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?

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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.

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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.

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November Humble Monthly

December’s Humble Monthly is the last one, as they’re switching over to the Humble Choice. In the Humble Choice, there’s a dozen-ish games, but instead of getting all of them, you choose nine, or ten if you’re on the Classic plan as a holdover from the Humble Monthly. So, it’s basically the Humble Monthly except you pick three (or two) games to not get. I am slightly nervous about this, mainly because I have no idea what the benefit of switching over is and business decisions that make no sense to me always make me suspicious.

The November Humble Monthly was really good for me, but mainly out of sheer dumb luck. I just so happened to have not bought any of the games in it despite very much wanting several of them. This is pretty atypical. I’ve mentioned earlier that the Humble Monthly is mainly a good way to find hidden gems, a big stack of games you wouldn’t buy separately but one or two of which might end up being your new favorites. November bundle, though, is full of stuff where you probably already know whether or not you want it, and if you really want it, you probably already do. The Crash Bandicoot and Spyro rereleases have been out in one form or another for decades, so the only people who don’t know whether or not they want these games are, like, high school students who weren’t playing video games until the PS2 era when Crash and Spyro were old news. Even then, if they’re subscribed to the Humble Montly then they’re probably plugged into the gamer sub-culture which is full of people who did play Crash and Spyro, and that came up when the trilogies were remastered and rereleased.

There’s also Call of Duty WWII, taking the franchise to exciting new time periods we’ve never visited before, but you know whether or not you want a Call of Duty game, and Shenmue I and II, the first two installments of a trilogy originally designed for the Sega Dreamcast and which is just now getting its third installment. The problem is that Shenmue I and II were only ever good because video games were still in a transitional period between the NES/Super Nintendo era when no one had any idea what they were doing and the people who made good video games were the ones who, largely by chance, had random ideas that were randomly good instead of randomly bad, and the modern era, where what works and what doesn’t is set pretty far in stone and new ideas are the domain of indie games, and even then are made with the benefit of intuitions built up since childhood. What I’m getting at here is that games like Shenmue, which are very clearly made by someone who doesn’t usually play video games, were a bit of anachronism at the time of release and are now completely out of place. The era when game developers didn’t have a long history of playing video games because video games had not existed long enough for anyone to have a long history playing them, that time is over.

11-11 is a game about a Canadian photographer in 1916, during WW1. It’s got a mechanic for taking photos and an art style where everything appears to have been painted. And also I can only use the S and D keys for movement for some reason. This means the game is playable only by rotating the camera around so that I’m facing the direction I want to go and then pressing the S key. I didn’t get very far. Hopefully I can get this glitch resolved, because the game had some fantastic atmosphere for the five minutes I spent trying to troubleshoot the bug.

Synthetik: Legion Rising is a Roguelike twin-stick shooter where you are a robot and must defeat other robots in order to destroy something called the Heart of Armageddon. I’m actually not sure you’re a robot. You definitely unlock different guns as you go and what kind of run you’ll have is going to vary a lot based on what kind of guns you get. On the one hand, I had a lot of fun for the first two runs, but on the other hand, I found myself not wanting to come back for more immediately. I’m sure I’ll play it at least occasionally in the future, and it’s definitely a good length for a cooldown game between bits of work, since a single run lasts all of ten or fifteen minutes, which means I can squeeze in two or three between wrapping up working on one thing and starting work on another.

Evergarden is a puzzle game in the same basic vein as triple town or 2048, where you combine small things into big things in a limited board space in an effort to make the biggest thing possible. The idea here is that you’re maintaining a garden, and you have flowers with between one and six leaves, with six leaf plants combining into stone pedestals which cannot be combined, and instead just permanently take up that space on the board. The way that new plants are added to the board is that, rather than combining, a plant of any size can spit a seed into an adjacent hex, which you can then grow into a new one-leaf plant by ending the turn. You have a limited number of turns to try and create as many pedestals as possible. It’s also a hex board instead of a square one, opening up more angles for combination. That’s the basic gist of it, but there’s a bunch of other little complications thrown in on specific levels (which I think might be randomly generated? There’s definitely no specific enumerated list of levels, but the starting plants and conditions change each time you boot it up again), and you can unlock new stuff with special triangular talisman thingies that come out of any pedestals you’ve made at the end of the level. If you like this kind of combine-things-into-bigger-things-based-on-adjacency sort of puzzle game, I’d definitely recommend Evergarden. There appears to even be some kind of plot, but so far it’s just very cryptic letters from “Mom” about how the garden works. Mom appears to be kind of an asshole, in that she apologizes for how confusing it must all seem at the beginning, but then it turns out she has more letters that we just haven’t unlocked yet. If you didn’t want the garden to be so confusing, why’d you lock all your letters behind mystic talisman puzzles? You could’ve just put all the letters on our desk at the beginning!

So anyway, that’s the November Humble Monthly. Sometime soon-ish I’ll take a look at the December Humble Monthly, the last one ever, and also the very first Humble Choice, which was released the same month, so hey, double prizes.

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.

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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.

