All posts by SonWorshiper

Husband, father, worshiper, gamer, writer, singer, pianist, coffee fiend

Good vs the Goal

“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” 

The oft-quoted adage conveys important wisdom. In our efforts to make something the best it can be, we might pour too much effort or time into a project when “good enough” would suffice. Perfection is notoriously impossible to obtain, especially when we rely on our subjective judgment to make determinations. Most of us are never so confident as to say something we do or create is perfect… but it’s what many of us strive for nonetheless.

Wise people recognize when “good” is good enough, and refocus their attention or resources to accomplish the next task instead of perfecting the first.

Yet I find a related lesson as I consider that first quote:

We must not let good become the enemy of our goal.

In life, if we’re open to new ideas and watching for new opportunities, there are always choices and options available which seem appealing or even ideal. It’s too easy to follow these rabbit trails into tangential tasks and irrelevant efforts that feel good but never satisfy our deeper desires.

Motivational speakers and writers issue a common refrain: if you’re going to succeed at the most important thing to you, it has to become the most important thing to you.

Sometimes that means getting up earlier. Working on the weekend. Putting in some hours working at your passion, after you’ve already put in a full day’s work on the job. Other times, it means forsaking what’s appealing for what you’re accomplishing. While friends party or catch a movie, you grind a little more today so you start tomorrow further along the path to the goal. When genuinely good commitments are asked of you, sometimes it means saying, “I can’t do that right now.”

Speaking of financial stability and living within one’s means, Dave Ramsey puts it this way:

“If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”

His program applies this principle toward financial management, and participants cut unnecessary or excessive expenses while planning and monitoring their budgets down to the penny. The same concept applies to anyone who sets out to accomplish some difficult and demanding long-term goal–except it means cutting irrelevant activities and expenditures of energy, and focusing in on the actual priorities we claim mean so much.

I’m presuming you’ve already made some goals and decided certain activities are worth your effort–perhaps fitness achievements or weight loss, perhaps a career in writing or art or music, maybe some professional education or advancement with a clearly laid-out path and requirements.

Step one is to figure out what matters to you and commit to it, not as some hobby, thing on the side, or “personal interest.”  Of this you can be certain: Make such a decision, and those good temptations and worthwhile distractions will come out of the woodwork. So what’s the way forward?

Make the most of your time.

Sometimes we can kill two or three birds with one stone. As I type, I’m sitting on the bike, finishing an hour pedaling away. I’m knocking out my exercise for today while getting a blog post typed up while taking time for personal reflection while meeting today’s word count goal.

In a similar vein, while waiting in line at the post office or grocery store, I’ve typed up blogs or short stories, outlined D&D sessions or book ideas, coordinated events or meetings, and so on.

When I feel rushed, I consider my YouTube video history, the “hours played” on various video games, or the Netflix log of shows I’ve watched. We all have 24 hours a day, with probably 8 hours that we allocate as we see fit.

Long-term effort made of small steps and good decisions is the only path to success and accomplishing some of our goals. I can’t get fit in a week of high-intensity workouts and crash-diets. I won’t write a novel by sitting down and cranking out 80,000 words in a couple days. I’m not likely to see a million dollars drop into my bank account so I can pay off all my debts and save for retirement. Regular, disciplined effort is the only way forward.

Small steps add up to big results.

A few hundred words isn’t much, but when I write 500 in the half-hour before work, then 600 at lunch, then 250 while waiting to pay my groceries, then another 800 before bed… that’s how progress is made.

Paying an extra $50 or $100 on a bill until it’s gone means that I have that money plus the amount of the regular bill available to apply elsewhere in the budget. This is a big part of how Dave Ramsey’s program eliminates debt: small steps that build momentum.

Still, all too often there’s a whole gang of “good” calling for my attention.

I may have to learn to say no.

What about you? How do you balance pursuing your interests and passions with the demands of “real life” and other commitments? Got any tips for readers? (That really means please can I steal some good ideas because I’m desperate.) Let me know in a comment below.

 

Compliments and Confidence

I had the privilege of singing the Japanese and American National Anthems for my unit’s Change of Command ceremony this week. It went well. I didn’t make any significant mistakes (that I’m aware of at least). I received several compliments. Some people seemed genuinely surprised.

It got me thinking about the distance between compliments for a job well done, and confidence that we can do a job well.

