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”

Conan the Indomitable: Twin Wizards

Chapter Eight

Katamay Rey and Chuntha are proving to be almost interchangeable. They’ll probably turn out to have different powers or something once they get more involved in the plot – or at least, I hope they do – but right now they send out their minions at about the same time, make contact with their minions demanding results at the exact same time, and lose patience and take matters into their own hands at the exact same time. That last one is what initiates this chapter, as the cyclops and the worm have both moved beyond the range of their respective masters’ ability to make contact with them. Even though they’re different means of magical communication that work slightly differently, they nevertheless both get out of range at the exact same time leading to both wizards to lose patience within a page of each other. The only real difference is this:

The man – the big, strong, handsome, virile man – might be escaping her cluthces even as she lay upon her bed dreading the very thought.

And also Chuntha is naked, for some reason. So, yeah. That’s the singular difference between Chuntha and Katamay Rey: Chuntha is a hot naked chick who really wants to bang the audience insert character. It’s 80s Conan, so it’s not like this kind of thing is unexpected, but still.

Also, Harskell, having retreated from the cavern with one of the bats, is now interrogating a Blind White. I guess Steve Perry just forgot which kind of creature they’d captured on the way out? I double-checked the end of chapter seven, it was definitely a wounded bat they collected on their way out.

Conan and company are sailing on the Sunless Sea, and Conan muses that anyone who tries to swim after them would likely end up devoured by some massive sea monster like the one whose corpse they converted into a raft. But why don’t the sea monsters come after them? They’re paddling a fresh corpse around! It’s still perfectly edible to sea monsters, and so are the passengers. It’s disturbing the water about as much as a swimming creature would. The raft behaves exactly like a wooden boat, though, including deterring predators from attacking because it magically doesn’t smell like meat.

The cyclops and the worm are starting to grow on one another as they continue to pursue Conan and company, finding some detritus of the raft construction and setting out for the Webspinner Plants’ lair in order to get a web boat to chase them with. At the same time, the two wizards are setting out in pursuit with small armies of their minions, so apparently Conan and Elashi have leveled up and the GM is now deploying higher CR opposition.

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Conan the Indomitable: Steve Perry May Actually Be Getting Good At This

Chapter Four

The length of their fall was nearly five spans; fortunately, the bottom of the descent was watery.

What’s the point of giving a numeric distance if it’s in a unit that no one knows? And I mean literally no one, because the “span” used here cannot possibly be the historical span, which was the span of your hand from thumb to pinkie. That’s like half a foot, so even with generous rounding we’re talking about a fall of like three feet, here. Clearly this “span” refers to something else. I’m guessing approximately one yard? Just because the author is American, will probably use American units, and five yards is about the distance that seems to have been fallen here. But American units of distance are already pretty old timey and archaic, you can seriously just use them and it makes perfect sense. A foot is roughly the length of a guy’s actual foot, a yard is roughly the length of a man’s stride, a mile was originally 2,000 yards (while marching, your left foot would hit the ground 1,000 times exactly in a mile) but due to conversion issues between Roman and British units wound up being 1,760 yards instead, and the league is about how far you can get walking in an hour. Almost no one uses leagues outside of fantasy context anymore, but they’re at least a sensible unit of distance for iron age peasants walking places. Inches are the only weird one, a length whose definition is three lengths of barleycorn because fuck you, that’s why, but once you’re using all the other units, you may as well use inches, too.

The water isn’t super deep, but Conan and Elashi soon encounter a White. A Blind White, which I think is just their full name, not a specific sub-type. In addition to being a white ape, these things also have oversized ears and no eyes at all, just smooth flesh and bone where the eyes would go on a normal primate. Likewise, we learn that the full name of the bats are “Bloodbats.” I guess that makes sense alongside “fruit bats.” We also learn the full name of the Webspinners is “the Webspinner Plants,” so not actually spiders. This isn’t a masterclass in worldbuilding or anything, but this underground world does get a little bit more interesting every time we learn more about it.

