Sew You Want To Be A Hero: The Novelization Of A Dungeon Crawl Is Still Boring

Chapter 2

Threadbare and Pulsivar enter the raccant dungeon in search of Dark Threadbare, and soon come across…

The little bear thought that maybe there was something hiding under the junk, but no, nothing was under there. The mob of trash had moved on its own and just slunk up and whacked him a good one.

An animate mob of trash. A trash mob, if you will.

And not much deeper in, Threadbare finds the heart of the raccant operation:

Threadbare gazed upon a large cave, with multiple seats and benches made from stalagmites, free-standing and in rows. Ropes and chains of lanterns hung from the ceiling, flashing with odd colors, and at least three dozen raccants sat on them or jumped up and down, dancing to the music.

Garbage piled high around the cavern shook to the beat, piles of trash and even cans of the stuff shaking as the beat thumped on. Occasionally a can would boil over, and a new trash mob would rattle out, then head toward one of the corridors leading out of the cavern.

And up on stage, was a Raccant wearing a pair of baggy black pants, a gold chain, and some odd contraption over his eyes that Threadbare had never seen before. Though for once that wasn’t due to his ignorance. After all, very few people in Cylvania would have recognized a pair of sunglasses.

Didn’t Caradon have regular glasses? Maybe I just imagined that. Either way, “glasses that are dark” doesn’t seem like it’d be that hard to puzzle out. Nitpick aside, though, I like this setup.

Threadbare is able to dispose of the raccant mooks by animating their own masks to attack them and then using his Wolverine claws to tear up what’s left, with some support from his animated high chair minion that he salvaged from the camp outside. That’s when the boss attacks with a hurricane of puns…

Then in a flash, the raccant was there, bashing the high chair to bits with a heavy hammer that he’d pulled out of literally nowhere.

He’d stopped because it was hammer time, and broken it down, just like that.

Threadbare popped claws and laid into him- or tried to, anyway. The bard could dodge like nobody’s business, thanks to his Raccant Touch This skill.

…which then retreats into a particularly abbreviated example of detached summary.

The fight went on for a bit, and Threadbare switched from trying to shred the guy to just trying to survive, letting Pulsivar do the real work. Fortunately that was a good strategy, and in the end, after three dodge skill ups and two more bodyguard skill ups later, the raccant fell, glasses shattering. Threadbare sagged into Pulsivar, hugging his wounds away with what remained of his sanity.

Survival Quest had this problem, too, where what makes for a good MMO fight doesn’t really make for a good book fight, and instead of having the MMO be weirdly high-lethality in order to pace the fights for a book, it retreats into detached summary. Survival Quest at least had the excuse that it was an actual MMORPG and it would actually be weird from a worldbuilding standpoint for the fights to be balanced around high lethality that allows them to be portrayed beginning to end in just two or three pages of book space (and also allows players to win with a strong alpha strike or even just some lucky crits rather than demanding an effective long term strategy – that’s bad for gameplay). Threadbare has a built-in excuse for having fights balanced for pace rather than strategy:

It's Magic 2

Continue reading “Sew You Want To Be A Hero: The Novelization Of A Dungeon Crawl Is Still Boring”

Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Threadbare Returns

We’re back, baby! One successful Kickstarter later and we are looking at Threadbare’s sequel, Sew You Want To Be A Hero. Like all of these reviews (so far) I’m reading this blind, with no idea whether it’s going to be great or terrible. Unlike the previous ones, this is book two of a series. The previous installment, Stuff and Nonsense, was a rollercoaster of really good and really terrible chapters. We’ll see if the sequel keeps ricocheting around or if it breaks one way or another.

When last we left our hero, the animate teddy bear Threadbare, he had just emerged from the overgrown remains of his home after spending five years regenerating from an otherwise fatal wound. He picked up that wound in a short-lived attempt to protect Celia, his little girl, from the nefarious evil king Melos. In a shocking reveal that has no impact whatsoever on the stakes, context, or balance of the conflict, Melos turns out to be Celia’s father, and his sinister demonic ally Anise was Celia’s mother all along (she used to be human – you can turn corpses into demons in this setting).

