Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fantasy Books, Gaming Fiction and My Background in Them

I really just wanted a post on the blog that explains my background with fantasy literature as it might help someone get why I think a book is good or bad. This is that post.

I liked stories about knights and castles and such when I was a kid. In about the third grade our teacher read us the Hobbit in class and I completely fell for it. A short time later I saw a little animated movie called "The Hobbit" and heard that there was a follow up story called "The Lord of the Rings." During a discussion with an aunt who was into fantasy books I mentioned that I had heard of these books but I didn't know how to get them. She loaded me into the car and drove me to Waldenbooks in the mall and bought me all 4 of them. I read those books over the next week and read them many, many, times over the next 20+ years. Those books were my introduction to fantasy and in some ways are a high-water mark for fantasy lit.

In elementary school I also read The Chronicles of Prydain and was thrilled. These were written more for kids but they were very good stories and were still better written than a lot of the material that comes out today. I read them again a few years ago (reading them aloud to my kids before bedtime) and they still hold up very nicely.

I read a lot of World War II and Science Fiction stuff in elementary school too but since this is about my Fantasy background I will focus only on it.

I discovered D&D in 5th grade and beyond the game itself it provided a nice bibliography of fantasy books - remember this was way before the internet and it was sometimes hard to know what to look for at the library or the bookstore. Now I had a list...

In Junior High I read Sword of Shannara (thought it was kind of weak back then), The first Xanth trilogy (OK and kind of funny), a lot of comic books, and then we moved to Texas and the local library had the Conan books.

Feeling like I had found the holy grail of fantasy fiction (beyond LOTR) I dived in and read all 12 Ace edition Conan books over my 8th grade year and it set the new high mark. They are different from LOTR but they are equally powerful in their own way. I've read them many many times since then as well as the new un-pastiched director's cut versions that came out a few years ago and I still rank them at the top.

Next I found the Elric books and I pored through those as well - different than Conan or LOTR but kind of a weird middle ground. Violent like Conan but also baroque and fantastic like LOTR. I loved them and still do. I tracked down Moorcock's other works and devoured them as well and all together they make a very nice block of Fantasy reading with a distinct feel to it.

In some ways that's my Triangle of Fantasy Greatness - LOTR/Hobbit, Conan, and Elric. Maybe that dates me but that's the core of it to me. If you want to include the classical trilogy of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid then you might have a second "center of greatness" that I think has an impact on the earlier works of fantasy at least.

Other classic works that I like include The Worm Ouroboros, The Compleat Enchanter, and Burrough's Martian stories. I am also a fan of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories though I do not rank them quite as highly as some old-schoolers do. They are very good though and very much tied into the core of what led to D&D. Along that same line Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson is clearly the genesis of the D&D paladin and the D&D troll and has a good dose of fey/faerie too.

The 80's - In the remainder of the 80's I read Fred Saberhagan's Swords trilogy and thought it was decent enough though I think I like the Empire of the East series that precedes it a little better. They're both good reads. Laurence Watt-Evans Lure of the Basilisk series is a good set of tales with a non-human point of view. Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook is a good set of stories - I don't see it as the major work that some others do but I do think they're good. The Guardians of the Flame by Joel Rosenberg is one of the early "gamers transported into a fantasy world" stories but after the first trilogy that tends to show up less and less as new characters fully tied to the fantasy world take over. It's a good series and covers 2 or 3 generations now.  There were two other major fantasy series in the 80's that I think bear mentioning:

1) Thieves' World - these books were very popular and were by far the grittiest, nastiest set of thing I had ever read, at least by the middle to end of the series. If you think Conan or even the Black Company stories focus in on the low fantasy end of the spectrum take a look at these. Technically the first one was published in 1978 but they came out about one a year all through the 80's until the final volume was published in 1989. They get nastier as the series goes on and after seeing the same trend in Wild Cards I wonder if it's a trait of shared world novels as the writers try to outdo each other. In any case if you are interested in low-fantasy with a wide variety of characters it should be on your list.

