A More Better City of Heroes

I’ve got one day left on vacation, so I’m doing another one of these, mainly because I just realized a considerably easier way to make a hero’s efforts seem meaningful in a neighborhood: After setting it up so that people can decrease their level at-will, also set it up so that enemies spawn based on how many heroes of an appropriate level range are in the neighborhood. Ignore hideouts and all that which, for as neat as they are, are barely visible in actual play and not worth all the effort to set them up. Just have enemies spawn only when an appropriately leveled hero is in the neighborhood, which means when you’ve outleveled a neighborhood (i.e. all mobs in it have grey names for you) and there’s no one else around who needs those mobs, they just won’t spawn, thus giving the appearance of a neighborhood clean of crime.

Although all that hideout stuff from the last two posts has got me thinking a bit about how you could apply that to a mid-size multiplayer game, like a 30-40 player game, roughly equivalent to the heroic cast of an extended crossover story like Infinity War/Endgame. Those thoughts haven’t really gone anywhere, but I’ve had them.

Anyway, Conan the Hunter’s here, so we’re digging into that on Monday.

A Better City of Heroes: Running Out of Crime

Running Out Of Crime

Of course, there is a potential fail state of this whole premise: What if the players just win super hard? What happens when there are just no mobs left anywhere?

The answer is that this has to be hard enough to do that if players pull it off, we can just pat them on the back and tell them “good job.” Remember that when an enemy group is totally defeated within a neighborhood, they can spawn into a random empty hideout immediately. This means that the more players put the hurt on gangs, the easier they make it for any totally eliminated gang to bounce back. In order to take out all gangs, players will need to coordinate to push each of them into a single hideout, which will constantly disgorge mobs for them to beat up, until they’re ready for the decapitation strike when they take out all hideouts simultaneously (leaving behind some heroes to take out the mobs who spawn while the hideout-clearing team is inside – because hideouts don’t stop spawning just because someone’s inside them!).

Remember also that each neighborhood spawns based on a timer tied to the total number of players in the zone. One pack of about four mobs usually takes something like 30-60 seconds to defeat, let’s call it 45 seconds, counting the couple of seconds it takes to run from a beaten group to a fresh one. Any given zone has about five neighborhoods with about three enemy groups each in that neighborhood, which means about eighteen different hideouts spawn when no gangs have been wiped out (which is the norm whenever players are at all active in a neighborhood and only requires special intervention to prevent when it’s NPCs who’ve wiped them out, since NPCs will occupy the buildings left behind). Thus, each hideout needs to spawn one pack of three to four mooks every (45*18=) 810 seconds (thirteen and a half minutes), divided by however many players there are. At peak times and in popular zones, it’s not unreasonable for a single zone (particularly a newbie zone) to have a thousand or more players in it simultaneously, which would require new mobs to spawn in once per second (at this point, it’s probably wiser to switch over to spawning bigger groups, rather than spawning small ones more often, just in case the gang is pushed into a single hideout and needs to spawn all of these guys from the same door). Each of these guys can turn empty hideouts into new hideouts for their gang, which means players need to coordinate to form a frontline that prevents them from expanding, and the more players they bring in, the tighter that net needs to be in order to prevent enemies from slipping through and making new hideouts. If we just have a very large player population, what’s going to happen is that NPCs will be constantly spawning, wandering past emptied hideouts, and converting them into new hideouts.

I think all of this is sufficiently difficult that the only way to clear a zone completely is to coordinate a large group of players (probably a minimum of three dozen, in order to launch the simultaneous decapitation strikes on every enemy group in every neighborhood), and at that point, far from coding some method of preventing them from doing so, we should hand out badges to everyone who’s in a zone when it’s totally cleared of crime. They’d be some of the most coveted badges in the game, seeing as how that 36-hero team would only have a 22.5 second window in which to finish off all hideouts simultaneously before the spawning algorithm fires again and replaces any defeated enemy groups using any available empty hideouts.

