Tuesday, April 25, 2017

[Books] Night Arrant

As a novelist, Gary Gygax was a very good game creator. I recently re-read (or, rather, read, since I'm pretty sure I didn't make it all the way through the first time around) Night Arrant, Gary Gygax's collection of stories featuring his character Gord The Rogue, written around the time he was losing control of TSR at the end of 1985 and published in 1987 by his short-lived post-TSR venture, New Infinities Productions. In some ways the book is better than I remember it (and the other books in the series, which I haven't re-read since the 80s) being at the time. Alas, in other ways it's not.

Unsurprisingly, Gary's writing is at its best when he's describing places or things, just like he was used to doing in D&D adventure modules. Gary had a great feel for his city of Greyhawk, where most of the action in the book takes place. He really makes it feel complex and alive - sort of like a mix of Dickens' London, Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, and (presumably) the depression-era Chicago of his own youth . The city is huge and teeming the way Gary describes it, with a multiplicity of districts and neighborhoods that each have their own distinctive culture and feel - the wealthy areas, the poor areas, the working class areas, the student areas, the commercial districts, the halls of government, the foreign enclaves, and so on. He drops so many street and business names (especially inns and taverns) that it feels almost infinitely large, like trying to make a map of the place would be an impossible task. Reading this books, you come away with a real sense of the place, and its size, and its complexity; you can imagine going there and meeting the people and having adventures. In this regard, and I know it's probably tantamount to blasphemy, it feels to me like he's slightly outdone Leiber - that Greyhawk comes across to me as more detailed and distinctive in feel than Lankhmar.

The other locations described in the book don't get as much detail but are also colorful and distinctive - Weird Way, the village of Grimalkinsham with its tavern of hags, the royal city of Rel Mord, Gnarlvergia and Avalondria, and of course Greyhawk Castle itself are all locations that would feel right at home in an AD&D adventure. That, really, is what is best about this book (and the series as a whole): that it shows you what "D&D world" looked and felt like to its creator. The way the characters talk and think about spell casters and magic items, how they deal with encountering monsters, and how they react to the concept of travel to other planes and parallel universes are all instructive as to the type of world Gary envisioned, and certainly put to rest any notion either that the World of Greyhawk is a "low magic" setting, or that D&D characters were assumed to be naive or ignorant of the world around them (e.g. whether the gods are real, how to deal with monsters, etc.).

All of that's the good stuff, that I feel makes the book something of a must-read for AD&D and Greyhawk fans and that caused me to include it (and the other TSR-era Gord novels) in the canon. Unfortunately, in terms of plot, characterization, and dialogue it's not nearly so good, to the point that reading it felt like a chore - like homework that I had to bull through to get to all the colorful descriptions and setting detail.

The plots of almost all the stories consist of either a series of random encounters or a straight-line plot with no significant twists (and when he does introduce an occasional minor twist, they're all very obvious). For instance, here's a significant chunk of the plot of the story "The Weird Occurrence in Odd Alley" (which, by the way, we know was written while Gary was still at TSR because he bragged in Dragon #102 that it had been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of the then-TSR-owned fiction magazine Amazing Stories): Gord and Chert have a reliquary urn that they stole from the temple of Nerull which no fence or dealer in Greyhawk will touch and which is causing assassins and daemons to pursue them; they venture to Weird Way (a cool extradimensional Goblin Market with all kinds of rich gaming potential that absolutely 100% exists in my World of Greyhawk) where they find a buyer and haggle a selling price of 11,000 gold pieces - 7,000 in gold coins, 4,000 in platinum - which they take delivery of in a big chest. That's too bulky to carry around, so they decide to trade it for jewels, but the jeweler's shop doesn't open until morning, so they check into an inn. During the night some thieves break into their room but because Gord's magical sword gives him infravision he's able to make short work of them. He and Chert question them and learn that their boss is the night manager of the inn. They go to confront him, learn that he's a vampire, fight him, and drive him away. They have a few more encounters before leaving the place, but you get the point.

That sounds like a pretty typical - and pretty fun - session of D&D, but as I work of fiction I feel like there should be more to it - not just a series of random events but an actual overarching plot or theme. I'm reminded of the novels of Lin Carter in which, similarly, the characters just kind of wander from place to place and stuff happens and there's no particular meaning or structure or even really any continuity to any of it. I suppose the case could be made that this fits with picaresque tradition going back to Don Quixote or whatever, to which I'd counter that even in an episodic work there's still generally some element of structure and theme present within each episode, whereas Gord's adventures tend to feel much more like they're just, well, a strung-together series of random encounters in a D&D game.

