Succubus: Kill Ten Boars

Chapter 8

Ian finds another farmer and picks up your bog standard “kill ten rats” quest, except it’s pigs instead of rats. He goes out into the woods, and…

I turned around, expecting to see Wilbur out of Charlotte’s Web.

What I got was a lot closer to Bebop out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – just no mohawk, glasses, or standing on its hind legs.

Yeah, no shit. Why were you expecting an adorable little piglet as the target of an MMORPG quest? The only porcine creatures that exist in MMO-land are humanoid sub-species and boars.

The thing squealed – a sound more like the xenomorph’s scream from Aliens than an oink – and charged right at me.

This description-through-reference isn’t a bad way to go, especially for an author like this one who seems to have difficulty coming up with original character designs, which is not a deathblow by itself. Obviously good character design is better than bad, but it’s fine if a book is good at other things, and if it’s bad at character/monster design, then description-through-reference is a reasonably good way of getting the description out of the way in a hurry so the book can focus on things it’s actually good at.

No, what I’m bringing up here is all these references: Charlotte’s Web, TMNT, Aliens. This isn’t the random grab-bag of references that a mediaphile who casually references things from before their birth gets up to. They were all popular in the same time frame. Ian is a millennial, and from the status of his job hunt and what we know about his having graduated college, he’s probably no older than late twenties or early thirties, maybe even as young as mid-twenties. Being in his mid-twenties would make him on the young end for a millennial today. How soon in the future is this book set?

On the other hand, this is kind of a reign of terror thing (even though Succubus is giving me plenty of nits to pick without resorting to being wholly arbitrary). Succubus isn’t making a plot point out of the era it’s set in, and it’s fine to say that MMORPGs go from regular video games to full dive by the year 2020, while society is still otherwise fully recognizable, for no better reason except that you want to tell a story about full dive games in a society that’s otherwise recognizably similar to our own. Things are going to change a lot in the next couple of decades it’ll probably take to invent full dive (I am not particularly confident in any specific set of changes, but I am quite confident that there will be lots of significant changes), and not every LitRPG needs to also be sci-fi futurism. Indeed, I took Awaken Online to task for having sporadic sci-fi futurism that wasn’t nearly up to the task of making me believe Jason was living in 207X, when he seemed more like he was living in 2030.

Continue reading “Succubus: Kill Ten Boars”

Succubus: Boringly Sexy

Chapter 6

Ian continues into town imp-free, notes that it is populated entirely by shiny races, but apparently this has not stopped a level 23 warlock from waltzing around with his succubus like he owns the place. And, wow, level 23 and he’s already got the succubus, so apparently that’s actually kind of a low level trick. Which is honestly kind of refreshing. Ian’s not going to stumble his way into an end game demon and be catapulted to incredible power. He’s just gonna hit level ten and have a less useless demon.

I am not impressed by the description of the succubus, though. I’m gonna stick that below the break (she’s not naked, but she’s close), so first let’s take a look at her master:

There was a guy walking through the center of the town square. He was tall and good-looking, with long hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He wore all black – a badass duster jacket that came down to his calves, a black vest, black shirt, black boots, black pants. The shirt was open to expose a hairy, muscular chest. He had an awesome staff strapped to his back, apparently made out of an orc spine with the upper half of a skull at the top. Two huge rubies were fixed in the eye sockets and glowed faintly.

He basically looked like a Rock and Roll god.

Really? Dude has a black duster and a skull staff and your thought is “rock and roll god” and not “looks like he’s got his basic gear sorted out and found a decent magic weapon?”

Continue reading “Succubus: Boringly Sexy”

How To Write Full Dive I Would Actually Play

Some LitRPGs just happen to take place in a world that runs on video game logic, and those worlds are no more required to be set up for player convenience or game balance than the real world. Others, however, are about actual video games that people actually play. Not usually in the sense that they’re full dive expies for games that exist in the real world, but still usually in the sense that the premise of the book involves playing a video game that was sold to market to be bought as entertainment just like real video games are now.

Despite this, there’s a couple of common game design mistakes that crop up in LitRPG that are about full dive MMORPGs that people actually play, features that are inconvenient for basically no reason. Books are copying one another without ever stopping to think if what comes before is really the best way of doing things. I have a pretty keen interest in game design – it’s actually a creative pursuit I chase at least as much as writing – so this particularly stands out to me, but even for general audiences, a lot of LitRPG readers want to read about a game they’d like to play, so for the love of God start writing games that aren’t a massive downgrade from what’s already on the market. For example…

1) Size your world to fit your content.

