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The Book of Weird

Some time ago, I wrote about one of my early significant influences, the Judges' Guild Ready Ref Sheets. But recently I was reminded of an even earlier influence, The Book of Weird, by Barbara Ninde Byfield. Or, to give it its full title as it appears on the cover: The Book of Weird, Being a Most Desirable Lexicon of The Fantastical, Wherein Kings & Dragons, Trolls & Vampires, to say nothing of Elves & Gnomes, Queens, Knaves & Werewolves are made Manifest, & many, many further Revelations of The Mystical Order of Things are brought to light.


 
But yeah, The Book of Weird is much easier to type. 

The book has had a somewhat complicated publishing history. It was initially published in 1967 under the title The Glass Harmonica. There being but a single passing mention of that instrument in the book, it was reissued in 1973 under the title given here in a large (9x11-ish) format, and reprinted yet again in a somewhat smaller format in 1994, which happens to be the version I have, though I first read it in the 1973 form.

I don't remember the exact year I first ran into it. It was likely some time in the mid-70s, definitely during some summer enrichment program for gifted children at UT. I was in some unit about fairy tales, and the woman running it ran a copy of the book past me. It was instantly captivating.

The book is set up as a sort of encyclopedia or dictionary of tropes from fairy tales, fantasy (as it existed at the time), Gothic and historical romance, and related genres. While the format is that of an academic work, the tone is often that of an advice column or etiquette guide. It's less a comprehensive guide to topics and more a batch of practical information on helping you understand a world you're already more or less familiar with, cluing you in to important distinctions, diagnostic traits of similar entities, rules which are inevitably followed, and loopholes to help you deal with it all. The page on burial alive, for example, distinguishes between intentional and unintentional burial, suggests the possibility of secret doors in certain specific contexts, points out potential sources of food and water, and recommends that, if you are going to die, you take care not to kill all the spiders so that years hence your skeleton will be found covered with picturesque cobwebs. It is, basically, a work composed entirely of charming, whimsical tidbits and asides.

So what does this have to do with me and gaming? This is one of the earliest instances I can think of at the moment of a style of world-building I'm very fond of. Rather than providing systematic descriptions of the world it describes with taxonomies and relationships spelled out in an easy-to-understand map, The Book of Weird works by providing a thick jumble of detail. It lets you know a great deal about a world, but it raises questions without answering them and leaves vast amounts of room for the unknown and the possible. And that, if you're thinking about building a game world where players will be running around and messing with stuff, is great.


Comments

Gwythaint said…
from a brief conversation with Zeb Cook, the book was on deck when the Monster Manual was written.
Umbriel said…
I received this book as a gift from a friend of my mother right about when it was published under the Book of Weird title. I didn't really know what to make of it, and it sat on my bookshelf for a couple years until a 7th grade friend introduced me to D&D. It became a valued resource thereafter.

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