Solo Dexterity Games

Dread is a tabletop RPG in which you build a Jenga tower, and whenever you want to do something risky, you pull some number of blocks from that Jenga tower. If it topples over, you are dead! This is of interest to me because it’s the kind of thing that can sustain solo play. Could you adapt an RPG’s combat system to work on Jenga blocks without simply rebuilding from the ground up? Doing so would replace tactics with dexterity, which is good for solo play, because dexterity can be tested against arbitrary goals, like “pull 20 Jenga blocks without knocking over the tower,” while tactics requires building some kind of AI.

The main issue with using Jenga for these purposes is that once the tower has been knocked over, you’re done. A scheme to do something like convert the CR of enemies into a number of Jenga blocks to pull – in addition to totally removing all differences between builds of all characters – is inevitably a game of seeing how far you can go before you topple the tower and the game comes screeching to a halt. If you aren’t actually dead, you may as well be, because you probably won’t want to continue play if it requires resetting the tower. Not only that, but any kind of healing in this system is horribly laborious. What do you do, pull a block off the top and try to insert it back into the middle? That’s as likely to knock the tower over as taking damage. Just give yourself a number of free pulls, where you get the benefits of pulling a block without actually doing so? Then a major component of game strategy is to avoid actually playing the game as much as possible. And while resetting the tower when you take a long rest or equivalent isn’t terrible, because that’s probably a good time to unwind anyway, it’d still be better if you could make a system where resetting a Jenga tower wasn’t a necessary step of play mid-game.

The problem might get easier if we look at other dexterity games playable by one person. For example: Crokinole, highest rated dexterity game on all of Board Game Geek despite having been created in 1876, and that’s not just because the dexterity game category is barren – it’s not, and Crokinole is rated 77th overall. Crokinole is a dexterity game in which you can score either 20, 15, 10, 5, or 0 points on your turn, which maps well to a d20 roll, if we swap the 0 for a 1. Crokinole isn’t nearly as much fun with just one player, because you cannot attempt to hit opponent discs and knock them out of the scoring area if you have no opponent. You could begin with several opponent discs on the board instead (though probably best to waive the rule requiring you hit an opponent’s disc for a shot to count if you’re using the shot as a die roll), or you could just use an empty Crokinole board and simply use the shot to replace die rolls.

With a bit of creativity, Crokinole can do a surprising amount of heavy lifting. For example, add a new rule that you can flick your disc from any quadrant that isn’t occupied by an enemy disc, and that hitting enemy discs has some effect on them in addition to whatever the results of your score. Then you can have an enemy backline on the far side of the table guarded by discs on the two intermediate quadrants. Maybe enemies in the center gain some benefit, so knocking discs out of the middle denies the enemy powerful artillery. Combine this with Jenga and it takes away the biggest drawback of Jenga-as-health: If you use shielding or healing to avoid damage, that doesn’t mean you aren’t playing the game, it just means you’re playing more Crokinole and less Jenga.

Maybe modern games can provide more fodder? Dr. Eureka is pretty highly rated, a game in which you have three plastic beakers with two colored marbles each, two red, two green, and two purple. You draw a card that displays a different arrangement of the same marbles in the beakers, for example, one green and purple beaker, one purple and red beaker, one red and green beaker. Then you must rearrange the marbles in your beakers to match the cards without touching any of the marbles or letting any of them leave the beakers. In a regular game, you race against other players, but you can also race against an arbitrary time limit. You could use Dr. Eureka as your spellcasting system, with particularly fast mixtures allowing you to cast a spell as a bonus action instead of a standard, while running out of time might waste your turn and force you to choose next turn between attempting to finish the spell (picking up the game of Dr. Eureka where you left off with a reset timer) or letting the spell fizzle to do something else.

So how can all of these systems come together? I dunno. I just needed a Friday article and couldn’t think of a topic, so I slapped together some half-formed thoughts.

Conan of Venarium: Double Villain

Chapter 3

The chapter opens with the victorious Aquilonians marching into Duthil and telling the Cimmerians that they’re in charge now, ha ha ha. Conan reluctantly admits that attacking them now is suicide and decides to stick to his father’s plan of biding their time until they can retaliate. Then there’s a bit with the Aquilonian garrison in which they stare at trees until they see Conan passing through having shot some particularly elusive birds ordinarily caught using traps, and everyone shivers at how protagonisty he is, and then we’re following Conan again on his hunt. It’s all pretty unremarkable? Like, it’s not bad. Maybe they’re absolutely botching iron age hunting the same way they botched iron age warfare in the last one, but I’m not really knowledgeable on that subject at all, so I can’t tell.

