Masquerades

Author: Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb
Published: July 1995

I’ve survived my struggle through some seriously dire books lately by reminding myself that if I persevered for long enough, I’d get to the next novel from Novak & Grubb. For my money, their Azure Bonds is still the best of all of the Realms novels so far, a gold standard which none of the fifty-one novels since then have been able to top. And now my dearest wishes have come true — we’ve got a standalone Harpers novel starring Alias and Dragonbait, the heroes of Azure Bonds! But does it live up to the original, or have I been getting my hopes up over another disappointment like Song of the Saurials? Let’s find out.

This novel takes place entirely in Westgate, a city that we visited briefly in Azure Bonds but which, despite being a major port city on the Inner Sea, has never been featured in any of the other Realms books. I’ve often said before that I’m a fan of urban settings for fantasy, and Masquerades does a good job of scratching that itch. We see a thorough cross-section of the city as the characters traverse its filthy slums and noble ballrooms, and in the process get little slice-of-life moments for a variety of minor side characters. All of this sells me on the concept that Westgate is a living city rather than a painted backdrop. It’s not as richly detailed as Elaine Cunningham’s take on Waterdeep, but it’s a damn sight better than a cardboard city like Phlan.

I find the timeline curious, however. It’s ostensibly set in 1368 DR, eleven years after the events of Azure Bonds, but there’s no sense that time has passed for these characters — the gang gets back together as if it’s only been a few months since their last adventure, and nobody seems to be slowing down as they get older. (Dragonbait apparently has some hatchlings now, but that’s the only concession.) It feels as if the authors had planned for it to be set earlier, but were forced to change it when the AD&D 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting boxed set advanced the setting’s timeline to 1368.

Plot

Masquerades tentatively ventures into a literary genre that’s barely been touched on by the Realms novels: romance. [1] The main plot is an action-adventure story about Alias and Dragonbait being hired to bring down the Night Masks, the fearsome criminal organization that runs the city of Westgate from the shadows. The B-plot and emotional core of the book, though, is a sort of coming-of-age story for Alias where she navigates the murky waters of her first real romantic relationship. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for character-focused stories which deviate from the usual “go on quest, fight monsters” fantasy archetype, and this certainly qualifies.

This plot faces a formidable challenge, though: how do you tell a story about a pair of heroes taking on a huge, powerful, and deeply entrenched criminal organization without it becoming a one-sided beatdown? Fortunately, it’s handled adroitly enough to keep things mostly in the realm of plausibility. I was afraid that it would be a “lone hero walks into town, beats up the lead bad guy, and suddenly all crime stops” kind of thing where complex problems are resolved by heroic acts of violence. Instead the characters acknowledge that the Night Masks are a problem too big to solve by violence, then pick a more realistic goal: locating and negating the source of the Night Masks’ immunity to divination magic so that the authorities can determine the identities of their leaders and take the gang apart. Rather than just beating people up for information, Alias unravels the Night Masks’ organization by engaging in “follow the money” detective work and earning the trust of key informants. We also get a decent explanation for the obvious question of “why don’t the Night Masks just kill her?”: Alias is becoming a folk hero for the common people, and the Night Masks don’t want to make her a martyr who unites the people of Westgate against them, so they need to find a way to use her in their schemes instead. It’s a nice justification that shoves the plot even further away from “heroes punch criminals” and orients it more towards intrigue.

There’s a clever twist at the end where the story abruptly changes gears; suddenly you see everything from a different character’s perspective and are left to figure out what’s going on by yourself. It’s not a difficult mystery, but I still enjoyed how the sudden turn subverted my expectations and built suspense for the end of the story.

