Your Gods Are Stupid

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At long last, I’m going to fix this stupid tree.

Before we begin: what follows is a discussion of the gods as they appear in Skyrim and other fantasy settings. It is not to be taken as a discussion of any real-world religions or deities.

In fantasy settings like that of the Elder Scrolls, the gods are presented as nearly omnipotent and omniscient forces. Mortals worship these beings because they are not only far more powerful than any mortal, but they are supposedly smarter and wiser.

What if we have this backwards? What if the gods are actually pretty dumb by human standards? What if they deserve our worship not in spite of but because of their limited mental capacity? What if this totally ties into what I’ve been saying about lagom and Aemilian’s current adventure in Skyrim?

So many questions, and way too much time.

The Will of the Goddess

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Now that I acquired the magic knife from the hagraven, I need to go cut some sap from Kynareth’s sacred tree. Maurice Jondrelle, a pilgrim, asks to accompany me.

Every time Aemilian visited the Temple of Kynareth in Whiterun, his attention fell on the lavender blooms growing in neat rows between columns and pools of clear water. If someone noticed his gaze, he could make something up about how the delicate purple petals represented the balance of nature and the grace of the goddess, and that was what drew him to them.

Truth was, he saw only alchemical ingredients, and his fingers itched to snatch a flower or two while nobody was looking.

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Before we set out, I catch up on some reading. Finally I know what that lake by my house is named: Lake Ilinalta.

Would Kynareth be displeased by his thoughts? Was he supposed to revere nature as an end in itself, appreciating the beauty of the plant as it grew? Or, by putting the plant to use, taking the gifts of nature and creating something beautiful from them, had he achieved a higher worship than those who only observed the plant?

These would probably be good questions to put to Danica Pure-Spring, the local priestess, but she was occupied. An Imperial man stood before her, hands on his hips, professing himself to be a pilgrim and proclaiming his disappointment at finding the sacred tree dying.

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Got my own little fellowship going.

With a sidelong glance at Rayya, who only shrugged, Aemilian cleared his throat and approached the haggard priestess and her indignant supplicant.

“I was actually hoping to do something about that.”

Single-Issue Deity

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On the way I find the Ritual Stone, and a needlessly territorial necromancer.

Since we’re already talking religion, I might as well throw some politics on this ideological tinderbox. I’ve never known how to feel about single-issue voters–say, someone who will vote for the candidate that is for gay marriage, or the one who wants to lower taxes, regardless of how they fall on any other issue. On the one hand I can respect that: they know what’s really important to them and they take a stand for it. On the other hand, how much evil can you justify a politician doing as long as he gives you what you want?

In fantasy settings, including Skyrim, the gods are claimed to be super-intelligent and complex, yet what they represent can be summed up in a handful of words: nature, or protecting the weak, or logic and magic, or whatever the hell Talos actually represents depending on who you ask. The point is, the gods come off as having the logical capacity of a hungry five-year-old. “I want food!” “But we’re eating with friends in an hour.” “I want food.” “You should learn to be patient.” “I want food!”

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This is farther east than I’ve ever ventured, and the journey is only beginning. Who knows what lays ahead.

A discussion with Kynareth might go the same way. “What is your will, Goddess?” “SERVE NATURE.” “Okay, but we need to cut down some trees to make you a temple, is that okay?” “SERVE NATURE.” “Do I have to serve nature all the time, or can I take weekends off?” “SERVE NATURE.”

Though some people might disagree–my apologies–I think it’s generally accepted that nature itself does not have a grand plan or destiny. Nature simply does nature. As the embodiment of nature, it follows that Kynareth simply does nature too. Moral quandaries and rational arguments are beyond her. The point of nature is nature, and you should nature because nature. What we would call stupidity in one of our own is what makes Kynareth the most pure representative of nature. Because of our intelligence, we cannot escape questions about what nature really means or really should mean, or how we should weigh what’s best for nature against what’s best for humanity.

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Okay, I guess I could have guessed what lay ahead. More bandits.

Due to our genius, we are incapable of comprehending the simplest truths. That’s what makes the gods, figurative or literal, valuable to us. I will never understand nature the way Kynareth does, but by reflecting on Kynareth, I can borrow some of her understanding when it comes time to make decisions.

The Lagom Identity

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I don’t want to pay the toll, but I don’t want fight them either. Time to make a run for it.

Lagom applies to a lot of practical situations, like shopping and work-life balance, but it can also apply to how you see yourself. We’ve talked before about finding your real-world tribe or “faction” by identifying your most core values.

Let’s throw the principle of lagom into the mix. What does it look like to have not too few and not too many core values? Start be looking for the lowest common denominators among your values. Earlier, I talked about how I value both travel and diversity, and I could boil those down to a general value of difference.

I also found I could reduce my loves of gaming and fitness to a love of self-improvement. Can I reduce further? I suppose I could. Self-improvement implies change, which is becoming different than you already are, so I could say both self-improvement and difference stem from the fact I value change. Change doesn’t resonate with me the same way either self-improvement or difference do, however.

Breaking these values down into more distinct values makes them less useful, and so does reducing them further. These are lagom values. Once you identify these values, reflect on them without binding yourself to them. Like Kynareth, you might revere nature, but if there’s a wildfire–an expression of nature–you would still fight it if it threatened your community. Yet day-to-day, making nature a priority keeps you aligned with your purpose.