Continue reading “A Better City of Heroes: Running Out of Crime”

A Better City of Heroes

I guess it’s CoX week at the blog, because I’ve got more MMO stuff I want to talk about and I’m gonna use the example of CoX to talk about it. This time I’m going to talk about how to balance the needs between having a massively multiplayer population while making the player feel like they aren’t totally insignificant.

I’m using CoX because the basic tropes of super heroes are really well known, so whether you know this specific MMO or not, it’s quick and easy for me to explain it to you. The Hellions are a street gang of demon worshipers, Aurora Borealis is a super hero of some description, King’s Row is the Gotham City themed neighborhood in Paragon City, the eponymous city of heroes, and not only are you all caught up on what you need to know for me to explain a mechanic revolving around Hellions, Aurora Borealis, and King’s Row, but I probably could’ve just dropped those proper nouns straight into an explanation without any further context and you would probably figure it out. If I were doing Guild Wars, my favorite MMORPG, I would at minimum need to drop in asides that devourers are giant scorpion wildlife, that grawl are low-level enemies with primitive tech and fulfill the role of goblins in some other fantasy settings (but not the ones where goblins are high-tech crazy inventors), and that the norn are eight-foot tall vikings who turn into bears. These explanatory asides are generally good practice but once I get into the flow I often forget them, and in City of Heroes, that barely matters, because you can probably figure it out from context.

As I explained in my introductory post about a better City of Villains, City of Heroes writing actually works pretty great as-is. You are a hero, you show up to a place, there are a bunch of people with exclamation points over their heads who need help, and you punch their problems until they go away. Whether or not any specific mission chain is fun, boring, or frustrating depends entirely on the writing of that specific mission chain. Many of them are good, a bunch of them (especially the minor ones that have been there since launch, which clearly received little attention) are kind of dull, but almost none of them make you feel like you’re getting the opposite of the role you expected to inhabit.

You’re a hero, and at worst, you end up doing routine and kind of boring hero work where you run around bouncing Hellions off the street until your contact calls you up to let you know that, although their spawn rate is totally unaffected, you’ve totally got the Hellions running scared. And most of the time you’ll be doing something like save a kidnapping victim or confiscating a bunch of death rays or something else which feels like you’ve saved the day even though you haven’t made a noticeable dent in regular street crime. Plus, the criminals in CoX often spawn actually doing crimes, not just standing around minding their own business. There’ll be a cowering civilian in front of them while they make threatening gestures, or they’ll be struggling to snatch a purse from someone, or whatever. The basic limitations of an MMORPG do still rear their ugly heads, but CoH is generally quite good at mitigating them.

But we can do better. So the evil witch, apparently satisfied with my work in the beta timeline where I revamped City of Villains, is warping me back even further to, I dunno, 2001-ish, when City of Heroes first entered development, striking Jack Emmert dead and giving me total command of all his resources right after his project got greenlit, and offers me some kind of reward for actually playing along, just to stop me from defecting since at this point it seems like she might spend the rest of my life time tunneling me to different video game projects, possibly all headed by Jack Emmert, in order to get me to redo them with the benefit of hindsight.

Continue reading “A Better City of Heroes”

A New City of Villains

The final post on my series of how I’d do City of Villains if I was time warped back to the beginning of its development and given total control of the studio.

A New City of Villains

-The theme of Mercy Island was being a minion. You took orders from a superior officer and executed those orders, then eventually executed the superior officer (probably). We’ve talked about it at length earlier, but I’m listing it here for completenesses sake.

– The theme of Port Oakes was street level crime. Plotlines that originally revolved around decryption programs from Arachnos bases were downgraded to the RIP, ones that revolved around the Legacy Chain and Wyvern heavily were switched to focus on a single vigilante and her ghost pirate minions. I intentionally made Port Oakes more street level in order to set up…

-Cap au Diable’s theme is all about major heists and espionage/sabotage jobs targeting groups like Wyvern and Longbow. You steal high tech gadgets from Aeon Corp and Crey in the Cape itself, you hop over to Paragon City to break people out of the Zig, you blow up Longbow fortresses on your own initiative as a sort of thematic follow-up to Mercy Island, when you did so under direct orders from Arachnos.