I spend a lot of time in front of other people–public speaking in the form of leading mission briefs and planning discussions, public singing and musical performance in church bands or for secular functions, and of course… writing.

At a recent writing group, we talked about how hard it can be to accept the compliments or to truly believe “My work is of sufficient quality.” People give compliments to be polite, right? It’s easy to shrug those off or downplay them… after all, that’s the humble thing to do, and no one likes an arrogant jerk, right?

“Oh, it’s no big thing, you know, I’ve been doing this for years… just another day to me. Glad you liked it.”

The reason these thoughts came to mind was because then someone didn’t say something to me about the performance. Immediately doubts and questions arose. Did they not like it? Did they think I sucked? Was I off key? Were they not impressed? Do they care at all? Do they know how good I am? Am I not that good? Why didn’t they say something when all those other people did? What did I do wrong that they didn’t like?

The truth is, none of those things are true.  I didn’t do anything wrong and I did just fine if not awesome (if the compliments are to be believed). Yet that brief moment of silence creates so many questions where none are necessary.

Early on, in singing or speaking or writing, I needed those compliments – I need some praise and assurance. “You are good at this.”  That can become a crutch, a dependency that nags at the back of my mind when I check site views or book reviews. When I participate in a critique group and put my work out there to other writers, I might come at that experience looking for validation instead of constructive feedback.

“Oh, you’re so good at this!”

*fake blush* Thank you, I know…

On the other hand, I don’t want to become arrogant or overconfident about how good I think I am. That’s the danger of believing the compliments a little too easily: acting as though I’ve mastered a thing when I’m really only an amateur.

So I presume and hope that there is a comfortable middle ground—a  place where I can be confident in my abilities while remaining grateful for the praise I earn. Something like the prophets in the Bible following the phrase “Don’t look at their faces.” Don’t try to figure out how everyone feels about what you’re doing–figure out how to do it, and just go for your best.

That’s a place where I’m not dependent on what others think to find my own validation. A place where I know I do pretty fine at X, Y, and Z… but I still want to get better at them.

Today, I’ll be signing books at the Base Exchange and shaking customers’ hands. I have no illusions about how minor a thing it is to get a story published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. It’s not the first step to becoming a Stephen King or George Martin.

But a company paid money for my words and put them in print. Salespeople suggested “What if you came and signed books?” Maybe some people will buy it, even if just as a novelty.

So it’s something. And today, that’s enough.

Sixteen Stages of Spin Class

One – Anticipation: Starting the day prior, when I make the decision to go Spin, excitement and positive energy flow through me. A decision made is like 90% of the job done, right? I’m so fit already.

Two – Delaying Tactics: That snooze button just looks so inviting, I have to press it twice. Or three or four times. Maybe I can count these as reps?

Three – Pre-workout Cardio: Holy crap, class starts in 20 minutes and I just got out of bed gaaaah! 10 minutes of dashing and flailing ensues.

Four – Preparation: Setting my neatly folded towel across the handlebars, dropping a chilled bottle of water into the slot, adjusting the seat height and foot straps and all that… oh yeah, I’m an old Spin pro, no need to worry about me, kindly instructor. I am ready. I am able. I got this.

Five – Warm-up: This is easy. Here we go. Good cadence, good beat, just pedaling… nothing to it. “Turn that resistance knob to the right about seven times…” –wait whaaat?

Six – Regret: I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. “Turn it to the right a couple more times, and climb that mountain!”

What have I done?

Seven – Anguish: How are we only ten minutes in? And why does it look like the hands on the clock are frozen?

…oh, wait, they’re moving backwards.


“The LifeCycle Misery Engine 6.66 is the finest in our line of torture methods and satanic ritual implements. 

The 35-pound weighted wheel acts as a millstone, grinding up hopes and dreams into the victim’s delicious tears.”

– taken direct from the LifeCycle website product description, before that model’s site was removed. Honest. 

Eight – Confusion: What the heck are Sprint Tabatas?!

Nine – Despair: Oh. Those are sprint tabatas. “We’re gonna do one more set, but add a little resistance first!”

My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?

Ten – Second Wind: We’re halfway there. I just have to not die for like thirty more minutes… and then I can die.

Eleven – Second Anguish: “Okay, turn that resistance up and pick up the pace! Now we’re starting the high intensity part of the ride!”

what have we been doing this whole time?

