Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Inspiration and Emulation

Inspiration for all of the fantasy work I have done stems directly from the love my father showed when I was a tad, for he spent many hours telling me stories he made up as he went along, tales of cloaked old men who could grant wishes, of magic rings and enchanted swords, or wicked sorcerors and dauntless swordsmen. Then too, countless hundreds of comic books went down, and the long-gone EC ones certainly had their effect. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies were a big influence. In fact, all of us tend to get ample helpings of fantasy when we are very young, from fairy tales such as those written by the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang. This often leads to reading books of mythology, paging through bestiaries, and consultation of compilations of the myths of various lands and peoples. Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy, being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950. 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!
If I were going to pick the single greatest impact the old school renaissance has had on the hobby since its inception, it would not be a renewed appreciation of the megadungeon or the hexcrawl, even though that is one of the OSR's great victories. Rather, I'd say it was broader knowledge of the pulp fantasies that Arneson and Gygax, especially those enshrined in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. I say this with confidence because, prior to about 2008, I can't recall ever seeing the phrase "Appendix N" used at all on gaming forums or blogs, let alone being used as a template for designing entire games. Nowadays, though, Appendix N is talked about well beyond the confines of the old school echo chamber.

I bring this up because, the other day, I was chatting with Victor Raymond. I told Victor, as I've told anyone who will listen for years now, that, while I've probably played far more Dungeons & Dragons than any other RPG, fantasy is for me a distant second to science fiction in terms of my personal interest. I mentioned that, prior to picking up D&D in 1979, my direct experience with fantasy literature of any sort was mostly limited to what I'd read in Buffinch's Mythology and similar books. D&D was thus, for me, a primary gateway to fantasy rather than being an outgrowth of my pre-existing interest in the genre.

Conversely, by the time I picked up Traveller in 1980 or '81 (I honestly can't remember which year it was), I was already very well versed in the classics of the genre. My local library had an extensive collection of Ace Doubles that I devoured, along with many other sci-fi paperbacks from the '50s and '60s. So, when I heard about Traveller, it immediately clicked with me. I knew exactly the books and authors that had inspired Marc Miller and so Traveller made sense to me in a way it didn't to many of my friends who equated "science fiction" with Star Trek or, more likely, Star Wars. To them, Traveller was strange and not at all what they were expecting, just as I expect that D&D probably seems strange to newcomers whose understanding of "fantasy" is rooted in something other than Appendix N literature.

But there's a further wrinkle that needs to be considered. A common complaint against D&D now that Appendix N is more widely known is that the game fails to emulate its source material. What class is Conan or the Gray Mouser? What level was Gandalf ("Fifth!" Yeah, yeah ...)? Where are all the dungeons? And so on. The problem with these questions, as I see it, is that D&D was never intended to emulate its sources at all. Rather, it took inspiration from them. Read the quote from Gygax above. The fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons is its own thing, just as the sci-fi of Traveller is its own thing, even though, in both cases, their creators looked to certain authors and books for the seeds of the ideas that would blossom into their creations. So, D&D is no more meant to emulate the Hyborian Age than Traveller is meant to emulate the Technic Civilization and I think it's silly to criticize either for failing to do so. That was never the intention of their creators.

The problem, I think, is that, at some point, as RPG designers became more self-aware of what they were doing, emulation came to replace -- or at least overshadow -- inspiration. I'm honestly not sure what the first RPG was where genre emulation was explicitly a design goal. Champions perhaps? Even then, it wasn't the only goal, merely one of several, but, over the years, it seems to have become much more prevalent to the point that designers use "genre emulation" as an explanation for why certain rules work the way they do.

None of this is intended to denigrate emulation, only to point out that there's a difference between being inspired by a book or a movie and trying to emulate that book or that movie. There is no contradiction in saying that D&D was inspired by The Dying Earth and yet have a magic system that doesn't closely match the one Jack Vance describes there. Based on their own words, neither Arneson nor Gygax intended for D&D to emulate any specific work of art, which is why you get weird stuff like the cleric class, which takes bit and pieces of several different characters and ideas from multiple media and brings them together into something unlike any of its inspirations.


  1. Chris L SheppardMay 1, 2012 at 8:47 PM

    So here's a question. I've just recently taken an interest in Traveller, I have no background in the works of fiction that inspired the game. Is there a Traveller equivalent to "Appendix N"? If not, any suggestions of authors or works to start with?

