Thursday, December 8, 2011

Archive Thursday: My Fantasy Library - The Sleeping Dragon

There's a few posts I want to move over from the Gazette, so I've decided that Thursday is Archive Day. I don't want to overload you guys with reposts, though some of these will be old enough, that many of my current readers will be unfamiliar with them. Keeping it to one day a week, until I'm done, seems to be a decent solution. On occasion, I'll also update/tweak/revise some of these as well.

Recently, Joel Rosenberg passed away. His Guardians of the Flame series was smart, funny and action-packed. Violence in Mr. Rosenberg's series is scary, ugly and not glorious, at all. It's how these characters deal with that fact that makes them heroes.
My Fantasy Library: The Sleeping Dragon - Book 1 of The Guardians of the Flame Series

“So, let me get this straight. A group of college-aged gamers are transported to the fantasy world their GM has been running, transforming into their characters in the process?”

As old and jaded as I am today, I would probably give Joel Rosenberg’s The Guardians of the Flame series a pass. Fortunately, I was still a teenager when The Sleeping Dragon was published. When I read the review of the novel in Dragon Magazine, I thought the premise was cool as hell and picked up a copy on my next trip to the bookstore.

I’m glad I did. Mr. Rosenberg skillfully handles the difficulties inherent in the setup for his series and instead of the schlocky, juvenile story one might expect, we are treated to an intelligent and edgy fantasy adventure, with depth, humor and gritty violence.

I would imagine that most of us, at some time or another, has had a conversation with friends where someone said “Wouldn’t it be cool as hell, if we lived in a D&D world?”

When it actually happens to these gamers, they’re smart enough to know that they’re in deep shit! This point is quickly brought home, when one of the characters doesn’t even last the day, participating in their first full on “party vs. monsters” battle, where the fear and trauma of having others out for your blood and having to reciprocate the sentiment, slaps them square in the face.

The reality of mortal combat and how the protagonists cope with that challenge is an ever present theme in the series. There’s no glory, but there is heroism. Whether dealing with melee, magic swords, or wizardly combat, the action is always grounded in the chaos and blood of the battle-field. The characterization is excellent, throughout, but never more-so than when the author is presenting his character's choices, in the face of violence and its presence in their lives.

They learn, quickly, that they’re going to have to be very hardcore if they’re going to survive.

Back in the day, when my friends and I used to enjoy debating the particulars of alignment, questions like “Is it evil to kill a sleeping enemy?” would often arise. One of the main characters, Walter Slovotsky, would probably answer with one of his famous Slovotsky’s Laws. Something like:
“Slovotsky’s Law no. 123 – So long as he’s careless enough to let me sneak up on him, the bastard doesn’t have to be asleep. But it helps!”
That last was my attempt at writing a Law. Walter’s wisdom runs throughout the series, often during the character’s dialogue, sometimes as introductory quotes at the beginning of chapters. Walter’s quips provide wry humor, as well as insight into how the former college student copes with the fear and turmoil of a violent career in a dangerous world.

While still at the Student Union, Professor Deighton announces that he’s starting a new campaign, the “Quest for the Gate Between Worlds.” The player’s are each free to choose whichever character from their notebook they wish, as the new campaign is not intended for low-level play.

Walter Slovotsky starts off as a large, cocky, jock, but not stereotypically so. He’s smart, human, empathic and he games. 

I’m reminded of a friend, who played with us a few years ago. He would tell stories of how in high school, he was a jock and a “closet gamer,” never letting his jock friends know he played D&D. Not a problem for Walter, as he’s far too confident to be ashamed of his doings. Though Walter takes others’ feelings into account, he still has a problem with seeing himself as the center of universe. When he finds himself in the Eren Regions, as a Thief, still large, but with incredible dexterity and skills, the challenges he faces force him to reassess a few things.

Karl Cullinane, dilettante, unfocused, prone to lose things, is transformed into a mighty Warrior. Karl is forced to choose what kind of man and warrior he wants to be, learning to express both his will and passion. As the story progresses, he becomes a true and very human hero.

Doria Perlstein, in many ways the least equipped to deal with the situation these young men and women find themselves in, is immediately hit with a crisis that endangers the whole party. She’s the Cleric. Professor Deighton’s character levels start at “A” and run through the alphabet. At level “K,” Doria is the most powerful character in the party.

Jason Parker is the party’s second Thief, Einar Lightfingers. Alas, never choose a character who’s missing a hand, just in case…

Andrea Andropolous is the woman of Karl’s dreams. Interestingly enough, she finally agrees to accompany her would-be suitor to a game, on that particular night. Using d4’s, they roll her up a “C” level Wizard. Andrea, the person, has charisma and guts. Like the others, she has to find that which is most noble and human inside of herself, in order to meet the ordeals which lay ahead.

Lou Riccetti is an Engineering student and decides to play his character Aristobulus, a “J” level Wizard. He’s one of only two of the former gamers who actually want to stay in the world in which he finds himself. He learns soon enough that as a fairly advanced wizard, their new political environment will guarantee him a life of privilege and prestige. If, that is, he can solve one little problem.

Lastly, James Michael Finnegan plays the Dwarven Warrior, Ahira. He’s the other player who has no intention of going back. His reasons are every bit as selfish as Lou’s, but far, far more sympathetic. Not to mention, obvious. Before he and his fellow player’s cross over, he’s unanimously chosen to be the party leader.

Travelling across land, by sea, and through the desert, the party meets new friends, visits famous Pandathaway, learn secrets, encounter dangerous enemies and make tough decisions, some of momentous and far reaching importance. Ahira, as he chooses to call himself, vows to get the others home safely and ensure they find the “Gate Between Worlds.”

As the series progresses, the adventurers take on the task of changing their new world. They start a war. They also learn, that all is not as it seems and new information regarding Professor Deighton and his motivations comes to light. While much of import is going on behind the scenes, we get only tidbits and glimpses. Like the protagonists, we see things from the point of view of the trenches. Our heroes, in the theater of the campaign, are at ground zero, as it were, wading through blood and politics. We’re privy to very little of what the major Wizards, Priests and powerful, inhuman entities are really up-to. So far, after the nine books of the series I’ve read, very, very, little of what’s going on behind the scenes has been revealed.

Here and there, we get some interesting gaming tidbits. One thing the player’s never knew, until they crossed over, was that a Wizard has to “reign in,” and control the spells he has memorized. They constantly push at the back of the mind, insisting upon release. As a plot device, this is used to rather important effect, fairly early in the book. As interesting flavor for D&D games, it has some possibilities.
“He let his remaining spells cycle through his brain, making sure each one was ready and complete. Not that that was necessary; an incomplete spell wouldn’t make his mind pulse, wouldn’t push at him night and day to release it, as though it were some sort of huge sneeze, backed up in his nostrils. He could live with that, easily, in exchange for the power.”
There’s much in the series that will no doubt please old school gamers. The heroes are human, not super-heroes. The author is definitely an “Old School DM.” Even those who haven’t read the Guardians of the Flame, may have heard of Joel Rosenberg’s reputation for being willing to kill his characters. Even major ones!

As to the writing, Mr. Rosenberg’s prose is packed with style, humor and depth. I found it to be felicitous and quick.

The series runs to ten novels. If you’ve never read them, I heartily encourage you to do so. For entertaining, intelligent, violent fantasy, that’s an absolute joy to read, the Guardians of the Flame series is one of the best choices out there. It’s the first I would recommend to anyone wanting to read some D&D style fiction.