Thursday, May 11, 2017

Critical Failures vs. Spells Swords and Stealth: A Comparison in Quality


I mentioned a little bit ago that I'm big into the game "Dungeons and Dragons" for a number of reasons (I won't bore you with the details; you can check that bit out here). Well, because of that very post, I decided that my itch was strong enough to go grab a D&D fictional story. While there are a number of them out there that do the job and do it well, I decided I wanted something a little more meta.

Cue finding the 'Spells, Swords, and Stealth' series by Drew Hayes.

I was immediately enamored.

I finished the first book within two days and bought the second one without hesitation. The story, in short, circled around four characters within a tabletop RPG game known as Spells, Swords, and Stealth. These characters run into a bit of an issue when the REAL players show up in their sleepy little town. They are then forced to go off on an adventure of their very own where they'll face hordes of goblins, monstrous demons, mad kings, insane wizards, and a dungeon designed to destroy any who would enter it particularly real players. Oh, and did I mention that this is SOMEHOW happening in real time while actual people are playing, leading to those very books to change their information based on the adventures of the "NPCs" that our story focuses around?

And that's just book one.

I proceeded to devour all three books in the series and am waiting on baited breath for the next one to come out (although I unfortunately don't have any release dates). The writing was so good and it blended well-known game elements seamlessly with well-thought out fiction and story telling elements. On top of that, it worked fantastically to combine meta knowledge regarding the 'real world' with the happenings of the 'game world' that it constantly left you thirsty for more.

Overall, it was EXACTLY what I wanted that I went searching for more of the same. Since Drew hadn't produced more of that series, I decided to follow Amazon's recommendations regarding the "Critical Failures" series.

Man, that book is aptly named.

First, in defense of a relative comparison, I will say that I did not read the entire series like I did with 'Spells, Swords, and Stealth'. The book is surprisingly well reviewed on Amazon and has high praises but, in my own defense...I just... I couldn't. Perhaps the others are better. However, given the teeth gnashing pain of getting through Book 1, I didn't want to waste my time or money if Book 2 was a repeat of the first.

So what's the book about?

In short, it's built on a similar overall concept. It's built on meta knowledge regarding tabletop roleplaying games. A bunch of friends who invite a brand new game master to play with them quickly realize that insulting him might not have been the best choice. And, if a few vulgar jabs, the game master transport all of the friends into the game world that they were playing a moment before. Dealing with the results of their actions, they're taken on a great chase from the law of the land where they experience all manner of monster and threat to life and limb as they learn the ins and out of living the game only to end in showdown that goes a little bit more sideways than you might imagine.

Sounds like fun right? What could go wrong.

In short: really bad writing.

To start, the book feels unpolished. The overall tone and flow of the story is incredibly choppy and tends to rock the book's pace like a new driver trying to learn a clutch. It gets where its going but not without banging your head against the dashboard a few times. Even worse, there's a point where it literally walks in a circle thematically by having one group go somewhere, while another group goes elsewhere ONLY to have them switch spots looking for each other AND THEN do it again. Quite literally having the characters just walk in circles.

However, the one that gets called out most in other commentary (and what I even took offense to) was the raw vulgarity of the writing. In the book's defense, most tabletop gamers are some foul-mouthed motherfuckers. We like to shoot the shit and make all sorts of bad or silly jokes. But there's a difference between bullshitting with your friends and turning that crap up to 11 and writing it down as a story.

Nearly endless cussing. Vulgar commentary. Rude asides. And so. Many. Fluids. Shit, piss, vomit, snot, cum, blood, and literally anything else that can come out of a body can and does. Characters ejaculate from healing magic and one character legitimately shits himself regularly. Men slip and hurt themselves in all manner of bodily fluids and there is regular conversation and focus on this vulgarity throughout the book.

I'm all for a sense of reality and, let's face it, life can be gross. But focusing a narrative on a character regularly shitting himself is bad writing. Once makes a point. Multiple times is just foul.

When all is said and done, these two stories seemed a fantastic comparison because, in my own opinion, they take the same subject matter and show the best and worst ways to do it. 'Spells, Swords, and Stealth' provides an interesting narrative and builds a world around it with a pace that leads you through your environment while still tying you back to the original game. 'Critical Failures' throws you into the story headfirst and than can't decide how it wants to proceed. 'Spells, Swords, and Stealth' provides a fascinating story within the context of the game while still showing you meta elements that ties everything together. 'Critical Failures' regularly has characters bitching about concepts a non-player will likely not understand and features more blood, piss, shit, and vomit than an emergency room that caters exclusively to frat-houses.

Overall, if you're looking for a fun and interesting story, I'd definitely recommend Spells, Swords, and Stealth. Maybe I'll return to check out Book 2 of Critical Failures one day, but that will likely be when the book is free and I'm very bored.


  1. Thank you. Based on your reactions I suspect I would thoroughly enjoy Spells, Swords and Stealth, and would walk away from the other. Vulgarity (in language and behaviour) has a valid place. Where the point is to shock me? NOT.

  2. Interesting and reflective post. I will look up these books.

  3. Yikes. Critical Failures sounds like an absolute nightmare to read. Spells, Swords, and Stealth definitely seems superior in comparison!

  4. Vulgarity simply for the sake of vulgarity or shock value does nothing for me when added to a story. I can see why you didn't like that one as well.

  5. That is one of the problems with self publishing nowadays. Some people publish their books before they're "fully cooked". I like to read those to see if I can diagnose what they're doing wrong (thereby giving me an example of what not to do in my own writing). Book 2 might get better, but I kind of doubt it.

    The first one sounds like a good read.

  6. The first does sound like a great read. It's been a while since I've found a book that I just couldn't put down.

  7. Hi Robert,

    On the whole, I haven't come across too many books and authors that I really disliked quite that badly, although I do have a 'thing' about bad grammar and sometimes, even worse spelling, with terrible proof reading and editing thrown in for good measure!

    I did actually go through a spell of taking the time to contact badly offending authors, simply to make them aware of the errors, just in case they had genuinely slipped through the net, but I gave up when I realise just how disinterested they were.

    I hope that your next book choice is more to your liking :)


  8. Swearing just for the sake of it, nah. Second sounds like one to read only when very very bored.