Thursday, June 2, 2016

Nerdgasms: Dragons of Autumn Twilight

Five hours of mostly snap decision-making
ultimately yielded this weirdo. Artwork by
myself and Timothy James.
Last week I was drafted into a Dungeons and Dragons game for the first time in my life. Having never role-played in person, I wasn't sure what to expect or how things would progress. However, as I created my character— which was an arduous, five hour, brain-birthing process that resulted in a "tiefling bard" for anyone who's curious— I realized that to play in a fantasy world, it might help to immerse myself in a fantasy world first. Dragons of Autumn Twilight, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, is the world I chose.

Seeking inspiration?
Actually, I vaguely recalled from the last time I read this book that it was set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. So this technically counts as research, or reading an entertaining history book. Who said research can't be entertaining, after all? The good news is that you don't need to know anything about— or be interested in— D&D to enjoy this book! Knowing a thing or two about tabletop role-playing games might explain a couple of minor points in the story, though. I will tell you about those in a minute!

The plot seems solid: a band of "unwilling" heroes find themselves thrust into a dangerous quest to save the world. I use the word "unwilling" loosely. Our heroes may play coy, but beneath their protestations, the whole group is getting off on putting their lives on the line. After five years of solo-questing, five friends return to their hometown to share their findings from around the world. Rumors of impending war abound, though no one wants to believe it. Their reunion is interrupted when two strangers— a barbarian couple— enter the bar. When the barbarian woman, Goldmoon, sings a song about how they arrived to town, one of the locals takes offense and insists that she and her companion be arrested. Then, Mayor Douche-nozzle—

Please tell me that's really his name.
Unfortunately not, but this does accurately describe that background character. As I was saying: Mayor Douche-nozzle, having already imbibed more alcohol than is generally recommended, trips and falls in the fireplace. His robes quickly catch on fire, and the man will thankfully die to his flailing and fanning of the fire. (Apparently no one ever told him about "stop, drop, and roll.") In an effort to put the fire out, Goldmoon swings her plain, wooden staff at him to knock him down. The staff, however, has other ideas. It glows blue, knocks the fire out, and heals the man. Instead of being grateful, the man accuses Goldmoon of witchcraft, and the barbarians must now escape with the help of the five adventuring friends. The friends resolve to help Goldmoon and her companion find out more about the staff she wields: where it came from, what it means, and why it is so important to the draconian armies that are springing up around the world.

The first page in the book introduces the cast as "an unlikely group of heroes." Calling a group of skilled fighters that range from "lawful Good" to "chaotic Good" an unlikely group of heroes in a fantasy book is tantamount to lying. Damnable lies, I tell you! That is the likeliest group of heroes you will find in any fantasy book. However, I can think of one potential reason for this blatant falsehood: Weis and Hickman came up with the plot before they developed the characters. Hickman started work at TSR Hobbies, Inc. as a game designer in 1983, and conceived of a world where dragons played an influential part of the story. The world he conceived became the Dragonlance campaign in the D&D game.

"Dragonlance," as in...?
Cover art in the style of "Conan the Barbarian"
clearly marks this as fiction of the '80s.
As in the Dragonlance Chronicles this book is a part of. So this story is an offshoot of the game, but I'm really curious if they actually played the game and this was the result. It would explain some characters acting contradictory to their backgrounds. Given that the idea of Dungeons and Dragons is to guide your own avatars through a world and its quests, it makes sense that they would come up with the general plot before they tossed their own characters in as a beta test. I would consider Raistlin— a magic-wielding human character— a prime example of this. Raistlin is described as highly intelligent, driven by his quest for power, but very frail in body. Therefore, I find it odd whenever he does anything that isn't magic-related quickly or forcefully. He is repeatedly represented as being helped around by his much stronger twin brother, walking slowly with a staff, and barely speaking above a whisper due to his "shattered" health. So when— three-quarters of the way through the book— Raistlin is suddenly helping to usher another, more able-bodied character around, I have to wonder how. They make him sound as though he's decrepit, but suddenly he can run faster, or pick someone else up? Why?

Because the plot calls for it?
Pretty much. And if the plot didn't call for it, then he must have rolled a very good number in game to help him achieve it. Let me briefly describe how this game works in case you're flabbergasted by that last statement... The premise is that different abilities have points assigned to them. You roll dice to see if your character can do a thing, based on the points in that ability. The fewer points you have in an ability, the better your dice roll has to be to compensate for it. In other words, if Raistlin is so weak that he can barely move himself around at anything better than a snail's pace, he has to roll a good number in order to use up more strength. We then might explain that randomly amazing dice roll as "a sudden surge of adrenaline" in-game (or in-plot).

And this is important because...?
The reason I bring this up is that just as someone could have amazing dice rolls, someone else might be rolling shit. Another of our heroes, a dwarf named Flint Fireforge, is described as being an older and experienced, adventuring fighter who regards his younger companions as "his children." Everyone else regards him as a generally competent friend and member of the party. So some of the things that he does or that happen to him I can only ascribe to really shitty dice rolls. As I mentioned earlier, you don't need to know or be interested in D&D to enjoy this book, but having that bit of background knowledge explains some of the unbalanced writing.

So the writing is unbalanced?
A bit. Don't get me wrong, I've read far worse. The writing is polished, fairly well-edited, and the story makes sense (most of the time). I think, partly, it suffers from being the first of a trilogy and therefore needing to set up many things for the sequel. Another thing that I found to be a little jarring were the romances in the story. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of the romance genre. It doesn't really do anything for me. That's not saying that I can't appreciate some romance sprinkled into an adventuring story, though— as long as it's done well! But, as with the rest of the book, the romance is passable at best.

It really doesn't sound as though you enjoyed this book.
That's not it at all! Sure, I've spent most of this review telling you the story has its problems, but I still enjoyed it. I think there's a good chance you'll enjoy it too, if you forgive it some of its quirks! You may like this book if:

  • You like adventuring stories with a dash of romance.
  • You want a story with a dragon or two. (I suspect the sequel will have more dragons.)
  • You appreciate fantasy settings with heroes, magic, and various races.
  • You're curious about the sorts of shenanigans role-playing produces.
So give it a shot! You won't regret it!

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