There is this one line that I’ll quote, just because it keeps coming up:

“I hope so,” said Granth. “Sometimes barbarians will kill without counting the cost. That’s what makes them barbarians.”

Daverio shrugged cynically. “That will probably happen once or twice. Then we’ll kill ten or twenty Cimmerians, or however many it takes. Before long, the ones we leave alive will say, ‘Don’t do anything to King Numedides’ men. It hurts us worse than it hurts them.’”

There’s something to be said for dumping more resources than seems immediately prudent into revenge, particularly in iron age societies, because that can deter people from trying to harm you in the future. Sticking strictly to only retaliating when such retaliation is the good move for you right now encourages bad actors to harm you whenever you’re unable to immediately profit from retaliation, and you’re usually unable to immediately profit from retaliation. Fighting powerful enemies is costly, and if you only ever look one move ahead, the “smart” thing to do is always to roll over for them. Plus, you might value a reputation for indomitability more than whatever material wealth you sacrifice acquiring it.

Continue reading “Conan of Venarium: Double Villain”

Conan of Venarium: The Battle Adjacent to Venarium

Chapter 2

We open on the Aquilonians again, this time standing guard at Venarium.

A harsh chattering came from the woods. Granth’s hand leaped to the hilt of the shortsword on his belt. “What was that?” he said.

“A bird,” said Vulth.

“What kind of bird?” asked Granth. “I’ve never heard a bird that sounded like that before.”

“Who knows?” said his cousin. “They have funny birds here, birds that won’t live where it’s warmer and sunnier. One of those.”

Skyrim Arrows
Must’ve just been the wind.

We flip to Mordec’s perspective as the battle begins.

Before the Bossonians and Gundermen outside the encampment were fully formed to face the Cimmerian tidal wave, it swept onto them.

Wait, why were they outside the encampment in the middle of the night? Is Venarium not big enough to hold the army that built it? Why not? There’s plenty of materials, and more soldiers means more labor to assemble it. If the fort is unfinished, I can’t find any mention of it.

The foemen in front of them gave ground. A few archers and pikemen ran for their lives, forgetting in their fear they would find no safety in flight. Most, though, put up the best fight they could. And, to take the place of the fled and fallen, more and more soldiers came forth from the camp.

Why did you even build this thing?

Continue reading “Conan of Venarium: The Battle Adjacent to Venarium”

Spore Left Out So Much

The concept behind Spore is that it was a journey from the origins of life to an era of space exploration and interplanetary empires. What we got in practice is five disconnected mini-games, only one of which was actually good at what it was doing, and that’s because each of them felt like a simplified tutorial level that they forgot to build greater complexity on top of and only the Cell Stage was actually a tutorial level. Today I’m going to mourn the first great betrayal of my early teen years by talking about all the missed opportunities in Spore.

The Molecular Stage

I only bring this up to mention that cutting it was a good idea. The Cell Stage is already a straightforward tutorial game and playing Tetris for ten minutes to get into it would’ve only dragged out a start-to-finish playthrough. Life in general is about 4 billion years old on Earth whereas life reasonably similar to the microbial creatures seen in the Cell Stage only emerged about 1.5 billion years ago after plants and eukaryotes were invented, but those 2.5 billion years were interminably dull and it’s not a big deal that we skipped them.

The Cell Stage

I said earlier that the Cell Stage is actually good at what it does because it’s supposed to be an oversimplified tutorial stage. The only flaw in the Cell Stage is that you are required to play through it the first time. It should’ve been skippable from the beginning. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly acceptable 30-ish minute introduction to the game that has minimal customization before throwing you into some reasonably interesting gameplay, giving you some time to actually have some fun before you’re dumped into the Creature Stage and its far more complex customization and gameplay. The problem, of course, is that the Creature Stage didn’t really feature far more complex gameplay, in fact going from the positioning based gameplay of the Cell Stage to the hotbar gameplay of the Creature Stage is a lateral move at best.

