John D. Rateliff – D&D and Fantasy Fiction: Giants in the Oerth

We are delighted to host John D. Rateliff’s talk given during our public event on D&D and Fantasy on 28 January 2021. The event was recorded and can be watched via our YouTube channel here.

D&D and Fantasy Fiction: Giants in the Oerth

By John D. Rateliff

Dungeons & Dragons was heavily influenced by fantasy literature, as is testified by the famous ‘Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading’ found in the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979).1 What is perhaps more interesting is that D&D quickly generated fantasy fiction in turn. This reciprocity dates back to the very early days of the game. In this talk I’d like to briefly trace the movement from fantasy fiction to D&D to game-inspired fiction.

I. The Roots of the Mountain

That fantasy fiction played a role in the creation of D&D I take to be self-evident. Particularly crucial elements were taken from or inspired by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, and Poul Anderson. From Tolkien came the demihuman player character races: elves, dwarves, and hobbits, later supplemented by the half-elf and half-orc (both extrapolated from Tolkien); the non-Tolkienian gnome was added later and perhaps for that reason has always seemed an odd man out.

The very idea of a player character party is Tolkien’s innovation. In stark contrast with the solitary hero or hero-with-a-sidekick (or damsel in distress with benefits) of Howard and his followers, Tolkien provides the paradigm for characters of different races and differing abilities (or classes) who join together to form an adventuring party. In the game this takes the form of having their success depend on the degree to which the player characters can bring into play the varied abilities of the different members of the party. That no one character has all the abilities needed to survive and succeed is thus an essential part of the design.

Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D and dominant force behind its development, later denied that Tolkien had played any significant role in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons 2. Personally I ascribe this distancing less to historical fact and more to cease-and-desist orders he had gotten from Saul Zaentz’s Tolkien Enterprises shortly after D&D debuted. At any rate, a Tolkien-minimalist position is hard to maintain when even a quick skim of the earliest edition’s rulebooks reveals hobbits, dwarves, elves, ents, orcs, wights, giant eagles, Nazgul, and balrogs. Indeed, early printings of the rulebooks explicitly attribute some of these creatures to Tolkien (consistently mis-spelled ‘Tolkein’), such as the orc (Bk II.7), wight (II.9), giant eagle (II.17), and Nazgul or spectre (ibid).

If Tolkien contributed the player character races and player character party, then Howard’s Conan stories and Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser series provided a blueprint of what player characters actually do in the game: exploring, fighting, encountering traps, discovering riches, interacting with non-player characters, running for their lives, and the like. From Vance (and also perhaps John Bellairs) comes D&D’s highly characteristic ‘fire and forget’ magic system, a highly distinctive approach to spellcasting that requires planning ahead (and is thus disparaged by those who demand all options be open to them at all times). And then there’s the alignment system, another distinctive feature of D&D that derives from either Poul Anderson or Michael Moorcock or, more likely, both. 3

If this inherent evidence were not enough, we have Gygax, at the time of the game’s debut, deliberately stressing the game’s roots in, and deep affinities with, fantasy fiction:

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries [—those gamers] will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers. [We] invite you to read on and enjoy a “world” where the fantastic is fact and magic really works!

—E. Gary Gygax, November 1973
Foreword to D&D 1st edition (Bk I, page [3])

Despite Gygax’s reverse phrasing in this passage it is clear that here he is saying that if you love to read Burroughs and Howard and Leiber at al., then this is the game for you.

II. Fantasy Fiction’s Influence on Gaming

This fantasy-to-game indebtedness was emphasized by TSR reaching out in its early days to contemporary fantasy writers whose work Gygax admired. The Dragon, TSR’s house organ launched in June 1976, in its early issues published stories by Harry Fischer (Fritz Leiber’s silent partner in the creation of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser and, like Leiber, a correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft’s) 4. Fischer was also Guest of Honor at GenCon X in 1977. Leiber himself had been a Guest in 1976 at GenCon IX and, in what must have been a bit of a coup for TSR, allowed what seems to have been the first publication of a new F&GM story, ‘Sea Magic’, in the December 1977 issue of The Dragon 5. Similarly L. Sprague de Camp authorized a reprint of one of the famed Harold Shea ‘Incomplete Enchanter’ stories he had cowritten twenty years earlier with the late Fletcher Pratt. The Dragon even ran serials by hack pulp writer Gardner Fox (‘Naill of the Far Journeys’) 6 and by Gygax himself, who under the fairly transparent pseudonym ‘Garrison Ernst’ essentially self-published a serial called The Gnome Cache (1976–1977). Debuting in the very first issue of The Dragon, Gygax’s picaresque tale ran in installments for six of the next seven issues 7 until it quietly disappeared in mid-story after the June 1977 issue. Despite its lack of any literary merit it is historically significant in that had it been finished this would have been the first D&D novel. And before moving on I feel that I should note that this tale’s final sentence is surely a contender for the oddest of Gygax’s many odd constructions:

‘Great Gods!’ expostulated the startled errant. ‘It is a dwarf being pursued by a pack of giant toads and weirdly hopping men!’ 8

III. Full Circle: D&D-inspired Fiction

Things came full circle —fiction inspiring gaming which in turn inspired gaming fiction— with the 1978 publication of a fantasy novel inspired by D&D but written by a highly regarded professional writer: Andre Norton’s Quag Keep. This was published by Donald Wollheim’s DAW Books with a cover illustration by Jack Gaughan—best remembered for having provided the covers for the unauthorized Ace paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings. Despite Norton’s somewhat shaky grasp on D&D’s rules and tropes,9 her book takes pains to emphasize its affinities with gaming, as is testified by the Acknowledgement:

The author [e.g. Norton] wishes to express appreciation for the invaluable aid of E. Gary Gygax of TSR, expert player and creator of the war game DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, on which the background of QUAG KEEP is based . . .

