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.

Survival Quest Is Pretty Good, Which Is Probably Why It Got Copied So Much

As is tradition, this is the table of contents post at the end of the Survival Quest readthrough/review.

Part 1: Sentenced to Video Games
Part 2: Scandanavian Subversives
Part 3: Capitalism, Ho!
Part 4: Still Pretty Good
Part 5: Waiting For The Other Foot to Fall
Part 6: Overpowered
Part 7: Bumper Episode

I picked up Survival Quest even though it’s slightly out of genre because after being somewhere between partially to completely spiteful towards the first three LitRPG books I’d reviewed, I felt like it was necessary to establish that I do actually like the genre. Survival Quest was recommended to me by Longes, the most active follower of the blog, and that seemed way more likely to give me an actually good book than just randomly picking whatever was popular off of the Amazon charts.

That panned out. Survival Quest is an actually good book (the abbreviated length of the table of contents above is mainly because I spent more time actually reading the book for several pages before realizing that I really need to stop and catch my readers up on what’s going on, rather than stopping to snark every three paragraphs just to keep myself entertained). It’s not completely flawless, but it manages to hit the most important points: It’s got a protagonist I actually care about and a story that actually made me nervous about whether or not things would go wrong.

The cast of characters is a little bit thin, but that’s hardly surprising considering the confined space the first book takes place in and the ones they have all work. I liked Danny’s entrepreneurial spirit and consistent cleverness in finding new ways to exploit the system around him. I disliked the villain Bat and I cheered when protagonist Danny got bloody revenge on him. The mine governor was neither entirely on Danny’s side nor entirely opposed to him, but was instead just faithfully executing the laws he was charged with upholding, whether that helped Danny or not, and likewise the dwarven proprietor of the mine’s shop was just a businessman who wanted cash, and was mostly indifferent to Danny (and easily irritated by him at that), but could be haggled with. Characters had motivations that I could understand and which didn’t revolve around liking or disliking the protagonist, which was the defining feature of almost everyone in Awaken Online, or which were caricatures of people the author either didn’t like to be used as villains or wanted the approval of to use as heroes, as in Succubus, or were fucking Zuula, like in Threadbare.

Talking about how Survival Quest just didn’t fuck up so bad as other books isn’t doing it justice, though. I briefly discussed Danny’s cleverness in optimizing the system, and that’s what really stood out about Survival Quest. Danny is ambitious and clever, haggling the dwarf into loaning him a mid-tier pick so that he can more rapidly get the money he needs for a high-tier pick even with interest, running a scheme to buy up all the spare ore in the mine so that he can turn them into stat-buffing rings, then turning around and selling them at a profit to the people he just paid for the ore, renting out his services as healer in a mine infested with deadly super rats to hit his quota with days to spare. Danny is constantly hustling, and that makes his eventual success feel, for the most part, earned.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and it is only for the most part that this feels earned. A lot of Danny’s success comes from the fact that he can make stat boosting rings, a profession that anyone could level but which no one else does. Without the crafting stat, it’s not nearly as helpful, and it’s completely unclear why Danny was able to get that stat when locked to a prison server when that ordinarily requires some kind of quest. It’s not so bad as a straightforwardly game-breaking mega-stat just landing on Danny, because he still has to get the ore to make use of it, which requires that ore-buying to ring-selling hustle I mentioned earlier, but it’s still true that none of the other prisoners could’ve done what Danny did even if they had the initiative and the smarts. There was also a sub-plot about a prison gang who had it in for Danny, which was resolved completely offpage by his buddy Kart, who built an entire gang (if “gang” is even the right term, since they are a group of prisoners hanging together for mutual protection, but they aren’t really doing anything illicit – although a one-off line did mention that Danny has thieves answering to him) around him and took care of the whole problem with no further effort required on his part. The book went out of its way to set up that these gangs were coming after Danny, and then a few chapters later Kart just says “oh, by the way, I took care of that whole ‘hostile gang’ problem, no worries,” and that’s the end of it. It’s not unrealistic, but it’s a waste of good drama.

These flaws aren’t decisive, though, and watching Danny’s intelligent, well-planned optimization of the world around him and steady increase in power are exactly the kinds of things I like to see in LitRPG, the reason why I like the genre. If I didn’t have a rule against reading two books of the same series in a row, I’d be picking up the sequel immediately after finishing the first one. As it is, we’re probably gonna read Dungeon Born next. See you there.

