Threadbare and Pulsivar enter the raccant dungeon in search of Dark Threadbare, and soon come across…
The little bear thought that maybe there was something hiding under the junk, but no, nothing was under there. The mob of trash had moved on its own and just slunk up and whacked him a good one.
An animate mob of trash. A trash mob, if you will.
And not much deeper in, Threadbare finds the heart of the raccant operation:
Threadbare gazed upon a large cave, with multiple seats and benches made from stalagmites, free-standing and in rows. Ropes and chains of lanterns hung from the ceiling, flashing with odd colors, and at least three dozen raccants sat on them or jumped up and down, dancing to the music.
Garbage piled high around the cavern shook to the beat, piles of trash and even cans of the stuff shaking as the beat thumped on. Occasionally a can would boil over, and a new trash mob would rattle out, then head toward one of the corridors leading out of the cavern.
And up on stage, was a Raccant wearing a pair of baggy black pants, a gold chain, and some odd contraption over his eyes that Threadbare had never seen before. Though for once that wasn’t due to his ignorance. After all, very few people in Cylvania would have recognized a pair of sunglasses.
Didn’t Caradon have regular glasses? Maybe I just imagined that. Either way, “glasses that are dark” doesn’t seem like it’d be that hard to puzzle out. Nitpick aside, though, I like this setup.
Threadbare is able to dispose of the raccant mooks by animating their own masks to attack them and then using his Wolverine claws to tear up what’s left, with some support from his animated high chair minion that he salvaged from the camp outside. That’s when the boss attacks with a hurricane of puns…
Then in a flash, the raccant was there, bashing the high chair to bits with a heavy hammer that he’d pulled out of literally nowhere.
He’d stopped because it was hammer time, and broken it down, just like that.
Threadbare popped claws and laid into him- or tried to, anyway. The bard could dodge like nobody’s business, thanks to his Raccant Touch This skill.
…which then retreats into a particularly abbreviated example of detached summary.
The fight went on for a bit, and Threadbare switched from trying to shred the guy to just trying to survive, letting Pulsivar do the real work. Fortunately that was a good strategy, and in the end, after three dodge skill ups and two more bodyguard skill ups later, the raccant fell, glasses shattering. Threadbare sagged into Pulsivar, hugging his wounds away with what remained of his sanity.
Survival Quest had this problem, too, where what makes for a good MMO fight doesn’t really make for a good book fight, and instead of having the MMO be weirdly high-lethality in order to pace the fights for a book, it retreats into detached summary. Survival Quest at least had the excuse that it was an actual MMORPG and it would actually be weird from a worldbuilding standpoint for the fights to be balanced around high lethality that allows them to be portrayed beginning to end in just two or three pages of book space (and also allows players to win with a strong alpha strike or even just some lucky crits rather than demanding an effective long term strategy – that’s bad for gameplay). Threadbare has a built-in excuse for having fights balanced for pace rather than strategy:
Threadbare continues searching for Dark Threadbare until he hits a trapdoor and goes tumbling down a chute, cut off from Pulsivar, and lands in an arena.
Four times his size, with pitch black fur, and bright-red button eyes, the plush toy was a walking behemoth. It bore a full-sized lumberjack’s axe in both paws, and the weight of it strained the teddy bear’s seams, revealing wisps of stuffing spilling out from stretched thread.
And worst of all, he recognized it.
“Fiyt! Fiyt! Fiyt!” Chanted the raccants above, and the giant-sized Missus Fluffbear roared, headbutted the wall next to her three or four times, sending up red ‘20s’, then turned to glare at him.
Threadbare is unable to command her using the Command Golem spell, which does work on sapient greater golems like Threadbare and his kid sister, because Celia was able to use it on him back in the very early chapters of Stuff and Nonsense. It did take her a couple of tries, in fairness. After a while, Threadbare uses that Eye For Detail spell to examine the mega-teddy’s stats, though, and finds that it’s so discordant from what Dark Threadbare should have (no golem levels, defense scores far below what a golem should have, etc.) that Threadbare suspects it’s not actually his kid sister with some horrible template applied, but actually a brand new creation that just looks kinda like her.
The subsequent fight is one of the good ones. The bearserker boss (does this count as a pun? “Berserk” is already derived from “bearsark” which just means “bear shirt”) has way too much damage for Threadbare to take her on directly, so he activates some new tricks, at one point jumps up to the chickenwire enclosing the arena to heal himself before the raccants on the other side push him back off, has to contend with the bearserker getting even more powerful as she loses health, etc. It’s too long to post here, but it’s good.
