Dungeon Born: Mushrooms Aren’t Plants

Chapter 2 (cont.)

Dani is walking Cal how to upgrade himself. Now, I am reading/writing this the day after I read/wrote the last one, so maybe I’m missing something, but glancing back over the last few pages, I can’t find an explanation of what an upgrade does. Apparently it involves using magical matter reassembly to remove imperfections from his gem self, but to what end?

“Careful now, not all at once or you may shatter yourself.” Dani murmured, trying not to break my focus.

*Click*

A small patch of perfectly bonded carbon molecules formed.

Besides once again drawing attention to the hit-and-miss science of this story?

Once Cal finishes the upgrade, he blacks out and just about dies, taking Dani with him. When Cal wakes up, he’s able to feed on some moss to keep them both alive.

I tried to defend my actions, <But I was only doing what you told me to do?>

“I told you not to rush!” Her anger fading, her body slowly returned to her regular coloration. “Are you ok? Did you hurt yourself?”

Listen, jackass, don’t try to pawn this off on Cal because you offered a vague warning that rushing it might have a negative effect at all. “Don’t rush it or you might kill us both” is a significantly different warning from just “don’t rush it.” For all Cal knew, you were telling him not to rush it because you were worried he would get frustrated and demoralized if he didn’t meet quick success, and concentrating on it for several hours straight until the job was done is exactly what you were asking him to do.

It’s bad enough that our protagonist is the child in a mother/five-year old relationship, it’s even worse that the mother figure isn’t even a very good mother. That might work if it were the actual point, but right now it seems like the narrative wants us to believe that Cal was being reckless, rather than being misled by sloppy instructions. Maybe as we get deeper into it the narrative will make it clear that Dani is intentionally kind of bad at this, but I don’t have a whole lot of confidence. This seems a lot like the story is just playing out the “reckless new kid nearly causes disastrous harm by disregarding advice” trope without realizing that the advice he was given was too vague and useless to reasonably prevent him from acting recklessly. Particularly because, while I only quoted the first two lines, this actually goes on for a couple of paragraphs. It’s not a one-off line, the book draws attention to this.

It turns out Cal is mobile. He’s really slow, but he can wrench his entire zone of influence around. It’s not clear how big the patch of ground he’s dragging around with him is, but it’s obvious that it’s more than just his stalagmite. This really disappoints me. Dani tells him to move because he’s too exposed here (he’s exposed directly to the sky and everything), but the whole thing with a dungeon heart story is that the dungeon heart builds defenses around itself, rather than moving itself to defensible positions. If he’s exposed, then his first order of business should be sealing up the breach, not moving away from it. At least his movement is too slow for him to go on the offensive. Hopefully it stays that way, and maybe as his zone of influence gets bigger it’ll slow him down more until he’s effectively rooted in place.

She dashed my hopes immediately. “Your stalagmite is about two feet tall and the ground you have at the base is about five feet in diameter. A bit lopsided where the moss was, because I helped you grow there.”

I was flabbergasted. <And. . . Me?>

“Well you were a bit larger when you were a flawed gem…” She paused, dangling the information just out of reach, “but now you are the size of a one carat diamond. Soooo about six and a half millimeters.”

<That’s it?! Is that small? What unit of measurement is that?> I had so many questions!

“Yup, that’s it. Stop being a narcissist! You can’t worry about things you can’t control, you have too much work to do if you want to become a big strong dungeon, and you can start by spreading your influence.”

She was ignoring my questions again!v<I’m not a narcissist! I think. What’s a narcissist? How do I spread influence?>

“Remember how I made all that Essence turn into a mist and spread it around?” She reminded me, “I need you to do the same thing, but with your accumulated Essence. Concentrate hard on making the surroundings… you.” Dani finished lamely.

I’m quoting a bigger chunk here because I want to point something out: Despite an extensive lecture, Dani is not telling Cal anything he could not have figured out for himself through exploration. Now, we need someone for Cal to talk to, because this narrative is in no way up to the task of making Cal just poking around his cave by himself exciting. However, what was the point of making Dani a condescending tutorial NPC? The only things she’s explained to him are things he could’ve figured out on his own through experimentation (how to refine himself, how to move, etc. are all things Cal could’ve figured out just by trying stuff until something worked) or stuff the narrative would be better off without anyway (the crazy over-detailed ranking system – Cal’s already up to G-4 with no noticeable change in power), and she’d probably be a lot less grating if she was exploring with him, throwing out suggestions and such, rather than lecturing him all the time.

This book would be so much better if Dani just detached from a dungeon, wandered around, and stumbled across Cal while running on fumes, hooking up with him out of desperation. She doesn’t know how anything works because she was spawned to serve as a glorified alarm system. Her only job was to yell when she saw adventurers and then hide until they left. Instead, we’ve got off-brand Navi shouting “hey! Listen!” every other paragraph.

”I don’t need to eat! The energy you provide me with directly fulfills those needs.” She assured me. “How is that Essence by the way? You having any trouble with it?”

<Why would I be?> I retorted, slurping in a long stream of earth Essence.

“Well, that is a more Complex Essence is all.” She told me carefully. “It is intrinsically combined earth and water Essence, right? That is known as ‘mud’ Essence, and is notoriously hard to cultivate from.”

Fantasy stories have a problem with Capital Letters. Sometimes it makes sense, like capitalizing class names in order to distinguish them from the regular nouns they’re named after, so people can stay stuff like “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” and we’ll get that they aren’t referring to some kind of beguiler class.

