A pair of landmark events in the fantasy field have been drawing my attention back to themselves over the last month, so I thought I’d write about them here.
Lynn Willis died a week ago as I write this, midway through January. His is not a name well-enough known in the prose f&sf field, or even in his home field of hobby gaming, but he was a major figure behind the scenes. He started off in the 1970s as a wargame designer for Metagaming Concepts. Metagaming, though small and short-lived, had a disproportionate influence on the field, with a number of innovative games in inventive formats. Willis’s games there—Godsfire and the mini-games Holy War and Olympia—didn’t have the splash of Steve Jackson’s Ogre or The Fantasy Trip, but they were all clever and memorable.
Willis then published Lord of the Middle Sea for Chaosium, almost certainly the first wargame to revolve around anthropogenic climate change—though it was caused by nuclear war rather than carbon dioxide poisoning. The game itself was good, but the map, of a United States reduced to ridges and archipelagos by melting icecaps, left a horrified footprint on my mid-teenage brain. (You can see it at the BoardgameGeek, <www.boardgamegeek.com/image/227135/lords-of-the-middle-sea>). It’s an entire future summed up in a single image.
After that, Willis worked almost exclusively for Chaosium for the next 20 years. He took their first great roleplaying game, Runequest, and streamlined the mechanics into a game called Basic Role-Playing. The BRP system was less of a standalone game than framework around which more complex games could be built. In 1982, Chaosium released a pack of settings for BRP called Worlds of Wonder; the superhero game in the pack, Superworld, was well-received enough to be spun off into separate publication, its most famous players were the Santa Fe sf writers community, whose campaign became the basis of the Wild Cards shared universe. Willis also worked on the RPG adaptations of Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Robert Aspirin’s Thieves’ World, as well as contributing to many of the early Runequest projects.
But Willis’s most lasting contribution was the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Sandy Peterson built this monumental game with Willis around the BRP framework, and Willis then supervised the vast body of Cthulhu spinoffs—dozens of adventures, sourcebooks, and supplemental materials. As noted in issue 291, Lisa Padol is working on an essay about the history of Cthulhu gaming, so I will defer to her expertise. But I’ll add this.
Among the “supplemental materials” for the game was the Cthulhu Library, a long-running series of collections of prose books on Lovecraftian themes—mostly fiction by Lovecraft and his circle (e.g., the “mythos fiction” of Howard and Bloch), his admirers and imitators, and his influences (e.g., Chambers and Dunsany), but also nonfiction either about the stories or about Lovecraft’s background and interests. In a recent episode of the “Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff” podcast (specifically, <www.kenandrobintalkaboutstuff.com/index.php/episode-17-a-gorgeous-work-of-rosicrucian-monomania/>), Ken Hite and Robin Laws pointed to the CoC game as probably the single most important element of the revival of interest in Lovecraft over the last 30 years. Not the only element, to be sure; there was a slow revival of interest in Lovecraft in many media: S. T. Joshi’s tireless efforts to restore and spotlight HPL’s work; low- and medium-budget films based more or less closely on his works (Reanimator, In the Mouth of Madness); Joyce Carol Oates’s imprimatur, helping usher him into the canon, culminating in the Library of America volume.
All that said, to paraphrase Robin Laws, thanks to Chaosium, “the Cthulhu anthology” has become a viable publishing model. In 1980, Lovecraft was known as an important writer within the horror field, and somewhat less well-known in the broader fantasy field; by 2000, HPL had become a cultural touchstone. And Willis’s game, and books, were in there, early and big.
As a personal note, Willis was an editor on my late brother Tim’s The Book of Dyzan, a collection of Theosophical documents published as part of the Cthulhu library. I don’t believe I ever met Willis myself; he was not a frequent attendee of conventions, even in the early days of Chaosium (when I was attending Gencon, then and now the backbone convention of the RPG community), but his death leaves a hole in my life.
Unless you’re one of those people who skip straight to the editorial, you probably noticed that we have several photos this issue from Tor Books’s celebration of the publication of A Memory of Light, the final novel in Robert Jordan’s astonishingly successful fantasy series The Wheel of Time.
Tor Books have been exceptionally kind to NYRSF over the years, as a constant advertiser (see the ad on page 2) and host, allowing us the use of their conference room for our weekly magazine meetings for 15 years now. Everyone at Tor has always been unfailingly friendly and helpful to us. As such, it has made me, as an individual, happy to watch them bring this vast project to a graceful end. Hard not to get swept up in the celebration.
I myself have never read The Wheel of Time, not through any particular fault of its own—by the time it began in 1990, I had already reached the point where I was not starting any fantasy series until they were completed. (I’ve bent or broken that rule occasionally, but I’m generally pretty happy with it.) I have many friends for whom this is a cause for celebration (including a married couple I know who, literally, started dating because they were both Jordan fans). I can’t do a better job of describing the place this work has in the field than Guy Gavriel Kay did in his 2007 World Fantasy Convention toastmaster speech, so I would recommend going and reading that: <www.brightweavings.com/ggkswords/wfc2007.htm>.
So, two major stories ended. We cannot step into the same genre twice. But still it flows.
—Kevin J. Maroney and the editors