I like diversity of both people and experience, and keeping that in the forefront of my mind keeps me from getting stuck in a rut. Still, it’s okay for me to go through a period of sameness every now and then, as long as I’m conscious of the fact I’m doing it and why.

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That was close. Hey, where’d Maurice get to?

Speaking of core values….

There’s a reason I’ve been thinking so much about tribes and values. When I started Desdenada, it was because I recognized that I belong to a very, very small tribe, and if I want to find other people like me, I’ll have to be proactive about it. Since the beginning I’ve had a handful of “Desdenada Core Values” in mind, though they, like Desdenada itself, are a work in progress. The first one, at least, is pretty set in my mind. It’s the value that spawned the Ridiculously Slow Let’s Play to begin with.

So come back next time as we discuss why Desdenada is ridiculously slow.

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Lagom in Skyrim

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A place to call home.

More than anything, I’m defined by my irrational loves. My adoration of waterfalls, for example. Man do I love me a good waterfall. Some of these loves are almost half-rational: I like life principles that come in the form of foreign words without literal English translations. A few of my favorite examples include ikigai (the passion defines you) and momento mori (a true awareness of your own inevitable death). Judging by the number of hygge books I’m seeing on the shelves lately, I’m not alone in my absurd obsession.

I say this love is half-rational because there is some merit to it. Learning the valued principals of other cultures can obviously improve your life. The irrational part is that I value these principals over other objectively valuable principals, and I can’t pinpoint a clear reason why.

Anyway. In accordance with the Ridiculously Slow Skyrim Let’s Play, I’ve been delving into the concept of lagom lately. Lagom is a Swedish word which expresses their twist on a more general Nordic concept, and can be roughly translated to mean “not too much and not too little”. Real-life Nords apply this concept to all areas of live, but what about the Nords of Skyrim?

Before we get into that, I’m trying something different with the actual let’s play aspect of this. You’ll see in a moment–just bear with me.

Stone by Quarried Stone

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Not as dramatic as killing draugr, but more fulfilling.

“How many more?” Aemilian rested the head of his pickaxe on the damp grass and leaned on it as he wiped the sweat from his brow. Rayya, his new housecarl, collected the stones he had struck from the face of the cliff and stacked them near the plot they had marked out earlier.

“Three or four more about that size,” Rayya said, nudging a stray rock toward the pile. “That should do it, my Thane.”

Aemilian closed his eyes, savoring the cool breeze rolling across his bow. He was anxious about what awaited him in the winter of this cold northern province, but in moments like this he didn’t miss the scorching heat of Hammerfell.

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Nothing like a long day spent working with your hands.

A shadow passed over him and he started, grasping for his bow which lay nearby. Then he relaxed, chuckling at his own anxiety. No dragon circled in the heavens; only an eagle high above, the king of its own quiet realm.

His senses momentarily heightened by adrenaline, Aemilian noticed the birds chirping in the trees, the faint smell of wildflowers on the breeze, and the distant lapping waves of the lake down the hill. The Graybeards of High Hrothgar, the priestess of Kynareth in Whiterun, and everyone else who needed something from him felt far more distant than that eagle up above, and far less important.

He had his land, and the company of a new friend. He had his work, and it was neither more nor less than he needed. With a quiet grin, Aemilian picked up his pickaxe and set to work.

Lagom with Your Hands

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Finally put on a roof. More importantly, for an aspiring alchemist: a garden.

Maybe the best way to understand the general principle of lagom is to work up from specific examples. Building your own house, as Aemilian has begun to do, is very lagom for several reasons. Most of us don’t have this luxury, but we can apply the principles to our lives.

The first principle is a case of me preaching what I don’t yet practice. Several times lately I’ve come across very smart and successful people praising the activity of building something with your own hands. For too long I’ve thought of the arts as fairly interchangeable: you can find full artistic expression from music or woodworking or, in my case, writing. I’m beginning to believe that everyone should practice at minimum two arts: one mental and one physical.

I know I’m about to go full old-man, but these days manual labor is underappreciated. We can build machines that do most kinds of manual labor better than a human, and we can build machines to build those machines. Doing the work with your own hands is inefficient and pointless–from a strictly utilitarian point of view, but then so is playing video games or watching TV. I’d be a hypocrite if I told you to incorporate some manual labor into your life when I currently have none, so I’m going to look into fixing that and report back.

Personal Lagom Space

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The secret to a lagom home: stick to the essentials.

The other thing that makes building your own house so lagom is it allows you to tailor your environment from the ground up. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to do that, you can still take a look at your current living space and make whatever improvements you can.

You can’t assert lagom on the outside world. You’ll always be surrounded by chaos and movement. That’s why our friends the Swedes are so careful about constructing their home environments. If you create a balanced, nurturing living space, you can carry those balanced, nurturing feelings with you out in the world.

Creating a perfectly lagom living space is way too broad to cover completely, but even incorporating some basics can have a surprisingly powerful effect. The key: less is more. Try putting a single flower in your vase instead of a whole bouquet. Instead of an overwhelming sensory experience, your mind has space to appreciate the beauty of a simple object.

A lot of Westerners will shrink at this kind of minimalism, but it’s not about denying your materialistic impulses, I promise. It’s about having two jackets that you absolutely love rather than twelve that are kind of okay.

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After a hard-earned break, it’s time to return to Whiterun and continue the adventure.

That’s just a taste of what lagom has in store, and how it’s expressed in Skyrim. Next time we’ll talk about lagom, identity, and religion in Skyrim.

