Using 3 Pillar XP in D&D as 5 Questions

I posted in February last year about using XP awards to train your players, and the problems of various methods of XP accounting. I mentioned in that post that I would experiment with rewarding players for telling me more explicitly where they wanted to go in their next session. It turns out, that particular group of players never developed the habit of telling me explicitly what their characters’ goals were despite my repeated encouragement.

I also mentioned the reddit thread about Improved 3 Pillar XP, and said that I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to use it because it seemed like it would require more accounting than I was interested in doing. But since Covid-19 has moved all my gaming online and I’ve made more quick reference materials for myself in google docs, I decided that I’d try building a spreadsheet to run the Improved 3 Pillar XP calculations for me.

I think the golden moment for me—the moment that convinced me to throw together the basics of the Improved 3 Pillar XP categories in a spreadsheet—was seeing that I could simplify all XP gain into a series of questions at the end of a session. Those questions:

  • Did the PCs recover any notable treasure?
  • Did the PCs explore, defend (suggested by my sibs), or takeover an important location?
  • Did the PCs ally an important NPC, or align them towards PC’s causes / away from foes’?
  • Did the players interact with each other in character?
  • Did the PCs circumvent or defeat any foes?

When I shared my quick and dirty first notes with my sibs, they rapidly made a separate interface that I’m actually quite happy with.

Now I have a spreadsheet that will take direct input from me about how much I want to reward my PCs as a proportion of their next level, with input categories spread across exploration, social interaction, and combat. The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is that this is also flexible and easy to expand.

If I want to try adding other categories of behavior that I wish to reward, I can either include those as expanded qualifying cases for the above questions (by changing an existing question) or I can add another question and reward category. As someone who enjoys tinkering with spreadsheets, that isn’t a scary prospect… though I can understand it not being your cup of tea. Ideally, I’ll have all this put together in a good-looking easily-read format at some point. For now though, I’m trying it out and seeing how well it works. Do it bad quickly first, etc.

The first idea I had about expanding this was to try rewarding players for telling me about their characters’ plans and then having the PCs act on those. I realize that this doesn’t necessarily work with PCs who are too in-the-moment to plan ahead, nor does it work as well when the PCs are too busy reacting to every new garbage fire to forge their own path… but I think it could be useful in a more sandbox game, especially one with a more relaxed pace.

If you want to try building your own, I suggest copying all the various tables in the Improved 3 Pillar XP post into a spreadsheet first so that you know what you’re working with. If you’d like to try using what I’ve got so far, tell me so and I’ll look into sharing something that you might be able to use.

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

CBB+Book+CoverShit Children of Blood and Bone is good. Tomi Adeyemi deserves more than praise for this.

The end of the book was all that I could have wanted and more, and I loved it. I finished it in tears, big warm heartfelt and healing ones, the kind I like. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone looking for fantasy YA, and I’d add it to the reading list I’ve made of works by Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, and Alaya Dawn Johnson (all of whose work you should also try if you haven’t yet).

Now, as often happens with YA these days, I did bounce several times nearly two-thirds through. My dislike of YA star-crossed romance tropes—and my fear and anticipation of the next guessed-at story beat—got the better of me. But each time, what Adeyemi actually wrought was so much better than what I’d feared. She did conform closely enough to the tropes for the story beats to be recognizable as those tropes, but she wrote them well. Better, she wrote them differently enough that I, as someone who struggles through those pieces of YA novels, enjoyed it. Tomi Adeyemi is skillful and capable, and she twists characters around and makes them suffer, and she does it brilliantly.

This book is beautiful and powerful and magnificent, it is evocative and compelling, I love it. And I absolutely admire it as craft and as message. Children of Blood and Bone calls out brutal truths about our own world. I fervently hope it reaches more people… and that we change our world.

Thank you, Tomi Adeyemi, for making this and sharing it.

I’ve already picked up Children of Virtue and Vengeance, the sequel.