2) Dragonlance - this was the real beginning of the D&D fiction avalanche. At first it was just a trilogy and a bunch of game support material but soon it would open the floodgates and we would see everything from Greyhawk novels to Forgotten Realms novels to books focusing on the gully dwarves of Krynn. This also indirectly opend up 2 other types of fiction - the non-D&D gaming fiction series such as the Battletech novels and later the Shadowrun, Vampire, and Wwarhammer/Warhammer 40K novels. It also opened up the "trilogy based on a guy's D&D campaign" series of books - more on those later. These were the first and they are decent stories. Re-reading them as an adult I see some things I do not like as much now but there is some fairly grown-up material in there. The death of Sturm is one. The unrepentant selfishness of Kitara the former friend is another. The whole character of Raistlin and the strain between family, friends, and the desire for power is pretty well done though it does play a bigger role in the Twins trilogy that came after. Those are all well done and the world is painted well and feels like a D&D world. It's not LOTR, but it's not garbage either and it was a major work at the time and still is now if partially for what it represents. I can tell you that my 11-year old reading it this summer for the first time thought it was as awesome as I did back when I read it for the first time and I think that says something.

There have been some other "big" fantasy books that have come out in the last 20 years:

David Drake has written some fantasy and as much as I love his military science fiction I am not as big on his fantasy. Lord of the Isles and the sequels are interesting but not my favorites.

Robert Jordan wrote a  huge pile of words about something and I have yet to read any of them. I do have the first two on my bookshelf and they have been there for several years now. I just have not been able to bring myself to start down that road as every book in the series is ridiculously long and there are way too many of them - there's no work of fiction that should take 5000 pages. History of Rome from 500 BC to 500 AD at 1 book per century? OK, 10 volumes sounds fine. History of made-up world and characters in 10+ volumes of 600+ pages? Ridiculously overwritten.  I may get to it someday but it won't be soon.

L.E. Modesett wrote a bunch of stuff about a world called Recluce and it's pretty good.  Looking at the list there are 16 of them now covering around 2000 years of history. Alright that's more than I expected but each one is much smaller than a Wheel of Time novel so it evens out. They describe an interesting world and a very interesting magic system, one of the more detailed ones I have seen as far as describing how magic works and how it feels to be a magic-user. I like them a lot though I confess I haven't read the last wave of them.
David Eddings put out a bunch of stuff in the 80's and the 90's and a lot of it was over-padded crap. To me this is the start of the "fantasy bloat" we are still living with today. If a trilogy is good, what's better? A 5-book series! Of course! So he wrote two of them! About the same characters! Pretty much doing the same thing! And they are very slow! He eventually wised up and wrote 2 trilogies about a totally different world and character after this and those were actually pretty good. So my insight from reading these was that if you, as a writer, think that you have a good story for a trilogy, try making it a single novel. If you  think you have a good story for a 5-book series try making it a trilogy. If you have the brilliant idea to write a 10-book series about a fictional fantasy world please don't - try writing one book and let's see what happens. The Belgariad and The Mallorean were some of the first series I read and came away thinking they were just not that good and had me wondering why 5 books was better than 3 when the story clearly wasn't there. I should credit them as they did open my eyes that not everything publishers issued was great or even good.There's a good story in these books somewhere but it's a shorter story than what was published.

Raymond Feist put out a pair of books that were very good (I thought) and they soon grew into an ongoing ad-hoc series  that's up to around 20 books now - in other words it's another runaway case of sequel-itis. There were in some way based on the author's D&D campaign so at this point we've come full circle to where D&D, inspired by fantasy fiction, is now inspiring fantasy fiction in a new generation of authors.   Now I liked the first book -or two depending on when you read it - and thought it was really good. I thought the first trilogy was good, but then things started to decline for me from there. It is cool to follow along as a character that was a child in the first book grows up and is eventually an old man 10 or os books in but there has to be a limit somewhere. I suppose as long as people keep buying them that "the franchise" must go on and the generational thing does keep the characters on a limited rotation but even that wears thin after a time. I would really like to see experienced successful authors experiment a little more - write a new series set in a different world or try some historical fiction or try some horror or post-apocalyptic book - something other than "the 27th novel in the Riftwar Saga". Good stories deserve a good ending and too many nowadays never get one.

