his "Veronica" suit from the second Avengers movie.  He looks really cool; he's arguably my first choice for a tech hero, although there's a lot of good choices in this class. I've also got a 2-star Iron Man and Star Lord, but there's at least six other champions in this class that I'd love to have.
  • Lady Thor—Mystic: I got this one most recently for free as some kind of in-game reward for something or other.  It actually wasn't quite clear what I had done to win it (my son just got two random hero crystals that give you 2-4 star heroes—obviously much more frequently two-star ones.)  I guess I was lucky to get it, and I'm not exactly complaining, because I certainly need a 3-star Mystic, but Lady Thor?  C'mon, the character offends me with how it was developed.  The concept of another character having a hammer and the power of Thor alongside Thor isn't necessary a bad one (Beta Ray Bill, anyone?) but the longer Marvel decides to run Jane Foster as the Thor (while actual Thor is a powerless, one-armed cripple) who spouts anti-male sexist feminist talking points while fighting, the character might as well not even exist in Marvel at all. Do they want to actually sell Thor magazines, or have they given up caring what happens to the actual comics since the movies are where the money is?  I've also got several 2-star Mystic heroes: Iron Fist (in his regular green outfit), the Scarlet Witch, Juggernaut, and the Unstoppable Colossus, which is Colossus with the Juggernaut helmet and a few new moves.
  • I don't have any 3-star science heroes, but I've got 2-star Ant-Man, Yellowjacket and Rhino.
I'm also engaged in a quest which gives, as a reward when it's all made available and I finish it, a 3-star Groot, which is presumably a Cosmic champion.  There's a few other characters in the game; or at least, their models are in the game and avid tech nerds have managed to extract them and show us, and I think the plan is to have characters roll out at a measured pace, probably somewhat indefinitely; because why not?  It gives players something to stick around for.  There's also a handful of non-player characters, like Thanos, Kan the Conqueror, etc.

Anyway; enough about that.  When I come back next to this topic, let's get the rules system completely worked out and put all together in one place for AD ASTRA, and then I can start working up some setting elements.

UPDATE: No more than about three hours after posting that, I earned a 3-star Champion crystal, and as luck would have it, it spun out Spider-man!  Although the WWII Captain America was my first choice for a Science hero to fill that last gap, Spider-man, Hulk and maybe the standard Spider-Gwen were all in a three-way tie for second place. (Abomination, Electro regular Captain America and Rhino in a four-way tie for third place, and Joe Fixit and Luke Cage in a tie for fourth place.  Although I would have reasonably happily taken even Ant-man or Yellowjacket.  I'm also almost done with the first Act of the Story Quest, which gives a Premium Hero crystal (usually turn out to be 2-stars, but who knows? I might get lucky and get a 3-star or even a 4-star champion) and a 3-Star Crystal.  Anyone else at this point is bonus; and if I get a repeat of what I already have as a lower level champ, I can sell the lower level and use the proceeds to start leveling and ranking up the newbie.

UPDATE 2: I mentioned that I haven't been playing very long yet, so I'm still discovering what is probably pretty basic stuff: the masteries have tabs!  I've been putting all of my effort into Offense, but there's a defense and a Utilities tab too.  D'oh!  Now I've got plenty of work ahead of me to get those built up.  I could recover, but I'm starting to feel the pinch on gold, so I'm not going to, I don't think.  I also wasn't really looking at the Daily Quests much, but now that I'm in desperate need of Catalyst, I've discovered it rather belatedly and just in time.  Because over the last couple of days they've had Catalyst quests for the Skill, Mutant, Science and now Mystic classes, my Magneto, Spider-man and now Girl Thor are my best characters.  Tomorrow and over the weekend, I'll presumably have Tech and Cosmic and can rank up Hulkbuster and Ms. Marvel (as well as my Superior Iron Man and regular Iron Man, who are in need of moving up and require class catalysts and this point.)

I also still have a problem remembering the rock, paper, scissors nature of class advantage, but here's a screenshot of the scheme.  Probably easier to read than my list above.  The teal Saturn is Cosmic, which beats the weird circuit board diagram in blue which is Tech, which beats the yellow DNA which is Mutant, which beats the red fist, which is Skill, which beats the green beaker which is Science, which beats the purple... whatever that thing is, which is Mystic, which beats Cosmic.

