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By Sam Marchello

Two of my greatest passions are reading and video games. Very seldom do we look at roleplaying game fiction at RPGamer, especially considering there's a surprising amount of it, and not just in the form of tie-in novels. While there are tons of non-fiction books about RPGs, I thought it would be great to look at seven novels that are inspired by roleplaying games or use roleplaying games as a catalyst to push a story forward.

Whether you notice it or not, every novel you read takes you on a journey through someone else's mind. First-person, third-person, reading a book inserts us into new roles that either feel familiar or foreign, the same as a good RPG does. There is a desire in books and games to explore new worlds, make new friends, and fight dastardly villains. But what about books that take place inside of an MMO or use games as a means to talk socially about the hobby? These types of novels often go undiscussed unless there's some hype surrounding it.

I hope you enjoy reading about "fictional roleplaying" and if anything, perhaps you'll have some new books to add to your to-be-read pile.

Guy In Real Life

Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff - Goodreads Page
Publisher: Balzer + Bray | Release Date: May 27, 2014

I feel it's only fair that we start this feature off the book that inspired its inception, Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff. While Steve's last name also begins the alphabet, his book was ultimately the inspiration for Fictional Roleplaying as his novel Guy in Real Life is written from the perspectives of two teens who use roleplaying games as a means to identify themselves in and outside of their real lives. Lesh and Svetlana are products of the games that they play, and both admire each other in ways that the other wouldn't entirely understand, and that makes the novel quite endearing. The novel is written in four different perspectives, two which are Lesh's MMO characters Kugnar and Svvetlana, his female mage based on the real Svetlana who he bumps into on the night of his drinking binge. The chapters written from the angle of the MMO characters, while difficult for those who don't play or understand roleplaying games, are critical to the narrative and offer a different perspective to Lesh and who he is. He's a guy trying to find himself and who admires the strength and conviction of Svetlana. He crafts his version of Svetlana in the game, naming her "Svvetlana" his interpretation of the woman he met at three o' clock in the morning. Unfortunately, he learns that crafting a female toon in game means being treated differently by other players in the game because of his "assumed" identity.

Svetlana, however, is a Dungeon Master who craves her weekly Dungeons & Dragons session. Unfortunately, she struggles to keep membership afloat because trying to get Minnesotan teens to play D&D is a fruitless effort. She's obsessed with the campaign that she's spent working on, and has detailed it in artwork, and journals, but Lana faces the problem of her campaign never seeing the light of day if attendance keeps dropping. Lana is obsessive about her work, to the point where she comes across as though she lives in a completely different world than her sister, parents, and even the "wiener" kid who hits on her at the local football games that she is forced to attend.

The richness of Guy in Real Life is really how Lana and Lesh seem to appear at the right time in each other's life. Sure, their meeting is a complete accident, but the best part of this story is really how roleplaying games bring out the best and worst in these two teens, and how they end up admiring each other so much. To Lesh, Lana is the ultimate heroine, and to Lana, Lesh is more than just the savior of her D&D campaign, he gives her a reason to come out of her shell. There's so much depth in Guy in Real Life and that's essentially what I loved about this story. It's a novel about finding your identity and looking at the roles in which we play in our daily lives. Sometimes these roles make us hate parts of ourselves, while sometimes these roles strengthen our beliefs in being the best person we can be. What I love is that both characters have some doubts about themselves, but each attempts to harness qualities that they want the other to see on the outside.


Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - Goodreads Page
Title: Publisher: Crown | Release Date: August 16, 2011

Ready Player One is the ultimate book for an eighties nostalgia child. Although they can get a bit excessive, the eighties references are a significant contributor to the mystery, and yet they build parts of the mystery surrounding James Halliday's OASIS, his giant networked playground, wherein he wishes for people to find his lost treasures. Those who complete each puzzle will move on in the "game" and work their way through the ultimate scavenger hunt. When Wade uncovers the first puzzle, suddenly the world is watching his progress. Meanwhile outside of the game, Wade's world is crumbling at his feet.

Ready Player One is a book that reads like an MMO. Characters can work together or solo through the puzzles in an attempt to uncover Halliday's mysteries, but like PvP servers, you never know who you can trust in a world gone topsy-turvy. As Wade gains levels within the OASIS, his personality begins to transform: he desires to become a savior, to protect those in the virtual world who may not be able to protect themselves. However, in doing this, he allows his real world to be annihilated. Hey RPGamers, does this sound familiar? I thought so.

Full of eighties pop culture references and an Indiana Jones style virtual ride, Ready Player One has a surprising amount of roleplaying elements within the narrative, and nods to some of the greatest classic games of our time. There's no black and white in the OASIS, only Technicolor and the possibility that the treasure those are seeking may or may not be real. Wade and his friends make the story worth following, and while it's not entirely perfect in its execution, it's so easy to be swayed by the narrative that Cline puts forward and just roll with it.


