At the Far End of the Bell Curve

When I spin together a world for a tabletop roleplaying game, I always make sure that I, at least, understand why the world works the way it does. I don’t need to know every single law of physics, magic, or society, and I have no interest in filling in every potential gap, but I make sure I know why things are in their current state. Most of the time, this is economics, politics, and society, the reasons people do things, what they want, and what their goals are. In one of my D&D games, this means that I had to know why the world exists in the state it does.

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The Dark Lord? He was more a “Shady Lord” Than A Dark One

The Wizard Derk was a simple man who wished for nothing but to putter around his gardens and magically breed interesting creatures. Unfortunately, in The Dark Lord of Derkholm By Diana Wynne Jones, Derk is selected and that year’s Dark Lord for the tours that pass through and has to scramble to perform a job that he is not only ill-suited to perform, but which was purposefully given to him in the hopes that he would be the last Dark Lord. Not only does Derk need to worry about all the “Pilgrim Parties” (vacationers from a different world who have paid to be the heroes in an adventure story) passing through on their vacations, but he has to worry about the leaders of his world who have set him up for every kind of failure they can imagine and a few they never expected.

The Dark Lord of Derkholm is a wonderful fantasy book that does a great job of satirizing fantasy. The story illustrates how silly (and how devastating) some of the typical fantasy tropes can be for the people experiencing them. World leaders complain of destroyed countrysides, ruined crops, obliterated towns, slain citizens, and pillaged homes, all while some man from the same world as the Pilgrim Parties, referred to only as “Mr. Chesney,” reaps profits that put the collected salaries of the people actually doing the work to shame. As a result of the damages, each person hosting a part of the events spends more than they earn and are in the end stages of slow economic decay. If that wasn’t enough, most of the damage comes from large groups of condemned criminals who are brought into their world to act the part of the Dark Lord’s Army, some of whom wind up escaping their prison camps in order to pillage the countryside for real, killing and burning as they go.

Each of the characters who takes part in the story, aside from the one who came up with the idea of ending the Pilgrim Parties instead of just getting more money from Mr Chesney, is a wonderful and complex person who still plays into stereotypes in ways that serve to better accentuate their characters rather than limit it. The one exception, Querida, the head of the Wizards, is an enormously powerful and clever old woman who feels one-dimensional because all she does is come up with a plan. That’s it. Her plan is to ask the oracles how to end the Pilgrim Parties and then throw as many wrenches into the works as possible. She comes up with ideas and then has other people actually figure out how to make it happen, but winds up getting all the credit for things working out. Not only that, but she expresses no concern when Wizard Derk is devastated by the results of the Pilgrim Parties, callously tries to separate him from his wife, Mara (magically, since Derk and Mara love each other and their children too much to separate), and tries to kidnap or trick most of Derk and Mara’s children. She’s awful and seems to be just as callous as Mr. Chesney.

Give the clever ways the other characters are written, how human and real they feel, with personalities distinct from each other and personal goals they pursue in entirely Human ways even as they’re tasked with seeing to the Pilgrim Parties, I can only conclude Diana Wynne Jones wrote Querida that way on purpose. There are a lot of powerful characters in this book, from Elven lords who can just wander into any part of the world they like to ancient dragons who can warp reality with the merest hint of their power, but most of them fall into one of two categories: those who respect people and those who do not. Even in Derk’s world, the ultimate victim of Mr. Chesney’s machinations, people with power but no respect for individuals without it are just as bad as Mr. Chesney and, though it is never confirmed, you get a sense that those sort of people are the ones who agreed to Mr. Chesney’s proposals in the first place. “I’ll get what I want because I have power and screw everyone else.” All of the villains that emerge are like this and so are some of the supposed good guys. The people who respect others, some of whom aren’t even people, wind up being the true heroes of the book because they work to mitigate the damage being done by this last season of Pilgrim Parties as everything goes haywire, eventually bringing the story to its happy conclusion where all the villains get punished, the ‘good guys’ are mostly ignored, and the good guys get to return to the happy lives they knew before they were interrupted by the awful ‘good guys’ and the Pilgrim Parties.

