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.

Succubus Is Awful, Which Is Probably Not Controversial

Time for the table of contents and tl;dr review on Succubus.

Part 1: Pet Imp
Part 2: Drawbacks of Team Spooky
Part 3: Boringly Sexy
Part 4: Kill Ten Boars
Part 5: Abandon Hope
Part 6: Hypocrisy
Part 7: Cringe
Part 8: Abuse
Part 9: Revolting

Succubus started out as an unremarkable book sustained primarily by its pace and reasonably plausible setup that soon decayed into mediocrity punctuated by really awful hack writing. Its dialogue, action, and pacing are at times unremarkable and at other places noticeably poor, but at least not in a way that would kill the book on its own, provided the book was actually good at something.

It is a cruel irony, then, that Succubus’ most notable failing is when it adheres constantly and loudly to the morality that not failing is sufficient to make something good, the Nice Guy insistence that a lack of bad qualities is a noticeably good quality. Closely related is how, in a vain effort to make this work, the protagonist Ian’s opponents are the most evil thing the author can think of, and not being very creative, the most evil thing the author can think of is mainly real world evil things artlessly translated into the story’s setting. Rather than having the protagonist engage in actual heroism of any kind, the author creates villains who are transparent, often explicit references to corrupt televangelists and antebellum plantation slavers, not because he has anything at all interesting to say about either, but because pitting his protagonist against these particularly evil people will hopefully make Ian’s totally banal selfish asshattery seem heroic by comparison.

But Ian’s not a good person. He’s wholly selfish from beginning to end. Early on he learns that bandits are kidnapping children and selling them to orcs as slaves. After pounding his chest at how outraged he is by this, he saves the one family under immediate threat and then forgets all about it, making no effort to track down the bandits’ informant within the town until it happens to come up as part of his quest to have sex with a succubus, and never doing anything about the orcs who are actually buying the child slaves, and are thus the actual root of the problem. Even assuming the bandits are totally defeated after losing their informant, it’s only a matter of time before someone else finds a way to supply the orcs with the child slaves they’re after, maybe from that village, maybe from another. The orcs buying the slaves are the real problem here. Ian never even thinks about doing anything about them.

The confused morality only gets worse at the end, when Ian is allegedly growing as a person, but his “revelation” is that he shouldn’t be forcing his summoned minions to do things against their will…so it’s a good thing he stopped doing that about 15-20% of the way through the book. Ian has been pursuing his summoned succubus’ agenda pretty much from the moment she asked him to. It is her will that directs Ian’s actions, not the other way around. Ian stopped overtly coercing his summoned imp Stig before he’d even summoned his succubus, and if Stig is being dragged along on the succubus’ vengeance quest against his will, the narrative never makes this clear. As a result, at the end when Ian is moaning about how awful he is for enslaving his summons, it’s completely unclear if there’s any validity to this alleged moment of character growth, and certainly the inclusion of the succubus among his supposed list of victims is inaccurate. Ian never once made her do anything against her will, except sort of to summon her at all – which is something he did without checking (and while unable to check) if it was against her will, and which turned out to line up with her agenda just fine anyway. There wasn’t a scene where she asked him to free her and he refused out of fear she’d leave, so there’s no sign that Ian has grown at all. I generally assume people are opposed to slavery by default, but Succubus springs “I realize now that keeping slaves is bad” on us without ever even establishing that Ian was willing to do that. We didn’t know he could remove the summoning collars until he was already doing so.

Ian’s actual fault throughout the book is that everything he does is done in the hopes of wearing down the succubus’ resistance to having sex with him, and while he makes a vague claim about having learned that the true meaning of love is doing what’s best for the person you love, not just using them because you enjoy their company, this is immediately followed by his getting sex anyway. The scene cannot be a rejection of Ian’s Nice Guy mindset because the vague implication that it’s wrong to help someone purely to try and wear down their resistance to sex is completely overshadowed by the strong affirmation of Nice Guy morals that once Ian has decided that slavery is wrong (which is apparently something he didn’t already believe?), he is rewarded with sex.

