The last of my video GM’s Guide series. Probably the best thing you can say about it is that I got a lot better at audio editing while making it, but its existence doesn’t diminish the written GM’s Guide, whose quality I still stand by, and some people just prefer explanations in video or audio format. Certainly there’s no denying that it got me past ten subscribers, so my play button made of compressed garbage should be coming in the mail any day now.
I don’t want to leave the first two posts unattached until I have enough Conan reviews to do a collected post like I have for LitRPG, especially since it’s entirely possible that I’ll wander away from Conan to review something else entirely after the next book. Honestly, the only reason I’m not doing that after this book is because Harry Turtledove only wrote the one, so there’s good reason to hold out hope that the next might be better. Anyway, this means that there’s two posts in this table of contents that have nothing to do with Conan of Venarium specifically.
Part -1: Conan the Introduction
Part 0: Let’s Get The Conversation About Racism Out Of The Way
Part 1: Parenting the Conan Way
Part 2: The Battle Adjacent to Venarium
Part 3: Double Villain
Part 4: Disconnected Vignettes
Part 5: Reruns
Part 6: Fourteen Year Olds In Frank Frazetta
Part 7: The Battle at Venarium
There was actually a thirteenth chapter I didn’t include in the review, in which Conan goes south into Aquilonia, becomes a raider with several other Cimmerians after the main force withdraws, and then once his band gets whittled down to nothing, becomes a thief headed south past Aquilonia, setting up the thief-era stories. Which, in my chronology, means that immediately after this Conan about-faces and begins heading north to Asgard and Vanaheim to become a mercenary instead.
That’s not why I didn’t include a review, though. I didn’t include a review because it doesn’t matter. It isn’t the climax to anything. Conan of Venarium has no arc. It’s just a string of vignettes related only in that they follow the same character in chronological order. Conan’s confrontation with the primary antagonist happens 75%-ish of the way into the book, with the rest of its length then dedicated to a battle at Venarium against rando Aquilonians. The presence of Aquilonian viewpoints could’ve made that work, with Conan’s final battle being against sympathetic characters, but this fails on two counts, first that both the Aquilonian viewpoints characters are defeated (one killed, the other routed) in a skirmish at the outskirts of Venarium, before the final battle at Venarium itself, and second that the viewpoint characters are all defeated with basically no fanfare at all. Conan doesn’t have a moment where he embraces his barbarism and strikes down someone he knew for being an invader, nor does he have a moment where he declines to strike down someone he knew and becomes disgusted and cynical with the whole bloody mess of war. He loves killing Aquilonians, except for the small handful he knows personally, which is exactly where he was when he started.
The final battle has Conan fighting with a sword and later an axe, relying on proper melee weapons of war where previously he’d been using bows and javelins as a hunter, but this isn’t the “Conan the barbarian has arrived” moment the narrative seems to want it to be, because Conan was always here, he just didn’t fight in melee until just now due to entirely mundane circumstances. It’s a symbol that’s forgotten its meaning.
We could’ve had a story about, say, Conan becoming disillusioned with Cimmeria and striking out on his own because there’s no goddamn difference between Cimmeria and Aquilonia anyway, so from now on he’s in it for himself. Or a story whose early acts focused heavily on Conan’s relationship with his Tarla and Wirp and his relationship with his parents, so that we really would’ve felt like the climactic battles of the book had completely burned down what everything else had built up, leading to us really feeling how there’s nothing left for Conan in Cimmeria. His parents in particular are frequently mentioned, but only ever a burden or an obstacle, which makes it hard to care when they die because, sure, children love their parents by default and all, but they aren’t my parents so I don’t.
Without either of these emotional arcs or any other you might think up, Conan of Venarium relies on the quality of individual vignettes to survive, so it’s a problem that half of them suck. Every time Harry Turtledove tries to write mass, classical/medieval combat, he fails. He makes basic research failures like getting what a pike is and how fortresses work wrong to a degree that makes the fights hard to parse (it took a while to figure out that Gunderman “pikes” are like six feet long, maximum) or hard to follow (the Battle Adjacent to Venarium had no stakes because the mishandling of the fort made it inescapable that the course of the battle would be dictated by authorial whim). He depicts in gory detail the first few individual fights in a greater melee, then gets bored and wanders off into detached summary for its climactic moments towards the end.
