Days of High Adventure
The Books That Founded D&D

James Maliszewski | 19 Nov 2009 21:00
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Jack Vance

Of the many short stories and novels Jack Vance wrote, it was his 1950 collection The Dying Earth and its 1966 sequel The Eyes of the Overworld, that had the most influence on D&D. Set in the impossibly far future, when magic has returned and the sun is sputtering its last rays of light, these books introduce a peculiar form of magic that depends on imprinting spell formulae on the mind of a wizard, who immediately "forgets" them after use - the very system D&D adopted. Indeed, D&D borrows many spells and magical artifacts from these books and the protagonist of The Eyes of the Overworld is, along with Leiber's Gray Mouser, the prototype for the Thief character class, first added to the game in its first supplement in 1975.

H.P. Lovecraft

Like his contemporary, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft needs little introduction. His "Cthulhu Mythos" and the cosmic horror it embodied have proven enormously influential in the decades since his death in 1937. Lovecraft was unique in his time for combining a Gothic literary sensibility with a philosophy that downplayed humanity's importance in the universe. Though Lovecraft's worldview is in some ways antithetical to that presented in D&D, many of the game's monsters are clearly inspired by his stories, most notably the octopus-headed mind flayers and the ichthyoid kuo-toa, which recall Cthulhu and the Deep Ones, respectively.

Abraham Merritt

Largely forgotten today, Abraham Merritt was a giant of early fantasy and science fiction. H.P. Lovecraft thought highly of his stories, as did SF pioneers Jack Williamson and Walter Shaver. Merritt's works often involve ancient but advanced races that dwell beneath the earth or in inaccessible locations, whose horrific societies and cultures are stumbled upon by people from the surface world - sounds like the set-up for many D&D adventures, doesn't it?

Poul Anderson

Anderson was equally at home in fantasy and science fiction. His historical fantasies, most especially Three Hearts and Three Lions, were hugely influential on D&D. Its protagonist, Holger Carlsen, is the main model for the game's Paladin character class. Likewise, D&D's regenerating troll and fairy swanmays owe their origins to this book. Even more significantly, Anderson's conception of an eternal struggle between Law and Chaos inspired British author Michael Moorcock, whose own stories of Elric of Melniboné would in turn inspire the earliest versions of D&D's alignment system.

As you can see, no single author or novel is the sole source of inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons. Instead, its origins are multifarious, with many books providing the raw materials from which Arneson and Gygax crafted the game that changed the world.

It's unfortunate that so many of these books and authors today are largely unknown except to aficionados of early fantasy and science fiction. It's my hope that, by bringing these authors to wider public knowledge, more people might not only recognize the debt that the hobby of roleplaying owes to their remarkable imaginations but also enjoy their writings in their own right. Like D&D itself, whose influence extends far beyond tabletop roleplaying games, these writers and their ideas contributed much to contemporary popular culture and they deserve their due.

James Maliszewski is a writer currently living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His blog, Grognardia, explores the history and traditions of the hobby of roleplaying.

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