Wednesday 26 March 2014

Preamble N: Role-Playing Backwash in Literature

Reading someone's list of the top 13 new and forthcoming fantasy novels -- most of which appear to involve white male antiheroes caught up in what you might call a strategic competitive process for seats embodying rulership -- I was struck by the approving phrase "a well-thought-out magic system." 

Indeed, I appreciate that the author in question, Brian McClellan, has achieved something that Tolkien, Dunsany, Leiber, Wolfe, Howard, Mirrlees and so many others failed to do. But I'll also pounce on this phrase as evidence of a second wave of re-infiltration of role-playing games into genre literature.

The first wave: the back-derivation of content from role-playing. But, whether we're talking about a lite-medieval society with dwarves, elves, and polytheistic clerics, or a shadowy modern underworld of supernatural creatures divided into stylish rival factions, this material eventually became hackneyed. Besides,who can compete with the game company's own hired guns turning out Forgotten Realms novels and the like? 

Thus, the turn in the late 90's to content more directly inspired by history. The model here is George R. R. Martin's reach back to English and Scottish medieval dynastic struggles. McClellan, it seems, taps 19th century Europe for inspiration. Being unique in this choice can get you attention, as happened with Saladin Ahmed's detailed creation of a medieval Arabian milieu in Throne of the Crescent Moon. I read that novel, and while it was enjoyable and flavorful, there was something itching at the back of my mind. I couldn't put a finger on it until that phrase, "a well-thought-out magic system," made something click again. 

When I compare Ahmed  to the authors who inspired D&D, the much-discussed "Appendix N" list, I get the feeling of ...

  • not just magic, but a magic system
  • not just characters, but character classes, character options
  • not just monsters, but a monster manual
  • not just adventures, but adventure modules (or better yet, adventure paths)
What is it that gives me this feeling? It might be just a little too much emphasis on the signposts of a roleplaying adventure: combat, healing, investigation. It might be the assembling of a diverse team of adventurers, each with their own talent. 

I had a similar reaction when I read Caitlin R. Kiernan's Daughter of Hounds. I was expecting a warped and transgressive look at a society of Lovecraftian ghouls, and while there was some of that, it was embedded in an all-too-familiar urban monster party -- a world of insufficient light, if you will -- where vampires rub elbows with ghosts and hard-bitten human investigators mourn wrecked relationships.

It's inevitable, perhaps, among generations that grew up with these games as a way to perform fantasy. Appendix N has become preamble, the flow reversed. Literature now draws structure unconsciously from role-playing.  You can read this as a repayment of the turn role-playing took in the 80's and 90's, when it started embedding literary devices, plots, and character development into prepared material, instead of letting them emerge haphazardly from play. 

What would literature that draws on role-playing be, without role-playing that draws on literature? I suspect the derivation would be less obvious; the end product, more postmodern.


  1. This is a fascinating dynamic.

    I was also struck by the fact that the primary praise of Sanderson's Mistborn that I have seen is that it has an "innovative magic system." That is not generally what I, at least, look for in fiction.

    Though I do really enjoy seeing dungeon tropes show up in media (Rat Queens, etc), which is maybe another form of the same thing.

    1. Well, that kind of enjoyment I would classify as RP content rather than RP process...

  2. That magic "systems" have become a literary trope at all strikes me as a corruption of what magic originally represented -- something mysterious, unknown, and awesome in its potential power. I grudgingly tolerate magic systems in games as a means of adjudicating player development and use of an ability, but treating magic as a form of technology has never much appealed to me except as a form of satire or background element, ala Harry Potter.

  3. This is why enjoyed the first Locke Lamore novel - though I suppose it had it's own hearty throwbacks to the Player's Handbook table of thieves skills. At least the magic in it was depicted as terrifyingly powerful and unknowable. Likewise 'Last argument of Kings' and whatnot (which totally had the adventuring party) - no magic that is accessible. Not saying these are good books but it almost appears to me that the only way to make a moderately interesting fantasy novel in a post D&D world is to have magic as something that happens to protagonists, not something they can control.

    1. And most obviously, Game of Thrones presents magic as alien and terrifying, both hot and cold varieties.

    2. That sounds like a throwback to the old Swords and Sorcery style of writing - the good guys use swords, and sorcery is the province of very bad bad guys.