Ian and the succubus kind of deserve each other, though, because she’s just as bad. The narrative is much more willing to hit close to the succubus’ real failings than it is for Ian’s, but it still allows those failings to be swept away instantly and painlessly when the climax rolls around and it’s time for them to bone. The succubus is constantly abusive, using Ian’s (creepy, monomaniacal) attraction to her to persuade him into doing what she wants without ever actually promising anything in return, and also to torment and manipulate him for fun. Not in a kinky way (indeed, what brief references this book makes to BDSM suggest that it thinks of BDSM as inherently abusive, which is particularly idiotic coming from a book which has as one of its major themes “your abusive girlfriend will change for you if you just love her enough”), but in terms of doing real harm and causing real distress to Ian. Ian protests that he dislikes the mind games – calling them by that term specifically – and yet within a few pages he’s back to being manipulated by guilt and lust into giving his succubus oral sex in exchange for nothing. Something which his succubus was just barely complaining was unfair, which is apparently only true when she’s on the bottom.

When the succubus does finally admit to having behaved poorly (although she phrases this as “like a bitch” rather than “pretty much exactly like the people who abused me, to the extent that it was within my power to do so”), it follows no change in behavior whatsoever. She finally gets Ian off, sure, but she already knows from the oral sex earlier that she’s going to enjoy it just as much, and she leaves before he wakes up, leaving behind only a note explaining that she’s going to go and finish her vengeance quest on her own because she’s a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. Which wouldn’t even be a terrible note to end on, except 1) she should have said so in person and 2) she should not have had sex with Ian. Sex and guilt are what she used to keep Ian under her thumb. If she were really turning over a new leaf, she’d be giving up on that arsenal, not making full use of it. By finally having sex with him, all she’s done is guarantee that if she ever decides she does need a favor for him, he will obey.

And wouldn’t you know it, the book ends with a sequel tease in which she asks for his help.

Succubus: Revolting

We’re on evil ex-boyfriend two out of nine, but also 85% of the way through the book. So, clearly that sequel (and presumably one or more others, at this rate) was planned in advance. This one runs into a Hell world and seeks refuge with his level a billion demonic patron. Alaria tries to confront him and negotiate for her ex-master’s life, since the demon lord doesn’t seem super fond of him anyway, and then the demon lord just decides to take Alaria for himself, Ian tries to intervene, it ends poorly for him.

“Go ahead and kill me, asshole,” I said, just waiting for the new ten-second counter to hit zero.

“No,” the demon lord said thoughtfully, “I don’t think so. I know your kind. Warlocks like you are not bound by the normal human rules of death. If I kill you, you’ll just come back to bother me again, like some unnatural pest.” Shit. I had never run across an NPC who understood the mechanics of respawning – but this bastard certainly did. He was right – and both he and I knew it, unfortunately. “No,” the demon grinned. “I think you will serve far better as a slave in my mines.”

Wow, what an awful gaming experience. “Face off against NPCs who know you can respawn and will instead contrive to imprison you forever, rendering useless your toon who you poured dozens if not hundreds of hours into leveling!” Again, Succubus runs into the drawbacks of being an MMO and not just portal fantasy.

“Do you think he loves you?”

Her eyes flickered up at me again, and then she looked down, shamefaced. “Yes. That was why he came with me to kill Odeon.”

Now, see, just a few pages ago I extended Succubus the benefit of the doubt that maybe Alaria being awful may have been going somewhere after all, that maybe the book knew she was abusive. I didn’t really consider it likely that it might also go so far as to recognize that Ian is also awful, because he is the vehicle for shitty wish fulfillment, but hey, at least it could fill in one of the three holes it had dug itself. That third one is the tonal whiplash problem, which just can’t be fixed with any amount of reveal or character development. Regardless of what happens here at the end, the fact is that the beginning involved rape used like sprinkles on a cupcake in order to establish that our villains were bad, and that our hero was heroic for not liking them. Even if Ian turned out to be an actual good person at the end, no one could be blamed for giving up on Succubus at around the 25% mark when Ian staked out his claim to heroism as “opposed to rape.”