So the bones of the plot are quite well-constructed. But I wrote of Elfsong that “the solid construction makes the plot’s cheats and contrivances stand out even more, like stains on a fine white tablecloth,” and that’s true here as well. How convenient is it that, out of all of the thousands of houses in Westgate, Jamal takes refuge in the one to which Alias and Dragonbait were already headed? How unlikely is it that they’d just happen to run into Olive in such a dramatic way? How could you move a couple hundred city watchmen to the scene of a crime-in-progress without alerting the Night Masks? How does a wizard spend a week impersonating a person he’s never met so convincingly that someone who’s known that person all their life doesn’t get suspicious? Those sort of things. The little unexplained coincidences and implausibilities added up until my suspension of disbelief was, if not quite destroyed, at least thoroughly dented.

This is pure self-indulgence on my part, but while reading this I found myself wishing that they’d just gone full-on romance novel. More specifically, instead of having the Night Masks plot at the forefront and Alias’ character development underlying it, I wished it had been a more character-driven novel all about Alias growing up where the plot was just a vehicle to make it happen. The Night Masks are somewhat bland villains, so the character development is a lot more fun to watch than the bits where Alias plays Eliot Ness.

Themes

As you might expect from a novel called Masquerades, the theme is masks and hidden identities. Nearly all the characters disguise themselves at one point or another. The leaders of the Night Masks, the Faceless and his Night Masters, all wear magical identity-concealing masks. One of the big battle scenes happens during a masquerade ball where all of the noble attendees are wearing disguises. You get the idea; it’s unsubtle but quite serviceable. The upshot is that nobody in Westgate can be trusted, which gives the book an amusingly paranoid feel. Sometimes the reader is let in on the identity of a disguised character; other times they’re left to figure it out for themselves. (It’s not particularly difficult to work out, but as a reader I appreciate being made to do even a modicum of thinking.)

Characters

Alias is a well-developed character here. There’s a lot more to her than just “good at hitting things with swords”: she comes up with clever plans to further her goals and executes them well, mostly holding her own in the war of intrigue with the Night Masks. We see the delightful contrast between her unshakeable self-assurance when dealing with her employers and foes versus how uncertain and careless she is when dealing with emotional and romantic matters. And I very much appreciate that, despite being an attractive female protagonist, she’s not particularly sexualized. In fact, she’s aggravated by other people judging her by her appearance:

Alias leaned against a bedpost and read the letter aloud.
“‘Lovely Alias and stout-hearted Dragonbait,’” she began, then looked up at the saurial. “How come I never get to be stout-hearted?”
“How come I never get to be lovely?” Dragonbait parried.
“Hmph,” she said, and continued reading.

It’s such a relief to spend time with a female character who feels like a real person after slogging through so many women used as sex objects in the recent Ed Greenwood novels. And we’re still treated to the same sardonic internal narration in her point-of-view scenes:

Mintassan was tall with broad shoulders, but somewhat overweight — his gut parted the center of his vest. Nothing, Alias thought, that a few laps around the Sea of Fallen Stars couldn’t take care of.

The paladin is a class that’s been almost completely ignored by Forgotten Realms authors thus far. As far as major characters go, there was Kern from Pool of Twilight, Vilheim from Soldiers of Ice, and Dragonbait — three that I can recall in the fifty-six novels so far. It’s curious — you’d think that the opportunities for moral quandaries, the struggle between doing one’s duty and doing what’s right, would be great for creating interesting drama. I think part of the problem is the traditional stereotype of the paladin among D&D players: a humourless, hidebound damper on everyone else’s fun, more concerned with what their god will think than with party cohesion, mission success, or even survival. But folks with that preconception need only look to Dragonbait to see how to do a paladin well: thoughtful and compassionate, principled but not judgemental, with a thick skin and a wry sense of humour. He’s very much a supporting character rather than a deuteragonist here, getting a handful of point-of-view scenes but little in the way of character development, yet he’s a necessary foil for his headstrong and impulsive companion.

