Crossroads Conversations: Sylvanas Windrunner, Buddhist Empress

“I teach suffering. Its origin, cessation and path. That’s all I teach.” — Buddha

Due to an internet outage there was no Crossroads Podcast last week, so I’m going to use this opportunity to revisit a discussion we had on the show a while back. Before the latest World of Warcraft expansion came out, the pre-patch caused quite a stir among the community.

Many were outraged by the direction the story was headed. I saw something beautiful.

Whether you play Warcraft or not, read on for a counterintuitive discussion of philosophy. If you do play, I’m primarily examining the character of Warchief Sylvanas Windrunner and the burning of Teldrassil.

Life Is Pain

“It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.” — Seneca

Aesthetic is key to how we judge morality. My favorite example: in Norse mythology, light elves and dark elves had no inherent morality. Not until outsiders discovered and interpreted their stories through the modern Western worldview, which assumes that white-skinned beings are good and black-skinned beings are evil. Thanks for that, Tolkien.

In Warcraft, the pandaren have a very Buddhist “feel”. They speak with Chinese accents and like to sit cross-legged on lily pads. Not to say they don’t represent Buddhist values–I actually love their in-game culture and the views they express. The point is, the limited amount of actual philosophy worked into the game is magnified by their aesthetic.

Then we have Sylvanas Windrunner, Warchief of the Horde, an undead dark elf straight out of Norse mythology. When I propose to fellow Warcraft fans she might be Buddhist, they laugh. They don’t notice the signifcance of a statement she makes right before the Burning of Teldrassil: “Life is pain. Hope fails.” Sylvanas explicitly states the core tenets of Buddhism, nearly word for word straight out of Siddhartha’s notebook. The beliefs are right, but the aesthetic is wrong. To many, the key elements of Buddhism are tea and cherry blossoms, rather than the practice of living without attachment.

Aside from Buddha, another philosopher comes to mind at the statement that “life is pain”: Seneca. Well, any of the Stoic philosophers would work, such as Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. I just happen to be most familiar with Seneca.

Stoicism is a Western parallel to Buddhism. It, too, starts with the assumption that life is suffering, but differs slightly in how one should deal with that fact. Buddhism teaches you to let go of attachment: if you let go of pleasure you’ll be free from pain; let go of hope to be free from fear; and so on. Stoicism teaches you to embrace everything. Love pain as much as you love pleasure. Love fear as much as you love hope. I think both are valid paths to peace and happiness, Stoicism just speaks more to me personally.

I think it’s safe to say practices at least a small measure of Stoicism. It would be impossible to function on a day-to-day basis if she didn’t. She’s died three times, had her soul ripped from her body, failed her people in their darkest hour, been turned into a puppet and forced to watch herself murder those she’d sworn to protect, and for a brief moment, after attaining the one thing she truly desired and having nothing left to live for, she committed suicide and managed to experience true oblivion.

What Buddha would call Nirvana. The cessation of self. The true loss of attachment and desire.

Then she faced a choice: to find freedom from the eternal pain of life, or to be brought back and serve selflessly.

She chose pain and service. Seneca would be proud.

Hope Fails

“If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.” — Lao Tzu

Buddha teaches that attachment is a sure path to suffering. Since nothing lasts forever, you will inevitably lose anything you are attached to. Many recognize how this applies to material possessions, but fail to see it applies also to ideas, art, morals, traditions, philosophies, relationships, personal identities, goals, life, societies, worlds, and probably even the universe itself.

Hope is an attachment to something in the future that has not come to pass yet. It is a lose-lose situation: you’ll suffer because you never get what you hope for, or you’ll get it and suffer when you lose it.

Lao Tzu, another Chinese philosopher who predates Buddha by just a generation or two, also talks about hope in his Tao Te Ching. I’ve been getting really into his brand of Taoism recently and have already talked about it at length on this blog, so I’ll try to keep this short, even though just about every verse in the book seems to be written about Sylvanas specifically.