I’m not even willing to buy into those first two holes being filled in, though. Ian got within spitting distance of actually standing up for himself, but he didn’t actually do it. In fact, Alaria just immediately turned that around on him and used it to extort sexual favors out of him, and Ian was right back to being wrapped around her finger – despite having just got finished saying that yes, he was unhappy with how she treated him. This isn’t just a relationship that would be abusive if it happened in real life but which our protagonist emerges from unscathed by the power of a naive author, Ian actually is suffering from Alaria’s emotional abuse. That realization lasts all of about a page and a half before we instead have six pages of oral sex. I’m not complaining that the book contains a lot of sex. It’s a book about sex. That would be a weird thing to complain about. I am complaining that the book portrays an abusive relationship and doesn’t seem to realize it’s abusive, but instead devotes multiple pages to how great the sex is, and none at all to how this is bad for Ian. It mentions that it is bad for Ian, but that’s not an actual plot point. It’s foreplay, used by Alaria to set up a sex scene entirely on her own terms, for her own satisfaction.

So when the book shows a brief sign of self-awareness here by admitting that Alaria has used Ian, I have no confidence that it’s going to actually result in the narrative admitting that Alaria is an abuse victim turned abuser who isn’t ready to have a healthy relationship with anyone. For starters, that’s a really weird direction to take for a book about succubus fucking. It’s not a harem plot. If Alaria gets herself eliminated from the running on these grounds, there are no other love interests to take her place.

Continue reading “Succubus: Revolting”

Succubus: Abuse

Apparently at this point in the story Succubus got bored with itself and entered executive summary mode:

We went on a series of quests, and temporarily joined a group doing some dungeon diving. I got new cloth armor and some trinkets that gave me increased critical strike. I nearly doubled my intellect, and managed to level up all the way to 9. Along the way I got a couple of new abilities.

Mana Conversion let me trade in 25% of my remaining Health and gain back 20% of my total Mana. It was great for when I was in a really hard battle and ran out of Mana, which left me unable to cast spells – like that time when I fought the bandits. Now I could refill my Mana, then Soul Suck some sad sap to rebuild my hit points.

Another three paragraphs are spent on describing two more abilities and Stig and Alaria or Anaria or whoever getting some upgrades. Now, it’s not like this is a Let’s Play where the creator is limited by the content of the game they’re playing, and sometimes if there’s a boring patch they might be better off making a supercut of just the good parts. This is a wholly made up video game. The author is free to hand out levels wherever he wants and to have his quests be appropriate to whatever level he likes. Our next encounter of actual significance is an assassin sent to retrieve the succubus’ collar, which will stop Ian from resummoning her, specifically, and instead allow whoever holds the collar to control her, and I don’t see any reason why that encounter couldn’t have happened immediately after the baron. Maybe hand out a level for escaping the baron’s clutches if you want some new abilities on Ian, Stig, and the third member of the trio whose name I can never seem to hold onto.

Continue reading “Succubus: Abuse”

Succubus: Cringe

After being totally deprived of his followers’ support by the unsupported accusation of a single outsider who’s strongly coded herself as one of their most hated enemies, the local high priest calls upon his goddess for support, at which point she complains about having had her scripture misinterpreted and delivers divine retribution upon the high priest guy, depriving him of all mana and class levels so that the succubus can kill him. Because apparently what this book really needed was some heavy-handed moralizing.

It’s not like the analogy is entirely baseless. There’s a few verses in the New Testament where some people ask Christ what they should do about immodest women provoking sinful thoughts with their skimpy clothing and Christ’s response is (paraphrased) “that sounds like a ‘you,’ problem, have you tried gouging your eyes out?” When a bunch of people tried to stone a prostitute, he had that famous “if any of you are without sin, let him cast the first stone” line, and then he, the actually sinless guy, just asked her to please stop being a sex worker. So Jesus seems to be pretty opposed to sex outside of marriage, but also opposed to taking coercive action to prevent it.

More important than relatively minor differences in philosophy between the actual Jesus and the NPC drafted into playing Jesus for this morality play, the only reason I know all of this is because I already know all of this. Using quotes from the actual Jesus to illustrate the hypocrisy of an allegedly Christian preacher would still be kind of preachy, but if a book included a scene like that I could at least appreciate the scholarship. There would be an actual point made and people who didn’t know this already would learn something. People probably don’t pick up a book about fucking a succubus to learn theology, but they probably don’t pick it up to hear the author whine about how Christians don’t interpret the New Testament the way he thinks they should. And let’s get real here, AJ Markam is spectacularly unlikely to be Christian himself, so this isn’t even a Christian insisting (baselessly) that his interpretation of the New Testament is more valid then everyone else’s. It’s an outsider to the religion telling them how they should interpret their own scripture, not because he’s studied their scripture and can point out valid hypocrisy between what is written and how they act, nor because he has a greater moral philosophy about how the world should be regardless of what’s written in a book, but just because he said so. Because he apparently feels that his book should be regarded with more reverence than theirs.

