The Blog You Must Read Before You Die

“Let me not seem to have lived in vain” – Tycho Brahe, one of history’s greatest scientist, dying words

It’s important to know your mythology, because it reveals what cultures care about.

One of the running themes throughout the Old Testament is patience. This is because it was written for cultures feeling terribly oppressed and abandoned by their god, so their stories are about how patience pays off even when you think it can’t possibly. Samson is promised by God he will destroy his enemies as long as he keeps the faith. He disobeys, then loses his great strength, but at the last moment, has a chance to destroy his enemies. When all is lost to a conquering king that God promised to kill, Judith marries the victorious Holofernes, gets him drunk and cuts his head off. And when Abraham is promised a son, he gets older and older, and even when he and his wife are nine hundred years old, God delivers on his promises, with a son called Isaac.

Now, previously, like Samson, Abraham had disobeyed God and lost the faith, telling his wife to sleep with another man. So God is, as is often the way, wary of Abraham’s faith, so he devises one final test to check Abraham has learnt the lesson that God always fulfills his promises, and orders Abraham to kill Isaac. Spoilers: once it is clear Abraham is on board, God relents at the last second, and presumably Isaac grows up with severe trust issues.

Modern eyes find the story of Isaac difficult to deal with and it leads to discussions about the nature of trust in a deity – but those discussions tend to be grounded in the idea that what Abraham is doing is an abomination because he is killing an innocent. But that’s NOT the point of the story. The point of the story is Abraham is asked to destroy the very thing he wants most, the thing God promised him eight hundred years ago: descendants. Abraham doesn’t care about life, not his own, certainly. He lives in a culture where death is a constant and the only sense of assuredness and constancy is passing your name onto children and grandchildren.

The story of Abraham dates from somewhere between 1500 to 600 BC. Fast forward a thousand years and Jesus has a very different message in his philosophy, where he promises an individual salvation from death. Society in the Middle East is now at a point where death is no longer so certain that nobody cares about it. People want to live forever. Skip forward another 1600 years or so and it’s the 17th century. The Dark Ages are over, the 100 Years War is Over, the religious wars of Europe are ending, and the plague is now so rare its extremely localized appearance is a scary minor event, not a world-ending apocalypse. People now think they really can live forever, because they just don’t see death everywhere they go any more. In many cases this causes people to turn away from religion, meaning it has to be reformed; while others becomes straight-up humanists and atheists. Other parts of culture are horrified by this trend so they invent the memento mori: the inclusion in every work of art of a skull or another symbol of death to remind the viewer they are going to die. It’s considered very important in some cultures to include this, lest the beauty of the art without it seduce you back to thinking you’re immortal. They literally refuse to let you forget you will die, because they think that will kill you and society.

Fast forward another four hundred years to the late 20th century. Modern medicine is unbelievable. We destroy the Third Horseman by eliminating polio and expunging smallpox. Life expectancy shoots through the roof. The implementation of plastics and universal plumbing make hygiene possible at unimaginable levels a century ago. Random death is so uncommon or great fears coalesce into the one disease we seemingly can’t cure – cancer. And some of us are so sure we’ll live forever we stop vaccinating our children. We’ve lost our fear of death even on a population level – and that can be dangerous. But mostly we talk instead of poor health outcomes. For many, a life lived in pain or weakness is far more frightening than death. Euthanasia is on the table because as a culture we believe there is something worse than death: a life of suffering, or fear, or regret.

And those things are bad, but every society has its unthinkable horrors that must be warded against. Abraham feared nothing so much as being childless. 17th century folk did fear their souls going to Hell. And we fear our lives being wasted. And when we have those kind of all-encompassing existential fears, there are those who would turn them into cultural touchstones and cult-like beliefs. We have our own memento-moris of this age. We have a series of books and shows listing hundreds or thousands of things to do BEFORE YOU DIE, lest you live a life of lower value. A life lived in fear is a life half-lived. Begin it now, the self-helpers demand, lest you waste a moment not beginning. Follow your dream and your bliss. Quit your job and roam the earth before you get too old. Live like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t die still wondering. Take a chance. Live life to the fullest. You should be writing.  Just do it. And have a Coke while you do.

Like most things, there’s some truth in this. It’s important not to settle for a reality filled with pain, suffering and abuse, and to seek out support and tiny ways to spiral upwards away from such things. But like most things, it’s exaggerated and expounded and shoved down our throats to a terrifying and disgusting degree. And it’s just not helpful. Not for most people.

And it’s enormously unhelpful to a large section of people. People who can’t begin it now. People who don’t have the privilege of money or health or freedom that you do. People who see suffering every second so they need no memento-mori to remind them. People who instead need memento-vivas, reminders that life is okay as it is. Pictures of puppies and kittens, for example. (Of course, advertising likes to tell you to embrace the status quo just as much as it likes to cast you as the hero of just doing it, but advertising ruins everything.)

Nothing has been more damaging to my writing career as the pressure of being told to do it and do it now. That brings it with it a terrifying sense of urgency, a sense that your ideas are a limited resource, and those ones burning and bubbling out of you every second will be lost if you don’t write them down. That your duty is to eternity and every lost moment is betraying yourself and everyone else. Make great art, ordered Neil Gaiman, but you must add Joss Whedon’s addition: don’t write a story if you don’t have a story to tell. I’ve sat at blank pages and gripped pens and screamed at my body to make the words, because everything else was the most disgusting thing, the most unbearable thing: to live a life half-lived, to not create, not use my gift.

