Category Archives: History

State of the Lands: Locks and Picking

“Thou art wise to consider such a synthesis, Solemn. There are worlds aplenty, yet only a single Nature.”
-Final Judgement, “The Eye of Kog”

The next subject I want to examine, lying in common between the world you live in and the one I see, is that of locks. It’s a subject of startling similarities Locks3which I have struggled to explain. In fact, the “what” of locks, keys and other means of opening doors in the Lands of Hope looks almost identical to that of the Alleged Real World.

The difference lies in the “why”.

Key Facts

Like them, folks in our realm have known about locks for at least four millennia. Free-standing locks as well as wards on doors were common by the New Kingdom dynasties of Egypt, and rather complex mechanisms were being made in (where else) China long before the birth of Christ. Improvements were gradual through ancient times and the Middle Ages; much more recently, inventors devised the modern pin-and-tumbler keyed locks as well as padlocks, combination safes and even time-lock vaults.

I’ve been glancing over the internet literature on these subjects and it’s made Locks1me think, really hard. Because locks and safes and vaulted doors are also quite common in the Lands of Hope, and for many years I couldn’t understand it.
They’ve had full peace in the liberated lands for more than three thousand years. Despair was routed at the Battle of the Razor, twenty centuries ago, and has been utterly dispelled since then. OK, maybe here and there in the far reaches… but almost everyone, almost all the time, has been free of that threat. So why was I seeing keys and locks across the Hopeful kingdoms? Empty jails with guards, commoners owning nothing still latching their doors at night– what were they afraid of?

Learning from Your Enemies

See, when you think about it, there are really only two reasons you use a lock and key:

  • You have something precious you want to keep safe from theft
  • You have something (or someone) so dangerous you need to keep them confined

And the Children of Hope have hardly any theft, almost no imprisonment. People rarely steal, and when they do it’s more likely a loaf of bread than a Locks2necklace or sword. Thus, they’d have no need for locks or cells.

But Despair—the enemy had all those things in abundance. And one thing more they used to have, which I keep forgetting.

All the land.

Fire with Fire?

Since Hope began as little more than beachheads on the western coast of the Lands, their campaigns of liberation continually revealed the remnants of what Despair had built. Locked doors and vaults everywhere! Because of course the people of Despair were unafraid to work with technology, especially the use of metal in large quantity; and because among them theft was common and imprisonment typical. Hope did not mindlessly copy these customs , but neither did they randomly destroy things they found. They did obey their own leaders, who decided that locks and wards were needed.

Why? Again, because of Despair.

While the children’s versions of Hope’s history make it appear that the heroes easily and quickly rolled back the tide of Despair, a closer examination of the vault1ancient accounts is starting to reveal that the wars of the Third Age were peppered with pauses, counter-strikes, and truces. Exposed to the threat of plundering raids from the enemy, Hope needed to protect its population and valuables with wards of various kinds. Despairing mages used gates and other forms of magic to strike even at targets deep in Hopeful territory. And as Hope won more battles, there were prisoners taken, whose future had to be considered. The practice of custodial imprisonment is innately a Hopeful one, born of a people who would not willingly consider execution in any but the most extreme cases.

Preparation: Some Locks Need to be Picked

So the custom evolved of readiness for attack, and even peasant homes still have a latch for the front door– often provided with a helpful means of entry, such as a pull-string hanging outside, so hardly the most secure method! Someone invested with a position of great responsibility, such as a lord who serves as custodian of the jails, carries a visible key as an outward sign of this symbolic authority. But prisoners, while not unheard of, are very rare indeed. Solemn Judgement was briefly one. That alone would ruin his reputation among most.

Some Hopeful buildings, such as castles on sites of paramount strategic importance, have vaults, donjons or secret rooms because they were literally built on the foundations used by the enemy in ages past. Their Hopeful keepers simply preserved the locks that they found. Many, it is rumored, have safe-rooms or treasure vaults that have never been opened, but are kept in honor of the Hopelords’ commanddungeon-door-joan-carrolls. And talk persists of places where both sides surrendered items of such great power that they could mutually agree to restrict access to them, in a kind of limited disarmament.

This leaves two related subjects to be touched on; how to keep things safer than safe, and who handled locks besides their owners.