Blog highlight

Check out Jeffro's Appendix N summary, or epilogue.  And then read the entire series of blog posts.

And then, if you haven't, read the actual books under discussion.

Honestly, the only things I think Gygax missed from the Appendix N, because they were obviously hugely influential on the development of D&D, are the actual classics.  But they're so classic, or at least they were before SJWs attempted to obliterate the history of Western civilization, that he may have felt that it was unnecessary to note them.  After all, most people read them.  Anyone with a classic education was expected to, and even at my age, anyone with a regular education was at least passing familiar with them, and read portions of them as required reading.

By "the classics" I mean really foundation Western civ literature.  Malory, Tennyson, Hesiod, Homer, the anonymous Beowulf author, Bulfinch, Sturluson, the often anonymous authors of Norse sagas, even Howard Pyle and Rudyard Kipling, etc.  Those kinds of guys.

The other thing I mean by classics is the true foundation of the genre; the foundational works written before the genre crystalized—William Morris, Bram Stoker, E. R. Eddison, George MacDonald, etc.

Anyway, here's the post, and a small sample of it:  When it was announced that the World Fantasy Award was replacing its iconic Lovecraft bust, Joyce Carol Oates declared that the literary canon is “saturated with racism, sexism, anti-semitism, anti-democracy… and lunacy.” Graciously she allows that “tossing it all out is no solution.” But why wouldn’t you toss it out…? If it really was as bad as people say, you probably would do just that. I mean really, why would people read the works of such terrible people…? They don’t. And if by some chance they do, the reaction can be almost physical sometimes, as this woman describes it:
I read a lot of Bradbury as a teen and thought his stories were wonderful. Rereading his stories now is actively painful to me. I’m a lot more able to pick up on those subtle cues, and less able to make excuses for them, that the author doesn’t really see his female characters as important, or real, or three dimensional, or people.
Are we really so advanced a civilization now that The Martian Chronicles necessarily should make us ill?

Older people steeped in the classics will dismiss that as an outlier, but it really is a sign of the times. This attitude certainly shows up in a great many of the reviews of old works of fantasy and science fiction that pepper the internet. It’s almost as if there is a barrier in these peoples’ minds. As soon as they get to something they been trained to think of as being “problematic”, they shut down. Very little in the way of any kind of analysis of the material can even be done, because calling out and reviling everything from Madonna/Whore complexes to “black and white morality” is the sort of thing that passes for deep or sophisticated thinking.

The retiring of Lovecraft’s bust from the World Fantasy Awards is therefore not so much reminiscent of statues of Stalin being pulled down in post-Soviet Russia. It’s more a reflection of the Berlin wall… going up. It used to be that reading centuries old books was almost universally considered to be a very good thing, to the point of being the very definition of an education. Now, looking into works that are merely decades old are increasingly beyond the pale. People with this attitude will even go so far as to object to having to read Ovid at university– and college administrators– far from standing up to this– seem instead to be on the lookout to accommodate this sort of thing.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Appendix N Update

I suppose the "update" to Appendix N is, allegedly, Appendix E from the 5th edition.  I'm not going that way, I'm just revisiting my own, personal, Appendix N as it applies to not just the DARK•HERITAGE setting, but also AD ASTRA, CULT OF UNDEATH, HYBRID DREAMLANDS, REALMS TRAVELLER, ODD D&D, and my gaming tastes in general.  I also thought that doing this from scratch, without referring to my previous work from back when "personal Appendix N" was a faddish thing to do, would make this a more significant update.  I don't have the chance to cheat and merely copy what I wrote a couple of years go!  So there may be a few discrepancies or changes, although they'll be minor, because by and large the works that laid the foundation of my tastes are, of course, still the same.  I may not specifically think of all of the same titles at any given time that I'm asked, especially the ones that are more marginal, or which have the same influence as another work, but that's OK.  A few minor notes before we get started:

NOTE 1: Given that this is meant to encapsulate my entire range of taste, for both fiction and gaming, and not just my fantasy gaming as it relates to a specific setting, it's meant to be a bit more broad and possibly eclectic.  The actual Appendix N was meant to be the works that specifically informed D&D; my gaming tastes are broader than D&D, and therefore the range of works is too.  Not to say that this is overly broad; my tastes still naturally narrow somewhat.

