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Friday, 31 October 2014

Screw "Appendix N"!

Today's blog rant starts out inspired by something that would make a great Uncracked Monday entrance.  OSR luminary and Escapist dude Alexander Macris did a Ted-talk, a really great one, on the subject of how our intellectual diet has been steadily declining in quality over the decades.

Well worth watching.

But the thing is, someone on G+ responded to this video by suggesting that people should read all the books listed in Appendix N.  For those not in the know, "Appendix N" is an appendix found in 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, which lists some 'recommended reading'.  Essentially, Gary Gygax's inspiration list.

Appendix N was largely ignored for decades, perhaps too ignored I'll admit.  But it was never  meant to be more than a list of stuff that Gygax liked that he thought would inspire people for running D&D with.  But in the last few years I've seen it get shifted by some people in the OSR from its almost-forgotten obscurity into being seen as a kind of rosetta-stone of the endless idiotic quest to find the "UR-D&D". 

I've seen some OSR-ites on blogs and forums treat it as some kind of secret code that will reveal the One True Old School style, and the way some of these people treat it is as though Saint Gygax had carefully and with a profound view to the Immense Significance of his work and it's consequence on all future generations taken an almost Biblical level of attention to just what would be on that list.  I've seen people suggest that if you haven't read the books in Appendix N you can't possibly run Old-school D&D right, and I've seen people put immense value on books that don't really deserve it just because it's on that list, and ignore other books (or reject their value for D&D play) just because they're not on Gary's Sacred List.  It's an attitude that pisses me off to no end because it expresses what I see as some of the worst mentality of some corners of the OSR, the ones obsessed with finding that "pure" and "true" D&D (with an attitude more reminiscent of a protestant-reformation than of a 'renaissance', which implies the creation of something new rather than an obsession with eliminating anything that isn't the Oldest Purest Form).

I've long felt annoyance at the Extreme-Fundamentalist Wing of old-school gamers thinking that Gary Gygax's cleverness at writing D&D means he's the Absolute Divine Authority on ALL THINGS, and that Appendix N is therefore the definitive Holy List of The Greatest Books of All Time, and the only thing worth reading; or that everything on it is a masterpiece, and not just a mix of classics, mediocrity, and drivel that a moderately-educated insurance salesman from Wisconsin happened to like.  There's stuff he included in Appendix N that, far from being "forgotten classics", have been forgotten for good reasons.  There's other stuff that was written in that same period (the 1940s-1970s) that are not on Appendix N that are just as good fantasy or sci-fi, but just happened to be stuff that Gary Gygax either hadn't read or hadn't personally liked enough to include.

More importantly, in the larger context of Mr. Macris' talk, the suggestion that reading Appendix N will make you smarter, or is a high-quality 'intellectual diet', seems pretty silly to me.  It might be a slightly better diet than modern fantasy or sci-fi, but not even all that much. I've seen quite a few people over the years, making fun of their dad reading Michael Crichton novels or their grandad reading Zane Grey, while they bragged about how much more sophisticated they were for reading Robert E. Howard. I've seen some people do the same, making fun of Twilight books while bragging about having read every single Star Trek novel.  Way too many geeks have a GROSSLY overinflated notion of how superior their pop-literature is compared to other pop-lit. I'll admit that it's a pet peeve of mine, this idea some Nerds have that they're much smarter than the 'mundanes' just because they've read some sci-fi, while not realizing just how absurdly and spectacularly uneducated they actually are. They're confusing their taste in popular literature for some kind of superiority, assuming that fantasy as a genre is inherently 'smarter' than popular romances, or westerns, or spy thrillers, when in fact it isn't.

If the idea of the "read Appendix N" argument is to say "sci-fi/fantasy of the 40s-70s is much more profound than modern scifi/fantasy", then you kind of miss the point that it's still grade-school crap compared to things you could be reading.  Why not forget about "lizard men of the lost world" or whatever, and read Farewell to Arms?  Shakespeare? Thus Spake Zarathustra? The Romance of the Three Kingdoms? The Theogony? The I Ching? Gargantua and Pantagruel? Any number of modern non-fiction books on history, anthropology, science, politics, economics, religion, philosophy, art, etc.?

