(Author’s note: what follows is a bit of world-building for my current novel project, tentatively titled The Iterating Assassin)
There is a simple and clear distinction to be made between the Great Races of our Union and the Lesser Races. The Great Races are those species who have overcome the Great Filter and achieved interstellar civilization. This has most commonly culminated in the achievement of FTL travel with slipdrive, but not necessarily. The Voosk, for instance, achieved it with slowships of incredibly ingenious design and the Bodani with sublight, self-propagating probes, even if both species went on to steal slipdrive technology later in their development.
Those species who have failed to achieve interstellar civilization are, by definition, lesser than those that have. This can be seen as unjust, but this is not a question of justice, but merely a practical question of social and intellectual maturity. The Great Filter is the single most important challenge any civilization faces, and any civilization that has never grappled with it and won cannot be considered equal to those who have.
So, the Filter exhibits as a series of converging crises. Any one of these crises can destroy a planet-bound or even system-bound civilization utterly, and every one of them is inevitable. These crises are as follows:
The Resource Crisis
Any successful civilization reaches the point where it uses more resources than any given planet or star system can reasonably provide via what we shall generously term “conventional” means (i.e. means outside of quantum or dark matter sources). Without tackling the Resource Crisis, the civilization will starve itself out of existence.
The Belligerence Crisis
Any sufficiently advanced civilization has at its disposal weaponry able to destroy itself. Civilizations that cannot find a way to cooperate and avoid self-destruction obviously will never overcome the Filter, as they will become extinct.
The Population/Travel Crisis
Advanced civilizations will have a positive birth rate. Inveitably, this birth rate will exceed the civilization’s capacity to provide for that population. This can be a direct side-effect of the Resource Crisis, but even if provided for materially, the growing population will lead to added instability, exacerbating both the Billigerence Crisis and the Contact Crisis. There is some argument among scholars whether this is a distinct crisis at all, but rather just a side-effect of other crises. This is also called the “Travel Crisis” for some, since this crisis can be alleviated (however temporarily) by being able to escape the confines of a single planet or series of planets.
The Contact Crisis
Advanced civilizations often will make quite a lot of interstellar noise. This attracts the attention of interstellar species, who frequently seek to make contact. In the best case scenario, a system-bound species that encounters an interstellar species is quickly overcome and becomes a vassal state to the more influential and more powerful species. In the worst case, one of the planet-eating Marshals discover the civilization and consume it.
So, the barrier to becoming a Great Race involve solving the Resource, Belligerence, and Population Crises before the Contact Crisis happens and the civilization in question reaches a satisfactory resolution to said First Contact episode. This is a rare thing indeed, and hence there are only six Great Races (eight if one counts Skennite and the Marshals).
And what of the Lesser Races? Well, that is a complex tale, perhaps best illustrated with a case study: the Quinix of Sadura.
The Quinix are arachnids of great size and intellect. They seem to grow indefinitely, but the largest specimens have
been recorded as being some 3.5 meters in diameter, from leg to leg. On average, they are between 1 and 2 meters in diameter, with eight legs, each of which sporting a three-fingered “hand” of remarkable strength and dexterity. They have six eyes and can see deep into the infrared spectrum, which serves them well in their very dim natural environs.
Quinix are omnivorous, but have a noted preference for meat. Like most arachnids, they digest their food outside their bodies using a venom injected via their fangs. Given their large size, their fangs are not of considerable size. The Quinix do not kill with their fangs, but usually use tools or even their thread and cables to kill prey before eating.
The Qunix have spinnerets, like many arachnids, and are able to weave fibers of incredible strength and elasticity from their bodies. A single adult Quinix can weave several kilometers of fiber before exhausting their stores and needing to rest. When working as a group, they are capable of building complex structures of all manner of shape and size, all with their bodies.
The Quinix are clan-based organisms by dint of biology. Quinix females only lay a single egg during their lifetime (and the process of laying the egg and caring for it is usually fatal for the mother). If successfully fertilized, that egg hatches to produce many hundreds of offspring who are, as of that moment, a single social entity. These young clans receive guidance from their father’s clan and revere their mother’s clan as holy and sacrosanct. A complex web (please pardon the pun) of social and clan relationships governs Quinix society, tied together by a mind-boggling network of relationships. Mortality on Sadura is high (the vertical environment, the constant tectonic activity, the predators, and wars between so-called “oblique” clans – clans with no familiar connection) and therefore population numbers are low, overall.