I was born a gifted child so from the very beginning educators beat into me with emotional wounds the sense of wastage. But I have learnt, at last, through bloody battles, that nothing is wasted. Ever. And if you are going to create, you need to know that. Your ideas will seem to go nowhere. They will bubble out like steam and appear to fade into the ether. They will die on the page or never make it that far. And it will look like the garden is empty.

But life goes on and those ideas and attempts lie dormant and wait. And sometimes, they come back to life in the most amazing ways, but only when they are ready. You cannot pick the fruit before it is ripe. The Divyavadana, Buddhist scriptures written in sanskrit in the 2nd century BC provides the quote I keep beside my desk:

“What we have done will not be lost to all eternity. Everything ripens at its time and becomes fruit at its hour.”

Seven years ago I started work on a project for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, a supplement for Estalia, the Spanish-equivalent of the setting. It’s finished now, an epic tome of 144 pages that took an amazing amount of work. Several times I completely abandoned it. Several times I knew it could never be done. And I needed to think that, or it could NOT have been done. I tried to give it to others so that the fans would not be denied the product they wanted, but others didn’t want it. I asked for help, and got some at some time, none at others, and then at last, the right help at the right time, when I was strong enough to use it. Because you see, they didn’t want the book, they wanted MY book.

But not even that; apart from a few posts in approval, nobody really cares. Ultimately, we don’t make art for our audience, it doesn’t make sense to do it like that. And while it’s wonderful to see that this project ripened at its time, it’s the ripening that mattered, more than the finished product. I’m proud of it, but I’m more happy with the process. I learned more from the process and I cherish the process more. Which is why it wouldn’t matter if it had died. It was only once I let go and accepted it might that I had space to heal and ripen to a point where maybe it could be done. Once I knew I could live without it, I could make it. Once I knew my life was not betrayed by stepping away from my dream, I could live authentically enough to have art within me.

Tycho Brahe was one of the greatest astronomers the world had ever known and his measurements were so precise that they weren’t bettered until the 20th century. Without his work, his colleague Johannes Kepler could never have discovered elliptical planet movement, and Newton could never have discovered gravity. But Brahe lived his entire life in fear of being forgotten, of being a nobody, and on his death bed, he prayed to God and all who would hear him that he might mean something. Kepler, himself neurotic and afraid, found understanding in his friend’s last words. And Kepler’s reflection also sits beside my desk to remind me what matters.

“The roads that lead a man to knowledge are as wondrous as that knowledge itself”

See the road, and walk it haphazardly. You can’t force it. You shouln’t be writing; you should be growing to a place where writing is natural, and safe, and joyful, and how you get there is yours to discover. Don’t let anyone tell you they know the best way for you to go – or that you need to start going now, lest you waste your precious time. You’ll go when you’re ready. You really do have time. And anything else is madness.

And I hope you enjoy Swords of the South.

 

 

In which my blog wanders away from gaming and writing again

“There is an inherent generosity to the human spirit, and one of its faces is the face of the teacher”

– Michael Crichton

I like to teach. In many ways I got into gaming because I liked to teach – and learn. I love learning new rules and I love explaining them to new people. I love GMing because I love explaining rules and settings and stories and genres.

If you want to put it cynically, I like feeling smart, and teaching is a great way to do that. For a variety of reasons.

For one, the teacher gets to learn. As the old saw goes, the teacher always learns more than the student. The art of taking facts in your brain and sorting them into a way to express them so you can lead someone to them and through them to understanding demands a greater synthesis and understanding of those facts than you possessed before, and seeing knowledge in another’s eyes reflects back on your own providing greater clarity and depth.  But perhaps the greatest thing you learn is that you can teach, that you have knowledge. Sometimes you don’t know that, until you teach it. You can understand on some academic level that you have accumulated facts and experiences and memories and grasped how things work but until you teach, you don’t realize that all of this adds up to the magic of something more than information: to the power of knowledge and the wonder of wisdom.

To teach is to comprehend the existence of something within you you did not, until that moment fully understand, and have it recognized and valued and certified instantly. Anyone can think they know something, but if you can teach it, then you cannot be doubted.

I did not know what I knew about Kickstarters. But after watching a good many gaming and RPG ones succeed – and succeed madly! – and taking part in some of that madness, not once but twice, well, three actually since we should count all crowdfunding sites, and running my own successfully to get start up funds for The MESSAGE, my movement to make gaming men make their hobby more accommodating to women … and being the kind of person who watches closely and carefully as things happen, it turns out that after all that I knew rather a lot. And I was able to teach it to someone, who has also taught it to someone else. My knowledge was not unique, but it was the only collection of that knowledge accessible to someone who needed it – an accessibility made possible by the generosity of a teacher but even more so by the curiosity of the student.