Conan and Elashi fight their way past the Blind Whites, and a three-way chase soon ensues. Katamay Rey’s cyclops minion has the Blind Whites on his side, while Chuntha’s giant worm has the Bloodbats and Webspinner Plants on his. Both of them want to catch Conan, although why isn’t clear. Steve Perry is really consistently good at these build-up scenes, where problems stack up behind our heroes, but he also consistently has them arrive one at a time and fail to do any lasting damage. They neither compound on one another by showing up all at once nor risk wearing our heroes down by noticeably fatiguing them, injuring them, or depleting any kind of limited resource from them. Instead of danger escalating to a moment of cathartic climax during which lots of tension is released and then begins building up again, the story follows roughly a bell curve, with dangers being introduced one by one and then resolved one by one. Of course, that all happened back in 1987. It’s not impossible that he’s shaken that habit here in 1989. We’ll see.

Oh, also, the two wizards are both making plans for what to do with Conan once they catch him, and it’s not clear why they care so much about him yet, but Katamay Rey plans on chopping up his parts for use as ritual components, while Chuntha plans of using him for sex magic. Because of course the female wizard draws her power from sex magic.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: Steve Perry May Actually Be Getting Good At This”

Conan the Indomitable: The Obligatory Tavern Fight

Chapter Two

After seeing off the bandits, the fleeing villain swears that they will have Conan’s sword. The narrative stops to comment on how weird it is that they specifically want his sword, so safe to say this isn’t just a pack of bandits asking for the one valuable thing Conan carried and then their leader getting unreasonably attached to it when they were denied. Also, Conan is so dumb that Elashi has to point out the possibility of looting the corpses for cash to him, even though he plans to be a thief. It is again difficult to tell whether Steve Perry is buying into the “Conan is dumb” flanderization or if he’s just copy/pasting the “dumb husband” sitcom tropes endemic to the 80s (and which live on through ever worse seasons of the Simpsons and assorted Seth MacFarlane shows to this day).

Conan and Elashi come to stay at an inn in some wintery part of Corinthia, because apparently the road winds through Corinthia a bit before getting into Zamora. Feels a bit like Steve Perry wanted Conan’s journey from Hyperborea to Zamora to not only be exhaustively documented, but to be a grand tour of Hyboria’s northeast-ish. This is not a terrible idea, except that the only places visited in Brythunia were the Suddah Oblates, spider town, and the village that lived in the shadow of Neg the necromancer. Aquilonia is an aristocratic monarchy with knights and legions and such, Zamora is a land of thieves and assassins, Stygia is a place full of ancient magic and occult power, and Brythunia is…home to lots of small time cults, I guess? But I never got the impression that Neg’s village and spider town were meant to be typical exemplars of what Brythunia was like.

Anyway, there’s a guy who works for the inn who makes fun of some dim-witted bandits, and his zingers are one step up from “your face is stupid!” but still somehow manage to sail over one of the bandits’ heads. I guess it’s not completely unreasonable that this bandit is just real dumb, but from Conan’s reaction, we’re meant to believe this guy is actually laugh out loud funny with lines like “I can see that you are a wit. No, on second pass, I think that is probably only half true.” When this inevitably results in violence, it turns out this “witty” fellow knows kung fu. Like, almost literally. He learned it from the men of Khitai somehow, despite the fact that they’re on the other side of a desert, a sea, and a steppe (or a desert, some tundra, and a bit more of a steppe, or a whole lot more of desert, some mountains, and about the same amount of steppe as the first time – there’s a lot of routes there, none of them friendly). Also, Conan gets involved, nominally because Elashi threatened to get involved if he wouldn’t, so he caved to her demands again, but really because God forbid we have a fight in a tavern and Conan not get involved. I wouldn’t even be down on it if Conan was just straight up like “a fight in a tavern? Sign me up, this is my jam!” But instead the narrative contrives to involve him rather than just letting this Lalo fellow fight alone, since apparently he’s Bruce Lee.

