Saturday, July 28, 2012

Drizzt Thoughts

When I got the Drizzt board game a while back, I was a little embarrassed to admit it.  It was hard to say exactly why; it just seems like there's a bit of a stigma against Drizzt fanboys.  Or if there isn't, maybe there should be.  I was looking back at some older blogs, and found one I wrote when I was still reading the Icewind Dale trilogy.  This is what I wrote:

Icewind Dale: The Crystal Shard
by R.A. Salvatore

I'm halfway through the second book in this trilogy, and so far it's pretty good. The first book, The Crystal Shard, introduces us to Drizzt Do'Urden, one of the most well-known characters in D&D lore. Drizzt is a Drow (that's a dark elf, for you non-gamers), but he's a good guy, which is rare for a Drow. Which of course, means he's an outcast - his own people think he's too nice, and other races think all dark elves are evil. Drizzt is the ultimate "fan service" character, the kind of hero Todd McFarlane would design if he wrote novels instead of comics. There is absolutely nothing about this character that isn't "cool". He fights with a pair of scimitars, he can summon a black panther, he can hide like a ninja, he knows magic, and he's nearly untouchable in battle. Even his weaknesses are badass: he's allergic to sunlight, and he's a social outcast; so he stays in the shadows and wears concealing hoods. This is exactly the kind of "ultimate" character you would design if you were a twelve-year-old boy.

That said, the book is surprisingly absorbing. Salvatore, who some might remember for killing a major Star Wars character in Vector Prime, is actually a pretty good writer. I didn't care for his Star Wars writing at the time, but here he seems to be more in his element. I think he has more freedom here, even within the boundaries of D&D's strict rulebooks, because he's using his own characters. While Drizzt is obviously Salvatore's favorite, the other characters get plenty of time to shine. They aren't nearly as deep as Drizzt (a couple of them feel like they walked right off a standard Character Sheet), but they have their moments. I do wish the book had a stronger female presence, though. The only major female character, Catti-Brie, gets very little screen time. I hope she has a larger role later in the trilogy.

If you've been wanting to try any books set in the D&D universe, I would definitely start with this one. it looks like I enjoyed the books early on, and had high hopes for the future.  After that, I kept reading them for a while, but they gradually got worse and worse.  Now Salvatore isn't the world's worst author, and obviously I found him acceptable enough (since I've read more than 20 of his books), but he does bug me sometimes.

Some specific things that get on my nerves:

1. He reuses certain annoying phrases a lot. For example, several times he describes Wulfgar's height as "closer to seven feet than to six." There's so many ways he could say the same thing - "Nearly seven feet tall", "Built like an orc", or even a literal "Six-foot-(whatever)-inches." But no, Wulfgar is perpetually "closer to seven feet than to six." It's such an eye-catching phrase. I might have thought it poetic if he'd just used the phrase once or twice and let it go, but he makes sure to use that exact phrase at least once in every book where Wulfgar appears.

He also uses the phrase "or tried to" a lot during his action scenes, in a way that undoes the bit of action you just read.  Things like, "Artemis slashed Drizzt's arm with his dagger... or tried to, but the drow was too quick." ...or... "Wulfgar smashed the ogre with his hammer... or tried to, but his hammer was deflected by the ogre's shield." ...or... "Bruenor broke out of his shackles, overcame the prison guard, escaped the evil temple, burned it down, and saved the entire world... or tried to, but the shackles were too strong."  Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the idea.  I actually enjoyed most of the Drizzt books... or tried to, but little issues like this got in the way.

2. He kills off a lot of characters I like, while constantly bringing back characters better left dead/retired. Eventually I got pretty sick of Drizzt's past constantly coming back to haunt him. It's like Salvatore mines his older books looking for characters who might have a grudge against Drizzt, so he can make them come after him. Continuity is commendable, and sometimes it's cool to see the return of a good villain, but it's also a big world out there full of brand new villains Drizzt could be fighting.

3. Okay, this is an extremely anal little nitpick, but... in one book, he uses the word "fortnight". Hey, I know, it's a medieval-esque universe, so all historical references are fair, right? Except... in the Forgotten Realms, a week is 10 days long. I just can't imagine a reason these people would have developed a word that means "14 days".

4. In the books, he doesn't give a lot of clues as to how to pronounce Drizzt's name. I hate authors who do this, because you get used to pronouncing it one way, and it's hard to unlearn it later. In at least one interview Salvatore himself has pronounced it "Drits" (which makes no sense, and may have been a slip of the tongue), and other sources say it's supposed to be pronounced "Drist".  (For more insight, see "The Ultimate D&D Pronunciation Guide" on ENWorld.)  I seem to remember a scene in one of the books that basically makes fun of readers who pronounce it "Drizzit", which is kind of a jerk move IMO.

5. He spends a lot of time going down certain tangents, only to change his mind and undo it later. I won't give examples because they'd contain spoilers. Besides, some of this can be blamed on the release of 4e. When Salvatore decided to start preparing for 4e's timeline (which meant advancing his universe 100 years), he altered a lot of plotlines so he could wrap up some of the characters' stories. So I'll give him a pass on some of it...  but it still felt like a big waste of time seeing him undo things that he'd spent entire books putting together.  And now that 5e's coming up, I do wonder if they're going to advance the timeline again, and what Salvatore will do about it.  If 5e elves still only live around 200 years, then there's only so many times they can advance Drizzt's timeline.

I could go on with minor nitpicks.  For example, Guenhwyvar seems to change sex an awful lot more than most panthers.  But I'll just say "A Wizard Did It" and move on.  Anyway, it's pretty easy for a layman like myself to criticize, dismissing all the work that goes into these books.  I don't actually think Salvatore is a bad author, though I do think he's a bit overrated.  I see the Drizzt books as the kind of cheap paperbacks you buy to read on an airplane, and never think about again.  And really, there's nothing wrong with that.

Despite all my misgivings about Drizzt, I do think he's a marketable character, and I wish the right people would realize that.  Given how GI Joe eventually became "GI Joe featuring Snake-Eyes" and the X-Men is often billed as "Wolverine and the X-Men", I seriously think Drizzt is the kind of character that could pull D&D into a more mainstream level of popularity.  Sure, D&D fans think Drizzt is already overexposed.  But I'd bet most non-gamers have never heard of him.  A lot of players would probably prefer their hobby remain underground, but personally I find it annoying to support a company that always acts like it's on the verge of bankruptcy.

My God, what have we done?
So at the risk of overpopularizing a character I don't really like, I think a well-done Drizzt movie, if seen by enough people, could make D&D a lot more popular.  Drizzt is exactly the kind of fanboy-driven breakout character that sells products.  Eventually we'd see Hasbro action figures and plastic scimitars on the toy shelves, a cartoon series, and even Drizzt candy.  I can't say it's a better world, but maybe with a better budget WOTC could do something really... interesting.

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