Review Round-up: Apocalypse Now, Now and No Return
Nine Worlds and Porno/Kitschiness

Friday Five: 5 (More) Books that Read Like Games

Neal Tringham, author of the terrific Science Fiction Hobby Games was our guest for Friday Five two weeks ago, talking about books with connections to tabletop games. Without further ado, here's Neal again, with five more books with connections to the world of gaming...

Wild cardsIn a previous post I made here, I wrote about books I found intriguing that were not licenses from tabletop games, but were (or might have been) inspired by them. Once I'd finished the piece, however, I kept finding more novels that I wanted to talk about... and Jared has generously offered me a chance to write about them. So here are five more examples of books with links to pen and paper role playing games (or RPGs) and board and counter wargames. Unlike the first group, some of these works are set in milieux created by game designers – though typically the inventors of the game-worlds are also the authors of the novels I discuss – and one was not influenced by a game at all, but merely looks as if it was. But all of them, I believe, are interesting, though sometimes more for the stories of their origins than for the qualities of the books themselves.

George R. R. Martin (editor), Wild Cards (1987)

In the early 1980s George R. R. Martin was part of a role playing group in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one which also included the sf and fantasy writers Walter Jon Williams, Victor Milán and Melinda Snodgrass. In 1983 they began a role playing campaign which used the rules of Superworld, an early superhero-based game designed by Chaosium, with Martin taking the role of gamemaster, in charge of creating the world within which the other participants played their parts. The shared story constructed in the Superworld game rapidly became an absorbing experience for all of them, and especially for Martin; he later wrote that "it ate my life". For over a year, Martin's creative energies were focused almost entirely on Superworld, and hardly at all on his own writing. Eventually, however, the need to make money – and perhaps also the gradual desensitization to the role playing experience felt by many long term participants – led him to wonder if he could somehow arrange for professional publication of the characters and stories he and his fellow writers had created in the game.

Inspired by such contemporary "shared world" anthologies as the Thieves' World series, invented by Robert Asprin in 1979, Martin put together a proposal for a sequence of "mosaic novels", written by many writers in collaboration, set in a world where superheroes were common and using many of the characters from the game. This idea eventually became Wild Cards, a series which began with the eponymous book and has now reached its twenty-second volume. Neither the world nor the superheroes are quite the same as they were in the original campaign – the alien virus which was released in the first book, making a few people superhuman while afflicting many with harmful mutations and leaving most unaffected, did not appear in the role playing version, for example – but the story of the novels' genesis remains an impressive testimonial to the power of tabletop RPGs to foster the creation of deeply felt and personally meaningful narratives.

David Weber and Steve White, Insurrection (1990)

InsurrectionStarfire is a tabletop wargame, played with cardboard counters on paper maps, originally published in 1979 by Task Force Games as a companion to their better-known Star Fleet Battles which – unlike that latter work, which was inspired by the Star Trek tv series – could be set in its own original milieu. The military sf author David Weber became involved with the game early in its development, as the designer of the 1982 supplement Starfire III: Empires; his first professionally published work of fiction was a short story set in the Starfire universe and included in the July 1984 issue of Task Force Games' in-house magazine, Nexus. Weber ultimately became the primary designer of the game, responsible for the 1992 third edition which represented conflicts between expanding stellar empires in a remarkably all-encompassing (and potentially quite time-consuming) fashion. Meanwhile, Weber had begun writing novels with Insurrection, the story of a rebellion by human colonists against their oppressive rulers which occurs early in the future history he had developed for the game.

Novelist and game have now parted company; Starfire was sold to the Starfire Design Studio in 1997 and its most recent edition abandons Weber's universe entirely, while the writer became famous for his "Honorverse" novels beginning with 1993's On Basilisk Station, eventually leaving further developments in the Starfire milieu to his collaborator White and such additional co-authors as Shirley Meier and Charles Gannon. Nevertheless, aficionados of Weber's earliest stories of war in space may wish to look for The Stars at War, a "non-fact" book on the game's future history written by Weber and published by Task Force Games in 1993 (not to be confused with The Stars at War, a 2004 omnibus volume reprinting two of the later entries in the novel series.)

