Trolls Traps and Treachery Chapter One

The following is a free chapter from book two in the Kings and Conquests series Trolls Traps and Treachery

“What exactly is “plan B?'”

N-Gate Five’s Chief Information Officer had found himself in several more than unsettling situations since his boss had become interested in the idea of obtaining a controlling share of Fairly Unusual Games. Martin LeBlanc was no slouch when it came to understanding the vagaries and basic value proposition of modern technology. He and Len Griffin had built N-Gate into one of the industry’s most formidable marketing machines, complete with a portfolio of more than 2000 semiconductor-related patents.

One thing LeBlanc had to admit, however, was that microelectronics were a lot easier to understand than gaming culture, and it seemed his company’s most recent big project was far more dependent on bros and message boards than it was on leading the way in chip design.

Griffin leaned back in his rather expensive chair and stared at nothing in particular. He had made a habit of calling impromptu meetings with senior executives of late, and while many of his biggest accomplishments had taken place in similar conferences, the most recent brand of meeting had been more like a wide-ranging discussion of abstract ideas than business plans.

“Jay had to start his character over. He chose most of the same options and he’s back to level two, but at this point he’s probably hopelessly behind the rest of the player base. Lori is still level 14 and Mike just made it to level 15, but everything they’ve done so far has been in a bubble of our own making. They don’t have enough open-game experience to accomplish much yet. Fortunately, my little team of toadies isn’t the only pot I have simmering.”

“I didn’t expect it would be,” LeBlanc sighed. “Is all this work really worth it?”

“Martin, if we win this video game contest, or whatever you want to call it, we own a controlling share of a company projecting 11-figures next year. I’d say that’s worth the minimal amounts I’m spending to get there.”

“That would be great, if we had some idea how to win. This thing seems like it’s all over the place. Players are cheating, stuff is being sold in the game and out, and the media is treating it all like it’s some kind of worldwide music festival.”

“It is. These things are home to millions of people. It’s where they socialize, and based on what we’ve seen, a lot of them are more than happy to just sit in town and make leather bags, horse saddles and potions all day while they chat with their friends. Only four percent of the player base has exceeded level six, and that’s why I think my back-up plan is so important.”

“What plan?”

“I hired a second team of gamers with my own money. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want the first team to think they had the option to slack off. I still don’t want them to know. My star player on “Team B’ is level 19 and is about to unlock a whole new set of abilities.”

“How much is this going to cost us?”

“I set aside five million dollars, but until it pays off, it won’t have any effect on N-Gate’s business. I only want reimbursement if we manage to get hold of those shares.”

“What makes you think this guy can succeed where Jay didn’t? What’s your plan for dealing with Wyland and his super-avatar?”

“There’s a lot more going on here than just the contest. I think Wyland planned this out more meticulously than we first believed.” Griffin stood and walked to his in-office wet bar to pour a drink. “Fairly Unusual built three foundational technologies alongside Kings and Conquests. The first is the game’s engine itself, which they developed in almost total secrecy without alerting anyone to their budget, features or anything else. Totally blindsided the entire industry.”

“An awfully big risk,” LeBlanc replied.

Len sipped his Macallan Scotch. “It was a stroke of utter marketing genius. You know I pride myself on pulling the fast one in the marketplace, but the idea of promoting something by keeping it a secret? The sheer magnitude of the announcement forced everyone in the media to cover it breathlessly. That drowned out all the other voices. By the time the complainers and the competition got to the microphone, it was too late. Wyland had four weeks of positive press and enough income to survive the launch window. This guy is going down in history as the only executive crazy enough to use a bankruptcy filing as a PR stunt. That’s just deranged in so many ways. The business equivalent of playing dead, no pun intended. Wyland pulled it off like an 80s magician.”

“How do the other technologies fit in to the marketing plan?”

“Somehow they also developed an augmented reality mobile app that allows players with registered accounts to not only pursue game objectives, quests, crafting and other kinds of entertainment in the real world, it also allows players to identify each other if they choose, meaning Fairly Unusual has taken their own social gaming network out into the real world. That alone is enough to make the company worth buying, but then they went and did something I don’t think even I can wrap my head around.”

“The 3D printers.”

“Exactly. Somewhere along the way, Wyland got it in his head he could turn his own players into a manufacturing division. So he designated certain treasures as “real-world-lootable’ and had them designed not only as three-dimensional graphics, but also as three-dimensional objects complete with ornaments, polished textures and a patented materials science that is years ahead of anything else. Even the experimental firms can’t do what Fairly Unusual can do today. Right now in every living room in America, fifth graders can manufacture their own in-game merchandise.”