Worldbuilding: The Mad Libs Approach

Building a setting piecemeal is sometimes difficult, but often fun and rewarding. By playing mad libs with your setting, you’re able to cram together a wild group of ideas that fill out your underlying concepts and give the whole thing its own distinct flavor. My favorite example of this was Continue reading

Blending Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots with D&D

Call of Cthulhu—for all it’s other Lovecraft-inherited flaws—has traditionally done a good job of building expectations of death and insanity into the core of the game. Furthermore, it has done this in a way that builds tension for longer campaigns without (usually) compromising the characters central to those campaigns. CoC does this best by blending one-shots with longer campaigns.

D&D can make use of this! I plan to do this in a game I’m starting soon.

The way that Call of Cthulhu usually handles this is by using a one-shot to set the scene and tone of a longer campaign. Characters in those one-shots are sacrificial, and their survival is a surprise rather than a given.

While similar assumptions of character death underlie old school B/X D&D, those assumptions are less present in most 5th edition D&D games that I’ve been in (or run) recently. Many players have more heroic narrative expectations of their characters. But I want to use Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots in a longer D&D game to give the players a better sense of the tensions and threats that await them.

My hope is to let players experience the fates of other characters (who are not their primary campaign ones). By uncovering the setting’s past, through magical archaeology or some other information gathering, I would let them play one-shots as characters other than their PCs. The players would know beforehand some of the conclusions to be reached in the scenes they played out, but they would otherwise be free to play those snapshots however they saw fit, and could have a chance to learn more about the setting in ways that fed into their main PCs’ decision making and views of the world.

Given that I expect to have some inexperienced players, my hopes with this are manifold; I wish to create spaces within the game for my players to come to terms with character death, to give them information about the setting which would otherwise require hefty info dumps, and to let them cut loose and experiment with decision making that doesn’t hamper their narrative goals or visions for their main characters. We’ll see how I do.

The Twin Falls

The Twin Falls drop in a single stream from a cleft cliff face. One river splits into two mouths at the cliff’s edge, their columns of water remerging into one for the plummet to the impossibly smooth waters below. Some strange trick of the depths beneath the falls sucks the roaring water into a still lake, the surface mirror smooth from the edge of the falling column outwards.

This, perhaps, is the true source of the Twin Falls’ name; standing on the low rise that rings the lake below like an amphitheater’s seats, looking into the lake shows two waterfalls, one dropping from above as the other meets it from below—an unbroken column across the plane of the lake.

The low rise is itself well shaped, as though it might have been intentionally sculpted into place. Here and there one may find tiny nooks carved into the rise, large enough for a picnic blanket were one to hew space from the jungle’s covetous grasp. Each nook offers a view of the falls, every one from a different angle. No large trees grow on the rise, though several tower along the cliff’s edge high above and many more soar in the space beyond the berm.

Where the lake’s water goes, no one knows.

It is said that people once lived around the Twin Falls. Certainly those who know where and how to look will see their traces. Those suspicious enough to pry or imagine will find plentiful fuel for their ideas—whether from those conveniently sized nooks and their alignment through the mouths of the falls with astronomical bodies above, or from the many hillocks that dot the rainforest beyond, or from the shapings still visible in the stone of the cliff face and the land past it. Regardless, none of those people still remain.

Stories are told of why they disappeared. Those with a predilection for the sword speculate that the missing people were invaded and subjugated, though little explanation is given for why no one remained. The more mystically inclined wonder at the deep knowledge needed to build such an astronomical sighting system, and argue that the people obtained enlightenment or found some higher truth of the world. Those whose suspicions run deeper speak in hushed tones of the lake itself, claiming that it must be a cenote deep enough to swallow the river above, with a belled top perfectly shaped by masterful stoneworkers in order to preserve the mirrored surface. These speculators, the especially paranoid and fanciful, whisper of the sun’s path on the longest day, the way it illuminates everything below, how the lake’s reflection twists for just a moment as the sun finally sets, and how there are stories of folk going missing in the jungles there on the longest day. Stories of a city in the lake, painted gold by the setting solstice sun, are easily explained away as sun-blindness.