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Mythos I

Part 1: Let’s Get the Conversation About Madness Out of the Way
Part 2: The Beast in the Cave
Part 3: The Alchemist
Part 4: The Tomb
Part 5: Dagon
Part 6: Double Feature
Part 7: Beyond the Wall of Sleep
Part 8: Old Bugs and Juan Romero
Part 9: The White Ship
Part 10: The Street, the Doom That Came to Sarnath, and the Statement of Randolph Carter
Part 11: The Terrible Old Man, the Tree, and the Cats of Ulthar
Part 12: The Temple
Part 13: Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family
Part 14: Celephais and From Beyond
Part 15: Nyarlathotep and the Picture in the House
Part 16: Sweet Ermengarde
Part 17: The Nameless City
Part 18: The Quest of Iranon
Part 19: A Conclusion For Now

For those of you reading these as they come out, you’ll remember that I meant to post this on Saturday, wound up reviewing a bit of Leaves of the World Tree instead, which I was originally going to review on Monday, but then Conan the Indomitable arrived early, so I started in on that. Conan the Indomitable is shaping up to be no fun at all, although that’s mainly because of its villain, who will hopefully not feature very much. In any case, I am procrastinating that by posting a wrap-up post for the first chunk of Lovecraft’s work.

I’m reading these stories in order of writing, because that’s the order Barnes and Noble presents them in their Lovecraft collection that I’m reading from. This means that this chunk covers his work from 1905, when he finished the Beast in the Cave, to 1921, when he finished the Other Gods. It covers Lovecraft’s early Poe period, several of his Lord Dunsany inspired dream works, and the first inklings of the Cthulhu Mythos in stories like Nyarlathotep, Dagon, and the Other Gods. Also, there’s a couple of stories that are basically just racist propaganda, because unlike most of these old timey authors, Lovecraft is pretty much exactly as racist as you’ve been led to believe.

At this point, Lovecraft’s stories are all very short, usually clocking in at less than ten pages (albeit ten pages of Barnes and Nobles’ large-ish hardback collection books), and they cover such a massive breadth of subject matter that it’s hard to summarize. This is the danger of reviewing collections by the same author rather than ones with any kind of unified theme or a single, larger work, I suppose. Lovecraft has written comedy that fell flat (Old Bugs) and comedy that worked really well (Sweet Ermengarde). He’s written spooky stories that are recognizably Lovecraftian (Dagon), that are more Poe-like (the Tomb), and ones where the basic fear is that black people exist (Arthur Jermyn). He’s got a surprisingly wide range.

The range on quality is pretty wide, too, although naturally for a collection that starts from when the author is fifteen, there’s a noticeable increase in quality over time. The Beast in the Cave and the Alchemist are of mainly historical interest, but starting with the Tomb and Dagon we get into some actually good Lovecraftian stories. Quality veers all over the place, as Lovecraft often hits duds when writing outside his comfort zone, as with the Tree, about Greek sculptors, and some of the stories have just aged really poorly, like the Street or Arthur Jermyn.

The only one of the sub-sub-genres that Lovecraft will ultimately be famous for that really get explored here is his dream writing. Polaris, the White Ship, the Doom That Came to Sarnath, and the first appearance of Randolph Carter (albeit not in any kind of dream world) are all amongst these stories. Dagon and the Nameless City give us glimpses of Call of Cthulhu, but Lovecraft’s dreamscape isn’t just glimpsed, but already pretty fully formed. The basic idea of a dream world full of alien wonders is a compelling one, but Lovecraft doesn’t always deliver on the alien wonders. The White Ship was a tour of all kinds of weird places, but the Quest of Iranon was basically just a list of weird names attached to pretty normal societies. There was a Calvinist place, and there was fantasy Las Vegas, and that was basically it so far as fantastical locales went.

It’s hard to really write about what Lovecraft’s written so far without thinking about what’s still coming, though. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, the Call of Cthulhu, and the Shadow Over Innsmouth are all still in the future, and it’s hard to see these stories as really anything more than build-up to that. Lovecraft’s whole career may actually just be a series of prototypes building up to his best works.

