Monday, July 27, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Quag Keep

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.


  1. D&D's earlier focus on law versus chaos rather than good versus evil does make one suspect there must have been a stage in the development of Greyhawk when that was the large-scale political structure of the campaign.

  2. My interpretation of Quag Keep is that its Andre Norton's critique of a railroading GM. I think she must have played in a game and felt that she couldn't control the characters with the kind of freedom and leeway she expected and made a novel to reflect that frustration. The characters are geased and constantly forced to do things and go places without any explanation or real motivation and the ultimate antagonist at the end is the GM, who is portrayed as a whiny untermensch.

  3. I remember thinking that this was a very poor novel when I found it in a library many years ago and read it.

    To me, one of the most curious things was the party walking across the entire breadth of Greyhawk in like, a 5-day journey or something. If it was published before Darlene's Greyhawk maps, I guess it stands to reason that those conceptions could be entirely disjointed.

  4. Interestingly enough, the pulps were disdained back in their days the same way so-called "gaming fiction" is today.

    Makes you wonder what will be considered classics 75 years from now!

  5. 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.

    There are a lot of stories about Williams that cast her in a very unfavorable light, yet I can hardly find any statements to this effect from someone with direct knowledge of TSR under her regime. Could you perhaps point me toward a source for this statement?

  6. Fitzerman,

    I'll see what I can dig up as a source for the rumor about Williams wanting to can the RPG to focus on novels. I have a dim recollection of its being someone from TSR who continued to work for WotC after the sale of the company, but I could be mistaken. Indeed, it's possible that it was merely an unsubstantiated rumor, but I do remember its making the rounds in the mid-90s, well before most people knew the extent of TSR's debt and financial mismanagement.

  7. The English edition of _Wargamer's World_ by Hugh Walker also came out in 1978 from DAW, but is a translation of a 1975 German novel.

    Not to split hairs, but I think that beats Norton for first game-based novel.

  8. Just curious -- does that include Raymond Feist?

  9. I suspect the setting of Quag Keep is a mash-up based off of both Gygax's and Arneson's campaigns, or at least the elements particular to each. For instance, I recall that the big empire mentioned in the novel (though not a plot element) was the the "Great Kingdom of Blackmoor."

    If for no other reason, Quag Keep is a notable story for being directly about the fantasy gaming experience (albeit in a fantastic context) whereas nearly all gaming novels that followed were just genre fiction that happened to be set in a game's official setting.

  10. Hmmm...I never realized Andre Norton was a woman. Learn something new every day!

  11. "I suspect the setting of Quag Keep is a mash-up based off of both Gygax's and Arneson's campaigns, or at least the elements particular to each. For instance, I recall that the big empire mentioned in the novel (though not a plot element) was the the "Great Kingdom of Blackmoor.""

    Probably the reason was that Blackmoor, if I remember correctly, at the time was a section of the common world on which Dave and Gygax placed their campaigns. Dave was concerned with Blackmoor and its surroundings, while Gygax took care of Greyhawk.

    "Hmmm...I never realized Andre Norton was a woman. Learn something new every day!"
    Sadly in seventies it was not easy to be a credible fantasy writer if you were female, so she took a male name.

    It should be released a novel called "Return to Quag Keep" some years ago, but unfortunatly I didn't find it in Italy...

  12. I have never heard of Wargamer's World till now. Guess I need to look for a copy.

  13. Michelle,

    I can't say I have much liking for Feist's books, but I also can't say I read any beyond his original trilogy.

  14. Blackmoor and Greyhawk both have their (vague) origins in the common setting of the Castle & Crusade Society, the chapter of the International Federation of Wargamers devoted to medieval wargaming, of which Arneson and Gygax were both members.

  15. Wargamer's World and sequel(s?) are even less memorable to me. As a Norton fan, I find QK very disappointing in plot and characterization.

    Still, I think some craftsmanship shines through. Is it just bias that led me to see more even in QK than in TSR's early DL and FR novels?

    There was a flood of "pulp fantasy" in paperbacks in the 1970s. Kenneth Bulmer comes to mind as a writer I think capable of better work than the Dray Prescot series he wrote under the pen name of "Alan Burt Akers".

    It seemed as if there was a notion that S&S or S&P had to be a guilty pleasure, except in the hands of Jack Vance. Perhaps it was really just a matter of pot-boiling, what had led to sometimes slapdash work from Burroughs and even Howard. The cumulative impression I got, though, was that the Lin Carter level was taken as a standard in the field.

    It was actually D&D that led me to give heroic fantasy another look, which makes the brand's association with the sub-par -- in this case, relative to what I consider Norton's well-earned reputation as one of the greats -- all the more disappointing.

  16. While I'm not much of a fan of most gaming novels, having very, very rarely read one that I thought was very good... I think the notion that they're terrible and the pulp writers and their successors who wrote cheap mass market paperbacks in the 50s and 60s really aren't very good either. I think you set them up a bit with an implied false dichotomy of quality.

    Don't get me wrong; I'm a huge fan of a lot of pulp writers, but trying to read all of the Conan stories back to back in the recent Del Rey compilations have really highlighted not only their strengths but also their very obvious weaknesses.

    And Gygax himself was a fan of the even more derivative writing of guys like L. Sprague de Camp, and he was an important influence on early D&D. Sadly, I'd rather read most gaming fiction than L. Sprague de Camp.

  17. While there is certainly some decided Rail-roading in that story if it were indeed ever played as a campaign it is a great example of what may have been part of an old school campaign. The lycanthrope berserker and the lizardman warrior for example.

  18. A shorter review: Quag Keep blows.

  19. Did you know that there is a sequel to it...called: "Return to Quag Keep" (Toronto Public Library has copies) which was a Wizards imprint co-authored with Jean Rabe.

    For Gamer fiction, it is not half bad...and I think there are many jokes inside at the expense of gamers.

    It shows however the hallmarks of the Hickman Revolution that you disagree with but you might find something redeeming.

  20. Back when ENWorld maintained a Q&A thread for fans to quiz Gary, I asked him about the unfamiliar bits of Greyhawk lore in Quag Keep. He said that, to the best of his recollection, the unfamiliar Quag Keep elements were Norton's invention, not early unpublished Greyhawk material.

  21. The pulps have been filtered by time so that we only remember the good (or at least influential) stuff now. I suspect the same thing will happen with gaming fiction. Just like the old serialized literature. For every serialized Mark Twain or Charles Dickens story, there were probably hundreds or thousands of mediocre stories that have not persisted.