According to the status screen Threadbare popped up after finishing his regeneration, that was five years ago. Celia was abducted by Melos at the age of eleven, so by now is quite possibly some kind of evil Sith apprentice. As much as Threadbare’s middle dragged on without a plot, that ending was actually a fairly compelling inciting incident (which isn’t supposed to go at the end of a book, but better late than never), and I’m excited to see what happens next – although admittedly, also nervous that we’re going to have to wait until the end of the book for a single significant plot development.

Continue reading “Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Threadbare Returns”

Let’s Read LitRPG: The First Five

I’m not only trying to get a Kickstarter off the ground, but will also be attending the Salt Lake Comic Con (officially redubbed “FanX” due to an unfavorable legal battle with San Diego Comic Con and a judge who is apparently unaware that the ship on Comic Con as a term unique to one convention sailed like twenty years ago), plus maintaining the schedule on games that people have paid for remains a much higher priority than blog posts which are free. All of this to say that for this particularly busy weekend I am going to post an article that is just gathering some content I already produced and then ruminating on it. Here are all the LitRPG novels I have reviewed to date, ranked in order of how much I liked them:

  1. Way of the Shaman: Survival Quest
  2. Threadbare: Stuff and Nonsense
  3. Awaken Online: Catharsis
  4. Divine Dungeon: Dungeon Born
  5. Succubus

At some point I’d like to build up a big enough library of LitRPG reviews (or at least book reviews in general) that Awaken Online doesn’t get to hold onto its deceptive middle-of-the-pack status. That book is actually really sloppy, and beats out Dungeon Born largely by virtue of the fact of having sporadic clever moments and good fight scenes spiking up from the baseline of mediocrity, whereas Dungeon Born was almost incessantly boring. It did get a little better towards the end, but so did Awaken Online, except that Awaken Online was recovering from “Mary Sue is lauded as most brilliant strategist ever for overcoming trivial opposition” instead of “100+ pages of nothing happening.” I’d rather roll my eyes than feel them glaze over.

Other than that, the list doesn’t hold a whole lot of surprises. Survival Quest was fun to read and did a lot of things right, with most of the hiccups in my readthrough being the fault of the translation, and even then it all pretty much clicked when I started subvocalizing the first person narrator speaking with a Russian accent, so of course it comes out on top. It was picked on recommendation from a friend specifically because I was hoping for (and got) a book that I could be pretty unreservedly a fan of. Stuff and Nonsense is dragged down a lot by Zuula and has severe pacing issues, but is also littered with plenty of great scenes and has both a strong start and finish. Its flawed brilliance would even have competed with Survival Quest’s consistent competence were it not for that one atrocious character. And no one who’s even skimmed the later Succubus posts will be surprised to see Nice Guy: The LitRPG coming in dead last, a position it will likely continue to occupy even as the list of books reviewed grows.

Dungeon Born Is Dungeon Boring

Part 1: Rocky Start
Part 2: Tutorial
Part 3: Mushrooms Aren’t Plants
Part 4: Black and White
Part 5: Why Is The Dungeon Heart More Mobile Than His Minions?
Part 6: A Stoppable Force Meets A Movable Object
Part 7: Ongoing Tutorials And Video Game Morals
Part 8: Dale Strikes Back
Part 9: Late Explanations
Part 10: That Rabbit’s Not Dynamite
Part 11: Foreshadowing Of Five Armies
Part 12: End Of The Tutorial
Part 13: I Am Beginning To Suspect The Economics Of This Book Were Not Thought Through
Part 14: Religious Dispute
Part 15: Elemental Bunnies
Part 16: Dungeon Renovations
Part 17: Stumbling Forward
Part 18: Spooky Dagger
Part 19: Skipping Nothing
Part 20: The Finale, Such That It Is

