In the back of the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition Player’s Handbook, there is a list of inspirational reading called Appendix E. It’s a list of books (much as you might find in other RPGs) that influenced the creation of D&D or might help inspire players or DMs, and even some that were themselves inspired by D&D. It’s an expansion of an older list, Appendix N, that was compiled by Gary Gygax for the original Dungeon Master’s Guide in 1979. That list is specifically things that influenced Gary, and runs the gamut from fantasy through science fiction to horror; the additions for Appendix E tend to be more strictly fantasy, in line with what D&D has now become. (Other people have already talked about the evolution from Appendix N into Appendix E, so if you like you can look here, here or here, but in general I’d say that I’d have preferred if they’d been more willing to cut things out that no longer seemed appropriate.)
For a while, I’ve been reading books from the list when I’ve had the time, and now, in the last couple of months, I made an earnest attempt to read all the books that I hadn’t yet got around to. And since I have this roleplaying blog already, I might as well put down a little review for each thing I read.
Now, I like books, but I’m far from a rapacious reader, so getting through that many books in only a handful of weeks was impossible from the start. Therefore, I didn’t want to be bound to read literally everything, but instead to read as broadly as possible. I tried to read at least one thing by each author, and I stopped reading things that I didn’t like once I felt I’d given them a good try. When I’d already read something, I included a review based on my memories of it, but didn’t attempt to read it again for a refresher. Sometimes I couldn’t find a copy of anything by a particular author, so it goes.
I’m also absolutely not an expert in literary analysis or anything, so these “reviews” are purely are just my personal impressions, both of how much I enjoyed the tale and also how I feel it connects to D&D and other roleplaying games. Maybe my ramblings will be interesting to you. Hopefully they’ll help you find something that might be worth reading yourself.
If this has worked as intended, you should have a list of works that you can click to expand and collapse, to save on scrolling.
Ahmed, Saladin. Throne of the Crescent Moon.
- What did I read? Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012)
- When did I read it? 17 December 2018 – 18 December 2018
- What’s it about? An aging ghul hunter and his allies learn of an ancient evil that threatens them, their city, and the very seat of power, the Throne of the Crescent Moon.
- What did I think? A really good book. Enjoyable, easy to read, with great characters and a fun plot.
- What does it have to do with D&D? I love exploring different settings in D&D. Saladin Ahmed’s world inspired by the history and myth of the Muslim world is brilliant and would make a great campaign setting for an RPG. There’s plenty to work with: classes (ghul hunter, dervish, Angel-touched shapeshifter, alkhemist, magus), races/cultures (Abassen, Badawi, Soo, Rughal-ba), enemies (many kinds of ghul, giant gold snakes, monsters, heretics, djenn), and a ton of locations for adventuring (Dhamsawaat, the desert, the ruins of Kem). I also really like the idea of the protagonists being monster hunters for hire (whether paid in gold or favours or religious approbation), which is a great hook to get the PCs into a few small adventures (get hired, kill the monster, cash in) or even a bigger campaign when they learn (as here) that there’s more afoot than they first thought.
Alexander, Lloyd. The Book of Three and the rest of the Chronicles of Prydain series.
- What did I read? The Book of Three (1964)
- When did I read it? 13 December 2018 – 14 December 2018
- What’s it about? An Assistant Pig-Keeper chases his pig into the woods and, gathering a collection of companions, is drawn into a quest to defend the land of Prydain from attack by the forces of Annuvin (the underworld, sort of), led by the Horned King.
- What did I think? I liked it. It’s an easy read and the characters are fun (even Taran, though he is obnoxious to basically everyone but especially Eilonwy for pretty much the whole book).
- What does it have to do with D&D? I think this book is one of the best for D&D inspiration. There’s the interesting setting based on Welsh mythology. There’s the simple quest (searching for a pig) that ultimately determines the fate of a kingdom. There’s the effective villains (Arawn, a central character despite never appearing in person; the Horned King; Achren; the Cauldron-Born), who could be easily used as an army of undeath or perhaps the Shadowfell. However, I think what I want to focus on is the story’s efficiency in conveying information, which is all because it’s a book intended for children. Almost nothing is imparted to readers that isn’t relevant to the story. There’s world-building, but always in service to the immediate plot or the central characters, never for its own sake. Character traits are obvious and presented very soon after the character’s introduction. Sometimes, D&D campaigns can benefit from such straightforward storytelling, especially when sessions are far apart and players need to keep the most important information in their heads.
Anderson, Poul. The Broken Sword, The High Crusade, and Three Hearts and Three Lions.
- What did I read? The Broken Sword (1954)
- When did I read it? 4 December 2018 – 9 December 2018
- What’s it about? In Britain and Scandinavia during the time of the Danelaw, the elves and the trolls go to war, while in the background scheme the Norse gods, the Aesir. In the middle stand Skafloc, a human kidnapped and fostered by elves, and Valgard, Skafloc’s changeling doppelganger who becomes a lord among the trolls.
- What did I think? Contemporary reviewers considered The Broken Sword one of the greats of fantasy literature, some saying it was better that The Lord of the Rings (Fellowship came out in the same year). I don’t agree with that assessment, but I do sort of understand why the comparison is made. More than anything The Broken Sword feels like a response and reaction to Tolkien’s The Hobbit, applying some of Tolkien’s tropes to the Norse mythology and British folklore that inspired him, then making it “grittier” (e.g. by adding problematic things like rape, forced pregnancy, slavery, and incest). It’s reasonably enjoyable as a tale, but I enjoyed it less for the quality of the prose (which is written in a faux-archaic style with obscure words and odd word order, making it slower to read) or the characters (who are generally uninteresting or aggravating) than I appreciated it as a new take on Norse mythology.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Anderson didn’t create a mythos the way that Tolkien did, but there’s plenty of worldbuilding here based on Norse mythology, British folklore, and other stories around the world. It’s a syncretist world too, saying that all mythologies are simultaneously true but delineated by geography (the Tuatha de Danaan are based in Ireland, and there’s a faun early on who is a refugee from ancient Greece), which is a neat way of including D&D’s myriad gods and monsters. The way Odin and Tyr are presented is a good way of treating gods in a D&D campaign; Alfheim and the elves are basically the template for D&D’s Feywild and its inhabitants; and the eponymous broken sword is a servicable magic quest item that acts against its wielder (although Moorcock, clearly inspired by this story, did it better later on). The protagonist Skafloc is an archetype-defying hero, being a great soldier and mage and being able to change into the forms of animals (wolf, eagle, otter) like a druid. The last especially can be good inspiration, but while his transformations are established early on they are really only relevant in one infiltration scene.
Anthony, Piers. Split Infinity and the rest of the Apprentice Adept series.
- What did I read? Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to read anything by Piers Anthony. No book by him is available at my local bookstores, my local libraries, or on the Amazon UK Kindle store.
Augusta, Lady Gregory. Gods and Fighting Men.
- What did I read? Books 1-3 and some of Book 4 of Part 1 of Gods and Fighting Men (1904)
- When did I read it? 21 December 2018 – 22 December 2018
- What’s it about? It’s a collection of Irish mythological history, retelling the story of the Tuatha De Danann (from their arrival in Ireland to their withdrawal to their hidden places and beyond) and the Fianna under Finn mac Cumhaill.
- What did I think? I generally think that a sound understanding of mythology is really useful, especially for roleplayers and GMs, and there are some really great stories in Irish mythology to know about. But I honestly don’t think that this book is the best way of learning about them. It’s not well written, seeming to be more a translation of some disparate songs or tales than an effort to present the Irish myths in a form that works on its own merits. Characters appear without introduction and are never mentioned again. There are long irrelevant lists of people and places and things. Tales are told out of order, featuring characters and in contexts that the reader doesn’t yet know. For a summary I’d watch some YouTube videos instead (Dael Kingsmill and Red from Overly Sarcastic Productions both do good mythology videos, and they’ve both talked about Fionn Mac Cumhaill at least).
- What does it have to do with D&D? I’m just gonna relay one story, about some of the world’s first murder hobos. The sons of Tuireann (Brian and the other two) are sent on a vast fetch quest for some magic items. In the course of this, they steal and murder and terrorise their way across Europe. To get the third item, for example, they enter the court of the King of Persia disguised as poets, despite being terrible poets. Brian gives a poem like: “I hear you have a great spear, It can kill people.” The king says: “Wow, that’s a terrible poem, dude.” Then Brian throws an apple at the king so hard that his head explodes.
Bear, Elizabeth. Range of Ghosts and the rest of the Eternal Sky trilogy.
- What did I read? Half of Range of Ghosts (2006)
- When did I read it? 23 December 2018 – 26 December 2018
- What’s it about? The capital of the Khaganate has been razed by the Khagan’s cousin, and in the carnage only the Khagan’s brother Temur remains among the defenders. Weak, and without allies, he joins refugees moving south. Temur is threatened by the plots of his cousin, who now rules the Khagan Empire, and his cousin’s new ally, a blood sorcerer from the West. Later he joins up with the newly made wizard (and former princess) Samarkar and the tiger woman Hrahima.
- What did I think? Unfortunately, I didn’t really connect with this book. I found it a slow read and, ultimately, not very satisfying. However, I want to be fair: unlike other books I’ve dropped, I didn’t dislike it. In fact, there’s not much I would complain about and I liked several things about it. Maybe my dissatisfaction was just bad timing (I had other priorities over Christmas), and if I wasn’t trying to read a lot of books in a short period of time, I’d probably stick with it to the end (and still might someday). But, whatever the reason, I didn’t get on with it, and I chose to not finish it.
- What does it have to do with D&D? As ever, settings drawing on anything other than white Euro-centric folklore are interesting. I’m not sure how well this particular setting would fit into a D&D campaign, though. There’s a fair share of magic and wonder, but it’s quite different and less personal than a lot of D&D. The best thing is how the sky changes based on the dominant culture of a region. In the lands ruled by the Khagan Empire, the sky has moons for each descendant of the Great Khan; in other lands, the sky is very different, to the extent that sometimes even the sun moves in different directions. And what’s cool is that this isn’t tied to geography, but to politics: when a city changes hands, the sky changes too. I think that’s brilliantly inventive and may use it for a future RPG campaign.
