Mon
Dec 9 2013 3:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: Andrew Offutt

Swords Against Darkness 3 Anthology Andrew OffutIn “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com 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 and 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.

This week is a strange case, as it is the work of an editor, not a writer, that caught Mister Gygax’s eye: Andrew Offutt, and his Swords Against Darkness III anthology, to be specific!

Sneaky, slippery little Swords Against Darkness III! First, I “checked it off” in my head because I’d already talked about Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books, and those have the same nomenclature—swords against this, swords against that—so I thought I’d already taken care of it. Second, because of all the cheap used copies of these books that I’d gotten, this was the priciest; I guess there still is pulp fiction out there that is relatively rare. I shouldn’t be surprised; I think everybody probably has some pie-in-the-sky rare books they’ve got booklust for. I’m lucky, actually: I saved up and got a copy of the Harmonia Macrocosmica and I got a copy of the French facsimile edition of the Voynich Manuscript as a gift after none-too-subtle hinting; I’m hoping this year that my blatant hint dropping will net me one of the new editions of the Codex Seraphinianus!

Here is the thing about Swords Against Darkness III: it is really Dungeons and Dragons-y. Parts of it are cringe inducing; I recently watched Deathstalker on Netflix, and the two share a certain “seriously what is with all this sexualized violence?” incredulity and embarrassment for the viewer. That sort of leather loin cloths and oiled biceps are on display here. Wayne Hook’s “Servitude” has a deformed strong arm berserker, John DeCles has his unstoppable gritty warrior in “Rite of Kings,” “A Kingdom Won” by Geo. W. Proctor has the dashing Nalcon…but by 1978, those tropes were getting tired, and I suspect Offutt knew it, because they aren’t the whole story. “Servitude” is about a curse, “Rite of Kings” is a sterling indictment of slavishly following the Monomyth, or of “the ends justify the means,” depending on your reading, and Nalcon…well, okay, he’s a bit of a cliché but the story surrounding him is one of those big gonzo weird stories; defiant misotheists, gill-people, resurrection, Atlantis, all that jazz.

Nor is this all an old boy’s club, though the assumption of there being an old boy’s club is pretty on-the-face of it. Offutt sounds exhausted by it, with lines like:

“Others continue telling me how nice she is to look upon. That’s nice; so am I and so is Ann-Margaret and so is David Soul. It is Tanith Lee’s talent, though, and its product that most interests me.”

Yeah, scorn the male gaze! Rock on. So obviously, Tanith Lee is in here, with an excellent tale of wizard apprentices and ethical choices. Hey, come to think of it—spoiler alert—the “good” wizard wins because the teachers cheat…just like Harry Potter! Okay, okay, I’m just doing a little friendly trolling. Kathleen Resch has a…vampire poem? A short story anthology with a poem tossed in always classes up the joint, I think.

You know what this is chock full of? Curses. Swords Against Darkness III’s biggest contribution to Dungeons and Dragons? Curses. Come on, you know Gary Gygax loved curses; irrational ones, curses where they don’t make sense, just random “gotcha” whammies. I mean, he liked the rational ones too, but while an insane and evil lich littering its tomb with traps and curses before going on an indefinite astral jaunt is sensible (via the logic of the undead, that is), the vast majority of cursed stuff in D&D gets there by random chance, by losing out on the luck of the draw. Gauntlets of Ogre Power? Sorry, cursed. Magic skull wants to grant you wishes? How do you think that works out? Monkey paw stuff like that leaves its damn dirty ape fingerprints all over the hobby.

What else these stories have are relationships. I don’t mean romance, I mean…well, I mentioned Leiber but I’ll bring him up again because the friendship element of their stories is at the core—I think—of the party dynamic in Dungeons and Dragons. We see that same thing in a few of the stories here; David Madison’s Diana and Marcus in “Tower of Darkness” are real gems, right off the bat. A big bruiser—Diana—in a peacock cape and a small dark playboy—Marcus—in too much mascara. Together…they fight vampires! Or Richard Tierney’s “The Sword of Spartacus” which is a great example of when the party gets railroaded by a weird wizard on the DM’s behalf.