At twenty posts, Dungeon Born is nearly double the length of any previous review I’ve done, but not because it’s particularly good or particularly bad, just because I happened to get very busy right as I was first reading Dungeon Born, which made me gravitate more towards getting one post done for the day and then immediately refocusing to something else. Whereas with previous books I would quickly realize when I was repeating myself because I would write several posts at a time, with Dungeon Born it took me until Part 19 and 60% of the way through the book to realize this, and then I had the whole thing wrapped up by Part 20 (which was undersized!). As such, the long form review of this book contains a lot of me making slight variations on the same nitpick over and over again instead of imposing and at least mostly respecting a moratorium on them once it becomes clear they’re going to mar the whole book.

So here’s the tl;dr: Dungeon Born doesn’t suffer from any stand-out crippling flaws like Succubus’ nice guy moralizing, Awaken Online’s blatant Mary Sue indulgence, or Threadbare having fucking Zuula in it. What it instead has is a ton of minor annoyances and not really anything interesting to recommend it. Half the book revolves almost exclusively around Dani teaching Cal how to dungeon (and in the back half, Cal figuring out how to dungeon for himself with mad science experiments, which is significantly less dull), and Cal and Dani’s dialogue is flat and uninteresting.

In the other half, we get the disjointed and aimless narrative of a town growing up around the dungeon as raiders come streaming in, under the direction of Dale, some random shepherd or something who happened to discover the dungeon along with a few others, and wound up being the only survivor of the first raid. This has a much wider cast of characters, but is still pretty much devoid of actual character arcs. The narrative occasionally talks about how Dale is getting more confident and forceful, but he killed a guy to secure the dungeon’s profits in the first chapter he appeared in. The character growth doesn’t actually happen because Dale has always been willing to take extreme measures to secure what he considers his fair share. Instead, it feels like reading the fantasies of someone mild-mannered and put-upon pretending to shock everyone by suddenly revealing they have far more power and resources than anyone thought, which is not a terrible scene to have once, but it becomes masturbatory when it starts happening over and over again, treated as though it’s a moment of growth each time.

The narrative is so lacking in actual plot structure or character arcs that at one point I realized I could (and did) skip entire chapters without anything being lost. Sure, things happen in those chapters, but not things which affect future chapters, except occasionally in a purely strategic way. AARs aren’t an inherently awful format or anything, so even that could work if there was some high level play going on (not that there’s an actual game to master, but I enjoy reading AARs that demonstrate a thorough grasp of games I haven’t actually played and have no understanding of, so a well-written book could produce a facsimile indistinguishable from the real thing by making up a sufficiently deep system to be exploited). Unfortunately, each dungeon raid is basically just the novelization of someone playing Torchlight for a couple of hours. There’s very little strategy involved, just a consistent arms race between Dale and his group getting stronger while Cal makes the dungeon stronger to try and kill them.

Then there’s the constant moral weirdness. The narrative repeatedly takes moral stances that are blatantly repugnant and either just lets them pass without comment, or even worse, tries to make excuses for them and fails. People talk about causing floods to wash away the homeless and beggars and how this isn’t really a big deal because they’re lazy and unproductive, and despite being a straw capitalist argument, that’s left to stand as the presumptive truth. Not only that, but the rulers hoard life extension magic for themselves, which is said to be what’s best for the world, because it prevents overpopulation (the possibility of using birth control is not discussed) and allows for greater stability. This, again, sounds like a philosophy meant to be understood to be blatantly villainous, here being stated by a character who I think is supposed to be sympathetic and then left unchallenged.

Worse than that, Cal is constantly murdering people for personal gain, and the only justification given is “well, they knew they were taking a risk.” So the lives of people who take risks are inherently worthless? It’s perfectly moral to shoot a soldier in the battlefield in the back and rifle through their pockets, because hey, they knew the job could be risky? It’s completely moral to go to a lumberjack barracks, bar the doors, and set the whole place on fire just to test out your new flamethrower and that’s fine, because hey, they all knew going into this that lumberjacking was a dangerous job? Getting people to risk their lives so that society can benefit is both important and not an easy thing to convince someone to do, so the deleterious effects on society of considering anyone who takes risks to be less worthwhile as a person than someone who doesn’t should be obvious.