The Tao Te Ching warns that hope is dangerous, but does not advocate withdrawing from the world like Buddhism. Instead, Lao Tzu teaches wei wu wei, doing not-doing, which sounds like not doing anything but is the opposite. Wei wu wei is doing your work for its own sake, pouring your whole heart into it without attachment to outcomes. It’s the difference between writing a book because you want to be a rich and famous bestselling author and writing because you’re a writer and writing is what you do regardless of whether you receive any reward or recognition for your effort. You don’t hope for anything. You simply do.

Sylvanas Windrunner’s work is to lead the Horde. She is not a popular leader. The majority of the entire world hates her. Leadership has its own rewards, of course. Many despots enjoy the material luxuries of their station, or simply enjoy power. Sylvanas, a living corpse, does not eat nor drink, only breathes when the mood strikes her (usually in order to sigh), and lacks the ability to enjoy consorts. She doesn’t even sleep, so silk bedsheets wouldn’t do much for her.

What about power? It’s a humorous-yet-not-untrue observation that many of the world’s worst tyrants used power to compensate for a lack of sexual function. Deprived of all physical pleasures, does Sylvanas crave a different kind of fulfillment?

Not really, no. Thanks to books and short stories narrated from her perspective, we do not have to speculate about what goes on in the Warchief’s mind. She does not enjoy her position. Sylvanas came back from oblivion to take on the task of leading the Forsaken–a collection of undead like her–after being shown a vision of their bleak future without her. She rose to leadership of the entire Horde after being ordered to do so by her dying predecessor. It was the last thing she wanted, but duty demanded it.

Sylvanas does the work of Warchief devoid of hope. What is there to hope for? She will always be reviled, and there is no possible reward in it for her. There is not even any chance of success. The duties of the Warchief are ongoing, not something that can ever be completed. Sylvanas has embraced doing not-doing for as long as she holds her position. As she cannot die of natural causes, there is a non-zero chance she has signed up to struggle and suffer for eternity.

Her work is exemplified in the War of the Thorns, the campaign leading up to the conquest of Teldrassil. Many in her Horde questioned the decision to rekindle war with the Alliance so quickly. Most accepted that the war was inevitable, but urged her enjoy peace for as long as it might last.

For one who knows that life is pain and who holds no hope in her heart, there is only work. Sylvanas does not desire a reprieve from her work. Her work is to ensure that her people endure, and she accepted no delays.

The conquest of Teldrassil was one of the most ambitious campaigns waged in the history of the Horde. It had to be. The Horde has always been somewhat on the back foot, somewhat at the mercy of the Alliance. That state of the world is one of those attachments Buddha warns about. The Alliance takes the distribution of power.

Teldrassil is another example. The World Tree, the capital of night elf civilization. A living attachment which is never questioned. By taking it, Sylvanas shatters the established order, creates chaos and confusion. She acts according to Lao Tzu, dumping the water from the bowl so it may be filled anew, tearing down the established order to make room for a new one. To make space for the Horde’s future.

Only Sylvanas didn’t quite conquer Teldrassil, did she?

Now He’ll Understand

“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame. How could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?” — Friedrich Nietzsche

We relate the aesthetic of Buddhism to pretty and peaceful things, which makes us forget it is a philosophy primarily concerned with suffering, despair, and the quest for annihilation. Friedrich Nietzsche gets the opposite treatment, being associated with the aesthetic of nihilism and angst-fueled teenagers. Yet I’ve not found a philosophy more full of beauty and laughter than Nietzsche’s.

In the moments before she commits an act that changes Azeroth forever, Sylvanas Windrunner stands on a beach, in the shadow of the World Tree, in the dissonant calm that follows a desperate battle. She engages in a philosophical debate with a defeated night elf captain, who questions her motives.

“Life is pain. Hope fails. Now he’ll understand.”

“He” is High King Anduin Wrynn, Windrunner’s counterpart on the Alliance. Though he is her main enemy, and has certainly grown to hate her, she has no hatred for him. She views him only with mild exasperation, as if he were a wayward child. Which he arguably is, especially in comparison to Sylvanas.

Anduin, just on the cusp of adulthood, is naive, emotional, and a religious zealot. Though he has high-minded ideals, many of his decisions are poorly thought out, and Sylvanas bemoans the positions he puts her in. She misses his capable father, Varian. It speaks volumes that Sylvanas would rather face off against an opponent with a great chance of defeating than one who exposes his own weak spots. She chooses to take advantage of his weakness–her duty to the Horde demands it–but she would prefer a fair fight.