Bellairs, John. The Face in the Frost.
- What did I read? The Face in the Frost (1969)
- When did I read it? 27 December 2018 – 29 December 2018
- What’s it about? The wizard Prospero (not the one you’re thinking of) is visited by his friend Roger Bacon (maybe or maybe not the one you’re thinking of, unclear) just as he and his home are beset by the forces of a great magical evil. The two friends head off to learn its source and stop it.
- What did I think? This surprised me. I’d been expecting something like Poul Anderson, and instead got something closer to Lloyd Alexander. I think it’s a children’s book (as many of Bellairs’ other works are), but it assumes quite a lot of knowledge that I wouldn’t expect that target audience to be familiar with (everything from architectural styles to the Kabbalah). It’s largely episodic, although all a single story, but it shifts from bizarre whimsy and anachronism (Prospero’s magic mirror watches an American football game in an early scene, for instance) to sheer horror and back again multiple times. I liked it, but I don’t really know who I’d recommend it to except people interested in this D&D inspired reading list.
- What does it have to do with D&D? I actually really like magic as it is portrayed in this book. As I mentioned above, it is whimsical and horrific by turns, and that just feels right. The horrifying episodes are great and could be lifted out of the book and plopped into a D&D (or other RPG) campaign with little difficulty. The way Prospero sometimes wanders around without any apparent idea of what to do next, despite a quest and looming danger, also rings very true from an RPG perspective.
Brackett, Leigh. The Best of Leigh Brackett, The Long Tomorrow, and The Sword of Rhiannon.
- What did I read? The Long Tomorrow (1955). The Long Tomorrow is the one of these works by Leigh Brackett I was able to get, which is a shame because it’s a very serious, relatively grounded speculative fiction book, and for this exercise I’d have preferred one of the other suggestions, which are pulpy adventure stories.
- When did I read it? 24 January 2019 – 27 January 2019
- What’s it about? In the near future USA (near future, that is, compared to the Cold War era in which it was written), after the cities have been destroyed in a nuclear war, cities and large settlements are forbidden, and there is widespread religion (Christian but of various sects) and fear of change and the past. Two boys of the New Mennonite sect are unsatisfied with the dogma of satisfaction and incuriosity, and want to know more than their elders are willing to let them.
- What did I think? The Long Tomorrow is a brilliant book, but also nothing quite like anything else on this list (leading me to wonder why it’s on here). It’s a poignant, often upsetting portrayal of a world in the grip of ignorance, fear and fanaticism, and the harm that these things can cause.
- What does it have to do with D&D? The Long Tomorrow is not fantasy or adventure, and anything I could draw from it for D&D would be extremely tenuous. Still, let’s try reaching. The idea of an injunction against large settlements (if done differently, perhaps because of magic that targets big population centers?) could work in D&D, and would bring the setting back to the simpler settings of early D&D where settlements were merely a brief stop between dungeons. A taboo about the knowledge of the past could also work, even asserted by the leaders of various religions (clerics or paladins?), with the player characters trying to learn about history in secret and finding allies in hidden places. It could be a cool campaign, but I don’t think it’s applicable much beyond the one campaign seed.
Brooks, Terry. The Sword of Shannara and the rest of the Shannara novels.
- What did I read? I started reading The Sword of Shannara (1977), but I gave up about halfway through in boredom and frustration.
- When did I read it? Many years ago, when I was in secondary school (age 11 to 18).
- What’s it about? Rather than try and summarise it myself, here’s a blurb from Barnes & Noble: “Long ago, the wars of the ancient Evil ruined the world. In peaceful Shady Vale, half-elfin Shea Ohmsford knows little of such troubles. But the supposedly dead Warlock Lord is plotting to destroy everything in his wake. The sole weapon against this Power of Darkness is the Sword of Shannara, which can be used only by a true heir of Shannara. On Shea, last of the bloodline, rests the hope of all the races.”
- What did I think? Maybe I’d change my mind if I revisited it, but it struck me even when I first read it as a dull and derivative piece of fantasy. Looking back, there are some interesting ideas in there (see next section), and I hear the sequels are less formulaic (but haven’t read them so can’t confirm), but in general I’m not interested in going back to it.
- What does it have to do with D&D? The Sword of Shannara is extremely D&D, from its races (elves, dwarves, humans, half-elves) to its magic items (the Elfstones and the eponymous Sword) to its questing and more. It’s very classic in that regard, but there’s also some neat original ideas that might inspire your campaigns too, e.g. the post-apocalyptic origins of the world and the various fantasy races, and the final fate of the Warlock Lord (having looked it up many years later) is actually really clever and cool.
Brown, Fredric. Hall of Mirrors and What Mad Universe.
- What did I read? “Hall of Mirrors” (1953)
- When did I read it? 10 January 2019
- What’s it about? It’s a short story, written in the second person (you), about a man (contemporary for the time of the story) who wakes up in a room, not sure how he got there, to find that everything is strange. It’s a very quick read, and I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say it is a science fiction rather than fantasy.
- What did I think? It’s a cool story. Short and to the point. Not much else to say.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Being written in the second person immediately gives the narrative a sense that it could be the words of a GM to a player, but in this scenario the RPG they are playing is certainly not D&D. (In the original Appendix N by Gary Gygax, Fredric Brown is included but no specific stories are suggested, meaning that these stories were picked by the people who put together Appendix E for 5th edition, and I honestly don’t know why. There must be something more appropriate to D&D than this?)
Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology.
- What did I read? I read part of The Legends of Charlemagne (1863), the third and final of the books in Bulfinch’s Mythology (after The Age of Fable (1855), on Greek mythology, and The Age of Chivalry (1858), on the legends of King Arthur). I picked Charlemagne because it’s the only one of the three that I don’t already know a lot about.
- When did I read it? 22 January 2019
- What’s it about? Charlemagne was a real king of western Europe who founded the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800 AD, roughly 300 years after the time King Arthur was supposed to have lived. The stories told about Charlemagne and his closest companions (or Paladins, the origin of that term) are very similar to the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (to the extent that some stories are basically the same). The main difference between Charlemagne and King Arthur is that, whereas we don’t really know much about King Arthur except the legends, we know quite a lot about the historical Charlemagne and therefore we know that the legends about him are almost entirely bunkum. This is probably the main reason why Charlemagne’s legends are nowhere near as famous as Arthur’s legends today… after all, anyone who wants to write a Charlemagne story could just set it in King Arthur’s Britain instead and nobody would be the wiser.
- What did I think? I don’t know why Bulfinch is on this list. As I said in the section on Gods and Fighting Men by Augusta, Lady Gregory, I understand that an understanding of mythology is useful, but there are much more recent and much better versions of all of these stories (except maybe Charlemagne, because nobody cares about Charlemagne). You’d be better off with the works of Edith Hamilton, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, Roger Lancelyn Green, Marcia Williams. There are even mythology books coming out in the last few years, like Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and Stephen Fry’s Mythos and Heroes. Or you could do what I do more and more, which is watch some mythological YouTube videos by people like Dael Kingsmill, Overly Sarcastic Productions, or Extra Credits.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Mythology is replete with stories about heroes and knights and quests and magic weapons. So, yes, plenty to do with D&D. But, again, there are better ways to learn about them.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. At the Earth’s Core and the rest of the Pellucidar series, Pirates of Venus and the rest of the Venus series, and A Princess of Mars and the rest of the Mars series.
- What did I read? A Princess of Mars (1917), The Gods of Mars (1918), and The Warlord of Mars (1919), the first three in the Mars (Barsoom) series. I also read the first few Tarzan books, not listed here.
- When did I read it? A few years ago
- What’s it about? The Mars series (at least the ones I read) focus on Confederate soldier John Carter who is transported repeatedly to the red plains of Mars (known to its inhabitants as Barsoom), where he is super strong because of Mars’ lower gravity. He meets various races of Martians (denoted by their colour, yes really), falls in love with a princess, and becomes a hero in the old sword and sandal (or, perhaps, radium gun and harness) mold.
- What did I think? The Mars books (like the Tarzan tales) are tight, straightforward but enjoyable adventure stories. There are some distracting elements, but I enjoyed them as solidly written pulpy yarns.
- What does it have to do with D&D? There are some good bits that resemble dungeon crawls (infiltrating enemy bases and so on), especially in the second and third books. As much as I think the Martian races are a bit weird, they are presented to the readers clearly and, if stripped of the skin-colour signifiers, could be repurposed as a way of representing different races in a fantasy setting. Also, DC Comics borrowed a bunch of Barsoom lore for the backstory of the Martian Manhunter, so there’s that too.
Carter, Lin. Warrior of Worlds End and the rest of the World’s End series.
- What did I read? I wasn’t able to find any of Lin Carter’s World’s End series at my local bookstores, my local libraries, or on the Amazon UK Kindle store, so I’ve had to skip it.
Cook, Glen. The Black Company and the rest of the Black Company series.
- What did I read? The Black Company (1984)
- When did I read it? 10 January 2019 – 14 January 2019
- What’s it about? The Black Company is an elite mercenary company in decline, formed of villains, criminals and other hard, cruel men joined with each other against the world by bonds like brotherhood. After a contract goes bad, their next job brings them into the service of a literal evil empire, ruled by immortal monsters, necromancers and wizards, and they become caught not only in the Empire’s losing battle against the supposed “good” Rebels, but also in its internecine political maneuvering.
- What did I think? It’s ok, but perhaps not as good as some of the hype I’ve heard about it. It’s in the first person, and the narrative voice is clear and helps you empathise with these characters even though they are reprehensible. Things move along very quickly, sometimes a little too quickly, but better that than the alternative.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Sometimes players and GMs get into their head that they want to play an evil party. This book shows how to do that, and how to do it well. The party may be entirely cutthroats and bastards, but they have to be united by something, and while they can fight against good guys it’s also a good idea if they aren’t the most repellant thing in the entire setting. The integration of magic users into the party feels natural, and their enemies are scary without being devoid of humanity. Some of their fights are even good examples of combat, although I’d avoid the great battle at the end because too much of it is merely witnessed rather than being influenced by the main characters.
de Camp, L. Sprague. The Fallible Fiend and Lest Darkness Fall.