That student runs Tea Tree Oil For Good, which is one of the greatest ideas ever: a program which exists to sell products and make money which then entirely funds charities, so said charities can do their work without worrying about the income stream, and the products can get sold by people trying to make money without balancing their work with charity. Freeing up charities to be run by people who know exactly how best to spend money and income to be generated by people who know how to generate money, on a systematic level, is an absolute game changer. Tea Tree Oil has a plan not to back just one charity but a thousand in Australia alone, and then on, eventually, to other countries. Each project can change thousands of lives, and they can change other lives. Millions of ripples, going out, from me, from teacher to student to kickstarter to Tea Tree Oils operation to all the charities it funds to the lives it recreates and the new worlds it builds. A million ripples becoming a tsunami of change, but every drop in that gigantic wave connected too, through Tea Tree’s Ripple Effect project which allows, through the magic of the internet, every single person who buys just one product to see where their money goes down to an individual level. So no more worrying about greenwashing or dumping money into a great big black hole and hoping it goes somewhere.

So this is me, casting out my ripple, my introduction of knowledge, to see where it goes. The thing about ripples, though, is they go in both directions. When a ripple hits anything, even another ripple, it bounces back to its origin. What we send out comes back not just in the knowledge of the work it can do, but in reinforcing ourselves. Like I said, I discovered I knew a lot. And I plan to use that when we run a second crowdfunding campaign for the MESSAGE later this year. We also plan to link the MESSAGE into Tea Tree’s income stream, so The MESSAGE can finally travel around Australia to boost the signal, and much more. There may also be other ways I will be crossing streams with Tea Tree, for the benefit of everyone. We will see.

When there are things to buy, and ways for others to send out ripples more simply and directly, I will let you know. For the moment though, just some good news about the future, and a reminder to everyone that teaching is good for us. Even if it is just a new game, or a new setting, or a new adventure. Even if its just to make you feel smart. It is inherently generous, and it sends out ripples of ideas. And that always makes things better.

The Stevies for 2013

Yes, it’s that time again, where I fight the holiday blues by viewing the year through a lens of terrifying meritocracy to sift out the very best things it had to offer. And as always, the rules are simple: it’s all about me. It doesn’t matter what year it was made or released, it matters when I encountered it. These are the best things Steve found this year.

Best Science

This goes to isolating the Higgs Boson. Finding the electron made the modern age possible. This sucker could give us a future we literally cannot imagine. Honorary mention to the fusion drive engineer and the people working on warp speed, just because of the enormous “fuck you” to people who said they were impossible.

Best Politics

Malala Yousafi, Edward Snowden, Wendy Davis, it was a hell of a year for politics. But behind it all was grass roots stuff and the power of Twitter and social media. Thanks to those, millions of people around the world witnessed someone change the official time record to try and shaft Wendy Davis. And it was the engine behind taking Indi away from Sophie Mirabella and into the hands of Cathy McGowan. It’s not the only solution and the big players will try to turn it against us but it’s changed the landscape. Some more examples of grass roots power from the excellent twitter-warrior Van Badham are here.

Best Movie

A great year for SF, and a special note must go to Elysium for generating more irony in audience reactions than a gigantic furnace of pure irony-burning-coal, but this goes to Gravity. Simple, perfect, wonderful. Powerhouse performances for a gorgeous story in a genre oft-forgotten but one of my favourites (man vs nature). Nothing more to say.

Best Comic

A great year was some truly amazing stuff landing on my bedside table. Special props to Saucer Country and Letter 44, for both being about aliens and American politics in two completely unique and compelling ways and blowing my mind both times and demanding I read the rest. And yet, pipped at the post this goes to CHEW by John Layman and Rob Guillory. Chew is hard to explain. It’s basically a dark police procedural set against a conspiracy landscape in a world where chicken is outlawed and food is a metaphor for everything, but it’s also a silly story about a psychic who can tell you everything about whatever he eats. It combines two of my favourite genres: the ridiculously silly and gritty police procedural in a way that diminishes neither, and that’s why I love it. It bestrides both genres like a colossus in a way few dare, fearing that the comedy may undercut the drama, but it doesn’t. Also, it has a building conspiracy arc, perfect pacing and reads like the best TV series ever made. If Bryan Fuller wasn’t already making Hannibal, I would have picked him to make Chew…

Best Table Top Game

For birthday and Christmas I got pretty much every game I was interested in at this end of the year, and there are some super contenders in there, and some I haven’t played yet (like Legends of Andor). I adore how easy it is to get a game of Love Letter and of Hanabi – games I can carry everywhere and sell to anyone. I loved how Eldritch Horror and Elder Sign (on the table and on the pad) reengaged me with the wonder of Arkham Horror, which is still marvelous and almost won just for inspiring those two. Heck, Elder Sign itself justified the purchase of my android device on its own. But I’m giving this to Pandemic. Picked up the new edition and two supplements spending $150 on a game I already owned because I felt it deserved it. Arkham Horror gets more iterations of play, but Pandemic has more pure elegance to it, and taps that modern setting thrill like nothing else. Saving the world feels better when it’s more cogent to our reality, and nothing does it like Pandemic.

Best RPG

I’ve given up reading and playing RPGs but not writing them because I a) still enjoy that and b) get paid to do it, so really the Stevie is going to go to the thing I got paid the most to write and had the most fun doing. I’m very proud to have won two Ennies for my work on Dr Who last year, and to be part of the incredible list of celebrities who worked on Hillfolk but mostly I’m proud of the setting I worked up for Action Cortex in The Hacker’s Guide. I have many more details about that setting in my head, but I got it down nice an succinctly and I love it and I got paid for it.

Best TV Show

The Wire. It’s not television, it’s poetry.

