Paizo, Tie-in Fiction, and What I Think about All This

So, Paizo Publishing has announced that it’s joining the ranks of the publishers of RPG tie-in fiction, that most reviled and deplored genre of literature. Their line of Pathfinder fiction is kicking off in September with Elaine Cunningham’s Winter Witch, with Prince of Wolves by Dave Gross following in October. After that, one novel about every three months. The author Paul S. Kemp was also named as being on board. I recall Ed Greenwood expressing his enthusiasm for writing Pathfinder fiction in an interview some time ago, so he might also be in there.

Paizo is apparently also releasing a new Michael Moorcock novella and a Pathfinder Chronicles book with China Miéville as a contributor. This is beside the point, but I feel it needs to be said.

This is awesome. I’ve been waiting for this announcement for over a year, and I’m glad they didn’t disappoint. See, I like tie-in fiction. It helps bring the settings alive and usually keeps me entertained. Granted, it often keeps me entertained in the same way that Uwe Boll movies keep me entertained, but it’s entertainment all the same.

The Problems of Tie-ins

From the gamer’s point of view, of course, there do exist some reasonable objections to tie-in fiction. Wizards of the Coast and TSR before them had the really filthy habit of advancing setting metaplot by leaps and bounds in the novels, thus essentially forcing DMs who wished to keep up to buy and read them if they wanted to keep up with the larger developments of the game world. The problem was compounded by the novel department’s gift for assigning world-breaking and Realms-shaking work to some less than excellent authors. They did get better at this around the 3E era, though, with Ed Greenwood and Troy Denning collaborating on the best book either of them have written in Death of the Dragon, Rich Baker bringing the elves back to Cormanthor in The Last Mythal Trilogy and Paul S. Kemp blowing up cities and the WotC Standards of Content document in the superlative Twilight War Trilogy.

Occasionally, these novels wrought truly massive changes to the settings, in ways that changed most everything. The Avatar Series in Forgotten Realms was especially hideous about this, and Troy Denning went on to repeat his offences in Dark Sun’s Prism Pentad. Troy Denning seems to be generally incapable of writing a book without destroying at least one city. He’s the Michael Bay of the Forgotten Realms – lots of explosions, straightforward plot, no characters.

The other issue that WotC has had was a certain continuity disconnect between the novels and the game supplements. I cannot remember off-hand if it resulted in any great gaffes, though the sourcebook Mysteries of the Moonsea, detailing four cities around the Moonsea was released the same month with a novel that either deposed or killed one or two mayors and had one of the cities occupied at its end (and still at the end of the 3E-era Realms), none of which was reflected in the book.

Paizo seems to be elegantly sidestepping the first one in that Golarion has no metaplot whatsoever, and the novels will be character-driven stories without cities going up in flames and thrones toppling like dominoes. Those kinds of events are what the adventure paths are for, as it should be. For the second, we have this post from James Sutter, the fiction editor at Paizo:

Making sure the novels don’t break the gaming supplements and vice versa is a large part of my job. Fortunately, we have the added advantage that the person in charge of managing novel continuity – me – is also deeply involved in developing the gaming supplements, so we don’t have the fundamental disconnect that some IPs do between content creation and “tie-in fiction.”

So, looks promising on this front, at least.

The Issue of Quality

Then there’s the other thing about how D&D tie-in fiction sucks.

Well, yeah, it does have that general tendency, but it is entirely in compliance with Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap. Yes, a lot of them suck. Many of them suck ass. Vehemently. I store my Doug Niles books in my bathroom bookshelf and not just because of space issues, Philip Athans’ Baldur’s Gate still holds the honour of being the single worst novel I have ever read, and don’t even get me started on Jim Lowder…

I feel strongly about this, but I feel because I love. No, not those books, the other ones. The good ones. Paul S. Kemp, Elaine Cunningham, Paul Kidd, Rich Baker, and occasionally even R.A. Salvatore and Ed Greenwood have produced memorable fantasy novels, stuff I’ve read and reread many times over the years. Sure, they’re “just” light entertainment, but they’re honest about it, not pretending to be anything beyond what they are. In a time when Dan Brown dominates the bestseller lists, Margaret Atwood claims her novel about cloning isn’t sci-fi and J.K. Rowling has “reinvented the fantasy genre”, this is far more refreshing than it really should be. Elaine Cunningham once compared them to chocolate chip cookies – small and easily devoured, slightly addictive, but you just can’t base your diet on them. I find this a fairly good description. Between the classics I read for school and the longer works of genre fiction, it’s occasionally refreshing to polish off a Forgotten Realms or Warhammer novel in a couple of days. They’re not going to win the Hugo or the Nebula anytime soon, but that’s not what they are meant to do. They’re meant to give me something to do with my time for 300 pages, and maybe offer me some insight into the setting. Generally, they do a good job.