The halfling bard Olive Ruskettle also returns as a supporting character, but she doesn’t come off nearly as well character-wise. She seems subdued compared to her earlier appearances, less snarky and self-possessed. Despite getting a couple of good character moments, like when she thinks Alias is dead or when she suffers a panic attack upon returning to Cassana’s former manor, she’s ultimately more of a passive observer to events than someone who pushes the plot forward. Here she’s a loyal employee of the “designated good people” noble house, so she uncritically follows their orders instead of pursuing her own devious agenda like she did in the Finder’s Stone trilogy. Feels like a waste, really — Olive at her best is a trickster who disrupts everything she touches, not just a camera for the audience to watch scenes from.

Victor Dhostar, the noble scion whom Alias falls in love with, is a mixed bag. It was clear from the get-go that he was going to be some sort of villain, so I appreciated that the novel didn’t insult my intelligence by trying to hide it for the entire story. Instead it’s made clear that he’s up to some sort of no good, but you’re left to wonder about the nature and scope of his villainy, which works much better. But when the authors finally dropped the pretense and showed him being evil, he lost my interest right away. He ends up as a fairly stereotypical sociopath, devoid of any humanity, redeeming traits, or motivations besides “I’m ambitious and evil.” In general, if you show me a villain who does bad things because they believe they’re necessary or good, or who has internal conflicts, or whom you can appreciate even if you disagree with their actions, I’ll be hooked. But show me a complete monster and I’ll be bored, because I can’t summon any empathy or understanding for someone who’s just evil for evil’s sake.

Alias acquires a couple of new allies in this novel in the form of Jamal, an activist actress whose firebrand performances draw the Night Masks’ ire, and Mintassan, a powerful transmuter who just wants to be left alone to do his research. Jamal works rather well because she’s deeply tied into the plot and themes of the novel — as an actress she’s often disguised or masked, and she stands in direct opposition to the Night Masks and the other powers that be in Westgate. Her theme of “relentless idealism even when everything looks hopeless” runs counter to Alias’ more cynical viewpoint, so there’s some interesting inter-character conflict there. You can admire her bravery even when you’re thinking “Jesus, lady, are you crazy?”

Mintassan, alas, is the opposite. The idea is that he’s supposed to develop over the course of the novel, gradually becoming politically active and willing to fight alongside the heroes. Laudable, certainly, but the way it’s implemented just doesn’t work. Most of his character development scenes are alone with Jamal rather than with the heroes, so they feel like a completely disconnected subplot that takes attention away from the important stuff. I kept finding myself thinking “Who cares about watching this quiet moment between these side characters? The heroes were up to something cool and I want to see it play out!” Because he doesn’t have any significant interaction with the heroes or impact on the plot until the end, he feels like a waste of space. There’s also a cringeworthy romance between him and another character where the authors just shove the two of them together at the end with practically no buildup at all; the end result is forced and artificial. This would have been a better novel if Mintassan hadn’t been in it at all, I think.

As villains go, the Night Masks are acceptable but a bit flavourless. Most of the Night Masks whom Alias interacts with are just disposable thugs who don’t add much to the story. Some of them get names and a bit of personality, but it’s not enough to hook the reader’s attention. Their leaders, the Night Masters, don’t get much characterization because they’re a crowd of anonymous masked figures — not much for an author to work with there, apart from one of them who gets unmasked partway through. That leaves the Faceless as the only member of the Night Masks who gets properly fleshed out, and even he doesn’t get much personality besides “evil and greedy.” But to be fair, the authors did a pretty good job with making him a practical, dangerous villain. He’s cunning, turning setbacks to his advantage. He handles his underlings’ failures with criticism and measured punishment rather than Darth Vader-style summary execution. He’s got contingency plans which check the heroes’ successes. Best of all, he doesn’t indulge in many textbook Evil Overlord dialogue clichés. It would have been better if he’d gotten a more distinct personality, but it’s not bad.

Writing

The authors seem to have learned from their mistakes in Song of the Saurials, where there were far more point-of-view characters than the plot could support. Here, as in Azure Bonds, Alias gets the majority of the screen time. The occasional interludes from other people’s points of view are there to further her plot and/or character rather than being annoying distractions. (There were a couple of scenes between Jamal and Mintassan that felt cuttable, but they weren’t numerous enough to drag the action to a halt.)