Griffin set the drink on his desk, opened a drawer and produced a gleaming translucent crystal sphere set in an upturned bronzed dragon’s claw that formed its base. The dragon scales were made of delicately polished semi-circular layered ebony and the pointed nails were made of solid, flawless poured bronze. The entire affair was set on a circular base of Italian black marble and lettered with sterling silver inlay. He set it on the desk and sipped his drink again while LeBlanc stared.

“This is the Omniscient Dragon’s Eye,” Griffin announced. “It’s a level 14 treasure for any class that advances far enough in the scrying skill tree. Most of the players who get this end up as warlocks. See the way it’s made?” The N-Gate CEO turned the object over and showed LeBlanc the three dimensional reinforced micro-honeycomb lattice used to construct the materials themselves. “See that fine pattern? This process is only possible with Fairly Unusual’s 3D printers. It’s the completely new additive manufacturing process they patented. They didn’t announce this. They didn’t publicize it. Nobody saw it coming. Further, if you look at this material under a powerful enough microscope, you’ll find the honeycombs themselves are all inscribed with tiny logos and patent numbers tied to a unique data key, which is the second process they patented. These things can’t even be knocked off!”

“It’s a physical object, Len. We could get a LASER scanner and convert it to a virtual mesh, then map the materials and reproduce it within millimeters of its original size and shape.”

“Sure, we could get the size and shape and the materials, but ours would be instantly recognizable as the knock-off. We can’t replicate the material or the pattern and we can’t duplicate the data key that corresponds to the patent number and logo. What these guys did is practically magical, Martin. They take a common material out of the real world like Italian marble and they arranged it into a form that makes that common material absolutely unique. I wonder if you realize what this means? This object,” Len held the Dragon’s Eye up for emphasis, “cannot ever be duplicated by any science: Past, present or future. It’s alchemy. Rocks into gold.”

“Where did you get this?”

“It came out of that printer,” Griffin replied, nodding at the Kings and Conquests “treasure station” sitting along the opposite wall near the bookcase. It was a humble-looking device that distantly resembled a cross between a blender and a small refrigerator. “Took an hour to make. Do you know what this is worth? I posted a picture of it on Blibber a couple hours after Mike looted it.”

The classy gold-embossed Kings and Conquests logo was a nice touch, Martin thought. “If it’s unique, I’d say you got some offers considering the hype level right now. Anyone else try to print one of these?”

“Far as we know, this is it. I expect it’s possible to print a second one, but they have to come out of KNC Treasure Stations. Someone offered me $40,000 for this. We could probably make a living just sweeping the game world for these “real-world-lootable’ treasures and selling them at auction. Hell, we could open up a museum for these things and charge admission!”

Martin’s eyebrows rose, surprised at his boss’ sudden energy. N-Gate management hadn’t been this interested in a competitor in ten years. “This really has you wound up, doesn’t it?”

“Martin, the medical device market alone is worth billions. That printer over there can already make rudimentary transistors. It can make electrical circuits. The patent Fairly Unusual obtained on this micro-lattice makes this object nearly indestructible. We took one of the bases off an action figure we printed from the KNC gift shop the other day and gave it to some guys in our fabrication shop. They put it in a hydraulic press and subjected it to six tons of pressure. It didn’t even chip.”

“Why? What makes these things so strong? Did Wyland invent some new alloy or something?”

“Pound for pound, the honeycomb is one of the strongest structures in nature. When constructed to the tolerances that machine over there is capable of, these objects become incredibly resilient. The lattice inside here is 300 micrometers from center to center. This thing could probably stop a bullet.”

“So it has military applications as well.”

“Right now one of the most powerful micro-industrial technologies known to man is being used to make cartoon action figures. I want this. I want to own it all. Our research and development guys could take one of those machines and build the future with it. I’m going to make sure N-Gate is leading the way.”

Martin picked up the Omniscient Dragon’s Eye and examined it, taking care to study the sparkling golden KNC logo, patent and game information hewn into the plaque set in its base. Even the lettering had the same superfine lattice texture. As he turned the object around, a glimpse of lavender light flashed from inside the clear crystal-like globe. He turned it back and saw it again. By positioning it just so, a hologram appeared inside the orb. It was yet another representation of the winged sword-and-shield Kings and Conquests emblem.

“Is it true they’re capable of working with precious metals? We know that’s already possible with current-generation 3D printers.”

“True, but what Treasure Stations do is the next step. The current generation creates a mold which is used to shape the metal. It’s crude but it works. These things superheat gold, silver and about ten other kinds of metals in nearly any combination and then apply it with a high precision jet almost exactly the same as their layer applicator. Their first demonstration of the technology was writing the preamble to the Constitution in 18 karat gold on a piece of black wood. In cursive. They’re planning to donate it to the Smithsonian.”

“Where did they get the funding for all this?”

“That’s a very good question, Mr. LeBlanc.” Len swiveled his chair to look out the window.

