I’ve been so busy that I haven’t noticed, but we’ve long ago passed the point where it’s time to enter into rapid-fire summary mode, because I don’t really have anything interesting left to say about Dungeon Born. The economics continue to make no sense, the prose continues to capitalize words at Random, the plot continues to lumber along with minimal stakes and opposition, the narrative continues to infodump about arcanobabble metaphysics that allegedly codify the ARPG-style mechanics into a proper literary magic system but in practice just add a bunch of jargon to the mechanics without any deeper implications at all, Cal continues to make dumb excuses about why he’s not really the villain just because he’s murdering people for personal gain and in fact he’s actually quite fair-minded about letting people good at dungeon raiding have a proper reward so it’s actually kind of heroic how he murders people for the crime of misestimating their dungeon raiding abilities, isn’t it?
This book is boring. I’m 60% of the way in, way past the threshold of giving it a fair shake, and while I don’t want to drop it completely, I also don’t really want to give it the attention I have been. It’s already got way more posts than it deserves. Like, you’ve seen the bits where Cal makes shitty justifications for outright murder, so you can probably just take my word for it when I tell you that the book has equally shitty justifications for absolute monarchies despite recognizing their total apathy to the well-being of unemployed citizens along with an unstated assumption that anyone who wanted a job could get one, despite the fact that this has been true in exactly zero societies ever. I’d have to pull quotes from three or four different paragraphs of chapter 21 to paint every piece of that picture for you, but come on, after “people who take risks deserve to die if I can profit from those deaths,” is “poor people deserve to die because we can safely assume they’re lazy” really that much of a stretch?
Cal experiments with runes. Cal experiments with mobs. The Team continues to raid the dungeon periodically. Occasionally, parties of nameless losers raid the dungeon and some or all of them get killed. Cal gleefully absorbs their essence in a way that is definitely doubleplus non-villainous. Dale meets elves. Dale sells magic items. Dale allows a restaurant proprietor to set up a shop in his growing dungeon town, and it turns out she’s A-ranked, has a half-elf granddaughter who wants to join the team that Dale’s forming as a leader, and fuck I think I’ll actually need to quote some of that just for the novel ways in which it’s dumb. None of these things are actually interesting, even though they kind of sound like it in brief summary form, because they never go anywhere. Things happen, one after another, building to nothing, meaning nothing.
Had I not been so focused on getting a blog post out of the way for the day so I could focus on trying to keep all my other personal projects running, I probably would’ve noticed a lot sooner that this book is like a tofu-flavored hot pocket, not just empty calories but also bland flavored. Like, I have no fear of jumping way ahead in the plot, because the plot doesn’t actually build on itself.
So when we’re jumping from 60% of the way through the book to 80% of the way book to talk about that one half-elf, I’m pretty confident that to the extent that things seem disjointed, it’s only because that’s how they are in the book. Chandra’s the secretly-a-wizard restaurant owner, Rose is her daughter, she has some mysterious essence-related ailment, and bam, you are one hundred percent caught up from where we were one-fifth of the book ago, because the closest this book has to a plot or character arc is that sometimes new characters show up and append themselves to existing character dynamics without significantly disrupting them, mostly because they’re so shallow to begin with.
“Oh, spit it out. What?! What’s wrong with her?”
Rose’s face was becoming the color of her namesake, “Excuse me, I am right here.” She seethed, turning toward Dale, “And nothing is wrong with me, you ass.” Her voice was cultured, and delicate for the harsh words.
Dale was instantly mad at her, “I’m not going into danger with someone who can’t even be around people without them feeling sorry for her unknown weakness.” He announced harshly.
“Dale!” Chandra was aghast, “Where is this coming from?”
Dale looked at her coldly, the cold steel of a man who has had to force others to show him respect every time their opinions differed. “This is coming from a Highlander. I worked for what I have, I paid fairly for my increase in rank, if not in time then in goods. What gives her the right to come in here and start attacking me for asking a simple question? I’m guessing as well that you simply pulled her to the higher ranks for free. The look in his eyes and tone of voice,” He pointed at Father Richard, “Tells me other people’s charity and pity falling on her is not an uncommon occurrence. Her reaction,” a gesture at Rose, “shows that she has a chip on her shoulder that will get us killed if we take her. Either she will not be able to pull her weight or she will try to overcompensate and do something stupid. I need people that will work to keep me alive as I do the same for them, so find another team or explain why it benefits my team to take her with us.”
The others in the room were stunned into silence. They had not seen this side of Dale, and now they were realizing that – just maybe – they should be a bit warier of making decisions for him without his knowing consent. Hans broke into a proud grin when he realized that Dale had made a well-reasoned argument, while Father Richard started to sweat a bit over the future expansion plans he had for his church.
So, Rose gets justifiably angry because 1) people are talking about her as though she’s not even present in the room and 2) “what’s wrong with her” is in fact a pretty rude way to ask about it. The way she’s being infantilized by the first bit is the most concerning part, but the second bit isn’t nothing, either.