Though she wins the War of the Thorns, Sylvanas loses the debate on the beach. Sylvanas argues that the taking of Teldrassil will make Anduin “understand”. Her dying opponent tells her she is wrong. Sylvanas reconsiders her own position, then concedes defeat. Her campaign, for which so much blood has been shed, will fail to accomplish what she needs to accomplish. It takes a measure of grace and humility worthy of a Buddhist Empress to concede defeat to an enemy who is already at your mercy. Many commanders would have blocked out the criticism and charged ahead with their plan, resulting in disaster.

Sylvanas suppresses her ego and changes the plan to accomplish the mission.

What is the mission? What does she want King Anduin Wrynn to understand?

Nietzsche gets mistaken for a nihilist, but really is concerned with transcending nihilism. To create your own destiny and unlock the true beauty life has to offer, you must first plunge into the abyss of nihilism. It is a trying ordeal, in which you discard everything you know and confront the meaningless darkness of your own existence. Those who emerge from the abyss are on the path to becoming the “ubermensch” and a life of fulfillment and peace. Many never emerge, however, and wallow in nihilism forever.

I would advise anyone who wants to take the plunge to do so with the utmost care, so the journey does not break you. Sylvanas, unfortunately, does not have time to lead Anduin through the ordeal by hand. His naive zealotry is a threat to her Horde. She needs to make him understand that the established order is wrong, that he is not seeing the world accurately, that life is pain and hope fails and they must embrace these truths.

She needs him to understand that now.

Sylvanas thought taking Teldrassil would be enough. She was wrong. Instead of taking it, she lights it on fire, watches it burn to ash before her. Her expression is zen. She is at peace.

Sylvanas understands.

Will Anduin?

Living the Creed: Assassin Training

First off: I’m aware there’s something inherently douchey about shirtless post-workout mirror selfies. This, however, is for science. As I design and refine video game based workouts, I will also practice what I preach and test them out on myself. Currently, my physique would be best described as scrawny: not a lot of fat, but not a lot of muscle, either. The goal of assassin training is not to bulk up, but to add definition.

Regardless of your opinion of the Assassin’s Creed franchise overall (I think it’s fairly middling), two things about the games are great: their historical fidelity and how cool it is to play a character who can do crazy parkour stuff. Yesterday I dug a little more into the real historical context of the story. Today I’ll talk about some real-life assassin training.

Designing the Workout

My goal here is to create something very basic inspired by the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed. It would be really cool to do crazy freerunning shenanigans like the assassins in the game, but this won’t get you there. Instead, I want to make something the average gamer could do to start developing the attributes of an assassin.

I’m by no means a fitness expert and won’t claim what I come up with is the best workout for anybody. For me, it’s about aesthetic. It’s totally irrational, but I’m more excited about going to the gym and more likely to stick to it long-term if I couch it in aesthetically pleasing terms like “assassin training”.

What makes an assassin? Speed is the first thing that comes to mind. They rely on swift strikes and retreats to overcome brute strength. That’s probably why they appeal to me. As an ectomorph, trying to outmuscle anyone is a losing battle.

Not that strength isn’t important. An assassin would have to be incredibly strong, but it’s a different kind of strength than we usually think of. Speed is in fact a factor of strength: striking someone swiftly with a hidden blade is tricep strength applied in an explosive burst.

There’s an interesting dichotomy in the strengths an assassin needs, actually. Explosive strength is key in battle, as their fighting style relies on both precise strikes to end the fight quickly and quick dodges to avoid damage.

Out of combat, they’re all about endurance. Well, mostly about endurance. Leaping between buildings or running up a wall also relies on explosive strength. These feats are impressive, but perhaps more important is the ability to keep running or to hold a position for long periods of time. The games skip over this because it would not be engaging gameplay, but in real life, soldiers wouldn’t give up the search after twenty seconds and assassination targets don’t always present themselves in the right place at the right time. An assassin may well find himself hanging from a windowsill or crouching on a rooftop for extended periods, patiently ignoring the burn in his muscles until it is time to act.