As the Quinix live in a subterranean environment (and have to – the surface of Sadura is a radiation-soaked wasteland thanks to its proximity to its red giant sun), they have no conception of night and day. Indeed, they have a very poor reckoning of time in general and, to the extent that they do tell time, it is only via generational figures (clan related, again). They follow erratic circadian rhythms that are difficult for other species to tolerate, and do not seem to rush to do much of anything.
Additionally, their concept of life and death are likewise complex. For the Quinix, one’s life includes not only the animate existence of their body, but also the continued existence of their woven cables and webs. Without destroying the cables that they wove in life, a Quinix is still considered “alive” by all social standards. Therefore, buildings woven out of Qunix fibers are quite literally “alive” in a sense difficult for other species to understand or appreciate. Cutting a cable on purpose is an act of fatal violence.
Due to the confluence of these physiological and social factors, the Quinix have not and never will be able to exceed the Great Filter. While they developed metal-working technology (made difficult by Sadura’s highly flammable high-oxygen environment), their natural building abilities hampered their interest in exploring more complex materials science that would have allowed them to progress from the construction of iron-based tools and trinkets. They therefore have never and would never develop the technology capable of destroying themselves, are not successful enough to have a resource shortage, have (or had) a near-zero birthrate, and would eventually have been discovered and consumed by a Marshal if they ever developed a radio transmitter.
Fortunately and also unfortunately for them, they were discovered by the Dryth Solon, Kaskar Indomitable in C30.10, and have spent the last two and a half cycles as a Lesser Race under the auspices of the Union of Stars. This means they they will not be haphazardly eaten by a passing Marshal (good), but also means that any further technological or social advancement will be under the influence of the Great Races that have come to their planet. They are in a permanent state of arrested development.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more unfortunately, the changes wrought by the Union to make Sadura more hospitable to the Great Races has had an exacerbated effect on Quinix society and Sadura’s ecology. Stabilizing the tectonic activity has permitted huge cities to be built, resulting in a spike in the Quinix birthrate but also nowhere for those Quinix to go except into off-world settlements. They are a servant species on their own planet, their old clan wars and dreams of dominion crushed beneath the off-worlder’s technological superiority. The Quinix are gradually losing their cultural identity and are no longer masters of their own environment. It is difficult to say what will become of them, but whatever it is, they will never again control their own destiny. Unjust? Perhaps. But also inevitable and unavoidable for those who fail to overcome the Filter.
All things considered, being relegated to a servant species is vastly superior to many of the other alternatives: ecological or military extinction, or possibly being devoured by a void-dwelling macroorganism.
Welcome, brave adventurers! Do not be afraid – I am not your enemy, only a guide. You have journeyed far and suffered much to attain the summit of this, the Mountain of Prophesy. Here lies the Ultimate Treasure for one of you to claim. But be warned! The Treasure is not for the meek nor the idle; it asks of you a terrible price. One of you must sacrifice yourself willingly for the good of others by leaping from the top of this cliff, falling to your death. Only then will your companions be gifted with the Ultimate Treasure and your quest will be at an end.
Of course – and please bear with me here – there are a few provisos and rules to go over, just so we’re clear on what’s being asked here. I know, I know – this is supposed to be your climatic moment, I understand, but I’ve been here a few aeons and I think we’ll all be happier if I dispel any gray area before we begin. In my experience, everyone will be happier in the end.
Look, I feel what I’m asking is pretty clear, too – one of you needs to jump to your death right there and then you get the treasure. Pretty clear. But, just in case you were hoping for some kind of technicality, here, let me be explicit: there is no scenario that ends with you getting the Treasure and also all of you walking away alive. No resurrection. No creating a clone of yourself and getting the clone to jump off the mountain (oh, and by the way, everybody who’s tried that has really regretted it, believe me. Total shitshow, that plan).
And jumping off the mountain presumes you will die by hitting those jagged rocks way down there. No jumping, levitating halfway down, and then arguing that we’re all mortal or some nonsense and that you’ll totally die someday. Same thing goes for those of you so tough you hit the rocks down there and you’re fine – you’ve got to die.
I’m really very sorry, but these are the rules. I didn’t even make these rules, so threatening me won’t make any difference. This is some immutable, Laws of Creation-type shit. I just work here, and I’m not even technically alive, so getting me to jump off for you guys won’t work either.
Oh, and no psychic bullshit! No hypnotizing your friends into jumping off in your place or finding some poor hapless villager and charming them so that they’ll do anything for you and getting them to commit suicide. Consent, assholes – learn the word.