Conan the Indomitable: Inauspicious Beginnings

Conan the Indomitable arrived early, which means instead of figuring out what I’m going to do for the Monday review, we’re going to go ahead and dive into that. Just like Conan the Defiant, I don’t have the book in a copy/pastable format, although this does mean that I get a quaint ad in the back of the book for Hyborian War, a play-by-mail strategy game set in Hyboria from back in those primitive days when if you wanted to have a Conan-themed grand strategy game with dozens of different players each taking on a separate kingdom in the world of Hyboria, it was something you had to organize via snail mail with each turn taking 2+ weeks, not something you’d set up a Discord for and drop links on some relevant forums and subreddits and have turns every 24-48 hours.

Chapter One

This story is a direct sequel to Conan the Defiant, which means we open at the juncture between Brythunia, Corinthia, and Zamora, with Conan and Elashi bickering in a typical 80s sitcom kind of way. The narrative tells, rather than shows, who our characters are:

The speark of these words was named Elashi, a beautiful young woman born of the Khauranian desert. While lush of breast, she had the supple muscles and carriage developed by one familiar with hard work, and her legs were firm and slim from much walking.

I’m just kinda gonna leave the whole “lush of breast” thing there, because I’ve taken Steve Perry to task for this kind of thing often enough in Conan the Defiant that I don’t think there’s much left to add. I quote this passage mainly because it identifies Elashi – I think for the first time – as Khauranian, which gives us an idea of where she’s headed and how long her and Conan’s paths will follow alongside one another. And the answer is not far, because she is going straight across Zamora and Conan is in quest log mode, planning to get off at one of the cities along the way so he can start up his Robert E. Howard-penned thief stories.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: Inauspicious Beginnings”

Leaves of the World Tree: 3 AM

While I’m waiting for Conan the Indomitable to arrive, let’s take a look at another of the short story collection in Leaves of the World Tree. This one starts off reasonably interesting:

3 is the loneliest number. At 12, the people with work the next day are done hanging and head home. At 1 the reckless are partying strong. At 2, you can still find someone to talk to. Friends exist at 2. If you aren’t still hanging out at 3, no one wants to start. It’s too close to 4. People need to sleep. But I guess I’m not exactly “people.”

And then immediately faceplants:

If there is no rest for the wicked, I guess you can call me Doctor Doom. I’m being facetious, of course. I have no castle in Latveria. No robot army at my command. No, I’m quite alone most of the time. Then again, you don’t really understand what “most of the time” means for me. Not yet. Perhaps I should explain.

This whole paragraph is basically white noise in which our narrator gives us a metaphor and then explains why the metaphor does not apply. But if you haven’t figured it out, our narrator is immune to sleep. This story is going to try and convince me that this is one of those blessings that is actually a curse, and the obvious way to do that would be to have the narrator in a constant state of lethargy. If you never really need to sleep but are constantly in that state where you’re too tired to really focus, that would be terrible. It’s kind of like never needing to eat but always being hungry. Sure, you save a lot on groceries, but it’s not really worth it, is it?

But no, the narrator never gets tired at all, and takes advantage of this to work out a lot:

For one, I’m ripped as fuck. You would be too if you were never tired, and had twice as much time as you do now.

“Twice as much.” People only sleep one third of the time, unless they’ve got some kind of disorder.

More importantly, the narrative is trying to convince me that the downside to not having to sleep is being lonely all the time. I guess maybe this guy is an extreme extrovert, but even so, there’s still like twenty hours of the day where someone’s awake, and that’s assuming this clearly modern story takes place sometime before the internet era, when you can get into chat rooms or (in the past 5-ish years) voice chat with anyone at any time.