Survival Quest: Bumper Episode

Chapter 10

On the third day of work we lost Karachun. It was stupid and banal, but a fact’s a fact – only four of us remained now. And I was the only one to blame for this. And it all started so well…

Dude. Spoilers.

A couple of pages in, and it comes to pass: Danny’s off freelance healing, but it turns out the vein of ore his group is wailing on was at the intersection of multiple rat patrols. Danny runs over to help out, but is unable to keep Karachun alive. His group is down one DPS, but since he’s been able to gear them up with rings to the point of being crazy OP, this doesn’t stop them from killing rats.

Karachun’s presumably respawned back at his copy of the Pryke Mine by now, but if he’s still in the group when they finish their quest, they suspect it’ll complete for him, too. Since they’re making nutcase amounts of Malachite off of their protection services and are way the Hell ahead of schedule, they decide to leave him in and turn in the 100 Malachite.

Continue reading “Survival Quest: Bumper Episode”

Survival Quest: Overpowered

Chapter 8 (cont.)

The last post was half again as long as usual, so we’re picking up in the middle of chapter 8 here. Danny and his orc admin buddy are trying to prevent the regional governor from working out that Danny’s the one who made the chess pawns.

“The figurines were made from Malachite. No Malachite was ever brought into my mine,” replied the orc.

“This is my mine! You hear, you ugly orc mug? Remember: this is my mine, not yours!” shrieked the Governor as he jumped on the chair.

“No Malachite has been brought into your mine. Ever.” replied the orc, unperturbed.

“Then I want to get the item that he created,” a calmer Governor now turned to the orc, ignoring me altogether. “Even if it’s not the chess pieces, I will not allow him to own a Unique Item. Moreover, he should go pack his things – I’m taking him back to my castle. I have no intention of letting a Jeweler capable of making Unique and Legendary Items slip away from me.”

“Prisoner Mahan cannot leave your mine at your behest,” replied the orc, also completely ignoring my presence. “Neither I nor you may break the law. Neither I nor you may take a prisoner’s possessions by force. That is also the law.”

“I’m the law here!” screamed the Regional Governor, breaking off the orc and spraying spittle in all directions. “If Mahan didn’t make the orc chess pieces, he must create all the rest! He must! Only I should possess such things, because with their aid I could open…” The Governor suddenly fell silent, glancing from side to side, got his breath back and went on. “I shall await this man in my castle! Today!”

So apparently this NPC is easily corruptible. Why would you place a guy like this in charge of any kind of critical component of the game economy? I don’t mean in an abstract “think of the NPC farmers!” kind of way, this mine is in charge of supplying copper to the player economy, which is one of the methods that the Corporation profits off of Barliona. Why put an easily corruptible NPC in charge of that?

Continue reading “Survival Quest: Overpowered”

Survival Quest: Waiting For The Other Foot To Fall

Chapter 7

Danny’s received a clue from Alt that he needs to be trying to make a chain, not a ring, in order to complete his quest, as Alt informs him that most regional governors have a chain of some kind, which he knows from his time “before imprisonment” (read: on his secret illegal main toon). I assume this means a chain necklace. He trades some new +2 rings to Alt to get him to paint a design on the sheets that makes them look all pretty, and then tries to carve the sheets into chain links that match the pattern. This goes poorly, and soon he’s wrecked five out of the twenty sheets Kart made for him. He estimates he needs fifteen links to make the chain, so one more mistake and it’s over (Kart is, for some reason, forbidden from making more copper sheets). He’s tried to force the sheets to want to be chain links the way the stone wanted to be a rose before he fugue-carved it, which has worked on some other stones, but it’s not working.

That’s when Kart comes to give him a consolation talk:

“You know, Mahan,” Kart said as he sat next to me. He looked at the sheets laid out on the table in the shape of a chain with the Rose at its head and continued: “I think that you should not stress so much over this. Even if you don’t manage to get this done, the last month had shown me that it is possible to live in the mine not just by using other people, but by your own efforts. When I leave prison I plan to try my hand at blacksmithing. You wouldn’t believe how much I came to enjoy swinging the hammer and seeing a result on the other end. Here at the mine we have a good chance to train ourselves up in this, so if we don’t manage to complete the quest tomorrow, it’s not the end of the world. Life will go on. You’ll continue making the rings and when you reach the limit of your current professions, you’ll start to level up in Smithing and Leatherworking. So you should not see being unable to complete the quest as losing. You have to look at the bigger picture and not just single out certain details, even the really painful ones.”

