Petals and Thorns: Into the Catacombs

Today in Petals and Thorns the party ventures forth into the catacombs to complete an easy quest that I probably should’ve directed them to way earlier in the game. In fairness, I actually did direct them to the Order of the Bear, and they decided to wander off the road and into the spider cave instead, so maybe directing these guys is a useless endeavor to begin with.

Petals and Thorns: Against the Goblins

I’m gonna go ahead and keep posting Petals and Thorns videos for as long as they’ll last in order to get some quick and easy posts out of it while also wrapping up that series in a hurry. I’m still hoping to get some regular articles out during this Kickstarter, but I’m not sure I can make any promises. I’ve hit my funding goal way faster than expected, which means I need to figure out some stretch goals fast. That’s an awesome problem to have, but it may still eat into the time set aside for blogging. The “good” news is that Kickstarters usually slow down a lot towards the middle, so while this first week might see my backers breaking through stretch goals faster than I can get in touch with artists to nail down quotes for them, it probably won’t be a problem for the whole month.

Petals and Thorns ep. 8 is here:

Petals and Thorns: What Do You Believe In?

Petals and Thorns Cover Final Art

The Petals and Thorns Kickstarter is now live. You can click on the image above or these words here to get to the page and see what’s all up with that. If you play D&D 5e, you should consider buying it. For that matter, if you play other editions of D&D, you should consider buying it to read and maybe adapt certain elements into your homebrew campaign. Personally, I’ve got an entire Humble Bundle’s worth of Frog God stuff that’ll probably never see actual play, but it was still fun to read, so I figure there’s probably a market for that.

This thing hit 80% funding in six hours, requiring less than $100 to be fully funded. It will be five hours away from the end of its first day when this post goes live. I’m hoping to get it funded in the first 24 hours, so if it’s still not there by the time this post goes live (or if it is and you want to be helpful anyway), post this link anyplace interested in tabletop RPGs you know about, or drop a $1 pledge in (although, as mentioned above, if you play 5e or just like to read D&D adventures, you should take a look at the Kickstarter page and consider actually buying it for $15 – that’s $5 less than what it’ll sell for once brought to market). Kickstarter pushes projects according to how many backers they have, not how much money they’ve raised, so a pocket change $1 pledge hits way above its weight level in terms of showing support.

Also today: The seventh Petals and Thorns video.

Edit from 90 minutes before this post goes live: I am 100% funded in 12 hours. It is perhaps counterintuitive, but this means that $1 pledges are more important than ever. I mean, obviously $15 or $50 or $400 pledges are even better, but not by nearly as much as you’d think. My Kickstarter has been incredibly successful and that’s great, major thanks to everyone who’s already pledged, however with its current backer count it won’t sustain its momentum. The most important thing to this project right now is more backers, at any pledge level, so that we can sustain some momentum into the doldrums of the middle weeks and avoid falling apart.

Iron Fang Invasion Wrap-Up

Iron Fang Invasion is dreadfully boring viewing. Petals and Thorns isn’t that much better, but there is at least a question of what’s going to happen next, whereas Iron Fang just proceeds down the rails while two incredibly overpowered characters smash everything in their path with no resistance. The only reason I’m bothering to record and upload them at this point is because I started and don’t want to stop something partway through. This is not very rational, and in any case this last video is a decent-ish stopping point, so that’s where I’m calling it.

Speaking of Petals and Thorns, it and the GM’s Guide have missed a few updates due to a combination of throwing that Kickstarter together (it should be ready within a few hours of this post going live) and the fact that Google Drive is throwing a fit which is making it difficult for my cameraman to get his Petals and Thorns footage to me. All that stuff is still going to happen just as soon as technical difficulties are sorted out, and in fact Petals and Thorns will likely get several episodes dumped rapidly on top of one another to make up for lost time just as soon as we find a way to get those recordings from Jeff’s machine to mine. So far as the GM’s Guide is concerned, now that I’m no longer editing Kickstarter videos together, those should be returning starting next Sunday, and in the meantime you can find links to the text version at the top of the screen. That version is generally superior anyway. I’m hoping my videos will catch up to the text in quality by the time I get to the end, but I’m not there yet.