- What did I read? I couldn’t get either of these books, but since I already tried a book that de Camp had co-authored (see the next item on the list), I didn’t try too hard to find them.
de Camp, L. Sprague & Fletcher Pratt. The Compleat Enchanter and the rest of the Harold Shea series, and Carnelian Cube.
- What did I read? Half of The Carnelian Cube (1948), before dropping it.
- When did I read it? 9 December 2018 – 17 December 2018
- What’s it about? An archaeologist dissatisfied with the world he lives in travels to another when he sleeps on an ancient cube made of carnelian. The first world is built on absurd hyper-rationality, the second on absurd hyper-individuality, and a third on an overly literal interpretation of archaeology rebuilding the past.
- What did I think? I’m not a fan. It’s readable but so very stupid. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but it misses the mark more than it hits.
- What does it have to do with D&D? At a stretch, I could possibly argue that the first world is a plane of unrestrained Law and the second world is of unrestrained Chaos, but honestly I don’t think the argument could stand up to scrutiny. The execution is just nonsensical. Maybe if I’d read the Harold Shea series instead there would be more to draw from.
Derleth, August and H.P. Lovecraft. Watchers out of Time.
- What did I read? I really struggled to find a copy of this book, and that really surprised me. I could order a hard copy online, but no electronic copies (not even in collections) and nothing I could get from a local store or library. I thought Derleth’s works would be easier to obtain than that (and, while I’m on the topic, yes this is Derleth’s work not Lovecraft’s, and I don’t know why the Appendix E writers felt the need to credit Lovecraft when Gary Gygax hadn’t but oh well).
Dunsany, Lord. The Book of Wonder, The Essential Lord Dunsany Collection, The Gods of Pegana, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany Compendium, and The Sword of Welleran and Other Tales.
- What did I read? The Book of Wonder (1912)
- When did I read it? 12 December 2018 – 13 December 2018
- What’s it about? A collection of fourteen short stories, very early examples of fantasy with the fairy tale elements still very prominent. The stories are very short indeed, and the whole collection can be read in a few hours.
- What did I think? It’s really good! The Book of Wonder came out in 1912 (as did Hodgson’s The Night Land), but in its writing it could easily have been written today. There’s not a huge amount of substance to any of the stories (I regret that I didn’t have an illustrated edition, as the stories were written to explain the illustrations rather than the other way around), but they are good at making strange fantasy worlds seem real and evoking, yes, a sense of wonder.
- What does it have to do with D&D? There are ideas and images throughout that could be lifted and repurposed for a D&D game. The depictions of gods in tales such as “Chu-bu and Sheemish” or “The Injudicious Prayers of Pombo the Idolator” are solid in a D&D context, and I just love the conceit of “The Quest of the Queen’s Tears” (in which noble suitors are furious that a beautiful queen simply rejects their marriage proposals without sending them on impossible, life-threatening quests).
Farmer, Philip Jose. Maker of Universes and the rest of the World of Tiers series.
- What did I read? Maker of Universes (1965)
- When did I read it? 10 December 2018 – 12 December 2018
- What’s it about? An aging academic in (then-modern day) America passes through a portal into a fantastical world constructed out of four tiers: one based on ancient Greece, one based on pre-Columbian and prehistoric North America, one based on medieval Europe, and one based on jungle ruins of an ancient civilisation (Atlantis). Above all of these is a palace owned by the advanced Lord that built and rules the planet through advanced technology. The hero becomes young and strong while living in the lowest level, then journeys through the tiers until finally reaching the central pinnacle of the planet.
- What did I think? Maker of Universes is a love letter to Edgar Rice Burroughs, which possibly shouldn’t have been surprising from the author of Tarzan Alive and the Wold Newton family. It never quite transcends its inspiration (despite an imaginative setting and some twists), but it’s by no means inferior to the adventure tales of Tarzan (which is directly referenced in the tale) or the Barsoom series (with which it shares a central conceit).
- What does it have to do with D&D? Like Burroughs’ work, there are some quests, some journeys, some fights, meeting new peoples and seeing new places. The setting is not much like D&D, but there’s some interesting setting stuff here, especially on the lowest tier (Okeanos, with its ancient Greek inspiration).
Fox, Gardner. Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse and the rest of the Kothar series, and Kyrik and the Lost Queen and the rest of the Kyrik series.
- What did I read? “The Sword of the Sorcerer”, the first short story featuring Kothar, which is collected in Kothar – Barbarian Swordsman (1969). One short story was enough, believe me. (Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse, named in Appendix E, is actually the fourth collection in the series. The old Appendix N didn’t give a specific book, so this is an addition by the 5th edition writers, and I don’t understand it.)
- When did I read it? 23 December 2018
- What’s it about? The last survivor of a mercenary company finds a crypt, in which a lich sorcerer gives him a sword and sends him out to serve the queen that he was already working for. He meets the queen in a nearby hut, and she sends him to rescue her sorcerer. The sorcerer sends him to kill a sea serpent and steal a treasure. This done, he defends the sorcerer from an enemy mercenary company and then goes to assault the tower of an enemy sorceress. The queen offers him titles and treasure in exchange for giving up his sword, but he refuses and leaves.
- What did I think? I was prepared for a derivative, slightly inferior but enjoyably pulpy Conan knockoff, and yeah that’s basically what I got. Except for the enjoyable bit. It might have been better than other derivative Conan knockoffs, but it’s no shine on the original. It moves at a quick pace, which I approve of, and it has moments of action, but otherwise there’s not much to recommend. Where Conan is almost a force of nature who makes his own choices for good or ill, only rarely suffering the whims of fate, Kothar is buffeted around the story by the power of plot without making a single meaningful decision of his own. The grand setting is briefly described as being a far future, planetary romance, but the immediate setting (i.e. where Kothar is at any time) is barely given any description at all, a long way from the verisimilitude of Conan’s Hyboria.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Despite not liking Kothar’s first story much, I have to admit that Kothar is probably more similar to a D&D character than Conan is. He’s what a (young male) player might come up with if trying to make a Conan-style barbarian. He’s shallow and womanising. He claims to dislike magic, but willingly uses a magic sword and is allies with 75% of the magic users in the story. The sword, Frostfire, is magic but its powers aren’t really demonstrated (supposedly it defends against magic power, but in the story it doesn’t do anything that we wouldn’t expect a normal sword to do) and Kothar’s attachment to it isn’t justified, especially considering its cost: one can only wield the sword if they have no other riches. That certainly doesn’t sound like a D&D character, and it sounds even less like Conan. On the other hand, this story is the inspiration for D&D’s liches, and for that I guess I can give it a break.
Froud, Brian & Alan Lee. Faeries.
- What did I read? I didn’t even attempt to get this one. It’s a book of illustrations, I understand, and while I’m sure it is gorgeous and inspiring, it’s just not what I was interested in reviewing for this blog.
Hickman, Tracy & Margaret Weis. Dragons of Autumn Twilight and the rest of the Chronicles Trilogy.
- What did I read? Half of Dragons of Autumn Twilight (1984) before giving up. I had previously seen the movie of the book, which is about the same quality but doesn’t take as long to finish
- When did I read it? 15 December 2018 – 17 December 2018
- What’s it about? A party of D&D characters (who seem to hate each other despite being friends) have a series of encounters that somehow end up with them restoring an old religion, resisting an invasion by an army of dragons and rescuing some slaves.
- What did I think? This isn’t just a novel set in a D&D campaign setting, it’s the story of a player party’s campaign (apparently based on a game that the authors actually played). And it shows. I could gripe about the unlikable characters (especially Sturm the lawful stupid knight, Tas the rogue who steals from his friends, and Raistlin the evil wizard in a party of do-gooders), but I think the real problems in the book come to two things: the novel tells everything and shows little, and the narration is in third person limited point of view but the point of view changes often, without warning and for no real purpose. For example, Tanis is the most common point of view character, but sometimes there will be paragraphs from other characters’ points of view for no reason other than they need to exposit some more of their backstory in their own heads. In the first fight scene, the POV jumps about so much and the action is described so straightforwardly that it feels like a turn-by-turn report of an actual D&D combat encounter, and is about as enjoyable to read as you’d expect from that description.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Being an official D&D book, it’s suffused with D&D stuff. The main characters are D&D protagonists, with explicit races and implicit classes. They meander through the story like a typical player party following a DM’s crumbs of clue, and hit a huge number of clichés. They even meet in an inn. It’s a reflection, a pretty accurate reflection, of any number of D&D campaigns, but those tropes are played out now and for that reason it isn’t something to emulate in your own play.
Hodgson, William Hope. The Night Land.
- What did I read? The first couple of chapters of The Night Land (1912)
- When did I read it? 12 December 2018 (chapter 1), 18 January 2019 (chapter 2)
- What’s it about? A comptemporary man, through a dream, comes to share the memories of his reincarnated self from the distant future, after the Sun has gone out and the world is put into darkness, and the remnants of humanity live together in a great pyramid called the Last Redoubt that keeps at bay the various monsters that wait in the dark. The man relays these memories in correspondence for a contemporary audience.
- What did I think? It was written in 1912, but I think it’s a slower read than some others written about the same time. It’s not an adventure story, it’s not very exciting at all (it took me a while to get back to it as you can see), but despite that it’s pretty interesting if you have the time for it. I did not really have the time for it.
- What does it have to do with D&D? The second chapter sets out the locations of the Night Land around the Last Redoubt, and I gotta tell you that with a few tweaks it could make a great D&D setting. I mean, there are maps out there (I like this one, but here’s a collection of others), so judge for yourself. It’s not as detailed or varied as something like Forgotten Realms, but there’s a lot of potential for certain sorts of campaigns.
Howard, Robert E. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian and the rest of the Conan series.
- What did I read? Rather than read The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian specifially, or any other collection, I read the original short stories online, from Conan’s first published appearance in “The Phoenix on the Sword” (1932) to at least “The Jewels of Gwahlur” (1935). (That’s all of Howard’s Conan stories except two or three short stories and one novel.) Individual stories rather blur together, except for certain standouts of which the most memorable (and most D&D-ish) is probably “The Tower of the Elephant” (1933).
