Monday, March 7, 2011

Dragontales: “The Wizards Are Dying”

The first story in Dragontales is “The Wizards Are Dying” by John L. Jenkins and illustrated by James Holloway. The story tells of an adventuring group brought together by chance who embark on a quest to defeat a lich that is killing the practitioners of magic. Running thirteen pages in length, it is the second-longest story in the anthology.

A casual search of the web fails to turn up more works of fiction by John L. Jenkins, and Dragontales is his sole gaming-related credit according to the Acaceum, making it likely that Mr. Jenkins was a hobbyist gamer who could turn a phrase well enough to catch the eye of editor Kim Mohan and not a professional author or game designer. Whatever the case, the story does demonstrate that Jenkins had both decent writing chops and an understanding of D&D.

“The Wizards Are Dying” is unabashedly game fiction. Nowadays, in the wake of the glut created by TSR, WotC, and every other game publisher with a brand to sell, game fiction is treacherous ground. Some folks love it; others despise it, but there’s no escaping it. Back in 1980, however, game fiction was the exception rather than the rule. Outside of the pages of Dragon magazine and other professional or amateur gaming periodicals, there wasn’t much of a market for the stuff. Andre Norton had started the ball rolling with Quag Keep back in 1978, but it would be another six years before the TSR game fiction machine churned out the first official D&D fantasy novel.

With that thought in mind, you might be better equipped to understand just how mind-blowing “The Wizards Are Dying” was to my young mind. I was reading a story that used all the elements of D&D that I had come to know over the last year in action. It was like experiencing an adventure come to life in a much more vivid form than the “Example of Play” from the Basic rulebook and the DMG could produce. There was a cleric that healed wounds, a dwarf with an enchanted axe, an elven wizard who threw fireballs, and a bevy of liches, trolls, and even manticores to do battle with. I was in roleplaying rapture!

At the time, “The Wizards Are Dying” was one of my top three favorite stories in the anthology. Now, however, it has slipped a bit in ranking, mostly from my having read better examples of gaming fiction. But this is the fault of the reader, not the writer, and I’m still impressed with the job Jenkins does considering there weren’t many examples of this type of story to draw upon back in 1980. And although the story itself may have lost a little luster over the years, in rereading it I still see the influence that it had upon me and how it shaped my preferences for both gaming and fantasy fiction.

The first half of the story involves assembling the party and getting them apprised of the situation they face. Because of this, we see a lot of what we gamers would call “party downtime”: the adventurers stop for a meal in an inn (where the party naturally forms); they lounge in the inn room and discuss the task ahead; they go seeking a scholar to help them learn of what they face; even the journey to the adventuring site via caravan is covered. I’m probably in the minority, but I always find these parts of a fantasy yarn especially interesting. It is during these quiet moments that we learn the most about our protagonists, and when especially well-written, I often consider them to be superior scenes to the fire and thunder action that occurs later on. For example, my favorite scenes in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” are those which occur after the robbery that brings Fafhrd and Mouser together: the walk back to Mouser’s abode and the meeting and revel that the foursome share upon arrival. These quiet moments, filled with the mundane details of life, shine all the brighter when compared to the foreign extravagances that happen once the plot begins it unfold in earnest. Looking back on the “Wizards Are Dying,” it is entirely possible that this tale helped shaped this love of mine.

As for its influence on gaming and campaign building, the story added a few things to my repertoire. Jenkins sets the tale against a standard fantasy backdrop (and one can only wonder if it was based on his home campaign), but there are a some interesting nuances that may have crept into my developing design proclivities. The Crystal Hills, a place where much of the last half of the tale occurs, may have influenced the encounter with Song of Night Screams in Stonehell Dungeon for example. And it remains an evocative enough locale that I had to make certain it wasn’t something lifted from the World of Greyhawk, making it a creation of Gary Gygax.

One cannot talk about the story without mentioning the illustrations that accompany it. “The Wizards Are Dying” features several pieces by TSR artist and illustration workhorse, Jim Holloway. I’m uncertain of when Holloway got his start with TSR, but I must assume that he was at the start of his career when he did these. This is not to say that they are poorly rendered; anyone familiar with Mr. Holloway’s work will recognize his style immediately upon glimpsing them. The pieces do have a certain “roughness” that is absent in his later work, though, and those who usually claim to find Holloway’s work “ too cartoonish” may find these rawer pieces more to their liking. The only quibble I have with them is that the gnome featured in the tale is depicted as a halfling, but that may simply be a miscommunication between writer, editor, artist, or all three.

“The Wizards Are Dying” is not going to win any awards for writing, but it does accomplish what one supposes it intended to: Tell an entertaining tale firmly grounded in the D&D setting. It provides enough pleasure and comfortable diversion that forgiving its flaws is easy enough. Those whose roots are older and run back deeper into the hobby’s past will undoubtedly get more enjoyment from the story than those who grew up on the more recent products of the game fiction machine.

As now, as promised, something inspired or stolen from "The Wizards Are Dying” for your own fantasy campaign:

Faendril’s Fireproof Cloak: This red but otherwise nondescript article of clothing possesses two abilities. First, it is immune to damage from normal flames and provides the wearer with a +1 bonus to all saves vs. magical fire. Secondly, it has the power to cloak a flame source from sight, effectively “turning off” the fire for a time. To do this, the cloak must be placed over or in front of the fire source. A campfire with the cloak draped over it would cease to produce light as would a torch placed within the folds of the garment, making it perfect for the adventurer who needs to hide his light source without permanently extinguishing it. So long as the flame source is covered in this manner, it produces no visible light or heat, but continues to burn fuel at its normal rate.

(For those of you who need them)
Experience Point Value: 500
Gold Piece Value: 3,000


taichara said...

That sounds pretty awesome, have to say :D

Ka-Blog! said...

I loved Jim Holloway's art in "The Horror on the Hill", "The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth", and of course "Paranoia".