No matter the reasons, Twin Falls is a place of stunning grandeur. It does not take an overactive imagination to see why some might once have settled in the lands nearby. Nor, from the eager greenery that clings tightly and encroaches day by day, is it difficult to see why one might choose to leave. Molds fester in dark places, and rot takes hold and does not let go. Nor are the jungles around Twin Falls quiet. Hungry things prowl there, and travelers are wise to go armed and ready. The wild beasts of that place are territorial and indiscriminate where they are not simply predatory. Worse still are the dreams some say come to them there as the days lengthen, the call of the lake, the powerful tug of its waters and the songs heard from a city that hangs golden in their dreams just beyond the mirror of the setting sun.

Receiver 2: stay safe

Receiver2header

Hunted by kill drones, you’ll sneak through unnervingly empty buildings, scour for messages left by others like you, and hunt down tapes that teach you about the Threat and what you must do to defeat it—while you master every element of your randomly assigned firearm in order to perform well under pressure.

Receiver 2, by Wolfire, is an excellent game. It’s only on Steam right now.

But also, Receiver 2 is not for everyone. Not in a “only cool kids will like this game” way, but in a “you should be ready to engage with strong themes of mental illness, self harm, and the most serious approach to gun safety I’ve seen in a video game” sort of way. Like I said, not for everyone.

I really like this game.

It’s tense. It’s difficult. It is incredibly thorough and extremely well thought out (with a niggling exception that I’ll cover later). It’s the only game I know—besides its game-jam precursor—to bother modeling the underlying mechanisms of the guns you use.

Receiver 2 makes loading, safe-ing, and holstering your gun an actual skill. Learning to clear malfunctions by reflex is necessary, and mastering it is deeply satisfying in a way that simply tapping ‘r’ never is. Receiver 2 also discusses gun safety with extreme frankness, and pushes you to be aware of it constantly. If you screw up or forget, you may shoot yourself.

As someone who’s been a range safety assistant I deeply approve.

Intricately modeled weapons and foes, discoverable story and world-building, maneuvering through the tense spatial puzzles of kill drones’ blindspots in order to achieve your objectives—Receiver 2 is very good. I strongly recommend it, with two qualifications:

The first is that niggling exception from earlier, and something Wolfire says they’re resolving; the game revolves around uncovering tapes to advance through levels, but you lose a level of progress when you quit the game. That’s a problem, and it’s an unfortunate oversight. The game is already challenging, and has no save function, so demoting you a level when you quit feels needlessly punitive. Luckily, Wolfire has said that they’re going to fix that in a patch. Until then, I have read that typing ‘insight’ into the pause screen will advance you one level. Use as you see fit.

Second, if you aren’t in a good space to face strong themes of mental illness and self harm, especially around guns, I recommend caution around this game. I agree with RPS’ review of Receiver 2, but as someone who has dealt with depression and suicidal ideation I think they should have mentioned this content warning.

I’m keeping this non-specific in case you care about spoilers, but Receiver 2 deals with all those aforementioned topics head on. Now, Receiver 2 has one of the most straightforward and positive approaches to discussing depression and suicidal ideation that I’ve seen in a video game. But even though I knew that Receiver 2 had themes of mental illness and self harm, I was *not* ready for what I encountered. I’m glad that I’ve played the game, and I’m extra glad that I’ve *kept* playing because I admire some of Wolfire’s choices in handling these themes. But you should know that this game has difficult content—especially around suicidal ideation and self harm. I want you to be aware of that before you sign up for it.

Hard Work Brings Rewards, National Narratives cont.

When I brought up the Protestant work ethic in my previous post about National Narratives, I glossed over important details and context. The Protestant work ethic is more than “hard work brings rewards,” and it important to know where it came from and what else it’s informed. Its past continues to shape our naturalized beliefs today.