- When did I read it? A few years ago
- What’s it about? I kinda think the very first Conan story says it pretty well: “Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.” All the stories focus on this character, an uncivilised (but not unintelligent) barbarian with a distrust of magic, a gift for fighting, and a tendency to make waves wherever he goes. There’s very little connecting the stories other than Conan himself and the wide Hyborian world in which he lives.
- What did I think? The Conan stories are classics for a reason: brilliantly realised adventure tales, starring a main character you can’t help but remember, evocative of a brutal world that feels larger than what’s on the page.
- What does it have to do with D&D? The characters are often thinly sketched and a little awkwardly stereotypical, but they’re great roleplaying inspiration. Conan himself embodies the archetype of pretty much every non-magic user in D&D: he’s a fighter, a rogue, a barbarian, a pirate. He’s smarter than he appears in adaptations and knockoffs, and in some stories (including the first, set much later in his life) he’s a ruler with responsibilities for his people. His enemies are frequently wizards and evil priests too, so all the main classes are covered somewhere. There are dungeons aplenty too, and the language can really put players in the right mood for a sword and sandal adventure. (Heck, Swords Without Master is a game almost entirely about evoking Howard’s language in roleplaying.)
Jemisin, N.K. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the rest of the Inheritance series, The Killing Moon, and The Shadowed Sun.
- What did I read? The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010)
- When did I read it? 27 January 2019 – 30 January 2019
- What’s it about? The Arameri family controls the world, through their wealth, through their military might, and through the fear that they might unleash one of their enslaved gods to punish any who oppose them. Yeine’s mother renounced her claim of inheritance to the Arameri family when she married Yeine’s father, but now Yeine’s parents are dead and she has been summoned to the family seat of Sky by her grandfather, the head of the family, who unexpectedly appoints her as one of his potential heirs. If she’s to survive, she needs to learn quickly and to navigate the power struggles and family drama that characterise not only the humans of Sky, but the gods as well.
- What did I think? An excellent book. I’d previously read Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (first of the Broken Earth series, which came out after Appendix E was put together), and while I think The Fifth Season might be the technically superior book, I had a lot more fun reading this one. It’s deeply affecting, with great characters and an enthralling story. It’s very much a personal story, not a rousing adventure. If I had to summarise its themes, which are many and layered, I guess it’s a book about extremes (light and dark, love and hate, power and slavery, sacrifice and revenge, childhood and great age, etc.) and how sometimes they live together and sometimes they collide explosively. I also think it’s worth highlighting how the work explores, but never dwells too much on, issues of oppression like sexism and skin-colour racism, but as a white man I don’t know what else to say about that except it was a perspective that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other book in Appendix E, and it is therefore especially valuable.
- What does it have to do with D&D? The type of story told in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms isn’t something you could or should replicate in D&D (although other RPGs might have better luck), but the worldbuilding is fantastic and has plenty of inspiration. The locations are great, and the gods and the mythology is superb. Even the magic and the courtly atmosphere can be repurposed in some types of campaigns. Just don’t try to use the different cultures in a D&D setting, because the chance of any gaming group collectively walking that tightrope as skillfully as N.K. Jemisin is negligible.
Jordan, Robert. The Eye of the World and the rest of the Wheel of Time series.
- What did I read? The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt (both 1990), as well as the prequel New Spring (2004, but which I actually read first)
- When did I read it? A friend of mine at university loved these books, and I borrowed the first few books in the series from him. That would have been around 2006.
- What’s it about? The Wheel of Time refers to the cyclical history of the world, in which certain characters are repeatedly reincarnated. In one such cycle, at the end of the Third Age, a magic user searching for one such character, the Dragon Reborn, finds a village where three young men of destiny are living. Unsure which is the right one, she takes them all with her into an epic adventure against the forces of the Dark One.
- What did I think? Some cool ideas, but I didn’t enjoy the writing style, I don’t like many of the characters, and I was extremely put off by the magical sexism and the several sources of creepy mind control. And it’s soooo loooong. Suffice to say, I’m not going to be reading any more of this.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Most of the fantasy concepts in the series aren’t really original (Artur Hawkwing is literally King Arthur dropped into this setting), and the things that are original (the nature of magic/channeling) don’t really work in D&D. But even things lifted from other sources are twisted and bent and renamed so that they do fit in the setting as a cohesive whole (Trollocs are named after trolls, but physically they are closer to beastmen, and their role in the story is more like orcs), and that might not sound like much but it’s basically D&D’s bread and butter and it’s a useful skill to put a stamp on things. Plus the concept of a Wheel of Time in which mythic characters are reincarnated into the current age to do great things has promise in a roleplaying game.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana.
- What did I read? Tigana (1990)
- When did I read it? 5 January 2019 – 10 January 2019
- What’s it about? Two foreign nations, each led by a powerful sorcerer, have conquered the Peninsula of the Palm, splitting its provinces between them down the middle. The sorcerers now rule as Tyrants, oppressing the native populations. One province in particular, Tigana, suffered more, having all knowledge of it and its name magically erased from history and from the memory of anyone who was not born there. About two decades after the conquest, a young singer finds himself entangled with the secret resistance to overthrow the Tyrants, led by the Prince of forgotten Tigana, who hopes yet to undo the spell that still prevents others from hearing or remembering the name of his birthland.
- What did I think? I like it. It’s longer than most books on this list, but it’s a powerful and affecting story of oppression, obsession, resistance, culture and memory, and the messy complexity of rebelling or just surviving in such situations. It’s more grounded and explored more deeply than Sanderson’s Mistborn, which also focuses on resistance in the face of tyranny. The setting feels real, inspired by several sources (renaissance Italy, ancient Greece, etc.) but never feels like a fantasy version of those sources, being more like its own thing.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Magic and religion are everywhere in this world, but they are subtle everyday presences. Gods don’t need to talk directly to the heroes of the day to play a major part in the world-changing events that unfold. Small things can have big consequences. Like A Game of Thrones, this has some excellent examples of intrigue, courtly and otherwise. The few battle scenes are well done, especially in a D&D sense that they provide good reasons for a small number of people (i.e. a player party) to influence the course of a battle.
King, Stephen. The Eyes of the Dragon.
- What did I read? The Eyes of the Dragon (1984)
- When did I read it? 6 January 2019 – 13 January 2019
- What’s it about? A children’s book in the style of a fairy tale (and thus a departure from Stephen King’s usual style, although there are moments with some horror and some of its content won’t be suitable for younger children). The Eyes of the Dragon is about the royal household of the kingdom of Delain in the years before and after the death of King Roland, about the schemes of Roland’s evil magician Flagg and the people who try to thwart him. (Although some of the names are shared with characters and places in King’s Dark Tower series, I didn’t notice any actual connection to that series. If there is, it honestly isn’t important, so don’t be as put off by the possibility as I was.)
- What did I think? It’s pretty good, but I don’t really have much else to say about it.
- What does it have to do with D&D? There’s very little to mine here for D&D. Although it is set in a fantasy world in which dragons and magic exists, those things do not play a significant role in the story and the setting is barely explored. Flagg can do magic, but in practice this is for colour and he doesn’t use it to affect the plot to any great degree. If the title led you to expect that there would be a dragon playing a major role, I’m going to give you a minor spoiler and say that the Eyes mentioned in the title belong to a Dragon that is long since dead.
Lanier, Sterling. Hiero’s Journey and The Unforsaken Hiero.
- What did I read? Some of Hiero’s Journey (1973) before giving up
- When did I read it? 26 December 2018 – 27 December 2018
- What’s it about? A travelogue through post-apocalyptic north America, following a telepathic priest (Hiero) from a future-Catholic Abbey on his mission to rediscover the ancient knowledge of computers. The world is populated by mutants created since an event known as The Death, some of whom are Hiero’s allies (a mutant moose steed and an intelligent bear companion) but most of which are his enemies (serving an evil group called the Unclean).
- What did I think? It’s just dull, I’m sorry. As a travelogue, everything is described in some detail, and if you’re the kind of reader who cares for that then you might like it, but for me the slow pace and ponderous action and awkward infodumps and altogether dated writing style were too much for me to put up with. I’ve been told it improves at the very end, but it’s a long book and I don’t have the patience to get that far.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Tenuous connection. Some of the creatures that Hiero fights could fit into an RPG campaign, and his relationship with his animal companions is very druidesque. There might be more of an impact on D&D’s psionics, but I don’t know much of anything about D&D’s psionics, so I couldn’t tell you. It also inspired Gamma World, though, so maybe you’ll be more into it if that’s your RPG of choice?
LeGuin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea and the rest of the Earthsea series.
- What did I read? A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). (Many years ago, when I was younger than 10 years old, I read A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Tombs of Atuan (1971). I might even have read The Farthest Shore (1972), which my school library definitely had a copy of but I can’t remember a single thing about. However, I was so young at the time that I didn’t really understand anything that was happening, and I didn’t remember much of it when I started this review. So, for the sake of this blog post, I’ve only read the first book.)
- When did I read it? 30 December 2018 – 1 January 2019
- What’s it about? On a fantasy world that is one giant archipelago, the boy Ged (aka Sparrowhawk) becomes a man and a wizard. A hubristic mistake in his wizard training haunts him (literally embodied by an extradimensional shadow creature) for many years until he can finally overcome his demons.
- What did I think? A Wizard of Earthsea is written in an unusual style, especially at the beginning, although I’m not enough of an expert to say exactly what’s unusual about it. By instinct I’d characterise it as pseudo-historical, being presented as the unknown story of Ged from the perspective of a historian who knows the great things that Ged accomplished later in his life. The style feels unique, anyway, and that’s no bad thing in itself, but it can take a while to get used to. Once I got used to it I found myself enjoying the story greatly. Ged is a great character, and the setting and the magic is a great backdrop for his coming-of-age.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Well, the A Wizard of Earthsea has dragons; The Tombs of Atuan has dungeons. Can’t get more direct than that. More seriously, though, there’s plenty here. The very idea of an archipelago world is a great idea for a setting, and should be more common; the way such a setting is presented in Earthsea is great too, even if the theory underpinning Earthsea’s magic wouldn’t translate well to a strict D&D campaign (although I love the concept that magic works differently in different parts of the world). Wizardry is not uncommon on Earthsea, but it is valued (especially for useful abilities such as healing or weathercraft for piloting ships), and that kind of respect can be ported over to D&D. Several times, Ged pays for passage on a ship with his magic, but sometimes that doesn’t work (e.g. if they already have a wizard aboard) and he needs to man the oars instead. There’s not much combat, although the chapter in which Ged confronts the Dragon of Pendor is worth a read for an alternate take on such encounters. Lastly, A Wizard of Earthsea is a great example of a character growing over time, which is all too rare in D&D campaigns.