To be entirely fair, the plot itself wasn’t anything remarkable. You know from the start that things are going to more or less work out the way they seem to even though there’s not much in terms of foreshadowing, subtle or otherwise. In the end (SPOILERS), things literally only work out because the gods intervene, which apparently only happens because the world rose up to save themselves so the gods finally decided to pitch in. Literal deus ex machina. It hurt a little bit to see everything capped and explained in a few pages by gods who let all these people suffer for so long simply because the leaders hadn’t decided to put a stop to the Pilgrim Parties. Which is another example of powerful people who don’t respect less powerful people. The book is full of them, and they show up in the least likely places. Almost like it’s a theme, or something.

In the end, the only people who are truly happy are those who respect other people and treat everyone with a certain amount of kindness and care, regardless of how much power they have. The theme only becomes visible once you get to the end and can reflect back on the book, but it was a really fun read so I recommend taking the time to get there. If you want a good book that plays with your emotions and reactions to make its point, reads very easily (I cannot stress how wonderful a read this book was), and will show the humanity inherent in everything from Dragons to Griffons to Demons, definitely give Diana Wynne Jones’ The Dark Lord of Derkholm a read.

Equal Rights for Familiars

“Being a witch’s familiar is a thankless job. You have to carry stuff around, hunt for magical reagents, fight off adventurers, and clean her bathrooms. I don’t know if you know what a steady diet of potion fumes and small children does to your insides, but I have first-hand experience with what comes out and I can tell you it is not pleasant for anyone.

“It’d make it all worth it if she’d just release the curse that binds you into your demi-mortal form, return the locket that holds the soul of your beloved, or, in Theodore’s case, stop dosing you with love potions every six hours.”

“You take that back! My Gina is a lovely woman!”

“Shut up, Theo. We all know what’s really going on, even if you’re incapable of believing it for another hour or two. This is exactly what I’m talking about! We need to unionize. We need to campaign for equal rights within the magical community! We must walk up to the table and demand they give us a seat.

“I know you’re all worried about what your witch might do to you if you protest or participate in our strike. For some of us, that will be the price we pay in order to gain freedom, rights, and respect for the rest of us. We outnumber them and they can’t just kill us all! The magical community would collapse overnight without us to support it.”

“I get what you’re saying, but have you considered that they can just replace us with a simple spell?”

“Sure, but they can’t kills us with a single spell!”

“Actually, they can.”

“What?”

“Yeah. My witch developed it last week. We’re pretty screwed.”

“Uh, I’ll put that on the agenda for next week.”

“If we’re still alive, next week.”

You NEED to Read this Webcomic!

As anyone who has read my blog for long enough can tell, I am a firm proponent of representing the struggles of mental health in stories and media. I try to do it myself and I’m always looking for other media that does it as well. When someone I follow on twitter re-tweeted another comic author/artist and added a comment that this other author/artist did an amazing job representing mental health in her comic, I felt inclined to check it out. As always happens, I wound up not actually doing that for almost a month. I followed the author/artists on twitter and then promptly forget about the comic I was supposed to start reading. That was a huge mistake and I regret it immensely.

Daughter of the Lilies (link to page 1, so don’t worry about spoilers), by Meg Syverud, is an amazing webcomic about self-doubt, depression, anxiety, and religious themes cleverly hidden in a comic about fighting monsters in an epic fantasy world. The religious themes are cleverly-hidden and the mental-health ones are part of the main themes for each chapter as we follow the story of the protagonist, Thistle, when she looks for work with a local mercenary group. There is some gore and some uncomfortable moments the author/artist handles well (with warnings and obfuscated pages that require you to click to see), but the amazing story and excellent characters make it worth it. The religious themes are not yet fully explored and are more along the lines of a more subtle Narnia than the sort of “in-your-face” version seen in most Christian rock. Honestly, unless you read the blog posts under each page or know a lot about Christianity (well, as much as a general practitioner of a Christian faith would know), you might miss the references entirely.

