In the 1st Edition, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide is the famous “Appendix: N.” As much as I like many of the works on that list, there several writers, novels, films and TV shows which came after and are worth mentioning as some of the more immediate influences on my gaming.
This time out, I want to talk about Joe Abercrombie. He is often written about as one of the foremost “grimdark” writers in fantasy fiction today. The “grimdark” label if frequently used as a pejorative by some and a tribal flag by others. From my reading of his blog and interviews with him, he seems somewhat amused by the term and suggests that what he writes is gritty, non-heroic fantasy. The reason I like it is that it simply feels more honest than the shiny heroic sort of fantasy. There is a lot of cynicism in Joe’s work, sometimes an oppressive amount.
Best Served Cold one of the stand-alone novels take place in the same setting of his First Law series is one of those deeply cynical books. The main character is a female mercenary who begins the story being betrayed by her employer. The rest of the story is her getting her revenge. In the process of getting revenge on a few people, lots of other innocent people die, horribly. For the most part, the worst people in the story die, horribly, along with the innocents. The themes of Joe’s books generally run along the lines of, “Powerful people get and maintain that power by being ruthless bastards and are willing to do whatever is necessary.”
The First Law series, which I highly recommend if you enjoy this sort of fantasy, doesn’t possess many heroes, if any. What it does have is the basic notion that a lot of people get caught up in bad situations that are partly of their own making and partly a result of just bad luck. Anyone who has read many biographies of powerful people or the history of tumultuous periods knows that what usually happens when people find themselves in ugly situations is that they do what they have to in order to survive. Some people do the “right thing” and frequently end up dead. A lot of what is going on in this book is people trying to do the right thing, finding themselves in a situation where the horrible thing is more effective and expedient and decide to do that instead.
The book doesn’t have a lot of magic or monsters (unless you count the people) but when it shows up, it is brutal. Magic has big downsides in this world. There are quicker ways to gain magical power but they come at terrible costs, which includes one’s humanity. The few “wizards” that we find are manipulating nations and armies in order to satisfy their own grudges and feuds. They view the normal people as lesser beings to use for the purposes of the sorcerers, which from the view of these powerful beings, are “good.”
The series is morally ambiguous. Yes, the First of the Magi is a total dick, but without him and his machinations, the Union (the primary kingdom in the story) would be overrun by barbarians from the north or a horrible empire that would enslave everyone. So take your pick, a decent life with some unpleasant realities or rape, pillage, murder, and enslavement. Hmmm. Decisions decisions.
Inside of all of this is the theme of normal people just trying to do the best they can with the worst possible situation. They love their families and do what they can to protect them, even if it includes doing terrible things. They struggle. They know they are doing bad things and sometimes they are justified and sometimes there’s just no right answer. The choices are this bad thing that worse thing or the life of a loved one or the destruction of your home. So you do what you think is best and live with it.
There’s a quote toward at the beginning of Part II in The Blade Itself which sums up the series.
“Life-the way it really is-is a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse.” Joseph Brodsky
This idea, in particular, has worked its way into my current campaign. More or less, there’s not a ruler that the PC’s are aware of who isn’t a ruthless asshole that waded through a sea of blood to get to their current position. Even the least “bad” is a barbarian usurper inspired by Red Sonya and Conan. The whole lot are awful in one way or another, and yet, they mostly maintain the order of things in which their subjects are able to live and feed their families. For the players in my campaign, this creates all kinds of difficult decisions. They can’t liberate the whole region. All these rulers are more powerful than the PC’s are and they have armies or minions. Bad things are happening all around and the various powers are more than happy to pay the PC’s for their services. So who do you fight?
That’s it for today. I’ll start adding the name of authors and other inspirational works as I add these blog posts.