Twelve – Spirit Journey: My soul no longer wishes to be present in this physical body, and so it vacates the premises in search of assistance or relief. Sadly the vision quest ends with the instructor shouting “Going back for more hills!!! Turn that knob to the right and  give me a hard, hard climb!!!”

Thirteen – Resignation: There is no point in looking at the clock. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, nor is there an imaginary finish line at the top of this imaginary hill. There is only more pain, more burning in my legs, more stabbing betrayal by this bike seat, and another hill.

“Turn it to the right and give me your best effort!”

Begrudging groan and hopeless acceptance.

Fourteen – Nirvana: Awareness of self is destroyed and I am become nothingness. A disembodied voice that sounds like my own assures me it’s best if I’m not present for what is happening to my flesh husk.

Fifteen – Cool down: I didn’t know those knobs could turn to the left to reduce the amount of human suffering in the room. Is this for real? It feels like a trap, but I tentatively follow along through various stretches.

Sixteen – Stockholm Syndrome: I am standing in a puddle of liquified pain squeezed from my corpulent mass as if by a wine press. I clean off the equipment and hobble out to my car. And then, in the sunrise, I hear my voice say, “That was awesome! Can’t wait to do it again!”

Feedback vs Feel Bad

“Well, I tried to read it, but… sorry, I couldn’t get past the first page.”

If you’ve ever put your creative work out for other to see, you likely did so wincing with trepidation, unsure what to expect.

Do they love it? Do they hate it?

Did he just laugh? At what?

Did she just raise her eyebrows?

Is that interest at a cool turn of phrase, or disgust at some mistake I didn’t catch?

Sometimes the response you get back is empty of value. Other times, it’s thoughtless and crushing.

One of the hardest steps we take as amateur writers is giving others the opportunity to read our work. It feels easier to leave all our poems or stories in files on the computer than to face the judgment we fear.

But unless it’s a private diary or journal, reading is an essential part of the writing process. The audience is the intended recipient of all our word-smithing, and their response is the tool we use to discover what we’re doing well and where we’ve missed the mark.

What if we could witness those important cues and responses in a friendly setting, a “safe space” of sorts? What if we got insight from other writers on a similar journey–people who know not just what we’re going through but how it feels–rather than from “professional readers” whose replies lack technical detail or depth?

Enter the feedback group.

I’ve written about the value of such groups before, so this time, I thought I could show an example of what good feedback looks like:

What He Would Have Wanted–Full Critique

The Word document at that link is a combination of comments and discussion points over aspects of grammar, description, dialogue, and format. I love the comment feature on Word and similar programs for this purpose.

Feedback2.png

Kyle writes epic fantasy, and he also pays great attention to detail. He uses AutoCrit among other programs and services to dig into the weeds on his own writing.

One good example of such detail is that in my original draft, I used “then” 12 times. As an example of the constructive type of feedback, Kyle not only pointed these out but also provided re-writing suggestions for how to avoid them.

Feedback1

Jessica is an avid fantasy reader and helped me see what worked really well in my descriptions.

A newcomer to the group, Natalie mentioned how a portion of dialogue struck her as possibly too modern for the setting.

Judy is a professor at one of the on-base colleges. She saw a lot of meaning in the imagery and word choice that I didn’t anticipate or intend. I can use that feedback to do a better job intentionally incorporating those aspects in future writing.

One point that isn’t captured in the document (because I forgot to add it as a comment): I described Fleuris as having hair the color of carnations… but there are many varieties of carnations. Judy and Kyle assumed red, and Jessica pictured a light pink–which is what I was aiming for. Lesson learned: it’s not a clear description as written.

At the end of the session, Natalie–a newcomer to the group–remarked that the experience was better than she expected or feared. In her career dealing with military writing, she’d seen arguments over whether to use “or” or “and” in order to highlight some meaning in an article. “People spend hours bickering over these minor details,” she said. “I guess I thought it might be like that.”

That fear is common when joining a new community or putting our work out for others to see. But like many things in life, the fear is often far worse than reality.

In a good group, everyone has the same vision of constructive criticism in order to make each other’s work better. In that light, while it may sting a little to realize I’ve made a mistake, I develop from the insight of others and hone my skills for next time.

For anyone wishing to grow as a writer, I can think of no greater resource or method than a solid, constructive feedback group.

Military Community Writers currently meets every two weeks from 10:30 to 12:30 on Saturday at the Kadena Base Library. Our next meeting is July 29th. Got something to share? Come out and take the plunge with the rest of us.