A lot of LitRPG games require you to take somewhere between 15 minutes to over an hour to get from the two nearest points of interest on a map. If you look at how actual MMORPGs or other games with big, expansive worlds are laid out, it never takes more than about five minutes to get between two adjacent points of interest. Hour+ journeys are limited to when people need to cross through multiple different regions, often to run something or someone from a low-level area to a high-level area for the sake of power leveling shenanigans. Usually, you can fast travel to any town you’ve been to before via either fairly swift flying mounts or straight-up teleportation (or both), so even these marathons are limited to people who need to get a brand new alt to areas far from their starting region. For normal situations, though? For when your player is just going from the starter town to the first quest location? Travel time is five minutes, maximum, often no more than thirty seconds.

Continue reading “How To Write Full Dive I Would Actually Play”

Succubus: Drawbacks of Team Spooky

Chapter 4

The length of this post is constrained by the fact that I’m running the first session of Iron Fang Invasion for a paying group in thirty-five minutes, so we’ll see how much of the book I can review in that time. Start the timer!

I looked around the meadow. I didn’t really want to kill anything defenseless, but I reasoned that it was a videogame. I would be killing digital people soon enough. What was some wildlife compared to that?

Over by the nearest tree, a skunk was minding its own business.

I figured the world could probably use a few less skunks.

Currently, my LitRPG rating scale goes from Awaken Online to Threadbare (I could add in stuff I haven’t reviewed for this blog, but that seems kind of unsporting, especially since I plan to reread some of the stuff from Royal Road for blog purposes), which means just acknowledging that how inconsequential it is to kill NPCs gets this book halfway to the top all by itself.

Continue reading “Succubus: Drawbacks of Team Spooky”

Petals and Thorns and Iron Fang Invasion

I recorded two games that I ran as an effort to demonstrate my professional GMing skillz. Unfortunately, that demonstration is being held back by the fact that a decade of experience with GMing is desperately struggling to make itself known through the rank amateur quality of my video editing, which I’ve been doing for, like, a month. Music is so loud you can barely hear me and my players in Iron Fang, and so quiet that you can barely hear it in Petals and Thorns, which is particularly egregious in the opening narration, which desperately needs that background music in order to give it energy. Matching narration to good music in order to keep it short and make it engaging is one of my oldest GM tricks, but with the background music barely audible this video mainly serves to demonstrate why the narration on its own isn’t enough.

I figure I may as well post them since I’ve got ’em, but I’m not satisfied.

Succubus: Pet Imp

As promised: Succubus, a LitRPG about a warlock with a sexy succubus sidekick, or something. As per usual, this is a blind readthrough and I have no idea whether it’s going to be great or rubbish.

Chapter 1

Succubus is certainly making itself easy to summarize, by giving me a quote that succinctly describes the opening conflict:

I had made it to the final round of interviews for a Quality Control position, and I desperately needed this. I had been laid off from my previous job three months ago, my bank account was getting perilously low, and I was a month late on rent.

So that’s where we are, and here’s who’s at the other end of the table:

Three mid-level managers were sitting across the table from me, looking at my résumé. A guy in glasses, a bro-tastic dude from Sales, and a woman from HR.

Jesus, you’re looking for a QA position and three managers showed up to interview you? Is this one QA position the fulcrum upon which half the company turns or are two of these people on break and just showing up for the lulz?

If you’re wondering just how “bro-tastic” we’re talking:

Sales Guy loved what I was saying. “Ian, yo – have you tried the full immersion unit yet, my man?”

Crap. I prayed my borderline poverty wasn’t going to sink my chances. “I, uh… I want to, but I could only afford the basic system. I’m saving up, though.”

“The basic is good, but you gotta try the full immersion. It is sick, dawg. Get this – you have a beer in the game? You get buzzed. You have five beers? You get drunk. I shit you not.”

That is how much. Do people like this actually end up in management in video games? It feels like something that could happen. A lot of video game companies are kind of a shitshow.

Continue reading “Succubus: Pet Imp”

Salvaging Cliche in The Last of Us

A while back (twenty minutes ago as of the writing, but this is scheduled to post way later) I wrote about how Ellie’s first kill in the Last of Us serves as an excellent example of taking a cliche that used to be a compelling depiction of the human experience before being driven into the ground and salvaging it, and that I could write an entire post on that subject. This is that post. Also, that scene is really compelling even on its own but is also really  frustrating to leave off on, so here’s the payoff a couple of scenes later. We aren’t talking about that second scene, I’m just posting it so that people who’ve never played the game but did just watch Ellie’s first kill aren’t left hanging.

