Daily Archives: May 14, 2008

Did You Hear the Dice?

You may or may not be familiar with the term “gamer fiction”. For those who don’t know, gamer fiction is a sub-genre of fiction usually associated with science-fiction, horror, or fantasy. Gamer fiction comes in many forms, but is most often found in the paperback or trade paperback  format. Even before online and console video games hit popular culture with the force of an atom bomb, there were table-top games. Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons came first, and in them players took on the roles of noble elves, greedy dwarves, bronzed barbarians, or other fantastic archetypes, all seeking glory and treasure under the guise of upholding the greater good. But D&D originally grew out of  skirmish miniature game called Chainmail, wherein players  pushed tiny pieces of metal around a small, fully realized miniature environment (think model railroading, but with a lot more violence) and matched their forces against each other in mortal combat. Whether role-play or miniature game, most of these conflicts are governed by detailed rules of play, with sometimes random outcomes determined by a character or piece’s statistics and the throw of a handful dice.


These early games spawned innumerable imitators, and over the course of time, some of their progeny eclipsed them both in depth and fandom. British company Games Workshop developed Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000 in the mid-1980’s, raising the bar of quality for 25mm miniatures (also called figures, or figurines by Hummel-obsessed gamer moms who knew no better). Cast in lead or pewter, these tiny toy-soldiers could be used in their own games, or coupled with games like D&D to better illustrate the scene of the action. Many game designers developed elaborate worlds and universes for their creations to dwell in, providing additional context and verisimilitude for gamers longing to immerse themselves that much more deeply in their hobby. From these backgrounds a natural inclination to write stories soon grew.


In 1985 Gary Gygax, creator of D&D, wrote Saga of Old City, a 352 page paperback telling the tale of Gord the Rogue, a thief and adventurer in the lands of Greyhawk. This humble paperback was among the first of what would become a multi-million dollar niche of the publishing industry: gamer fiction. A few years later (1988 to be exact) a small company called FASA published a sci-fi novel called Decision at Thunder Rift. Set in the BattleTech universe, Decision at Thunder Rift told the origin of a ragtag band of mercenaries and their amazing, humanoid walking tanks, the BattleMechs. This story followed perfectly with FASA’s popular board/miniature game, BattleTech. Since then dozens of other BattleTech novels have followed. It wasn’t long before the Brits had gotten into the act with a line of their own Warhammer and Warhammer 40K novels.


By their very nature gamers are obsessive folk. When they latch on to a miniature or role-play game, they often absorb themselves in all of its trappings. It was a logical next step that they might want to read fiction set in their favorite gaming universe. Today gamer fiction commands significant rack space in most popular book stores. The sheer number of titles staggers the consumer. Most major game lines will offer dozens of titles, some written by well-known authors in their related genres, others by relative newcomers who often cite the games themselves as the reason they became writers. New York Times best-selling authors like R.A. Salvatore and Margaret Weiss made their fame and earned their stripes writing gamer fiction. Still, a lot of gamer fiction just isn’t very good. A common question among gamers when they’re sharing reviews of gamer fiction is “did you hear the dice?” If you can hear the dice rolling metaphorically behind the curtain of an action scene, the author has failed to seamlessly transport the essence of the game world  from the table-top to the printed page. It is prose perhaps one level above fan-fiction (or fanfic, the likely topic of future blog entries), and ultimately disappointing in its inability to match the quality of the best writing in the genre it seeks to emulate.


Even bad gamer fiction can serve a purpose, further engaging the fan of the associated game line in his hobby and helping to kill tedious moments like riding public transportation or waiting for root canal in a dentist’s office. However, when gamer fiction is good it reverberates from the page like music for the gamer’s soul. It’s his world, his escape, on paper, eminently portable, and more than that, evidence that his hobby is alive and viable amidst a sea of other distractions. Recent years have seen libraries begin to fill out their genre and teen collections with gamer fiction. With the cost of paperbacks approaching $10 and the abundance of gamer fiction, making a bad selection can be painful. Now lovers of gamer fiction can sample a title from the library and if they find it lacking, all they’ve lost is time. But there’s plenty of solid gamer fiction to be had at the library, and even if you’ve never thrown dice in anger, you might find some of it surprisingly accessible. Below you can find a short list to get you started.




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