Ups and Downs

I’ve posted about my word count tracker and daily / monthly / yearly goals in the past, but I haven’t provided an update on that in quite some time… probably because I’m disappointed at the low numbers and slow progress. 

Life has been an airplane in severe turbulence for the last two weeks – rapid descents, attempts to climb out of the bumpy ride, moments of radiance above the storm before another cluster of dark clouds obscure everything else.

I know, everyone has results, or excuses–one or the other, rarely both.

My 18-year-old daughter, our oldest child, just got married a week ago. I’m a jumble of equal parts happy celebration and hopeful concern. The Bee heard all our warnings and listened to all our worries. But she remained determined to move forward, and we decided it would be better to stay supportive and connected than to resist and watch her do whatever she pleases without us being a part of her life.

She and her husband just left the island yesterday to head back to the States, where he will probably enlist in the Air Force soon after their return. That’s awesome and provides some certainty of security. 

Our first of four leaving the nest is, naturally, a painful but necessary process. Wifey and I are working through the emotions and adapting to a new normal.

As I typed this, I was sitting at the base exchange getting ready to sign a bunch of copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Military Families Edition, in which I am a contributing author. I asked for permission to sign and place an origami bookmark in the two or four copies I expected them to put on the shelves–instead, they decided to order 40 and prepare a display. It’s a cool thought that something of my work will be out there for others to see. 

On top of that, they’re crafting plans for a book signing or at least a meet-and-greet with interested customers. As the manager put it, there’s a community connection and an increased value in “I shook this guy’s hand, I talked with the lady who wrote this story.” (There’s another person on Kadena who contributed, so we’re trying to get both of us into the same place at the same time.)

Signing books at the Base Exchange 

The salespeople in charge of books provided enthusiastic help, placing bookmarks, lining up copies for signatures, and snapping pictures for some eventual publicity. They might even work out a radio spot.

Going from celebrating a wedding, to saying farewell to my daughter and her husband, to experiencing a form of success and publicity as a writer–it’s more chaos than a kindergarten class high on candy and Kool-Aid.

A couple days ago, I drove the newlyweds out to a shopping area so they could get some Indian take-out (my daughter’s last chance to eat at her favorite restaurant on Okinawa) and Japanese candy for relatives in the States. “I’ll just hang out at Starbucks while you do your shopping,” I told them. After all, that writing word count was still looking pretty bleak.

“You could come with us to the candy store when we’re waiting for the food,” she suggested. 

It hit me that pretty soon I’ll have all kinds of time to sit in coffee shops, alone with my writing. I wouldn’t get another such opportunity to have time with my daughter for… well, we’ll see how long it ends up being.

Stickerpics with me third-wheeling
Word counts are a tool, a motivational aid meant to track progress toward the overall goal of completed writing projects. But the word count isn’t the be-all/end-all of writing, and writing isn’t everything there is to life. (It hurts a little to type that.) 

What matters more is the conscious choice about what I’m doing with my time. Word counts can help reveal when my efforts are slipping or when I’m succeeding, but sometimes it’s okay to see that string of zeros. Other things are more important. 

It Is Well

I had the privilege of filling in on keys for the base Chapel service last Sunday (and for the next few weeks). The gentleman choosing music picked a song I hadn’t heard before, and it has a bit of a timing shift that makes it non-standard… so I needed to practice more than usual.

This past week, my daughter married her fiancé, and this coming week, she moves back to the States with him in preparation for his enlistment in the Air Force. She’s our oldest child, so this is a huge transition for Mom and me.

The message of this song really ministered to me in the midst of the struggles of accepting drastic changes, and all the bittersweet mixture of celebration for their love and separation from someone we love.

The waves, the wind, and all the storm of emotion within me–all of these still know His name, and know to fall silent when He commands “Peace, be still.”

Through it all, because of Him, it is well with my soul.

Whatever your storm, I hope this ministers to you as it did to me.

Uprooting and Taking Root

I posted this on the new Military Community Writers page, which is a new blog for military-affiliated writers to share experiences, stories, advice, and encouragement. Active duty members, Reservists, National Guardsmen, veterans, retired service members, government employees or contractors connected to a military environment, and dependents of any of the above–all voices are welcome.