The cliche we’re talking about is the “rookie in his first battle vomits after his first kill.” It’s a tired old cliche, and yet also a real thing that actually happens to a lot of people. It makes perfect sense to want to depict this if you have a character who kills someone for the first time onscreen (or onpage),  but we’ve seen the rote version of this a million times. It’s so well-ingrained into our consciousness that Ellie references the cliche in the scene. She knows what Joel, as the grizzled old veteran who can barely remember the last time killing a stranger upset him in the slightest, is supposed to say in these situations. There’s a script, here, and if you follow that script, the only people who will appreciate are actual fourteen year olds in post-apocalyptic war zones who’ve just killed someone for the first time in their life. This is probably not a significant portion of your target audience.

The problem with most “hero’s first kill” scenes is that they are simulacra, copies of copies with no direct connection to the original experience they are trying to convey. Even ones based on good versions of the scene, like Ellie’s, are still stumbling around blind for what parts of that scene are unique to Joel and Ellie’s character arc and what parts are a near-universal human reaction to killing another human being at close range (where “close” here is defined as “close enough to make out the specific guy you’re killing and confirm that you killed him” – how close that actually is depends as much on what kind of scope you’re looking down as on how physically proximate you are).

There are three ways that the Last of Us scene gets away from the dull and stilted simulacra. The first is by going back to the original human experience instead of relying on the tropes of fictional versions. The second is by subverting some part of the cliche version. The third and perhaps most important is that the use of the scene and its subversion are done in service to Ellie and Joel’s character arcs.

Continue reading “Salvaging Cliche in The Last of Us”

Threadbare Is Horrible Except When It’s Great

Threadbare is done, let’s have a table of contents:

Part 1: Cheering for the Protagonist
Part 2: Magic Tea Party
Part 3: Kill Ten Rats
Part 4: Going In Circles
Part 5: That Is What Bemused Means
Part 6: Yet Another Random Encounter
Part 7: In Which Threadbare Meets An Anarcho-Capitalist Vampire
Part 8: Nosedive
Part 9: I Warned You The Novelization Of A Dungeon Crawl Would Be Boring
Part 10: Crypt of the Nekomancer
Part 11: Inciting Incident

Threadbare has a good beginning and a good ending. I’m not surprised that it hooks a lot of people with its premise of a teddy bear golem who begins barely even self-aware and ends up as a contributing member of a dungeon raiding party. A zero-to-hero progression is a big part of the draw of LitRPG, and Threadbare starts from even more zero than most protagonists, being that he’s twelve inches tall and is desperately imperiled by a house cat for his first encounter. Threadbare’s adorable mannerisms and indefatigable will to keep going make him a really charming character. I cared about him instantly. Andrew Seiple does such a good job of making me relate to this distinctly non-human character that I compared the book to Pixar, for Christ’s sake. This book has a strong start.

But it doesn’t last. Although the fight scenes remain reasonably engaging throughout and Threadbare remains a good character, the focus of the story shifts from Threadbare to Celia during chapter four, which would have been fine, except that Celia has no proactive motivation or particular goals. From chapter 4 all the way through chapter 12, things just happen to Celia. A spooky bad guy tries to trick her into doing something dumb, and Celia isn’t having it. She gets a quest, she completes it. Her new friends want to raid a dungeon, so she does. There is no character arc and no unifying plot, things just happen, one after another, for three-quarters of the book. Although the plot is engaging when it finally shows up at the end, it spends so much time getting there that there’s barely even any book left when it arrives.

Then at the end the timeline advances by so much that the current state of the setting no longer fully applies when the second book begins – Celia is (presumably) a teenager, every location we’ve been to has been burned down, and so on. As inciting incidents go, “villain burned my home town down” isn’t super original but it’s perfectly functional and the scene is mostly well-executed, and while the scene itself is pretty by-the-numbers, the time skip in the aftermath is potentially interesting if Celia has turned to the Dark Side under the bad guy’s influence since then (she was successfully kidnapped by her birth father at the end, after all). The problem is, the inciting incident of the plot was used as the climax of the first book. If Threadbare wanted to wait this long for the bad guy to get his villain on, that’s doable, and having a slow burn where characters take a long time getting established before the home town gets torched is a defensible decision. In order to make that work, though, there needs to be an actual plot preceding the “burn down the hero’s home town” beat, and we didn’t get that.