  2. Traveller doesn't have an explicit Appendix N of its own, but it's pretty easy to puzzle out which books and authors were most influential on it. In my opinion, they big ones are: Poul Anderson's Van Rijn/Falkayn and Flandry stories, H. Beam Piper's Terro-Human Future History stories, Bertram Chandler's Commodore Grimes stories, and E.C. Tubb's Dumarest stories. There are lots of others, but these will really get you into the mindset behind Traveller.

  3. Agreed ... not emulating or inspired by any specific author or work of art, but the Swords & Sorcery genre generally.  Which is why you get DnD mechanics like the magic system, a frankenstein monster of at least 3 different S&S-derived magic systems.  Else why include systems obviously lifted from S&S literature, rather than creating them whole-cloth from one's imagination...

  4. Inspired by the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG I've begun going through Appendix N with a mission to read at least one work by each of the authors. Despite playing D&D since the early 80s I was amazed to see how many of those works I never got around to reading.

    While I agree that emulation was most definitely not on the minds of Gygax and Arneson the inspiration those works held is very clear. Last night I was reading de Camp and Pratt's "The Roaring Trumpet" from "The Mathematics of Magic". Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a clear inspiration for spell scrolls.  (Recording my thoughts on Appendix N was one of the things that finally got me to work on my own gaming blog at http://19thlevel.blogspot.com/

  5.  James hits the nail on the head, more or less.  Here's an article on the origins of Traveller that covers the influences pretty substantially. 


    In addition to the above sources, I'd also take a good general history look look at the Roman Empire (the names of the various Germanic barbarian tribes that took down the Empire were the inspiration for the various human races in the official setting).I don't think you can go too terribly wrong looking at just about anybody from the golden age of Imperial Science Fiction (1950's-1960's, mostly) for inspiration in Traveller.

  6.  James nailed most of them (especially the Dumarest stories, which I only recently started reading), but one more would be the Starwolf trilogy by Edmond Hamilton. (And to a lesser extent, maybe his Star King stories, but the Vargr are clearly inspired by Starwolf)

  7. I'd hasten to add Larry Niven to that list.

  8. Roger Giner-SorollaMay 2, 2012 at 3:07 AM

    Yep, this is something that needed to be said. There's a tendency for some writers or commentators to value fidelity to this literary source or that in a game. But a lot of good reads make bad games - look at the ways, for instance, Middle Earth Role Playing or Call of Cthulhu have had to bend their source material to make for exciting group adventures.

  9. In Supplements 1 and 4, a total of 17 characters drawn from fiction are presented. Not all of them represent works that had a direct influence on Traveller, but they seem representative of works that the authors of Traveller admired for various reasons. They are as follows (and it is pretty obvious that the works represented in Supplement 1 were more directly influential than the ones in Supplement 4):

    Supplement 1: 1001 Characters

    John Carter of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom series)
    Kimball Kinnison (E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series)
    Jason dinAlt (Harry Harrison's Deathworld trilogy)
    Earl Dumarest (E. C. Tubb's Dumarest saga)
    Beowulf Shaeffer (Larry Niven's Known Space stories)
    Anthony Villers (Alexei Panshin's Starwell and The Thurb Revolution)
    Dominic Flandry (Poul Anderson's Flandry series)
    Kirth Girsen (Jack Vance's Demon Prince series, specifically The Killing Machine)
    Gully Foyle (Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination)

    Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium

    Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
    James "Slippery Jim" diGriz (Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat)
    Sergeant Major Calvin (Jerry Pournelle's Sword and Sceptre and The Mercenary)
    Senior Physician Conway (James White's Sector General series)
    Jame Retief (Keith Laumer's Retief series)
    Lord Darth Vader (Star Wars)
    Harry Mudd (Star Trek)
    Simok Artrap (Isaac Asimov's The Stars, Like Dust)

  10. Luis M. RebollarMay 2, 2012 at 6:14 AM

    Since I'm rather quite interested in the matter of derivative geekness, that being the new generations of geeks enjoying derivative products unnknowing the sources, which in my opinion ends in a shallower hobby, I must say this is one of the your better and most relevants post ever.

  11.  I recently looked through a book on 'game design' which turned out to be about computer games only. They had a section on how characters traditionally work, with levels, bonuses at different levels etc, which could have been "You know D&D? Like D&D." - but of course their readership presumably doesn't know D&D.

  12. Well-argued, but I think you're conflating two things:

    i) The designer wants a fantasy world that isn't like Middle Earth or the Hyborian Age.

    ii) The designer does want Middle Earth or the Hyborian Age, but ideas that seemed good at the time take it elsewhere.

    I suspect that Jorune or Tekumel are i, whereas D&D is ii.

