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.

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I Get A Mount Now, Right?

This blog now has 40 followers. It remains unclear to me exactly how many of them are real human beings, but I figure even just drawing the attention of a significant number of bots is some kind of achievement. Even if 90% of my followers do turn out to be bots, they’re not my bots, they’re other people’s bots, who latched onto my blog because they estimate that doing so will make them look more human. That’s not great compared to real human followers, but it’s probably better than nothing.

Rewriting Merlin: Merlin and Gaius

The legend of King Arthur has grown and evolved over time, from a blatantly nationalistic “yay for England” propaganda piece about this one English king who conquered Norway, France, and Italy into the legends of the knights of the round table and their episodic adventures against an assortment of villainous knights and savage monsters (perfect for being recounted in an evening by the fire by the local storyteller), to the embalmed beauty of Victorian poetry reinterpreting the legends to reinforce their social norms, and finally in modern works where the characters of King Arthur are largely treated as common knowledge to be played with and almost never appearing as a story to be told by themselves. Stories change and evolve over time, and that’s fine. This blog post is going to spend a lot of time complaining about BBC’s Merlin, so I want to point out up front that the problem isn’t that they made changes at all, it’s that the changes are so thorough that it’s hard to recognize what, besides the names, they’ve actually retained from the existing Arthuriana.

I’m going to do better than that, though. I’m going to fix it. I’m going to rewrite BBC’s Merlin into a show that can work as an episodic BBC TV show made for a family audience while still actually having anything at all to do with Arthuriana. This is going to require significant changes to the original, but at the end of it there will be (an outline of) a piece of media that serves as a progression of the legends, a new telling for a modern audience and format, rather than using famous names as a crass marketing ploy while telling an almost completely unrelated fantasy story.

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Dungeon Born: Tutorial

Chapter 1 (cont.)

The ratio between words in the book I’m reading to words in the commentary I’m writing should favor the former as much as possible. If I’m writing lots of commentary, it’s usually because something has gone wrong and I’ve noticed. When things go right, I sink into the story and it can be several pages before I notice that my readers need an update on what’s going on or my readthrough will get hopelessly confused. So it’s a bad sign that I had to go for a mid-chapter break like this because I hit my wordcount in the middle of chapter 1, far from a chapter break.

As my puddle finally overflowed, more rocks appeared to me, but the water also sloshed over moss.

Long story short, moss is worth way more magic food points than any kind of rock that Jimmy Protagonist has encountered so far. Also, it’s green, and the addition of this color to Jimmy’s monochrome world blows his mind.

It’s not without side effects, though:

I looked back at the moss and was horrifically shocked at what I saw. It was no longer vibrant and living. It was crumbling before my eyes, turning to dust.

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Dungeon Born: Rocky Start

Today we’re reading Dungeon Born. Pretty much all I know about this book is that it is in the “dungeon heart” sub-genre where the main character runs a dungeon instead of storming them, and that it gets pretty good ratings on Amazon.

Prologue

This is a bad sign.

They laughed when they murdered me. Laughed! Their squeals of delight were sickening as they reveled in the blood pouring from the jagged knife wounds spread across my chest. These disgusting people – I use the term people with trepidation – were obviously disdainful of all living beings. They killed me just for. . . for . . . ? Odd. This was strange – I couldn’t remember why they killed me. Who were ‘they’? Matter of fact, everything was starting to become . . . hard to . . . remember . . . ? I . . .

And the first paragraph of actual story is only making things worse. An amnesia setup. Spectacular.

“Oh no, you don’t!” The nasal, phlegmy voice of one of the assailants shattered the silence. He loomed over the broken, tortured body I was fleeing. “Dying won’t let you off the hook! Hee hee hee! Stealing from me was the worst decision you ever made! Now you will serve me, beg me!” he screamed, spittle flying. His mood shifted abruptly, as madmen’s are prone to do. “to free you, because of your own stupidity! Ha-ha-ha!”

And it keeps getting better: An antagonist motivated by ambiguous “insanity” used to explain their “random” behaviors and contradictory motivations whose purpose is clearly to facilitate the plot.

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Using Music in Tabletop RPGs

Background music can make or break a scene in a tabletop RPG. It enhances the atmosphere and helps you control the pace.