The next-to-last major work I want to mention is one I am just starting - George RR Martin's Game of Thrones. series. I have all 4 of them now but I've been waiting to read them until I know I'm going to be able to do it in large chunks. With the HBO series coming out next year I have more incentive to cover them soon. I have not read them but I have heard nothing but good things about them so I am looking forward to it. Hopefully they rise above a lot of what passes for fantasy these days.

The place of honor at the end of my ramblings here goes to the Discworld novels. I've been reading these since the late 80's and thinking about them now they are the fourth leg of my "triangle of fantasy greatness" that  I mentioned above, which is somehow appropriate. They can be read in almost any order but I have a soft spot for those initial Rincewind books, Mort, and Reaper Man. They are the fantasy equivalent of the Hitchiker's Guide (another major work in my developmental period) and if you like that style of humor you will appreciate them but if you liked that AND have read a bunch of fantasy novels good and bad over the years you will feel like you finally found a home when you start reading those. As a fantasy world the Discworld is better described than most serious fantasy novels. The characters and organizations have more internal consistency than a lot of them too so they meet the real test of quality - they aren't just funny they're good. If you haven't read one then find one at a used bookstore and work it in to your schedule - they're short so it won't take long. I'm betting if you're reading this blog you will probably end up liking it and looking for more.

Anyway that's a chunk of my fantasy lit background  and my view of some of the peaks and valleys of the genre over the last 30 years. The biggest problems I see are that the books are too long, too many authors write sequel after sequel because they can and not because the story demands it, and that much of fantasy has been colored by the assumptions of D&D  as a generation of authors grew up playing it and another generation grew up reading it. These are not universal issues - there are good books out there - but I do hope we see a return to shorter works, self contained novels or trilogies at most. In today's short-attention-span world it seems like it would be a natural path to follow. I hope it comes about.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Gaming Fiction Review - Corsair

This is the second book in the "Blades of the Moonsea" trilogy by Richard Baker which are some of the first books set in the 4E timejumped version of the Forgotten Realms. I reviewed Swordmage, the first book in the series here so you can look that over if you are interested. In short, I liked it and was looking forward to the next book.

Headline: This is another good story with a slightly different flavor than the last

As in the first book I found the writing level to be a step up from most D&D novels. Maybe it's just this author, maybe it's a deliberate move with this series, but for whatever reason it is refreshing.

The main character is again Geran Hulmaster and he is supported by his halfling friend and a tiefling warlock met in the prior book. The characters are not especially deep but Geran is reasonably well drawn for a fantasy protagonist. I would like more motivational insight and less of the "what he has done" type of internal discussion but this is a very minor nitpick. He is mainly motivated by a desire to preserve his family's holding and his friends' safety which is good enough. His friend Hamil is a classic loyal sidekick and not much more while Sarth the tiefling warlock is enigmatic at best, speaking little and revealing less. I would like to see a little more of Sarth's background in the next book or in a completely separate book about him.

The story in this one begins soon after the end of Swordmage. In Swordmage the main character returns home after a long absence, discovers some trouble at home, then discovers even more trouble at home, and manages to resolve both by the end of the book, telling a complete story. I'm being vague to avoid spoilers, but the general arc is that in the end he has resolved the immediate threats to his home but other threats and loose ends remain.In this book, the rising threat is piracy, in particular one group of pirates. Another more subtle threat develops in the background and comes to prominence at the end of the story and will presumably be the focus of book 3. The anti-piracy story however is the main focus of the book and it is a good one. Duels on deck, chases at sea, journeys to a weird new land, ramming speed, and haunted ruins all make an appearance. The latter third of the book in particular felt a lot like some of the 70's era fantasy involving "weird" fantasy ala Elric and some of the stranger places he visited, and I mean that in a good way. I really liked this element and it's the first time I've felt that way about a D&D novel.