There’s a fair amount of third-person omniscient writing here where the point of view skips between different characters in the same scene with no warning. I found it distracting and slightly annoying. It lets the author show more details to the reader, but I much prefer the greater sense of immersion you get from seeing entire scenes from a single character’s viewpoint.

You can tell that the authors were really into Planescape at this point. One of the characters is a plane-hopping wizard who uses some Sigilian cant in a fairly clumsy manner, and there are a few other references to Planescape scattered here and there. (This will become relevant when we get up to 1997, when Novak & Grubb published a pair of novels that take place partly in the Realms but mostly on the planes.)

My immersion was banged around pretty badly by Olive using the word “Dumpster” at one point, which is a trademarked word that’s only existed in the English language since 1936. That’s right up there with Shadowdale talking about a forest’s Spanish moss in the “accidental real-world intrusions into fiction” hall of shame.

Conclusion

Grade: B

Despite the various flaws that I’ve mentioned above, Masquerades was still a book that I kept wanting to pick back up again. The pacing was good, interleaving action with scenes of dialogue and character development, the plot was twisty and interesting, and the characters were old favourites. It’s not as substantial or as well-written as either Azure Bonds or The Wyvern’s Spur, but it’s still an entertaining read. I fear that I won’t be able to say the same about many of the upcoming novels, so I should savour it while I can.

It’s bittersweet, though, as this is the last hurrah for these characters. Apart from Dragonbait’s cameo in the D&D 5th Edition Tomb of Annihilation module, they haven’t been heard from since.

Footnotes

[1] A few previous novels have featured romantic relationships that were built up slowly over the course of the story; The Wyvern’s Spur and The Parched Sea spring to mind right away. But in none of the others were the romances as necessary for the plot as this one is here.

13 Replies to “Masquerades

  1. My thoughts:

    -See, this is what I was getting at when I complained in my comments on your review of Azure Bonds about Olive’s dialogue. Whether she’s tossing out modern slang like “Boogers” and “His Marshmallowness” or using words that would be largely out of place, Olive’s dialogue is…not good for suspension of disbelief.

    -The cheats and contrivances you point out are a fair point. The thing that really pushes my buttons are the plans that have so many moving parts and depend on so many characters reacting ‘just so’ that one little thing could send the whole thing crashing down. This is a problem I had with many of the Batman comics I’ve read, which seem to depend on everything happening in exactly the right way.

    -Continuing with the Batman analogy, what’s your opinion of a character like the Joker, who as one character put it, just wants to “watch the world burn”? Or someone like Professor Moriarty, who apparently commits his crimes simply as a means of academic interest? Even Shakespeare’s Iago has been said to have a “motiveless malignancy”. Even the likes of Szass Tam and Manshoon have the same broad goal of conquest and power as the Faceless does. Does this sort of villain depend on the execution?

    -Jamal thinks that Cassana is after her for doing a play about Cassana and “her lich boy-toy”. So a dangerously powerful undead spellcaster residing in Westgate is common knowledge, and yet there’s no reaction from either the authorities or the general public? Okay then…

    -I don’t know how much Novak and Grubb had to do with this (probably not a lot), but the optimistic ending of Masquerades was turned inside out by the 3rd Edition changes. Westgate not only didn’t transition into a democracy, but the noble houses reasserted their power and the Night Masks became more dangerous than ever by being headed by a cabal of vampires. Nor did the Westgate public at large seem too upset about the lack of democracy taking root or the nobles’ return to power. One can only imagine how Jamal probably felt about this and her fellow citizens.

    -You nailed it about the kind of paladin Dragonbait is. One of the best parts of the novel is his reaction to finally being depicted onstage in Jamal’s plays. The character development of Dragonlance’s Sturm Brightblade is also an interesting comparison, from starting with how Tanis found loopholes in Sturm’s knightly code to get him to agree to certain courses of action, to Sturm’s frustrations with how hidebound the knighthood that meant so much to him became.