  13. Your Pulp Fantasy Library posts are what got me into Appendix N literature. After not having read a damn thing for many years, I've been vastly enjoying the stories of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a smattering of HPL, tons of Clark Ashton Smith (my personal favorite), The Dying Earth (simply amazing!), and I have a shelf full of second-hand books that is sure to keep me busy for years to come.

    Prior to that, I had only read Lord of the Rings (which I found quite tedious, to be honest), a few of the first Robert Jordan books (even more tedious), and a few dozen TSR-published D&D novels, which in hindsight were mediocre at best. This was all in my teenage years, and I thought that all fantasy came in the form of trilogies or open-ended series.You showed me something different. Something that reignited a love of reading that I had lost a long time ago. For that, I owe you a debt of gratitude.

  14. Chris L SheppardMay 2, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    Thanks to James and everyone else for the recommnedations. Although my already overburdened bookshelves won't like it.

  15. I think you've really hit the nail on the head. And though I won't begrudge anyone their fun, I personally much prefer 'inspiration' over 'emulation'. I like the Appendix N but it is just that - an appendix, and not even the most prominent appendix anyway. By comparison, I was kind of gobsmacked when I opened the Exalted corebook and saw that the whole first page was dedicated to "this game is influenced by anime, Greek mythology, etc." Before there was any mention of the game's setting or rules!

    That seems kind of... lacking in ambition. As a gamebook writer, don't you want to create something of your own rather than just creating a facsimile of what's come before?

  16. Chris L SheppardMay 2, 2012 at 8:41 AM

    That's one of things I enjoy when reading  the Appendix N books; finding the source or inspiration for individual spells, magic items and so on.

  17. Chris L SheppardMay 2, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    This has been exactly my experience. I never read any of the Appendix N works when I was playing D&D 20+ years ago, but lived on a poor diet of TSR novels and a few others like The Sword of Shannara. I've been reading the 'classics' for the last year since coming back to the hobby, and it has really opened my eyes to what D&D was meant to be originally and just increased my admiration and appreciation for the game.

  18. I have gotten into some trouble over the years by suggesting to fans of D&D that they at least have an understaning of the source material. I am not saying you have to play like the Grey Mouser, but you should at least know who he is.  It is sad that most players see "The Halfling's Gem" (not a bad work in itself) as a classic of the genre.  

  19. Wow, I thought that I was the only one who read that series. 

  20. "The problem with these questions, as I see it, is that D&D was never intended to emulate its sources at all. Rather, it took inspiration from them"

    Thanks for this.  Most pulp fantasy does nothing for me. (Though I do enjoy skimming your "Pulp Fantasy Library" summaries.)

  21. "D&D was thus, for me, a primary gateway to fantasy rather than being an outgrowth of my pre-existing interest in the genre."

    Before I got into 1E D&D last year, I always had the impression that ALL fantasy was Tolkien pastiche. What I don't think I realized is that modern fantasy is more of a hodgepodge of Tolkien and...D&D. Or, well, later D&D. It wasn't until I looked at Gygax's magical Appendix N that I realized there was more, that there was a whole genre of subjects other than elves and dwarves. Then I discovered the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series...

    Now I have all the books from Appendix N, plus some others, written on a sheet of paper, folded into my wallet. I pull it out every time I go into a used bookstore.

  22. With all due respect, I think this is a bit of a cop-out.

    I mean, you are right about what D&D is; it's not emulation.

    But it's perfectly natural for someone who sees the books referenced in Appendix N, or who just plain looks at much of the art associated with D&D and D&D-inspired fantasy, to then play the game and feel an obvious disconnect. The famous Elmore cover to Mentzer Basic simply *is not going to happen* at 1st-3rd level; or, at least, that warrior is about to die horribly.

    Ergo, I think the fact that designers then went on to create games that tried to provide a play experience that matched the media that inspired them is a logical next step. They want what was promised on the tin.

    Honestly, D&D is quite the odd man out here. If only TSR has stayed with art—like the original PHB cover—that actually depicted what went on in the game. :)

    1. @mark delsing I'm with you. Im sorry James but I think this smacks of apologism. I don't think D&D needs to apologize for anything on its own terms. But nothing can be all things to all people and if you have an expectation that D&D will give you an experience faithful to pulp S&S that expectation will not be fulfilled.
      I think that to express that as a legitimate criticism is valid.

  23. The term "Appendix N" obviously is dependent on  how well old school gaming is doing at the moment but I disagree that this is reflective of a general increase in interest in the books located within.

