Paksenarrion’s Deed & Renaming the Village of Hommlet

I’m reading, and enjoying, Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy. I got started on it by reading the first book, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. You can read that one for free online; this is savvy of Baen Books because you’ll then want to pick up the omnibus of the three-book trilogy, which I did at a used bookstore in the San Juan Islands. (Sadly,  forgetting my passport prevented me from visiting Red Box Vancouver.)

So as I’m reading the middle book in the trilogy, originally published as Divided Allegiance, there’s a section where our hero, Paksennarion, has captured some bandits who have been hiding out in a small keep. One of them is describing their miserable lot – they were often so hungry that they even tried to catch and eat a giant frog from the moat. A lightbulb appears above my head: giant frog + moathouse = T1: The Village of Hommlet.

In the comments to Grognardia’s retrospective on this module,  Rob Conley says he recognized that Moon’s town of Brewersbridge was Hommlet just from the directions Paksenarrion takes to walk from Jaroo the druid, aka the Kuakgan to the Welcome Wench, aka the Jolly Potboy. This indicates to me that Rob knows his classic AD&D modules better than I do, and is also better with spatial relationships and maps, neither of which are surprising. Here are some other often unsurprising observations:

  1. Deed of Paksenarrion is the best novelization of a D&D campaign I’ve ever read. The episodic, zany, picaresque Maze of Peril is better at showing what it’s actually like to have played D&D with J. Eric Holmes back in the day. The oddly disjointed, stuffed with too many protagonists Quag Keep does the same for playing with Gary Gygax, and has the advantage that while Moon’s changes to Greyhawk lore can be purely attributed to filing off the serial numbers, aka poetic license (either authorial or Dungeon Mastery; it’s not clear to me yet how Moon was involved in D&D), Norton’s might well reveal a pre-Folio archaeological layer. But when it comes to showing what D&D would be like if it weren’t a game, but rather a moving and intelligent story told about your character with an epic sweep, Paksennarion’s Deed is unparalleled in my experience. Her thoughtful handling of the religion and morality of her paladin PC hold their own against Gene Wolfe’s Patera Silk in Book of the Long Sun and Abel in The Wizard Knight, which is high praise, and her evocation of medieval military life and tactics (for which the book was first recommended to me) feels spot on; like Wolfe and David Drake (or J.R.R. Tolkien), Moon draws on her own experiences of military service. This item is becoming over-long, but the last thing I wanted to underline is that Paksenarrion’s Deed succeeds by any standards, not just “good for a RPG novelization” (Robin Wayne Bayley’s Nightwatch, I’m looking at you).
  2. Perhaps understandably given that last sentence,  Moon does not appear eager to be painted with the RPG-novelization brush. Or maybe it’s just that she didn’t have permission to do a novelization of Temple of Hommlet. Her discussion of the literary sources for the Paksennarion books referenced at Wikipedia mentions D&D as well as many other interesting citations, but not the specific Gygax module she’s clearly working from. (Possibly she only experienced it as a player, and thus wasn’t aware of its provenance?)
  3. Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Horrors, I know, and I shouldn’t complain because how awesome is it to have a magic encyclopedia in my pocket that has entries about the nerdiest things I could wish? Still, this just ain’t true:  “A number of people[who?] have pointed out resemblances between the story setting and Dungeons & Dragons, in particular alleged similarities between Moon’s town of Brewersbridge and Hommlet (a village in The Temple of Elemental Evil module for AD&D) and between Moon’s religion of Gird and the faith of Saint Cuthbert of the Cudgel in Greyhawk.[citation needed] However, such themes may often be similarly found in many brands of high fantasy, and are not unique to any one fictional world.” The correspondences here are much more specific than just “this fantasy novel has orcs, and so does D&D”. I’m hoping grodog or somebody may be inspired to go through and list them all – it’d be an interesting exercise – but we’re talking about specific fight scenes in Divided Allegiance whose opponents and sequencing are the same as combats you’d encounter while following the dungeon key in Temple of Hommlet.
  4. I don’t think it’s taking anything away from Moon to say that Divided Allegiance is a testament to Gygax as a storyteller, just as I think Gygax’s reputation can survive my saying that his modules show that better than his novels. The story that Moon tells about Paksenarrion’s adventures in the moathouse proves that what Gygax set forth in sixteen pages is, like Edgar Allan Poe’s invention of  detective fiction in “The Speckled Band”, a great and lasting template from which others can cast works of virtue. That’s not news to any of the thousands of gaming groups who’ve had great experiences in Hommlet, but it’s interesting that it can be true for a novel as well as actual play.
  5. In the back cover blurb for Paksennarion’s Deed, Judith Tarr says “This is the first work of heroic high fantasy I’ve seen that has taken the work of Tolkien, assimilated it totally and deeply and absolutely, and produced something altogether new.” I’d say that the thorough mulching of Tolkien’s work by D&D, mixing it up in a big syncretic brew with minotaurs and flying carpets and Baba Yagas that everyone then drinks and pisses out into the groundwater with its active metabolites intact, was the key step in that assimilation.

