Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seven Geases,” which Michael Mornard says was his and Rob Kuntz’s pick for the quintessential literary expression of what Dungeons & Dragons is about, can be read online. Go do so now, and then I will ruminate on some passages:
The Lord Ralibar Vooz, high magistrate of Commoriom and third cousin to King Homquat, had gone forth with six-and-twenty of his most valorous retainers… He and his followers were well armed and accoutered. Some of the men bore coils of rope and grappling hooks to be employed in the escalade of the steeper crags. Some carried heavy crossbows; and many were equipped with long-handled and saber-bladed bills which, from experience, had proved the most effective weapons in close-range fighting with the Voormis. The whole party was variously studded with auxiliary knives, throwing-darts, two-handed simitars, maces, bodkins and saw-toothed axes. The men were all clad in jerkins and hose of dinosaur-leather, and were shod with brazen-spiked buskins. Ralibar Vooz himself wore a light suiting of copper chain-mail, which, flexible as cloth, in no wise impeded his movements. In addition he carried a buckler of mammoth-hide with a long bronze spike in its center that could be used as a thrusting-sword; and, being a man of huge stature and strength, his shoulders and baldric were hung with a whole arsenal of weaponries.
Everything about this passage, from the big party of henchmen to the details of their equipment, is pure D&D.
“Most of the caves were narrow and darksome, thus putting at a grave disadvantage the hunters who entered them; and the Voormis would fight redoubtably in defense of their young and their females, who dwelt in the inner recesses; and the females were fiercer and more pernicious, if possible, than the males. “
The discussion of women and children amongst the humanoids of the Caves of Chaos often focuses on Gygaxian naturalism, but Clark Ashton Smith is no naturalist. There is something pulpy and visceral about the image of Ralibar Vooz slugging it out bare-handed with the females and the young of the Voormis; I think it’s the implication of savagery on both sides, so far removed from a duel between gentlemen with shiny epees and clean white fencing jackets.
“You speak in terms of outmoded superstition,” said Ralibar Vooz, who was impressed against his will by the weighty oratorical style in which Ezdagor had delivered these periods.
I think I remember reading that Gary wasn’t a CAS reader; certainly Klarkash-Ton is the most notable omission from the AD&D Appendix N reading list. (CAS does appear among the Moldvay recommendations.) However, whimsically baroque dialogue is a key ingredient in the D&D canon by way of Jack Vance. Vance was famously influenced by P.G. Wodehouse, which suggests a line of transmission to Terry Pratchett. The Discworld books were ones Gary said he would have added to a modern Appendix N, and in our last session of Ramshorn Dungeon Mornard used a reference from a Pratchett (was it The Truth?) to describe how rapaciously the locals tried to pass themselves off as potential hirelings to claim the free meat and ale I foolishly promised.
Owing to such precipitancy, he failed to notice that the web had been weakened and some of its strands torn or stretched by the weight of the sloth-like monster.
I was (mis)telling the plot of “The Seven Geases” at Gary Con and Jim Skatch said “That’s the same story as Gilgamesh.” Notably, this was before I got to the ending!
I’ve been talking recently about whether role-playing games are truly a new thing under the sun, and if so, why it is that they weren’t invented sooner. I think that for lots of human history, legends were lived as much as told: sacred narratives incorporated into one’s daily experience, such that each of us takes on the role of the hero. The ending of “The Seven Geases” holds nothing sacred; the protagonist’s striving and fate are enjoyed from an ironic distance.
As literature, this distance lets us admire the impressionistic color and Smith’s lingustic brushstrokes. As source material for a game, it makes room for uncertainty and multiple protagonists. Attempts to make D&D into a heroic myth are unsatisfying because the hero’s triumph is foreordained, and the possibility of failure is necessary for player agency to be meaningul. And on a practical level, having one mythic hero who represents human aspiration is a bad fit for RPGs as a group activity; who is going to play Gilgamesh’s sidekick?
“The Seventh Geas” says that you can have any number of characters as bad-ass as Lord Ralibar Vooz, with his mammoth-hide buckler and 26 dinosaur-leather-clad henchmen, since any of them can have their illustrious career ended by a failed Spot check. Lots of later editions focus on fulfilling the promise of epic heroism; “The Seven Geases” says that the original game is really about coming oh, so close.
I should also say that Mornard uses “The Seven Geases” to illustrate that D&D is the story of the world, not the characters in it. I don’t have a particular quote to make that point, and hopefully he’ll do the job better in the comments than I could have.