And yeah, it’s got to be one of you guys who climbed the mountain. You can’t teleport in your aging grandma who has two weeks to live and talk her into it. This is supposed to be an ordeal, people. There is a price to be paid. Don’t be dicks.
Look, there’s no point in getting mad at me – it wasn’t my idea to take on this quest to defeat the Ultimate Evil. I’m not the jerk here. C’mon – you were just talking about throwing your grandma off a damned cliff, you little shit.
Hey, nobody’s saying anybody needs to jump – you can go walk yourself down the mountain, for all I care. Live a happy life somewhere. I don’t give a shit, honestly I don’t. I don’t get paid on commission or something. It’s just no jump means no Treasure. Them’s the breaks.
You know what – fine! Leave. Oh stop with all the whining. Oh – oh really? You went there, huh? You think I haven’t heard all this before? Fuck off, you self-entitled little piss-ants. Beat it! Go on now – get. I got better shit to do than listen to this abuse – me, who later on has to climb his old bones down the whole damned mountain and clean your dead ass off those rocks. Fucking exhausting, is what that is. Not jumping is doing me a favor, honestly.
Ye fickle gods, some people.
Maybe I should just post this on a sign or something.
Hey! Those of you in the Boston area tonight (May 9th, 2019), come by Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge. I’ll be there between 7pm and 9pm, signing books and chatting with fans. See you there!
A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on how to run a Dungeons and Dragons game, as he had never done it before. He had put together a pretty straightforward and workable adventure to get everybody started – everybody winds up in this town to join some mercenary company, has to figure out how to get over the walls of said town, then they meet in an inn, and then there’s a bar fight.
Now, while this is perfectly serviceable, I feel that it sort of misses a really important aspect of storytelling that is directly relevant and essential to a really great tabletop gaming experience, as well, which is motivation.
Basically, all storytelling involves two basic building blocks: Motive and Obstacle. The character wants or is seeking something (Motive) and there is something that prevents them from immediately achieving that aim (Obstacle). Without the motive, there is nothing driving the character to overcome any obstacles (whether they are internal or external). Without obstacles, the character just immediately fulfills their motive and no real story occurs. What makes a story interesting is how motive and obstacle feed into one another and basically drive the story forward.
I would argue, also, that these elements transcend genre or even historical and cultural concerns. Even in so-called “conflictless” stories (such as the Japanese Kishotenketsu structure), this still exists. There is always something lacking/missing from the character, even if extremely subtle (a man is making dinner, preparing for his relatives – this is a motive for making dinner). There is always something that is going to stand in the way of the immediate realization of that goal (the man has to go to the store to buy more fish). All that changes is the nature of these two elements and their relationships to one another. In the stereotypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey (gestures vaguely at the whole MCU), the main character has an irresistible call to adventure of some kind and then must overcome a series of escalating obstacles culminating in a grand ordeal and, once victorious, returns to the world they once knew with gained wisdom and power. Even outside of that structure, though, Motive and Obstacle have to be present.
In a gaming setting, assuming your game is narrative focused, these two elements still need to be there for it to all work. What is most commonly forgotten is motive – a player makes an Elven Wizard, her identity is…Elven Wizard…and her character’s goals are to cast spells and be an elf. Naturally, this isn’t enough and this is also why the whole “we all meet in a tavern” thing is so cliche – the characters meet in a tavern because they have literally no other reason to meet or interact. The obstacles, meanwhile, are assumed – the players are going to band together, go to that dungeon, kill what they find, and collect the loot. This is fine, I guess, if all you’re involved in is a basic resource-management exercise. But assuming you’re not, it is clearly lacking…well, story.
It doesn’t take much, though, to give the game a story. All you need to do as a GM (or as a player) is to ask the players a few questions. Suggestions might include:
- What happened to you the last time you were in that dungeon?
- What have the goblins of that dungeon stolen from you and why it is important?
- What do you need the money from this quest for? Why is it important?
By establishing some basic motivations, the players suddenly have a vested interest in overcoming the obstacle before them. The story is no longer contrived. Furthermore, if your players buy into the motivations they’ve established for themselves (and hopefully they have!), the obstacles suddenly become more engaging. Saying “you can’t jump across this pit” is fine, but saying “you can’t jump across this pit, but you hear your baby girl crying your name from the other side” is a million times better!
