The Dwarves Has A Good Opening

In the RPG The Dwarves, the dwarven people are defenders of a legendary fortress against forces of darkness: Orcs, ogres, dark elves (here called “alfar”), and so on. The fortress guards the entrance to a land unironically called “Girdlegard,” so that’s about the level of writing we’re dealing with here.

But despite the stilted dialogue, the Dwarves has a mechanically sound opening. The premise of the game is that you are Tungdil, a dwarf raised by humans, which means you have a stereotyped idea of what dwarves are, which you nevertheless try to embody. As a result of some orcs causing a ruckus, you venture out on a quest in which you meet more dwarves. Perfectly solid character idea, don’t know if they’ll stick the landing but there’s definitely good ideas in here. Just one problem: The opening conceit necessitates you do a lot of wandering around a human settlement trading barbs with bullies, talking to old mentor figures, and musing on how weird it is that someone you’ve known since she was a baby is now the human equivalent to about your age, and will die before you’re even middle aged. Then you spend a lot of time trekking across the countryside, confronting bigotry against dwarves and finding signs that orcs have begun invading the lands and watching from a hidden spot nearby as armies of them marshal. Then, finally, you get attacked by an orc patrol, bailed out by two dwarven warriors, and the regular RPG stuff of gallivanting around the countryside fighitng monsters and completing quests can begin.

That slow build up is good for the story, but it has the Yes, Your Grace problem that I want to play your damn video game. Now, the Dwarves has the advantage of being an RPG, so wandering around a settlement talking to people actually is one of the primary gameplay loops, but also there’s combat, and we won’t be getting to that for like thirty minutes.

So the Dwarves starts you off with a prologue where you’re playing as a pair of legendary dwarves defending Girdlegard (snicker) against orcs and stuff. They’re overpowered, so you can tear through dozens of the suckers even without having any idea what you’re doing, and at the end they both get stabbed to death by a dark elf who reveals that he can use their reanimated corpses to open up the gates and seize the fortress. The line-by-line problems with the writing aside, this is a really good opening: It gives us control of people who’re already good at what the game is about and lets us go to town for a while, while also establishing the threat that our protagonist doesn’t yet know about, thus giving the plot immediate stakes even though our hero is being sent on what looks like a long distance milk run.

Have You Not Heard Of Me?

I’ve made it to the third Spyro game, which opens with Bianca, a sorceresses’ apprentice, stealing dragon eggs and Spyro chasing after her (Bianca is cute but the sorceress is ugly, so I assume the apprentice is getting a redemption arc). The opening cutscene dumps Spyro in the hub world, and I ran him around gathering gems for a minute before the apprentice showed up to warn me to just turn around and go home or her sorcerous armies would surely destroy me.

But, like, have you not heard of me? Spyro? The Dragon? Defeated the gnorc hordes across six worlds, killed Ripto in an aerial battle over an exploding volcano? Not ringing any bells? The third game’s Forgotten Realms (not those ones) are apparently pretty remote from the Dragon Realms where the first game takes place, and the second game takes place in Avalar, which is accessible only by portal and presumably is either extremely far away (making direct travel an impractical option) or a different world altogether, so my issue here isn’t that Bianca doesn’t recognize Spyro. It’s that Spyro doesn’t respond to her threats at all, leaving the impression that they should be taken at face value. But what makes Bianca and the Sorceress different from the last two supervillains?

Spyro 1 gets a free pass on this because Spyro is still totally unproven at the start of that one, so it makes sense that Gnasty Gnorc isn’t necessarily too bothered that, having successfully imprisoned all 80-ish other dragons in the world, he missed the spunky twelve-year old. Spyro 2 handled this better, though. The main villain Ripto is thrilled to arrive in a world without dragons, apparently the only creatures strong enough to defeat him, so the locals summon a dragon to fight back against him. Ripto doesn’t confront Spyro early on the way Bianca does (neither did Gnasty Gnorc, actually), but implicitly he takes Spyro seriously as a threat because he’s been set up to consider dragons worthy adversaries in general.