The (obviously completely unfair) comparison to Don Quixote highlights another way in which this book (and the whole series to which it belongs) comes up short: the characterizations are completely flat. Gord is the main character of every story (and six other novels) but he remains a complete non-entity throughout, with no discernible personality, voice, or even any interestingly memorable quirks. He's totally flat, boring, and generic, and his companion Chert is even worse - a one-dimensional beef-headed lout with no other distinguishing characteristics except that his axe make a humming noise in battle.

An ironic counterpoint to this is that one story, "The Five Dragon Bowl," has Gord and Chert as supporting characters and focuses instead on another pair - Digwell Biffson the halfling thief and Poztif, cleric of Pholtus. Although they only appear in this single story, both of them seemed much more interesting and made more of an impression upon me as characters than either Gord or Chert ever did. And I think I know at least part of the reason why: in the story, Biff (as he calls himself) is described as being a servant of Melf, and "Poztif" seems very likely to be a TSR-copyright-claim-avoiding name-swap for Serten, a secondary PC of Gary's oldest son, Ernie. Which means both of these characters presumably came from actual game-play, and had developed distinct personalities through that interactive process, which is why, at least to me, they both felt so much more authentic and real than the other characters, who were presumably created for the book. It makes me wonder if Gary had followed a different track with his fiction, if instead of making up new characters he had used more of the existing ones - if his novels had been about the exploits of Tenser and Robilar and Otis and Melf and so on - if they might not have been better, at least in terms of characterization.

Last but not least is the matter of the dialogue. The quality (or lack thereof) of Gary's dialogue has been raked over the coals enough over the past three decades that there's no need for me to pile on further here. I know that writing authentic-sounding dialogue is harder than it seems, and that a lot of authors struggle with it. That said, Gary seemed to struggle more than most (or at least more than most of the authors I read). Gary's idol (and friend) Jack Vance had a trick to getting around writing dialogue, which is that he made it so exaggeratedly pompous and verbose that you immediately understood that it wasn't supposed to be taken as "realistic" - that his characters weren't supposed to sound like real people but more like comic characters in a stylized play. It's one of my favorite things about Jack Vance's writing, that makes his books so distinctive and so much fun to read.

Gary was certainly no stranger to Vance's particular "voice" - it is, after all, pretty much the voice that he affected in the AD&D rulebooks, where "evil" becomes "perforce the antithesis of weal" and so forth. What people call "high Gygaxian" could just as easily be called "low-to-middle Vancian." Given that, it seems like a shame to me that Gary didn't employ that style (or at least attempt it) in his novels. Perhaps he didn't think he was up to sustaining it for the length of an entire novel (ultimately a series of novels). Or perhaps he thought he'd be accused of just copying Vance (although considering the extent to which he courted comparisons to Leiber that doesn't seem too likely). I hope he didn't start out writing it that way and let some friend or editor talk him into changing it. But, whatever the reason, the end result is that the dialogue in Gary's novels is not funny or clever or mellifluous in the manner of Vance, and is instead just really awkward and flat and terrible.


  1. Yeah, when I talked to him about the series he added that they would have all been different if the whole company wasn't going down the toilet. So that was eye opener especially for the first two. I, of course knew that the latter books were off in certain (Serten?) ways but I believed the first two were officially pedigreed Greyhawk. I wasn't aware of all the grief before the company crumbled into "Forgotten Kara Lancejammer" cringe.

  2. I'd forgot to add that when DRAGONLANCE came out the chatter from D&D fans around me was that DL was "official" D&D fantasy literature. TSR literally was disintegrating on a molecular level the minute Hickman and Weis were paired to put pen to paper. So Gord's adventures should have been corrective repair instead of being rushed off to the press. The correlations that never came in other products are the real stinger. No WASP'S NEST city adventure for the first book is the most obvious loss. When people diss the series straight up its kind of agitating that they can't see that it would have been so much more if D&D had continued with Gygax. Its like the people who used to come to mu open to the public games posted on bulletin boards "CLASSIC GREYHAWK FANS" immediately giving me the automatic "lip service" platitudes that this is going to be "D&D in a certain style" and I used to have to figure out a way to explain that I'm not trying to do anything in a certain style I'm just playing D&D.