More simply: we’ll talk about why the gods are pretty stupid.

The Essentials of Skyrim

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The essence of Skyrim is these neat mountains.

English major and linguistics nerd that I am, I mentioned the shifting meaning of the word “essential” last time. These days we use it to mean “necessary”. If you want to start a new hobby, you can usually buy some sort of “essential bundle” that will have everything you need to get started.

Originally, essential referred to the “essence” of something. On reflection, the meaning of the word hasn’t really changed; it’s used in a backwards fashion. Let’s you buy an “essential painter’s bundle” that comes with a brush, some paints, a palette, and some medium on which to paint. This is the minimum amount of items you need to start painting.

What if we reverse the logic? If you are moving paint from a palette to a surface using a brush, we would say you are essentially painting (there’s a point to all this, bare with me). Instead of “I want to paint, therefore I need these materials” we can say “I am using these materials, therefore I am painting”.

Discovering your own essence is as simple as taking an inventory of your own internal materials, and extrapolating what activity you are doing.

What’s that? I’m not making any sense? Well, good thing we have Skyrim to illustrate.

Warriors of a Different Nature

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Seriously? We’re not even going to mention the talking dog in the body of the post? Fine. I’ll have to take things into my own hands.

The defining characteristic of the Companions is that they are warriors. Or is it?

The Imperial Legion, the Vigil of Stendarr, and the sworn enemies of the Companions, the Silver Hand, are all warrior orders, but they’re all quite distinct from the Companions. You could point out the obvious: the Companions are also werewolves, and the Silver Hand is dedicated to destroying werewolves. That’s an important distinction, but I think it goes deeper. If you took away the werewolves, there would still be differences.

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It was on the lonely, misty road outside Falkreath that I met Barbas. The dog’s voice echoed within my very mind as he beseeched me to help him find his master. Across hill and dale he led, and so I followed.

It’s not that the Companions just happen to be werewolves also. To advance in their ranks, it is required that you accept the gift. The Silver Hand doesn’t hate werewolves for aesthetic reasons; they hate what werewolves represent. That’s the key. Even if the Companions had never become werewolves, they would still require their members to display certain attributes to enter their inner circle–probably roughly the same attributes possessed by someone who would choose to become a werewolf.

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Near the foot of the Throat of the World we came upon Haemar’s Shame–a snowy cave, reeking of death.

The Companions emphasize honor and integrity, but they’re still sellswords. They accept what is animalistic, even monstrous, within ourselves. The Imperial Legion fights to restore peace, but the Companions base their livelihood on the assumption that there will always be war and that it is good and right to make a living through violence. Werewolves are strong and deadly, so from a utilitarian point of view any warrior order should embrace the gift. Yet most warriors dream of one day going home to their families and living in peace–a dream at odds with lycanthropy.

That differentiates the Silver Hand from the Vigil, too. The Vigil hunts daedra, an external monstrous threat. By going after werewolves, the Silver Hand betray their deepest fear: they despise what is monstrous about humanity. In a world where there were no werewolves, the Companions would still embrace their wild, violent nature, and the Silver Hand would still be disgusted by them.

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Vampires set upon us from the shadows, but Barbas and I persevered.

Returning to the original analogy: Companions are men and women who took an inventory of themselves and discovered a wild nature, an honorable heart, and a competitive spirit. What the brush is to painting, a wild nature is to being a Companion.

Who Are You Really?

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At last I met the dog’s master: Clavicus Vile, the Daedric Prince of Trickery. He bid me to retrieve his ax from a cave far to the north. Yeah, it might be a while.

Last time I determined some of my defining characteristics to be that I’m a gamer, I like to be physically fit, I love to travel, and I support diversity. I’ve mentioned several times, though, that I often don’t fit in with other gamers or with bodybuilders. By finding my own essence, I hope to find out why.

Diversity is a fairly fundamental belief already, but it can be reduced even farther: I think that differences are good and healthy. This applies to differences in general, not just between races, genders, etc. Right away, I feel this is the essence behind my wanderlust, too: what is the point of travel if not to see some place that’s different from where you’ve been?

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Officially becoming Thane of Falkreath, I receive a new housecarl. Rayya is a Redguard, like me.

When you start thinking in terms of essence, it’s obvious that not all gamers would get along: somebody who spends hours each day exploring the nooks and crannies of Skyrim doesn’t necessarily have much in common with somebody who likes to have a few beers and play Call of Duty with their buddies on the weekends (I’m not disparaging either of these by the way, I have been both).

I do prioritize games with a good story or a beautiful world to explore, so at first that feels like the essence of being a gamer for me. But I can satisfy those needs by reading books and watching movies–and when I do, I still feel the urge to game. There has to be something more. I like playing games on high difficulties, so maybe it’s my competitive side? Except I get annoyed when gamers get too competitive, and in fact that’s something I don’t care about in fitness, either. I like beating my own personal records when I’m running or lifting, but never give a thought to how I stack up to anyone else.

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DRAGON!!

There it is: I like getting good at games, but I don’t care about being better than someone else. It’s not competition that drives me; it’s something that nobody who has seen my bookshelf dominated by Tim Ferriss and other gurus would be surprised by: self-improvement. The most competitive gamers I know are slow to try a new game; they would rather stay where they know they are the best than risk being bad at something new.

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Shor’s bones….TWO DRAGONS!!

