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 one of the earliest and longest-lasting relationships I made with books in those days was the work of James P. Blaylock.
Specifically, I was given two of his books, The Elfin Ship and The Disappearing Dwarf. I met a character named Johnathan Bing, Master Cheeser of a little river village. He and his friends are presented with the most awkward of journeys and they take off down a river. This story basically brings together the river journey narrative of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer with a character and world that would have felt comfortable to anyone familiar with Tolkien-ish fantasy. For a young boy just really getting into fantasy this journey narrative and all the incredibly weird stuff that happened along the way just blew my mind.
Not so serious as Tolkien, Blaylock’s story has a real sense of humor, with goblins that set themselves on fire and run around burning, linkmen in love with gumballs, the man in the moon, and a grumpy, necromantic dwarf. It also had a hint of magical technology mixed with the traditional fantasy elements, which is always a gamble, but in this book it works. And while I wouldn’t say that it ever crosses the line into the truly gonzo realms it had a level of strangeness and fun that leavened the other experiences I was encountering during that phase of my development.
A memorable, interesting cast of characters, a river journey, a mystery, and an ape. What more do you need? Other than people I’ve handed this off to, I’ve never met another fantasy fan who has read these stories but I really can’t recommend them enough. I have read these two books once a year, every year, since I was 9 years old.
So what do they offer for gamers? Well, for me they had an impact just by giving me a different vision of fantasy. It’s nice to get a vision of fantasy that wasn’t all doom and gloom and serious mcguffins all the time. It also successfully combines genres and ideas well into a nice blend for the final product of telling a story about a simple man.
More than anything else, I think these stories inspire me when I’m making NPCs. I often go back to these stories when I’m planning a town, thinking about Mayors and Merchants. The stories include so many fine examples of normal folk with brilliant quirks. Never over the top but always memorable.
Thirty years I’ve been reading these books, and I still find joy and refreshment in my yearly return to Blaylock’s world.
Thanks for reading…