Cap au Diable is also where we encounter our first strike force, content designed for multi-villain team-ups. And I think these are basically fine as-is. Some of them could definitely use some better framing to be less “do what I, the quest giver, tell you to do” and more “I, the quest giver, have a lead for you to follow,” and that includes the one in Cap au Diable. But ultimately, all you need to do is write these as a villain who’s got a maniacal scheme of their own, but it’s a big job and they need lots of other villains to help out, and they’re willing to cut you in if you can gather up some friends (or make it happen alone – it’s totally doable). For example, the strike force here can be framed as Virgil Tarikoss, the existing game’s strike force contact, knows that the Circle of Thorns will soon be attempting to bind the demon Bat’Zul, and knows that the Legacy Chain are trying to keep the demon bound, and is seeking out villainous associates to take control of it. Keep all the same missions, but write out the part where he asks the villains to prove their worth to him by beating up the Legacy Chain and change it to him just needing the Legacy Chain beaten up so that they don’t shut down the Circle of Thorn’s binding ritual, because you won’t be able to hijack it if the Legacy Chain succeed in stopping it altogether.

-In Sharkhead Isle, we start getting up to some serious villainy. Maniacal schemes here are things like creating a clone army, stealing a fragment of a sleeping Lovecraftian god and absorbing its power, stealing a device that allows you to mind control dozens of people at once (with a wind up, but still), and stealing giant robots with the help of the Sky Raiders, a rogue PMC who operate out of a helicarrier. The theme is that you have arrived as a supervillain. You commit supercrimes that let you do awesome things.

This is where we’ll introduce second tier maniacal resources, made from combining two different first tier maniacal resources:

–Weapons + Favor from on high: Elite enforcers
–Drugs + Secret documents: Superadine (a mutation-inducing super-drug already in CoH lore)
–Friends in low places + infiltration gear: Unseen allies
–Favor from on high + unobtainium restraints: VIP hostage
–Secret documents + weapons: Super weapons
–Infiltration gear + drugs: Auto-drug apparatus (it pumps drugs continuously and covertly into the wearer – I’ll admit I’m reaching with this one to make the theme work, but I think one combo that reaches a bit will be overlooked)
–Unobtainium restraints + friends in low places: People who won’t be missed

In the existing game, Sharkhead Isle is the point where you start needing five newspaper missions to progress the plot. In the revamped version, maniacal schemes still require (usually) three maniacal resources, but usually one of those will now be a second tier resource. For example: Want to steal super robots? You need weapons and infiltration gear, but regular mooks won’t do, you need elite enforcers.

Continue reading “A New City of Villains”

A New Port Oakes

We’re not going to give a full outline for all seven zones of City of Villains, but we will give a full outline for Port Oakes, which is the first one to use the maniacal scheme system fully. After this, we’ll have one final post where we (relatively) briefly look at each of the remaining five zones, making a couple of broad notes of what kind of maniacal schemes will be present without giving multiple paragraphs of detail for what exactly each one will be about.

A New Port Oakes

Our player villain has just arrived in Port Oakes, probably having just killed or intimidated their superior in Arachnos, possibly still doing as told. Either way, this is when they start maniacally scheming. Maybe they did one scheme in the Dr. Graves tutorials, whatever. Let’s take a thorough look at how their stay in Port Oakes will go, and then give a much more brief overview of how the remaining five zones in City of Villains could be similarly converted.

Port Oakes has a lot of mafia-style mission chains in it, and frequently involves the demon-worshiping street gang called the Hellions. It also has some missions about stealing drugs to sell them (which seems like it’s kinda trying to be a “sell drugs on the street” thing but doesn’t quite know how to make that work in CoV’s mechanics), about beating up the shady anti-villain organization Wyvern and the less-shady mystic guardians in the Legacy Chain, a few where you thwart fascist terrorists in the Council from infiltrating the evil rulers of the Rogue Isles, and one where you kidnap a villain’s abused girlfriend who’s seeking shelter in the Circle of Thorns, an evil cult whom she hopes will protect her from retaliation, but who instead attempt to use her as a human sacrifice. Did you know there was a mandate against villain players hurting innocent people for CoV? Apparently kidnapping someone to bring them back to their abusive boyfriend doesn’t count as hurting them.