To sum up, assassin training should focus on explosive bursts of strength plus endurance conditioning.

The Split

For the reasons specified above, I think each workout should contain both strength and endurance training. At the most basic level, one exercise for each. The workouts will be broken up by muscle group. Each day should focus on one part of the body, incorporating one exercise for explosive strength and one for endurance.

On top of that, you should do some kind of  core every day. You probably don’t notice how often you use your core, but it’s aptly named: your core muscles are used for basically everything. Hiking takes core. Jumping takes core. Punching, if you’re doing it right, takes core. Increase your core strength and you increase your ability to do just about everything.

  • Chest + triceps: strength, endurance,  core
  • Back + biceps: strength, endurance, core
  • Lower body: strength, endurance,  core
  • Shoulders + traps: strength, endurance, core

If you’re comfortable in the gym already, you can probably stop reading right here and build your own workout based on that formula. Regardless of what anyone tells you, any specific workout is just an arbitrary collection of exercises they like to do. As long as your working the same muscles, the outcome is roughly the same (except at the highest levels such as Olympic competition where every fraction of a percent matters–but if that’s where you’re at, why are you reading this, anyway?).

As for my specific routine, my goal is to choose exercises that are easy for beginners and rely mostly on body weight. This isn’t some crossfit purist idea about how free exercises are inherently superior to machines. I don’t think there’s anything to that. Again, it’s about aesthetic. Assassins in 12th-century Jerusalem wouldn’t have access to modern gym equipment, so doing free exercises helps me maintain the immersion. That said, I do have a weird love for the lateral pull-down machine, so I break my own rule when it comes to that.

A nice bonus is if you are a complete beginner and don’t know if you want to commit to a gym membership yet, you might be able to complete the workout without one. The main things you’ll need are something to serve as a pull-up bar which you are absolutely sure can bear your weight and a box or other platform you can jump up onto. Playgrounds have both of these things in spades, but if you don’t have kids to bring with you, I’d probably only use that option at times you’re sure it’ll be abandoned (and school playgrounds are off-limits all the time forever).

Let’s Train

The practical application of the chest and triceps is pushing things. This includes striking with a fist or a knife, which is just pushing really hard and fast. As the name suggests, the push-up is one of the simplest and most effective workouts for building this kind of strength. For most exercises, I just stick to eight sets to failure. Do as many push-ups as you can, then rest, then do that seven more times. As you get stronger and can do more push-ups, your workout automatically gets more difficult, without you having to track a bunch of different numbers. Just remember how many reps you did last time and try to do more this time. For endurance, hold a plank until failure four times, then roll over and do four sets of sit-ups or crunches to failure, and you’re done!

Your back and biceps are key for hanging from a ledge or pulling you up over one. Mimic this activity with a pull-up bar, again performing eight sets to failure. As I mentioned earlier, I’m also partial to the lateral pull-down machine, so if you’re not a purist you can try that instead. For endurance, pull yourself up (or pull the lateral bar down) and just hold yourself there as long as you can, for four sets. Since you’re already on the bar, knock out your core with four sets of hanging leg raises.

If you get bored easy, you might want to mix it up for your shoulders and traps workout. For convenience, though, you can just repeat what you did for back and biceps with a different grip. Work your back and biceps by pulling yourself up with your palms facing you in a narrower grip, and work your shoulders and traps by pulling yourself up with palms facing out in a wide grip. Doesn’t sound like it would make much difference, but try it yourself and see. Again, get your money’s worth out of the bar and do hanging leg raises for core.

Now for everyone’s favorite: leg day. The main workout will be eight sets to failure of box jumps. Put a box or other elevated platform in front of you. Jump on it, then hop back off. You can very easily hurt yourself with this if you’re not careful, so start with a lower height than you think you can manage. For endurance–and fair warning, you will hate me for this–do an air squat so your thighs are parallel with the floor. Hold it there until you just can’t take the burn any longer, then do that three more time. Then collapse to the sweet, merciful ground, take a moment to writhe in agony, and knock out four sets of crunches.

