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.

2019 Was A Good Year For Movies

2019 was by no means immune to having bad movies – Disney live action remakes continue to exist, in defiance of even the basest standard of human decency – but we also got several really good films in the last year. Joker and 1917 stand out as movies that have worked their way into my top five, reminding me in a good way of Inception and Gravity, two films which have (evidently) stuck in my head for 7+ years. Avengers: Endgame is more of a popcorn film, but it was a satisfying finale to a decade-spanning cinematic megaproject, ambitious for its sheer scale even if not for the specific notes it tried to hit. Knives Out proves once and for all that Rian Johnson isn’t bad at making movies, he just hates Star Wars, JJ Abrams, or both.

Movies like Detective Pikachu, Spider-Man: Far From Home, the Lego Movie 2, and Toy Story 4, which could’ve been solid contenders for second best film of the year in most other years, are instead fighting each other to even make it into my top five of 2019. This checks out for 2017, where they’d be fighting Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Lego Batman, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 for second place behind Logan, 2016, where they’d be fighting Rogue One, Captain America: Civil War, and Zootopia for first (although I never did see Hacksaw Ridge), and 2015, where Inside Out and Mad Max: Fury Road are fighting for first, the Martian has third locked down, but any of the 2019 also-rans could’ve  pretty solidly beat the fourth-place contenders out of the top five, like Age of Ultron and Ant Man. Funny enough, 2018 was also more crowded with good top five contenders, giving us all of Black Panther, Into the Spider-Verse, and Infinity War, but while these can all soundly trounce 2019’s also-rans, they compare less well against 2019’s own best movies. Particularly, the Infinity War vs. Endgame comparison isn’t kind to Infinity War.

This isn’t changing the world of cinema forever or anything. Film historians aren’t going to look back at 2019 and say “we’ll never have another year like that again.” If you could find a way to chart movie good-ness by year, 2019 would probably show up as noticeably above the trendline, but probably not as some massive, unprecedented spike. For starters, I already mentioned that 2018 holds up a pretty tough fight, and I only checked back to 2015. I’d be very surprised if you didn’t get a year about as good as 2019 once every decade-ish. But still, 2019 is the best year we’ve had for movies in a while.

Of course, about half the legs on this thesis can be knocked out if 1917 is actually a 2020 release. I’m counting it as a 2019 movie because both its worldwide premier and its American release were December, but there were other nations that got it in 2020, so you could list it as a 2020 film and that wouldn’t be inaccurate either. Joker is still a stand-out movie, but lots of years have stand-out movies. I still think 2019 is above par even without the one-two punch of both Joker and 1917, but it’s definitely less decisive if it has to ride more on Endgame (which is itself riding on every Marvel movie that came before it) and a slightly bigger crop of good second-place contenders to fill out its top five.

You’ve also probably noticed that I don’t watch all movies, or even all good movies, and there’s some good 2019 movies that I haven’t listed. But, like, there’s also movies from the other years that I’ve heard good things about but did not actually see, and that a good deal of my thesis rests on two absolutely fantastic movies coming out in the same year, so I’m reasonably confident my thesis is going to hold even on closer examination.

Conan the Indomitable: Wizards Get Conan’d

Chapter Nineteen

One of the gems taken from Chuntha has some kind of clearly magical hum to it. Conan’s usual magic-sensing powers have apparently failed to alert him, though. Maybe he lost his Barbarian class features when he used the Warp in the last book, and now he can’t rage or repel magic until he has an atonement spell cast on him.

Chuntha has a cloak that can turn her into a quetzalcoatlus (that’s the dinosaur – the Aztec god is just quetzalcoatl without the -us), and also knows feather fall. Like, seriously, it’s a “complex conjuration that would lighten her body to featherweight,” so in terms of casting time and effect it is basically exactly the same as the D&D spell. She plans on using her quetzalcoatlus form to fly home, and since the length of the transportation is extremely swingy, on attempting to use the feather fall spell to save herself if the transformation gives out mid-air. You might think that attempting to fly home in the ‘Neath is going to be difficult, seeing as how everything past the Sunless Sea (and even large portions of the Sunless Sea) seems to be pretty tight tunnels with maybe a dozen yards of head room at most, but apparently this is so little a concern that it doesn’t even need to be addressed. Maybe she’s just using this form to cross the Sea? Either way, the chapter also says that quetzalcoatlus is only nearly extinct, so there’s still dinosaurs stomping around somewhere in the far south of Hyboria. I feel like there’s other Conan stories that have had dinosaurs in them, but I can’t put my finger on an actual name or plot or anything, so maybe it’s just that they go together so well that my mind has associated them without any actual source material to draw on. Certainly I liked the idea enough to write up about half an RPG about it the one time.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: Wizards Get Conan’d”

Conan the Indomitable: The Subterranean United Nations

We’re all just gonna pretend it’s Saturday.