Now, Spyro 3 was not originally released as the third installment in a single remastered set. It was the third installment of an episodic platformer series, so this wasn’t necessarily the third Spyro game someone had played. Making too many references to previous adventures might’ve turned people off from playing the game as a standalone. But if Bianca’s going to show up to talk smack, and if she isn’t supposed to come across as in way over her head, she should be able to make some kind of show of force that establishes her as a threat to Spyro. Maybe she could do some kind of magic that gets the better of Spyro in the opening cutscene when she steals the dragon eggs (as it is, she and her minions steal them while everyone is asleep). This establishes for returning players that her powers are either stronger than Gnorc’s or Ripto’s, or just different from theirs, and either way that Spyro isn’t an easy favorite in the fight despite his track record, and for new players it’s just setting up the villain and the premise (i.e. dragon eggs got stolen) without making any direct reference to previous games.

Or alternatively, just don’t have Bianca show up to talk smack at all, but I assume this is phase 1 of a tsundere routine, so the game needs to have Bianca showing up and being very antagonistic to facilitate that.

The Eras of Star Wars

I’ve read a lot of Wookieepedia articles. I haven’t directly experienced a whole lot of Star Wars novels or comics, because there are enough of them that I’d never be able to make a complete survey of the field anyway, and as with most massive expanded universes, the general consensus is that most of it isn’t very good.

But I do feel like you can break Star Wars down into a few important eras (real world eras, that is, in-universe eras are also a thing but are not what this post is about), and that consuming the highlights of each era will give you a pretty good look at what Star Wars has been. These should be required reading/viewing/playing for creators helming major projects in the franchise. Even though most audiences have only consumed a fraction of these, a creator who balks at consuming a few dozen hours’ worth of content is showing the kind of contempt for other creators working in the same franchise that indicates they’re a bad fit for the job. It’s not so much that the information transmitted is vital as the willingness to honor the legacy of those who came before. If all copies of the Thrawn Trilogy suddenly evaporated into powder, you could probably get by just fine without them, but if someone is unwilling to read three books before creating a new installment in the same shared universe, that speaks poorly to their willingness to play nice with other creators in such a way as to create a sustainable shared universe.

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Don’t Force Me To Be Shocked

During Knights of the Old Republic, when you’re on the Sith ship Leviathan, Darth Malak confronts you and reveals that you’re Darth Revan. There is no dialogue option to say that you’d already figured this out, just two options which are both essentially identical ways of expressing shock and disbelief. I realize that if you give someone a dialogue option to say “yeah, I know” then a lot of people are going to pick it even if they didn’t actually figure it out, but so what? Let them feel cool pretending they’d worked out that Revan is the only person who appears consistently in every vision, and that both of the other two people who’d appeared in them are accounted for. It’s a singleplayer game, so a player who values honestly roleplaying disbelief will pick that option, and a player who just wants to be the coolest kid in school (or who actually did figure the twist out in advance) can do that.

Particularly from the perspective of a replay, it’d be fun to be able to play as either having figured it out, having figured it out but bluffing Malak into thinking you knew all along, or having actually known all along, with the Jedi brainwashing having completely failed and you’ve just been playing along until you’re in a position to reclaim control of the Sith (or maybe you consider the Sith Empire a failed experiment and want to destroy it, whatever). None of these options require a whole lot of expansion of dialogue trees. You’d need to alter Carth’s dialogue in the immediate aftermath, but as long as you don’t allow the player to openly admit to planning on resuming control of the Sith Empire (but you can still openly admit to wanting revenge on Darth Malak) Carth can plausibly remain in the party. And the only reason you even need Carth to remain in the party is so that the conversation on the Rakata Prime beach goes the same way, but I’m not sure that’s even important (I’d have to look at the script and see if anything he says can’t be set up just as well without him).