The villains both old and new are interesting and have realistic enough motivations in that what they do makes sense. They also are not stupid and do not constantly fail - it's nice to see some of the badguys' plotting actually work out as intended. There are 3 main villains and unlike in some novels they are all distinct and I don't think the reader will have any trouble keeping track of who is who - I felt it was worth mentioning as this is not always the case where evil wizards or priests pile up interchangeably over the course of a novel. This is not the case here.

The resolution of the story is satisfying and has an almost Empire Strikes Back feel to it - major goals are accomplished but significant setbacks are also in place, kind of like Empire. This is also the middle part of a trilogy, like Empire. This is not a bad thing, just an observation. The third book should be interesting.

This is a D&D novel so how does that part work? In short it's good. I like to nitpick game-based novels that don't follow the rules of their own universe but I don't see any of that here. It feels like a high-heroic to low paragon level type adventure. There are no super-powered magic items, no weird powers coming out of nowhere, and monsters behave the way they should according to what we know of them from the monster manuals. Also, let me repeat what I said in the first review:

 What's refreshing is what it's not: It's also not a Zhent plot, not a Bane plot, not some weird new supervillain-esque shape-changing creature from another plane, it's not Cyric attempting to subvert the goddess of magic or Nethereese or Red Wizards or Drow or any of the other overused meta-plot bad guys from the swirling vortex of bad Forgotten Realms novels. There are no harpers. Elves have only a minimal influence on the story - primarily the training of the title character as Swordmages are an Elven thing. No Elminster. No Dracoliches. No Seven Sisters. No personal appearances by gods of any kind.

I really like that this has continued. It shows that there are other things going on in the wide world of the Forgotten Realms besides the standard villain groups and the heroes that oppose them. More books like these can only improve the Realms as a vast, diverse world where anything can happen and it doesn't always require a deity or an epic-level hero to start it or end it.

So, this is a good story about a hero and his companions taking care of business and expanding their horizons a bit as they try to protect their friends and family from danger within and without and it's one of the best D&D novels out there.  I am really looking forward to the next book.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Disposable Campaign - A Manifesto

In the early days of RPG's, most players I know and most articles I read assumed that a "Campaign" was a long-term thing. Many articles were written on world design, making it real, making it coherent, making sure your player's had something to do in it, crafting NPC's they will know for years, etc.

In practice, most campaigns were short-lived mish-mashes of published adventure modules, stuff out of dragon, and homebrewed material. I doubt most of them lasted more than a school year as most of the players and DM's were in school in those days.

So much effort was expended in creating a thing which was almost never going to be allowed to fully flower.  Vast colored and detailed hex-paper maps, graph-paper maps of cities and towns on a 1 square = 10' scale, NPC's with back stories, personalities, and families of their own, magic schools, temple hierarchies, noble houses' family trees detailed out over several sheets of notebook paper - all of these were lovingly created and I would guess 75% of them ended up languishing in a notebook or a box somewhere for years before eventually being tossed out in the trash. Such a waste...

I was a part of this too. Before all of the boxed campaign worlds became so popular most people wrote their own world. The '81 D&D Expert set in particular was a crime against DM's as it included a country and a world-scale hex map as examples of campaign design and a bunch of mapping symbols to be used on  hex paper when mapping your own. To this day a black triangle inside a hexagon screams "mountain" to me and any hex map I do ends up looking a lot like those old D&D maps. Maps speak powerfully to some people and I am one of them. Gamers in particular seem to have it more often than the general population. This combination of examples and tools set off a storm of creativity and the sad thing is much of it was never used because the campaigns never got off the ground or lasted very long if they did.

Now I have no statistical evidence of this. I see campaign sites on the web where people have outlined the campaign they have been running for 30 years. I think those are by far the exception rather than  the rule, and if you look closer many times the group in question gets together once a year or twice a year to play their old characters - they haven't been running weekly or biweekly games since 1985 in most cases.