Chapter Fifteen

Conan and company flee the wizard they’ve just escaped, and learn that Lalo wasn’t, like, planning on saving them or anything, and it was pure stupid luck that the floor happened to cave in underneath him while he was wandering through the wilderness after finally getting kicked out of the inn. The four decide that now is the best time to rob Chuntha and/or Katamay Rey blind, since they’re both out hunting Conan (it’s still not clear why Katamay cares, nor if Chuntha has any motivation besides lust). There was definitely some kind of divination from Katamay Rey, but it’s not really clear to me what Conan is actually prophesied to do. Katamay and Chuntha must have a pretty solid idea that Conan is a threat, though, to go to such lengths chasing him.

Wikkell and Deek are making their way back to their respective homelands in hopes of stirring up revolution while the rulers are away. They discuss both the difficulty in convincing them to act and the potential for the future if the wizards can be deposed.

“We must convince our brothers and sisters to take the long view, Deek. Why, we might even create some kind of joint council, your folk and mine, with input from the plants and perhaps even the bats and Whites. Bring prosperity to the caves, instead of the boots of Rey and Chuntha upon our throats.”

Vote Wikkell 2020.

Chapter Sixteen

It’s not really clear how Conan and company get back across the Sunless Sea, but they do, arriving back in Tull’s hideout. Chuntha and Katamay Rey’s domains are both reasonably close, but in different directions, so they have to pick one or the other to raid. Katamay prefers gold, while Chuntha prefers gems, specifically rubies, emeralds, and firestones are named, and apparently we’re meant to take these as equally tempting treasures, but the real answer here is clearly Chuntha, because rubies and emeralds are worth more pound for pound than gold. If Chuntha has similar volume as Katamay, hers is the more valuable hoard. If she has similar value to Chuntha, hers is the more portable hoard. But I guess rubies and gold are supposed to be equally valuable, or else a lot more of Chuntha’s treasure is made up of less valuable gemstones than Tull implied.

Conan says the witch, but not for economic reasons.

Elashi raised one eyebrow at Conan. “Why so?”

It lay upon the top of Conan’s tongue to answer that he thought dealing with a witch – a woman – would be easier than dealing with a wizard – a man – should anything go wrong. Recalling his travels with Elashi so far, however, he realized that to speak such reasoning aloud would only irritate her and bring forth an undammed flow of invective. For some reason, Elashi seemed convinced that women were the equal of men in practically all things, and Conan had no desire to listen to another of her tirades. Perhaps, he thought, he was learning to deal with women after all.

I can’t tell if Steve Perry is trying to paint Conan as dumb and conceited or if the audience is meant to agree that Elashi is unreasonable. Certainly Elashi is unreasonable, not in this particular case but just in general, which suggests probably the latter.

But then it turns out that Steve Perry does know the value of rubies:

“Well?” she said.

Conan thought quickly. “Well-cut jewels are more valuable than gold, and much lighter. We can carry more gems than coin.”

Well, you can carry more value in gems. Individual gems will probably be bigger and harder to transport than individual coins. I’m nitpicking, but seeing as how 1) Conan was the only one smart enough to realize this very obvious fact and 2) even Conan only got here because announcing “because sexism!” is a faux pas and Conan cares about social propriety now for some reason.

Also, the general trend of both wizards having effectively identical solutions to all problems is only getting stronger. They’re both scouting the Sunless Sea for Conan, and the magical bird-size hornets they’re using are seriously just palette swaps of one another. There’s a backstory for how these near-identical magic items wound up in their possession, but while that might’ve been kinda funny on its own, being as it is the third or fourth time two nominally distinct wizards have turned out to be palette swaps of one another, it’s mostly just dull. Anyway, they’re still searching the Sunless Sea, so no chance of finding Conan any time soon. On the other hand, we’ve only got about eighty pages to burn before the climax, when the wizards are scheduled to be killed by Conan, their own rebellious minions, or both, so presumably they’re getting back home sooner rather than later.