This is obviously a very simple workout. If you’re just starting out, though, the best workout you can do is literally anything, so don’t over complicate it.

If you are ready for the next level, the first thing I would add is conditioning in the form of burpees and the like, as well as running, both jogging and sprinting.

Living the Creed: The Third Crusade

One thing Assassin’s Creed definitely gets right is history. Some of the later games do focus on better-known events, but what I love about the first one is that it takes place during events that most people know nothing about. Even if you do know a little about the crusades, chances are everything you know comes from the Western perspective.

Now that I think of it, I don’t know how the game got as big as it did in 2004, considering they made the Muslims the good guys and the White Christians the antagonists. I retroactively salute the design team on a risky move that definitely paid off.

After playing a bit, I decided to educate myself about the context in which I’m doing all my assassin shenanigans.

War for the Holy Land

You probably already know that the crusades were about Jerusalem. If you keep up with world events even vaguely, you know people are still fighting over the Holy Land to this day, so learning about the crusades may actually inform us about modern events.

Staying as neutral as I can, I will say the idea of Jerusalem is inherently tricky. It is the single most sacred place on earth for three different religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Each religion stipulates that it is more or less sacrilege for one of the other religions to control it–not to mention certain sects within each of those religions wouldn’t be able to tolerate another sect owning it. Its going to be difficult to get to a place where there isn’t some sort of conflict over Jerusalem, although I could see a future where the conflict is political rather than violent.

Assassin’s Creed takes place in the middle of the Third Crusade. The previous two crusades had more or less been failures; in fact, all the crusades were failures. While the Christians hadn’t conquered Jerusalem in either of the previous ventures, they had won the right for Christian pilgrims to enter the city peacefully.

Then Saladin conquered the city. I’m extremely interested in doing more research on Saladin and the events he was involved in. I’ve never seen any of this stuff covered in a Western history, but at first glance these events seem to have about the same impact as the founding of the Roman Empire.

For now, just know that Saladin was the greatest conqueror of the Islamic world, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and, in 1187, the conqueror of Jerusalem.

Absurdist Histories

If you don’t like history, it’s probably because you haven’t yet discovered how absurd it all is. Seriously. We like to romanticize events, but when seen objectively, history is a series stupid mistakes, bizarre coincidences, hilarious mistakes, and powerful men acting like children.

The Third Crusade exemplifies everything I love about history. Let’s start with the main characters, who could quite easily fill out the cast of a sitcom. First you have Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, who you might recognized from your favorite adaptation of Robin Hood. He’s usually portrayed as brave, chivalrous, pious, regal, and generous. The real Richard was definitely brave. He was also very interested in having a reputation for those other things, which was why he jumped at the chance to throw a crusade.

Next up is Philip II of France. In fantasy setting, titles are always so cut and dry: there’s a kind, and then a bunch of nobles who do what he says. At that time, France still had dominion over England, making Richard a vassal to Philip. On the other hand, almost all of France had come under the dominion of the British throne, so pretty much all the important nobles in both countries were Richard’s vassals and practically he was probably more powerful than Philip. If the Third Crusade was an office comedy, Philip is the serious and hardworking boss responsible for the company’s success, but nobody really likes him because he holds them to such high standards. Richard is the manager who insists that every day is casual Friday. He’s great at getting everyone fired up about ambitious new ideas and projects but he never follows through on any of them. Philip desperately wants to fire him, but knows if he did, Richard would start his own company and the rest of the staff would go with him.

Then there’s Frederick Barbarossa of Germany. Over seventy years old, the Holy Roman Emperor is still in his prime and doesn’t mess around. He’s the old guy who’s been working here forever and knows how to fix any problem, but he’s never asked for a promotion or any recognition. All he cares about is doing a good job and putting in the work.

A Comedy of Battles

No-nonsense Barbarossa set out for the Holy Land in 1989 with the unstoppable legions of Germany and Italy. They marched through the Byzantine Empire and all through Asia Minor, easily crushing anyone who stood in their way. Their glorious campaign lasted until 1190, when the army reached a dangerous gorge. The officers insisted on going around it rather than risk heavy losses. To prove it was safe, Barbarossa charged into the gorge himself. He was promptly swept away and drowned, and the world’s greatest army broke up and went home.