But let’s also examine the rank hypocrisy that the narrative is praising Dale for. Tim discovered the dungeon in the area through sheer dumb luck. By luck alone, Dale was one of the two survivors of the initial raid. Dale then became the only survivor by straight up murdering the competition. Now, Tim was a horrible person and might plausibly have been planning to kill Dale to keep the dungeon for himself, but “I worked for what I have” is a far cry from “I lucked into this and then pre-emptively murdered a potential threat.” Dale had no damn clue what kind of magically enforced power he was granting himself when he bought the mountain, which is another reason why this story would be way better if that didn’t come as a surprise to him and was instead an actual demonstration of intelligence and competence on his part.
Although that alone wouldn’t even save this stupid rant, because the stupid bargain bin Sherlock scan about extrapolating how people have been treating her for her entire life based on the reaction of one guy is every kind of stupid, and it’s pure author fiat that allows this kind of wild guess to turn up accurate. His accusation that she’s got a “chip on her shoulder” is an even more egregious example of unearned deduction ultimately proven accurate solely because the author is beaming information straight into Dale’s brain, because her reaction to being treated like a seven-year old whose fate is discussed amongst adults without her input is 100% understandable regardless of how people typically act around her.
Dale didn’t work for what he has, he stumbled into through pure chance, and his assumptions in this rant are braindead.
The book is really schizo on whether it wants this to be a strength or a weakness. The narrative refers to the argument as “well-reasoned” in the immediate aftermath of the rant (it’s actually founded on stupid assumptions that turn out to be mostly true on pure authorial fiat, which is hardly “well-reasoned”), but after explaining that her ailment is that she is dual-affinity to both infernal and celestial essence which makes it basically impossible for her to cultivate, we get this:
“Just so.” Chandra nodded reluctantly. “As such, Rose has never been able to cultivate. She would have died if I did not pull her up into the D-ranking as a child. The scars in her cultivation have been there for nearly twenty years. She cannot use Essence for fear that the lack will kill her, as she cannot replace what she uses.” The news he was given disturbed Dale, the others also seemed uncomfortable at Rose’s plight.
“Well.” Dale hemmed, “I may have been hasty in my snap judgement, but the fact of the matter is that this does not change things. If she cannot fight, it would be too dangerous for all involved to take her with us.”
Okay, so we’re admitting that Dale’s “snap judgement” was hasty, except a few paragraphs later he pretty much completely stands by it:
Dale shook his head. “That was how Craig taught me. That and letting Josh beat me on the sparring grounds for hours at a time. This life is not for the faint of heart, which I am sure you know. I’m nervous about this whole situation. Not only about going in with an untested team, but her attitude really worries me. I know that I could have handled that better but I needed to know if she would react professionally. Make no mistake, I intend for my team to be exceedingly professional.”
“I was worried about her reaction because I feel like people have either only treated her one of two ways: Giving her what she wanted and not spoken harshly to her out of pity, or given her nothing and despised her for shortcomings that are not her fault. If she could not control herself here when it was only harsh words, how could I trust that she would care what I had to say mid-battle? Her lack of experience with other people and teamwork could seriously hurt us.”
What “lack of experience with other people?” She lives with her grandmother, who owns a restaurant. Rose has no shortage of opportunity for experience with other people. Nor any shortage of opportunity to learn how to work in a team! Restaurants are run by teams! There is no reason to believe that Rose is unaccustomed to teamwork! It seems like she’s supposed to be this really sheltered person who’s eager to prove that she can stand on her own two feet, but Dale just knows this. The clues he cites only make it more obvious how unnatural the source of the information is.
That came from chapter, like…twenty-four? I’m not really keeping track anymore. Anyway, the next post will most likely also be me skipping ahead a bunch of chapters that can be summarized in like two sentences because just like nothing Dale has done up ’till now has really informed the conversation with Rose at all, I doubt any of the details I skip over will have any impact at all on whatever I next find interesting enough to bother commenting on. It’s entirely possible the next post will be the last Dungeon Born post before the wrap-up table of contents post.
Speaking of, after wrapping up Dungeon Born I will not be immediately diving into another line-by-line book review. That content is definitely the most popular on my blog so there’s very little risk of it going away permanently, however I am preparing for a Kickstarter in September which, if it’s even a little bit successful, will need some amount of attention to manage. I don’t really have any attention to spare, and right now the only things I consistently get done, the only projects I can cut into to free up some focus for that Kickstarter, are my professional GMing and my blogging. The blogging doesn’t actually make any money even though it’s getting a bit of attention, so that’s what’s going on semi-hiatus. I still plan on writing Tuesday/Friday articles and will be updating with Petals and Thorns/GM’s Guide videos on Sundays, but Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday are probably going to get Kickstarter-related updates, if anything, until the end of September. Let’s read reviews will resume in October (you can mention suggestions for books to read on my Discord in the meantime).