Worth the Candle, Ch 8: Diamond and Iron

I woke up to Amaryllis whispering. She was kneeling beside me and touching my face. I had a moment of confusion at seeing her until the world came back into focus and I realized where I was.

Achievement Unlocked: Under the Moon of the First Night

“It’s your turn to keep watch,” she was whispering. “Are you awake? Are you with me?”

“Yes,” I replied. I got to my feet and looked around, blinking. The sky was no longer obscured by clouds, which made things a lot brighter than when I had gone to sleep. Multi-colored stars had been revealed, with all the colors from across the spectrum of visible light, pinks, greens, blues, and oranges that were astrophysically impossible. There were no constellations I recognized, but there was something like the Milky Way, a thick region of stars so dense their individual colors were hard to make out; it looked like a gash upon the sky. And the moon … the moon had no blemishes on it, no familiar craters, but it was laced through with geometric lines that all seemed to terminate in a point of pinkish light where the Sea of Tranquility would have been.

“Celestar,” I breathed. Once the home of the elves, before they’d been forced to flee. This world has elves.

“Residual knowledge?” asked Amaryllis.

I wanted to say that it wasn’t, to protest that Celestar had been my idea, this permanent monument to what the elves had lost, stark and clear for everyone to see, every single night … but instead, I said, “Probably,” then, “Get some sleep.”

“Wake me at first dawn,” she said, “My watch was clear, I hope you can say the same.” She laid down where I had been and folded her arms across her chest, then lay still. I looked her over, then turned away because I felt like a creep.

At best guess, I had four hours to spend on watch. The porch we’d taken up residence in had a full view of the fields. We weren’t as defensible as I would have liked, but there had been no red lights of zombie eyes visible for miles around and the Coterie, if they were in pursuit, would know our direction as we left Comfort but almost nothing else about where we were going or might possibly stop.

Keeping watch was dreadfully boring. Most games, both tabletop and computer, would just skip through the watch and tell you if something interesting happened. Games weren’t meant to simulate tedium, which was more or less what keeping watch was. After what felt like thirty minutes but was probably more like ten, I started getting antsy.

It took three seconds to bring my character sheet up. I had two more points to spend from having leveled up. I was very conscious of having my eyes closed, a situation which was not amenable to keeping a lookout. I resolved to drop back out of the menu at a regular interval and then looked over the stats. My modus operandi had become to simply pour points into PHY, which increased POW, SPD, and END. I could feel the changes from it already in the way that I moved. I was more muscular than I had been in fifth period English class, enough that people back home probably would have asked me if I had been working out, but I didn’t think that I’d place at the top of my class in terms power, speed, or endurance, at least not yet.

The problem was, I didn’t know what the game’s power curve looked like with regards to the numbers it showed me. If they were sublinear (that is, produced less of an effect per point invested) then I was almost certainly better off spreading points around as soon as I could spare them. If they were linear (that is, produced an equal effect per point) then I was still better off spreading them around because of the diminishing marginal utility of each point (e.g. the difference between being able to jump 10 ft. and 12 ft. was a lot greater than the difference between being able to jump 200 ft. and 202 ft.). If the points were exponential … well, then I had probably already blown it, because if I’d spent it all on SPD I could have had it up to 10 by now.

The problem was, the stats weren’t exposed.

“Settings,” I said at a whisper. “Help. Options.”

Nothing happened. But then, I had never used voice commands for any of the game stuff. The tooltips appeared when I looked at things long enough, I’d swiped from one page to the other using eye movements, and I’d spent ability points by looking at the little plus signs. Nothing had indicated to me that vocalizing what I wanted was a path to success.

I opened my eyes and looked out at the fields, scanning for movement and light as was my dreadfully dull duty. I kept this up for a minute or so, then retreated back into my character sheet.

Everything game interaction had been done using my eyes in some way. How would I signal that I needed some kind of main menu then? What was the eye control equivalent of pressing Escape on the keyboard or Ctrl+Alt+Del? It would have to be something that I wouldn’t just do by accident, but that I could still do fairly easily. I still wasn’t counting on basic principles of design being followed, but ideally it should be something that held meaning, because obviously I couldn’t refer to a shortcut cheat sheet.