On the other hand, I love starting a new game. When I get too good at one game, I can’t get any higher and bet bored. When I try something new and I’m terrible at it, the sky is the limit. This is also likely the essence of why fitness appeals to me.

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Don’t panic, one of them flew away.

If you thought I was going to pinpoint my essence to day, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Soul-searching can take a little longer than one thousand-word blog post. I have a good start, though: I like to improve myself for its own sake and I like experiencing different things and people.

Meanwhile, I should have given you enough to start your own analysis. So the question stands: who are you, really?

I’ve done three posts on this topic and each one went way longer than I intended. There’s clearly more work to be done here, and we’ll come back to it soon. Meanwhile, we’ll be taking a detour into some good old Nordic wisdom.

A Word from Aemilian

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Y’all act you never seen a dragon before.

I’ve been keeping my actual game experiences brief for now, since I’ve been talking about the Companions but not actually following their storyline for now. When you ban yourself from using fast travel, you tend to focus on what’s nearby, not what’s thematically relevant. Don’t worry, though, it links back up next time.

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Anyway, let’s go check out that land I bought.

Anyway, Aemilian got involved with another Daedric Prince and killed another dragon. Check back next time for something truly epic: carpentry.

You Should Join Our Club

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Skyrim might consist mostly of killing bandits, but you can count on a nice view while you do so.

Identifying yourself as part of a real-life faction, as we talked about yesterday, may have a bad connotation for some people. Growing up, we all watched and read a variety of stories designed to teach us that cliques and labels are bad. My favorite movie, Fight Club, is about how the titular club is ultimately destructive. In my opinion, groups can be bad, but can also be good. They’re a tool, and like weapons or necromancy, their morality depends on those who wield them.

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Classy.

Maybe weapons and necromancy are bad examples. Let’s pretend I said hammers and motor vehicles.

Anyway, why should you join a club or feel the need to label yourself? Why not just be yourself?

Death of the Monomer

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This might be my best shot of Whiterun, taken at night when you can barely see it.

Skyrim’s lore can sometimes feel a little flat, but something I love about it is that the lore is disputed in-world. In a lot of fantasy worlds, the assumption is that everything the character learns about the setting is true. In Skyrim, we have to rely on unreliable in-world sources, rather than the creator telling us what really happened.

A result is that we don’t know exactly how the world’s races evolved. That said, all the accounts seem to agree that all the races of Mer–or elves–came from one race. Originally, every member of this race belonged to a single society; they all could be expected to hold similar beliefs and participate in a similar culture, and they were unified in their conflict with the world’s other dominant races, Men and Beastmen.

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Nice waterfall, though.

Then the race of Mer began to fragment. Altmer, Bosmer, Dwemer, and Chimer (now Dunmer) became distinct peoples. At best, their cultures were foreign to each other. At worst, they became enemies and went to war. At this point, they could identify each other by distinct racial characteristics, but as these races continued to spread out, they formed different kingdoms and identities. Now even one Dwemer couldn’t count on another Dwemer being a friend or sharing in their beliefs.

If they keep making Elder Scrolls games, maybe they’ll eventually reach a modern-day setting and the Mer (and other races) will experience what we are experiencing now: the complete and total death of the monoculture. Today, you can’t use race or nationality to determine someone’s identity (some people unfortunately think differently). You can’t rely on where they live or where they come from. Even social labels are becoming less useful. I would call myself a Nerd but I’m not into Lord of the Rings; I would call myself a gamer but I never played Zelda.

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Main Story Quest–my old friend.

This is good, overall: it’s great that people have the freedom to be themselves, and healthy to interact with people with all kinds of beliefs and interests. Still, it can be nice to know people like you. I love talking about my nerdy interests, and I can’t do that with just anyone. I tried hanging out with the Nerds in high school, but found myself frustrated by their disinterest the world outside of books and video games. I tried hanging out with the Preps and Jocks, but had nobody to talk about A Song of Ice and Fire with (ironically, they’re all watching Game of Thrones now, but I digress).

We live in the Internet Age now, and the pool of potential friends you can make is slightly larger than my high school of three-hundred people (I basically come from Rorikstead). That gives you the freedom to define yourself into a much more specific niche. My niche of “nerds who work out and travel a lot” might only appeal to one person in a million, but that means my group still has a potential seven thousand people in it (more or less, not everyone in the world has the internet yet and there are language barriers to consider).

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You can’t be too careful.

By identifying yourself or your faction with a good label, you stand a much better chance of finding your tribe.

Essential Companions

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I still have PTSD from the first time we met.

Before you find your tribe, you need to identify what you’re looking for. A good start is to identify things you’re interested in: I like video games, exercise, travel, and literature. You can add to this important beliefs: I’m somewhat of a libertarian and nihilist, diversity is a high priority to me, and I prefer werewolves to vampires.

I could combine all these into a very specific niche: a faction of libertarian nihilists who game, work out, travel, support diversity, read a lot, and are open to accepting the gift of lycanthropy. This group would be unnecessarily narrow, though: those are all important parts of my identity, but not all of them matter to me in my friends. A quick, easy way to narrow down the list is to think of the most important people in your life and consider which values don’t apply to them.

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The sweet taste of victory, and some nightshade to boot.

My girlfriend and occasional contributor to this blog, Venezia, is a good test for me. She’s all-aboard Team Vampire, so clearly that belief isn’t too important to me. Her political views sometimes differ from mine, and she’s more open to ideas like destiny. She strongly supports diversity, though. I can be close with people with different political and religious beliefs, but I probably couldn’t be friends with a racist.