NOTE 2: There is going to be a fair bit of overlap between my Appendix N and the Appendix N.  That's OK.  In fact, its hardly surprising.

NOTE 3: My intention is also to make this a kind of "annotated Appendix N"—rather than merely list the works, I'm going to write a little sentence or two about each one, talking about what I like about it and what it specifically influenced me with.  Because I'm annotating it with plenty of fluff by yours truly, I'm less concerned with "completeness" and more concerned with adding stuff that I believe I have something about which I have something at least vaguely interesting to say.

NOTE 4: Rather than alphabetical by author, I'm going to write it up in the order in which I think of it.  Which will be largely correlated to the order in which it was influential on me, highest to lowest.

Tolkien, J. R. R.: What fantasy fan or gamer doesn't put Tolkien at the top of their list of influences?  Few and far between, I'd wager, although for many, consciously eschewing Tolkienisms is a real thing.  But even then, by so doing, you're acknowledging his gigantic place in the field, and reacting to that place rather than starting from a position that doesn't acknowledge him.  I'm one of those who often consciously gives overt Tolkienisms a pass, but not because I'm necessarily doing it out of ideological fealty to sword & sorcery over high fantasy (as many do) but because I'm one of those guys who believes that Tolkien seems to have been a truly singular talent, and his many imitators end up coming off looking pretty pale in comparison.  That said; his use of real life cultures disguised with a wink and gun at the audience (the Rohirrim, the Shire, etc.) is still something that I do without fail, his take on magic as being less systematic and more "plot devicey" and mythological is one that I like (it's difficult to pull off, though) and I always draw isometric setting maps that look an awful lot like Christopher Tolkien's maps that appeared with the edition of the book that I first got.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice: My favorite Burroughs stories are actually the John Carter ones, but Tarzan, Pellucidar, and even many of his one-offs and/or smaller series (Venus, Moon, Mucker, Caspak, etc.) deserve a mention here.  The inventive imagination of Burroughs, his lost civilizations, his bizarre, otherworldly wildernesses, his larger than life heroes and villains and monsters and damsels in distress; there's literally nothing to not like except perhaps one thing, and Burroughs himself was quick to admit it: he really only has one story to tell, and so he tells it over and over and over again.  Still, it takes a long time for it to start to wear on you, and when it does, take a break and then come back for more and it still works.

Howard, Robert Ervin: Everyone has heard of Conan, although I reckon many know him more from his bastardized cinematic appearances than from his originals.  Conan is, in many ways, like a fantasy version of Tarzan, although Howard's philosophy on the virtue of the barbarian gives him a significantly different character in some ways.  As much as anything, the Hyborian model of setting design has been highly instrumental to me as well; the notion of using races, cultures and nations that are transparently "calques" of various real world cultures of the past is an impressive short-hand and gives the setting a great deal of resonance that entirely fictional fantasy settings simply don't have.  For what it's worth, Tolkien did some of the same thing; it's not hard to see the real world inspiration for numerous cultures of Middle-earth.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips: Although I occasionally dig at Lovecraft for some of his poorly crafted stories and his stylish affectations, nobody can deny that his amazing imagination and the concepts that he came up with have been hugely influential on both the fantasy and horror genres, and will be most likely, into perpetuity.  They're so ubiquitous that they've almost become more of an in-joke sometimes, rather than something meant to be horrifying (of course part of that is that they aren't necessary all that horrible, except when he's really on his game.)  I really love the notion that contact with the fantastic, including magic and monsters (your daily commute in D&D) is not just hazardous to your hit points, but poses a psychological and spiritual toll on mortal men that is its real danger.  Also; although it's been done by many others since, his notion of a secret history of the world is huge too—I love it, although I also recognize that that's difficult to pull off in a secondary world.  But not impossible.

Lucas, George: The original three Star Wars movies, and the original few Indiana Jones movies—especially the actual first one—are hugely influential on how I perceive good, pulpish storytelling to be brought out of one medium and put into another (a key skill for gamers, I should say.)  Not only is the pacing, the characterization, and the setting all perfect for adaptation, but they're just pretty dang fun.  Sadly, Lucas himself, as well as his proteges that have followed and are following on his franchises, may well have lost sight of what made them popular and successful in the first place, but he really got it right the first time.  Keep in mind, that even when playing in a space opera or other setting, there is a lot of correlation with fantasy.  Star Wars, in spite of the trappings of science fiction, is more of a fantasy in most regards.

