Posts Tagged ‘novels


A Post-1979 D&D Inspirational & Educational Reading List

Perhaps still in time for the holiday super saver shipping, here’s my personal list of recommended reading for D&D players, a supplement to the original Appendix N in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide:

  • Baker, Kage. Anvil of the World & its sequels
  • Banks, Iain M. The Player of Games, Use of Weapons
  • Barnes, John. One for the Morning Glory, Kaleidoscope Century
  • Chabon, Michael. Gentlemen of the Road
  • Cook, Glen. Black Company series
  • Cook, Hugh. Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series
  • Harrison, M. John. Virconium
  • Holdstock, Robert. Mythago Wood
  • Holmes, J. Eric. Maze of Peril
  • Hughart, Barry. The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox
  • Jones, Diana Wynne. Homeward Bounders, Chrestomanci series, etc.
  • Lynch, Scott. The Gentlemen Bastard series
  • Meynard, Yves. The Book of Knights
  • Moon, Elizabeth. The Deed of Paksenarrion
  • Powers, Tim. On Stranger Tides, The Drawing of the Dark
  • Pratchett, Terry. Discworld series
  • Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. Tomoe Gozen, The Golden Naginata, and Thousand Shrine Warrior.
  • Sfarr, Joann and Trondheim, Lewis. Dungeon series
  • Shea, Michael. Nifft the Lean & its sequels
  • Sterling, Bruce. Schismatrix
  • Swanwick, Michael. The Iron Dragon’s DaughterThe Dragons of Babel
  • Wolfe, Gene. Book of the New Sun, The Wizard Knight

Hyperlinks are provided haphazardly, and signify nothing about the works linked or not.

I chose publication after 1979 as a clear line of separation to make this an add-on to Gygax’s original, as a list of my own favorite D&D-esque books would show a high degree of redundancy with the ones he chose in ’79. In addition to all the ones everyone’s read, I’ve particulary enjoyed Lin Carter’s Worlds End series, John Bellairs, and Margaret St. Clair;  and if everyone hasn’t read The Broken Sword they should.

Some of the ones I’ve listed here would likely have been added to Gygax’s list had he written it later. At EN World he said this was true of the Discworld books, and he wrote a glowing back-cover blurb for the American edition of one of Hugh Cook’s fantasies.

The chronological cutoff did mean leaving out some things I personally would have added to the original:

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. Book of Imaginary Beings, others.
  • Davidson, Avram. The Phoenix and the Mirror
  • Klein, Otis Adelbert. Planet of Peril
  • Smith, Clark Ashton.
  • Swann, Thomas Burnett. Day of the Minotaur
  • van Gulik, Robert. Judge Dee stories.

I’ve tried to keep to the parameters established by the original Appendix N by focusing strictly on novels and short stories, despite the ample evidence that movies, other games, comic books, etc. were important influences on the corpus of classic D&Disms. (I made an exception for Sfar and Trondheim’s Dungeon, because it’s just so damn good.)

In the spirit of the original, I didn’t worry much about lumping SF and fantasy together. Genre considerations did convince me to move the following into this footnote, which are nevertheless a big part of my education in adventures and heists :

  • Child, Lee. Reacher novels.
  • Dent, Lester. Honey in his Mouth
  • Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Gold, David Glen. Carter Beats the Devil
  • O’ Brien, Patrick. Aubrey-Maturin series
  • Winslow, Don. The Winter of Frankie Machine, California Fire and Life
  • Westlake, Donald. Dortmunder series, Parker series (written as Richard Stark), Kahawa

What would you add to Appendix N? Post it in the comments; if it’s one I meant to include but forgot I’ll add it above!


Paksenarrion’s Deed & Renaming the Village of Hommlet

I’m reading, and enjoying, Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy. I got started on it by reading the first book, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. You can read that one for free online; this is savvy of Baen Books because you’ll then want to pick up the omnibus of the three-book trilogy, which I did at a used bookstore in the San Juan Islands. (Sadly,  forgetting my passport prevented me from visiting Red Box Vancouver.)