If you’re wondering when the blog is going to run out of KotOR posts, I would’ve moved on to Batman by now, but my plan to alternate between the Lego version and a more serious version of the same universe was foiled because it turns out the PC version of Arkham Asylum has some kind of memory leak issue that didn’t affect the last computer I played on but is affecting this one, and doesn’t seem to be solvable, so instead of Batman it’s just Star Wars forever now. I am trying to figure out if I can get a joystick to play X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, though, because it turns out some of those games don’t even have a mouse and keyboard option. I know I used to have a joystick fifteen years ago but I don’t think I brought it with me when I moved out, and I’m nervous that if I buy a cheap $20 one it’ll be too cheap to be usable. But also no way can I afford a $100 joystick for one game series when the Traveler’s Guide series is off to such an uncertain start. We’ll see.

The Three Pillars of Star Wars

Knights of the Old Republic does a good job of moving through the three pillars of Star Wars, where most Star Wars games and other spin-offs tend to get stuck on just one or two. I don’t think it was intentionally designed this way, but the three pillars are showcased by the three main leads of the original trilogy: Han Solo is a smuggler, Princess Leia is a rebel, and Luke Skywalker is a Jedi.

While I call them “smuggler,” “rebel,” and “Jedi” for short, don’t get too hung up on the labels. What these three pillars really represent are three different facets of the setting and the kinds of conflicts they emphasize. Han Solo is a smuggler, but the pillar he represents also includes bounty hunters, crime lords, and scavengers. Some rogues have a heart of gold, but everyone is at least a little bit scummy. This pillar is where morally grey conflicts and anti-heroes are most at home.

The best example of a property with a one-pillar focus on this is the Mandalorian’s first season. The Jedi and rebel pillars certainly aren’t absent, but the Jedi, Imperial remnants, New Republic X-wing pilots, and so on are viewed from the perspective of a Mandalorian bounty hunter. This also demonstrates that a one-pillar focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you know what you’re doing. In fact, when the second season expanded to the other two pillars, it damaged a lot of the Mandalorian’s identity and focus. If season two was the last season, then this was a good decision. These tie-ins worked really well in the moment, and there’s no point conserving a resource (in this case, the Mandalorian’s focus) that you have no intention of spending later. If the Mandalorian is going for a third season, though, I fear that season two might’ve set it up for mediocrity.

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Humble Bundle Giveaway

Fairly regularly I’ll buy a Humble Bundle that has a couple of games I want, and end up with a copy of a game I already have. So I’m listing them here, and you can leave a comment or go to my Discord or something and tell me if you want one. I’ve actually got a ton more games I’ve never heard of buried in my library, but I’m limiting myself to just games that I’ve actually heard of and expect someone might want. I’ve bolded the ones that I think are especially amazing.

911 Operator
Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Cultist Simulator
Destiny 2
Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham
Lego Movie Videogame
Love Letter (but instead of regular it’s a video game)
Magicka
Monster Prom
My Time At Portia
Party Hard
Psychonauts
Running With Rifles
Scythe: Digital Edition
Sonic Mania
Starfinder: Pact Worlds Campaign Setting
SUPERHOT
Tropico 4
Tropico 5
Twilight Struggle (but instead of regular it’s a video game)
Yooka-Laylee (x2)

How Chess Pieces Actually Behave

I’ve talked before on this blog about how I’ll play games as a quick break between chunks of work. Chess is really good for this, because 3-minute blitz games take approximately five minutes each, so it’s very easy to slip into my schedule. As a result, I have played a stupid amount of chess over the past two months.

Fantasy worldbuilding will sometimes have cultural chess variants where the pieces work the same but have different names. This makes perfect sense. Chess pieces get translated differently in different languages even in the real world. Bishops and rooks in particular tend to get renamed a lot. The rook is a ship in Russia, an elephant in India, a cannon in Bulgaria, and a chariot in Vietnam. The bishop is an elephant in Russia and Vietnam, a camel in India, an officer in Bulgaria, a jester in France, a standard-bearer in Italy, and a hunter in Slovenia. I’m guessing these names are, at least in some of these languages, giving way to “bishop” and “castle” in modern use because that’s what they look like in the Staunton set used by the International Chess Federation, but traditionally Indian chess kings marched into battle with a full menagerie backing up their front line.

