Thursday, 4 October 2012

Reading Appendix N: The Efficiency Expert

Edgar Rice Burroughs is a prolific author, and an author whose works include far more than the Mars, Venus, Pellucidar, and Tarzan novels.  Some of his works have no overt fantasy or science fiction elements whatsoever.  Whether these novels fall into the “Appendix N” criteria is, of course debatable.  They probably did not from Gary Gygax’s point of view, as Gary once told me he preferred Robert E. Howard for plots and ERB for monsters.

There are no monsters in The Efficiency Expert, except for the purely human kind.

Still, I think that there is some value in looking at ERB’s other works, because he followed the same general pattern in crafting all of his novels, and because there are always imaginative details to look at.

The Story

Jimmy Torrance is the son of a wealthy businessman on the West Coast, who is doing very well in College sports, but whose grades are not the best.  He manages to pull it together, graduate, and then heads to Chicago, hoping to make it good out East.

Needless to say, his understanding of his job prospects are unrealistic, so that he ends up doing menial labour of various types before getting a job as an “efficiency expert” – on forged credentials.  He discovers that the factory’s assistant manager is actually embezzling from the company in order to pay his gambling debts.  The factory’s owner, Elizabeth Compton, is engaged to the assistant manager.  Eventually, the embezzler kills the owner, and frames Torrance for the crime.  Only the help of a pickpocket and safe-breaker known as “The Lizard” and the prostitute, Little Eva, prevent Jimmy Torrance from being convicted and hung.

Interestingly enough, although ERB has his protagonist marry Elizabeth Compton’s friend Harriet, it is not until after Little Eva dies that this occurs.  ERB makes certain that we understand that Little Eva is the “best girl” that Jimmy Torrance knows.  Without killing Little Eva off (in what seems a contrived manner), it is clear that ERB would have been left with his wealthy hero marrying a street worker….something that the publishing world of 1921 probably wasn’t ready for!

Elements for Gaming

Many judges will recognize their PCs in recently-graduated Jimmy Torrance, who is surprised that the world isn’t flocking to hire him to run their businesses.  Being able to box, play football, and play baseball may be wonderful, but they don’t translate to social prestige (unless you do them professionally); similarly, being able to survive a 0-level funnel adventure makes the PCs special, but it does not mean that the campaign world will fall all over itself to enrich them!

Jimmy Torrance is literally a man who gets by with a little help from his friends.  But his potential friends are not just friendly for no reason….in each case, Jimmy does something for them first without any expectation of reward.  He earns his friends.

For example, the Lizard is introduced as a pickpocket.  Jimmy foils the pickpocket, but refuses to turn him in to the beat cop that investigates the altercation.  This is the beginning of Jimmy’s friendship with the pickpocket, and of the antagonism the cop feels for him.  When the Lizard follows Jimmy back to his room, he offers to return Jimmy’s watch.  Now, Jimmy wasn’t even aware that his watch was stolen, but he takes it in stride, with good humour, and even offers to pay the Lizard what he would have gotten had he simply fenced the watch.

It should be noted that (1) the world isn’t waiting for Jimmy to roll it over, (2) it is Jimmy’s willingness to come to the aid of others – even at cost to him – that gives Jimmy the necessary advantage of having friends, and (3) the circumstances wherein he helps someone come at a cost to someone else, and that someone else ends up being an enemy to some degree or other.

These are good pointers for a judge dealing with social encounters, and they are important for players to consider as well.  The player who imagines that NPCs exist only to be used by his character will end up with characters who are not very popular with said NPCs.  Notably, Elizabeth Compton is the only character in the novel who absolutely fails to learn this lesson, and she is punished for it.

For the judge, it is important to remember that having NPCs behave this way – doing something for the PCs without hope of benefit to themselves, sometimes at their own detriment – is a great way to make the players care about the NPCs in your setting.

In addition, ERB draws a number of stereotypical characters – the union boss, the embezzler, at least two versions of the job boss, the beat cop, the prostitute with a heart of gold – all characters that can be used almost directly in a role-playing game.  As a character, the Lizard begs to be used in a game.


There are certainly some non-PC elements in this novel.  The idea of someone doing good being “mighty white” comes up more than once.  As a modern reader, you might find this both jarring and/or offensive.

The Efficiency Expert is not ERB’s best book, nor is it the most important book for adding the “Appendix N” feel to your games.  If you find yourself having access to a copy, however, it is a reasonably interesting and quick read.  

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