Hail and well met everyone, and happy late spring blizzard day (here in Colorado) from the castleoldskull.com blog. Today we are going to explore deeply in an unexpected direction, into an old book that tells us about alchemists, plate armor, moat frogs, ogres, trolls, berserkers, dwarves, witches, homunculi, and stranger things besides. A book by E. Gary Gygax, perhaps? Not quite, but probably one of the source books he referred to while he was designing Dungeons & Dragons. Grab some oil flasks and iron rations, it’s going to quite a journey, delve and read on …
When E. Gary Gygax was co-authoring (along with David Lance Arneson) the prototypical Dungeons & Dragons game, he was drawing fascinating bits and great ideas from dozens if not hundreds of different sources. The game is a glorious mishmash of fiction, history, folklore, mythology, novels, television episodes, movies, comic books, and Gary’s childhood memories. All of this is synthesized into a single, fairly cohesive, yet wonderfully Weird whole which invites endless tinkering by millions of people over lifetimes (yours truly included).
We know a fair amount about the works that Gary was drawing from, through sources such as the Appendix N inspirational reading list, Gary’s interviews, mentions of books in the DMG and other places (such as Charles Ffoulkes’ Armor & Weapons), original research by D&D history fans, and comments made by Gary, Rob, and others in various places. But what about the books that we suspect Gary was drawing from, but he never really said so?
This is where we put on our ranger tracking caps and head into murky territory. Often, the chases leads nowhere. But sometimes, there are so many mysterious signposts along the way that “it’s just a coincidence” turns into “hey, wait a minute” eventually followed by “wow, if this is a multi-coincidence, this is crazy”. For today’s example of the latter, we’re going to be looking into The Book of Weird, as written and illustrated by Barbara Ninde Byfield.
Ms. Byfield was an eccentric and amazing person from everything that I can see. She was clearly very well-read, talented, and had a great wry sense of humor. Her book is basically an amused-and-amusing compendium of medieval and high fantasy tropes, as they were commonly represented in the early post-Lord of the Rings era (1967-1973). More interestingly, the author is devoted to taking disparate elements of medieval fantasy and drawing them into a coherent and internally consistent vision to a considerable degree. To my mind, it is a fine late 1960s example of tentative fantastic “world building,” where the elements are more important than any predetermined narrative. It’s like a system book without a game system to go with it.
Of interest, Gygax once wrote (ENWorld, Dec. 14th, 2005) when asked about this tome:
“There were a number of whimsical books dealing with folklore done back in the 1960s, and I made use of several when creating AD&D critters. I don’t believe that I ran across The Book of Weird, though.”
This would seem to make it an open-and-shut case that Gary didn’t use this book at all, right? But more interestingly, the book was originally titled The Glass Harmonica: A Lexicon of the Fantastical, and was published in 1967. The edition retitled The Book of Weird was not introduced until 1973.
Here is an interesting blog comment from afar by a user named “Tavis,” 2012: “I have a copy of The Book of Weird if you want to borrow it; I think it was one of the ones Gygax’s kids said he kept near the typewriter.”
I personally believe it is probable that Gary used this book in his own research and writings, most likely under the Glass Harmonica name.
This too might be of interest:
In the Foreword to Michael Curtis’s The Dungeon Alphabet, which is written by David “Zeb” Cook, we read:
“Way back, even before I created games professionally, I was inspired by a fantasy encyclopedia of things subterranean and monstrous. It was filled with bemused descriptions and evocative drawings, a book with entries for dragons, firkins, heralds, and wizards. (Naturally now I cannot remember the title or artist.) It fueled my imagination with possibilities and led me to incorporate that fantastic whimsy into my own games – to want to create worlds with those touches of detail, irony and just out-and-out wonder.”
I believe credit for this observation, and pairing Cook’s remembrance directly with The Book of Weird, duly goes to the Thoul’s Paradise blog.
(See also JeffB’s comments there.)
From a D&D player’s perspective, the following details are interesting.
Weird pg. 10, Alchemist: “The practice of Alchemy presupposes a laboratory full of precisely manufactured vessels and instruments, few of which can be purchased even for ready money, supplies of exotic as well as everyday nature, and privacy, and having a good floor drain.”