You can’t just slap any old music onto the scene, though. Actually, you can, and even that will still probably set a better atmosphere than nothing. If you just set the Lord of the Rings trilogy soundtrack on shuffle, it’ll probably be fine. But we can do better. Here are three ways how, because the Rule of Three is my waifu.

First, pick a soundtrack based on the mood it sets, not the words in the title. Sometimes, when I’m fishing around for a soundtrack for a forest, or underwater, or a pirate battle, or some other situation, I’ll ask people on the internet, and they’ll answer with a song that has related words in the title. There’s using Wake Me Up Inside during a sequence where the party is trying to escape a dream world as a referential pun, which is fine and funny and the song only lasts 4 minutes and then the joke is over, but then there’s using Jesters of the Moon for a visit to a moon temple, because, y’know, it has “moon” in the title, so it must be appropriate music for all things to do with moons, right? Or they’ll suggest Leafblade Woods for a wood elf ambush, because it comes up when you type “wood elf music” into YouTube. Jesters of the Moon has a strong circus vibe and should be limited to actual clown- or carnival-themed situations. Leafblade Woods is calm and sedate and is just as usable for a temple, an underwater journey, or a wise and sagely character, none of which have anything to do with leaves, blades, or woods. What matters is the music’s mood, not the words in its title.

Second, use video game music. There’s exceptions to this rule, of course, but it’s generally a good one to stick to. Video game music is designed to blend into the background and be looped for 30+ minutes. It doesn’t demand so much attention that it grows tedious after you’ve heard the same thing over and over again, which means instead of finding a four hour playlist of material in case the players stay in the cave the whole session, you can just loop the Overlord tower underground track, and after the first few loops (provided you keep the volume low) it will become easy to ignore instead of agitating. They also almost never have lyrics. Some players find lyrics distracting, and you don’t want half your group muting you because they can’t focus with Evanescence shouting about their inner demons’ narcolepsy.

Third, moderate intensity. Having maximally intense music playing in the background all the time will not make your game more epic, it will either fatigue your players or else they’ll just tune it out entirely and you’ll lose your ability to affect the mood. You can’t use Nobunaga’s theme to punch up the intensity for a final boss if you’ve been looping it in the background for the last three hours. Even for players who are perfectly happy to listen to that or other tracks of similar intensity for four hours straight, keeping things at that level means you are out of notches to crank up to for your finale. There have been enough video games with enough final bosses that every encounter in your campaign could have the likes of One-Winged Angel and Guardando nel Buio playing in the background, but while you can rank these kinds of tracks in order of most to least intense, the differences between them are minute enough that switching from one to another barely makes a difference. The utility of tracks like Final Fantasy XII’s boss theme is not that you can’t find something more exciting for your first boss, it’s that you can find something more exciting for your last boss.

Survival Quest Is Pretty Good, Which Is Probably Why It Got Copied So Much

As is tradition, this is the table of contents post at the end of the Survival Quest readthrough/review.

Part 1: Sentenced to Video Games
Part 2: Scandanavian Subversives
Part 3: Capitalism, Ho!
Part 4: Still Pretty Good
Part 5: Waiting For The Other Foot to Fall
Part 6: Overpowered
Part 7: Bumper Episode

I picked up Survival Quest even though it’s slightly out of genre because after being somewhere between partially to completely spiteful towards the first three LitRPG books I’d reviewed, I felt like it was necessary to establish that I do actually like the genre. Survival Quest was recommended to me by Longes, the most active follower of the blog, and that seemed way more likely to give me an actually good book than just randomly picking whatever was popular off of the Amazon charts.

That panned out. Survival Quest is an actually good book (the abbreviated length of the table of contents above is mainly because I spent more time actually reading the book for several pages before realizing that I really need to stop and catch my readers up on what’s going on, rather than stopping to snark every three paragraphs just to keep myself entertained). It’s not completely flawless, but it manages to hit the most important points: It’s got a protagonist I actually care about and a story that actually made me nervous about whether or not things would go wrong.

