Personal Appendix N: Short Fiction and Why It Matters

In yesterday’s discussion of the canon for the May Project I said:

If there is one area the OSR dances around but I’ve yet to see someone directly address is the importance of short fiction. A large amount of what is considered primary source material for D&D, via Appendix N and other sources, is short fiction. The Dying Earth is an interlinked collection of short stories, for example. The Hour of the Dragon was Howard’s only novel about Conan and it comes in at 72,659 words making it short relative to the fantasy novels of today.

This brought two responses. First from Trollsmyth:

I’m very curious about this comment, however. I’ve always seen the bedrock of the OSR being the short stories of Howard, Lovecraft, CA Smith, Leiber, Vance, etc. Or, at least, the D&D thrust of it. How do you think this has been ignored? How is a foundation based on the short-form significant?

and the second from Scott:

Co-sign. I’d say Gygax was influenced as much or more by the fruits of Argosy and other short fantasy fiction markets than novels. Some of the bedrocks rarely or never worked long, and others such as Dunsany did some of their best work in short form.

which both wonder why I think this is ignored.

First, I did acknowledge, albeit indirectly, that this has been brought up if you read the full quote. However, my indirection is the reverse indirection of what I’m talking about. Many, many people have all discussed the key early sources for D&D but I can count on one hand how often the difference between these sources and most modern fantasy in terms of length is discussed. We’ve had long discussions on the transition from Conan the free-booter to Tanis Half-elven the Heroic World Saver with the introduction of Dragonlance. What we have not had is a discussion about how we moved from a canon built of a variety of tales whose longest tale is a 72,000 world novel and a canon which is made up of three books averaging 120,000 word each which form a single story.

Why is this distinction important? Because one of the most common way to express what an RPG is “it’s like a novel or movie except you’re the main character”. This idea creates a certain set of expectations. First is the highly detailed overall world. Second is the idea that the campaign forms a single cohesive narrative. Third is it emphasizes the importance of every event in the process to moving towards the common end of the narrative (digressions are possible in a cohesive narrative but it is rare in modern genre writing).

If we emphasized the source material made up of short stories as in “it’s like a series of short stories or a television show where you’re the main character” we would create different expectations. The most obvious difference is the lack of the larger narrative which everything has to support. Some modern TV shows, especially genre shows, have used narrative arcs of various strengths but even they have plenty of irrelevant to the broader plot episodes. However, it goes beyond that. Nothing detailed in Dragonlance early on existed for anything but its use the story. If this sounds similar to my points in memoir is story it is. Conan’s tales read much more like episodes in his own memoir than a novel.

If you don’t think what kind of sources we use influences our expectations let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say I wanted to set a game primarily based on Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar. Using Jeff’s rules I can have two fluff sources.

First, imagine the game setting I’d design if I based it on the Queen’s Own trilogy and the The Last Herald-Mage trilogy. It would be a very top level game. Most of the threats would be existential for my central kingdom. The characters would be primary heroes charged with “saving the world”. My setting details would high level discussions of rulers, borders, and long reams of history. Why would I have these things? Because much of these stories are centered on these things over smaller local details.

If, instead, my primary sources were Finding the Way and Other Tales of Valdemar and Sun on Glory and Other Tales of Valdemar what would it look like? I would be more likely to have inspiration for a bunch of individual locations whose broader connections would be more nebulous. I would know kingdom B was to the left and duchy C was to the right of my primary setting, but beyond B is good guys and C bad guys I wouldn’t have a lot of info on the relationships. Instead of a few big heroes, I’d have details and ideas on a lot of prominent figures who none the less didn’t dominate things. I would have a better picture of how characters fit into the setting without saving it.

Another dimension is the kind of campaigns short stories, series novels, and episodic TV inspire over epic novels. It is hard to imagine a sandbox if your only inspiration is The Lord of the Rings, novel or movies. It’s much easier to imagine a sandbox or episodic game when you’re reading the combined Conan novels or watching Star Trek: TOS. In fact, the linked Grognardia post about Star Trek: TOS is one of the few discussions about short fiction as RPG inspiration and why it works although even then James doesn’t discuss that directly.

If you go to the primary sources Gary et al uses this is obvious but that doesn’t always help. For one thing, if I’m interested in modern magical games I need a way to distill what makes Conan work better for designing a game than Tolkien. To take it to visual media why Space Seed is better inspiration than Wraith of Khan which is better than Undiscovered Country. Another reason it’s worth knowing if I want something more modern in its sensibility it helps to know that it’s better to use the short stories in my favorite world than the epic novels as we saw in the Valdemar example.

3 thoughts on “Personal Appendix N: Short Fiction and Why It Matters

  1. Ah, ok, absolutely. This makes perfect sense. And your absolutely right; there's untapped veins of gold in them thar hills.

    I hadn't really thought about it before, but since college, I tend to lean towards a Fritz Leiber model: things start out fairly episodic (Swords and Deviltry to Swords Against Wizardry) but things shift towards longer, more epic works (Swords of Lankhmar and Swords and Ice Magic.) Or, to go with a more visual model, DS9, which started pretty episodic and shifted to a more novela style. I'm not sure I can help it; threads from individual adventures and relationships start weaving together, and before you know, there's plots to be foiled and other such.

    But that's after lots of play and the players having invested in the setting. Starting out that way feels, to me, like putting the cart before the horse. I imagine most folks start out with the shorter-form/episodic model and just stay there, because it does work so well.

  2. One of the commenters in the linked Star Trek post makes a similar post and compares it to a single season of Buffy. I think many episodic and even sandbox games go through this evolution. The interesting factor is does the cycle end there or restart?

  3. In my case, it churns. You get more and more “arc” sessions, punctuated by more self-contained events and adventures, though these are usually spun off/inspired by the arc in some way. Typically, the players by this point are far too invested in the arc and the people and places caught up in it to walk away, even after the arc has played out.

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