What’s In a Game?

A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales is out, and since the second i hit SEND on the Amazon KDP upload page, i’ve been humming and hawing about whether i’m calling the book “gaming fiction” or not. It’s a tough call on some level, insofar as “gaming fiction” is a label, and one wants to be wary of layering the labels too deeply onto one’s work. Genre fiction is already a label unto itself. “Fantasy” splits off the potential audience for a book from people’s first look at the cover. “Epic fantasy” and “sword-and-sorcery” do so again, winnowing down the pool of prospective readers based on their own experiences with what those labels mean.

All in all, labels aren’t a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with convenient shortcuts to understanding, or to giving people the tools to instinctively know that if they previously loved X, they’re likely to love Y and Z as well. However, i think that a problem arises when we as readers decide to let the labels say more than the books they adorn — or, worse, to allow our expectations of a label to inspire us to not bother checking out what lies beneath it.

Clearwater Dawn is just as much “gaming fiction” as Prayer for Dead Kings, insofar as the world of the story is a world built loosely around the zeitgeist and paradigms of fantasy gaming. Any D&D player who reads Clearwater Dawn is likely to recognize a number of familiar touchstones, from spell use to armor to weapons to rings of invisibility and boots of speed. However, Clearwater Dawn is a book that i’ve consciously chosen to not call “gaming fiction”, because it never makes it overly obvious that its narrative is hitting those touchstones (primarily by never using phrases like rings of invisibility and boots of speed). Clearwater Dawn is a book that anyone can read and enjoy, and a reader who lacks the context of gaming isn’t going to miss anything in the story as it unfolds.

It’s also interesting to think about books like George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice Fire” series. Definitely not gaming fiction, insofar as Martin doesn't game in Westeros. (I have heard he plays GURPS, though, which is kind of cool.) "A Song of Ice and Fire" wasn't conceived as gaming fiction. It wasn't built around the conventions of gaming, so it has no reason to take the label. Except that A Game of Thrones and its sequels have spawned a couple of excellent roleplaying games whose rules and game setting have been extracted from the tropes and paradigms of the fantasy world Martin has created. A player of the Song of Ice and Fire RPG who reads (or, more likely, rereads) the books will see the gaming elements like a non-gamer won’t. Does doing so turn A Game of Thrones into gaming fiction? And by the same token, any hardcore fantasy gamer who reads the Martin books for the first time (as was the case for me) is likely to automatically translate the world of the story into RPG terms just because that’s how a gamer’s brain is hard-wired. (Spoiler alert, kind of: At the point in A Game of Thrones when Eddard Stark is surrounded by Jaime Lannister and his men all out for blood, a little voice in the back of my head screamed “Dude! Bluff check!”) So can non-gaming fiction actually become gaming fiction simply in the reader’s mind?

Clearwater Dawn is also arguably a romance — another label that might or might not attract one prospective reader even as it drives away another. Likewise, A Prayer for Dead Kings (the eponymous short novel that anchors the new book) is a little bit deconstructionist on more than one level. Another label — and one that runs the real risk of pushing away readers who don’t like getting post-modernism in their fantasy, all chocolate-and-peanut-butter style.

In the end, Clearwater Dawn and A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales both explore a world in which some of the familiar tropes of fantasy are given free reign to slam up against a wedge of real character story. And i like to think that character story is as strong as a prospective reader will find in any genre, any form, any novel or anthology. In the end, the pieces that make up A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales — six short stories, the novella Ghostsong, and the short novel A Prayer for Dead Kings — aren’t gaming fiction per se. However, a big part of why i wrote these stories was to try to capture the sense of wonder that has always been the best part of gaming for me — the sense of a dark world challenging everyday characters to take up the mantle of heroism.

In the end, i don’t expect that this is what the “gaming fiction” label says to most people, but this is what it means to me.