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Friday, December 01, 2017

EXCERPT: Appendix N

An excerpt from the definitive Appendix N by Jeffro Johnson. Now in hardcover too.

Now… the thief class takes a lot of flak in spite of the enduring appeal of characters like Robin Hood and Bilbo Baggins. Yet not only was it a latecomer that wasn’t even in the original three “little brown books” that made up the original “White Box” rule set, but its system of skills and abilities was seen as taking away from actions that everyone tended to try during the earliest game sessions.2 For instance, fighting-men might take a stab at being stealthy by removing their armor and then scouting ahead for the party. When the thief class came along with an explicit chance to “move silently," a lot of people leaped to the conclusion the other classes couldn’t attempt such a thing anymore. This made for some hard feelings, and fixing the design issues implied by this class’s existence is such a hassle that maybe it’s best to just drop it altogether!

In the same vein, the cleric class comes in for a good deal of grief in spite of the fact that it was one of the original three classes in the game. In more recent editions, people don’t mind having one in the party, but they can’t always find someone willing to play one. (Few people want to be relegated to the role of a glorified medic; they want to get out front and do stuff, not just play a support role!) But really, the original class is downright odd. They can’t use edged weapons for some reason, and they have a bizarre adaption of the Vancian magic system with the effects drawn largely from biblical accounts. They’re just weird, and the archetype doesn’t turn up in fantasy literature in anywhere near the same frequency as the other classes. For a lot of people, the cleric is the obvious choice for the odd man out.

Reading Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, however, it quickly becomes apparent that, if you’re going to be faithful to the game’s medieval roots, then the two core classes would have to be the fighting-man and the cleric—a stark difference from Steve Jackson’s The Fantasy Trip. This just isn’t in line with how most people view the game though. This is ironic given that the earliest iterations of what would become Dungeons & Dragons were actually a fantasy supplement to the medieval miniatures rule set Chainmail. It was an explicit goal of those rules to inspire people to gain a greater familiarity with the actual history of the Middle Ages.3 This aspect of the hobby gradually faded into obscurity when fantasy gaming took on a life of its own. Of course, the fewer medieval elements you incorporate into your game setting, the less sense the cleric is going to make.

Fans of the oft-maligned class will be gratified to discover that The High Crusade is actually narrated by a cleric. Purists, on the other hand, will be disappointed to see that he wields a battleaxe during the first chapter. At first glance, it’s hard not to jump to the conclusion that this title made Gary Gygax’s “Appendix N” book list because of its likely part in inspiring the game’s tendency to fuse science-fiction and fantasy elements together. Indeed, the cover looks like something straight out of “Expedition to Barrier Peaks.” But Poul Anderson has done much more than provide an unusual theme for a dungeon adventure. He’s turned the standard alien invasion on its head by having the humans thwart the would-be oppressors on first contact. An alien scout vessel is quickly overrun… by medieval Englishmen! When they get their hands on high-tech weaponry and figure out what they can do with it, their first thought is to gather up the entire village, board the spacecraft, and take an extended vacation that would include invading France and taking back the Holy Land!

When the narrator is tasked with teaching the sole surviving alien Latin so that they can force him to explain how to properly “sail” the ship, hilarity ensues:

“You brought this on yourself,” I told him. “You should have known better than to make an unprovoked attack on Christians.” “What are Christians?” he asked. Dumbfounded, I thought he must be feigning ignorance. As a test, I led him through the Paternoster. He did not go up in smoke, which puzzled me. “I think I understand,” he said. “You refer to some primitive tribal pantheon.” “It is no such heathen thing!” I said indignantly. I started to explain the Trinity to him, but had scarcely gotten to transubstantiation when he waved an impatient blue hand. It was much like a human hand otherwise, save for the thick, sharp nails. “No matter,” he said, “Are all Christians as ferocious as your people?” “You would have had better luck with the French,” I admitted. “Your misfortune was landing among Englishmen.”

This is some seriously funny stuff, very nearly in the same vein as the best material of Douglas Adams. The fact that it is a straightforward science-fiction story with realistic medieval characters only makes it funnier. While one might expect this sort of tongue-in-cheek delivery to get tiresome after a while, the plot moves along quickly enough that it gradually fades into the background. The Englishmen are soon (and inadvertently) deep in the process of taking over the alien empire that would have otherwise subjugated humanity. And while the reader naturally identifies with the humans as he reads, it gradually becomes clear that there is an additional angle to Poul Anderson’s handiwork:

Actually, the Wersgor domain was like nothing at home. Most wealthy, important persons dwelt on their vast estates with a retinue of blueface hirelings. They communicated on the far-speaker and visited in swift aircraft of spaceships. Then there were other classes I have mentioned elsewhere, such as warriors, merchants, and politicians. But no one was born to his place in life. Under the law, all were equal, all free to strive as best they might for money or position. Indeed, they had even abandoned the idea of families. Each Wersgor lacked a surname, being identified by a number instead in a central registry. Male and female seldom lived together more than a few years. Children were sent at an early age to schools, where they dwelt until mature, for their parents oftener thought them an encumbrance than a blessing. Yet this realm, in theory a republic of freemen, was in practice a worse tyranny than mankind has known, even in Nero’s infamous day. The Wersgorix had no special affection for their birthplace; they acknowledged no immediate ties of kinship or duty. As a result, each individual had no one to stand between him and the all-powerful central government. In England, when King John grew overweening, he clashed both with ancient law and with vested local interests; so the barons curbed him and thereby wrote another word or two of liberty for all Englishmen. The Wersgor were a lickspittle race, unable to protest any arbitrary decree of a superior. “Promotion according to merit” meant only “promotion according to one’s usefulness to the imperial ministers.”