Let’s Read LitRPG: The First Five

I’m not only trying to get a Kickstarter off the ground, but will also be attending the Salt Lake Comic Con (officially redubbed “FanX” due to an unfavorable legal battle with San Diego Comic Con and a judge who is apparently unaware that the ship on Comic Con as a term unique to one convention sailed like twenty years ago), plus maintaining the schedule on games that people have paid for remains a much higher priority than blog posts which are free. All of this to say that for this particularly busy weekend I am going to post an article that is just gathering some content I already produced and then ruminating on it. Here are all the LitRPG novels I have reviewed to date, ranked in order of how much I liked them:

  1. Way of the Shaman: Survival Quest
  2. Threadbare: Stuff and Nonsense
  3. Awaken Online: Catharsis
  4. Divine Dungeon: Dungeon Born
  5. Succubus

At some point I’d like to build up a big enough library of LitRPG reviews (or at least book reviews in general) that Awaken Online doesn’t get to hold onto its deceptive middle-of-the-pack status. That book is actually really sloppy, and beats out Dungeon Born largely by virtue of the fact of having sporadic clever moments and good fight scenes spiking up from the baseline of mediocrity, whereas Dungeon Born was almost incessantly boring. It did get a little better towards the end, but so did Awaken Online, except that Awaken Online was recovering from “Mary Sue is lauded as most brilliant strategist ever for overcoming trivial opposition” instead of “100+ pages of nothing happening.” I’d rather roll my eyes than feel them glaze over.

Other than that, the list doesn’t hold a whole lot of surprises. Survival Quest was fun to read and did a lot of things right, with most of the hiccups in my readthrough being the fault of the translation, and even then it all pretty much clicked when I started subvocalizing the first person narrator speaking with a Russian accent, so of course it comes out on top. It was picked on recommendation from a friend specifically because I was hoping for (and got) a book that I could be pretty unreservedly a fan of. Stuff and Nonsense is dragged down a lot by Zuula and has severe pacing issues, but is also littered with plenty of great scenes and has both a strong start and finish. Its flawed brilliance would even have competed with Survival Quest’s consistent competence were it not for that one atrocious character. And no one who’s even skimmed the later Succubus posts will be surprised to see Nice Guy: The LitRPG coming in dead last, a position it will likely continue to occupy even as the list of books reviewed grows.

Dragonball Z Abridged Did Not Earn Gohan’s Transformation

Gohan’s transformation to SSJ2 was never going to be easy for DBZ Abridged to recreate. Firstly, it has the issue that all abridged series’ have, which is that everyone already knows the plot, so it’s much harder to execute that plot in a way that’s engaging. Making this particular scene worse, Goku already went SSJ once, and this scene of a good guy saiyan getting really angry and then getting a massive powerup out of the deal as symbolized by his hair getting spikier, we’ve already done that. So, when I say they messed it up, it’s not really a criticism of them as creators so much as it is a criticism of people who are giving them a pass. After over a year with no DBZA episodes, I get the feeling a lot of fans are willing to call episode 60-1 a masterpiece no matter how far out of left field the trigger for Gohan’s transformation was.

And this gets us into the third major obstacle for Gohan’s transformation, which is that its trigger is the death of a recent addition to the team who is an ally of convenience with no special relationship to Gohan at all. Threatening the life of Gohan’s father, mentor, and friends canonically does not trigger Gohan’s SSJ2 transformation, but killing Android 16 does. Team Four Star could’ve written their way out of that one by skipping the Android 16 monologue and letting Gohan transform in response to his family and friends being directly threatened and in immediate danger of death, but what’s special about that? Gohan was on Namek. He fought Freeza. Krillin, Dende, and later Piccolo being in danger of immediate death certainly triggered a sudden flare in power, but he didn’t go super saiyan. Plus, the flaw in the episode was certainly not with Android 16’s monologue to Gohan. That was well-written and well-acted. I am 100% willing to buy that Android 16’s savage attack on Gohan’s pacifism and subsequent callous murder were enough to push Gohan over the edge.

