Tuesday, September 6, 2016

To Tie-In or Not Tie-In

I've been ambivalent about tie-in novels for a very long time.  I say this as someone who grew up reading movie novelizations (particularly Alan Dean Foster's) and has really liked the pair of Warhammer 40K books I read. Andre Norton's Quag's Keep was good fun. I also admit my main reason lies with my terrible experience with the first of TSR's Dragonlance books: Dragons of Autumn Twilight and Dragons of Winter Night. It's hard to remember what I disliked specifically about them, but I know by the time I made it to the middle of the second book, I wasn't going to even open the third, Dragons of Spring Dawning, even though I'd already bought it. 

What worked for me as a gamer - classes, alignment, definite rules of magic, etc. - became wooden on the page. Characters had defined roles to play that weren't interesting or intriguing. I would like to think I saw the coming flattening of fantasy fiction into generic mush, but I think I just found the books boring. Their "epic" stylings were old hat to me, having read hundred of fantasy books by that time, from Tolkien to Karl Edward Wagner to Ursula K. LeGuin. It didn't help that I also detested Larry Elmore's cover art, with its dull-eyed, moody characters and silly-looking faux-barbarians.

From that point in 1984, I watched the shelves of the Waldenbooks in the Staten Island mall fill up with more and more TSR novels and fewer and fewer ones non-TSR novels. When the Forgotten Realms books came along it got even worse. 

I looked at the FR books, but there was nothing there that looked appealing or caught my eye. I know there are loads of people who grew up on R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt books, but I'd already read the adventures of a moody, racial turncoat in the Elric books a decade earlier. 

And then the FR books just kept coming and coming. ISFDB lists nearly 250 books written in the setting. There's a point of overproduction and diminishing returns. Again, I didn't read those books, so my inclination to avoid them was based on prejudice, but acknowledging that doesn't mean I'm going to change my mind. There's way too much original fantasy with weird or cool ideas to choose from to make me. Watching what DL and FR did to D&D and gaming in general, rejecting its wide open nature for a highly delineated setting, didn't endear them to me either.

So why did I read and review Matthew Hughes' Pathfinders Tales book, Song of the Serpent, and why did I buy Howard Andrew Jones' Plague of Shadows and Stalking the Beast? Simply, I already know really like the authors' work. Hughes' Vancian Raffalon stories are a hoot and Jones Dabir and Asim are classic historical S&S.

I also like what I've seen of Pathfinder's Golarion setting. It's got the feel of an up-to-date version of TSR's old World of Grayhawk with room for any sort of campaign or adventure and is generic enough for the ref to mold it to his own vision. Its roots look more in keeping with D&D's pulpier roots than the mass-market epic ones of Dragonlance. Which strikes me as the perfect game setting to write stories for. I know I just complained about the generic qualities of DL, but by offering writers a generic one to play in it can be like the sandbox settings of early gaming, and therefore anything and everything goes. Which is a good thing.

My review of the Hughes book, Song of the Serpent is up over at Black Gate. It's a mixed review. The book's first half is just what I wanted in a Vance-pastiche, the second half, not so much. It mutates into a "big quest" story too different in tone and style from what came before. Hughes is a very good writer, so he's able to make the quest appealing and knows the material so he knows how to draw you in, but it wasn't what I wanted at that point. 

It didn't turn me against Golarion, though. The world, as interpreted by Hughes is a good one, with room for oddball Vance-style societies alongside a classic dwarf citadel and a sorta Old West boom town. Scanning the rest of the Pathfinder titles, they don't look like they're dominated by any single storyline or character (see Elminster or Drizzt). They're also fairly short, looking more in keeping with seventies era fantasy than the bloated tomes and endless series of the last thirty years. It's not that I don't have time to waste on those sorts of book, I just mostly don't want to. Then I found this quote by Pathfinder author Tim Pratt made me smile.

“It’s a strange and sprawling world where you can tell any kind of fantasy  story you want,” said Tim Pratt. “From weird Westerns with gunslingers,  to Gothic horror, to supernatural heist novels, to barbarian tales, to lost-world adventures, to archaeological expeditions with mystical monsters, and more. I’ve written Pathfinder books featuring killer robots from beyond the stars. It’s an amazingly wide-open world.”

How can you not be snagged by that quote? Still, I probably won't be rushing out to buy lots of of Pathfinder books, unless by an author I already like or recommended by someone whose tastes I respect. What I will say is, I'm not going to reject these sorts of books simply out of hand ever again.

So what do people think? Do you read these sorts of books? If so why, and if not, why not? 


  1. I read the original trilogy of Dragons and never felt like continuing on with the characters content to be told what happened by friends who had read them.

    When it came to the FR books is started late reading Salvatore's The Thousand Orcs first and enjoyed that trilogy - not what I'd call a classic but it was fun and surprising. I then went back to the beginning of the Drizzt books and liked them until around book 7 or 8 and found it incredibly weak so I gave up on them again.

    It's hard to measure up to the classics.

