Threadbare: Kill Ten Rats

Chapter 3

The explanation of how regular animals can interact with prompts in order to become monsters is split across two pages and I don’t want to bother going through the trouble to highlight both fragments and combining them, but basically what happens is that if, for example, you are a rat and you are particularly good at being a rat by, just hypothetically, sneaking into someone’s cellar and finding all of the food, this gives you a rank up. If you happen to express approval rather than negativity in response to the rank up prompt, you will become a monster.

This brings up again a question first raised by Threadbare’s own ranking up shenanigans earlier: Why is there even an option to say no? Shouldn’t the only answer be “OK?” Is there some kind of opportunity cost for leveling up?

Anyways, the rat king is sending its children to eat Pulsivar and Threadbare alive, because apparently it cannot tell that Threadbare is inedible.

Pulsivar moved with lightning speed, sweeping out with his claws as they came at him, dancing back and batting them away as they came, but there were too many angles to cover. One larger rat took a bite out of his tail with its chisel teeth. Another one latched onto his ear and the cat howled, spraying blood as he shook his head, sending the rat flying as a red number ‘5’ floated up to the ceiling.

Apparently the cat vs. rat match-up is way less lopsided in Threadbare than it is in Outside.

Continue reading “Threadbare: Kill Ten Rats”

Threadbare: Magic Tea Party

Chapter 2

If he’d been capable of reading, they would have let him know that he had a choice to make.


Just in case readers forgot what the prompt said between chapters, I guess.

Everything spun, and then WHUMP, the teddy bear landed on the bed. He sat up, shaking his head—

—and found himself in a pile of stuffed animals. Frozen, stiff, they stared at him with mute eyes.

The teddy bear trembled as he poked at them with his paw pads. They didn’t move. They looked just like the skunk had after he’d killed it, with the, the same unnatural stillness.

Ha. This is an interesting misunderstanding. It’s a fun exploration of the idea of a teddy bear golem, though. Threadbare isn’t just having the protagonist be a teddy bear and then giving him otherwise perfectly ordinary LitRPG adventures, it’s telling a story that would only work for a teddy bear (or similar toy golem, anyway). I’m kind of killing it by drawing so much attention to it, but if you wanted to experience the book yourself, you should be reading it on Royal Road.

And the teddy bear’s young mind jumped to exactly the wrong conclusion.

…yes, Threadbare, you’ve been more than heavy enough with your implications, pretty much any reader can suss out that-

I am among the dead. She means to kill me!

Goddammit, Threadbare.

Continue reading “Threadbare: Magic Tea Party”

Challenge In Video Games

I talk about the aesthetics of play a lot these days. Today, I’m going to be using them as a lens with which to analyze two indie games, those being One Finger Death Punch and Jydge. Jydge is a twin stick shooter in which you are a jydge, an android law enforcement officer empowered to sentence criminals to death on the spot in a dystopian megacity where the letter U is apparently prohibited. One Finger Death Punch is a game in which you click the left mouse button to attack to your left and the right mouse button to attack to your right, and is one of those minimalist games with surprising amounts of depth.

Both of these games rely heavily on challenge to get their engagement out of the player. Jydge has reasonably strong art direction and a good soundtrack, but you aren’t gonna buy this game just to look at it. One Finger Death Punch harkens back to the early 2000s browser game aesthetic by having multi-colored stick figures exclusively, so they’re definitely not trading on sense pleasure. There are occasional moments in that game when enemies are coming at you so fast that you can string together combos so quickly in a way that just feels good, but half of that is the challenge-derived satisfaction of getting through a storm of baddies unscathed in the first place. Both games are basically devoid of any kind of expression, discovery, or fellowship, their narrative is either very light (for Jydge) or also completely absent (for Death Punch), they’re pretty light on fantasy, and to the extent that they have abnegation, it’s only in that abnegation can set in when the challenge fails to ramp up fast enough and things begin to get grindy.

Which brings me to my point: Both of these games sell themselves on challenge first and foremost, but One Finger Death Punch isn’t very challenging. Certainly the game can get tricky on Grandmaster difficulty, and maybe I would’ve found Master difficulty challenging if I’d been able to start there, or skip there after warming up on just a few levels of Student. You can’t, though. In order to reach a new difficulty level, you must complete the previous difficulty level all the way to the end. By the time I reached Master I was familiar enough with the game that the increased speed was no problem. It wasn’t until Grandmaster that I started regularly running a real risk of actually losing a stage, although I expect a lot of the Master levels could’ve given me that feeling had I reached them without first having honed my skills on tons and tons of Student levels which veeeery slowly raised the default speed.