Leiber, Fritz: Sadly, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories kinda peter out as the series goes on, but it takes a while to do so, and no matter how they're collected, you've still got several books worth of greatness before they start to wear thin.  From the author's forward in the White Wolf Publishing omnibus collection I have of the first two collections, Leiber's purpose was to create characters that felt (to him) closer to true human nature than Tarzan or Conan. For my purposes, one of the great things about the characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is that they conform to the archetypal "buddy comedy"—a genre that was prominent in slapstick form with rather unserious characters, but which evolved over time into something more mainstream.  Buddy films hybridized and became less overtly slapstick, and when we see Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, we can look at movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours, etc. to see some similar movies, in some ways.  I personally have had great success with the notion of the buddy team-up in fantasy gaming, and I think it's even better in fiction (gaming tends to be a bit more ensemble in nature rather than two co-stars—unless you have a very small gaming group, I suppose).

As a curious aside, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser made a cameo in several Conan stories as told by Marvel Comics, although they were renamed and "Hyborianized" in order to fit.  Fafhrd became Fafnir the Vanir (recall that in the Hyborian Age, the Vanir were red-headed pseudo-Vikings) and Blackrat—who's Hyborian ethnicity, as far as I know, was never established, although I suspect he was Zamorian, since after all, the Gray Mouser was a native of Lankhmar, and the Zamorian city (never named by Howard) that features in "Tower of the Elephant" is the setting for their cameo appearance.

Ludlum, Robert: Ludlum is another author who started out very strong, but petered out considerably; avoid his later books, and read his earlier "classics" instead.  There's a lot of thriller writers who could be on here, I suppose, but Ludlum is the one I know best, so he's the one who influenced me most directly.  Indirectly, I could probably claim Ian Fleming—I've read him, but don't remember very much of what I read; my Fleming influences are more indirect, through the movies—and John le Carré, or even Tom Clancy.  It's too bad that many gamers don't read enough out of their genre to really get what makes other genres work; the fact that Gygax himself was a syncretist who didn't seem to much care where his influences came from other than that he liked them.  I also think a lot of gamers would benefit greatly from knowing more about how thrillers work, how they're structured, and what makes them so exciting in the first place.  To pick three novels of Ludlum's that I think best encapsulate the format, and are really quite good, I'd suggest The Holcroft Covenant, The Matarese Circle, and The Bourne Identity.  Yes, the latter was made into a movie franchise that's also quite good, but it deviates considerably from the original.

Brackett, Leigh: Leigh Brackett is one heckuva writer.  While she's rightly given credit in most circles for having penned The Empire Strikes Back (although apparently there's a revisionist narrative starting to make the rounds that her work was discarded and not much used; a debatable concept given that her draft is actually publicly available) I don't really think that's her best work anyway.  I love her Erik John Stark series, and her concept of a pulpish solar system in general, that bears more than a simple casual relationship to Edgar Rice Burroughs' own Mars and Venus—but her approach and style was much more sophisticated.  She's also a heckuva screen writer, and has penned some of the best movies of the 20th century; or at least some of the most fun, and some that stand out at the top of their genres.  She did noir (The Big Sleep), westerns (Rio Bravo, El Dorado) and even some that are kind of singular, including one of my favorite old movies, Hatari!  She brought real sophistication and skill to her work, though, and as I said, her approach was very different from that of Burroughs even when her settings were similar.  As her husband (also a space opera pulp writer) Ed Hamilton once remarked, she often wrote stories of "a strong man's quest for a dream and of his final failure when it turns to smoke and ashes in his hands... her heroes seek something that they can never quite attain, yet their failure is not really defeat."