Before I dive in further, I have to define what I mean by “naturalized” (see ‘naturalization’).

First off, in this case ‘naturalize’ is a verb used in semiotics, and has little to do with immigration.

Naturalize (a sign): to make a sign or a set interpretation of signs (a code) appear natural or inherent truth; a naturalized arbitrary cultural arrangement will seem common-sense, normal, or self-evident.

These naturalized arbitrary cultural arrangements can range from deeply held ideological beliefs to surface level impressions. The degree to which codes are naturalized can vary as well, as can the degree to which a code is naturalized across a population. These codes can vary in their complexity and in their interpretation or justification. The important part, for our purposes, is that these codes are held as self-evident, normal, or common sense. Inherent, and natural.

Here are six concrete examples of arbitrary cultural arrangements in the US: “Irish people are drunks,” “WASPs are uptight,” “black people are lazy,” “people have a right to own firearms,” “there should be freedom of speech,” “all people are created equal.”

So let’s look at “hard work brings rewards” as it relates to the Protestant work ethic.

When you trace its roots, the Protestant work ethic is founded on specific beliefs about the possibility of reaching Heaven, and the difficulty of knowing who could or would reach Heaven. It relies on the belief that having true (Christian) faith is the only way to go to Heaven, and the assumption that good people want to go to Heaven. Furthermore, it is founded in the concept of good works, and the idea that true faith in God can only exist if faith is present in conjunction with those good works (provided there’s an opportunity for good works—there’s some disagreement among Christian sects about the necessity of good works for salvation, and about what defines “good works”).

In summary, this belief combines “true faith brings the reward of Heaven,” and “true faith requires good works,” into “good works bring the reward of Heaven.”

Not only that, but because possessing true faith in order to go to Heaven is presumably the ultimate goal of any good Christian (remember: “good people want to go to Heaven,” and “Christianity is the only way to Heaven”), therefore good Christians must perform good works.

Notice all the value statements here, all those ‘goods.’ We’ll come back to them later.

Let’s examine this belief from the inside—the naturalized belief that “good works bring the reward of Heaven.” What if we follow its internal logic when thinking about people in society?

True faith isn’t reliably visible. But a person’s actions are. If someone performs good works, we may reason that they may have true faith and may thus go to Heaven. Good works bring the reward of Heaven (we’ll assume that this person has faith).

Conversely, by this reasoning someone who does no good works lacks true faith. If they lack true faith, they are damned. While the arguments about this are long and varied, the usual answer is that their damnation is probably their own fault.

Thus, if “good works bring the reward of Heaven” is a naturalized belief—if we think it’s inherently true—then it should also be true that someone’s lack of good works means they won’t go to Heaven. It allows us to make a moral judgement about them: they’re not good enough. They might even be a bad person.

That’s a value statement which can be inferred from this naturalized belief.

But what if society reapplies this code, “good works bring the reward of Heaven,” in a secular context? It could be simplified to “work brings rewards.” Or perhaps “hard work brings rewards.”

But it still carries many of the same implications when thinking about members of society.

Again, let’s follow this belief’s internal logic.

If “hard work brings rewards” is inherently true, and someone works, we’d expect that they would be rewarded. If they’re not rewarded, they must not have worked hard enough—and their lack of rewards can’t be bad luck or adversity, because we know that “hard work brings rewards” is true. As with true faith, good works, and going to Heaven, if someone works hard enough they’ll be rewarded enough to overcome any amount of trouble. Like damnation from the exploration above, someone’s lack of prosperity is their own fault.

Moreover, if “hard work brings rewards” is true and someone isn’t rewarded, they must not be a hard worker. It isn’t difficult to make the leap from someone not being a hard worker to not being a good person. That’s especially true when your beliefs about the rewards of hard work are founded on moral beliefs about good works and going to Heaven. According to this belief, people who aren’t hard enough workers may be bad people. That’s another value statement—more on that in a moment.

