Master smith Angus Bjornson hates growing old. Age and an accident at the forge have crippled him, leaving Angus unable to make the swords and armor that are his passion. To help ease the pain, his children give him a VRMMO headset and a medieval game where he can continue his craft in a manual creation mode that draws upon and rewards all the skills he developed as a smith–as opposed to the convenience of using a menu.
Angus soon creates swords and armor that are better than anything in the game, even the legendary pieces. His work attracts the attention of the local guild, who enforces a monopoly of mediocrity upon the town’s crafters. But Angus will not be coerced into making junk, so the guild plots to bring Angus into their fold. By any means necessary.
True Smithing, by Jared Mandani, is the most recent in the Second Life subgenre of litRPGs. These stories take retirees, typically widowers, and introduce them to VRMMO settings where they are no longer limited by their aged bodies as they pursue their passion. While most of these stories end up dangling the hope of reuniting these men with their long-dead wives, True Smithing instead reunites Angus with his life’s work–blacksmithing.
The result is an almost-statless litRPG. Sure, Angus has to pick a class and roll stats, but as soon as he selects manual mode for crafting, the stats never matter again. It all comes down to the strength of his arm and the fire in the furnace. This means that the long stretches devoted to the drudgery of leveling up are replaced by just as long and detailed stretches describing the creation of weapons. These passages resemble text versions of such blacksmithing shows as Men at Arms: Reforged and Forged in Fire, and can be even more technical. This approach works better in text as the process of creation is at least a story, unlike the exposition of checking menus. But True Smithing does not bother to explain the terminology for the casual reader, so much of the nuance of creation is lost. The result is that these sections can be just as skimmable as the stat screens, which is unfortunate, as in these passages Angus forges the readers’ understanding of blacksmithing needed for the climax.
The focus on blacksmithing also creates a more intimate story. Angus does not care for the combat and exploration that consists of the supermajority of MMORPG gameplay. He stays at the forge and hammers steel and other metals. His concerns are merchants and nobles, not monsters and world-rending cataclysms. As such there is more room in the story for character development. Also, this makes True Smithing a rare example of a litRPG that relies on non-combat conflicts for tension and the plot. The story even shows how the game world and real worlds can interact, as Angus’s insistence on crossing the local lord has real-world consequences for him. Likewise, Angus is able to use real-world laws and ownership to carve through the Gordian knots of MMO politics.
True Smithing is an example of how litRPGs can prosper in smaller adventures than commonplace in heroic fantasy. While it is eager to experiment, not all of it’s attempts bear fruit. But the combination of novelty and solid character work have earned True Smithing its current popularity.
“Captain Bill Gorman has mysteriously disappeared. His clone, set aside for a dark day like this, awakens and begins to put together the pieces. What’s gone wrong out on the frontier? Why are our colonies being attacked by aliens while the Conclave worlds dream of better days? And what happened to the original Captain Gorman?” from the Star Runner advertisement.
B. V. Larson is back with a story he does best–alien invasions. Larson follows the fashions for milSF protagonists by choosing a gun smuggler for Star Runner (formerly Gun Runner). More precisely, his clone. Giving the clone the mission to try to find what happened to the original not only humanizes the stakes, it allows Larson to hide the threat of invasion behind another, more personal mystery.
While the plot has grown more complex compared to earlier Larson novels, the characters have grown more refined. Most Larson stories feature a secondary antagonist that is a snarky, arrogant coward wrapped up in his own intelligence and a desire to trip up the protagonist at every steps. Larson’s heroes tend to refrain from spacing him as the intellectual occasionally makes key inventions needed to fend off the alien threat. In Star Runner, this character is replaced by an overbearing and backstabbing cheat of a boss. The comparisons between the clone and the original give Bill Gorman a layer of depth that previous hyper-competent protagonists lacked. It also helps that Gorman is not presented as a savant in all endeavors he sets his mind to. Instead, he’s just really good at running and firing guns.
The highlight, however, of Star Runner is the aliens. Larson introduces symbiotes, humans who are controlled by urchin-like aliens in their guts. What appeared to be a throwaway line of description slowly gets more horrific as Gorman learns what happens to the humans controlled by these alien riders as well as the riders’ plans for humanity. Each in the masterful series of slow reveals is brought to light through a myriad of interactions with clients, customers, and officials. While the riders have designs on the galaxy, they also have plans for Bill Gorman’s clone. As they did for the the original. And it’s through uncovering these personal plans that Gorman’s clone discovers the galaxy-spanning threat.
Star Runner is a return to classic Larson storytelling, where the characters are the equal to the inventive scenarios and settings they fight in. And while the current novel is a stand-alone in the Undying Mercenaries series, there are hooks for sequels.