Leiber, Fritz. Swords and Deviltry and the rest of the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser series.
- What did I read? Swords and Deviltry (1957-1970)
- When did I read it? A couple of years ago
- What’s it about? Swords and Deviltry is an origin story for Fafhrd (a tall northern barbarian) and the Gray Mouser (a small thief and former wizard’s apprentice), broken into three main sections: one of Fafhrd’s life before they met, one of Gray Mouser’s life before they met, and then the story of them meeting.
- What did I think? The stories in the Swords and Deviltry collection are alright (although I remember the Fafhrd tale and their first meeting much more clearly than the Gray Mouser origin story), but it’s pretty obvious from reading that they are not the first ones written, and they aren’t really very good introductions to the characters. For one thing, they don’t really get any chance to demonstrate why I should care about their adventures, or why Lankhmar is such a renowned setting. I haven’t read any other collections, but I bet any of them would be better starting points than Swords and Deviltry.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are the archetypal D&D characters, and I’m given to understand that their adventures are pretty archetypal D&D adventures as well… but you wouldn’t know that from this first collection. There’s thieves, magic, sneaking, fighting, the occasional monster… it’s moderately D&D but I do wish I’d started with a different collection. Swords Against Death, maybe…
Lovecraft, H.P. The Complete Works.
- What did I read? The Complete Works (1917-1941). Yes, everything Lovecraft wrote, except what he co-authored with others. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.
- When did I read it? A few years ago.
- What’s it about? Lovecraft’s various stories tend to stand alone (even on the rare occasions where characters like Randolph Carter appear in more than one of them), and there’s an amount of variety in the stories but he tends to return to one formula for which he is especially well known: A bookish man of nervous disposition, who usually doesn’t believe in the occult but knows about it for some reason, discovers a strange occurrence which can’t be easily explained through rational means. He attempts to learn more, generally ignoring powerful feelings of wrongness, and discovers that the occurrence is the result of some interference by cosmic creatures beyond human understanding, who are utterly indifferent to humanity. The man’s knowledge of this cosmic reality is too much for him, and he is driven mad.
- What did I think? It’s a slog. There are some pretty good stories, primarily the short ones, but they are outnumbered by the absolute stinkers. Still, one could argue that even his worst tales have some imagery or piece of imagination that could be repurposed somewhere else. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is shockingly dull and far too long, but has some neat imaginary landscapes. At other times, Lovecraft’s ideas are just bad (the premise of the short story called “The Unnamable”, i.e. that something exists that is so weird that no name can be applied to it, is stupid) and it should go without saying these days that he’s terribly racist and ableist.
- What does it have to do with D&D? There’s no denying that Lovecraft has been hugely influential on D&D, both directly in a lesser way and also indirectly via his impact on other writers. But honestly, these days I think Lovecraft is perhaps more useful as a checklist of things to avoid in D&D than of things to aim for. That said, he did write some impressive (if florid) descriptions of ancient temples and ruins, which can definitely be put to good use. The word “cyclopean” alone…
Lynch, Scott. The Lies of Locke Lamora and the rest of the Gentlemen Bastard series.
- What did I read? The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006)
- When did I read it? A couple of years ago
- What’s it about? A con man and his gang of thieves operate in a fantasy city based somewhat on Renaissance Venice, and have to survive both the nobles and the underworld when an enemy moves against his criminal patron.
- What did I think? I read this book for pleasure and it didn’t disappoint. The first book is largely self-contained, thankfully, and hey fantasy heists are fun. There are downsides though: I am still furious about the treatment of Nazca, the villain isn’t interesting after you find out who it is, and the evil wizard is so powerful that the heroes only manage to beat him by coincidence. Still good, but I’m unlikely to read any more in the sequence.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Watch rogues do their thing, without necessarily resorting to the old assassin’s favourite of sneak-up-behind-them-and-stab-them-in-the-back. There’s some real camaraderie among the thieves that would be good to use for a player party. Plus, Locke’s line that starts “I don’t have to beat you” has come up more than once at my gaming tables…
Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones and the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series.
- What did I read? Ok, confession. I basically ran out of time to read this one. I left it to the end because I’ve watched the TV show (chances are you have too, or you’re aware of it) and because I actually think these are books that I might want to read… but I’d rather wait until either the show is off the air, or the book series is finished. So yeah. I’m not going to review the show here, that wouldn’t really be appropriate. But there’s definitely stuff in there to inspire a D&D game, from history to politics to the world building (e.g. the length of seasons). And dragons and dungeons too, can’t forget those.
McKillip, Patricia. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.
- What did I read? The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974). I’d probably have read more if more had been recommended.
- When did I read it? A couple of years ago
- What’s it about? Told like a fairytale, this is the story of the sorceress Sybel, who lives alone on a mountain, looking after a menagerie of fantastic mythical creatures and seeking the final magic creature for her collection. A baby boy is left with her to be loved and raised in secret, which she does for twelve years until the powerful lords of the land come to use the boy for their own political purposes. Sybel tries to do what is best for the child she raised, while dealing with the attention that she is now receiving after so long in seclusion.
- What did I think? I love this story! It’s the delightful gem that I would have never found if not for Appendix E. It’s beautiful and the most moving story I’ve found on this list. Highly recommended, but standard content warnings apply.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Limited application to D&D, sadly, although the creatures of the menagerie could easily appear in a D&D campaign, and the way they are described in the book captures some of the wonder that D&D’s famous creatures sometimes lose when they appear at the table.
Merritt, A. Creep, Shadow, Creep; Dwellers in the Mirage; and The Moon Pool.
- What did I read? Creep, Shadow! (1934), the original publication. It was only called Creep, Shadow, Creep (as Appendices N and E call it) in reprintings, presumably to connect the title more closely to Burn, Witch, Burn, to which Creep, Shadow! is a sequel (but isn’t on this list itself).
- When did I read it? 21 December 2018
- What’s it about? A contemporary anthropologist returns home to find that a wealthy friend has died, apparently after being haunted by a shadow. He learns that the responsible party is an unorthodox psychiatrist and his daughter, who have a fervent belief in a sort of powerful entity worshipped in ancient Brittany, and who furthermore believe that they—and the anthropologist himself—are reincarnations of the king, demoiselle, and lover from the legend of Ys.
- What did I think? I’m ambivalent about it. There are some pretty good bits, original and exciting, particularly the trance-like scenes in the second part. But these nuggets are separated by long stretches that are merely ok, nothing special, with long diatribes and exposition that remind me of the more tedious works of Bram Stoker (not listed in Appendix E for some reason) and H.P. Lovecraft.
- What does it have to do with D&D? For most of the book, I’d say that there’s little to connect to D&D. You could make more of it for other roleplaying games, perhaps World of Darkness or Urban Shadows or one of the Cthulhu games, but D&D seems a stretch. The idea of a protagonist being a guest of the villains, using his wiles to avoid being utterly destroyed, is pretty cool… but the protagonist’s powerlessness isn’t very D&D, and besides we already have Dracula doing basically the same thing. But the bits when Dahut cuts loose with her power at the very end are much more in the D&D mold, especially (spoilers) when she turns the protagonist briefly into a shadow and makes him pass through a shadow world, which would work great as a sort of Shadowfell or other dreary plane.
Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station and the other Bas-Lag novels.
- What did I read? Perdido Street Station (2000)
- When did I read it? In the past year.
- What’s it about? In New Crobuzon, a vast hideous city-state run on magic-industrial steampunk technology and bureaucratic oppression, a garuda (birdman) who has lost the ability to fly asks the unorthodox human scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin to help him fly again. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, a khepri (scarab-headed) artist, takes a sculpture commission from a powerful crime boss. In the course of Isaac’s investigations, a deadly flying dream-eating creature called a slakemoth is released, putting Isaac, Lin, their friends, and the whole city in deadly peril.
- What did I think? It’s good, albeit quite long and dense and slow to start. It gets more exciting towards the end as the various plot threads come together. Brilliantly inventive.
- What does it have to do with D&D? While not your typical D&D setting, it does function in a similar way: a collection of fantasy races interacting in a city where magic is fairly common, struggling against monsters that are more powerful than any of them individually. In fact, with some hacking or homebrewing you could make a really cool Bas-Lag D&D setting with khepri and vodyanoi and garuda and so on. The idea of magic-as-industry is moderately similar to my limited understanding of the Eberron setting, but there are enough differences. The monsters are great too, not just the slake-moths that the heroes must overcome, but others that appear throughout (like the representative from Hell). Plenty here to inspire if you can get through it.
Moorcock, Michael. Elric of Melniboné and the rest of the Elric series, and The Jewel in the Skull and the rest of the Hawkmoon series.
- What did I read? The novel Elric of Melniboné (1972) and the short story “Master of Chaos” (1964), both from the collection Elric of Melniboné and Other Stories
- When did I read it? 22 December 2018 – 23 December 2018
- What’s it about? Elric, the young, disabled, albino emperor of Melniboné, having studied philosophy, questions the immoral and decadent views of his people, particularly the expectation he should be cruel and the use of sorcerous powers and bargains with the powerful Lords of Chaos. He is challenged by his greedy cousin and, driven to the actions he has so long questioned, eventually attains the sword Stormbringer with which he will be forever associated.
- What did I think? I thought this book was great! I had relatively low expectations (for no real reason, I guess), but it was delightful and I look forward to reading more Elric and probably more Moorcock at some point in the future.
- What does it have to do with D&D? This is one of the most D&D-like stories on this list. Empires, warriors, sorcery, gods and elementals, dragons, magic swords and armour, alternate planes of reality. Elric’s interactions with Arioch represent the quintessential relationship between a warlock and his demon patron. The fantasy world feels as real as the best D&D campaign settings, seamlessly incorporating all the weird magic that suffuses it, and Elric has to be the ur example of the brooding D&D antihero (before that trope played itself out to the point of cliché).
