Monday, November 14, 2016

The Black Company Brings D&D Magic to Fantasy Lit

I’ve read this book three times now, I think. Once was in high school. I could swear the second time was more recently, and I thought it had been since ’08, but now I’m not so sure; there’s a lot of this book I did not remember. Perhaps ’09. There are a lot of frustrating holes in my memories of ’09.

The Black Company is important to me in large part because it’s kinda-sorta the template I’ve based D&D on since high school. When I first picked up D&D, I was days away from turning the recommended age of 10. My models for fantasy were Harryhausen movies (especially Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), a random sampling of Norse and Greek myths sanitized for elementary-school kids, A Boy’s King Arthur, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. A lot of the core of D&D can be found in these things: warriors that take blow after blow, their mail hanging off them in bloody rags, but staying on their feet and in the fight; professional specialization; the ensemble of disparate characters united in a quest; derring-do, danger, and reward.

But there was a big, ugly fly in my D&D soup: magic. I would learn before I reached high school that D&D magic was based on the writings of Jack Vance, but I wouldn’t actually read any Vance for over a decade after I got that first Basic box. Magic in my fantasy didn’t work at all like D&D magic. D&D magic didn’t fit in Camelot or Cair Paravel or Isengard. My earliest attempts to fix this with spell-point systems were, of course, disastrous; such a gameist solution actually snuffed out any sense of the mystical.

In my teens, however, I discovered two writers whose work really, really fit D&D. The first was Steven Brust with his Taltos novels. The second was Glen Cook with The Black Company.

In spite of Green Ronin’s free-form, point-based magic system to the contrary, magic in the Black Company universe is clearly based on very distinct spells, cast over and over again:

The occasional pair of balls howled over from Duretile. I later learned that Silent was throwing them, having been taught by the Taken.

The worst seemed over. Except for the three escapees Elmo was hunting, we had contained the thing. The Limper peeled off to the join the hunt for the three. Whisper returned to Duretile to refurbish her store of nasty tricks.

This is probably the most descriptive passage about magic in the Black Company books. Spells are, clearly, distinct and teachable techniques. And they need to be “refurbished” occasionally. In short, it looks an awful lot like D&D’s Vancian magic.

Even better, for me, The Black Company gave me a lot of what I loved from Tolkien and Lewis and King Arthur, but modified for the “reality” of D&D-style magic. We had the clash of armies, political skullduggery, the wide-ranging quests, the memorable locales and characters. Yet the focus was on grunts down in the mud and the blood and the beer. We got glimpses of great and powerful sorcerers, but from the thick of steel-on-steel melee down below the flying carpets and spiraling towers. Ok, yeah, there is a “chosen one” character, but she’s not a main character and we never see anything from her point of view. It’s mostly Croaker and his annals.

And what we get is very D&D-looking magic, with powerful artillery spells able to brutalize entire companies of soldiers at a time in horrific ways. There are rains of acidic dust, germ-warfare eggs, gargantuan invisible stompy things, and various sorts of pyrotechnics. Want to stop magic? You need either your own wizards to counter the spells of your enemy, or huge masses of cannon-fodder to absorb all that deadly magic and still swamp the enemy with.

Or, even better for D&D, be a small elite band that can slip in unnoticed, ambush the enemy wizards and rifle through their letters and documented orders, and then get the hell out before anybody notices what you’ve done.

And that’s the model I’ve used ever since to make my D&D worlds. There are powerful bad-asses bestriding the world like colossi, but still being very mortal and limited beyond the range of their particular suite of powers. And below them, entire pyramids of experts, specialists, spear-carriers, and grunts getting all the things done that need doing. The colossi have their own goals and rivalries and plots rolling along, and while most folks might just see that expected clash between Good and Evil, or Empire versus Free Cities, if you peek behind the curtain you’ll see that the game isn’t actually what you’d expect.

I remember thinking, the second time I read The Black Company that it clearly was intended by Cook to be a stand-alone thing, very much like his The Tower of Fear and the one about the guy with the magic sword. But if you look at the publication dates, that doesn’t seem to be the case. According to Wikipedia, Shadows Linger was published five months after The Black Company, and The White Rose came out six months after that. Then we get a four year gap before Shadow Games. It’s going to be fun to explore this journey again.


Unknown said...

I don't remember how I stumbled across this series but I finished all 8 books within a month. The first thing that captured me was the magic-users were not all-powerful sages but human and limited. Even with the acknowledgement of far superior magic in the world, the viewpoint given keeps it close to the masses. Wonderful series, slow building with a quiet epic touch.

Unknown said...

There are strangers on the plain, Croaker.

Kuseru Satsujin said...

I also recommend Chris Bunch's Seer King Trilogy (though it's somewhat graphic with the sex scenes), it had similar depictions of magic, though the description of magic's battlefield applications struck me as particularly useful.

Also, according to this interview: There are plans for an 11th and 12th book in the Black Company series (with the usual long wait for them to come out evidently).

I also appreciated Cook's use of True Names in his magic system as they added an extra dimension to the flavor of magic.

trollsmyth said...

Andrew Ceyton: agreed! Really enjoying returning to these books.

Jim Sales: Just finished that one last night.

Kuseru Satsujin: Excellent news. I'll be sure to check out Bunch's stuff.

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

D&D magic isn't really Vancian, either.
I don't mind D&D magic, except that most players/DMs/D&D based fantasy is really lazy about making it seem magical at all. There's no attempt to integrate real magic, mythology, or something interesting - it's all 'you wave your hands and then a lazer!' This isn't the fault of D&D's magic system, it's the fault of people who are lazy/incompetent narrators.
The Black Company's magic actually seems more like D&D magic than any other series I've read not explicitly based on a D&D setting - including Vance.