Continue reading “Spore Left Out So Much”

Conan of Venarium: Parenting the Conan Way

Robert E. Howard never wrote about Conan’s origins. His earliest story chronologically was the Frost Giant’s Daughter (if, like a sane person, you place that immediately after Conan departed Cimmeria). Conan of Venarium most faithfully follows what the narrative claims in brief reference later on: That Conan came to the civilized world of Hyboria following a clash with Aquilonian forces at Venarium.

This book is brought to us in 2003 by Harry Turtledove. I haven’t cross-referenced all the books I’ve read with Harry Turtledove’s complete bibliography, but I’m pretty sure Conan of Venarium is the first of his novels I’ve read. I’ve heard of him a lot, but he writes a lot of alternative history, a genre which I tend to avoid because of how often it’s littered with historical fix fics in which a defeated army is instead victorious, thus ushering in utopia. And it’s never “Trotsky took over after Lenin and everything was great forever,” which, while not really any improvement of craft over the other style, would at least be a nice change of pace from all the “the South won the Civil War and then abolished slavery all by themselves and lived in a Libertarian paradise forever” stories.

Turtledove has written a “the South won the Civil War” alt history series, Wikipedia informs me, but I’m on too tight a deadline to even bother reading the summaries of all twelve-ish books in that series, so I have no idea how it portrays the South. I’m gonna guess that it’s not “evil empire in which sadistic aristocrats reign over an economy sustained by one of the most brutal systems of chattel slavery in all human history while using racist tensions to keep the unlanded majority of whites loyal to their cause despite their having been ghettoized in impoverished bayous.” In fairness, though, I haven’t actually read any of them, so I won’t hold that series against Turtledove here.

Also, Macmillan, the seller of this story, has offered it DRM free at the request of Tor Books, which is neat.

Continue reading “Conan of Venarium: Parenting the Conan Way”

Video GM’s Guide 14 – Intrigue

I was going to record some CK2 footage to go with this one, but I was hit by a sudden feeling of dread when I started loading the game up and decided to abandon the idea, since barely-related game footage isn’t a huge highlight of these videos anyway. I think it was my subconscious trying to tell me “if you start playing this game, you will not stop until midnight, and your already behind schedule projects are going to slip one day further.” So here’s fourteen minutes of talking over a static image.

Conan the Cimmerian: Let’s Get The Conversation About Racism Out Of The Way

As promised, today we are reading Robert E. Howard’s posthumously published essay on the history of his fictional world Hyboria, something originally written for use internally to help Howard keep his setting straight (officially – I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of those things written mainly for the love of worldbuilding, but that’s speculation).

The following can be found in Marvel’s Conan Saga series number 50, 51, 52, 53, 54 and 56. It is an adaptation by Roy Thomas and Walt Simonson of Robert E. Howard’s immortal essay commencing with the age of Kull.

I don’t plan on quoting word-for-word the entire essay just because I no longer have to worry about copy/paste limits from Kindle. Rather, I’m quoting this section because I want to point out that this “adaptation” appears to be word-for-word identical to the original. I’m pretty sure it’s been “adapted” in that some neat illustrations have been added.

The essay proper begins in 20,000 BC, grounding us in real world history. This, I think, is an artifact of the time. By the 1930s, everyone was okay with the idea that a fictitious story could be blatantly so. Like a stage play or radio drama, it could recount exact dialogues and depict events with descriptive detail implausible for any supposedly historical narratives, and didn’t have to claim to be the compiled diaries of four guys who actually hunted a real vampire or one guy who got stranded on an island full of two-inch tall people or whatever. It had not seemed to have quite shaken, however, the need to claim connection to the real world. JRR Tolkien didn’t invent the concept of the “secondary world” which is wholly separate to our own, not just far away or long ago but a completely different reality, but the concept doesn’t seem to have caught on until his writings became popular.

Continue reading “Conan the Cimmerian: Let’s Get The Conversation About Racism Out Of The Way”

Conan the Introduction

Given the weird publication time for this article, you might think it’s an early Friday article, but no, Friday’s “article” is going to be the video we didn’t do on Sunday, and this is a late Thursday review post, because I’ve had enough scheduling troubles for the past several weeks and want to get back into my regular routine ASAP, rather than putting this post off until Saturday. My next review is going to look at Conan the Barbarian. This is mostly a bunch of short stories, and I expect we’ll manage about one of those per post, but having never done any particular commentary on Conan stories before, God only knows how that will pan out.