There’s an important difference between the religious and the secular forms of these beliefs. It isn’t possible to see someone go to Heaven. But we can see people rewarded, or not rewarded.

According to the strictest form of these beliefs, when someone’s good works are lacking we can guess that they’re not a good person. But when someone lacks rewards, we know that they’re not working hard enough. We know that they’re not good enough to enjoy prosperity.

This is long, but hold on: because of the strong associations between rewards and goodness—and between lack-of-rewards and not-goodness—if someone is rewarded, wealthy, or prosperous it’s easy to believe that they’re a good person. And if they’re not rewarded, wealthy, or prosperous it’s easy to believe that they’re a bad person.

And all that reasoning is based on arbitrary cultural arrangements, codified interpretations of a series of signs that we think have specific meaning that is somehow inherently true… even when there’s nothing inherently true about any of it.

It’s easy see the legacies of these lines of thought. They’re deeply ingrained in American society, especially in the secular form. The belief that “hard work brings rewards” is often referred to as Achievement Ideology, and both are integrally linked to the American Dream.

The belief that people who haven’t been rewarded with prosperity may be moral failures or are otherwise to blame has been part of British and American legislation around poverty and welfare for centuries. The moral failing involved varies, depending on who makes the judgement, but it is often laziness, or sin, or some other behavior disliked by the person who believes “hard work brings rewards.” Drunkenness and addiction are often held up as examples, despite research suggesting that these are correlated with environmental stress, and may be reduced through reducing environmental stress.

Yet those moral failings are often taken as signs that people do not deserve aid or succor.

Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth, a basis for modern day philanthropy, very explicitly warns against giving charity to the “unworthy” (p.16, 18) and valorizes the “industrious workman [who says] to his incompetent and lazy fellow, ‘if thou dost not sow, thou shalt not reap,’” (p.6). Modern American welfare, with its work requirements and restrictions, is similarly caught up in the idea that giving to people who don’t deserve it is perilous. And Britain’s New Poor Laws in the Victorian Era intentionally made the support they offered no better than living in abject poverty, out of concern that people would rather claim support than work. These are the same laws which gave rise to Charles Dickens’ famous novels about impoverished people in Victorian England.

Yet it’s entirely possible to work hard and receive no reward. American slavery is an obvious counterargument to the naturalization of the idea that “hard work brings reward.” Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed delves into the experience of the low wage labor market in the 1990’s after the US’ 1996 welfare reform act, and how little reward hard labor brought.

The few existing experiments involving unconditional financial giving and support to members of communities (often called Universal Basic Income) suggest that the fear of laziness the New Poor Laws were based on, and which Carnegie articulated, was largely baseless. The Canadian experiments of the 1970s showed little decline in employment after the introduction of Basic Income, and Namibia’s experiments from 2008 to 2009 were successful on multiple fronts, including “facilitat[ing] an increase in employment and income” (BIG Assessment Report, p.68).

“Hard work brings rewards” is a naturalized code. It’s an arbitrary cultural arrangement, a belief that is not inherently true. Plenty of people work hard and get nowhere, while others work little and yet prosper.

I don’t write this to demean hard work, or to claim that people should not work hard. I am too much a product of our society to not value hard work, especially for a good cause.

But what might our world look like if we recognized that those who’ve prospered aren’t necessarily good, and those who’ve suffered aren’t bad? How much better might we treat each other? How much more willing might we be to make ways for us to support each other?

Last time, it took the Great Depression for us to have this epiphany—and we may be on track for another Great Depression. Last time, because of Southern Democrats (and others) clinging to racism, we only helped some of our fellows.

What if we did better this time?

