The Indy Press RPG’s would have you believe that story gaming is a new phenomenon. Depending on the semantics that you want to use, that’s accurate, as there’s a movement to put the story and agency at the forefront of some modern games, at the expense of the rule mechanics and the power of the gamemaster.
On a deeper level, however, there’s a well-established spine of narrative that forms the very foundation of role-playing in general. Role-playing games require a story to set them apart from the board and card games that form the ancillary parts of the greater industry. And to generate the story, there needs to be a basis of narrative construction to build the games upon.
Gary Gygax saw the necessity of these sources in his early work on Dungeons & Dragons. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D published in 1979, he included the long discussed Appendix N which covered the fantasy works that he deemed important for the construction of the worlds he had built the game for. It’s an interesting list, and the relevance is pretty quickly established.
Michael Moorcock and Howard Philips Lovecraft were important enough to merit inclusion in the first edition of the Deities & Demigods sourcebook with the Melnibonean and Cthulhu Mythos amongst the more recognizable pantheons of gods. Similarly, Fritz Lieber’s cosmos was in those same pages, with a later module series and worldset in the 2nd Edition era.
Jack Vance may as well have written the magic system that has persisted into modern eras of the game (and been lamented by every fitful GM that’s “determined to do it the right way” by abstracting it out to some new system). And well, Tolkien’s influence is as obvious as the threatened lawsuit that came early in the game’s history.
And then there’s Andre Norton, who managed to write the first actual D&D novel in the form of Quag Keep and ended her notable career with this book’s sequel as her final work, unfinished at her death.
Each of these sources can be measured from the elements that were lifted to created the framework that is recognizably Dungeons & Dragons. Aragorn provided the template for Rangers, while Hobbits and Elves remain largely unmodified to this day. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are recognizable as a Barbarian and Thief from the early editions. Conan adds to this mythos, only his particular class advancement tends to be less rigid than what D&D would allow for. (It’s a little more flexible these days, but still…) At the same time, his exploits, drawn from the pulp weirdness of Robert E. Howard’s heyday, model much of the feel that Gygax was trying to infuse into his world-building, with aging, decadent empires and foul sorceries from inhuman dimensions.
Now I will be the first to admit that I have read precious few of the books that Gygax included on his list, due as much to the esoteric nature of his source material and the relative lack of access that my childhood allowed for used bookstores. I have burned through plenty of Lovecraft, a fair cross-section of Moorcock, and a solid amount of Tolkien. I read The Chronicles of Amber in high school, and there’s always been some Andre Norton somewhere in my bookcase. Here and there, I return to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, but without much guidance or oversight.
And that’s about it for Gygax’s list. I’ve read stuff by Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp and August Derleth, but only in other collections alongside Lovecraft and Howard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs sits forlornly on my shelf, unloved until such point as I have time and ambition. I’m not terribly likely to go back and search out the hoary tomes that I’ve missed (that tends to be something that Ironbombs is more predisposed towards), but if I manage to lay hands on one of these sources that captures my interest… well, we’ll see what happens.
In the meantime, I’ve burned through quite a lot of books that landed after the publication of the DMG in 1979. And that’s mainly what I want to talk about here. I feel, in a lot of ways, that Gygax’s list is a good starting point, but it is constrained by the time period that he composed it in as much as anything.
If nothing else, he had very few sources outside of books to draw from. These days, we’ve got an upcoming Shannara TV show, the wildly popular adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a questionable adaptation of Terry Goodkind’s novels, and so on.
Stepping outside of the Western Fantasy genre, there’s even more quality source to be drawn upon. Gygax was building a list of a single genre, which limited his choices accordingly. At the time, the industry was only tentatively exploring other genres, and it would be a couple of years before other genres gained much of a following. I’ve run a lot of contemporary setting games that draw from stories I’ve read in newspapers or in the strange corners of the internet, and these have offered great fuel for single sessions.
As much as anything, I want to explore the sources that pique my interests and offer ideas to my creative impulses. These can be books, movies, TV shows, anime, musical lyrics and so on. I have integrated a lot of disparate elements into my own gaming lexicon over the many years I’ve been at this, and this particular endeavor is my own attempt to catalogue my thoughts as they occur to me.
In some ways, I figure that this blog will see updates in a slightly more schizophrenic manner than my main blog, since it will follow the vagaries of my reading list and associated impulses of creative thought. For all I know, I’ll be updating this every time I finish a new book or find an anime series on Netflix that appeals to me. Or I might not be possessed of anything new for weeks at a time. It’s hard to say.
But anyway, this is where it all starts. This is the spark, and it remains to be seen what it may manage to ignite.