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.

Threadbare Is Horrible Except When It’s Great

Threadbare is done, let’s have a table of contents:

Part 1: Cheering for the Protagonist
Part 2: Magic Tea Party
Part 3: Kill Ten Rats
Part 4: Going In Circles
Part 5: That Is What Bemused Means
Part 6: Yet Another Random Encounter
Part 7: In Which Threadbare Meets An Anarcho-Capitalist Vampire
Part 8: Nosedive
Part 9: I Warned You The Novelization Of A Dungeon Crawl Would Be Boring
Part 10: Crypt of the Nekomancer
Part 11: Inciting Incident

Threadbare has a good beginning and a good ending. I’m not surprised that it hooks a lot of people with its premise of a teddy bear golem who begins barely even self-aware and ends up as a contributing member of a dungeon raiding party. A zero-to-hero progression is a big part of the draw of LitRPG, and Threadbare starts from even more zero than most protagonists, being that he’s twelve inches tall and is desperately imperiled by a house cat for his first encounter. Threadbare’s adorable mannerisms and indefatigable will to keep going make him a really charming character. I cared about him instantly. Andrew Seiple does such a good job of making me relate to this distinctly non-human character that I compared the book to Pixar, for Christ’s sake. This book has a strong start.

But it doesn’t last. Although the fight scenes remain reasonably engaging throughout and Threadbare remains a good character, the focus of the story shifts from Threadbare to Celia during chapter four, which would have been fine, except that Celia has no proactive motivation or particular goals. From chapter 4 all the way through chapter 12, things just happen to Celia. A spooky bad guy tries to trick her into doing something dumb, and Celia isn’t having it. She gets a quest, she completes it. Her new friends want to raid a dungeon, so she does. There is no character arc and no unifying plot, things just happen, one after another, for three-quarters of the book. Although the plot is engaging when it finally shows up at the end, it spends so much time getting there that there’s barely even any book left when it arrives.

Then at the end the timeline advances by so much that the current state of the setting no longer fully applies when the second book begins – Celia is (presumably) a teenager, every location we’ve been to has been burned down, and so on. As inciting incidents go, “villain burned my home town down” isn’t super original but it’s perfectly functional and the scene is mostly well-executed, and while the scene itself is pretty by-the-numbers, the time skip in the aftermath is potentially interesting if Celia has turned to the Dark Side under the bad guy’s influence since then (she was successfully kidnapped by her birth father at the end, after all). The problem is, the inciting incident of the plot was used as the climax of the first book. If Threadbare wanted to wait this long for the bad guy to get his villain on, that’s doable, and having a slow burn where characters take a long time getting established before the home town gets torched is a defensible decision. In order to make that work, though, there needs to be an actual plot preceding the “burn down the hero’s home town” beat, and we didn’t get that.

And then there’s fucking Zuula. Just, dear God. This character takes a thin stereotype of Afro-Caribbean culture with green skin, and that would’ve been kind of racist in that it casts the more-or-less American cultured protagonists as human and Afro-Caribbean culture as not human, but by itself that would’ve been something to mention in the extended review but not nearly a big enough deal to bother with in this summary. However, when that Afro-Caribbean stereotype is then combined with the standard fantasy schtick of orcs as a fundamentally violent and primitive people, things suddenly go from “kind of racist in a way that merits pointing out in an in-depth review, but not in a quick overview” to dive deep into “racist enough that it becomes a significant defining factor in the quality of the book.” Zuula being extremely racist is the reason why this post is entitled “Threadbare Is Horrible Except When It’s Great” instead of “Threadbare Is Aimless Except When It’s Great.” Zuula is a massive drag on every scene she is in.