His smaller scale skirmishes work better. When it’s just Conan versus one man or monster, the fights work pretty well, which means that at least his fight with the main villain Stercus mostly works. Other than that, however, it’s difficult to find anything to praise about Conan of Venarium other than “at least it could’ve fucked up harder.” It victim blames its female characters for being targeted by rapists, but at least it lets the women join the fray towards the end. It’s got a lot of meandering vignettes, but at least it’s mostly able to stay on-theme regarding the Aquilonian invasion, so even though nearly all events in the story are totally unnecessary to its climax, they are at least loosely related.
And, of course, there’s the way that the villain is ham-handedly sign-posted by being a rapist pedophile. It was hard to even get all that worked up about it because of my total apathy towards Tarla as a character, plus its use of gratuitous rape as a plot point is pretty tame compared to Succubus, so I guess that’s the standard my subconscious operates on now. Like, Stercus is at least a believably depicted predator, although also the book engages in a fair amount of sexualization of Tarla, his underage victim, which is super weird when Tarla being too young for people of the author’s (and large portions of the audience’s) age to be looking at her like that is a plot point used to vilify the primary antagonist.
In the end, Conan of Venarium is an aimless jumble of vignettes that doesn’t build to much, botches the climax for what plot momentum it does manage to build up, and whose average quality vignette-to-vignette is mediocre.
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If someone’s bad at depicting classical combat, you know they’re not any good for classical logistics. Fortunately, there’s rarely any call to write about the details of classical logistics. Unfortunately, Harry Turtledove has dodged directly into the path of that bullet:
And forward the Cimmerians went. No Aquilonian army could have done the like. Aquilonians, civilized men, traveled with an elaborate baggage train. The Cimmerians simply abandoned everything they could not carry with them. They had briefly paused here to gather in full force. For that, lean-tos and tents had proved desirable. Now the Cimmerians forgot them. They would eat what they carried in belt pouches and wallets. They would sleep wrapped in wool blankets, or else on bare ground.
Civilized armies didn’t give up on forage because they’re soft and delicate and cultured and need to bring many nice things with them on campaign. They gave up on forage because things like food cannot be gathered in sufficient amounts to feed an army of sufficient size. When you gather more soldiers to a single spot, the radius your foraging parties must range out to in order to feed them all eventually exceeds the range that humans can walk in a day, at which point everyone starves to death. That’s the point when you need a baggage train. The overwhelming majority of military baggage was always food.
That seer guy is hanging around Duthil doing odd jobs to earn his keep whenever he can’t get by selling visions. Conan asks him to look into the future of Cimmeria and see whether they’re going to win against the Aquilonians.
The seer suddenly went stiff. His eyes opened very wide, so that white showed all around their irises. “Crom!” he muttered, whether calling on the grim northern god or simply in astonishment Conan could not have said. In a voice that might have come from the other side of the grave, Rhiderch went on, “Gore and guts and grief and glory! War and woe and fire and flame! Death and doom and dire deeds! War, aye, war to the knife, war without mercy, war without pity, battle till the last falls still fighting!”
Conan shuddered. He had got more in the way of a vision than he had bargained for. Rhiderch twitched like a man in the throes of an epileptic fit. Hoarsely, Conan asked, “But who will win?” Nothing else mattered to him. “Who will win?”
Now Rhiderch’s gaze thrust through him like a sword. “War and woe!” repeated the seer. “Duthil dies a dismal death. The golden lion—” He twitched again. “Aye, the golden lion flaps above your head.”
At first, I was worried this was going to turn into another “oh, isn’t Conan so great” moment, where a fanboy oohs and ahs over his favorite fantasy hero right in the middle of a narrative. But no, this is actually just a misleading vision, in the way of prophetic visions everywhere, about Conan becoming king of Aquilonia. And also about Duthil getting razed, apparently. I don’t know how this book, specifically, will end, but my guess is that Duthil is the price Cimmeria pays for victory.
A couple weeks ago, one of the search results for my blog was “how to defeat pixy in ace combat zero hate the mission.” I doubt the guy found what he was looking for on my two posts referencing Pixy by name, because those posts didn’t explain how to beat Pixy, just why he sucks as a last boss. For all future travelers: Grind cash until you unlock the ADF-01 Falken. This crazy-broken laser plane’s secondary weapon is moderately long range, does tons of damage, and travels at the speed of light. The enemy doesn’t get any missile alerts, you don’t have to close in to stop them from getting away, you just point your plane at them, push the fire button, and they die.
