Threadbare: Yet Another Random Encounter

Chapter 6

I keep waiting for the point when Threadbare starts to get repetitive and I enter into more long form summary mode instead of going chapter by chapter, but it still hasn’t happened. Partly that’s because Threadbare started strong, so I spent a lot of time praising it, and then got weaker, so I spent a lot of time criticizing it.

Early on in Chapter 6, Caradon decides to send Celia off with Mordecai to learn the ways of the Scout (read: gimpy proto-Ranger), and does so by formally offering a 1,000 XP quest for it. Now, we’ve already established that offering quests is a means for one character to transfer XP to another, presumably in exchange for some act of service. The details haven’t been explained, but it seems like the best use of this would be to offer trivial quests for assloads of XP. It seems like anyone can accept the quest (probably within a certain radius), so this could lead to accidentally draining several times more XP than anticipated when a bunch of randos complete the quest in advance of the person you want the XP to actually go to, or accidentally giving the XP to whoever shows up first if the quest ends for everyone once completed by anyone, but there’s ways around that. One of the most foolproof but logistically difficult ways around it is to hand the quests out in a secluded area, but the logistical difficulties aren’t actually a problem for Caradon, Celia, and Mordecai, because they already live in a secluded area.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether XP affects just level or job rank as well and how important it is to level up individual abilities (which appear to level only when used) as compared to just raw stats, but it is certainly true that Celia could be walking around with a much higher level if Mordecai offered her trivial quests for large amounts of XP – XP that he, being fully grown, already high level, and presumably with a high job rank, can much more safely re-acquire. The entire plot of this chapter revolves around Celia needing to get a higher level (and when discussing it in the last chapter, it was specifically her level they used to measure her overall power, which implies that level is more important than anything else, although this might just be because they haven’t realized they can hand out XP wildly disproportionate to what someone of her power could safely acquire on her own and thus expect levels, job ranks, and ability upgrades to be roughly consistent with one another even if that’s not necessarily the case when power leveling), and the chapter opens up with Caradon busting out a trick that he (or especially Mordecai, who seems to kill monsters more frequently) could easily use to power level Celia and not even noticing that he could use it for that purpose.

“So where are we going? The quest says Oblivion Point,” Celia said,

Sounds like the kind of place people almost never die at!

You don’t not have the option of going where you need to go.” Celia parsed the sentence,

She wouldn’t have to parse it if you’d just said “you don’t have the option of not going where you need to go,” which is way more intuitive. I don’t know if Mordecai is being written as intentionally difficult to parse or if that’s just Andrew Seiple lampshading a poorly written sentence, but either way, I wouldn’t be noticing this if we had some semblance of a plot to follow. Like, I get that Celia being on her own makes her vulnerable to the demons, assuming the succubus ever finds out she’s out here alone without the imp to report in (was the imp actually killed? Or did he just poof back to the succubus immediately and that whole thing with Pulsivar was just a gag with no impact on the plot?). What I don’t know is why the demons care, or what Mordecai and Caradon’s secret scheme is, or what role Celia has to play in it.

I mentioned Last of Us last chapter, and I’ll bring up here that the Last of Us manages a perfectly compelling plot while having its end goal introduced and made clear in the first 10-20% of the story. Not one scene of that game – not even the shooting galleries – is wasted on fighting a new thing for its own sake, and that’s an actual video game. The story is harmed by its dual allegiance to gameplay and cinematography (as great as the Last of Us is, I hold it up as the definitive proof that trying to turn a game into a movie can only hurt your movie, even if you’re really good at it), in that its shooting galleries distort the worldbuilding by having Joel carve through dozens of bandits where a movie could’ve gotten away with five or six, but the creators knew what they were doing and never have one of those “Joel kills sixteen bandits” scenes just because. Each arc has a purpose, each scene and attendant shooting gallery furthers that purpose, the characters’ motivations and stake in the conflict is always clear.

