On the third day of work we lost Karachun. It was stupid and banal, but a fact’s a fact – only four of us remained now. And I was the only one to blame for this. And it all started so well…
A couple of pages in, and it comes to pass: Danny’s off freelance healing, but it turns out the vein of ore his group is wailing on was at the intersection of multiple rat patrols. Danny runs over to help out, but is unable to keep Karachun alive. His group is down one DPS, but since he’s been able to gear them up with rings to the point of being crazy OP, this doesn’t stop them from killing rats.
Karachun’s presumably respawned back at his copy of the Pryke Mine by now, but if he’s still in the group when they finish their quest, they suspect it’ll complete for him, too. Since they’re making nutcase amounts of Malachite off of their protection services and are way the Hell ahead of schedule, they decide to leave him in and turn in the 100 Malachite.
Eric, dwarf tank of the group, spots a cave entrance at one end of the mine, which he suspects contains the dungeon boss:
“Don’t you understand? We’ll finish the quest tomorrow, hand in the Malachite, and do what exactly for the next seven days? Just warm the ground with our backsides, without even checking that place out? We’re all level 13, except for Mahan, who with his rings could easily pass for a level 19. Tomorrow we’ll hand in the quest, reach Respect, pack some food and head off to the cave. Even if we die on the way there, all that would happen to us is that we’ll end up in our mines before the rest – reputation does not get reset. In the main gameworld you’d need a week at the most to reach level 12. There are quests there! So, in essence, we’ve got nothing to lose: if we die from Rats or from the boss, we’ll return to our mine and leave it straight away. If we kill them, we’ll collect all the bonuses. The ogre did say that we’ll take with us everything that we loot here. We all have to decide on this, but I believe that we can’t let a chance like this slip away.”
Nothing else happens on the way to stocking up on Malachite. The ogre boss of the mine is suitably impressed.
“‘You have become the fifth fastest team to meet the Malachite quota in the entire history of the mine,” the ogre finally recovered himself, stepped away from the table and headed towards the exit. “Wait here.”
This is pretty much exactly the amount of accomplishment I’d want from the book. Enough that the protagonist is clearly exceptional, but not so undefeatable that he comes across as Mary Sue. I am cautiously optimistic that the book will at some point explain why Danny got to be a Shaman when casters are rare amongst prisoners, why he was able to access design mode when that’s apparently usually unlockable only via quest, and why he got a legendary item beamed into his head. That’s an awful lot of random circumstance giving him a leg up on the competition, but Survival Quest has been generally competent enough that I do hold out some hope that there will be a reason.
“According to an old decree of the Emperor, if a group of Malachite miners becomes one of the fastest five, they are to be given a reward for their work. Karachun will receive his in his mine – I’ll send it today. Now, to deal with you lot.”
That reward is to be kitted out with some crazy level-scaling artifact gear. Not, like, a whole set, just one item. Danny gets an awesome tambourine. He is making out like a bandit from this prison sentence.
In any case, noble warrior of the people that he is, Danny agrees to help the rest of the prisoners out with rat patrol so they can mine in peace. Like, patrolling for literal rats, not murdering snitches. His group gets malachite out of the deal, but I don’t know what they’re gonna do with it.
We all know that Danny’s gonna hunt down the boss with his group eventually, but he wrestles with himself a bit on the way there.
But maybe I should stop thinking logically? If we don’t go to the cave, what is the probability that I would really regret it? It’s substantial, quite substantial, even. Well then, maybe I should just tell logic to get lost? It’s not making life any easier. Do I want to go? Yes, I do. Then what’s the problem?
“Maybe I should stop thinking logically and attack the boss,” Danny said, after a logical cost/benefit analysis had revealed that attacking the boss was a good idea.
Eric goes over standard MMO strategy for a raid boss:
“Right, let’s agree on the way we’ll go about things from the start,” said Eric. “Since no-one except for Mahan has ever played in Barliona, I’ll go through the main rules of fighting a boss. We come in together, then I immediately go a couple of meters ahead and you stay put and see what’s going on. Mahan, you’re in charge of immediate support: summon the Spirits as soon as we come in. Who knows what’s on the other side, so it’s best to play it safe. Next. Clutzer and Leite – attack only on Mahan’s command and only targets which I’m already hitting or those called out by Mahan. No attacking things at random and don’t even bother with the other mobs that’ll be swarming around – it’s my job to pull them all to me and keep them there. And remember: I don’t have taunt yet (tank ability to take the mob’s attention on himself), so if someone suddenly goes for you, crouch, cover your head and take the hits. You can scream something if you like, but on no account hit back. Or I won’t manage to get it off you. Mahan, you stand a short distance away from me. Healers often generate aggro, so be prepared to call a Lightning Spirit and command the others to hit your mob. That’s the first part. Any questions on this?”