Best Computer Game

For the first time in years this is hotly contested and it’s because of one reason: multiplayer ascendant. I used to hate shooters, but thanks to the elegant design of Team Fortress 2 and the ability to play it with my friends and ONLY my friends I’ve learnt to love the better examples of the genre. And it didn’t cost me a cent. The same multiplayer power has also led to enjoying a platformer, in the excellent Trine 2, something I never believed would ever happen in this universe. But the virtue of multiplayer combined with just wonderful solo play in the clear winner this year: Civilization V. Two excellent expansions have led to game play evolving and staying interesting and it’s a computer game that even without friends, has held my interest long enough to not just keep away the demons but forget they exist. It has nursed me through terrible insomnia. It has fought down the depression. It has carried me through the long dark tea time of the soul and the mind-shattering emptiness of the holidays. And it costs less than the therapy. Hold me closer, Civ 5, for the darkness rises. And if anyone wants to join me for multiplayer, you know how to find me.

Steve out.

 

 

Games I’ve Got My Eye On aka What I Want For Christmas

Since I’ve put my roleplaying on hiatus, I’ve been gorging my board game addiction as much as cash will allow which is totally not enough in a world full of such brilliant games. Here’s a few I’ve been looking at, for my reference purposes and others’, in no particular order.

Everything By Vlaada Chvatil: Vlaada is a Czech game designer who seems to make unstoppable awesome, and I want everything he’s made. Space Alert, the real time shouty panic card game is top of the list (or its dice-rolling cousin, ESCAPE! Temple Run, if I can’t get Space Alert). Galaxy Trucker also sounds good, with the same wacky comedy of Space Alert where you build a space ship badly then watch it fall apart. There’s also Bunny Bunny Moose Moose which is a party/family game where you have to be a bunny or a moose, depending on cards flipped up. Imagine Simon Says but much more insane. His new hotness genius is Tash-Kalar which is a game about card-management where you play little monsters to build up points to bring out big kahuna monsters but the condition to play cards is based on the arrangement of pieces on a chess-like board. Imagine chess but if you force your opponent to play a bishop next to a knight and boom, you get a second queen. Mad genius.

Collaborative Story Fun: A mouthful but an Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on Cursed Island is an intriguing collaborative game, alas only for four players and with a set-up that makes Arkham Horror look simple. Eight scenarios with different goals but each combining different ways of hunting monsters, exploring a randomly tiled island, building tools and to build settlements and random events throwing it all off kilter, and never enough resources or time to do everything. Like Arkham Horror with Pandemic’s pace. Speaking of the great AH, I’m keen to try it’s very close new cousin Eldritch Horror where Corey Konieczwa applies the same brain that turned Space Hulk into Death Angel and reduces AH down to its bare essentials while still having basically the same mechanic: travel the world, have encounters, gather clues before the gates open. Most of all though I want to pick up Legends of Andor, the winner of the Kennerspiel deh Jahres this year despite being for children and collaborative. All the stress of Arkham Horror but with fantasy heroes exploring the land like Mage Knight! Pseudo-RPGs also lead me to Mice and Mystics a game of miniature heroes fighting cats and cockroaches – basically another Descent or zombie hunter but with a much more distinctive setting.

The Weird and Wonderful: When the Germans do mundanity, it’s REALLY mundane – the thrill of the 18th century post office or pumping electricity around Dusseldorf. But mundane can be pulse-pounding awesome, like Pandemic, or Fire Team Rescue, or Police Precinct or City Council which sounds excellent: pressure from special interests, skim off the top before financial constraints kick in, ponder whether to burn down the zoo to make room for a hospital? I love this trend in games and hope it continues cos I dig real-world stuff. Keeping on weird though there’s the logical games of a kind of Robo-Rally Redux in Twin Tin Bots – program robots to pick up crystals but you can’t change your programming as much as you’d like! Or, work together to give as much information as possible without breaking the rules (like bidding in Bridge) to lay down cards in a perfect pattern with the amazing (not to mention short, sweet, elegant and cheap) Hanabi.

The Euro Reliables, Turned Up to Eleven: What do you get if you combine the hex control of Settlers with the worker placement choices of Village and the random VP goals of Stone Age and the race choices of Cosmic Encounter and the player psychology of Chaos in the Old World? Something like Terra Mystica, which has so many widgets, yet apparently comes together smoothly, in that the choices aren’t difficult to understand, just deep to choose between. Or have the same kind of myriad of choices but with title exploration and resource limitations like you’ve rammed Terra Mystica back into Robinson Crusoe and created Archipelago. And since I can never get people over to game as much as I want, I’m super curious to try the solo genius of Friday. While not euro in truth but in style, I hear good things about AEG’s set of four linked games in the same setting, particularly the uber-simple five minutes to play 12-cards-only Love Letter.

Everything is Better Licensed: There are not one but two Firefly games coming out (and that doesn’t even include the RPG). Legendary, the Marvel Deckbuilder could use the expansion (well, my buddy who owns it could). And they’ve just made a collaborative demon-fighting game based on Journey to the West.

So just a few, you know.

Like With The World Design And Stuff

Because there ain’t no point adventuring in someone else’s world, dog. For my upcoming D&D 4E game.