I tried lots of things, until my eyes were starting to hurt from whipping them around. Why couldn’t the game have done something like putting a discreet box in the upper lefthand corner? Eventually I decided that the answer was probably about encoding. The game recognized blinks, which I’d been using to clear messages, it recognized left and right swipes, and though they didn’t actually seem to do anything, the pages at least gave some movement when I tried going up and down. If I were going to encode something … well, if I were going to encode something, and it was just for me, not a generalized system for other people …

Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right …

And I didn’t have to think about how I was going to complete the rest, because the settings screen popped up in front of me with three vertical columns of options.

Ironman Mode Verisimilitude Mode Quest Logging
Hardcore Ironman Mode Mini-map Verbose Quest Logging
Diamond Hardcore Ironman Mode World map Achievement Logging
Helldiver Fast Travel Hit points
Dead-man’s Switch Quest Markers Mana points

I read through it cautiously, careful not to hover over any checkbox for too long, lest I accidentally change something. Then I swore silently, under my breath, careful not to wake Amaryllis. The tooltips had given me bad news. On the one hand, I had already been acting under the assumption that death would be bad (duh), but to see “you will die for real” spelled out so clearly and unambiguously, and to see a checkbox I couldn’t uncheck taunting me was still like a slap in the face. Similarly, “Verisimilitude Mode” was locked down, and it cut off a number of features that I would have found exceptionally useful. I hadn’t had “Fast Travel”, but now I knew I never would, because I was stuck in Verisim Mode.

“Helldiver” confirmed the existence of the hells, but it led down a philosophical rabbit hole. Was it better to die or to live a life of eternal suffering? I didn’t know that I could properly answer that. Amaryllis had said that the highest level of hell wasn’t much worse than Comfort, which seemed bearable, even in the long term. I decided against checking the box right that instant. Similarly, the “Dead Man’s Switch” would kill me if I was going to suffer a fate worse than death. That seemed on the surface like a similar deal with regards to death and suffering, but it left me asking the question of “Worse by whose definition?” so the checkbox was also left unchecked.

I turned “Verbose Quest Logging” on, then “Hit Points” and “Mana Points” too, on the theory that they would give me more information, and more information was good.

When I opened my eyes, there was a little red bar in the lower left corner of my vision, in a place that should have been at the very edge of my periphery but was somehow still entirely in focus. When I paid any attention at all to it, it showed two numbers with a slash between them, “
”, and the word “Health” appeared running vertically alongside the bar. That wasn’t terribly helpful and the tooltip said there was no mechanical impact, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Convention would have dictated that there be a blue bar on the right side for mana, but I didn’t know any magic as yet.

I looked for zombies, and there were still none.

Despite opening the settings page, there was nothing there that helped me. There was no way to expose the actual mechanics of the game, not even by enabling hit points, because the hit points were just a representation of health that seemed like it would be far inferior to what I could tell just by paying attention to my injuries. And by my reckoning, I was still at least three hours away from the end of my shift, maybe more.

However, the fact that mechanics weren’t directly exposed didn’t mean that there was no way to figure them out. The game had given no explanation that touching a weapon would unlock a skill, but I had cottoned onto that after seeing it happen two times. I checked to make sure that Amaryllis was still sleeping, then grabbed the void tunneler and stepped out in the night.

Thwip. Thwip. Thwip. Thwip. Thwip. Thwip. Thwip.

Skill increased: Pistols lvl 6!

I strolled over to the target that I had set up, a dented aluminum can with a label so faded that I could just barely make out a red splotch. It had holes in it now, perfectly round like they’d been drilled in with machine precision. My aim wasn’t great; I had missed twice and I could see one of those times had put a hole in the wooden fence I’d set the can on top of. I turned it over twice, then went back to take position a little bit further away, scanning the horizon the entire time. I wished that I had a silencer, but had no idea how to fashion even a bad one for something like this gun. It wasn’t very loud, but even with a light breeze rustling the tall grass, it was the loudest thing around.

