Friday, June 12, 2020

Malazan Book of the Fallen... and Your Campaign

There are bright spots to the pandemic lock down and switch to online remote work.  I'm saving time by not having to don corporate America's "casual business attire" every day and migrate to the office - time that's being redirected to hobbies and hanging out with the kids.  From the perspective of self-improvement, I'm trying to get better at chess, learning a little Spanish, and reading more books.

My wife's been working through a series called The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss, and she says they're quite engaging.  The first one is called The Name of the Wind.  I picked up a lengthy series called The Malazan Book of the Fallen.  It's been languishing on my reading backlog.  It's a 10 books series, clearly not for the faint of heart, and so far I've only read the first two books - Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates.

The world of the Malazan Empire started as a shared roleplaying campaign world in the 1980's.  The referees each went on to write two entire fantasy series in their shared campaign world - the two authors being Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont.  It sounds like they dabbled in Dungeons & Dragons but ultimately landed on GURPS as their preferred system.  Curiously, wasn't Westeros also based on an early GURPS campaign?  Unlike George RR Martin, the Malazan guys don't seem reticent about discussing the gaming roots of their fantasy creations.

Here's a brief overview of what I've observed, 20% of the way through the series.  The Malazan Empire, which calls to mind Imperial Rome or similar pre-modern empires, sprawls across multiple continents, with armies deployed far and wide to conquer new cities in the name of the Empress, or garrison distant places and stifle revolution.  Most the main characters are military people, and the books very reminiscent of Glen Cook's The Black Company - fantasy through the lens of soldiers on the march.

Erikson has integrated magic into the everyday life of the army, very much taking what we'd call a "high magic" approach to world building.  It's common for army units to have a "cadre mage" if not an entire unit of spell casters.  Battlefield communications through magic is a thing - telepathy between mages or warlocks, or the Malazan equivalent of "sending stones".  There are demi-planes called "warrens", from which a mage draws power, that can also be used for limited forms of fast travel.  There's an element to each battle where enemy mages face off and attempt to neutralize the magic on the other side, before the grim work of the foot soldiers can take place.

There are gods and clerics in the world - both elder gods and "Ascendants", humans who have used magic to transcend to a demi-godlike state.  I'm not familiar enough with GURPS to know if it had options for apotheosis, but BECMI certainly did - all of the "immortals" of the Mystara setting were transcended humans, great heroes of the past.  A Malazan-like setting could be done well with BECMI.  I'm greatly enjoying how Erikson works the machinations of the Ascendants into his series - although some of the Ascendants have recognizable goals, their appearances are mysterious and terrifying.

The world of the Malazan empire is ancient, with a history going back hundreds of thousands of years.  Both Erikson and Esslemont have backgrounds as archaeologists, and it comes through in the way secrets related to ancient, inhuman races emerge to trouble the current age.  There's not an elf, dwarf, or halfling in sight.

One of the most gameable concepts I plan to lift is the maxim "power attracts power".  The idea is that in a world with ancient and powerful entities, a certain "low profile" should be maintained because powerful forces attract powerful opponents, like a natural law.  In a game like Dungeons & Dragons, where player characters inexorably rise in levels, the maxim "power attracts power" provides a rationale why your epic characters attract high level trouble as they move around or create domains.  "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, the Queen of the Demonweb Pits walks into mine."  Play it again Sam.

Not Elric or Drizz't... it's Anomander!
The series has a staggering number of characters.  Each book has several pages of "dramatis personae" to help keep track of all the factions and minor characters as the narrative jumps across globe-spanning events and military campaigns.  There's even a fanfic character!  Anomander Rake, the Son of Darkness, and scion of a decadent, elder race, wields a soul-stealing sword called Dragnipur.  He zips around in a giant floating tower called the Moon's Spawn.  But Erikson manages to pull off the Elric homage, and I'm looking forward to Rake returning later in the series.  I'm only on book two of ten, and the hardcore fans all seem to say the series "really starts cooking after book 3", so I'm already committed to keep going.  The second book has been principally concerned with a 1,000 year old prophesied "Whirlwind" in the southern holy deserts, and a vast uprising by desert tribes and nomads who rise up in support of the Apocalypse.  The classic adventures Master of the Desert Nomads and Temple of Death in the X series trod similar ground.

