Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The First Law, by Joe Abercrombie

In the post on The Name of the Wind, I discussed the RPG test for certain stories. And I read this trilogy by Joe Abercrombie just because the commenter Ultrablam wrote, in response to that post:

"Well, you've brushed me off a couple of times about it, presumably because it represents fifty-eight thousand tons of reading in paperback, but if you want fiction that passes the RPG test with flying colors, you've just gotta read The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie."

Now, book recommendations are often like life advice from your great aunt. But Ultrablam, who is writing his own RPG (which you can read about here), knows what he's talking about. So when he said these books passed his own RPG test, I listened.

I'm not in the business of reviewing books here, but these three -- The Blade Itself, When They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings -- are awesome.

Because of how I found out about this trilogy, the RPG test was constantly on my mind when I wasn't reading them. They were too good to think about anything else while reading. But I had to discuss with Ultrablam why he thought these books would ruin the curve for all the other books taking the RPG test. Yes, they were awesome. Especially for the characters, which, well, make an RPG what it is. But the stories themselves would, in my opinion, make for poor games for any group larger than two players, simply because the characters spend so much time apart. The number one rule in my RPG experience is: Never. Split. Up. Not only do bad things happen, but the rest of your gaming crew gets left out of huge chunks of the action.

Turns out Ultrablam's personal RPG test is different than mine. Where I look at whether the story itself could have been born of a group of geeks sitting around a table eating chips and fruit snacks, Ultrablam looks at whether the world of the story -- the geography, the cultures, the populace, the politics -- would be conducive to a good RPG.

In that model, The First Law would make for a kick-ass game.

I'm not revising my model for evaluating certain books for RPG quality. But the theory is under evaluation. Because as a role-player, all I ever have to focus on is the development of characters and interactions within a given world. It's the easy part. But the great GMs of the world (like Ultrablam himself) have to be the Universe. They have to create the world for the characters to move around in. And that lends itself to a whole different style of evaluation.


  1. Another good characteristic in an RPG is make sure there's some action...otherwise your characters are sitting there bored to death, wishing for someone's dog to wander by so they can look deep into its soulful eyes and wonder what it would be like to be a dog and not some poor chooch who's really wishing for dental floss so he can slowly hack off his own head.

    Or maybe that's just me because I have a sore throat and need distraction...your pick.

  2. I found this post very interesting. Like you, I never even considered the other side of the table when you first described the RPG test. So we both went on, assuming the other knew what we meant.

    Glad you ended up liking these books more than advice from your great aunt.

    @Kim - sorry to hear about your RPGs. You might want to ask Z. N. Hively how to make your own fun. Ask him how to turn an opportunity your GM has provided for the PCs to sit around with nothing to do but talk to one another into a chance to be eaten by not one, but two sorts of monsters.