Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Book Impressions: Death By Cliché

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 17, 2016

cover_DeathByClicheAs a game developer, it seems that every other week you hear about a new game coming out that sounds exactly like the one you are making. In the 90s, this would strike us with fear, because inevitably the other guys would be beating us to market with something that sounded exactly like our game only tons better.

Inevitably, even if there were similarities, the end result was completely different from what we were making. Our fears were largely unjustified. Years later, I discovered how common that was across the board. Game developers, authors… you can practically give them explicit instructions on what to create, and they will still produce completely different takes on things.

So… a few weeks ago,  I ended up chatting online with Bob Defendi about our respective projects. He’s another role-playing game designer, but more from the dice-and-paper side of things, having worked on Exalted, Spycraft, Shadowforce Archer, Stargate SG1, and Spacemaster. His novel, Death By Cliché, was being published by Curiosity Quills and due for release (at the time) in just a couple of weeks. He’s been busy working on two sequels (He’s writing #3 and editing #2).

I’d read his blog, so I had a vague idea about the book. But as we got chatting and he told me more about it, and I told him about Frayed Knights, we came to the realization that we were drawing our humor from the same well. Granted, it’s also the same territory as covered by The Gamers films, Knights of the Dinner Table, Order of the Stick, Dork Tower, and elsewhere, so it’s not exactly virgin territory. Still, near the end of the conversation, Bob said, “I’m glad I didn’t see yours before I wrote mine, and that we’re past the point where this could get weird.”

Fast forward… the book is out. I’ve read it. I enjoyed it. It’s a fun fantasy story full of in-jokes about role-playing games. If you are a Frayed Knights fan, I think you’ll probably enjoy it, too. Though they both poke fun at RPG tropes, however, their styles are pretty different.

In Death by Clichégame designer Bob Damico is on his way to rescue an RPG demo at a game store run by a really, really bad game master. Unfortunately for Bob, said terrible game master comes from the Annie Wilkes school of fandom, who murders Bob. And then Bob, either dead or dying, finds himself in what is effectively game designer’s version of Hell… stuck in the fantasy RPG world of a very bad game master. Not just any bad game master, but the very one who murdered him. It’s full of all the old D&D-style clichés, ridiculously unrealistic events governed by game design tropes and random dice rolls, and cardboard-thin non-player characters.

If you know nothing of role-playing games or common fantasy tropes, never seen the Princess Bride or read / seen Lord of the Rings, then many of the jokes will go over your head.  I doubt this describes many people who read this blog, however, so if you are reading this, you’re probably part of that niche audience who will get most of the references.

The jokes come fast. The fourth wall is constantly getting pulverized, then papered over just enough to get smashed through again. Instead of Narnia or Wonderland or The Territories, poor Bob Damico gets stuck in the most stupid of all fantasy worlds… the game-world dreamed up by his killer. As a free-willed non-player-character (NPC), his only contact with the “real world” is in-character conversation with the Player Characters, who believe that he’s just a surprisingly interesting character played by their game-master.

However, Bob’s very presence is having an impact on the game world. It’s changing because of his very presence. Becoming more real. And that may be killing him. Er, again. More. Something like that. But in spite of the cost, in spite of it being originally created by the creepy murderer with no imagination, once it starts getting a life of its own, is it now worth saving, in spite of the cost?

For me, sometimes the world-building got a little confusing, because there’s a very real connection between stuff happening in the real-world and what’s happening in the fantasy world, and vice-versa… but we as the audience don’t get to see that connection except through Bob’s eyes and comments from the Player Characters. As a reader, I wasn’t really sure of how those interactions worked, and that got a little confusing. Sometimes they are explained, and other times I’m left wondering. But maybe that’s just me. It would have been a lot of fun to get some flashes back to the “real world” to see the other side of some of those events.

Defendi is clearly emulating the style of greats like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams here, and it mostly works. But there are times when the narrator voice starts to overpower the rest of the story, especially in the first half of the book. But as the story itself gains traction and a life of its own beyond the joke (paralleling the game-world coming to life?), this becomes less of a thing and less necessary of a thing.

Problems aside, as a gamer, game designer, and fantasy fan in general, the story was a hilarious send-up of what these fantasy gaming worlds and player-character behavior would look like from the perspective of a character living there. It’s over-the-top and very funny. I ended the book wanting more, and I can’t wait to read the sequels.

Filed Under: Books, Impressions - Comments: Read the First Comment

  • Book Bomb: Death by Cliché said,

    […] Apparently today is the day we’re trying to raise awareness of a great book by Bob Defendi, Death by Cliché. I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago. […]