February 2005

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

A Career Suggestion for Laurell K. Hamilton

A few days ago, my wife, another friend, and I were talking about the latest Anita Blake, Supernatural-Creature Fucker novel, Incubus Dreams. Our friend mentioned that he thought that there was about 100 good pages of reading in the 650 or so pages of "novel." My wife then said that even as someone who enjoyed reading erotica and porn, she found that a sex scene every few pages was just a little much. That's when it occurred to me: Hamilton is writing the horror/porn equivalent of an early Squaresoft game.

Some background for those of you who didn't grow up on video-games: Dungeons and Dragons (and many other early role playing games) had a Wandering Monster Table. The theory was that, to avoid the games always playing the same, the Dungeonmaster (DM) would roll randomly to see if the adventurers encountered a wandering monster in a dungeon. It was a nice idea, but no DM really wanted to roll a die every few seconds just to see if an orc would randomly pop up, especially if they had a really nifty trap/encounter that they wanted the adventurers to get to. So most DMs ended up using the Wandering Monster table only when it helped move the characters along, or punish them, or give them some experience (depending on the DM and the players). This made a lot more sense than simply wandering down an empty hallway and encountering twelve kobolds and a bugbear out of nowhere.

When Square (and, to be fair, many other makers of Electronic RPGs) started releasing games for the second-gen systems (the NES/Sega Master System/etc), and continuing, to an extent, even now, they incorporated the Wandering Monster Table. This meant that you could move your little party representation across a map, and, in spite of not seeing anything, and having plenty of alternate routes (say, if you're crossing the countryside), get pulled into a random monster encounter.

At first, this was a good thing. After all, characters needed experience points to boost their characters, and there needed to be a palpable sense of danger.

But the problem with a random encounter table is that it's, well, random. And in some games, you'd encounter a group of monsters, beat them, walk a step, and get drawn in to yet another battle. It could take thirty minutes to cross two inches of a television screen, the video game equivalent of the end of a football game.

And if you're actually trying to advance the plot and get to a planned encounter, there's no DM to decide, "hey, let's not bother rolling on the Wandering Monster Table," and Murphy's Law seemed to guarantee that such times were when you'd be forced to waste time against another stupid band of thieves. It's the sort of thing that has driven many a gamer nuts, and caused more than a few to swear off RPGs (although games like Diablo and others have done a nice job of randomizing without removing the ability to see monsters coming at you and avoid encounters).

Which brings me back to Anita Blake. You see, that 100 pages of plot and character development (using the terms as loosely as you'd imagine) are interrupted time and again by random sex encounters, most of which are as believable than the random sex encounters you might find in a porn move (I swear, I expect the next LKH novel to have a scene in which Anita enters a shoe store to buy new Nikes, and ends up flashing the clerk, then blowing him in the stockroom while bad '70s music plays). One can only imagine a little electronic 8-bit Anita moving along, attempting to get from, say, her house to a cab, only to feel that pull (called "The Ardeur"). The player would mutter "oh shit, not again" as the screen spins, and she's tossed into a random sex encounter with a werewolf and a goat. Upon finishing the encounter, she moves along as if nothing has happened and enters the cab. The 250 experience points gained from the encounter can be applied to increasing her "resist gag reflex" skill the next time she levels up.

Man, how come this video game license hasn't been snatched up? It's a natural. And it would certainly be a better use of Hamilton's imagination than her books are.

Incubus Dreams by Laurell K. Hamilton
Berkley Hardcover
ISBN: 0425198243
658 Pages