Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Blank of Blanking

Consider this a big footnote to all the "Appendix N" stuff I wrote about back in March.

D&D is a great game with a storied history--heck, it's a cultural touchstone even for those who can't tell you what the material component for stoneskin is. And probably the biggest linguistic signifier for that cultural touchstone is the blank of blanking.

The blank of blanking? Think of all the D&D magic items built with that construction: +2 sword of undead slaying, ring of jumping, boots of striding and springing (a double!) get the idea. There's nothing like that blank of blanking construction to put a big neon "This is D&D" arrow on whatever you're saying.

Watch any comedian for proof. When Stephen Colbert sets up a D&D joke, the delivery device is the blank of blanking. If he talks about his +3 sword of bear-killing or whatever, he's using the blank of blanking to say, "Hey, I speak the lingo, see?"

So Where Did Blank of Blanking Come From?
To figure out where D&D got the blank of blanking in the first place, let's turn again to Appendix N of the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide: Gary Gygax's reading list of inspirations for D&D. Look at the usual suspects--Tolkien, Howard, Moorcock, Vance, Leiber--and you come up dry. Not much blank of blanking in there at all.

Even Jack Vance, who certainly had a knack for naming magic items and magic spells, doesn't employ that particular construction very much. The "Blankerson's blanking blankament" construction (like Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion) is totally Vance, though.

To find the first blank of blanking, you need to search deeper into Appendix N. Specifically, to Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, where a dagger of burning figures prominently. I can't say for certain, but I can't find an earlier prominent blank of blanking. And for further evidence, the dagger of burning was always italicized--and you can't say that about Sting or Stormbringer.

As a side note, Three Hearts and Three Lions is also the likely source for D&D trolls. The notion of a troll that regenerated everything but fire damage...I can't find a folkoric origin for it. I think Gygax grabbed that from Anderson, too.

If you're a game designer in the fantasy genre, you're probably going to be inventing blank of blanking items for your whole career. And you've got Poul Anderson to thank for that.

Out of Context: "So what's in an Asmodian, anyway?" "Bitters, I'd imagine."
Music: None. Enjoying a quiet office before walking over to PAX.


  1. No, "blanks of blanking" are much older than that. They occur as early as Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy book (1889), which includes:

    a Cap of Darkness
    a Sword of Sharpness
    the Sandals of Swiftness

    Earlier yet is Dianah Craik's Fairy Book, where Jack the Giant killer has the coat of darkness, the cap of knowledge, the shoes of swiftness, and the sword of sharpness.

    Ye Olde Sword of Sharpness is a very old magic item indeed, with a much longer pedigree than most items in the DMG.

  2. Three Hearts and Three Lions is also responsible for D&D gnomes.

  3. "Blanks of Blanking" also makes a great joke in the Reno 911 episode in which Patton Oswalt is playing an RPG (presumably D&D). He is wearing armor and runs away from the cops yelling "I'm wearing boots of escaping".

    My gaming group still says that when one of us moves his figure away from a fight on the battlemat.