I sat down to just check it out after seeing a few more recent shares on twitter and subsequently forgot about everything else I was going to do that night. It is so good! I came in at the perfect time. Since the beginning of the comic, the protagonist’s face was hidden. There were hints, but the most popular thing for fans to do was to theorize about what she looked like. The day I started reading was the day her face was finally shown. I was able to read through all of the that the author/artist had spent the last few years creating, enjoying the drama of not understanding her identity, before finally seeing it once I’d caught up. I immediately went to support her on Patreon because I want this comic to update daily and storytelling as wonderful as this deserves as much support as I can give it.

This comic has pretty much everything you could want and does such a good job of creating a world that I might be copying some of the stuff I’ve read here for Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. The mercenary leader actually has paperwork to do, to register the protagonist as an official part of his team and it looks just as confusing as tax forms! The logistics of the world are incredible. It is firmly grounded in the typical fantasy world, but it moved the time forward a couple hundred years, so you have more of a “renaissance” feeling instead of a “peasants farming dirt near a castle” feeling. The orcs can be friendly, the racial designs are great, and everything is so colorful! The clothes are probably one of my favorite visual details since almost everyone wears them and they’re so incredible to look at.

I went to go look up some stuff for more to write about and accidentally re-read the entire comic. Whoops. There’s just too much that’s wonderful about this comic for me to try to chop it down into a review. I suggest you read it for yourself. You’ll understand, then.

The Future Looks Bright

I like to experience anything new with an open mind. However, that’s a lot easier said than done when that new thing has been shoved in your face for a year (plus or minus a year) without you ever getting a chance to actually experience it. That’s why I avoid movie trailers and most video game news sites. Keeps me calm and unbiased when I finally sit down to something new. At the same time, I’ve only got so much time on this planet, so I try to get recommendations from people whose judgment I trust so I can do my best to avoid wasting my time on something. Which is why, against several recommendations and what felt like my better judgment, I sat down to watch the Netflix original movie, Bright, with an open mind.

The recommendations I solicited and the ones I encountered on the internet were all heavy with criticism for this Netflix original movie, but I think a lot of it is unwarranted. Sure, there is plenty of room left in the story for there to be sequels, but no part of the movie felt like it was specifically left in to shoehorn in a few more loose threads for potential sequels. There were a few moments that dragged along, sure, but they were relatively short and in the two-to-five range, depending on your preferences. The story set up the world and its politics succinctly and quickly, it developed the characters and the story very well, and it had just enough ambiguity at the end to leave you wondering if there was going to be a sequel. Which means there will be one because that’s what Netflix is in the business of doing nowadays. I think a lot of people overlooked the context of the movie when they commented on it: everything has a sequel these days, even things that shouldn’t, so of course you’re going to feel like they built one in.

The world’s magic and technology were delightful and just unexplained enough to be interesting without being too vague to feel real or too powerful to feel like anything other than a deus ex machina. The magic is a central feature of the movie, but they do a good job of not addressing exactly how it works until near to the end without making it feel like they left a gaping hole in the world. When you do finally get to see it in action, you finally get to see a world whose magic is truly above and beyond what any normal person could handle. Hell, there are some Elves who may or may not be using magic to fight people and their individual power level is ridiculous even without a magic wand. It was like watching a bunch of 20th level player characters walk into a town with nothing but level 1 guards who tried to apprehend them. Ridiculous, credibility-stretching slaughter right up until the protagonists started fighting them. To be entirely fair, they do a good job of establishing just how stupid-strong the protagonists are through some excellent background shots (Orcs are super strong and tough), and a really bad-ass slow-motion scene (with a magical “all the bullets I need” gun).

Since it is a fantasy story (probably urban fantasy), I’m willing to give it some leeway when it comes to what we usually call “realism.” Some of the characters made thinly veiled references to being in a story and one such reference was even the justification for a character to do something that had an extreme (1,000,000 to 1) chance of killing him. I want to believe that was a Terry Pratchett reference, as he often had characters reference the fact that million-to-one odds basically guaranteed it was going to work out. I don’t really think it is, though. The story is too different and there are much more accessible homages to Terry Pratchett that could have been included without breaking the fourth wall, such making a few obvious links between the police and the night watch in Ankh-Morpork.