Norton, Andre. Quag Keep and Witch World.
- What did I read? I read Witch World (1963), although have just found out recently that Quag Keep is actually the very first published book in a D&D setting (Greyhawk).
- When did I read it? A couple of years ago.
- What’s it about? A disgraced US Army officer in the modern day is transported to a fantasy world to escape his criminal ties, and pledges his loyalty to a land ruled by witches, who are surrounded by enemies. There are science fiction elements too, particularly in the main villains of the book.
- What did I think? I enjoyed it enough while I was reading it, but not enough to pick up any of the sequels.
- What does it have to do with D&D? The main character is a soldier in service to a nation who sometimes acts of his own accord, which is not a bad way to kick off a D&D campaign (although the idea of people from our world transported to a fantasy world isn’t really necessary or recommended in D&D, despite Quag Keep or the 80s cartoon). There’s some great descriptions of geography, a decent political situation that could be used for a campaign, and some cool set pieces including overland travel and infiltration. The magic (or Power) is not really consistent with magic in D&D, but the might be able to get some inspiration about how to deal with widespread (if diffuse) magic in a setting, especially how other people react to it.
Offutt, Andrew J., ed. Swords against Darkness III.
- What did I read? I couldn’t find this collection at my local bookstores, my local libraries, or on the Amazon UK Kindle store, so I’ve had to skip it.
Peake, Mervyn. Titus Groan and the rest of the Gormenghast series.
- What did I read? Titus Groan (1946)
- When did I read it? 18 December 2018 – 20 December 2018
- What’s it about? In the vast, decayed castle of Gormenghast, the sad, routine lives of its inhabitants are shaken up by the birth of the young heir (the eponymous Titus Groan) and the machinations of the ambitious servant Steerpike.
- What did I think? It’s… good. It’s definitely… good. I can tell it’s good. But it’s weird. The rule seems to be not to use 10 words when 110 will do. The setting and characters aren’t sketched for the reader’s eye so much as they are lavishly painted with oils. There’s more description than action, but it’s highly evocative and seems to work. It’s also, as a result, very dense, and if I was tired my eyes would glaze and start slipping over the long sentences and ponderous descriptions. But it’s… still good.
- What does it have to do with D&D? The world of Gormenghast isn’t traditional fantasy. There’s no overt magic, no mythos, no good or evil, no warriors, no fantastic creatures or pretty much anything that couldn’t exist in the real world. But the castle and its inhabitants operate on such bizarre rules and make such a vibrant impression in the mind, that there’s no doubt that it doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s a portrait of a weird place, in that sort of archaic timelessness that has come to dominate in D&D, and filled with bizarre and memorable characters. A DM could use the setting and characters to create something similar in their own campaign, either as a settlement to which characters can return to between adventures or, more intriguingly, as a dungeon in its own right with its own set of weird inhabitants that operate on a set of rules that only they may understand (I haven’t read Maze of the Blue Medusa, but understand it might be that sort of idea?).
Pratchett, Terry. The Colour of Magic and the rest of the Discworld series.
- What did I read? I’ve read all of the main Discworld novels from The Colour of Magic (1983) to Raising Steam (2013), leaving only The Shepherd’s Crown, which is the last there will ever be now that Pratchett is dead, so I’m saving it. I’ve also read most of the Discworld short stories, played most of the video games, watched the TV series, and I even have a handful of the spin-off books (companions, cookbooks, handbooks, etc.).
- When did I read it? I’ve been reading Discworld since I was about 9 or 10 years old (after the first video game came out), and I’ve re-read them several times since. In fact, I started reading the series again just a couple of months ago, and it’s one of the things that convinced me to do this blog post.
- What’s it about? The Discworld, world and mirror of worlds, is a flat planet that moves through space on the back of a colossal space-faring turtle. But that’s irrelevant to most stories in the series, which are focused on the lives of the Discworld’s inhabitants. Every book tells its own story, so it’s hard to summarise as a whole, but in general Pratchett uses story tropes and established genre conventions to comment on the real world. The first book, The Colour of Magic, is a sword-and-sorcery parody that follows the magically inept and cowardly wizard Rincewind as he is coerced to serve as a guide for the Discworld’s first ever tourist, and encounters heroes, monsters, dragons, gods, and the edge of the world.
- What did I think? By the gods, read this series! It’s so brilliant! The series is long, but every book stands alone (except arguably The Light Fantastic, which follows The Colour of Magic) and although reading them in order can help to paint a fuller picture of the world and its characters, that matters less than just reading them. They are wonderful and full of heart. Discworld, no lie, helped shape my belief system and made me a better person for it. And it’s really funny!
- What does it have to do with D&D? If there’s one thing Pratchett can do, it’s help you look at familiar things in different ways. Every cliche is subverted somewhere along the way (dragons, trolls, dwarfs, elfs, heroes, thieves, wizards, and many many more), and in the process Pratchett takes a look at the real world through the mirror of the Disc.
- Special bonus Discworld question: So you’re curious about reading Discworld, but where should you start? If you like interesting (satiric or parodic) takes on classic fantasy heroes, monsters, dragons, etc. (and if you’re coming at this from a D&D perspective, that’s probably up your alley) then you should absolutely start with The Colour of Magic. It’s the very first one, and it is literally all about playing with and inverting the genre conventions of sword-and-sorcery fantasy (with nods to Howard and Lieber, among others). If that’s not to your taste, then I could talk with you at length about which Discworld book would be right for you, but in general a safe bet is Guards! Guards! which is about how the underpaid and under-resourced city guards react when the city is attacked by a real life mythical dragon. Guards! Guards! is presented like a detective story, which makes it easily accessible to those less steeped in fantasy, and it introduces Sam Vimes, who is one of the greatest characters in Discworld. It’s also surprisingly prescient about the modern state of politics, which I only noticed on my most recent read through.
Pratt, Fletcher. Blue Star.
- What did I read? The first five-ish chapters of The Blue Star (1952)
- When did I read it? 16 January 2019
- What’s it about? After some obnoxious pseudo-intellectual justification for an alternate history story, this tale shifts to a fantasy setting in which magic power is passed hereditarily from mother to daughter, but can only be used by the (always male) lovers of the currently powered woman. This magic is represented by a blue jewel called a Blue Star, hence the title. And witches are hated by the church and persecuted, because of course. This story in particular focuses on a woman who has inherited magic power but isn’t interested in taking a lover, and the man who is in love with someone else but has seduced the woman on behalf of a group of rebels who want her magic power. Everyone’s life is ruined very quickly, partly because some characters have inconsistent motivations and do things that I could not understand.
- What did I think? Uughh!
- What does it have to do with D&D? Nothing I could tell, and I didn’t want to go digger further looking for any.
Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind and the rest of the Kingkiller series.
- What did I read? The Name of the Wind (2007) and The Wise Man’s Fear (2011), which (despite Appendix E’s reference to “the rest of the Kingkiller series”) are the only two novels there have been to date. (There are short stories but I haven’t read them.)
- When did I read it? A few years ago
- What’s it about? An older Kvothe (the Kingkiller, now called Kote) tells the story of his life (before the feat that gave him his epithet) to a Chronicler. From his earliest days, to his lowest point, to his study of magic, to his incredible adventures, it covers the whole scope of his life: not just the exciting bits but also his daily routines, schooling, romances, and rivalries.
- What did I think? I thought these were excellent when I read them, some of the best books I’d read for a long while. How much you agree with that assessment will depend, among other things, on how much you can put up with Kvothe as a protagonist. I’m fine with him but some people really aren’t. I really must read the first two again before the third comes out, whenever that’ll be…
- What does it have to do with D&D? I hear people recommending these books by saying that Kvothe is the quintessential D&D bard. And that’s true to a point, but like other great heroes I’ve mentioned in this list (e.g. Conan) he defies that simple description because he embodies many more archetypes than that, becoming his own thing: he’s an orphan thief, he’s a magician (in training for much of the series so far) and a widely travelled adventurer. Beyond him, there’s some great fantasy worldbuilding going on here, and there are definitely opportunities to rethink how RPG campaigns are framed and structured, and lots of things to inspire character motivations (short-term and long-term can be very different) and routines.
Saberhagen, Fred. The Broken Lands and Changeling Earth.
- What did I read? The First Book of Swords (1983). Here I had to use some initiative. I haven’t been able to find The Broken Lands (1968) or Changeling Earth (1973) (or even The Black Mountains (1971), which comes between those two) in stores or libraries or online, but I was able to find online The First Book of Swords, which is the first book of a sequel trilogy that picks up the story of the same world thousands of years later. Since this sequel trilogy was written after Appendix N was released in the original DMG, and since I understand it’s more straight-up fantasy than the Empire of the East, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Gary Gygax might have included these books if he had updated Appendix N himself, so it’s fair game.
- When did I read it? 18 January 2019 – 20 January 2019
- What’s it about? The smith god Vulcan creates 12 magic swords, which enter the hands of certain mortals. The sword Townsaver comes into the possession of a young boy named Mark, who is forced to flee his home after angering a local duke, and Mark eventually encounters more of the swords, such as Dragonslicer, which is being carried by a travelling dragon hunter. Meanwhile, the hunt for the swords has roused cruel rulers and magicians across the continent to war, desperate to obtain the power for themselves and prevent it from falling into the hands of their enemies.
- What did I think? It’s fine, perhaps even good. It’s not great, but it’s held back only by the weakness of its prose, not from any failing in the narrative or the inventiveness of its subject matter, which are solid heroic fantasy and more than justify my claim that it would have made sense to be included in the list.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Quite a lot that you can use from here. There’s the 12 magic swords, all of which could work really well in a D&D game (see some description here or on Wikipedia). I also think that the way powerful people are looking for the swords has some potential, but it’s a source of drama that is often underutilised (perhaps because of risks of upsetting players if an evil baron’s goons manage to steal their +1 sword of shiny). I love the idea of a dragon hunter being like large-scale pest control. And there’s the gods, both their appearance and powers and the way they are just messing with people, basically for fun. It made me think that, instead of D&D’s deities going to war because they hate each other, it could play out more like petty disagreements (see also Pratchett’s Discworld gods) or a conflict of ideals that uses mortal pawns as proxies.
