Game-Related Fiction

Posted on November 20, 2010


I was listening to the latest episode of the Geek Girls Rule podcast today, and at the end Mickey talks a little bit about game-related fiction. {1} I have kind of an emotional, abusive relationship with game-related fiction, and I thought it would help me figure out what I actually think about GRF if I wrote about it a little.

GRF is, you know, novels that are set in game worlds: Dragonlance, the Forgotten Realms, the Warhammer 40K-verse, Halo, World of Darkness, etc.

I was 14 in the fall of 1999 when I first stumbled upon The Fellowship of the Ring in my school’s library, searching for a book to read during my English class’s mandatory reading period. Amazingly, I’d never heard of The Lord of the Rings before. Keep in mind this was two years before the Fellowship movie was released. The LOTR books are not GRF. But they are fantasy, and the first adult fantasy I was exposed to. I wanted more.

I was also vaguely interested in Dungeons and Dragons, which was totally forbidden in my house. One evening I was searching through the fantasy section at Barnes & Noble and saw the stacks of GRF. I wanted fantasy, and I wanted to know what role-playing gaming was all about (and maybe get a feel for what it was like to play!), and Dragons of Autumn Twilight purported to be a classic among these stacks, and so I bought it.

I spent the next year or two reading tons of Dragonlance fiction. I loved it thoroughly. I remember reading Autumn Twilight and being delighted by the parts I could pick out as directly influenced by the game. Early in the book, Tanis, the half-elf ranger, cast a Sleep spell on a bunch of goblins who were pursuing him and knocked them out. Rad! I almost felt like I was playing the game. The characters were on Crystalmir Lake at the time, and that name seemed so game-y to me that it was pleasing.

Post-college, after not reading any GRF for years {2}, I found annotated collections of the two main Dragonlance trilogies and picked the first one up, hoping to re-experience the magic in those stories (and get behind-the-scenes info with those annotations). It was terrible. I finished the trilogy through sheer will, and had to admit to myself that the stories were bland, cliche, and totally not worth my time. I also ripped that telephone-book-sized collection up in a rage one night, but that’s another story.

I knew then that GRF was pretty much dreck and that I should spend my time and energy on much better stuff. So I did. Mostly. I read a collection of three intertwined Vampire/Werewolf/Mage stories set in the new World of Darkness at this time, and enjoyed it. But by and large I stayed away.

Until goatunit, an online buddy on the Fear the Boot forums, recommended Pages of Pain, a Planescape novel. He shared my sentiments that most GRF was a big waste, but held this book up as brilliant. He compared it to Greek tragedy. He said that if it didn’t have the “Planescape” label on it, it would be read and considered as literature. I found that we had similar tastes in a lot of other areas, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and picked up the book and read it.

It was good. I liked it. It’s still sitting on my shelf. Literature? Greek Tragedy? I don’t know. I do know that my expectations going in were: It’s probably bad, but I’m going to try to see the good in it. I came out thinking it was pretty decent, which mostly fit my expectations.

I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy around this time, which my best, most aesthetically-trusted friend highly recommended. Plus, it won the Pulitzer Prize. I opened it up thinking it would be beautiful and terrible, and completely worth it. It was.

So. I’ve been wondering: what if I read Pages of Pain, but ignored that TSR stamp on its spine and pretended it won the Pulitzer Prize? Would I view it any differently, would I think it’s brilliant? Do I just have a bias here, a shame that GRF is trash that I shouldn’t be reading? Sure there’s a bias, but it’s there because my experience has proved it. And because, c’mon, The Road is just better than Pages of Pain. It won the Pulitzer for a reason. Still, I think my experiment has merit, and when I try it I’ll talk about it here.

There’s one other thing, and that’s that GRF is, from conception on, a marketing tool for the game it’s based on. That puts me pretty cynically at odds with the notion that it can be well-written and the product of a passionate creator that doesn’t get naysayed by a marketing department.

Don’t misread my mention of The Road; I don’t need GRF to be high art. It just needs to be good, (read: entertaining, not poorly written) and worth reading on its own terms, apart from the game tie-in. Which is a little dishonest of me, since the reason I’m interested in it in the first place is the game tie-in.

Case-in-point: I just got the Fantasy Flight Horus Heresy board game, and I’m waffling on picking up the first book in the Black Library’s Horus Heresy series. The game has got me intrigued by the fiction (BROTHER FIGHTS BROTHER, AND THE UNIVERSE HANGS IN THE BALANCE), but I’m also nervous that it will make me cringe and feel like I’m regressing to my youthful self who had no ability to critically think about what he read.

If you can’t tell, I’m a bit of a snob and pride myself on being up on good writing, but I think you’ll make a mistake if you simply infer that I’m ashamed of myself and can’t enjoy a good beach read. I used to be ashamed of my geeky interests, but really, I’m not anymore, and don’t care if my college friends think I’m lame for reading D&D books. As long as they’re good.

Anyway, If you follow the link to Geek Girls Rule show at the top, and listen to Mickey’s podcast, you’ll find she highly recommends the Black Library’s titles, so I suppose I’ll go with that first Horus Heresy book (Horus Rising) and see how it is. I feel like I’ll always be sort of simultaneously attracted to and repelled by GRF, in much the same way I am with “traditional” role-playing games. It’s this exquisite-looking fruit that just never quite satisfies me in the way I want it to.

I’ll let you all know what I think about Horus Rising in the next month or so, once I finish reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. {3}

{1} Mickey also wrote her own post about GRF, which I didn’t know about or read until after this writing.

{2} I should say that during college, when I was playing a lot of Magic: the Gathering, I read a smattering of Magic novels and enjoyed them OK. Mostly I wanted to be playing Magic whenever I wasn’t, so I read the books as a tide-me-over snack.

{3} It’s probably telling of my pretensions of being a person of high “litch-ra-chure” that Cormac McCarthy and Wendell Berry are the only authors I mention in this post.

Posted in: Readings