The novel Ghosts of Ascalon attempts to bridge the 250-year gap between fantasy MMO Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2, but is it a bridge too far? We speak to co-author Jeff Grubb about bringing Tyria's fiction up-to-date.
The world of Tyria changes greatly in the two and a half centuries that follow the events of Guild Wars' last expansion, Eye of the North. The once-dominant human race teeters on the brink extinction due to years of war and strife. The warlike feline race of the Charr would stand triumphant if not for turmoil between its different factions. New races - the towering Norn, the wickedly intelligent Asura, and the inquisitive Sylvari - grow in power.
Five elder dragons, once peacefully sleeping below the surface, have awoken, causing widespread devastation to the land. No one race can hope to stand against their power, but all five combined? Perhaps Tyria still stands a chance.
This is the world we're thrust into in Ghosts of Ascalon, the first official Guild Wars novel, written by Matt Forbeck and Jeff Grubb, a team more than up to the task of presenting this new Tyria to the masses.
Matt Forbeck's credits include several novels, including a particularly good series of Blood Bowl books, plus a ton of writing and design credits for pen-and-paper roleplaying games, from The Lord of the Rings RPG to Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game.
Jeff Grubb has been designing fantasy worlds for more than 30 years. Along with his wife, Kate Novak, he's been instrumental in the creation of some of Dungeons & Dragons' most memorable worlds - Dragonlance, The Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, and Jakandor.
Jeff got involved with ArenaNet and Guild Wars as a writer on the Nightfall expansion, going on to work on Eye of the North, before starting work on designing Guild Wars 2.
Jeff is currently responsible for the content team for Guild Wars 2, handling lore, continuity, cinematic scripts, and basically "making sure all the cats are heading in the same direction. A traffic cop," he says.
Traffic cop or not, Jeff and Matt have created one of the best video game-related books I've read this year.
Ghosts of Ascalon tells the tale of how the humans and the Charr formed the uneasy truce they maintain at the beginning of Guild Wars 2. It's a study in the characteristics of each of Tyria's five main races, and how they interactive with one another - a primer for role-players. It's a history lesson from the perspective of a band of heroes on a hopeless quest.
I like Jeff's explanation of the book the best. "Originally when we started Ghosts of Ascalon, we wanted it to be The Canterbury Tales, only with more explosions.
"We wanted it to be both an introduction to this world for those who haven't had a chance to engage in it, but also for those who played it forever. To fill in the blanks and tell the story of how things have changed."
At its heart, however, Ghosts of Ascalon is the story of Dougal Keane, a human treasure hunter forced to face the ghosts of his past, literally and figuratively.
Dougal is a former soldier who skipped rank with a band of brothers and sisters in order to seek the treasures of Ascalon, a once-proud city transformed into a ghost town, filled with restless spirits still hell-bent on defending it from Charr invasion forces. Dougal's group makes it to Ascalon, but only Dougal makes it out alive.
When a faction striving for peace between the humans and the Charr discover the key to a cease-fire lay within that city's haunted walls, there's only one man to turn to.
The novel opens with Dougal doing what he does best, raiding an ancient tomb for treasure, saddled with a ragtag group of adventures that really mesh. "It's definitely a pick-up group," says Grubb, referring to the unfortunate circumstance of having to group with total strangers who don't play well together in an online role-playing game.
The one redeemable character in the lot is Killeen, a curious member of the plant-like Sylvari, a race barely twenty-five years old. "At the end of The Eye of the North we saw a plant growing," says Grubb. That was the beginning of the Sylvari race.
Killeen is a necromancer, but one of the most amiable necromancers you're likely to meet. As a young race, the Sylvari are unfettered by the poisons of mistrust and deceit that have infected the older races over time. They're bright, inquisitive, and incredibly honest, often to a fault. They seem like they'd be a blast to role-play.
"Part of the goal is making people want to play these characters," Jeff says. I'd say they've gotten the job done nicely.
As the book progresses, Dougal and Killeen are joined by other party members, representing the whole range of Guild Wars 2 races. There's the sleek and powerful Charr, Ember, who hates and distrusts humans, playing counterpoint to Riona, Dougal's former comrade-in-arms who hates and distrusts her right back. Kranxx is a wise and resourceful Asura, patiently weathering being saddled with beings of inferior intellect.
Then there's Guillik, a legendary shape-changing Norn hero with more courage than common sense. It's a good thing he has the skills to back up his bravado. Guillik made me love the Norn race. Jeff is quite fond of them as well.
"The Norn are such happy children," he says. "They take things one day at a time, effusive, abrasive and overwhelmingly positive. They're one of the most positive thinking races. They've been kicked out of their homeland by one of the five dragons, but they're still positive."
Jeff's character work has had me falling in love with fictional figures since the Forgotten Realm's Finder's Stone Trilogy, but he won't claim credit for this lot. "The characters were created by Matt. As we worked on the book, they grew through the telling and revision. They became more real. Matt and I are very comfortable with the world, and it shows."
It certainly does, whether they are delivering intense emotional moments, or pausing the action for a bit of exposition.
And there is quite a bit of exposition in Ghosts of Ascalon. During the first half of the book it seems like every chapter features a history lesson from the world of Tyria, be it the tale of the Foefire that destroyed Ascalon or the coming of the dragons and the terrible changes they wrought in the land.
It all manages to flow naturally, however, making sense i the context of the story. It's character-driven history. Ember's resistance to wearing chains in order to sneak into a city where her race cannot walk free becomes a story of how the Charr stopped worshipping false gods. It helps the readers invest themselves in the history, rather than simply trying to have them absorb it.
My only real issue with Ghosts of Ascalon, aside from a few emotionally-draining story twists, is the pacing. Grubb tells me, "A lot is being carried by this first book," and it shows. Towards the end of the story, when the exposition is over and it's time for action, I was amazed at how few pages I had left to read.
So the ending felt a bit rushed, but all in all Ghosts of Ascalon is a highly satisfying read. I came away with a working knowledge of the world of Guild Wars 2, an appreciation and understanding of the various races, and a longing to see the characters in action once more.
Sadly, this is the end of Dougal's story, but we could still run into him once Guild Wars 2 is released.
"The game is a living, growing property," explains Grubb, "We've taken characters out of the book that appear in the game, and there are figures from the game that appear in the book. There's a strong connection between the two."
And while this is the end of Dougal's story, there are still plenty of tales to tell in the Guild Wars universe, beginning with the next standalone novel, Edge of Destiny by J. Robert King.
"Guild Wars is a bush," says Grubb. "A franchise like Dragonlance is a tree. It has a main story that acts like a trunk. The other stories are branches off of trunk." Like the Forgotten Realms, Guild Wars is a bush, with room for countless stories from countless authors, all complimenting each other while standing on their own.
"Guild Wars is a rich, diverse, deep world, and we've been looking forward these past couple of years to sharing it with everyone. "
The sharing begins on July 27, when Guild Wars 2: Ghosts of Ascalon goes on sale in bookstores across North America.
Check out the first chapter for free at the Guild Wars 2 web page.