 

As The Elves Tell It, the world of Cellona was once but two kingdoms, the higher plane of the Feywild, and the lower plane of the Shadowfell. Then the Gods came, two of them, the Lady of Light and the Lord of Darkness, and sought to play their games upon the world. They created a third world, a strange and unnatural mix of Fey and Shadow, with strange reflections of the two. Elf and gnome were reflected on this new land as human and Halfling; and in the rocky highlands, gave birth to the stone-hearted goliaths and dwarves. Shadowfell beasts became orcs and goblins and countless wild things ran across the world and tore its inhabitants asunder. Terrified and lacking any sense of order and little gift of magic, the denizens turned to technology and religion, the twin tools of their mindless ant-like civilisations, to protect and comfort them. But it was folly, for this only divided them further. The Lady of Light sent her devas and the Lord of Darkness sent his tieflings and they drove the world into two, light and darkness, good and evil. As was the way, the division drove them to war and to madness, as they dreamed of eternal destruction, of weapons that would end the war all for one side – at the cost of the world itself, and even the Feywild with it.

 

The elves came and put an end to the madness. The Gods were banished, their followers expunged. The mountains were emptied, and the cities of men turned back to forest havens. The world below was grasped forever tight in the bosom of the Feywild, safe from Shadow below and Gods of afar. And there was peace, and order. Primal masters like shamans, druids and rangers flourished again, and magic, not technology, held the world aright. Even the dragons returned, for those who had the gift to call them. It is a world of wonder and beauty and whatever the cost, those who live in the plenitude of the great treespires know that the world is better now. Safer, richer, and infinitely more glorious – as the elves tell it.

 

Others tell a different story….

 

Some talk of deva and tiefling trying desperately to overcome ancient rivalries to unite against a new mad god from the Outer Expanse. Of dwarves sacrificing their culture to stay their extermination, and regretting the bargain ever since. Of the last few humans who realised the help of the elves came with too terrible a price, and were slaughtered and driven underground lest they poison Eden with their lies. Of Gods falsely imprisoned, lost and desperate to return, if only enough will believe in them. Of warlocks and sorcerers with magic that doesn’t obey the rules that elves say are unbreakable. And even, yes, they talk of elves whose hearts are not consumed by ice, and will shake even the boughs of heaven to make the world good again – instead of perfect.

 

You know these stories. You’re writing them.

The Problem With Reality Is It Is Too Much Like Minecraft

Minecraft is not a game for me, but I am impressed at the kind of experience it can provide. Not only did my lego-mad friend build a house with a waterfall/waterslide on the roof, but he also went for a very real-feeling explore which he writes about below. “Real feeling” is indeed the power of Minecraft, I think. Unlike the Sims or other things, there’s very few trackers for success. No goals, no points, just stay alive, and add value that you see fit. And since the “from behind” view doesn’t work well, it’s all first-person. Add the mad, nigh-infinite discovery of an open-world without the roleplaying of being in the Old West or Thedas or Skyrim, and it feels soul-crushingly real, in both senses. In the sense that it is incredibly immersive, and in the sense that it is as philosophical self-defining as our own world.

And as such, perhaps best left to those who appreciate the journey as much as the results…

(In this quote, Tom and Miranda are his kids, who like to watch him play various games)

So, on the assumption that we’re going to ditch the current map, I decided to have a bit of an adventure.  Miranda and Tom wanted to watch, so I set off east with some tools, stone and my bed. I found the desert, then the sea, then turned aside to find some huge overhanging caves.  After three nights of making myself a small cabin each sunset to sleep in I stumbled upon some Jungle ruins, some kind of Incan style structure full of traps, red stone, gems and gold.  I sacked, um, archaeologically investigated the place and stayed there that night, and then determined to head back home.  Then I got hopelessly lost.  I’d left my bed somewhere so I had to take out some sheep, much to Tom’s distress (for the rest of the game I was vegetarian, mostly).  I wandered for several days, with Miranda getting very anxious each time the night approached, but I always managed to put together a simple shelter.  But I had absolutely no idea where I was.  Then eventually I stumbled over a fortified village.  I was near starving due to Tom’s aversion to slaughter, but luckily one of the villagers was willing to trade 9 cooked chickens for one of the gems I’d found.  Another villagers said if I had 7 gems he’d give me the eye of Ender, (I only had 2).   I spent the night with these lovely people and set off in the morning with renewed determination.  I decided to try to find the X,Y co-ordinates 0,0.  Then, after a day, I realised that Y was height and I should be looking for the X,Z co-ordinates 0,0.  I thought that might be our initial spawn point.  Turns out it wasn’t, but it did happen to be pretty much the exact spot of one of my little huts!  I felt like Arthur Dent.  That put me less than a day from home, which I did in double time, bringing back the spoils of travel, including cocoa beans (which I used to make chocolate biscuits).

Emotional Environmentalism, or The Care And Feeding of Your Creative Urge

Pollution is something we talk about a lot these days, but sometimes we forget what it means. If an oil tanker crashes on the road, and the oil leaks out, that’s not pollution, because it can be contained. But if the oil catches fire and the smoke goes everywhere, that is pollution. The difference is containability. What makes it pollution, in other words, is that it is all-pervasive. Inescapable. It is part of our environment, where we live, eat, drink, breathe, and so becomes part of us. And we know, now, that these things can make us very sick indeed, even kill us, even if they are invisible, because we live with them. Eat enough fish and you can die of mercury poisoning even though the doses themselves will be tiny.

So we’re learning – slowly – to control our environment. To ensure that our air and our water are clean, because we take them in so often we can’t afford anything less.