So here’s the thing with specific gaming relevance I want to talk about, dropped out of numeric order in case you were skipping over all those. How do you feel about the practice of renaming things when it comes to gaming?

In a novel, the renaming works because making the familiar seem strange sets up an aha moment; recognizing that a Kuakgan is a druid, and a hool is an ogre, is like the head of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. Moon is good at names that have their own resonance, and by tying them to D&D archetypes she gets to borrow their thunder while avoiding their limitations. An ogre starts out predictable and has to be made surprising; a hool reserves the right to veer out of known territory whenever it pleases.

Have you experienced this working well in actual play? You don’t need DM of the Rings to know that roleplayers will gleefully trample all over many novelistic effects. I’m certain that at a certain point, players will stop saying “Let’s go see the Kuakgan” and start referring to him as a druid. But is there nevertheless a residual benefit if the DM, and especially the NPCs, can continue using the exotic names to cloak the familiar D&D bones? (For me, this may be of academic interest only; experience suggests I am as likely to slip back into calling a smeerp a rabbit as are the players.)


14 Responses to “Paksenarrion’s Deed & Renaming the Village of Hommlet”

  1. 1 James Nostack
    September 11, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    I’ve never re-named monsters, but BY GOD I hate Bad Fantasy Name Syndrome. Proper names are absolutely vital to good characterization IMO, whether PC or NPC, because those names are, in one sense, a bit of mechanics: it’s literally a reference from the table-top to the imaginary world. Even if you’re not speaking IC, the character’s name is sort of like the token in Monopoly. (I actually went through an entire campaign setting renaming everybody once.)

  2. September 11, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Agree that Bad Name Syndrome sucks. I’m not particularly good at names, which is why I use the random renamer at behindthename.com as a crutch; the fact that some real person gave a name to their kid at some point in history provides a level of insurance against the syndrome.

    However, you could argue that at some point once-good names become degraded. I think “rogue” is ultimately a better word for a character class based on the Grey Mouser and Cugel the Clever, but I insist on using “thief” because “rogue” has, in my mind, been dragged down by its recent gaming associations.

    Your point that the name for a thing is the token players manipulate is a good one. Maybe the way to look at it is that using the name the rules give makes the players’ token correspond to mechanics, while using a made-up name encourages them to interact with the imagined world? This explains the slip towards the rules-name; as a DM, I tend to slip and say “elemental” instead of “transparent brain-thing” when I’m narrating combat mechanics, because that’s when I’m using tokens at that level.

  3. September 11, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    I agree that this is a great series, and Moon just completed a fourth book that came out this year. There’s also a couple of prequels showing how Gird became a saint. According to Moon, she began writing the series as a story to cheer up her friends’ son, who was depressed when he and his family moved away.

    Minor nitpick: You mention “David Drake (whose Janissaries and King David’s Spaceship I read on the same recommendation)”–Jerry Pournelle actually wrote those two books; Drake wrote the Hammers Slammers series and is well known for his military science fiction; he also wrote the Lord of the Isles fantasy series and just started a new fantasy series based on Rome.

  4. September 11, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Quite true! I’ll change the post; I did read the Pournelle as part of the same medieval tactics recommendations, while I’d read Drake’s early stories like “The Mantichore” while going through the heroic fantasy reading list (incl. the Swords Against Darkness anthologies) in Ron Edwards’ Sorceror and Sword. I haven’t been able to get into Lord of the Isles; maybe one of these days I’ll manage to penetrate the first few chapters.

    Since Gird = St. Cuthbert, the sequel you mention should be an interesting take for Greyhawk fans like myself!