No, the problem is what came before that monologue, or rather what didn’t: Gohan being any kind of pacifist. Android 16 accuses Gohan of being a coward, but he’s not. He didn’t come here to arrange a peaceful resolution, he came here to fight Cell. Granted, he expected Goku to do all the heavy lifting, but Gohan’s been to enough of these things to realize that sometimes your B-team gets called on to kill a minion, or bog down the bad guy while a spirit bomb charges, or whatever. When Gohan fought Cell prior to his transformation, even in his own internal monologue he never said that he was afraid of hurting Cell. He was afraid that Cell would hurt him, but he fought Cell anyway. When Goku stopped fighting Cell and asked Gohan to finish the fight instead, Gohan asserted that Cell was going to win and kill him. When Goku refused to fight Cell anyway, Gohan ultimately acquiesced to the ultimatum of “fight Cell or let him destroy the world” and went to go fight a battle he was convinced was going to kill him. Gohan’s not a coward or a pacifist. He’s been fighting to protect the people he cares about since episode 1 and never expressed any desire to run away. He wishes he didn’t have to fight, but he never considers actually running away or refusing battle.

The end of Android 16’s monologue isn’t “stop running away,” though, it’s “stop holding back.” This is incongruent with Gohan’s claim to be a pacifist (itself incongruent with the fact that he’s trying to fight Cell, he’s just losing) and the accusations of cowardice, and it’s not even clear why Gohan’s holding back. From my existing knowledge of the original show, I can guess that a fear of destroying the entire Earth in the crossfire may have been a concern, but 1) if DBZA is going to try and recreate the moment of transformation as a dramatic one and not a gag, then they need to recreate that build-up too, not just rely on their audiences already having it, and 2) Android 16 talks about how Gohan’s “rigid pacifism [is crumbling] into bloodstained dust” and will be “a coward to your last whimper.” This isn’t consistent with Gohan holding back for fear of destroying the thing he’s out to protect. Even if the odds of accidentally destroying the Earth in an unrestrained battle are lower than the odds of Cell winning and destroying the Earth anyway while Gohan is holding back, that’s not “rigid pacifism [crumbling] into bloodstained dust,” that’s being willing to sacrifice the Earth to Cell in order to avoid any possibility of being the proximate cause of Earth’s destruction.

And even that is a flaw that is only very vaguely alluded to in DBZA – in that Goku is so committed to going all out for victory that the other Z fighters think he really is going to sacrifice Earth in pursuit of it. No one ever presents this as being necessary to defeating Cell, though, and it’s not a reference made often enough to work as the thematic core for the arc. It’s a one-off gag that first appeared the episode before Gohan’s transformation, made in a way that didn’t directly reference Gohan at all, and which is so transient that it doesn’t appear to be anything more than a joke, but which is suddenly drafted into being Gohan’s entire character arc from episodes 31-60.

Android 16’s monologue is a spectacular takedown of a flaw that Gohan doesn’t actually have. To the extent that the scene works at all, it’s only because it’s accompanied by a well done cover of an excellent song.

Kickstarter Update

I knew I was forgetting something today.

An update on the Kickstarter, which was originally going to run on tomorrow, September 1st. The illustrator I wound up working with is significantly slower than most of the others I was looking at (she is very well reviewed, however, so I’m reasonably confident she won’t just take the money and run, which is a concern for a lot of the guys on Fiverr), so it looks like I might not have my art ready to go until possibly as late as September 10th. That’s not really enough time to squeeze in a whole other let’s read, so I’m just going to extend the hiatus on those slightly. September 10th should be a maximum, but I’ve never worked with this artist before, so I can’t really guarantee anything.

