Appendix N by Jeffro Johnson.
According to Larry Brooks, in his excellent ‘Story Engineering’ a good story needs 4 things. In no particular order, they are; A great concept, character, theme, and structure. After that comes scene execution and writing voice giving you a total of six things you must have in order to create a story worth reading. What does this have to do with Appendix N I hear you ask? It’s a non-fiction work for a start. Bear with me guys, I promise that all will become clear.
The concept behind Appendix N is a great one. It’s so great that I immediately choose to copy it and go on my own journey of discovery before I’d even begun reading the book itself. What is it? Well, it’s right there on the front cover. “The literary history of Dungeons and Dragons.” Of course, you have to turn it into a ‘What if’ such as ‘What if I went and read the books Gary Gygax listed as inspirational to the creation of Dungeons and Dragons and showed how they impacted the game’ to create the concept of the book. I simply thought, what a great idea and promptly started to do likewise. What makes it a great concept? Well, I guess that I can only speak personally here. I loved the game growing up, it got me through a very tough time by being the vehicle that kept my group of friends together. That I knew next to nothing about the books that helped shape it sparked my interest, and once I began reading them I was hooked. Everyone who has ever played the game has their own version of an origin story, and this leads naturally to a desire to know more.
Or maybe that’s just me.
So how does character come into this? Well, the choice of authorial voice, in that Jeffro has kept it friendly, non-authoritarian (at no point does he claim that his view is the only one, or that his beliefs are canon. There’s far too much appealing to authority today, and Johnson sidesteps that particular pothole like a ninja.) The narrator becomes a character, one on a journey, and it’s a real pleasure to share that journey with him.
There is a theme running through the entire book and it’s a powerful one. It’s loss, principally the loss of a number of great writers from the view of the public. Their memory holing is noted and lamented and it stirs echoes throughout the individual entries. It gives the book a poignancy as writer after writer is examined, their impact assessed and their disappearance noted. This, more than anything else I feel has been the undercurrent that has fuelled the need for a return to the storytelling of the past. By creating quality stories in the same vein we can keep these great works alive.
Lastly, we have structure. This is the easiest one to talk about due to its simplicity. Look at a story, examine it, show how it impacted D&D. Rinse and repeat. It’s simple to describe, but hard to execute. When you do it yourself you find that you’re repeating the same things over and over again. The added dimension of the depth of Johnson’s knowledge and ability to link it to key areas within the game give him a distinct advantage here. I reckon I’ve probably been playing the game as long as Johnson, but I’ve never once felt the need to peek under the hood or give it much headroom. That there is the difference.
The last two are pretty much irrelevant here. Jeffro clearly has a decent writing voice and his scene, or chapter execution are both as they needed to be, and that’s just about the highest compliment I can give to a writer of non-fiction. I can only think of a couple of writers who I can say that about and one of those is Tom Holland. (Seriously, if you haven’t read Rubicon and you’re interested in the Roman Empire you’ve missed a treat).
I’ve learned a huge amount about the craft of writing by reading the works of Merritt, Howard, Lovecraft et al over the last 8 months. In a strange way, this book has also brought me into contact with some of the weirdest, funniest, warmest and most decent people I’ve ever come across. I’ve been told again and again that they’re the bad guys and yet as the good book says ‘by their fruit you shall recognize them’. I’m glad that I accepted the implicit challenge of this book and I’m even happier to recommend it to any and everyone. Take the first steps on the journey, you’ll never, ever regret it.
Appendix N is available from Amazon here.