Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons

Advanced Readings in D&D: Fredric Brown

In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.

Fredric Brown gets the spotlight this week, as Tim takes a look at some of the short stories complied in The Best of Fredric Brown.

A spaceman single-handedly battles for the fate of the human race. A god plays war games with knights and bishops. Test tube babies become the new anointed ones. A mountaineer comes face-to-face with a yeti. Earth’s first contact with Mars goes horribly awry.

These are things that happen in the stories, often very short stories, of Fredric Brown. I can see why Gary Gygax liked them.

Unfortunately, their connection to Dungeons & Dragons is vague at best. They seem to fall into a category that, after reading most of these Appendix N recommendations, I can now confidently call Somewhat Clever Things Gary Gygax Enjoyed but are Pretty Tedious to Read Today.

Like the works of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, the stories by Fredric Brown seem to be the kinds of tales that would delight Gygax with their intellectual playfulness and that might be reason enough for their inclusion on his list of recommended reading, but the cleverness only goes so far, and the stories feel pretty thin otherwise.

Let me be clear about one thing: I would much rather read more Fredric Brown than another word from Pratt or de Camp, but as I made my way through The Best of Fredric Brown, I couldn’t help but think that (a) if this is really “The Best” of his stuff, then I’m glad I’m not reading “The Not as Good,” and (b) these stories read like something you’d see in a pitch for a Twilight Zone episode from your bookish neighbor, or something you’d read in a seventh-grade literature anthology that tried to appeal to hip tweens by zinging them with some sci-fi from the editor’s childhood.

Some of these Fredric Brown stories may have ended up as ideas for Twilight Zone episodes, actually. At least one of them was sort-of-used in a Star Trek episode where Kirk battles a Gorn, gladiatorial-style, while the rest of the crew watches on their flat screen. And that same story was used for an Outer Limits episode. And a Marvel comics adaptation. But Fredric Brown’s “Arena” is his juiciest story, and the others in The Best of Fredric Brown can’t quite match it. Nor do they seem to try. Brown, at least in the stories presented here, seems more interested in hypotheticals and silly high-concepts and twist-endings.

He is the O. Henry of the sci-fi set, although Psycho­ author Robert Bloch, in his introduction to the collected Brown, would prefer us to think more of Ambrose Bierce as an antecedent.

Nice try, Robert Bloch. But Fredric Brown is no Ambrose Bierce.

No, Brown is definitely O. Henry for the classic pulp era, with a faux-genteel literariness in his stories—they all seem particularly sanitized, compared to so many of the pulp authors on the Appendix N list—and a sense that they should be read aloud to the family in the living room, by a bow-tie-wearing uncle, with everyone chuckling with delight at the inevitable reversal at the end. Oh, how clever and wicked it is that the Martians thought the Earth rocket was the beginning of first contact but it actually wiped out their entire race. Ha ha! Positively delightful, that!

That’s what happens at the end of “Earthmen Bearing Gifts,” or that’s my imagined reaction of some imagined family imaginarily reading this story aloud in an imagined mid-20th century living room. But “Earthmen Bearing Gifts” is often mentioned as one of Fredric Brown’s classic stories. And it’s nothing but a description of Martian society as a socially-but-not-scientifically-advanced race and then a rocket from Earth that blows them up accidentally because it was off target. It’s impossible to talk about Fredric Brown stories without spoiling them, because they are twist-delivery systems in a sleek and simple prose shell. If they were comic strips, they’d be four-panel gag strips. If they were songs, they’d be novelty hits that you get sick of after hearing them twice. If they were television shows, well, they’d be Twilight Zone episodes, as I mentioned, but they’d be five-minute-long versions, with a wah-wah-wah fail sound effect at the end.

If they were role-playing game adventures, they would be three-room dungeons where the third room was a trap of the players’ own devising. Or a ruined castle that’s actually just inside a snow globe and the characters are trapped forever in the hands of a child. And so on.

Maybe Gary Gygax’s original concept for The Deck of Many Things was The Deck of Fredric Brown-Inspired Stuff. Just maybe.

I don’t actually think that’s true, but the tricks and traps and cruelly unfair stuff monsters can sometimes do in the Dungeon Masters Guide and the Monster Manual meshes with the core Fredric Brown sensibility. A dose of irony, a lot of unluck, and a twist that isn’t really funny, but is definitely unexpected. Except when it’s completely expected.

I guess I’ll end my not-so-positive reflection on Fredric Brown—who, once again, I solidly endorse as better-than-de-Camp-and-Pratt—with a brief look at a little story with a tiny but direct connection to Dungeons & Dragons as we know it. I’m talking about the story called “Rebound,” and in that story we learn about the great power that has come to small-time crook Larry Snell. In effect, it’s a souped-up version of the Command spell (known as Word of Command in later editions) or a more versatile version of Power Word [Blank], and whenever Larry tells someone to do something, they do it. He uses the power to tell his enemies to “drop dead,” and they comply. He invites a stripper back to his place, and she shows up. He asks for her money, and she gives it to him. Emboldened by this great and wonderful power, he plans world domination. Before he launches his ambitious scheme, he retreats to the Catskills where he can think about his next move, and standing atop a hill, all by himself, he shout to the world, “drop dead!”

He is found dead the next day, by some hiking teenagers.

I can believe Gary Gygax read that story and said, “neat effect. I can use it.” And, if I were Fredric Brown, I’d add a twist ending right here, but I’m not, so I’ll do what Gary Gygax would do: tell you to make up your own ending. Seek your own adventure. I hope it ends better than the ones Fredric Brown zings our way.

Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.


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