I was faintly surprised that I was able to increase in skill by shooting at a can. Logically, people got better at combat-related things mostly by intensively training outside of combat. Professional MMA fighters had something like four ten-minute fights a year, which were interspersed with months of intensive training. Fighting in the real world had value, sure, but it was the months of training that mattered most. But that was boring, so games always found ways to minimize that truth, because a game that gives players an incentive to do really boring things is a poorly designed game. Otherwise, you’d have people sequestering themselves away and shooting at cans until their Pistols skill was up to maximum level and they could shoot the wings off a fly at a hundred yards.

I kept shooting, thwip, thwip, thwip, and was eventually able to learn a thing or two. First of all, it did matter whether I was making an effort, because holding the pistol off to one side and covering my face so I couldn’t see what I was shooting at did nothing. Second, the skill ups got slower as I went, which I had more or less expected. Third, for whatever reason I wasn’t getting critical hits or misses. And fourth…

Skill increased: Pistols lvl 12! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat SPD.)

That was after what felt like about two hours of shooting, enough that my fingers had gotten numb. It wasn’t dawn yet, but it was noticeably lighter now, enough to make the stars seem to fade away.

The message wasn’t clear on whether it meant SPD was a primary stat for that ability, or a primary stat because it was one of the basic ones. It was still enormously important in figuring things out, because it meant that not only did I know for certain that abilities were associated with skills, it also meant that I knew how important abilities were. My go-to plan of putting everything into PHY was basically shot now, because neglecting mental and social abilities would mean that I would forevermore suck at the associated skills. In other words, I couldn’t make up for lacking in cunning by being really, really good at skills that took cunning.

I shook my hand, set the gun down, and tried to think about what to do next. That was when I got hit in the side of the head with a rock. I swore, dropped down, and was grabbing for the gun just as I heard Amaryllis shout, “You’re dead.”

I rubbed at the side of my head, which was bleeding slightly. My hit points were down to
, which didn’t seem right to me. I stood up, picked up the gun, and walked over to Amaryllis. If she had been standing beside the house, I might have had an excuse for not seeing her before her rock hit me, but she was on the opposite side of me from the house, which meant that she had to have snuck around me without making a sound.

“Sorry,” I said as I wiped my bloody fingers on my shirt. I belatedly realized that I didn’t have a change of clothes; I’d be wearing that stain for a while yet.

“You were on watch,” said Amaryllis.

“I know,” I replied. “I was looking around, I just, I wanted to get better for when we get to Silmar.”

Amaryllis paused and her face softened slightly. “And did you?”

I nodded. “Fewer misses, better clustering on the hits, both while moving further away from the targets.”

“Unnatural improvements?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “I think so.”

“You left me while I was asleep,” she said with a frown. “While I was at my most vulnerable. If I could sneak up on you, so could someone else. I could have had my throat slit because you violated our agreement. Don’t do it again.” She turned away from me. “Come on, we should get going.”

Generally speaking, when I made maps I included as few details as possible. The bare minimum for tabletop worldbuilding was a starting location and a destination, with nothing but those two points and a line connecting them to each other. Of course, a world with only those two initial necessaries would seem barren and lifeless, so I would add things in to give the impression that it was a living, breathing place. A line marks a river that needs crossing, which implies a bridge, a forest runs alongside what are presumably fields, and there are other roads aside from the one between the only two ‘real’ locations, which go off and (presumably) connect to other places. Keeping a simple map with a lot of suggestive elements helped when one adventure rolled into the next one, because one of those lines could be attached to a new location that I’d thought up. By not marking down too much ahead of time, I was free to improvise when players asked me things, things like “Is there a wizard’s tower nearby?” or “Where is the nearest place we could find some trolls?” A detailed map would have left me scrambling to change things around when I needed the world to be different from what I’d originally put down.

I mention this mostly because the area we traveled through was almost exactly the sort of nondescript place that separated the two points of importance. It was flat (former) farmland as far as the eye could see, broken up with occasional streams and clumps of trees. There were farmhouses and the occasional gas station, miles of electric poles stretching electricity across the land. It could have been Kansas, or Nebraska, or virtually anywhere in the Midwest. If this place had been a character, it would have been the blandest of NPCs, the shopkeeper who sells you his wares without giving so much as a hint of having any personality or motives.