Continue reading “Leaves of the World Tree: 3 AM”

Conan the Defiant Was A Waste of Fun Ideas

Part 1: Pacifists Are Pretty Straightforward To Assassinate It Turns Out
Part 2: Also, Bonus Sexism
Part 3: A Gap In The Story
Part 4: An Overabundance of Dumb Tropes
Part 5: Into the Warp
Part 6: Finale

Books like Conan the Defiant are what make me pine most for a world with more lax copyright laws. It’s like the Star Wars prequels, an experience where I come out of it thinking “there were a lot of good ideas in there, crying shame about the lack of basic competence in execution,” and then I want to write my own version and make it better, but I’m also trying to transition to being a fulltime creative professional and can’t be writing entire 50k-100k word novels that can’t legally be used to make a dime when I could be using that time writing original IP that I own and can sell.

It’s too bad, because I think I could draw rather a good market writing things like a Final Fantasy 7 novelization with the middle section fixed up to be less aimless, or giving the MCU treatment to Conan by taking over half a century of stories, picking out the good ones or the ones which, like Conan the Defiant, have underutilized potential, and then stringing them together into a new continuity where each story is made with the others in mind. These sorts of things are often extremely popular across time, as we can see from both Le Morte d’Arthur clear back in the middle ages, a compilation of King Arthur stories into a unified chronology, all the way up to the MCU, and that despite the MCU being maimed by its lack of the Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Spider-Man at its inception. Kind of hard to make a unified Marvel timeline when the original Marvel super hero team and their two most popular franchises are both unavailable, but they made it work, and now the Disney Collective has assimilated the complete set, for better or for worse.

Conan the Defiant’s specific underutilized ideas are mainly the creepy spider cult we encounter halfway through and the magical second dimension he and his companions pass through to breach Neg’s fortress. The Suddah Oblates are also pretty cool, but those actually get used pretty much to their fullest extent. Conan meets them, enjoys their hospitality, and swears revenge when one of them is slain. Dude swears revenge on a hair trigger, but that’s fine, it’s a reasonably Conan-y thing to do, particularly when he’s got nothing better to do that weekend and there’s no fat merchants on hand to rob. Neg and his scheme for ultimate necromantic power are perfectly acceptable, but also get explored plenty in the narrative and plus aren’t really all that different from the evil necromancer queen we met in the Legion of the Dead, so it’s really spider town and the Warp that I wish was part of a more competent story, one good enough to provide precedent for those ideas and others like them to be incorporated into the Conan setting as a whole.

The poor storytelling that mars Conan the Defiant lies in two main areas. First, the dumb 1987 gender tropes that haunt the narrative constantly. No one line is particularly egregious, but minor annoyances are everywhere. Sometimes they’re just lazy – it makes sense that Conan is socially oblivious even if it’s a cliche tired enough to induce eye-rolling when it comes up. Sometimes they actually damage the setting – Elashi and, to a lesser extent, Tuanne behaving like stereotypical 80s sitcom women means they act like they live in modern controlled environments where things like spiders are rare enough that you might never get used to them and where life-threatening danger is rare enough that breaking down crying in response to it is something you might reasonably expect from full grown women.

Second, and this one would’ve been a deathblow even without the injury dealt by the first, some two-thirds of all scenes in the book are totally unnecessary. While the beginning arc at the Suddah Oblates is necessary to establish character motivation, the confrontation at spider town is necessary because it actually plays into the climax at all, and the final confrontation is necessary because it resolve the plot, everything else has no impact on the story whatsoever. The encounter with the dire wolf, every enemy who crops up at spider town who isn’t the spider cult in charge, the entire Disguise Master sub-plot where he’s hunting Conan for revenge, the undead Men With No Eyes, the various obstacles in the Warp when Conan and company use magic to penetrate Neg’s outer defenses, all of these have ultimately no consequences at all. They don’t even end up significantly slowing our heroes down, because although Neg does achieve supreme necromantic power, our heroes are able to take it from him again without incurring any losses, whether in material, injury, or even any significant exhaustion. The final confrontation would’ve gone the same if they’d arrived just after Skeer and fought Neg before he’d activated the Source of Light at all.