Before we can get started with that, though, we need to answer the question: What order are we reading these in? The order of publication is the least controversial route, and is therefore suitable only to cowards. I’ve never read Conan stories in any particular order before (and never more than one or two at a time), so maybe there’s an evolution of the character, setting, or style that I’ve always missed out on, but my estimation has always been that the basic ideas behind Conan are pretty consistent throughout. Moving past Robert E. Howard’s work, obviously the character of Conan changes in the hands of other authors, and going author-by-author would be reasonable, but for whatever reason it appeals to me more to go by in-universe chronology.

This leads to the various chronological orderings, of which Wikipedia informs me there are five. The Miller/Clark/de Camp chronology sorts Robert E. Howard’s work into the basic progression from Conan the thief to Conan the brigand/mercenary to Conan the king, the rough career clearly implied by the stories themselves, but it’s got some pretty rough edges, most notably geographically. No attention was paid to the location of the stories during the ordering, which means Conan will often traipse the continent at random and at speeds so high as to imply intent (i.e. “I’ve got an appointment in the City of Thieves to climb the Tower of the Elephant, better get moving, don’t want to be late” rather than just wandering in a general direction across the world), going hundreds of miles in one direction only to turn around and cross half those hundreds of miles back for the next.

Robert Jordan created the next chronology, which incorporated a lot of post-Howard stories. The reasoning behind the placement of events was never explained. William Galen Gray attempts to synthesize Jordan’s and the Miller/Clark/de Camp chronology while also including all Tor-produced Conan stories following Howard’s death. The Gray chronology incorporates a good chunk of the non-Howard stories and is the most complete reading order for a look at the character as a whole, not just the works of the originator. Both of these do suffer the same problem of Conan traveling very far, very quickly, as though he’s got a quest log full of his adventures in numbered order and is moving very purposefully to hit each one with large stretches of unremarkable travel as he criss-crosses the countryside, rather than wandering across Hyboria and encountering danger at every turn.

Joe Marek was the first guy to look at Conan’s list of abilities and notice that “teleportation” wasn’t on there, and reordered the stories to pay a bit more attention to how Conan was getting around the continent. Dale Rippke did a similar project, working from first principles and intentionally ignoring earlier attempts at a chronology to get a more sensible order. So, fantastic, the process has been refined over time and the newest chronologies are the best, right? By the end of that sentence, you knew the answer was “no,” because the Marek and Rippke chronologies deal only with Robert E. Howard’s original work. Using these reading orders would mean either ignoring later contributions to the character or else reading them in a separate bloc from Robert E. Howard’s stories, at which point we may as well go in order of publication anyway.

On top of that, the reorderings are sometimes a bit too zealously focused on geographic plausibility, especially for Marek. I can appreciate that the Frost Giant’s Daughter makes more sense as a very early story because it takes place right next to his homeland of Cimmeria, regardless of the fact that Conan is a mercenary, not a thief, and that little sixteen-year old Conan taking on two frost giants and winning is pretty nuts. We wouldn’t be telling stories about this guy if he wasn’t awesome. Conan was a proper barbarian warrior at Venarium when he was fifteen, so why not let him be a giant-slaying badass just one year later? But then there’s the reordering of the Black Colossus, explicitly stated to be the first time Conan led a major army and which marks a turning point in Conan’s career towards kingship. Sure, the exact timeline is vague and you could, as the Marek ordering does, say that it’s actually quite early in Conan’s career and he continues to be a brigand and a mercenary for like fifteen stories before he ever commands an army again, but it seems to fit Conan’s career much better if we treat this story as the transition point between Conan the mercenary and Conan the conqueror, moving from here to Conan as captain of a queen’s guard in A Witch Shall Be Born rather than learning to be a pirate in Queen of the Black Coast.

My general plan is to mostly follow the Marek ordering while using the Gray ordering as a guide for where to put the non-Howard writings, but also that I’ll break from that pretty much whenever I feel like it as we go along. In that spirit, I will begin on Saturday with The Hyborian Age, an essay written by Robert E. Howard to help him keep his setting straight, published posthumously and often used as an introduction to various Conan collections. You can find an illustrated version of the essay here.

