Monday, December 22, 2008

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: Lest Darkness Fall

My distaste for the harm L. Sprague De Camp wrought to the reputations of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft notwithstanding, there's no denying that he was an important figure in the early days of fantasy and science fiction and that his writings greatly influenced Dungeons & Dragons. De Camp is almost unique among the writers Gary Gygax listed in Appendix N in that his name appears not once but twice -- once alone and a second time linked to that of his writing partner Fletcher Pratt, with whom he co-wrote the Harold Shea stories. (Pratt, of course, is the only other author whose name appears twice)

Consequently, it'd be a grave mistake to overlook the De Camp books listed in the back of the Dungeon Masters Guide. Among them is 1941's Lest Darkness Fall, originally published in 1939 as a short story in Unknown magazine. Like many of the books that influenced D&D, Lest Darkness Fall is the story of a modern person transported to another world -- in this case, 6th century Italy -- who, through a combination of modern know-how and determination, changes this other world forever.

The modern person of De Camp's tale is Martin Padway, an American archeologist, who, after using his knowledge to introduce unheard of inventions (brandy, printing press, newspapers, telegraph) and thereby make himself wealthy, becomes involved in the politics of Ostrogothic Italy. Over the course of the novel, Padway's actions change history by stabilizing the Ostrogothic kingdom, beating back the Byzantines, and even preventing the foundation of Islam. What's interesting is that Padway never once considers the consequences of his actions in the past, even though they will undoubtedly destroy the future from which he came. I confess that De Camp tells the story with such good humor and verve that I didn't much care about such things, preferring instead to enjoy the novel for what it is: an amusing tale well-told. Harry Turtledove, contemporary master of alternate history, agrees and credits Lest Darkness Fall for igniting his interest in history and, by extension, alternate history.

Alternate histories and parallel worlds are a significant part of the pulp fantasy heritage of Dungeons & Dragons. They've largely been lost in the game's modern incarnations. Indeed, I can't recall any specific connection between a D&D world and our own in anything published in over 20 years. Once upon a time, that wasn't the norm: adventurers regularly encountered dimensional castaways from 20th century Earth or raided the British Museum in search of the Mace of St. Cuthbert. I miss things more than I realized, which is why I plan to do my part to restore this aspect of D&D's heritage in my own campaigns.

18 comments:

  1. Indeed, I can't recall any specific connection between a D&D world and our own in anything published in over 20 years.

    Urban Arcana, for d20 Modern, was pretty explicitly linked to Greyhawk. But yeah, I always loved that aspect of AD&D and threw my players into the modern world, or a modern world, more than a few times.

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  2. The Forgotten Realms kept up a degree of passing mentions of connections to our Earth, at least, though it hasn't done anything to encourage crossover play.

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  3. I loved Lest Darkness Fall, so of course also dig Drake's and Turtledove's alternate-history fantasies. I don't remember who wrote the "agent of Byzantium" series of stories, but I do remember them. And of course actually reading Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee and Mysterious Stranger is in another league from watching Bob Hope tear up the silver screen. For one thing, Twain's vision was much darker than Hollywood's ...

    Simak did a very D&D-ish novel (and a sequel, titles escaping me at the moment) in which the threat of scary monsters and super freaks kept the Roman Empire together into the 1970s AD -- while simultaneously hindering technological development. Some of the characters appeared in an installment of the "Giants in the Earth" column of Dragon Magazine.

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  4. Pratt's Well of the Unicorn draws on his historical The Last King -- and perhaps also touches base with Eddison's Mezentian Gate.

    The eclecticism of Gygaxian influences, more than particular titles, strikes me as a contrast to the relative homogeneity of what we get now that there's an increasingly incestuous relationship between commercial D&D and popular fantasy fiction.

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  5. Once upon a time, that wasn't the norm: adventurers regularly encountered dimensional castaways from 20th century Earth or raided the British Museum in search of the Mace of St. Cuthbert.

    I never much liked that aspect of D&D. Maybe the movies 'Labyrinth' and 'The Never Ending Story' are to blame. -Those were my first introductions to these themes. Meh.

    That said, we occasionally tied our campaigns to anachronistic worlds. However, as different as these worlds were from that of our campaign, they never resembled any period of our own.

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  6. Dwayanu said The eclecticism of Gygaxian influences, more than particular titles, strikes me as a contrast to the relative homogeneity of what we get now that there's an increasingly incestuous relationship between commercial D&D and popular fantasy fiction.

    Great point Dwayanu: once Fantasy was carved out as a genre distinct from SF (does anyone have a date for this fiction category change, by chance?---it strikes me as most-likely circa 1977 Ballantine reprints of LOTR and the advent of The Sword of Shannara??), Fantasy (and therefore D&D) became much more narrow in scope compared to the pulp roots that spawned it. That sameness colors much of the rpg industry production of FRPGs from ~1983 onward---and not for the better!

    Allan.

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  7. The Forgotten Realms kept up a degree of passing mentions of connections to our Earth, at least, though it hasn't done anything to encourage crossover play.

    Yeah, it's something that was mentioned in passing in the 1e boxed set and then pretty much dropped since then.

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  8. The eclecticism of Gygaxian influences, more than particular titles, strikes me as a contrast to the relative homogeneity of what we get now that there's an increasingly incestuous relationship between commercial D&D and popular fantasy fiction.