We have four mission chains, so in order to try and keep a better budget for both time and money, I’m going with four maniacal schemes. I am going to toss some Skulls into Port Oakes, just so I can have more criminal factions to work with. We already have the assets for the Skulls, because we’re taking those from CoH and they already show up elsewhere in CoV, so while this would be a harder alteration to make if we were modding CoV now, it’s no harder in the evil time traveling witch scenario.

Continue reading “A New Port Oakes”

A New Mercy Island

We’re continuing a redesign of City of Villains that I would do if I were sent back in time by an evil witch who’s laid a very specific curse on Jack Emmert, the guy who made the alpha timeline’s City of Villains. This time, we look at how I’d rewrite the game’s intro.

A New Mercy Island

We’ll follow a fledgling villain through my new version of the game up until right before their first maniacal scheme in Port Oakes. You start out in the Ziggurat, the maximum security super prison for super criminals. Arachnos is breaking someone out. It isn’t you. This is a departure from the original City of Villains tutorial, in which Arachnos was breaking you out, specifically, because their future-destiny scriers have found out that you are one of the chosen ones. This tied into a couple of other plotlines, but in a mostly stupid way. We’re dropping that plotline. We don’t need to pretend you’re more specialer than other villains. You’re already a super villain, and that makes you pretty special on its own. So you’re in the Zig, maybe because of a crime you didn’t commit, whatever, and Arachnos shows up to break someone else out, and you happen to be in the same cell block. They release all the other villains on the way to the guy they’re after because it’s an easy way to make a bigger mess for Paragon City, and that makes it easier for them to get away. You hitch a ride on their chopper home because they have room and it can’t hurt to have another villain on the Rogue Isles.

So you get taken to Mercy Island, the newbie island of CoV. In the original City of Villains, this leads to the Arachnos officer in charge of the operation telling you to run and be a free spirit, warning you that other free spirits may beat you up and take their lunch money, but if you beat them up and take their lunch money, then you may come to the attention of powerful Arachnos agents and make something of yourself. Here’s the thing: This ain’t no survival game. We don’t need an excuse why the players are running off to do whatever. They aren’t going to do whatever. We’re going to give them a checklist of cool stuff to do, and the only thing they’re going to decide is priorities and the exact timetable, so this Arachnos officer is going to tell you that the ride came with a price, and he needs you to go fuck up the good guys and thwart their invasion of the island, which will lead to basically the same anti-Longbow missions (to keep a long story short for people who don’t play CoX, Longbow are the super police) as we get in the original. I’m going to assume that making the issue 21 version of Mercy Island would be no additional resources over the actual CoV launch version, using that as my model for the following outline, but it wouldn’t be that different if resources demanded we use the launch version instead.

Continue reading “A New Mercy Island”

A Better City of Villains

With the release of the Going Rogue expansion in 2010, City of Heroes and City of Villains became effectively the same game. One subscription fee had always covered both of them and there were always some zones where they could interact, but now they would be sold as a combined set for the price of one game, you’d be able to create heroes with classes that had originally been villain-exclusive and vice-versa, and it was even possible to switch your character’s alignment to run a fall to darkness or redemption arc. City of Villains has always had considerably better writing, balance, and pace, just because it was released after the team had a year of experience working with the limitations of the medium and engine and knowing what players wanted from and would do with their content. But City of Villains consistently had (and, on private servers, still has) like 1/5 of the population as City of Heroes at any given time. WoW doesn’t have a divide that harsh. Horde players are about as common as Alliance. Even if we assume that PvP players – who are more likely to pick a villainous faction, given the option – just never played CoX at all, they’re still outnumbered by 2:1 on non-RP, non-PvP servers (RP servers are 3:2 in favor of Alliance and non-RP PvP servers favor Horde), not nearly as bad as CoX’s 4:1.

