Review: Quag Keep

This is where it all began. The first ever novel based on a role-playing game. The book that launched a genre with a thousand titles. An unkind critic might say that it set the tone of things to come.

Quag Keep is a book of many mysteries. The chief of them is the question of how did Andre Norton turn out something so deeply disappointing. At the time of its publication in 1978, she’d been writing professionally for over

forty years. The World Science Fiction Society had awarded her the Gandalf Grand Master a year previously, the SFWA would name her Grand Master five years in the future. She’d been already nominated twice for the Hugo. These are not honours lightly bestowed and put her amongst names like Tolkien, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Moorcock, Le Guin, Leiber, and a dozen other undisputed masters of the craft. To pick up something from an author of such singular credentials and receive this was somewhat jarring.

quag_keep_old

The original cover

I think it just goes to show that every author had their off days. Moorcock has his Jerry Cornelius tales, Heinlein his Lazarus Longs. Norton, apparently, has this.

The story of Quag Keep is… I’m not actually sure there’s a story. There’s a plot, certainly, but there’s no real tension. The main characters are seven adventurers in the world of Greyhawk, who are also player characters in a role-playing game, who get somehow melded with their players. The players’ memories are subsumed for more or less the entire time, so this is just a device to get them to meet in a tavern and go upon the most railroaded adventure in the history of gaming.

They also each have been given unremovable bracers with sets of dice on them that rule their fate. Additionally, a wizard places a geas upon them to go and solve this thing lest the world be beset by some cataclysm or other.

The prose starts out purple and overwrought, but somehow becomes simpler and easier to read towards the end, possibly as the author got as fed up with the tale as I did. At the start, we get lines like this:

“His pale face above the high-standing collar of his cloak marked him as one who dwelt much indoors by reason of necessity or choice. And, though his features were human enough in their cast, still Milo, seeing their impassivity, the thinness of his bloodless lips, the sharp-beak curve of his nose, hesitated to claim him as a brother man.”

As we near the end, run-on sentences are still the order of the day, but they are more straightforward:

This was no axe-swinging berserker but the were-boar, near as tall as the orc at the massive shoulder, grunting and squealing in a rage that only the death of an enemy might assuage. Milo leaped quickly to one side, lest the animal in battle madness turn on him also, as had been known to happen when friend and foe were pinned in narrow compass.

Likewise, dialogue fluctuates between such florid phrasing and the occasional out-of-place modern idiom.

The characterization is also weak, and especially the focal character, the swordsman Milo Jagon, is boring and his dominant, pretty much only, character trait seems to be insecurity. The story keeps a distance from its characters and they end up having little in the way of personality. This only really works in the case of Gulth, the lizardman, who is inscrutable and difficult for mortals to understand. This works less well for, say, the elf Ingrge, though once you’ve named a character Ingrge, there’s not much you can do to save him.

The lizardman character has some other problems in his depiction. The novel makes a big point of his cold-bloodedness and he nearly dies of the cold in the mountains. He is saved by wrapping him in blankets. Ectothermy does not work that way. It’s the bloody definition of the concept. A blanket, which basically insulates heat, is good for a warm-blooded creature like a human, whose body generates warmth, but will do jack for a reptile who relies nearly entirely on outside heat sources.

The world is… well, sort of there. Though the book is ostensibly based on the World of Greyhawk, this only holds for some of the nomenclature. There’s the free city of Greyhawk, but the world through which our intrepid heroes traverses is all but unrecognizable to one familiar with the more recent and fleshed-out depictions of the setting. According to a Q&A forum thread with Gary Gygax, Andre Norton made most of it up herself, and it cannot be taken as a representation of some sort of proto-Greyhawk.