Compare DMG, pg. 116: “In order to begin manufacture of a potion (and they may be made only one at a time), the magic-user must have a proper laboratory with fireplace, workbench, brazier, and several dozen alembics, flasks, dishes, mortar and pestle, basins, jugs, retorts, measuring devices, scales, and so forth! Such implements are not easily obtained, being found only at alchemical shops or produced upon special orders by stone masons, potters, glass blowers, etc.”
Weird pg. 17, Armor: “Full Plate Armor should look quite splendid, heavy, and rare. It should be made of many pieces, all of which have buckles and fastenings. It will be made for you by an Armorer and his sons who work in dark, low-ceilinged forges; it will be costly.”
Compare UA, pp. 75-76: “Full Plate Armor consists of perfectly forged interlocking plates backed with chain, covering the entire body. It includes an ornate visored helm, gauntlets, and armored footgear. … Full plate must be fitted to its wearer by an armorer …”
And there’s quite a bit more to be sure:
Weird pg. 24, Beaux: The overall description of Beaux gentlemen, and the differentiation of Fops and Dandies, is fun to compare to Gygax’s entry on gentleman encounters at DMG pg. 191.
Weird pg. 46, in the Castle entry: There is a list differentiating Castles (grim) from Palaces (majestic) using many various descriptors. The “Castle” column has “dungeons” of course, as well as the more quizzical “thickets” and “frogs in moats” (shades of T1’s moathouse).
Weird pg. 50, Caves and Caverns: The introduction to this entry reads as an amusing summary of dark fairy tale tropes: “If you find a Cave, keep it a secret. Simple Caves are occupied by ogres, giants, pirates, powder kegs, trolls, treasure chests, dead bodies, hermits, anchorites, (and) oracles.”
Similarly, the differentiating entry on Caverns seems to have some echoes with Gary’s description of the underworld as introduced in module D1 (pp. 2-3) and more broadly G3 (pg. 15). The quotes are a bit too extensive to put here, but I did like this when I was thinking of the Vault of the Drow: “The Cavern itself when reached will be immense, soaring to heights and depths which befuddle the senses accustomed to the close and dark descent. … If forced to escape by underground river, you will find the distance to the outside only as long as … your raft will stay afloat.”
Weird pp. 58-63: The section on Dwarves, which religiously avoids Tolkien-specific details whenever possible, is so good that it should be required reading for DMs and players. It also specifically differentiates the race from Gnomes, which receive a separate detailed entry.
Weird pg. 78, Giants: The book carefully differentiates between Giants, Trolls, and Ogres, and compares them in size to Knights, Dwarves, Gnomes, Half-Elves, Elves, and Fairies. This section is pretty good for atmospheric detail (although it pertains far more to Chainmail’s Troll-Ogres than it does to regenerating Trolls, for example).
Weird pp. 94-95, Landscapes: This well-illustrated section with its moors, marshes, bogs and quagmires is fun to compare to DMG pg. 173, Random Wilderness Terrain, Terrain Guide. It also has nice lists of perils and things to find.
Weird pg. 133: The author playfully differentiates between Trollops, Trulls, Bawds, Doxies, and Strumpets, who “may be either in league with a Footpad or warn you of one lying in wait for you.” This is of course nicely echoed in the DMG, pg. 192, with the Harlot entry and encounter table.
Weird pg. 137: Oddly, the author separately classifies Wands, Staffs, and Rods. This is a minor bit that sticks in my brain, because how often were these words used together then and separately distinguished as differentiated magic item types prior to the publication of Dungeons & Dragons?
There are also good entries on Basilisks, Berserkers, Buried Treasure, Crones and Hags, Dragons, Ghouls, Gnomes, Homunculi, Leeches, Parchment and Vellum, Quicksand, Sorceresses, Vampires, Viscounts and Baronets, Witches and Warlocks, Wizards, and much more. Needless to say, this book – often affordably available used online, if you carefully dig around – is highly recommended. It’s all nicely illustrated, too!
Ms. Byfield, I humbly offer you in retrospect a kind “Thank You” Acknowledgement, to be positioned phantomwise into a random early D&D book of your choice.
And to my fellow adventurers, I thank you for reading. Until next time, happy old school gaming …