So as I’m reading the middle book in the trilogy, originally published as Divided Allegiance, there’s a section where our hero, Paksennarion, has captured some bandits who have been hiding out in a small keep. One of them is describing their miserable lot – they were often so hungry that they even tried to catch and eat a giant frog from the moat. A lightbulb appears above my head: giant frog + moathouse = T1: The Village of Hommlet.

In the comments to Grognardia’s retrospective on this module,  Rob Conley says he recognized that Moon’s town of Brewersbridge was Hommlet just from the directions Paksenarrion takes to walk from Jaroo the druid, aka the Kuakgan to the Welcome Wench, aka the Jolly Potboy. This indicates to me that Rob knows his classic AD&D modules better than I do, and is also better with spatial relationships and maps, neither of which are surprising. Here are some other often unsurprising observations:

  1. Deed of Paksenarrion is the best novelization of a D&D campaign I’ve ever read. The episodic, zany, picaresque Maze of Peril is better at showing what it’s actually like to have played D&D with J. Eric Holmes back in the day. The oddly disjointed, stuffed with too many protagonists Quag Keep does the same for playing with Gary Gygax, and has the advantage that while Moon’s changes to Greyhawk lore can be purely attributed to filing off the serial numbers, aka poetic license (either authorial or Dungeon Mastery; it’s not clear to me yet how Moon was involved in D&D), Norton’s might well reveal a pre-Folio archaeological layer. But when it comes to showing what D&D would be like if it weren’t a game, but rather a moving and intelligent story told about your character with an epic sweep, Paksennarion’s Deed is unparalleled in my experience. Her thoughtful handling of the religion and morality of her paladin PC hold their own against Gene Wolfe’s Patera Silk in Book of the Long Sun and Abel in The Wizard Knight, which is high praise, and her evocation of medieval military life and tactics (for which the book was first recommended to me) feels spot on; like Wolfe and David Drake (or J.R.R. Tolkien), Moon draws on her own experiences of military service. This item is becoming over-long, but the last thing I wanted to underline is that Paksenarrion’s Deed succeeds by any standards, not just “good for a RPG novelization” (Robin Wayne Bayley’s Nightwatch, I’m looking at you).
  2. Perhaps understandably given that last sentence,  Moon does not appear eager to be painted with the RPG-novelization brush. Or maybe it’s just that she didn’t have permission to do a novelization of Temple of Hommlet. Her discussion of the literary sources for the Paksennarion books referenced at Wikipedia mentions D&D as well as many other interesting citations, but not the specific Gygax module she’s clearly working from. (Possibly she only experienced it as a player, and thus wasn’t aware of its provenance?)
  3. Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Horrors, I know, and I shouldn’t complain because how awesome is it to have a magic encyclopedia in my pocket that has entries about the nerdiest things I could wish? Still, this just ain’t true:  “A number of people[who?] have pointed out resemblances between the story setting and Dungeons & Dragons, in particular alleged similarities between Moon’s town of Brewersbridge and Hommlet (a village in The Temple of Elemental Evil module for AD&D) and between Moon’s religion of Gird and the faith of Saint Cuthbert of the Cudgel in Greyhawk.[citation needed] However, such themes may often be similarly found in many brands of high fantasy, and are not unique to any one fictional world.” The correspondences here are much more specific than just “this fantasy novel has orcs, and so does D&D”. I’m hoping grodog or somebody may be inspired to go through and list them all – it’d be an interesting exercise – but we’re talking about specific fight scenes in Divided Allegiance whose opponents and sequencing are the same as combats you’d encounter while following the dungeon key in Temple of Hommlet.
  4. I don’t think it’s taking anything away from Moon to say that Divided Allegiance is a testament to Gygax as a storyteller, just as I think Gygax’s reputation can survive my saying that his modules show that better than his novels. The story that Moon tells about Paksenarrion’s adventures in the moathouse proves that what Gygax set forth in sixteen pages is, like Edgar Allan Poe’s invention of  detective fiction in “The Speckled Band”, a great and lasting template from which others can cast works of virtue. That’s not news to any of the thousands of gaming groups who’ve had great experiences in Hommlet, but it’s interesting that it can be true for a novel as well as actual play.
  5. In the back cover blurb for Paksennarion’s Deed, Judith Tarr says “This is the first work of heroic high fantasy I’ve seen that has taken the work of Tolkien, assimilated it totally and deeply and absolutely, and produced something altogether new.” I’d say that the thorough mulching of Tolkien’s work by D&D, mixing it up in a big syncretic brew with minotaurs and flying carpets and Baba Yagas that everyone then drinks and pisses out into the groundwater with its active metabolites intact, was the key step in that assimilation.