Threadbare does not have this, despite being non-interactive fiction in no way beholden to the needs of gameplay. The rat fight was a lenghty, three-wave battle whose only plot purpose was to put the conflict between Threadbare and Pulsivar behind them and to set up Celia’s confession of wrongdoing – except even that confession wasn’t set up properly, because it wasn’t clear that leaving the basement door open was even a big deal, or why Caradon thinks her confession to it is some kind of character milestone that justifies getting halfway through an explanation that might actually establish some stakes before getting distracted and forgetting about it. A succubus shows up and exchanges vague dialogue for a while in an effort to convince Celia to betray her father, but she sees where that’s going and refuses, and nothing ever comes of it. We fought a screaming eagle for basically no reason at all, after Caradon had already been persuaded that Celia needed to know how to handle herself. What’s going on right now, this trek into the woods, might be relevant to what we already know if the succubus is aware of it despite Pulsivar ambushing her scout, and it also has something to do with some scheme of Caradon and Mordecai’s that is somehow important in a way that the narrative refuses to disclose, apparently terrified that if it established some stakes I might begin to care about the story.

We are a third of the way into the story and the closest thing we have to a plot is that the succubus intends harm to Celia, or Caradon, or maybe both. We don’t know why, but since she’s the antagonist, that would actually be okay, because we only need to understand our heroes’ motivations this early on in the story (35% of the way through the book). The plot of “succubus attempts to abduct Celia and no one knows why” would be fine. The plot of “succubus attempts to abduct Celia for reasons Caradon knows but did not disclose until after they were separated” would also have worked fine. The plot of “succubus vaguely interested in abducting Celia for unclear reasons” is not working. The protagonist side of the plot can be “villain attempting harm to me for unknown reasons, I attempt to get outside their reach and/or incapacitate their ability to harm me,” but it can’t be “villain glowers at me from safe distance while doing nothing and I incidentally bump into a bunch of random encounters in the mean time.” If the plot is going to be driven by the villain attempting harm to the protagonist for reasons the protagonist is not aware of, then our villain needs to be very, very active, not constantly lurking in the shadows.

And there, at the base of a solid stony cliff, lay a series of planks nailed across a cave heading back into the mountain. A few crumbled, rusted metal carts lay scattered nearby. Obviously it was one of the abandoned mine shafts that her Daddy had told her about.

Two strange creatures patrolled back and forth in front of the mine. They had black and gray and white fur, bushy tails, and each one wore a crude wooden mask. The one to the left had one that said “KITY” and a crude caricature of Pulsivar’s face. The other one had a mask that looked like no creature Threadbare had ever said before, and had the word “DOGY” scratched into it.

On the one hand, this is reasonably interesting monster design, a consistent strength of Threadbare. On the other hand, I didn’t cut out anything between these two paragraphs. The perspective just leaps from Celia’s to Threadbare’s perspective apropos of nothing.

“Everyfing has a purpose. Dungeons have a purpose. And raccants ent likely ta kill, not like some o’ the other monsters out here. Time goes on, it’ll make treasure, too. Be a good trainin’ ground, and source of loot.”

“But… I mean…”

“Not all monsters is bad. Some just is. And bad or good, this’ll be a good spot fer ya to level up later.”

“Not all monsters are bad. Just leave these ones be to expand their home for a while, and come back later to kill them all for the sake of personally accumulating wealth and power.” Mordecai is supposed to be communicating the wise wisdom of nature, but the tropes pulled from Outside are clashing garishly with the MMO-derived nature of the setting.

The wise wisdom of nature that Mordecai is drawing his tropes from goes like this: Humans are predators. Killing prey animals is a natural part of our existence. Killing for sport is not. We’re built to enjoy hunting things because that helped us hunt enough food to survive back in the ancestral environment, but sitting in a helicopter sniping grizzly bears is just letting that instinct run out of control outside the context it was built for.

You’ll note that a key part of that philosophy is using prey animals for sustenance, not power. You can totally use prey animals for power in the real world by trading their pelts for money with which you can buy helicopter gunships, but this is not the way of the wise wisdom of nature. Hunting prey animals for their meat and furs for personal use makes you (allegedly) wise and mystical. Depopulating the prey animals of a region so you can buy an A-10 makes you a Captain Planet villain. What Mordecai is describing is closer to the second than the first. It’s not clear how close clearing a dungeon is to total depopulation of the region’s monsters (do monsters congregate strongly in dungeons, or do they tend to spread out for lots of random encounters?), and since monsters are mutations of the native wildlife rather than distinct species it probably won’t devastate the ecosystem either way, but whatever amount of native wildlife they’re killing, it’s for power and wealth, not sustenance.