The Churn, Starhome, Ozbek’s Folly

The Churn is a place of ancient cataclysm and ruination, a vast crater many miles across with a still molten caldera at its heart. Called Ozbek’s Folly by some, Starhome by others, the bowl of the Churn is shrouded in endlessly circling winds that carry the dust of millions dead. These winds harry sand over bedrock, stripping down all that cannot find shelter in a safe lee. Where ridge lines of fractured rock rise above the blasted terrain, narrow ribbons of greenery thrive in their wind-shadow. So too do crevasses harbor streams, rivers of life that the knowledgable may follow into the crater’s center where oases ring the caldera in the eye of the Churn’s storm.

The stories told of the Churn say that whatever caused it still lies at its heart, wreathed in the molten rock it wrought so long ago.

There are those who live within the Churn’s ever-windy desolation, people who have grown strange over time. They have changed in their generations of clinging to the green, of braving the scouring winds to find new life or old traces of the time before. They have altered themselves in their generations of imbibing the waters which rise from the rents in the earth near the caldera’s heat. Feared by those who live beyond the Churn’s high and crumbling walls, the crater-folk mostly keep to themselves.

When people from outside the Churn venture in, they all report being watched and tracked. Some outsiders who have visited and survived tell stories of their companions being eaten; some say by crater-folk, or by other hungry things which dwell within the churn—sometimes both at the same time. Others dismiss these claims, or accuse the storytellers of covering their own desperate cannibalism. These others point to the tiny but highly profitable trade with crater-folk as proof that they are not hungry monsters: some few have managed to exchange good tools and supplies for rare herbs and rocks, or for small precious otherworldly things much sought after by the outside world.

Despite its permanent dust storm and the vicious nature of travel within the Churn, people continue to seek its heart.

Those who call it Starhome claim that a fallen star sings from the center of the caldera, its song raising the winds which circle it without cease. They wish to gaze upon its beauty, and to discover its secrets. Some few, no doubt, would take it for themselves if they could. Starhome, to hear them describe it, holds at its center a marvel from beyond this world, something so purely divine that it could make one like unto a god. In their eyes, the caldera’s molten rock is merely the final barrier to the shining glory within, while the waters of the oases around it contain the essence of that star and may share its blessings on those who drink of them.

Those who call it Ozbek’s Folly put more weight in the stories told of the land as it was before the Churn. They say that the crater obliterated the city of Ozbek, a once towering center of might and learning. According to them, the city had such power as to seek the inner mysteries of the universe, and such poor judgment as to succeed. But because of their mistakes, which cost the lives of uncountable people and their city, the remnants of their civilization are now available for any who would venture within the Churn. At the city’s dead heart, now a smoking caldera, the most precious of their artifacts may yet remain.

Those who dwell within the Churn have other stories. But beyond hints which needle at the lies the curious tell themselves, the crater-dwellers keep those stories to themselves.

National Narratives

The US has got a doozy of a narrative shift in store for it. I think we’re either going to change our national narratives, or we’re going to find all the ways that our previous narratives don’t match our new reality well. Or both. We could definitely do both.

And that process is going to involve a lot of pain.

These aren’t unique or special thoughts. Most folks I’ve talked with recently have had similar ones. I know I’ve read things like them in other places. I think both John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig have been writing about things related to this, as has Graydon Saunders.

But I’m thinking about all of it from a particularly narrative-based focus.

The New Yorker article Reality has endorsed Bernie Sanders is particularly relevant here.

So, I suppose, is my post last week about finding hope in books.

Let’s talk specifically about narrative.

The New York Times has a piece on the surge in unemployment which includes some good words from Professor Alice Fothergill at UVM: “A lot of people in the United States are very proud of feeling self-sufficient and independent… This is something that is definitely going to be very, very difficult.” She also noted that those who feel ashamed about seeking help are often the ones who need it most.

That same article also had this marvelous quote:

“In its unsparing breadth, the crisis is pitting two American ideals against each other—the e pluribus unum credo of solidarity and its near-religious devotion to the idea that hard work brings rewards. Those notions coexist peacefully in prosperous times. Today, both are being put to the test, forcing the newly unemployed to re-evaluate beliefs about themselves and their country.”