Here’s my voice for today:
When we prepared to move back to Okinawa, my kids were dealing with the all-too-frequent hardship of leaving behind their friends. I wrote this free-verse poetry, thinking of the advice I’d rather not give them, even if it applies:

Push those roots down

But not too deep

Widespread roots come up easy

Ripping away some clods of dirt

Leaving a scar on the surface

Which quickly covers over

With new grass


Deep roots don’t come up

Without violent force

Strong hands grasping,

Crushing, straining

Until everything breaks free

Deep roots leave a hole

And a damaged plant


Found a new place for you

A familiar spot to settle in

The ground is soft and moist

The air warm and damp

You’ll grow well here

So push those roots down

But not too deep.


Now, three years later, my daughter is preparing for a new life, marrying the man she loves before he goes off to Basic to join the Air Force. He arrives in a week. They leave a little over a week after that. She’s already packing and planning, excited to see him, worried about forgetting anything essential.


Didn’t I once tell you

That shallow roots were best?

That loose knots untie easier, 

And the hope of what’s ahead

May even shine far brighter

Than the light we leave behind?


Well, I’m sorry, but I lied to you

Or–more truthful–to myself. 

Because there’s no untangling

These roots dug in my heart. 

Only forceful application 

Of a weeding tool or spade

Can separate this budding rose

From all this dry-packed dirt.


And though it feels to me right now 

Like no amount of time gone by 

Will sweep away the scar of absence,

This I also know: 

That neither shall the passing years

Diminish your past presence,

Nor steal the treasured memories

Nor smooth out laugh lines by my eyes

Nor turn the gray hairs back to brown.


And if in my heart there shall remain 

The hole where once you grew and flourished,

Then know that always and forever

There’s a place for you and yours

A welcome mat laid at the door

Even if your stay is brief,

And arms extended to bring in

The luggage you now pack to leave.

Remember Your Training

I’m trying to process the verdict in the case of Philando Castile’s death. With the dashcam video now publicly released, I can only shake my head and wonder how anyone can justify or explain away his shooting.

I’m not a trained officer. I’m totally an armchair quarterback. I’m not privy to all the details revealed in court. It’s easy to second-guess and hindsight is 20-20 and all that

I know every situation is different and no two officers might respond the same to a given encounter. I understand that an officer is at risk and is naturally going to be thinking about how to protect themselves. I am deeply grateful for those who are willing to wear a badge and place themselves in harm’s way to maintain law and order in our society. I want police officers going home to their families at the end of their shifts…

…But I want civilians going home to their loved ones too.

Every situation is different and yet there are videos of white dudes walking around waving guns at police officers, and they don’t end up shot… videos of white guys wrestling cops and reaching for their guns, but they don’t end up choked to death or gunned down at close range… instances of white guys shooting up churches or movie theaters and ending up in cuffs to face trial when other people are sitting in their cars complying with an officer’s instructions and that’s a life-threatening situation.

Again, every situation is different, and I’m not privy to all the details. But I would have to be intentionally blind or ignorant to pretend there’s not an obvious trend toward increased use of force against minorities. Studies show higher use of non-lethal force against minorities is a fact. Incidents of lethal force by the statistics may not be higher but the perception certainly exists and it’s causing distrust between police and the communities they serve.

I saw a video marketing a cheap sleeve that holds all one’s identification and vehicle paperwork. Before an officer approaches the car, you can place that over the door so that everything is readily available, and no reaching for anything is necessary, thus preventing any fear or misunderstanding when you comply with the direction to produce paperwork or identification.

It sounds like an unfortunate necessity after what was done to Castile, who seemingly tried to do everything right.

At some point I feel like we need to ask, how much fear is enough when dealing with a police officer? How compliant must one be? How deferential, how cautious, how meticulous in every response, every motion, every action?

Do civilians – particularly civilians of color – have to behave as if professionally trained for encounters with police? It sure seems that way… and it makes me wonder why it’s not the other way around.

—–

“Remember your training and come back safe

to the land of the free and the home of the brave”

It’s a speech that we save for those fully grown

For soldiers deploying into a war zone

For young men and women just over eighteen

Who experience challenges we’ve never seen

But for far too many, that’s not the first time they’ve heard

Someone giving them warning with similar words

We say all lives matter but it’s clear that they don’t

And we say it gets better but it looks like it won’t

And we hush down the voices loud and outspoken

And we tell them relax, let’s not fix what’s not broken

And we say each encounter has some subtle difference

And we remind the protesters to presume others’ innocence

But the man in the car who did all that was asked of him

Got shot with his daughter in the back seat to witness it

Seems to me there’s a pattern anyone can make out

Clear enough to see beyond all reasonable doubt:

Out playing? Get shot.

