[MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

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[MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by Big Mac » Mon Aug 06, 2018 12:15 pm

I could ask: "Which Magic: The Gathering novels are the best stories?", but I'm not going to ask that.

Instead I'm going to ask which ones are best for RPG inspiration.

We now have PlaneShift downloads for: Zendikar, Innistrad, Kaladesh, Amonkhet, Ixalan and Dominaria. And the D&D Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica hardback is coming out in November. So there is a lot going on D&D-wise, with Magic: The Gathering.

But can any of the novels help with the vibe of the MtG universe?

Do the novels explore individual Magic: The Gathering planes or do they have action that crosses multiple planes?

Which of the planes that already has a Plane Shift download (or the one that is getting the hardback) has the best coverage in the novels?

Is there a novel (or series of novels) that gives a lot of detail on a city or region in one of the planes with a D&D adaptation?

Is there a plane (other than Ravnica) that has good novel coverage, that has not been covered by Plane Shift yet?
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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by willpell » Mon Aug 06, 2018 7:42 pm

I'm in the process of going through the novels I own as we speak; so far I've done all nine of the Harper Prism books that I own (I'm missing one), all of which are sort of questionably canonical, and I am working on The Gathering Dark, which is one of the first to actually connect to the official storyline. As I've been reading through them, I've folded down a page corner every time I thought there was something particularly noteworthy, so at some point I can go back into them, check all the marked pages, and compile a full report, assuming I ever get the time to do such a thing. For now, I'll give a quick summary of each book from memory.