Those ideals are two stories that we tell about what it means to be American. They’re our national narratives. They’re institutions and ideologies, if you want to get into the weeds. These narratives are not always well-rooted in or supported by reality, but being well-supported by reality isn’t a narrative’s job. The narrative, the ideology, isn’t here to accurately reflect our world; its role is to tell us where we fit in, and what we should do. These narratives are often more aspirational than descriptive.

Follow me as I wander through a few more articles:

Some businesses are pledging not to fire their employees. Some are going further to take better care of their employees. I don’t know that I believe the article’s supposition that there will be any reputation-based reckoning for the companies that callously fire their employees. I’ll wait and see. Personally, I’d *like* there to be something, but… yeah, I’ll wait and see.

The Economist has data from the Spanish Flu about how social distancing preserved economic function in the 1918 epidemic, which is both neat and reassuring.

And it’s sensible in light of FiveThirtyEight’s piece on the cost of life which basically agrees that human lives are individually expensive, or at least that we’re willing to put a large number of resources towards preventing human deaths. But I think another profound acknowledgement is buried in a side comment: large scale losses of life also strip society of other things which are entirely in excess of the value of an individual life (arts, culture, education, etc). While we can tally up what we’re willing to pay to prevent a death, we can’t actually account for the full cost of a life… and the loss of many lives creates a loss greater than the sum of its parts.

Wandering back…

That “e pluribus unum credo of solidarity” is the narrative bedrock on which phrases like “united we stand” are built. From many, one. It’s how we come together as a country, as a unified community. It’s no mistake that “e pluribus unum” is on so many official seals of our government. It was adopted as an official motto in 1782 by an Act of Congress. Even when people don’t know what e pluribus unum means, you can see this in the devotion and considerate care people give each other during and after natural disasters (here for article, here for meta-study).

That belief that “hard work brings rewards” moves hand in hand with Professor Fothergill’s point that many people in the US “are very proud of feeling self-sufficient and independent.” Those elements are stories that’ve been part of our national narrative for ages, often referred to as the Protestant work ethic. They fed the romanticized vision of the Western, among other things, and when taken to the extreme encourage focusing on work to the exclusion of most other aspects of life.

They’re also foundational to other more toxic narratives, as people reason out from these ideals as though they were unquestionable truths.

For the past decades, we’ve prioritized the narrative of hard work and independence over the narrative of from many, one. We’ve taken apart our social safety net. We’ve told ourselves that we wouldn’t be the ones needing help. We’d be the ones who were smart, who worked hard, who reaped the rewards of our own work unlike those shirkers over there—because if hard work brings rewards and someone isn’t rewarded, they must not be working hard enough. We were Aesop’s ant, not the grasshopper.

Except, maybe, we as a country were wrong. Maybe sometimes people suffer regardless of whether they deserve it. Maybe people saw the success of mid-century white America and forgot what it was built on, what made it possible. Maybe we saw the later continued growth of corporate America and told ourselves that everything was okay as long as the big numbers went up—because eventually that would help everyone, even the little people. Someday.

It turns out that removing the things that help others around us also weakens us. Avoiding human deaths is good. Not avoiding them—even stripped of ethical or moral judgment—is still expensive.

Look.

It’s fine to take pride in supporting yourself and doing well. That’s healthy. But I don’t think it’s healthy for that to be the only place we find pride in our lives.

It’s important for us to take pride in supporting each other, and others around us. And to remember that we don’t *only* support our fellow humans by giving them money (though money matters, especially given the society we live in). It’s high time we remember that E Pluribus Unum is as much a part of our national narrative as any other ideas are. And with that in mind, and as we take care of each other by not getting each other sick, let’s find ways to make our country a little better at being kind and supportive instead of embracing something as callous as “live and let die.”