I know a “sudden ‘aha!'” moment when I see one. Clearly Danny’s problem is that he was trying to force individual sheets to want to be individual links, when he should be trying to force all of them to form a complete chain.

At that moment I sensed that Kart had given me an enormous clue, but what was it?

I mean, I sensed the same thing, but that’s because I know this is a book and I could recognize the structure of the scene. Kart’s not an NPC. If the narrative needs him to set up a trope like this, it really shouldn’t be calling attention to how obviously he’s doing it. Also, it’d be nice if it was less obvious about it.

Continue reading “Survival Quest: Waiting For The Other Foot To Fall”

Survival Quest: Still Pretty Good

Chapter 6

This chapter opens up by informing us that leveling up in a crafting profession is less like cocaine and more like some kind of psychedelics:

the world suddenly stopped. A strange feeling came over me: Kart stood nearby, ladling molten copper from the smelting pot, and it froze in the air, barely touching the ingot mold. Walking around Kart and marveling at this effect, I noticed that a point of light began to form somewhere in my chest and shine out through my robe. The shining started to grow and increase in brightness, while a pleasant warmth started to spread through my body. In a few moments the light became so bright that I almost shut my eyes. When it had filled the whole of the smithy, there was a flash of light, and for a few moments I shone like the sun.

Despite the level he got out of it, Danny isn’t actually making much progress on making rings. The end of the day is also when he reveals his true colors as a racist:

My first day of ring-making ended in my complete capitulation, but it did have one positive point: Kart made Rat-skin coats, trousers and boots for us. Even if these clothes gave no stat bonuses, the total increase in armor from 6 to 13, as well as the look of the outfits, made us feel a lot more safe and comfortable. At least now I no longer resembled a zebra.

That’s right, Danny’s one of those anti-zebra bigots, because we aren’t all sick of seeing those guys on Twitter and YouTube already.

Continue reading “Survival Quest: Still Pretty Good”

Survival Quest: Capitalism, Ho!

Chapter 4

It is the next day, and Kart explains to Danny what’s up with the Meanness stat, or at least as far as he knows:

“I don’t know for certain, but from what others told me, in the mine Meanness is used only because it’s the easiest thing to level up in: mix some sand into someone’s food and you get a level. Just to give you a rough idea. But this stat mainly comes into full play outside the mine. After all, not everyone wants to become some great, dragon-slaying hero. Many choose to play the dark side of the game and become thieves and assassins. That’s where this stat comes in handy. But, as I said, I don’t know exactly what it gives you.”

You have to spend one of your limited stat slots to get an alignment? Everyone here in the mine is in it for the cyber-crack, sure, but that seems really annoying for the main game world, especially since the secondary stats can be things like marksmanship that directly contribute to actual combat capability. Maybe you can get sweet faction rewards from Team Meanies if you get it high enough? Whatever it was, it wasn’t prominent enough for Danny to have noticed while leveling his Hunter up to 87 or whatever it was he had before his toon got reset for his sentence. He barely seems to be aware of how any build but his own works, though, so it doesn’t seem like he did a whole lot of player interaction in the first place.

Kart gets a Chattiness level out of the conversation:

Suddenly Kart started to tremble, fell on his bed and became surrounded by a faint glow. This didn’t last long and soon Kart sat up and turned to me, looking rather pleased.

So Danny’s patient ears are the hooker’s ass off which Kart has snorted his latest line of coke. And he goes to work on his next hit immediately:

“I read that the habit of gaining pleasure gives rise to Addiction among the prisoners, which on release is treated in rehabilitation centers. Everyone gets sent there once they finish their terms — it’s compulsory.

So this isn’t just me snarking. This is actually the game stimulating dopamine centers like an actual addictive drug. It’s pretty much literally virtual cocaine. Who added this feature? And why? The pain settings were added by a vindictive plutocrat and standardized because fuck it, why not, but who decided to also get them addicted to cyber-coke? I don’t see how it could get them further addicted to the game, when Kart later describes that the addicts are unable to level fast enough to avoid becoming manic or depressed and burning out, which is an addiction so crippling that it’d just impede their ability to keep their heads above water and so continue to be a source of long term revenue.

