Conan the Indomitable: Inauspicious Beginnings

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: Inauspicious Beginnings”

Leaves of the World Tree: 3 AM

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

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

And then immediately faceplants:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conan the Defiant Was A Waste of Fun Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conan the Defiant: Finale

Chapter Twenty-One

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

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

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

Continue reading “Conan the Defiant: Finale”

LitRPG Premises

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

So what premises can solve the problem of stakes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Conan the Defiant: Into The Warp

Chapter Sixteen

We open with another montage of approaching villains. The Disguise Master is wondering where Brute got off to. He’s been pretty much completely defused as a threat by this point. Without Brute, what’s he gonna do, disguise Conan to death?

Skeer delivers the Source of Light to Neg, and Neg gives him a large reward. Then he offers Skeer some wine to celebrate, and Skeer accepts, is poisoned, and Neg gloats about bringing him back to serve in death afterwards. See, this is the problem with working for super villains. They tend to dick people over for no goddamn reason at all.

Also, the spiders are still on their way. Even though Skeer is dead now. I don’t know what they’re going to do when they catch up with him.

When we come back to focus on Conan, he is behaving uncharacteristically stupidly:

“Will you not try and take them unawares?” Tuanne asked.

“I shall not skulk,” Conan answered. “Direct action would be better here.”

“Even if one of them holds a knife to her throat?”

He paused. “What you say has some merit,” he admitted. “Have you an idea?”

You really needed a zombie friend to warn you of the possibility that your enemies might use their hostage for leverage? Why do you think people take hostages?

Continue reading “Conan the Defiant: Into The Warp”

Conan the Defiant: An Overabundance of Dumb Tropes

My queue is usually a day or two ahead, so getting out blog posts on Christmas is actually easier than getting out blog posts right after Christmas. We’re back now, though.

Chapter Thirteen

The Disguise Master that Conan cornered earlier (somehow, that bit happened in the missing pages so I don’t know exactly how it happened) is seething and plotting revenge. No one else had ever seen through his disguise, and he figures that once Conan is dead, he can honestly say that no one living has ever seen through his disguise. Which kinda strikes me as being ogre stealth. “Is that ogre in a tophat trying to pass himself off as Lord Foppish?” “Shhh! He kills anyone who sees through his disguises! Just play along!”

He’s not actually gonna use his disguise skills to kill Conan, though. He’s just gonna hire someone.

Elashi screamed.

Conan came up from sleep, sword in hand, looking for the threat. It proved easy enough to dispatch when he found it.

One of the black spiders scuttled from Elashi’s blanket. Before it moved far, Conan trod upon it. It made a crackling, pulpy sound as he crushed it.

Isn’t Elashi supposed to be a desert nomad? How is she freaking out about a perfectly ordinary spider? Dumb gender role tropes have haunted the narrative from pretty much the moment Elashi was introduced, but this is reaching the point of not just bolting on dumb gender tropes where they don’t belong, but actually burning down other elements of her character to make way for them. Elashi’s supposed to be a reasonably accomplished swordswoman and tracker. Where is this princess shit coming from? Like, perfectly ordinary people freak out about spiders in the modern world, but that’s because we live in a sci-fi wonderland where it’s easy to live in an environment strongly controlled for comfort even if you’re pretty poor. Particularly wealthy people can live in conditions where seeing spiders is rare enough that you don’t have to learn how to deal with it, but most people should be seeing them on, like, a weekly basis, very much including people who spend enough time outdoors to become skilled survivalists! This would stick out less if this book weren’t so thoroughly slathered in its dumb gender tropes, if it just seemed like Elashi had a particularly intense phobia, but in the context it’s actually in this is very obviously just a braindead importation of sitcom tropes from 1987 into the iron age with no thought at all given to what it would change.

Continue reading “Conan the Defiant: An Overabundance of Dumb Tropes”

Conan the Defiant: A Gap In The Story

Chapter Nine

The plot is converging on the city of Opkothard. Skeer is here with the Source of Light, Conan and his sidekicks have arrived seeking him, the six blind minions of Neg have arrived seeking one of them, and also one of the Suddah Oblates has shown up for reasons unknown. This guy is Malo, the young cane prodigy that Conan trounced when he visited, and he’s carrying a sword, rather than his tradition’s usual cane, planning to kill Conan. He assumes Conan must be responsible for the murder of the two acolytes of the temple, under the reasoning that he doesn’t like Conan, and Conan must therefore be responsible for every crime that happens within a thousand foot radius. But, like, things can’t come to a head here. We’re slightly less than halfway through.

Elashi’s tsundere routine with Conan is rote enough, and well established enough, that I don’t feel the need to type out quotes or even particularly summarize the details. Suffice to say that Elashi tsunderes at Conan in the inn for the night.

The chapter closes on a mysterious spider priest performing mysterious spider divinations and determining that all kinds of named characters have shown up in town tonight, and he’d better do something about it.

Continue reading “Conan the Defiant: A Gap In The Story”

Conan the Defiant: Also, Bonus Sexism

Chapter Five

Rogue zombie Tuanne has some kind of magical means of detecting the current location of the Source of Light, and she’s following that to track down Skeer, who is fleeing towards Neg with it. Also, she is nearly attacked by a mountain lion, but then the mountain lion realizes that she’s dead and rotting and thinks better of it. There’s a bunch of undead brooding about how the animals can sense her curse and woe is her, although it does at least manage to notice that repelling predators is actually a good thing, even if it’s framed as “oh, this curse has been a blessing this time, but truly she was the most unfortunate of creatures to be so repellent.” It’s not like humans are repelled by her. Is she, like, super into cats?

Skeer tries to dodge pursuit by leaving a false trail. Conan’s latest female sidekick Elashi falls for the trail, but Conan doesn’t, because of course he is better than everyone at everything (so long as it’s not too civilized), even when it is their area of expertise and he just took it up five minutes ago.

Tuanne reaches the village where Skeer is headed and sets up shop at the inn to wait for him. There is a bizarrely cosmopolitan gaggle of guests at the inn. It is, of course, an inn, so you’d expect everyone here to be from out of town, and you’d expect a bunch of them to be from out of country, so it’s not weird that only two out of the four with identified nationalities are Brythunian. But then the other two are a Stygian and a Kushite or Keshanite, both from even further south than Stygia. No sign of any Zamorans, Corinthians, Nemedians, Hyperboreans, or Turanians, all of whom have some kind of land border with Brythunia.

Continue reading “Conan the Defiant: Also, Bonus Sexism”

Conan the Defiant: Pacifists Are Pretty Straightforward To Assassinate It Turns Out

Prologue

You know that thing where the men of a fantasy species will look like some weird lava monster or a crocodile person or whatever, and the women will look like human women but with blue skin and pointy ears? Conan the Defiant’s prologue gives us an example of that. Our villain, Neg the necromancer, is interrogating his zombie minions as to the location of some powerful talisman called the Source of Light. All the zombies are decayed and rotten, except for one called Tuane, a beautiful zombie woman whose beauty Neg has preserved. When Neg tosses some magical salt to destroy a zombie minion who has displeased him, a single grain of it lands on Tuane, scalding her, but also freeing her from his control, thus initiating the plot. Naturally, the grain of salt lands upon one of her lusciously curved breasts. Free of the necromancer’s control without his knowing, she then breasted boobily to the door, and titted up the stairs.

Continue reading “Conan the Defiant: Pacifists Are Pretty Straightforward To Assassinate It Turns Out”