So something occurred to me about 5 years ago, has been slowly building since then and crystallized for me really this year: Role-playing campaigns have traditionally been treated as permanent or long-term things when they really should be treated as expendable and consumable. Building and running a campaign shouldn't be comparable to buying a house  - it's buying a computer. Something you expect to use a lot for a few years at most and then replace.

This started to get easier when 3rd Edition D&D introduced the concept of the level cap: Characters max out at 20th level and then retire. Prior to this character advancement was open ended with no defined limit (other than racial limits) so no thought was given to "when does the campaign end" and this was despite the fact that I only ever got one character up to 20th level - and that was insanely powerful when a 9th level fighter was considered "high level". Now 4th edition D&D goes a step further and breaks it down into Tiers and sketches out what a typical adventuring party is doing at each tier (Heroic = local problems, Paragon = national problems, Epic = world problems).

This is also expedited by the vast number of campaign worlds published over the last 30 years. Is someone really going to look at all of the options out there (plus the option of making their own) and pick one with the idea that "that's it - I'm going to run Eberron for all of my D&D from now on?" Why limit yourself?

Do yourself a favor. Next time you start up a new RPG campaign, put a limit on it. Say to your group that you're going to run it for the next year and you're assuming that you will play twice a month, so that's 24 sessions. Alternatively pick a level limit - say that everyone is going to start at 10th and the goal of the campaign is to get to 20th. After that it's time for a new game.

This also frees you from the tyranny of canon. One of the upsides of published campaign settings is that there is usually a considerable amount of history and lore to delve into - it makes for a richer world and lets your players dig in if they like that kind of thing. The downside is trying to make sure your world stays in line with the published material if it's still being actively published. Stop worrying about that! It doesn't affect your campaign because it's YOUR campaign - not the company's! Pick a starting year in your published world, say everything up to now in canon is good, but what happens from here on out is up to the PC's not some pre-scripted list in a book somewhere.

Now if you like a particular campaign world or if you have crafted your own, this doesn't mean you have to toss that world out. When this campaign is over, you can set the next one in  the same world but you have a whole new set of choices. Last game set in Cormyr? Start this one in Waterdeep. Last campaign was a rebellion era free-trader game? Make the new one a clone-wars era Jedi + special forces game.  Did one of your PC's become king of a nation? Start the next game 20 years later as the throne is threatened by an invasion or take a real jump and move it up 100 years, change up a few things but leave in a lot of the familiar and have a blast with it!

Designing your own world? Focus on where your PC's will be, not on indexing an entire civilization. The old bullseye approach is good here - detail a starting town and the surrounding countryside. Sketch out the kingdom it exists within. Make a few notes on other nations of the world. Add to it when the PC's move in that direction. Heck, let the PC's define some of it. If one player is running a dwarf and you don't have a unique vision of how dwarf society works in this world then let your PC have some say in it -they may surprise you. Don't worry about elven birthday customs unless someone decides it's their birthday and they're an elf. If it's not something you plan to use in the next month or two of running the game then it's not worth nailing down as your PC's may never get to it. Plus you may have a better idea by then anyway so it saves you the mental anguish of erasing what you have already written and replacing ii with new material.  Don't try to make this your Magnum Opus - you don't need it. you just need a world your players like to play in.  Most of us DM's have a sort of masterwork in us somewhere - a grand campaign, a super-detailed world or setting, or a homebrew set of rules that will cover everything the way we want it to be covered. My Philosopher's Stone is a systems with all the gonzo awesomeness of a Rifts for background, character concepts, and art but with a mechanically reasonable and balanced mechanical system like Hero or 4E to run it with. The thing it, you don't have to have that to have a good time, so don't overkill.

By looking at the campaign as a finite thing, a consumable good rather than a durable good, you free up your game to go wherever you and your players want it to go. Campaign guides are not Bibles - they are material to be consumed for your game, not something to be preserved for future generations in an untouched state. Forget beating Drizzt or shooting down Vader - if your players wreck Waterdeep fighting off the tarrasque that's an epic story and the Realms will be just fine. You are not responsible for keeping the world safe from your players - it's there for your players! Blow stuff up! Shock your players! Let them know the world is wide open and let them impress you!