Oh and the oddities! Escaping from giant bloodsucking paper moths in “The Pit of Wings”; trying out Alexander the Great’s solution to the Gordian Knot on a lunar cult in “Rite of Kings”; Darrell Schweitzer’s “The Hag” and its sort of Baba Yaga, witches’ esbat swagger; there is solid stuff in here. Heck, “The Mating Web” by Robert E. Vardeman is a fun aside: a story where the brave hunk of warrior turns out to be the sidekick, of sorts, to a giant spider. Sidekick, confidant, marriage counselor—six of one, half dozen of the other.

It ends with Poul Anderson’s essay “On Thud and Blunder.” I bet this article blew Gary—can I call him just Gary? After reading his book selections I feel like I’ve gotten to know him better, gotten to a first name basis?—Gygax’s mind. These days, you’d expect to read an essay like this…in the middle of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It is Poul Anderson, Golden Age giant, telling people that if they want their fantasy story to make sense, you have to put in sensible worldbuilding elements. Oh, there are bits on how the genre is “overpast” (in 1978, mind you) for more non-Western milieus, on Yelü Chucai, the Confucian adviser who urged Genghis Khan to conquest, on class and production and disease and arson and the physics of weapons.

What he comes back to is the premise. A plausible world is the cornerstone of verisimilitude. You can “buckle your swashes” as Anderson puts it, but the sensible construction of the world is what puts the exceptional into stark relief. It is right on advice, but I think now days we take it as read…in big part because, and I’m speculating, Gygax liked this so much that he spread the word, that is became one of the roots of Dungeons and Dragons.


Mordicai Knode likes cursed items, but they need to be put in places where they make sense is all. Tim Callahan likes traps but...Tim? Tim? Dagnabbit, lost; I bet he found another trap.

40 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
My favorite thing to do with cursed items is give them to people who don't consider them curses. Berseker swords are easy, but give the bug cultists a robe of vermin or something!
Colin Bell
2. SchuylerH
Swords Against Darkness III is an odd choice, not least since it only ever had one edition. I bet Gygax put it in for the Anderson essay, though that's free on the SFWA website these days. I wouldn't be astonished if it was Anderson's reaction to the glut of Tolkien-derivatives from that era.

I suppose another question is which, more widely-available anthology, could be substituted for it these days for readers who don't want to track down the original. I think that Hartwell & Weisman's The Sword & Sorcery Anthology is probably the best bet for a historical survey of the genre, from Robert E. Howard to Michael Swanwick. There's also a good deal of author overlap between the two.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. SchuylerH

Yeah, I gotta think thaat the essay is the defining element but I think your Howards & Swanwick are obvious choices-- what is kind of cool about SAD III is that it is a little eccentric.
SarahWilliams
4. SarahWilliams
This would be a great audiobook on itunes or newfiction.com . Keep it going.
Ty Johnston
5. Ty Johnston
I'm just glad to see Andy Offutt get some notice. The editor of the Swords Against Darkness series and the creator of Shadowspawn shouldn't be forgotten, and it seems few recognize his contributions nowadays. Thanks for this.
Colin Bell
6. SchuylerH
@3: Here's the authors from the H&W: Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Joanna Russ, Charles L. Saunders, Karl Edward Wagner, Ramsey Campbell, David Drake, Glen Cook, Michael Shea, George R. R. Martin, Jane Yolen, Rachel Pollack, Gene Wolfe, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Jeffrey Ford and Michael Swanwick. I agree that it's more conventional but there are still some people who you wouldn't necessarily associate with the genre.

I think Offut's anthology really was in exactly the right place at the right time. I'm wondering: does Offut do much in the way of commentary? Sometimes (as in Dangerous Visions) the comments from the authors and editors can be as interesting as the fiction.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
7. hoopmanjh
It looks like every story has a brief introduction, at least.