Obeying? Get shot.

Run away? Get shot.

Wedding day? Get shot.

Ask why? Get shot.

Comply? Get shot.

Justified? It’s not!

It’s a speech that some give to their kids ‘cause they have to

If you want to live through this, better know what to do

Hands in sight, Sir or Ma’am, be polite, watch your tone

And if you can help it don’t get stopped alone

But maybe live-stream everything from your phone

Otherwise your side might never be known

If it’s your word or theirs, you’re going to to lose

But remember, take care with the actions you choose

‘Cause all they need to say is they feared for their life

And then anything that they do’s justified

So remember your training and come back safe

In this land of the “free” and this home of the “brave”

Finding Allies

Readers: This is a scene I wrote for a character in a tabletop roleplaying game, someone out to do good even if their powers are misunderstood and condemned by society at large.


Fleuris ducked down the alleyway between wooden shops and hawker’s stands near the Quay, weaving her way between the meandering peasants ogling things they could never afford. She shot a glance behind her and caught a glimpse of sunlight sparkling off two shields emblazoned with the six-point sun of Aulivar.

Soulforged—champions of Justice and unwavering bastions of virtue. They’d chased her across mountains and rivers, over leagues and tendays. She’d tried to ditch them in the dark corners of every town and city in the ‘Marches, but still they maintained their pursuit.

Even among their zealous order, few sins earned such relentless retribution as necromancy.

If only they could let me explain… if only they could understand.

Her friends would be waiting at the docks… Trenton strumming his lute and singing a sailor chanty, Galla sharpening her longswords, Hakri meditating and memorizing a fresh array of war-spells. But the three companions wouldn’t be enough by themselves to take on the pirate crew… so Fleuris intended to bring help.

It shouldn’t be far now, and the ritual wouldn’t take long—provided the Order lost the trail along the way. Her prize lay at the edge of Mirelenai’s sprawl of ramshackle buildings and flimsy shanties. The dread pirate Bloodhook the Brutal, Captain of the mighty Dire Shark, scourge of the Bay of Raentallas, lay wrapped in tight sheets in a shallow grave outside the town. After the mutiny, Bloodhook’s crew buried him on land to prevent his spirit from returning to the seas he loved and lorded over—one last spiteful jab at the savage master who had beaten them into submission.

Now the Dire Shark sailed the bay once more, tormenting seafaring merchants and plundering their ships’ holds. The Seamistress would pour out a chest full of gems and gold coins on anyone who sent the Dire Shark to the ocean’s floor.

“Seize that girl!” a voice shouted from much too close behind her. Another shouted, “The Ghostskin in purple,” and Fleuris gasped. She zipped down a narrow walkway that stank like an open sewer, trying not to consider the filth staining the hem of her burgundy skirt. The deep violet cloak wrapped around her wispy frame obscured her face from view, and her gloves of thick, black lace helped hide the tell-tale alabaster skin the Order sought.

She hustled through the dim-lit walkway, headed for the sunlight at the far end. A few paces from the street, she stumbled over an unseen obstacle like a tree root, and glanced down, squinting in the darkness. A body of some poverty-stricken peasant lay slumped against a wall, not yet dead a full tenday, judging by the rate of decay.

Fleuris probed the supernatural realm with her heightened senses and latched onto a glowing spark of life hanging in limbo. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the soul, then again to the body on the ground. She yanked the life force from the ether and shoved it into the corpse, then watched the fruit of her labor.

The body clambered to its feet, loosing a swarm of flies and dropping chunks of flesh. Dead eyes stared at Fleuris, waiting.

She doffed her cloak, threw it over the corpse’s shoulders, and sent it a forceful command. Then she slipped into the crowds on the street, her step calm and sure despite the racing thrash of emotions and the rapid drumbeat in her chest.

After passing a few merchants, Fleuris paused at a tailor’s stand and reached for her coinpurse. “How much for the forest green cloak there,” she asked, “with the silver trim?”

While they exchanged offers and counter-offers, Fleuris caught the glimpse of her violet cloak near the walkway she’d passed through. The animated corpse shambled into the street and lumbered away from her, toward the busy docks at the heart of the town.