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Adobe Digital Editions

Did you know it’s possible to lend out a .pdf temporarily and then take it back when the lending period is over? Adobe Digital Editions allows for this utterly insane facsimile of a physical library’s limitations in the online world where there is no reason at all for such limitations to exist. Archive.org employs this parody of copyright law when lending scanned versions of books, which is how I got my hands on a digital copy of Conan the Defiant. This saved me the trouble of getting a real physical copy from the University of Utah’s library (the only library which has a copy nearby, according to the internet), but it’s just a scan of the physical pages with no copy/paste ability, so I’m going to be reviewing it without much direct quotation. And also within two weeks, because that’s the lending period on this nutcase lending system.

Leaves of the World Tree: Olaff

Leaves of the World Tree is a book gifted to me by its author in hopes of a review. That was, like, half a year ago, because this blog is not always the best at updating. But what I lack in alacrity, I make up for with implacable determination.

Olaff

Leaves of the World Tree is a short story collection, and if I recall the author’s pitch correctly, each story takes place in a different time period. Story the first is called “Olaff,” and takes place in a time before creativity had been invented.

Like many Olafs before him, he was named Olaff. It was not a bad name by any means. He shared his name with four others born that year, and he would share it with seven the year after. Olaf was then, as it had been before, and would be for generations to come, a common name.

This is the first half of our opening paragraph. These are the lines that have to sell an audience on the first page. Now, reading one page isn’t a huge imposition and it’s not that hard to convince your audience to do it, but even so, “our protagonist has a common name” isn’t a strong foot to be starting on. It is only half the opening paragraph, though. Here’s the rest:

It was as though his parents had expected him to be average. Growing up he never felt as though he were different from the other boys. He was not scrawny and smart, or muscular and dumb, nor better or worse at most things. He threw the axe at the tree and hit five times out of ten, and his spear landed smack in the middle of everyone else’s. It was only when they taught him how to write his name that he realized he was unique. His mother, being the literate one, had spelled his name with an extra “f.”

Apparently the society Olaff is from is one with a perfectly centered bell curve of throwing axe proficiency. So at least we’re setting our story firmly in some kind of viking-ish era. That’s not nothing. Here’s the rest of the first page:

Not every day was spent sprinting into battle. Like most of his days, he spent one in particular rowing. He sat on a long bench in the center of a large group of benches that were nearly identical and only distinguishable by their varying degrees of mold. As could be expected, if anything at all could be expected of such a regular person, he sat in the middle. Smack in the middle of everyone else, on his bench, between Vjolf and Bjorvak.

This story has spent a lot of time letting us know how boring and unexceptional the protagonist and his life is, and if I hadn’t gotten a review copy of the book, I would be strongly considering not reading any further. Lucky for our author, I did get a review copy of the book, so we’re gonna see if this story is boring all the way through or just a slow burn. Well, not really lucky for our author. He sent it to me, so it wasn’t really luck so much as a direct and predictable result of actions he took.

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Mythos: A Conclusion For Now

I never wrote it down, but a couple of posts into this Mythos review I decided that I’d go to the bottom of the first page of the table of contents of my Lovecraft collection, about 200 pages in. This was pretty consistent with how long a lot of the novels I’ve reviewed have been, so I figured I’d get my standard dozen-ish posts out of it. This is not how that has worked. The pages-read-per-review-words-written ratio has been seriously damaged by the need to constantly re-establish the premise and reintroduce main characters with every new story. In longer books, there sooner or later comes a point where you get who the characters are, how the setting works, where the plot is headed, and I can summarize ten pages in one paragraph. With short stories, that never happens, so these perfectly typical 200 pages (not even quite that, even) of material have sprawled out all over the place. I am gonna go ahead and finish it out because I’m already in the home stretch, but my God I have been reviewing Lovecraft for way too long now and I need a good long break from him. There’s three short stories left before the bottom of the table of contents’ first page, let’s see if we can get through all of them today. Quality may take a hit, as I’m mainly concerned with getting these stories out of the way. The Lovecraft project reinvigorated the blog when it began, but now it’s the thing draining the life away, so we need to put a bow on this and move on.

The Moon-Bog

This story begins with a description of Irish-American Denys Barry, who is descended from Irish aristocracy. Did this happen? Did Irish nobles come west to America? I guess it’s probably happened ever, but America was always the destination for poor people. Except the southern plantations, actually, those were settled in part by nobles-in-exile who were on the wrong end of a civil war (this became a habit for them). But the standard Irish immigrant was an indentured servant to one of those guys.

Anyway, Denys Barry returns to his family’s abandoned castle and rebuilds it with his American wealth, and everything goes great until he starts trying to drain a nearby bog. He invites the protagonist over to hear more, and the protagonist apparently has nothing better to do but make a cross-Atlantic trip in 1921 to listen to an old friend’s real estate development troubles. The protagonist and Denys Barry have a good long laugh together at how superstitious the peasants are. In fairness to them, they don’t know they’re in a horror story, but back on the other hand, when you’re a brand new foreigner who has no idea how things work around here and the people who’ve lived her their entire lives tell you that a witch lives in the swamp, odds are fantastic that whether or not a literal witch lives out there, fucking with the swamp is a super bad idea, especially if the locals prove how deadly serious they are about it by abandoning paying jobs en masse when they realize you’re mucking with the bog.

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