Leone, Sergio: Whereas the Revisionist Western has been largely turned into the Cultural Marxist Western (more insidious than the blatant Ostern), the Spaghetti Western was just a western built from a totally different point of the view than the romanticized Old West of older Western movies.  Don't take too seriously the claims of film historians and academics who claim that it is a subset of the revisionist western; they actually only resemble each other by coincidence rather than by shared ancestry.  Leone saw the Old West as a hard-scrabble frontier filled with morally ambiguous characters, and the Dollar Trilogy, starring a still young and not yet very famous Clint Eastwood, neatly encapsulates that notion.  Where the DARK•HERITAGE setting very specifically has a number of Western elements, I think Westerns actually make for one of the best campaign models for any D&D-like game.  Think about it: it's all about frontier regions, where settlers live a somewhat precarious life, with hostile savages just beyond their borders, and in need of a band of rather "rough men" to defend them—and hopefully find some sweet loot in the bargain.  Change the setting just a little bit, and The Magnificent Seven is the perfect generic plot to raid for low level D&D; especially if you assume that the bandits (maybe orcs or some other savage humanoid) have some viable treasure in their lair.  Rather than fortifying the town, the PCs are most likely to play "offense is the best defense" and some of the interpersonal relationships of the characters are likely moot in the new medium, but the point is that frontier exploration, semi-heroic rough men as PCs, and hostile savages is a core assumption of D&D—and it more closely resembles the Western than it does any of the fiction on which it was putatively based.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Ultimate Spider-man

Season 3 of Ultimate Spider-man just showed up on Netflix, and rumor is that Season 2 is about to disappear.  I've been behind, so I've been trying to go through them as quickly as I can so I can get up to speed.  I'd actually been pretty excited to see Season 3 and the whole Spider-verse story line, if I can.  Although now, with only two episodes to go to finish up Season 2, I'm... a little less enthused.

Spider-man was always one of my favorite superheroes.  I mean, sure—I've long had other favorites as well; Nightcrawler, Wolverine and Colossus from the X-men, and the Hulk being the most notable ones, but Spider-man kinda was always in first place.  The old 1967 animated Spider-man show, which was in syndication when I was a kid, is one of the first cartoons I remember watching.  I also religiously watched Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends when it was on, which was paired with an Incredible Hulk show.

All of these shows are now, of course, quite terrible, but I was a kid then, and good animation didn't really exist yet, so I didn't know any better.  It was only as an adult, trying to show them to my kids, that I realized how terrible they were.

However, we've had a few decent Spider-man cartoons since then, that are even good enough that I've been tempted to watch them.  The Spectacular Spider-Man was my favorite of these, although sadly it only had two seasons before business realities (i.e., Disney's purchase of the Marvel brand and unwillingness to allow a rival studio to work with their properties) brought it to a premature end.  The planned third season, which was never done, would have featured, according to producer Greg Weisman, Carnage, Scorpion, Hydro-Man and Hobgoblin.

Anyway, my point in all of this is that I'm a big fan of Spider-man as a character, I know him and his character quite well, and I know his "stable" of villains fairly well.  Although curiously, not as much from the comic books themselves (I've always been a somewhat indifferent comic book reader) and more from the cartoons that I used to watch as a kid.  When Spectacular got cancelled to make way for the new Disney XD show Ultimate Spider-man, I was initially skeptical—maybe even resentful—but I ended up more or less coming around to seeing the Ultimate show as a worthy enough legacy.

However, as the second season wrapped up, and I was binge watching several episodes a day (when I could swing it) for several days to get it finished before it vanishes from Netflix, I have to admit that I wasn't as thrilled as I had been.

Spider-man has become something very different from his original incarnation, and I blame the social justice convergence theory for it: the writers, in writing from a SJW perspective, have lost sight of what Spider-man is all about.  Or perhaps, the authors (the Man of Action collective for most of the episodes that I specifically noted—a sadly malapropos label) are simply beta male losers who are unable to get into the mindset of a capable, manly type character.

Not that Spider-Man is the epitome of manliness, but in this show in particular, he's supposed to be the leader of a group of other teen-aged superheroes that are all undergoing a kind of SHIELD internship or something, including future Heroes for Hire Power Man and Iron Fist, the Sam Alexander version of Nova (instead of Richard Rider, sadly—no doubt to up the Diversity™ cred on the show, itself a troubling red flag) and and the equally Diversity™-driven hispanic, female, Black Panther also-ran White Tiger.  It's supposedly loosely based on the Ultimate version of the comic, so it goes without saying that Nick Fury has also been Diversity™-fied and made black; but that's one change that, while equally arbitrary and insulting as the rest, at least kinda works, if for no other reason than because Samuel L. Jackson is cool enough to pull it off in the movies.  Fury and Coulson play recurring significant roles in the show, especially Fury,

It's not an exact copy or adaptation of Ultimate Spider-man the comic book, as you can see if by nothing else, the presence of the four tag-alongs that are now part of Spider-man's team, but also they managed to avoid making the worst mistake of the comic book and killing off Peter Parker to replace him with Miles Morales.  Curiously, Miles Morales does apparently make the jump into the cartoon continuity in episodes that I haven't seen yet (along with other alternate Spider-men) and will reportedly be joining the cast of Season 4 semi-regularly as Kid Arachnid.