Probably the biggest point of difference between the Lands and the Alleged Real World around locks was the willingness of Despair to kill you for trying to open them. skeletonkeybigBlades, poison, explosives, runes, curses, summoned guardians, falling rocks; the saying goes that the enemy never repeated the method used. Accidental death by one of their own? Not their worry– the victims just proved their unworth by failure, and don’t forget, with necromancy they will still serve the cause. So Children of Hope who encounter doors locked by Despair must exercise the most extreme caution.

While their enemies relied on mechanisms to secure property and prisoners, Hope tended to use magic a bit more often, sometimes in the form of a

"Speak Friend and Enter"
“Speak Friend and Enter”

password (such as “Ar Aralte“, since no Minion of Despair could truthfully utter the words that mean “Hope Forever” in the Ancient tongue). Of course, Despair was more willing to essay the complete destruction of an enemy lock or portal in the first place; they frequently destroyed even their own works, then replaced them. In the Alleged Real World, most common burglars into early modern days seldom bothered with the locked door of a hut, when kicking in a wall was easier.

Hope might double-bar, or build a second chamber, use a passive magic locking spell. But especially without the guidance of their Heroes– who departed so abruptly after the Battle of the Razor– there was never the same enthusiasm (or need) for keeping things safe. So the Children of Hope carried on the customs of their revered ancestors, keeping watch over mostly-empty jails and usually leaving alone any lock without a key in their possession.

Usually, but not always. What about those times when the ward must be Locks4overcome? Who is able to defeat these barriers whether created by Hope or Despair? Here is where our two worlds come close together again.

Both here and there, the folks who do it are clearly insane.

Harry Houdini, the Stealthic!

Game-face, clearly loving it
Game-face, clearly loving it

I laughed aloud when I first realized this. Houdini and other escape artists, illusionists and stunt men are really the nearest thing to Stealthics in this world. And if you want to argue that man was nuts, you’ll see me waving a banner in the peanut gallery behind you. Risk for money’s sake, or fame I suppose, and perhaps for its own sake. But you have to admire that level of skill. Houdini always insisted he was staging an illusion, not using magic, in fact he rather vengefully hunted down folks who claimed they had proof of the spirit world. But he seemingly spent his whole life trying to reach that other world, in the form of the most insane risks people had ever seen and still not believed.

Please bear in mind that picking a lock is often illegal in the ARW. With that harry-houdini-ww1said, here’s how. Clearly this involves a ton of practice. Houdini and others built up their breathing, contorted their limbs on command, and of course spent hours just conditioning for the tasks they wanted to perform.

“Risk in the Service of Hope”– Picking Locks and Escaping Wards

The only difference with Stealthics of Hope is that their worst enemies had set up the tests they took. And when they attempted them there was usually no one around to watch. That, in essence, is the motto “risk in the service of Hope”. Stealthics like Trekelny in Three Minutes to Midnight practiced and calculated for months to carry off their acts of stealth and earn a place in legend. Such legends only hint that Astor, the Prince of Peril from the days of heroes, was not only often behind enemy lines during the wars picking locks and plundering artefacts, but he was also captured, at least once. Whether the ranks of Despair had anyone to match his daring and skill, no record tells. All in all, I’d prefer not.

So in both worlds there are locked and warded places, and people who bolt their doors “just because”; soon we’ll also use magic to open them (speaking the passwords aloud, or using a “wand” to lock them behind us). The ARW has Locks5more thieves, while the Lands have the greater consequence for failure.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this comparison of security and risk between two realms. Check out other installments of State of the Lands for further reflections.

Classics You’ve Never Read: Menace Beyond Measure

Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read.

-Mark Twain

Here’s the only way I can even attempt to analyze the single most famous work of horror the world has ever known.

  1. I’m not doing the whole thing
  2. You are

Drac Castle1Yes, dear reader, this time I guarantee it will be the classic you actually did read. At least, the first few pages.

And since I don’t expect you to be telepathic, I’m going to tell you the name. No biting humor, thank you: you’re going to be reading Bram Stoker’s immortal– no, really, he doesn’t die– classic Dracula.

There’s way too much in this one to cover: maybe I’ll do more installments later. But for now, I will focus on just one element of this epic story, namely the incredible variety and degree of menace Stoker creates right at the beginning.