    1. Maybe because I'd already been reading fantasy for a decade before DL first appeared and had read many of the classics, they just didn't appeal to me. I wasn't interested in TSR books at all by the time Drizzt rolled around in 1989 - and he looked a little too Mary Sue goth for me

  2. I loved Quag Keep. I think I read it the same summer as The Fellowship of the Talisman and Enchanted Pilgrimage - good summer.
    I read the original Dragonlance Trilogy and enjoyed it very much when it first came out. I reread it twice. Then, I just couldn't get into Legends at all. I recently tried to reread the original trilogy in hopes of adding the new "lost" books, but I found the dialog of Caramon to be absolutely ridiculous. I really disliked the character. He was whiny, bossy, overbearing and so sophomoric I couldn't continue.
    I love many of the original Warhammer Fantasy novels - Plague Demon, Konrad - and Drachenfels is absolutely brilliant. Warhammer 40K has never been my thing.
    There have also been great stories in the Tunnels and Trolls world, The D&D Birthright series, The Dark Sun books, the Pool of Radiance, etc.
    Also, don't forget toy tie-ins - there is a nice Micronauts trilogy and even a few Transformers books that are enjoyable.

    1. I probably read the Norton and Simak books around the same time too (1984). I think the question is how much freedom an author's given to tell an original story in a commercial setting. And it's got to be an open setting like WH

  3. Like so many fantasy books, your description of SONG OF THE SERPENT makes me wonder if Matthews would rather have written a novella, and then tacked on the quest to make the wordcount total.

    I think my favorite tie-in gmae stuff is Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. Some of those are very good. Dan Abnett's EISENHORN trilogy is brilliant.

    I read the first half (now, probably the first third) of the Drizzt novels. It got tiresome that they would never really let Salvatore kill someone off. No matter how high the stakes got, you just knew the main characters - both heroes & villains - would survive and return another day. (The one time he did really kill someone off, there was such a bruhaha that he resurrected [literally in the story] the character.)

    I tried at least one other FR book but never really got sucked in.

    1. 're: song of the serpent - interesting. He does mostly write shorts so it's not unreasonable. I think the problem you see with the Frizzy books is common to any successful long series. No one's going to kill off the money maker characters.

  4. This is what I wrote on the subject about five years ago:

    Gaming Fiction - Contra.

    Before I plunge ahead I want to issue a couple of caveats to prevent hurt feelings, wounded egos, and resultant outrage, accusations, and poo-flinging. Consider this bolded and in all capital letters: I am expressing a personal preference only. I intend no disparagement of the taste, good judgment, intelligence, or moral fitness of any who espouse a contrary opinion on gaming fiction. I am not penning a philippic here, so please don't declare a fatwa against my pets or call down upon my genitalia the curses of your ancestors. Clear?

    Preamble dispensed with, let me proceed. I do not like gaming fiction. I'll define the term: fiction set in a fantasy milieu whose parameters, characters, inhabitants, and assorted wallpaper and underlying assumptions are based upon the rules of a role-playing game.

    Dungeons and Dragons is at once a farrago and a distillate. It is a stew of ingredients gleaned from, among other sources, the justly revered Appendix N. It is at the same time a refined essence of adventure sources: pulp, classical, and medieval. This conglomeration and distillation are what make for such a great game; archetypes are shoe-horned into quantifiable abstracts, conventions are imposed upon a thousand disparate fantastical creations from a thousand different sources.

    But what makes a good game does not necessarily make for good fiction. The reason that so much great fiction was compelling enough to be pillaged for gaming material was that each component - each novel, each myth, each short story that enthralled Gygax and Arneson - was unique. Originality is the motive factor of great fantasy fiction. We read fantasy for novelty, not to revisit the commonplace.

    Gaming fiction is by its very nature unoriginal - it is the literary equivalent of the offspring of incest. It is second hand fantasy; rearranging the furniture designed by earlier craftsmen. Yes, those earlier craftsmen were inspired by their predecessors, they did not create in a vacuum. Yes, we know that Middle Earth (for example) was not sui generis, that its creator took inspiration from sources both linguistic, mythical, and historical. But I posit that there is a difference in both degree and kind between a story set in a fantasy world created through the unique, personal filter of an individual imagination, and a story set in a pre-fab fantasy world that must conform to the rules and conventions of a game. One is limited only by the imagination of the author, the other is limited by the blueprints mandated by the building code that is the game rulebook.

    Of course playing with the vanilla, generic fantasy tropes that the RPG blender whirred up can be fun. Terry Pratchett is a prime example. Even Glen Cook's "Garrett" books employ the 'everything and the kitchen sink' template. But these books tend to be - despite certain serious elements - humorous. The RPG conventions are played for laughs. These stories appropriate only as much, or as little, of the conventions as the author needs for his purposes. And - this is an important distinction - these stories are not gaming fiction. No committee needs to vet them for compliance with the IP Story Bible.

    Maybe I'm missing out on some decent stories. Maybe a good writer can keep readers entertained even when required to color inside the lines. No offense is intended to the authors of gaming fiction. This ain't a manifesto. A paycheck is a paycheck. But given the constraints on my reading time and the finite number of stories I can read in one lifetime, I'm forced to make some decisions. So, in synopsis, the Dungeon Masters Guide yes, a novel based upon the Dungeon Masters Guide no.

    Now then, those who did not take my prefatory injunction to heart feel free to commence poo-flinging.

  5. That's great. Listening to Michal Wojcik and Marie Marshall's podcast https://onelastsketch.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/episode-20-stuff-teenagers-read-past-tense/ it sounds like the DL and FR books really did read like rpg session transcriptions. In the end, my biggest problem with tie-ins is I've just got too many original books I want to read. Because they're short and familiar (in setting and tropes) I see the pathfinder and W40K books as something I might pick up as a quick sort of beach read.