Yes, after being the butt of so many jokes and tongue-in-cheek remarks, our “primitive” narrator has a few observations to make about the culture of the alien people he is so cheerfully invading. The shortcomings of the alien society are in fact almost painfully familiar to the typical reader of the twentieth century. Poul Anderson has deftly turned the tables on us: we are the punch line. It is thought provoking, to say the least, but it’s a mere prelude to the coming knockout blow:

“Well?” demanded Sir Roger. “What ails you now?” “If they have not yet gone to war,” I said weakly, “why should the advent of a few backward savages like us make them do so?” “Hearken, Brother Parvus,” said Sir Roger. “I’m weary of this whining about our own ignorance and feebleness. We’re not ignorant of the true Faith, are we? Somewhat more to the point, maybe, while the engines of war may change through the centuries, rivalry and intrigue look no subtler out here than at home. Just because we use a different sort of weapons, we aren’t savages.”

Granted, the tale depends on a great many implausibilities, but the fact that there’s an element of truth here is the key to what makes it so funny. You see, it’s not just that medieval people can be interesting if they are portrayed a little more faithfully to their real-life character and attitudes. It’s that they may even have been better than us in ways we rarely contemplate. And maybe the things that seem the strangest about them now were actually perfectly reasonable cultural adaptions that addressed the essential problems of their time! Whether you agree or not, it’s certainly an audacious premise—exactly the sort of mind-blowing concept I look for in a good science-fiction novel.

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22 Comments:

Anonymous Raw Cringe December 01, 2017 7:19 PM  

I have considered learning Dungeons and Dragons if only for the storytelling EXP. This excerpt has tempted me strongly to purchase yet another book I cannot afford... Well played.

Anonymous Raw Cringe December 01, 2017 7:22 PM  

W-w-what? Only $7 on kindle? Shoot, maybe I CAN afford it...

Anonymous Viiidad December 01, 2017 7:36 PM  

It's quite a good read even if, like me, you have never played D&D.

Blogger Jon D. December 01, 2017 7:47 PM  

This book literally changed my life. If you care at all about sci-fi/fantasy, read it!

Blogger Hunsdon December 01, 2017 8:01 PM  

The High Crusade was my gateway to Poul Anderson's other works, and then eventually to D&D and Traveller.

Blogger Cataline Sergius December 01, 2017 8:32 PM  

I was grateful for Jefro's work.

It got me visiting some friends I hadn't seen since college.

From my post about of Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword:

This is very much a story of the West. Anderson himself was a reported agnostic but regardless of that, Christianity is treated very favorably in this story. I know that just makes it a product of it's time but still, I'm not used to that.

The fascinating thing for me is Anderson's depiction of his elves.

Tolkein's elves were intrinsically good if ethereal. They were the Golden People. Not so much closer to God but closer to Man before his fall at Eden. They toiled not and lived lives of unearthly beauty.

Anderson's elves on the other hand are not nice at all. They not creations of God. They have no souls and hence are fundamentally incapable of love or morality. They are the anti-Tolkein. However, they are very much in keeping with the old stories of faerie. This soullessness is a central theme of this book. All of the faerie are soulless. Both the elves and their enemies the trolls. And all of faerie recoils before the encroaching power of the White Christ whose church will drive them to oblivion.

Blogger Dire Badger December 01, 2017 8:47 PM  

I watched the movie. It was very nearly as awful a translation from the Book as 'Starship troopers'.

Blogger Cataline Sergius December 01, 2017 9:34 PM  

If you are serious about your love of Appendix N you can get the entire run of the legendary Galaxy Magazine at this link.

The format is PDF but it's Galaxy Magazine.

Anonymous Bruce December 01, 2017 9:40 PM  

@Dire Badger- I watched the movie-

What movie?

Blogger Dire Badger December 01, 2017 11:15 PM  

Bruce wrote:@Dire Badger- I watched the movie-

What movie?


"The High Crusade".

It was clearly based on the novel by Anderson, but they went out of their way to add 80's style comedy in the vein of Monty Python, and make the crusaders look as stupid as humanly possible.

And the closing message was about how stupid Christians were obviously.

Anonymous Aeoli Pera December 02, 2017 12:44 AM  

This reminds me, somebody around here could make a mint selling drawings for Selenoth miniatures made by 3D printers. Design once, sell for a while.

Apologies if the terminology is wrong, I barely know what I'm talking about.

