Monday, 24 November 2014

Ruptured Appendix. N.

It 'aint ever going away. Ever.
In the town I grew up in,(Newcastle, South Africa), there were no independent bookshops.  We had what is called, C.N.A, or the Central News Agency. It sold newspapers, greeting cards, stationery, small gifts, music, and books. Back in the day, they would generally have a really tiny ‘Fantasy/Sci-fi’ selection at the back of the shop, out of the way of the real readers,(you know the kind, they look down on fantasy writers and readers, and prefer the opiate of Clancy, Smith, Cussler, or any other ‘80’s mega-authors), and these areas  quickly became the general assembly point for nee’r-do-wells and misfits who played D&D.

Of course that’s all changed now. Most bookshops have a fantasy section that takes up at least ten times more retail space than they used too. Fantasy is respectable. It’s on HBO for god’s sake. You’ll see piles of Game of Thrones books cluttering the floor... and rack upon rack of fantasy authors I have never heard of and, will in all likelihood, never read. My reading time is limited, and I am not going to squander it on yet another gazillion word trilogy that is given some banal reference to the Lord of the Rings... as if Tolkien himself, is giving it two-thumbs-up from beyond the grave. 

I think this fantasy phenomenon will pass, and the torch will still be carried by the real fans, not the fair-weather ones who are more like tourists in our worlds... ones who feed the animals, let their kids run around screaming like delinquents, and leave a mess behind after their picnic is finished.Who knows, I may yet be wrong.

Anyway, it used to be hard to find good fantasy as a kid. There was the library, sure, but they did they best they could and usually just stocked the ‘Big Guns’, like J.R.R, or C.S. Lewis. That would all change later though when we began to request books that we thought we might enjoy, but up until then it was a one-horse town. 

As a complete aside here, I feel it worth mentioning that Tolkien was born in South Africa, in Bloemfontein, the capital of what was then the Oranje Vry Staat (the Orange Free State) back in 1892. It has long been rumoured, that as a youngster, he was bitten by a baboon spider giving him a lifelong hatred of arachnids... Shelob anyone? How true this is, I don’t know, because the man himself denies it on several occasions. There are also several Afrikaans words to be found in the Lord of the Rings, but I will let you figure out what they are on your own.
Baboon Spider
At the back of the AD&D DM’s book on page 224 is Appendix N. A list of recommendation from Gary Gygax himself, on what he enjoyed, and what had helped shape Dungeons and Dragons into the game we know and love. Truth be told? I think I have read maybe three, possibly four, of the authors on it. Not for lack of trying, but from the sheer unavailability of those books back then. Now I have most of them lying around the house in one way, shape, or form, and I am still not much further into that list than I was thirty years ago. 
Don’t judge me J I am not alone in this. This wasn’t the fantasy that we grew up with. The fantasy we grew up with, was very different from what was around in the the USA in the 1950’s.

As kids we shared everything, books, music, you name it. So our Appendix N looks very different from the one on page 224. Here is a list of what ours looks like, ours being my old High School gaming group.

One of the biggest influences among the D&D groups was a book called, “Magician”, by Raymond. E. Feist. Released in 1982, it only washed up on our shores in 1987, and when it did, it blew us all away. I’m not going to go over the plot, as I’m sure most of you have read it, but it got a lot of attention from us as teenagers. We only had one copy so you had to wait months for a chance to read it, as there was zero chance of the library getting it, or C.N.A stocking it. We always talked about turning it into a RPG or pinching bits of it for our own campaigns but I don’t recall anyone doing so. I know I borrowed the scene where they are going through the tunnels under the mountains, and they get chased by wights and separated. That cropped up on more than one occasion. It was only years later that we read anymore of his work. Now it is an empire all on its own, but for me, the first one has a special place in my heart.

Another favourite  of ours “The Crystal Cave” series, by Mary Stewart; released in 1970, it is part one of four books about Myrddin Emrys a.k.a Merlin Ambrosias of Arthurian Legend. These books were actually at the library and got some pretty heavy rotation amongst the players, especially when we began an Albion influenced campaign. A great read, I highly recommend them.

Then of course, Conan, and what’s not to love? These were available at C.N.A as part of the series. Not all were written by Robert. E. Howard, but we didn’t mind, we weren’t purists, Conan kicked ass, no matter who wrote him!

‘The Dark is Rising’ series was another firm favourite among us. Set in the UK and Wales, it follows the path of Will Stanton and his friends who are fighting against the ‘Dark’. Cool riddles, circles/wards of iron, time travel, it had it all. There are five books in the series and all are brilliant. Parts of these stories also morphed into our Albion campaign.

As part of our set-work at school we did, ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’, by the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin. The fact that it was being read for school didn’t make it suck either, as it was cool that we were doing fantasy as part of English. All the gamers had already read it, so we skated through the work with ease, and most of us went onto read the quintet when it became available. The demonic entity that chased Ged/Sparrowhawk around Earthsea reminded me of the Soul Eater that you find in the back of X4 Master of the Desert Nomads. I included this plot line into the module just to add a little supernatural paranoia, never knowing where this creature might strike.
Soul Eater

A great book that never found its way into any of our campaigns but was thoroughly enjoyed none the less, was the ‘Wizard of the Pigeons’ by Meghan Lindholm, who also writes under Robin Hobb. The story takes place in Seattle (and it’s because of this book that I aim to visit the city, one day at least) following a homeless Wizard fighting a malevolent evil entity from his past. The Wizard is a Vietnam War veteran, and his past and the entity are one. Not fantasy in the classic sense, but urban fantasy, and a great read.

‘The True Game’, by Sherri. S. Tepper was another series of books that grabbed our attention. They had cool evocative chess move sounding names like, Necromancer Nine, King’s Blood Four and Wizard’s Eleven. About a boy who trains to be a games-man and discovers the original games pieces of Barish, and when he holds them, he takes on their power. We loved this book a lot, and had it on permanent loan to one another. I’m scared to read it now as an adult in case it sucks. That happens from time to time.

‘Eye of the Dragon’ by Stephen King was another one. Not serious fantasy, but something to while an afternoon away instead of doing homework. The ‘Belgariad’ series also ruled the roost for a long time. We were all fairly disappointed with his later works though, as they all kind of walked the same ground and were not as fresh as the first batch. One cool thing I do remember, is that dude being able to morph through stone. I think I might resurrect that as ability...could be handy in a dungeon.

Then there was the ‘Spellsinger’ series. It got a lot of mileage out of us and for a brief and shining moment we even had a Spellsinger character in our sessions, but it just became too hard to rule on him as a DM, that he soon found himself dead, with absolutely zero chance of resurrection.

Mucho ambivalence now about the first three Dragonlance books though... Cool when you are thirteen, but not so cool now. That fekkin’ Kendar just irritated the crap out of us, not to mention the sheer avalanche of product that it spawned.
On a Science Fiction angle we loved, ‘The Day of the Triffids’, and I working that into an upcoming campaign at this very moment.
‘Dune’, was popular and Arrakis popped up in our Star Frontiers games from time to time. Anything by Philip K Dick was consumed in a sitting. As I type this, more and more non-Appendix N material comes to mind, hundreds of books from my youth that I have a fondness for, and the ones listed above are just a tiny portion of many. Reading material is highly selective, and fantasy is a small sliver of what I consume on a daily basis, but it is, and always will be, a huge piece of who I am. So there you have it, my attempt at a Ruptured Appendix N from our gaming group of yore... and I would be extremely interested to know what books gripped you, and left their mark on you, from all those years ago. Oh, and I have just realised, that five of the writers are women... I wonder what that says?

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