Venezia shares (possibly surpasses) my interest in literature and loves to travel. She wasn’t much of a gamer before I met her but has gotten into it. The sticking point is that she dislikes exercise. This makes me question the validity of my own test, because I consider physical fitness to be very important to me. But then I thought about it a little deeper: a few months ago we took a trip to Machu Picchu, completing some very demanding hikes, and she enjoyed it. She also tries to eat healthy. She just isn’t into bodybuilding or exercise for its own sake.

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How many holds can you be a thane in before it becomes a conflict of interest?

So fitness is important to me, but not in the way that I thought. This isn’t to say I couldn’t be friends with someone who isn’t in shape, but ideally I want to have friends who are capable of doing things I love, like hiking. I like the idea of having friends to go to the gym with, too, but it isn’t as important.

Fitness, gaming, reading, travel, and diversity make the cut, but we’re not done. To really define your faction, you can reduce your interests and beliefs into essential values. Essential in its original meaning: what is the essence of your beliefs and interests? The in-game Campanions faction was the basis for this discussion, so we’ll start by analyzing their essential values.

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No house, just land. Call me what’s-his-name from the Notebook, because Imma build it myself.

But this post is already way too long, so it looks like this topic will be a three-parter.

Moderately Difficult Witches

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Man, I really like Falkreath.

Speaking of essential values: early in my playthrough I defined my character, Aemilian, as a worshiper of nature and devotee of Kyne. I accepted a quest from a priestess of Kynareth to retrieve an enchanted dagger from a hagraven…and failed. The hagraven and her coven of witches, on Legendary difficulty, proved too much for me at the time.

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Especially at night.

After improving my combat skills a little by questing with the Companions, and picking up a follower, I decided to try my luck again. It was still very challenging, but at last, I triumphed.

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Hey look, a talking dog.

Playing the game slowly, and on the highest difficulty, made the victory much more meaningful in the end.

Gods of Nature: Niches upon Niches

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While Aemilian finds a place in the Companions, let’s find our place in real life.

You’ve probably heard about finding your niche. It’s one of those phrases, like “enabling synergy”, that’s thrown about by people who don’t really know what it means just because it sounds businessy. Don’t get me wrong; if you do know what it means, it is an extremely effective business strategy. But we’re not here to talk about finding your niche in business. We’re here to talk about finding your niche in life.

Kynareth and Hircine

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Man, I’m bumping into werewolves everywhere these days.

I’m new to the Elder Scrolls universe, so forgive me if I mangle some of the lore–but as I understand it, the Aedra/Divines and the Daedra/Demons, and their worshipers, are generally opposed to one another. Even if you favor one divine in particular, such as Akatosh or Dibella, you probably accept and revere the rest of the Divines as well (except Talos, but that’s a whole other issue). However, worshiping one or all of the Divines (especially Stendarr) seems to pit you against all of the Daedra. Meanwhile, the Daedra seem to have more individual cults–worshipers of Azura aren’t necessarily fond of Vaermina–but worshiping any one of them seems to preclude worship of the Divines.

All this is to say Aemilian is something of an outlier. He reveres nature above all, and pays equal homage to Kynareth, the Goddess of the Sky, and Hircine, the Lord of the Hunt.

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What are the chances a bunch of draugr DON’T jump out at me when I steal this ancient artifact?

The first step in finding your niche in life is looking beyond the niches that already exist. Growing up, I had a lot of trouble figuring out where I fit in. I considered myself unfortunate at the time, but now I’m actually grateful that I was forced to define myself on my own terms at such a young age. I’ve always been a nerd, but I’ve always loved the outdoors and being active, too. If your high school was anything like mine, you’ll understand why a kid who liked playing World of Warcraft and liked going to parties didn’t quite fit into any of the existing cliques.

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Oh, well that explains all the werewolves.

This isn’t going to be an indictment of groups and labels. In a moment, we’ll discuss how those can be useful. It’s fine to be a Gamer or Bohemian or a Millennial, but defining yourself too much by a group or label can be limiting. That’s where Desdenada came from in the first place. I’m definitely a Gamer/Nerd/Geek, but never seem to fit in with people who identify as Gamers/Nerds/Geeks.

Let’s say I lived in Skyrim, and opened a “Temple of Nature” but wasn’t clear on my reverence of both Kynareth and Hircine. I’d attract worshipers of each god and cause all kinds of conflict. I’d attract a much smaller crowd by opening a “Temple of Kynareth and Hircine”, but it would be the crowd I’m actually looking for.

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DRAGON!!

I’m still trying to figure out what to label the niche I want to attract with Desdenada. One thing’s for sure: if I billed Desdenada as a “gaming blog” or a “self-improvement blog”, I’d attract a lot of visitors who would be annoyed and confused by all the gaming or self-improvement content, respectively.

If my content doesn’t appeal to any existing groups, it looks like I’m going to have to define a new group.

Faction Quests

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It was a team effort.

Back when I started my Ridiculously Slow Skyrim Let’s Play, I was toying with making real-life quests for myself. That sort of got usurped by the Skyrim Life Skills thing, but I’ll definitely get back to it at some point. I got as far as the first kind of quest, the Main Quest. The next kind was going to be Faction Quest.

