Monday, May 22, 2017

Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N: Preview to a Review

I'm midway through reading Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N: a Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, published by Castalia House. I'm going slowly and it's been a sort of surreal experience for reasons having nothing to do with the book itself. Rather, since Appendix N is not yet available in hard copy, and since I do not own a Kindle or tablet, I'm reading it entirely on my iPhone - a first for me. And for reasons of pride or habit or whatever, that means I'm reading it exclusively on busy train rides. It's sort of an experiment. I'll probably reread it quickly on my desk computer.

The book is wonderful.

If you haven't read Appendix N but you've heard a bit about it, I wonder what you think it is. I had thought it would be more of a straight literary analysis of books that Gygax and others claimed had influenced D&D, which would of course have been fine. But in fact there are many more references and discussions of gaming than I anticipated, which is more than fine.

It's interesting to compare it to the discussions of the relevant fantasy literature in Jon Peterson's Playing at the World. A bit of the same ground is covered, but of course Johnson has the space to go into much more detail, as well as marching into new and interesting territory - he does a lot more than look at alignments or the Vancian origins of magic, etc. Just to take one example, there's a neat discussion of how Vance's Dying Earth setting was perhaps at least part of the inspiration for the random encounter tables on Castles in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures - inspiration that was largely overlooked or forgotten, as well as becoming somewhat of a lost opportunity as the game developed.

Peterson was the neutral historian, a stance that was precisely appropriate for his task. I've read his 698 page book twice and think it's clearly the book of record on the overall historical topic, as well as being endlessly fascinating. But I can see how some (who might have a mild aversion to long history books or whatever) might call it "dry."

Johnson's Appendix N is anything but, partly because the genre of Appendix N (it was for a while - still is? - number one in the Criticism and Theory category on Amazon) allows for and requires more in the way of opinions - an area in which Johnson does not disappoint - but also because, unlike the historian, Peterson, Johnson is writing as an active gamer, in part for active gamers. So, for example, in the middle of a discussion of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall - a book that I inexplicably didn't like twenty-five years ago, but that I am now convinced I must read again - there's an out of the blue (or so it first seemed) detailed discussion of how to run a good "domain game" in Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, the discussion makes sense in the context of de Camp's book. High-level player-characters run by 21st century players are in somewhat the same position as the time-traveling 20th century protagonist of Darkness. But it was still a delightful surprise.

Johnson also incorporates some input from current game bloggers, as well as including in his appendix, reviews of three game products as well as a fascinating interview with Tunnels & Trolls designer Ken St. Andre.

In fairness to me, or to my initial misunderstanding of the contents of the book, Johnson had earlier summarized some of his conclusions after reading and reviewing (in blog form) most of the Appendix N literature. None of them directly addressed game questions per se. If some of the following claims sound counter-intuitive or even a bit outrageous, I urge you to read the arguments for them in the book:

  • Tolkien’s ascendancy was not inevitable. It’s really a fluke that he even became the template for the modern fantasy epic
  • A half dozen authors would have easily been considered on par with Tolkien in the seventies . . .
  • Entire genres have been all but eliminated. The majority of the Appendix N list falls under either planetary romance, science fantasy, or weird fiction. Most people’s readings of AD&D and OD&D are done without a familiarity of these genres.
  • Science fiction and fantasy were much more related up through the seventies. Several Appendix N authors did top notch work in both genres. Some did work that could be classified as neither.
  • It used to be normal for science fiction and fantasy fans to read books that were published between 1910 and 1977. There was a sense of canon in the seventies that has since been obliterated.
  • Modern fandom is now divorced from its past in a way that would be completely alien to game designers in the seventies. They had no problem synthesizing elements from classics, grandmasters of the thirties, and new wave authors.

Read the rest here.

Full review to follow, but if anyone who hasn't purchased or read it yet, wants to jump on board now, you won't be disappointed.


  1. Reading Appendix N myself, partly at your suggestion, partly in the strengh of the sample from B&N.

    Yeah. Can't say I agree with you.

    It's pretty clear that Johnson didn't put a whole lot of effort into the work.

    Still, since I paid for it, I'll finish it if only to rant about why it's awful. Or maybe there are some gems buried there...

    1. Well, I'm sorry you didn't like it. I'm not sure I know what else to say except to dispute your third sentence. In terms of time and thought, I know that he did put a lot of effort into it. I know that may not help very much, but still. But I look forward to your arguments.

  2. I bought Appendix N based on Jeffro's blog posts and commentary at his site. Jeffro's analysis jibes with my reading experiences in the 60s/70s/80s. There is a distinct break in the historical canon in the late 70s/early 80s that marries up with changes in inventory tax laws and availability of older pulp works.

    Jeffro traces links from the Pulp canon to possible places in D&D where Gygax may have used these influences. He did a very competent job of it on the whole.

    The trope about "Appendix N is just a list of Gary's favs" is a failed one, based on what Gary himself says and an analysis of the works themselves compared to the game.