Only a geek could possibly make the claim that you're SMARTER for reading Early Star Trek novels instead of Later Star Trek Novels.  It once again proves my statement that most geeks are not more intelligent than the average person, they just think they are, and for absurd reasons. 
As much as I like Lankhmar (to give just one example), and agree that the stories set there are a better quality of fiction than, say, the latest drivel in the Forgotten Realms novel-churning machine, there's still only a comparatively small gap between the former and the latter in relation to the gap between either of those and Paradise Lost, or The Conference of the Birds, or the works of Plato.

And I don't suggest that people shouldn't enjoy fantasy/sci-fi fiction, particularly the classics in that field (though again, not all of the Appendix N material can really be seen as "classics"; some of it was quite bad from what I recall, but just happened to be stuff Gary Gygax liked; who, let us remember, was a salesman, and not an Intellectual Genius We Must All Emulate).  I'm just saying that I find it hilarious when nerds who've read 100 Star Wars novels think that makes them smarter or better educated than housewives who've read 100 Harlequin romances, or teenage girls who've read 100 books about teenage vampires forced to participate in post-apocalyptic contests.  And it is only slightly less absurd when a nerd who's read some Heinlein novels - but never any of the classics of English or world literature, much less philosophy, history, world religion, or the like - thinks that having read Starship Troopers makes them intellectual giants worthy of mocking the Star-Trek fans and Harlequin Romance readers alike.

Note that this has nothing to do with the 'Tedtalk' itself.   Macris, in his talk, doesn't suggest people read Conan, he suggests they read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.


Finally, let's forget for a moment the larger question of 'intellectual diet', and look at the question of "inspiration for running RPGs", or designing RPGs for that matter. If that's the goal, then sure, fine, take a look at the novels in Appendix N; but I would argue that stopping there is not going to get you all that far, for the reasons aforementioned above. I can assure you that people like Heinlein, Zelazny, Leiber, Moorcock, and to say nothing of Tolkien, did not spend all their time reading fantasy and sci-fi.  It's fine to be inspired by the better quality of scifi/fantasy work; but why not be inspired by what inspired the authors of this work?  Heinlein and Zelazny were both notably well versed in world philosophy and eastern mysticism.  Moorcock is extensively read in western mythology and esoterica (as are some of the great modern fantasy writers like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison).  Tolkien was an expert on Norse and Anglo-saxon myth and religion.  Even the old Wisconsin Insurance Salesman studied anthropology and was notoriously interested in medieval history, christian theology, and a variety of other subjects that transcended pop literature.  To say nothing of the likes of Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker and his studies of Indian mythology, history and linguistics; or Erick Wujcik's extensive knowledge of the Chinese and Japanese literary and religious classics (with whom I will eternally regret not having had more conversations about than I did).

Trading up Star Trek novels for Appendix N is, undoubtedly, a step up; but it's a TINY step up.  It's like trading in a McDonald's diet for a Subway diet.  I'm not one of these snobs who will turn his nose on a Quarter Pounder or a Subway Melt, but let's not make the mistake of thinking either are high-cuisine. And if you want to run a truly great game, or write one, I'd strongly suggest you get inspired by the stuff that inspired the writers you already love.

RPGPundit

Currently Smoking: Dunhill Classic Series Rhodesian + C&D's Crowley's Best

17 comments:

  1. In a similar vein, I wish people who cite Appendix N would remember to read the paragraphs in front of it, which mention a broad helping of sources outside of "fantasy authors of the 20th century". I've actually seen people complain that there are no clerics in any of Gygax's sources, as if he wouldn't have ever read Arthurian romance, or as if there are no holy men in fairy tales... Or maybe fairy tales are not permitted in D&D, even though Appendix N mentions Andrew Lang and the brothers Grimm?

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  2. Marcis' TED talk certainly was worth watching, and your link was the first I stumbled across, so thanks for that.