It took another year for Philip to land at Acre, and he was well ahead of Richard, who had stopped in Sicily to gamble, party, and visit whores. It wasn’t until the summer of 1191 when all the forces left in the crusade had made it to the Middle East. Leopold of Austria, a minor player leading a fragment of Barbarossa’s original army, also joined Richard and Philip in Acre.

Before much of anything happened, Richard managed to aggravate Philip so much that Philip took his army back to France and began conspiring with Richard’s brother John to overthrow him and take control of England. The remaining crusaders did manage to conquer Acre, and Richard proudly planted his flag on the battlefield. Leopold tried to plant his own banner next to it, but Richard tore it down, so Leopold left, too. Saladin had barely lifted a finger and was now facing roughly a quarter of the original force which had marched against him.

Still, Richard scored some impressive victories and Saladin agreed to a treaty. The leaders found they liked each other and immediately struck up a bromance for the ages. As a result, they worked out a treaty which benefited them both: Richard got to declare victory for all the world to see, and other than that, nothing changed. If you take Richard’s ego out of the equation, the Third Crusade accomplished absolutely nothing.

Satisfied with his glory, Richard set sail for England. Along the way, he was captured by a vengeful Leopold of Austria. He rots in a cell for the next two years while Philip and John consolidate their power in England.

So keep all that in mind as the story of Assassin’s Creed unfolds. It might be hard to buy in to the conceit that the world has been ruled by some Knights Templar-Illuminati hybrid for thousands of years, but after learning what really happened, I think that’s the least ridiculous part of the story.

The Witchtide Project: A Dungeons and Dragons Experience

On Monday, I explained the idea behind my six new columns: each of them is built so that they could become their own fully-realized project one day. Of all of them, the Witchtide project has the clearest path to get to that point (well, except Crossroads Conversations, which started past the finish line).

What is the Witchtide Project, anyway?

A New Adventure

I recently discontinued a Dungeons and Dragons campaign and podcast. Witchtide is the successor to that show. Nothing is set in stone, but I do have vague plans to launch a new campaign with a new group, which we would stream, record, and release as a podcast.

As a Dungeon Master, there’s no limit on how much time you can sink into campaign prep. You can make a perfectly fun game in an hour a week, or you can sink an ungodly amount of time into it and create an almost cinematic experience.

Since we’ll be releasing the adventure as a “product”, albeit a free one, I want it to be as polished as possible. My time investment will be closer to the “ungodly” end of the meter. I want to put a lot of work into the project but don’t want it to take away from other projects, like this blog, so I’m going to double dip and turn all that work into content.

Designing an Experience

The Witchtide Project will take you every step of the way as I build a dungeons and dragons campaign from the ground up. This includes the setting, which I already have some ideas for and which should feel at once familiar and unique. It also includes the gameplay. We’ll be using the 5th edition dungeons and dragons rule set, but I’ll be exploring alternate rules and coming up with some house rules of my own to create a very specific experience.

Even if you’ve never played dungeons and dragons and have no interest in it, you should be able to get something out of this column. Dungeons and dragons is about telling a story, but it’s a collaborative story and nobody at the table can guess how it will turn out. Designing a campaign is a bit like writing a novel and a bit like designing a video game, but with a lot of unique challenges and opportunities.

If you’re a creative, and especially if you’re a writer, planning and participating in a role-playing game can teach you a lot. As I go, I’ll talk about my thinking behind each decision, and the experience I’m trying to create for my future players.

And when we get around to actually playing the game, you’ll get to see if any of my decisions were any good!

Name of the Game

Next week we’ll jump right in to fleshing out the setting and making design decisions. For now, I’ll talk about my vision for the game–what I’m aiming for with the decisions I’ll make over the next months, whether I’m ultimately successful or not.

Witchtide is a working title. It came to me randomly and may or may not end up being relevant to anything in the campaign. It does capture the atmosphere I want to create, though: dark, ominous, and vaguely nautical.

