Oct 7 2013 3:00pm

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.

G. D. B. (not Ambrose Bierce)
1. SchuylerH
I find Fredric Brown decent but fairly slight. Perhaps of more interest is William Tenn, who had a run of unusually consistent quality in the 50's and 60's and generally incorporated the neat idea in a more substantial story, such as my favorite, "Bernie the Faust". Robert Sheckley, while more variable in quality overall and with a regrettable tendency to call a rabbit a smeerp, also managed quite a few good fantasies, where supernatural entities prove something of a hindrance.
Russell H
2. Russell H
I have been collecting Fredric Brown's works for about 30 years now, and I think his crime and suspense fiction is superior to his SF writings. He really had a knack for getting into the minds of mentally disturbed people, as well as depicting realistically working-class stiffs--they really talk and act like printers or secretaries or carnies, and not like how college-educated writers from white-collar backgrounds think they should sound.

I think the problem with a lot of Brown's short-short stories, the jokey ones with the O. Henry twists, is that they weren't meant to be read all in one sitting: they're like bon-bons with an unknown filling that surprises you when you bite into them--eat one or two at a time, they're great; eat a whole boxful and they make you queasy.
Alan Brown
3. AlanBrown
Those old short-shorts were designed to fill a few odd pages in the magazines here and there, once the larger tales, ads and other content were put into place, and thus served a valuable purpose. But, like borscht-belt humor like Henny Youngman used to deliver, their best days are behind them, and to modern eyes they look rather stiff and dated. Especially those that depend on a gimmicky twist at the end. Brown (and Tenn, thanks for mentioning him) was a pretty good practitioner of the form.
I was surprised to see his name come up in conjunction with Appendix N, as I agree with Tim, the link between his work and D&D is tenuous at best.
David Moran
4. DavidMoran
Oh MAN. I had no idea Brown was on that list!! He's hands down one of my top 5 favorite writers of all time. Shame there's really nothing in print any more.
David Moran
5. DavidMoran
Aside from all Brown's great literary merits, which I think judging from the other selections were probably not things Gygax would have grooved on anyway, the one trait of his that I see reflected in Gygaxian D&D is Brown's lovely sense of humor. And not in the sense of the jokes or the short-short twists - those are just the obvious things you point the tourists toward. There is an unashamed, unadorned playfulness and irony to Brown, and a plainspoken Stephen-King-like simplicity, that I feel is really easy to detect in a lot of the modules Gygax himself wrote.
David Moran
6. DavidMoran
2. Russell H

Like you, I've been a Brown collector for almost 20 years now. Once hooked, always hooked.
7. hoopmanjh
The only Brown that I've read (at least, that I'm aware of) is Gateway to Darkness which I found in the Giant Anthology of Science Fiction, a really excellent collection from 1954 of 10 longish stories by Brown and Leigh Brackett and Jack Williamson and the like. The details are a bit fuzzy at the moment, but I remember enjoying it -- fine, pulpy almost noir SF.
Russell H
8. Eugene R.
In addition to "Command", Mr. Brown may have also contributed to the Gygaxian "Wish" spell, especially in the "Be careful what you Wish for" mode. He wrote a short series of 3 "Great Lost Discoveries": invisibility, invulnerability, and immortality, and all 3 backfire on their discoverers/inventors. Invisibility, for example, is not necessarily the power one uses to sneak into the Sultan's harem at night, in the dark.
j p
9. sps49
I can believe that the Sphere of Annihilation in Tomb of Horrors was inspired by Brown.
Russell H
10. Tehanu
Maybe it's a generational thing. I read Brown's Martians, Go Home when I was a kid in the 1950s and I still think it was one of the funniest books I ever read, sf or otherwise. But then I'm also very fond of De Camp and Pratt -- not every single book, but most of their stuff -- so obviously I'm not coming from wherever you're coming from. It's like reading the Victorians: you just have to allow for the difference in perspective or you can't enjoy it at all.
G. D. B. (not Ambrose Bierce)
11. SchuylerH
@2: I agree, they were being written without any idea of secondary publication.

@3: I remember an editor's note with one of Brown's stories which pointed out that, in his work (unlike John Collier's), humans didn't tend to get the better of supernatural entities. Also worth mentioning in terms of worldbuilding is his attempt at rationalising space opera, What Mad Universe.
Arthur D. Hlavaty
12. supergee
Fredric Brown is not a useful source of D&D adventures. What a surprise. Fredric Brown turned me into an sf reader by being cerebral, funny, & lewd. If sf were all D&D-like adventures, I never would have picked it up.

His collected sf stories and collected sf novels are both in print, from NESFA.
David Levinson
13. DemetriosX
Like several other commenters, I generally like Brown, but his very short stuff is better in small doses. Some of his longer stuff, like Martians, Go Home (and its iconic Freas cover art) might be more to your taste. I don't see a whole lot of D&D connections, although I suppose some of the short-shorts could be used as adventure hooks or as inspiration for turning an idea around and looking at it from a variety of angles. His last man on Earth, knock at the door opening, for example.

That said, let me just point to one story synopsis Tim tossed out at the beginning, which shows a rather obvious connection to the game:
A god plays war games with knights and bishops.
That looks pretty obvious to me.
Russell H
14. Michael C.
@Russell H.

I would agree, having read most of Fredric Brown's work, that his finest work was in crime, except for THE LIGHTS IN THE SKY ARE STARS, a realistic and prescient space travel story set in the late 90s but written in the 50s, which is one of his best.
Russell H
15. Kirth Girthsome
Brown's "Last Man" story is a classic, at least in its shortest form. My favorite work of his, though, is Night of the Jabberwock, a mystery novella about a small-time newspaper editor and Carroll enthusiast (an inspiration for Gary?) who becomes embroiled in a bizarre one night crime wave. It's a fun read, though the sheer drunkenness of the narrator throughout the book impinges on one's credulity.
David Moran
16. DavidMoran
15. Kirth Girthsome

I've not read that one, though I know one of Brown's great passions was the work of Lewis Carroll. Another was drink, and I think Brown was probably really well acquainted with credulity-straining drunkenness.
Ronald Keeperman
17. Rankenfile
I have just finished reading Brown's short story, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," written in collaboration with Carl Onspaugh and first published in 1965 in the F&SF June number. The collection of Brown's Best is the SF Book Club edition of 1976 is where I found the story. I agree with Mr. Callahan that Brown suffers from Bloch's comparison with Bierce, but Brown would have suffered even more if compared with Bloch himself. I use such light and entertaining reading as Brown's stories as a sort of brain-buffering device (does such exist in D&D?, I wouldn't know) to recharge my ability to focus when I return to the concurrent reading to which I am engaged at any particular time. In this case, I took a pause in Prof. William Barrett's, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy," Thomas Paine's, "Common Sense," and H.G. Wells', Outline of History, Vol. II. More to the point, if among the many possible purposes of literature may be, as many will admit, to entertain and/or inform the reader then Brown has performed admirably. In the above-mentioned story, I learned forinstance that a "beer stube" is a lounge, or bar-room and that a hautboy is a type of an oboe. The entertaining part for me was learning these new things, as well as having Mozart's piece circling my turntable as I read. Brown is not for everybody at all times, but then, who is?

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