    One thing that fascinated me about Dragonbait, as well as characters like Tika Waylan and Pikel Bouldershoulder, was how often TSR’s products were willing to break their own game rules. Dragonbait was a paladin when the rules said only humans could do it, Tika transitioned from being a thief to a fighter despite her Strength score not being high enough (minimum 17 under the rules of the time) and Pikel not only transitioned from what was probably a fighter class to become a druid (only humans could change classes per the rules at the time, and the rules also said dwarves couldn’t become druids in the first place) and a good-aligned one to boot (druids had to be strictly True Neutral per the rules).

    -I think the decade since Song Of The Saurials comes into play when Olive reminds Dragonbait that Alias is almost like a teenager, given how headstrong she is. In the last novel, she still had that childlike need to be accepted by Finder, and while she might physically age very slowly (even if she does at all) her mentality progresses in a way similar to a natural-born human’s would. Alias might be a D&D Lisa Simpson, mature beyond her years, but even Lisa still has several moments of little-girl enthusiasm and wonder.

    1. Does this sort of villain depend on the execution?

      That’s a great question. My personal opinion is that straight-up sociopaths like the Joker, Iago, Hannibal Lecter, etc. are entertaining in small doses — they’re larger-than-life characters who are unpredictable and do a great job of moving the plot forward. But the more time they spend on-screen, the more threadbare and tiresome they become. I’m happy to spend five acts with Iago, but if there were a whole series of plays about him going around screwing up people’s lives “just because,” I’d get sick of it very quickly. I’d start asking “Why does he keep doing this? What is he getting out of it? Why should I care that he keeps doing this?”, and once I start asking those questions and getting no answers, my interest starts to wane. Ditto for the Joker: I’m happy to spend a single movie with him, but the constant cycle of “Joker escapes, sadistically murders a bunch of people for no reason, gets recaptured by Batman” in the comics is just tedious as hell. Various writers have already told every interesting story you can wring out of that character, but the format of comics prevents them from adding the thing he needs most — a good ending.

      I wouldn’t lump Moriarty in with that group, though, because he’s got more going on than just “crazy evil.” Most sociopath characters just do evil stuff because they’re evil and that’s what evil people do. He has a motive — he does crime because it’s the only way he can get an intellectual challenge — and he displays a degree of personal honour in his dealings with Holmes. So while he’s definitely amoral and twisted, he’s got some aspects of his personality that the reader can latch onto and understand. Similarly, take someone like Cassana from Azure Bonds. She’s a villainous sociopath, but she’s got deep-rooted personality traits (pride and vanity) that inform all of her decisions and make her a more convincing, comprehensible character.

      I’ve been thinking about villains a lot lately, actually. You can even have novels that work well with no villains at all — The Parched Sea, for example, where the Zhentarim are just a big mob of faceless mooks. The way they handle it is to treat the Zhentarim incursion as the equivalent of a natural disaster, like a forest fire or flood, so that the interesting content is in how the various factions of protagonists work together to solve the problem rather than in the interplay between heroes and villains. The essential thing is that there’s a meaning to the conflict somewhere that makes the audience care, and “a crazy dude showed up” doesn’t give you a lot of space to build meaning.

      As an example, compare Manshoon in Spellfire with the Manshoon from all later novels. In Spellfire, he’s driven to attack by his grief over the Shadowsil’s death, so there’s an emotional resonance to his conflict with the heroes who killed her. In later novels, he’s doing evil stuff… just because. He’s got no personality traits besides “ambitious” and nothing going on in his life apart from being evil. There’s a hole in the plot where an opponent should go, and he’s just there to fill that gap.

      So to answer your question, I’d say that yes, it depends on the execution. You have to either give a villain enough motivations and human traits to make them understandable to the audience — and you don’t even need all that much to make them work — or use them sparingly enough that you don’t start boring the reader.

