I hate gaming novels.
I've read only a couple over the years that I didn't think were utter rubbish and many more that were. Consequently, I've sworn off even attempting to read such novels anymore, if only to save my slowly disintegrating sanity. That's for the best anyway, since I consider the advent of the gaming novel to be one of the signs of hobby's self-referential decadence. It's hard enough to keep pre-packaged settings free of "story" as it is without novels creating dozens of characters whose epic exploits forever change those settings, thereby feeding Ouroboros.
The problem, of course, is that some gaming novels sell very well -- far better than the games on which they are based. That's why Lorraine Williams was said to have considered jettisoning D&D entirely and focusing TSR's publishing efforts entirely on the gaming novels that it spawned. For many younger gamers, gaming novels are their first introduction to fantasy literature, being for them what the works of pulp fantasy were for earlier generations of gamers. Were most gaming novels well-written, even as pure escapism, this might not bother me so much, but I fear that, with few exceptions, they don't meet even that meager criterion.
Quag Keep, a 1978 novel by Andre Norton, is a gaming novel -- the very first. Set in Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk, it concerns a ragtag collection of six adventurers, such as the swordsman Milo Jagon, the elf Ingrge, and a lizardman named Gulth, who all find themselves compelled by means of a geas to make one another's acquaintance and embark on a quest together. This geas seems to be tied to strange bracelets they all wear, bracelets from which dangle oddly shaped polyhedral shapes and that occasionally give them flashes of their having been other people on other worlds. As the novel unfolds, the true nature of these characters becomes more clear, as does the nature of the geas and the quest they're undertaking, although I can't say that any of it should come as a surprise.
Quag Keep is a very odd novel. It's far from Norton's best, even if its central premise is potentially intriguing. I would love to know more about its origin and what role Gygax and TSR had in it, since the author specifically thanks Gygax for his "invaluable aid." For me, the real interest here is in its portrayal of the World of Greyhawk, a setting that had not yet been published for gaming purposes in 1978. The setting Norton describes is recognizably Gygaxian in its nomenclature but many other elements, such as the war between Law and Chaos, seem unfamiliar. Are they based on earlier conceptions of the setting than the one published by TSR or were they wholly the invention of Norton? I wish I knew.
Despite its flaws, Quag Keep is worth reading, if only as a historical document of a time before gaming novels were commonplace and a distinct genre of fantasy literature. That an established and much-esteemed science fiction and fantasy author like Norton would be the one penning it rather than a game designer-turned-novelist is even more noteworthy and reminder of the very different relationship D&D once had with genre fiction.