Dungeons & Dragons & Novels: Revisiting Gary Gygax’s Saga of Old Town

Dungeons & Dragons & Novels: Revisiting Gary Gygax’s Saga of Old Town

First, Gary Gygax created Dungeons & Dragons. Then, he created the fantasy world of Oerth and its greatest city, Greyhawk. Then, he set his mind to writing a D&D novel set in Greyhawk — the tale of Gord, a young street urchin who rises from poverty and imprisonment to become one of the greatest thieves on the planet. And in writing Greyhawk: Saga of Old City, Gary Gygax created something quite dreadful.

First things first: We need to separate Gygax the role-playing game pioneer and Gygax the novelist. One can be the creator of the most popular RPG ever and the author of a very bad book; the two are not mutually exclusive. And it’s definitely worth noting that 1985’s Saga of Old City is Gygax’s first-ever novel, (although of course, he wrote a million D&D adventure modules before creating Gord the Rogue) but that doesn’t justify all the unpleasantness he fills on virtually every page of this book. I’m racking my brain trying to think of anything positive to say about this novel, and all I’ve got is that it’s not the worst technically written book I’ve reviewed for “Dungeons & Dragons & Novels.”

Everything else is the pits. The first line of dialogue is “Shiteater.” Gord pees himself on page 13. The first of five female characters, only one of whom has more than a dozen lines of dialogue, is described as having been “a seasoned strumpet by the age of 13.” Gygax also revels in the misery he can inflict upon Gord. He starts in the city of Greyhawk as a young, abused orphan who’s grateful to be caught stealing, thrown into a stinking prison, and forced to hard labour because it gives him a little food semi-regularly. Eventually, he’s brought into the beggars’ guild to be a thief (which is weird because there’s also definitely a thieves’ guild, that D&D staple) where he learns his trade and eventually sets out on a series of adventures throughout the realm of Oerth. Actually, “series of adventures” might be a euphemism for a “series of ho-hum D&D game sessions.” There’s no overarching plot in the novel whatever. Gord has no emotional growth. The “adventures” are utterly unconnected from each other, and even the longest only lasts six of the book’s 33 chapters.

What Saga of Old City is — besides a book that spends only 18% of its pages inside Greyhawk’s Old City district — is a transcript of a player-made Dungeons & Dragons character levelling up. I’ve talked about how it’s kind of fun when you can get a peek at the gears of the D&D mechanics inside the narrative, but without a narrative, it’s gears all the way down. Reading the book is like reading a transcript of a bunch of very standard, very ho-hum gaming sessions: Gord is attacked by bandits. Gord sails on a ship that is attacked by a sea serpent. Gord decides to steal treasure from a thieves’ guild somewhere. Gord must rescue a personality-less damsel in distress and escape a dungeon. Gord is attacked by more bandits. Gord decides to fight in a battle. Gord fights a demon for a magic artefact. At the end of each adventure, there’s an increasingly difficult challenge for him to face, and an increasing amount of treasure that he receives for his troubles. It’s like Gygax rolled up Gord on a character sheet, figured out a few scenarios to place him in, and then meticulously counted the experience points a regular D&D would have earned for fighting that number of bandits and what treasure type he would receive for defeating them. In fact, at the end of the book, Gygax literally reveals what Gord’s D&D stats were during the first and final chapters.

The full cover of Caldwell's cover for Saga of Old City.  (Photo: Rob Bricken/io9) The full cover of Caldwell’s cover for Saga of Old City. (Photo: Rob Bricken/io9)

Somehow, the vast majority of the other characters in the book have even less personality than a completed character sheet. I could only describe them as either their jobs or their characters’ classes (e.g., Thief, Ranger, Druid, etc.). A few I could add an adjective to, such as the evil Beggarmaster and the amiable warrior Chert. Here’s the ultimate example of how poorly these characters are written: At one point, Gord is travelling with a couple of companions he likes, and they have a conversation where “each of them discovered facts about the other.” We never read a line of dialogue, nor find out what these facts are. Sadly, the only two characters that stick out are Gerran, solely because he’s one of Gord’s fellow thieves who ends up being a spy later in the book, and the aforementioned damsel-in-distress, Evaleigh, because she’s in four full chapters. She’s such a one-dimensional stereotype she’s basically an object, another item for Gord to steal, whose treasure is the sex she rewards him at the end of the adventure for rescuing her.