“He knew the risks” is typically used to mean “he might not have deserved to die, but the stakes are high enough that a few human deaths are an acceptable price to pay, and his being the specific life paid was a result of his own fully informed decisions. It might not be right, but it’s not like he just got murdered out of nowhere.” This book uses the same basic phraseology, but is totally devoid of any understanding of what it means, and instead uses it to justify murdering people out of nowhere.

The whole thing comes across like the author doesn’t have any morals is too self-righteous to just own that and instead keeps trying to persuade you that it’s totally okay when he murders people for profit because he worked for what he has (this is almost verbatim from an argument presented by Dale and reaffirmed as “well-reasoned” by the narrative). I don’t know if the author actually believes that (for all I know, there’s a reversal in book three where the emptiness of the rhetoric used to justify all the unrestricted, murderous greed in this book is exposed and made into a plot point), but that’s the vibe that gets communicated by the book, and that’s a problem, because not only is it a shallow theme to have, it’s not even actually core to the theme. It has no impact on the plot or character arc because there’s not much of a plot or character arc to impact. There’s just occasionally these really poorly thought out justifications for obviously wrong actions, sometimes inserted for apparently no other reason except to establish that characters hold these poorly thought out opinions. No one’s decisions are actually driven by the belief that only select elites should be allowed to have extended lifespans. It just gets brought up and then dropped.

I may have spent half this summary review ranting about these bizarre, straw conservative morals being dropped into the book for no apparent reason, but they only come up once every few chapters and are mostly irrelevant. You may be wondering, then, why I spent so much time on them. The answer is because the book is so interminably dull, so incapable of building up a plot that amounts to anything other than an AAR of perfectly typical ARPG gameplay, that there’s nothing else to talk about. Even though this one flaw mars only maybe 10% of the book, the other 90% is just events strung together, building to nothing. And it’s boring. The only point or purpose is that our two viewpoint characters steadily gain more power, without being seriously opposed by anything, including one another. Cal tries to kill Dale, but pretty much just for the Hell of it, not because of some kind of clash of motivation. Cal could just as easily decide to intentionally avoid killing Dale and the plot would be unaltered. Dale kills Cal’s minions over and over again, but never has any intention of harming Cal himself.

Now we’re at the end of the book, let’s see how many of the Longes predictions wound up coming true:

Predictions about Dungeon Born based purely on it drawing from Xianxia:
1) Protagonist will find a variety of gimmicks and/or single innate gimmick that will help them skip massive chunks of Cultivation
Both Cal and Dale do this. I skipped over Dale doing it completely because it had no impact on anything else (like much of the events of this story), but he does indeed perform some ritual that jumps him ahead several ranks. Cal is a human soul rather than an animal soul, which means he gets to learn way faster, and has a silvertree that just so happens to be located nearby, and he can cultivate all essences types at once, and he can quickly and easily remove corruption allowing him to cultivate faster, and, and, and…
2) There will be a bunch of time skips because Cultivation takes forever
The narrative regularly timeskips weeks or months, though never years or centuries.
3) Protagonist will level up to kill and replace God
In fairness to Longes, this is clearly something that would happen towards the end of the trilogy and not in the first book, so it’s still very much on the table.
4) Different levels of Cultivation equate to MASSIVE power differences and absolute curbstomping
At one point it’s explicitly stated that each rank is about an order of magnitude more powerful than the one below (i.e. one C rank can defeat ten D ranks). This isn’t consistent, though. Sometimes people treat others who are only a single rank below them as a legitimate threat.
5) Protagonist may find a gimmick that helps them fight people on higher Cultivation level
It’s not really clear if the protagonists are able to do this because of special gimmicks or if the narrative just doesn’t understand the implications of a C-rank being an order of magnitude more powerful than a D-rank, but I’m guessing the latter. In any case, there’s no direct confrontation between the protagonist and a higher-ranked opponent.
6) Being the very best like no one ever was is the protagonist’s primary motivation
With a side order of sociopathy too spineless to admit to its own amorality.
7) There’ll be a bizarre economy and people will interact with it in a very bizarre way
Arguably true just on the basis that the main source of income for the entire town that starts growing up around the dungeon is raiding the dungeon for coins produced by that dungeon (the economic implications of a bottomless reserve of coins under the control of no governing entity is not explored). The narrative inherited this from its ARPG roots, though, not xanxia, so, half a point?
8) Skills or their equivalent (minions?) will be bought and sold via bizarre economy
Skills can be stored in special memory stones and rapidly passed on in this manner.
9) Protagonist will find a way to completely skullfuck said economy
This one hasn’t come true yet, although there’s a lot of elements that look like it might be building in that direction for later books (especially the silvertree).
10) Cultivation requires or is greatly sped up by some magic potions or eating monster parts or something like that
Silvertree. Check.
11) Protagonist will subvert that, skullfucking the economy in the process
It’s not really subverted so much as just the protagonist has one and most people don’t.