Death Punch does have a mechanic whereby speed increases automatically with every victory and decreases when defeated, but all this means is that I played Student difficulty almost exclusively at 140%+ speed, and when I lost a level I wasn’t able to try again at that speed. When I replayed the level, it had become significantly easier, and I was able to beat it in one attempt easily. So even though One Finger Death Punch has a mechanic to raise the speed to match player skill, it sabotages that mechanic by giving the player almost no control over it. If I want to play Student at about 140% speed constantly, I can’t. When defeated, I’m knocked back down something like 20% (you lose a lot of speed when defeated at far over the default 100%) and must play several easy levels to build it back up. Remember that One Finger Death Punch is a game that is about nothing else but challenge! There’s no story to see or game world to explore which overly difficult gameplay might lock me out of. The gameplay is the experience, and after going to the trouble to program in variable difficulty in two different ways, the game prevents the player from actually setting the difficulty to the level they want.

Jydge isn’t quite the total antithesis of this, but it’s definitely an example of doing things much better. Jydge has eighteen levels, each with four levels of difficulty, and each of those with one main objective and two side objectives. The side objectives can usually be completed without completing the main objective, although certain objectives like “don’t be seen” or “take no damage” require you to complete the main objective by their nature. Still, the idea is at the very least that you’ll usually equip one set of weapons and gear to complete one side objective, then another set to complete the other (on low difficulty and early levels, you can often complete all three objectives in one run with whatever gear is available, but that’s just because the objectives are all pretty easy). The lowest difficulty is so easy that anyone reasonably familiar with video games can beat not only every main objective, but probably every side objective. The highest difficulty is extremely difficult, especially for some of the side objectives like making sure there’s no property damage – whether it’s from your weapons or your opponents’. I’m a completionist for many games, and have taken that mindset to both of these two, but I have been forced to concede that about a third of the objectives on the highest difficulty just aren’t within my ability to achieve.

This broad spectrum of difficulty unlocks as you play through the original levels. New levels are unlocked by completing a certain total number of objectives across all difficulty levels, so players are encouraged both to try out new playstyles to get the low-hanging fruit on lower difficulties and pick only the higher difficulty objectives that suit the playstyle they prefer. It’s not quite “all difficulties are unlocked from the word go, play as easy or as hard as you like,” which seems like the obvious ideal to me, but it’s pretty close, since the objective requirements for unlocking new levels are low enough that you don’t have to spend much time in higher difficulties if you don’t want to, but the higher difficulties are still there, and as soon as you unlock them they’re available on every level you’ve reached so far. It also helps that the challenge ramps up fast enough that I hit the point where I felt like I was being forced to learn and adapt as a player much more often than in One Finger Death Punch, and again – that’s pretty much all there is to these games. Other forms of engagement exist, but not here.

Things like this are why understanding the aesthetics of play can be helpful to designing a game. If you’re going to make your game all about challenge, you should probably make sure that it’s actually challenging, and not just occasionally or towards the very end like in One Finger Death Punch, but very frequently and starting from early in the game, like in Jydge.

Threadbare: Cheering for the Protagonist

Readers, I owe you an apology. Several months ago, when I haphazardly updated this site’s look to serve as more my personal platform than anything with a particular purpose, I changed the tagline to “I guess this is a LitRPG blog now?” And since then I have not done any LitRPG blogging. This is clearly a complete betrayal of the sacred bond that exists between a plant commonly used to make tea and an unhygienic space messiah, a Romanian who blogs about blogging, a creepy little horned thing, and the rest of the ragtag assortment of followers my literature blogging carries in its wake.

Today I’m restoring that trust. Today we’re talking about Threadbare: Stuff and Nonsense, a LitRPG book that began as serial fiction on Royal Road Legends and is now on Amazon. I went ahead and bought the more up-to-date and edited Amazon version of this, so I can say I gave it a fair shake in case I end up hating it.

Chapter 1

It didn’t know that the hard thing it was sitting on was a wooden shelf. It failed to comprehend that the brown thingies lashed around its limbs that ran down through the holes in the wood were ropes binding it in place. It had absolutely no concept of books, which were the things that filled the shelves across the way. It couldn’t tell you that the oddly-shaped thing three slots down from it was a wooden hobby horse, or that the thing two slots down was a stuffed ragdoll, or that the black-and-white shape next to it was a taxidermied skunk.