Fleuris threw the new garment over her shoulders and clasped the smooth material with a silver brooch under her chin. Then she froze in fear. Two dozen paces away, she spotted the pair of Soulforged from the Order, stomping their way through the crowd toward her.

“Undead!” Someone shouted in the distance, and another voice chimed in. “A walking corpse near the Ragged Sail! To arms!”

Other cries joined the throng, and the two Soulforged halted their approach. Then they dashed toward the commotion, swallowing whole the hook and bait she’d left them.

Fleuris turned her back to them and strode away with as casual a pace as she could muster. This road would curve toward the fields and foothills outside the town. A short walk by the bay in the afternoon breeze would lead to the grove which held Bloodhook’s remains.

Buried on a slope within earshot of the sea, but laid in a grave that faced away from the water… With cruel care, the Dire Shark’s crew had chosen the site of Bloodhook’s final resting place.

Not final, Fleuris corrected herself. He will rise again… I’ll see to that. Though he did nothing to atone for his crimes in life, he shall do much to repay them in death.

After all, Trenton and Galla had asked for allies on their quest. They didn’t specify living allies.

 


Note: This was written and inspired partly by discussions about whether a necromancer in D&D could possibly be considered “good.” My thoughts on the subject are found here, but I’d love to hear yours.

The Means Condemn the End

A post in which I contemplate something related to tabletop roleplaying games. Roll a Wisdom saving throw with a DC of 16; on a failure, you’re a geek (Level 5).

In my recent return to tabletop RPGs, I’ve joined some Facebook groups, discussed ideas with gamer friends, and watched some Youtube videos–both of live-streamed games and thoughts on how to run the game better.

One topic caught my eye: someone suggested the possibility of a “good” necromancer character, which triggered a lot of discussion. Shortly after reading the back-and-forth, I chatted with a co-worker about an upcoming group. “I’m thinking necromancer,” she said, which led to further discussion of the idea. The next day, I spotted a panel of experienced players covering a variety of topics, including:

Is necromancy inherently evil?

If you’re not familiar with games like Dungeons & Dragons, first off, it’s not the gilded double-door into a witches’ coven or a neon-lit path into Satanism. Players take on the role of a hero or heroine in a fantasy setting: perhaps the beefy fighter or barbarian (think Aragorn, Eowyn or Conan), or a bearded wizard (Gandalf or Dumbledore). Maybe they choose a stealthy rogue or burglar (Bilbo Baggins, maybe Arya Stark) or someone with the power to heal (Elrond or Galadriel). One person plays the rest of the fantasy world… everything from the squire polishing armor to the great personalities like Jamie Lannister, Queen Cersei, and King Joffrey… all the bad guys, from the unnamed scrub Bandit #3 to the White Walkers to Ramsay Bolton and even Danaerys’ dragons.

In a game like this, monsters lurk around every corner, many of them with civilized faces to mask their dark hearts. In a game like this (usually), magic is real and so are the gods and goddesses who grant divine power to their faithful.

In a game like this, a wizard or other magic-user might even learn how to raise the dead and command the skeletons or zombies produced to fight for him or her.


It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you know all that already, so I’ll stop explaining the concepts and get back to the question:

Can there be such a thing as a “good” necromancer?

In other words, like the title suggests, in a game like D&D, are there some methods or powers that you cannot possibly justify using for noble purposes?

I flipped on the YouTube video of the discussion panel and skipped to the part about necromancy, hoping for some unique twists to add to my own ideas. To my surprise, all the participants shot the idea down without hesitation.

The best argument pointed out that in all societies, grave-robbing and defiling burial grounds are strongly forbidden and frowned upon. It’s kind of a universal rule. That being the case, one expects some severe consequences for any necromancer–a person who uses magic to animate the dead bodies of ancestors or loved ones. I think that’s a valid point and a consideration for how other characters in-game would interact with such an oddity. Fair point.

But then it devolved to “That’s just boring, lame character building.”  “A necromancer is evil just like paladins are lawful good.”  “It doesn’t make any sense–why in the would she do this?” One guy’s whole argument was “Necromancers are evil, because I ran a game with a guy who played one as the stereotypical ‘muahaha I shall make a city of undead and rule over it.’ And that dude was a jerk–I mean, apart from being a necromancer, he just was a bad person in game.”

I strongly disagree with all of these points, and not just because the idea of the good necromancer inspired a character and some creative writing. (I posted a scene with Fleuris earlier.)