Villains Need Proactive Content

What’s up with that? I mean, the section title kind of gives the game away a bit, but I need to introduce the premise. Here in this post, we’re going to pretend that it’s 2004, City of Heroes has been out for a couple weeks or months or however long it was before production on City of Villains has started, and the higher-ups have just given the project the green light. Sudden, Jack Emmert is struck down by an evil witch, brings me there through a time tunnel from 2020, and proclaims that a terrible curse shall be laid upon the studio and all its employees if they do not give me absolute control over the project. Also, she says she’ll blow up the world if I don’t play along, so I can’t just tell them good luck with that curse thing, walk out on them completely, and try to use the next ten years to try and avert the darkest timeline and/or become personally wealthy enough to not be affected by it.

Let’s start by figuring out what the problem here is. Maybe people just don’t like playing bad guys? The Horde aren’t meant to be the villains of WoW. Horde and Alliance are supposed to be a grey vs. grey thing. Sure, the writers are terrible at remembering this and regularly pretend that WarCraft 3 never happened and we’re still in good humans vs. evil orcs mode, but at least nominally, Horde isn’t the evil faction, they’re just the spikey faction. So, y’know, maybe I’m just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, here.

But I think a lot of it also comes down to City of Villains being bad at making you feel like a villain. The standard theme park MMO mechanics are good for heroes who uphold the status quo, not for villains who are destroying it.

Dr Horrible
Because the status is not quo!

In a standard theme park MMO, you go to a place, you find a number of people who need help, and you punch their problems until they go away, receiving treasure and XP until you are high enough level to go to a new place and punch new problems. This is perfect for heroes and very bad for villains. City of Villains’ writing is generally much better, its characters are interesting and the tasks they want you to do are much more directly informed by their motivations. In City of Heroes, a reporter, a beat cop, and a small business owner would all ask you to beat up the Skulls because the Skulls are bad guys doing bad things in the neighborhood, but in City of Villains, a sentient talking radio would send you a transmission telling you that you were on a short list of villains to be brought down by Federal Bureau of Superpowered Affairs and also where you could find that list so you can destroy it and force the government to reprioritize from scratch, which will buy you some time and hopefully even get them to pivot to other villains completely. Who knows how those guys decide who goes on these lists, right?

But better writing or not, it’s not villainous. Someone gives you a tip, and you do the thing. And it’s the same when other supervillains hire you as a mercenary, or recruit you to a bank robbery because they need your talents, or even when some of your villainous allies help you in a scheme to go to an alternate timeline where supervillain supreme Lord Recluse has taken over the world, assassinate him, and come back with the severed head as a “don’t fuck with me” statement, which is about as close to actually killing and replacing the supervillain supreme as an MMO could get.

Fair enough, but regardless of the fact that the penultimate villain plotline was hemmed in the game being an MMO at all, the major problem here is that these are all reactive. Your quest leads put emphasis on the XP and treasure you’ll be getting at the end, but you still fundamentally go to a place, find people with problems, and punch their problems until they go away. But given that an MMO is a place that you go and not a map that you alter, how can you even have villain content, besides painting hero content red and hoping no one notices?

I’ll tell you how: Maniacal schemes is how. A maniacal scheme is something like “kidnap and ransom the mayor” or “build a death ray.” I don’t know how much slack the team had for developing new interfaces, but worst case scenario, these options can be presented by a level 7-50 contact (the maniacal schemes system doesn’t come online ’till level 7, I’ll get to why in a bit) who is always considered active. In fact, having them be presented by a contact is the best way to go even if we could have a new interface for maniacal schemes, because it allows you to have a sycophant. The sycophant is the guy who asks your villain “so, Brain, what’re we gonna do tonight?” Then you select which maniacal scheme you want, and this initiates a dialogue (written, like many dialogues in CoX, with a structure that implies many of your responses without the game having to assign you any exact words) in which the sycophant lays out what materials will be required, by saying things like “but how’re we gonna transport all that gold? Oh, I suppose that is what the truck’s for.” Like the newspapers and the radio, they’re always at the top of your contacts list.