So here’s the thing with specific gaming relevance I want to talk about, dropped out of numeric order in case you were skipping over all those. How do you feel about the practice of renaming things when it comes to gaming?

In a novel, the renaming works because making the familiar seem strange sets up an aha moment; recognizing that a Kuakgan is a druid, and a hool is an ogre, is like the head of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. Moon is good at names that have their own resonance, and by tying them to D&D archetypes she gets to borrow their thunder while avoiding their limitations. An ogre starts out predictable and has to be made surprising; a hool reserves the right to veer out of known territory whenever it pleases.

Have you experienced this working well in actual play? You don’t need DM of the Rings to know that roleplayers will gleefully trample all over many novelistic effects. I’m certain that at a certain point, players will stop saying “Let’s go see the Kuakgan” and start referring to him as a druid. But is there nevertheless a residual benefit if the DM, and especially the NPCs, can continue using the exotic names to cloak the familiar D&D bones? (For me, this may be of academic interest only; experience suggests I am as likely to slip back into calling a smeerp a rabbit as are the players.)


In AD&D You’re Always Stepping on 1d100 Woefully Encysted Creatures

cr0m’s recent comment to James’ post about Grand Motholam reminded me of a Gygaxism that I find utterly mind-blowing. He notes, justly, that:

In Vance’s stories, the spells available are much more wondrous, powerful or ridiculous than Sleep, Charm and Magic Missile. You’ve got incantations like the Spell of the Macroid Toe (victim gets a giant toe!), The Spell of Woeful Encystment (victim is in stasis deep beneath the earth), the Spell of the Sequestrous Digit (caster’s hand appears elsewhere, usually poised for groping someone attractive and/or picking their pockets). Is it really memorization/resource management that makes magic boring?

I quibble that The Spell of Woeful Encystment is, in AD&D, a ninth-level spell named Imprisonment. But yes, simply lifting a spell from Vance is boring in its own way. Gygax’s unique genius comes in this added detail:

The reverse (freedom) spell will cause the appearance of the victim at the spot he, she, or it was entombed and sunk in the earth. There is a 10% chance that 1 to 100 other creatures will be freed from imprisonment at the same time if the magic-user does not perfectly get the name and background of the creature to be freed.

Perhaps Maldoor will contribute a calculation of exactly how many creatures have already been encysted, on average, at each and every spot in the Prime Material Plane where you might choose to cast an incompletely-specified freedom spell. I will merely note that what these rules say about the world –  that wizards of the 18th level or higher have been sealing people in small spheres far beneath the earth for so many aeons that now the main problem is losing track of which particular one you’re looking for – that the globe is an over-stuffed filing system for people who rubbed Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter and his buddies the wrong way –  is why session reports of a peyote/crack/LSD binge are indistinguishable from just playing D&D.