As an aside, would it kill you guys to admit it that you made a mistake in killing off Peter Parker and replacing him with Diversity™ Spider-Man, crowing about how you created Diversity™ Spider-Man, and then pretending that you didn't actually create Miles Morales to be Diversity™ Spider-Man after all?  We already had a great alternate Spider-Man character in the form of Ben Reilly, and even a Diversity™ alternate Spider-Man in the form of Miguel O'Hara (who also makes an appearance) but the producers want to do everything that they can to make sure that the only white characters who show up are villains.  Grumble, grumble.

Anyway, I kinda lost my train of thought there; my point was that Spider-Man essentially becomes an unlikable and unlikely beta male loser, who for no apparent reason, succeeds.  There were at least three episodes in a row (as well as several more besides) where he was bratty and unruly to Fury for no good reason at all (in fact, actually for really bad reasons) and Fury is unaccountably proud of him, for sticking up for his flawed principles, or whatever.  There are at least three episodes in a row where Spider-Man's plan to defeat the villains is to swing around while talking to them, and telling them—in so many words—you don't really want to do this.  C'mon, man!  Be cool!  And Spider-Man's trademark witty humor is traded in for snarky and self-righteous and self-absorbed completely unfunny semi-preachiness and whining.

I'm really not feeling it after watching all of these episodes.  I still have two more to go to finish the second season before it goes away, and following that, I think I'll let the show "rest" for a while so I can watch a better show, like getting caught up on Longmire or Hawaii 5-0 or something.

I mean, it's not as painfully bad as The Flash where Barry Allen is such a cringe-worthy, stupid beta-male loser that its impossible to have any respect for him, and Iris West (reimagined as black Iris West for no reason at all other than Diversity™ and anti-white racism) is bitchy, entitled, and completely unlikable and un-watchable, and the writers seem to be completely oblivious to either fact.  Which is why this is a useful post, by manosphere blog author Vox Day.  Vox is, taxonomically, a "splitter" rather than a "lumper"—whereas its default to talk about alpha and beta males, and then through context or further description, give more detail as needed, Vox creates a number of additional variants.  What most people call your stereotypical beta male loser, he calls a gamma.  And the kinds of stories that gammas write tend to be, as he says:
No one knows how special he is. The Alphas unfairly rule and keep him down by trickery. Even the girl he loves in a way no woman has ever been loved before doesn't realize how special he is or how happy he would make her if only she would let him. Bad people treat him badly and unfairly. But through his clever wit, the Gamma makes fools of everyone through always having the perfect thing to say, culminating when he totally humiliates the Alpha and reveals him to be an unworthy paper tiger in a brilliant verbal exchange front of everyone, including the girl. The Gamma is finally recognized as the true First Man in Rome by everyone as the girl shyly confesses that she has always seen and admired his specialness. He calls her "milady" and roguishly offers her his arm as everyone looks on enviously and applauds the smoothness of his style.
In another post, he talks about it a bit more:
This is the danger posed by the Pugs [of the Riftwar Saga], the Rand al'Thors [of The Wheel of Time], the Harry Potters and so forth. In many ways, they are the precise opposites of the Frodos, the Conans, [...]. They are Special, with a capital S, but not due to anything they have ever done. They have Special powers and are innately recognized as superior beings with a right to lead, initially by the astute, but eventually by everyone. 
Most importantly, they don't have to do much more than show up in order to have leadership handed to them on a silver platter, nor do they have to do much beyond be a figurehead and occasionally make Difficult Decisions. If you think about it, they are essentially what the average millennial thinks a CEO is, and they are handed that quasi-CEO status for nothing more than being Special.  
[...] No wonder the Farmboy's Journey is so popular. It's basically psychological reinforcement for the Gamma mind. And, writers take note, the less the protagonist has to actually do, the more that his accomplishments revolve around his being rather than his deeds, the more popular it is likely to be with the Gamma crowd because it flatters their desire to lead, get the girl, and be the hero. 
Contrast this with Frodo. He is the hero, but he leads nothing and he gets no girl. All he does is shatter the power of Mordor and save the People of the West. Conan is the hero, wins a crown, and gets numerous girls, but he does it all through his deeds; he is the opposite of Special, being frequently dismissed as a mere barbarian. 
I might quibble just a bit with the notion that Conan is not special—being a barbarian was being special to Howard, and he wrote Conan with more than his fair share of nearly deus ex machina success with the handwavey explanation of "he's a barbarian" thrown in for fair measure.  But you see Vox's point; it's certainly not about Conan "angsting" away his problems, or talking them away.  He certainly is a Man of Action in a way that the writing collective who uses that name can't even seem to understand, much less replicate.  He's successful because he's decisive, and because he's competent and strong.  Exactly the kinds of things that beta male losers are intrinsically suspicious of, associating them with the jock archetype, or something equally banal.