But what we also need to think about is emotional environments, and the pollution that gets into that.

Emotional health and physical health have much in common. Particularly in that they have levels of resistance, and that that resistance can be overcome both with single strong attacks and by long-term small ones. And when that resistance runs down, we cease being able to function properly, and need to hole up somewhere safe until either the threats die down or the resistance builds up again.

We’re familiar with the big, strong attacks to our resilience. Some of them are massive, crippling attacks, like the loss of a loved one, or a sudden change in our lifestyle. They’re the getting hit by a bus attacks. Then there’s the thumbtack in the foot attacks like negative feedback or breaking your favourite thing. There’s the slow cancer of not liking what you see in the mirror. We know these ones.

But there’s others. Some we can’t avoid. There’s missing the bus even when you ran for it. There’s the elevator being broken and there’s vomit all over the stairs. There’s not having a shirt without a hole in it to wear. There’s the screaming kids in the restaurant, the rude person at the traffic lights. The cold look from a stranger who decides to disapprove of you. Coming home to a messy kitchen, where the doorknob’s still broken and the stove smells funny all the time. All the little things that fill us with weltschmertz as the Germans call it: the sense that things are not necessarily bad, but not what they could be. Bad enough to notice.

This is emotional pollution, and like the mercury in fish, it can build up and up, and it can – it absolutely can – kill.

One thing I’ve learnt in the last few years with my excellent psychologist is there are two ways to attack mental health. One is building up your inner resistance – making your self image, self resilience and self esteem strong so it can repel attacks. The other is reducing the attacks coming in. Avoiding or lessening the attacks. And where possible, purifying the toxins from your environment.

Some toxins will always get in. No matter how much you plan, there’s always going to be a bus you miss; eventually there will be a soup splash on your favourite shirt. But some of these things can be fixed, but we often don’t think to, or we think they’re too small to bother with, or that they’re just part of life. And then they build up, and then they kill you.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that dealing with a lot of these things takes emotional strength in the first place, so sometimes we’re so worn down we can’t solve these problems, or can only tap away slowly at the tiniest levels. It’s also really important to note that most of these things require money to solve, and if you’ve ever been poor you’ll know what I mean. All the little things that money could solve, like catching a taxi when you miss that train. Buying a new shirt when the old one tears. Having insurance so you don’t have to worry so much about running for the bus on a slippery road. Being able to afford the gym so you don’t have to go running in the cold, freezing rain. If you’ve been poor, you know. How they break you down and kill you by inches, and how just trying to stop them wearing you through to bone uses up every resource you might have used to fix them.

Being depressed is a lot like that, too. It is a poverty of emotional strength, an impotence to change anything at all about your environment. Depression’s friend, anxiety, is more like having massive immunodeficiencies: everything is an attack, or a potential one. Together they make your environment so poisonous you can barely breathe, and give you no strength to do anything about it. Little wonder we depressives retreat to the comfort of bed – like the boy in the bubble, it is the only way to survive.

But for those of us who are doing better, all of this is still useful, still important. If you’re struggling with something, if you’re going beyond yourself, if you’re pursuing something creative or ambitious, you are running your emotional reserves ragged. Whether it’s a marathon or a sprint, you need your reserves strong. And while we often do a few things to pep us up (like taking some vitamins for the soul) we often forget to control our environment.

It can be simple, tiny things. If you are trying to write something, and you can see the dirty washing pile, your mind may turn to something else you “should” be doing. It can be big, life-planning things, like having a day job or savings so not every word is life and death. I’ve done that kind of writing – where if it cannot be sold that week you will literally starve – and it kills creativity and enthusiasm pretty fast. The environment is too toxic, there’s too much terror of survival, eating away at your emotional reserves. But it doesn’t have to be that critical; it could also be that you’re not going to write your best with your current computer because the keyboard sticks a lot or the screen flickers; it could be your novel isn’t going to come until you’re in just a generally nicer house or better neighbourhood or can afford some new shirts, because right now, your goal to live in a nice place or better clothes is eating those reserves and you can’t eat into them further.

It can be adding the positive, by hanging up motivational posters or making plans for the future or visualising goals. It could be giving yourself restoratives, like buying yourself lunch on the day you do your big writes, so you don’t have to lose that tiny bit (or not so tiny bit) of your reserves making your lunch. It could reducing the chances of attacks, like taking a taxi on writing days so there’s no chance you can miss a bus. It could be as simple as walking home a different way so you don’t see the cold strangers or hear the screaming kids. They are tiny things so they might seem frivolous, if you even think of them at all. But again, it’s about pollution: if you eat the tiny thing every day, it might not kill you but it will make you weaker.

A lot of writing is learning to be a resilient writer: to write every day no matter what, no matter how sick you are, or tired, or whether you have no ideas or no motivation. That’s the resilience part. But you can’t learn resilience when you’re being attacked all the time. Yes, I’m sure the fire makes the steel, but the human body doesn’t work like that. If the wound isn’t cleared, the blood can’t clot and the scabs can’t form. You have to wrap it up in gauze and keep it clean and dry. Writing – designing, creating, changing, striving – is much the same.