That rebellion isn’t going so great, though. Deek and Wikkell are unable to prompt a rebellion just by asking for one, so they resolve to try and find some crack in their respective evil overlords’ armor with which to inspire their fellows.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: The Subterranean United Nations”

Multiplayer Team Sizes

What’s the ideal number of players to have online in the same instantiation of the game world at the same time in a multiplayer game? Obviously, this depends on what kind of multiplayer it is, but the spectrum of answers doesn’t really go from 2 to 10,000 the way you’d expect. Fundamentally, there are four different sizes a multiplayer game can be, and while I think the smallest size could possibly benefit from being split up into two or three different chunks, I also think the larger size might actually be a bad idea that was only adopted because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Militaries across the world and history have had widely varying unit sizes, but once formation fighting began to decline and the number of guys you needed to stand in a row in order to block a mountain pass was no longer a deciding factor, everyone pretty quickly settled on a very similar optimum setup. Not only that, but you can see this optimum setup come up in ancient and medieval militaries whenever the concerns of formation fighting didn’t present a larger concern. This is because humans are hard-wired to work in groups of a certain size, which means the squad, the platoon, and the company show up over and over again throughout history (larger units have less to do with the fundamental psychology common to nearly all humanity and more to do with how the bureaucracy of your specific organization happens to be structured – in the case of translating this to MMOs, the bureaucracy is non-existent, so we don’t care). The squad of eight-ish, the platoon of forty-ish, and the company of 200-ish show up again and again, because eight-ish is the number of people who can stand around and have a conversation with each other, forty-ish is the number of people who can all work on the same thing without needing any layers of bureaucracy to stay coordinated, and 200-ish is the number of people who can maintain social bonds with one another.

Military organization gives us the most striking and easily observed example of this, because military organization explicitly splits people up into different groups of a specific size, which makes it easy to track how many people were in what units even thousands of years later, whereas it’s much harder to know after the fact what the size of cliques and parties was in the 18th century court of the Qing Dynasty or whatever. I use the military units as a shorthand, but this isn’t unique to military-themed games or even to games that involve combat. The basic pattern is a result of how humans socialized with one another and repeats everywhere.

You can have squad, platoon, or company-level games, and then you can also have games that are bigger than that, at which point automatic human socialization can no longer scale up to your total player population and you either have to impose a bureaucracy or just accept that the game is going to be a chaos of people not in any real communication with each other taking action with basically no concern for how anyone else will be impacted. Also, the company level can’t really be 200 people because your players have families and workplaces and stuff taking up some of the number of people they’re keeping track of. You can’t actually do a thing like real militaries do where you pluck someone out of society, put them in a barracks, and now the only people they interact with on a day to day or even month to month basis are other people in that barracks.

In a squad-level game, with 2-8 people in communication (whether that’s two squads of eight on opposing teams or an eight-way free-for-all with a voice chat or an eight-person co-op or what), everyone can always talk to everyone else, and once everyone knows each other’s voices, you can keep track of what everyone is saying to everyone else without any real organization. Every now and again there will be a multilogue where people are talking over each other, but people will automatically realize this is happening, stop, and you’ll even commonly hear statements like “Alice was saying something but I couldn’t hear it, what were you saying?” Even when people can’t hear over the multilogue, they can still hear and keep track of who’s talking, and you can untangle the knot in the aftermath. And we’re all so used to doing this kind of thing that we do it automatically.

I mentioned earlier that squad-level multiplayer games might be able to be broken down further, because I think there’s some visible gameplay differences between having two, four, or eight people on the same team. Not only does a one-on-one versus match feel very different to a four-way brawl, even a two-player and four-player co-op begin to take on very different feelings. As you get up to eight, it becomes much easier for a generally competent team to carry one or even two new players who don’t really know what they’re doing. Any number between two and eight-ish is enough to comfortably hold a conversation, but differentiating class roles and designing interesting levels seems to be much easier for four people than for eight, and it’s also a lot harder to wallflower when you’re one of only four people in a conversation as opposed to eight. You can have a conversation with eight people, but at that point the group has gotten big enough that usually you start having to fight for space a bit, speaking as soon as there’s a pause to get an idea out, and the conversation knots where multiple people are talking over each other and we have to untangle things afterwards start to become more common. We do sort of get a similar dynamic with higher levels of organization as well: 40-ish and 200-ish aren’t averages, but rather upper limits for the gameplay mood they deliver, and there will be a noticeable strain on the game as we reach them. Notably, D&D parties typically include 3-6 people plus a GM, which means they start at having four people in the conversation and stop one shy of having eight.