If you’ve been following Aemilian’s adventures for at least a few posts, you’re familiar with my gleeful scorn for all things Main Story Quest. Conversely, I (for the most part) love the game’s factions and their associated quests, which are home to some of the game’s best and most engaging stories and characters. In my play through, Aemilian just joined the Companions, which we’ll dive into in a moment.

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FIRE BREATH!!

The real-life equivalent of a Faction Quest is something you do in alignment with the interests of some group larger than yourself. It could be a real group, such as Doctors without Borders, whose mission you want to advance. It could also be more abstract. Maybe you want to align yourself with the faction of “people who wake up early to go running”.

It might sound silly, but we are social creatures. You can set a rational goal like “I want to run to be healthy”, but somehow it can be far more effective to set the goal of “being like those people who run in the morning”. Humanity evolved in an environment where belonging to and being accepted by a tribe was literally a matter of life and death, and our psychology is still wired that way. If you can convince yourself that your tribe is “people who break a sweat before the sun comes up”, you’ll trick your brain into thinking your morning run is a matter of life and death (ironically, telling yourself “I should go running because if I don’t I’ll eventually become unhealthy and die” doesn’t have the same effect).

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Yes I got your stupid broken sword piece, did he by any chance mention the DRAGON?

Aligning yourself with a faction, even an imaginary one, has benefits. The more specific the faction, the better. Let’s talk about the Companions. The Five-Hundred Companions of Ysgramor were the first Nords to settle in Skyrim. After the death of the legendary warrior Ysgramor, the Companions kept up their warrior traditions, training generation after generation in the ways of honor and combat. And, secretly, converting generation after generation into werewolves. The game could have had one faction of warriors and another faction of werewolves, but it blends them together and presents them as a package deal: if you want to continue with the Companions, you’d better be prepared to accept their Gift (as a Hircine worshiper, this wasn’t a problem for me). Someone who wants to be a warrior but not a werewolf, or a werewolf but not a warrior, might be frustrated by the Companions. Someone like me, who loves both, will be thrilled. That’s the tradeoff, and the whole point, of a niche: it’s a better experience for less people.

This discussion continues tomorrow. Let’s do a quick check-in with Aemilian.

A Company of Wolves

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I was holding out for a house in Falkreath, but she needs a roof over her head sooner rather than later.

As discussed above, Aemilian’s been busy trying to join the Companions. I was sent out with a senior member to prove myself by recovering a piece of an ancient sword. During an ambush, the Companion, Farkas, was forced to reveal himself to be a werewolf. Farkas then told me our attackers were part of the Silver Hand, a group dedicating to killing werewolves and other monsters.

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This one should do.

Shortly after retrieving the sword fragment, we were again ambushed–by a dragon. With the help of Farkas and some patrolling guards, I felled it, absorbed its soul, and unlocked the Fire Breath shout.

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Make yourself at home, I’m going to go kill some bandits in a cave.

Back in Whiterun, I met an orphan, Lucia, who asked me if I could adopt her. I wanted to, but had to buy a house first–which I did. Then I set out to kill some bandits in a cave, and then to kill some more bandits in a mine–the task set before me by the Jarl of Falkreath. Finally, I turned my horse toward Oprhan Rock. When I began this play through, I encountered an early failure when the witches and hagravens of Orphan Rock (on legendary difficulty) proved too challenging.

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Maybe I’ll kill some bandits in a mine while I’m at it.

It’s time to try again.

Overlooked Mage Skills

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No Daedric Princes today. Every now and then you just gotta tie up loose ends, you know?

Now don’t go castin’ yer fancy spellcraft ’round these parts, ya hear?

Okay, Nords may not have Southern accents–in fact you can tell by their name alone they’re literally the opposite of Southern–but that sums up the attitude of most of Skyrim’s inhabitants toward magic. If you want to learn new spells, you have to travel to the College in the kingdom’s far northeastern reaches. This struck me as odd at first: cultural bias is one thing, but you live in a world where you can literally turn your enemies to ash by waving your hands around. Who would opt out of that kind of power on principle?

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On the way to Rorikstead I discovered what looks like an ancient Nord barrow, but couldn’t find an entrance. Weird.

Thinking a little deeper, I realized it parallels real life, albeit on a smaller, less dramatic scale. Maybe you can’t learn to summon dremora by practicing mindfulness, but I’m surprised how easily and completely meditation and yoga are dismissed considering the massive benefits they can have on your life. Don’t worry if you’re not into “spiritual” practices–I’m not talking about that, although there is that too if you’re open to it. In the same way you can strengthen your body and hone your mind, you can train your emotional well-being, as well. Think of it as a shortcut. Our ultimate goal is to feel happy or satisfied, but we take a roundabout approach: “I’ll learn to construct beautiful prose, then I’ll write a great novel, then I’ll sell it and get rich, and then I’ll enjoy fame and fortune, and then I’ll be happy.” Not that you shouldn’t do all of those things if it moves you, but why not learn to hack happiness from the start, so you enjoy the whole journey and not just the destination?

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A nice little town with nothing going on, Rorikstead is uncomfortably close to where I grew up.

I don’t have any hard (or even soft) data on this, but from personal experience, I feel most people focus on the Mage skills in Skyrim, indulging fantasies of ultimate power (although I know plenty of unapologetic Thieves as well). The fact that none of these people are particularly spiritual indicates that the Mage-spiritual parallel is probably the weakest of my skill parallels. In fact, in a more traditional, Dungeons and Dragons archetype breakdown, mages would definitely be intellectual (fighters would be physical, clerics would be spiritual, and I have no idea what rogues would be). Skyrim doesn’t distinguish between “arcane” and “divine” magic, though, so this will just have to do for now.