This brings us to the inclusion of game elements. The novels of Margaret Weis or R.A. Salvatore are often criticized for the reader “being able to hear the dice roll”, for wearing their game system origins on their sleeves. Well, Dragonlance ain’t got nothing on Quag Keep, where the dice really do roll. The characters also seem aware of rules concepts. The party’s cleric is described as a cleric of “the third rank”, and Milo Jagon is explicitly and repeatedly titled “a swordsman”, which was the level title for a 3rd-level fighter. Therefore, we may determine that the party is about third-level. This doesn’t really jive with the stuff that they accomplish, but I’ll let that slide since there is a limit to how much I am willing to complain about the depiction of game rules in a work of fiction. But if you’re going to use them, get them right, dammit!

quagkeepnew

The reprint

Quag Keep is also remarkably didactic in its depiction of the alignment system. We are told how all swordsmen cleave to the side of Law and how orcs are servants of Chaos. On the face of it, it looks like the Moorcockian Law–Chaos thing, but it’s really just good and evil by different names. The narration is remarkably contemptuous of neutrals, for some reason. Seriously, The Dark Elf Trilogy had more subtlety in its treatment of alignment.

So, all in all, we have a third-rate fantasy novel with some remarkably stilted prose. Or do we?

As a gamer, I can tease out another reading. It does not really make the book any better, but hear me out. Read as a critique of a bad gaming session, the book becomes quite interesting (and we also run into the problem of deliberately bad literature, which I’ve tackled in the past). The geas and the cursed dice are a depiction of heavy-handed railroading. Much like the player characters in such a campaign, the adventurers of Quag Keep have no agency and little control over their fates. The partial and controllable nature of the dice in their cursed bracers is a metaphor of this lack of freedom, and the resolution of the story, where they have defeated the Game Master and Milo rolls the GM’s dice symbolizes how they have wrested narrative control of the game from their Viking hat GM.

The characters have no personality because they are poorly roleplayed and are more or less extensions of their teenage players’ developing personalities. Milo is insecure because he’s played by a teenage guy with a crush on the only girl in the group. The game terminology leaks into the story because the players keep talking rules during the game and the Law–Chaos conflict is brought front and centre because of its connection with a simplistic playstyle where all orcs are evil and therefore free game and a character’s alignment is all the nuance their moral outlook requires. The modern idioms in the dialogue are because the players don’t quite handle the elevated style they’re going for in their in-character interaction.

So, Quag Keep is not completely irredeemable and does indeed display the mastery that Andre Norton is known for.

I just think it would’ve worked way better as a short story.

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Laborinthus, or, I Have No Idea What This Thing Is That I Bought, But I Think It Looks Pretty Cool

I had the pleasure of visiting Zurich for a couple of days, this past January. Between the museums and the operas and one ridiculously well-stocked English-language bookstore, I found the time to visit a local gaming store, called Rien ne va plus.

The website doesn’t look like much, but in a back corner of the store, there was a treasure trove of old gaming material. I use the past tense because I bought most of it. My timing could not have been more perfect. The shopkeeper told me he had just that very morning bought in a pile of his own old gaming stuff for sale, in order to clear some shelf space. There was Teenagers from Outer Space. There was Dream Park. There were old Cyberpunk 2020 supplements. Some of them were in German. Additionally, and most interestingly, there were these 1980s French RPG boxed sets. Especially this one called Laborinthus, made in Switzerland, has production values to die for. I picked it up for 20 francs and later, after checking the prices online, concluded the price essentially amounts to theft on my part. He even threw in a Pendragon novel, Kinsmen of the Grail by Dorothy James Roberts (itself an interesting work in the field of gaming tie-in fiction, but more on that later).

It is a beautiful piece of work. Now, my French, much like my German, is enough for survival but not quite sufficient for deciphering a rulebook, at least not in any intelligent time frame. In all likelihood, I will never play this game and as far as I can tell, it’s not the most elegant of designs. However, as an artifact, the box makes me weep. They don’t make stuff like this anymore.

But don’t just take my word for it. Since I don’t grok French, there wouldn’t be a lot of purpose in me telling you about it, so I figured what I’d do is show you. I present to thee Laborinthus, released in 1988 by Éditions ECG.

The box itself.

The box itself.

Here’s the box. Big, black and pretty. It reads “Laborinthus – Engins, Créatures & Gibier – jeu de rôles”, which translates as “Laborinthus – Gear, Creatures and Game – role-playing game”. I’m not entirely certain how “engins” should be translated in this context, since it can mean more or less any kind of equipment but also machines and is also the specific legal term for hunting equipment. “Gibier” translates as “game” as in the animals you hunt, while “jeu” is “game” as in the thing you play.