I shot at things as we went, using the rifle to do so. Amaryllis had suggested it. We were only going fifteen miles an hour, after all, and while the zombies were fairly infrequent so long as we stayed clear of places with a lot of buildings, there were road signs, trees, and rocks for me to take aim at. This time, I got the message much sooner.

Skill increased: Rifles lvl 6! (Skill capped at triple the value of primary stat CUN.)

That made me nervous for the value of my choices thus far, and with some reluctance I put my two points in raising MEN (and thus CUN, KNO, and WIS) by one. It wasn’t just a matter of rifles, I really didn’t want to get locked out of being able to perform magic.

We stopped after four hours of travel in the middle of a long stretch of road with no one in sight. My legs and back were killing me, and I was as hungry as I thought I had ever been back on Earth. I’d picked up an affliction “Hungry” but it didn’t appear to have any penalties associated with it. I imagined that like “Cowardice” it would get worse if I didn’t do something about it, and tried to ignore both the hunger and the looming status effects.

“Forage should get better as we move toward Silmar,” said Amaryllis. She was going through a stretching routine that looked totally unfamiliar to me, moving with smooth motions that paused in difficult-looking configurations. She would have looked amazing while eating a ham sandwich, but during these stretches I felt my heartbeat pick up. Maybe there was a part of my brain that thought she was dancing for me.

“You think we’ll find something to eat?” I asked, trying to ignore her.

“Silmar was the site of the attack that created the Risen Lands,” said Amaryllis. “They’ve been dropping people here for years, all over the place, but if you want to survive you move away from Silmar. It’s basically been untouched. Most of the food will have gone bad anyway, but we have better odds of finding things that are unspoilt. Besides that, the field effect was stronger near the epicenter, which means that rats and birds would have been caught in it too.”

“And … that’s a good thing?” I asked. Before she could answer, I realized what she’d been saying. “Meaning that animals wouldn’t have gotten into everything, because they’d have been zom- … turned into glowing-eyed undead versions of themselves.” I tried to think about that some more. “If I’m hearing you right, a weaker version affects larger things?”

Amaryllis shrugged. “It’s academic,” she said. “I would rather stick to telling you the things that could save our lives in a crucial moment rather than going over esoterica about the necrotic field effect present in the Risen Lands.”

Maybe if I hadn’t been so thoroughly chastised for shirking my watch duty, I would have tried to push back, but I was on edge thinking about getting a message that loyalty had dropped. Amaryllis was someone the game deemed important and I figured that if I lost her, I was as good as dead.

“Do you think the Fuchsia Coterie will follow?” I asked.

“If they can,” she replied, craning her head back to perfectly expose her neck. “Part of the reason we’re going to Silmar is that I expected them to have arranged themselves to intercept us going the other way. I’d say there are even odds that they can get a vehicle up and running, if they didn’t have something equivalent in their supply cache.”

“Supply cache?” I asked.

“That’s a guess on my part,” said Amaryllis. “They didn’t leave the plane armed, and their weapons weren’t outside of the norm for what might be found, but it strikes me as suspicious that so many of them would have found weaponry. There are laws against flying over the Risen Lands, but they’re poorly enforced. It wouldn’t have been trivial, however … someone spent a fair amount of personal and political capital in order to have me die in a way which could be vigorously denied afterward. In the Lost King’s Court, it’s acceptable to murder your opponents, so long as you don’t let anyone know that you’re doing it. So yes, I believe that the Fuchsia Coterie is better supplied than one would expect of men dropped into this wasteland with nothing but their clothes.”

“We’re better equipped than I would expect,” I said, looking over at the pistol and rifle that sat beside the motorcycle powered by human souls. It still had seven souls in the tank, I noted.

“Our enemies have made the crucial mistake of underestimating a Penndraig,” said Amaryllis. She stood up, rolled her shoulders, and began walking back over to the soulcycle. “Though one has to wonder how many Penndraigs died almost immediately after making a statement like that.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 8: Diamond and Iron

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