Continue reading “Survival Quest: Capitalism, Ho!”

Survival Quest: Scandanavian Subversives

Chapter 2

So our hero has been locked into a human race, Shaman class toon and dropped into a copper mine, apparently to spend all of his time actually mining copper. Survival Quest has at least been north of mediocre so far, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt that it’s going somewhere interesting with that, over the more obvious choice of having the imprisoned toons be gold farmers who go out and kill monsters to have the gold turned over to their taskmasters to be sold to regular players for real cash. Granted, giving the benefit of the doubt to a book has rarely worked out for me in the past, but it’s not like Vasily Mahanenko wrote those books, so I won’t judge him more harshly for their failures.

Just before I was placed in the capsule I looked up the contents of Article 78 Section 24, cited by the judge when speaking about the possibility of entering the gameworld. I somehow missed this part before, while I was preparing myself. Reading this even lifted my spirits somewhat. The text stated: “If the prisoner earns Respect with the guards at the place of confinement, he or she may be given the opportunity of being transferred to the main gameworld.”

“Somehow” meaning “because chapter one had enough exposition already.” I don’t know how much to ding Mahanenko for drawing attention to this, because maybe it’s less ham-handed in the original Russian, but whether it’s the author’s or the translator’s fault, drawing attention to the fact that this exposition is being delivered in the order that makes most narrative sense instead of the order the protagonist comes across it is not good. It’s not like anyone would’ve been shouting “but why didn’t you mention this before?!” if that “I somehow missed this part” sentence was completely omitted. We’re still in chapter 2, 6% of the way into the book. It’s fine to still be introducing new concepts right now.

Danny is apparently not under any pressure to get to work, because he stops to look at his character sheet for a while. The main stats are Stamina, Agility, Intelligence, and Strength, plus four empty slots that can be filled with one of presumably a large number of build-specific stats, which have to be unlocked through some special task. The example given is that Marksmanship can be unlocked by shooting at a training dummy  a bunch. I dunno if we’re talking, like, ten times, or doing it for an hour, so jury’s out on whether or not this is a game design failing. In any case, Barliona has the “advantage” of intentionally being a shitty freemium game. If unlocking build-specific stats is a chore, that makes perfect sense so long as you can pay to have them unlocked instantly.

Continue reading “Survival Quest: Scandanavian Subversives”

Survival Quest: Sentenced to Video Games

I wanted to avoid Russian LitRPG, because a major goal of what I’m doing is to try and ground myself in a genre I’m hoping to write in, which is American LitRPG, just on the grounds that I’m American and will probably have an easier time writing for an American audience. After three separate reviews that ended up either immediately or quickly descending into angry rants, though, I feel the need to prove to the world that I do actually like LitRPG. Since the only guy giving me recommendations (whose taste I can at least mostly trust) is Russian, that means my options are to read something Russian or roll the dice on the American scene again, and after three snake eyes you gotta wonder if maybe the dice are loaded (in fairness, Andrew Seiple is being held back by a few major problems that overshadow the many, many things he’s doing right, so I may yet revisit Threadbare in the hopes that he’s improved).

So we’re reading Survival Quest, the first Way of the Shaman book, in the hopes that it will actually be good and when people ask if I even like LitRPG, I’ll have something to point to as proof other than a hypothetical Threadbare with its pacing issues fixed and Zuula purged with extreme prejudice. Happy Eagle Day everyone, we’re going to Russia.

Chapter 1

Much like Succubus, Survival Quest helpfully sums up its opening situation for me right at the beginning:

to find the defendant Daniel Mahan guilty of hacking the control program of the city sewage network, resulting in total system shut-down, and sentence him to confinement in a correctional capsule and resource-gathering labor for the term of eight years, under Article 637, section 13 of the Penal Code. The place of confinement will be automatically appointed for the defendant by the system. Should the prisoner meet the conditions stipulated in Article 78 Section 24 of the Penal Code, he will be given the opportunity to transfer to the main gameworld.

Hopefully that is where the similarities end.

Continue reading “Survival Quest: Sentenced to Video Games”