It’s all terrible, but it might be mitigated if Gord weren’t so deeply unlikeable. He’s greedy, petty, and vindicative. He thinks of four of the book’s five female characters solely in sexual terms; the fifth escapes his lust solely because she wants to have sex with someone else. When he joins a Romani troupe — of course negatively stereotyped in the story — he “wins” one woman after a duel but quickly decides she’s “a nag and a bitch.” The most heinous example is when he returns the noble Evaleigh to her home and he’s thrown in prison. He pretty quickly assumes she’s abandoned him and hates her but when he’s freed and realises Evaleigh was sent away to another nobleman because she was trapped in an arranged marriage — even though she sends him a note wishing she could have stayed with him — Gord calls her “a liar and a bitch.” Gord sucks. I hate Gord.

Gygax is clearly trying to write a Robert E. Howard-style, Conan the Barbarian-type fantasy of warriors, sorcery, monsters, and sexy women, but he only succeeds on the most technical of levels. Howard’s characters had personalities and depth, and his stories had an imagination that reached far beyond the first edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Players Guide. If I had to play in D&D games like this, I’d have quit by chapter five.

I feel very weird about hating a novel written by the father of Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s nothing fantastic about the fantasy in Saga of Old City. It’s just deeply, deeply unpleasant. So while I might give the technical writing a 4 on a 1d20 — he’s more competent at scene and actions descriptions than R.A. Salvatore in The Crystal Shard, at least Salvatore’s characters were distinct and memorable — but a penalty of -2, along with a -3 for its outright misogyny. In the end, that leaves Saga of Old City with -1 — technically not a critical miss, but still an utter failure. Somehow, there are six more novels Gygax’s Gord series, which seems utterly impossible given that he defeats a full-on demon at the end of Saga of Old City, has multiple magical weapons and items, and seems (based on the stats Gygax gives for him) to be at least 16th level. I don’t know where he can possibly go from here. I just know I have no desire to find out.

And the less exciting back cover. No comment.  (Photo: Rob Bricken/io9) And the less exciting back cover. No comment. (Photo: Rob Bricken/io9)

Assorted Musings:

  • Consider this a Trigger Warning for just about everything. I have only partially described the horrible misogyny. Don’t read this book.
  • I also found all the place names, rulers, and politics in the book to be completely unmemorable and unfathomable, but I was never familiar with Greyhawk in the slightest, so I’m going to take responsibility for that. The novel has more than enough faults.
  • There is a town named Stoink. That one did stick in my mind.
  • Gord’s final stats at the end of the novel, for the record, are: Strength 17, Dexterity 18, Constitution 16, Intelligence 16, Wisdom 14, and Charisma 15. If you know your D&D, you know these scores are bananas.
  • At one point a pack of “wolfweres” shows up. I thought it was a mind-boggling typo, but it turns out there were creatures called wolfweres in early Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. They’re wolves who can turn into werewolves instead of humans. If Saga of Old City was better, I might have found this amusing.
  • If for some reason, if you’re kidnapped by a psychopath who somehow forces you to read either Saga of Old City or Spellfire, Saw-style, choose Spellfire every time. At least at some points, it’s entertainingly awful.
  • Despite my distaste for the prose, infinite thanks to Christopher M. for sending it to me to review!
  • Next up: I’m fleeing back to the Forgotten Realms via Shadowdale, by Scott Ciencin! Sorry it’s so long since the last D&D&N; since I’ve been helping out Gizmodo full-time while Beth’s on maternity leave, I’ve been too busy for extra-curricular activities. I should be back on track shortly.
  • Don’t read this book.