I don’t object to this kind of thing. Firstly, it’s part of the MMO experience when leading a PUG. I can remember hearing and giving these kinds of tactical briefings all the time when approaching tricky content. Secondly, it helps catch up people who don’t play MMOs, or even just ones who avoid anything they can’t solo.
I do object to how the book feels the need to explain every bit of MMO jargon in parentheses. Even readers who aren’t familiar should be able to catch on to anything vital through context, just like any other kind of worldbuilding.
The briefing turns to a discussion of life in the main game world, and they agree to seek each other out and form a clan when they get out. Danny and Kart had a similar meet-up agreement, so Danny’s putting quite a team together.
“Strange, I always thought that being a Jeweler wasn’t exactly popular in Barliona. If making rings generates so much money, why aren’t half of Barliona’s population Jewelers?” I asked Eric, surprised.
Danny’s finally asking the tough questions!
“Try figuring this one out for yourself. For example, I’ve been playing for several years, but I never heard about such a thing as Crafting; and the fact that it allows you to increase the number of stats in the crafted items is huge.
Answer: Because the AI loves Danny and gives him special gifts for no reason! Danny has at least been clever and proactive. The AI serves him up a chance to be awesome but he does at least have to figure out the details himself, and it’s not so straightforward as “have you ever in your life played a stealth game? Cool, do that.” Still, Danny’s Crafting skill is not just useful in the context of being in a prison mine, but makes him special and unique even in the general population, and he first got his hands on it from his rose-crafting fugue state, which just kinda…happened.
Once in the dungeon, there’s a couple of puzzles, some boss fights, and a weird snippet of worldbuilding:
When the united world Government was formed, it made year-long army training compulsory for all eighteen-year-olds.
In case of invading aliens, I guess.
The boss fights have a reasonably interesting suite of abilities, and the character have to adjust their strategy on the fly to deal with them. This is good, because interesting tactical design is pretty much the entirety of what makes Survival Quest’s fights entertaining. The description of the fights themselves is pretty rote, and does adhere to standard MMO conventions just a bit too strongly. Different abilities come online at different HP thresholds on the boss, looks like 60%, 40%, and 20% are the standard breakpoints. Fair enough, but once the party has learned how to deal with the new tactic, the narrative retreats into detached summary until they wear through its massive HP pile. A book would benefit from a more extreme lethality on both sides: The bosses’ HP plummets rapidly so that the fight’s narrative doesn’t have to retreat into summary like this, but it dishes out enough damage to flatten the whole party just as fast, so it remains a threat. An MMORPG benefits from having fights drag out long enough that you need to be able to consistently beat a boss, not just get some lucky hits in, but a book does not.
No one else has ever gotten to this dungeon before, which means the character are eligible for an achievement if they can take out the final boss. That achievement gives some crazy good clan bonuses and allows an audience with the emperor with two guests. Auctioning those guest spots off goes for gazillions of gold, so there’s huge benefits to pulling this off. Unfortunately, the final boss is basically impossible without prep work they won’t be able to do in advance, but they’re able to cheese the fight by aggroing the boss and leading it back through all the death traps in the dungeon. Danny survives so he can hang onto his crafting skill, while everyone else bites it kiting the boss through the traps, but it won’t be especially difficult for them to reclaim the lost levels and stats in the main game world. Only Danny’s super special crafting stat is especially valuable.
It’s a reasonably clever way to kill the boss, but the delivery kind of sucks. One of the party members comes up with the plan, and explains the plan to his teammates, but the narrative skips the explanation. Then Danny hides in an alcove and listens to things happening, and ultimately gets notified that the boss is dead and he and his mates have a shiny new achievement. Then the narrative backs up and relays what the plan actually was. It wouldn’t be super thrilling to have the explanation of the plan up front, followed by “then we did it and it worked,” but this way isn’t much better.
Danny exits the dungeon through a portal in the boss room, and is suddenly in an empty void staring at a loading screen.
Danny is in a grey, twilit void with just one building. On the way towards it, there is an announcement:
Intruder in the technical section detected. The player capsule is being identified. Player capsule identified. Player capsule is being disconnected. Capsule disconn…..
