Review of The Erevis Cale Trilogy and gameisms in the prose

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The Erevis Cale TrilogyFirst, The Wertzone concludes a review of The Erevis Cale Trilogy with a nice review of Midnight’s Mask.  He sums up this way:

Whilst the book has an impressive ending, the explosions and magical exchanges are but a sideshow to a surprisingly emotional climax, as not all of our protagonists make it to the end and even the Sojourner is revealed to have a sense of the nostalgic (albeit a highly warped one). Ultimately, Kemp’s success with the trilogy, after a somewhat rocky start, is to deliver a story where the focus is on the characters and their emotional journey as much as the somewhat expectation-defying narrative.

Here are earlier reviews of Twilight Falling and Dawn of Night.  My thanks to The Wertzone for taking the time to review the trilogy.  Much appreciated.

The review got me to thinking about something, because notwithstanding the recommendation of the trilogy, one of the things that sometimes bothered the reviewer about the books was “in game” things appearing in the narrative (e.g., when a protagonist resists a wizard’s mind control through force of will, that might feel like a prose rendering of a saving throw, which is a game concept; or priests praying for magical spells, which is likewise derived from the underlying game mechanics).  This is something about which I try to be very sensitive (and avoid), and it’s also something I’ve thought about a fair amount.

The interesting thing about the criticism of gameisms in the prose (at least D&D gameisms) is that many of them are things that appeared in other fiction in the first instance, rather than in a game system.  That is, when Gary Gygax first created D&D, he drew heavily on certain classic sword and sorcery/heroic fiction stories while developing a system that would allow people to play a game that modeled those stories.  So, if one were ignorant of the development sequence, one could read Jack Vance, with his fire-and-forget magic system, and see it as a gameism.  Likewise, when the Grey Mouser struggles in Quarmall to cast a wizard’s spell from a scroll, one might “hear dice rolling in the background” as the Mouser made his Decipher Script roll.  Heck, when any hero dives and covers behind a rock to avoid a curtain of fire blazing from a wizard’s fingertips, one could be jarred by the fact that the prose just showed the hero making his saving throw.

But I don’t think gameisms in prose are limited to the source stories for D&D.  I think one could read just about any heroic fantasy novel or sword and sorcery novel, past or present, and, were one so inclined, imagine and model as game mechanics just about any number of events happening in that novel (I’ve actually done this as an exercise with a couple books).   Most of the time we don’t do that, of course, as there’s not much point to it and it would be jarring.  Instead, we understand them as a rule of the setting and read on.   But with game fiction, some readers see them not as a rule of the setting but as a prose rendering of a gamism.

So, does that mean that some readers are sensitized to seeing such things in fiction that’s tied to a game setting, and much less inclined to seeing them in fiction that doesn’t connect to a game?  Perhaps I’m totally off base here.  Any thoughts on this?

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16 Comments

  1. You use Use Magic Device to cast a spell from a scroll, not Decipher Script. 😛

  2. I have a confession, Paul. The “gameism” is something that I noticed while reading this trilogy too. I wasn’t looking for it, but I remember being jarred out of the story several times by apparent game mechanics.

    For me, the gameisms aren’t the dice rolling in the background, because you’re right that chance happens in any story. My jars came from healing spells and/or potions that allow the heroes to recover too quickly and easily. It saps the tension away when they can enter a fight, get beaten to a pulp, and then just go heal for a bit and carry on. Your characters do have lingering consequences from these encounters, but it still felt gamey to me. The prayers for the day’s spells also felt more like a game mechanic. Not sure why now… It’s been awhile since i read them.

    For what’s it’s worth, I have the same criticism of any fiction that relies on spells and potions to heal-all.

    The gameisms didn’t ruin the story, by any means, but I do remember noticing them.

    • Oh man, the healing thing is something with which (I think) most of us who write D&D fiction sometimes struggle.

      Although, as you frame it, it seems less a gameism problem than a worldbuilding problem that sapped tension from certain combat (and post combat) scenes. The same kind of thing is present (to a lesser degree) in, for example, Rosenberg’s Guardian of the Flame series (with healing potions), among others. It IS a pain to write around sometimes.