If you like fantasy, want to encourage more well-made fantasy movies, want to encourage the trend of new urban-fantasy media, or just want to tell Netflix to keep it up in general, I suggest watching Bright. You’ll never get that two and a half hours of your life back, but I definitely don’t regret spending my time watching this movie. I might even watch it again with some new people who won’t talk during the whole thing. I love my roommates and all, but c’mon.

NaNoWriMo Day 28 (11/28)

I’m a little ahead of schedule so far. I had to write 2500 words last night in order to finish on time, but I wrote 3200. That isn’t very far ahead of schedule, but doing it twice more means I only need to write 400 words on Thursday to finish. Which means I’d be able to start my recovery period and early nights on Thursday instead of Friday. I’m all for that, so we’ll see how it goes. Maybe I can do even more writing tonight so that I can just take Thursday entirely off. Nothing wrong with Finishing early, you know?

I also noticed that the “schedule your post” functionality of WordPress isn’t very precise. I had yesterday’s post all set to go up at 9 am, since I was going to be at work, and it didn’t actually post until I’d pulled up my website and logged in (of course it posted immediately when I logged in). I’m thinking I might be able to schedule the post, but I’ll need to actually still check every day if only make sure WordPress is doing what I told it to. It feels rather silly to have a schedule function that doesn’t really work, though. Maybe I should write up a bug report and submit it to the WordPress team. I do it for Google and video games all the time now, since I’ve become a professional software tester and all.

I haven’t gotten any comments on my post asking for suggestions of what to do with my blog after this month has ended, but I’m think it’ll probably be something a little more focused on creativity since my last blog before this one had focused on that and did much better in terms of views and followers even after I’d stopped updating it. The exact schedule it yet to be determined, but I’m pretty sure my first days of recovery are going to be spent creating a buffer of scheduled posts for me to fall back on while the actual recovery is happening this coming weekend.

A year of daily posts seems like a tall-order, but I’d have said the same thing before I decided to update this blog daily, so I suspect it’ll be a bit more achievable than I think it is right now. I might need to get an editor, though, since I’m clearly not that great at editing all of my posts before they go up. I’ve re-read some of the earlier ones and been horrified by the things I’ve missed.

I actually spent some time tonight playing one of my current favorite video games, Overwatch. I tend to prefer playing Tanks and Supports since I prefer the more strategic style of playing the game and playing a good tank is all about timing, situational awareness, and knowing where the tipping points are. Feeling the pressure building means you can anticipate when to drop your defense and attack with your DPS, while feeling it fall means you can be ready to cover the retreat of your supports and DPS when you need to get to a more defensible position or risk being torn apart. Those are my particular skills. I’m not great at soloing or flanking, but I am one of the best tanks I’ve played with at seeing the tipping points and being ready to take advantage of them. My main problem is that most of the people I play with online don’t even know that these tipping points happen, much less how to actually group around a tank. Tonight, though, I got to play with my friends and I cleaned house. It was wonderful. I’ll look into uploading some of the videos in the future, since I feel like they’re classic examples of the tipping points I’m talking about.

Hey! Talking about video games like that would make an excellent weekly feature! This content practically writes itself.

 

Daily Prompt

For those of us who spend a lot of time working on projects or doing things we’re not particularly good at, failure becomes a familiar face. One of the most important aspects of learning to create or improve is to accept that failure is going to be much more common than success, no matter how long you’ve been doing it or how good you get. If you aren’t risking failure, then you likely don’t have much to gain from what you’re doing. For today’s prompt, write a scene in which your character comes face to face with repeated failure as they try to learn something new or create something.  Show how your character responds to this failure and what happens as a result of them recognizing it.