Dungeon Born: The Finale, Such That It Is

Polishing off Dungeon Born today. Almost immediately after that train wreck scene with Rose, we go back to Cal and watch him try to make some weird rune network whose purpose I don’t fully understand, though in fairness that may be because I’ve stopped caring. Anyway, something goes wrong as he’s powering it up and he summons some kind of monster instead:

The paw alone was nearly twenty inches wide, the claws lengthened that by seven inches when fully extended. The leg revealed that it was connected to a large cat-like form. The powerful body was half again as large as a tiger, and pitch black. A tail twitched back and forth in anticipation, the creature obviously excited by this new hunting ground. Along its back four tentacles extended from each of its leg joints, each of them had its own mouth and was tipped with a sharp claw-like stinger which dripped venom.

This is a pretty cool looking monster.

But of course the book can’t go more than a couple of pages without fucking something up. After the cat monster kills Raille:

It hissed at us, ignoring the chance for a massive meal. I realized this was a creature that killed for sport. Obviously hating all other creatures, it didn’t even bother to eat its kills beyond what it wanted at any given point.

This is another example of the author beaming knowledge directly into the protagonists’ brain, not to mention something that would be better off left unstated. Let the reader figure out for themselves that this monster doesn’t seem interested in eating, and why that might be. Not that the options are particularly narrowed down. Raille attacked so it is hardly implausible that this is just a regular animal that killed an aggressor and didn’t happen to be hungry after doing so.

I doubt this creature’s sinister nature is going to be particularly plot relevant, unless someone recognizes it as a demon or whatever, in which case that moment of recognition offers a far more natural place to explain that it kills for giggles rather than “it didn’t immediately eat the creature it was defending itself from, clearly it’s evil.” Adventurers come down here and kill monsters without eating them on a daily basis, Cal never calls them evil. Sure, killing for treasure and killing for food are fundamentally pretty similar motives (despite what Captain Planet would have you believe), but for all Cal knows this creature does benefit from these kills in some way other than just entertainment.

Anyway, the cat monster reacts poorly to the silverwood tree and runs away. It then becomes the final boss when Dale recruits a barbarian and a cleric into the Team 2, along with Rose and Hans, the dagger-y guy from the original Team, enter into the dungeon. Now, when that cat escaped, it killed a bunch of people up on the surface before fleeing back into the dungeon when mages showed up to retaliate. So, Frank has the dungeon sealed off, unaware that the Team 2 is stuck down there. Thus, the Team 2 is forced to complete the entire dungeon, even though Cal has recently perfected and activated his mega-rune, allowing him to flood the dungeon with more monsters and control them more precisely than before.

The cat monster returns to the dungeon heart and starts trying to eat Cal, so Cal switches from trying to kill the Team 2 with his new powers and instead drops a bunch of cat killing loot and then clears out of their way completely in the hopes that they’ll kill it. They do. Everyone gets seriously jacked up in the fight, so Cal sends a bunch of his healer bunnies to save them, but it’s too late for Dale, who is mortally wounded. Cal is able to patch him up with his mad science, bringing him back to life.

