Posted by: markfender | December 24, 2014

Steven Erickson as a GM

Steven Erickson has not hidden the fact that the Malazan Empire novels were based on a RPG.

MalazanCollectionAnd that’s exactly why they’re difficult.

When someone writes a 10-book fantasy series, there’s usually a plot that carries through all the novels. That’s not exactly true for Malazan. Yes, there are reoccurring characters and common threads. The struggle against the Crippled God runs through many of the novels, but he’s not always the bad guy. I certainly wouldn’t call each novel “standalone,” because there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that wouldn’t make any sense if you hadn’t read the previous books, but each novel generally tells a complete story, almost as if it was one campaign in the same world. But, the Malazan Empire novels are not a typical fantasy series. They read to me like someone who created a fantasy world, rather than a fantasy story.

And that’s pretty much what gamers are known to do. They create a fantasy world for their favorite game and run a campaign. Later, they might decide to run another campaign set in that same fantasy world. They might skip a chunk of time, or move the new campaign to a different section of their world. They create elaborate maps. They detail the history of their world in between games. If you’re a gamer, you’ve probably met that one guy who always runs his games in the same fantasy world that he’s created.

And that’s Malazan. Granted, the history of the world is more well-realized than some others home campaign worlds I’ve seen. That’s probably has much to do with Erickson’s and Esselmont’s training as anthropologists. The cultures that arise from the ashes of previous civilizations feel realistic, not to mention the sheer detritus of previous civilizations scattered across the world. Races can be traced up a family tree of other races to their progenitors. And, to their credit, all of this history does have an impact on the novels. It probably doesn’t matter that the Imperial Warren is the ashes of a previous world destroyed by the Elder Gods, but Erickson inserts enough details to make that particular historical event a cool moment of color (even flashing back to that world’s destruction).

You can also see the “first principles” they started from. The Elder Races are Dark Elves, Light Elves, Grey Elves, and Orcs. Of course, they put their own twist on them (The Orcs, in particular, actively play against the usual orc tropes. Instead of organizing into hordes and acting as cannon fodder for PCs to carve through, they tend to be solitary creatures with enough power to crush civilizations), but the origins are obvious. Other typical fantasy game tropes are evident: I can practically see the GURPS magic system in the Warrens (Again, Erickson and Esselmont put enough color into it to make it a unique thing, including more of that historical context they love so much with the Warrens “evolving” through several iterations).

Other authors have used their RPG worlds for novels, of course. But I think the difference is in the approach. Most authors start with a plot, figure out how to stretch it across three novels, and then write their story. Malazan wasn’t built for a story. It was built to be a living, breathing world, that just so happens to have many stories in it. That means that the novels aren’t necessarily in the same vein as other fantasy novels. Yes, Erickson can write well-detailed characters, describe both sorcery and action with a deft pen, and plot well enough, but the fundamental principles behind all of those things is that the story may end, but the world does not. And that’s why you don’t have such a clear through line between the novels. That’s why some books take place on entirely different continents with none of the same characters as previous novels.

Malazan also bears the common “stink” of the co-GMed world. I’ll admit that this annoys me. I was five novels into the series before Esselmont got his book contract…the contract that inserted other stories in between the ones Erickson was writing. If I had known that this 10-book series was about to become a 15-book series split between two authors, I probably would not have bothered reading them. It doesn’t help that Esselmont is not as good a writer as Erickson. I have always read for authors and don’t always see the appeal in franchises. I gave Esselemont a shot, but stopped quickly enough.

With this new author on the scene, you can start to see even more GMing tricks in the books. They pass NPCs back and forth. Dassem Ultor walks off the last page of Erickson’s book, only to appear on the first page of Esselmont’s next book. By the end of that novel, he’s passed back into Erickson’s purview for his next novel (He also seems to accumulate titles as he walks from book to book, gathering more and more badassesness around him until he’s killing gods in every other story). They both obviously love Dassem Ultor and can’t seem to keep him out of their plots. Having pretty much stuck exclusively to Erickson’s books, Ganoes Paran teleports between continents at one point, with no explanation. Guess I didn’t read Esselmont’s book that details his journey.

I don’t think an author telling one story across your typical fantasy series would allow this. But I’ve totally done the same thing when co-GMing a game and don’t see any problem with it in that context. If you’re just telling a bunch of stories within one shared fantasy world, it makes sense to pass NPCs around. But it’s not usually done in novels.

The real question, after all of this, is: Would Erickson be a good GM? I’m torn. From the type of stories he tells, he’s got some good points and some bad ones. He strikes me as a GM who will let your character be awesome. Gardens of the Moon is about a small group of four friends in one city playing a political game. It’s a small-scale story that quickly escalates to involve Elder Gods, regular Gods, Ascendants, dragons, an invading empire, and an ancient evil reawakened. All of these pieces interact with each other on pretty much the same level. Likewise, Memories of Ice has some caravan guards get involved in world-shaking events. Erickson is quick to invent ways that disparate power levels can operate on an equal footing. Again, to use Gardens, Paran manages to wound a Hound of Shadow, the direct servant of a god, with his sword, whereas his two hundred-year old mage companion can only keep it at bay. Paran is just a normal guy (at this point), but his sword was sort-of blessed by a different god, and so now he can act as a credible threat to the real power players. This is one example amongst many. One of the prevailing themes of Malazan is that the gods get trumped by humanity all the time. If I was a player in that world, that would be pretty cool. It’s also nice that, while my small band of PCs goes about this political story, we get drawn into world-shattering events. This is another common thing that happens in the Malazan novels and that’s pretty cool from a player’s perspective. As a GM, Erickson will tell an epic story involving ordinary people catapulted to greatness. That sounds like a good basis for a campaign and one that I would probably enjoy.

Unfortunately, Erickson is super-fond of back story. In his books, things will suddenly just happen that don’t seem to have an context. They do have context – you’re just not privy to it. Because it involves 300,000 years of history, the world has had numerous ages where factions rose and fell. So, when an Elder God shows up in town and attacks another god, that event can seem surprising and out of left field (especially if our little roleplaying group was just trying to get our friend back on the city council). If I knew the back story for everything, I would be a lot more excited about seeing this event take place. So, this could be a good or bad point in his GMing style, depending on my own knowledge of what’s going on.

He’d also be one of those GMs who would refuse to tell your character anything. Because his NPCs are not going to explain basic facts that everyone is privy to, like who that ancient god reawakened is, or what they’re even doing there. Every character in the books acts as if everyone else already knows the same information they know, which means explanations aren’t fast-coming. He’d probably do the same thing when he GMs. Speaking as a GM who also does that, it can be super-annoying.

You’ll note that I didn’t really talk about whether Erickson is actually a good author. That’s something entirely different, I think. But, his approach to the stories he’s going to tell is different from most fantasy authors and it can definitely seem strange.


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