Eyes of the Overworld (1966)

In the original Dungeon Masters Guide, Gary Gygax included the famous Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading. This week, I’ll be turning away from RPG books to investigate some of Gygax’s recommendations. First up: Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld. This is the 1966 Ace Books first edition paperback and the second volume of the Dying Earth series. It is a series of interconnected stories featuring Cugel the Clever, an arrogant, morally bankrupt antihero (as firm an example of Chaotic Neutral that I have encountered in literature).

The book is a fetch quest for a powerful wizard, full of complications, magical inducements, derring-do, double crosses and monsters. Vance’s writing is direct, energetic and generally punctuated with two-fists, feeling far more pulpy than traditional fantasy. The science fiction elements may also surprise modern readers. On the downside, though Vance was a Bay area native, he displays an unfortunate view of women (they come in three basic flavors: naïve sex objects, cynical sexual manipulators and full-on man haters) which is disappointing, if not altogether surprising for the time.

Vance is a major influence on D&D, on par with Conan and Lord of the Rings. The entire foundation of magic in D&D – that magic-user’s have to memorize a spell and forget it once it is cast – is straight from Vance. Even certain spells and items – prismatic spray, ioun stones – are lifted in entirety. Hell, the name of Greyhawk’s diabolic supervillain lich, Vecna, is an anagram of Vance. Kind of makes you wonder if Gygax called it AdVANCEd D&D on purpose (probably not, because that is a terrible joke).

Cugel provides a basic template for the murder hobo school of thought regarding adventuring player characters – self-interested, greedy, ruled by colonial impulses, quick to violence, suffering from an overblown self-image and, essentially, a coward.

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