Salvatore, RA. The Crystal Shard and the rest of The Legend of Drizzt.
- What did I read? The Crystal Shard (1988). While The Crystal Shard is the fourth book in the series according to its internal chronology, it was the first one published, as part of the Icewind Dale trilogy.
- When did I read it? 20 January 2019 – 24 January 2019
- What’s it about? In the far north of the continent of Faerûn in the Forgotten Realms setting is Icewind Dale, a frozen and inhospitable land of mountain and tundra. Drizzt Do’Urden, a drow who is unique among his wicked people because he has a conscience, has come to live in Icewind Dale because isolation is such an ingrained habit to the local humans that, despite their distrust of him, they are willing to leave him be. Also in Icewind Dale are Drizzt’s friends Bruenor Battlehammer (who leads the local the dwarf population and who actually fights with an axe) and Regis (a halfling who lives with the local humans), both of whom came to Icewind Dale because of events down south. In this story, Drizzt and his friends are caught up when the Ten Towns are threatened, first by a barbarian horde and later by an ancient, powerful and evil artefact (the eponymous crystal shard) and the wizard who holds it.
- What did I think? Ok, yeah, I can see why this series became popular. It’s not in the top tier of books in Appendix E, but it’s still good. Tightly plotted, accessible to D&D newbies, with some great action scenes and a well-constructed setting. The characters are larger than life in a way that seems utterly appropriate for D&D, but the book also hints at character depths that I didn’t quite buy into. The worst thing is the story’s treatment of women. There’s one named female character, Catti-brie, who is alright but doesn’t get to do anything. The other (unnamed) women in the setting are treated as helpless, interchangeable things, there to be dominated by the villain or protected by the townsfolk, and it’s disappointing all round.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Obviously, this is a D&D licensed book, so it is infused with D&D to its very bones. Main characters have explicit races and classes (Drizzt is a drow ranger, and showcases more than a few of the abilities granted him by that combination), monsters are straight out of the Monster Manual, magic weapons show up (at one point even in a treasure pile after a fight), and there are fights aplenty. That all said, this is very clearly a strong fantasy story in a D&D setting, and not the story of a D&D game. The characters who most resemble a standard adventuring party, while committed to each other, are rarely in the same place at the same time, each one having their own life to live and role to play. Then you have things that are great for world building, but wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing you think of when planning a D&D campaign, like the way that Ten Towns’ fishing economy is worked throughly into every aspect of their lives and the way they interact with the larger plot. (Something that’s interesting, more from a D&D literary historical perspective, is that Salvatore seems to still be getting a handle on some of the more obscure D&D lore. He refers to the meditative trance that elves do instead of sleeping, but as an afterthought as if he’d written the Drizzt had slept and was corrected by the editor. Also he consistently refers to the Underdark as the underworld. I assume issues like these didn’t crop up in the sequels.)
Sanderson, Brandon. Mistborn and the rest of the Mistborn trilogy.
- What did I read? Mistborn (2006). I might read more when I have more free time.
- When did I read it? In the past year.
- What’s it about? A group of magic thieves attempt to undermine and overthrow a tyrannical and racist government. Some of them foment resistance among the oppressed people of the city, and others infiltrate the balls of nobility to act as spies.
- What did I think? I really liked it. The characters are cool, the setting is cool, and the thing that everyone will tell you is that the magic system is logical and, yes, cool. The magic system, by the way, has nothing to do with mist (as I mistakenly assumed going into it).
- What does it have to do with D&D? Strictly speaking there’s not much to do with D&D (the magic system is incompatible, there are no fantasy races, etc.) but you can get a lot of mileage out of the premise, the characters, and the way it brings in historical events. It was great for me in particular because as I was reading it I started a D&D campaign in which the player characters were a resistance movement against the tyrannical government (ruled by an ancient blue dragon) that had conquered our city. So, you know, kinda relevant. My character in that campaign was inspired directly by Mistborn.
Smith, Clark Ashton. The Return of the Sorcerer.
- What did I read? I read a bit over half of the stories in the collection The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith (2009), and a handful of other short stories on the website The Eldritch Dark (which has I think the complete collection of Clark Ashton Smith’s work and is invaluable), before deciding to set the rest aside and move on to other items from the list. As well as the collection, there’s also a short story called “The Return of the Sorcerer” (1931), and I’m not sure whether the collection or the short story were intended in Appendix E. Clark Ashton Smith wasn’t even mentioned in the old Appendix N (which is weird considering he was the third member of the Weird Tales trinity alongside H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard), so I played it safe and read more than the minimum.
- When did I read it? 1 January 2019 – 4 January 2019
- What’s it about? I read several short stories. There’s a certain undeniable similarity to the works of Lovecraft, and some follow the same formula I mentioned in that section (including the short story “The Return of the Sorcerer“, which explicitly refers to Lovecraft’s invetions like the Necronomicon), but when taken overall there is a lot more variety in Smith’s stories so that it’s hard to summarise. Clark Ashton Smith was friends with both Lovecraft and Howard, and he was inspired more by the two of them (and they by him) than they were by each other (as they had very different temperaments). I guess, from what I read, it wouldn’t be too far off to say that Smith’s work is like Lovecraft’s but with more irony, a more nuanced understanding of human character, the occasional happy ending, and less of Lovecraft’s typically bleak view of otherness.
- What did I think? I liked the stories of Clark Ashton Smith that I read, but it’s easy to see how his work is not as well regarded now as that of Lovecraft and Howard. He shares Lovecraft’s tendency towards purple prose, but his vocabulary was significantly vaster and he liked using all of it; I regularly had to look up the words he was using because it was impossible to understand their meaning from context (I honestly assumed that caryatids were a type of insect until I checked). That said, if you can ignore that, the stories are just as good as Lovecraft and Howard, and better in some respects. I’d recommend giving them a try.
- What does it have to do with D&D? I think you can get more D&D inspiration from Smith than you can from Lovecraft, but perhaps not as much (or not as consistently) as you can from Howard. That said, Smith’s weird fiction is relatively easy to separate from his other works, so you could focus on the Hyperborean cycle, or the works set in Poseidonis, Averoigne or Zothique. One thing in particular where Smith shines in his description of devilish monsters (which are much more appropriate for D&D than Lovecraft’s weird creatures), gods and particularly undead, which are gruesomely included in “The Dark Eidolon” and other tales.
St. Clair, Margaret. Change the Sky and Other Stories, The Shadow People, and Sign of the Labrys.
- What did I read? I read everything from the collection Change the Sky and Other Stories (1951-1961, collected 1974).
- When did I read it? A couple of years ago.
- What’s it about? A collection of short stories, mostly science fiction with an occasional fantastical bent. I’d love to tell you more than that but honestly I remember very little about this book. I’m looking at some reviews now, and it jogs my memory a bit, but that only goes so far.
- What did I think? It was a reasonably enjoyable read at the time, the ideas are actually pretty cool, but it hasn’t stuck with me at all.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Barely anything I can recall. (In Appendix N in the old Dungeon Master’s Guide, Change the Sky and Other Stories isn’t mentioned, but the other two books are. In retrospect, perhaps I should have tried one of them instead.)
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.
- What did I read? I read The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and some but not all of The Silmarillion (1977).
- When did I read it? A long time ago. I was about 10 when I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, about 12 when I tried and failed to read The Silmarillion, and then about 16 when I read The Hobbit again for my GCSE English coursework.
- What’s it about? In brief (because I suspect you know what they are about already), The Hobbit is about a Hobbit (like a halfling) who goes on an adventure with some Dwarves to steal some treasure from a dragon, The Lord of the Rings is about the heroes who stand in defense of the free people against a terrible evil power (including a young Hobbit who carries the power’s source to its destruction), and The Silmarillion is about the mythic history of the world in which those stories take place.
- What did I think? I’m not sure I understood what was going on in any of these books when I read them. (I would have for the second read-through of The Hobbit, if that hadn’t been for schoolwork and thus not something I diverted much attention to. There’s little can kill a love of reading as forcing someone to read for school.) However, I’m now more familiar with Middle Earth through the Lord of the Rings films (which are excellent) and the Hobbit films (which are not).
- What does it have to do with D&D? So this is the big one. Tolkien’s impact should go without saying, because it’s so obvious (the appearance of elves, dwarves, half-elves, halflings, and half-orcs for starters, plus wizards and thieves/burglars and rangers as main characters, orcs and goblins and balors as monsters). That said, it’s easy to overstate the impact of Tolkien on D&D, because while a lot of the trappings were transferred whole, there’s not a huge amount beneath that. Even the fact of adventuring inside mountains (Goblin Town or Moria in Tolkien) are only superficially similar to D&D’s dungeon delving. The funny thing is that he did a lot of amazing things that D&D mainstream epic fantasy never bothered with, so he’s probably worth another look just for that reason. Maybe there’s something that could inspire your game of D&D even though it didn’t inspire D&D itself, like his themes or the way characters refer to events that happened long ago through song and stories. Couldn’t that help flesh out a campaign setting?
Tolstoy, Nikolai. The Coming of the King.
- What did I read? I didn’t read this. It’s not on the Amazon UK Kindle store, and honestly that’s ok because I was feeling a bit conflicted about giving money to a member of the UK Independence Party anyway. This is the only King Arthur novel on the list (although Arthurian stories and themes come up in others, e.g. Bulfinch’s Mythology and some of Zelazny’s Amber books). Maybe that’s because it’s the most D&D-ish of all Arthurian fiction, but I haven’t read it so who knows? But if they were going to include some King Arthur, I’m honestly surprised they didn’t include some of the other excellent fantasy stories based on that mythology, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, or T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, or Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (all of which I’ve read and would recommend). There are even King Arthur books by other people listed in Appendix E, including Guy Gavriel Kay, Andre Norton, and Fred Saberhagen.
Vance, Jack. The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld.
- What did I read? The Dying Earth (1950)
- When did I read it? 14 December 2018 – 15 December 2018
- What’s it about? A collection of separate but connected short stories about the larger-than-life characters in a fantastical far future Earth, billions of years in the future. Sorcery is common, but only a few people have mastered it, and this shows their rivalries and conflicts and ambitions.