When creating fantasy variants, they’re often plainly derived from the Staunton standard we’re all familiar with. At that point, why not just actually use Staunton pieces? Replacing the bishop in particular may be necessary if the setting you’re making a chess set for just doesn’t have bishops, but beyond that, I say either stick to the familiar in order to enhance legibility for the audience or else do it right by choosing new pieces based on their role in the game, not just making very slightly fantastical equivalents to the Staunton set.

For example, if you’re redesigning all of the pieces of your chess set for a D&D-style fantasy world, then your knights should probably be some kind of rogue. Rogues don’t show up in regular chess because they don’t show up on the battlefield. Whoever heard of bringing thieves to war in the real world? But in D&D-style fantasy, this is much less bizarre. A major use of a knight in chess is to jump over the enemy front line, slipping past an otherwise impenetrable pawn wall to sit in enemy territory, surrounded by enemy pieces, and yet not be threatened by any of them. Knights are sneaky.

On the other hand, knights and pawns are the two pieces that basically never get renamed, except in minor variations on whether they’re called “cavalry,” “horses,” or “riders.”

Bishops are very long ranged. They also tend to end up getting names that make them seem like upgraded pawns. Bishops capture the same way pawns do, just at longer range, and bishops blocked in by their own side’s pawns are referred to as “tall pawns” because they don’t do anything a pawn in the same position wouldn’t, guarding the two pawns diagonally in front of them and nothing else (well, they also have the option to retreat, but you usually don’t want to do that). This is why bishops are sometimes called officers, since an officer is a sort of upgraded level 2 infantry, and being some kind of archer would also make sense. In D&D settings specifically, a sorcerer would also make sense, since sorcerers can pop up anywhere, in any class background, so they kind of make sense as an upgraded peasant, and just like a sorcerer, a good bishop has lots of ranged attack options, but a bad bishop (like a Sorcerer with no spells left) is basically indistinguishable from a peasant/pawn. Bishops are also often some kind of animal like a camel or elephant, to go with the knight/horse, so if you have some weird fantasy animal you want to add, like a manticore or something, a bishop is a good piece to do it with.

Rooks are usually associated with something bulky. Elephants, cannons, ships, or heavily armored chariots. Rooks are really good at cleaning up pawns in the later part of the game, when the board is open and the rooks have had a chance to peel themselves out of the corner and develop, which I’m guessing is why they’re usually associated with something big enough to crush a hapless farmer. Some kind of giant or golem would be appropriate, if you want to stick to playable classes in D&D this is a good place to put a tanky Fighter or Barbarian, and you can also just let them be castles.

Queens are almost always either left as queens or replaced with some kind of vizier or prime minister. If you’re not using the Staunton set, you should probably change this one. It’s got some weird gender role baggage, and while it’s not cut-and-dry misogyny (the queen being the most powerful piece on the board – a development that happened after the piece transitioned from being a vizier to being a queen – is a strong counterargument to the idea that Victorian levels of misogyny were the norm back in the medieval era), that, if anything, makes it more annoying to deal with. Cut-and-dry misogyny is, at least, very easy to get across to an audience. The queen is powerful and maneuverable, so this is a great place to put something that is both strong and fast. A wizard makes sense in a setting where wizards are just better than everyone else, but less so in a D&D-style setting with class balance. A dragon or similar super-monster would also work. You can also use the vizier/prime minister, the lieutenant of the king.

Speaking of the king, for the same reason you shouldn’t use the queen unless you’re just using the Staunton set unaltered, you should probably refer to the king as the gender-neutral “sovereign.”

The Inevitable Extinction Of Humanity Isn’t

In the back half of the 20th century, everyone was worried about nuclear apocalypse. That cooled off for a while at the very end, but as the 21st century has got going, not only is it back on the table, but there are several new apocalypses we have to worry about. There is a minority but not uncommon attitude of inevitable doom.

And it’s really unambiguously wrong.

