Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mordant's Need: The Mirror Of Her Dreams

Taking a break from the non-fiction shelves to re-read a fantasy novel. Well, it was written as one novel but published in two volumes: Mordant's Need by Stephen R. Donaldson (best known for the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant). As of this writing I'm nearing the end of the first volume The Mirror Of Her Dreams.

It's been a long enough time since I read this that I remember only general things, but the story is still suspenseful. And in fact, I'm enjoying it more this time than I remembered enjoying it last time.

You know how sometimes when you're watching a movie or a TV show or reading a book, you want to yell at the characters to do something, and they don't? That experience is very prominent in reading this book; at times, it happens so much it's positively frustrating and I wonder if I'm even enjoying the book. And yet I'm just as eager to turn the page, maybe even more so. I suppose for the author it's a dangerous line; frustrating us helps build suspense but push it too far and it becomes a turn-off. But if any fantasy author is comfortable with playing dangerous games with pushing his readers, it's Donaldson.

Sometimes I find myself skimming. It's a bad habit I must have picked up. I'll zero in on the dialogue and gloss over some of the descriptive text. I've been breaking myself of the habit, forcing myself to go back and read every word until I can picture it all. I don't have this problem with non-fiction, but I have it a lot with fiction. I wonder when I picked up this habit.

It's a very engaging story. I wonder if it would be a good setting for a roleplaying game. As with many fantasy worlds, the way things work is not spelled out with enough explicit detail and constraints for a GM to keep players from finding too-easy solutions and world-breaking implications. By the time you build up the rules clearly enough to let players loose, sometimes it ends up feeling like you've drained away what was so special about the world in the first place. Alternately, reserving the imprecise things (in this book, the magic of mirrors which is called Imagery) for NPCs to use as plot devices can also drain away the interest but in a different way. I think this is one of those worlds that will make you want to roleplay fantasy but which would not really make a good roleplaying world in practice. It needs a level of mystery that is incompatible with players, and depends too much on characters making the kind of bad decisions that might be realistic but that players almost never hobble themselves with.

Read the other half of this discussion.

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