Monday, January 25, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Artifact of Evil

Despite its many deficiencies, I'm rather fond of Gary Gygax's first novel of Gord the Rogue, Saga of Old City, which I described, in my review, as "What if Oliver Twist had been written by Fritz Leiber?" I meant that description most sincerely, as it seems indisputable that Leiber and his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser loomed large in Gygax's mind as he made his own forays into the world fantasy literature. Nevertheless, as I also said in my earlier post, there's – to my mind anyway – an unfortunate escalation in the subsequent Gord novels, both in terms of the character's personal power and importance and the overall stakes of his adventures. Whereas Saga of Old City is a picaresque, the novels that followed, starting with 1986's Artifact of Evil, began a march toward overblown, epic fantasy.

Artifact of Evil takes its title from the novel's MacGuffin, an object of power consisting of three parts, one for each of the evil alignments (Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic), that, when joined, can free Tharizdun from his prison and initiate a cosmic war in which the dread god might prove triumphant. Knowledge of this artifact is first acquired when Gord becomes involved in the siege of a fortress in a wild region known as the Pomarj. During the battle, he captures a red-robed man who, he later learns, was a high-level member of the Scarlet Brotherhood, a villainous monastic order devoted to Tharizdun. From him, Gord and his comrades discover the Brotherhood's plot to locate all three pieces of the eponymous artifact (they already possess one at the start of the novel). Naturally, they vow to stop them.

Taken purely as an adjunct to Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk setting, Artifact of Evil has a quirky appeal. Indeed, when I first read it long ago, its main attraction to me was seeing Gygax present his campaign setting in greater detail and I can't deny that, on that level at least, the book retains some appeal. We learn a great deal about the history and politics – both mundane and otherworldly – of the setting and I won't deny that, as a long-time fan of Greyhawk, I smile every time I read a name I recognized from previously published materials or could connect the events of the novel to something hinted at in an adventure module. 

That said, Artifact of Evil is a mess as a novel, even by the rather low standards of RPG-derived fiction. Whatever charm Gord had as a character in Saga of Old City quickly evaporates, as he is lost in a huge cast of characters and a whirlwind series of travels, combats, and deus ex machina escapes, often by means of magic or magical items. More vexing for me, I think, is the way that Gord, originally portrayed as simply an orphan child who grew up to become one of the City of Greyhawk's greatest thieves after an apprenticeship on its mean streets, becomes an almost mythological hero, squaring off against demon lords and demigods. Indeed, the book makes clear that Gord commands the attention of at least one powerful being (Rexfelis the Cat Lord – though, to be fair, this was hinted at strongly previously). Gord is thus not really in the same league as the Gray Mouser or even Conan: he is, in fact, much more important within his setting.

In the end, Artifact of Evil is a book only a diehard Greyhawk fan could love and that's a shame. I truly felt that Gord's first novel appearance was a foundation on which Gygax could have built an interesting story of low fantasy hijinks in and around the City of Greyhawk (and better developed his skills as a writer of fiction). Instead, it reads like a rather overwrought collection of game session reports from a campaign with an overly generous referee. I wish it were otherwise.

13 comments:

  1. The Gord novels (as much as I did not enjoy them) were the thing that first congealed in my mind the idea of Tharizdun as "Greyhawk Cthulhu".
    Using L1 and L2 as a base I've run a very brief game set in the Lendore isles with a Suloise/Scarlet Brotherhood plot to recover ancient artifacts whose purpose was indeed to awaken Tharizdun.
    My Greyhawk has ever since had a darker tone than I usually associated with D&D.

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  2. EGG just wanted to demonstrate one of the pitfalls of high-level play. It's a parable for what-not-to-do as a DM. Always a teacher!

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  3. Gord was definitely more likeable in the short stories, but his career path certainly does model the ideal of D&D character progression pretty well - at least for a power gamer with a tolerant GM.

    If you want a much, much better fantasy novel featuring a hero with ties to a Cat Lord, I heartily recommend Will Shetterly's Cats Have No Lord. Aside from being a generally fun read with some nifty twists and strong characters, it has one of the best one-on-one climactic duels I've had the pleasure of reading.

