The World of the Malazan Empire and Role-Playing Games
Through the years, at signings, book tours and in interviews, I am often asked about the RPG origins to the novels set in the Malazan world. Depending on the time and energy I’m prepared to commit to my answers, I have been both vague and specific; but generally such venues are not the place for an in-depth analysis of the relationship between the Malazan novels and RPG’s.
Recently, while attending Eurocon and taking questions from a large audience, I was again reminded that, despite the plethora of computer and console gaming, the old paper-based system of gaming remains popular and without doubt (in my mind) to a large extent continues to shape the approach many readers take to fantasy fiction. While I have made a point in my writing (as has Ian [Cam] Esslemont, who shares both the fictional world of Malaz and the gaming experience that helped create it) to run counter to those well-established tropes, in effect consciously disengaging from them, by the very act I have at the same time inevitably referenced them, and as such readers only ‘get the jokes’ because we share a common understanding of those tropes. It might also be worth adding that those ‘jokes’ are only ‘jokes’ because I have engaged in setting up the clichés—inviting reader’s recognition—only to then unplug those clichés.
In any case, let’s go back a ways for the purposes of this essay, and address some more basic aspects of the relationship between RPG’s and my writing the Malazan series (I will not add Cam to this, since I have no desire to put words into his mouth, nor can I simply assume that while we share gaming memories, our sense of them and their significance to our fiction is identical). Specifically, the central question I want to address is this: to what extent did RPG’s shape my fantasy fiction? That should be simple to answer but it isn’t. The synergy between two creative processes is a curious thing; beneath the obvious surface (where glancing linkages can be made with elan), there are a host of more complicated relationships at work.
Young as we were at the time, we did not game in a bubble. Factors were at work on us all the while: the outer world—our studies (where we were learning the craft of fiction writing), the books we read, the films we watched, the ongoing analyses we engaged in on myriad subjects, from anthropology to war fiction and nonfiction, from the Latin American magic realists to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, from G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday to Franz Kafka’s The Castle, from The Lion in Winter to Milos Forman’s Amadeus to Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (now some eager student is bound to plunge into examining the dates of release for some of this stuff, or indeed all of it, and find … timeline issues).
So one could ask, what were our outside influences to the gaming we did? But there is something about gaming itself that makes such factors less relevant than they might seem. You see, we were escaping. The only thing we brought into that magical world was a set of sensibilities shaped by what we liked and what we didn’t like—about fantasy fiction, and about some of the gaming worlds being offered us. If we then stole from seemingly disconnected sources to inspire our own gaming sessions, was simply a reflection of our imaginations using anything and everything at our disposal, since both of us were creating for an audience of one, and that ‘one’ had fucking high standards.
Let’s go back to what most would consider the basic look and feel of traditional role-playing games. The first games we played were set in the AD&D world, and we almost immediately clashed with the class and alignment rules set in place by Gary Gygax. We recognized them, you see, because we’d read fantasy fiction; but now those particular gaming rules were in turn affecting most of the new fantasy fiction at the time (with notable exceptions). The tropes were bleeding back and forth, yet the literary foundation was fifty years old. We recoiled, I think, from what we perceived as an ossification of the genre (I could go off on a tangent now and talk about Glen Cook, but do recall, his Black Company novels were not widely-read the first time they came out; even more-so for his Dread Empire stuff—he seemed a lone voice in the crowd, but for a while there he was the only one we were prepared to listen to).
Beyond even the class definitions and the alignment rules, there were other game-set elements finding form in contemporary fantasy fiction: the quest group (of course acknowledging the LOTR biofeedback thing going on here); the standardization of good and evil—the actual birth of the Dark Lord cliché was right there in front of us (and the only real interesting take on that one was from Donaldson, but how much of that was from the sheer power of his writing?); and of course the un-killable hero.
It was as if the two forms of entertainment were doing little more than reinforcing each other, on virtually every level. Me and Cam, well, we railed at it, all of it. It drove us to distraction. Frustrated us, infuriated us. The closest I ever got to Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms was when I bought the box game set for the latter (I think this was before the novels came out). I well recall this—we were living in James Bay, in Victoria. We opened the box up and took out the maps while sitting in a Mexican restaurant. Ten minutes later I was as close as I have ever been to publicly burning someone else’s creation.