“Imagine the merchandising they can do with this. Imagine renting this tech out to the nearest comic book company,” Martin mused, still marveling at the one-of-a-kind treasure in his hands. “Or the nearest aerospace manufacturer.”

“There have been two industrial revolutions, Martin,” Len said as he took in the view overlooking downtown Santa Monica and swirled the ice in his drink. “The first replaced the human hand with the machine and replaced manpower and horsepower with steam power. The second is the one we grew up with. The iron triangle of middle-class economic progress: Mass media, mass marketing and mass production. The engine that built 20th century America. But the fundamental weakness of the second revolution was the fact the first can of soup cost investors ten million dollars and the second can cost them ten cents. It worked, but it was its own barrier to entry. It locked too many people out of the crown jewel of capitalism: ownership. It’s like the blockbuster film business. No room for fun or experimentation because guessing wrong puts the studio out of business.”

Martin wandered over to the Treasure Station and fiddled with the controls.

“But that thing right there on that table is the third industrial revolution. No factory. No need for rail lines and big dirty machinery to get products on shelves. In fact, no need for shelves at all any more, since the advent of e-commerce has created infinite shelf space. Mass production has been replaced by custom production. Right after mass media was replaced by the search engine.”

“And now all that’s left is mass marketing.”

“You know what the funny thing is, Martin? Mass marketing was almost the first to go.” Len looked up from his long gaze at the nearby bay and smiled wearily. “Remember shareware? That was the marketing mechanism that was supposed to turn zero-cost duplication and zero-cost distribution into an advantage, and it almost worked. First company that was successful with it made a million bucks a day.”

“Zero cost marketing,” Martin mused again. “The El Dorado of capitalism.”

“Word of mouth is free and the only advertising worth paying for. Or so I’ve heard,” Len chuckled. “Ultimately, it all comes down to product quality, and I have a feeling when the Treasure Station is through destroying mass production, it’s going to turn around and put a stake through the heart of mass marketing too.”

Devils Demons and Dead Men Chapter Four

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my Kings and Conquests LitRPG series Devils Demons and Dead Men, available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore.


“It won’t work.”

“It will work.” Garrett Wyland was one of a scarce few game company CEOs who was equally credible in either cargo shorts and a tank top or a $3000 suit. At the moment, he was impeccably outfitted in the latter, as he was due to make a presentation to a room full of investment bankers within the hour. Running alongside was a surprisingly un-burnt-out developer from the user interface team. His job was to create on-screen controls players could use to configure Fairly Unusual’s games.

“You can’t give that many options to the players! They’ll get confused.”

Garrett turned the corner, walking swiftly along the carpeted corridor towards the gleaming glass-enclosed conference room where he was due to make his presentation. He had authorized a ridiculous lease for the crappy building his exploding company previously occupied, but Wyland and his accountants learned their lesson quickly. If your bank balance is worldwide news, it’s tough to negotiate reasonable costs for basics. So Wyland did one of his trademark hype for value deals and scored one of the most prestigious office complexes in the Los Angeles area. From the south side of the building, the Santa Monica beaches divided some of the most expensive restaurants in the world from the sparkling blue Pacific. The inviting waters stretched to the horizon.

“Players thrive on too many options. Not only will they understand them, they’ll take the time to meticulously try each one and compare it to all the others. Then they’ll write a 20,000 word blog post to tell everyone else about it. Half the stuff we know about these games we learn from the players three months after release.”

“They’ll need help.”

“They’ll write their own. How do you think we make these games profitable in the first place? Any money we don’t spend writing rules we can spend on TV commercials.” Wyland handed the user interface production notes back to the developer and swerved into the conference room. As he made his way to the head of the table, he passed more than sixty people, including investors, vendor representatives and most of his own senior staff.

“Ladies and gentlemen, today’s subject is this.” He picked up a dry erase marker and wrote the word “ambition” on the board. “We’re not going to follow market wisdom. Not with what we’ve got riding on this project.”

“Contributors won’t be happy,” Brody Gray replied as he poured yet another soda over ice in an expensive water glass. “Future stockholders won’t be happy. By all indications, they’re looking forward to a traditional massively multiplayer experience.”

“Contributors are never happy,” Wyland replied. “The first rule of crowdfunding is this: The only real appeal is in sending in money so you have a ticket to complain for 18 months. Stockholders don’t care about anything as long as their shares go up. Half of each side will gripe no matter what we produce. Let’s just presume that’s the cost of doing business going into the backstretch.”

“It’s going to present us with some publicity issues,” Janice Powell added. “The last thing we need is the entire Internet complaining about how much our game sucks.”

“After what we’ve endured over the last two weeks, that publicity would be like sitting poolside at the Miss America pageant hotel.” Nobody was entirely sure who said that, but more than a few heads nodded wearily.