There's much I've been appreciating as a gamer and world builder.  I usually have distant or absent deities in my settings, but Erikson strikes a good tone with meddlesome gods and machinations of the "Ascendants", as well as his portrayal of priests and clerics as agents of their respective deities.  Because many of the gods were recently mortals, they have scores to settle with human empires.  I also like the portrayal of how ordinary soldiers and people get caught up in events with these terrifying immortals or ancient powers - they enter a scene, wreak some havoc, and take their struggles elsewhere.  It's almost like getting the view of New York City from ordinary folks after the Avengers have had a giant battle in the city - but a fantasy world equivalent.  There are techniques to be learned here on presenting your high fantasy, high powered gaming setting.  Here's my list of game-able elements gleaned from Malazan, that have kindled my imagination:

  • Meddlesome gods and Ascendants
  • Clerics as divine instruments
  • Magical healing as a military resource
  • The importance of warfare and political scheming
  • Mages in the military, and practical magic
  • Horrifying pre-human cultures and ruins
  • Orders of assassins - the Talons and Claws

Has anyone else read this series?  Would love to hear whether you borrowed any of Erikson's ideas, or perhaps Glen Cook's Black Company, for your game world.  (I can't speak to Esslemont's writing yet).  It also makes me want to look at more contemporary fantasy fictions and see what else is out there.  Erikson's approach is so transparent with tropes taken from the world of gaming, it raises a new question - have forty plus years of Dungeons & Dragons so thoroughly influenced fantasy literature the genres are betimes indistinguishable?


  1. I haven't read any of the main Malazan series but I have read some short stories by Erikson set in the world. They were more comedic than I was expecting, and there were some interesting ideas in there, like a tower inhabited by a lich, but everyone knows the lich is there, he doesn't bother anyone, and everyone leaves him alone.

  2. I've not read the Malazan books, but I can absolutely recommend The Kingkiller Chronicles. Best books I've read in a long time, although the last one isn't out yet (and it's been a while - come on Patrick!)

    1. Circling back on this - I've started reading The Name of the Wind at my wife's insistence, and will pick back up with Malazan after catching up with Patrick Rothfus (since his is only two books). Erikson is a fine world builder, and I'm interested in the stories for the world building ideas and scope. But Rothfus is foremost a writer and storyteller - his tale is enchanting. Very happy to be reading it!

    2. I've read both The Kingkiller Chronicles books and they're odd - they're mostly about very little happening ("How do I pay my tuition fees?") but are entirely engrossing based on the strength of Rothfuss as a writer.

    3. I know what you mean. I'm trying to remember what happened in them, and I'm struggling. But by god, when the 3rd one comes out, I'll be re-reading the first two!

  3. I read the whole thing! I enjoyed it - it bogs down in places but Erikson managed to finish the thing. There are a lot great ideas in it - especially for a high level D&D campaign. The power attracts power is something that I tend to use to justify coincidences in my own campaign. I also like the idea of the ascendants and the constant machinations of the gods to manipulate mortals and others to do their will. A fun game when reading is to figure out what standard AD&D creature (his campaign started with AD&D) is the basis for the various races and monsters of Erikson's world.

  4. Kingkiller chronicles is pretty good if you can manage to pry it away from your wife, I'd recommend it.

    As to the rest I suspect it is more that dungeons and dragons content is often built from whatever the most interesting bits of fantasy literature are available. There are only so many kinds of broad strokes in which to paint, after all. Similarities will be noticed. And then the endless detailing of course. ;)

    Another author suggestion for you would be The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. It's on the low magic end of things, where all magic is scary powerful with visible downsides. Similar to Conan but more dark, and with many different point of view characters spaced across the nation, much as you describe here.

    1. I replied above to Blakely UK, but yes - my wife forced Name of the Wind on me and I have no regrets - Rothfuss is a fine story teller!

    2. That's my main criticism of those books. They are well written and engaging, but they take their time to get anywhere.

  5. I haven't read it, but isn't there also a lot of Tekumel references as well?

  6. I'm thinking of taking a detour to read the two Patrick Rothfuss books before continuing on with the rest of Malazan - it'll be something for us to talk about. She was never interested in "The Black Company", so I don't think Malazan will stick either even if she picks up the first one - too focused on the military.

    @Stealth - thanks for the suggestion on Joe Abercrombie, I'll add him to the list too - "The First Law" looks interesting.

  7. My main takeaway from Malazan has been an increased emphasis on explosives as loot and core tools for the players to use, lol. Love the sappers.

    1. That's a really good idea. They call them "Moranth Munitions". I like the idea of incorporating damage kickers as consumables or gear used by exotic groups like the sappers.

  8. Great recommendation and list of things to integrate into a campaign.
    Apropos Martin/Westeros: If I recall correctly, Westeros/ASOIAF was inspired by a visit to Hadrian's Wall in England.
    However, a GURPS campaign in which Martin played became the basis for the Expanse, and his Wild Cards novels are also based on a superhero rpg campaign from the days of yore.

  9. I got through four books, but some of the rest, but found them a bit of a slog. I admire him for inventing new races. Everything by Joe Abercrombie is terrific.

  10. I have only read Ian C. Esselmont's stuff and the first three Erikson books. I prefer Esslemont's stuff as it takes a more personal approach to things and I really enjoy his writing style. Both authors are fantastic though.

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