Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Love for Thieves’ World

The popular Thieves’ World fiction anthologies stand out as one of the major developments in fantasy fiction that coincided with the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”). Thieves’ World was one of the first “shared universe” settings for fantasy that invited authors to contribute right from the start (as opposed to numerous others derivative of established, licensed media properties).
Conceived by the late Robert Lynne Asprin and co-edited by him and Lynne Abbey, the series was first published in 1979 with subsequent anthologies released throughout the 1980s (and a continuation in the early 2000s). Each collection presented short stories from established and up-and-coming fantasy authors featuring the setting’s favorite characters. Working from a central continuity bible outlining the basics of the city of Sanctuary, its neighborhoods, and the factions and notable personalities living there, authors infused the setting with their own characters, short tales, and overarching meta-plots that, despite a core continuity bible, began ranging far and wide across both the cityscape and the themes of fantasy fiction.
The stories ran the gamut from court intrigues and rogues’ conspiracies to gods playing with mundane mortals and strange magic that seemed to allow everything from petty enchantments to near-cataclysmic spells. Memorable characters included the well-armed thief Shadowspawn; the naive yet diplomatic Prince Kadakithis; former gladiator turned crime lord Jubal; cursed shape-shifting mage Enas Yorl; the prince’s bodyguards, the Hell Hounds, and their leader, Zalbar; the near-immortal Hell Hound Tempus; One Thumb, owner of the debauched Vulgar Unicorn tavern in the midst of the dangerous Maze neighborhood; and the alluring yet mysterious Myrtis, proprietor of the Aphrodisia House brothel and unofficial ruler of the infamous Street of Red Lanterns.
As with any shared-universe anthology the quality of the stories varied and fans followed their favorite authors, characters, and storylines. As the authors and editors released new anthologies the “meta-plot” of the setting rapidly changed: factions and characters from earlier stories adapted to or disappeared in the face of evolving developments in the setting’s larger world, from political maneuvering in the imperial capital to invasion by foreign powers.
Sanctuary Game Setting
In 1981, after publication of the first two anthologies, roleplaying game company Chaosium released the Thieves’ World Complete Sanctuary Adventure Pack, an ambitious boxed set with three books (guides for players and gamemasters, plus a tome about the city’s personalities) and numerous maps, including a poster-sized map of the city.
The boxed set provided a continuity for the setting that the anthologies could not (and would not as the series progressed and meta-plots ran roughshod over beloved characters and storylines). This came from the marked difference between a roleplaying game “guide” and literary short stories; one provides a definitive setting in which players can game while the other offers a linear, reading experience where the background details emerge through events in the story.
The boxed set components distilled the setting into two distinct features, the geography of Sanctuary and its notable denizens, the detailed setting and “non-player characters” necessary for a rich gaming environment. For roleplaying gamers, the city of Sanctuary offered untold possibilities for urban adventures, something new roleplaying gamers like myself hoped to explore after the dungeon and wilderness adventure formats in Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons. The gamemaster guide in particular provided two interesting systems of tables generating random results, one for different establishments in various neighborhoods within the city, and one for creating random encounter throughout the different locales, each one, incidentally, a potential adventure hook. Although it was working with previously established material, the boxed game setting went one step beyond its source material; where the anthologies invited different authors to contribute stories based on a core setting and characters, the game box invited designers to provide stats for the city’s denizens in numerous popular roleplaying game systems of the time, each one providing its game-stat interpretation of the literary characters (whose roles and personalities were also conveniently summarized in the players guide).
The boxed set also included several additional elements that further appealed to gamers. The poster-sized city map was great to spread out on the gaming table for everyone to examine during an adventure, while the smaller maps, including a two-page spread city map in the player’s guide, were perfect for gamemaster reference. The random business and encounter tables led to unexpected twists and turns as characters roamed the city streets. Victoria Poyser’s artwork brought to life the personalities of Sanctuary to a degree far beyond simple character portraits.
Personal Reminiscence
I suppose I discovered Thieves’ World backwards. After immersing myself in Dungeons & Dragons right before starting high school, I saw an ad for Chaosium’s Thieves’ World boxed setting in a magazine and bought it without hesitation the first time I saw it in the local hobby shop. The boxed set introduced me to the setting concept, locations, and characters, though I’d heard and read a little about the anthologies from fellow game geeks.
My friends and I explored Sanctuary on several roleplaying game forays. Their heroes slipped into the city seeking fame and fortune and bumbled from one random encounter to another, resolving storylines along the way and inevitably running afoul of the city watch and the Hell Hounds. Aside from trying to break into the governor’s place, the most frequent goal for the characters was to find some way into Enas Yorl’s subterranean residence beneath the Jewelers Quarter.
I came across the Thieves’ World anthologies the summer before my senior year in high school, when I frequented a local, independent bookstore in town, bought a science fiction or fantasy paperback each week, enthusiastically read it, and returned for more (the proprietor was perceptive and encouraging enough to make sure his offerings in these genres were ample, and, when I started a particular series, he stocked all the relevant books). Having explored Sanctuary of the first two anthologies through the roleplaying game boxed set, I found the stories added depth to the gaming environment, much  like fiction vignettes help illustrate settings in a roleplaying game book; I still enjoyed them as stories, but I appreciated them as supplemental to the roleplaying game setting, rather than most folks who read the anthologies first and, if they were so inclined, used the boxed set as a concise guide to gaming in a literary based setting.
Years later I revisited the boxed set and the Thieves’ World setting to run a prototype fantasy system based on what would eventually become the D6 System. It was a short but more focused campaign that relied on the denizens of Sanctuary (and their hidden agendas) rather than random encounters to inspire the action.
In retrospect the Thieves’ World anthologies taught me several important lessons. I learned shared universes can roam all over the place; aside from varying qualities of the literature itself, the subject matter and tone can offer a very bumpy reading experience. I later learned as a editor (mostly of games, but also of two short story anthologies) that individual authors plot their own courses that don’t always fit the continuity or even spirit of the shared universe in which they’re writing.
The anthologies also helped me realize I’m not a fan of meta-plots. After reading the first two Thieves’ World collections I missed a few anthologies and picked up a book right after the Beysib occupation of Sanctuary, a setting shift that severely changed the focus of stories and motivations of characters and political factions. I like a static environment to game in. If an overarching plot element changes things, I prefer it do so in subtle ways, or in a manner affecting small portions of the setting and characters. I do not like jarring meta-plot changes that alter the setting’s core paradigm and require me to constantly adapt my perception of the literature or game setting. (It’s one of the reasons the recently re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series started losing me when humanity’s survivors settled on New Caprica; to me the series was all about a grittier “ragtag fugitive fleet” and not plopping down on a planet for half a season.)
I admit I was sorely tempted to pick up the new Thieves’ World roleplaying materials produced by Green Ronin Publishing in 2005. Several things deterred me. The cost of roleplaying game books has risen significantly since the “Golden Age of Roleplaying,” when I purchased the original boxed set for $19.95; the Player’s Guide to Sanctuary from Green Ronin alone cost $34.95. Although I was interested in the d20 System for a while, primarily as a freelance game author, I didn’t care much for it as a player. But ultimately I really didn’t want to sift through all that information to extract what to me was most vibrant about Thieves’ World…the first two anthologies, when both the fictional world and my own roleplaying game experience was in its naïve, wide-eyed infancy that took enjoyment in an urban medieval fantasy setting unsullied by complex meta-plots and chaotic campaign evolution.