Wyland raised his voice a bit so everyone could hear. “Folks, one thing I am going to cultivate with an almost obsessive consistency in this project is controversy. I want the Internet to complain from the moment this game is released until our players are all admitted to senior living communities. I want them complaining about this game side by side in their adjustable convalescent beds during applesauce hour. When one of them dies, I want their 99-year-old best friend to be sitting front row during the service muttering about their unresolved arguments on character balance. Understand? I want this game to piss off the world, because pissed-off people are mounted knights in the kingdom of word of mouth.”

“What if they sue?” one of the investors asked.

“Then we walk into court and defend.”

“What if we lose?”

“We appeal. Chuck, how many legal obligations do we have to our crowdfunding contributors and audience?”

“Zero.”

“Can you please explain why so everyone will understand?”

“Legally, if I give money to you, it’s a gift. You are obligated to do absolutely nothing. This is doubly true if I am giving you money under a terms of service agreement in exchange for you building some kind of speculative project like a video game. I have no legal recourse at all if the project fails. I am issued no stock. There are no ownership documents. There is no contract. I own nothing. Even if there were some kind of contract, force majeure would absolve you legally and since everyone in this room is sitting behind about 11 corporate entities, by the time Joe the video game fan unravels the legal taffy wad, some mail drop in Nevada will be dealing with the paperwork anyway.”

“How do you know all that?”

“I’m a member of the California Bar.”

“Where did you graduate law school?”

“UCLA.”

“Did everyone get that? If you need it in writing, Chuck’s crack staff will draft something this afternoon.”

“Garrett, we can’t just do a pat answer like this. We’re talking about a ten million dollar project now. There’s more to this than just a bunch of guys in a garage now. This building alone is going to provide the entire fan base what they’ll claim is proof we were just in it for the money.”

“We are just in it for the money.”

“Garrett–”

“The fact we’re doing so well is precisely why we can’t allow what might happen someday to affect our ambition today, Janice. Now, let’s move on to the ten features.”

“How long did you reserve the room for?” one of the senior developers quipped. Some of the attendees chuckled. The room darkened and the projector filled one wall with an enormous image of the sword-and-shield-reminiscent Kings and Conquests logo. The word “balance” appeared in the center of the screen. Then a red line crossed it out and a red circle appeared around it. Wyland turned and faced the meeting.

“Hit me.”

“What does that mean?” Brody asked.

“KNC will not be balanced. Balance is boring. Balance kills fun.” Wyland replied.

“So, what are we going to do? Make it imbalanced?” audio engineer Tyler Briscoe asked.

“Absolutely. This game is going to be hilariously imbalanced. I don’t want players to know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next. Balance is a prison, and I’m not going to waste capital paying a bunch of code monkeys to sit and adjust a spreadsheet day and night for ten years.”

“You’re deliberately trying to provoke an argument, aren’t you?” the same investor asked. “Players will go nuts if they think they are being picked on. They’ll claim they aren’t getting what other players get.”

“We’ve already discussed annoying the Internet. There is no better advertising in the world than a bunch of highly motivated complainers, especially Internet people. In fact, we should buy them all webcams and let them spit and hiss and pound the table on Videowall day and night. The more they huff and puff, the higher our subscriber rates go.”

“That could backfire.”

“Good. The more complainers, the better. If we get a thousand of them I’ll throw them a party at the Chestnut.”

The investor shook his head. “Look,” Wyland continued. “I know it’s risky. In fact it could be reckless, but I’ve seen what happens to the companies that play it safe. They plod along, one sleepy step ahead of their burn rate, just trying to get to release day without being overcome by the wolves. That’s not Fairly Unusual. We’re going to walk out on stage birthday party naked, grab a microphone and start singing ‘America the Beautiful’ with the wrong lyrics, because the louder the audience shouts and the more they shake their fists, the more TV cameras will get pointed in our direction. And TV cameras equal sales.”

“Then with all due respect, who buys our game?”

“Everyone. I will personally award a brand new Sovereign 7GL 650-horsepower Gullwing to the first player to reach max level in Kings and Conquests.”

Silence.

“A two million dollar supercar? Most games would produce a winner in a few months,” Brody said.

“Try weeks,” someone else added.

“The first guy to get to level 3 will be one of the most famous players in the game, and he’ll be too scared to leave the Inn,” Wyland replied. “Death is permanent in KNC. You die, you start over. You die, your subscription cost goes up. You die, you don’t get your stuff back unless you’re the first to find the body, you have the right skills and you escape alive. A lot of the creatures in our game will be well aware of the potential for regular delivery of hot meals near a corpse. Assuming they don’t just eat the corpse and throw all your stuff over a cliff first.”

“What’s our max level?”

“Seventy-five.”

“And you think people have the patience for this?”