    Very well said.

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  9. The distinction of a category of "hard" SF goes back to Jules Verne. There has long been a broad area in which what matters is not the trappings but the treatment. Burroughs' Barsoom may once have been science-fictional, but it reads better as fantasy today. For all their superficial similarities, Smith's "Lensman" series remains SF while "Star Wars" is pure fantasy; science, from physics to sociology, plays no role at all in the latter.

    Norton's Witch World series has been marketed in different categories at different times, even by the same publisher (e.g., Ace and Tor). The same has probably happened with Bradley's Darkover.

    What I really see is the rise out of the ghetto into popularity of a genre that blithely mixes superficialities from both while having the depths of neither. I knew a fellow who liked to say that "everything started with Star Wars" -- and perhaps this one thing did.

    The Tolkien influence seems gradually to have become dominant in both D&D and heroic fantasy. Even more, tropes of the game have fed into fiction and then been fed back. What has become of Drow (especially!), Gnomes and Halflings seem to me striking examples of the feedback loop.

    I shudder to imagine what the influence of "4E" shall produce.

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  10. With the release of AD&D, I came to see the game as a sort of world unto itself, as distinctively Gygaxian as (for instance) RuneQuest was a reflection of Greg Stafford's personal vision, or EPT of M.A.R. Barker's.

    Now it seems to have become in some minds the definition of the fantasy genre. Dunsany's dwarfs and elves, even his Gnoles, may be judged "wrong." Something without those creatures altogether may not even qualify. Where once the trend was to criticize D&D for not giving Gandalf his due, now it might be more common to knock Tolkien for improperly representing a "high-level Wizard." (I may be exaggerating on that count!)

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  11. Although I enjoy lost world and sword & planet stories, and of course Connecticut Yankee, I have trouble getting into the modern hero moving into a fantasy world. I'm not sure why, although I suspect "Beastmaster 2" has something to do with it. Actually, it seems there were quite a few "lost in the modern world" films in the 80s, to the point that it was parodied in an Alf comic (with an ersatz Conan teaming up with the ersatz Marx Brothers, if you can believe it).

    As for Forgotten Realms, Greenwood said in an interview in Kobold Quarterly that his original concept of the setting was a magical realm from which we get our myths, legends, and fairy tales, a bit like the Fables comic (created by Bill Willingham - coincidence?). According to him, TSR wanted to downplay this aspect for fear that kids might get hurt trying to find portals to the Realms - or at least that parents might blame them when kids got hurt in the course of normal imaginative play. Reading that made me kind of sad; I've never been a great fan of Forgotten Realms, but this idea made the whole thing a lot more appealing somehow. (Not to mention how much I hate seeing creativity amputated for fear of imaginary lawsuits.)

    I'm coming down with a Christmas flu, so I lack the capacity to offer any new thoughts here. However, Eric Trautmann wanted me to say 'Hi' for him.

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  12. That is interesting about the Forgotten Realms; the name always suggested that to me, and in my youth I often associated it with the "realms" mentioned in the Dungeons & dragons cartoon, which is perhaps the most widely known D&D crossover with the real world! :D

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  13. The Tolkien influence seems gradually to have become dominant in both D&D and heroic fantasy. Even more, tropes of the game have fed into fiction and then been fed back. What has become of Drow (especially!), Gnomes and Halflings seem to me striking examples of the feedback loop.

    Very much so. It's disappointing to me how incestuous the entire genre of fantasy has become.

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  14. Where once the trend was to criticize D&D for not giving Gandalf his due, now it might be more common to knock Tolkien for improperly representing a "high-level Wizard." (I may be exaggerating on that count!)

    Only slightly :)

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  15. (Not to mention how much I hate seeing creativity amputated for fear of imaginary lawsuits.)

    You and me both

    I'm coming down with a Christmas flu, so I lack the capacity to offer any new thoughts here. However, Eric Trautmann wanted me to say 'Hi' for him.

    Get well and say hello to Eric for me. Let him know I still envy his productivity and success :)

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  16. I remembered that another real-world crossover into D&D occurs in the module UK1 Beyond the Crystal Cave: it features the Old English pantheon of gods, while squarely being set in Greyhawk (in the Hold of the Sea Princes).

    Some friends in my current play group rank UK1 among their favorite sleeper modules, but I haven't made time to re-read it yet to see if I agree. My recollection of UK1 places it squarely in the "meh" category at best.

    Allan.

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  17. Allan,

    I'm a bit of a heretic in thinking that the UK modules series was pretty mediocre, particularly when compared to the much better U-series or, for that matter, many other late 1e modules. I think the UK modules tend to get better press than they deserve because they're quirky and oozing with flavor. Unfortunately, I don't much like that flavor and, as adventures, they're definitely not ideal. I don't think they're terrible and I certainly understand why they're well regarded; I simply don't see them as so much better than other modules of the era to be placed on the pedestal I sometimes see them placed.

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  18. I agree completely James, which is why (thus far) I haven't made time for UK1. I have a strongly positive memory of running UK6 All That Glitters and adapting it to the Sulhaunt Mountains in Greyhawk, but otherwise I found the UK modules in general to range from complete rubbish to perhaps salvageable crap.

    Allan.

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