  3. The disconnect between Gary-D&D and non-Gary-D&D (and the broad acceptance that the latter was "standard" and the former some kind of variant) was always frustrating when trying to play with anyone from outside my immediate circle. It actually got a bit easier as the official game drifted further and further afield, but then I got stuck in the same boat as the retroists who didn't want to hear about anything after 1979 even (especially?) with Gary Gygax's name on it, who eventually morphed into the ultra-retroists who are on a crusade to reconstruct Dave Arneson's ideas from 1971 before Gary sullied and betrayed the true spirit of the game by putting it down in writing or some such nonsense.

    I understand that as the game exploded in popularity c. 1979 and TSR was suddenly swimming in cash that Gary had to take on other duties and delegate work that he'd previously done himself to TSR's design department, and I also know that (at least the way he told it) he was sidelined from most creative decision-making by the Blumes c. 1980 so that design department didn't answer to him, and how that led to sort of parallel tracks of D&D development (well, one track of development and another track of decontextualization and watering-down) but that's hard to get across to somebody who claims to "love old D&D" but means the 1981 Basic Set, Dragonlance, and the collected works of Zeb Cook and thinks Gary "lost it" after 1979.

  4. In the alternate dimension where the Williams' tricking of Gary was foiled and the WASP'S NEST product actually existed I doubt that ARTIFACT OF EVIL would have been lacking in its own associated product. I'm guessing it would be about all the multi-layered groups (Iuz' Circle, the class based 8 sections of the Circle of 8, the Hierarch's true hierarchy, the Hierophants, Scarlet Brotherhood, etc.) because its so obvious. It would most likely have a way to construct your own. I know CITY OF GREYHAWK and SHADOWLAND were associated with the novel series. I believe there would have been a monster expansion into the planar war (which of course would not have been terminal for the world at least) and the drow business was going to be explored instead of being ignored with the Eclavdra clone.

    1. Also, the "Five Dragon Bowl" story feels like a pretty obvious tie-in to Oriental Adventures, which was advertised in Dragon magazine as being an expansion of the World of Greyhawk, which was presumably originally to have been the case. The Odd Alley/Weird Way story also feels like it was probably originally conceived as a tie-in introducing that place/concept to the game.

  5. I still moan about the letdown of OA. Everyone was so prepared for it that it truly was the day that D&D, as a reliable product to look forward to, died. They can say all they want about UA sucking. Thats a retcon. "FIVE DRAGON BOWL" might have been a DRAGON story with the release of the OA products. Geez, can you imagine a related SORCERER'S SCROLL with that? "USING ORIENTAL ADVENTURES IN GREYHAWK'S WORLD"... dream of dreams! ;)

    Thats what that GYGAX MAGAZINE should have attempted: to address the continuity of the real game instead of the shell game farce it was.

  6. I'm just finishing up Dance of Demons. I had read the first two Gord books a few years ago and never read the rest. This time around I'm getting a lot more out of them because I'm ignoring the story (which is really terrible).

    If I don't look at them like a story, but instead a quasi-campaign journal to end all campaign journals, all these little nuggets pop out. Alignment and the outer planes are detailed in great clarity. Whatever people want to argue about what the PHB and DMG say about alignment, if you read the Gord novels there will be zero doubt as to the perspective of the game's author.

    The first book, before Gygax lost control of TSR (and the only time he was in control of TSR) is interesting for its afterward where he explicitly explains certain aspects of the novels and characters in game rule terms. I really wish the later books with all the high-level game material could have received the same treatment.

    One section in the afterward that I thought was interesting however was where he discusses random encounters, and how most random encounters in the areas traveled wouldn't be with monsters (in the common sense, not the Monster Manual sense), which would be used judiciously for some extra excitement. But even the human bandits and such, the way the combats are described you can see rarely used AD&D rules in the background that act as restraints on simply charging in and hack-hack-hacking until one side falls.

    I think it's a must-read for DMs, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who didn't play the game.

  7. I recall SEA OF DEATH is the best-plotted of the novels, with some very evocative world-building and a fun cast of characters. Really I am more fond of this series than anyone should be, but I had the incredible experience of getting into Gord, Greyhawk, and OAD&D all at once, so, it’s all a jumble of awe and wonder. Even the eBay hunt itself was like a quest for lost lore.