Practically every board game is available as a Table Top Simulator mod if you like the taste of rum and the sound of parrots, so for consumers it’s not really an issue that so very, very few are available as video games. The lack of AI does mean that, unless the game supports solo play, you do have to actually have friends, but the game itself is not only available, it’s available for free.
Table Top Simulator does have some games available as paid DLC, however. And some games are available from the Steam store as standalone purchases with built-in AI. For example: Small World. You can go out and buy that game on Steam and play it against AI and it’s exactly like the board game except with some sound effects and animations.
Why isn’t this more common? Why is it that if I want to play Twilight Imperium or Eldritch Horror (or one of its antecedents) I have to spend like two hours in set up (or push one button in a pirate mod from TTS)? The unofficial Twilight Imperium tournament scene (such that it is – they play on stream is the important thing) run by the Space Cats Peace Turtles podcast has to use one of those TTS pirate mods. I’m pretty sure that such mega-fans of TI as to show up in stream games have bought real copies of the game, but the point here is that they’re advertising for the free version that gives Fantasy Flight zero dollars for their work, and that’s not because they’re bad people or because they’re rebelling against some terrible decision by Fantasy Flight or anything, they just don’t have the option to stream a version of the game that people could actually buy.
I get that the best board game experience is going to be sitting down with real people to actually play it in person as a social event. I get that an AI for a game like Twilight Imperium would barely even be worth having, because so much of the strategy in Twilight Imperium comes down to politicking between many different players, and the only way to get a game AI that’s any good at that is to invent an entire new diplomacy sub-system like Paradox grand strategy games do. I’m not suggesting that digital versions of board games would serve as effective replacements for board games entirely. Particularly if they’re hard-coded like Small World, rather than TTS or Vassal modules that allow you to move the pieces around however you want, and thus support house rules and so on.
But just because digital board games can serve as full replacements for the real, physical thing, I don’t see why they aren’t serving the same niche as digital books: A slightly cheaper alternative with easier logistics, one so ubiquitous that the question isn’t “are we going to bother to offer this game digitally” but rather “can we afford to offer this game physically?”
The “disconnected vignettes” problem affects the reviewing more than the reading. It’s almost impossible to know which, if any, of the details of these stories is going to come up later. Is Conan being tested by the Three Trials of Crom which will culminate in his transforming into a Super Cimmerian with golden hair and green eyes, or are monsters just showing up because there’s a protagonist around to fight them now and it’s a good way to mark time while we wait for Conan to turn fifteen?
On the other hand, the episodic nature of the story isn’t actually bad. Individual vignettes are sometimes bad, like when Count Villainous shows up to creep on a piece of cardboard with “jail bait” painted across the front, but the episodic nature means that no matter how shoddy one vignette is, it has practically no bearing on the quality of the next. Sure, the “character arc” of the protagonist is not really an arc so much as frequent callbacks to previous stories, but if I wasn’t happy to read about Conan killing a giant snake just for the Hell of it, I wouldn’t be reading Conan at all. That’s like forty percent of Conan stories.
WordPress occasionally decides that my blog is actually in London and therefore on GMT. This normally just means posts come out at a weird time whenever I forget to correct for the sudden time zone change, but for these video GM’s guides, the time zone doesn’t suddenly change on YouTube, which means it’s possible there’s no actual video in this post and won’t be for another six hours after it goes live. Hopefully I got the time zones working properly, though.
The timeline continues crawling forward towards Conan’s fateful fifteenth year. On the one hand, time skips suck. They play out pretty much one of two ways: Either the character is exactly the same as when we last left off, or else they’ve had a character arc we didn’t get to see and now they’re basically a different (though hopefully at least similar) character. The other hand, though, is that Conan of Venarium didn’t need to cover three years of Conan’s life. We didn’t need any details on what Conan was like before he reached barbarianing age, and having a narrative cover three years of events without coming across as disconnected vignettes marking time until the climax is hard to pull off. There’s a theme of Conan wanting to be all growed up, but so far it’s not super clear what fighting a snake in the Feywild or meeting a settler has to do with Conan’s overall arc other than being events that happened in the summer. Of course, we’re still only 32% of the way into the story, so there’s some wiggle room left for things to start coming together later.
Now in chapter 5 it is winter so we’re talking about Vanaheim and Asgard coming down to raid, because apparently they are ice people and only move south when the weather is bad, instead of doing the sensible thing and bunkering down for the winter before heading out to raid in the summer when they don’t have to trudge through three feet of snow to reach their target.