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Aug 302011

The average fantasy career seems to entail a lot of travel and vagrancy, and an income made up mostly of whatever can be found in the pockets of orcs that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have names for this career path here in the real world, but none of them are ‘adventurer’, and most carry a mandatory sentence.

And when we’re not writing some sort of ronin, we toss in the standard magic farmhand, who dreams of glory and will learn important lessons about something or other from a wise mentor when he predictably leaves his entire family behind to go adventuring, for some no-doubt excellent reason that a real human being would totally go for. (Alternately, of course, his beloved village might be torched by the Dark Lord for another no-doubt excellent reason).

Interestingly, our farmhand never seems to know a whole lot about, say, weather or growing cycles, but he usually knows how to read. He’s been living on the 13th-century equivalent of Dragonlance novels, y’see, despite the fact that a) he’s uneducated and b) the farming day is about 20 hours long. Indeed, it’s a minor miracle if our farmhand ever actually farms something, which raises questions like “So why is he a farmer anyway?” and “Would somebody please burn down this Beloved Village already?”

Giving our heroes actual jobs makes a certain amount of sense. A job can be a hook to get them into the adventure, and it can contextualize their abilities so that you don’t have to pull out some surprise I-knew-how-to-ice-skate-all-along twist when the evil Penguin Lord takes to the glaciers. And, from the standpoint of verisimilitude, it … y’know, makes a certain amount of sense that our adventurers have lives outside of adventuring.


Job Description: confidence jobs, theft, shake-downs, beatings, the occasional murder
Must Have: entrepreneurial spirit, knife
Occupational Hazards: imprisonment, betrayal of and by allies, crises of conscience

The classic adventurer, as seen in sword-and-sorcery novels and World of Warcraft, is basically a criminal already, so the job lends itself perfectly to the patterns of a guy played by Toshiro Mifune or Clint Eastwood. The traveling can be explained by the need to get out of Dodge now and again, and the income takes care of itself when you shank some villager leaving the pub and rifle through his pockets for… I dunno, chickens or some shit.

The criminal will know all sorts of neat adventurer tricks, like how to pick a lock, how to kill a dude and make it look like an accident, and when a welcome has been overstayed and it’s time to mosey on out. He can be pulled into the adventure when he’s imprisoned and given One Last Chance to redeem himself (sort of like Frank Abagnale, only with more dead orcs), or when he steals something he oughtn’t and is relentlessly pursued by the Dark Lord’s Hooded Cronies.


Job Description: Filling woodland animals with spears, arrows
Must Have: spears, arrows, duck calls, patience
Occupational Hazards: bears, treacherous terrain, US vice-presidents
Better-educated Variant: Explorer/Cartographer

The farmhand’s more adventure-inclined cousin, the hunter is a good choice for a salt-of-the-earth hero who comes ready-made with skills that can be adapted for battle. He knows all sorts of things about travel and survival, and since every uncharted fantasy territory is basically orc heaven, there’s a decent chance he already has some experience under his belt when it comes to the Dark Lord’s fell beasties.

He’ll be pulled into the adventure when visiting knights-errant need a guide into the wilderness, when he’s captured by orcs while out hunting and needs to escape to warn his beloved village, or when his beloved village is set aflame by the DarkzzzzzzZZzzZZzzzzz… oh, sorry, I must have dozed off a moment.


Job Description: Dicing, drinking, occasionally being sent off to kill things
Must Have: Weapons, armour, foul mouth
Occupational hazards: various stabby things, inevitable death after talking about sweetie back home and how his tour will be over in only two weeks
Variants: Mercenary

Soldiers are convenient. They have plenty of the classic adventurer attributes – the ability to fight, cover lots of ground, and stay upright despite being strapped with 80 lbs of weaponry – with all the authorial convenience of being easily ordered around. They’ll be pulled into the adventure when and where I damn well please, private. Now scrub me some latrines.

Former soldiers can most often be found tending bar or farming in the Beloved Village, and while they’re older and grizzled-er than their active compatriots, they still have weapons, ill-fitting armour, and a desire – frequently articulated – to show those kids how things were done in the old days. Perfect for the doomed-mentor-to-Jesus-not-another-fucking-farmhand role, the retired soldier will be pulled into the adventure when his Beloved Village etc.


Job Description: debauchery, mercantile endeavors, poor treatment of social inferiors
Must Have: inflated sense of self-worth, education, birth from correct uterus
Occupational hazards: poisoning-by-brother, revolting peasants

Nobles are convenient in the sense that they’re rich enough to fund whatever they might like to get up to and educated enough to provide some of those skills that you might want in a medieval adventuring party and can’t get elsewhere. The noble may know how to read and how to recognize the local heraldry. They’re decent in a fight, even if they tend to take the choicest mowing-down-peasants areas of the battlefield rather than the more sloggy, muddy action at the field’s centre, and unlike just about everybody else in Fantasyland, they’ve been raised on a proper balanced diet and as such have teeth and muscles.

But there are real inconveniences as well. First off, nobles are pretty recognizable. Sure, Fantasyland may not have TVs or tabloid reporters following the royal family around, but when all the peasants are ordered to flatten themselves to walls when Prince Valiant passes, they’ll probably learn his face. Plus, it’s tricky to infiltrate a ring of thieves when you’re the only one with perfect skin and all your teeth. Finally, nobles have duties to their families and the wealth and power to shirk anything too unpleasant that comes up, so they’re not easily browbeaten into heroism.

As such, consider ninth sons or what have you – in other words, those more likely to poison brothers than be poisoned by them. Being well behind the heir and multiple spares in the inheritance stakes, the ninth son a) needs to forge his own way armed with little more than eight thousand advantages over everybody else; b) is basically expendable if the King decrees that all noble families must pitch in against the Dark Lord.