Threadbare was originally posted serially, and after Zuula’s chapter 8 brief but comically violent introduction in front of her house covered in skull trophies, we got chapter 9, in which Zuula and her half-orc kids (or quarter-orc? I seem to recall Zuula being referred to as half-orc at some point, but later in the narrative she starts referring to herself as fully orcish – maybe I confused a reference to Mordecai’s kids for a reference to Mordecai’s wife before either had been introduced onpage) are overtly analogous to black people facing racial discrimination in the United States, and Threadbare gives us a Very Special Chapter about racism. Delivered primarily through the mouth of a racist caricature. Actually, human (and presumably white) Mordecai delivers most of the actual moralizing, and Zuula just interjects with some commentary. And even here, they only more firmly establish the presence of the “violent orc savage” fantasy trope, even as they more firmly wed that trope to Afro-Caribbean culture and history. If chapter 9 was intended as a backpedal or clarification on this story’s stance on racism, it backfired hard, mostly because even when fully clarified this story’s stance on racism is that black people are alien caricatures, but also that the Ku Klux Klan are still the bad guys for wanting to exterminate them. It’s an “at least we’re not Hitler” defense, and while it’s worth pointing out that Threadbare isn’t openly hateful towards Afro-Caribbeans, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to set the bar for minimally good portrayal of race issues in literature as high as “recognize the humanity of non-white people.”

Threadbare: Inciting Incident

Chapter 13

Mordecai has arrived at Caradon’s house. It’s a wreck from the screaming eagle attack, which was apparently a pretty thrilling battle. Crying shame it wasn’t actually depicted at all.

“I succeeded.” Caradon smiled. “I succeeded.” He pointed at a tiny black teddy bear, who waved back and showed him her cards.

Caradon seems to have gotten over that “created and immediately murdered dozens of sapient beings by accident” thing in a hurry.

Caradon is trying to convince Mordecai to help him upgrade Emmett into a greater golem. Mordecai is skeptical. It’s not clear why. If he’s worried about something going wrong with the upgrade, then the obvious thing to do is to wait until Caradon’s regenerated some blue juice so he’ll be able to intervene if things go horribly wrong. It’s not clear why Caradon wouldn’t want to do that, when he’s been hiding out here in the woods for eleven years without getting raided once. It seems unlikely that today’s the day his card will come up. On the other hand, if Mordecai is opposed to upgrading Emmett in general, then why? Wasn’t a golem army always part of the plan?

“These are our hopes and dreams, Mordecai! Moreso than we ever planned! It’s a chance, it’s our only chance, and every minute I delay is a minute that the King’s forces draw around us! Balmoran has fallen, Mordecai, and this is our only hope! This is Celia’s only hope!” Cardon’s fist hit the table.

Typo on Caradon’s name is from the text. This impassioned plea would make a much bigger difference if we had any idea what Balmoran is or what it had fallen to. The King, I guess? Isn’t he already the king of everything reachable? Was Balmoran some kind of rebel base?

Continue reading “Threadbare: Inciting Incident”

Threadbare: Crypt of the Nekomancer

Chapter 11

Threadbare’s been blown off a cliff and into a catacomb, in keeping with the cat pun theme of the dungeon, and the first thing I notice is that this book is good in inverse proportion to how much Celia is in it. Early on, when Celia was a secondary character and Threadbare’s developing relationship with the world around him and particularly Pulsivar drove the plot, it was good. Later, Celia became the protagonist and Threadbare a deuteragonist, even to the point of regularly jumping into Celia’s perspective without warning, and things began to drag before eventually becoming absolutely awful. Now that Celia is communicating intermittently through a long range comm skill and Threadbare is mainly figuring things out for himself, things are good again. Like, good enough that I went ahead and deleted an introductory paragraph about how I wasn’t sure I even wanted to finish Threadbare because I’m kind of stressing about some things lately and things I’d normally just laugh at are exacerbating the stress right now, and after actually reading a bit of chapter 11 I decided that no, actually, this is fine. This is actually a good book that I’m happy to read on its own merits, regardless of how many snarky blog posts I get out of it.

It took a while, and as he went, his thoughts strayed back to home. He was starting to miss the place. This was a fun adventure and all, but when they were done it would be nice to get back where he belonged. Hopefully Daddy was okay without Celia there to keep an eye on him.