Anonymous Aeoli Pera December 02, 2017 12:46 AM  

There's gotta be a proper CAD guy around here who could fart somethimg out faster than I can write my dumbass bullshit.

Blogger Dire Badger December 02, 2017 4:06 AM  

Aeoli Pera wrote:This reminds me, somebody around here could make a mint selling drawings for Selenoth miniatures made by 3D printers. Design once, sell for a while.

Apologies if the terminology is wrong, I barely know what I'm talking about.


I have designed several over the years, but unless things have changed a LOT in the last few years, There's not a huge amount of money to be made for a couple of reasons-

1. Selenoth, while popular enough for a book series, does not have much of an RPG presence... very popular RPG's (D&D, Rifts, WoD) are the only place where small miniatures can really recoup your expenses through volume, unless you design for a tabletop wargame like Battletech or Warhammer... and tabletops would sue indie developers into the ground for using their trademarked creations in competition. At nearly 30 bucks a pop just for production the price point is also hard for normal purchasers to meet.

Larger Miniatures, like for T&A or extremely popular comic books, also have trademarks to worry about, and the older resin methodology is still the technique to beat.

3d printers are still pretty much the domain of hobbyists and labor of love artists.

Heroforge, however, has an extremely useful service for those that do NOT have artistic ability. You could make some money competing with them, but there is a limited market for custom minis... The competition would be fierce.

https://www.heroforge.com/

Blogger Dire Badger December 02, 2017 4:10 AM  

Aeoli Pera wrote:This reminds me, somebody around here could make a mint selling drawings for Selenoth miniatures made by 3D printers. Design once, sell for a while.

Apologies if the terminology is wrong, I barely know what I'm talking about.


WHUPS, my mistake... I misread that. You meant the 3d artwork itself, for people to print on their own printer or take to a service?

Yeah, selling on Turbosquid or something, you can indeed run a nice little sideline... I do that myself, although I haven't specifically done Selenoth... trademark worries, again. You aren't going to be making bank, though... If you are very, very lucky you might make enough each month to pay for your internet.

OpenID chronicrpg December 02, 2017 5:56 AM  

@6
"They have no souls and hence are fundamentally incapable of love or morality."

Of course in the book they demonstrate capability for both, just look at the final scene alone.

"They are the anti-Tolkein. However, they are very much in keeping with the old stories of faerie."

In old stories of faerie they, not unlike pagan gods, are just like people, except with magic that allows them to get away with a lot of crap. Poul Anderson's elves and trolls, despite their alleged soullessness, similarly act not very differently from how more or less vicious pagan warlords of the human world surrounding them may have acted, had they possessed similar gifts. "Anti-Tolkien elves" of today are, IMO just that, an attempt to stick it to Tolkien.

Blogger kevmalone December 02, 2017 10:37 AM  

Book looks good. Going on my Christmas list.

Anonymous b3k December 02, 2017 11:49 AM  

I saw a copy in my Local Game Store just a week ago. First time I'd ever seen a Castalia House book in person. It's a volume that will class-up your bookshelf. I was shocked that they would stock anything from CH, given how SJW-like the store's staff all look.

Blogger Phelps December 02, 2017 1:13 PM  

The Englishmen are soon (and inadvertently) deep in the process of taking over the alien empire that would have otherwise subjugated humanity.

Fucking white men, destroying another beautiful culture.

Blogger The Kurgan December 02, 2017 2:44 PM  

This book is brilliant.
Honestly one of the best reads I had in the last few years.

Blogger Aeoli Pera December 02, 2017 4:03 PM  

Dire Badger wrote:Aeoli Pera wrote:This reminds me, somebody around here could make a mint selling drawings for Selenoth miniatures made by 3D printers. Design once, sell for a while.

Apologies if the terminology is wrong, I barely know what I'm talking about.


WHUPS, my mistake... I misread that. You meant the 3d artwork itself, for people to print on their own printer or take to a service?

Yeah, selling on Turbosquid or something, you can indeed run a nice little sideline... I do that myself, although I haven't specifically done Selenoth... trademark worries, again. You aren't going to be making bank, though... If you are very, very lucky you might make enough each month to pay for your internet.


Yeah, that's what I meant. Admittedly, I was assuming that gamers already do this sort of thing en masse because that's what I'd do...a very solipsistic assumption. Probably need to rein it in a bit.

As for trademarks, it could work if there were a way to release something into the public domain temporarily then retract it, so that a subculture could bloom and then be monetized by the original creator (Vox in this case). But that makes too much sense and this is copyright law we're talking about, so even though I haven't studied it I'm 90% confident no such thing exists.

Blogger Aeoli Pera December 02, 2017 4:05 PM  

All that said, I should use reverse-phrenology skillz to dream up what the characters should look like.

Blogger Aeoli Pera December 02, 2017 4:16 PM  

I like a young Julius Caesar for Marcus and Francis Galton for Sextus. Maybe this guy for Theuderic: http://www.chuing.net/mai/img_character_main/14/96513541649.jpg

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