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Friday, March 24, 2017

Indoctrinating the Noob - Books for the Beginner

A short time ago I was asked a rather intriguing and difficult question.  "If you had to pick three books that paint a picture of the Fantasy Genre for someone, which would they be?"  It was asked in the context of gaming/role-playing, and what books might best introduce a potential FRPG gamer with no experience with any facet of fantasy.

If you've read my previous posts, you'll know that my history with gaming really begins with books I loved as a kid.  Early on I fell in love with fantasy fiction, and works like The Chronicles of Prydain and Below the Root were the bridges to more adult fantasy fiction from the earlier books I had been reading in grade school (like The Furious Flycicle by Jan Wahl and my addiction to Encyclopedia Brown books).

 So I get asked this question, and it sounds simple.  The Hobbit is there, right?  OK, what about Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time?  No, definitely not.  Not in the top three.   Amber by Zelazny?  Nope.  Elric by Moorcock?  I don't think so.  What, do you have something against the classics?  Shouldn't a newcomer start at the beginning?

This is hard, because I'm not just introducing someone to fantasy fiction, but I've been asked to pick books that introduce the genre in a way that helps shine a light on what the best of playing D&D might be like.  This is a different animal altogether.  Sure, I'd like to give a noob my entire fantasy library and have them start at Abercrobie and end on Zelazny, but we ain't got time for that!  I've gotta pick a few books that give that 'New Character', 'Dungeon Crawl', 'Level up' kinda feeling.  I want the reader to experience some of the places they might visit, and some of the people (NPC's) they might encounter.

Later on, if they enjoy the reading and the playing, I have a ton of cool books to turn them on to.  For now, we gotta get on with the gettin' on!

So where do I start?  With Gygax of Course, and Gord the Rogue in The Saga of Old City.

It's not the best fantasy novel ever written, not by a lot, but it has all the facets of person, place, and plot that will give the reader a good idea what it means to inhabit the character of, well, a character!  Gord has an interesting background story that is easily digested in the beginning of the book, and moves on to become a near-master thief by the end.  He faces challenges both mundane and monsterous, and if the end goal is to familiarize the reader with aspects of D&D, you could do worse. (In place of this book I might sub The Crystal Shard, if you are a Realms vs. Greyhawk sorta person)

OK, where next?

Well, I want the potential new player to get a feel for the game, really sink themselves into their character, and for this I'd pass them a copy of Joel Rosenberg's book, Guardians of the Flame - The Sleeping Dragon!  Again, I realize that this book was not a tour de force of fantasy fiction, but the plot device of taking the main characters (college students playing a game much like D&D) and transporting them to the fictional world of the game will really help the new gamer understand the fiction they will be playing.  Sure, some might argue that this book will only teach them the bad habit of meta-gaming, but this is an argument for another time.

Gotta pick a third book.  Where is he gonna go with this?  Well, I'm going to stick with my plan here and drop Andre Norton's Quag Keep into the mix.  This book does essentially the same thing as Guardians of the Flame, but we have Andre Norton's voice behind it and it's not at all the same sort of story.  Having played her first RPG with no other than E. Gary Gygax himself, the book was inspired by her game session(s)!  In this short novel, Norton manages to distill some of the best of what it means to be playing a game for the very first time.

I know.  You're probably cringing right now.  What about Conan??  Where the hell is Elric?  Hell, even Kvothe would be better than this crap!  Really?  I think what you want here is easily digestible material that leads almost directly into play.  These books offer fantasy realms directly connected to gaming, and even offer up a glimpse into game mechanics like character sheets and dice rolling.  They are like gaming guides in fantasy fiction format.

These are all books I read AFTER I started playing D&D, and I enjoyed them because they managed to integrate some of the stuff I already loved, but I often wonder how it would have gone down if I had read them BEFORE my first game?  There were no actual-play videocasts or podcasts in 1981.  There was no internet to do a hard target search on Playing D&D.  Books paved the way for how I approached my first game, and every session after that.

If you had to list three books for the new gamer, what would they be?


  1. There were no books released when I got into D&D that I was aware of at the time. I was well versed in Fantasy though, the very first book I ever read was The Hobbit but as an avid reader of comic books I had a huge collection of Conan The Barbarian, The Tigan Empire etc...

    I remember being disappointed that wizards couldn't use swords or wear armour in D&D. Gandalf had a sword after all.

    So the three books I would lend to new players would be The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, Conan and The Dying Earth.

    1. Thanks for reading! Quag Keep was out in 1978, but the others were published after I started playing D&D. These are the books I would recommend now, but certainly back when I started your picks would have been on my list!

  2. It's another one that I don't know how it would read to a non-gamer, but those D&D comics that John Rogers wrote for IDW were outstanding. They'd give someone a good idea of the style of play I've typically enjoyed most, including the fact that it's meant to be FUN...

  3. Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon, because it's so clearly a campaign happening; Magician by Raymond E Feist, because it is zero to hero; and I'd stick with Guardians of the Flame because it takes normal people into a game, and it examines the rules and looks at the game from outside, so it's a great explanation.

  4. The Sleeping Dragon is one of my favorite books (that I had forgotten about) from my youth. Thank you for reminding me of it's title.

  5. You had me at, "So where do I start? With Gygax of Course, and Gord the Rogue in The Saga of Old City."

    *e-Hi Five* :-D

    Three books:
    1) Greyhawk Adventures: Saga of Old City by E. Gary Gygax
    2) Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber
    3) TSR Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game Basic Rulebook by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, edited by Tom Moldvay

    1. Hey Mike! All good pics...

      That last one got me wondering...if you had no one to talk to about #3 (Moldvay) and you read through it (in, say, 1984), how many question would you have after you went cover to cover? I remember discussing and arguing over rules with my friends, and they were as clueless as I

      Reading rulebooks in the beginning let me sometimes more confused heh

  6. I think I'd pick:

    1) First Encounter--any issue (a very basic older Canadian RPG magazine with lots of old-style pictures---think Dragon magazine on 1/5 the budget)

    2) Any of those fantasy "Choose your option" books where you are given a multiple choice set of options, and depending on what you picked, you advance to different pages. Super quick, and the fantasy ones are a direct correlation.

    3)Swords and Devilry, which is a book of short stories featuring my favourite fantasy duo, Fafherd and the Gray Mouser.