The core of Witchtide is the idea that the point is not to “win” but to participate in a story. The gameplay will reflect this. At first glance, some of the rules I come up with may seem limiting or punishing, but only if you go in with the mindset of a gamer trying to beat a level. The best stories are about heroes who suffer and fail on their way to victory, and it can be just as fun to roleplay a character in defeat as in triumph.

The setting will draw on my personal expertise. Mexican culture and history will probably play a large role in the design of the world. Not that I’m an expert on Mexico by any means, but I know enough to create a setting distinct from the standard “Medieval France but with elves”. Beyond that, expect the setting to be on the gritty side of fantasy, influenced by a blend of real-world cultures not usually represented in fantasy, and incorporating more science than usual (I’m already fleshing out a map of how all the different fantasy races evolved from one another and migrated around the world in prehistoric times).

Bringing together setting and gameplay is the thematic element. A lot of the themes will, ideally, arise from the stories the players choose to tell with their characters, I’ll be building the experience with a few ideas in mind. The nature of death will probably be an interesting theme to explore given the setting. If you’ve had a chance to see Coco, you know that Mexican culture has a much more cheerful take on mortality compared with other Western cultures. I’ll probably also loop in an old favorite of mine (one that shows up in everything I make anyway so I might as well put it in now): the absence of good and evil, the idea that there are two–or more–sides to every story.

If any of that piques your interest, check back in a week when we start to build a world in earnest!

Living Let’s Play: On Living

Yesterday I introduced the Living Let’s Play. I’ll be playing through a game–for now, Assassin’s Creed–and talking about it in-depth each Friday. I’ll talk about the game itself, but also use it as a jumping off point to discuss history, philosophy, mythology, and so on.

That certainly makes for an in-depth Let’s Play, but it’s Saturday where the “living” part comes in.

Reality Check

Ever since I read a fateful book named World of Warcraft and Philosophy when I was 13, I’ve been fascinated by the overlap of video games and self-improvement. It’s easy for video games to become a huge drain on your time and productivity, and they certainly have been that for me at many points in my life. Maybe, if approached correctly, they could help you be better instead.

I’m not the first one to have this thought. It’s an idea I’ve seen applied well. More often it’s an idea I’ve seen applied very, very poorly.

Any time you have a hypothesis that you would like to be true, you have to extra stringent in your search for evidence. If you’re a gamer, you’ve probably come across listicles explaining why video games make you a better person: better coordination, critical thinking skills, teamwork and leadership abilities, and so on.

Yes, video games can make you better at all those things and more. If your goal is to improve any of those things, though, there are countless better ways to do it than playing video games. At best, these lists should give you the feeling of “at least something good comes of indulging my vice”. The takeaway should not be “gaming is so productive, I’m going to spend even more time gaming!”

Unless playing video games is your job, it is one of the least productive things you can send your time doing.

I’m not against video games, obviously. Everyone needs some form of entertainment. Gaming is no worse than watching TV, browsing the web, or lounging by a pool drinking mojitos. It isn’t any better, either.

Self-improvement takes work. It’s difficult and means taking time away from things you would rather be doing, like gaming. Mixing video games and self-improvement isn’t a free pass to play all day and pretend you’re doing something productive. If you’re willing to put in the work, though, it can be a ton of fun.

Aesthetic Is Everything

Aesthetic matters. By definition, it is something shallow. It changes the way we perceive things without changing how things are. All that is true, but it still makes all the difference in the world. An appreciation for aesthetic is baked deep into human evolution. I know people who pride themselves on their rationality but struggle to divorce themselves from their dependence on aesthetic.

It’s a concept I’ve grappled with for a long time and have a hard time explaining my reasoning. For the topic at hand, it will suffice to give a simple example. I’m good at coming up with ways to improve myself and my life, but like many, have a hard time consistently practicing new behaviors or habits.

It gets easier when I apply an appealing aesthetic. I know it’s completely irrational, even childish, but I have an easier time sticking to a fitness regimen if I think of it not as working out, but as, for example, “assassin training”.

Each Saturday, I’ll post about something productive I was inspired to do in the real world thanks to my time in a game world. I’ll hopefully inspire you to try these things, too. To get a better idea of what this might look like, let’s talk about the first game we’ll be subjecting to this bizarre experiment.

