One of the things I brought back from Gencon was this book by Jonny Nexus, Gamenight. Just a regular novel, albeit an independently published one. I’m normally not looking for fiction at a gaming convention (there are other places for that), but this particular book ended up in my possession in a special way: Gregor Hutton, a rpg designer and acquaintance, recommended the book and all but insisted that we should visit the author’s booth. (We = me and my brothers) The booth was the first time I heard about the novel; as I understand it, the idea was for us to check if we’d like to retail the book here in Finland. Fiction is not really our line of business, but the author graciously gifted us with a copy of the book anyway. He even signed it. That’s happened to me a couple of times with roleplaying games, but it did surprise me here, as I didn’t know off-hand what to do with the book and why he gave it to us with no expectation of recompense.
Be that as it may, I did feel a bit responsible for having received the book without paying for it, even if it was a gift. As far as I knew, there might have been some sort of social expectation of reciprocation that I didn’t catch. So instead of just forgetting about the book I decided that I might as well review it here at my blog; the review is not very positive, but I think it does give an honest picture of the book for those who are looking for this sort of thing.
SPOILER WARNING: I’ve been told that revealing a book’s plot in a review is not acceptable, so proceed carefully if you’re worried about that sort of thing. The review has garnered some other discussion as well, so I recommend checking the elaborations post before trusting in anything I say here.
(The cover of the book is by Jon Hodgson, by the way. Looks pretty nice, although there’s relatively little harmony with the contents here.)
As a novel Gamenight is very high-concept, you can describe its idea in one sentence: a bunch of vaguely defined fantasy gods play an epic fantasy rpg (presumably linked to a “real” world that is being created and recreated by the actions of the gods) and we get to laugh at how bad they are at it. Gamenight delivers exactly what it promises on the cover. Reviewing the book takes a whole paragraph: the foibles of the players are very stereotypical, drawn from old Internet tropes, and not very surprising at all. The writing is straightforward, there is not much plot per se, nor theme. Characters are almost non-existing. The book’s entertainment value therefore depends entirely on whether you’re bored by roleplayer caricatures doing their thing.
Now, I don’t particularly admire raving black-and-white reviews where the whole purpose is to entertain yourself on an artist’s expense, so let’s try to make this useful somehow. Better that I think aloud a bit about the topic rather than going into an endless nitpicking list of what I experience as flaws in the book.
RPG parodies are such an entrenched part of the cultural landscape that most readers will probably have some experience of such. On all rpg forums ever are the tales of nitpicky gamemasters, munchkin players and naive creativity repeated. Comics such as Knights of the Dinner Table pretty much stand and fall on these cultural stereotypes.
Like all well-entrenched parodies, the rpg parody has long ago passed from fresh to conventional (and, if you ask me, cliched). It’s no longer funny for its own sake, you need to actually make your characters real and make jokes, instead of just showing how the hyper-violent player once again kills the gamemaster’s favorite NPC, causing desperation for the latter. This phenomenon is aggravated, at least for me, by the fact that I have little connection and interest in the alien, half-mythical old school rpg environment depicted in this sort of parody – I suspect that this is the same for everybody else, it’s hard for me to imagine that there is somebody out there who really connects with these stories of stupidity and border-line psychosis, except in a most general way.
Gamenight falls flat for me from the first moments simply because it does try to farm the parody in a pure form, with little thought for characterization, human drama or anything else you’d normally expect from a novel. I don’t think for a second that this is because the author couldn’t have written about engaging human beings – this seems to be more of a case of single-minded fascination; the author really thinks that his book will entertain simply by faithfully describing how a rpg group argues about GM authority, rules, narrative time and all sorts of other things.
The actual players of the extended rpg session depicted in the book are not really human – they’re intentionally formed one-dimensional stereotypes, who rarely show any sort of recognizable human intent in their thoughts or actions. The gamemaster AllFather (like all of these gods, he doesn’t have a name, only a title) seems to be the only one with any sort of motivation: he wants to play a heroic fantasy adventure to have something to brag about to the other creator gods in their approaching symposium, usually dominated by the Judeo-Christian God and his damnably realistic physics – JHVH is a model of the mythical world-creating GM who the AllFather tries to desperately emulate by heavy-handed preplanning and railroading.
In truth, I find this sort of rpg parody a bit depressing. These seem to be almost invariably written by folks with a long history of extremely dysfunctional roleplaying, or at least that’s how it reads to the outside. Gamenight, for instance, doesn’t really offer any conclusions or lessons regarding the long, half-dead campaign described in the book. The game ultimately ends up in a total party kill, which is perhaps the most mystifying part of the book when considered from roleplaying perspective. Let me quote a bit:
From there the scene proceeds into the whole party dying in the hands of the overwhelming opposition, after which the AllFather gathers his dice and calmly leaves, thanking the others for playing. It’s also notable that the others decide to not continue into another game, especially the Lady, who tells the others to do whatever they wish, as long as they do it without her. What does this finale to the story mean?
Looking at the whole plot arc of the book, what little there is, it seems that this ending answers the tension set forth in the desires of the AllFather: he wanted to make a great fantasy epic to brag about to the other GMs, but ultimately realizes how futile this is. For the whole campaign he has struggled with what we in the rpg theory circles call “the impossible thing before breakfast”: the AllFather respects setting coherence and realism over everything else, but meanwhile he also wants to make an epic fantasy story, which he has planned carefully beforehand. The end-result of this inbuilt conflict is illusionism, the practice of allowing players false choices to keep the game on track. As far as I understand, this dramatic ending to the story illustrates the AllFather’s decision to embrace his responsibility as the supreme, neutral arbitrator of the game world, the one who doesn’t need to care about the enjoyment of his players, but only of being fair and impartial, even if that leads to death of all the player characters. Essentially the AllFather sets aside his hopes and fears about the story, realizing that he does not need to guard the player characters from their own mistakes.
I find it very curious that the author might choose to offer an absolutely powerful GM tasked with neutrally arbitrating the world as the solution to the game group’s troubles. Then again, perhaps the message is supposed to be that the decision to play a roleplaying game, at least with this group, was a mistake to begin with: it seems that the only way to end the torture that the game obviously was to all participants was to decide to walk away. The AllFather, his authority invested in the game, could only do this by ending the game in death for all the player characters. And he could only kill the player characters by abandoning his hopes of telling the epic fantasy story he’d prepared.
Regardless, it’s a strange message to impart in a book about roleplaying. I’ve had some idle thoughts about writing a novel-type book about roleplaying myself at some point, but from a more constructive angle. This deluge of rpg parodies that intentionally tell stories of caricature geeks is ultimately not very flattering towards the hobby. Perhaps it’s therapeutic for the writer, who needs to convince himself that roleplaying can’t really work?
The short history of literature
Another thing that I find remarkable about Gamenight is that it’s another one of these small and humble self-published books that find their way to Amazon and other Internet stores even without help from established publishers. Magnum Opus Press, the publisher, is a small rpg house that’s published a couple of novels such as Gamenight as well.
It is very exciting to live in this age of small-time publishing, during a time when everything you really need to be published is writing discipline. Jonny Nexus, for instance, clearly has the rudiments of capability for putting words to paper – and his book is such that it probably would not have seen the light of day just 20 years ago. This is not to say that “bad books get printed now, unlike yesterday”; rather, the message is that we are moving into a world where the printed word loses its old luster and expected requirement of being pertinent for a large buying audience, much like newspaper writing has already done. In the future books like Gamenight – simple, high-concept, targeted at a small audience, written routinely with no great ambition – will be a matter of course. More like forum posts on paper.