Your Own Kind Of Madness

I’m gonna bust something out of my skunkworks for today (the skunkworks being the folder full of projects I work on with no intention of ever releasing any part of them to the public, but which occasionally produce something that isn’t so mired down in my own niche interests as to be uninteresting to anyone who isn’t me). I like the idea behind things like Darkest Dungeon afflictions, points where a character takes enough psychological damage that they suffer some kind of madness. One fatal flaw that many such systems have, however, is being utterly random. This ranges from the minor issue in Darkest Dungeon itself where a character is varyingly cowardly or suicidally aggressive depending on what dice they roll when their stress hits 100, regardless of what afflictions they’ve had previously, to the Call of Cthulhu problem where characters develop completely random phobias in response to seeing something sufficiently spooky. My solution: Each character, at chargen, selects a specific means of going mad from the stress of it all.

The specific numbers and skills referenced here are in relation to a greater skunkworks project which is mostly compatible with 5e mathematically except in that there are obviously meant to be lots of guns in this setting. You could buff that out yourself, but really, this should be taken as a prototype, an example of how things could work, rather than something that can be copied into an existing game unaltered.

Continue reading “Your Own Kind Of Madness”

Dungeon Born Is Dungeon Boring

Part 1: Rocky Start
Part 2: Tutorial
Part 3: Mushrooms Aren’t Plants
Part 4: Black and White
Part 5: Why Is The Dungeon Heart More Mobile Than His Minions?
Part 6: A Stoppable Force Meets A Movable Object
Part 7: Ongoing Tutorials And Video Game Morals
Part 8: Dale Strikes Back
Part 9: Late Explanations
Part 10: That Rabbit’s Not Dynamite
Part 11: Foreshadowing Of Five Armies
Part 12: End Of The Tutorial
Part 13: I Am Beginning To Suspect The Economics Of This Book Were Not Thought Through
Part 14: Religious Dispute
Part 15: Elemental Bunnies
Part 16: Dungeon Renovations
Part 17: Stumbling Forward
Part 18: Spooky Dagger
Part 19: Skipping Nothing
Part 20: The Finale, Such That It Is

At twenty posts, Dungeon Born is nearly double the length of any previous review I’ve done, but not because it’s particularly good or particularly bad, just because I happened to get very busy right as I was first reading Dungeon Born, which made me gravitate more towards getting one post done for the day and then immediately refocusing to something else. Whereas with previous books I would quickly realize when I was repeating myself because I would write several posts at a time, with Dungeon Born it took me until Part 19 and 60% of the way through the book to realize this, and then I had the whole thing wrapped up by Part 20 (which was undersized!). As such, the long form review of this book contains a lot of me making slight variations on the same nitpick over and over again instead of imposing and at least mostly respecting a moratorium on them once it becomes clear they’re going to mar the whole book.

So here’s the tl;dr: Dungeon Born doesn’t suffer from any stand-out crippling flaws like Succubus’ nice guy moralizing, Awaken Online’s blatant Mary Sue indulgence, or Threadbare having fucking Zuula in it. What it instead has is a ton of minor annoyances and not really anything interesting to recommend it. Half the book revolves almost exclusively around Dani teaching Cal how to dungeon (and in the back half, Cal figuring out how to dungeon for himself with mad science experiments, which is significantly less dull), and Cal and Dani’s dialogue is flat and uninteresting.

In the other half, we get the disjointed and aimless narrative of a town growing up around the dungeon as raiders come streaming in, under the direction of Dale, some random shepherd or something who happened to discover the dungeon along with a few others, and wound up being the only survivor of the first raid. This has a much wider cast of characters, but is still pretty much devoid of actual character arcs. The narrative occasionally talks about how Dale is getting more confident and forceful, but he killed a guy to secure the dungeon’s profits in the first chapter he appeared in. The character growth doesn’t actually happen because Dale has always been willing to take extreme measures to secure what he considers his fair share. Instead, it feels like reading the fantasies of someone mild-mannered and put-upon pretending to shock everyone by suddenly revealing they have far more power and resources than anyone thought, which is not a terrible scene to have once, but it becomes masturbatory when it starts happening over and over again, treated as though it’s a moment of growth each time.

