Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Books: The Savage Caves

"The Savage Caves" was the first in a series of D&D books released in 2002-2003, which followed the adventures of some of the more iconic characters in the D&D universe.  This book stars Regdar the fighter, Jozan the cleric, Lidda the rogue, and Naull the wizard. I can't find anywhere that says what universe this is, so I'm assuming it's the generic "Points of Light" setting they use in the Players Handbooks.

I'm generally an optimistic reviewer, so if I don't like something, you know there's a problem.  I didn't exactly dislike this book, but I can't possibly recommend it to anyone else.  It's written with the generic tone of a newspaper article, with no discernible style whatsoever.  Actually, it reminded me of the writing style used in "Choose Your Own Adventure" books (minus the choices and second person POV), so maybe they had a young audience in mind.  Even if so, I've read much more interesting children's books.

That said, it did remind me more of an actual D&D session than most books.  Most real DMs are not professional writers, and the writing style definitely made me think of the way DMs describe things.  Like the players in a D&D game, the characters use a lot of modern slang (especially Lidda).  This kind of thing bothers some people, but I'm okay with it.  This is a fantasy world, not medieval England, so I see no reason they should stick to the Queen's English.  Who's to say this universe didn't evolve slang similar to modern day America?  I already ranted on R.A. Salvatore's use of fortnight in a Forgotten Realms book, so maybe it's safer if writers avoid attempting Shakespearean English in the first place.

I didn't like some of the interactions between the female party members; there was some inappropriate giggling and sophomoric innuendo that reminded me of how boys think girls act.  It was enough to make me want to look up author "T. H. Lain" on Wikipedia to see if they were a male of female.  The answer was interesting - there is no T. H. Lain, it's a pseudonym for nine WOTC employees, in order to keep this series of D&D books shelved together.  This particular book was really written by Philip Athans, then-managing editor at Wizards.

In my "Keep on the Borderlands" review, I gave an example of characters rationalizing in-game mechanics (fighting monsters to get experience points).  But there's a line early on in the Savage Caves that really takes the cake.  While Regdar is looking for someone, it says:  "Regdar had never been trained to hide, but he had been trained to seek."  So I pulled my copy of "Dungeons & Dragons for Dummies" off the shelf, since I knew it had a level one version of Regdar in it.  Sure enough, he has Search and Spot listed as skills (though he's very low in them), and no ranking for Hide.  But wow, that's a silly sentence to put in a novel.

But that's hardly the only mention of such mechanics.  Jozan makes reference to spontaneous casting - specifically he gives Lidda a speech about how if he heals a particular creature, it will use up a potentially more useful spell he might need later that day.  Naull also makes some references to the possibility of spell failure due to trying to concentrate during battle, but these passages are actually pretty well done and make the original game mechanics that much more believable.

I thought it was fun reading about characters I'd already seen so much in the PHBs.  Their personalities were a bit one-dimensional, but that worked in a way.  It almost felt like real players were running them.  Okay, so picture those "examples of play" sections you see in every PHB.  Now imagine an entire book written in that style.  No, it's not actually that bad, but the impression was there.  I could almost see this book being adapted from somebody's session notes.

It's a bit of lost opportunity, because they could have given these characters truly unique, memorable personalities.  Instead they just play them the way any convention-goer would after picking up a pregen.  You've seen all these characters before with different names.  Lidda is basically just Tasslehoff the kender from the Dragonlance novels, and so on.  It's not such a horrible thing, but it does make the book a little bland.

My favorite character was Naull.  She seemed slightly deeper to me than the other three adventurers.  Lidda and Jozan were just too stereotypical (for their classes), and I have something of a personal grudge against the existence of Regdar (See this article).  In a magical world filled with sapient mythological creatures, the last thing D&D needed as an icon was a white, male, human fighter.  But, any time this gets to me I just look at page 297 of 4e's PHB, and then I feel a little better.

NeverWinter Nights spider
There were a few parts where I really felt the book was bad about descriptions.  Sometimes I had trouble visualizing what the author was trying to say, which is sad considering how dumbed-down the book is.  Sometimes this trouble came from missing details.  For example, early on they fight some giant spiders.  The book doesn't say how big they are, just that they're huge.  Over and over, it just describes them as big/large/huge, without saying being more specific.  So, having fought plenty of spiders in NeverWinter Nights, I pictured their size somewhere between a sheep and a cow.  But once that was firmly in my head, the spiders started climbing up someone, or hanging on to their shield, which meant they were actually closer to the size of a small dog.  But to be fair, it's possible I missed a sentence somewhere.

The final lines of dialogue in this book are so trite that... well, back in high school I used to draw (very cheesy) comic books, and I once ended a story with the exact same piece of dialogue.  But remember, "The Savage Caves" was not written by a serious author trying to create literature, so much as a marketer trying to advertise a product.  Maybe I should have gone into marketing.

Overall, I did enjoy reading the book, but that doesn't make it good.  (In fact, I'm starting to wonder just how bad a book has to be for me to give it a bad review.)  I liked this book in more of a "so bad it's good" way, like the movies you see on MST3K.  I also had fun reading it because the anachronisms reminded me of actual D&D sessions, kind of like "Knights of the Dinner Table" but not as funny.  I might still read some of the others in the series, but only if I find them very cheap.

No comments:

Post a Comment