I don’t want to overstate this case. There are a lot of very bad outcomes on the table and we should work to avoid them. There’s almost no scenario where all of humanity is destroyed, though, let alone a probable one, and let far alone an inevitable one. There’s also plausible scenarios where humanity gets through the whole 21st century largely unscathed, bloodied only by the usual wars and pandemics that have marred every century of history. For that matter, if the last ten years are the worst the 21st century has to throw at us, it’s going to unambiguously be a golden age. Covid is a huge improvement over the Spanish Flu and the cholera pandemics (of which the 19th century had five, each of which individually lasted at least five years and often more than a decade), and Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine combined have nothing on the Great War or Napoleonic Wars. Even without taking population growth into account, the 21st century has been serving some pretty weak tea compared to the first 25 years of the 20th and 19th centuries. People call Francis Fukuyama (the End of History guy) the wrongest man in history, but if these doomer predictions ever get gathered up into a particularly notable book, Francis will have to settle for second behind that book’s author.

Certainly there is no reason to assume our luck in the next 80 years will be as good as it has been in the last 20, 2010 to 2020 have certainly been noticeably worse than 1990-2000 or 2000-2010, and we should not ignore potential dangers, but things are actually going quite well overall.

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Flash Fiction, Short Story, Novelette, Novella, Novel

And now for something completely the same.

For anyone who was concerned that this was going to become a political blog, don’t worry, the Ukraine post was just me dumping the answer to a research question I happened to have into a blog post, which is the source of a lot of my blog posts and rarely politically related. For example, this time I’m trying to nail down reasonable boundaries for a flash fiction, short story, novelette, novella, and novel.

Flash fiction is easy: Any story 1,000 words or less. People agree on this one. The average adult reading speed is somewhere between 200 and 350 words per minute with the average being about 250 (unless you’re speed reading, but people rarely speed read when reading for pleasure), so taking 250 as an average, a flash fiction takes about four minutes to read. 1,250 might actually be a more reasonable amount, but people actually agree that 1,000 and less is flash fiction, so I won’t try in vain to move that needle.

Short stories are also fairly well agreed upon as capping out at 7,500 words, although some people don’t start them out at 1,000 like you’d expect (or technically 1,001, if you really want to split hairs), but instead insist on starting them at somewhere around 3,000 words. These articles do not say what a story of 1,000 to 3,000 words would be called. In any case, our 250 wpm reader can finish a short story in 5-30 minutes, depending on its exact length, which I feel like is a good category. Short stories are stories you can read during a quick break between 40-ish minute periods of work. Chapters of a larger novel should probably also gravitate towards this length, so that they can fit into the same window.

The boundary between novelette, novella, and novel is far less agreed upon. People agree on the 7,500 word lower bound for novelette matching up with the max length of a short story, but given upper limits include 17,000, 17,500, 19,000, and 20,000 words. I like 20,000 words as an upper limit because it’s pretty close to being an hour and a half long for our 250 wpm reader, and 90 minutes is the amount of time we tend to gravitate towards for entertainment that’s big enough that you dedicate time to sit down and consume it (rather than reading/watching it on impulse during a break) but small enough that it’s still considered light entertainment. This is the length of time that movie comedies tend to gravitate towards, for example. It’s also a nice, round number, which makes it easier to remember.

Naturally, the lower limit on novellas has the same spread as the upper limit on novelettes, because that’s how length categories work, but the two upper limits for a novella I’ve been able to find are Writer’s Digest’s assertion of 55,000 words or the Hugos assertion of 40,000 words. The Hugos have been a public tire fire for years now (and were probably a secret tire fire for years before that), but that doesn’t mean their word count suggestions are tainted by the Warp and must be shunned.

Ultimately, however, I think the Writer’s Digest number is better on the grounds that you should be able to comfortably read a novella in one day without taking off work (or setting aside all of your other daily errands and obligations besides work), even if they’re long enough that most casual readers might not want to spend that much time reading all in one go. Our 250 wpm reader can read 55,000 words in just under four hours, which feels about right for that length. The extended editions of Lord of the Rings run from 3 hours and 28 minutes (for Fellowship) to 4 hours and 11 minutes (for Return of the King – you thought the endings were long in the theatrical release? I have not yet begun to end), and that seems like a good maximum benchmark for things that people might consume in one sitting if they really like it, without having to plan their day around it (besides committing to probably doing just that one thing for fun).

