New Releases: Desdaemona by Ben Macallan
New Releases: Sea of Ghosts by Alan Campbell

Underground Reading: Shadowdale by Richard Awlinson

Shadowdale"The Film".
"The Book of the Film".
"The Comic Book of the Film".
"The Wii Game of the Film".

This is "crossmedia" - the technique of telling the same story across multiple platforms. It is the traditional way of milking a media property for sweet, sweet money, and, by gum, it still works.

Now, owners of media properties are looking for ways to extend this further - not just more channels, but also more stories. Thus was born "transmedia"- one of the hottest buzzwords of 2011.

The Matrix is one of the best examples of this. The trilogy (which, unfortunately, means I've now referenced Matrix 2 and 3 on Pornokitsch, something I'd vowed never to do) tells one story. The animated shorts (distributed online and on DVD) tell prequels and side-stories. The Matrix Online video game continues the story further, past the end of the films. 

Star Wars and Pokemon are also exceptional examples of transmedia storytelling. They not only exist in every possible channel but also every channel (book, comic, action figure, movie, animated series, video game...) adds new, canonical content into the mix. They're not the only ones. Joss Whedon used comic books to write another "season" of Buffy, Avatar: The Video Game explored different aspects of Pandora, etc, etc. (Doctor Who is probably a definitional exception, as it eschews continuity. Nor, however, is it crossmedia. The books aren't repeating the same story as the television show, but nor do they all build into the same world.) 

In all the transmedia examples above (and many, many more), the lead has come from a Big Broadcast Media. The movie or the television show gets millions upon millions of viewers, so the media owner extends the property to slurp up more of their lovely dollars. Can a transmedia property be led by a non-broadcast channel? 

Or course. And, not that we should toot our collective horns too loudly, but genre's been doing this for years. Decades, even. Just look at role-playing games.

The Forgotten Realms is one of Dungeons & Dragons most popular campaign settings. First devised by designer Ed Greenwood, the Realms started appearing publically in Dragon magazine from 1979. In 1986, TSR, then owner of the D&D line, were on the prowl for a new world. Mr. Greenwood sold them the rights, the first campaign book came out in 1987, and, whammo, they were off and running. 

Forgotten Realms - 1st EditionThe rest, as they say, is history. The Forgotten Realms have been extant for all four-ish editions of AD&D/D&D. There are computer games - from Pool of Radiance (1988) to Baldur's Gate (1998) to Neverwinter Nights (2002, with sequels and expansions still coming...). Comic books have come and gone as well. A lucrative "spin-off" - the Icewind Dale chronicles, set in a remote corner of the Realms - has spawned the R.A. Salvatore novels featuring Drizzt, the iconic swashbuckling rogue Dark Elf, and even more video games. Characters like Drizzt and Elminster (Ed Greenwood's omniscient wizard) serve as sacred cows, meandering across multiple channels as proof of canon (in fact, if you bravely kill Drizzt in one of the video games, he appears, resurrected and irritated in the sequel). 

At the heart, of course, is the RPG. The video games, comics and books are simply ways of telling corollary adventures that all take place around the main "timeline" of the Realms, as dictated in the campaign books. This is why Richard Awlinson's Shadowdale (1989) is a fascinating example of how transmedia storytelling can tie in to the overall property.

Shadowdale is the first of trilogy that details the "Time of Troubles" in the Forgotten Realms. The big bearded overgod, Lord Ao, is pissed off. His Tablets of Fate are missing - presumably stolen by two of his own Host - and, generally speaking, he's irritated with the bickering and the self-absorption of the pantheon. As punishment, he casts all of the Forgotten Realms' gods down to the mortal realm. The gods are forced to take avatars and wander the earth in mortal form until the Tablets are returned.

For the gods, this makes a particularly confusing and unpleasant time. Over the course of Shadowdale, Mr. Awlinson shows how several immortals are adapting (or failing to do so). Although still far more powerful than ordinary humans, they're not used to "eating", "sleeping", "breathing" or "not being omnipotent". Although all of the gods, good or evil, are scared and vulnerable, they each handle the situation in different ways. Tymora, goddess of luck, sets up shop - charging for her blessing. Bane, the god of strife (and a Tablet-thief) promptly begins his mission of multi-planar conquest. Mystra, goddess of magic, scurries around to find little "repositories" of magic that she'd cleverly secreted throughout the Realms in advance. Her strategy is swiftly negated by Bane, who kidnaps Mystra and uses her as a magical battery to power his own schemes. 

Forgotten Realms - 2nd EditionIf the gods are confused, the humans are even worse off. With the fall of the gods, priests no longer have their prayers answered. "Ordinary" acts of magical healing are now completely impossible. The entire foundation of society has been swiped away. Similarly, the Forgotten Realms is a notoriously magical setting - and as a side effect of the gods' fall, magic is no longer reliable. Common spells (your garden variety leviation or fireball) no longer function as expected and often have disastrous results. Wizards, like priests, were an integral part of Realms society. But now they're cast out - the figures of suspicion and fear. They don't feel so hot about it either. Going from spell-slinger to meat-shield is a serious demotion. This is, indeed, the "Time of Troubles" - with mortals terrified, immortals vulnerable and society crumbling.

Enter our heroes. Kelemvor is the party fighter. He's a rugged, hairy manly-man with a quick temper and a big sword. Kel's suffering under a rather unusual curse which makes him an incredibly unpleasant person. He's unable to act in any purely charitable way. There's a certain amount of rules-lawyering that goes on around this, but, generally speaking, Kel's magically compelled to be an asshole.