Hugh Walker, Reiter der Finsternis (1975)

Reiter der FinsternisIn 1967 two European fantasy enthusiasts, Hubert Straßl and Eduard Lukschandl, created a strategic wargame known as Armageddon, whose battles were fought with miniature tokens on a hexagonal board. This game was (and still is today) played by an Austrian fan group known as the "Fellowship of the Lords of the Lands of Wonder", who have used it to create a shared history of their own private fantasy world, the setting of the game. Armageddon eventually inspired a better-known (though still obscure) work called Midgard, created in the UK from 1973 by a group led by the sf fan Hartley Patterson; this latter game is especially notable for its early invention of many concepts used in later role playing games, including predefined roles for different types of character, numerical measures of magical power and an exceptional freedom of agency for its players.

Unlike its contemporary Dungeons and Dragons, however, the rules of Midgard never achieved a final form, and no attempt was made to sell it; most of its participants instead became enthusiastic players of D & D as soon as TSR's game was made available. In the meantime, however, Straßl had begun writing a series of novels in which a player of Armageddon is transported into its game-world, of which the first was the German-language Reiter der Finsternis (published as by Hugh Walker, and translated into English in 1978 as War-Gamers' World). The book itself is unexceptional as a work of fantasy, but remains of interest for its status as perhaps the first ever professionally published novel set in a world which was originally developed in a game.

Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives (2004)

Atrocity ArchivesThe Atrocity Archives (originally published as The Atrocity Archive in Spectrum SF magazine from 2001 to 2002) is a novel in which present-day humanity is defended against Cthulhoid monstrosities by agents of a secret organization descended from Britain's supposedly disbanded World War II-era Special Operations Executive. Delta Green, first published in 1997, is a supplement for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu pen and paper role playing game in which contemporary operatives of a rogue intelligence operation, founded in the 1930s after the events of H. P. Lovecraft's novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth but eventually disowned by the US government, battle the squamously rugose and noisomely non-Euclidean entities of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.

The influence might seem obvious, especially when we consider that Stross' first published work was a monster for a role playing game, described in a piece included in White Dwarf issue 12 (April/May 1979) and later reprinted in revised form in TSR UK's 1981 compilation the Fiend Folio. (Stross' invention, the "githyanki" – named after an alien species appearing in George R. R. Martin's novel Dying of the Light – are a race of curiously evolved humans who live on the Astral Plane in the Dungeons and Dragons multiverse, and still appear in the game today.) Stross, however, has denied having any knowledge of the game when he wrote The Atrocity Archive; his role playing days, it seems, ended not long after they began. The correlation between Stross' Laundry and Delta Green's eponymous agency is thus one that does not imply causation; perhaps Cthulhiana and spycraft simply go together, like blasphemous miscegenation and decaying seaside towns, making this sort of parallel evolution inevitable.

Andre Norton, Quag Keep (1978)

Quag KeepThe medieval fantasy world of Greyhawk was the setting for the prototype sessions of Dungeons and Dragons run by Gary Gygax, the primary designer of its rules, and was thus the first milieu in which the game was officially played. (It was not, however, the first universe in which a role playing game was set; that honour belongs to Blackmoor, the venue for games run by the other creator of D & D, Dave Arneson. Arneson was not playing Dungeons and Dragons as such, however, but rather a kind of informal precursor in which he invented much of the structure of a tabletop role playing game, but not in a form which could readily be printed and used by others.) However, while the rules for Gygax and Arneson's game were made available to customers in 1974, the worlds in which its creators played were largely left undescribed. Predesigned scenarios for "Dungeon Masters" to play through with the other members of their group which were set in Greyhawk began appearing in 1978 with Gygax's Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, followed by such iconic works as Tomb of Horrors and Queen of the Demonweb Pits. However, a full description of the milieu in role playing terms was not provided until 1980, in The World of Greyhawk folio. Quag Keep, a novel set in Greyhawk as conveyed to Norton by Gygax, is thus one of the earliest depictions of Gygax's world still extant. It is also the first novel ever written which employs the universe of a role playing game as its venue.

The book itself is an excellent example of Norton's well-crafted adventure writing, displaying both her feel for character and her enthusiasm for the natural world. The protagonists visit many of Greyhawk's most famous locations, from the city of Greyhawk – a metropolis which echoes the settings of many fantasy novels, but seems especially reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar – to the Sea of Dust, a desert of fine ash which sometimes acts more like a liquid than a solid, created by a rain of magical fire and perhaps somewhat inspired by Arthur C Clarke's novel A Fall of Moondust. Norton also uses a device which has since become something of a cliché, but which is arguably original to this book, that of a group of tabletop RPG players who are sucked into the game, becoming their characters. Ultimately, the first novel based on a role playing game may still be one of the best.

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