I was eight years old when I got my first D&D box set. So I date that as the beginning of my time as a gamer. Really though, I’d been introduced to gaming even earlier with Dungeon (the 1981 Third Edition) and Fantasy Forest from TSR, as well as copies of the RPGs owned by my friends. And I’d been introduced to fantasy from the time I could understand movies and stories by a mother who instilled a deep love of all things geeky in me.
And I was one of those kids who, when I got ahold of the reading lists offered by the games of the time, well, I just wanted to read it all…
…And Peter S. Beagle, while probably not the most profound influence on my style of gaming, is probably the most long-lasting and joyous influence on my love of fantasy.
The first time I met Peter S. Beagle, I was so awestruck, so bumble-headed by the experience that I simply hid in the group that was talking to him. We were at a convention and it was easy for me to back away and just… bask in the moment. I regretted that later. After all, this man’s work has been instrumental to my feelings about fantasy.
The second time I met Mr. Beagle was at a showing of The Last Unicorn. I sat in an audience with hundreds of other thirty- and forty-somethings, listened to him talk about his creation, and then watched the movie with members of my generation and their kids. As someone who does not have kids, it was still wonderful to see this experience being shared with the next generation of potential fantasy lovers.
I could tell you all about Folk of the Air, probably my favorite Beagle book – it resonates with me for very personal reasons – but I think for the moment I’ll stick to two other recommendations of his work. I think once you’ve encountered these you’ll want more.
The first is easily one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read… The Innkeeper’s Song. Small by today’s standards at a mere 352 pages, it doesn’t seem to fit with the monolithic works of many modern fantasy authors. No insanely long epics here – just a compact, intelligent, emotional story focused on a moment when a strange confluence of characters all come together in one place. The story opens with a death and there are more than that along the way – along with pain and sorrow and secrets. But Beagle is a master at making people feel alive and even the bitterest sorrow seem worthwhile to endure – for a time.
The story is about a group of powerful characters, women and men, who all converge at the deathbed of a beloved mentor. It’s a magical time for all of them, with even the most jaded learning something about themselves. There’s a little coming of age, a little softening of souls, and a decent amount of action – to keep things moving. And each character gets a little time in the spotlight, a little magic or their own. In such a spare number of pages, it is wonderful how much depth you get to experience from each of these people.
I read this story as an “adult” gamer. I was already a long-time GM with several long D&D games under my belt. It was an interesting time in gaming, on the cusp of 3rd edition D&D and in the heart of the World of Darkness era. I was just branching out into the world of Amber Diceless and changing the way I thought about GMing. And so maybe I’m a little biased when I speak about this influence, but I ended up shaping my first real 3rd Edition campaign around a group of adventurers returning to the home of a mentor. And my Amber games always carried powerful themes of the effect that others have on our lives, no matter how hard we try to escape them.
Beagle’s gift for storytelling seems to me to be in his ability to tell a spare story that nonetheless brings to life a rich – and deep – cast of characters as well as evoke history and relationships by trading on emotions we all know well from our own lives. Some things just don’t need long-winded explanations.
And this is why I recommend the second story. I don’t know that The Last Unicorn needs a recommendation – not really – as it is as beloved and long-lasting a fantasy story as I can imagine. Still, it never hurts to hope that you can reach out to someone with a tale they’ve never read and let them experience something magical.
Here’s what I’ll tell you about The Last Unicorn. Much like The Princess Bride, it plays on standards of fantasy storytelling and makes them just a
little different. There’s action, adventure, a Prince, a dark king, a monster, a wizard, and a damsel in distress – though she’s probably not what you think. And there’s magic. There’s so much magic in this story that it leaps off the pages at you. And it’s so straightforward that you never even question it. It doesn’t have to make sense – you are too enchanted to ever ask. But when you start to, later, think about it – it all holds together just fine.
And you’ll meet my favorite character of all time – Molly Grue. This is a woman who has had a profound effect on the way I think about everything from world creation to what characters can do in a game. She’s the reason I created a particular mechanic in my Ryllia game. And she’s never far from my mind when I think about fantasy and characters. She’s a pretty amazing woman. If you haven’t read this book or seen this movie – make the time to get to know her. When I was a little boy – really young and didn’t know a damn thing about the pains of the world or regret or loss – I met Molly Grue and she broke my heart. Like a good character should.
So what’s in it for a gamer though, right? I spent a lot of words telling you about two books I love but not really telling you why you want to read them as a gamer – as a GM. Well, there’s a lot on offer, but I’ll boil it down to a few key points to keep us all sane.
1. Random encounters – if you’ve seen the movie version of The Last Unicorn, you’ll know that there is a certain butterfly who’s pretty much insane. As a GM, I always keep that butterfly (or a version of him anyway) in my toolkit to spring on players. More importantly, as I did so, I learned a lot as a GM about how a seemingly random encounter with a goofy character can change a whole campaign. I learned how to present information in a new way for PCs and how to let them draw their own conclusions. Never underestimate the value of a random encounter and what it might do for your game.
2. Bringing a party together. Over my many years of gaming, I have seen countless gamers struggle with the fundamental problem of getting (and keeping) a party together. Why do these disparate people come together on a quest and why do they stay together when the quest is over? The two books I’ve written about here both provide interesting ideas for ways to bring PCs together and how to motivate them to stay together.
3. Inserting simple, subtle themes into your RPG experience. As a GM, I try hard not to interfere too much in the lives of my player characters. I want them making their own decisions and working toward their own goals. But I also feel like the GM has a part to play in giving a little overall shape and tone to a campaign – a cooperative role to help build the world and bring it to life around the story the PCs are telling. And Beagle’s books do that with a deft touch. If you’ve ever wanted to infuse a campaign with themes of loss, endings, regret, immortality, found family, or identity… well, all these and more can be found in the pages of Beagle’s stories, especially the two I wrote about here. These two novels are wonderful sources of inspiration for little touches, nuances, of how to invite these themes to your stories without letting them take over – or overshadow PC actions – but rather, just to exist as part of what shapes a character’s life. So whether you are looking for inspiration as a GM crafting a campaign or a player crafting a character, you can learn a lot from these two stories.
And that’s enough for now. I hope this was interesting. I hope you get something out of it and more, I hope you go and discover Peter Beagle if you haven’t already. I obviously can’t recommend his work highly enough… I’ll also say this. I don’t know the man but as a fan who has interacted with him a (very) little and followed his career, he just seems like a genuine fine human being. So there’s that as well.
As always, thanks for reading.