Sunday, 31 October 2010

Roleplaying, the Malazan Book of the Fallen and cliches

There is a strong argument that 'modern' secondary world fantasy was born in 1977 with the publication, within just a few weeks of one another, of Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen Donaldson and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This came around the same time of the eruption in popularity of roleplaying games, spearheaded by the mighty Dungeons and Dragons, created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and which first appeared on shelves three years earlier. The modern secondary world fantasy novel and roleplaying in general (and D&D in particular) have thus grown up together, but the degree to which they have fed off one another is debatable, and a topic for another discussion at another time.

"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.

So, a city-fortress on top of a flying mountain? Interesting. And when was this? 1987? Really?

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.


Nathaniel Katz said...

The fact that Erikson derived his originality* by using the same techniques that others did, but arrived at a different goal, doesn't invalidate said originality. You wouldn't say that Bakker's series is unoriginal because of its RPG routes, even if it evolved out of them gradually in much the same way that Malazan did. Erikson isn't saying that he's original just because he modified D&D, that's just how he first got where he is.

*I'm not saying that he does or doesn't, here, just saying that this isn't the deciding factor.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Sums up my uneasiness about Erikson's and Esslemont's repeated claims that they more or less "re-invented" epic fantasy, when they are more or less then years late to the party. They are pretty much reacting against early Brooks, Eddings and Feist, but even those three were not always as bad as E & E make them out to be.

A good example of this attitude is Esslemont's explanation why they started their world (from the recent chat):

"One reason we gave the Malaz world, the series, the character that it has (overturning fantasy warhorses (ha) of noble kings, etc) was that we decided to try to infuse the genre with some elements of literary sensibility. One of these is a kind of 'social realism' and any social realist examining human history cannot help but see that the traditional images, tropes, romanticisms, projected into the past have been laughably distorting. I mean, happy peasants? Generous Kings? Give me a break. We decided to stick a sword in all that."

Happy peasants and generous kings? Which books is he refering to, I wonder? And what the heck does he mean with "literary sensibility" and "social realism" with regard to Malazan?

Anyway, great article!


Anonymous said...

I can't comment on Forgotten Realms, as I never played that.
But I wonder if SE ever read/played the Shadow World Setting from ICE.

Fordy said...

Only managed to read half of Gardens of the Moon before the laboured plot and 2d characters put me off for good. Any author that says you need to read several hundred pages of his series before it becomes worthwhile is clearly making excuses for his lack of writing ability.

Anonymous said...

I used to be a massive Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms fan when I was a lot younger, particularly of the books. Looking back, most of them were very cliche riddled with wafer-thin stories but some of them were brilliant, inventive and still stand up against the many other fantasy books I've read over the years. Books like the Dragonlance Chronicles, the Twins trilogy, Icewind Dale trilogy, The Legend Of Huma and the quite inventive storyline of the Time Of Troubles books.

So what if they are full of cliches. They're excellent stories and that is what matters.

Tarien Cole said...


Sorry, but claiming Erikson lacks writing ability isn't going to cut it. He and Bakker have excellent writing chops and show them. (even if I couldn't stand 'The Aspect-Emperor' for the unending coldness of it.) Harangue Erikson for his "time-line, what time-line" mentality if you want, and for the fact his haste to finish his series has led to less-than-perfect editing, to be sure. But lack of chops?

As for the "originality" issue, let's just agree that E&E looked wholeheartedly to Glen Cook as their primary inspiration in translating world-building to writing. I think what their primary contention is, and has been, is that they've taken Cook (who essentially blew up the low/high fantasy distinction for good and all), and made a serious effort to translate that into epic fantasy.

You can agree or disagree with their analysis. I generally agree (though less so with Eiselmont, who honestly doesn't have the narrative chops to be epic fantasy). But I'm not sure the fantasy community will always want "gray on gray" conflicts like Malaz.

Anonymous said...

SE says "Where we deviated was in the details, in creating a viable world with cultures and histories that made sense to us."

duh! every gaming team worth their weight in salt did the same thing, usually quite extensively. one DM ran an Melnibonean-based world (re: Moorcock), another a Nehwon-based world (re: Lieber), etc. the whole point for most serious PnP gamers was to extend the vanilla AD&D stuff into larger, deeper worlds.

if SE seriously thinks that they were unique in their "originality" of breaking from the AD&D rulebooks in order to enrich the FRP experience then he's either much shorter-sighted than one would have imagined or he's trying to grab credit for something that no one else (in his position) has had the hubris to lay claim to. either way he is pretty much full of it.

Tarien Cole said...


I'm sorry. But you misrepresented what Erikson said entirely. They didn't just "take a setting different from generic AD&D." They built a world on premises of internal coherence and consistency.

Quite frankly, that's something the FR did 'not' do. Nor has many of the other worlds you've cited.

It's not a matter of just 'doing something different' and making house rules for playability's sake.

Now you can argue how unique that may or may not be. I think more people have done it than SE admits. I also think most authors think of themselves as more unique than they truly are.

I believe where Erikson is unique is in the area I mentioned above. But that doesn't justify verbal gymnastics to make his words say something different from what the plain sense of his quote meant.

Adam Whitehead said...

Leaving aside the horrific disaster that is 4th Edition, the Realms, as a games setting, is a reasonably consistent and coherent world (especially in 3E, with most of the inconsistencies from 1 and 2E ironed out). A direct comparison of the two is difficult as the Realms, as a world, has not been presented that well in the novels (a few exceptions aside), but I don't see any radical difference in consistency of worldbuilding between the two, although MALAZAN, as the focused work of two authors working exclusively in literature as opposed to dozens working in books, RPGs and computer games, is much focused in terms of theme and writing style.

But MALAZAN does have some problems of its own in consistency and (famously) continuity that the Realms is largely free of.