This sets up a segue to Caradon back home, so clearly Anise is about to whack him or something. Hopefully Anise is not actually just going to show up to abduct/murder him, because if she does, that raises the question of why she didn’t do so earlier. She’s had access to the golem command scrolls and Celia’s been out of the house for a while. For that matter, seeing as how Anise can apparently command the king’s men as though they were her own lackeys, why doesn’t she get a patrol together and just stomp all over the raggedy men? Is being a golemancer so OP that a dozen warrior classed characters will succumb to one guy who can’t even get greater golems working right?

Continue reading “Threadbare: Crypt of the Nekomancer”

Threadbare: I Warned You The Novelization Of A Dungeon Crawl Would Be Boring

Chapter 10

Okay. So. Celia and her new black friend are climbing up the mountain to a dungeon, where they will slaughter monsters for XP and gold while cursing the government for regulating their blood sport. For whatever reason, only the tamer kid is with Celia right now, and the others are gonna catch up later. Also, they meet a dwarf lady on the way, who I think was mentioned at some point towards the end of chapter 9 during technical difficulties.

The ankh on her steel breastplate gleamed silver, though, and Celia thought it looked familiar.

“Is that a holy symbol of Aeterna?”

No, you dumbass, it’s the symbol of the avatar of the eight virtues of Brittania. This is basic gamelore! Is Caradon even giving you an education at all in your remote, unabomber-style hideout?

Continue reading “Threadbare: I Warned You The Novelization Of A Dungeon Crawl Would Be Boring”

Threadbare: Nosedive

Chapter 8

Celia and Mordecai are out in the woods near a mining town doing scout things to power level Celia’s shiny new class skills.

“Two crafting jobs left.” She swallowed. “One of them will probably have to be smith, if I want to— If I want to follow in Mom and Dad’s footsteps.”

“Because of Emmet?”

“Yeah. And more like him, someday. So I’ll probably need Tinker too, like Mom had. So I don’t have a lot of room to learn more stuff.”

We’ve finally got the maximum number of jobs nailed down. Also a suggestion that maybe the ultimate plan here is to build a drone army with which to take over the world, which is surprisingly munchkin for people who can’t figure out how to use public quests for power leveling. Maybe “more like him, someday” means, like, five.

We usually sends little golem birds back an’ forth.”

“So THAT’S what they’re for!” Celia raised her hands. “I asked him and he wouldn’t tell me! He’s got a whole hutch of those things, and they come and go and I never found out why.” She frowned. “Wait, why would he need a dozen of them to talk with you?”

“Ah…” Mordecai shifted. “I ain’t the only one he talks with.” His eyes flickered, and his face darkened. “Though I reckon a lot of his friend up north ain’t gonner be talkin’ much wi’ him no more.”

“What?”

“Nevermind.

Celia is bizarrely underinformed for a native to this world. I half suspect that the idea here is that by making her so uninformed, other characters have reason to explain things to her, and thus to the audience, but most of the exposition she gets is either unimportant (who cares if the world used to run on AD&D rules?) or could’ve been demonstrated (we could learn that Caradon communicates via golem bird just by watching him communicate via golem bird – the concept is intuitive if depicted).

If you rip out 100% of all setting exposition from most fantasy or sci-fi stories and hand it to a reader, they can usually pick up what’s going on with no further assistance. What exceptions exist are almost exclusively abstract concepts like politics and religion, and even these can be worked in without expositional info-dumps if you’re willing to do some rewrites to, for example, depict the king’s men clearing a dungeon instead of talking about it. The tradeoff there is time. If you have a lot of complex politics to explain, having each policy and allegiance depicted might take up a hundred pages or more before you can actually get the plot rolling, and that’s like one-third of a decent size fantasy novel, so there’s definitely a time for expositional summary. That time is not “anytime I need to explain anything, ever.” A lot of this feels like the author writing their worldbuilding directly into their draft and then failing to edit it out rather than maintaining a world bible to drop their worldbuilding into.