The next Conan story is Conan the Indomitable, which is in the mail. Couldn’t find any library copy of it, digital or otherwise, so I bought a copy, which I’m considering donating to a library when I finish so the next person doesn’t have to deal with this. The book is showing up on Monday, probably too late for me to get a Monday post out of it, but 1) I just realized I never did a Mythos Part One wrap-up post, so that’s probably going to be on Saturday, and also I’ve got plenty Leaves of the World Tree stories left to get through, so we’ll look at another one of those on Monday.

Conan the Defiant: Finale

Chapter Twenty-One

I’ve felt kind of bad while summarizing this story, because there’s just so much “this happens, then this happens, then this happens.” Partly, this is a hazard of reviewing chapter-by-chapter a story which cannot be easily quoted. Because reacting directly to the story’s prose is hard, I don’t do it very often. But also there’s the thing that all sloppy books get into eventually, which is that after a while they just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and rather than calling them out anew every single time, it gets easier to just skip over them and see if they’re going to do anything new. And Conan the Defiant isn’t.

So, Conan and company meet with Skeer, who defects for revenge on Neg. And then they hide from some zombie soldiers from Neg’s gathering army. And then they disguise Conan and Elashi as Skeer’s prisoners to get past the patrols to where the Source of Light is kept. And then Neg uses his new ability to look through a zombie’s eyes to confirm that Tuanne is paralyzed on the floor somewhere, but doesn’t bother raiding her memories to figure out why (the narrative says he can know what the zombies know just a few lines earlier, but here it seems like it can’t – was that line just in reference to his ability to see what they see?). He briefly considers having Skeer look into it, and while Skeer can provide guidance to Neg’s enemies, he cannot refuse direct commands, so if Neg asks Skeer if there are intruders in the castle, he must answer honestly. But then he decides not to. It’s not like being kind of careless is a consistent character flaw of Neg’s that is now coming to bite him, and it’s especially not like this is in contrast to a more meticulous Conan, Elashi, or Tuanne. He just briefly considers a course of action that would allow him to instantly thwart our heroes’ plan, and then decides not to, for no stated reason at all.

The “pretend to be prisoners” gambit turns out to be so much wasted pagespace. Conan and Elashi don’t even bother disarming themselves, let alone having their hands tied or anything else that might even slightly suggest they’re actual prisoners. Most of Neg’s slaves just don’t care, and let Skeer pass by them without so much as a raised eyebrow, up until the undead Disguise Master shows up. Since he wants personal revenge on Conan, he shouts that they’re enemies of Neg, and apparently Neg’s zombie thralls are under standing orders to attack anyone identified as an enemy. This is a really easily exploitable standing order, but I’m not gonna ding the book points for it, because Elashi exploits it immediately by telling the next pack of zombies they find that their pursuers are enemies of Neg, whereupon they immediately attack the zombies chasing them, and our heroes escape during the melee. I’m willing to believe that Neg never ran into this problem before he had a giant zombie army. Coming up with zombie commands that cause them to actually do what you want on autopilot is hard.

Continue reading “Conan the Defiant: Finale”

LitRPG Premises

If you’re writing LitRPG, one of the things you have to figure out is why this video games even matters. Other genres don’t have this problem, because they take place in some kind of “real world” (whether or not it bears any resemblance to the actual real world) and the stakes are pretty much automatic so long as anything interesting is happening. The villagers are people, not NPCs, the dark lord is an actual villain and not just a very elaborate toy soldier, and so on.

So what premises can solve the problem of stakes?

THERE ARE NO STAKES: There’s no fundamental stakes at all. Character arcs revolve around regular, real world problems, and the friendships and rivalries that develop over the course of the game. The major problem for this is that the game becomes a backdrop, and actually beating the game becomes pretty unimportant. Indeed, the most obvious character arc would be for the protagonist to initially be over-invested in beating the game because the rest of his life is a shambles on account of some terrible inciting incident (lost his job, girlfriend broke up with him, girlfriend broke up with him because he lost his job, that sort of thing), and that in the end he forfeits victory because the real treasure was the friends he made along the way. But, y’know. People read LitRPG to vicariously experience video games that don’t exist (or which they aren’t good at), so they’ll want a plot where actually beating the game is important.