Hopefully my criticism of the show is clear enough.  It isn't always this unlikable; I just think it went through a bad run of episodes there—or maybe I just hope that that's the case—so I'm not going to not watch Season 3, I don't think.  But if it continues to decline, I'll give it up and not look back; just like I did after a season of The Flash.

Which even then wasn't a complete loss; I watched season 1 with my younger boys, on DVR, and had plenty of opportunities to pause the show and stop and explain to them exactly why it was failing so badly.  I think they're going to turn out OK.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Appendix E

So, I'm out of the loop of what's going on in D&D—the last edition that I bought was 3.5, and I was kinda resentful about being asked to buy 3.5 so soon after buying 3e (actually, I only partially bought 3.5.  I used the SRD to cover for the books I didn't buy.  But I did buy a lot of supplements for it, at least.)  Unless you count Pathfinder, which I also bought, because heck; it was only $10 for the pdf.  It was worth it for the art alone.  I never read Pathfinder all the way through, however.

So I never bought 4e.  I never bought 5e.  I haven't even seen 5e, because I haven't really been in a game shop in quite a while.  But I understand that they've created an Appendix E, which is like the Appendix N but with new additions of stuff that's come out since the Appendix N was published.

I applaud WotC nod to the past, and attempt to carry on tradition, but I wonder if they've also kinda missed the point.  Jeffro points out, and I think he's correct about one thing: the original Appendix N works don't really inform D&D all that much anymore in many ways, and the players of D&D, unless they're of a somewhat older generation, don't really read that material anymore.  Part of this is ideological—certainly that's true now specifically, where with Amazon it's relatively easy to get your hands on early books, either in old, used print versions, or often in dirt cheap (sometimes even free) ebook versions.  It's a golden age of availability of older books, but many people are eschewing the opportunity because they think that older authors are "problematic" or "triggering" or whatever.  A casual glance at the reviews of many older writers, like Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs, etc. should highlight several of these ridiculous cowards and complicit weirdos who can't bother to review a work without hand-wringing about the "casual racism" or whatever that is apparently their only significant take-away.

But this is now.  These people, unlike me, are finding these works for the first time in many cases, because they've never looked at them before.  They weren't available before.  This has created a generation gap if you will between older science fiction and fantasy fans and the newer, younger ones.