Lift the lid and…

Lift the lid and…

Inside, there are books! This first one actually isn’t a book, it’s a folder with loose papers inside. Like it says on the top, “Scénarium pour Laborinthus”, it’s a scenario. For Laborinthus. The title “Marrouques ou Le Roi Rospeux” translates as “Marrouques, or King Rospeux”, as far as I can understand. I get the sense that “Rospeux” is more than just a proper noun, since the term is not explained anywhere. I just can’t translate it, my dictionaries are little help and the French Wikipedia isn’t much help, either. It is the first volume of a tetralogy, which means there are three more of these, somewhere out there in the world…

There's more!

There’s more!

The next item after the scenario is the rulebook, all 36 pages of it. There’s also an intimidating piece of folded cardboard in there that brings back bad memories from trying to learn Excel. Incidentally, the rulebook is numbered. I neglected to photograph it, but apparently a thousand copies of the game were made and they are individually numbered. The first 100 are special in various ways. Mine is #281.

This looks... intimidating.

This looks… intimidating.

When you unfold that cardboard, you get… this. “Tables de la Parque”. I think it means “Tables of Fate”, which seems to amount to a combat chart of some description. You can see the game operates on six-sided dice alone.

On the left, you can see a pad of character sheets. On top, there’s the level, then name, then “filiation”, which I think means ancestry or parentage or something to that effect. The example character in the rulebook, Boisisias the Lame (Boisias dit le boiteux), is the son of the fairy Tabitha, for instance. This seems to be a big deal in the game, and the scenario seems to assume that the PCs are the the offspring of King Abraxas. The little boxes on either side of the sheet after that are “Puissance” and “Habileté”, or “Power” and “Skill”. “Sauvegarde” and “Armes” are “Armour” and “Weapons”, respectively. “Gibecière” I’m not entirely certain on, but seems to be for tracking the character’s food stores. “Engins” is their other equipment and “Bourse” is, of course, the purse. I didn’t quite get what the “Curriculum” is, but I think “actions d’Eclat” is a listing of deeds and accomplishments, which seems to be how this game handles tracking experience.

Oooh, pretty pictures!

Oooh, pretty pictures!

Let’s open up “Marrouques”, then. The presentation of this adventure is interesting. Instead of a book, we get a booklet that gives the Game Master (or Maître du Jeu) an overview of the adventure’s background and the encounters, but the actual content of the encounters is presented in the photographs, all ten of them.

More pictures!

More pictures!

They’re apparently from the collections of the University of Lausanne.

The backside

The flipside

On the flipside of the pictures, there’s encounter information, maps, whatever you need to run the encounter. It’s certainly an interesting way to present an adventure module, and though I’ve seen modules with picture cards or appendices of illustrations before, I’ve never seen it done like this.

Page spread from the rulebook

Page spread from the rulebook

Here’s what the rulebook looks like on the inside. The illustrator has a very distinctive style.

Uh… okay…

Uh… okay…

This is another chart. I think it’s for hunting. I don’t quite get what it is with this game and hunting, or if it’s just my lack of language skills.

I wonder what's in these…

I wonder what’s in these…

Beneath the papers and booklets lie these three slipcases. They’re titled Engins, Créatures and Gibier.

Créatures

Créatures

And they contain these illustrated cards. I think collecting these cards, presumably by defeating the creatures therein, is a method of character advancement. “Porte-musc” means musk deer, by the way.

Créatures backsides

Créatures backsides

On the flipsides of the cards, we get explanatory text and what are presumably combat stats.

Gibier

Gibier

Engins

Engins

Funky game. Very strange but cool, in that pre-internet 1980’s style. In the end, there’s not all that much text in the game and it seems designed to be run straight out of the box, so I could see myself actually taking the time to figure out and run it. It has a quirky visual style and I’d like to see how that method of presenting the scenario works in practice. I just can’t quite make out what the tone of the game is supposed to be. Is it straight-up, serious dark fantasy or low fantasy and does it have an ironic sensibility (the “egg of Cargue” or whatever that is seems to suggest that)?

If anyone knows either anything more about this game or alternatively enough French to decipher the text in the photos, please comment and share your wisdom.