At the platoon level, the distinction between ten, twenty, or thirty people becomes less important, as what matters is that there are now too many people involved for everyone to be in the same conversation at the same time, but still few enough that everyone can keep track vaguely of what everyone else is doing right now and how they all feel about each other. You can’t have a forty-man raid team in the same voice chat without imposing some rules on who talks and when, but you can totally have a server with forty people on it wherein each person has a basic understanding of who does and doesn’t get along with who else in the server, and where you can usually find Alice or Bob when they’re in the game, and what those people are working on. Forty is really pushing it, and 20-30 is more ideal, but essentially this is the number of people who would get together and hunt a mammoth in the ancestral environment. It’s the size that classrooms gravitate towards.

You can use platoon-level as just upscaled squad-level, with lots of squads pursuing lots of objectives as in the MMO raid example, but I don’t think this is a good idea. Sure, it feels very epic the first time you do it, but it wears off quickly and pretty soon it’s just a bunch of admin for squad-level gameplay. Where platoon-level shines is in a group’s ability to engage in organic, long-term planning by splitting off into different squad-level groups trying to achieve different things. This is the MineCraft or the multiplayer survival game model (although MineCraft can scale both up and down from this level), where there’s about twenty to forty people on the server, and they tend to split up into groups of two to four or so, each focusing on their own goal but either helping other groups or antagonizing other groups or both, depending on what the game mechanics make possible or encourage. In most MineCraft servers, everyone splits off to build different mega-projects, but will come by to visit and swap and/or gift building materials to one another. In Ark: Survival Evolved, people will split up into little groups and murder people from other groups to try and seize materials or establish dominance. Either way, there’s a platoon-level community that organically breaks into smaller groups, which then interact with one another in a way that’s very comprehensible to everyone involved in each group. If you’re in group A and you don’t know how groups B and C feel about each other, it’s not because it’s too much to keep track of, it’s because you don’t care.

Company-level is dictated by the total number of other human beings that the average person can keep track of at once. In a company level game, there are way too many people for you to keep track of their individual relationships with every other individual on the server, but still few enough that after you’ve spent a few months getting to know everyone, you can recognize every other individual on the server. In small high schools, people commonly know most or all of the people in higher or lower grades. In larger high schools, they only know people from other grade levels who are specifically their friends or who share some kind of extracurricular activity with them, and otherwise only know people in their own grade. This is why.

In theory, company-level can be up to 200 people. In practice, all of your players have other social groups already taking up space in their head, which means you can’t have more than maybe 100 people in a company-level game. We don’t see a whole lot of games using the 100-ish person level, except for battle royale games, which are really a series of squad-level encounters being organically strung together. I think the ideal scenario for a company-level server size is actually an MMORPG, though. Your standard theme park deal where you run around completing quests and gathering loot and such. We’re past the point where people can easily keep track of one another’s goals and relationships with everyone else, but still at the point where everyone can recognize everyone else. This is ideal for a video game that is more like a place you can visit than a match you can win or a world you can alter. With this many people running around, it’s difficult to keep track of who might aid or interfere with your long-term goals, but in an MMORPG you don’t really have to care so much. You have a checklist of (hopefully) cool stuff to do, you do as much stuff on that checklist as you like, and along the way you meet other people who are also doing cool stuff and become part of a community. It’s hard to keep track of how everyone feels about everyone else, but you aren’t trying to do anything complex or map-altering, so it’s not as important to keep track of whose toes you might be stepping on with your project.

That brings us to massively multiplayer level, where you have over a hundred people online on any given server at any given time, often thousands, forming a server community of tens of thousands of active players. And I’m not convinced this should even be a thing. The most common result seems to be that most people just check out and play like it was single-player. When communities do form, they tend to be of a couple dozen people anyway. Whenever a group organizing 100+ people does cohere, it’s usually by creating some kind of bureaucracy to help manage it, and, really, is that a good thing?

Now, there are occasionally things done in MMOs that require very large numbers of people, and which can’t be replicated by just having a very large number of people in a Discord or lobby who then split off into smaller servers to play together. Like, City of Heroes has costume contests that couldn’t plausibly attract the number of contestants they do if there were only 100-200 people per server. Guild Wars 2 has spontaneous world events triggered by lots of people just happening to be in the same place at the same time, which can only happen on servers large enough that you occasionally just get like forty people in the same area of the game without anyone planning it in advance. I really don’t think it’s worth it, though, especially since things like the CoH costume contest example can easily be replicated by just having a special server for costume contests. People sign up, import their costume, attend the contest, then go back to their regular server when it’s done. Most people do this already, just importing their character to whatever server the contest is being held on, the only difference would be having a dedicated contest server instead of picking one of the regular ones.