A fascinating riff off of Jeffro's original post is this one by Kris Rusch.  Here's a few portions of it.
Inflation hit in the late 1970s, eroding the amount that a dollar could purchase. Then extreme budget cuts in the early 1980s targeted funding for libraries (among other non-defense programs). [...]  Less money for libraries meant a shift in the way that libraries handled their collections. Libraries needed patrons to show up and then support organizations like Friends of the Library, so libraries cut back on book orders and increased periodicals they carried. Interlibrary loan became important. As long as the book was somewhere in the system, then someone could order it and wait and wait and wait. [...]
Midlist books got published, but older titles? Important titles? The first books in a series or books by authors no longer producing new work? Those books were the first to leave the inventory. 
Publishers stopped reprinting them, but kept them as company assets unless the writer or the writer’s estate asked for a reversion of rights. 
The changes in the way that books reached readers continued in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. The rise of the superstore bookstore chain started then, with Barnes & Noble leading the way. These huge bookstores needed “wallpaper,” books that would sit on those far walls, almost as decoration. The bookshelves in the middle of the stores held the newer material. The older stuff went back on the walls. [...]
The superstore chains were good for writers with established careers because the superstore chains, unlike the chains before them or the smaller independents, carried an entire series, and often the writer’s entire backlist. Writers could walk into a Barnes & Noble and find their own books that had been published two years ago, still stocked. 
But other changes were happening in this period. Libraries still suffered budget cuts, and those were growing. Libraries got closed all across the country, generally due to lack of funding. [...]
That lead to many readers hearing about books but never being able to find them. For years and years, going to a used bookstore was like treasure hunting. Maybe this store will have that book I’ve been searching for. Maybe, maybe, maybe. 
Really rare books could often go for hundreds of dollars or more. 
Then the real death knell hit. 
Those other stores—those not-bookstores that carried books? The grocery stores, truck stops, drug stores, restaurants? They all got their books from a little local distributor down the street. [...]
Grocery stores also chained up during these two decades. Instead of the regional large stores or the mom-and-pop stores on the corner, large grocery chains dominated. These chains funneled their invoices to corporate, and corporate hated the regional book distributors. The product was the same—books—but the invoices came from thousands of different distributors, sometimes with invoices as small as a few hundred bucks. 
So giant grocery chains (my memory says Walmart and Safeway, but my memory might be wrong and I can’t find this quickly) decided they would deal with ten distributors each. Nationwide. They let the existing distributors compete for the business, and each company chose a different group of ten. (Eventually, those twenty distributors whittled down to four.) 
Most of these regional book distributors didn’t have the ability to provide books at that scale. (It required a major cash outlay.) Some didn’t even try. Others tried and failed. Many of the regional companies bought other regionals just to handle the demand. But by the deadline, the grocery chains had picked ten distributors and just did business with them. 
The result was twofold. Most of the regional distributors who didn’t work with the chains went out of business, including our former neighbors. Some of the distributors got bought up, but those employees (if they stayed) were busy trying to provide books to a much larger market. The initial twenty distributors who survived didn’t have time to learn that book buyers in Raleigh preferred historical novels over science fiction novels or who the local authors were in New Orleans. So all the surviving distributors did was order bestsellers and pray that those books would sell while the distributors learned how to do business on this grand scale. 
The distributors learned within a year, but the damage was done. The publishers were repeatedly told that only bestsellers could get into the pipeline, so publishers only bought guaranteed bestsellers. The whole idea of growing a bestseller from a midlist book went out the window. If the books didn’t perform significantly better with each release, then the authors were jettisoned. 
And backlist? Gone, at least from these distributors. The big chain bookstores started ordering directly from the publishers, setting up their own distribution arms. Midlist writers and their backlist still made it to the superstores, but not the smaller retail outlets and not to their customer base in certain regions. 
And the older books didn’t stand a chance. Unless they were being released in classy editions that looked good as wallpaper. 
So here’s the upshot. By the beginning of the new century, the old genre classics in science fiction, fantasy, romance, and mystery were unavailable. They weren’t in new bookstores; they had a small (and often expensive) presence in used bookstores; and they weren’t in libraries. 
If someone had heard of a particular classic writer, that reader had to order the book from Amazon or eBay or some bookseller somewhere else. Maybe. If the book didn’t cost an arm and a leg. 
Anyway, there's a good deal more.  Check out the link and read the whole thing.

The upshot for today is that much of this has been brought back into print by small and independent presses.  The downshot is that unless you're specifically looking for it, you wouldn't know that.  The end result: the genre generation gap that Jeffro talks about.  Gamers today—and even just simply science fiction and fantasy genre fans, whether or not they're gamers—have to specifically be told to look for these books, and many of them never are and consequently never look.  Sure, the Appendix E can count as them being told, I suppose, assuming that they look at it.  But the Appendix E is full of a bunch of fluff compared to the Appendix N (which even then, I think, certainly had its share of fluff).  And today's crybaby generation reads stuff like the Conan stories and finds themselves "triggered."  It's a sad state of affairs.