Some of them are both grammatically incorrect and not very helpful, but also understandable mistakes, like capitalizing Orcs and Elves and stuff. Species names aren’t capitalized in regular conversation, not even when it’s humans, but it’s clear to see how the mistake got made. Fantasy often treats races and nationalities as basically synonymous (i.e. there will be a dwarf kingdom and an orc kingdom and so on), and nationalities like American, Chinese, and Russian are capitalized. That’s because they’re derived from proper nouns like America, China, and Russia, but once someone’s in the habit of capitalizing nationalities, it’s easy to see how it’d bleed over into capitalizing fantasy races.

Then some of them are just capitalizing any nouns that are unique to the world, even if they’re improper nouns and even clearly derived from existing improper nouns in English, like this book does with capitalizing things like Dungeon Core (when is the phrase “Dungeon Core” ever going to come up without referring to an actual dungeon core?).

The reason I bring this all up is because “Complex Essence” is a whole other level of capitalization weirdness. Essence is actually pretty defensible, since like a class name you may need to differentiate magic mojo Essence from the standard English concept of something’s essential qualities, although, honestly, probably not, because “essence” is a rarely used word, unlike things like “fighter” or “rogue.” Still, there’s an argument to be made for it. But “complex?” Particularly since in this case it is clearly being used as an adjective? Sure, “complex essence” may be a specific bit of arcanobabble jargon, but right now Dani is talking about a more complex essence, which means she is using “complex” as just a regular adjective that means the same thing it always does. There is no need to capitalize it.

<Oh. Well, it didn’t want to separate right away, but I got the hang of it!> I assured her, not stopping my gorging.

“You are going to be the most amazing dungeon ever. I just know it!”

We aren’t at full-on Succubus “cut this person out of your life” levels of abuse or anything, but the juxtaposition between “our near-death is your fault for following my instructions without reading my mind to pick up on very important details” to this flattery just a few pages later is definitely well into unhealthy territory. Not “stop being friends with them” unhealthy, but definitely “stop taking their opinions seriously, they are too irresponsible and unstable to be considered a reasonable perspective on anything” unhealthy.

Cal’s got some mushrooms in his zone of influence, now, and he starts making copies so he can farm them for essence (under Dani’s command, of course, god forbid our protagonist have any initiative). He overdoes it, though, and accidentally creates a mushroom monster with a fanged maw.

I looked at the plant. It was just a plant before, now it was a monster.

No, it was never a plant, it was a fungus. Completely different kingdom of life. Now, I would be perfectly happy to accept that a fungus is treated like a type of plant for purposes of voodoo arcanobabble, but not when that same arcanobabble involves a gem rearranging its molecular structure. If you want to have magic interact with actual scientific reality, that’s great, it can have all kinds of non-obvious side effects to explore in the story. If you want to have magic work purely on its own set of rules wholly distinct from how things work scientifically, that’s great, too, it allows for flexibility in setting the rules of the system however you want in order to produce the narrative you need, and all you have to worry about is establishing the rules before they’re plot-critical. You cannot mix these two. They’re both individually good, but taken together they undermine each other.

Dani grunted, a very unladylike sound. “Oh right! As a monster it won’t just happily give you its life force. It needs to be defeated. Make a chunk of rock fall off the ceiling above it, squashing it and releasing its Essence, which will then be automatically pulled to you because it is in your influence.” She verbosely directed.

Writing pro-tip: If you notice one of your principal characters is boring, do not hang a lampshade on it with a dialogue tag, just rewrite the scene so it has fewer lectures and a more proactive protagonist.

“We’ll get to that, but first try to recreate the Mob. And before you attack my verbiage, my choice of words that is, a ‘Mob’ is a short way to say ‘dungeon monster’.”

<Why not call it a ‘Dum’? For ‘dungeon monster’.> Where was she getting that abbreviation?

“It just… It just isn’t.” Dani sputtered, seemingly exasperated.

It’s short for “mobile,” you dumbass. Which is a perfectly valid thing to abbreviate from when you are a dungeon heart that can also build immobile traps and fortifications! The mushroom beasty we’re trying to reproduce right now doesn’t appear to be especially mobile since it’s rooted in place, but it can open and close its jaws of its own accord, which is close enough to make the distinction. Or you could just classify it as a fortification, either way.

And then Cal makes a new mushroom monster, one he can actually control, and that is the end of the chapter. Dungeon Born still hasn’t made any decisive mistakes, hasn’t done anything so awful that it can’t be recovered from, but the poor levels of craft on display so far suggest it’s unlikely to get significantly better later on. Sure, it could be one of those things where the author learns how to write semi-competently as they go, but that still leaves the book with a weak foundation and an author just barely learning how to write individual scenes that aren’t completely mediocre, and thus lacking the skill to make a story’s middle and end work despite a shaky beginning.

But hey, Dungeon Born may be an underdog, but at least it’s still in the game.

2 thoughts on “Dungeon Born: Mushrooms Aren’t Plants”

  1. “You might shatter yourself,” said to a living gemstone, seems like exactly the same thing as “You might kill yourself.”

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  2. Well, fuck. I’m not sure how I missed that, especially since I’m pretty sure I backed up to reread the original warning and confirm it didn’t have anything like that. The whole line of criticism is too deeply integrated into the post to be quickly and easily removed, too.

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