A better metaphor might be keeping a plant. You need one with strong roots, but you also need a good pot, good soil, potting mix, water, sunlight, and to protect it from all the things that could hurt it. You know how to spray the aphids, yes, but sometimes we leave them in too hot a sun, or above the exhaust fan. These are the little deaths, the slow, invisible killers. Yours are out there too. Some of them you might have to be a millionaire to fix, or at least well off. Others you might need to think really hard or wait a long time for them to get better. But if you’re aware of them, you might be able to do the tiniest thing.

There are spiders in my backyard. Every day I go out that way, they take away a bit of my strength. It’s a tiny thing. But it matters. And all I have to do is remember to go out the front door instead, and I stop that bit being chipped away. And I grow stronger, bit by bit. Day by day.

Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part Three

“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it” Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven

I’m not an expert in beating procrastination, just an expert in suffering from it. So here’s the part where my insight becomes even less applicable to all of you. And remember that what we’re dealing with here, as discussed in parts one and two, is breaking down an entire culturally-coded mindset towards work and creativity. So it’s not going to be easy. It takes a lifetime to rewire your brain. But what I’m doing is starting to make a difference, for me.

The answer, unfortunately, is time management and scheduling. Unfortunately, there’s no way around that. But the trick is doing it well. One of the reasons we hate schedules is because almost always, the things we schedule are the boring things. If your schedule has nothing on it but TIME FOR ICECREAM, you might learn to like scheduling. That reminds me: in 18 minutes, I have to eat ice-cream.

There’s an old stunt they like to do in time-management classes. They take a jar, and fill it with golfballs until they can’t get any more in. And the jar is full! But then they add ballbearings and they go into all the space between the golfballs, until you can’t get any more ball bearings in. Jar is full! Then you add sand, and once again, you can add a lot to the jar, even though it was already full. And for the final demonstration, they show that if you put the sand in first, there’s barely room for any ballbearings, and no golfballs after that. The metaphor is banally obvious: look after the pounds and the pennies will look after themselves, as it were. It is not unuseful advice: you can, in fact, take your eyes off the little things if you keep the big things in line. The gigantic problem with this visualisation is they forget the important part, which is figuring out which things in your life are golf balls, and which are sand.

And most people get it backwards. Because we’re taught to.

Think about it: if you put “play Civ 5” down as a golfball, you sound shallow. Silly. Childish. No, those golfballs have to be big and important. Jobs. Security. A future. Or “fulfilling”: love, family, spiritual meaning, connections, saving the rainforest. And for some people, that might work. You might put those things in as your golf balls and somehow, you just naturally fill in everything else without thinking. But a lot of us aren’t like that at all.

Like I said last time: as human beings, we need and deserve leisure time and rest. We depend on it. Without it, we wither and die and can’t do anything else. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to make it the biggest golf-ball of all.

So you schedule it. You put it in first. Also important: a good night’s sleep. That goes in there. And also, you can even schedule procrastinating activities, those non-engaged activities that are just fun to do while your brain is asleep. Stuffing around on the internet. Checking email. Watching TV. Lying in bed thinking about Spiderman. Eating ice-cream. Licking ice-cream off interesting body parts. These are the things that go on your daily schedule. And probably nothing else, at least to start with. Because everything else is the sand. It’ll get done. It’ll happen. But only if you have the strength to tackle it.

And what you find is two-fold: one, you really work harder at the sand when you know you have to stop and think about Spiderman in ten minutes. The motivation is built in, and the excitement drives you on. You forget about achievement and output because you don’t have time to think about them. You have ice-cream coming up. You have to move or you’ll miss it. Second, if you schedule your ice-cream, boy, do you enjoy it more. Because it’s guilt free. Right there, on your timetable: half an hour to eat ice-cream. You don’t have to worry about what you should be doing, because you’re DOING what you should be doing. In fact, you may engage so much with the activity, you may even want to do it less.

Think about it: most of the time you stop playing a game because you’re no longer engaged, or because it’s time to do something else. What if you couldn’t stop, because you’d scheduled 2 hours to play and you had to fill those hours? You might actually get bored. You might distract yourself. Do a bit of sand-stuff, so you can fill out those two hours. You might even be less keen to rush back to the game for the next two hours because you remember the drudgery at the end. You might stall a bit in your writing, go over time, just so you don’t have to do quite so much Civilization. Like sand, the writing slips between the cracks, filling in those precious little seconds. And it gets done. Because you’re not fighting against what you do and don’t deserve any more.

I have two minutes left, so I’ll finish there. Like I said, it might not work for you. But it’s really not as crazy as it sounds. Figure out what is important to you to DO, not to have accomplished, without judging or shame, and give leisure its deserved role. Then schedule that and only that. Then let the sand be sand. And see what happens.

Good luck.

Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part One

Procrastination is a big thing. We often joke about it, but it can do a lot of damage to our life if we let it, or we worry about it too much. And it can certainly eat away at our reserves – our time AND our energy – to do things like writing and designing, things we often put last on our list, but also feel most pressured to do, as we are constantly told THEY ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT. There is a lot of advice out there on dealing with procrastination, and a lot of it is bullshit. Or rather, a lot of it is just what worked for one guy or a few people. But procrastination and the issues that make it up are a big, big thing, and it is wired into fundamental aspects of how we approach ourselves and everything we do in life. Which means there are multiple ways to attack it, and everyone has to do what works for them and their mind. What’s more, we’re all on our own journey to untangle ourselves, and you don’t only need to have the right idea for your brain, but the right idea AT THE RIGHT TIME. So my advice might be useless to you. I’m sharing it anyway, because only by getting lots of ideas can we all find the best way for us to untangle things.