Continue reading “A Better City of Villains”

Imbolc 2020

Imbolc lies on February 1st, and it’s the New Year according to the pagan calendar that I build my life around, not because I’m actually pagan, but because the holidays are very evenly spaced which means I can use them to measure progress towards goals. Imbolc is February 1st (or 2nd, the internet can’t seem to agree), Ostara is March 22nd, Beltane is May 1st, and so on. February 1st is also close-ish to the date when I first wrote the first post for this blog, clear back in early 2017, so it serves as the new year because hey, that happens to be just about the anniversary of the project that wound up being the umbrella under which all other projects have since been collected.

So February 1st, 2017, to January 31st, 2018, is what I called “the Year of Endless,” because I was doing the CGP Grey yearly theme thing that he just recently released a video about so I can direct people to that instead of telling them to listen to like fifty hours of his Cortex podcast in order to get the idea. That was the year (ish) I posted one blog post per day every day for a full year. Then in 2018 (and change), it was the Year of Burning, which, having built a foundation and some good habits, I spent trying to get some real income off of my creative pursuits, the idea being not so much to be making $X by the end of the year but just to spend the year actively building towards that. Initially I was aiming for novels with YouTube videos as a backup plan, but that was the year my professional GMing really took off, so I did that instead. In 2019 (and change), I decided I was going to try and ride that tabletop RPG star and see how far it would take me, something which I toyed with calling “the Year of Ascension,” but that’s a name I never really liked because it precluded the possibility of failure – which is what actually happened. By the end of April, the answer was obviously “not very far,” and I spent the entire rest of the year trying to extricate myself from the Kickstarter obligations that project – successful enough to require me to deliver, unsuccessful enough to clearly not be the way forward – had saddled me with. And this highlights why “the Year of Ascension” was a bad theme. It wasn’t really under my control how much I ascended. I could try, but whether or not it worked was up to inscrutable fate and deadly destiny, and when it didn’t work, that left me kind of floundering for most of the year.

Side note, the Year of Endless isn’t a great example of a yearly theme because it has a definite failstate and is much more similar to the New Year’s resolutions that CGP Grey wants people to not do, but I found it worked well because the specific thing I was trying to do was to produce things reliably on a schedule. If I were just trying to produce more creative output in general, nailing myself to a schedule would’ve been unwise, but that was never my problem. My problem was wandering away from projects half-finished and playing video games for six weeks until something else caught my eye and I’d go try to do that instead. Even then, the Year of Endless was pretty flexible. A blog can host almost any kind of content, and what I posted varied massively over the course of the year. What started out as a specific project whose daily milestones were posted to a blog transitioned to a general effort to finish all unfinished projects and finally ended up as just me posting whatever, as it came to me, just to maintain an active demesne as a creator.

Back on topic, Heroes of Ramshorn’s Pathfinder conversion is in formatting now, so my end of that obligation has finally been completed, and the Year of Whatever The Hell That Was is basically wrapped up. Professional GMing remains a steady source of income to be used on whatever but it isn’t going to blossom into a fulltime salary for the foreseeable future, so it’s time to start looking into other possibilities. This year I’m going to go back to those things I drifted away from back when my professional GMing started taking off, novels and videos and such, looking for something else that can work. I’ve talked about this before and I’ve made some progress in that direction, but now I’m formally dedicating the next year to it with the same kind of “success or bust” attitude that I had towards tabletop RPGs in 2019, with one major difference: Both success and bust are defined as success, at least for purposes of the theme, because themes shouldn’t be fail-able. My goal here is that by the end of the year (meaning, by January 31st of 2021), I’ll have invested enough effort into new ventures to be reasonably certain that they either are or are not a good use of my time going forward. Maybe I’ll get to the end of the year and find that the quest led to nothing, that all of the ideas I have now are ultimately not a good use of my time, and then I’ll have to figure out what to do next, but either way, I’ll have gained knowledge.

Leaves of the World Tree: The Smell of Pirates

We go from the shortest story of the collection to the longest. Hopefully quality is inversely correlated. I know that if I tried to write a story in, like, seven pages, it wouldn’t go very well. I need space to develop ideas and let a slow burn get through the wick. Of course, this has led to my decision to just not release any stories under 25,000 words in length, and I usually aim for 50k-100k, because that’s the area where I’m at best, but hey, I had to write a lot of short stories that sprawled into 50k+ novellas before I figured that out, and I could see a timeline where I’d decided I really needed to commit to the short story thing and wound up writing some of those, and that they would be worse the shorter they were.

