Monday, August 25, 2014

#10 Favorite Game Fiction - The Maze of Peril #RPGaDAY

Let's face it, most game fiction isn't very good.

Many examples of game fiction tend to break the rules of the game's universe or adhere too closely to the game's format and just end up with mediocre stories. Not every good game designer is a good fiction writer (but many think they are). They often get tangled up in serious, epic, wanna-be Lord of the Rings, everything-depends-on-us quests to save the world and miss out on the fun of adventure gaming. To belabor the famous Joker quote, "Why so serious?"

I've read some of the earliest game fiction novels ever printed. Veteran author Andre Norton's Quag Keep (1978) is notable as a historical, early peek into Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk/The Great Kingdom setting. The sequel, Return to Quag Keep, loses the Greyhawk setting and the small amount of charm the original held.

The oldest game novel I've found is War-Gamers' World (1978) by Hugh Walker (pen name for Hubert Stra├čl). It was first published in German as Reiter der Finsternis (Rider of Darkness) in 1975 and is the first book of the Magira series. It is based on the German fantasy wargame/proto-RPG hybrid Armageddon developed by the gaming group FOLLOW in 1966. Since that time, the setting spawned several RPGs. This first novel opens with a player getting sucked into the game's fantasy world. There are several references to seeing the world as interconnected hexagons. Not recommended except as another historical oddity.

I give a hearty recommendation for my favorite piece of game fiction: The Maze of Peril, a short novel written by the original Basic D&D rules editor, Dr. John Eric Holmes.

SPOILER ALERT: They don't save the world
Contrary to the publisher's blurb. Our heroes don't try to save the world. Boinger the halfling and Zereth the elf are just out to make a buck without having to get a real job. They undertake adventures to make quick cash and live the life of Riley at the Green Dragon Tavern for a few months. When the gold runs thin and the landlord comes a knockin', they undertake another delve into the Underworld to relieve some nasty monsters of their glittering treasures.
Boinger, another party member and Zereth relieving some nasty monster of its glittering treasure (art by Jim Roslof from "The Sorcerer's Jewel")
It is so refreshing to read an adventure story without the gloom and doom of the ultimate destruction of everything good folk hold sacred due to the megalomaniacal plans of some evil Sauron look-alike dark lord. These are two good friends just struggling to get by and maybe, someday, hit it rich. Their camaraderie and their humor really comes through in Holmes' writing. In a good way, it reminds me of the early Star Wars comic books by Marvel. The galaxy was safe from the ultimate apocalypse weapon, the Death Star, and the raised stakes of The Empire Strikes Back hadn't come into play yet. Han, Luke, Leia and their friends were free to adventure and freewheel their way across the galaxy.

Bardan the dwarf's fate (as portrayed by Barely A. Dwarf in "Were-shark," an early version of The Maze of Peril's chapter 2 published as a stand-alone short story, art by Chris Holmes)

Nothing world-shattering is at stake; Boinger &co's quests are of a personal nature. During an early foray into the Underworld, one of the party fighters, Bardan the dwarf, perishes in combat. They bury his body in the cemetary but disturbingly find his grave exhumed and coffin empty a few days later. Boinger implores the party to return to the dungeon to thwart the revenge plans the evil-doers have for his friend's corpse.

The Maze of Peril adventures run the gamut from dungeon delve, urban adventures, bureaucratic red tape cutting, carousing, burglary, back to dungeon delve, Lovecraftian horror and even naval combat. Also, the book features one of the funniest uses of a petrification gaze that I would totally allow to happen if it comes up in a game.


Holmes had several short stories about Boinger, Zereth (a.k.a. Xoreth) and their fellow adventurers published in Dragon magazine and Alarums & Excursions APA-zine. It is no secret that these tales were based on Holmes' home D&D campaign; Boinger was the player character of Chris Holmes, Dr. Holmes' son and occasional illustrator. These stories give us a window into Dr. Holmes' campaign and even how he interpreted certain D&D rules.

One famously unclear rule regards magic-users and their restriction from using armor and swords. In the days of OD&D, even famous, accomplished gamers were unclear on the ruling* and many cried foul against the sword restriction (after all, Gandalf used a sword). What logical reason (besides gameplay balance) could there be for this restriction?

Holmes succinctly gives his reasoning in two sentences. On page 34 of The Maze of Peril, Zereth removes all metal from his body, washes up and puts on a wizard robe before casting a spell. He explains to a confused Boinger that he:

"Can't have iron touching the body anywhere; no iron, even nails in the boot heels. It drains the flow of force from the other world."
No further explanation is required. Boinger asks, "It does? How?" Zereth tells him to, "Keep quiet," and no more is said on the matter.