The counterargument that immediately springs to mind would be “does the book have to be saying something?” And the answer is no, it would be way better if it hadn’t, but after drawing explicit parallels to Christian churches of 1850s America, you cannot then claim that your preaching is not meant to have any applicability to American Christianity. Shamus Young recently described this kind of thing as like a white guy showing up to a Black Lives Matter rally with a shirt that says “******* black people,” and then when someone asks what the asterisks stand for, saying “what? I’m not saying anything. It’s just a shirt. Why does it have to be saying something?” Once you’re making overt political or religious allegories, you can’t then back out of the allegory because you find it inconvenient.

Continue reading “Succubus: Cringe”

Succubus: Hypocrisy

You might think that the last post is going to precipitate either a total abandonment of Succubus or else some in-depth rantviewing. If so, you may wish to prepare to be disappointed, because we are now entering detached summary mode. Succubus is not recovering from chapter 11, but the thing is, there isn’t much room left to go down. Sure, there’s some, and I even have confidence that Succubus will at some point pull it off – but mostly I expect it to continue making the dumb mistakes it already has. As a rabid completionist, I’m going to see the book through, but I’m only going to go into details if Succubus shows signs of either getting better or somehow getting worse.

All that being said, Succubus does manage to fuck up in a novel way almost immediately:

Stig and I raced past the livestock pens over to the simple stone house with its timber roof. Three bandits were out in front, holding their hands over the mouths of three small, wriggling children.

Crap – I didn’t know if my powers would hurt the kids if I attacked the bandits.

So I opted for some real-world strategy instead.

“Kids – bite their hands!” I yelled. The children must’ve followed my orders, because every single bandit screamed and let go of them.

“Go to town and get help!” I yelled, and the children took off for the woods. Of course, that meant three bandits were coming right at me.

This is apparently how you solve a hostage situation. Have the hostages bite their lethally armed captors. That’ll go well.

Continue reading “Succubus: Hypocrisy”

Succubus: Abandon Hope

Chapter 11

So now Ian’s chipping away at his bandit quest. He has a new power that allows him to temporarily summon a four-imp hit squad to help him out on a two-minute refresh, so he just hangs around waiting for the timer to recharge between kills. This isn’t necessarily bad game design – Ian might just be pushing up against quests he’s a little underleveled for, and using what’s intended as a bosses-only panic button for clearing regular mooks. On the other hand, we’ve yet to see any sign of any stats besides health, mana, stamina, and intelligence, so giving this book the benefit of the doubt on game design decisions is probably unwise. Look at this, for example:

The bandit’s corpse yielded another 80 coppers, plus something else: a silver necklace with some sort of religious symbol made up of overlapping circles. When I inspected it, I found out it was the sign of Bartok, patron god of thieves, and added +3 to intelligence.

Why would a symbol of a thief god add intelligence and not agility or dexterity or some other stat associated with stealth? Well, because this game has two stats, which is insufficient to even cover the distinction between warrior, rogue, and mage, so the rogues have to timeshare with the mage stat, and it’s not clear if the stamina stat does anything except determine how much health you have – at which point why not just have a health total by itself?

When Ian’s stat sheet was so sparse early on, I kind of assumed it was because the author was introducing stats piecemeal rather than all at once. He felt the need to explain what Health and Mana were, after all, so maybe he was only going to have other stats added to the sheet as they became relevant, but for that to still be true it means that a god of thieves is handing out INT bonuses, which seems unlikely. If AJ Markam (our author) really was introducing stats piecemeal, now would be a spectacular time to tell everyone how DEX works, but it’s not happening.

But, wait, there’s something just a page later that makes this sloppy game design seem like peanuts. Remember how earlier I said that the best thing Succubus had managed to do so far is not fuck up, failing to manifest any strengths and instead just avoiding any serious failures? Well keep your arms and legs inside the ride, because we’re about to nosedive hard enough to make Zuula seem like sledding in a field.

Continue reading “Succubus: Abandon Hope”

Succubus: Kill Ten Boars

Chapter 8

Ian finds another farmer and picks up your bog standard “kill ten rats” quest, except it’s pigs instead of rats. He goes out into the woods, and…

I turned around, expecting to see Wilbur out of Charlotte’s Web.