So that’s an entire paragraph of me procrastinating having to actually start reading, which is definitely not a good sign.

The aromas of rum and sweat wafted about him with blood and black powder just beneath the surface.

There it is, guys, that’s the smell of pirates, case closed. For serious, though, this is a pretty good opening line, especially in tandem with the title.

That balance was subject to change, of course, depending on the ever-changing winds and where they blew him.

But here it’s kind of belaboring the point.

Anyway, this story opens with a pirate leaving a tavern to find some noble girl walking around near the docks after nightfall, whereupon she is accosted by a gang of hoodlums. The pirate decides he would rather be the one raping her instead. This coming right on the heels of a story about the guy who can’t sleep which immediately disregarded its premise to instead be about some mediocre efforts at comforting an assault victim, this collection is coming across as having a very weird prefixation with sexual assault. Come to think of it, the last short story collection I read, from a completely unrelated group of authors with a completely unrelated topic, also had a weird prefixation with sexual assault. Is this just a hot-button issue that everyone wants to write about these days? Is it just a fundamentally compelling idea that people tend to land on when they don’t have any better ideas? It definitely doesn’t crop up in the best works nearly as often.

Continue reading “Leaves of the World Tree: The Smell of Pirates”

Conan the Indomitable Was An Even Bigger Waste of Even Better Ideas

Part 1: Inauspicious Beginnings
Part 2: The Obligatory Tavern Fight
Part 3: Steve Perry May Actually Be Getting Good At This
Part 4: Twin Wizards
Part 5: Apparently What This Book Really Needed Was To Reintroduce Its Worst Character
Part 6: The Subterranean United Nations
Part 7: Wizards Get Conan’d

Steve Perry has stamped himself all over the gap between the Thing in the Crypt and the thief-era Conan stories in Zamora. Conan the Indomitable is a direct sequel to Conan the Defiant, which took Conan across Brythunia towards Zamora. This one takes Conan into Corinthia as the road wends towards Zamora, although the actual story takes place almost entirely in an Underdark-style massive series of caverns that could be located anywhere in Hyboria. This means that if you’re trying to read through the Conan books in any kind of chronological order and you’re trying to avoid skipping any books outright, you pretty much have to read all four Steve Perry novels almost in a row. No one else is doing much with this time period (there is one other novel in Brythunia and which is thus assumed to take place in this general era, even though it almost has to be incompatible with Conan the Defiant, wherein Conan crosses from one end of Brythunia to the other with no breaks where it would make sense to insert a side quest).

So what I’m getting at is that the ups and downs of Conan the Indomitable are very similar to those of Conan the Defiant, which I expect will be very similar to Conan the Free Lance and Conan the Formidable, and having to read more Steve Perry books right on top of each other has me seriously reconsidering the wisdom of my approach.

Like Defiant, Conan the Indomitable brings fun new ideas to the Conan world. It’s actually way better than just this, for while Conan the Defiant had basically two cool ideas, and one of them was just “a spider cult,” which is definitely a cool idea but also pretty much just taking the bog standard snake cult of Set and saying “but what if spiders instead?” and following a few fairly obvious implications of that. Conan the Indomitable has an entire underworld full of new creatures with their own factional politics. The plotline about Deek and Wikkell convincing their fellow giant worms and cyclopes (respectively) to rise up against their evil wizard overlords is easily the best part of the book. There’s plants that shoot webs and worms that speak by scraping their plates across the stone. There’s fungus that glows, bathing the underworld in a sickly green light. You can find clear antecedents for all of this stuff, sure, but the book doesn’t have to be inventing ideas from whole cloth to be expanding the setting of Conan.

