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:
- 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).
- 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?)
- 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.)