Context: They have arrived at a point where the landscape is abruptly cut off by a massive, inky black void.

Mordecai spoke again. “So the king at the time, he gets the notion that we need to seal off our kingdom. Cut ourself off from the madness. He goes to the high wizard, th’ oldest member o’ the Seven.”

“The Seven?”

“Tell yer about them later.” Mordecai coughed. “Much later. Anyways, Grissle, the high wizard, spends years figurin’ out the spell. Then he gives it a try.” Mordecai scowled, and hucked a pebble into the void. It disappeared without a trace. “And damn his eyes, it works. Sort of. Nothin’ goes out a’ Cylvania.  Nothin’ comes in. But we didn’t know that the trouble was already in here, sealed in wi’ us.”

“How does it work? I mean… does it kill anyone who tries?”

“No. Yes. Nobody knows. Knew a man once, swore up and down that the farther you go in there, the weirder it gets. Said that you go far enough, you start seein’ numbers. Nothin’ but numbers. And he said that if you do that, you turn and get back as fast as you can, or you start turnin’ INTO numbers.” Mordecai shook his head.

Wizards - No Sense of Right and Wrong

“The wizard’s gone, too. His labs under Castle Cylvania are a dungeon now, the most dangerous one left in this sealed-off little land. If there’s any way to fix it, it’s lost forever.”

Hey, look, I detect the barest trace of an actual plot. Clear the kingdom’s deadliest dungeon, find a way to restore connection to the outside world. That’s a perfectly reasonable goal! If there’s some special attribute about Celia that means she’ll grow up to be better at dungeon clearing than most – or even if they’ve just figured out that they need to cultivate the perfect dungeon stormer from birth in order to get the right job blend, and they’re using Celia because she’s available – then we could’ve established these stakes clear back in chapter four. It wouldn’t even have to be a thing that was kept secret from Celia! It could’ve been this burden that she has to live under, being part of a chosen generation specifically sculpted to save the kingdom. She could’ve talked to Threadbare about that instead of asking why her father keeps so many secrets from her (the answer to that question is “because that’s the closest thing to a plot we’ve got”) as far back as chapter two. This wouldn’t fix the problem where chapters three, four, and five are all basically just random encounters, but at least we’d be going somewhere.

Mordecai abandons Celia overnight with a message telling her that she has to get back home on her own to complete her quest. This is after one day’s worth of wilderness training, but it’s been implied that starving to death is basically impossible, or at minimum that starvation doesn’t drastically impair functioning the way it does in the real world, but instead mostly just closes off class abilities due to low stamina and then maybe there’s critical existence failure if you hit zero.

Celia spends some time prevaricating over reading the message because she’s afraid it might tell her that she’s failed, but appears to be totally unperturbed by the concept that if she has failed then Mordecai has presumably left her to die. It feels like the kind of thing that would be a character moment, but 1) she spends entirely too long monologuing about it entirely unnecessarily because the narrative has been happy to jump into her head whenever convenient so it’s not like we can’t just do that at again and hear her thinking about it (hopefully in less pagespace while we’re at it), and 2) it’s not like “hesitant to confront the future” is an established character flaw that she’s being forced to overcome or anything. We all know how this is going to end and it doesn’t represent a moment of growth for her. She’s just having some emotions, and the narrative grinds to a halt for several paragraphs to inform us of this.

Threadbare was originally posted as serial fiction, and I get the feeling that each chapter pretty much had to have some kind of fight in it in order to give the readers something to chew on for turning up to read the new installment. That’s not terrible. The episodic format isn’t a cause or result of the plotting problems I’ve been going on about. Just noting it, and that today’s hazard is the following:

Gropevines were a hazard in this region, even in the highest mountains. They usually subsisted on all sorts of birds, small animals, and even bugs. They were also attributed all sorts of questionable actions and had a lurid reputation that was entirely out of keeping with their motivations and modus operandi. All they wanted to do to people was rip them up with thorns and strangle them, it’s not like they were weird about it.

This kind of thing is why I can’t stay angry at Threadbare.

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