People interested in incessant ranting may find this series of posts disappointing, because there’s some pretty decent signs that this book will actually be good. On the one hand, there is an apparently completely extraneous prologue that I have entirely skipped over, but on the other, it’s like two pages long and so far as I can tell mainly serves to reassure jittery LitRPG readers that yes, there are stats and such in this book, regardless of whether they’re shoved in your face in the first two or three goddamn pages. LitRPG readers are weirdly obsessive about the presence of numbers in the text. Not the presence of numbers in the setting, mind you, but the actual presence of numbers in the text. It’s not enough to say that people have HP, a decent chunk of the LitRPG audience will not be satisfied until you show them exactly how much they have and how much they’re losing to any given blow. So probably that page and a half of prologue is just there to say “look, a character sheet, now calm your tits and read the goddamn story.”

Looks like I was able to worm some ranting in about things other than the story, so that’s good.

This first paragraph does a pretty good job of setting up our protagonist and our location, fixing in mind the presence of various props (the skunk, the horse, etc. etc.) that presumably will be relevant in the ensuing scene, while also establishing mood. Making these early paragraphs pull double duty like that is a pretty good sign for the story overall.

Continue reading “Threadbare: Cheering for the Protagonist”

A Brief Oddity

One of the most common search terms by which people reach my blog is “amazon”. Considering that there is an Amazon rainforest and associated river, the Amazon tribe of warriors, plus Amazon the giant, moderately evil delivery corporation, it’s weird that people searching for “amazon” find my blog, which I don’t think even has any articles that use that word very prominently. I think I may have linked to Amazon pages for some books I referenced once or something. Who’s searching for “amazon” and finding my blog instead of any of the far more famous and far more relevant hits for that term? Is it the nomadic robot who accessed my site a hundred times a day several days in a row, each day from a different country?

Vampire: The Last Night is Terrible

Vampire: The Last Night is a playtest scenario for Vampire: the Masquerade’s…fifth edition? Whichever one Chronicles of Darkness is working on that Paradox isn’t. Quick clarification there, when White Wolf keeled over, a bunch of its most committed and not necessarily most competent fans picked up the pieces as Chronicles of Darkness, while the main IP was sold off to first one Nordic company and then another. The current owners of the IP are Paradox Interactive, and they are producing a glossy art book sort of game that may or may not be atrocious, sort of picking up the old White Wolf torch of having fluff and art that’s good enough that you don’t even care that the mechanics are a broken mess. I want to believe, but the previews don’t look promising even as an art book.

We’re not talking about that book today, though, because it isn’t out yet and it’s not like this blog sells itself on being ahead of the curve. No, we’re talking about a Chronicles of Darkness scenario from like 2014 or something. Details are scarce, because this shit was so awful that they took it off the internet and it now survives only as a .pdf passed around the internet. My acquisition of the .pdf was, of course, of utterly impeccable legality, but I’m given to understand that most owners of it did so through the unthinkable act of piracy. What terrible times we live in.

EDIT: Turns out (according to the impeccably legal source of the .pdf, which is basically the only source of information on this I can find now) that this is actually a playtest packet for the thing that Paradox is outsourcing, not whatever the Hell Chronicles of Darkness is getting up to, which means my opinion on the final product of that new VtM art book coming out has gone from “signs are bad, but there could still be a surprising reversal of fortune in the cards” to “abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

The first thing I double-checked on this was its authors. We’re looking at Martin Elricsson and Ken Hite, with Karim Muammar on editing. The reason I checked this is to confirm that none of them were Matt MacFarland, the pedophile who wrote the conspicuously pro-abuse Beast: the Primordial. The reason I felt the need to double check this before beginning a full-on analysis will become clear later.

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History Is Not Biology, Primary Sources Are Not Lab Experiments

I usually make a point of not writing a “someone is wrong on the internet” article unless I’ve been in or at least observed two different online conversations in which someone asserted something dumb, that way I can be reasonably confident that this is a thing that some subsection of the internet believes in rather than just a specific guy who is crazy or suffering from some very specific misunderstanding. In this case, it was actually one conversation in which three different people all made the same mistake, so this may be even less generally applicable than these usually are, but Hell, at least I’m posting more or less on schedule again.

Today’s subject is the different between history and sciences like physics and biology and so forth, and why applying the standards for one to the other is dumb. History is the study of things that are over. Wars that have already been fought, technological revolutions that have already altered society, people who are already dead, that sort of thing. History is usually thought to begin (and current events end) somewhere between 10-25 years ago which means sometimes it is possible to go out and get brand new primary sources by going and talking to a guy who was there, but generally speaking the events have passed mostly or completely from living memory, and in any case the memories of an event that happened decades ago are significantly less reliable than the memories of an event recorded a week after the event occurred.

