Clark Ashton Smith and D&D: It’s a Trap!

It’s always a little bit of a pot-stir to grouse about a particular author having been wrongfully omitted from Appendix N. I know, because I’ve gotten into it over C. L. Moore in the past! Of course Appendix N can’t be wrong. I like how Michael Curtis put it at the Goodman Games blog:

Gamers often point to Appendix N and decry the absence of a particular author (or three, or seven, or…), declaring Gygax’s omission of them to be a literary crime of some sort. Putting aside the unbelievable idea that gamers may complain about things for the moment, we must realize that Appendix N is not a list one can argue with. It is a catalogue of all the literary influences Gygax chose to recognize as wellsprings from which Dungeons & Dragons flowed. Since it is representative of one man’s work, we can’t claim he made the error of excluding a particular author, even if we believe we can see their influence in the final product. Game design, like art, is a subjective process and one tends to see what one is inclined to see.

Still, I think it’s fair to say that there are other writers whose works were very D&D-esque, even if Gygax didn’t acknowledge them or use any of their material in crafting D&D. It’s doubly fair (let’s pretend that’s a thing) when you consider Gygax’s note at the end of Appendix N:

The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, R. E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, H. P. Lovecraft, and A. Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed, certainly helped to shape the form of the game. For this reason, and for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartily recommend the works of these fine authors to you.”

– E. Gary Gygax, 1979, AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 224

Emphasis mine.

So in that spirit, I’d like to once again put forth Clark Ashton Smith as a very D&D writer. Obviously not an Appendix N writer, but Appendix N adjacent. What prompted this?

Well, it just came to my attention that Dragon Magazine is largely (entirely?) available online! I was doing some perusing, and came across a nugget in Dragon Magazine #2. There’s an essay on spicing up dungeons, specifically by way of traps, written by none other than Joe Fischer (the guy whom Gygax credited as originating the Ranger class). Here, Fischer specifically namedrops Smith as an inspiration for a cool sort of trap.

Out of curiosity, I looked up this story last night, and the trap Fischer’s thinking of is pretty cool indeed. In “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan,” our protagonist is a particularly nasty and avaricious money-lender. One day a customer comes in to fence some stolen emeralds. Wuthoqquan buys them, but to his consternation, they roll off his table and onto the floor. And down the street. And out of town. He greedily chases after them and winds up in cave. Inside the cave: a chamber overflowing with precious gems.

In his most audacious dreams, the usurer had never even suspected the existence of such riches. He babbled aloud in a rhapsody of delight, as he played with the numberless gems; and he failed to perceive that he was sinking deeper with every movement into the unfathomable pit. The jewels had risen above his knees, were engulfing his pudgy thighs, before his avaricious rapture was touched by any thought of peril.

Then, startled by the realization that he was sinking into his newfound wealth as into some treacherous quicksand, he sought to extricate himself and return to the safety of the ledge. He floundered helplessly; for the moving gems gave way beneath him, and he made no progress but went deeper still, till the bright, unstable heap had risen to his waist.

Avoosl Wuthoqquan began to feel a frantic terror amid the intolerable irony of his plight. He cried out; and as if in answer, there came a loud, unctuous, evil chuckle from the cavern behind him. Twisting his fat neck with painful effort, so that he could peer over his shoulder, he saw a most peculiar entity that was crouching on a sort of shelf above the pit of jewels. The entity was wholly and outrageously unhuman; and neither did it resemble any species of animal, or any known god or demon of Hyperborea. Its aspect was not such as to lessen the alarm and panic of the money-lender; for it was very large and pale and squat, with a toad-like face and a swollen, squidgy body and numerous cuttlefish limbs or appendages. It lay flat on the shelf, with its chinless head and long slit-like mouth overhanging the pit, and its cold, lidless eyes peering obliquely at Avoosl Wuthoqquan. The usurer was not reassured when it began to speak in a thick and loathsome voice, like the molten tallow of corpses dripping from a wizard’s kettle.

“Ho! what have we here?” it said. “By the black altar of Tsathoggua, ’tis a fat money-lender, wallowing in my jewels like a lost pig in a quagmire!”

“Help me!” cried Avoosl Wuthoqquan. “See you not that I am sinking?”

The entity gave its oleaginous chuckle. “Yes, I see your predicament, of course… What are you doing here?”

“I came in search of my emeralds—two fine and flawless stones for which I have just paid the sum of two hundred djals.”

“Your emeralds?” said the entity. “I fear that I must contradict you. The jewels are mine. They were stolen not long ago from this cavern, in which I have been wont to gather and guard my subterranean wealth for many ages. The thief was frightened away… when he saw me… and I suffered him to go. He had taken only the two emeralds; and I knew that they would return to me—as my jewels always return—whenever I choose to call them. The thief was lean and bony, and I did well to let him go; for now, in place, there is a plump and well-fed usurer.”

Delightful. That’s a neat idea for a trap, no? And you could take it in multiple directions or use individual elements as you like. I also included a screen cap of the next paragraph because the monster gems are a cool idea, too.

At any rate, Gygax himself may not have acknowledged Smith as an inspiration for D&D, and fair enough. Perhaps Smith’s works didn’t contribute anything unique or substantial to the makeup of the game! But I find this noteworthy for both aspiring Dungeon Masters and SFF fans – that one of Gygax’s original crew drew upon Smith for inspiration.

2 Comments

  1. A salute to Clark Ashton Smith, a writer whose work is well worth reading by any GM!
    I didn’t know that the Dragon was available on line. Thanks for the tip!

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