The cast of characters is a little bit thin, but that’s hardly surprising considering the confined space the first book takes place in and the ones they have all work. I liked Danny’s entrepreneurial spirit and consistent cleverness in finding new ways to exploit the system around him. I disliked the villain Bat and I cheered when protagonist Danny got bloody revenge on him. The mine governor was neither entirely on Danny’s side nor entirely opposed to him, but was instead just faithfully executing the laws he was charged with upholding, whether that helped Danny or not, and likewise the dwarven proprietor of the mine’s shop was just a businessman who wanted cash, and was mostly indifferent to Danny (and easily irritated by him at that), but could be haggled with. Characters had motivations that I could understand and which didn’t revolve around liking or disliking the protagonist, which was the defining feature of almost everyone in Awaken Online, or which were caricatures of people the author either didn’t like to be used as villains or wanted the approval of to use as heroes, as in Succubus, or were fucking Zuula, like in Threadbare.

Talking about how Survival Quest just didn’t fuck up so bad as other books isn’t doing it justice, though. I briefly discussed Danny’s cleverness in optimizing the system, and that’s what really stood out about Survival Quest. Danny is ambitious and clever, haggling the dwarf into loaning him a mid-tier pick so that he can more rapidly get the money he needs for a high-tier pick even with interest, running a scheme to buy up all the spare ore in the mine so that he can turn them into stat-buffing rings, then turning around and selling them at a profit to the people he just paid for the ore, renting out his services as healer in a mine infested with deadly super rats to hit his quota with days to spare. Danny is constantly hustling, and that makes his eventual success feel, for the most part, earned.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and it is only for the most part that this feels earned. A lot of Danny’s success comes from the fact that he can make stat boosting rings, a profession that anyone could level but which no one else does. Without the crafting stat, it’s not nearly as helpful, and it’s completely unclear why Danny was able to get that stat when locked to a prison server when that ordinarily requires some kind of quest. It’s not so bad as a straightforwardly game-breaking mega-stat just landing on Danny, because he still has to get the ore to make use of it, which requires that ore-buying to ring-selling hustle I mentioned earlier, but it’s still true that none of the other prisoners could’ve done what Danny did even if they had the initiative and the smarts. There was also a sub-plot about a prison gang who had it in for Danny, which was resolved completely offpage by his buddy Kart, who built an entire gang (if “gang” is even the right term, since they are a group of prisoners hanging together for mutual protection, but they aren’t really doing anything illicit – although a one-off line did mention that Danny has thieves answering to him) around him and took care of the whole problem with no further effort required on his part. The book went out of its way to set up that these gangs were coming after Danny, and then a few chapters later Kart just says “oh, by the way, I took care of that whole ‘hostile gang’ problem, no worries,” and that’s the end of it. It’s not unrealistic, but it’s a waste of good drama.

These flaws aren’t decisive, though, and watching Danny’s intelligent, well-planned optimization of the world around him and steady increase in power are exactly the kinds of things I like to see in LitRPG, the reason why I like the genre. If I didn’t have a rule against reading two books of the same series in a row, I’d be picking up the sequel immediately after finishing the first one. As it is, we’re probably gonna read Dungeon Born next. See you there.

The Battle of Ramshorn

Today in Petals and Thorns, no sooner has the party recovered from the loss of their ally Elisha when the Order of the Bear launches a punitive attack on Ramshorn. Joined by many new hirelings, they desperately fight to keep the town from being burnt to cinders.

Meanwhile, in Iron Fang Invasion, the party avenges themselves for the loss of that one guy and finally defeats Scarvinious, securing the people of Phaedar against retaliation. At least until the hobgoblins rebuild that bridge.

Survival Quest: Bumper Episode

Chapter 10

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…

Dude. Spoilers.

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.

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Discoverable Skills Are A Bad Idea

I’ve written about common game design flaws in LitRPG before. Now I want to talk about common flaws about how a game system is presented. Even LitRPG books that I like are prone to these, which is concerning. I thought Survival Quest was pretty good, but it seems to be the root of this problem (because other LitRPG copy from it a lot): Skills that get unlocked at random when you first use them.

I mentioned during my readthrough of the book that a huge amount of Danny’s success ultimately comes down to having developed the Crafting skill kind of out of nowhere in a fugue state. It allows his jewelcraft skill to punch way above its usual belt level and apparently normally requires a special quest to unlock. While I liked Survival Quest overall, this particular bit aggravated me, in no small part because it became a trend. Whether it’s Danny unlocking crafting through his weird fugue, Jason getting into a tiny and exclusive club of magic users by passing a personality test, or even experienced veterans being taken by surprise by tier two class unlocks in Threadbare, LitRPG is full of people stumbling across special powers totally by accident.

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