Thursday, November 05, 2020

Quantum D&D

A funny thing happened to D&D in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: it got popular.  It went from a game everyone learned from someone whose knowledge of the game could be traced back to Arneson or Gygax, to a game people were trying to learn how to play from the three different boxed sets released between ’77 and ’83.  And we got a lot wrong.


I fully and heartily mean to include myself among them.  I made all the classic blunders, from only giving EXP for kills and ignoring henchmen, to treating AD&D as a set of add-on rules for B/X.  And I fully blame the books we read.


Fantasy exploded as a genre in the late ‘60s and by the ‘70s was, with sci-fi, a sizeable portion of your local bookstore and frequently dominated the spin-racks of paperbacks you’d find in newspaper shops and drugstores at the time.  And between the heyday of reading for Gygax and Arneson and my personal Golden Age of sci-fi/fantasy, things had drifted.  A lot!


Here’s the thing: when I started playing D&D, the only author from Appendix N I’d read was Tolkien.  The authors who informed what fantasy was to me were C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, combined with a collection of Robin Hood stories, the Young Boy’s King Arthur, some historical fiction like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, and a collection of fairy tales my grandmother owned that still had the creepy bits like Cinderalla’s sisters cutting off parts of their feet to try and get them to fit into the glass slipper. I’d read all the Greek and Norse mythology in my elementary school library.  I’d poured over the sections on knights, Vikings, Roman legions, and ancient Greece in the illustrated encyclopedias in my classrooms.  I’d seen a handful of Harryhausen flicks, the Rankin-Bass Hobbit and Return of the King, and I had the Marvel comic book versions of the movies Dragonslayer and Clash of the Titans (which I’d failed to see in the theater). 


And later reading didn’t help matters.  I read Dune and Le Guin’s Earthsea and a few of the Xanth books and Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger, as well as Kurtz’ Deryni novels, The Once and Future King, The Crystal Cave, and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series.  I read a handful of novels that modernized the legends of the ancient Celts.  Much of the ‘80s fantasy was of the epic quest sort, and fantasy authors openly wrestled with the fact that pretty much everything they were making (at the time) could be accused of being a pastiche of Tolkien.  Even the stuff that made some passing attempts to deconstruct the sub-genre of quest-fantasy, like Hambly’s Dragonsbane and McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, didn’t deviate much from the formulae. 


And I did read some books that harkened back to the pulp traditions.  Brust’s stuff, for instance, was much more Leiber than Tolkien.  But the point stands; I was reading fantasy that fit poorly into D&D’s mold. 


It looked like it should fit great; pretty much all of it was some flavor of bildungsroman set to an epic backdrop of clashing kingdoms and fantastical monsters. 


But there was a lot missing.  For instance, nearly all the heroes in these stories were some flavor of reluctant; they didn’t choose a life of adventure, but got chosen.  Many were from our world and got tossed into the fantasy world.  Even the locals were not looking for wealth or power, or to topple the status quo, but rather to secure or restore the status quo threatened by a great evil.  It was all very World War II.


And these heroes didn’t hire help.  There were no trains of porters and native guides, no link-boys or stevedores.  They rarely even had bands like Robin Hood’s Merry Men.  It was usually the hero plus a handful of others facing all the evil in the world, and often in the final confrontation, the hero stood alone. 


So as much as I loved D&D, it also frustrated me. 


D&D wanted to give me The Tower of the Elephant; I wanted the adventures of Sir Gareth or Bilbo’s travels through Mirkwood.  D&D gave me Cudgel the Clever and Captain Kronos; I wanted Gandalf and Morgan la Fey and Circe.  I wanted an epic quest against the forces of evil; the closest D&D came to that was grubbing through the catacombs of the Temple of Elemental Evil. 


And I wasn’t alone in this, and that gave us first Dragonlance, and then the bizarre pseudo-adventures of DUNGEON magazine during the 2e era, and finally 4e, where D&D really was about combat just like everyone had accused it of being. 