The last time I speculated on the optimal way to run an MMO, I pointed out that it was kind of moot, because MMOs have very large up front development costs and are no longer very popular. Existing MMOs can keep the lights on with a very small player count sustaining them, but making new ones is basically out of the question. So, talking about how MMOs would be better off with a hundred times as many servers a hundredth of the usual size rather than the current setup of a dozen-ish servers each capable of hosting like ten thousand players, that’s all of mainly academic interest anyway.

But for the record, I’d really like a 100-person MMO server, and if we could get that four-hour day/night cycle I was talking about earlier while we’re at it, that’d be great. And could it also have a good terrain traversal mechanic, where you have to climb and swim and glide and stuff? Y’know, since MMOs are really good at being a place that you go to, having the terrain itself be more interactable would be really nice. Oh, and do the Guild Wars 2 thing where quests give rise to other quests in a way that non-permanently affects the map in a cycle, so winning quest A leads to quest B, losing it leads to quest C, and it all eventually loops back in on itself. And have the more action-oriented combat, too, like, with dodge rolls and stuff, and where the angle you hit an enemy from makes a difference. And a system whereby mob factions will fight with each other and with town NPCs, spreading out across the map and capturing towns until players drive them out, which could integrate into those quest cycle things I mentioned earlier, so, like, if the NPC orcs go unchecked for too long they’ll eventually invade the local quest hub and take over, and then the only quests available in the region have to do with driving them back out until the quest hub is liberated and things go back to normal. And there should be a vampire-themed class, too, just ’cause vampires are the best, with minion mastery gameplay, like, maybe a vampire with undead minions, or who can summon demons or something. And actually, can we have, like, a really broad set of potential powers like City of Heroes has, where each class has a primary and a secondary power selection and there are like fifteen options for each, allowing you to create nearly any power combination you can think of? And pair that with a really good character creator, too, one with lots of different options. Oh, and let the player decrease their own level if they want, so that they can face challenges they passed by on their way to the cap at the level they were intended for. And also could a percentage of the game’s gross income just get mailed to me as a check, without me having to worry about profits or put up any money for development or anything? Awesome, thanks.

Conan the Indomitable: Apparently What This Book Really Needed Was To Reintroduce Its Worst Character

Chapter Twelve

The dead fish raft is becoming unusable because apparently things have been feeding on it from below, but conveniently in such very small chunks and so infrequently that it didn’t just, y’know, be devoured entirely within a few hours. Conan and company ditch the boat, confident that they’ve eluded pursuit, because they could’ve taken any of the myriad passages leading away from the Sunless Sea. It apparently does not occur to them that someone might notice their boat and drastically narrow the number of possible exits to those in the boat’s immediate vicinity. Granted, the boat is made from a fish, which means it’s possible that pursuers won’t realize it was converted into a boat, but it’s also possible that they will, and this possibility is one that Conan, Elashi, and Tull all completely ignore. And while it takes him a bit, Deek does eventually realize that a fish is about the only thing that Conan could’ve made his boat from, and that the dead fish with he odd wounds they passed was probably carved up by a blade and used as a raft. Being cunning enough to understand things like “pursuers might recognize these cuts were artificial and continue their chase, we should not let our guard down” was actually pretty critical to Conan’s character once upon a time, but apparently not anymore.

And once the plot needs him to be clever, he suddenly is. Far more clever than the original stories posited, in fact. In Frost Giant’s Daughter, we establish that Conan is easily baited into a trap by pretty women. In some chronologies, this happens when Conan is like fifteen or sixteen years old, and makes a good deal of sense, but in the Tor chronology that this book operates off of, Conan is like twenty-something when that encounter happens, but he’s still fifteen or sixteen here, in Conan the Indomitable. Logically speaking, Conan should be pretty much helpless before the charms of the siren voice of the Webspinner Plants. So, y’know, maybe Elashi or Tull have to snap him out of it, like, maybe give Elashi any reason at all to even be in this story besides making it a direct sequel to Conan the Defiant and also letting Steve Perry hit his sexism quotas. But, no, Conan is suddenly good at resisting seduction, because if there’s one thing that’s characterized Conan in this story so far, it’s restraining himself from sexual interludes in situations where they might be dangerous.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: Apparently What This Book Really Needed Was To Reintroduce Its Worst Character”