Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Barsoom Tales

I just finished reading Barsoom Tales which is a Lulu published book you can get by clicking on the title right there. It's a fascinating book; one of the most fascinating I've read in a long time (even though I've actually read it before) and for an unusual reason. See, Barsoom Tales presents itself as a novel. It's got fictional characters, in a fictional setting, has a plot, has dialogue; everything you'd expect from a novel. But it isn't really one.

It's a game report. It's an entire "season" of some guy's D&D game. That guy is actually Corey Reid, a good online friend of mine. It's been novelized, after a fashion. It was done so quite some time after the fact, when memory of the details of the game itself were a bit hazy. It's been purposefully changed and edited somewhat to make it more readable. It's got interludes and fillers where we see NPCs doing their thing, to make the story itself a bit more presentable. All features that come from novel writing--although in many ways, these don't always work as well as the stuff that came directly out of the game itself (I'm in particular thinking of the NPCs who sat around in the cafe in Chimney in the first section. I never really latched on to that part of the story, and was glad when it was over. Although it did end up becoming kinda neat as a framing device.)

But its roots as a game session are still quite clear. The dialog feels more like some guys (and gals) sitting around a table playing D&D, not carefully crafted wordsmithing. The plot doesn't really feel like a novel's plot in many ways, reflecting the way strange things can happen in games (main characters dying unexpectedly, for instance, because of a blown saving throw or just bad rolls. Or sudden turns as the players go haring off in some unexpected direction.) And for this reason, I think it's a fascinating read. Well, also because it is a pretty good story too; but I especially think D&D players will enjoy it.

A few notes. Corey's game used something he called "swash cards." He wrote these; about 100 or so cards that each had a modest benefit on them. He shuffled and dealt (some of) them at the beginning of each session, and the players could play them. One of the cards made an NPC fall madly in love with the PC. The player played this card when he was introducing (meant to be nothing more than a quick aside; a "look at this crazy character, who's going to threaten you" kind of character. Who didn't even have a name) the Demon Goddess; one of the nastiest, most potent villains that the setting was meant to have. Imagine having, out of the blue, Loki fall in love with your character. Except that instead of Loki's mischiviousness for most of the myths that he appears in, it's Loki from the end of the mythology. Loki from Ragnarok, intent on destroying the gods and all creation. Needless to say, that sent the campaign in a very unexpected direction, and Corey says he really had to scramble to keep up with that as a development. In many ways, this slice of the campaign (which actually continued long after this story ended) is the story of that NPC and her dealings with the PC party. Although she doesn't even show up until halfway through.

Secondly, Barsoom. It's not Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, it's his own creation that just borrows the name. But it feels a lot like Barsoom in many ways. The Kishak race are clearly the red men of Mars. Banths make an appearance. Domesticated dinosaurs are commonplace. And although it used D&D rules (3e), they are quite expurgated in most respects; characters could essentially belong to the rogue, fighter, or expert classes. And that was all. There wasn't supposed to be any supernatural on Barsoom. No magic. No psionics. No monsters. Etc. That turned out to be... well, not quite so true after all, but that's how it started anyway.

In fact, the supernatural on Barsoom is very strongly reminiscent of the supernatural in Glen Cook's Black Company books. There are a handful of sorcerers. But they are serious sorcerers. Compared to a D&D wizard or sorcerer, these guys are epic. They're like The Ten Who Were Taken, only more independant, and more paranoid.

When I met Corey online and he started describing his version of Barsoom to me, it was eerily similar to some of the ideas I was simultaneously working up that could fairly be called the earliest version of the DARK•HERITAGE setting. Although I was aware of the Black Company, I hadn't read them until after I read Barsoom Tales. The grim, dark fantasy of the the Black Company, as well as the terrifying reality of magic in such a setting, really clicked with me (even if I struggled with Glen Cook's voice for a while) and was an obvious direction for me to take too, given where I was to the time with my own tastes. But I saw it in Corey's Barsoom first.

And on a less dramatic note, having the heroes of the story (and many of the NPC's from the first section in particular) have a kind of Rennaissance Spanish flair to them was another big click for me; I actually speak Spanish (I lived in Argentina for a few years as a teenager) but I'd somehow never thought of using any Mediterranean influence in my fantasy until discovering Barsoom. My own Terrasan Empire clearly has some superficial similarities to Corey's Saijadan, and not coincidentally.

Anyway, I'd recommend this to anyone who's a gamer. Not because it's a great novel, because it's not. I don't even know that it really is a novel. But because it's a great write-up of an RPG campaign. It's also a great example of what fantasy RPG campaigns could aspire to, if they remember to quit trawling around aimlessly in random holes in the ground.

1 comment:

barsoomcore said...

Hey, thanks Joshua! I'm really glad you enjoyed the "novelization" -- or as I like to say, "inspired by actual imaginary events". I appreciate the thoughts and the input.