Examination of the book confirms Gygax’s influence, which mainly falls in the realm of world-building. Thus the first chapter is titled ‘Greyhawk’ and set in Gygax’s great city (and hence game world) of the same name. The plot includes D&D game elements such as polyhedral dice and the D&D alignment system depicting a vast struggle between Order and Chaos, as well as some recognizably specific geographical names, such as Blackmoor, Urnst, Geoff (here spelled ‘Geofp’) Yeocumby (probably an earlier version of The Yeomanry), Keoland (‘Koeland’; probably just a typo), the Sea of Dust, and the Temple of the Frog. All of these had appeared in the first two follow-up releases to the original D&D rulebooks, Greyhawk and Blackmoor (February and September 1975 respectively), describing Gygax’s and Arneson’s fantasy worlds.

Quag Keep seems not to have made much of a splash at the time. So far as I can tell it was treated as just another fantasy novel. But Gygax did not give up. By 1982 TSR had a book department, working on Endless Quest pick-a-path books. Not until 1984 did they release their first novel: Dragons of the Autumn Twilight, conceived as a joint effort between TSR’s book department (represented by Margaret Weis) and game department (in the person of Tracy Hickman). So successful was this that some two hundred DRAGONLANCE books followed, with a new trilogy in the series by the original authors currently in the works. Even more successful—by my rough count running to over three hundred novels and short story collections —has been TSR’s FORGOTTEN REALMS line, especially the Dritzt series by R. A. Salvatore. So successful was the TSR book line that by the mid 1990s virtually every TSR game world was accompanied by associated shared world novels, which typically far outsold their associated game line: DARK SUN, RAVENLOFT, GREYHAWK (two separate series), SPELLJAMMER, MYSTARA, the later EBERRON novels, and even Buck Rogers books.

IV. A Permeable Border: ‘Giants in the Earth’

I said at the beginning of this talk that D&D ‘was heavily influenced by fantasy literature.’ And it’s clear from texts like Gygax’s Foreword to the game’s earliest edition that this is not happenstance but by design. D&D is an Open System: it does not just invite borrowing from fantasy fiction and film but depends upon it. To put it another way: D&D is a way to quantify the imagination.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the long-running column that appeared in Dragon Magazine,
starting around issue #26 (June 1979) and winding down around issue #61 (May 1982).

‘Giants in the Earth’ was originally written primarily by the late great Tom Moldvay with Lawrence Schick and later revived by Roger E. Moore. A typical installment featured two or three characters from famous works of fantasy or legend: Vance’s Cugel the Clever (#26), Burroughs’ John Carter (#27), Homer’s Circe (#52), the four lords of Demonland in Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros (#54), and many others, including (controversially) Tarl Cabot from John Norman’s Gor series (#61).10

In each case the character had been translated into D&D terms, fully stat’d out like a pre-gen character, ready to drop into your ongoing campaign as an ally, rival, foe, love interest, or PC. Jon Peterson has written (in his new book, The Elusive Shift) of how from its earliest days D&D has appealed to two disparate groups, wargamers and sci-fi fandom, both of which predate the creation of D&D and each of which had their own apas, fanzines, conventions, awards, &c.

And part of that appeal is due to the ease with which works of fantasy like those listed in Appendix N could serve as templates for adventures, suggesting interesting monsters, quirky characters, intriguing plots, unusual magic, elements of worldbuilding, challenging traps and puzzles, extraordinary treasures, and more. Thus in a given campaign the adventure’s ultimate foe might derive from the villain in a novel the DM just read, while one PC may be inspired by a movie that player likes (I have a hunch there was a significant up-tick in the number of people playing elves about the time Peter Jackson’s Legolas debuted). One player might prefer the comfort of a traditional template, like a halfling thief. Yet another PC may be rules-driven and derive from a player’s urge to play an unusual race/class/alignment combination; the setting might be a generic Tolkienesque fantasy world with pockets of the weirdly exotic. 11

So permeable a system, capable of absorbing material from such disparate sources, results in an eclectic game world. It wd be wrong to say ‘plagiarism is our friend’, but that phrase does capture something of the process of creative borrowing that, if done well, serve as departure points for future games and systems.

Coda: A Little Signpost

Finally, I’d like to share an image from the past that I think offers a glimpse into the mindset of those in charge of D&D in its distant early days This picture comes in the last issue of The Strategic Review, TSR’s first house organ—the magazine which preceded, and morphed into, The Dragon. In the middle spread of this last issue (SR VII, [page 13], from April 1976, only a little over two years after D&D had first debuted) are displayed photographs of The Dungeon (later known as The Mail Order Hobby Shop). In the center top we see Gygax working at his desk. Below him his partner Brian Blume works on a hex-grid map. I’d like to draw your attention to the little piece of art directly to the right of Blume: a signpost pointing the way to various fantasy locations.

Greyhawk, Gygax’s game world, and Blackmoor, Dave Arneson’s game world, are at the top and bottom, respectively. In the middle tier lies the sign for Tekumel, the weird world of M. A. R. Barker published by TSR as EMPIRE OF THE PETAL THRONE. But what’s really interesting are the two remaining worlds: Lankhmar (second from top), the setting for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories, and Middle Earth (second from bottom), which is of course Tolkien’s world.

This little sketch thus suggests that Gygax & company drew no distinction between the literary worlds created by the likes of Tolkien and Leiber, and TSR’s fantasy game worlds, created as a place for D&D adventures to take place in. These in turn would serve as sources and inspiration for the fiction TSR authors would create in the years to come.

—John D. Rateliff, January 2021

Notes