The narrative is so lacking in actual plot structure or character arcs that at one point I realized I could (and did) skip entire chapters without anything being lost. Sure, things happen in those chapters, but not things which affect future chapters, except occasionally in a purely strategic way. AARs aren’t an inherently awful format or anything, so even that could work if there was some high level play going on (not that there’s an actual game to master, but I enjoy reading AARs that demonstrate a thorough grasp of games I haven’t actually played and have no understanding of, so a well-written book could produce a facsimile indistinguishable from the real thing by making up a sufficiently deep system to be exploited). Unfortunately, each dungeon raid is basically just the novelization of someone playing Torchlight for a couple of hours. There’s very little strategy involved, just a consistent arms race between Dale and his group getting stronger while Cal makes the dungeon stronger to try and kill them.

Then there’s the constant moral weirdness. The narrative repeatedly takes moral stances that are blatantly repugnant and either just lets them pass without comment, or even worse, tries to make excuses for them and fails. People talk about causing floods to wash away the homeless and beggars and how this isn’t really a big deal because they’re lazy and unproductive, and despite being a straw capitalist argument, that’s left to stand as the presumptive truth. Not only that, but the rulers hoard life extension magic for themselves, which is said to be what’s best for the world, because it prevents overpopulation (the possibility of using birth control is not discussed) and allows for greater stability. This, again, sounds like a philosophy meant to be understood to be blatantly villainous, here being stated by a character who I think is supposed to be sympathetic and then left unchallenged.

Worse than that, Cal is constantly murdering people for personal gain, and the only justification given is “well, they knew they were taking a risk.” So the lives of people who take risks are inherently worthless? It’s perfectly moral to shoot a soldier in the battlefield in the back and rifle through their pockets, because hey, they knew the job could be risky? It’s completely moral to go to a lumberjack barracks, bar the doors, and set the whole place on fire just to test out your new flamethrower and that’s fine, because hey, they all knew going into this that lumberjacking was a dangerous job? Getting people to risk their lives so that society can benefit is both important and not an easy thing to convince someone to do, so the deleterious effects on society of considering anyone who takes risks to be less worthwhile as a person than someone who doesn’t should be obvious.

“He knew the risks” is typically used to mean “he might not have deserved to die, but the stakes are high enough that a few human deaths are an acceptable price to pay, and his being the specific life paid was a result of his own fully informed decisions. It might not be right, but it’s not like he just got murdered out of nowhere.” This book uses the same basic phraseology, but is totally devoid of any understanding of what it means, and instead uses it to justify murdering people out of nowhere.

The whole thing comes across like the author doesn’t have any morals is too self-righteous to just own that and instead keeps trying to persuade you that it’s totally okay when he murders people for profit because he worked for what he has (this is almost verbatim from an argument presented by Dale and reaffirmed as “well-reasoned” by the narrative). I don’t know if the author actually believes that (for all I know, there’s a reversal in book three where the emptiness of the rhetoric used to justify all the unrestricted, murderous greed in this book is exposed and made into a plot point), but that’s the vibe that gets communicated by the book, and that’s a problem, because not only is it a shallow theme to have, it’s not even actually core to the theme. It has no impact on the plot or character arc because there’s not much of a plot or character arc to impact. There’s just occasionally these really poorly thought out justifications for obviously wrong actions, sometimes inserted for apparently no other reason except to establish that characters hold these poorly thought out opinions. No one’s decisions are actually driven by the belief that only select elites should be allowed to have extended lifespans. It just gets brought up and then dropped.

