What was that book?

Ethan Barrister:

This is a curious use of my blog. But perhaps the Internet can help me.

At some point during my childhood, early grade school I would guess though I can’t pinpoint further (so circa 20 years ago?), one of my parents or elder siblings had a book.

It was mainly an art book, depicting various Indiana Jones-esque archaeological adventures. The one I most vividly remember was a battle on a rope bridge, with unfortunate explorers tumbling over the side into some great chasm. There was also an introductory page depicting the top of a desk or table, strewn with artifacts obtained from the scenes on the later pages. But beyond that, it was a sort of puzzle book: the pictures contained what looked like torn-up pieces of a journal or memoir. When pieced together, they provided… something. The backstory of the pictures and artifacts? Clues to some further puzzle or objective you needed to find by hunting for clues in the pictures? I don’t remember ever attempting what was needed to put them together; you’d have to either photocopy and cut up the pages, or trace the fragments with paper and pencil.

And the fact that I never did that, never understood the book or what it was ultimately about, haunts me to this day. I mean, that may be an overstatement, but for whatever reason I find myself remembering that strange book and thinking about it, every few years.

I don’t know the title, publisher, author, anything else about it beyond these memories. Oh Internet, do you know the mysterious tome of which I speak? …where I might find a copy of it? …if there are others in its unusual and memorable genre?


Orb of Rebirth: A New Year’s Tale

A new year, the traditional time for new beginnings, new endeavors, new attempts at bettering oneself. In the last year, I proposed to my girlfriend, all but conquered some nervous tics, began a new and healthier sleep schedule, made huge strides in learning to code, lapsed into and re-bested an Internet addiction. What goals then to turn to next?

In a cloistered alchemy lab, a magus lifts up a crystal ball in one hand. Red and orange light like flame swirls within it. He speaks a word, and the flames burst forth in shapes like wings, without heat, but their light filling the room around him. The wings grow until their span reaches from wall to wall, the height of them from tip to crest as tall as the magus himself. Then they close around him, enfolding him in a brilliant embrace, and in no more than a moment flames, magus, and crystal alike are gone, the room empty.

I have a tendency to over-plan and under-execute. I have no shortage of ideas, aspirations, hobbies, projects, skills in various stages of development. I ride the enthusiasm into a grand design and complete the first exciting moves. But my life is littered with such half-formed creations: novels with only three chapters written, books half-read, games designed but not edited.

A traveler stumbles out of the forest into the town. He wears a simple tunic and carries a squire’s practice sword at his waist. He has a dazed expression on his face, and though he looks familiar to the townsfolk, he does not greet or even seem to recognize them. He wanders through the market, his puzzled eyes sweeping from side to side, then stops in front of a haberdasher’s stall. He picks up a curious pointed cap, travel wear for a village magician. His eyes light up: he must have this. But he has no coin.

Everyone seems to have a trick they recommend, each a contradictory strategy, or in the best of cases pieces of a larger puzzle. Focus on one habit at a time. Break things down into small steps. Set up trigger conditions to take desired actions, and be on guard for the triggers that tend to lead you in the wrong direction. Don’t rest until you stay on track for 21 days… or is it 66?

The hero-to-be hires himself out. He does odd jobs around the town: hauls firewood, hunts game and vermin, fights and chases off more dangerous creatures. He grows stronger, more confident. He keeps himself fed and lodged, and puts away a bit of his earnings to purchase better equipment: a proper sword, a shield, a helmet, a sturdy suit of armor. When he falters–neglecting his training, or failing in a commitment to one of the townsfolk–he grows ill. On a few occasions he finds himself staring down Death itself, and trudges shaking to the apothecary with a handful of coin or gems to purchase a curative. When the dawn comes and he awakens still among the living, he sighs with relief.

The base stock of the magic mixture, it turns out, comes not from my books on productivity and focus, but from my love of games. Games are by definition behavior-modifiers: “Game design is mind control,” as Luke Crane put it. When we play a game, we do things that we’d never bother with or think to do in any other context, learn strategies and strive for reward with an intensity seldom seen elsewhere in life.

In time, the aptitudes the young warrior had before that momentous night in the alchemy lab return to him. At first simple cantrips, mere tricks, then mighty¬† spells of stone and flame, power and brilliance. He sets aside sword and shield in favor of a staff. He buys that magician’s cap, then later trades up to a true cornuthaum, “horn of magic”, a hat woven with enchanted threads, its tapered shape designed to channel the energies of the stars above into the growing arcane reservoir of his mind. He attracts the notice of other adventurous souls, who join forces with him to quest for fabled treasures and slay mighty beasts.

Enter HabitRPG, a Web site with accompanying mobile applications and a diverse community of coders, gamers, and self-improvement enthusiasts. It turns your life into a game of the most iconic Dungeons and Dragons and Final Fantasy traditions, to astounding effect. Your successes mean gold and experience for your hero; setbacks, injury or even death. I credit it for the majority of my memorable successes over the last year. Without it I would likely never have learned JavaScript and Git, cured my afternoon Circadian crashes, or curbed my tendency to spiral into self-deprecating reminiscences.

If you want 2014 to be a year of success, you owe it to yourself to check this site out. You will be amazed. It is a marvel.

Battered and shivering on a snowy mountainside, four questers of varying professions stand breathless before a gaping cave mouth. The Healer attempts an incantation of health and shelter, but his voice falters. Our hero, now the party’s Mage, sets a grim smile and lays a hand on the Healer’s shoulder. The wind lashing the stony slope suddenly carries an intangible strength, and with the next breath each of the adventurers take, they feel more ready. The Healer completes his blessing, and all four of them stand straighter. The Warrior thumps the haft of her axe upon her shield, and the Rogue spins her twin blades into a reversed grip, ready to drive them deep.

A rumble, then a roar emanates from the cave mouth. Vice, the Shadow Wyrm, awaits.