“They’ll attack it like Norse warlords, and KNC will reward them by beating them senseless over and over again. They will squeeze that water skin for the last drop of even the slightest taste of victory.”

“What keeps them from getting frustrated?”

“Nothing. I hope they get frustrated. I hope they rage against every injustice in the game, because we will have an endless supply. That will motivate them to keep playing.”

“They’ll give up.”

“If they give up, then for them, the game is over. Then they can run to the Internet and broadcast to the world how much of a loser they are.”

“Mr. Wyland, forgive me for my ignorance. I’m not as familiar with gaming culture as you are.” Eduardo Catalan was a senior representative from the Ponferrada Group. His Spanish accent was still rather thick, despite the fact he had been assigned to his hedge fund’s North American offices for many years. “Isn’t the business model here one of rewards for continued play?”

“Let me ask you a question, Mr. Catalan. What is the difference between a game that takes a subscription fee and rewards you with easy-to-obtain treasure and a vending machine?”

“I think the metaphor you would prefer would be a slot machine, Mr. Wyland,” Catalan replied.

“That’s even better. A slot machine is a mechanism that pits a casino against a player to see who runs out of money first.”

“Then should we not be looking for ways to make our game a pleasant experience?”

“Absolutely. I think exhilaration is pleasant, and I think a lot of our players would agree. Wouldn’t you?”

“I’ve never played video games much.”

“Mr. Catalan, the most thrilling moment in Kings and Conquests will be when you and your fellow level two players barely make it back to town on a rainy, lightning-flashing night with the ass in your pants missing.”

The room roared with laughter. Even Mr. Catalan’s face broke into a smile as he shook his head.

“That’s the experience I want to get across. I want players to be continuously aware the world in our game is unsafe. That will set KNC apart from the theme park simulators it will be competing against. I want the prospect of sundown in our game to scare people to the point where they don’t want to visit the next room in their own in-game house. Meanwhile, there will be a rather lucrative achievement for the most spectacular in-game death.”

“What’s a theme park simulator?” one of the investors asked.

“That’s a massively multiplayer game where every adventure location is set up like a theme park ride. You line up with four random people, and then you all sit in a little car that propels you through the attraction. Then you get a balloon at the end,” Tyler replied.

“Exactly. That’s fine the first two or three times you play, but there’s no potential for exploration. No surprises. In fact, a lot of those games punish players who get out of their metaphorical automatic car! Not so with KNC. Every moment in our game should be a life-or-death balancing act between risk and reward. Every discovery should fill players with ruthless greed. Look! A treasure chest! This might be the gold haul that sets them up for the next ten levels. Or, it could be a trunk full of snakes. What it isn’t going to be is a grind fest with an autoloot button.”

“There’s always some genius out there who will have it all figured out in a week,” Janice said with a smirk.

“Good. Kings and Conquests will pose one and only one question to Captain Video Game and his team of finger-twitching geniuses: You think you can you beat the system? Because in this game, the system beats back.”

The Pub

MALIBU, CALIFORNIA – Southern California developer Fairly Unusual Games today announced the opening of their brand new worldwide corporate headquarters. Company spokesperson Jacob Brewer explained the completion of a state-of-the-art seaside office perched along Pacific Coast Highway overlooking world-famous Zuma Beach had been accelerated to help the company complete its first retail game.

Mr. Brewer also announced the company’s crash preparations for the upcoming GamesWest Supercon, where it is expected they will present players and the media with a first look at their ambitious debut title, Kings and Conquests.

Fairly Unusual made history only last week, becoming the first game developer to raise $125 million in crowdfunding revenue. More than 85,000 people have participated in the campaign CEO Garrett Wyland is calling “The Ultimate Gathering of Heroes.”

Devils Demons and Dead Men is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!

Devils Demons and Dead Men Chapter Three

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my Kings and Conquests LitRPG series Devils Demons and Dead Men, available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore.


“You tell him, Harlan! You tell him it came straight from me! You publish that story and so help me there won’t be anything left of your so-called ‘news’ site but a forwarding address and a case number!”

The sound of a metal file cabinet drawer slamming shut made just about every employee in the Fairly Unusual Games office common area jump in their chairs. Nine people stared at each other in silence as Executive Vice-President Brace Coogan raged into the handset of his 1948 black desk model phone.

“You want a million-dollar kick in the–Yeah? Well I’ve got the boots for it! You tell him he better think twice! Wait! What? You’ve got no proof of that! Unnamed source? You got an unnamed source? Well I’ve got a subpoena. Ask your attorney what that means!”

The roaring sound of Coogan’s voice filled the air ducts and empty spaces in Fairly Unusual’s fourth floor offices. It was like hearing dogs fighting with clubs and small arms in an upstairs apartment. The fact the VP looked like a bulldog with a gray buzzcut only added to the entertainment value. It was at times like these work on anything important came to a complete halt. Brace Coogan’s voice had an edge to it that could bend reality if he really got going.

