Publisher: Quiet Thunder Productions
Author: Matt Vancil
Cost: $10 (ebook)/$25 (softcover)/$50 (hardcover)
Page Count: 234
Release Date: December 2014
Get it Here: Currently Only Available to Kickstarter Backers
If you’re a tabletop gaming fan of any kind, you’ve probably aware of The Gamers series by Dead Gentlemen Productions and the off-shoots like Natural One and Journeyquest from Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. Well, 2014 was a big year for the writer/director of many of those projects. Matt Vancil, not only left ZOE to become an author for an upcoming video game, his Demon Hunters series got new life via Kickstarter as a tabletop RPG using the Fate system and he also released his first novel. I tend to find his visual releases quite funny (Glorion is a personal favorite of my wife), so I decided to back the novel Pwned, which is quite a departure from the subject matter he usually writes about.
Pwned is about an online MMORPG Fartherall Online, which is one of the only actual ties the book has to the Gamers Universe. (Fartherall is the name of the world the JourneyQuest and the card game from Hands of Fate take place on). The other is a chapter appearance where the main character games with the characters from The Gamers: Dorkness Rising and The Gamers: Hands of Fate as Lodge is one of his co-workers. The shift from tabletop to video game is an intriguing one as it may still be gaming, but there tends to be a large disconnect between tabletop and video gamers. Usually a person is one or the other, or at best, dabbles in one of the two. Here at Diehard GameFAN, I’m the only staffer that really enjoys both equally. Everyone else tends to be video games and tries a tabletop game on occasion. Mark has Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Aaron has Magic: The Gathering. Ashe is willing to try new things like D&D 5e or old favorites like RIFTS, but primarily sticks to video games (especially D&D Online). Mostly though the video gamers tend to view Tabletop games as something extremely foreign to their interests. Meanwhile I’m playing Pokémon one second and painting some Robotech RPG Tactics or Bretonnians the next. Heck, even our readership tends to come for one section or the other rather than showing an interest in both (60/40 split towards Tabletop for the curious) You also see this divide with the characters in Pwned as they are either video gamers or tabletop gamers with only one character, the protagonist, crossing the divide. So I went into this wondering if the book would leave Tabletop gamers a bit confused or put out while also touching on a brand video gamers might not take to as readily as those that love their pen and paper games. I’m happy to say that regardless of your gaming preference, Pwned is a novel you’ll really enjoy for what it is. It’s not going to win any awards, but the book features well-written fully developed characters that you’ll grow to enjoy the exploits of. It’s also very funny.
The core story of Pwned is one we’ve all heard, read and seen countless times. Boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl back, boy find a different girl in the process and has to make a decision as to which his heart truly belongs to. So yes, Pwned isn’t going to win any awards for breaking tropes or having a really original plot, but it doesn’t need to. The quality of the writing, setting and character development makes these age old themes seem somewhat fresh and worth sitting through. You should see the eventual end of the story coming very early on without any foreshadowing. It’s very predictable but again, the journey is what makes Pwned worth reading rather than the destination.
What’s interesting about Pwned is that none of the major characters are really likeable. In real life if you encountered any of these people you would find them creepy and have nothing to do with them. Reid, the protagonist, is extremely immature, pretty stupid, socially awkward, utterly oblivious to the world around him, utterly self-absorbed and co-dependent to levels that would scare most people if they met someone like him in real life. His love interest Astrid is just as unlikeable. You find yourself wondering why anyone would be with a person like her. She’s completely addicted to her MMOPRG to the point where she gives up on reality. She treats Reid horribly and the only positive characteristic anyone has to say about her throughout the novel until the very end is “she’s hot.” It’s two extremely terrible people who found each other and thankfully managed not to breed. When the two break up thanks to Reid forcibly pulling Astrid from her MMORPG (Not physically forceful. He unplugs the game), you have to wonder why a) anyone would chase after her after the way he has been treated and b) why he hadn’t dumped Astrid sooner. It isn’t just a reader POV either. Even The Gamers characters feel the same way but Reid is a creepy idiot so instead of reviling in being free from a mutually destructive relationship, his co-dependency and utter lack of self-esteem kick him and he tries to win her back the only way he can think of – buy a copy of Fartherall Online and search the game world for her to win her back. You know, not something sane or logical like call her family and friends to see where she is and try to have a rational mature face-to-face conversation or anything. So knowing that your main character and his love interest have little to no redeeming qualities and are the type of gamers that give both aspects of the fandom a bad name and are public embarrassments to those that don’t let their interests consume them – why on Earth would you want to read about these people? Well, the answer is again in the quality of the writing. Matt Vancil makes these extremely flawed people believable and their story entertaining. Think of it like Police Academy. Everyone is those movies are horrible people. Mahoney is a douchebag. Tackleberry is a violent sociopath. Jones is insane. Lassard is suffering from dementia. Callahan abuses her position of power and rapes men. If these were real life cops, recent events involving our police force look pretty tame by comparison. Yet somehow when you combine this crew of lunatics in a fictional environment together, you get an ensemble that people enjoyed watching the antics of. Enough so that it spawned seven films, a live-action show and an animated series. So yes, I am saying that Pwned is the literary equivalent of Police Academy, but only in the sense that the writing and fictional environment makes these characters bearable and even entertaining rather that people you would probably run from in real life.
