Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Tale of Two Lists

I yield to no one in my lamenting the fact that neither 3e nor 4e saw fit to include a recommended reading list in their pages. I see this as a further symptom of the way the WotC editions of the game have diverged from its Gygaxo-Arneson roots, being the product of a post-literate culture quite unlike the one that birthed our hobby. I hold out some hope that Pathfinder might correct this oversight, given Erik Mona's deep love for and understanding of pulp fantasy.

That said, I would argue that the divergence that can be seen so clearly in the WotC editions began much earlier. Consider that, in the justly famed Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide ("Inspirational and Educational Reading"), Gary Gygax explains:
The following authors were of particular inspiration to me. In some cases, I cite specific works, in others, I simply recommend all their fantasy writing to you. From such sources, as well as just about any other imaginative writing or screenplay you will be able to pluck kernels from which grow the fruits of exciting campaigns. Good reading!
As you can see, Gary wasn't closing off possible sources of inspiration to only a handful of books or authors. He was, throughout his career, committed to taking inspiration from wherever one might find it. At the same time, Gygax made clear which authors and books were the primary influences on him as he created D&D. It's these pulp fantasy books and authors who form the game's "literary DNA" and are the ones most consonant with the game as one of its creators conceived of it. (A similar list written by Dave Arneson would be intriguing indeed)

The DMG was published in 1979. Just two years later, Tom Moldvay's Basic Rulebook includes a lengthier bibliography, entitled "Inspirational Source Material," which was compiled with the help of Barbara Davis, children's librarian at the Lake Geneva Public Library. Moldvay states that
Books on folklore, mythology, fairy tales, bestiaries, and knightly legends can often help the DM fill in important details of a campaign, but fictional tales and fantasy novels usually provide the best sources of inspiration. The following list includes some books which might prove useful.
The divergence is clear. Whereas Gygax's list was a list of the specific books and authors who influenced him in creating the game -- and are thus a window into how he saw the game -- Moldvay's list is a generalized quasi-academic survey of fiction and non-fiction that might hold some interest to players of D&D.

It would be foolish to claim that Moldvay's list is the cause of the shift in the perception that D&D was a "generic" fantasy RPG without very specific inspirations and antecedents. Rather, I think Moldvay's list suggests that, by 1981, either enough gamers already believed this to be case so that including a reading list so different in tone from Gygax's was uncontroversial or that TSR was making a concerted effort to shift the game away from its literary origins in order to broaden its mass market appeal. The truth, I suspect, is somewhere in between. I certainly have an abiding respect for the memory of Tom Moldvay, whose work on modules B4, X1, and X2 reveal him to have been a keen student of pulp fantasy. Likewise, as highly as I regard TSR's products between the years 1974 and 1983, it's not as if the Golden Age ended abruptly and without the gleeful assistance of TSR itself, which made a number of creative decisions that laid the groundwork for the gaming world that exists today.

This is not a matter of "Gygax good/Moldvay bad" and I resist any attempt to characterize it as such. Nevertheless, it's hard to deny that the difference between the two reading lists reveals a shift in emphasis and approach that has had consequences for decades to come. Despite that, I feel compelled to say that, for all their differences, the fact that both Gygax and Moldvay saw the need to include a reading list at all shows how different they both were from the way the hobby would develop subsequently.


  1. I think your big clue is the mention that the list was compiled with the help of a children's librarian. I would imagine that the reason for doing this was the same as the reason for getting Holmes to write the original Basic Set--to make the game understandable to kids who wouldn't be coming out of the same subculture as Gary and the rest.

  2. OK. Look at Moldvay's D&D and the inspirational reading and think, "Accessibility and inclusiveness!"

    Now look at the monsters that Moldvay was credited with in the Fiend Folio.

  3. So far as I know, Moldvay contributed there monsters to the FF and only one is at all memorable -- the Retriever.

  4. I wouldn't call the other two unmemorable... but the astral searcher in particular is pretty nasty and bizarre. The protein polymorph seems like a ramped-up mimic, but still, its description (if not its mechanics) is pretty out there.

    The retriever just gets remembered because it has that snazzy looking picture. Put a nice bizarre Otus drawing next to either of the other two and it's instant attention. As it is... they're like the poor masher from the first MM.

  5. I think you've hit on something here. The bibliography/recommended reading section is often one of the first sections I read in a new RPG--the Filmography appendix in GURPS Horror got me started on a genre I've come to love, for example--and the lack of such a section is never a good sign. The fact that 3e/4e lack such a section kind of reveals that Wizards does indeed see D&D as an entity and genre unto itself.

    Apropos of nothing, a couple niggling points, if you don't mind In creating a lexicon for your blog, shouldn't the adjective be "Gygaxo-Arnesian"?

    Also, you might consider adding a little Google search widget to your sidebar, since you have so many posts with so much good material. :)

    (I know I can just do a site search via Google, but the widget makes things a bit more convenient...)

  6. If you think about it, WoTC wouldn't need to show a list of inspirations, as they have a whole line of books with their name or settings stamped all over them! I can see a company preoccupied with branding thinking exactly this way.

    As far as the difference in the two lists, I think Kevin is on to something. They wanted to show D&D as capable of connecting to a wider audience, by implying that other flavors of fantasy can be run on D&D.

  7. shouldn't the adjective be "Gygaxo-Arnesian"?

    Probably :)

    Also, you might consider adding a little Google search widget to your sidebar, since you have so many posts with so much good material. :)


  8. They wanted to show D&D as capable of connecting to a wider audience, by implying that other flavors of fantasy can be run on D&D.

    Oh, I agree. I think it was part of a concerted marketing plan by TSR and I think it was ultimately a mistake that helped dilute the focus of D&D to the point where, "What is D&D?" is actually a controversial question.

  9. Speaking of an RPG's recommended reading list, a feature I love in a game, check out "A Game of Thrones" D20, by the now defunct Gaurdians of Order Inc. Since its a licensed property one would not expect a list of sorts, indeed the "recommended reading" for such a game would most likely be "A Game of Thrones" et al by GRR Martin. However, the book starts out with a huge chapter that is almost a comprehensive history of fantasy literature from Gilgamesh to Beowulf to Vlad Taltos! An incredibly worthy read.

    The D20 adaptation of AGoT is pretty cool too.

  10. You know Paizo has the planet story line, pulp fiction type reading right?

    their blurb:

    "Planet Stories® presents classic fantasy, science fiction, and science fantasy novels and short story collections to a generation of new readers and lifelong fans. Unforgettable tales from acknowledged masters like Michael Moorcock, Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and Henry Kuttner stand side by side with lesser known but no less worthy yarns from tomorrow's superstars. Introductions from popular modern authors like Joe R. Lansdale, Ben Bova, and Michael Moorcock provide amusing and informative entry points to each book. With new releases every month, Planet Stories promises a master class in the genre aimed at building the greatest fantasy and science fiction library ever assembled. "

  11. I frequently make posts about Planet Stories and am a subscriber to the line, so I'm aware of them :)

  12. Appendix N. The Eldritch Roots Of Dungeons & Dragons

    is pretty damn fun. Sending it to my friends.