    I read a fair percentage of Appendix N before ever hearing about it but now I use it to discuss D&D with respect to it's sources. Some people surely have discovered the books listed within through the old school gaming movement but I think many more discovered the term "Appendix N" as I did

    There is a significant difference between emulation in detail and emulation of the genre in general. If I read a list of inspirational works I certainly expect the game to feel like the works listed and if it doesn't it's failed. The fact that "Vancian" magic doesn't work like Vance's magic doesn't matter. The fact that I can't play a character archetypally similar to many of the inspirations certainly does.

  24. Please delete. I wanted to post as Guest.

  25. "If I read a list of inspirational works I certainly expect the game to feel like the works listed and if it doesn't it's failed."

    To me, that's a very narrow definition of "inspiration." Given the breadth of the books and authors Gygax alone (never mind Arneson) listed as inspirations for the game, there was no way the game could ever feel like them all in any significant way.

  26. I don't think that the increase in the use of the term "Appendix N" necessarily means an increase in the general readership for the works contained in Appendix N

    I read a number of Appendix N works before I had heard the term yet now I use it in discussions regarding D&D. I learned the term from the old school movement I didn't encounter the books there. I suspect that while some people encounter the old school style of play and then go on to read Appendix N works more encounter the term and go on to use it. The appendix still does increase readership of older fantasy of course and offers additional works to those who like some of the others but between people like me and people who use the term without having read any of the works the effect is much smaller then the current popularity of using the term Appendix N.

    There is also a significant difference between emulating features of a specific work or author and emulating a genre. The fact that "Vancian" magic does not work like the magic of Vance doesn't matter. The fact that I can't create a character of the same archetype as many Appendix N characters or that the game feels fundamentally different then the works? That is nothing but a failure to allow people to be meaningfully inspired by supposedly inspirational works.

  27. Your point is well taken.  D&D is a thing all its own.  Really, it's AD&D that got me into reading fantasy, and for that I'm quite thankful.  (There is nothing I remember more fondly than my first read-through of the magic-user spells in the PHB.)  Still, it was that reading of fantasy that made me dissatisfied with D&D.  It didn't match anything and just seemed quirky.  Make no mistake; it was pretty much all I played in the 80's, and I had nothing but good times.  But the lack of emulation of pretty much anything is what made me want to gravitate to other games.  Alas, D&D was pretty much what everybody played (everyone I gamed with anyway), so that's where I had to remain and where I had to have my fun.  So I understand that D&D has staked its own place (by design), but, even more, I get where the proponents of emulation are coming from.

  28.  Doesn't that ambition create the danger of 'game-designer-as-would-be-fantasy-author'?

  29. The first real "emulation game" was probably RuneQuest and/or Chivalry and Sorcery, with their attempts to create/emulate a realistic blow-by-blow combat, rather than the abstracted version presented in D&D.

    Emulation rears its head pretty quickly in genre games such as Champions/V&V.

    The first game where I ran into emulation as a design goal was Bond 007. Pistols were relatively better than rifles in that game. Why? Cause 007 doesn't usually use a rifle!

  30. Not at all. Just because a gamebook has a strong, unique vision doesn't mean it's a strong vision of how the story has to turn out. I mean, when I think of D&D books that craft something original, I'm thinking of Vornheim, LotFP, Carcosa. All of which go beyond just emulating such-and-such a genre of novels or films, but none of them are in the least bit railroady.

    Conversely, you could still be a 'would-be-fantasy-author' trying to emulate a genre without innovation. Like, I don't know a huge amount of detail about Dragonlance, but isn't that Super Generic Fantasy Land AND the poster-child for terrible novelistic railroads?

  31. Yeah...outside of The Hobbit and The Wizard of Oz films, and Ray Harryhausen films, D&D was my entry point into fantasy literature, rpgs, and hobby gaming in general.  I'm just glad I found appendix N at age 14.  (I flat out rejected a big part of the suggested reading in the back of moldvay basic, however.  Mostly stuff that didn't overlap with Appendix N.)

    Regarding Emulation and Inspiration...well, think of guitar players.  If you listen to two guitar players, and one sounds like he grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Deep Purple, while the other sounds like he's flat out trying to copy Jimmy Page, Alex Lifeson, and Richie Blackmoore....well, the former is inspired and the later is emulating/aping.  I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which approach is more satisfying, for both the audience and artist.  Same train of thought applies to RPGs.

  32. You seem to be conflating "genre emulation" with emulation of a particular license. I think that these are two different topics and can (and perhaps should) be addressed separately.