Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Undead

Completely forgot to have a Threadbare post on Monday, so instead we’ll have three for today, and I’ll stick the usual Tuesday article on Wednesday instead.

Chapter 4

Threadbare plays cards with the vampires, some kind of heavily luck based game that helps get Fluffbear’s stats higher. While there, the subject of Threadbare’s mission to save Celia from King Melos comes up, and from there, how much the vampires dislike Melos.

“S’aw right. Ya good company, ya know?” Madeline sighed. “Knew it was coming. Soon as the north folded, and Balmoran fell, all the little revolutionaries and resistance fightahs that had gathered heah were next. But nobody listens to the vampaiah, huh? Now Balmoran’s gone, the dwarves are next on the chawpin’ blahk, and only the ranjahs up in Jericho’s Reach ah keepin’ them alive. They’ll be gone too soon, and tha King’ll have total control. Of what’s left ah this land, anyway.”

So apparently Balmoran isn’t the last pocket of resistance? Earlier it sounded like King Melos was already the king of everywhere reachable, but now there were two, maybe three different entities outside his control? Depending on whether these Jericho’s Reach guys are their own polity or just an organization within the territory of either the dwarves or Melos. Why did Caradon hide out within Melos’ borders when he could’ve been in dwarf territory? If Melos knew Taylor’s Delve was full of rebels all along, why did he wait ’till Balmoran fell to torch the place, especially when Balmoran is apparently not even the last formal resistance? If the dwarves and Jericho’s Reach capitulate, is there going to be another rebel territory that turns out to have been resisting Melos all along? That last question is the really important one, the one that all these little questions add up to: Is the Rebel Alliance going to be able to just keep pulling out new allies as the plot demands? Because it’s starting to feel that way, and it’s hard to care whether the dwarves bite it when they’re completely interchangeable with whoever the next final bastion of anti-Melos resistance turns out to be.

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Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Halloween Wars

When I said that I might not be posting daily for a while, I’ll admit that I was thinking “I might miss a day or two here and there,” not “there will almost immediately be a nearly week-long dark period split up only by reassurances that I haven’t wandered away, I’m just really busy.” The .pdf text for Petals and Thorns is now locked in, though, and I don’t have any more deadlines to hit except to get the Pathfinder conversion done by the end of December so I can get it presentable by the end of January. That’s not a trivial task, but the deadline is generous enough that I will hopefully not be busy for several days straight anytime soon.

Now that we’ve taken care of the explanatory paragraph that people reading through the complete series in the future don’t care about, it’s time for…

Chapter 3

Threadbare and Dark Threadbare are burying the raccants while Pulsivar hangs out. The soap thing from earlier comes up again: The familiar scent from when Pulsivar was a well-cared for pet and not a wild animal fighting for survival has a calming effect on him, so rubbing some on Dark Theadbare convinces Pulsivar to trust her (it also came up when Threadbare first reunited with him, but I couldn’t find a good place to mention it).

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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

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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.

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”