Continue reading “Threadbare: Nosedive”

Threadbare: In Which Threadbare Meets An Anarcho-Capitalist Vampire

Chapter 7

Our chapter title today is “Randahm Encountahs,” so presumably it will be exactly like the last six chapters but in a funnier voice. Maybe also happier and with your mouth open.

The Raccants chased Celia and Threadbare around the hills for the better part of a day.

I suspect that what’s happening here is that the author wants the two day time limit on this quest to actually mean something, but in order to make that work has to find some way to burn through a bunch of extra time, so instead of just having the encounter, we instead have half a day gobbled up in the first sentence.

Celia and Threadbare get turned around, start going the wrong direction, and Celia decides to keep going anyway because she’s afraid of encountering the raccants again. They end up in a graveyard full of tombstones that have those spoopy little poems as epitaphs:

Threadbare moved to the next stone, and checked it for words. Celia followed, reading as she went. “Here lies Sandra Schtupp. Pissed off a vampire, never looked up. Here lies Barry the Bold. Went into my mausoleum to get out of the cold. Here lies Dorothy Gunn. Looted my lair but failed to run.” Words started to repeat, here and there as she went, and Threadbare’s mind expanded.

INT +1

Midway through the morbid recitals, Celia stopped, as a spreading look of horror crossed her face. “Oh. Oh no.” And from behind her, from the darkest part of the trees, she heard the slow, steady sound of leather smacking on leather, as someone clapped their gloved hands. Trembling like a leaf, she turned…

…to see a girl just a bit shorter than her, leaning against a tree.

This chapter has all kinds of weird whiplash in it, mainly just because I’ve gotten really familiar with the really good and really bad parts of Threadbare and they’re layering themselves pretty much directly on top of one another. That snippet there, for example, is funny. It’s got a great pace, Celia’s smart enough to figure out the obvious, and unlike what happened in chapter 2, the book doesn’t feel the need to spell it out for us.

Immediately afterwards, this happens:

“Finally, somewahn gets it!” The strange girl said with a nasal accent. “Good on yah! Four stahs! Now scram, kid, befahre I eat yah.”

So now I’m waiting for the part where it gets happier and with your mouth open.

Continue reading “Threadbare: In Which Threadbare Meets An Anarcho-Capitalist Vampire”

Threadbare: Yet Another Random Encounter

Chapter 6

I keep waiting for the point when Threadbare starts to get repetitive and I enter into more long form summary mode instead of going chapter by chapter, but it still hasn’t happened. Partly that’s because Threadbare started strong, so I spent a lot of time praising it, and then got weaker, so I spent a lot of time criticizing it.

Early on in Chapter 6, Caradon decides to send Celia off with Mordecai to learn the ways of the Scout (read: gimpy proto-Ranger), and does so by formally offering a 1,000 XP quest for it. Now, we’ve already established that offering quests is a means for one character to transfer XP to another, presumably in exchange for some act of service. The details haven’t been explained, but it seems like the best use of this would be to offer trivial quests for assloads of XP. It seems like anyone can accept the quest (probably within a certain radius), so this could lead to accidentally draining several times more XP than anticipated when a bunch of randos complete the quest in advance of the person you want the XP to actually go to, or accidentally giving the XP to whoever shows up first if the quest ends for everyone once completed by anyone, but there’s ways around that. One of the most foolproof but logistically difficult ways around it is to hand the quests out in a secluded area, but the logistical difficulties aren’t actually a problem for Caradon, Celia, and Mordecai, because they already live in a secluded area.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether XP affects just level or job rank as well and how important it is to level up individual abilities (which appear to level only when used) as compared to just raw stats, but it is certainly true that Celia could be walking around with a much higher level if Mordecai offered her trivial quests for large amounts of XP – XP that he, being fully grown, already high level, and presumably with a high job rank, can much more safely re-acquire. The entire plot of this chapter revolves around Celia needing to get a higher level (and when discussing it in the last chapter, it was specifically her level they used to measure her overall power, which implies that level is more important than anything else, although this might just be because they haven’t realized they can hand out XP wildly disproportionate to what someone of her power could safely acquire on her own and thus expect levels, job ranks, and ability upgrades to be roughly consistent with one another even if that’s not necessarily the case when power leveling), and the chapter opens up with Caradon busting out a trick that he (or especially Mordecai, who seems to kill monsters more frequently) could easily use to power level Celia and not even noticing that he could use it for that purpose.