- What did I think? I liked it more than I expected, especially the first couple of stories. The only things I ever knew about The Dying Earth was that it was a far-future, magic-is-super-science fantasy that inspired D&D’s magic. Having heard that, I thought it would be dense and care more about the underlying concepts than the story and characters, but on the contrary it’s a very good and enjoyable book. If you’ve been wary of it for the same reasons I was, I’d say give it a try (but standard content warnings apply, especially in the “T’sais” story).
- What does it have to do with D&D? There’s a part of me that thinks this should have been required reading for anyone to understand how D&D magic worked until edition 3.5. I always knew that D&D’s magic system was based on the work of Jack Vance (hence Vancian magic), but until reading this book I don’t think I ever understood how it was supposed to work in the fiction. Now it is very clear. More recent editions of D&D have largely moved away from the Vancian magic system, but having read The Dying Earth I kinda wish they’d leaned into it more. Plus there are quests, adventures, and evil wizards doing their thing.
Weinbaum, Stanley. Valley of Dreams and The Worlds of If.
- What did I read? “Valley of Dreams” (1934), as well as most of “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) to which it is a sequel, and “The Worlds of If” (1935) and its sequel “The Ideal” (1935). To be clear, I only read more than the recommended amount because they are very short and because nothing else was to hand during a bout of insomnia. That said, the original Appendix N lists Weinbaum without suggesting any specific stories, so these are an addition (another seemingly nonsensical addition, considering “Valley of Dreams” isn’t even a complete story if you haven’t looked at “A Martian Odyssey” first) by the people who put together Appendix E in D&D 5e.
- When did I read it? 30 December 2018
- What’s it about? “Valley of Dreams” is a sequel, or rather the second half of, a story called “A Martian Odyssey”. They are collectively about the first expedition to Mars and the strange creatures that one of them sees when he walks away from the group. (Why is the expedition on Mars? What’s its mission? Who sent it? How did they get there? Just some of the many questions that these stories don’t care about and make no attempt to answer.) “The World of If” is about someone who is friends with a genius inventor who comes up with a device for seeing alternate realities (and other weird inventions in the sequels), which does not help him at all with his chronic lateness or his unlucky relationships with women.
- What did I think? “Valley of Dreams” is bad, almost irredeemably so, but at least it’s short. “The World of If” (and its sequel “The Ideal”) are still bad, but take themselves less seriously and are enjoyable and even funny. The science was nonsense even when it was written, and now it’s even more obviously absurd, but the protagonist of “The World of If” is a likeable schlub and the inventor is amusingly vain and pompous. (“The Ideal” has one of the best put downs by the inventor, when trying to explain his theory about the nature of thought: “I presume you are aware, by hearsay at least, of the existence of thought.”)
- What does it have to do with D&D? None of these stories has anything to do with D&D. You could maybe, maybe make an argument for some of the things in “Valley of Dreams” specifically (e.g. finding images of ancient gods in temples) but nothing that hasn’t been done significantly better elsewhere.
Wellman, Manly Wade. The Golgotha Dancers.
- What did I read? “The Golgotha Dancers” (1937)
- When did I read it? 3 December 2018.
- What’s it about? It’s a short story, a very short story, about someone who finds a painting with creepy demons on it that come to life. It’s really really short.
- What did I think? It’s fine. It’s a fast read, if nothing else.
- What does it have to do with D&D? It’s set in the modern day and the protagonist is neither strong nor particularly brave (unlike his lady neighbour), so it has very little to do with D&D’s epic or heroic fantasy. The idea of a painting that spawns demons, and the story’s way of stopping it, is a pretty neat puzzle-and-combat encounter, but probably one you could only use once in your DMing career. The description of the demons as being a bit blurry, a bit off even in the real world, is neat, but generally there’s not much here.
Williamson, Jack. The Cosmic Express and The Pygmy Planet.
- What did I read? “The Pygmy Planet” (1932)
- When did I read it? 29 December 2018 – 30 December 2018
- What’s it about? A bored man learns that a scientist and his research assistant have created a tiny artificial planet. The civilisation of the planet is falling, and they worship machines to an extent that they have traded their bodies for robot bodies. The tiny robot people learn how to use the scientist’s debigulator and rebigulator rays, kidnapping the scientist and the research assistant. The man shrinks himself, immediately surrenders, and rescues the girl by sabotaging a steam engine when nobody is looking.
- What did I think? It’s meh, bordering on bad. The characters are bland, the plot formulaic, the ending dull. Not much to recommend it, but I also didn’t hate it, so… there’s that.
- What does it have to do with D&D? Nothing really. There’s a fight against a robot, but it’s hardly heroic stuff (hit it with a chair, that does nothing, get knocked out).
Wolfe, Gene. The Shadow of the Torturer and the rest of The Book of the New Sun.
- What did I read? The Shadows of the Torturer (1980)
- When did I read it? 14 January 2019 – 18 January 2019
- What’s it about? Severian is a torturer, an orphan of an unknown client of the Torturers Guild who has been raised by the guild his whole life. However, shortly after he becomes a fully fledged torturer (and man) himself, he assists one of his clients to commit suicide, and is expelled from his order into the world. The rest of the story tells the story of Severian’s journey from the Citadel in the middle of the city of Nessus to the gate leading beyond. The world is another far future, scifi-has-turned-back-round-to-fantasy settings, but the details of that are merely dropped as sporadic hints (the moon has been terraformed and the guild tower is the ruin of an ancient spaceship, for example).
- What did I think? It didn’t grab me, I wouldn’t recommend it, and I don’t plan to read any of the sequels, but despite that I didn’t particularly dislike it. The quality of prose is good in that academic sort of way. I’d even say the first half (before Severian is expelled) is fairly compelling, but the story loses all momentum after that point, which are followed by some encounters that are largely coincidental and trivial in the grand scheme of things, and then the the book ends arbitrarily as he is leaving the city (but before he has, for example, arrived at the named place that he has been heading for since his expulsion and where he expects to stay for the rest of his life). Severian himself becomes less likable when he stops being a torturer too, which perhaps says something but I don’t know what. The conceit of the story (not stated up front, only drip fed through authorial asides) is that it’s Severian’s memoirs from later in his life after he has somehow (never explained) attained the throne. That’s fine except, unlike something like A Wizard of Earthsea, the story is written as if it’s being told to someone who already knows the gist of Severian’s accomplishments, which we obviously don’t, and therefore doesn’t actually give us any reason in the text to care about this character’s story. (A deeper conceit revealed only in the afterword is that the book is a translation of these memoirs from the future, but whatever.)
- What does it have to do with D&D? I don’t know. Not much, but some things. Not enough to recommend it as something to emulate, at least. Guilds? Some of the weird plants? If anything, maybe it’s the way that people react around Severian when he moves through the city; some of that could be used for townsfolk’s reactions to heroes, I guess.
Zelazny, Roger. Jack of Shadows and Nine Princes in Amber and the rest of the Amber series.
- What did I read? Nine Princes in Amber (1970), and about a chapter of The Guns of Avalon (1972), the second book in the series. I bought these in a paperback collection called The Great Book of Amber. It’s the only book that I read in hard copy recently after being unable to find it online, and on my first day reading it I got a paper cut. D’oh.
- When did I read it? 13 January 2019 – 15 January 2019
- What’s it about? A man wakes up in hospital in New York state, covered in casts and bandages but apparently healthy, with no memory of what happened to him, how he got there, or who he is. Following the clues, he soon realises that his past connects him to a mysterious group of reality-shaping, interdimensional immortals, and their legendary home of Amber.
- What did I think? The Chronicles of Amber is fairly influential in the RPG circles I move in (largely thanks to the influence of Amber Diceless Roleplaying on things like Fate Core and Smallville), but I’d never read it before and had no idea what to expect. It starts strong! It’s a very smooth introduction to a very weird setting, constantly moving, with interesting and competent (perhaps hyper-competent) characters. Frustratingly, the first book ends without resolving its main throughline plot, which costs it some points, but it’s good enough for me to continue to later books in the series once this exercise is over.
- What does it have to do with D&D? There is some generic adventure and combat, and some of the magic and artefacts are cool, but I think the Chronicles of Amber relates to D&D in two main ways: the idea of special heroes who can influence the world because of their powers and abilities (not uncommon in scifi and fantasy, granted), and the nature of a multiverse that predated D&D’s planar cosmology. Amber’s multiverse is different in many respects to D&D’s planes, but there are clear similarities (one of the places visited is even called Avernus), and it might have some gems of ideas for a Planescape campaign or something.
My top 10 recommendations (and a standard content warning)
Most of the books in Appendix E are at least readable, and several are great, but there are very few I’d recommend to other people, even people with an interest in D&D. So, to save people the effort of reading the whole list to find some good recommendations, I’ve pulled out my favourites here.
Before we get to those, however, here’s a general content warning. There is difficult or potentially triggering content in a lot of these books, and I don’t feel comfortable recommending these books without some sort of content warning. However, the problematic content can be rare (some books won’t have any, and others may only have a brief instance or two) and given that I read some of these books a very long time ago, I don’t feel confident enough to tailor the content warning to each book individually.
That being said, here is a list of the sort of content you might find, in roughly the order of its frequency: violence or brutality; sexism, sexist stereotypes or sexual objectification; actual or threatened rape or sexual violence; racism or racist stereotypes; ableism or offensive depictions of mental illness, physical disability or deformity; mind control; suicide; incest; mutilation; child threat or child death; homophobia or homophobic stereotypes; torture; scapegoating, witch hunts, or mobbing; forced pregnancy. These apply to all the entire list, not to specific books and not necessarily to the recommendations (which will, in general, have fewer of these issues than the average).
So, that out of the way, here are my top picks:
- Ahmed, Saladin. Throne of the Crescent Moon.
- Dunsany, Lord. The Book of Wonder.
- Howard, Robert E. “The Tower of the Elephant”.
- Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana.
- LeGuin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea.
- McKillip, Patricia. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.
- Moorcock, Michael. Elric of Melniboné.
- Pratchett, Terry. The Colour of Magic and the rest of the Discworld series.
- Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear.
- Vance, Jack. The Dying Earth.