All of this goes for writing, too, of course. If a character doesn’t have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, the audience isn’t going to buy in on their struggle. This is a common problem with in medias res beginnings – we don’t know why the character is in this car chase, so it’s hard to care. But if it’s managed well, we are instantly engaged and love every second of it. Then, as the motivations solidify or change into larger and more complex ones and the obstacles likewise follow suit, you’ve got the audience/players on a wild ride they don’t want to end.
When I teach my expository writing students to do research, I usually tell them something along the lines of this:
Do not enter a research project with preconceived notions of what you will know when you are done. The point of doing research is to learn. It is your duty to read widely and get as full a picture of what you are studying in order to formulate an opinion about that topic. Your thesis (your argued point) comes after the research is done, not before.
This, I think, is good advice for scholarly research of all stripes. Don’t go in with preconceived ideas. Keep an open mind. Read deeply and widely.
Then, when I write novels, I don’t do anything of the kind.
I hasten to note that I’m not writing historical fiction, here – I’m writing speculative fiction. Scifi, fantasy, time travel – stuff like that. Everything I’m writing is, on some level, verifiably false. I’m making shit up all the time. So, the extent that I’m interested at all in actual facts – whether historical or scientific – is somewhat limited. That limit is the very low bar that is suspended disbelief.
Basically, if I can fudge some actual aspect of history without knocking the audience out of the story by violating their suspension of disbelief, then I can totally get away with it. Because, sure, they didn’t have potatoes in medieval Europe. But they also didn’t have magic or elves or gnomes. And this also isn’t medieval Europe. So what’s it matter, anyway? They’ve got potatoes in their stew – deal with it.
Now, of course, some audiences are going to be more sensitive towards this stuff than others and, furthermore, certain kinds of stories are going to require you to meet a higher standard of suspension of disbelief than others. For instance, I’m currently writing a time travel novel and, since it involves my character traveling back to actual places and times in actual Earth’s history, I have had to do a variety of research to make those places seem authentic. I’ve done research on 18th century American currency, military honors of the Roman Empire, card games played in Port Royal Jamaica in 1670, and who the Lakers were playing on December 8th, 1976 (the Pacers – the Lakers lost).
This research, though, takes a different form than what I would call actual academic research. I don’t need my answers to be correct, exactly – I just need them to be plausible. Furthermore, when I’m doing research like this, it’s to establish a very specific effect in a very specific scene that often happens only once in the whole book. I do some research online for a little while and, if I can’t find an answer that looks suitable, I change the scene so that I no longer need that specific answer anymore. I’m not going to sit down and read a whole book on the urban development of South Boston in the 1950s just so two paragraphs in the novel are 100% accurate, nor am I about to subscribe to a special research service or trek to some distant library just to know what color Ben Franklin preferred to wear when out about town. It just isn’t that important, ultimately.
So, in other words, I do research for books like this in the exact wrong way – the way I tell my students not to. I go in with a preconceived goal in mind (“I need a cool card game for my protagonist to play against pirates”), I do the barest minimum of responsible research (YAAAAY Wikipedia!), and I glean just enough information to make it look like I know what I’m talking about without, you know, actually knowing what I’m talking about.
I am bringing this up mostly because, in the last few weeks I’ve asked some people some relatively minor historical questions and received, well, rather extensive details that, while appreciated, aren’t really necessary. This has been from friends of mine who are academics and librarians and historians for whom I have the greatest respect, and therefore I kinda feel bad telling them “well…actually…I really don’t care what the answer is anymore. I’ve changed my mind.” Because I’m not really an academic or a librarian or a historian. I’m a showman. All writers are, ultimately. And while we might enjoy doing research about this or that, the research is not the end we seek. We’re telling a story. And story always, always comes first.
And now it comes time to discuss our own species – the Thraad. If it has taken long for me to reach this topic, it is not without reason. We Thraad understand that to know oneself, you must first understand others. If this seems counter-intuitive, give it time. You are young yet.
We are an evolutionary descendant of gastropods, though we are a significantly more complex organism than most common snails or slugs. We have a functioning circulatory system, for instance, and a six-chambered heart. Over the aeons, we have lost the ability to grow thick shells (artificial shells are worn instead, as clothing). Our locomotion is still by means of our single, muscular foot and made easier by the secretion of waste slime to reduce friction. We have two eyes on muscular stalks that can rotate and can even look in two directions at once without distress. Beneath our chins are four tentacles we use for the manipulation of objects, both fine and coarse. We are omnivorous and are hatched from eggs.