      So how does this impact my opinion of Victor? Well, if you take this book by itself, he works okay. He’s not being a sociopath on-screen for very long, since he only unmasks himself near the end, and until then he’s the centre of some mystery. But I’ve slogged through so many instances of the “greedy, ambitious sociopath” villain stereotype in the Realms novels that I’m just deeply, utterly bored by it now. Seriously, there are so goddamned many. It’s the lazy writer’s excuse for why someone should get in the heroes’ way: “He’s just evil!” I keep hoping for villains with rich motivations and well-fleshed-out personalities, and I keep being disappointed.

      Re: the eventual fate of Westgate: Keep in mind that the creative team for the Forgotten Realms in the early 1990s was very different from the team in the late 1990s. In that time TSR failed, many of the veteran employees left, and Wizards of the Coast published D&D 3E with a mix of new blood and some TSR people who stayed on. (Jeff Grubb had long since quit by that point.) So it’s not too surprising that the fiction from the mid-1990s didn’t have a long-term impact on the setting. Furthermore, the needs of a good novel and a good setting are different, so it’s hard to fault the setting designers of 3E for changing things. There aren’t nearly as many exciting adventures to be had in a happy, well-run democracy where crime has been abolished, after all.

      Re: the rules violations: I’ve commented before about how I don’t particularly care about the game rules when I’m reading the fiction. All the examples you’ve mentioned above are cases where breaking the rules made for a better story, and I shudder to think how banal and tedious these novels would be if they’d been required to hew strictly to the game rules. In every single one of these books, I can think of at least one dramatic, cinematic scene that would have been impossible in an AD&D game. (For instance, the battle between Drizzt and Errtu in The Crystal Shard would have been a lot shorter, messier, and dead-elfier. Good luck one-shotting that balor with your +3 frost brand, buddy.)

  2. I probably would’ve given this one a C+. I really, really hated the ending romance, because it plays into the trope of a super hot girl waking up and realizing that the homely nerd is the guy she’s wanted all along, even though he’s done nothing to display a personality she might be interested in. I think I found Westgate a less convincing city than you did, as well.

      1. I just thought of a better emotional arc for the novel, which they kinda explored but not too well. They could have separated Alias and Dragonbait in such a way that she had to learn to function without him. Much as I like the idea of Alias settling down with the saurials, since they are the family she has now, having her go back home with Dragonbait at the end of Masquerades made it feel like she didn’t finish growing up. And they could have still shoved in whatever silly romantic plots they wanted, but this would have been much more compelling and tailored to Alias’s unique character. Most people don’t need to learn how to adventure without the guy who provided your soul.

        1. Yeah, they really dropped that one on the floor, didn’t they? You’re right to call that out; I should have mentioned it in the review. (Background for others: There’s an attempt at the start to play that card, where Dragonbait is all “I’ll stick around for ten days and then go home” and Alias is briefly worried about coping on her own without him… for about a paragraph. Then that thread is never mentioned again and everything is wrapped up in much less than ten days.)

  3. Ditto for the Joker: I’m happy to spend a single movie with him, but the constant cycle of “Joker escapes, sadistically murders a bunch of people for no reason, gets recaptured by Batman” in the comics is just tedious as hell.

    This is why I created such huge rogues galleries in my Marvel fanfiction. Instead of reusing the same few villains over and over again, I can get more mileage out of each villain when they don’t show up too often and save the arch-enemies for special occasions. The fact that the series eventually end doesn’t hurt either.

    So it’s not too surprising that the fiction from the mid-1990s didn’t have a long-term impact on the setting. Furthermore, the needs of a good novel and a good setting are different, so it’s hard to fault the setting designers of 3E for changing things. There aren’t nearly as many exciting adventures to be had in a happy, well-run democracy where crime has been abolished, after all.

    I actually like the fact that they changed it back. I forgot to mention it in my first comment, but it always strained my disbelief how easily everybody in Westgate seemed to suddenly become informed democrats at the apparent flip of a switch. That type of drastic social change often doesn’t happen without major upheaval. Even when it does, there’s often very complicated negotiations between different factions and parts of the population to figure out exactly what a new political arrangement will look like.