Also like Defiant, it’s constantly marred by two major flaws: First, dumb 80s sitcom tropes being imported thoughtlessly into the narrative, casting Conan’s latest paramour into the role of “naggy wife” and Conan into the role of “dumb husband,” and second, having villains and other obstacles build up one by one only to then be defeated one by one, rather than compounding on each other during a climax. Conan the Indomitable sees villains being defeated within minutes rather than within hours of one another, but still they do not attack Conan simultaneously nor do they actually cause any noticeable harm or fatigue to him, which might put him in more danger in subsequent confrontations. The book also has so many cutaways that it begins to cause real pacing problems, as we start getting cutaways to characters who are doing, but have not yet completed, a task that we last saw them setting out to complete. We need the cutaway where they start doing the thing and we need the cutaway where they’ve finished it (actually, we could probably get away with implying one or even both of those in some cases, but at least in general we need those cutaways). The cutaway to them being partway through doing a thing is gratuitous, especially when it’s not even a particularly interesting thing. Since the premise of the book is that two evil wizards want to hunt down Conan while he’s trapped in their subterranean world, a lot of the time the thing we’re cutting away to watch the wizards do is just walk through some tunnels thinking villainous thoughts about Conan.

There’s also two new issues, although fortunately ones that didn’t end up marring the narrative as much as I had feared: The characters of Lalo and Harskeel. Lalo has a curse requiring him to constantly speak in insults to everyone around him. He’s supposed to be witty and clever about it, but soon after his introduction the narrative stops even trying to make his insults funny, which is probably a wise decision since putting effort in wasn’t really working out, so why bother? Harskeel is one of the side villains, a man and a woman conjoined into a single hermaphroditic being who is trying to separate themselves back into two. As a villain, they’re mostly mediocre. As social commentary, they’re pretty horrible, albeit probably also accidental (I really doubt Steve Perry was writing an intentional commentary on trans people or intersex people or whatever you might want to call Harskeel a metaphor for, writing as he was from 1989 when most people didn’t even know these things existed), though back on the first hand, it should have been obvious from just the hypothetical that someone with a slightly weird configuration of body parts isn’t particularly monstrous (if someone tries to convince you that elves are fundamentally alien because of their pointy ears, odds are excellent you’re about to have a Very Special Episode about racism in the middle of your Tolkien pastiche), and this does not stop characters from treating Harskeel like an inhuman mutant.

These two new problems are thankfully minimized because Harskeel quickly takes a backseat to the two wizards Katamay Rey and Chuntha and Lalo just drops out of the narrative for about two-thirds of the book. Of course, that brings us to a third problem, which is that Katamay Rey and Chuntha are nearly interchangeable as villains except in that Chuntha is a beautiful naked woman obsessed with sleeping with Conan, and whom Conan eventually defeats by sexing longer than she can.

Ultimately, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Steve Perry Conan story, given how Conan the Defiant shook out: Some new ideas added to the Conan canon but marred by a sloppy execution. Which brings me back to another reason why I really dislike Steve Perry’s clustering of his stories in a very specific and very small time period. Not only does it make it hard to get away from his stories while reading in any kind of chronological order (whether in-universe or out, as he was one of the only people still writing Conan books in the late 80s), it also means that all his fun new ideas are tightly concentrated in one small part of Hyboria. Rather than Conan periodically coming across something really bizarre and yet not out of place, it’s instead just that the whole Brythunia region is, for some reason, full of fish monsters and underground labyrinths.

There is one exception to the Steve Perry parade in the chronological timeline. Sean A. Moore’s Conan the Hunter takes place, according to the William Galen Grey chronology, between Conan the Defiant and Conan the Indomitable. Those two are clearly direct sequels and no story could plausibly take place between or during them unless it included both Conan and Elashi, so I’m guessing we’re actually looking at a point when the timeline either conflicts or else Conan just has an adventure in Brythunia that is assumed to take place around this time, but might actually fit in the timeline better elsewhere, provided Conan is ever in the Brythunia region again. I guess we’ll see when we read Conan the Hunter, and after we do that, I’ll decide whether or not I want to read not one but two additional Steve Perry books before moving on to something else.

But first I need to wait for Conan the Hunter to show up from Amazon, so we’ll be reading some more Leaves of the World Tree first.