This prevents magic-users from even wearing leather armor (with iron buckles). Presumably, a wizard's dagger must be made of bronze, silver or another non-ferrous metal. This stems from old folklore about iron's protective properties against magical creatures and has become a modern trope. It fits with Tim Powers' piratey fantasy novel On Stranger Tides (HIGHLY recommended reading) where magic disappears from the world as iron spreads with the advances of western civilization. The faerie-folks' aversion to iron seen in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (also recommended) resonates as well.
Boinger vs. a one-armed troll (art by Chris Holmes from "Trollshead")
This leads to another rule: elves are combination fighters and magic-users and the OD&D rules state they "freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure" (Men & Magic, p. 8). How does that apply to spellcasting and armor/weapon use? Holmes gives another example with Zereth in the short story "Trollshead" in The Dragon magazine #31, p. 41:
"Zereth took off his sword belt and helmet and laid them on the ground... He lay flat on his belly and reached into an inner pocket of his linen tunic to produce a pinch of fine sand. This he tossed into the air, mumbling rapidly as he did so."
To switch from fighter to magic-user, Zereth removes his sword belt and helmet (the only iron on his body) before casting a sleep spell on some unexpecting half-orcs. This goes against his own "elves must decide" ruling in his Basic D&D manuscript that states that elves cannot change in the middle of an adventure. In later stories, such as "The Sorcerer's Jewel"** (Dragon #46), Zereth wears armor while casting spells. It is assumed that Holmes was playing AD&D by this time, which does allow for spellcasting, armored, multiclassed magic-users.

Another question arises: just what are the "dungeons" in the world of Dungeons & Dragons? Why is there a near-endless number of underground labyrinths filled with nasty creatures and fabulous treasures? Zereth ponders the titular maze in The Maze of Peril, p. 3:

"Somewhere beneath the surface of this ancient land the tunnels and corridors of some prehistoric race coiled and raveled, delved, and probed unimaginable depths into the core of the world... What race or races had built the original maze no one knew. It seemed in the opinions of the sages and magicians of the time, that there must have been many layers of dungeons and underworlds laid down, one atop the other, as the world crust was formed, so that now no one knew, or even guessed, how many levels it extended below the surface."

Here, in one (wordy) sentence is the justification for a world of dungeons. It explains just enough to give the game world some logic yet leaves plenty of mystery for players to discover in their journeys into the Underworld. Of course, the truth may be very different from what the sages and magicians assume as fact.

Gary Gygax first hinted at such an Underworld with the D series of modules starting in 1978 (about the time The Maze of Peril was written). Later D&D authors would call this subterranean realm the Underdark and give their own reasons for its existence.
Zereth and Boinger (art by Donna Barr from "In the Bag")

In Conclusion:

The Maze of Peril is my favorite piece of game fiction because it feels most like the D&D games I've played. Rarely did we adventure to save the kingdom/world/multiverse. We were a bunch of friends looking for some excitement and quick cash together. We'd hatch elaborate schemes, find ourselves in deep trouble, then put our heads together to make sure they didn't roll off our shoulders come the dawn. We were comrades, bonded in the face of danger, celebrating each success until wanderlust crept back into our hearts and we were off on another wild quest.

Those are good times, and so is this book.


Watch for Fight On! magazine issue #15 dedicated to J. E. Holmes coming soon! Read my heavily researched character write-ups for Boinger, Zereth and their "pal" Murray the Mage, along with guidelines for iron-restricted spellcasting, in my article, "Holmes Town Heroes."

The 1000 copy print run of The Maze of Peril is getting harder to find, but still available. Check out Holmes' short stories from Dragon magazine:

"Trollshead" The Dragon #31
"The Sorcerer's Jewel" Dragon #46
"In the Bag" Dragon #58

Complete Holmes Bibliography

* UK game designer Ian Livingstone (Games Workshop co-founder, Fighting Fantasy game books co-creator, etc.) erroneously wrote in his 1982 book Dicing with Dragons: An Introduction to Role-Playing Games when explaining D&D classes: "Each class has restrictions as well. For instance, The Magic User may only wear leather armour or no armour at all..."

** Although The Maze of Peril (1986) was published 5 years after "The Sorcerer's Jewel" (1981), we know Maze was completed earlier as Holmes states that it was ready to publish in an L.A. Times interview from 1979.


  1. What a fantastic, in depth review. I like how you touch on the gameplay aspects as well as the story.

  2. Very nice insight into the soul of the book! I, too, love this book, in my case because there are so many hidden revelations of one referee's interpretation of the rather vague written rules of OD&D.

  3. This may be my favorite review so far. All your facts are correct and your opinions are pretty much my own. The "stoning of the Gollum" actually happened in the game but the circumstances are fuzzy in my memory. Looking forward to your review of "Tales of Peril".

    1. High praise, indeed! Thank you for your comments and I am excited for "Tales of Peril." My "Holmes Town Heroes" article still hasn't seen print (still waiting for Fight On! #15) and may now be outdated since you've revealed the original character stats for Boinger & Zereth. I can forward you the article to show how someone would interpret the characters purely from the stories.