Job Description: herbalism, divination, administering 13th-century contraception to local wenches
Must Have: herbs, weird shit in jars
Occupational hazards: zealots, Things Woman Was Not Meant to Unleash

The witch is the reclusive medieval equivalent to… y’know, a real doctor. In addition to leeching and bleeding, those mainstays of ancient medical practice, the witch knows a few things about actual healing, because she’s magically inclined and/or knowledgeable where herbs are concerned. But for all her talents and knowledge, something like 90% of her custom comes in the form of buxom local wenches still sweaty from tumbles in the hay.

Now, the availability of contraception terrified idiots even more in those days than it does now, so the witch has an unfortunate tendency to not-so-spontaneously combust. But if she can survive the depredations of the local yokels, the witch knows all sorts of interesting things about magic, the spirit world, and which mushrooms are edible and which will cause your soldier to flash back to the Battle of Hastings.

She’ll be pulled into the adventure when the Heroes show up on her doorstep covered in open sores because they packed a noble rather than a hunter and consequently ate the wrong kind of mushroom, or when the Beloved Village on which her custom depends is burned down.

In closing:

Fantasyland could really use some fire-fighters.

Join us next week, when we talk about something else.

Apr 012011

… which, in context, is the glass-half-full take on being unemployed.

Yesterday, I put 40 pounds of computer stuff into a box and mailed it to Ottawa. Then, I handed in my employee badge, which after seven years has worn down enough that I couldn’t read its number.

Seven years. Huh.

I’m not shell-shocked, or surprised. It’s not that I’m overwhelmed; that it doesn’t feel real yet. My company filed for bankruptcy two years ago, so the question of my job coming to an end was always a ‘when’ and not an ‘if’.

I’m not nostalgic. Maybe it’s too early for that? I have good memories and bad of Nortel.

I’m not unhappy. If anything, I’m excited about the opportunity to do something new, and something in line with my passions. But happy isn’t exactly the word either; there’s a lot of good left behind as well.

Because I’ve seen this coming for so long, and because I’ve planned and saved money and prepared myself emotionally for so long, my opinion, in the grand scheme of things, is “Well, here we are.” It’s a statement of fact, not an emotion.

Still, one can’t spend seven years doing something without forming some sort of attachment. And so, a eulogy:

I started at Nortel in 2004. The company’s good days were already over, at that point, but evidence of them was everywhere.

The building was shaded by the tree-line of what could genuinely be called a grove, through which a creek flowed over a man-made waterfall. A koi pond wouldn’t have been out of place.

Inside, the walls were hung with original art, much of it by employees. The hallways were so many, and so long, that they had street signs. All of these streets led to Tim’s. It’s Canada, after all. Some way beneath our coffee giant was a gym, with, among other things, a rock climbing wall treadmill (insert your metaphors about the corporate experience here).

I had never seen such a thing. High-tech shit. And in all the time I spent down in that gym, I never saw anybody but myself using it.

The gym wasn’t alone in being mostly empty. At least half of the building was uninhabited. At least. It was probably closer to two thirds.

Rome, at the height of empire, supported a million people. A century or two after it fell, a mere 70 thousand lived among its ruins. Nortel had, even in 2004, that sort of maudlin grandeur.

Nortel’s falling apart has been pretty well chronicled in the Canadian press (how not, when it took so much of our retirement money with it?). It’s a familiar enough narrative; some greed and graft among a select few, an accounting scandal, and years of financial restatements, contractors, auditors, and mounting debt. The debt eventually became too much to bear, despite continuing profitable operations, and that was that.

And here we are.

I learned a great deal from my seven years of watching the business crumble; as is so often the case, the most important lessons were those learned around what was taught.

Certainly, I’m far better than the average bear at reconciling a confusing payment, or making sense of an invoicing dispute. I understand how to prioritize a sea of work, and to set limits so that I don’t drown in it. I know the difference between real work and make-work – the endless meetings, the reports nobody reads. I’ve learned how to approach problems that seem intractable, and to carve them into bite-sized pieces.

But I’ve also learned what it means to spend every day doing something I’m not passionate about. I know how important autonomy is to me, and that I’m not an employee at heart. I understand what it is to watch dedicated people try their best to shore up the walls, when even they know it’ll all come crashing down. I know what it feels like when the top of the pyramid pockets millions for running a company into the ground, while throwing mere scraps to people who have worked for them for decades, people who are scared they’re too old to find a new job.

I won’t miss Nortel, as an entity. I’m too young for that. My generation is trained pretty much from birth that a job is just a job, one of many, and probably a lay-off waiting to happen. I don’t think that cynicism is entirely healthy – there’s something out there for all of us, and one can’t find it by assuming fruitful, self-actualizing work doesn’t exist – but it’s there.

I will miss the people, though. I know everybody says that, and that’s because it’s true. I’ve worked with truly fantastic, talented, kind people. I’ve worked for a team whose results were truly world-class, who managed if anything to work even more effectively after the bankruptcy announcement, who managed to keep relationships with our customers intact, and to collect payments and sign big deals even when we had no genuine leverage to speak of. I’ve had managers who truly fought for their people, and who (adorably) spent many of our last calls together on the edge of tears.

I can say, in all honesty, that I’ve been very much looking forward to the end of my tenure with Nortel. I didn’t always enjoy it, and it probably wasn’t right for me.

But I don’t regret it. That’s not just because I’m one of those glass-half-full wankers who’s too high on himself to regret anything. I mean, I am. I’ll cop to that. But I’ve experienced so much in these last seven years, and learned so much about the world and about myself, that it can’t have been anything but a positive experience.

Pour some liquor. So it goes.

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