Thanks for the updates, I guess? You’d think this stuff would be spat out to an admin console or on a private voice channel, rather than announced through the whole area.
A flash of light illumined everything around me, I automatically closed my eyes and then, after some blinking, saw the door of my capsule opening. ‘E-ehh… What on earth…? They’re letting me out already?’
It took me a few seconds to realize that the capsule lid really had slid sideways, but had then became stuck in a half-opened position. I could have squeezed into the gap if not for one ‘but’ – the ceiling was just ten centimeters from the capsule. The process of my disconnection from the capsule had began: wires, tubes and various devices started to come away. Long-term immersion capsules do have their drawbacks: it takes a good while for you get in or out of one of them.
When the mask covering my face slid off, I could lift my head and stick it outside the gap between the lid and the capsule. I felt like a high-tech Dracula impersonator. The place where I was had a strong resemblance to a crypt: it measured a meter by a meter and was three meters in length. The wall at my feet was completely solid, so with some difficulty I turned my head in the opposite direction. This made things much clearer. So that’s where all the prisoners were kept… A great wall of shelves, separated into cells, spanned from floor to ceiling. Fifty levels, and I counted up to sixty-seven cells on each, beyond which I could not see.
Another image popped into my head: Neo from the ‘Matrix’ film also wakes up in reality like this after eating that pill. He was also covered in wires, and I only lacked a plug in my head to complete the resemblance.
You’re kind of taking the joy out of making fun of it, Danny.
Once unplugged, Danny is interrogated by some kind of game administrator fellow named Roberts, who quickly determines who he is.
Stop! How does Roberts know that I and Mahan are one and the same? It’s a prosecutable offence to dig up this information!
Dude, Mahan is your last name. How hard do you expect it to be to put that together?
Later, when Danny’s getting hooked back into his capsule, the lab technician flips out:
“Leave… Leave! Leaving!!!! I’ve had it with everyone!” shouted Peter. “I don’t leave people, they leave me! I’ve been going out with a girl for three months and thought she liked me. I thought she was interested in my work, because she asked about it from time to time, When I told her that I’ll be putting the ‘waste collector killer’ himself into the capsule, she even asked me to give you a present – to let you choose your own name. And then what? Today, when I was called out here, I looked at the prisoner information and then called her, because I thought it would make her happy to know that the prisoner to whom she made the gift of the name was about to enter the main gameworld. I thought I’d make her happy… When she heard this news about you, she said that it was all over between us. Why? What did I do wrong? Can you tell me?”
I looked at the technician in surprise, getting myself more comfortable in the capsule. So then, the ability to choose my name wasn’t the choice of the technician, but the idea of some flighty girl.
Yeah, just some flighty girl. Definitely not someone using charm and cunning to manipulate her way to some unknown goal. Just a bit of a flake. God, you’re thick, Danny. After a bit more questioning he does manage to come to the obvious conclusion that it’s Marina.
Danny’s brief trip to reality has won him the friendship of game administrator guy Roberts, at least enough that he’s arranged for a “technical failure” that has allowed Danny to access the forums and game manual. Upon returning to Pryke Mine in the game, the orc mine governor turns out to be a shaman, who yanks him out of the Mine…for…
I rose to my feet and cautiously headed to the dark cave. Was I to go through this trial in the dark?
Voodoo Force cave chargen. Well, voodoo Force cave class advancement, actually, but still. Awaken Online apparently got that from this book, too.
This is way less boring than the Awaken Online version, although…
Corridor number 4 took me to a room with a mixed pile of rice and peas in the middle. I was glad to see a bucket of water next to the pile, which allowed me to wash the dust off my hands and face. They were right about taking the trial with the water last – at least you’d come out clean. The fourth trial simply involved separating the mixed pile into two within an hour of entering the room, making a pile of peas and a pile of rice. It was a test of your nerves and endurance. I crouched and set to work. In this test I could beat any free player: they never spent a day in a mine, forced to swing the pick, or they’d know what steadfastness of spirit was all about. The dust falling off me stuck to the rice, but I decided to take no notice of this. I had to work and not get distracted by silly details.
It took me forty minutes to complete the last task.
Yeah, not that much less boring.