    In every single one of these books, I can think of at least one dramatic, cinematic scene that would have been impossible in an AD&D game. (For instance, the battle between Drizzt and Errtu in The Crystal Shard would have been a lot shorter, messier, and dead-elfier. Good luck one-shotting that balor with your +3 frost brand, buddy.)

    I always chalk these things up to ‘house rules and DM fiat’. Even Gary Gygax didn’t use all the rules he wrote in the old 1st Edition days. My Greyhawk fanfiction does stuff that would probably break the rules, but the ‘rules’ as I imagine them are a mishmash of the first three editions that would probably be unplayable as an actual game.

    1. Yes, but why have rules at all when you’re writing? The rules of a tabletop RPG are a means to an end: they give a group of people a framework to tell a collaborative story. They tend to fall into two general categories. On the one hand you’ve got conflict resolution tools, like combat rules and skill tests, that determine whose version of a particular detail prevails. On the other you’ve got setting tools: everything from the choice of what classes to include down the rule about druids being neutral in AD&D, which communicate details about the setting and enforce a degree of consistency by preventing people from making characters which diverge severely from the setting’s norm.

      When you’re writing a book, both of these are entirely unnecessary because the storytelling isn’t collaborative. Who decides what happens when the characters face a challenge? The author decides, based on what would be most dramatically appropriate. Who decides what the setting should be like? Again, the author, based on what they think is most interesting. Adherence to RPG rules in fiction is as meaningless as putting a car’s turn signals on a shopping cart: it’s a useful safety measure in a certain context, and entirely pointless outside of that specific context.

  4. Yes, but why have rules at all when you’re writing? The rules of a tabletop RPG are a means to an end: they give a group of people a framework to tell a collaborative story…Adherence to RPG rules in fiction is as meaningless as putting a car’s turn signals on a shopping cart: it’s a useful safety measure in a certain context, and entirely pointless outside of that specific context.

    In my experience, they can help in the same way that ‘power ratings’ can help comic book writers by offering a guideline as to what the characters can and can’t do. Spider-Man can bench press about 10 tons, so that somewhat informs the kinds of feats he can do. What works for him won’t necessarily work for the Hulk or Captain America. Same thing with the RPG rules-if I have an idea of what all the characters can do, whether it be a wizard’s spell lists or a monster’s special abilities, that can help inform the narrative and give me ideas on how to write things like fight sequences.

    In flipping through the Monster Manuals and magic item lists, I’ve found ideas that have helped me advance the plot of my Greyhawk fanfic novels. I can infer what a magic item can do…and what its limits are, so that a clever character can exploit them for his own ends. A nobleman might think he’s immune to being poisoned through his food or drink because he has a periapt of proof against poison…but that periapt only works against toxins and venoms, not other substances like glass shards coated in a drug that deadens the sensation of pain as they cut up his insides. The drug isn’t actually toxic, so the periapt is useless against it…

    …but the nobleman doesn’t know that.

    Every fictional universe has its “rules” about what is or isn’t possible in that setting, and these “rules” help shape the narrative. The rules for D&D, and indeed any RPG setting, offer a large part of the universe’s “rules” ready-made right out of the box.

    1. It’s true that internal consistency is very important. All storytellers, whether in fiction or comics or tabletop games, need to make the world’s expectations clear to the reader up front. Worlds without rigorous internal consistency feel like random cardboard places where anything can happen at the author’s whim.

      But the point is that the rules are ultimately guidelines, not a straitjacket — even moreso in fiction than in games. Using them for inspiration is fantastic! What an author needs to do is separate the intent of the rules from their in-game implementation. Let’s use Pikel as an example. The “druids must be true neutral” rule in AD&D was there for a reason: it established a fact about the setting that druids are deeply concerned with the balance of nature. So when you find that it would be good for your story to make a particular character become a druid, you’re faced with a choice. You can either hew to the letter of the rules and say “Oh well, I guess he’s too nice, so it’s not allowed,” or you can hew to the spirit of the rule and find other ways to demonstrate how the character cares about the balance of nature. The former is arbitrary and damages your story for no good reason; the latter is awesome because it emphasizes the “druids care about the balance of nature” setting detail and gives you a reason to develop the character further.