What I got was a lot closer to Bebop out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – just no mohawk, glasses, or standing on its hind legs.

Yeah, no shit. Why were you expecting an adorable little piglet as the target of an MMORPG quest? The only porcine creatures that exist in MMO-land are humanoid sub-species and boars.

The thing squealed – a sound more like the xenomorph’s scream from Aliens than an oink – and charged right at me.

This description-through-reference isn’t a bad way to go, especially for an author like this one who seems to have difficulty coming up with original character designs, which is not a deathblow by itself. Obviously good character design is better than bad, but it’s fine if a book is good at other things, and if it’s bad at character/monster design, then description-through-reference is a reasonably good way of getting the description out of the way in a hurry so the book can focus on things it’s actually good at.

No, what I’m bringing up here is all these references: Charlotte’s Web, TMNT, Aliens. This isn’t the random grab-bag of references that a mediaphile who casually references things from before their birth gets up to. They were all popular in the same time frame. Ian is a millennial, and from the status of his job hunt and what we know about his having graduated college, he’s probably no older than late twenties or early thirties, maybe even as young as mid-twenties. Being in his mid-twenties would make him on the young end for a millennial today. How soon in the future is this book set?

On the other hand, this is kind of a reign of terror thing (even though Succubus is giving me plenty of nits to pick without resorting to being wholly arbitrary). Succubus isn’t making a plot point out of the era it’s set in, and it’s fine to say that MMORPGs go from regular video games to full dive by the year 2020, while society is still otherwise fully recognizable, for no better reason except that you want to tell a story about full dive games in a society that’s otherwise recognizably similar to our own. Things are going to change a lot in the next couple of decades it’ll probably take to invent full dive (I am not particularly confident in any specific set of changes, but I am quite confident that there will be lots of significant changes), and not every LitRPG needs to also be sci-fi futurism. Indeed, I took Awaken Online to task for having sporadic sci-fi futurism that wasn’t nearly up to the task of making me believe Jason was living in 207X, when he seemed more like he was living in 2030.

Continue reading “Succubus: Kill Ten Boars”

Succubus: Boringly Sexy

Chapter 6

Ian continues into town imp-free, notes that it is populated entirely by shiny races, but apparently this has not stopped a level 23 warlock from waltzing around with his succubus like he owns the place. And, wow, level 23 and he’s already got the succubus, so apparently that’s actually kind of a low level trick. Which is honestly kind of refreshing. Ian’s not going to stumble his way into an end game demon and be catapulted to incredible power. He’s just gonna hit level ten and have a less useless demon.

I am not impressed by the description of the succubus, though. I’m gonna stick that below the break (she’s not naked, but she’s close), so first let’s take a look at her master:

There was a guy walking through the center of the town square. He was tall and good-looking, with long hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He wore all black – a badass duster jacket that came down to his calves, a black vest, black shirt, black boots, black pants. The shirt was open to expose a hairy, muscular chest. He had an awesome staff strapped to his back, apparently made out of an orc spine with the upper half of a skull at the top. Two huge rubies were fixed in the eye sockets and glowed faintly.

He basically looked like a Rock and Roll god.

Really? Dude has a black duster and a skull staff and your thought is “rock and roll god” and not “looks like he’s got his basic gear sorted out and found a decent magic weapon?”

Continue reading “Succubus: Boringly Sexy”

Succubus: Drawbacks of Team Spooky

Chapter 4

The length of this post is constrained by the fact that I’m running the first session of Iron Fang Invasion for a paying group in thirty-five minutes, so we’ll see how much of the book I can review in that time. Start the timer!

I looked around the meadow. I didn’t really want to kill anything defenseless, but I reasoned that it was a videogame. I would be killing digital people soon enough. What was some wildlife compared to that?

Over by the nearest tree, a skunk was minding its own business.

I figured the world could probably use a few less skunks.

Currently, my LitRPG rating scale goes from Awaken Online to Threadbare (I could add in stuff I haven’t reviewed for this blog, but that seems kind of unsporting, especially since I plan to reread some of the stuff from Royal Road for blog purposes), which means just acknowledging that how inconsequential it is to kill NPCs gets this book halfway to the top all by itself.

Continue reading “Succubus: Drawbacks of Team Spooky”