Huge swaths of history are cobbled together from a handful of eyewitness accounts supplemented by government-sponsored historical narratives that might plausibly include entire campaigns that were fabricated, especially if they were written long after the events allegedly took place. The incidence of literacy throughout most of history was very low and is inversely correlated to how durable the means of recording a personal diary are – when people used near-impervious clay tablets to write things down, almost nobody could write, and when lots of people knew how to write, everyone was using flimsy paper notebooks that fall apart after just half a century. If your entire record of a battle is the propaganda of state media on one or both sides, eyewitness reports of a few dozen people who were there, some mass graves, and a bunch of spent shells, then odds are excellent that this will always be your entire record of the battle.

In biology, if you have anecdotal evidence that a horse and a donkey can produce fertile offspring, you can go double check if that’s true, and if so, how often, because horses and donkeys are still a thing. Therefore, if you have anecdotal evidence that horses and donkeys can produce fertile offspring, that’s considered insufficient in the specific field of biology not because anecdotal evidence is worthless, but because it’s inferior to other, stronger kinds of evidence that we can go out and gather. It’s not that using anecdotal evidence is some original sin that automatically makes an argument wrong, it’s that modern science has easy access to more reliable methods, so there’s generally no reason but laziness not to employ those methods rather than calling anecdotal evidence good enough and moving on.

In history, if you have anecdotal evidence that women warriors fought alongside their men in iron age Balkan tribes, that’s all she wrote (for the curious: no, this was not the actual subject of the argument that inspired this post). If you dismiss the reports as “anecdotal,” you have not exposed your opponent as a propagandist using flimsy evidence to uphold their political narrative, you have exposed yourself as failing to understand how history works. If we have a couple of anecdotes saying that something happened one way and not any compelling evidence to say that it happened another, then that first way is our best guess as to how things were and we have no idea when we’ll get any better evidence. We collect a lot of data these days, and we store a lot of it on the internet, so when dealing with science or current events it is often the case that good stats are available with just 30 minutes of research. In history, we have whatever stats the ancients left for us. That gives us a lot on crop harvests and basically nothing on murder rates, military effectiveness, and self-reported rate of happiness in [insert extinct civilization here].

On a related note, this is why fields like physics and chemistry tend to see a lot of refining, where what we believed before was basically correct but new experiments have revealed how it’s wrong in some edge cases, or there’s more nuance and detail than we had previously anticipated, or whatever. Turns out “atoms” aren’t actually atomic at all, they’re made out of neutrons and protons and so on, but atoms are still real. On the other hand, history is more prone to things like “that thing we thought was true has turned out to be a complete fabrication by the Ancient Egyptian government which we believed because we didn’t have anything else to go off of until a recent archaeological dig turned up some Hittite records.” Like, it’s true that history’s lower standards of evidence leave the field more prone to having the current consensus on a particular time period completely overturned by new evidence, but that’s true of all history and scoffing at historians for relying on anecdotal evidence isn’t being skeptical or insightful, it’s being an idiot contrarian.

Meditations on the Aesthetics of Play

Extra Credits has an episode on the aesthetics of play, and I’ve written on the subject in my GM’s guide, where I refer to them as “elements of fun” because that apparently made more sense to me at the time and I’m too lazy to change it now. In both places, it is recommended that a designer (including a game master designing a specific campaign, regardless of whose engine he’s using) focus on 2-4 elements in order to deliver an experience focused strongly on those elements, and avoid diluting focus by trying to be good at all eight simultaneously.

But okay, let’s say you’ve got your three (ish) aesthetics picked out. How do you balance between them? And for that matter, should you always be making trade-offs between those three and all eight others?

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Threats of Ramshorn

Petals and Thorns is an adventure I designed as a demonstration of my ability to someone looking into starting a professional GMing service. It wasn’t the first time I GM’d for money at all, but it is the first time I got a decent amount of money for it. I’ve since expanded that original adventure to a full six adventure arc and am currently investigating running it professionally on roll20. A lot of my creative energy has gone to that the past two or three weeks, and in the interests of having something to feed the blog, here are some of the summaries for various threats. Mild early-game spoilers for Petals and Thorns below the break, and I am hoping to stream the campaign at some point in the next few months, although I don’t yet have concrete plans to do so, so anyone’s guess if anything will come of it.

I hesitate to include the goblinoids in this, mostly because part of their premise is that hobgoblins and bugbears are recent creations of a rogue wizard. I don’t generally like to put my players in the position of pretending not to be familiar with a staple like the hobgoblin or bugbear. I am considering having the fruits of his experiment be based around a more obscure or entirely original goblin variant, with the hobs and bugbears being just goblinoids he recruited to his cause the same as he did the goblins, but that would require me to rebalance his forces around the presence of the new goblinoid variant and I’m not sure I want to bother.

Continue reading “Threats of Ramshorn”