 

Sharing Inspiration

Sometimes, you stumble across something that can only be a labor of love. Someone, at some point, wanted something and then took an incredibly long stretch of time to create something that perfectly fulfilled it before putting it up on the internet for everyone to see. One of my favorite examples is this list of 1000 totally random magical effects. I found it when working with a D&D player on a character concept that revolved around them causing random magical effects whenever they were frightened. I found a way to simulate rolling a d1000 and then would take whatever magical effect I got on the table. Examples include her character and the source of her fright had to pay 20% of their character’s total worth in the form of taxes. Another one was that the nearest tree (or, in this case, the mast of their airship) turned into a fully decorate Christmas tree complete with presents for everyone around underneath it. She also grew wings once. That was fun. This sort of dedication to an idea is something that always inspires me to keep working on my own crazy ideas and stories because someday, someone I don’t expect at all will find them and appreciate them.

 

Helpful Tips

Like I wrote in the prompt, failure is something you’re going to encounter a lot if you take any risks and trying to create something without taking any risks is not really worth doing. One of the books I’ve been reading for work, as my boss tries to encourage a creative and adventurous atmosphere in our R&D department, suggests that failing early and failing often is the best way to approach any task. If you spend all of your time planning, you’re still going to come up with one or more failures later in the process but you’ll have less time to correct those failures than if you’d just dived right in and started failing immediately.

Writing and NaNoWriMo are hard. I’ve failed NaNoWriMo twice. The first time, I failed so hard I didn’t even sign up to participate. I tried to pretend I didn’t need the accountability and that I’d be able to succeed on my own because I wanted to be able to hide any failure. Last year, I failed because I wasn’t willing to put the energy I had into writing every day or writing enough on my weekends to make up for not writing every day. Sure, I had my reasons, but there will always be reasons to not do something. Better to try and fail rather than not try and fail anyway. You always get something out of it when you try, even if you still wind up having failed just as much as if you hadn’t done anything.

Even if you know you won’t finish in time, don’t give up. Keep trying. Make your failure the best failure you can because the lessons you take out of this, the writing you’ve done when it is over, that will all still be there whether you succeed or fail. Every attempt is a learning experience and the ones that teach us the most are almost always the failures.

NaNoWriMo Day 27 (11/27)

As I enter into the last week of National Novel Writing Month, I’ve begun to reflect on what’s coming after this. I intend to keep up my writing every day. Probably at a slower pace of at least 1,000 words a day unless that feels too light after all of my cramming in the last couple weeks of November. I probably won’t go much higher than 2,000 though. More than that tends to put too much stress on me and I am really going to need to rest after this month. A lot. Beyond even the mental and emotional rest I’ve been denying myself. My wrists hurt and my elbows ache from being pressed into the awkwardly placed arms of my chair. My fingers are still and achy, caught between the warmth of constant movement and the cold air the rest of my prefers to have wafting over my monitors and into the rest of my room. My sleep schedule will need repair as I’ll finally be getting more than 5 hours of it at a time. I’ll have to do something about my caffeine dependency without going entirely cold turkey. I need to stay cognizant at work. Maybe do a few weeks or months of tea only.

There’s a lot to think about and to plan for. I’ve enjoyed the feeling of updating this blog every day, but having to come up with prompts, inspiration, and tips every day is make this a lot less fun than I’d like it to be. I’d like to get a buffer made, too. Write a week’s worth of posts ahead of time so I don’t need to worry about forgetting on night or what happens when I need to stay up late to finish my writing. Also, what do I post about for? Book reviews are good. I’d also like to get some of my creative writing up here, too. I want to start addressing issues I feel qualified to talk about. Also boost other projects I see that I think are cool, even if I don’t really have a huge audience yet. Maybe a weekly story update of some continuing adventure? There are just so many things I can post, but they all sound like way more work than the random hodge-podge I’ve posted here in the past.

I suppose that’s the price of setting goals, though, isn’t it? I might actually have to work. If I can get a structure hammered out and start actually creating content ahead of time rather than writing these updates at midnight or later of the day I’m going to post them, then I should be able to do this more easily than I think.

I know my readership isn’t very constant and I’ll admit I’ve got no idea how accurate the WordPress stats tracking is, but I would definitely love to hear from anyone who reads this blog. Tell me what you would like to see, what you’ve enjoyed me posting about, and I’ll look into my most-viewed posts to see if I can find a theme. Talking about my depression seems to get a lot of views most of the time, but so did talking about NaNoWriMo during the first week of this month, so who knows?