Wielding True Power

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A lot of people would argue your photos and captions should be related to the body of your post, rather than telling a whole other story. Anyway, I apparently stole this guy’s goat.

I’m struck by the dichotomy of lore and gameplay when it comes to magic. In every game I can think of, the lore is that the prospective wizard, usually as a child, spends years honing their concentration and will, struggling through labyrinthine and ancient texts, and memorizing myriad formulae and tidbits of arcane knowledge before they even attempt to cast their first spell. The gameplay, of course, picks up after the wizard has completed all this, so the player can enjoy the instant gratification of flinging fireballs without putting in the legwork. In real life, you start at the beginning, so keep the end in mind. The following four skills will strike many as the most boring, mundane, and useless tasks–but practice them with discipline and consistency, and I sincerely believe they are some of the most powerful skills you can possibly develop.

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I wouldn’t trade it for the great pine forest of Falkreath, but Skyrim’s central basin does have its own beauty.

Upkeep is one of the most boring and ultimately important skills, and I won’t deny that I sorely need to develop mine. A catchall for the tasks of daily life, upkeep includes keeping your house clean, paying bills on time, and buying groceries. At your discretion, you can reward yourself with several points for completing one difficult or tedious task–I give myself more points for filing my taxes than for doing laundry. At its highest levels, upkeep transforms your life into a well-oiled engine of productivity. Formula: complete n upkeep tasks.

Mindfulness is to spiritual skills what learn is to intellectual skills. If you’re spiritually inclined, you don’t need me to break down all the places you could go with it. If not, think of it purely as staying present. Imagine you have a powerful computer that shuts off at random intervals while you use it. That’s what the average person’s attention is like, so anyone can benefit from a little awareness. Meditation is a common way to develop mindfulness, but also consider mindful walking, mindful eating, and so on. Formula: meditate for x 15 minutes.

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I’ll just grab this goat real quick.

Self-care is another deceptively mundane skill. We keep on top of grooming and hygiene for social and health reasons, but it goes deeper than that. Start with basics like flossing, shaving, and so on, then ask what else you could do to care for yourself. That’s the real magic of self-care: it’s not about the actual tasks, it’s about getting in the habit of listening to your mind an body and giving yourself what you need. Formula: complete self-care tasks.

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Oh hell.

Keeping a journal is another skill that seems pointless before you start and obvious after. So many people complain about their lives but wouldn’t know what they would actually change if asked. A journal quickly reveals how little you know yourself. Once you see your daily thoughts and emotions captured in physical form, the answers to many problems become embarrassingly obvious. Formula: write n journal entries.

Body, Mind, and Soul

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If you squint, you can see Whiterun from here.

Like enchanting and illusion, their are skills that straddle the boundaries between archetypes. Yoga is a great gateway to spiritual skills: if you’re allergic to spirituality, just practice it for the boost to flexibility and cardiovascular health. Any spiritual benefits you discover are just a happy bonus. Art, I admit, is a bit of a stretch. It’s a talent that relies on technical skill as well as emotional inspiration, but it could arguably switch places with the piano skill. What can you do.

Yoga might sound like nothing more than organized stretching. If you’re open to the spiritual benefits but now sure what to look for, focus on how each pose makes you feel. What parts of your body are especially tense? Why? Do you carry stress there? Where does that stress come from? Can you relax your muscles and worries simultaneously? Formula: practice yoga for n x 20 minutes.

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Now THIS is a forge!

Art is kind of arbitrary. The truth is, I couldn’t think of another spiritual skill, so I selected the most spiritual intellectual skill I could think of. I’ll probably replace it when I think of something better. Anyway, if you’re not into art, think of a talent that serves as a vehicle for self-expression for you. Even if there is a technical aspect to it, is there a talent that is mostly about emotion to you? Formula: complete n drawing exercises.

Meanwhile…

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More like UNHall of the Dead, am I right! No, wait….

After yesterday’s dramatic encounter, today was more a series of miscellaneous tasks than a coherent adventure. Aemilian stopped by Rorikstead, following up on his night of drunkenness and learning he stole a farmer’s goat and traded it to a giant. I got the goat back, but the quest’s next objective is far to the east, somewhere I’m not planning on heading for a while, so I’ll put this story on hold again.

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I somehow didn’t think to take any pictures of the Companions or their mead hall, so here’s me embarking on my mission.

Otherwise, I returned to Whiterun, did some smithing, killed some skeletons in the Hall of the Dead, and acquired the services of my housecarl Lydia. Then I decided to join the Companions, a legendary band of warriors, who sent me on a mission to prove myself. That’s all for now, but don’t worry. Now that we’ve finished breaking down the Skyrim Life Skills, the next post will have a lot more to do with the actual play through. I’ll be breaking down Aemilian’s adventures so far, and reveal how you, like him, can–and must–find your niche.

Belated Thief Skills

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While Evaric bores you with math and self-improvement, Aemilian has you covered with another expertly photographed adventure.

After being swamped with work for a bit, I (and Aemilian) am back to talk Thief skills! Well, intellectual skills, which is my real-world equivalent. Learning to pick locks would probably be fun, but it’s just not a fundamental skill in my life.

Still the parallel works, because the Thief relies on his wits and mental acumen while plying his dubious trade. Most gamers probably specialize naturally in intellectual skills, but it’s still helpful to track their development–making sure your mind is working away at something productive.