Now, upon hearing that I plan on reading the non-Howard Tor-produced Conan works, you might be thinking to yourself “whoa, there, Chamomile, that’s like fifty new stories, many of them full-length novels. How long are we doing this?” And the answer is “until I get bored.” I won’t break off mid-novel, but if I decide I’ve had enough of Conan after just one or two books, I’ll go and read something else instead.

What We’ve Learned About LitRPG

Reviewing LitRPG books turned out to be a great source of easy content, though apparently not so great a source that I wasn’t able to keep that up while traveling, nor, despite promises, immediately after traveling. I’m just super wiped out right now and I’m not sure why, but I’ll be bringing things back online over the course of the next week or two. Its actual purpose, however, was an investigation of the LitRPG market. By examining the books that were popular and the reviews left on them, I could figure out why people liked the books that were doing well (the reverse would also be helpful data, but unfortunately there is basically no such thing as a heavily-reviewed book that nobody likes – a book that nobody likes generally fails to find an audience and accumulates few reviews).

So now that I’ve read the books and also a decent spread of positive and negative reviews for them, what have I learned?

  1. The most consistent reason people read LitRPG is for a game that they wish was real. Even Threadbare, which has no (apparent) connection to the real world at all, has several reviews in which people talk about how the book spoke to their childhood fantasy of having a living toy to be their best friend. Additionally, it’s worth noting that Threadbare (and Everyone Loves Large Chests, a similarly vaguely Pratchett-esque LitRPG series starring a mimic) hasn’t done nearly as well as Awaken Online or even Dungeon Born (which features a recognizably human protagonist, though not one from our world). Having a protagonist who’s from the real world is important.
  2. Protagonists are always male, no exceptions.
  3. Nobody cares about craft. Although negative reviews frequently point out that the line-by-line writing of basically everything but Threadbare and Way of the Shaman is incredibly amateurish, this hasn’t stopped any of the books being successful.
  4. Properly integrating video game concepts is well regarded. Several of the negative reviews for the Skeleton in Space series (which I did not review for this blog, but did examine as part of my research) complain that the LitRPG elements seem tacked on, and Dungeon Born’s positive reviews frequently bring up its rune/incantation system. So, well-incorporated game elements is a plus, and also the bar is very low. Although reviews don’t mention it as often, it’s worth noting that every LitRPG I’ve reviewed has prominently featured build strategy (with varying degrees of competence).
  5. Length varies from Threadbare’s 240 pages to Awaken Online’s over 500, but somewhere in the 400s seems to be most common. Since word processor pages are significantly larger than printed pages, we really want word count. Novel pages have 250-300 words on them, so the 400-500 page range is 100,000 to 150,000. Series that pump out new books very rapidly are also common.
  6. The only book that isn’t priced at $4.99 is Survival Quest, priced $3.99, but whose sequels are $6.99, so that’s most likely a scheme to get people to look at a slightly more expensive series of books by offering the first one under the market average price.

A handful of ideas I’ve had have been chucked based on the research. I considered a book about the NPCs of a LitRPG world, where some other guy is the Chosen One from another world, but it fails on #1. I took a stab at writing a female protagonist based on some chatter on forums, but market research firmly indicates the people behind that chatter aren’t actually enough to sustain a book (and some number of them may be self-deluded about their willingness to read female protagonists).

Oddly enough, my biggest stumbling block has been something I’m ordinarily very good at: Worldbuilding. A lot of LitRPG worlds seem really underbuilt, and that seems like something the market would respond well to. Part of the appeal of an MMORPG is popping open the world map, seeing the level ranges on all the regions, finding the dark Mordorian wasteland labeled with the level cap, and thinking someday, I’ll wreck that place. Having such a map in the front of the book would help set me apart in a good way. But then I have to build the entire setting from the ground up, in at least enough of an outline to put labels on a map. Normally, this part isn’t even hard, but right now, most of my worldbuilding focus is dumped into Petals and Thorns, and I’m feeling weirdly drained trying to build a new setting while that one’s unfinished. I’m behind on the playable draft of Petals and Thorns II, plus the Fantasy Grounds version of the original (although that one never had a firm deadline) and that’s infecting my ability to work on other projects – blog included.