Living the Creed

You might be wondering why I would write about a game that’s over a decade old which nobody talks about anymore. Or you might have caught on that the game being outdated and fairly basic by modern standards is actually a plus for our purposes.

We’re not here to talk about gameplay. We’ll probably talk about the game’s story, but it’s not the main focus. Yesterday I described how it would be a jumping off point for research on topics like history and philosophy. In this column, we’ll be jumping instead to real-world activities.

I mentioned working out above. I’ll create an “assassin training” regimen–borrowing heavily from workouts created by people who actually know what they’re doing–and report on my progress as I follow it. We’ll start at the most basic level, something someone who has never been to a gym before could do, and work our way up. It’s ambitious, but maybe we’ll even get to some basic parkour training.

Parkour is 90% of being an assassin, after all.

I’ll also look into some relevant recipes and do my best to cook them. Many people don’t know this, but Mexican cuisine has a lot of Middle Eastern influence, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to find relatively authentic ingredients for these dishes. I might even try to learn a little Arabic, although I know that’s going to result in my embarrassing myself a lot.

This column might be the most experimental of everything I’m trying to do, and that’s definitely saying something. Still, I’m excited to see where this crazy journey will take us.

Living Let’s Play: On Gaming

The original idea of Desdenada was to combine video games with real life. Today we return to our roots.

The Struggle

I’ve talked before about the struggle that led to the conception of Desdenada. My struggle to live with one foot in two worlds. Growing up I was caught mainly between two social circles: people who take real life seriously and people who take fantasy seriously. In my experience, the overlap between the two crowds is a very small Venn diagram.

Part of this is a social factor. Especially in high school, the artificial lines between “nerds” and “jocks” and “geeks” and “preps” were enough to keep most people in their lane. In my quest to transcend these barriers, I’ve come across a very real and very valid obstacle to having the best of all worlds: time.

If I had to describe Desdenada in the simplest possible terms, it would be a brand for the kind of person who would happily run a marathon one day and then play a 12-hour marathon World of Warcraft session the next.

Of course, there’s only so much time in the day, and activities like Warcraft and training for a marathon both suck up large amounts of this. Any time I try to work out a schedule, I’m dissatisfied with the amount of time I have to devote to each of my varied passions.

The traditional advice would be to pick one thing to really focus on and accept that you can’t do everything. As usual, I disregarded the conventional wisdom and looked for a better way.

The Best of All Worlds

If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s an aphorism about following your passion, but doubles as a principle about time management. Say your hobby is writing, and you work an office job to pay the bills. Even if you don’t mind your job, you’re sinking 40 hours a week into something that isn’t pursuing your end goal.

I write for a living, although not the kind of writing I want to do. Still, even though my job takes time away from writing the novels I ultimately hope to make a career around, I’m still spending time practicing and developing as a writer. Previously, I might have allotted eight hours for work and two hours for writing. Now I can allot eight hours for work and ten hours for writing and still only use up ten hours of my day.

This overlap is key to getting everything you want to out of life. This blog post I’m writing right now is a way for me to practice my writing and simultaneously work toward building a brand. The game this column will focus on at first, which we’re getting to, involves a lot of mythology and history which ties in to a novel I’m writing. That’s how I have time in my schedule to work, write, blog, podcast, do research, and play video games.

Living the Creed

We’ll kick off this column with Assassin’s Creed. Note the lack of colon. As someone who has never played the franchise, I’m heading back to 2007 to experience the game that started it all.

Unfortunately, my internet situation is still not good enough for me to stream my play, at least not with a quality anybody would want to watch. I’ll try to at least record some key moments and put up the videos, but it won’t be a traditional Let’s Play. The main focus is the content I’ll create around the game itself.

The Living Let’s Play, which hereafter will be titled “Living the Creed” (so when I play new games in the future I won’t have to double up on the colon with Living Let’s Play: The Elder Scrolls VI: Topic of the Day), is split into two parts. Each Friday, I’ll post about the game itself, or thoughts related to the game, such as research into relevant history or meditations on the game’s themes.

Tomorrow I’ll break down the Saturday column, which will involve content that is a bit more real