Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Importance of an Appendix N

I had a shower revelation the other day: the diaspora of D&D is like running a piece of text through Google Translate a bunch of times.

For example, the Australian national anthem.
There is an entire generation for whom World of Warcraft is a primary source. They have never read anything on which D&D is based (despite the fact that they watched the Lord of the Rings movie, like, five times). I remember once trying to convince a friend that the character Bard from The Hobbit wasn't named for the D&D class ("Come on," he said, "a guy running around encouraging people during a dragon attack isn't a bard?"). To this audience, kobolds are tiny lizardmen because, of course, what else would they be? What do you mean they're a type of mine-dwelling Teutonic dwarf?

This isn't a bad thing necessarily. It just highlights the importance of Appendix Ns as a means of education and expectation setting. 

Ten Thousand
This is how we need to be to new RPG players.
When I first started the hobby, I was 13. I had read The Lord of the Rings the previous year and I wanted more. When my friends introduced me to the (Satanic, cult-inducing) Dungeons and Dragons, I expected a game exactly like the trilogy. I wanted to go on adventures. I wanted to be a hero. What I got was a confusing goal ("get gold") and a bizarre casting system ("what do you mean I forget the spell?"). I found out right away that system matters. 

Frankly, it wasn't until the OSR scene became a thing that I finally grokked why the play experience of early D&D was the way it was. I was introduced to Gary's Appendix N. It clicked. It made sense. Early D&D is very good at evoking the feeling of Howard, of Anderson, of Leiber. Those who seek for a Tolkien-ian experience have (famously) mixed results. 

When you're designing a game, a hack, a setting, a campaign, including an Appendix N can be enormously beneficial for getting everybody on the same page. 

(So can art (despite noism's objections).) 


To put my money where my mouth is, here are two Appendix Ns for my two current game projects: my Hobbit-ish Wilderlands OSR hack and my dungeon-crawling SWORDDREAM artpunk whatever His Majesty the Worm

Oh God! Not More Elves!
The origins of Wilderlands was a thought experiment about using The Hobbit as source material while ignoring the rest of the trilogy. As such, an Appendix N is both obvious and short. Just read The Hobbit, full stop.

What if the river floods beyond its banks, though? What other books evoke the feeling of the 1936 Hobbit?

The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany
This book is masterful proto-fantasy. Like The Hobbit, it takes place in vaguely defined fantasy realm (called Erl) and the protagonists go on an adventure far from the fields they know into realms of the fantastic. Most importantly, folklore feels real, as if elves and trolls are living real lives with real concerns under mountains and in the clouds. There is a shared understanding of the "rules" of the world based on a fairy tale/linguistic akashic record rattling around the brains of English speakers. These rules are not elaborated on, but the truth of them "feels real" to us when we're shown them. (Of course, the Elf King only has one final rune he can use to open the border of Elfland. That makes sense.)

Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien
Don't cry foul. Farmer Giles has nothing to do with Middle-earth. It is another book set in an anachronistic England with a ridiculous rustic protagonist and a dragon. In this respect, it dove tails nicely with The Hobbit. I can imagine that the county of Ham to be just over another set of mountains from the Wilderland. Plus, Caudimordax is a great template for what magic swords should be in the Wilderlands RPG.

The Sword in the Stone and Queen of Air and Darkness by T.H. White
In the same way that Middle-earth might be England in the ancient past, White's Grammarye might be Middle-earth in the transitory period between the ancient past and the present. Though more grounded in English toponyms with a more established canon of characters, the first two books of The Once and Future King share a tone with The Hobbit. The Forest Sauvage is a direct analog to Bilbo's Wilderland. There is an anachronistic and humorous tone.

The latter two books of White's masterpiece have a more adult, archaic, and formal tone. I've not included them for this reason. I've also not included other works of proto-fantasy--like The Worm Ouroboros or The Faerie Queene--for this reason.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
If Tolkien wrote a fantasy book by imagining "What if all the characters and creatures from the Eddas were made of flesh and blood and still lingered in the Viking-haunts of an older England," Lloyd Alexander did the exact same thing with the Welsh mythological epics.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
Some of MacDonald's works (say, Phantastes) are dreamlike and, thus, not appropriate for inclusion on this list. The Princess and the Goblin is more rooted in modern causality. It is a fairy tale, pure and simple. MacDonald's goblins and Tolkien's goblins seem more-or-less the same beast: hard-headed, mean, mine-dwelling ne'er-do-wells.

I also like the descriptions of moving around in the total darkness of the mines. Good stuff.

These Are All Comic Books
Here are some comic books that influenced His Majesty the Worm. Not sure why comics were the main inspiration here: something about the visual medium and the vaguely alternate aesthetic? I don't know. Psychoanalyze me, internet! You're cheaper than real therapy!

Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch
Goddamn, Rat Queens rules. The friendship and interactions between the Rat Queens illustrates the core mechanic of inter-party relationships in HMtW. I want every adventure in HMtW to delve into each character's motivations, backstory, and interpersonal relationships in the same way that Rat Queens does. 

The one-two punches (e.g., the Betty Climber) that the Rat Queens perform in combat are half the reason the combat system works the way it does, too. Aid each other in combat to get the BIG numbers. 

Dungeon Meshi by Ryōko Kui
If we're talking about works that use D&D as a main influence (instead of the influences of D&D), Dungeon Meshi is the creme of the crop. Dungeon Meshi is the most thoughtful treatment of the physicality of dungeoneering that I've ever read. The characters, their gear, and their journeys have a practical weight. It makes considerations about exploration, food, and exhaustion seem fun and evocative. This should be required reading for anybody that wants to ignore mundane gear or avoid tracking rations. 

You can run HMtW directly as a Dungeon Meshi RPG if you swap the word "Alchemy" for "Cooking." 

I Roved Out In Search of Truth and Love by Alexis Flowers
A "warmly pornographic" comic. If you strip out all the pornography, you have a super fun fantasy story. If you strip out all the fantasy story, you have some damn good smut. It is humorous and beautiful in a way that I want a game of HMtW to be.

By default, HMtW isn't pornographic--that would require a lot of buy-in, consent tools, etc. etc. It's not the sort of game I'm trying to run 99% of the time. It is however an "adult" game. Characters can buy into relationships with each other by electing the Lovers bond. Sex is a human need, and is represented in the game better--I hope--than the random harlot table.

House of Orr  by Nolan T. Jones, Rilley Dutton, and Richard Zayas and artist Victoria Grace Elliott
A defunct and unfinished webcomic, it is currently super hard to find on the internet. (If anybody has a way to easily read it, please let me know.) As such, apologies for including it here.

That said, House of Orr genuinely shaped my thinking about "the party as a character." In the setting, political capital is held by adventuring guilds. A struggling guild, the titular House of Orr (who by tradition requires all members to take on a new name with the element "Orr"), hopes to establish itself as a political power. With its whimsical elements, House of Orr is genuinely delightful. It evokes the sense of playfulness that I want a game of HMtW to have. 

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to see Appendix N style list for Campaign Worlds. The original Appendix N felt very Greyhawk but not so much Forgotten Realms if you get my meaning.