For my money, imprisonment is as brilliant a riff on Vance’s themes as any of Gene Wolfe’s, that other acolyte for whom The Dying Earth was the Book of Gold. In The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe tells us that no delver can turn a spadeful of earth that does not contain some artifact of the past, and his viewpoint character Severian so takes it for granted that every mountain there is has been given the Mount Rushmore treatment in some past age that this fact is never directly stated. Which is awesome and all, but is it mundane of me to be even more amazed by the suggestion that, armed with my trusty polyhedrons, I could determine just how many artifacts there are in each spadeful?

EDIT: To avoid the promulgation of error among those who might not read the comments, Eric writes there:

Oh, Tavis! That isn’t Gygax’s genius at all! It’s pure Vance. When we see Cugel the Clever get the spell of forlorn encystment backwards in The Eyes of the Overworld, the ancient earth coughs up dozens of time-lost encystees.

Oops! While I’m doing my penance and re-reading Tales of the Dying Earth (with the fitting Brom cover instead of the out-of-place Berkey one, natch!), y’all can discuss whether this means that the idea of a reversible spell is also a lifted Vancism.


Fantasy Fiction: Rhialto the Marvellous

By reason of special factors (which lie beyond the scope of this present exposition), the magicians of the day were a various lot; gathered in colloquy, they seemed an assembly of rare and wonderful birds, each most mindful of his own plumage. While, on the whole, lacking the flamboyant magnificence of Grand Motholam, they were no less capricious and self-willed, and only after a number of unhappy incidents were they persuaded to regulate themselves by a code of conduct.

—Jack Vance, “Rhialto the Marvellous”

Jack Vance is best known among D&D players for the magic system that bears his name. In his Dying Earth stories, magicians wrestle potent spells from ancient librams into their brains. Fans of Vance’s work attend more to his imagination, his wit, his flair for sardonic dialogue and his spare, elastic prose. The three stories compiled as Rhialto the Marvellous give us a full dose of both categories; the book is chock full of earthy, damaged magicians frittering their lives away beneath a dying sun.

Vance’s stories certainly entertain on a sensory level. He sketches portraits of bizarre landscapes with only a few words, many of them obscure, archaic or freshly minted. But while his mastery of language is a great strength, it’s his grasp of character and theme that give his stories backbone. Behind their fanciful names and mannered diction, his characters are authentically selfish, venal and eccentric, and their sparring is both engaging and to the point.

“… What of the clevenger?”

“Pay it no heed. Do not approach the cage. Remember, its talk of both virgins and wealth is illusory; I doubt if it knows the meaning of either term.”

“Just so, sir.”

The three stories in the collection share a theme; the characters are the vapid descendants of greater generations, and they squander both their talents and their inheritance on inane plots and frivolous pursuits. Vance grew up during the Great Depression and struggled to be involved in the Second World War; the last story in the collection, “Morreion,” was written at the close of the Vietnam War, while the others were written during the “me years” of the ‘80s. Regarding the stories in that context, it’s easy to read the critiques of American society embedded in the text: feminism and gender theory; corruption of the rule of law; the predicament of veterans when the public chooses to forget about the war. Scratch the surface and there’s strong stuff underneath.

Aside from the magic—which is, itself, curious and entertaining stuff—and the tales’ thematic weight , I strongly recommend these stories to old-schoolers for the characters. They are the platonic ideal of OD&D PCs: self-absorbed, cowardly, greedy, and dreamily unconcerned with morality and ideology except when such matters impinge on their activities, yet strangely compelling by dint of their surface qualities: wit, eccentricity, verve and panache. If only all of our adventurers were so engaging!


i’m going to hell for saying this…

…but I like Milius-Conan better than Howard-Conan.  By a pretty wide margin.  Everything about that movie is awesome.  But James Earl Jones is especially awesome.  And Mako is extra-especially awesome (in this and in all things).

If a movie has this in it, I am okay with trademark dilution


Fantasy Fiction: Sword & Sorcery in the Public Domain

Despite the glacial slowness in which literature enters the public domain these days, there are now a lot of old sword & sorcery stories available online as text files or free PDFs. This includes some of the more obscure entries on the 1e DMG’s admirable Appendix N. I’ve posted a list of links below for authors with several stories available online in the public domain. (Note that there are only a few stories available for some authors; don’t expect to find any stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser behind the Leiber link, for example.)