* Arena - The first novel related to MTG, and one of the least good. It does however describe a somewhat interesting setting (the city of Estark, which is controlled by four rival guilds that battle according to a series of rules, with an "ante" system involving medallions which control access to spells) which could very effectively be mined for RPG use.
* Whispering Woods - A fairly low-key story of a man named Gull, whose village is destroyed by battling wizards one day and who hates wizards as a result, while slowly coming to the realization that his dimwitted baby sister Greensleeves is becoming one. Not a lot of material here that I could see recycling for a game in this particular book, but admittedly I don't really think in terms of low-level play, and this story presents one example of a setting along such lines, so maybe it has more to offer than I realize (plus it has been a long time since I read it, so my memory is hazy).
* Shattered Chains - Direct sequel to both of its predecessors, with the hero of Arena becoming involved with the characters and plot from Whispering Woods; despite this distraction, it's a better book on several levels, with the action beginning to ratchet up to a degree of epicness. Of particular interest to this topic, it revolves largely around a VERY early portrayal of the nation of Benalia, which is namechecked in Plane Shift: Dominaria, although there isn't a lot of overlap between this modern version (in which Benalia is the cornerstone of the mostly-good white magic aspect of the setting, where players who play White generally want to see it portrayed positively), and the take on it presented here (in which it is an extremely decadent nation of holier-than-thou nobles with zero tolerance for failure, and IMO a very effective portrayal of how the White model of civilization can be presented villainously).
* Final Sacrifice - Conclusion of the Whispering Woods trilogy; the main item that could be mined for an RPG here is the collection of villains it presents. There's something like nine high-level wizards who are all determined to destroy the anti-wizard army gathered by Greensleeves and Gull, each of which is very different and fairly well fleshed out, so if you just want to get a new villain concept for your game, you might be interested to look at this bunch.
* The Cursed Land - Finally breaking away from a single coherent setting, this one is set on what is probably its own plane; although all we ever see is one largish island, the way that island is described as having its own power source whose corruption is destroying all life and even ruining the weather, I'm inclined to think the whole thing is one tiny plane rather than just a region somewhere on Dominaria or whatever. The setting is intentionally low-key, which limits my fondness for it, but also does a pretty good job of enriching that cozy little environment with detail. The story is a bit pat in how it all wraps up, but as an entirely self-contained setting, this might be one of the more interesting books in terms of your project.
* The Prodigal Sorcerer - Hands down the best of the books so far, this one is set in a pretty typical sort of Dominarian region, and presents a lot of very interesting details, while also being a rather good story (albeit having a pat ending again). It presents an example of how a fairly typical mage, who starts out as an ascetic seeking pure knowledge, can be corrupted into a cheap mercenary by some magically powerless opponents, and thus makes decent story structure for dealing with an overpowered wizard character. There are also a lot of neat details, such as a subspecies of elf which all train in hand-to-hand combat but swears an oath never to use weapons (presumably their favored class is monk), and a type of killer turtle that haunts the waterways of the region and is incorporated into the local jurisprudence.
* Ashes of the Sun - My overwhelming favorite among all the Harper Prism novels, an excellent story of a lone survivor from a destroyed civilization, grappling with suicidal impulses and trying to find a reason to go on living. She's captured by a group of minotaurs and held as a prisoner as part of a political gambit among the eleven minotaur clans, as they struggle with a movement toward religious orthodoxy which threatens their independence. The society of these creatures is detailed extensively, and I absolutely would love to see the result presented in an RPG context, while the story of the main character is also a very interesting plot that could be explored in some other context. So besides just being an excellent story, this one also has two major RPG-content thrusts worth pulling out, plus a few small vignettes about medieval villages under siege, sailors on the oceans of an unexplored world, and so forth which could also provide inspiration. Definitely this is the book I recommend most highly out of this set of nine (the book which I'm going to read after my current one, The Brothers' War, is the only one which I would say is definitely a better novel, but I don't yet know how well it would lend itself to being used for RPG material).
* Song of Time - I personally don't love this novel, although my recent rereading of it did manage to pull out a lot of details that were more interesting than I remembered. My main reason for not being overwhelmed is that it relies heavily on a music-as-magic model which I don't generally care for; the main character is clearly something akin to a bard in D&D terms, and thus might fit better in D&D than he does in the MTG setting which this story has been somewhat awkwardly shoehorned into. However, his journey does take him through several interesting regions which you could pull out and further develop, notably the realm of the ice wizardess Drufalden with her artificial warriors, which is only barely visited and ends up destroyed as a result of our heroes' actions. You could definitely ignore all that canon and just use her as a villain in your game, as she's presented in the book, although there's not a lot of info there so you'd have to do some fleshing out. The novel presents a lot more information than it's willing to dwell upon, and ends on a mild cliffhanger (the main story resolves, but leaves several obvious threads dangling which leave the door open for a sequel). I do not know whether a second book in this setting exists, but I certainly haven't read it, so there's a clear implication that there's more to do, so you could for sure set up a D&D campaign in this mold, run the players through the story as presented, and then have a lot of hooks that you could figure out for yourself how to continue with. I personally wouldn't be super-into-it, but it's there.
* And Peace Shall Sleep - This is the one Harper Prism book I don't own and haven't read; it may or may not be the sequel which Song of Time calls for (my search for information on the book has tended to suggest not; I think the author of Song of Time was angling to get a second book contract, and ended up failing in that effort, so the story of Song of Time may well never get the conclusion it wants). Obviously, beyond that, I can't speak to it at all.
* Dark Legacy - Interestingly, of all of the HP books, this last one alone is specifically tied to the setting of a particular MTG expansion, named The Dark (which is also the backdrop of The Gathering Dark, the book I'm reading now, although they don't really agree with each other). Having never read it before this most recent reading (Final Sacrifice is the only other one of these I was not specifically re-reading during this latest pass), I haven't necessarily absorbed it as fully as I could have, but I would say this is another one that has a lot of interesting content to delve into, which doesn't really agree with MTG canon as these books often don't, but which would be very worth pulling out, changing somewhat, and using for an original take on D&D. As a story, it's not super well-constructed, with a lot of false starts and dropped threads, and yet another pat ending, but as a source of inspiration, it has a lot of possibilities that would be worth exploring, such as the Niroso Stone People (I will not tell you anything else about them, since it would spoil the story, but the way they're introduced, you won't miss anything just by hearing the name in advance), as well as the main villainess of the book (who has the terrible name "Sacumon", but is otherwise quite well presented; as with the music-mage of "Song of Time", she has an alternate spellcasting mechanic that doesn't match up very well with anything in MTG's backdrop, but it works well as just a random fantasy worldbuilding entry, and there's also a fact revealed about her in one climactic scene which REALLY piqued my interest, and then was left frustratingly unexplained in the rest of the book, so I'd pretty much sign up instantly to play in any game where she was brought back, renamed, and given an actual good reason for that one detail to be true). On top of that, while the central conflict and the main sidequest are BOTH handled very awkwardly and wrapped up at the end of the book in a very unsatisfying way, they both make for good backdrops to a story of your own. So I would say this book is definitely among the most mine-able of the set.