“I’ll make it really simple for you, Harlan! You publish that story and we pull all our advertising for the next year! See if your unnamed source can plug a four million dollar hole! You’ve been warned, pal! That story goes live and your grandchildren will be answering motions in the libel case!”

The sound of the bakelite handset slamming into the hook actually shifted items on nearby shelves. A ringing sound hung in the air.

Coogan emerged from his office like a deranged wrestler from a black-and-white television sports broadcast. “Cindy! Where the he–!” He stopped when he saw his petrified assistant rigid in her chair like she was trying to avoid awakening a spider on her shoulder. Coogan’s tan sports coat, navy slacks and dress shoes completed the image of a man who could have easily just stepped out of a Nixon-era police drama. “Get senior management on the horn. We need to notify the board as well.”

Cindy nodded without waking the spider up. Coogan stalked back into his office and slammed the door. He barely avoided shattering the double-pane inset window displaying his name and title.

The developers stared at the office staff, as if the half dozen young men and women tasked with keeping the bills paid and the lights on in the relatively tiny 40-person company would fare any better explaining what had just happened.

“That’s the third executive meeting this week,” one of the accounts payable assistants said quietly.

“Keep those resumes updated,” Cindy replied as she flipped through her list of numbers and e-mail addresses titled “call in case of emergency.” The Executive Administrative Assistant knew the real title of the list should be “people who don’t like to be called when there’s an emergency” or “people who look for the slightest excuse to yell at the Executive Assistant.”

She sighed and began dialing.

Devils Demons and Dead Men is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!

Devils Demons and Dead Men Chapter Two

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my Kings and Conquests LitRPG series Devils Demons and Dead Men, available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore.


Thirty-Four Years Later

“I would rather be flushed down a saltwater toilet full of razor blades than play this game one more minute!”

Jordan Hall eagerly re-adjusted his seated position in his tech-office-model desk chair. He checked the chat room feed again and then turned back to his camera, which had a spectacular high-definition shot of his chin bathed in monitor light. Someone in the chat room challenged his opinion yet again. Why were they defending this worthless game?

“Okay, it wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t do such stupid things! Look, I have battleships in my invasion force. Battleships! Two feet of steel armor! Okay? Then I get them next to the beach so they can bombard the city and they get taken out by archers! Archers?! Against a battleship!? Aaaarggh!”

The chat room scrolled and scrolled. About half the respondents were sympathetic. The others were questioning Jordan’s ancestry, rehashing old “your mom” jokes and having a grand old time trolling the others. A digital furball erupted over the accusation that “maybe your battleships just suck” until the troll was dumped into the penalty box for fifteen minutes by one of the mods. It was the chat equivalent of the dunk tank.

Jordan sighed. “This game is just disappointing. The graphics are atrocious. I can’t play it any more. Hah! And now the archers are sinking my transports. Sure! Archers on Normandy Beach. They wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds!”

The game in question was Emperor of Cities, which had just released an expansion that added industrial era units, new city types and new factions. The game media had sleepily rated it mediocre, but players had other ideas. Jordan had only scheduled it on his “No-Name Games” streaming video show because he enjoyed the original release and said so in one of his previous shows. By now he had taken it all back. Now, the game was the worst product ever sold and anyone who bought it was a remedial-class idiot. One of the cardinal rules of being a video game critic was the complete abandonment of subtlety. It was either a gift from on high or it was something you scrape off your shoe. There was no middle ground. Kind of like a ninth-grader’s opinion of female movie stars. They were either indescribably hot or not worth mentioning by name.

A quick check of the NNG viewer count wasn’t encouraging. Only 80 people were watching his streaming Internet show. About 12 of them were the regulars, and half of those were people he knew from work. The rest were undoubtedly unemployed semi-coherent guys in their late teens and early 20s who gathered around video games in much the same way their fathers and grandfathers gathered around Monday Night Football. Video games were one of the last places where males could experience true competition, complete with all the cheating, name-calling and profanity one could possibly want. It was 21st century stickball with a satellite audience.

The viewers weren’t all that different from their host. Jordan was fully prepared to call in sick to his IT job the next morning. He wasn’t sure why, but he was sort of positive he had discussed it earlier that day. It was fine. Nobody could expect a gaming streamer to remember details at 2AM.

“Hey, hey! You guys will know this. Why am I calling in sick to work tomorrow?” Jordan sipped an energy drink. He had a refrigerator full of them in his room.