I really need to go back and revisit all of the Swords Against Darkness books. I have to admit that I kind of prefer Lin Carter's Flashing Swords anthologies because those are limited to 4-5 longer stories per volume, so things have a bit more time to breathe. On the other hand, Offutt was able to include swords & sorcery by Ramsey Campbell, of all people, so there's that.
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
5. Ty Johnston

Editors in general don't get enough attention, as a rule.

6. SchuylerH

Oh yes, yes indeed; every single story has like a page or two intro by Offutt.
Colin Bell
9. SchuylerH
@7: Apparently, Campbell even wrote some Solomon Kane stories based on unfinished Howard outlines. Is it so wrong that when discussing Campbell, I have to physically restrain myself from typing Garth Marenghi?

@8: To get an idea of Offutt himself, you might want to read the introduction to his story in Again, Dangerous Visions. It's ... very interesting.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
10. hoopmanjh
If somebody had to write Solomon Kane stories based on unfinished Howard outlines, I can think of few people better suited than Ramsey Campbell.
Colin Bell
11. SchuylerH
@10: Did you know that he also wrote the novelization of the 2010 movie? Until now, I didn't know that there was a 2010 movie.
David Levinson
12. DemetriosX
@10, 11
I haven't really had anything to contribute this week, since I've never been big on anthologies, but I have to say that Ramsey Campbell would be an excellent choice for Solomon Kane stories. But why was there a novelization of the 2010 movie? It was based on a novel!
SarahWilliams
13. sueno
Nice summation of this anthology. Makes perfect sense how this influenced the game.

I love this Advanced Readings series. Keep it up!
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
14. hoopmanjh
@11, 12 I vaguely remember, now that you mention it, that he wrote the novelization of the movie. It never did get a theatrical release in the US; just came out on disc earlier this year. I was underwhelmed -- it didn't seem to be based on any particular Kane stories; instead it was an origin story that totally undercut everything we knew about Kane. I probably would've enjoyed it more if it would've been a movie about someone not called Solomon Kane. And the perfect Solomon Kane movie will have to wait until we get the time machine invented so we can get Christopher Lee circa the late 1960s to star.
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
11. SchuylerH
&
12. DemetriosX

I have that sitting in my Netflix queue; worth giving it a shot?

13. sueno

Well, we're almost done, just two more to go, I think?
Pamela Adams
16. Pam Adams
I remember his The Castle Keeps as being a pretty good 'the world is crumbling' story.
SarahWilliams
17. Wizard Clip
@11-15, The Solomon Kane movie did get a very limited release in the US late last year. As Hoopmanjh suggests, you might enjoy it more if you can think of it as being about someone other than the literary character. Kane is my favorite of Howard's characters, but I'm an old man and over the last 20 years or so I've learned to disaccosiate film versions from their antecedents on the page. Maybe think of it as Pale Rider in the 16th century. So I did enjoy it enough to justify the $3.50 rental fee. It's not particularly true to the character or actual history (The puritan Kane hanging out in a Catholic monastary? And for that matter, why were there monastaries long after the Tudors had confiscated the lands from the church? And wouldn't Queen Elizabeth have sent troops to combat the sorcerer's army that was apparently conquering large swaths of Britain?). But the movie had a nice. gloomy atmosphere, somewhat reminiscent of the 60s Hammer films, and James Purefoy looked good as Kane (Ah, but wouldn't a younger Christopher Lee have been just perfect?). So not a great movie by any means, but I think it's worth a rental on a cold winter's night. PS: Sorry for the huge block of text. I can't figure out how to skip down to start a new line.
Walker White
18. Walker
The reviews of the new copy of the Codex Seraphiniamus say that the paper quality is crap. I love that book. Perhaps the most commonly stolen book from art libraries.
Walker White
19. Walker
My favorite D&D curse comes from the Mayfaire Role Aids module The Contract.
You could become a camel, or maybe a pumpkin seed.
Because, you see, this is a scroll that you really shouldn't read.
50% transformation into either camel or pumpkin seed with no saving throw.
Jimmy Dodd
20. BwanaJim
I completely missed the fact that Offutt died just this past April. Too bad his books and the anthologies haven't found their way to eBook format, yet.
Colin Bell
21. SchuylerH
@12: Happens all the time. "Recursive Adaptation" on TVTropes has many great examples. My favorite: Fred Saberhagen, who nearly got to put "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: From the author of Bram Stoker's Dracula" on his CV.

