Monday, 20 May 2013

Reign of Wizardry: Unacknowledged Gygax Source?

The first AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, as grognards well know, contains the touchstone Appendix N, in
Frazetta cover, 1964
which Gary Gygax lists literary influences on the game. One of the writers who appears without any specific works listed is Jack Williamson. I don't think anyone yet has realized that Williamson may well be the direct source for a few aspects of magic, monsters and adventures in AD&D.

Williamson is one of those science fiction writers I read as an adolescent without really absorbing his name. His career started in the 1920's and his last novel, a year before he died at age 98, was published in 2005. Along the way, he is credited for inventing such terms as "terraforming," "genetic engineering," and "Prime Directive" - the latter from his classic 1947 story "With Folded Hands," a wry subversion of the ideals in Asimov's contemporaneous Robot stories.

It's been assumed that Gygax's reference to Williamson's influence is indirect, and based on those science fiction works. Having just read Williamson's 1940 novel Reign of Wizardry, I'm not so sure of that. There are a number of telling resonances with the very specific elements of early D&D in this "sword, sandal and sorcery" novel of the ancient Greek world. The version that Gygax probably read was the 1964 Lancer paperback reissue.

Superficially, the setting resembles previous examples of the ancient-world pulp story such as Talbot Mundy's "Tros of Samothrace" series: a fantasy Theseus pursues a grudge against the sorcerous rulers of Minoan Crete. The writing is zesty, evocative and gritty. Williamson uses the well-known Greek myth as a springboard rather than crutch for the plot, which delivers more dizzying twists than Christopher Nolan or M. Night Shyamalan would dare try.

What about the D&D influence? I'll go from most obvious to most doubtful.

AD&D spellcasting: As Gygax's Advanced game increased the power of spellcasters with a plethora of new spells, it also limited them with increasingly specific rules on how spells were cast. One of the key elements: the detailing of verbal, somatic and material components, with terminology taken straight from Pratt and de Camp's Compleat Enchanter series. But in that series, all three were described as necessary components of spellcasting; while in the Player's Handbook, many spells lack one or more of the elements, complicating the question of whether a spell can be cast while bound or gagged. Where did Gygax get the idea to make the components optional for different spells?

At one point in Reign of Wizardry, Theseus is captured by the bad guys and tempts a greedy admiral with a story of buried treasure, which allegedly can only be retrieved by the magic of Theseus' ally, the craven minor wizard Snish. This gives a pretext to bring Snish to Theseus:
"He is the wizard," said Theseus. "But let the gag stay. He can use his spell without words -- if he wants to avoid being tortured" [...]
As it turns out, Snish can indeed cast his spells without verbal component, although this fact turns out very much to the admiral's disadvantage. I can't help but infer that the question came to Gygax's mind as a result of this scenario, or similar other ones in fantasy literature.

Iron golem: The iron golem in the Greyhawk supplement and AD&D has a number of abilities - slowing spell, poison gas cloud - without obvious precedent in fiction or legend. In Deities and Demigods, the Cretan construct Talos is described as a "triple iron golem." Reign of Wizardry has a memorable version of Talos as a giant, moving brass statue who is animated by an internal magical fire and causes steam when he wades in the sea. This aspect is probably inspired by the legend, in the classical Argonautica, that Talos would heat himself in a fire to give intruders a lethal embrace. But the internal sorcerous fire of Williamson's Talos seems to have inspired at least one trait of that D&D golem - being regenerated instead of harmed by fire damage. Perhaps the other abilities have an equally obscure fictional origin?

Specific spells: The sorcerers of Crete, including King Minos himself, hurl lightning bolts, while a very crucial spell known to the wizard Snish (and, it turns out, others) bears a distinct resemblance to the AD&D illusionist spell, change self, although the version in the novel lasts until you make close contact with another person and can be conferred on others.

Killer dungeon: The Labyrinth of Knossos appears near the end of the novel, as Theseus is once again captured and thrust into it without a light, there to be devoured by the Dark One, the Minotaur. The description as Theseus explores the depths may not have been directly influential. But it certainly resonates with what we know of Gygax's ideas about how the game should be played:
He went slowly, counting the steps and testing each carefully before he set his full weight on it. After sixty steps there was a small square landing and a turning in the passage; after sixty more, another. Upon the third landing his foot crushed something brittle, and his exploring hand found two skeletons [...]
Theseus left the remains and went on down, wondering what might be on the fourth landing. Again, he counted fifty-eight steps. But, where the fifty-ninth had been, there was -- nothing. Almost, moving with too great confidence, he had lost his balance.
Theseus proceeds to use logic and the skeletons' bones to find a way through the abyss in the darkness, and then reflects:
The way through the dwelling of the Dark One was clearly thick-set with peril. The most of those thrust into the labyrinth, he thought, must perish in this chasm he has passed. 
I'm reminded of this anecdote from Mike Mornard of a convention scenario run by Gygax, in which eight out of nine incautious would-be adventuring parties fell victim to a similar death pit in a stairway, concealed by a wall of darkness. While the direct connection can't be proved, the indirect one is evident. The kind of fiction Gygax read and enjoyed was directly reflected in the challenges he set for his players and the style of play that ended up being rewarded.

5 comments:

  1. Good find - now I want to pick up a copy for myself.

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  2. Yes nice find. I don't read anything anymore unless it is very well written. I have far too many good books, so can you roughly compare his language use to any the better fantasy writers that you know?

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    1. The writing is closest in style to Howard, I think, breathless at times, but takes itself a bit less seriously. The really unique point of style is the constant revelation of mind-bending plot twists, that pile up on each other near the end and ultimately actually interfere with the novel's plausibility and enjoyment.

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