Lemme back up to trial one of four, though:
One side of the partition contained a hole, from where a fawn’s head was sticking up, on the other a wolf was growling, teeth bared, its paw caught in a trap. If the forum information was correct, this was simple: it was a test for gentleness of Spirit; you had to take out the fawn and leave the room without a second thought. Easy said – easy done. I carefully took the trapped animal out of the hole and left, that’s all there was to it. What did Shaman initiation have to do with any of this?
Danny’s going through this on auto-pilot with the help of the forums, but this feels like he’s setting himself up for failure. Taking a faun who is apparently unharmed out of the room doesn’t seem gentle at all. Releasing the wolf seems far more obvious. The remaining three trials don’t have any obvious “this seems like the opposite of how you’re supposed to do it” problems, but this one is so obvious it can’t be unintentional.
Danny has a bad feeling about the way he’s gone about the trials, so he scans the forums for more information, and finds one lone post of dissent:
“Shamans! During this trial forget that you have a brain. Thinking is for Mages! We have to feel, this is our strength!”
I got the secret correct way through at least one of these trials right on brainpower alone, but hey, Danny’s not super good with thinking, so maybe this poster has a point.
Danny returns to trial number one and does the obvious thing, freeing the wolf. It jacks him up a little while he’s working the trap free. I don’t know why. It’s not mistaking him for an attacker and trying to kill him. It just bites him every time he frees one toe of the wolf’s paw from the trap.
The wolf sat himself by the trap and started to lick his paw. He would heal his paw and snack on the fawn, and the fact that I failed the trial wasn’t that big a deal. The main thing was that I did what I thought was right.
Uh…that seems like kind of a wash to me. Usually how these “you have a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage” puzzles go, you want to keep all three of them intact.
Trial number two, a tightrope across water originally solved by just swimming across, is conquered via a different method this time. Specifically, bleeding copiously into the water, until…
The crust of blood formed a springy film on the water, which allowed me not to lose my footing and fall. So the wolf bit me for a reason, didn’t he? Was all this part of the intended design?
So that’s what the wolf was up to before he got his murder on with that faun.
In the third trial, there are a bunch of statues that whack you when you walk past them. On closer examination, turns out they’re statues of people from the lore. Danny kneels at one of them and recites some litany he learned on his previous toon, so apparently getting the full initiation as a Shaman requires already being intimately familiar with the game lore.
There was a loud bang, as if a cracker had gone off next to me, and I was enveloped in a cloud of dust. I got up and went over to the next statue. You have to be proud of and honor your ancestors, instead of showing your arrogance and disregard for their blows. I wasn’t celebrating that I had found a way through the statues while avoiding the blows. Right now I was filled with pride for the race which I was currently playing. I made an effort to swallow a lump in the throat and walked on.
The Hell are you proud of? These aren’t your ancestors. These wouldn’t even be your ancestors if this were regular fantasy and you were actually born here. These are just random historical figures. They aren’t part of the same lineage and even if they were there’s no reason to believe you’re part of that lineage, unless interbreeding amongst humans is so incessant that everyone is descended from everyone important if you go back more than a couple of centuries. And if all of these guys are at least a few centuries dead. And for most Shaman players, race is an option they picked off a menu. They aren’t part of a grand legacy. None of this stuff actually happened. It’s just game lore.
In the fourth trial, Danny decides he likes dragons better than bears or wolves and dragon becomes his totem. Good on him for picking the most badass totem option, I guess.
Back at the mine, Danny’s about to be resettled. He’s stuck at a specific settlement for the first three months he’s out of the mine, and can only leave it for so long before being teleported back. Some kind of halfway house thing, apparently. Turns out orc guy isn’t in charge of picking his settlement.
“Can’t you allocate these stinking prisoners without my help?” he started to squeal in his disgusting voice, not even looking in my direction.
“This one should be stuck in some piss-hole village, like the Big Hogspoo…” The Regional Governor stopped because his gaze finally fell on my person. I’m buggered! Can it be that the allocation is not handled by the orc, but by this humanoid cross between a toad and a Governor? That’s it – a Govertoad!
The Governor stood there for a few moments having never finished saying ‘Hogspoons’, and then an unpleasant smirk appeared on his face, he even rubbed his hands and then started to spit out words:
“I told you that I wouldn’t forget how you refused to give me that Legendary Item! How you treated your Governor! To my castle! Immediately! I am allocating my castle as the settlement for Mahan, the former prisoner of the Pryke Mine. Into the portal! Now!”
Hey, look, that plot point actually came up again. Not holding my breath on the dwarf mafia, though.