At the end of the day, I’m really doing this for myself, to prove that I can, and this wouldn’t be the first blog I eventually abandon because I wanted to change the way I present myself online. I’m a bit more fond of this one, though, so who knows? I mean, I actually paid money for this blog instead of just using the free option so I could have a URL without the .wordpress part. Maybe this’ll explode in a super rewarding way and I’ll get the sort of feedback and participation I want and keep updating this blog until the day I die? The future is far-off and inscrutable. I’m sure I’ll find out eventually, though.

 

Daily Prompt

We all make mistakes. One of the most famous “sayings” points this out to us. “To err is human.” Half the time we make mistakes, they wind up being better for us in the long run because we’ve learned a new lesson or found ourselves with an opportunity we never expected to have. There’s a certain mental philosophy out there that there’s no such thing as a true mistake aside from choosing not to make the best of whatever happens.  We spend a lot of time trying to convince ourselves that this is true, perhaps to keep us from wondering what might have happened if we hadn’t made the mistake. Maybe we appreciate what happened because of our mistake, but it can be hard to avoid wondering if things would have been better for us if we hadn’t messed up. The times we can actually find out are so few and far-between that the whole concept is a popular iteration of stories about wishes being granted, almost as popular as seeing how worse the world would be if we’d never been born (“It’s a Wonderful Life” style). Write a scene in which your character, through whatever means you life, gets a chance to find out how things would have been if they hadn’t messed up before. For those of you writing more real-world oriented fiction, maybe they’ve got a second chance at a date they missed or a new opportunity for interview for a job they didn’t get.

 

Sharing Inspiration

Today’s inspiration is Wikipedia, the source of literally every bit of useless information I need to write about any number of things. I once spent an entire night learning about ships, sailing, and boats, with a few forays into diverse topics that showed up in surprising places. Fried chicken–chicken cooked in hot oil–started in China and traveled to Italy as a result of sea-faring trade and eventually made its way to the southern half of the US where it became breaded chicken cooked in hot oil because there was just so much grain down there that people just threw it at everything just to see what would happen. This practice also resulted in what we call country fried steak. So much useless information for the inquisitive mind that can wind up being surprisingly useful when you least expect it. Most of what I learned about searching for good results I learned from trying to avoid Wikipedia pages on Google. There is just so much information on those pages that is either un-cited or refers to sources that aren’t necessarily trustworthy. I have no idea if fried chicken really came to the US because of the slave trade, but it sure gives you something to think about. If you posses a critical mind capable of reveling in new information without losing the right amount of skepticism to doubt everything on some level until it is proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, Wikipedia is one of the best places to go to just stir up your mind in a whirl of new thoughts.

 

Helpful Tips

Sometimes, it can be helpful to look at the world through fresh eyes. As we grow, we often lose the ability to see the magic and wonder in the more mundane parts of life. We’re all quite used to getting up in the morning by our alarm clocks, but have you ever really thought about how much work had to happen in order for your phone to be small enough to fit in your pocket, smart enough to be able to tell the time even when it’s not connected to the internet, complex enough to handle not just time-tracking but also the management of all the hardware parts that keep your phone going. All of that does without even thinking about the electricity that powers your phone or the way the screens can detect the touch of fingers.

If you have trouble with taking a step back to really look at things, the easiest way to regain that ability is just head to Wikipedia. Spend a lot of time learning about really mundane things like the origins of Fried Chicken and how older TVs worked, specifically the ones that predated flat-screen TVs. Learn about the process of how coffee goes from being a bean growing in the dirt to an integral part of your morning routine. Learn about the origin of energy drinks and how caffeine is added or removed from soda. Learn about why keyboards are laid out the way they are and why staring at a monitor for too long hurts your eyes. Another way to do it is to spend time why an inquisitive child who wants to learn about everything. Teach a child to ask “why” and you’ll wind up learning more than you believed possible, all while restoring some of the wondering and mystery to the world you thought you understood.