By the standards of other species in the Union, we are foul-smelling, slow, and ugly. But they know well enough not to underestimate us. Our home planet, Thraador, is very large by the standards of the Union and we evolved in an environment of extreme gravitational forces. Though we usually stand no more than 150 cm from foot to shell, we are the tallest and largest creatures on our world, which is flat, wet, and hot. Bipeds and quadrapeds never evolved on our world, as standing upright requires too much strength and affords too few advantages. When a fall of a few meters is fatal, walking on two or even four feet is risky. We Thraad are steady on our foot – we seldom falter and we never fall (remember this always, as it speaks not just to our physiology, but to our culture and heritage as well). Furthermore, thanks to the intense environment of our home, we are extremely strong by the standards of the other species. Though slow, we are unstoppable. Though ugly, we have wisdom.
We Thraad are a more unified people than most. Long ago we cast off petty nationalistic rivalries or affiliations of House or Cartel. Introspective by nature, we seek consensus in all things. Perhaps thanks to the harsh environment of our homeworld, we are disinclined to take action unless absolutely needed and not until it has been deeply considered. We are not flighty or given to impulse.
Our government is decentralized and simplistic: a council of elders of no specific size meets to decide things and, should the deliberations be wise, the people follow. This sounds chaotic to other species, but they do not understand our temperament. Wisdom is wisdom, no matter who speaks it. If the elders are wise, and history shows that they are, then they will speak well and we would do well to take their counsel. We are not a species of rebels or petty criminals. In the rare instance that one of our number is committed to folly, they are simply ostracized and cast out of the community. It is that simple.
This, of course, has its disadvantages. Though scientifically curious and always willing to learn, our society changes slowly and our capacity to react to calamity is limited. This makes other species think of us as harmless “armchair academics.” But our anger is no less bright than others. Our weapons, though perhaps not as flashy as those of the Dryth, are no less deadly. History is filled with the plague-ridden corpses of those who underestimated us.
We do not maintain distinct family units, even though we are a sexually reproducing species. Eggs are hatched centrally in any given community. The care of young ones is the equal responsibility of all – hence my speaking to you now. It may be that some of you are my biological children, but we Thraad make no distinctions between such things. If you are young and a Thraad, you are my offspring, to be treated the same as any other. If female, you will one day make periodic visits to the hatchery to lay. If male, you will make periodic visits to fertilize. That is all.
There is a sense among us, I feel, that we are cheated by our nature. Some of us look out from our flat world to gaze with envy upon the doings of the other Great Races – the romance of the Lhassa, the passion of the Dryth, and so on. But, in the end, all Thraad return to Thraador. After some years adventuring in the light gravity of the outside world, we long to return to our swampy homes. We are sensible like that.
Thraad civilization began some 16,000 sidereal years in the past. There is too much to know to sum up in this precis, but suffice to say that we took our time developing our cultures, our technologies, and our knowledge. There were wars, yes, but they were primarily waged by proxy: animals and plants and microbes we had trained or engineered to pursue our interests in one way or another. We are, of course, famed for being the masters of what is called “ecological warfare.” It is a slow way to defeat one’s enemies, yes, but quite effective in the long run.
We sought the stars, as all species do in time, but not because of the damage we had done to our environment (like the Lhassa) or because of our desire for conquest (the Dryth). Rather, we left our planet to learn. To explore. The history of our species is one of slow, gradual exploration – the meticulous building of a body of knowledge. We are a curious people.
Of course, our steps into the stars were not without problems. We warred with other species and lost. We discovered that our technologies and our habits were too slow to compete with the likes of the Dryth and Lhassa and Lorca. By luck, we “met” Skennite, and found in it a kindred spirit. The period of our history known as “the Hastening” began – we discovered the secrets of slipdrive, we expanded our influence. When again war came, we were ready. Our biological and chemical weapons were terrifyingly effective, our well-planned strategies invincible. We made the galaxy tremble. Of course, we are not a warrior people in the manner of the Dryth and we are not so numerous or prolific as the Lhassa, and we in time lost again. But we had secured ourselves a place as one of the Great Races, a privilege we continue to enjoy.
We joined the Union gladly, happy to escape the endless wars that ravaged the stars. Now our role is as diplomats, scientists, and merchants, not warriors. We are happier this way. Let the Lhassa and the Dryth and the others struggle in violence and pain for their pieces of the universe. We Thraad shall stand by, patiently, for the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into somewhere essential, just as we always have.
Got another story published and released for public consumption. It’s free, too! Shuffle your internet consciousness over to this month’s Perihelion SF and read “When It Comes Around” – my dark and gritty tale of the hard life of a space pirate. Let me tease you with the first line, if I may:
You ain’t been there ’til you’ve clocked a knife-fight in zero-g.
