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February 04, 2011

Steven Erikson on the influence of D&D on his novels

I've spent the last year reading Erikson's incredible Malazan series. I'm on book eight of ten. The books average 1200 pages each, not counting glossaries, maps, lists of characters. It's a realistic and military-focused sprawling fantasy epic. I used to pretty much hate fantasy books, but between Erikson and Joe Abercrombie and Daniel Abraham I seem to have spent two years reading nothing but. The Malazan books are nearly impossible to describe. Erikson writes like no one else. His style is subtle in a way that is poetic and occasionally maddening. He's less Tolkien, and more Murakami. The series spans ten books main books, with a dozen side novels that explore tangential characters. There are hundreds of named characters, if not thousands. And several dozen POV characters across the novels. The books chart the rise and fall of empires, gods, heroes. They are amazing. The World of the Malazan Empire and Role-Playing Games | Steven Erikson
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 clich� 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. . . .