I thought hard on my answer, <So, you know how I can feel all of my creatures, experience what they do, and influence them? If they were created by me they are always Mobs. . .>

Dani looked extremely nervous, “Yes. . .?”

<And when I use my Essence to give them life or whatever they also come under my influence, they become Dungeon born? Though if they are smart or strong enough I can’t directly control them, but they can hear my commands and experience what they do?>

“Spit it out Cal.”

<I think… Mind you I am not certain, but I think. . . I may have made Dale, um. Dungeon born.>

I was gonna dig up the same website I used to make the Threadbare title drop gag for this, but I can’t find it. Honestly, this limp “eh, I tried” reference to a joke that might have been is probably the ending that Dungeon Born deserves. Wrap up post coming on Monday and then let’s reads will be on hiatus until October.

How Not To Suck At The Road Of Trials

The middle of a story often drags. This is so common that “problems in the second act” is becoming a cliche movie criticism. You’ve set up your hero’s goal, but if they go and achieve it immediately afterwards, it seems trivial. In order to make the final conflict seem significant, you need the hero to try some things that don’t work, or go on some quest to gather necessary allies or weapons, or have some interminable training montage or something. The problem is, this middle part exists for no other reason except to pad for time in order to build anticipation for the finale. As such, it is often very boring.

If you poke around in script writing advice blogs for even a little bit, you’ll quickly come across the recommendation that you add a sub-plot so that you can resolve it here in order to keep things from seeming too dreadfully dull. Maybe that’s a good idea for screenplays. I don’t know, because I sneer at the constraints of a 90-120 minute movie and instead embrace the unrestrained decadence of novels and television, where a story having two or three times the amount of content as a movie is considered a minimum. My recommendation is that a mere sub-plot isn’t nearly enough. This section of a story is referred to in the Hero’s Journey as the Road of Trials, and if you do it right, being trials plural is usually beneficial.

There is more to this than simply having a hero overcome a bunch of obstacles, though, and some variation on just doing that is often the problem. The hero beats up a bunch of mooks or learns a bunch of secret techniques, and it doesn’t really amount to anything except time-wasting before the final confrontation. What needs to happen here is that a theme needs to be explored from multiple different angles, with each specific perspective being given its own mini-arc (if you really want to squeeze this down to a single event so you can fit it into a screenplay, you can have your beginning ask a question, give a wrong answer in the middle, and then the correct answer at the end).

Here’s an example: the heroes are a plucky band of rebels resisting an authoritarian dystopia. Out on the fringes, a resistance has formed, but it’s scattered and broken into pieces. The good guys go about to different rebel factions to convince them to set aside their differences and/or beat them into submission, and then they’re able to operate more effectively and topple the evil empire. Thematically, your story starts with a premise and a question: Authoritarianism is bad, so what would be better? At the end, you’re going to assert an answer, which is probably some kind of centrist liberal democracy or whatever. In the middle, you explore other answers, including how things might go wrong. You have a rebel faction who are anarchists and prone to constant infighting because no one will ever compromise any of their principles for the sake of getting along and working together with others, which means they constantly splinter into smaller and smaller factions. You have another who believe that absolutism is great except we accidentally gave the big chair to the wrong guy, and wants to put their cult guru on the throne, and despite lots of surface level differences they are basically the same. You can have a third that has too direct popular control over policy, that results in demagogues achieving total power because the system is too easily to completely rewrite overnight so long as you can convince 70% of people to agree to it, and one that’s bogged down in bureaucracy to the point where no one person knows how their leadership even functions or why they’re enforcing the edicts that they are, and so on. Each rebel faction represents a specific answer to the question of “what would be better than this evil dystopia,” and learning from the ways in which they are wrong allows our protagonists to do it right when they finally stab the Glorious Leader in the face.