I’m certainly not an expert on breaking procrastination, but I am an expert on procrastinating. It’s something that’s played an enormous part of my life, in many different arenas. Indeed, it is fairly true to say that my particular mental disorder, depression/anxiety, is an extremely heightened form of procrastination. You become so afraid of certain thoughts, emotions, feelings and situations you lock your body into a perpetual state of numbness (or panic, in the case of anxiety) to avoid those things. I’ve been on a long journey to work some of these things out, so in that context, my advice has some experience.

The first point to deal with is this: how we think about procrastination is typically very wrong.

Let’s imagine for this discussion that there are three activities. There’s W, the work we don’t want to do. Like say writing your RPG. There’s P, the procrastinating activity. Maybe it’s surfing the internet. Then there’s F, the fun activity, like maybe playing Civilization 5. To pick entirely random examples that certainly don’t reflect my life at all. Now, a lot of the time, people don’t have P and F as separate activities. Sometimes they are the same activity done in different ways or experienced in different ways – for example, when you can’t really enjoy yourself when you go out for a drink because in the back of your mind you feel you should be studying. Or you don’t get really into playing X-box because you’re just looking for a low-level distraction to keep your mind busy. This still might not be you, but go with me here.

Generally, our thinking about procrastination is this: I keep doing distracting thing P because I don’t want to do hard, painful, difficult thing W.

This is false.

Most of the time, what is stopping us from doing W has little to do with W at all. Don’t get me wrong, the anxiety curve is a big deal, especially with big, hard to grasp projects (go read up about the curve, it is also part of this subject). But what keeps us doing P is less about fear of W and more about our shame and guilt at doing P. And the more P we do, the worse we feel, and the worse we feel, the less we are able to act.

This is pretty obvious when you think about it.  When our body is injured, it stops doing things. It wants to fall over and lie still because then it can concentrate on getting better. Likewise, when we feel upset, we don’t want to go out and do things, we want to crawl into a foetal ball, hide in our room and eat candy. Our mind is just like our body: when it feels hurt, it devotes all its resources to healing itself, and devotes no resources to going out and doing things.

So the more you do the P activity, the more your brain feels attacked by feelings of guilt and shame, and thus the weaker you become. Your body now has no strength to do W, or to do F, or to do P even. You become less and less engaged with F and P, so the bad feelings work stronger and do more damage, so you become weaker and weaker. We wait for motivation to strike, but it now has an enormous uphill battle, because unhappy people are difficult to motivate. Sometimes impossible.

I’m going to say that again because it’s very important: the worse you feel, the harder it is to motivate yourself, or be motivated by others.

It’s important because so much of our mindset and culture are wrapped up in a very different idea of motivating. We believe in the carrot and the stick. And the carrot and the stick are all about suffering and being unhappy, or at best, fearing more unhappiness. We must do the hard task W, lest we feel pain from the stick, or so we can deserve the carrot. This point of view is burned into us at a primal level, and we accept it instinctively.

But everything we know about the human mind and human motivation tells us it is not only a poor model, it is a model inherently destructive to our health and our happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, the carrot and the stick are not entirely without merit, in very specific situations, at very specific times. It teaches us about cause and effect when we are children. But now we see through a glass darkly, and if we keep trying to walk as a child, we make everything worse.

That’s a big idea and I’m already at 1000 words, so there’s more in part 2.

Warhammer: The Guide To Estalia – An Open Call

 

Alrighty, here’s how it is. About five years ago, when WFRP 2nd ed had ended and there was no sign of 3rd ed, a lot of clever, creative people pooled their efforts to create more sourcebooks for the game, as close as possible to the style of the existing ones, such as Realm of the Ice Queen and Knights of the Grail. The Tilea book, Spears of the Maiden, was finished in a timely fashion and can be found on the Liber Fanatica website. Hooray! Meanwhile, I took on the task of the Estalia book (tentatively titled Swords of The Lady), and it went less well. Most of the book was assembled, but – perhaps because I was determined to make it as vast and awesome as possible – it got stuck. Most of the writing was done, then some stuff happened in my life and my mental health, and since then it has always been somehow too large to go back and finish it.

What I should have done, long, long ago, was this: put out an open call for editors to come and finish the project.

The content is about 90% done. It needs a few last minute tweaks, but we have history, culture, law, religion all done, rules for new religious spells, extra fun chargen stuff (including the random beard table) and so on. We wanted to do some rules for fencing and ship-to-ship combat but they never appeared. (Alas, we had a lot of people promise to work on things and then just vanish without a word.) To be a proper book it needs maybe a few careers and a few monster stats, and it needs someone to hammer the rules chapters into a cohesive whole. Then it needs art (we have some already), city maps (unlikely?) and layout (we have contacts) whereupon the enormous PDF can be forwarded to the Liber Fanatica people for hosting.

This seems to me the best and fastest way to get all the wonderful material out there, doing justice to all the wonderful contributors, and providing fans with juicy stuff to read.

As I said it is mostly done but it needs a strong, experienced hand to guide it to completion. I don’t want to hand this over to someone who won’t do it justice. There is no money in it, either. Only glory.

But if you think you’ve got what it takes to make the Lady proud, you know where to find me.