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The Year of Rogue Dragons Trilogy

October 25, 2006

The Rage, The Rite, and The Ruin by Richard Lee Byers.
So, in preparation for my trip to San Francisco the week before last, I went through my current stack of books and picked out some good candidates for travel fodder. This time around, everything on the top of my stack was D&D related. I had the Eberron supplement Secrets of Xen’drik, the Ed Greenwood novel Blades of Eveningstar, and the first book in the ‘Year of Rogue Dragons’ trilogy, The Rage.

While I originally had just the first paperback in the series, when I came home with the finished tome in tow I went out and I bought the second and third books. The reason, I can assure you, is not that they were the harbingers of a new author who would set the world on fire. While these books are quite competently written, they’re not exactly components of the next great American novel.

What compelled me, what demanded that I keep reading, was because I saw a far-off glimmer of something highly promising. If you’ll indulge me in a moment of retrospection: Much previously published gaming fiction concentrated on the notable, world-shaking figures in the setting. In the Forgotten Realms, you’re probably familiar with the characters of Drizzt Do’Urden, and Elminster. The entire Dragonlance campaign sprang from world-shaking fiction. Even Shadowrun fiction sometimes fell into this trap. Just one of the aspects of Nigel Findley’s SR books that I enjoyed was the fact that he concentrated on forgettable nobodies.

The lesson here is that gaming fiction has, in the past, focused on characters and situations that game players are highly unlikely to encounter.

Fast forward to the launch of the Eberron fiction, and you can see a definite shift. Eberron’s lack of metafiction ensures that players always feel like the big men on campus. Likewise, the novels focus on individuals who play very small roles in the world. Veterans of the Last War, itinerate merchants … no one who will run a nation or blast a dragon from the sky, but interesting characters nonetheless.

In the Year of Rogue Dragons books, we finally see that kind of ‘low-level’ focus come to the Forgotten Realms. Despite the Realms’ many flaws, the setting is still one of my favorite places to play. It was great to see these nobodies set up from the shadows and deal with a bad situation. The whole thing felt very much like a campaign … in a good way. They’re still high-powered characters to be sure, easily into their teens in level. But the point is, it’s not Drizzt and Co. to the rescue … again.

An additional element that I personally found highly enjoyable was the clear use of recent D&D game products to create flavour within the game world. At many points throughout the book I was like “Ah, a spell from Draconomicon!” or “Hey, that’s from Frostburn.” The fact that they’re so clearly trying to tie new and unfamiliar game mechanic elements into the fictive elements of Dungeons and Dragons is not only good marketing, it makes both supplements and fiction more appealing to me as a player/DM.

Those positive things said, this series is still a work of gaming fiction that could have used a little bit more polish. The “Oh hey that’s a feat!” moments were a little too obvious, and sometimes it felt like they were reaching to include something (anything) from a specific product. The love story in the book between the scarred half-golem and the lovely song dragon who makes him see past her scales (rawr) is actually fairly interesting if you look past the plot’s initial omgsoapoperaness. Unfortunately, it moves in fits and starts and ultimately leaves the reader saddened that he didn’t get a chance to understand what was going on there more.

The villain of the series, the Realms legend Sammaster, is a barely felt presence throughout the trilogy. Like the too-light touch given to the love story, the clever traps he leaves for the party are threatening and dangerous … but his absence makes for a somewhat disappointing conclusion to the tail. His inevitable downfall at the hands of the good guys would have been made more impactful, I feel, if we’d actually grown to fear or hate the lich-loved bastard in the first place.

Minor quibbles mix with more torid appreciations of the series: The need for made-up swear words was not endearing, while his overly detailed combat sequences thrilled. Given the lackluster romance the absence of sex scenes was appreciated. I would have enjoyed more background for some of the main characters. I can’t believe he made that green dragon hidecarved.

If you’re a Realms fan or a dragon fancier, this series will deliver what you need. It’s gaming tripe, and probably better bought used than new … but it’s satisfying tripe nontheless.

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