The scrolling of the chat room paused momentarily. The viewers of the show were also participating in the chat so they could respond to what Jordan was saying “on the air.” At least some of the viewers were thinking and not typing, which was occasionally encouraging. It didn’t happen often. Then the chat window accelerated back to full speed with eight out of ten responses being some variation of “you suck at your job” and more random criticisms of Jordan’s mom. Then he found what he was looking for. He had to squint at the third of three widescreen monitors arrayed horizontally across the main desk-level platform of what he called his “battle station.” He actually joked about it not being a moon during an interview on someone else’s streaming channel and was promptly cut off and permanently banned.

One of the viewers typed “The Kings and Conquests announcement.”

“Thaaat’s right, the old KNC saga. Everyone’s favorite subject.” He sighed again, because he knew what was about to happen. The chat window became clogged with random imagery. Most were parodies of Fairly Unusual’s company logo. Some were offensive pictures where everything and everyone in the image were wearing crowns, and so forth. More people were banned. One user with the screen name “AngryFluid” was identifiable because he was typing in coherent sentences with nouns and everything. Jordan recognized him. He had been a subscriber for a few weeks.

“Okay, Angry. I’ll add you to the stream if you want to tell us what you know. I have to tell you I’m kind of interested in what they have to say tomorrow. Fairly Unusual puts on some pretty good announcements.” A few adjustments to the equipment ensued. Fellow streamer AngryFluid appeared next to the host in the webcast.

“How’s it going?”

“Not bad, how about yourself?” Jordan’s counterpart had a setup similar to his own. Each battlestation was wired in the corner of its owner’s room with the furniture, strewn clothing and other accouterments visible in the shot. The only difference was AngryFluid’s room had no windows, as he was broadcasting live from 40 feet under the Alaskan permafrost in his basement. Jordan was enjoying a much balmier climate in Southern California.

“So what’s your take on the big announcement tomorrow?”

“There isn’t going to be one,” AngryFluid replied with a fatigued drawl before sipping an adult beverage in an old-fashioned glass. “The real news happened about eight hours ago when nobody was paying attention. This is something FUG is making a habit of lately. They time everything just right so the main online media doesn’t catch it until the next day, long after social media has driven it into the ground and it’s old news. Blunts the impact.”

By now the chat room had reached “berzerk factor one.” More than 95 out of 100 responses were accusing AngryFluid of being a wacko conspiracy theorist. Jordan knew the basics of the controversy. Fairly Unusual had been accused in the past of using proxy companies to do their crowdfunding in order to throw off their competitors, but that was nothing compared to the just-about-to-break bombshell. The company’s PR department pretended to leak something crucial, then walked it back, then later revealed it was true right before announcing three more even bigger developments.

Company CEO Garrett Wyland was famous in tech circles for staying one step ahead of the rest of the game industry. Now he was gaining a reputation for staying one step ahead of the media. More than a few of the companies that he had repeatedly upstaged with strategically timed PR were quite keen to see him fall, so they invested heavily in various flavors of corporate espionage, hoping to divine his intentions before he made his next move. The smart money had already concluded the non-scandal scandal had been engineered on purpose long before the leak. Intrigue was something Fairly Unusual couldn’t really afford, as they were gearing up for an IPO. At least that was the conventional wisdom. Garrett Wyland was anything but conventional. Leaks that could later be denied and then re-revealed for maximum media points only made FUG more attractive to early adopters. Their next game was going to be the one to push them over the top.

“Is that the Frosty Cat page everyone was linking last week until it disappeared?” Jordan asked.

“Frosty Cat is the name of the company. They put up a fake-looking page just long enough to get a couple of headlines out of it. Then they took it down to create mystery. The lawsuit rumor was fake. The crowdfund rumor is true.”

“Looks like it worked too. There were at least a half dozen stories in the aggregator feed this morning about it. Are they baiting the media with the scandal you think?”

“Have you seen the page today?”

“It’s back up?”

“Take a look.” AngryFluid took another sip of his drink while the chat room quieted and Jordan pulled up a browser. He navigated to the Frosty Cat crowdfunding page for the new Kings and Conquests game. Jordan paused. It had to be a mistake. The counter read $988,717.

The campaign had been active for 106 minutes.

Devils Demons and Dead Men is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!

Devils Demons and Dead Men Chapter One

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my Kings and Conquests LitRPG series Devils Demons and Dead Men, available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore.


“It’s a troll.”

“How do you know?”

“Because it makes the sword glow.” Garrett Wyland spoke as if his words were plainly obvious to anyone with even novice-level experience in an underground cavern adventure. His best friend Brace and two other boys looked on as green letters appeared on the flickering CRT screen one by one. It was a balmy Southern California afternoon. Most kids Garrett’s age were out riding bikes or playing street football. He and his friends were on a more epic quest.

ATTACK TROLL

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO ATTACK THE TROLL WITH?

ATTACK TROLL WITH

The cursor blinked.

“What are you waiting for?” Dwayne asked.

“Yeah,” Brace added. “Use the sword!”