Much of the novel showcases Reid as he tries to understand the world of MMORPGs and the massive time sink they represent. After all, MMORPGs are technically never ending and you need to play pretty regularly so that your character can keep up with all the others inhabiting the world. Investing in a MMORPG involves a playtime commitment other video games or even other RPGs do not. I can pick up say, Shining Force 2, play it for eight hours and then not come back to it for a month and everything will be exactly as I left it. Do that for a MMORPG and you will be extremely behind in levels and gear. Pwned shows just how addicting these types of games can be to the right mindset, causing players to forgo health, hygiene, a social life and evening biological necessities like eating or sleeping. The book isn’t a scathing critique of the MMORPG subculture though. It quite fairly depicts how people can find friends and even love through an online game. It shows how for some people, a MMORPG can give them the satisfaction and happiness that they are missing in their meatbag existence. So if you are especially fond of a particular MMORPG and/or extremely defensive regarding it, you’ll probably think Matt is attacking the concept at first. As you get into the novel you’ll see Vancil respects the concept of MMORPG and treats it fairly. That said, I’ve only ever enjoyed two MMORPGs in my life – Neverwinter Nights by SSI (I’m that old school…and old) and D&D Online. It’s just not my thing. Even though, I really enjoyed the world Matt has created with Pwned – both in-game and out. I found myself wishing that there were MMORPGs that actually played like Fartherall Online did. There are actions, commands and mechanics you can’t actually do in things like Everquest, World of Warcraft or Ragnarok. In fact, much of the way people talked and interacted in Fartherall Online reminded me more of MUDs and games that interacted with the old BBS Chat of yore. I told you I was old.
In Fartherall Online, Reid meets other players, joins a guild called the Pwny Express, pisses off another guild called Something Wicked (repeatedly) and manages to become a pretty competent MMORPG gamer. His teammates Yanker, Mansex, Bandaid and The Truth (My personal favorite character in the book) work together to try and find the Godsword – which is the ultimate MacGuffin in the game. Reid hopes that obtaining this sword will win back the love of Astrid since she apparently loves the game more than him. Yes, it’s flimsy, but Reid is not smart nor thinking clearly throughout the book. Reid also has to juggle the video game world with his real life – especially his job which is the one thing he is really good at. Of course, Reid being a foul-up (and this being a comedy novel) manages to screw up both instead of developing time management skills. At one point Reid manages to tear down everything he has built up in both realities due to being so insanely self-destructive. Instead of like most romantic comedies, Reid never gets back to where he peaked so to speak. Pwned is a lot more realistic in that regard. We never learn if he gets another shot with the board of his job or even if he continues employment there at the same level (I’d have fired him for the things he did coupled with his terrible personality). He doesn’t get one of the two main girls in the novel. That’s shut down pretty easily but there is a hint he might get the other. The book never resolves that plot point, albeit it purposely, to let you imagination decide if Reid gets the happy ending he wants or if things will play out more realistically. I also liked that the members of Pwny Express were all over the planet unlike The Guild where everyone just somehow happened to live in walking/driving distance of each other. Truthfully, even though it is a somewhat farcical comedy, Pwned is a more realistic look at MMORPGs and a sad sack slice of gamers than you generally find in any form of fiction, and for that reason, I really liked it. Sure there wasn’t a single character in the novel I’d actually want to spend time with (Okay Lodge and The Truth are maybes) if they existed in real life, but I loved how realistically flawed each character was and it made them come alive for me. Even ones who purposely tried to be two-dimensional like Mansex. I also liked how Astrid and Reid finally got some character development towards the tail end of the novel, even if it excuses a bit of Astrid’s horribleness my make Reid even worse of a human being. It was a really fun story and I enjoyed myself from beginning to end. The only real problem the novel has is the name, which is shared by a book from the Lexy Cooper Mystery series by Shannen Cramp, which will make searching for available copies of Pwned a bit hard. Of course, it’s not readily available to the general public yet, so maybe the added time will give Vancil and Quiet Thunder a chance to promote Pwned without having it mixed up with the other novel sharing its name.
If Pwned does become available to the general public, you should definitely pick up a copy – especially if you are a fan of The Gamers, JourneyQuest Demon Hunters or MMORPGs. It’s a very well written story and I liked it a lot more than I thought I would based on the original premise Vancil handed out in the Kickstarter I took part in. I’m looking forward to Vancil’s next novel (Hopefully something Glorion based to make my wife happy) although I don’t think there’s any need to revisit the characters of Pwned. It’s a nice one-shot novel that people will be entertained by and get their money’s worth from, even if it’s not going to win awards from fiction critics at the end of the year.