Mogworld

Mogworld by Ben "Yahtzee" Chroshaw - Goodreads Page
Publisher: Dark Horse Books | Release Date: September 21, 2010

Love him or hate him, Ben "Yahtzee" Chroshaw remains an influential voice in the games industry. Zero Punctuation made many of us laugh, cry and fume with anger, but above all, it entertained us. Mogworld was Chroshaw's first novel, attempting to infuse some quirky humor about games, MMO culture, and what happens when a game takes on a life of its own.

Mogworld has a charming sense of humor, one a fan of Terry Pratchett works would likely enjoy. The book is not without flaws in its approach, as it uses tons of clichés to approach gamers and how they respond to the world around them — that is, with negativity. It suggests the idea that those into role-playing games love fetch quests, talkative NPCs, and being mindless when it comes to objectives. Depending on the type of reader you are, you may think this is comic genius or drivel. Either way, Chroshaw hits on the head (and hits hard) the stereotypes of roleplaying games and how many of the clichés in their structure are completely unavoidable.

Fortunately, his characters are a ton of fun. Jim is an old crank that has died and revived far too many times to count and has no desire to save the day. He's pretty refreshing considering the tropes of roleplaying games can often get tiresome. RPGs have such a specific structure, and ultimately the novel attempts to criticize and deconstruct these tired structures in order to give us a roleplaying world that might be filled with chaos and jam.


For the Win

For the Win by Cory Doctorow - Goodreads Page
Publisher: Tor Teen | Release Date: May 11, 2010

If you are familiar with Cory Doctorow's work, than you understand his love of activism and virtual worlds. For the Win is a novel about gold farming in an MMO run by the Coke Cola Corporation. Featuring tons of diversity, Doctorow's characters all play the role of being harvesters and farmers, trying to find ways to make profit from those who want to put little work into their virtual lives. From India to China, Malaysia to the United States, gold farming is this hidden world in MMOs that often goes overlooked if you pay the right price.

Of all the books in this feature, Doctorow's is the most political, and he gives us a story that is full of socio-economical issues that we as gamers may not know much about. It's a book that stands on its soapbox and preaches that these issues will never go away unless we as gamers take action and recognize the issue. Gaming should never feel like work, but ultimately there are people paid peanuts to find virtual money and items to sell off. Doctorow suggests the best way to combat these problems is to start a virtual revolution and union, something that would allow everyone the same basic rights and freedoms both in real life and in a virtual space.

Roleplaying games are all about being someone else, but sometimes we must recognize the greater issues of being our virtual selves when it could jeopardize someone else's life. Doctorow argues games should be fun and full of kinship, no one should ever turn their fun into something that could ultimately destroy them.


In Real Life

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang - Goodreads Page
Publisher: First Second | Release Date: October 14, 2014

You're all probably wondering why there's two selections by Cory Doctorow, and the answer for that is In Real Life was a last minute addition. In fact, it's a wonderful campanion story to For the Win in graphic novel format. While Scott Pilgrim reminded us that video games can be a part of everyday life in extreme ways, In Real Life looks at how gamers may not acknowledge social or economic issues that exist within their beloved hobby. In Real Life is the story of Anda, who loves playing Coarsegold Online, the massively-multiplayer role playing game where she partakes in quests with her all-female guild. The story starts out fairly light-hearted, after Anda is asked by her guild to murder "gold farmers" who roam within the world. When Anda befriends Raymond, a poor Chinese boy whose avatar in the game illegally collects valuable objects and then sells them to players from developed countries, she begins to question the game she loves and has devoted so much time into. From that day on, Anda looks for Raymond every day in game, in hopes to find out if his social and economically issues have changed. She also takes a stand against those attempting to kill the gold farmers, forcing others to recognize that these "farmers" are people like them, and being paid peanuts to help players from developed countries progress by paying real money for upgrades that they should be working towards for themselves.

In a lot of ways, In Real Life is For the Win lite. Both texts focus on the shadier side of MMOs, but In Real Life attempts to make this topic a lot more accessible to those who are unfamiliar with the issue of gold farming, and shedding light on the conditions through the character of Raymond, and using the character of Anda to play the voice of reason. While the story is about gold farming, it also has a heavy anti-bullying message within the text that stresses the importance that regardless of our "internet lives," MMOs are meant to be cooperative and social games that bring us together for a common goal — be it slaying an ultimate foe or raiding in droves, we must work together to combat all problems, even the ones we often attempt to ignore because "it's not our problem."

Doctorow and Wang use a graphic novel format to highlight an evil that exists within the realm of gaming and one we often choose to ignore. They also try to show a positive for how gamers work together in MMOs to solve problems of social injustice. While Anda and Raymond likely would have never met in real life, I feel like their interest in each other is well thought out because it does give Anda a sense that the game she loves so much isn't entirely what it seems, and that the balance between reality and virtual reality isn't as clear-cut a line as we are lead to believe.

As RPGamers, I think we get so caught up in the worlds we choose to invest ourselves in that we forget about the potential evils that exist in our hobbies. There are politics to everything: sports, education, and even video games, and In Real Life gives us a topic that is constantly ignored in an accessible and digestible format. Roleplaying online often crosses all kinds of boundaries, and Anda's story gives us an excellent taste of both the positive and negatives of devoting yourself to a cyberworld.