“What if it breaks?” Garrett wondered aloud.

“How can it break? It’s glowing! It’s a magic sword!”

ATTACK TROLL WITH TORCH

I DON’T THINK THAT’S A VERY GOOD IDEA

“Yeah, see? Listen to the computer! Use the sword!” Brace ordered.

ATTACK TROLL WITH SWORD

THE SWORD CUTS THROUGH THE TROLL’S BODY. BEFORE IT CAN REGENERATE, THE CREATURE DISAPPEARS IN A CLOUD OF BLACK SMOKE. THERE IS AN EXIT TO THE NORTH.

The boys cheered and celebrated with handfuls of corn chips and newly opened sodas.

“Ok, me next,” Brace said. He took over the keyboard from Garrett. Every move took several minutes of discussion and every attempt to navigate the dungeon followed a protracted hunt and peck session with plenty of misspelled words, sarcastic jokes about the misspelled words and a careful reading of the next block of descriptive text.

Garrett looked over all the equipment he and his friends had gathered since they discovered the adventure game. The phone coupler and eight-inch floppy drives were both gifts from his uncle, who had just celebrated his five-year anniversary at one of the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturers. The integrated CRT terminal was a ninth-grade rescue and restoration project. Everything worked except the right-handed control key, which was missing both the key and the underlying mechanism. There was also a large patch of white paint on one side of the smooth yellowish plastic composite outer shell. It was better than the teletype. Despite their enthusiasm for the game, the boys were weary of spending all their refreshment money on fanfold paper. Garrett’s mom also wasn’t a fan of the entire upstairs story of her house sounding like the Los Angeles Times newsroom.

“Hey look! There’s the tree! If we climb inside we can get the golden acorn!” The boys leaned closer, one or two of them straightening their glasses as they waited for each word to type itself at 300 baud.

The only piece of equipment Garrett didn’t actually own was the computer itself. The text-based adventure game he and his friends had been trying to win for months was actually running on a PDP-11 at his uncle’s office. The game was called “The Conquests of the King,” and purported to allow a peasant boy to claim the throne and the hand of the princess by recovering a dozen treasures of the Realm.

“How many treasures left?” Jimmy asked.

“Sixteen! Now we have to climb down to the river cave,” Brace announced as he tapped out the commands and made liberal use of the backspace key to erase his mistakes.

After a tour of the office, Garrett’s uncle saw how his nephew reacted to Conquests of the King, so he asked one of the engineers to set up an account so Garrett and his friends could play. What started out as a fun diversion quickly turned into a request for a real account. It wasn’t long before Garrett was writing FORTRAN code that actually compiled. Then he was writing C. He hadn’t told his friends he beat Conquests of the King weeks ago. He was busy drawing maps and making up backstories for the new tabletop dungeon-crawling games he had discovered. And the spy games. And the car racing, space battle and superhero games.

Brace and Dwayne and the others were along for the ride because they liked to play the games Garrett discovered. But as the young man who was tacitly considered the leader of the geeks watched his friends, his mind was elsewhere. Of all the kids, Garrett could see beyond what was on the green-tinted screen.

He saw the possibilities. The game didn’t have to be limited to just twelve treasures. And it didn’t have to limit the player to just one objective. What if the player wants to be a thief? What if they want to study the arcane and go deeper into the catacombs to find magical secrets known only to the most powerful sorcerers?

“No, no, you have to dig under the sand to find the pirate’s lantern! Go east! East! No, the other east!” Brace preferred to do the typing. He had a habit of getting impatient if Dwayne was in charge, since the older boy was fond of going off and experimenting to see what the game’s limits were.

I can do this, Garrett thought. He was certain of it. Only moments after he wrote his first program and made the computer do something all his own idea he knew. This machine would carry out his instructions, like the faithful familiars in stories about witches. It would help him just like it helped the three programmers who wrote Conquests of the King.

He thought about his English teacher and the twinkle in her eye as she explained the mysteries of first, second and third person point of view. Garrett never could figure out why it always jumped from first to third. What about second?

It wasn’t until he and his friends discovered Conquests of the King that he realized computers had unlocked second-person literature. The stories being told here were not about the narrator, nor were they about figments of the author’s imagination. In Conquests of the King, the story was being told by the reader. The authors didn’t make the decisions. They just set the boundaries. The readers composed the plot.

The day that realization dawned on Garrett was one of the most sobering days of his young life so far. He felt as if he had emerged from a Toltec pyramid clutching ancient secrets. He had tried to explain it to the others, but they were far more interested in just playing the game, not analyzing it like it was a book report.

Maybe I’m the wizard delving into the catacombs to learn the secrets of this machine. All I have to do is write the codes in the right order and I can make any kind of adventure.

Garrett watched his friends play.

Now I can tell any story I want.

Devils Demons and Dead Men is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!