Eh? Ehhhh? Pretty cool, yes?
I’m pretty proud of this one. It *just* missed some of the bigger markets (the narrator’s patois just didn’t do it for some editors), so I’m very glad it found a home. I have been in love with this voice I came up with for some years now (my first publication, “The Spacer and the Cabbages,” used it, as well, and that was about seven years ago now). With any luck, I’ll be able to do more with it in the future. Anyway, I hope you like it.
Go! Read! If nothing else, it ought to discourage you from a life of space piracy.
Hello, and welcome to the Sudden Valley Interdimensional Gateway Facility. Assuming you made it through security, you are reading this document while under the watchful eye of our armed guards. Please don’t be alarmed – they will only kill you if you show any signs of being an alien. So just remember to act totally normal. Easy, right?
Now, here are the basic rules:
- No animal or plant matter (beside yourselves) is to pass through the portal in either direction. No matter how human they look, we will shoot any people you rescue from alien overlords, so don’t even bother.
- Always send a robot through first. If you can’t get a good picture from a robot, spend some time building a better robot before sending through a person. Yes, even Gary.
- The scientist who designed the portal is never, ever, ever allowed to go through it, no matter how much she wants to. Do not give Marcia the access codes no matter how much she begs you. We’re serious.
- Do not operate the portal while drunk. We would say that you could be shot for attempting this, but no drunken lush has ever lived long enough for us to do so, so…
- If you dream about the portal “calling you,” please report to the nearest armed guard and say “Code Purple.” They know what to do next. We promise you’ll be fine. Honest.
- If something comes through the portal on its own, it has to die. We don’t care if it looks like your grandmother or dead girlfriend or long-lost father or whatever. Shoot first, questions later.
- After returning through the portal, please report to “Proccessing.” Remember to act totally normal.
- If the portal throws you forwards or backwards in time, remember not to cause any paradoxes. Assuming such paradoxes are possible, which they might not be, since they’ve never happened. Or maybe they did and we don’t know. Anyway, be careful. Remember: if confronted by security, remember to act totally normal.
- In the case of a time loop, we have a chess set set up in the break room at all times to help you signal to yourself that you’re in a time loop. Always remember to act totally normal.
- The alien species you may or may not encounter might end up being really cool. One of them might even be a seven foot tall blue cat chick who introduces you to her people’s ways. We do not care at all–keep her world’s problems on her world, dammit. We’ve got enough crazy shit going down on Earth. Stay out of it.
- In case of emergency, we have this facility rigged to the warhead of a hydrogen bomb. It is wired to the Big Red Button. Do not push the Big Red Button unless absolutely necessary.
- If you return under mind control, we will kill you. Sorry, but it clearly violates the totally normal statute.
- If you return with super-powers, but are in all other ways Totally Normal, we reserve the right to rent your services to the government so we can pay for our facility. We know, we know – that sounds dystopian and mean, but you get to be a superhero now, so shut up.
Good rule of thumb: expanding the knowledge of the human race is good and all, but let’s try to do that without blowing up the Earth.
Have fun, and happy adventuring!
Got a story for you. It’s an old one; maybe you’ve heard it.
A wealthy merchant is walking through the streets of Baghdad when he sees the Angel of Death. Death recognizes him and seems very interested in him. The man concludes that Death is in Baghdad to take him and, unwilling to die, he expends all his vast wealth in one day to secure the service of a genie. “Genie,” says the man, “I’ve no wish to die. Transport me to Damascus in one night, so that I might evade Death’s embrace.”
And so the genie did as was asked of him and worked great magic to transport the man, along with all his family and home and livestock and servants, far away to Damascus in the space of a single night. The merchant slept easily, knowing he had fooled Death.
The next morning, however, the man went into the streets of Damascus to find Death waiting for him. The man was aghast. “What? How did you find me?!”
Death shrugged and said, “That is why I was so interested to see you in Baghdad. You see, I had an appointment to meet you today in Damascus.”
Heard that one? Well, it’s true, let me tell you. I was the genie.
You would imagine, as an immortal being whose task it is to grant wishes, I would have seen more than my fair share of happiness over the millennia. Not so, though. I have some thoughts on the subject.