That specific example might not appeal, but there’s plenty of other questions with multiple possible answers to explore, where it’s not immediately obvious what the drawbacks of one answer or another are. What is the nature of justice? What does it mean to love someone? What kind of bear is best? This middle section is your opportunity to explore multiple possible answers to the question and demonstrate their flaws before presenting the one you believe to be correct at the end (and if you don’t like providing definitive answers to difficult questions, you can always make interactive stuff, where it’s the players’ job to determine which answer is correct, not yours).

Dungeon Born: Skipping Nothing

I’ve been so busy that I haven’t noticed, but we’ve long ago passed the point where it’s time to enter into rapid-fire summary mode, because I don’t really have anything interesting left to say about Dungeon Born. The economics continue to make no sense, the prose continues to capitalize words at Random, the plot continues to lumber along with minimal stakes and opposition, the narrative continues to infodump about arcanobabble metaphysics that allegedly codify the ARPG-style mechanics into a proper literary magic system but in practice just add a bunch of jargon to the mechanics without any deeper implications at all, Cal continues to make dumb excuses about why he’s not really the villain just because he’s murdering people for personal gain and in fact he’s actually quite fair-minded about letting people good at dungeon raiding have a proper reward so it’s actually kind of heroic how he murders people for the crime of misestimating their dungeon raiding abilities, isn’t it?

This book is boring. I’m 60% of the way in, way past the threshold of giving it a fair shake, and while I don’t want to drop it completely, I also don’t really want to give it the attention I have been. It’s already got way more posts than it deserves. Like, you’ve seen the bits where Cal makes shitty justifications for outright murder, so you can probably just take my word for it when I tell you that the book has equally shitty justifications for absolute monarchies despite recognizing their total apathy to the well-being of unemployed citizens along with an unstated assumption that anyone who wanted a job could get one, despite the fact that this has been true in exactly zero societies ever. I’d have to pull quotes from three or four different paragraphs of chapter 21 to paint every piece of that picture for you, but come on, after “people who take risks deserve to die if I can profit from those deaths,” is “poor people deserve to die because we can safely assume they’re lazy” really that much of a stretch?

Cal experiments with runes. Cal experiments with mobs. The Team continues to raid the dungeon periodically. Occasionally, parties of nameless losers raid the dungeon and some or all of them get killed. Cal gleefully absorbs their essence in a way that is definitely doubleplus non-villainous. Dale meets elves. Dale sells magic items. Dale allows a restaurant proprietor to set up a shop in his growing dungeon town, and it turns out she’s A-ranked, has a half-elf granddaughter who wants to join the team that Dale’s forming as a leader, and fuck I think I’ll actually need to quote some of that just for the novel ways in which it’s dumb. None of these things are actually interesting, even though they kind of sound like it in brief summary form, because they never go anywhere. Things happen, one after another, building to nothing, meaning nothing.

Had I not been so focused on getting a blog post out of the way for the day so I could focus on trying to keep all my other personal projects running, I probably would’ve noticed a lot sooner that this book is like a tofu-flavored hot pocket, not just empty calories but also bland flavored. Like, I have no fear of jumping way ahead in the plot, because the plot doesn’t actually build on itself.

So when we’re jumping from 60% of the way through the book to 80% of the way book to talk about that one half-elf, I’m pretty confident that to the extent that things seem disjointed, it’s only because that’s how they are in the book. Chandra’s the secretly-a-wizard restaurant owner, Rose is her daughter, she has some mysterious essence-related ailment, and bam, you are one hundred percent caught up from where we were one-fifth of the book ago, because the closest this book has to a plot or character arc is that sometimes new characters show up and append themselves to existing character dynamics without significantly disrupting them, mostly because they’re so shallow to begin with.

Continue reading “Dungeon Born: Skipping Nothing”

Dungeon Born: Spooky Dagger

Chapter Nineteen

An assassin (well, a thief who decides to get into the assassination business when his mark walks in on him stealing stuff) shows up to try and kill Dale. He fends off the assailant by ordering him to leave, which he is magically compelled to do. So in addition to rendering all organizational management problems – which are really just interpersonal problems with money involved, and therefore perfectly good fodder for drama – completely moot, this special law magic is also reducing assassination attempts to “assassin, plz go.”