Tools of the Trade

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When you might turn into a werewolf at any time, you have to get used to going off the beaten path.

Intellectual skills will vary, depending on your interests or what you would like to become more interested in. Not to stereotype, but I’d guess most gamers and creatives are more keen on intellectual skills than physical ones, and many probably favor them over spiritual skills too. I do believe you should at least try for balance, but if you choose to drop some of the physical or spiritual skills, you can easily break my “learn” skill into subjects like math, history, computer programming, and so on to fill the void.

If I ever start posting on even a close-to-daily basis, you’ll have my tracking of the blog skill to blame–um, thank. Even though it’s very casual now, it’s important to me that I continue to develop my blog, since I’ll want to use it as the basis for a community sometime in the future. If you don’t have a blog and don’t want to start one, think of a practical skill you could develop: something that isn’t critical to your career right now, but will be helpful in the future. Formula: write blog posts.

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Taking a shortcut through the mountains, I begin to suspect more than just Skeevers live in this tunnel….

The learn skill is perhaps the mother of all intellectual skills. Think of it like Sneak in Skyrim: it doesn’t matter how well you can pick pockets or locks, you won’t get the chance to do either if you’re spotted whenever you try. You have to receive intellectual input before you can attempt creative output. These days I do most of my learning through books and podcasts, but you should adapt the formula to include any way you learn, such as online learning sites or taking classes. Formula: read chapters or listen to n hours of educational podcasts or audiobooks.

I make my career as a writer, so the write skill is arguable the most important skill of all for me. You can pursue any number of subjects or talents under the learn skill, but if a particular topic is central to your career (or your self-expression, even if it’s not your career), it merits its own skill. Formula: write n x 1000 words.

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After killing some necromancers and skeletons, I’m left wondering what messed-up stuff they were doing with all this.

Living in Mexico makes Spanish a pretty crucial skill for me. It’s probably not as high a priority for you, but I do strongly suggest including some language skill or another in your list. Not only does it open up your opportunities to travel and live in new places, but each language has its own character, and you’ll be surprised how learning a new one will change how you think about your own communication an thought process. I have a Spanish textbook I’m working through, but there are plenty of ways to learn a language. Formula: complete n exercises or listen to n x 30 minutes of Spanish podcasts or audiobooks.

Cutting Corners

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Enchanting: 75% magic, 25% coming up with cool names.

Like Archery and Alchemy, I have two intellectual skills that sit on the border of physical and spiritual skills. Well, more or less. Sometimes I have to stretch a bit. If my skills don’t apply to you, think of talents that rely on emotion as much as intellect, or that involve your body or health in some way.

Though you don’t really need a lot of strength to cook, I justify it as a semi-physical skill because cooking at home means I eat healthier, and can tailor my diet to my nutritional needs. Note that this skill should reflect real cooking: making a sandwich or microwaving some soup does not count as learning a recipe. Formula: cook new recipes or cook x 4 previously learned recipes.

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Okay well that’s unsettling.

This is becoming a running theme, but even if you don’t play the piano like I do, I recommend that everyone has one music skill. That might just be my upbringing, though: it’s universal in Northeastern United States households that every child will learn an instrument and that’s finalFormula: learn new songs or practice for n x 30 minutes.

Next time we’ll round out the skill list with the oft-overlooked spiritual skills, but in the mean time, we left Aemilian in an unsettling situation. Let’s see how he fared.

Call of the Hunt

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Let the hunt begin.

After hunting down Hircine’s sacred stag, the daedric prince himself appeared and commanded me to hunt down Sinding, the werewolf. Only then would he remove the curse on the ring I now wore. I agreed to track Sinding down, but I had no intentions of killing an innocent.

The journey there was interesting. As part of my Ridiculously Slow Let’s Play, I not only try to walk everywhere I go, but to follow the roads and generally travel like a normal person. In this case, knowing I might turn into a werewolf at any moment, I moved fast and avoided the roads, even swimming across the large lake at one point. It’s funny, because sprinting in the direction of my objective, without regard for what stood between it and me, used to be my default approach. This time, it was an interesting deviation.

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I don’t think we’re in Skyrim anymore.

Similarly, if it were not for my ban on fast travel, I could have teleported to a spot near my destination. Instead, I had to either circumvent a large mountain range, or cut through a more direct, but more dangerous, tunnel. I chose the tunnel and wound up fighting my way through some necromancers and their pet zombies, but I looted some soul gems for my trouble. Using the conjurers’ arcane enchanter, I created a magic mace and dubbed it Antler’s Bite, in honor of my new home, Falkreath.

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I have no quarrel with you.

Upon reaching the grotto, I told Sinding I was not there to hurt him. Instead, I stood by his side and fended off waves of hunters faithful to Hircine. It was with a bit of a heavy heart that I did this: I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the hunt and would have gladly served Hircine, if not for his demand that I slay an innocent.

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If we both must live as outcasts forever–so be it.

When I left the grotto, however, Hircine appeared to me again and told me I had done well. By reversing the game and making the hunters the prey, I had proven myself worthy of his blessing. He removed the curse from the ring, and I was able to accept his blessing with relatively little moral conflict.

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Brace yourself for some mad Daedric philosophy.

This was not only a fun and engaging quest, but actually helped crystallized some thoughts I’ve been toying with for a long time. Check back soon for a discussion of Kynareth, Hircine, and finding your niche.