  5. September 11, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    I think names are essential. Especially place names. The key seems to be make them abstract enough to fit into any different DM’s conception of a campaign world, but flavorful enough that they are evocative. Keep on the borderlands is a classic example. Necropolis, Tomb of Horrors, Waterdeep, all great. Ptolus sounds like a bird disease to me.

    Also love the Moon series. Best depiction that I’ve read of how paladins and clerics might actually work in a world.

  6. September 11, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    The oddly disjointed, stuffed with too many protagonists Quag Keep does the same for playing with Gary Gygax, and has the advantage that while Moon’s changes to Greyhawk lore can be purely attributed to filing off the serial numbers, aka poetic license (either authorial or Dungeon Mastery; it’s not clear to me yet how Moon was involved in D&D), Norton’s might well reveal a pre-Folio archaeological layer.

    I asked Gygax about this back when he was alive and responding to questions on ENWorld, and he said that while he did supply Norton with information on Greyhawk, that all of the unfamiliar additions to the setting in Quag Keep were Norton’s own inventions.

  7. September 12, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Interesting. I am reading this trilogy myself right now :)


  8. 8 Invincible Overlord
    September 12, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    I just printed a few chapters of the first book out and I’m liking it immensely. Especially after spending a while in Borders earlier today, trying to find a fantasy series that wouldn’t intensely irritate me with nth generation cosmology before I could get into the characters. Moon gets things off to a cracking good start, then continues at a brisk pace into military training that reminds me of Heinlein juveniles. Knowing that she’ll be getting to Fauxmmlet soon enough is great.

  9. September 20, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    I absolutely loved Paksenarrion. It’s one of my favorite fantasy trilogies.

    Elizabeth Moon is actually open to the fact that Paksenarrion is based on D&D. She apparently was involved in a D&D campaign and was extremely dissatisfied with how paladins were being played, and she decided to write a novel that showed how a paladin “ought” to be.

    If you go back to some of the older Wikipedia pages, you’ll see this version recounted.

    I’m not sure who decided to “correct” Wikipedia to claim Paks has nothing to do with D&D, but it’s absurd, as the author quote a few paragraphs down actually says her paladin is based on D&D.

    In short, the resemblance to the village of Hommlet is far more than coincidental. Elizabeth Moon did what so many others have aspired to do, and failed – she wrote great fantasy fiction based on a D&D campaign.

  10. September 20, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks! I did think the Wikipedia entry was strange – as it reads now, it seems to be trying to say that she was inspired by the way paladins were played in D&D, as if she’d just heard people talking about it at a SF con or something.

    I’m in the third book now, well out of Hommlet territory, still enjoying it very much. The scenes of her quest to investigate a mystery in the past:
    – continue to remind me happily of Gene Wolfe’s religious heroes Father Patera and Severian, and one of their likely ancestors, Chesterton’s Father Brown
    – are, given the size of the three-volume omnibus, entirely suitable for smacking all the people who say a paladin’s detect evil ability ruins detective story plots upside the head

  11. September 20, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Man, you’re making me want to re-read the series. It was so good. It also demonstrated how well you can integrate magic, healing, and magic items and yet retain a functional medieval society. The way in which the average soldier interacts with clerical healing and magic was really well handled.

  12. October 7, 2010 at 9:35 am

    Stumbled across your post and thought I would drop this in here for you. This last month Baen re-issued the Omnibus of the two prequel novels, Legacy of Gird and pick it up and read. The first novel tells how Gird grew up, how he became the leader of a rebellion, how he met Luap and how that plays out to his death. The second book is written from Luap’s perspective from shortly before Gird’s death until you learn how the “sleeping knights” in Luap’s stronghold got there. Word of warning if you get this omnibus, do not read the second book before finishing all of the Deed of Paksenarrion Omnibus, because there is something in it that will spoil part of the third book in Deed.

    Also back at the end of May Elizabeth Moon came out with a new Paks book: Oath of Fealty

    She has just completed the next one after that to be released on March 22, 2011: Kings of the North and is working on the third.

    You can find the details about that at her Paksworld blog and site and ask her how Paks came about there:

  13. September 10, 2014 at 5:25 am

    I really like what you guys tend to be up too. Such clever work and exposure!
    Keep up the great works guys I’ve added you guys to our

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