Thursday, January 01, 2009

Recent Reading: Game Night

by Jonny Nexus

Game Night came out a year or so ago, and I've just got around to reading it. (So, as the saying goes, sue ... someone.) I'll assume that most people reading this already own a copy, or can forgive mild spoilers. It turns out to be, I guess, a B-minus or thereabouts.

The central conceit is pretty well known by now; the book tells a roleplaying campaign plot in the form of a piece of actual fiction, while swapping back and forth between that and the players responsible for these events. The extra twist in this case is that the players in this case are literally gods of the game world - but, being plausible polytheistic gods, they're still as idiotic and egomaniacal as any other RPG players, and indeed behave just like, well, roleplayers.

(Both the "players and PCs in parallel stories" and the "gods as roleplayers" ideas have been used before, of course, but I think that this novel is the first thing to make both central to a plot simultaneously.)

To get the obvious out of the way first - yes, this book is indeed sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, at least to a gamer reader. As anyone who's seen his various columns and online zines will know, Jonny Nexus can perfectly nail that ranty, exasperated, more-affectionate-than-is-deserved tone one gets from gamers trading tales of disastrous sessions, bad decisions, and poor rules design. If anyone ever took Cyborg Commando seriously, they'll surely see why they're in a minority after seeing Jonny's both-barrels treatment of the game and how badly he and his group played it. There's a lot of that in this book, and I giggled quite a lot. Non-gamers will probably stare in numbed incomprehension, although there's a bit of universal human failure involved - but anyway, it's not meant for them.

But this is one joke and one conceit, and they can't really support a whole novel, even a fairly short one. Nor does the conceit really hold together; these gods aren't in any way godlike - they're just roleplayers with funny furniture in their games room. The Dead Gentlemen managed the dual-narrative joke a bit better, twice, but they didn't load themselves down with the gods thing, and they only had to keep things going for the duration of a film; similar comment might apply to DM of the Rings and the sadly truncated Chainmail Bikini. I was still giggling late in the book, but then, the raw slapstick value of a the determined meathead munchkin-minimaxer is frustratingly eternal.

The meathead in this case is "the Warrior", playing "Draag", a single-minded anti-paladin, and I guess that one of the reasons why I couldn't find Game Night as funny as some of its fans clearly do is that I long since managed to get away from the sort of group where a bunch of "good" characters and their players will put up with his sort of crap indefinitely. But the Warrior and his playing piece, being table-hogs, dominate the book as they dominate the session (despite honourable attempts at subversion by the Jester and his stereotyped thief character). The joke still works, but it's a joke about mercifully distant memories for me, and there are no other strong jokes to hand to vary the flavour. I just ended up empathising with the GM'ing AllFather; sure, he's an insufficiently experienced railroader, but at least he's trying to do something, and he's putting in the work for the usual negligible thanks from his players.

Which may be why I found the rather truncated ending of the novel distinctly depressing as well as anticlimactic. It's clearly meant to show the AllFather recovering his spirit and even achieving a kind of GM heroism - I had a bad feeling that the author might even be aiming for some kind of significance - and I'm actually all in favour of the principle that real heroism sometimes means that you have to just walk away, but this makes for a sad commentary on roleplaying. It also leaves a bunch of loose plot threads, because that's what the AllFather has to do. And what does it say for a universe that the pantheon eventually has to fall apart like a bad roleplaying group?

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