Adon is the party cleric. Like the rest of the Realms' priests, he's undergoing a crisis of faith. His worship of Sune, the goddess of beauty, is going unanswered. Adon himself is gorgeous, annoying and incredibly shallow. At one early point in the book, Kel unleashes on him, "You can't heal. You can't throw spells. You're adequate in a fight" (57). This is a fairly accurate description, except it leaves out the fact that he's a lousy conversationalist as well.

There's also Cyric, the party rogue. He's a mysterious orphan, adopted into the Thieves Guild of a corrupt city. His master betrayed him and he was forced to kill a friend. Now, competely alone in the world, he wanders in search of purpose. Gods (or absence thereof) bless him, he's even got a hood. This shark officially jumped in 1989 and hasn't hit the ground yet.

Forgotten Realms - 3rd EditionFinally, there's Midnight, the magic user. Midnight is a follower of Mystra, and despite the "issues" surrounding her arcane power (she keeps accidentally blowing things up), Midnight has kept her faith. Midnight is also tall, gorgeous and spirited-to-a-point. She gets into a huff when Kel initially tells her that adventuring is no place for a woman, but doesn't mind being assigned "the woman's work" of making the camp and all the meals. This also includes making sweet, sweet love to Kel in what is the unlikeliest and most unromantic storyline in all fantasy. Their flirtation consists of heavy-handed sexual harassment when Kel (a thirty year old written as a twelve year old's macho fantasy) shows his interest by constantly trying to get her naked. Naturally it works, after some task or another, Midnight "pays" Kel with a kiss, and the sexin' follows. 

This is no more or less ridiculous than any of the other factors that keep the party together. They've got nothing in common. Kel's a greedy brute, Cyric is a moody one. Adon spends half his time wanging on about his (defunct) goddess and the other half continuing to wang on while failing to accomplish some basic task (e.g. "stay awake"). The attractive, talented, intelligent, powerful, connected, charismatic, strong Midnight is super-competent, but why she's following the others around is never, ever explained - especially since they initially told her to piss off and take her breasts with her.

Thankfully, we never need an explanation - Shadowdale is about the characters like a roast dinner is about the napkins. The group is railroaded from one set-piece dungeon crawl to another like an ordnance survey team on speed. Ruin to dungeon to city to dungeon to ruin to forest to ruin to city. When the skimpy excuse for a plot (I think they're trying to save Mystra?) fails, Mr. Awlinson just pushes his merry adventurers into a portal or has a teleportation spell go hideously awry. Were this an actual D&D campaign, the players would've strangled him by the second chapter. As an adventure story, it is disjointed, dysfunctional and dull.

Forgotten Realms - 4th EditionAnd that's the thing. Shadowdale is excellent conceptually. A book is a fantastic way of talking through the changes to both the setting and the system. While the protagonists meander around, the reader is learning about the world. A few casual asides help explain some of the rules changes as the Realms move from First Edition to Second Edition AD&D. For example, all the Realms' assassins mysteriously die in the second book. There's some fluffy textual explanation but, really, it just isn't a class that's supported in the new game. This is clever, creative and (potentially) fun. At worst, this is shameless (if engaging) advertising for a new product. At best, it is a seamless and tantilizing bridge that takes people through the transition.

But in order for it to work as a discrete element, the book needs to Not Suck. And Shadowdale? Shadowdale really, really sucks. As its lengthy publication history testifies, the Avatar Trilogy was (and is) quite popular. And Dungeons & Dragons is clearly still around. But as a book, Shadowdale is an awful piece of entertainment. 

As mentioned above, the book is plotted ineptly and based around four shambling, unlikeable stereotypes. Those aren't even the worst flaws. Mr. Awlinson is a 29th level Archmage of Telling Not Showing. Every pertinent personality trait or plot point is carefully picked out in nine foot high flaming letters. As an example, here's what is potentially the worst passage I have ever read:

Kelemvor took Hawksguard's hand and looked into his eyes.

"They'll pay for this," Kelemvor growled. "I will hunt them down and slay them all!"

Hawksguard grasped Kelevor's arm, smiled weakly, and shook his head. "Don't be melodramatic," he said. "This life... is too short..."

"This isn't fair," Kelemvor said.

Hawksguard coughed, and a deep spasm shook his body. "Closer," Hawksguard said. "Something you must know."

His voice had become a whisper.

"Important," Hawksguard said.

Kelemvor leaned close.

And Hawksguard told him a joke.

Kelemvor felt his lower lip tremble, but finally, he laughed. Hawksguard had driven out the thoughts of death and blood that Kelemvor felt welling up inside of him by reminding him of something he had almost lost:

Hope. (333)

The author spells out Kelemvor's feelings in pain-staking detail but doesn't even tell us the joke? Was he worried it wouldn't be funny enough? Were road-crossing chickens too anachronistic? Was the joke the persistent re-use of the word "said"? Or the actual, unironic use of ellipses in a dying man's speech? The badly-blocked movements? (Were they grasping hands and arms with the same hands and arms? Or were they fully embracing on the battlefield?) Or the fact that someone complained life wasn't fair!? Spelling aside, I can't think of a single part of this extract that goes right.

As a transmedia artifact, Shadowdale is notable and even a bit important. The book does what it sets out to do - serving as a part of a campaign to assist players (new and old) into a new system and a revised setting. It certainly beats the "flavour text" normally included in most rulebooks. However, as a volume of epic fantasy, this book is absolutely terrible. Plot, character and story are all rendered down to their bare essentials - caricature puppets bounding manically from one bullet point to the next. Mr. Rawlinson's unsubtle, ham-fisted writing style is the icing on the cake. Shadowdale's success as part of a shared-world, transmedia campaign is unquestionable. But imagine if it had actually been good?