There, that covers all of the HP novels as best I can recall them. I'll wait until I've finished The Gathering Dark to talk about that one, and I don't own its sequel The Eternal Ice (or a possible sequel to that one, based on the Alliances expansion, which may or may not actually exist as a book), nor do I own The Thran, which discusses the "main villain" of the entire early MTG storyline (from 1994 or so, when they first started to have a coherent storyline, through 2000 when they resolved everything they'd built up), so after that, I'll be moving on to the four Urza's Saga novels, of which the first two, The Brother's War by Jeff Grubb and Planeswalker by Lynn Abbey, are both excellent stories, but may or may not have much of anything you could mine in them. I do vaguely recall at least one worthwhile detail in the third book, Time Streams (by a third author whose name I don't recall), while the fourth one (Bloodlines) I do believe I've read, but I literally don't recall one fact about it. And after that, every book for pretty much the rest of the line corresponds exactly to an expansion set, and I have most of them, and there are definitely some I'll be pointing out as GREAT for mining (the three Onslaught-block novels in particular are batshit insane and kind of terrible, but FULL of out-of-the-box thinking that you could riff off of).

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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by Big Mac » Wed Aug 08, 2018 9:52 am

Thanks Willpell.

Sadly a lot of that went over my head. You said the planes for some of the novels, but not all of them.

I'll have to hunt around and see if I can find a table that lists novels and the planes they are set on.

And what does "all of which are sort of questionably canonical" mean? Have they rebooted the Magic: The Gathering universe and got rid of things from these novels...or done something like the post-Spellplage timejump that has made these into the ancient past?
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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by willpell » Wed Aug 08, 2018 4:56 pm

The Gathering Dark - Although this book tells a good story, it may not be the best source of inspiration for D&D players, as it mostly deals with fairly straightforward aspects of the default setting of early MTG, and thus doesn't try to be wildly innovative. Of course, part of this impression might be due to my familiarity with the card set; concepts such as the Rag Man, Barl's Cage, and Primata Delphine are old hat to me, but if you were encountering them for the first time here, you might be more taken with them. But even so, I'd say the main use for this novel to non-MTG players is as a sort of primer to some of the basics; there are some pretty good descriptions of the basic mental process of spellcasting, and a quick summary of the five colors being explained to the main character of the book, as he gradually learns to master at least two of them.
Big Mac wrote:
Wed Aug 08, 2018 9:52 am
Sadly a lot of that went over my head. You said the planes for some of the novels, but not all of them.
With the probable exception of The Cursed Land, all of them are either definitely or probably set on Dominaria, although they take place in widely separated regions (Arena is in Estark, Dark Legacy and probably Song of Time and Ashes of the Sun are Terisiaire, and the others might either be there or in some other unspecified area). Dominaria also has at least three other major areas that aren't obviously in any of these books (Sarpadia, Jamuura, and the Domains); it is intended largely as a "kitchen sink" kind of setting, akin to the 4E "points of light" world, where you can plunk any sort of a story you want down in some remote locale without worrying too much about how it intersects with the canon.
And what does "all of which are sort of questionably canonical" mean? Have they rebooted the Magic: The Gathering universe and got rid of things from these novels...or done something like the post-Spellplage timejump that has made these into the ancient past?
Generally speaking, the novels were written in isolation, without much consultation with the people who were making the card game (including baking a story into the art and flavor text of the cards). They therefore aren't assumed to have "really happened" in terms of the way the overall story moves forward, and in particular they often contradict the actual game's portrayal (a notable example being the plane of Phyrexia, which is namechecked in the Whispering Woods trilogy, but presented as simply a plane full of demony gremlin critters, bearing little resemblance to the zombie-cyborg hellscape that it would become around the time the Urza's Saga expansion was printed, and would remain pretty consistent from then on out).

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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by Big Mac » Fri Aug 10, 2018 1:29 am

I've found a page on MTG WIki about books, but frustratingly, they list books by "Setting" and their definition of "Setting" doesn't seem to line up with what James Wyatt has been converting into Planes.

I'm guessing that what they mean by "Setting" is more like an important event like "The War of the Lance" (Dragonlance), "The Second Unhuman War" (Spelljammer) or "Arcane Age" (the past of Forgotten Realms) than what gets called a setting in D&D terms. I'll have a look and see if the child articles list the plane the story is set on.
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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by willpell » Fri Aug 10, 2018 3:42 pm

I'm about a chapter into "The Brothers' War" (two if you count the prologue), and I can already see again why I remember it being so great. The first chapter introduces us to Urza and Mishra, the titular brothers that are about to shape the entire history of Dominaria for centuries thereafter, over the next 50 years of them gradually becoming more and more bitter enemies. In their first appearance, they're just two kids of about 10, and you learn so much about what they are going to become, based on that initial description.