Continue reading “Threadbare: Yet Another Random Encounter”

Threadbare: That Is What Bemused Means

Chapter 5

“And if I let her go after every adventuring job she wants, she’ll fill up her choices before we know it, without the one we need. Then we’ll all be sunk. You know the stakes, Mordecai.”

This is approaching the worst line I could possibly imagine in this situation. I’m sure you could come up with some contrived even worse thing to write here, but this feels like it may actually be the worst actual thing to write into the early pages of this chapter without actively trying to be bad. “The plot has stakes, I promise,” the book says, without elaborating at all. Fantastic! Tell me what they are.

“Nah, lessn’ you fink. Dye her hair, mud up her face, take ’er into town as me apprentice from a family out in the hills, won’t nobody bat an eye.”

“Mordecai, I don’t want to hear it.”

“Then you sure as hell won’t wanna hear this. Right now she’s eleven. In a year or two she’ll get her woman’s blood. And if you fink she’s restless now, what d’ya fink she’ll be like then?”

Mordecai’s accent was grating enough before he started using “charming colloquialisms” to add a whole extra layer of creepy to this conversation between two older men deciding the fate of a girl without consulting or even informing her. She is literally a child, so that’s not actually unreasonable or anything, but it’s a sign of two things: First, Mordecai’s accent is grating and things that draw attention to it in a weirder way than normal make it grate worse, and two this conversation is boring. It’s full of promises that the plot is right around the corner for sure without actually delivering anything. Threadbare has three chapters of good will to burn through, and they’re getting through it pretty quick right now.

Continue reading “Threadbare: That Is What Bemused Means”

Threadbare: Going In Circles

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 introduces us to the idea that it is possible to offer a public quest, which Caradon (the guy what made Threadbare) does, specifically, a quest to clean all the decaying corpses out of the basement. So apparently corpses rot in this world, rather than remaining preserved forever or dissolving completely after a fixed amount of time, both of which were also plausible for a LitRPG world up until now. The chapter also opens with some more familial conversation, and it’s still kind of petty and mellodramatic, but I’m wondering if maybe it’s supposed to be the emotional core of the story? Because the emotional core of this story is a one-armed teddy bear tearing his own arm off while yanking a shelf down on top of a marauding rat king. It’s a Rocky Balboa underdog story. To the extent that Celia is important at all, it’s because she can play the role of the kid in this picture:

Teddy Bear Defends Child

Adding in family drama on top of that would be fine, but it has to be, like, actual drama. Not this “I can’t believe you had me doing laundry when you had a spell for it this whole time” shit, particularly since as far as I can tell Caradon’s position on this is in fact completely indefensible. He’s apparently just making his daughter do an unnecessary chore purely for the Hell of it.

I mean, look at this:

She snorted laughter into his chest, as she hugged her Daddy for all she was worth. “In fact, I’m proud of you for confessing what you did… what you THOUGHT you’d done. So I’ve come to a big decision.”

“Yeah?”

“I was planning on stepping up your lessons, telling you some of the things I’ve been holding back. You’re mature enough to handle the truth now, I think.”

The context doesn’t make it any more impactful. In fact, probably the opposite is true: Without any context, you can imagine that this is coming at the end of a conversation where some kind of actual character development has occurred, but no, Celia has confessed to something we didn’t even know she wasn’t supposed to do until she was confessing to it (she left the cellar door open), and this is apparently the impetus for Caradon to start teaching her the big girl magic, for some reason. Particularly coming on the heels of chapter 3’s “I could do laundry effortlessly but instead it’s your job to do it by hand because of reasons,” I am not feeling a single shred of this family dynamic.

Continue reading “Threadbare: Going In Circles”