Death by Cliché

I used to be a voracious reader. In the days before I got into tabletop gaming, when I was much shorter, I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on. I preferred science fiction, but I spent a lot of time in fantasy, mysteries, and classics of the type most kids my age only read for school projects. This love of consuming stories is probably what led to my interest in producing stories, which segued nicely into creating and running campaigns, but that’s probably a long story.

I’ve fallen out of reading over the years; my time spent in books has generally been inversely proportionate to my time spend online, and I telecommute. These days the books I get are mostly nonfiction and mostly gifts. The last time I read a fiction book not written by somebody I know was long enough ago that the author has since died, so draw conclusions accordingly. I don’t go looking for books any more, which means I don’t find out about books that are ostensibly in my wheelhouse until somebody brings them to my attention.

Death by Cliché is one such book. It’s a story of the “modern person injected into fantasy world” ilk, but with the twist that the world is probably a roleplaying game run by a DM so deep in tabletop clichés he needs a diving bell. The main character, a gamer himself, snarks his way through an adventure while trying to find a way back to the real world, all the while dealing with the other players through their characters, the NPCs incapable of understanding his plight, and the DM himself who may or may not be actively aware that he’s trying to leave the game.

This is, first and foremost, a comedy. It’s not a story about a fantasy world or gaming, it’s a way to make the reader laugh within the context of fantasy and gaming. In that respect it’s certainly dedicated. The book is relentless with its jokes, focusing more on quantity than quality, but I can’t pretend it wasn’t effective. The way it approached its premise was genuinely clever, and like an actor good enough to believably act badly, it takes a sharp mind to write a book that lampshades itself but still makes you care about what happens. In the sense that it’s a narrative designed to make me laugh, it did what it set out to do.

But throughout the book I was never quite sure if the author was laughing at me or with me, and given its other reviews I don’t think I’m alone there. The main character lampoons everything he can get his hands on, from the storyline to the setting to the other characters to their players to the DM himself. By extension, he mocks just about every gamer who’s ever picked up dice, especially those still finding their footing. I get the impression that it’s all supposed to be in good fun, but I saw a lot of the same reactions and behaviors I see in the worst of us, the types who belittle and disparage anybody who doesn’t play the same way they do. Read less graciously, the entire book is a diatribe against beginning players and DMs, but one that tries to forgive itself by saying it’s all in jest. It’s basically 240 pages of “I’m not racist, but…”, attacking its target audience.

I can mostly forgive that; even if it’s not agreeable satire, at least an attempt was made. Rather, the biggest issue I have with the book is its deliberate failure to be well-written. There are times when the author forgets about a character and calls himself out on it, or overuses words under the guise of losing his thesaurus, and he’s constantly snarking at himself in his own chapter quotes. This is cute for about four seconds, and from then on it’s a constant distraction. It’s as though the author wants to to know he doesn’t think you should be reading the book, and that’s supposed to be endearing enough to make you want to read it more. It’s really not. At best it’s distracting, and at worst it’s a subtle jab at anybody who does try to write well. It’s like a professional wrestling match where the commentators can’t talk about anything but how fake it is. Or, for a more accessible example, it’s like a modern B-movie, where you can see the boom mikes in every shot and it’s clear some characters had their voices dubbed during post-production, and you know it’s all intentional and that’s part of its charm. I get that some people like that sort of thing, but I’m not interested in something that actively tries not to be worthwhile.

I have a hard time recommending this book because it’s good per se. I’m more inclined to recommend it for what it is, a send-up of bad or inexperienced DMing in the context of an adventure story. So I guess if you want more comedy about gaming, go for it. It’s kind of the book version of marshmallow breakfast cereal. It’s not haute cuisine, it’s not for everyone, in certain cases it may actively hurt you, and you won’t find it in my cart, but if you’re part of its target audience it will probably make you happy.

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