Magic Items Should Do the Impossible

I recently discovered the awesomeness that is Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series. One of the many mindblowing things that happens in the first book, Wizard War (US) / The Wizards and the Warriors (UK), is that the protagonists find a green bottle in a case with a pair of rings. When its wearer twists one of these ring, he and anyone he’s touching is transported into the bottle. The interior is as large as a castle and crammed full of provisions for a siege, ancient tomes, and all manner of things the wizards who stocked it felt might be useful to have inside one’s magic bottle.

This is a cool magic item in its own right, but Cook’s invention really kicks into high gear when one of the characters winds up trapped in the lower levels of the green bottle without the ring to let him exit. Locked behind a portcullis and taunted by his enemy, he finds a red magic bottle with its own ring – which would seem only to let him escape one sealed bottle for another until he realizes that he can toss the red bottle past the portcullis, enter it with his ring, and then twist it again to emerge on the far side. Having the bottle lets you do things that would otherwise be impossible, and the rest of the book inventively explores some of those implications.

Justin Alexander and Ben Robbins have written great essays on how to making magic items feel magical by linking them to the backstory of your campaign: This isn’t just a +1 sword, it’s the blade of the Shamed King, or evidence that one of your rival adventurers was here before and lost their weapon. Likewise, Hugh Cook’s magic bottles certainly say interesting things about the history of the world that created them.

But their use also shapes the future of the world in dramatic ways, because now the protagonists can do things that were previously impossible. This role for magic items is one of the glories of original Dungeons & Dragons, but each edition that’s followed has increasingly swapped it out for items that let you do much the same kinds of things you could before, except with a numerical bonus that has no discernable effect on actual play unless you’re subjecting your PC’s performance to rigorous statistical analysis.

Example: A new player joined my White Sandbox campaign, bringing in a character named Ookla the Mok who had reached 3rd level (where our native PCs start, as per Gygax’s OD&D house rules) playing another AD&D campaign back in the day.  Ookla had a pair of +1 swords, so I said “I’m fine with you having these, but you should be aware that in this edition all magic swords are intelligent – depending on how I roll them up, trying to wield them might kill you or leave you dominated.”

He decided to take the risk, and survived the damage when each of them turned out to have an opposing (single-axis, three-valued) alignment. Roleplaying the subsequent interactions was fun, and different from other social interactions in the campaign because the ego rules provide a mechanical basis for resolving conflicts between sword and wielder that’s more detailed than the reaction roll for conflicts between PCs and NPCs. But it wasn’t until he managed to win some cooperation from his longsword that I really understood how substantially old-school magic items can impact a campaign.

Ookla still isn’t able to wield his sword, which would mean that it was useless  to him in any other edition. But one of the abilities OD&D randomly assigned to this weapon is detecting secret doors. As near as I can tell, nothing else in the game lets you do this automatically, so a fighting-man’s ability to wield magic swords thus has a huge implicit potential to let the class do the impossible. The effect on our game has been amazing. Paul Jaquays filled the with hidden areas, reachable only by secret doors in places I never expected the players to search and thus could never imagine them finding. Ookla’s sword has thus opened up vistas previously unimagined by the adventurers, suddenly multiplying the richness and potential of the campaign. Even knowing it was there all along, I’ve vicariously felt the thrill of a discovery that shatters the limits you thought were there, like Warren Robinett’s easter egg in the Atari 2600 Adventure cartridge.

Pfaugh on magic items that fulfill their designed role with 30 finely gradated levels of numerical sufficiency! Give me magic bottles and portable holes;  I want to haul goods, carry passengers through inhospitable environments, and create a last-ditch improvised extra-planar explosive device with the addition of a bag of holding!

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2023

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