@14: I am interested in your movie pitch and would like to offer you all the money provided the special effects are classic Hammer "so bad it's brilliant."

@15: If I remember correctly, we only have Brackett and Tolkien left.

@17: For some reason, the usual skip-down (enter) isn't working for me today, so I'm editing this on a word processor and copying and pasting it in.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
22. hoopmanjh
@21 My people will be in touch with your people. Once we get the time machine thing worked out, my next project will be to get a copy of Robert E. Howard's Western Tales into the hands of Sergio Leone.
SarahWilliams
23. Nathan Carson
"Well, we're almost done, just two more to go, I think?"

Not so fast, Mordicai!

I recently discovered another full page of INSPIRATIONAL SOURCE MATERIAL on page B62 of the 1981 Basic D&D rulebook (Red Box).

It does share some of the more obvious entries from Gygax's list, but also includes entire subsections he'd omitted including:

Fiction: Young Adult Fantasy
Non-Fiction: Young Adult
Fiction: Adult Fantasy
Short Story Collections
Non-Fiction

So I think you've still got your work cut out for you and hopefully we have much more to look forward to in the (fingers crossed) forthcoming Basic Readings in D&D series ;)
Colin Bell
24. SchuylerH
@23: Thankyou. It's a bit hard to see but there's a scan here: http://3d6trapsandthieves.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/ism-inspirational-source-material.html. Borges, Delany, Niven, Lewis and Le Guin are now on there. I wonder though: if we're doing Basic Readings in D&D, will it have to be written in the style of Simple English Wikipedia? "You are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today."
David Levinson
25. DemetriosX
Re: Solomon Kane movie.
I can only claim that it was late at night for me. Somehow, I thought it was being said that Campbell did the novelization of 2010, not Solomon Kane. Hence my confusion. I remember hearing some buzz about the film, but I think it faded pretty fast, even internationally. According to IMDB, it only made 45 million dollars worldwide. That's a guarantee of no follow-ups or imitators.
Colin Bell
26. SchuylerH
@25: I was being a bit ambigous. Sorry about that. It occurs to me that a tie-in collection of the original Howard stories doesn't seem to have been produced, an odd decision on the part of the film-makers.
David Levinson
27. DemetriosX
@26
Not your fault, really. It was close to midnight for me and my brain wasn't really functioning. The movie seems to have primarily had a British release, which a) explains the choice of Campbell, and b) at least explains why there was no US rerelease of the Kane stories. The REH rights in the UK may be fairly complicated, I dunno.
Colin Bell
28. SchuylerH
@27: My present understanding is that the rights to Solomon Kane are complicated. I know that Paradox Entertainment have trademarks on the names of all of Howard's heroes for marketing purposes but I suspect that the stories themselves are now public domain.
SarahWilliams
29. Wizard Clip
@Schuyler: I've had no luck using "enter" to skip down on this site for months. It's a mystery to me. Back to Kane. I suspect the movie had a hard time getting decent American distribution due to the title character's resemblance to Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing (long hair, blackclothes, wide-brimmed black hat). Ironic, of course, as Van Helsing' look (like Vampire Hunter D's) was almost certainly inspired by Kane. As for other adaptations, I've been terribly disappointed with Dark Horse's Kane comics over the last few years. SK appears to be a tougher nut to crack for them than Conan. Marvel did a six issue SK miniseries in the 80s. The first issue was a fine adaptation of "Red Shadows." The rest of the series was fairly weak, except for issue five's Mike Mignola artwork. Incidentally, any fans of "Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter" out there?
David Levinson
30. DemetriosX
@28
Hard to say if the stories are PD or not. Life +70 would mean they have been since 2006. OTOH, if the rights shifted to a corporation and were still held as copyright shifted to the ever-extending life+, then they could still be controlled. In either case, it would be hard to put the stories out if you're stepping on somebody's trademark. You couldn't market it as a Conan anthology or Kane or Red Sonya. It's a mess that will probably only be exceeded 2020 when the 70th anniversary of Edgar Rice Burroughs' death rolls around (but ERB, Inc. still exists).
Colin Bell
31. SchuylerH
@30: I know Wikisource says that the first three Kane stories didn't have copyrights renewed and are now public domain. It gets more complex when you consider the status of stories revised by others after the author's death and fragments published posthumously.
David Levinson
32. DemetriosX
@31
Even if the copyrights weren't renewed they might still have reverted. The question of whether IP can fall back out of the public domain is still contentious. As the executors of Poul Andersen's literary estate, Greg and Astrid Bear are (as far as I know) still going around and around with Project Gutenberg over some early stories that PG says weren't renewed after the original 28 years (with additional complications of the copyright originally being held by the publisher rather than author).
Mordicai Knode
33. mordicai
Sorry, sorry, I've been busy!