Kayaba Strikes Again: The Sword Art Online solution. Someone has, intentionally or accidentally, prevented people from logging off, and also optionally causes anyone who dies in the game to die in real life. The only way to get out is to beat the game. The major drawback here is that it’s almost impossible to really justify. Sword Art Online gave the infamously unsatisfying answer of “even the guy responsible doesn’t know why he did it,” and Sword Art Online Abridged gave the answer that it was a series of dumb mistakes made due to sleep deprivation from launch crunch, which is funny, but only really works as a parody.

There’s also the problem that it makes little sense for players to oppose each other. Sure, a lot of people who wanted to play dwarf-aligned might grumble when the all-players omni-clan picks elves, but unlike in regular gameplay, no significant number of them will pick dwarves anyway and actually murder other players over it. Not enough of them to serve as an ongoing problem and not an early arc that gets resolved by the establishment of a single mega-clan, at least.

There’s another problem, although one that doesn’t matter as much to most LitRPG stories, which is that it makes no sense to have new players still coming in after the plot begins. On the other hand, if you can still connect to the server, just can’t log out, you could have an interesting sub-plot that everyone who joins after the death trap goes public is someone intentionally entering the murder server either to take advantage of the situation or as a rescue mission. If you see someone has a join date after the day the murder game was revealed, you know they came here voluntarily, which instantly makes them dangerous. Unlike everyone else, they came here fully expecting that they might get murdered, and probably expecting to do some murders themselves.

Isekai: Protagonists aren’t playing virtual reality. They have discovered a portal, been abducted, or reincarnated to a world that runs on video game logic. Their lives are on the line because they actually live here, and NPCs matter because they’re actually alive. “Beating the game” is desirable because “the game” is just an actual state of war or tyranny in the world. The main issue here is that part of the gameplay experience is that NPCs don’t matter. They’re expendable in a way that players are not, and that works only because players alone are real people rather than polyps of an AI. A lot of LitRPG like to ignore this and make a point of how their protagonists care about NPCs, which definitely works in isekai in a way that it doesn’t in other setups. For some reason, most stories that use the “hero is nice to NPCs” conceit don’t actually use the isekai premise, so the NPCs actually are expendable polyps of an AI, and the story just hopes we don’t notice this.

Willy Wonka’s Video Game Factory: The first person/group to beat the game, perhaps within some specific constraints, wins some fabulous prize. In extreme examples, ownership over the game’s company as part of the eccentric CEO’s search for a successor. In more realistic examples, a million bucks set aside by marketing to fuel interest. It’s easy enough to attach a Charlie Bucket protagonist who badly needs the money, and rich antagonists who don’t even need the money, competing just because they want to win.

We Live Here: The Threadbare option, wherein protagonists just live in a world that runs on game logic. There may or may not be any explanation as to why. LitRPG is still in the phase that fantasy went through just about a hundred years ago, where it’s still expected that there be some kind of tie to the real world, some sort of explanation as to why this universe runs on video game logic, and only a handful of stories are just having the world run on video game logic without any further explanation besides “that’s the premise.”

 

One irritating issue is that there’s one premise here that’s been driven into the ground (Isekai), and two other premises that are significantly more compelling (Kayaba Strikes Again and Willy Wonka’s Video Game Factory) but strongly associated with specific works (Sword Art Online and Ready Player One, respectively). There’s an immediate risk of standing in the shadow of an existing, well-known story if you use either one of them. I think this risk looms much larger in the minds of writers than readers. Writers, especially amateur writers, tend to value novelty far higher than audiences do. At the same time, Sword Art Online and Ready Player One had their respective moments, and those moments are over. Is there still an audience out there for whom “that sounds kinda like Sword Art Online” is a selling point rather than a condemnation?