To briefly summarize what is much more eloquently spooled out in the book, Urza and Mishra are the sons of an unnamed nobleman in the country of Argive (on the Dominarian continent of Terisiare, where the expansions "Antiquities", "The Dark", "Ice Age" and "Alliances" all take place); their mother is out of the picture somehow, and their father has both married a new woman and fallen ill. The new wife seems to be a gold-digger of sorts, and it seems that the boys' presence in her household is at least an annoyance to her, and possibly a threat to her inheritance which she might respond violently to, so the father sends Urza and Mishra to live with the archaeologist Tocasia on her summer dig-site, as she owes him a favor of unspecified but serious nature. The boys are in the camp for all of fifteen minutes before having their first altercation with the other kids who are here temporarily (summering with Tocasia is a fairly common thing for nobility's kids, although the situation with these two is special somehow); as Tocasia investigates the trouble, we see the two boys for the first time.

Despite being brothers, Urza and Mishra look nothing alike; the former is tall, lanky, and blonde, while the latter is a short and stocky boy with dark hair. (Both will eventually end up having beards which are styled somewhat differently as well, and the cover picture shows them standing back-to-back, so you can kind of mentally de-age them to come up with this first image of them in the story.) They were both born in the same year, about 950 years after the founding of the Argivian capital, although history will later end up considering their birth year as "year 0 of the Argivian Reckoning calendar". Urza, however, was born on the first day of that year, and Mishra on the last. Everything about their personality seems to be informed by that one-year-minus-one-day difference in their ages; Mishra takes great delight in the fact that on his birthday, the two of them are "equal", in age and otherwise. The rest of the time, it's clear that Urza has had to do a certain amount of parenting to his younger brother, and go without such extra care himself, which has impacted both of their personalities; Urza is a very mature and controlled young man who seems to exceed his years, but is also very cold and distant because of the burden of responsibility upon him. Mishra seems to both rely heavily upon his older brother's guidance and protection, and also to resent him for being unemotional and holding Mishra back frequently; behaviorally somewhat younger than he actually is, the future "evil" brother has a volatile temper and a more poetic mindset, which makes it difficult for him to brook insults and otherwise behave in a "civilized" and "responsible" fashion.

That's as far as I've gotten in the current reading, but based on my recollection of previous read-throughs, an event is going to occur in a chapter or three which permanently shatters the bond of loyalty that the two brothers once shared; I won't get into specifics to avoid spoiling the whole story, but after what happens, the two will begin drifting apart. Urza will stay in Argive and pursue an education, a prestigious career, and otherwise follow the track that their father presumably laid out for him, but Mishra will take up with a somewhat marginalized tribe of desert nomads known as the Fallaji, who come to resent the Argivians' treatment of them, and he eventually becomes what amounts to a warlord leading the Fallaji in their efforts to liberate themselves. In the course of this initially-justifiable war, Urza becomes involved on the Argivian side, and his resentment for the wayward brother whose guardianship he failed in, triggering his more general urge to fix any problem in the most expedient manner possible, will cause him to react in ways that begin escalating the conflict. Before long, both brothers have expanded their military far beyond the nations they started out at, and the war has shifted from Argive vs. Fallaji to Urza vs. Mishra. I don't remember any of the specifics beyond that, but I know it's going to be epic.

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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by willpell » Sun Aug 12, 2018 6:48 pm

A few more chapters down, and we've gone from backstory on the two brothers to their "origin event", where they find an extraordinary "power stone" left behind by the ancient Thran civilization. Their reaction to the find sums up their character in two lines:

Mishra: "It's beautiful. Look at how it glows."
Urza: "It's intact. Think of what we could learn."

Then Mishra, who has been well-established as a curious and impulsive person, reaches out for a control glyph connected to the stone, and the more prudently cautious Urza reaches out his own hand to stop his brother from touching it. The result of these seemingly innocent actions will change the entire world of Dominaria forever.

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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by Big Mac » Mon Aug 13, 2018 9:49 pm

I'm going to avoid reading those posts, Willpell, as it looks (from a quick skim) that you are dropping a lot of spoilers.

I'm trying to work out which (if any) Magic: The Gathering novels I should read. But if I am going to read them anyway, I would like to get the same sort of enjoyment from them that it seems like you have. :-)
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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by willpell » Tue Aug 14, 2018 6:19 pm

Big Mac wrote:
Mon Aug 13, 2018 9:49 pm
I'm going to avoid reading those posts, Willpell, as it looks (from a quick skim) that you are dropping a lot of spoilers.
I've tried to avoid any real spoilers. I'm alluding to important things having happened, but not getting into too much detail. I'm only up through chapter 4 anyway, less than a fifth of the book.