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  4. The first half of the book is actually pretty good IMO - the opening raid in the castle in the Pomarj followed by the expedition through Badwall to the ruins in the Suss Forest and the chase through Celene, the Kron Hills (with a stopover in Hommlet), and lower Furyondy, alongside the parallel adventures of Melf (who was Luke Gygax's PC, and in just a couple chapters turns out to be more interesting and appealing than any of the main characters), right up until they go to the Cat Lord's domain. After that the tone shifts and it becomes just as bad as you describe it (though the battle at the end when Mordenkainen's army takes the field is pretty neat). But for that first 100 or so pages it was (at least to me) pretty enjoyable and, like Saga of Old City, gives me a sense of what it probably felt like to be a player in Gary's campaign - the types of encounters they have and places they go, etc.

    And, of course, with the exception of Night Arrant (a collection of stories that, as I understand, were mostly written before Artifact of Evil even though they were published later), the series just continued to get worse and worse as it went along.

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  5. The steep power curve is exactly the reason I stopped reading the Gord novels after this one. Strong characters is fine, but power gaming bores me and kills the thrill of seeing the game world "more directly".

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  6. This is the second and last Gord book I read...not because I disliked it (though I preferred the first), but because Gygax started publishing his books elsewhere from TSR (and I wasn't aware of it till much later).

    It's been many years since I read the novel, but I can recall thinking it felt like much of our high level D&D adventures, much more so than the Saga of Old City. Not only did you have elements of pure game fantasy (female cavaliers and parties riding through the sky in flaming chariots pursued by dragons), but also in that high level antagonists were generally OTHER ADVENTURER TYPES (like Obmi the dwarf or the insane elf fighter/wizard...Keek? Keeky?). Fighting monks or worrying about poison saves, player characters dying and being raised from the dead or "wished" back to life...all that is pretty standard fare once your PCs are too tough for a bugbear to hit in melee combat.

    From that perspective, Artifact of Evil is illustrative of AD&D play (especially circa 1986ish). Certainly that kind of thing (albeit with different "fantasy world politics") made its way into a lot of our home games, back in the day. Actual "dungeons?" Not so much.

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  7. The problem isn’t the elevation of the protagonist. It’s that he becomes a passive object, carried along by the stream of events. Gord has no personal stake in the Tripartite Keymathingie, beyond the obvious interest in staying alive. The plot is very much an impersonal job handed to him by the DM, errrr, author, errrrrr, the druids and the Cat Lord, I guess?—go here, find this, bring this here, etc.—why? “Because if you don’t, there is no adventure.” By contrast, Frodo is hunted. Elric seeks revenge. The plot is epic, but the protagonist remains a bystander, a Howardian or Leiberian freebooter.

    The sequel is even more epic, but a much better novel, since Gygax gave his hero a personal stake: a love interest and thus choices with personal consequences. (As Leiber did to much stronger effect in The Swords of Lankhmar and Swords and Deviltry.)

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  8. Slightly off-topic, but is there any reason WoTC has avoided Greyhawk?

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    1. They didn't originally. Greyhawk was the default D&D setting during the 3e era, with the PHB referencing Greyhawk deities, etc.

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    2. I think in the end they found that the Forgotten Realms was more of a "kitchen sink" kind of campaign setting where they could drop just about any kind of adventure, and add any sort of races and monsters they wished, whereas Greyhawk was much more tied to a classic High Medieval/Early Renaissance Fantasy Europe style of play.

      The Forgotten Realms doesn't even have much in the way of proper states, unlike the Flanaess which has well-defined states, and so you can drop just about anything you want anywhere... which they did during the growth of the Realms in 1E and 2E.

      Not at all a complaint, merely a comment; I'm a Mystara fan myself, so I love that median of a "kitchen sink" style mixed with high-medieval states. Frankly, I'm kind of glad they have not tried to resurrect Greyhawk or Mystara; they would have to change them too much to make them inclusive of all the new races and classes they have added (which as mentioned, was much easier in the Forgotten Realms, anyway).

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    3. I have often said that the virtue of the Forgotten Realms setting is that it easily accommodates any character a player can conceive with a minimum of fuss – at least the Realms in its published form. I get the strong impression that the "real" Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms, is a bit more specific and flavorful than any version published by TSR or WotC.

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  9. i love sea of death. it is epic in the somewhat kirby/blake fashion but somehow it is also very readable. night arrant is very fun also.

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  10. I'll have to agree with some of the other comments on Artifact of Evil - it really reads like our "high" level (8-10th level or so) AD&D play. Powerful characters, magic items all over the place being used to get out of bad situations, some big battles, and dungeons few and far between. I got something out of all of the Gygax Gord books . . . maybe they're not really "pulp" but they were very fantasy game-like when you compare them to how we played.

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