Finding Hope in Books, Quick Thoughts

There’s a fifth book out in the Commonweal series by Graydon Saunders. Thus far, I’ve only posted here about The March North (an oversight on my part), but I love the whole series. I acknowledge freely that this series is not for everyone—it is not particularly accessible to a casual read—but there’s something to this series that I love, and which moves me in ways that I haven’t found regularly in books for quite a while.

A brief jaunt sideways: I have been a long-standing fan of the Ring of Fire series, started by Eric Flint with the book 1632. At this point it’s long, involved, and serpentine in its narrative’s twists and turns across concurrent books, but I have continued to read (almost) every new entry in the series. For a long time this series was comfort food. Even as I came to recognize the ways in which its idealized portrayal of a particularly inclusive and community-based set of American beliefs didn’t always match history (and didn’t include as many kinds of people as I’d like it to), the idealism that served the series as its foundation was heart-warming and reassuring. We’re better off working together, we’re better off including people and sharing our beliefs, we’re better off helping each other. We can disagree and still find ways to build together. We are stronger together than we are apart, and people are the heart of a nation; aristocracy, as a tiny and overly self-centered fraction of the populace, is at its best an ornamental contributor which can do the most good by advocating for and making space and prosperity for those less well-off than themselves.

It’s obvious why the series felt so comforting when I compare that message with the messages told by many of the other authors I was reading when I started the Ring of Fire series. 1632 was uplifting where other stories were dour, it embraced community where the others proclaimed lonely individualism as the only option, and it had people working together to make a better future where other stories showed people scrabbling against each other to come out on top. For all that I now see gaps in the stories, the Ring of Fire series felt like a salve. It was hopeful.

Which brings me back to the Commonweal series by Graydon Saunders.

This series caught me on so many levels.

On the surface, it’s refreshing to find books which frequently make use of gender neutral pronouns and don’t bother to gender most characters, while also making it clear that there are a variety of people and genders present rather than letting the reader always assume that “unmarked” means “male.” Similarly, it’s a pleasure to find books which so clearly include a wide variety of sexual preferences and orientations as utterly normal. Saunders does an excellent job of creating a setting in which people are welcomed and in which persecution along our own societies’ fracture lines feels alien and anathema.

But the philosophical and ethical determination underpinning the Commonweal is even more inspiring, and it’s all the better for the way in which Saunders bakes the Commonweal’s principles into the narrators’ assumptions and reasoning. Because all of the books are written in the first person (though the narrators vary), these principles are revealed gradually as people wrestle with moral and ethical quandaries or face the unthinkable.

How does one best further the survival of the Peace without exercising dominion or exalting anyone over anyone else? How can a society faced with extinction-level threats move itself into the future without sacrificing its ideals? And how can powerful people exist in such a society when their own capabilities may threaten that society?

How can societies which assume the equality of their members and acknowledge the personhood of outsiders persist in a dangerous world? And what does doing that look like… in a world wracked by a calamity of wizards and all the damage of millennia of magical war?

Which brings me to the setting itself, which continues to delight me. As someone who grew up on genre fiction and learned early on that sometimes settings just didn’t make sense (and that that was okay), it’s a treat to find a setting which digs deep into the reality of a world in which “a wizard did it” is both an explanation and a curse. Even better, it very seriously examines how a community of mostly not-wizards can survive when magic users have existed in a Hobbesian state of nature for long enough to twist much of the world into a fire-and-forget arsenal of “war by other means.”

It’s a deeply nerdy exploration.

And the answer is: that’s hard.

But it’s a story about a community that is dedicated to not only surviving, but to not compromising on their fundamental ethical ideals. And that feels good to me.

It matters that those ideals are ones which appeal to me, of course.

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is one of the few other books I’ve read recently that feel similar. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower fits too. Not, in either case, because the writing is similar… but because the feeling of hope and perseverance despite obvious terrible circumstances is so powerful.

I’ll have to write more about this series again later, but I strongly recommend The Commonweal. If you’re good with trying military fiction, start with The March North. If you’d rather read about experimental transhuman wizard school, start with A Succession of Bad Days.