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Friday Five: 5 Books That Read Like (Tabletop) Games

Science_Fiction_Hobby_Games_coverOne of the most fascinating books I've read lately has been Neal Tringham's Science Fiction Hobby Games. Released this May, Mr. Tringham has written an astounding survey of the world of science fiction roleplaying, tabletop, card, postal, board and war games - not just a history of the field, but an exhaustive review and analysis of all the most important games.

From Shadowrun to d20, Fighting Fantasy to Gamma World, Heroclix, Illuminati and RoboRally... no science fictional gaming stone is left ungathered. The stories about the games are fascinating, as is the careful thought about why they work (and in some cases, why they don't). 

Without further ado, I'm delighted to present Mr. Tringham's guest post on a related topic (and one very dear to my heart) - five books that read like games...

Novels licensed from games, like those spun off from films and tv series, have a poor reputation. While this view has become something of a cliché, it is a stereotype for a reason; despite such honourable exceptions as Ian Watson's Inquisitor or Kim Newman's Drachenfels, most game tie-ins are poorly executed and somewhat formulaic by the standards of the wider sf and fantasy genres. More interesting, perhaps, are the books which have been influenced by games, or whose milieux echo the fantastical universes created by the more original game designers. Here are five such works which were inspired by, or seem to be cognates of, tabletop games played with pen and paper or miniature figures.

Stephen Baxter's Exultant (2004)

While it is the second book in the Destiny's Children sequence which began with 2003's Coalescent, Exultant is only loosely connected to its predecessor. It is, however, an integral part of Baxter's overarching narrative of mankind's billenia-long war against the Xeelee, an alien species which is technologically – and, perhaps, morally – far superior to any human civilization. In this novel, the war is being prosecuted with great savagery, by a brutal regime whose goal is the total conquest of the Milky Way... and which bears a more than passing resemblance to the grimly medievalist Imperium which dominates much of the galaxy in Games Workshop's tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000. As the game's strapline says: "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war". Perhaps any Gothically dark future of endless conflict and arcane technology now reminds us of Warhammer 40,000 and its many derivatives and descendants – the Mercatoria of Iain M Banks' The Algebraist is also suggestive of the Imperium, at least for me – but Baxter's novel seems particularly evocative of Games Workshop's milieu. In this context, it is interesting to remember that Baxter's first novel was almost a Warhammer 40,000 license: the ultimately unwritten Assassin, in which an Imperial guard would have plotted the murder of humanity's Emperor.

Justina Robson, Keeping It Real (2006)

Keepingitreal The Quantum Gravity series, of which Keeping It Real is the first volume, is set on a future Earth where reality has been fractured, allowing elves, demons and other supernatural creatures from alternate planes of existence to co-exist with humanity. The book's protagonist, a cyborg known as Lila Black, soon becomes involved with the elven rock star she has been assigned to protect; various alarums and excursions follow. While the series clearly owes something to such novels of paranormal romance as Laurell K Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures, for me at least it is most evocative of FASA's pen and paper role playing game Shadowrun. In this work, first published in 1989 and still in print today, a magical Awakening occurs sometime in the twenty-first century, converting America into a kind of cyberpunk Faerie where street smart elves use computer implants to hack into gigantic corporations owned by human billionaires and ancient dragons. Shadowrun is, however, only one example of the tendency of game designers to combine elements of scientific speculation with the archetypes of fantasy, a sort of fusion fiction which – along with an emphasis on medieval futures of the type exemplified by Warhammer 40,000 – has perhaps been gaming's most prominent contribution to print sf.

Jefferson P. Swycaffer, Not in Our Stars (1984)

The pen and paper role playing game Traveller, first published in 1977 by Game Designers' Workshop, is perhaps the most consistently popular science-fictional game of its type, and one whose default setting – the "Third Imperium" – has come to epitomize a kind of space opera which has largely died out in the written genre. These works, described as "Ruritanian space operas" by Gary Westfahl in the 2003 Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, combine swashbuckling intrigue with logical problem-solving in entertaining (and occasionally profound) stories of adventure; classic examples include Poul Anderson's novels of the Polesotechnic League and the television series Firefly. Swycaffer, however, set the game of Traveller which he created for his own group of players in a universe of his own invention, that of the "Concordat".