No doubt I will take hits and get flamed a few million times for that comment. No matter. It’s not like I really care. On one level, if you ask what was the effect RPGs had on my fantasy novels, I could answer: they showed us the face of the enemy. But there’s more to this, and in fact that reply of mine is not entirely accurate. You see, we were already gaming by this point: we were old hands at it, in fact. And we’d moved on to a more flexible gaming system (GURPS), one which did away with classes and alignments and had an interesting magic system. What bothered us was the reworking of every fantasy cliché imaginable, all in one package now, and none of it made sense. Neither were we unmindful that what we were seeing in that pretty box was a kind of summary, an encapsulation: we knew the language it was speaking; we just didn’t want to speak it anymore.
Intense gaming sears the tropes into the brain, even when you’re working against them. The patterns of recognition are set: one can either slide right in and do nothing new, or one can take the whole mess by the throat and give it a shake. Ambition, arrogance and youth all go together, don’t you know.
So much for background: the stuff we shared, Cam and me; stuff we’ve since talked out. Time to move on. What did I carry over into my writing from those RPGs we played out? Note the distinction: there is role-playing gaming, and then there is the gaming we did. The first is AD&D and all its subsets, it’s the thing that’s out there, still thriving, still inviting fans of fantasy to define their characters by class, their goodness or their evilness, and still sending them off on quests for loot and adventure. How pervasive is this structure? It rules the show for most console and computer-based gaming—we ‘level up.’ Well, to ‘level up’ is an AD&Dism. We use points or whatever to generate our character, balancing attributes like intelligence, wisdom, agility, etc. This is all AD&D, right down to the clothes you put on that generated on-screen character. We do team-playing and assemble those teams on the basis of various talents to make the group well-rounded and capable of meeting any threat, a ‘balanced party’. In other words, in terms of entertainment, from film to on-screen gaming to novels, AD&D has been a pervasive defining force: and as much as I may have found its strictures frustrating, let me say it plain: Gygax was a genius. He systematized LOTR and that system has extended through numerous forms of entertainment (Counter Strike anyone?), and for all its initial strictures, it is malleable, adaptable beyond belief. It has, in fact, moved far beyond fantasy itself.
In our own gaming, we took from AD&D the most basic tenets of gaming: we created characters, assigned values to their basic attributes, physical and mental; we selected from a list of talents and skills and put ‘points’ into them to shape our character’s abilities. We invented stories and plotlines involving contests and goals, and to gauge success we rolled the damned die. This sounds basic, but it is fundamental. Where we deviated was in the details, in creating a viable world with cultures and histories that made sense to us. We then spiced it with other stuff, be it inspired by war literature, tragedies, films, and so on.
This all became the grounding of the fictional world we then created, and those who have gamed well see the basic gaming elements at work in our tales. To be specific: the Malazan Empire was founded in a tavern called Smiley’s in an island city: its core of players were a balanced party of sorcerers, fighters, assassins, thieves and priests. The events in the city of Darujhistan leading up to the night of fete were all gamed, and again we had balanced groups (Kruppe, Coll, Murillio and Rallick; Whiskeyjack, Mallet, Fiddler, Hedge, Quick Ben and Kalam; and so on). The squad finale of The Crippled God, the tenth and final novel of the series, was gamed.
So, I can rail at the clichés established by AD&D, but man, they’re in my fucking blood, like it or not. I use them. All. The. Time. And lo, it’s not a problem. In fact, I depend on them: as my readers know, in the Malazan series there’s scant else for them to connect with at first glance. And even as readers get a handle on them, I mess them up.
The role of AD&D is seminal to modern fantasy fiction. If anything, its influence is so vast it can be hard to get a handle on it. As for me, why, I miss gaming. But I found, during the writing of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, I could not quite both game and write. They drew from the same well, I think. The same narrative impulse, the same thirst for adventure, the same delight in characterization.
For what it is worth: all you gamers out there, go to it. And if I dare offer advice, make a point of creating characters unlike you and unlike each other—stretch yourself. Step into unfamiliar shoes and see out from unfamiliar eyes. It’s good for the soul.