18. Walker

Yeah, I got an interlibrary loan of it once & was sore tempted, but alas, I have discovered Ethics. I'll settle for a lower quality print, I suppose!

23. Nathan Carson

OH IS THAT SO?

SarahWilliams
34. Nathan Carson
**Rubs hands together fiendishly in anticipation of more great analysis and discussion...**
James Nicoll
35. James Davis Nicoll
Given that authors are mortal but companies potentially not, wouldn't it make more sense to have the publisher get the copyright in perpetuity? But authors would be allowed to resell their story for a small fee to the orginal publisher.
David Levinson
36. DemetriosX
@35
That sounds like a terrible idea for everyone except the companies. It's guaranteed obscurity for 99.99% of authors beyond their lifetime. See "Melancholy Elephants" by Spider Robinson for the best arguments against perpetual copyright.
Mordicai Knode
37. mordicai
35. James Davis Nicoll
&
36. DemetriosX

Besides which, we already have copyright shenanigans impovershing the public domain. We don't need more! Not that I'm coming out against copyright, but definitely against "in perpetuity"!
Brian R
38. Mayhem
In my mind it should be first publication date + 30, with the option to renew it to the lifetime of the author if that should extend past the first.
It should in no way be tied to a particular family or corporation as they don't die, except if they are acting as rights holders when the copyright has been explicitly transferred, in which case it should only be PD+30.

Anything longer than that is pretty pointless - the author should have already monetised whatever was necessary, and the family can't expect to live on previous earnings ad infinitum without doing some derivative work on it (see Tolkein/Herbert).

In the much cited case of Disney for example, the original works should now be public domain - the individual *characters* may still be copyrighted in their own right as they are in continuous use, but there is no reason "Steamboat Willie" should still be under perma copyright.
SarahWilliams
39. Marc Rikmenspoel
Rest in peace, Andy. He wrote some decent REH pastiches for Conan and for Cormac Mac Art (George W. Proctor, who is in the anthology being discussed, created the outline for Offutt's The Mists of Doom Cormac novel). He wrote a lot of other books under his own name, but he helped pay the bills by writing roughly 30 books as "John Cleve." Five of these were about crusader Guy Kingsaver, the rest were a space opera series, and all featured graphic sexual encounters far beyond the norm for SF/F.

I've never read John DeCles, but FWIW, he was the brother of Marion Zimmer Bradley. I read in one of her essays that as she became an adult after World War 2, it became socially acceptable for women to wear pants. she found she liked it, while her brother, DeCles, preferred to wear a kilt!

Finally, On Thud and Blunder is great fun, even today, and should be read by any S&S fan. Anderson and his wife, Karen, specifically took some of their own advice while writing the series The Kings of Ys.
Mordicai Knode
40. mordicai
39. Marc Rikmenspoel

"Guy Kingsaver" is hilarious. I was just talking about the moments where DM get stumped when PCs put them on the spot by talking to a random passerby. It is why in an old, old Earthdawn game we met a little street girl named "Generica" & why in my current pan-Asian influenced campaign the warlord's bodyguards are named "Mifune" & "Toshiro."

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment