Writing Mediocre Books Is Hard

As the title says, writing mediocre books is hard. Not in the sense that writing books is so difficult that even writing a mediocre one is hard. I mean in the sense that my own stringently advocated strategy of favoring quantity over quality is actually more difficult than fussing with a book until every single chapter is individually an effective advert for my writing. For me, at least. I assume the guy writing Dungeon Born doesn’t have this problem.

I have two different books now that are struggling with middle chapters, and I recently read both of them and compared them not to the best moments of my own work, but to the best moments of other books I have read. Obviously, if we use all books I have read as a measuring stick, the problem only gets worse. But using individual other books I have read, it suddenly becomes clear that I am worried about nothing. The worst parts of my book are only slightly worse than the best parts of Awaken Online. They’re better than the best parts of Shipwrecks Above and, by extension, Succubus. The worst parts of my books are definitely better than the worst parts of perfectly successful books like Threadbare, and are no worse than the bog quest from Way of the Shaman. The worst parts of my book are about on par with the opening pages of Scourge of the Betrayer, and those actually are adverts for the author’s writing.

Why am I so worried about retaining readers when I’m already some nine chapters in? No one’s going to read a book that far and put it down because of one dud chapter. I know the chapter after is better, and while the one in the middle could definitely be improved, the amount of time I’ve sunk into improving it is  way past the point of diminishing returns. I’m clearly at the point here where I should just let some of the middle chapters be kind of lame and move on to finishing the actual story so I can get the good parts of the book out the door.

The State of the Blog

So, what’s up with the blog? It’s had real spotty updating lately.

Partly, the problem here is that I am very tired. My Kickstarter ventures simply aren’t working, and I’m trying to figure out what to do next. Various video and novel projects are getting poked at, and I’m constantly haunted by the fear that whatever I pick next will also be a total flop, and I will spend another 6-12 months of my life chasing something that ultimately won’t work. It’s really hard to do something when it feels like it will ultimately amount to nothing.

But there’s another problem: I’ve largely lost interest in the easiest source of content for this blog, the chapter-by-chapter book reviews. I’ve lost interest because I’m no longer using it as a means to improve myself as a writer. Rather than investigating a specific genre and getting some blog posts out of the process, the focus is now exclusively on writing blog posts. When reviewing LitRPG and Conan, I was invested in the research, in sating my curiosity as to what the fundamental tropes of LitRPG and the overall shape of the Conan story was, respectively. When reviewing these Humble Bundle books, there’s no greater thread through the stories I’m pursuing. Having discovered that Scourge of the Betrayer kind of sucks, it’s not clear what value there is in pursuing it further. There’s no investigation to complete, here.

Someone did send me a free .pdf copy of their collection of fantasy short stories, which was neat. It’s probably not the kind of thing that’s going to happen again, but having received the .pdf, I am going to at least take a stab at reviewing it. After that, I’m going to figure out a research project of some kind to pursue, rather than aimlessly reading whatever comes to hand, because the aimless thing just hasn’t worked at all. If nothing else comes to mind, I can just go back to Conan. Plenty water left in that well.

Majesty 1 vs. Majesty 2

Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim is one of my favorite video games. Years after the release of its northern expansion, it had a sequel, Majesty 2, produced by a different studio. The fandom did not like it very much. They claimed it had lost all the charm of the original. The specific complaints were both dumb and over-exaggerated (“they cut gnomes!” So what? They may have been a fun idea, but mechanically they were a trap option useful only in bizarre edge cases), but the general criticism is valid: Majesty 2 has shifted focus considerably from the original, and is more about irritating micromanagement of your heroes than it is about managing your economy.

In the original Majesty, you could build an unlimited number of marketplaces and trading posts, with the only restriction being that their costs rose sharply for each additional one constructed. In many quests, the ultimate goal is to survive long enough to get three marketplaces to level 3, at which point you are bringing in such a ludicrous amount of gold that your economy can power through virtually any opposition.

In Majesty 2, you are limited to a single marketplace and can only build trading posts on pre-designated spots. There’s a hard limit on how powerful your economy can grow, and it’s much more important to have huge hero hordes early on, so rather than balancing early defense and the foundations of an economy as in Majesty 1, in Majesty 2 you really just need to make sure you set aside enough gold for your marketplace from your starting pile while all the rest goes towards hero guilds. Once you’ve got your marketplace up and running, that income is mostly going to be recycled into more hero guilds and resurrecting dead heroes from graveyards.

Economy is less important, but unit management takes up the extra slack (once you get out of the interminable tutorial phase where you can build so few buildings that the game is largely spent staring at a screen waiting for your heroes to get on with it – the original Majesty had this same problem in its early levels). In the original Majesty, a single copy of each guild was more than sufficient to tame the wilderness, but in Majesty 2 even simple quests will demand 2 or 3 warriors’ guilds. Not only do you need to build more guilds, you also need to use the attack, explore, and welcome new additions of defend and fear flags to direct hero movement considerably more. Rangers will make some limited explorations of their own initiative, but explore flags are necessary to get them to locate dungeons for your warriors to raid. The game is less about setting up a town, bringing in some heroes, and letting them do their thing, with quest rewards being used only sporadically to prioritize their attention, and more about using reward flags to direct your heroes towards each and every goal you need accomplished like a less responsive version of StarCraft. The hands-off hero control is Majesty’s whole thing, that’s what makes you feel like you’re running the town in a fantasy RPG rather than playing some WarCraft knock-off fantasy RTS.

The game also leans a bit too heavily on the satire. The heroes, royal adviser, and other good guys come across less like genuine heroes who have some funny human foibles and more like selfish (albeit charming) cowards who pretend at heroism. It’s a not-bad imitation of the original game’s style, but it leans too heavily on the things that made Majesty stand out from the stock medieval fantasy setting, which led to it drowning out some of the important qualities of the stock medieval fantasy setting that the satirical elements relied on to function. Majesty 1 was charming because it was simultaneously very aware that they were the umpteenth video game to use this setting but nevertheless playing it mostly straight. Majesty 2 treats its setting a bit too much like a joke, though thankfully not to an extreme. It never gets hard to take the setting seriously at all, but it does frequently feel like your accomplishments are being trivialized a bit when the adviser implies that the heroic deeds you’re accomplishing are so much propaganda papered over a naked power grab.

Majesty 2 might not compare favorably to its predecessor, but it is ultimately still a fun game. Once I’ve finished playing all the content in Majesty 1, I can either play plot-free random maps forever, replay the exact same content over and over again, or I can play Majesty 2, and of those options, playing Majesty 2 is easily the most appealing.

Mythic, Legendary, Romantic, Satirical

Fun fact: Literature has power tiers. Not in the sense that we can meaningfully figure out whether Achilles would beat Lancelot in a fight, because the power tiers are very broad and those two both occupy the same tier, and within-tier comparisons are basically meaningless as there’s too little consistency between and often even within stories as to what characters can and cannot accomplish. Authors and audiences simply do not have the exhaustive knowledge of scientific reality to be able to accurately describe whether a character is ten or one hundred times stronger, faster, etc. etc. than a regular human being, and thus two demonstrations of strength by the same character in the same story that are meant to be similarly taxing will indicate vast differences in actual strength. To authors and audiences, casually punching a regular squishy human hard enough that they explode into giblets and then later lifting a dump truck overhead only with great effort seem like perfectly reasonable limits, but have you actually done the math on whether or not that makes any sense at all? I haven’t.

But there are four broadly distinct literary power tiers, because they operate on levels of power scaling that human minds can intuit. Those tiers are, as you likely guessed from the post title, mythic, legendary, romantic, and satirical. Loosely, the stories of gods, heroes, exceptional people, and people who kind of suck.

The defining trait of mythic storytelling is that it explains how something in the world came to be, and its protagonists are therefore naturally of world-shaping power. Even when they behave like petty warlords (like Olympians) or even like lazy stoners (many trickster spirit stories are like this), they do things like shape all the world’s snakes or raise mountains from the earth or whatever. Like, spiders used to be swole but one day the spider god Anansi played a trick that backfired and got stretched in all directions and now spiders have skinny legs. This story is downright slice-of-life, but it also made all spiders everywhere have skinny legs, which makes it mythic. Tales of Olympians tend to be pretty much the same as tales of Greek heroes, except that Olympic stories usually end up with a new island being formed, or an old one being submerged, or mountains being punched flat, or whatever.

The defining trait of a legendary story is that the protagonists have capabilities that are clearly superhuman. These are super hero stories. Achilles is flat-out invincible, Lancelot defeats dozens of other knights in combat, Cuchulain defeated an army single-handed, that kind of thing. The heroes of a legendary story are very blatantly superhuman, but not to the point where they reshape the landscape. Legendary heroes are often part of founding myths for cities, but they do not spawn forests or oceans or whatever.

There’s some edge cases, like, Heracles once redirected a river to flood out some crazy huge stables he was supposed to clean and doing it the regular way was for chumps. It’s questionable what tier Heracles exists on, but it’s notable that he was considered overpowered even compared to other Greek heroes. Lots of versions of Jason and the Argonauts like to make the Argonauts a who’s who of Greek heroes, but then have to contrive some reason why Heracles doesn’t solve everything by being way more powerful than everyone else. The best part is that the contrivance is that they forgot him on an island while he was taking a nap and just didn’t go back for him.

In a romantic story, the protagonist is super cool but not superhuman. You could see someone like that actually existing. These stories start getting more common in the Enlightenment era, when we start noticing some definitive upward limits on human ability. Absent some good records and the scientific method, it’s reasonable to believe that, seeing as how some people are considerably stronger than others, it is therefore possible for very rare individuals to be considerably stronger than that and can therefore throw pickup trucks around.

Most of the stories written by famous dead people in the Victorian era are romantic. A Tale of Two Cities is about a hard-drinking cynic trading places with a noble idealist who looks pretty similar to him so that said idealist can escape the French Revolution, which is something anyone could do but which most people wouldn’t. His only superpower is that he happens to look kind of like another guy. Sherlock Holmes is just a really good detective, though the sheer breadth of his knowledge is potentially superhuman in the sense of “how does one person find the time to learn all this stuff,” that’s another “have you done the math” question, and Holmes’ powers in any one field are accomplished but not unprecedented. Les Miserables is about Jean Valjean, who is mega-strong and (after some brief prologue establishes his motivation) very moral, but not superhumanly so. Well, maybe superhumanly so, because I haven’t done the math on how hard it is to climb the walls of Paris bare-handed in the 1830s, but not so superhumanly so that it’s immediately obvious. In any case, Valjean’s incredible strength isn’t even his defining attribute and gets used to solve problems, like, three times in the entire table-busting novel. The modern genre of romance is descended from stories in the romantic tradition like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, which suffer tremendously from having not even one magic cloak that allows its wearer to transform into a bird.

Finally, the satirical story is about people who would easily avoid or solve their problems if they weren’t kind of dumb. You can actually make satires that aren’t like this at all, and there are stories like this that aren’t satires. I wish I could remember who introduced me to this classification scheme so I could direct your scorn towards them for having such a dumb name for the last category, and I am slightly worried that I’m just misremembering it. Anyway, in this context we’re talking about things like A Comedy of Errors, where the plot is driven partly by an extremely specific string of coincidences but also by the incapability of the protagonists to sit down and have a clarifying conversation with each other.

I think it’s interesting that science has killed the myth but reinvigorated the legend. Early on in the enlightenment, legendary storytelling began to die out in favor of the romantic style, but as we moved on to the industrial era, and especially into the 20th century, things got steadily more legendary again. Fantasy storytelling took off, unironically telling the same legendary stories of heroes and monsters even in an era where it was perfectly well understood that such things were definitely ahistorical, and science fiction stories used lasers and spaceships to bestow upon its protagonists the super powers that were once the domain of divine gifts (whether metaphorical gifts from descent or literal gifts in the form of magic items). Science fiction myths aren’t unheard of, there are stories about alien cultures whose technology is so advanced they may as well be gods going around creating planets and such, but they’re comparatively rare (in relative terms – the rate at which we create fiction has so exploded that our least common stories are more frequent in absolute terms than the most popular stories of previous ages).

On the other hand, as our terraforming tech advances, previously mythic feats are getting pushed into the realm of lower and lower tiers. A story about terraforming Mars is probably a legendary story about heroes with access to fantastic technology, but whose abilities are by no means godlike compared to our own, and the construction of an artificial island in the South China Sea could be a perfectly grounded bit of military fiction firmly in the romantic tier. The way things are going, someday we’ll have stories about a pair of lazy stoners who make new planets for fun, you know, like unemployed slackers are prone to, and get in over their heads when they accidentally recycle what looked like an unimportant moon but was actually a vital observation post in a century-spanning scientific experiment by a galaxy-wide super-intelligence. Hijinks ensue when the super-intelligence mistakes our bumbling protagonists for saboteurs!

Everyone Dies In Boy Meets World

Boy Meets World has a surprisingly high implicit body count. For whatever reason, a character’s final appearance of a season has a fairly strong tendency to include them being in mortal peril, whether comic or dramatic, and then the character doesn’t always return for the next season.

Example: Stuart Minkus is the nerdy kid in season 1. In the final episode, an over-the-credits scene sees Cory and Shawn harnessing their latent psychic powers to blink him out of existence. It’s clearly meant to be a non-canon credits gag, but Minkus is totally absent starting season 2, so apparently our heroes legit killed a guy with their mind powers.

Example 2: Mr. Turner is in a motorcycle wreck during a very special episode towards the end of season 4. We last see him badly injured in a hospital bed, giving Shawn’s hand a weak but reassuring squeeze. This is meant to indicate that he’s gonna be okay, except that when I say “we last see him” I don’t mean “for the episode” or even “for the season,” I mean for the entire rest of the series. And there’s a whole other season that takes place in high school, so it’s not just that the cast left him behind but in good health when they graduated. Dude is gone.

I’m kind of lying, though, because the show’s writers seem to have noticed the problem in a late season 5 episode where Minkus does reappear, claiming to have been in an off-camera “other part of the school” for the past four years, and calls out to an off-camera Mr. Turner. Mr. Turner doesn’t respond, partly because actor Anthony Tyler Quinn wasn’t actually on set and partly because he died a year ago and Minkus is having a psychotic breakdown after being trapped in a psychic mirror dimension for four years by Cory and Shawn’s powers.

A similar author saving throw was made to save the most prominent of the not one, not two, but three siblings mysteriously erased from existence after season 1. Cory’s younger sister, the only one of the three to be Cory’s sibling, specifically, and the only one to appear in more than one episode is also the only one to be returned to existence after a season 2 obliteration. She came back under a new actor in season 3, so we can be reasonably confident she isn’t dead, but probably shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the Matthews family’s daughter was replaced by an only moderately convincing changeling, something that might seem farfetched until you remember that Cory and Shawn once vaporized someone with psychic powers on camera and also that the sibling in question’s name is Morgan, as in “le Fey.” The possibility implied by canon is that season 1 Morgan and season 3 Morgan are the same person, but that she was grounded for an entire year so thoroughly that she did not once see Cory during that time, which is probably darker than the changeling theory, all things considered.

Draft RPG Characters

In any game where you assemble a build from lots of options, the meta-game eventually gets stale as a handful of particularly useful spells get settled on. A pretty consistent way to break this up is with the draft (or some other method of cutting down the options available, like Magic: the Gathering’s ever churning Modern format or randomized Sealed Deck format).

What if you did a draft with a party of RPG characters? Everyone would have to have access to the same pool of features, which means you’d have to have a game altered or built from the ground up to handle it, but as a very simple proof of concept, imagine a game of 5e in which everyone must play a wizard, we assume that all of you learn spells from each other, but when you prepare spells on a long rest, you have to draft your spells. No party member can prepare the same spell as any other party member, so if Alice took fireball, you have to take something else.

One problem here is a lack of any competitive element. The critical thing with a draft is that Alice takes fireball not just because it’s good for her build, but because it’s also good for yours, and she wants to deny it to you. I don’t know how to introduce that competitive element that really makes the draft pop, and without it, I think it might be better to go with sealed deck. Instead of everyone learning spells from each other, no one can learn spells from each other, and all spells are sold as sealed booster packs. A fireball has a certain chance of dropping from each pack, and if you don’t get it, you’ll have to make do with something else.

I haven’t really put a whole lot of meat on this idea’s bones, but I think it could help break up the monotony you get after a couple of campaigns into 5e when everyone starts settling on optimal builds.

Evermore’s Election

After my total lack of coverage for Evermore’s Aurora and subsequent Mythos seasons, someone might reasonably conclude that I had sworn off the park. But, no. Although I found the conclusion to Evermore’s inaugural Lore season to be lackluster, it didn’t actually engage in some of the really objectionable behavior I feared it might. The champion of Evermore turned out to mostly be a nominal position, and while I still think that contest was ill-conceived, there wasn’t a true finale reserved for a special elite, the true finale just turned out to kind of suck. It was a perfectly fine story, really, it just didn’t require the participation of the park guests very much at all, to the point where it’s not clear why we bothered showing up.

In any case, while that was disappointing, it wasn’t so disappointing that I wasn’t willing to give the park another go. Even if Evermore’s plot is perpetually kind of aimless and just sort of happens around you, it’s still a fun place to be.

It’s just that Evermore keeps shutting down on weekdays, and my professional GMing schedule means I have only a few very specific evenings available, and which evenings those are is subject entirely to what’s convenient to my current set of clients. When Evermore was open six nights out of seven, I had really good odds that one of my two essentially-random nights off would land on an open night.  Now that it’s down to just three, my odds aren’t so great, especially since I’m trying to avoid weekends. I got to Aurora exactly once during the whole season, and while I’ve managed two visits to Mythos and have a third lined up, that’s mainly because my younger brother is finally back from Sokovia and I’m willing to cancel one of my professional games for one night in order to visit the park with him before he leaves again.

As part of the current Mythos plot arc, though, Evermore is having an election. Neat! But this puts Evermore in a sticky position. On the one hand, election runners assert that the “citizens of Evermore” vote in addition to worldwalkers. This might just be for verisimilitude, because, really, it’s weird that worldwalkers even get to vote when we only visit on weekends. It could also indicate that the writers plan to use the votes of the NPC citizens to rig the election in favor of either one of a small handful of specific candidates from amongst the ten or even just one candidate specifically. This is totally reasonable, because unlike in a single-player video game, no one person could have a significant impact on the election anyway, so whether the election is being steered by the masses or by the writers makes almost no difference to the experience of any individual park-goer. It’s not like these people are setting our real life healthcare policies or anything, so it’s not like the actual purpose of an election – to guard against tyranny – is at all applicable.

The problem is, by saying that the votes of worldwalkers are being counted, the writers of Evermore could potentially paint themselves into a corner where the worldwalkers are 1) clearly more numerous (we are) and 2) strongly favor a candidate the writers want to defeat. This makes the election feel rigged. But on the other hand, if the writers say that the worldwalkers can’t vote because, y’know, we don’t live here, then the election feels like a pointless sideshow that isn’t really our problem. The only way to have a “we’re having an election” plot without actually turning over a major plot point to the random choices of the playerbase is to land on one of these two imperfect solutions: Either pretend you’re counting player votes but then don’t, or else tell the players up front that the whole election is playing out on autopilot.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the election totally is being used to determine the next mayor of Evermore by the actual park-goers, the votes of the actual inhabitants of Evermore are being apportioned exactly in proportion to how the worldwalkers vote, and the writers are ready to incorporate Mayor Seftis the mildly psychotic executioner into next season’s plot if it comes to that (it didn’t, Seftis dropped out of the race early, but if the election is actually legit, it could’ve).

Humble Monthly August

Surviving Mars is a city-builder sort of game where you plop down buildings to create an economic engine to plop down more buildings. There is also some kind of mystery that you can solve, with several to choose from at the start, though being mysteries, exactly what’s up with them wasn’t clear. I didn’t get far enough to find out, because I was sick to Hell of wrestling with Surviving Mars’ opaque resource management. The only interesting decision involved in drones needing to be within range of a coordination unit is that it puts a population cap on the amount of drones you can have in a certain area. So, fine, certain areas have a certain amount of drone control as defined by the drone command radii of certain buildings or vehicles, and if you want more drones in an area, you need more of those. Perfectly reasonable city building gameplay. Except, that’s not how it works, because there is no way to make drones seamlessly transition from one building/vehicle’s control to another. You have to manually reassign them from one to the other every time you want them to move from the range of one to the range of another. This means the optimal way to play the game is with tons of micromanagement busywork as you constantly transfer drones from one mothership to another. There’s a good game hiding underneath Surviving Mars’ terrible micromanagement, but not so good that I’m willing to unearth it.

You probably already know whether or not you want Kingdom Come: Deliverance. It’s an RPG set in medieval Bohemia about politics and war in the Holy Roman Empire. There was an internet controversy about it that was dumb even by internet controversy standards.

Swords and Sorcery 2: Shawarmageddon is a 2D RTS game descended from those Flash RTS games from 2008 where amateur devs tried to wring RTS gameplay out of limited devs as a weekend project. Units you produce march directly from left to right while enemies march directly from right to left. You can cast spells when you have enough mana. I don’t want to give the impression that this genre as a whole is shallow, because it doesn’t have to be, and indeed, this specific game might even be fun once it finally gets off its ass to have some real gameplay. After 15 minutes of particularly hand-holdy tutorial and cringey plot that’s trying way too hard to be zany, though, I gave up. This is a very straightforward genre first created by devs who didn’t know how to make a top-down interface work. The tutorial should not last longer than thirty seconds. Especially not when the plot keeps making callbacks to the original game. If your presumption is that most of your audience for game 2 played game 1, why are you dragging things out with tutorial stages? An early bug prevented me from completing the third tutorial stage (you can send workers to collect chests and if they get stabbed to death, the chest drops and you must send another worker – but a necessary chest dropped behind another interactable doodad and was impossible to target for collection, all attempts to select it just selected the doodad instead), and I decided the game didn’t deserve more than the 15 minutes it got.

Continue reading “Humble Monthly August”

We Interrupt This Review To Bring You Breaking News

I’m moving Friday’s article to today and gonna do another review on Wednesday, because I want to get this one out ASAP: Every last Crusader Kings 2 DLC is on sale for $15 right now. It’s at the Humble Bundle. I have logged more hours on this game than any other in my entire Steam library. The only downside to CK2 has always been that playing with anything less than every expansion installed makes it hard to discuss the game with other people, and for the next week and a half, that’s no problem. If you have any interest in strategy games or the medieval period, pick it up. The game has expanded drastically past its namesake, and includes not only mainland European and Middle-Eastern feudal dynasties, but also vikings and other pagans, African kingdoms, Mongol hordes, and whatever India’s getting up to. Also kind of the Chinese, but they’re not playable. Rumor is that the map was getting so gigantic that adding China to it would’ve rendered the game unplayable on too many machines.

Anyway, now is your chance to get all of the CK2, and unless you are either completely uninterested or completely broke, you should do so.

This Is Probably Not A Good Sign

Train Simulator makes sense. People have always liked model train sets, train simulator is a model train set that doesn’t require an entire room of your house. Harvest Moon makes sense. Having a farm in an industrialized world is quite difficult, there are few farmers left and you must be very good at farming (and probably a megacorporation running a megafarm) to make it work. Roller Coaster Tycoon makes sense. Operating a theme park requires such a spectacularly large amount of money that most people will never even get to try and wouldn’t be inclined to bet ten million dollars on it if they had that kind of money, as opposed to just taking the money and retiring. The Sims makes sense. In the Sims, having a nice house full of nice things, making friends with all the coolest people in town, and becoming phenomenally successful in a glamorous career are all just a matter of time.

But a new phenomenon has emerged lately. Truck Simulator. House Flipper. Mechanic Simulator. PC Building Simulator. None of these are the kinds of things that would be perpetually out of reach for the average middle class person. Indeed, most of these things are just being a middle class person. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I notice that there’s a growing sub-genre of video games where the fantasy is having a job.