    • But hard-boiled detectives had been doing that for decades before gaming.

  3. I think this is niche thinking… that because the book has a RPG banner at the top of the title block, it infers certain game mechanics are represented by the author. As you pointed out, reading any classic sword & sorcery fiction will lead you to certain tropes that have made there way into the game mechanics in order to represent exactly that in effect.

    I remember when 2E their Player’s Option line. By “trading in” certain standard abilities, you could “buy out” others not normally represented in game mechanics previous. Finally, you could have a Wizard that used a sword, like Gandalf! No public outcry was made about weapon-wielding spellcasters! Game mechanics had adapted to allow players to make characters just like the fiction. These ideas have been embraced by later editions of the game, including Pathfinder.

    In short, I agree. I think that people expect game mechanics represented in a science fiction novel based on a game setting. Whether this is fact or not. And in some ways, it can ruin the enjoyment of the novel.

    • “I think that people expect game mechanics represented in a science fiction novel based on a game setting.”

      This is basically my view of things, too. When reading game tie-in, I think some readers activate a filter that’s highly sensitive to things “gamey,” even if those same things, were they to appear in a non-tie-in novel, wouldn’t even ping the reader’s consciousness.

      And that might be entirely reasonable. After all, I AM writing fiction that ties-in to a game. Maybe I need to be extra, extra careful about making anything seem even remotely gamey.

  4. Personally, the gameisms are part of the draw to the Forgotten Realms. The defined world based on a system and history I already understand. Namely D&D. I still read other fantasy novels but I have a certain sense of familiarity with the forgotten realms. When I read about a wizard casting a spell I automatically assume there is something else involved. A chant, spell components, some kind of foci. I’m not sure if I’ve just been conditioned to think this way by years of RPGs but that’s the picture my mind always paints.

  5. Complaining about gamerisms in a gaming novel is like whinging about guns in a Western. Readers who want something different, shoul go read a different genre!

    If I read something set in a gaming world, I want it to bring that world to life. Last time I played D&D – more than a decade ago, mind you – the healing spells were critical to our success. So, I would expect – nay – demand to see them in operation.

    However, I’m betting you give the whole healing experience a bit more emotional impact.

  6. I find it hard NOT to look for the dice rolls behind the curtain in most fantasy fiction these days, but I think that comes from playing too many games. I will go through a novel or a movie and try to compare the events in a scene with the mechanics that would drive them in an RPG version of the story.

    It can be quite fun, especially with material you are familier with (In my casr the original Star Wars trilogy or The Lord of the Rings) but at other times it can get in the way and irritate me.

    Regardless, I find it to be myself a fault as opposed to any authors. I have seen some writers work to be too ‘gamey’ at times but ironically not in the case of work actually related to any roleplaying game products. Perhaps some writers are turning their game sessions into stories and just changing the names to avoid copyright infringement?

  7. Not to change the subject but I just listened to your interview on Tome: Dawn of Night/Midnight Mask podcast. Nice to hear some of your insights on the trilogy. The interviewers didn’t seem to prepare well thought out questions but it was still a good listen.

    It’s still my favorite trilogy with The Twilight War and Icewindale trilogy close behind.

    • I think the interviewers don’t have a lot of experience interviewing fiction authors (as opposed to game designers). Still fun, though.

  8. Hi guys,

    I am a D&D fan, in saying that I much prefer the fiction side of industry to the gaming side.

    I know everyone is probably screaming “fois pas” and “not a real fan” but I was only introduced to the game through the books.

    I was also going to say that this is one of the best series I have read so far. (I have been collecting for nearly 20 years and have most books) Everis is extremely likable and one of the best thought out protagonists within the forgotten realms series. Probably because he reminds me of “Gord the Rogue” who is my personal favourite fantasy character.

    I agree with the healing issue but in retrospect it was probably necessary to counter how rediculously strong the SLAAD were.

    Well done Paul I loved the trilogy and hope you continue writing darker and grittier forgotten realms novels.

    • Thanks, Ben. Much appreciated. If you haven’t already, I hope you go to the Twilight War, which I think is my best published work in the Realms.

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