I may have spent half this summary review ranting about these bizarre, straw conservative morals being dropped into the book for no apparent reason, but they only come up once every few chapters and are mostly irrelevant. You may be wondering, then, why I spent so much time on them. The answer is because the book is so interminably dull, so incapable of building up a plot that amounts to anything other than an AAR of perfectly typical ARPG gameplay, that there’s nothing else to talk about. Even though this one flaw mars only maybe 10% of the book, the other 90% is just events strung together, building to nothing. And it’s boring. The only point or purpose is that our two viewpoint characters steadily gain more power, without being seriously opposed by anything, including one another. Cal tries to kill Dale, but pretty much just for the Hell of it, not because of some kind of clash of motivation. Cal could just as easily decide to intentionally avoid killing Dale and the plot would be unaltered. Dale kills Cal’s minions over and over again, but never has any intention of harming Cal himself.

Now we’re at the end of the book, let’s see how many of the Longes predictions wound up coming true:

Predictions about Dungeon Born based purely on it drawing from Xianxia:
1) Protagonist will find a variety of gimmicks and/or single innate gimmick that will help them skip massive chunks of Cultivation
Both Cal and Dale do this. I skipped over Dale doing it completely because it had no impact on anything else (like much of the events of this story), but he does indeed perform some ritual that jumps him ahead several ranks. Cal is a human soul rather than an animal soul, which means he gets to learn way faster, and has a silvertree that just so happens to be located nearby, and he can cultivate all essences types at once, and he can quickly and easily remove corruption allowing him to cultivate faster, and, and, and…
2) There will be a bunch of time skips because Cultivation takes forever
The narrative regularly timeskips weeks or months, though never years or centuries.
3) Protagonist will level up to kill and replace God
In fairness to Longes, this is clearly something that would happen towards the end of the trilogy and not in the first book, so it’s still very much on the table.
4) Different levels of Cultivation equate to MASSIVE power differences and absolute curbstomping
At one point it’s explicitly stated that each rank is about an order of magnitude more powerful than the one below (i.e. one C rank can defeat ten D ranks). This isn’t consistent, though. Sometimes people treat others who are only a single rank below them as a legitimate threat.
5) Protagonist may find a gimmick that helps them fight people on higher Cultivation level
It’s not really clear if the protagonists are able to do this because of special gimmicks or if the narrative just doesn’t understand the implications of a C-rank being an order of magnitude more powerful than a D-rank, but I’m guessing the latter. In any case, there’s no direct confrontation between the protagonist and a higher-ranked opponent.
6) Being the very best like no one ever was is the protagonist’s primary motivation
With a side order of sociopathy too spineless to admit to its own amorality.
7) There’ll be a bizarre economy and people will interact with it in a very bizarre way
Arguably true just on the basis that the main source of income for the entire town that starts growing up around the dungeon is raiding the dungeon for coins produced by that dungeon (the economic implications of a bottomless reserve of coins under the control of no governing entity is not explored). The narrative inherited this from its ARPG roots, though, not xanxia, so, half a point?
8) Skills or their equivalent (minions?) will be bought and sold via bizarre economy
Skills can be stored in special memory stones and rapidly passed on in this manner.
9) Protagonist will find a way to completely skullfuck said economy
This one hasn’t come true yet, although there’s a lot of elements that look like it might be building in that direction for later books (especially the silvertree).
10) Cultivation requires or is greatly sped up by some magic potions or eating monster parts or something like that
Silvertree. Check.
11) Protagonist will subvert that, skullfucking the economy in the process
It’s not really subverted so much as just the protagonist has one and most people don’t.

Petals and Thorns: The Bears’ Fate

Ordinarily this would’ve gone up six hours earlier, but unfortunately when I left the uploads to run in the morning, something went wrong and they weren’t finished by noon. I’m sure all the fans of my streaming are deeply disappointed.

Today in Petals and Thorns, the Order of the Bear meets their fate:

In Iron Fang Invasion, I got bored of the AP and decided to just make an army and throw it at the party and see what happens: