"No, you have the wrong address, sorry, I'm sure they're lovely swords but I don't want to buy one. Why? Because I'm a fricking dragon."
Virtually all writers of modern secondary world fantasy have dabbled with roleplaying games, although broadly they fall into two separate categories: authors whose roleplaying experiences have led directly to their fiction (such as Feist and Bakker), and those who haven't (such as Jordan and Williams).
The modern fantasy author most frequently referenced with regards to his fiction beginning in gaming is Steven Erikson. Erikson and his colleague Ian Cameron Esslemont created the Malazan world in 1982 whilst playing a campaign using the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st Edition rules. In 1987 they switched rulesets to GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System, created by Steve Jackson), preferring the more freeform and adaptable rules provided by the latter and the ability to create their own magic system rather than using D&D's (which, in truth, was not Gygax's creation, instead being lifted wholesale from Jack Vance's Dying Earth books). In response to the frequent questions about how exactly gaming influenced the development of the Malazan world, Erikson has recently posted a blog entry on the subject.
The blog entry is about one of Erikson's favourite subjects, namely how the Malazan series bucks trends and fights against the enemy and is doing it's own thing for itself and so on. This time around, though, the timeline (ha!) at least makes more sense, with Erikson stating that the fiction he is railing against was the more cliched work published in the 1970s and 1980s and how a lot of the epic fantasy material published back then sucked (Stephen Donaldson and Glen Cook excepted), which is a not entirely unreasonable position (although I'd love to know if he'd read any David Gemmell, or, especially, any of Hugh Cook's demented Chronicles of an Age of Darkness mega-series). The disassociation between Erikson's view of the epic fantasy subgenre and the reality of it was somewhat puzzling in 1999 (when Gardens of the Moon appeared in print, a decade after it was written), let alone now, but realising he was talking about the 1980s explains a fair few things.
Erikson's view in the essay is essentially conflicted, which he acknowledges by pointing out the limitations of D&D-derived fiction but also the appeal of using the same tropes (and the very true admission that the Malazan book is awash with them, sometimes played straight, sometimes subverted) as a means of easing the reader into the story through familiarity. I found this admission interesting, especially since Gardens of the Moon doesn't really give the reader much else in the way of an 'easy in' to the world outside of the D&D-esque adventures of Crokus and the Phoenix Inn Regulars, or the different-but-complementary skillsets of the various Bridgeburners (or even, if only glimpsed distantly, the Crimson Guard).
However, Erikson's suggestion that what he and Esslemont and their fellow players did was jaw-dropping and original compared to other roleplayers is problematic:
"Note the distinction: there is role-playing gaming, and then there is the gaming we did."The problem, of course, is that Erikson was not alone in the issues he had with the limitations of D&D. Scott Bakker, for example, created the world of his Prince of Nothing and Aspect-Emperor series for use in role-playing but rapidly developed its philosophical and metaphysical aspects way beyond that of most generic fantasy worlds. Many other players of the game had issues with it and took off to develop their own narratives or their own games not limited in the same way. Even within the strictures of D&D, the writers and game designers enjoyed kicking back against the epic fantasy cliches with the development of the horror-based setting of Ravenloft, the post-apocalyptic fantasy of Dark Sun and, most impressively of all, the dizzying vastness of the planes in Planescape (and whenever Erikson, or any other author, knocks D&D for reasons of cliche or being generic, I just think of the official D&D computer game Planescape: Torment and ponder if the author in question has produced a work more cliche-subverting or tragic than that, and usually find the answer to be, "No, not even close,").
In fact, by adjusting and subverting the traditional fantasy setting of 'generic' D&D Erikson was doing what Gygax and Arneson wanted people to do with D&D. To use the rules to create their own stories, whether that was a dungeon crawl or a small-scale party-based adventure or a huge, Lord of the Rings-style mega-epic. Whilst much is made of the limitations of D&D's rules (particularly the arbitrary alignment, class and racial limitations of the first two editions), all of those rules were optional and subject to change. Even back in the 1980s, finding a party that didn't include at least some 'house rules' to play the game was pretty rare, running the gamut from those who just tweaked the rules (allowing dwarven sorcerers) to those who ran rules so altered and changed that they were barely recognisable from the rulebooks. So what Erikson was doing was not particularly original, although it did produce some great fiction that we've been enjoying for the past decade.
"No, my name isn't Elric and my sword doesn't drink sou... Sod off. I'm going back to my flying sky castle now which absolutely did not first appear on the cover of a Dragonlance product in the mid-1980s."
One of the more problematic areas of the essays emerges when Erikson reports opening the original Forgotten Realms box set in 1987 and, after ten minutes analysis, concluding that he wanted to burn it for 'not making sense'. Erikson actually expands on this in a 2002 interview with SFX Magazine, in which he identifies issues with 'all the elves and dwarves living next door to one another' and no economic explanations being given for the location of cities and kingdoms.
These comments are a bit of an own goal. First off, Erikson himself often suggests that Gardens of the Moon is hard on the reader and rewards those who read on past the few hundred pages (some fans go further and suggest that people read the first three full novels - that's 2,800 pages in paperback - before making their mind up on the series). He has also talked about how little in the Malazan novels is laid out for the reader, who is instead invited to form his or her own connections and conclusions. So to rip on the Forgotten Realms (incidentally, the one world in all of epic fantasy which is perhaps the closest to Malazan in power levels, pantheonic turmoils, vast scope, an ancient history with tragic underpinnings and geography shaped by previous magical cataclysms, although little of that was obvious with the first release in 1987) on a brief acquaintance is not the best of ideas. The original box set was just that, a brief outline of the world and pantheon with little space for depth, with it being reiterated several times that the game players and Dungeon Masters playing games in the setting were invited to make up their own answers to questions that were now answered in canon, or if those answers were found wanting, to make up their own.
The statements are even more amusing if the later developments in the Realms setting are taken into account: the vast backstories and histories explaining why the cities and kingdoms are where they are, the detailed maps showing the movement of trade goods around the continent and, under the stewardship of Steven Schend in the late 1990s, the development of the idea of kingdoms built on the ruins of other, older kingdoms (something Erikson does particularly well in Malazan) and, erm, flying sky-cities which are the tops of mountains sheered off and turned upside down (although they nicked this from a Dragonlance product ten years earlier, but that's fair enough). All of these things were possible through other writers taking on the original creation, fleshing out those elements that appealed to them and employing cliches, either straight or subverted, where appropriate and rejecting them where not. In short, the sort of thing that Erikson is laying claim to in his essay.
In summary, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is one of the premier works in the epic fantasy canon, and will likely remain so for some time to come. It's challenging, vast in scope and occasionally emotionally wrenching and powerful, whilst its two creators and authors have created many impressive characters, races and stories. But something new and different, either compared to previous fantasy novels or roleplaying games? No, not really. Essays of this sort give the impression that the genre of fantasy that Erikson is talking about Malazan rejecting is a view of it consisting of sub-par D&D novels circa 1991. Which is fine but the genre (both in gaming and literature), the readers and the gamers have all moved on to more interesting pastures.