The six novels and one collection he wrote in this milieu are therefore (unofficially) tied to the game's ruleset and invented technologies, but not to its universe of the Third Imperium, making them an intriguing anomaly in the history of game spinoff fiction. Much of the flavour of the original game is preserved in the Concordat books, perhaps most notably in The Empire's Legacy, in which a team of explorers investigate a mysteriously abandoned installation. Not in Our Stars, while not a perfect novel, is also of interest for its status as probably the first clearly science-fictional novel which was in some sense based on a game.

Fred Saberhagen, Octagon (1981)

OctagonFlying Buffalo's Starweb was the first professionally run game to be played by (physical) post. Participants sent their hand written turns in to a central address, where the results were calculated with the aid of an – in 1976, state of the art – minicomputer and sent back to the players. The subject of the game was (and is – it is still played today, though now primarily by email) a common one for later computer games: a contest between various spacefaring factions, each of which wants to dominate the galaxy. In Starweb, however, many of these groups have aims other than universal conquest. Thus one type of player needs to collect mysterious alien artefacts to win, while the goal of another is to eradicate all other life forms in the game. Members of this latter faction are called "Berserkers", as an homage to the implacably hostile artificial intelligences which fight a galactic war with humanity in the eponymous series of stories by Fred Saberhagen.

The author in turn borrowed Starweb for Octagon, in which an adolescent player of the game hacks into a supercomputer to obtain its assistance in plotting his moves, only to discover that the computer has decided to begin murdering the other participants in order to guarantee his victory. While this plot may not strike modern readers as especially credible, the novel remains interesting for Saberhagen's prescient discussions of the potential of early computer games. (The writer went on to found his own videogame development company, which created both Wings Out of Shadow, an experimental piece of interactive narrative inspired by Saberhagen's Berserker story of the same name, and Pride and Prejudice, an unusual game designed by the sf author Walter Jon Williams in which players adopt the roles of debutantes in Regency London and compete to attract the most suitable husband. Eventually, however, the company succumbed to financial problems as a result of its dependence on the fledgling Baen Software for distribution, a venture that proved less successful than its sibling, the sf publisher Baen Books.)

Raymond E. Feist, Magician (1982)

Book-Covers-for-Magician-Magician-Apprentice-Magican-Master-raymond-e-feist-5729887-573-800In the late 1970s Raymond Feist played in a Dungeons and Dragons group at the University of California San Diego. The fantasticated medieval world which the group's players created for their game was known as Midkemia, and eventually featured in a series of roleplaying supplements produced by Midkemia Press (of which the first was Cities, published in 1979). When Feist decided to become a novelist, he naturally chose Midkemia as his venue, and wrote a book – the appropriately titled Magician – about an apprentice sorcerer who becomes the first user of "Greater Path Magic". The role playing campaign in which Feist played featured an invasion of Midkemia by another world, an element which also made its way into the published novel.

In the University of California game, however, this other world was based on Tékumel, the setting for M A R Barker's tabletop role playing game Empire of the Petal Throne. Feist, unaware of this connection, went on to incorporate many elements of Barker's world into Kelewan, the source of the invasion in Magician and its various sequels. Kelewan, which features many original details as well as those indirectly borrowed from Barker, is not a copy of Tékumel, but it could be seen as something of a dim and curiously distorted reflection. Readers who find Feist's version intriguing may therefore want to go on and investigate Tékumel proper. Barker's work is remarkable for its depiction of a genuinely alien human culture, influenced by sources ranging from the society of the Aztecs to that of Moghul India but nevertheless truly original in its conception, and portrayed with an attention to detail reminiscent of Tolkien's Middle-Earth or Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia. Of the many books and games set on Tékumel, the most accessible are perhaps the two mass-market novels Barker published in the 1980s: The Man of Gold and Flamesong.

Science Fiction Hobby Games: A First Survey is available through all major online retailers, including Amazon (physical and Kindle), iTunes, Kobo and RPGNow. More information about the book (including a complete table of contents and several extracts) can be found at the publisher's site.