    As for Appendix N, ugh, I've got a love/hate relationship with it. It's important to remember that Moldvay Basic said "Ages 10 and up" on the box, and while the first edition DMG increased that recommendation to 12, D&D was first made by and for college students. I've enjoyed the Appendix N books I've read, but I pretty sure Gygax et al wrote is as an entry level primer rather than an end-all-be-all, rest-on-your-laurels curriculum.

    Look, whatever, the TED guy said vague sentences were good for your brain!

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    1. Yeah, I just don't buy people treating Appendix N like its the Rosetta Stone, is all.

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  3. A great post. I am glad you mentioned that the really good genre writers were themselves well-read in many fields. That's what made them good writers, even in pulp genre fiction.

    I have always found that reading anything worthwhile--great literature, history, whatever--always helps me as a GM, either directly or indirectly.

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    1. Yes. I think it's also important not to limit one's self to fiction.

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    1. Translation? I need no translation, English is my mother tongue! :P

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    2. Apologies, pataphysician if I blindsided you by deleting the comment. And apologies to the Pundit if he saw it. I'l perhaps take up my disagreement with the post in another forum. But it was perhaps not appropriate to do it on this blog.

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    3. I didn't see it. And as long as you weren't going over the line and making it personal or something, I don't think I'd have likely been upset. I don't mind strenuous disagreement (always better if it comes with good argument on the points in question, of course).

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    4. Well said. Here's my response at:
      http://saveversusallwands.blogspot.com/2014/11/screw-appendix-c-calm-and-thoughtful.html.
      Feel free to comment on my blog post. Shred away!

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  5. These children have no future!

    Going to the classics, the source material and inspiration behind these popular and easily digestible works of fiction from Appendix N isn't going to be possible or come easily to the bulk of the players of D&D and AD&D. Howard, Lovecraft, Lieber or Heinlein are going to be the highest level of literary attainment that many of the old, new or yet to be born gamer population will ever achieve. I think Appendix N serves its purpose admirably well and those who wish to dig deeper and reach higher are few and far between.

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    1. Nice. And a good (ironic) point: just as there's stuff well before the Appendix N material that seems hugely important to look at, there's a great deal of stuff that came along AFTER Appendix N, that gets downplayed because it would somehow sully the "purity" of the "old school experience". Which is nonsensical. Game of Thrones is no less useful to old-school inspiration as Elric.

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  6. I think some people forgot that the books of Appendix N were supposed to be fun reading and not an exhaustive list.

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  7. I would guess (I could well be wrong) that since Gygax was from an older generation than myself, two generations from the current "peak demographic" of RPGs and "geek media" in general, that he likely assumed that people HAD read a lot of the Great Works, or at least had been sufficiently exposed to them through culture/school.

    In his (and my parents') day, the Western Canon (love it or hate it) was a bigger part of people's schooling. Gamers of Gygax's generation could well have been assumed to be familiar with the things you're lamenting they're not reading.

    At the same time, a lot of people new to D&D in the 70's/early 80's might not have been familiar with all of the authors on that list.

    Not to write this as some sort of blind praise to Gygax (there are some stinkers on the list, for sure, and little of it is considered better than B-grade literature), but I'd say the fault lies not in what's on or off of Appendix N, but more on contemporary over-analysis of what's on Appendix N and, as you say, it's perceived importance.

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    1. Oh ABSOLUTELY. I'm not saying that Gygax is "to blame" at all. He just wrote a throwaway list of some books he liked which was never meant to be any kind of a big deal. It was the OSR that took that and turned it into the HOLY WRIT and key to the finding of the ONE TRUE UR-D&D.

      They turned it from "hey, I think that these are some cool books, which may have just been included here cause I had a spare page" to the motherfucking Da Vinci Code, the Secret Key and List of Obligatory Reading To Be Playing D&D Right. And for some, the List of The Last Acceptable Fiction to Influence D&D, where any book written after the list was made Can't Possibly be accepted as the equal of any book on that list, either for inspiring D&D (if you are inspired by Game of Thrones, then you're not Real Old School), or as literature.

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