Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tales of Dragons and the Shaping of Perceptions and Expectations

In the nearly three-years that I’ve been following and participating in this thing of ours, I have read hundreds if not thousands of blog and forum posts written by people who wanted to muse upon the hobby and the sources that birthed and shaped it. These discussions invariably lead to what gaming products form the core of fantasy roleplaying by virtue of establishing the tropes and atmosphere that we now take for granted almost forty years later.

These posts typically contain the usual suspects list of sources: For fiction, it the great Appendix N and the authors and works listed therein; for game products the titles “Keep on the Borderlands,” “Tomb of Horrors,” “Against the Giants,” “Arduin,” “Wilderlands,” and other appear again and again for good reason. But perceptions and expectations are formed by unique, personal experience, shaped by forces as varied as those affected by them. It is perhaps due to this that I have yet to see anyone speak of the book that had more effect on my nascent understanding and expectations of the game than any other. It is time to put that to rights.

It was Christmas of 1981. My interest in fantasy role-playing was formed the previous holiday season while visiting relatives and I was given a copy of the Moldvay Basic set earlier in that year. As I opened my presents, I found a slim parcel mixed amongst them. It was the right shape and size for an adventure module (something I had undoubtedly asked for), but when I opened it I discovered something else awaiting me. I was now the owner of a special issue of Dragon magazine entitled Dragontales.

This anthology of stories was the first (and to my knowledge, only) collection of fantasy fiction produced under a separate cover by Dragon Publishing. Released in August of 1980 under the editorship of Kim Mohan, the book features ten fantasy short stories written by a collection of authors ranging from the renowned to the unknown—some are even quite surprising.

In the months and years to come, I would pour over this anthology again and again, reading and rereading each story within until I knew them by heart. They covered quite a gamut of style so it was difficult to grow bored with them. Some were pulp sword and sorcery; others, trippy fantasy whose roots grew out of the psychedelic landscape of the previous two decades.

Remember that this was 1981, a time before TSR began churning out game fiction by the truckload and the fantasy genre in general was not as glutted as it stands today. My exposure was swords & sorcery fantasy had so far been limited to the Bass-Rankin productions of The Hobbit and Return of the King and whatever my local library had on its shelves—which was not a lot. To me, Dragontales was a fantastical feast that not only whetted my parched thirst for fantasy but also used the races, classes, monsters, and terms that I had been reading about for the last year in my rulebooks. It was a dream come true.

Somewhere along the line I lost my copy of the book. It was probably discarded after I read the thing to pieces and could recount the tales within by memory. As time went on, the stories began to grow dim and my interests moved on to other things. The market was now flooded with fantasy and straight-out game fiction, so the novelty of these stories was no longer there. It is not surprising that Dragon never produced a second anthology of tales.

Just a few years ago, not long after I started this blog, I discovered that a friend owned a copy of Dragontales and I asked to borrow it so that I could reacquaint myself with its stories and authors once again. I requested this with more than a little trepidation. Would the stories stand up to my memories of them after all these years or would a more mature palette find them lacking and result in another fond childhood reminiscence sullied by an ill-advised revisit to the halcyon days of the early 1980s? To my delight, I found that the stories not only retained their ability to entertain but in some cases were actually improved by a greater understanding of both the genre and its authors.

Looking back on those stories again also made me realize how much they helped shape my attitudes and expectations about D&D. With the exception of Leiber’s Fahfrd and Mouser stories (which I didn’t read until college), no other single source had more of an impact on my fantasy campaigns than these ten stories. Reading them again was not only a passport back to my own youth, but also to a different time in fantasy fiction and the gaming business. It was a rougher, wilder time back then, not sleek and slick as the pages of a splatbook like they are now. Dragontales reflects that time, a snapshot of a place impossible to return to.

This past weekend I asked my friend if I could borrow the book to take that journey once again. In the weeks to come I will be doing a post on each of the tales included in the anthology, talking about how they influenced me and returning the favor by using the stories as inspiration (or outright burglary) for new game material. I’ve started to read the first story today and I can already feel the mixture of nostalgia, expectation, and sheer entertainment rising up within me. In fact, I had to break my resolution regarding the purchase of books this year and order my very own copy of Dragontales to replace the one I lost long again. Until it shows up though, I have the borrowed version to peruse. If you’d like to come along for the trip and are missing a copy of your own, both Noble Knight and Amazon have some for sale. Place your order now or dig out your own copy and meet me back here next week when we take a look at “The Wizards Are Dying” by John L. Jenkins.


trollsmyth said...

This is the first I've ever heard of this. I look forward to hearing who is in it.

Cindy said...

I loved Dragontales and remember certain stories to this day. I lost my copies in my travels, but found one cheap a couple of years ago. I may have to break it out and re-read it.

biopunk said...

I'll pull up a stump for this, too!

I know nothing of Dragontales.

Michael Curtis said...

I've always had a suspicion that this one slipped under a lot of radars, which is why I wanted to showcase it. There is some good stuff in there, both for inspiration and general entertainment. Look for the first installment on Monday!

grodog said...

Moldvay's installment is the one that I've read most recently, but it's been ages since I read it cover-to-cover, so I'm looking forward to your revisitations, Michael.

And, FWIW, I always associate Dragontales with the Finieous Treasury, perhaps because I picked them both up around the same time (?). Regardless, a great topic! :D


Michael Curtis said...

Moldvay's story is the highlight of the anthology in my opinion. I may spend two posts covering that tale alone. It remains my favorite of the ten.