4 hours is also a commonly accepted length for a D&D session, which is another thing that people expect to be able to do regularly, but which dominates your spare time for the day that you play.

40,000 words, contrariwise, does not even take three hours for our 250 wpm reader to read, and while three hours is a long time, people who really like a thing are clearly willing to dedicate four hours to the thing in one sitting on a regular basis, so I think the 4-ish hour 55,000 word upper limit works better for something that can be (but doesn’t have to be) consumed in one long sitting.

As the largest category, a novel could just be anything longer than 55,000 words. Lord of the Rings was split up from one ~500,000 word book into three ~150,000 word books, but that was because of publishing constraints. A lot of people writing very long stories these days publish them serially online, and even for books that do go to print, the Lord of the Rings option of splitting it up into multiple volumes is still there.

However, just like novelettes, novellas, and novels benefit from being split into chapters that can be consumed in 15-30 minute chunks, and are thus structured much like a short story collection (with the obvious difference that each “short story” is sequential and assumes you’ve read the others, but that’s not a structural difference), once stories reach a certain length, they benefit from being broken up into a series of novels.

There are two places you might place the upper limit of a novel. The first is that a novel should take no more than two weeks to read assuming someone dedicates a chunk of their afternoon (but not the entire afternoon) to reading it each day. In that case, a novel should be no more than fourteen times the length of a novelette, or 280,000 words, which we can round up to 300,000 just to be make it nice and neat, since no one’s going to complain if you refer to fifteen days as being two weeks-ish. The other way of measuring it is that someone should be able to read a novel in a single all-day marathon reading session wherein they have cleared their schedule completely and read from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed, with only brief breaks for meals, a shower, etc. This is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 words, depending on exactly how much time we leave for things like meals.

Ultimately, I gravitate more towards 300,000 words, because I think someone reading a book for an hour a two per day and wanting to be done with it in no more than 15 days is much more common than someone clearing away a full day to read an entire book all in one go. The kind of person who does the latter probably also does the former, and much more often, and the exceptions are mainly for once-in-a-generation phenomena like Harry Potter where people obsessively read books in that series but don’t necessarily read much of anything else. Particularly for book one of a series, worrying about the maximum word length past which people won’t take a chance on it because it’s too much of a time commitment to finish makes much more sense than worrying about the maximum word length past which your most obsessive fans won’t be able to read the entire book cover to cover after clearing their whole Sunday for it.

I have assembled my conclusion into a little table, because that is the data-obsessed nerd that I am.

200 wpm250 wpm300 wpm350 wpm
Flash fiction (0-1,000 words)5m4m3m 20s2m 51s
Short story (1,000-7,500 words)37m 30s30m25m21m 15s
Novelette (7,500-20,000 words)1h 40m1h 20m1h 16m 40s57m 8s
Novella (20,000-55,000 words)4h 35m3h 40m3h 3m 20s2h 37m 8s
Novel (55,000-300,000 words)25h20h16h 40m14h 17m 8s

When Has Putin’s Invasion Failed?

And now for something completely different.

Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion had been much stronger than anyone was expecting. Captured documents say the Russian military was expecting this invasion to take about two weeks, and unless the Russians have a really good couple of days ahead of them, that isn’t panning out. But also, blitzing a nation the size of Ukraine in two weeks was delusionally hubristic in the first place. There’s still plenty of room for the Russian blitz to succeed by the standards of actual blitzkriegs that have happened in the real world even despite the imminent failure to live up to their own fantasies. On the other hand, Ukrainians aren’t exactly giving ground quickly. So if we don’t pop the champagne yet, when do we? When has Ukraine officially resisted Russian invasion long enough that we can say this has turned from a blitz to a slog?

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