Today Dan Fitzgerald, author of The Maer Cycle, is sharing his thoughts on D&D. Incidentally, he just released The Maer Cycle Omnibus, which I definitely recommend picking up.
Like many fantasy writers, I got my start playing D&D. When I was just a wee pre-teen, D&D was pretty much my life. Sure, I did other things—went to school, ate food, watched TV, what have you, but the thing I always looked forward to for days at a time and obsessed about afterward, the thing I could do for hours on end with no care for food or sleep, was play D&D. I would even stay up late some nights when I couldn’t play with others, rolling up random characters and taking them through randomly generated dungeons until they died. Ah, good times!
This was the early 80s, so we’re talking 1st edition AD&D, where a first level mage had max 4 hit points and only one spell, and if they somehow made it to level 2 they got another 1-4 HP and another spell. Surviving to level 3 was a miracle, and staying alive long enough to actually cast a fireball was damned near impossible. It was a blast.
Fast forward to today’s D&D 5E (that’s 5th edition for you less nerdy types), where mages are more powerful at 1st level than they used to be at level 3, where characters miraculously heal overnight from the most grievous wounds, where you can be unconscious and on death’s door one moment, then hacking and slashing a few seconds after a simple healing spell. This is not a diss on 5E (okay, well actually it is, but the original had its flaws too); it’s just a different way of playing, and of thinking about the game, and I think we may have lost something in the process. The old game was more nitty-gritty, more deadly, and to me, a lot more fun.
My gaming pals back in the day liked to power up and play high-level characters and fight everything in the Monster Manual (and later the Fiend Folio, the Holy Grail of D&D books), and I was happy enough to play along, but I always enjoyed the tough, early starts, the 1st level characters with nothing more than their wits and a longsword, and maybe a Magic Missile or Cure Light Wounds once a day, to protect them. When a handful of orcs or a gaggle of goblins was enough to make you think twice, and if you killed an ogre, you felt like a superhero. Nowadays a new character already feels like a superhero, and I miss that feeling of vulnerability.
What I don’t miss? The idea that each race had certain characteristics inherent to it, and limitations on what characters could or couldn’t become. The notion that orcs, goblins, ogres, and many other humanoid races were automatically evil. The gender binary. The heteronormativity. Whatever I may not like about 5E, it states very clearly in the Player’s Handbook: “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.” That’s honestly refreshing, as is the lifting of limitations on what races can play what classes. I may not like some of the rules updates, but the overall tone is better, which matters quite a bit.
But I digress. Or rather, I don’t. Because what I love about D&D, at its essence, is the idea that you can pretend to be anyone you want, and you get to participate in a live story that’s never existed before. It’s all about a group of people sitting around a table (or in recent times, a Zoom and Roll20 screen) telling stories together. Sure, there are rules to guide you, and they can help streamline play, but they can also limit the role of your imagination. Honestly, if you’re not homebrewing your rules at least a little, are you even playing D&D? My favorite games are ones in which you can always deviate from the rules or make an exception when it makes for a better story.
It’s the same way with fantasy. There are “rules” to follow if you want to be traditionally published, but aren’t the best stories the ones that break those rules in innovative ways? And with the flourishing of small presses and independent publishing in contemporary fantasy, there really are no rules to speak of, only stories, writers, and readers. I can write whatever the hell I want, and someone is going to read it, but let’s be honest: as a writer, I don’t want just someone to read my books. I want a LOT of someones to read my books. I want to tell my stories to whoever will listen, and I always hope to convince someone who might not have read fantasy before to try my books.
In my Maer Cycle trilogy, I tried to write books that would appeal to fans of classic fantasy, to D&D players and nerds of various stripes, and would have that feel of the low-level characters gritting it out against well-matched opponents, with a lot more role-playing than fighting. And as their skills advance through the trilogy, I wanted it to feel earned. I also hoped to write something that felt grounded enough that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for readers who don’t usually read fantasy—there’s not a lot of big, showy magic, and the fantasy creatures are (mostly) meant to feel almost plausible.
Now that the trilogy is out in the world, I’ve got something totally different in the works, the Weirdwater Confluence duology, which I’m calling sword-free fantasy. It’s quite a bit more removed from D&D, but if I’m totally honest, one aspect of The Living Waters was inspired a little by a particular creature from the D&D universe. I won’t say which one, but old-school nerds may recognize something a bit familiar in the name of the duology.
However far I may roam, the bones of my writer’s soul remain grounded in the world of the imagination opened up by Dungeons and Dragons, which has influenced my storytelling as much as any book I’ve ever read.
You can read more about me or my books on my website, http://www.danfitzwrites.com, and my books can be purchased from the usual online vendors, which my publisher, Shadow Spark, has available on one easy page. I can also be found on Twitter, where I talk about fantasy, books, and general nerdery, and on Instagram, where I post way too many nature pics and the occasional bookish snippet or announcement.
You can find The Maer Cycle Omnibus on Amazon