Really, here’s the complete fight scene:

His reactions trained from months of battle, Dale jumped to the side, barely avoiding a slash at his throat. His mind whirled with options, but he was without weapons or armor so he froze up, earning a brutal kick to his knee. Knocking Dale to the ground, the masked man raised his dagger to deliver a coup de grâce, ending his existence. Panicking, Dale screamed the first thing that came to mind.

“Get off my mountain!” Dale ordered with a frantic squeal. Mid-swing, the man turned and started jerkily walking away, his dagger flying from his hand at the unexpected and unwanted movement.

Emphasis is mine, I’ve bolded all the extraneous words (and in one case an adverb that could stand to be replaced with something less awkward). I stand by my position that audiences don’t care about line-by-line craft nearly as much as writers and editors, but since I’m a writer, I’m still going to complain about all this cruft in what should be a fast-paced fight scene. Particularly since there’s not even any new maneuvers or weapons or tricks in this fight scene, which is the usual hang-up of slow fights. You want to show off your main character doing something awesome, which means you have to slow down and describe them doing it, because it’s a unique and cool-looking stunt. Having those is certainly way better than turning every fight into a narration of a PS1-era Final Fantasy fight where everyone is just lined up and slashing at each other until one side is out of people, but you need to set up the existence of these cool stunts in advance so that your reader has already seen them described once and you can refer to them quickly in a fight. Alternatively, figure out how to get a description of the trick down to a dozen words or less.

Continue reading “Dungeon Born: Spooky Dagger”

Dungeon Born: Stumbling Forward

Chapter Seventeen

The Team emerges from Cal’s dungeon and turns the bodies of the elemental rabbits over to a clerk for inspection, where he also makes a decision that the lower level is too dangerous for lower-ranked adventurers:

As a magically bound document, this would forcibly ensure that members of the Guild below D-rank could not enter the second floor, forcing them to have a C or higher ranked person with them who would have to give them special permission to enter.

This whole “magic document binds people to follow its rules” thing solves all kinds of what might otherwise have been interesting organizational problems. How does the Guild enforce their level gating? Do people ever ignore it? What’s the consequence if they do? You could have people subverting guild authority by going deeper into the dungeon despite standing orders, and others trying to catch them and put a stop to it before the trend catches on and casualties skyrocket. Instead, you sign a piece of paper with a magic wand and it’s impossible for people who don’t meet certain requisites to get down there.

Continue reading “Dungeon Born: Stumbling Forward”

Dungeon Born: Dungeon Renovations

Chapter Fifteen

While Cal has been sealed away working on his new mooks, the adventurers out front have noticed the dungeon is sealed up. Dale and his party are assigned to find a “seeker,” some kind of detection specialist mage, and get them to look at the door. You might assume this entails some kind of side quest, but no, apparently this mage needs an escort from one end of the camp to the other, and then for some reason needs to have their report back to the guild master relayed through Dale’s party instead of just going to talk to the guild master themselves.

We also get our first full look at Dale’s party:

They stopped and the other men in his group, Hans, the near silent Josh, and the ranger Steve, now looked upset at Craig’s words.

I can’t even remember which of Hans and Craig is the monk, and it’s still not clear what class Josh is supposed to be. Rogue, maybe? ‘Cause he’s quiet? Or maybe another Fighter, and he just doesn’t talk much.

In any case, without any dungeons to delve, Craig starts teaching Dale how to manipulate his chi more better. Which kind of mirrors what Cal is doing in his dungeon right now (remember that he spent a lot of time chi refining before he expanded his layout and experimented with the elemental bunnies), but I’m not sure what the parallel is supposed to indicate other than “both of these guys are protagonists of this book.”

Continue reading “Dungeon Born: Dungeon Renovations”