Villains by Necessity

Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward - Goodreads Page
Publisher: Tor | Release Date: March 1, 1995

Eve Forward's Villains by Necessity is the oddball of the feature as it's not directly focused on roleplaying games (okay lies, it has a cameo by the Majere Brothers) or its culture. It's a book, however, that reads like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign gone horrifically wrong and the only way to redeem it is to roll with it.

In a world where heroes have banished evil outside of the realms and peace has well, bored the crap out of everyone, one group of villains decides that they must restore the balance. Let's face it, a world in eternal peace leaves a lot to be desired — there's no excitement, no adventure, and most of all, nothing to fear (except for the all-powerful white magus who is hell bent on purging ever last bit of evil in the universe, but ya know, that's not so bad right?). What makes Forward's novel even better is the fact that it is directly focused on the villains who are fighting the heroes because "good is dumb" (to quote Mel Brooks' classic, Spaceballs). During the novel there's numerous encounters that read as though someone were rolling an invisible dice, along with passages that turn the clichés of the D&D base classes and drops them on their head to create some interesting character types. Seriously, there's a centaur secret agent, which I'm pretty sure is on par with the fashionable necromancer I created during my first D&D session.

Villains By Necessity is all heart and humor. It's a book that suggests that character classes can't simply be limited to stereotypes that we of identify them with, and argues that once in a while, villains need to have the spotlight to showcase that they are not just one trick ponies. The only downside to Villains by Necessity is the price of admission: unfortunately, the book is out of print and to get a paperback or hardcover copy is going to cost you a pretty penny. I was lucky to get it in a used book store in Thunder Bay, Ontario, so it's worth it to peruse your local used book stores to see if you can get it for a fraction of the cost. Villains by Necessity reminds us that roleplaying game characters don't have to have the personality of their base stats. Who needs a dungeon master's guide or a Monster Manual when you have the crack that is Villains by Necessity? Excuse me while I bust out the the unicorn and raspberry sauce! (Silly drow sorceress, eating unicorns is horrific.)


Erebos

Erebos by Ursula Poznanski (Translated by Judith Pattinson) - Goodreads Page
Publisher: Annick Press | Release Date: January 19, 2012

What if an role playing game could manipulate you into committing a crime? In Ursula Poznanski's Erebos, RPGamers should be familiar with the behaviours of the protagonist, Nick. Nick becomes addicted to an online role playing game, is given a DVD that is making the rounds at his school, and begins to lose hours of sleep, neglecting his school work, choosing instead to perform "real world tasks" tasks for the game, Erebos. These "quests" vary from recruiting new members to poisoning those who potentially could harm Erebos' existence. The tagline of the novel is "It's a game. It watches you." I'm sorry, but a sentient game is pretty darn creepy.

Erebos is a game that creates cultish behaviour. Players can craft a protagonist, a "nameless" who will rise from rags to riches depending on the number of quests completed for Erebos. Nick completely loses himself in the world because his avatar in Erebos has far more recognition than he has in real life. His obsession moves to destructive levels when he begins to attack his fellow students at school, trying to follow the will of Erebos. Erebos gives recognition to its devout followers through their quests, and Nick wishes to attain the highest rank possible, to prove to his classmates that he is someone to revere.

Erebos is genuinely creepy at times. It's amazing how possessed we become when we play an engaging game, to the point where we often push people away because we need to see how it progresses. Nick, unfortunately, reads more like a caricature than a character, and many of the adults in the story seem completely lethargic to the attacks and crimes happening within the school. Despite these problems within the text, the technical part of Erebos is why you read the novel. Poznanski does a great job of crafting this game that "watches your every move" and infuses genuine fear that what you do in and out of game will be watched, and every action or non-action will have a consequence. Regardless of the player's decisions, Erebos imparts its judgement, and if you refuse to follow its orders, the punishments vary.

Erebos' idea of role playing suggests that people want to be something bigger than they are. Many of the characters in the novel desire to be someone recognizable, even revered. Role playing games allow us to be someone we're not, or someone close to who we are. What Erebos reminds us, is when the lines of the real and virtual blur, that we should be cautious of when games begin to control our entire lives.

Outro

While there are lots of other novels I wish I could have included for this feature, the reality is there’s so many fictional roleplaying books out there worth reading that this list could have been endless. But, since you all made it to the end of the feature, we have a little giveaway.

One winner will be chosen to win a signed book plate and 4-colour pens from Steve Brezenoff for "Guy in Real Life" along with a pre-order of the book. The winner can also select any of the books featured along with the pre-order excluding Villains by Necessity (out-of-print) and In Real Life (releases Fall 2014). This giveaway is International as long as The Book Depository ships to your country. E-mail contest@rpgamer.com with your address and we will select one lucky winner to receive some awesome books and book related goodies. Giveaway ends on April 24, 2014 at MIDNIGHT EST. The winner will be notified after that date.

Thank you all again for reading and please share your thoughts on our forums or shoot me a tweet @merrygodown. Happy gaming and reading!


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