WORDS AGAINST WIZARDRY
Peter Bebergal casts his mind back to Tom Moldvay’s Inspirational Source Material Basic D&D’s answer to Gygax’s Appendix N.
I can’t recall anything from my childhood that produced in me as much wonder as the dark blue box art of the Basic Dungeons & Dragons set. I was around ten-years-old, the entire landscape of my childhood populated by Styx records, Tolkien paperbacks, Conan comics and monster movies. My understanding of the provenance of D&D was severely limited to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Hobbit, and a Frank Frazetta calendar.
It wasn’t until much later when I finally procured the 1st edition of the Advanced Dungeon & Dragons: Dungeon Masters Guide that I came across the now infamous Appendix N where Gary Gygax offers his list of influences on the look and feel (and even some of the rules) of the game.
My local Waldenbooks limited its fantasy section to a single shelf with mostly Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Brooks, Mary Stewart, and, of course, Tolkien. I had never heard the strange and esoteric names of Moorcock, Lovecraft, Leiber, Vance. It was a stunning discovery. D&D was not the product of Tolkien's high fantasy rather its roots were in pulp, sword & sorcery, and planetary romance. Only my Conan comics came close to being a window in Gygax’s own vision of the game.
Appendix N is indispensable in understanding the flavor and tenor of D&D in its earliest forms, but by the time my generation was actually playing, it was precisely the high fantasy of Anthony and Brooks that was influencing how we gamed. Fantasy films were becoming more popular, artists like the Brothers Hildebrandt and Boris Vallejo were seen on posters and van art, and pewter figurines of wizards, unicorns and dragons could be found at any greeting card store. The rising popularity of D&D (as well as the controversies about its supposed spiritual and psychological dangers) was the essential component in the ‘charm person’ spell that fantasy was having on popular culture.
By the early 1980s Dragon Magazine was also in full form, with short stories that felt more like the campaigns and adventures many players of that time were engaged in. D&D players were also more likely to be readers and consumer of fantasy pop culture more generally. It only made sense, then, that the 1981 Basic Set rulebook by Tom Moldvay includes the section Inspirational Source Material, an expanded and more detailed version of Gygax’s Appendix N.
While most of Gygax’s choices are here, Moldvay went the extra mile to provide actual titles in cases where Gygax hadn’t. For example, Gygax names Andre Norton without any further details, whereas Moldvay specifically calls out Witch World, The Year of the Unicorn, and The Crystal Griffon.
Moreover, Moldvay’s Inspirational Source Material appears to have actual players in mind, presenting a much broader scope of fantasy literature and related non-fiction. It even goes so far as to offer options for “Young Adult Fantasy,” which the writer Brian Murphy makes note of in his blog The Silver Key as ‘indicative of an intended younger target audience for Basic D&D. B/X served as a gateway to the hobby (“Ages 10 and Up,” it noted on its cover), while AD&D and its dense, encyclopedic manuals were probably better suited for later teens and early 20-somethings.’
Gygax writes in his Appendix N that he hopes players will find in the list ‘kernels from which will grow the fruits of exciting campaigns,’ but Moldvay goes further and offers his selections as sources to help ‘improve a dungeon, flesh out a scenario’ and to this end the presentation is less like a “Top 10” and more of an actual aid in playing D&D.
MOLDVAY GOES FURTHER AND OFFERS HIS SELECTIONS AS SOURCES TO HELP ‘IMPROVE A DUNGEON, FLESH OUT A SCENARIO’
Moldvay’s is not a nostalgic trip of books he loves but rather ones that had a meaningful impact on his version of the game. Inspirational Source Material is a ‘useful’ collection of books and authors, and so Moldvay’s list steps outside the Sword & Sorcery tradition that scaffolds Gygax’s. Moldvay even fills what some might be consider surprising gaps in Appendix N such as Clark Ashton Smith.
By 1981 D&D was making its way out of gaming stores and into pop culture. There were ads in comic books and TV, Mattel had even made an electronic game Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth and The Satanic Panic had not yet pressed its cloven hoof on the neck of TSR.
Moldvay’s box set and the attendant list would change the trajectory of the D&D by presenting a game to the mass market. And yet, by including his list Moldvay was making certain that new players also understood that the spirit of D&D was not formed in a vacuum, but was rather a pointy nosed homunculus brewed in an alchemical lab of fantasy and science fiction, mythology, fairy tales and a love of literature.
Sadly, Mentzer’s best-selling Red Box, and nearly all subsequent editions, would forgo a list of this kind. It wouldn’t be until 2014’s 5th Edition that it would return, this time as Appendix E - Inspirational Reading, when the authors could not avoid a generation of fierce readers looking for a list that captured the spirit of what likely brought them to D&D in the first place.
Peter Bebergal is the author of several books such as Strange Frequencies and Season of the Witch and most recently is the editor of the anthology Appendix N: The Eldritch Roots of Dungeons and Dragons, published by Strange Attractor Press