You people – you mortals – you can never figure out what you actually want. I mean that, too – you cannot, as in you are not capable. A man wishes for wealth and dies alone. A woman wishes for beauty only to drown the next week. A boy wishes for power only to pine for his mother. On and on and on it goes. You don’t know what tomorrow brings and, so terrified that Death might have penciled you in for Friday, you pick the absolute worst thing for you at the time and think it solves all your problems. It is so consistent as to be actively tragic.
Had a guy once – sometime in Ancient Babylon – wish to be an invulnerable warrior. Easy enough, right? How can a guy go wrong with that? Simple: his tribe, the people he wanted to protect, drove him out of their lands claiming he was a demon. So he was the world’s biggest badass with nothing to fight for. He died of old age as a hermit. Blamed me, too.
I don’t trick people, okay? Not my thing. I’m a servant of the lamp and that’s it – you rub, I appear, and we do business. I am not “imprisoned” in the lamp – it’s just a convenient hole in space-time for me to zip through. I’ve got a life outside of this one. I mean, not one you’d easily understand, but it’s there. Had one lady wish to have me explain it to her once. She went insane.
So, yeah, I’m not upset when somebody rubs the lamp and pops me out. Not a big deal – less than an eye-blink in the breadth and depth of the cosmos, understand? You really cannot waste my time, since I have as much of it as I want. When you wish for something, I give it to you – no judgment, no tricks. Do I sometimes screw up the details? Yeah, sure – some of you guys are damned unclear. I mean, how am I supposed to interpret “I wish for the world?” Go on – I dare you to figure out, in concrete terms, what that means exactly. That guy’s name was Atlas and man, was he pissed. Not my problem though – if you can’t be bothered to read the fine print on the lamp itself, don’t come crying to me.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, right – wishes. Let’s get this out of the way: You can’t wish for true happiness, okay? You can’t have it like that. I cannot give it to you, much as I might want to. You mortals are always thinking in external terms – give me gold, give me power, give me land, give me love – and that’s missing the entire point. Happiness comes from within.
Oh sure, the occasional wise-acre wishes for internal happiness, but it doesn’t work. I just have to turn them into different people. Is that success? You want to know what really happened to Attila the Hun? They say he died of a brain hemorrhage while doing the wild thing after deciding not to sack Rome. What he did instead was take the lamp, given him by Pope Leo I (who had used it to become pope), in exchange for sparing the city. So he did. And then he wished to be truly, permanently happy. I turned him into a friendly dog – best I could do. His followers did the rest.
Happiness is something that people who seek me out are never going to find. Happiness is contentment, understand? To be content with your lot, no matter what your lot is. That is true, contemplative happiness. If you got it, what do you need me for? What can I possibly give you to get you there? No, all wishes – all rewards and triumphs – are things you need to have grow out of yourself, not have dumped on you from on high. Give a fish shoes and it’ll have no idea what to do until it grows some feet.
The best wish ever? Oh, that’s easy: fella name of Lao-Tzu, ancient China. Summoned me up and chatted with me for a little while on a road in the middle of nowhere. When I asked him what he wanted, he said, “Only to talk. Thank you.”
He meant it, too. I still think about that sometimes.
Anyway, enough about me. Let’s whip you up that private island, okay? Did you have a hemisphere in mind, or am I just gonna get creative?
What’s that? Oh, right – adventuring. Yeah, that’s what you kids call it. Nothing crazy sounding about that, no sir.
Eh? Oh, yes – that barrel there is full of pebbles. Lightweight, easy to toss, guaranteed to reveal deadfall traps or your money back. Just a silver piece a handful.
Why yes, that price does seem a might bit high, I suppose. But gravel here is pretty hard to come by. I got a mess of children, see, and they go out mornings and collect rocks for their dad. Go ahead and look – I can wait. You won’t find a pebble worth lobbing for six miles in any direction, gods as me witness.
Oh right – here we get to the part where you threaten me with beating and mutilation and such. Same old story. I tell you what, Thagg the Magnificent, if’n you wanna hack off my head, be my guest, but good damned luck finding a healer in this town hereafter. Father Paldrick is a business partner, see? You kill me, and any of your pals what get cursed by spider demons or have their entrails eaten by gorefinder worms or just wind up plain dead are going to stay that way. So, go on mister – I’ll wait.
Today I’m having a special on used rope. Oh, yes – I’ve been gathering rope from the…err…less successful spelunk…errr…adventurers have left around. Damnest time untying it all sometimes. You wouldn’t believe the stupid nonsense these people try to make outta rope. Catapults, winches, belaying lines, boulder traps – you name it, I’ve hacked it down and respliced it to resell. What? It ain’t stealing, honest! Them folks ain’t needing it anymore.