      1. The former is arbitrary and damages your story for no good reason; the latter is awesome because it emphasizes the “druids care about the balance of nature” setting detail and gives you a reason to develop the character further.

        I think we’re kind of talking past each other here, and that we agree on the basic point of not sticking too closely to the game rules as written if they detract from the story. Gaming groups have been doing that since Gary Gygax’s day, and authors like Salvatore et al. do it too. I wasn’t posting that comment about Dragonbait, Pikel or Tika as a criticism, but as an interesting point when some of those characters end up getting official sourcebook stats and break the rules-which comes back to how tricky it can be to write fiction that’s based on some sort of game.

        The overlap between literature and gaming, and the resulting discussions about it, are one reason I love your blog so much.

        1. Ahh, I getcha. Yeah, I think we have similar ideas here. Seeing what other people thought after I post each of these reviews has become one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole process.

          I agree with you that “suddenly, enlightened democracy!” doesn’t make a lot of sense and resetting Westgate was a good idea, but it would have been ideal if they’d at least acknowledged the events of the novel in later setting materials. They could have said “The city is in chaos after the overthrow of an elected council and there’s a turf war between the weakened Night Masks and a new gang” — that way you’d still get the opportunities for adventure that a D&D setting needs while making the world seem like a place that changes and evolves.

          But now that I think it over some more, I don’t blame them for not doing that. The market for TSR’s novels was steadily shrinking, so the total number of people in the world who both read and cared about the long-term outcome of Masquerades was probably much smaller than the total number of people who bought the 3E FRCS. Including anything but the largest changes from the novels would probably be more trouble than it was worth for them because leaving the status quo ante in place meant that all of the pre-existing setting material about Westgate in the various 2E supplements, Dragon articles, etc. were still useful in 3E.

  5. I agree with you that “suddenly, enlightened democracy!” doesn’t make a lot of sense and resetting Westgate was a good idea, but it would have been ideal if they’d at least acknowledged the events of the novel in later setting materials. They could have said “The city is in chaos after the overthrow of an elected council and there’s a turf war between the weakened Night Masks and a new gang” — that way you’d still get the opportunities for adventure that a D&D setting needs while making the world seem like a place that changes and evolves.

    Actually, they kind of did in the 3E supplement Lords Of Darkness when they set up the new Night Masks. They mentioned how one of the Manshoon clones set up a lair under Westgate and was turned into a vampire. The death of Victor Dhostar left the position of the Faceless wide open, and a few human thieves who decided to go for it were massacred by the Manshoon clone’s magic. He changed his name to Orbakh and converted several of his most devoted servants into vampires, becoming the new Night Masters. Orbakh’s goal is to use the Night Masks to take over Westgate, and then use it as a basis to set up his own undead empire. He even created a “night’s mantle” spell that allows vampires to walk around in broad daylight without it affecting them.

    So, in a way, Alias, Dragonbait, Olive and Mintassan unwittingly made things a whole lot worse in the long run by opening the way for a much more dangerous being to take Victor Dhostar’s place. Lords Of Darkness even describes how Orbakh hypnotized Thistle Thalavar into using her wealth and power to help him. Ouch.

    As for democracy’s “failure to launch” in Westgate, we can probably attribute that to rampant corruption and vote-buying. A Louisiana Congressman once joked that half his state was underwater, and the other half was under indictment. (Apologies to any Louisiana readers-I’m not an American, and I’m just using that as an example.) Any candidates for croamarkh were either in the pockets of the noble merchants, or were the noble merchants, and the general public eagerly supported them so that the nobles were pretty much back in charge again.

    Now I have the image of Jamal repeatedly banging her head into her desk in frustration.

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