Friday, August 24, 2012

Books: Against the Giants

Last year when I was playing in the Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, I decided to go all-out by playing the computer game and reading the novel as well.  The book was a bit forgettable, but it was nice to read something that felt like an actual D&D game.  Previously the only D&D books I'd read were the first 20 or so Drizzt books.  Those were fun and all, but lets face it, they don't really feel like D&D.  Drizzt is more like a super hero than a character you'd roll up in D&D, and I can see why many gamers don't like the influence he's had on munchkin players.

But the ToEE novelization was different.  It didn't have any break-out characters who had abilities beyond their class, just the normal RPG mainstays you might see in any tabletop party.  I wouldn't call it an important work of fiction, but there are worse ways to pass the time.  So with that attitude in mind, I recently picked up "Against the Giants" by Ru Emerson.  I was actually impressed.  Okay, it still wasn't a masterpiece by any standards, but it really captured the feel of D&D and I enjoyed that a lot.  It was also a light read - I don't get to read often so books usually take me forever, but I managed to finish this one in about two weeks.

I think it was the little details that enthralled me the most.  While the action scenes were adequate, I preferred all the dungeoneering aspects - searching for traps, using noise-blocking spells to keep the fights from attracting reinforcements, preparing food, finding spots to hide for long rests, choosing spells to prepare, and so on.  There are varying motivations among the party members - vengeance, duty, treasure - which results in the occasional in-party conflict.  For example (slight spoiler), at one point the party has a huge disagreement over whether to kill a helpless enemy, and it reminded me of some of the best moments I've had in my own groups.  So while Ru Emerson might not be one of the best writers I've ever read, I'd love to have her as my DM.

My only real gripes with the story came when I start to think of it in terms of game mechanics.  I kept trying to figure out what level the group was.  They definitely weren't newbies:  They were able to take out a lot of giants with little difficulty, and the party wizard had a wide variety of decent spells.  But the main character, Lhors, was a farmboy with some training but no real combat experience.  He had the background of a level 1 character, but he managed to take out a giant with one hit fairly early in the book.  (Must have rolled a crit.)  It was believable enough in the book, but it shows exactly why it's problematic to think in gameplay rules.  Even when playing the actual game, a good DM will nudge the rules aside now and then for the sake of a good story, so I have no problem with the author taking these dramatic liberties.

Also, I hate to nitpick, but the book also had a lot of typos.  Sometimes I think I should have been a proofreader, because typos just really stand out to me.  So it's a personal beef; knowing that I'm catching things that other people were paid to catch (and still failed).  But that's just me.

Anyway, if you like D&D fiction and want a quick read, there's worse books you could try.  It might not be particularly memorable, but I found it more entertaining than any of the Drizzt books.  Next up, I'm reading the Tomb of Horrors.  I think I could get addicted to the novelizations of classic Greyhawk modules.

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