Yes, nobody has come out the Black Mine alive as of yet. Oh, yes, I’m sure you’ll be the first ones. Why, the Black Mine has never had to face a bloodthirsty barbarian, a charming rogue, a secretive wizard, and a forthright cleric before. No sir. Most folks bring a paladin or a plain old fighter instead of Thagg over there. Sure he’ll make all the difference.
What’s that? Yessir – all those “craptastic rusty lamps,” as you put it, come with a lifetime warranty. You just come on back if it don’t work and I’ll either give you a new one or store credit, I swear. Never had nobody ask for it yet, gods as me witness.
Maps of the dungeon? Now how in the Nine Hells am I supposed to have that hanging around? You think anybody around here actually goes into the Black Mine? We had us a wizard in here to seal it up just so nobody would. But then some fool has to go about running his mouth about all the treasures down there and next thing you know, weird little groups of three to five people start showing up and marching past all them magic wards. Damnest thing, if you ask me. Fools, the lot of them.
Well, except you. You lot look exceptionally intelligent. Can I interest you in a selection of skeleton keys? I’ll give you a money back guarantee.
So, that will be the crowbar, sledgehammer, door wedges, one lamp, five torches, one-hundred and fifty feet of rope (new), four bags of pebbles, some of them ball bearings, and a wheelbarrow. That will be fifty-seven gold and five silver, please. Most generous of you.
You know, now that I think about it, might be there’s treasure to be had off this Black Mine after all.
You are defeated! How foolish of you to dare challenge me, the Dark Lord of Evil, in my quest for ultimate power! Now you understand as you grovel before my might.
Well, perhaps not grovel, per se, as you still look rather defiant, but nevertheless, you are certainly taken aback and perhaps temporarily cowed by my display of unholy power, yes? Certainly that.
Soon, however, true despair will grip you when you realize how your friends are now dead and your puny rebel armies crushed beneath the heels of my zombie ogre legions! Granted, the rebels are not, strictly speaking, crushed as yet. However, even the most conservative projections place my victory somewhere north of a 75% likelihood, and that is surely enough to allow me a bit of a head start on gloating, my timetable being what it is. I mean, if I waited, I might have to forego gloating at all, and what fun would that be?
All that being said, I have appreciated your capacity to resist my dark power for so long. Seriously, it’s been some good work by you and your team. Therefore, I offer you one last chance to spare your puny existence: join me! Together, we could rule the universe, side-by-side! Think of the power we could wield with our skills combined? All I ask is that you give up everything that currently makes you who you are and become the opposite thing.
Did I mention I’m offering a competitive benefits package? Quite generous of me, actually.
Fool! Now, there will be no saving you! Let me just place my Amulet of Power on this card table next to the Pit of Oblivion, and we’ll get right down to blasting you into dust.
First, however, I feel it is only fair for me to explain to you why I’m doing all this. I feel I’ve been pretty consistent in my message, and my zombie ogres have done a capital job of dispersing my talking points to the local kingdoms, but in case it has been unclear thus far, my opinion is pretty simple: I am a superior form of life and you and your vermin are constantly bothering me. So, it only seems natural for my to eradicate you all or bend you to my will. On the plus side, I offer humanity an eternity of stability and as much blood-sport as they can stomach to watch. All I ask in return, really, is that you idiots leave me alone in my Palace of Despair and do exclusively what I say.
And then, of course, there is that benefits package I mentioned. The donation-matching on all retirement plans I feel is pretty…
What? What do you think you’re doing? Trying to fight back? Even now, when all is lost? I mean, I blasted you pretty good back there – right in the face and all. Granted, rather than it reducing you to bones and dust like it does everybody else, it didn’t even quite manage to mar your rugged good looks (and, seriously now, who is your stylist? How can a man traipse through the woods for months and still have such lustrous locks?), but even without the whole dust-and-bones routine, you’ve got to be hurting. Anyway, how about a taste of this!
Yes! Now you feel your irrelevance! These beams of doom, even weaker than that last one that didn’t even scratch up your nose overmuch, will now kill you slowly, so slowly that I might relish your screams from now until eternity. This is quite fun, I must say. I dare say it’s enough to make me belly laugh. Generally I wouldn’t find this so much comical as downright inefficient, but just at this moment I really feel a good, long guffaw coming on….
What? A puny rock? What do you think a puny rock will do against my immortal power?
Oh…you threw it at the card table. Well…shame on me then.