I also think these points are poor arguments. So let me tackle these in order:

Good Necromancer is boring. Lame character building. 

Sure, if you want to create something that follows cookie-cutter norms. I suppose “the generous thief” or “the intelligent barbarian” or “the conflicted paladin” would also be lame.

Playing a character that doesn’t quite fit a stereotype–or rather, outright challenges it–can lead to fantastic role-playing moments.

In my first campaign, I had a player who rolled random dice for every decision about the character he was making. He ended up a Dwarf Paladin of Nature… something that doesn’t really fit the standard fantasy tropes. It made his backstory come alive–an outcast from his clan because of his strange religious views, a perfect ally to the husband and wife pair of elf rangers in the party, a hero with a cause to champion and built-in conflict a DM can exploit–er… use to craft interesting encounters.

Similarly, I had a player running a rogue in one campaign who, on our downtime, would tell me what his character was doing in the city. While his allies were off pursing personal goals and looking for leads on the next big score, the rogue would donate half his earnings to the orphanage that took him in as a child, and volunteer time with the kids. No one knew this was going on “in game” because it happened in messages and emails. His party members even got to the point of joking about how “you know how the rogues are, always sneaking some money and pick pocketing their way through the market.” But he played the most generous and selfless character I’ve seen in a campaign.

Yeah, playing against type is super lame. Don’t do it.

Of course there may be role-playing consequences. Not everyone will welcome a necromancer with open arms. Not everyone will buy the idea that “I’m using these powers for good.” But that’s all part of the fun and the conflict which makes RPGs great.

A necromancer is automatically evil, like paladins are automatically good.

One flaw in that statement: Depending on the edition of the game, paladins aren’t inherently good. If you’re devoted to an evil or chaotic deity, you probably lean toward Chaotic or Evil alignments. If a “good” deity can grant their champions powers and favor, so can a bad one. Paladins are just a mechanic for describing a warrior who is committed to a cause and blessed with divine power to pursue that cause.

Similarly, necromancy is a tool… one traditionally associated with evil, perhaps, but still a tool. But this logic is lost on some. One of the DMs in the YouTube video actually argued as follows:

“It just doesn’t make sense. Here you are, going after the evil necromancer, and the guy walking along next to you is a necromancer?”

The flaw in that logic is revealed when you substitute any class or archetype for “necromancer.” There are evil wizards, but the party doesn’t kill their resident magic-user before fighting an evil wizard. An evil cleric or assassin might be the villain in an encounter, but that doesn’t make the party cleric or rogue a villain.

Magic, like any class power, is a tool. How one uses it communicates more than the nature of the tool. A paladin who curb-stomps defenseless enemies because “they’re bad guys” isn’t what we’d call good. A necromancer that uses her powers to protect others and serve a noble cause shouldn’t be what we call bad.

It doesn’t make any sense.

For one, you’re in a fantasy setting. Nothing makes sense. Someone is channeling power into their weapon to deliver a blast of radiant power that damages the enemy. Someone else is waving their hands and becoming a human flame-thrower. Another person communes with supernatural entities that grant her otherworldly powers. But the necromancer trying to do something heroic? That, sir, is where I draw the line!

Necromancy used for “good” absolutely makes sense… if we try to consider how that can work. Imagine the noble who tells his subjects, “Our ancestors fought to establish this kingdom against all odds, spilling their very blood on the rocks where our city’s walls now stand. And now they return, ready to stand beside us, once again willing to take up arms against those who threaten all they worked to build!”

Imagine the party member whose personal quest, like Fleuris, is to find and raise the bodies of infamous villains or evildoers as part of their penance for their sins. Is it twisted, misguided, a little off? Yeah–and that’s what makes it great!

Guns don’t kill people, my horde of skeletal minions kill people.

Needless to say, I fall right into the camp that deems necromancy an amoral (okay maybe highly questionable) practice where what matters most is the end result. Use it to establish your undead army and create a necropolis to rule over? Evil. Use it to cleanse the necropolis and eliminate a growing threat to the nearby kingdom of goodly peoples? Good.

As in all things D&D, creativity and fun are what matter most. I’m having fun imagining Fleuris and the sorts of situations she might find herself in. I hope others are inspired to take a trope and turn it on its head… then run with it and see where the story leads.

What do you think?

Am I off course? Am I missing some key point? Let me know in a comment; I’d love to hear your point of view.