Sunday, 26 January 2014

D&D's Appendix N Roots Are Science Fantasy

Happy 40th birthday, D&D! The world's oldest fantasy adventure role-playing game?  Yes, but ... most of the world doesn't know about the role of science fantasy in the first eight or so years of your existence. The genre purges of the 80's - serious fantasy only, please! - saw science-fantasy shaken out of successive D&D rule sets. But psionics, giant insects and blobs, and the crashed spaceships in both Arneson's and Gygax's games, are important sci-fi intrusions in the early game.

Science fantasy confronts modern and ancient ways of understanding the world, often giving credence to both. Its trademark solution is to identify witchcraft with the quasi-scientific ideas of ESP and dimensional travel. Most significantly, this happens all throughout Lovecraft. The "technology of the ancients" is another frequent theme, whether we or some other civilization takes the part of the "ancients."

But beyond fiction, science fantasy casts a sympathetic light onto the gamer's own activities. You, a modern, rational person, are using actuarial tables and polyhedral number crunching to enact a Dark Ages drama. Hell - the very activity of role-playing is science fantasy!

If any more proof is needed, below are the inspirational works and authors from Gygax's famed Appendix N. I've highlighted them as non-science fantasy (yellow), science fantasy by one of the three definitions below (green), or straight science fiction, albeit sometimes with a medieval or ancient setting (blue).

1. Scientific explanations or sci-fi settings of apparently fantastic phenomena. Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, where knowledge of chemistry and physics explains the dragon's breath or the giant's curse. De Camp & Pratt's Compleat Enchanter, where voyages to fantastic worlds stem from modern-day adventurers' mastery of higher mathematics. McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern and John Carter of Mars - sword-and-planet, dragon-and-planet.

2. The return of the fantastic to a far future or post-apocalyptic world. Vance's Dying Earth, Lanier's previously mentioned Hiero's Journey, and others.

3. The fantastic intruding into a world ruled by science: Lovecraft, Zelazny's Amber series, or the explorer's romances of A. Merritt.

Anderson, Poul: THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS; THE HIGH CRUSADE; THE BROKEN SWORD 
Bellairs, John: THE FACE IN THE FROST 
Brackett, Leigh 
Brown, Frederic 
Burroughs, Edgar Rice: "Pellucidar" series; Mars series; Venus series 
Carter, Lin: "World's End" series
de Camp, L. Sprague: LEST DARKNESS FALL; THE FALLIBLE FIEND; et al
de Camp & Pratt: "Harold Shea" series; THE CARNELIAN CUBE 
Derleth, August 
Dunsany, Lord
Farmer, P. J.: "The World of the Tiers" series; et al
Fox, Gardner: "Kothar" series; "Kyrik" series; et al 
Howard, R. E.: "Conan" series 
Lanier, Sterling: HIERO'S JOURNEY
Leiber, Fritz: "Fafhrd & Gray Mouser" series; et al 
Lovecraft, H. P. 
Merritt, A.: CREEP, SHADOW, CREEP; MOON POOL; DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE; et al
Moorcock, Michael: STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon" series (esp. the  first three books) 
Norton, Andre
Offutt, Andrew J.: editor of SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS III 
Pratt, Fletcher: BLUE STAR; et al 
Saberhagen, Fred: CHANGELING EARTH; et al
St. Clair, Margaret: THE SHADOW PEOPLE; SIGN OF THE LABRYS
Tolkien, J. R. R.: THE HOBBIT; "Ring trilogy" 
Vance, Jack: THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD; THE DYING EARTH; et al 
Weinbaum, Stanley
Wellman, Manley Wade 
Williamson, Jack
Zelazny, Roger: JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" series; et al‏.

Science fantasy is the largest of these three categories, and if you put the sci-fi authors in with it, it easily overwhelms the pure fantasy sources. I've also boldfaced what in my opinion are the most important influences on the actual game, the works that contributed most to the concept of the races, classes, magic and monsters in the game. These are evenly split between science and classic fantasy.

As I look over these influences I also realize that in my own Band of Iron campaign I've been taking a different approach to confront the mythic with the modern. Let's call it "fantasy-science." If all goes well the section of the campaign dealing with that will come to a climax in a session tomorrow, so in my next post I'll be at greater liberty to write about its secrets.

5 comments:

  1. Don't forget that "The Tower of the Elephant" had a Science-Fantasy element to it, and so did a few other Conan stories ("Red Nails" had the "dragons" which were actually dinosaurian lizards, for example).

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    1. True - there is only a difference of flavor between a barbarian of 10,000 years ago and 10,000 years to come (as in the Carter and Saberhagen entries)

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    2. Yup, the Conan series is definitely science-fantasy; it is essentially a subset of the Lovecraft Mythos.

      The Kothar series by Fox is also science-fantasy, taking place some billions of years hence, though only one story features a significant purely technological element. The Kyrik series is thousands of years ago, and more "pure fantasy."

      The Elric series is arguably science-fantasy; Chaos was all about magic, while Law was all about science, and the lands caught in-between were a mix.

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  2. “These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burrough’s Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not likely find DUNGEONS & DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answers to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite you to read on and enjoy a ‘world’ where the fantastic is fact and magic really works.”
    E. Gary Gygax, 1 Nov 1973

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  3. Growing up in the 70s, the distinction between fantasy and sci-fi wasn't very significant; movies like Heavy Metal and Wizards tended to blend them together. I can't help but think that D&D was an important ingredient in cementing "fantasy" as something completely different from sci-fi. Particular the craze of fantasy book that were written by D&Ders such as Dragonlance.

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