They also generally have the virtue of  having no more than three or, in extreme cases, four books per a continuing story, and they schedules hold. Even R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt saga isn’t the same, continuous story through all the 18 or so novels it currently encompasses (This should not be taken as an endorsement of the entire series. My advice is to read The Dark Elf Trilogy and stop there.).

Last year, I counted how many tie-in novels TSR and WotC had released. The number I came to was well over 500, and I realise now I forgot the Magic: the Gathering novels. The number has probably capped six hundred by now. The authors themselves number in the dozens. To pass them all over as crap based on the works of just a few is much like judging books by their covers.

TSR and later, to a lesser extent, WotC did and to my knowledge still do have the bad habit of artificially lowering the quality of novels by editorial standards of content that were rather more strict than they needed to be – and I generally respect the role that editors play in the development of a novel (see Tom Clancy’s body of work for what happens when there is no editor, or the editor isn’t doing their job). Ed Greenwood’s Spellfire and Crown of Fire are infamous for being edited to the point of unreadability. I’ll let Ed tell you about it himself. There’s also this little gem from James Lowder, about Mark Anthony’s unreleased Drizzt novel Shores of Dusk:

The non-RAS Drizzt book assignment was offered to writers as a way for TSR punish Salvatore over a non-financial business disagreement.

I know that’s not directly related to the quality of the novels as such, but if that’s how much respect they had for the authors… yikes. More recently, Paul S. Kemp announced late last year that he would no longer be writing for WotC, for reasons that haven’t been made public, and his upcoming novel Godborn was cancelled. You can probably find all the rampant speculation you want somewhere else, so I’ll refrain from posting any guesses here. Despite my general animosity towards WotC as it currently exists, though, I doubt they’ve reached the mid-90’s TSR levels of villainy.

Fun Fact: Lorraine Williams’ full name is Lorraine Dille Williams. “Dille” is Finnish slang for “idiot”. The term was in vogue around the same time she was the owner of TSR. I am not clear on its etymology, but am almost 100% certain that it does not come from her name.

I don’t know Paizo’s editorial policy, but I have reason to assume that they give the authors quite a bit more creative freedom, at least judging by what Nick Logue and Tim Hitchcock have got away with in the modules. I believe they’ve also understood that their primary customers are not children and can handle even mature themes and won’t wander off even if there isn’t a fight scene every ten pages. Besides, they’ve got good picks there. Elaine Cunningham’s Elfsong is one of my favourites, I think Dave Gross did a pretty good job with The Black Wolf and the Golarion story in The Council of Thieves adventure modules, and I’ve yet to read a bad book from Paul S. Kemp.

That’s another thing, incidentally… Paizo is contracting established writers, while WotC seems to be in the business of finding new talent and getting game designers to write novels. I don’t think there are many TSR or WotC authors whose debut novel wasn’t for them. None spring to mind, at least. While they have found quite a few very talented authors this way, there is something to be said for the alternative. Games Workshop, incidentally, was even more ambitious when they were establishing their fiction line some 20 years back. Vector Magazine published an article on the topic a couple of years back, and it’s well worth reading. You realise, we were once this close to getting a Warhammer novel from Terry Pratchett?

Well, we’ll see how this works out. I am optimistic.

3 thoughts on “Paizo, Tie-in Fiction, and What I Think about All This

  1. I heard about the fiction tie-ins a while back on the Paizo boards and have been eagerly awaiting their release. I confess to being sort of a Paizo fanboy. When they were publishing Dragon and Dungeon magazines the content was often better than many of the products released by WotC. Plus I you just get the feeling that Paizo actually cares about what they are doing, the products they produce and the people who buy their products. I have never had a negative interaction with anyone from Paizo. They seem to be fans who manage to live the dream, but have the good sense to run it like an actual business and not just their own personal playground. I’m sure if I think on it they are bound to have put out some crap at one point. But I either didn’t buy it or all the great stuff just caused it to be erased from my memory.

  2. The Avatar books were INTENDED to bring huge changes. They were the transition from !e to 2E AD&D…the Avatar Project was the team working on this. (It was a group effort, hence the original release under the pseudonym “Richard Awlinson”.) Note that Denning only wrote the first two Avatar books…Waterdeep (and the two follow-ups, Prince of Lies & Crucible) were written by James Lowder.

  3. Yeah, I’m well aware it was done on purpose. I’m just saying it was a bad idea and actively detracted from the setting in both the canon consequences and in bringing to the corpus a number of its most regrettable texts, such as the tie-in adventure trilogy.

    And actually, Denning wrote Waterdeep, while the first two, Shadowdale and Tantras were penned by Scott Ciencin. Lowder only wrote Prince of Lies, while Crucible: The Trial of Cyric the Mad is indeed Denning’s work. The reprints of the Avatar trilogy have dropped the Awlinson pseudonym altogether and credit the real authors.

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