Because if you stare at D&D hard enough, and play it enough and talk about it enough, you can warp it into something different.  Every new edition of every RPG likes to boast that many of their changes are just things people have houseruled for years. 


Unfortunately, it never did become the game I was looking for (which was probably Pendragon, but I was too cheap back then to find that out).  Which is mostly my fault; B/X just begged for the type of kit-bashing that could turn it into an epic quest game.  But back then, I barely understood what I had my hands on as it was.  Warping it to my own desires was beyond my (literally) elementary skills.


It took 3rd edition to make me realize that what I thought I wanted wasn’t what I really wanted.

UPDATE: Grognardia chases a different thought up the same tree.  Also: Monopoly is always right! ;)

Sunday, November 01, 2020

The Steel Remains is a Maybe Too Modern S&S Novel

 Just finished Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains last night.  (And yes, that's an Amazon Associate link.  Troll's gotta eat!)  I enjoyed it and could hardly put it down while I was reading it.  That said, once I was done with the book, it left me with an odd, and not entirely pleasant, taste in my brain.


One reason I think I enjoyed it is because The Steel Remains wears its Sword & Sorcery love on its sleeve.  In the Acknowledgements (interestingly placed at the end of the book in an attempt, I suppose, to not encourage readers to prejudge) he thanks Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, and Poul Anderson.  While I would totally recommend this book to readers looking for S&S fiction written with a modern touch, the feel is more Glen Cook (especially his Instrumentalities of the Night series) and Steven Erikson’s Malazan books.


But having said that, let me throw in a HUGE caveat: the world-building in this book is pretty light and comes across as lazy compared to Cook and especially Erikson.  If you read for incredible world-building, the first book in the series is not for you.


But having said that, I’m not sure the world-building really was lazy.  I suspect the author just took the whole iceberg metaphor about world-building too much to heart.  For instance, there are, I think, three religions that play important roles in this novel.  One is a shamanic polytheism.  One is a noble-savage-esque Islam pastiche that’s had an opulent and decadent empire grow up around it. 


The third is a real mystery.  It might be a variation of the Islam pastiche, but they don’t use the same terms to describe it, so I don’t think it is.  It might also not actually be a religion, but more a moral philosophy along the lines of Confucianism.  About the only concrete thing we learn about it is that it considers homosexual sex to be a crime worthy of execution by days-long public torture.  And they have the civil authority to carry it out.


Now, that really is the only thing about it that matters to the main character (one of three) that comes from this culture.  So talking only about this aspect can be considered extremely efficient storytelling.  But I think fans of intricate worldbuilding can be excused for wondering if that’s all the author bothered to come up with.  I certainly wouldn’t have minded a little more seasoning along the lines of Lovecraft’s cabbages of Ulthar. 


All of the priest(ly) characters are raving assholes out of Hawthorne novels.  At least two are vicious moral monsters. 


And just to completely drive a certain sort of reader screaming for the hills, the worldbuilding we do get is almost entirely designed to alienate our three protagonists from the cultures in which they live.  None of them are the Portlandia reader-insert cat-savers that the main character from Leckie’s Ancillary novels is.  For instance, all three are unapologetic (if sometimes angsty) killers who’d be right at home in a Brust novel or one of Wagner’s Kane stories.  But two of them come across as the only people in the entire world who feel slavery is so morally repugnant they want nothing to do with it. 


The book is fairly unrelenting in its darkness.  Everyone is morally soiled; there is no virtue in poverty, and civilization and barbarism are just different sides of the same debased coin.  The only moment of moral purity is held up as an unattainable slap-in-the-face to showcase just how ugly this world is. 


And yeah, I couldn’t put it down.  Discovering, at the end, that this was the same author who did Altered Carbon made me more interested in checking that out.  If you’re longing for a raw and gritty novel about killers wading ankle-deep in blood through battlefields and back alleys because godlike beings are moving them around like pieces on a chess board, you should absolutely give this novel a look.