There’s also an off-page fight with a trash panda, which I don’t mind, since it establishes that Pulsivar has been doing something while Threadbare was tangling with the bearserker, and also allows the dungeon to feel a bit larger without straining the author’s ability to keep fight scenes interesting one after the other. I titled a post of the previous book’s review “I Warned You The Novelization Of A Dungeon Crawl Would Be Boring,” but this one is actually not doing too bad so far. One thing it does lack is a sense of progress, which is harming the pace a bit. It’s really not clear how close to success our heroes are, which is something that game mechanics like dungeon maps or boss lists are actually very well equipped to solve.
There’s a whole fight sequence in a circus-themed arena that’s mostly good, clever tactics and interesting bosses and etc. etc., although the fight with the raccant ringmaster is kind of disappointing in that it ends up another detached summary where Threadbare just overwhelms him with his bigger numbers. At the end of it, Pulsivar is able to parkour up to a retracting platform that leads to the dungeon’s secret behind the scenes area:
It was a void, a black void. The floor was stone, he could feel that under his paws, but there were no walls. Pylons filled the expanse, green pillars of light, flickering softly. In among a cluster of the pillars, a red crystal the size of Threadbare hovered, swaying up and down, as small lightning bolts arced between it and the pillars. Some of the pillars had raccants in them. Others had jumbles of random things. Coins, bits of treasure, and familiar looking objects.
One of those pylons contains the master copy of the dungeon boss. He goes down like a total chump this time, and that’s when things go screwy:
NO MASTER DETECTED IN DUNGEON 01010010 01000001 01000011 01000011 01001111 01001111 01001110 01010010 01010101 01001101 01010000 01010101 01010011
I’ll save you a click: The binary translates to RACCOONRUMPUS, which is the name of the chapter and, presumably, the dungeon.
The words above shifted. ERROR! NO MASTER DETECTED. DUNGEON SEALING IN 30.
Then the 30 changed to 29. Then to a 28.
Threadbare hugged Pulsivar, and held on tight. Was this the end?
It wasn’t. When the numbers reached zero, the world changed.
It was a dark mineshaft, dingy, just one central cavern with a few small tunnels off of it.
You may recall from the review of the last book that the raccants were said to have been camped outside an abandoned mine shaft back five years ago, which Mordecai said they might eventually turn into a dungeon. Apparently they don’t accomplish this by spawning digger minions to renovate the place, but through some kind of Matrix terminal. This raises so many questions about what dungeon minions actually are, and how much Mordecai knew about all this when he recommended Celia make a habit of killing them by the truckload for the loot and XP. Are the master copies here in the dev room the only actually sapient beings in the dungeon, and the rest are either drones being piloted by the master copies, or piloted by the master copy of the dungeon boss who controls the whole thing, or fully autonomous drone clones? Or are they fully sapient clones? Given how many of them are active at once and the fact that many of the “clones” are in fact heavily modified (like the bearserker only loosely resembles Dark Threadbare), it seems unlikely that just one or a small handful could be managing them alone. At minimum they must have a basic NPC AI handling normal functions (i.e. “guard” or “patrol” or whatever).
I stand by my earlier criticisms of Mordecai’s attitude, though – there’s no indication he knew any of this, and even if he did, he didn’t explain any of it to Celia. He’d taken Celia on as a psuedo-apprentice, if the reason he wanted to let the raccants build a dungeon to raid later was because he knew the dungeon minions were non-sentient, why didn’t he explain that to her?
He ignored the chittering raccant bard and the other midboss as the two of them fled, ignored the minion raccants who followed them out at top speed, with Pulsivar in hot pursuit. He ignored the various bits of loot littering the ground, and even ignored his Scepter, lying there, golden in the darkness.
No, Threadbare ignored them all as he walked up to the tiny bear, half his size. She stood trembling, dazed and looking around in the darkness. And Threadbare hugged her. She stiffened, but then golden light flared from his innocent embrace—
You have healed Missus Fluffbear for 100 points! Your Innocent Embrace skill is now level 11!
And a smaller golden light flared, as she hugged him back.
Missus Fluffbear has healed you for 10 points!
And that is the chapter. Well, there’s like two more paragraphs, but you can probably guess at this point that they go back outside.
This dungeon crawl was much more entertaining than the cat dungeon in the first book, both because of a higher density of properly described fights rather than detached summary battles and because of significantly heftier emotional stakes, although it still suffered from pacing problems. You can probably write around those pacing problems with enough effort, but for settings like Threadbare, settings where the LitRPG premise is not based on this being an actual video game that people actually play (even though it is perhaps some kind of computer program?), it’s much easier to just drastically overhaul how dungeons function or even write them out completely so you don’t have this problem. You need something to serve the role of an enemy stronghold where the boss hangs out, a forward attack base from which the bad guys menace the countryside, but it doesn’t have to specifically be a dungeon unless you are actually writing about an MMORPG that is played as a game. And even then, it might be easier to write a reason why this game doesn’t have dungeons than to write a well-paced dungeon crawl.