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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by willpell » Mon Sep 03, 2018 8:15 pm

The Brothers' War - My re-read of this is finished. It remains consistently excellent throughout, and everything I've said above about how great it is still applies. I plan to put up a summary of all the RPG-relevant information which the book spools out about pre-Ice Age Terisiaire; I am of the opinion that it makes the easiest entry point for D&D players into the Magic: the Gathering world, since most of the elements that make MTG distinct have not been introduced yet, and it functions more as a generic sandbox.

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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by Canageek » Sat Sep 29, 2018 10:56 pm

Big Mac wrote:
Wed Aug 08, 2018 9:52 am
Thanks Willpell.

Sadly a lot of that went over my head. You said the planes for some of the novels, but not all of them.

I'll have to hunt around and see if I can find a table that lists novels and the planes they are set on.

And what does "all of which are sort of questionably canonical" mean? Have they rebooted the Magic: The Gathering universe and got rid of things from these novels...or done something like the post-Spellplage timejump that has made these into the ancient past?
Magic has a few eras of canon: Pre-revisionist, which is mostly non-canon, which includes all of these novels. How magic works changes in these ones, what it means to be a planeswalker isn't consistent, what mana is changes regularly.

Then there is a core group of books on Dominaria that I think are all canon? Magic works pretty much consistently, this has a lot of the core events that defined the magic story for years.

Then there is a post-Urza era where most of it is canon and some of its has been rewritten since then. This might be due to them moving away from contracted novels to staff writers or something? But I know the meaning of the Blind Eternities and the background to Nissa has changed. I think a lot of this stuff is them more caring about what makes writing things today easy then preserving a consistent lore, which annoys me. But honestly I'm not that interested in the stories in the modern era. (My favourite lore era is the Pre-revisionist and Fallen Empires era)

Then there is the stuff being put out today which is, as I understand it, all canon.

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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by willpell » Sun Sep 30, 2018 7:27 pm

Canageek wrote:
Sat Sep 29, 2018 10:56 pm
But I know the meaning of the Blind Eternities and the background to Nissa has changed.
What changed about Nissa exactly? As fas as I know she's pretty much the same now as she was when she premiered in Zendikar (roughly 2010).

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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by Canageek » Tue Oct 09, 2018 6:13 pm

willpell wrote:
Sun Sep 30, 2018 7:27 pm
Canageek wrote:
Sat Sep 29, 2018 10:56 pm
But I know the meaning of the Blind Eternities and the background to Nissa has changed.
What changed about Nissa exactly? As fas as I know she's pretty much the same now as she was when she premiered in Zendikar (roughly 2010).
This is before my time, but in her original backstory Nissa *lived* in the blind eternities for a while: In modern lore no one can live there and that is where the Eldrazi come from. There where a few other changes to how she spent her time on Lorwyn. https://mtg.gamepedia.com/Nissa_Revane has the details.

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Re: [MtG] Which Magic: The Gathering novels are best for RPG inspiration?

Post by willpell » Tue Oct 09, 2018 10:47 pm

Canageek wrote:
Tue Oct 09, 2018 6:13 pm
This is before my time, but in her original backstory Nissa *lived* in the blind eternities for a while: In modern lore no one can live there and that is where the Eldrazi come from. There where a few other changes to how she spent her time on Lorwyn. https://mtg.gamepedia.com/Nissa_Revane has the details.
I still don't know where this idea is coming from. I have never seen anything saying that the Blind Eternities were ever inhabitable. Nissa only dates back to 2008 or 2010 or something, when the first Zendikar set came out; the novel "Planeswalker", first published in 1998, clearly specifies that even a few seconds of being dragged through the Eternities by Urza left the character Xantcha (who is basically a human being, albeit one artificially grown in a vat on Phyrexia) almost dead from exposure to "burning cold" and "deafening silence" and such (that's not an exact quote, I forget the verbiage from Lynn Abbey's actual text, but it was something to this effect). He eventually created a "cyst" which would project armor to allow her to survive the planeswalking process, but even then, she found that efforts to tamper with the cyst was highly uncomfortable, suggesting that it was deeply tied into her basic biological functions. The following novel "Time Streams" further reiterates that even momentary Eternities exposure is deadly; Urza initially has to turn several of his allies to stone before he can evacuate them by planeswalking away from an explosion (he has no time to come up with a more elegant solution in that case; later he works out a simpler way of transporting Barrin and Jhoira and other companions of his, likely based in part on the cyst he created for Xantcha).

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