And then there’s fucking Zuula. Just, dear God. This character takes a thin stereotype of Afro-Caribbean culture with green skin, and that would’ve been kind of racist in that it casts the more-or-less American cultured protagonists as human and Afro-Caribbean culture as not human, but by itself that would’ve been something to mention in the extended review but not nearly a big enough deal to bother with in this summary. However, when that Afro-Caribbean stereotype is then combined with the standard fantasy schtick of orcs as a fundamentally violent and primitive people, things suddenly go from “kind of racist in a way that merits pointing out in an in-depth review, but not in a quick overview” to dive deep into “racist enough that it becomes a significant defining factor in the quality of the book.” Zuula being extremely racist is the reason why this post is entitled “Threadbare Is Horrible Except When It’s Great” instead of “Threadbare Is Aimless Except When It’s Great.” Zuula is a massive drag on every scene she is in.

Threadbare was originally posted serially, and after Zuula’s chapter 8 brief but comically violent introduction in front of her house covered in skull trophies, we got chapter 9, in which Zuula and her half-orc kids (or quarter-orc? I seem to recall Zuula being referred to as half-orc at some point, but later in the narrative she starts referring to herself as fully orcish – maybe I confused a reference to Mordecai’s kids for a reference to Mordecai’s wife before either had been introduced onpage) are overtly analogous to black people facing racial discrimination in the United States, and Threadbare gives us a Very Special Chapter about racism. Delivered primarily through the mouth of a racist caricature. Actually, human (and presumably white) Mordecai delivers most of the actual moralizing, and Zuula just interjects with some commentary. And even here, they only more firmly establish the presence of the “violent orc savage” fantasy trope, even as they more firmly wed that trope to Afro-Caribbean culture and history. If chapter 9 was intended as a backpedal or clarification on this story’s stance on racism, it backfired hard, mostly because even when fully clarified this story’s stance on racism is that black people are alien caricatures, but also that the Ku Klux Klan are still the bad guys for wanting to exterminate them. It’s an “at least we’re not Hitler” defense, and while it’s worth pointing out that Threadbare isn’t openly hateful towards Afro-Caribbeans, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to set the bar for minimally good portrayal of race issues in literature as high as “recognize the humanity of non-white people.”

Threadbare: Inciting Incident

Chapter 13

Mordecai has arrived at Caradon’s house. It’s a wreck from the screaming eagle attack, which was apparently a pretty thrilling battle. Crying shame it wasn’t actually depicted at all.

“I succeeded.” Caradon smiled. “I succeeded.” He pointed at a tiny black teddy bear, who waved back and showed him her cards.

Caradon seems to have gotten over that “created and immediately murdered dozens of sapient beings by accident” thing in a hurry.

Caradon is trying to convince Mordecai to help him upgrade Emmett into a greater golem. Mordecai is skeptical. It’s not clear why. If he’s worried about something going wrong with the upgrade, then the obvious thing to do is to wait until Caradon’s regenerated some blue juice so he’ll be able to intervene if things go horribly wrong. It’s not clear why Caradon wouldn’t want to do that, when he’s been hiding out here in the woods for eleven years without getting raided once. It seems unlikely that today’s the day his card will come up. On the other hand, if Mordecai is opposed to upgrading Emmett in general, then why? Wasn’t a golem army always part of the plan?

“These are our hopes and dreams, Mordecai! Moreso than we ever planned! It’s a chance, it’s our only chance, and every minute I delay is a minute that the King’s forces draw around us! Balmoran has fallen, Mordecai, and this is our only hope! This is Celia’s only hope!” Cardon’s fist hit the table.

Typo on Caradon’s name is from the text. This impassioned plea would make a much bigger difference if we had any idea what Balmoran is or what it had fallen to. The King, I guess? Isn’t he already the king of everything reachable? Was Balmoran some kind of rebel base?

Continue reading “Threadbare: Inciting Incident”

Star Wars Saga Edition: The Force

The finale of my memorial for my Star Wars campaign, this is a combination philosophical meditation upon and revised mechanics for the Force. While the previous two posts are useful for basically any Star Wars game (or, with minimal alteration, any space opera game in any setting), this post includes a very specific interpretation of the Force that I favored and which my players agreed was reasonable. The nature of the Force can be a contentious issue and this particular interpretation of it may not be well liked by all fans. It also may or may not hold up with the new canon at all.

Continue reading “Star Wars Saga Edition: The Force”