And I can’t convey that to you by myself. You’re going to have to help me.

Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It…

I’m completely serious. I want you to download a FREE copy of Dracula and read the opening. Or use paper- I have an annotated hardcover the size of a phone book. Yes, read it right now. Or at least, before you go much further on this blog.

Free online versions of Dracula:

Gutenberg Project



Oh stop whining– it’s the greatest horror story ever written, the e-book is totally Drac-Harkerfree and it’s a smooth read. On my tablet it’s a few dozen page-flips, the first four chapters. So off with you now, get the book and read through to this point in the journal of Jonathan Harker:

At least God’s mercy is better than that of those monsters, and the precipice is steep and high. At its foot a man may sleep, as a man. Goodbye all. Mina!

As you read, I want you to pay close attention to the theme of menace. Make a list if you want (I have). And remember, no matter how many movies and other references they made, this is supposed to be a book. Don’t use your pre-knowledge of these names and characters; let Stoker introduce them to you.

No peeking! Just read it, then come back and finish this blog post where we can compare notes. I’ll wait right here.

Ahem, I told you not to peek.

The Use of Threat in Your Story

Have you finished? Honestly, did you go and read some pages? Because I can’t TELL you about this feeling, you have to read it and get the tingle yourself.

Happened! It's in the book.
Happened! It’s in the book.

OK, here’s a compilation of the ways I counted that Bram Stoker builds a sense of threat or menace to his first hero, Jonathan Harker. I categorized them roughly and put the number of instances at the end of each line:

  •  Misses with language- the people around him either don’t speak, or pretend not to understand him (after getting his words perfectly earlier) (4)
  • Blessings and Pressings- people are frantic that Harker go no further, and give him relics or make signs over him when he pushes on- (4)
  • Peer pressure- folks nearby are afraid, wish to hurry etc. (2)
  • Evil place- claims and indications that the region is a nexus for bad mojo- (3)
  • Inner nervousness- Harker’s unease is reflected in his journal, and “if” he doesn’t come back he wishes Mina well- (3)
  • Darkness and Sparseness- his approach to the castle leaves him increasingly isolated and alone; he winds up reversing his diurnal habit, talking all night, sleeping all day-(2)
  • The enemy’s power (passively displayed)- Harker is never assailed or
    I know, love and death, but seriously? Don't make a guy choose.
    I know, love and death, but seriously? Don’t make a guy choose.

    seized. But the Count is massively strong, can climb down a sheer wall; Harker’s letter of credit and extra clothes are stolen- (3)

  • Good Old External Threat- surrounded by wolves, foul weather or something anyone would see as dangerous; others die in his hearing or suffer the Count’s wrath for disobedience- (7)
  • Mysterious Deeds and Signs- he is taken on a carriage ride in circles, the Count throws Harker’s shaving mirror out the window, he’s buying a gloomy isolated house next to a lunatic asylum-(4)
  • Signing Your Life Away- having to compose letters with forward dates is a clear sign of the Count’s power and Harker’s timeline of doom-(2)
  • Love and Death- encountering the three ladies he is seduced and nearly killed-(1)
  • Lies Revealed- the Count never tells him things, so when Harker reasons  them out (there are no servants, nearly all doors are locked) it raises the danger he’s in to realize it (and to suspect that the Count knows)- (2)
Drac Castle interior
Moby games screenshot

Dozens of discrete instances of increasing threat, every one of them like another turn of a wrench tightening the sense of menace and helplessness. Harker is the fly and ahead of him, the parlor. There’s no outward violence; Harker takes one swing in anger and it does him no good. The Count has complete mastery of his prisoner from the beginning, but dissembles at first until it is well too late.

And one more thing, a theme that runs underneath all the other twists of menace: Duty. At every step, whenever Harker is presented with a chance to turn back, or ask questions, make demands, he finds it pointless since it is his job to be there. His boss told the Count in his introductory letter that Harker could be trusted: that letter is a death warrant, unintentionally dooming the hero from the start,  because of course no Victorian gentleman would let it be said he did not meet his obligations.

First Impressions

Remember, you don’t know Harker from a hole in the wall, he’s new to your reader’s eye. All indications at first are that he is going to meet the main character in the Count, the hero of the tale perhaps. When does the villain come into your view so early in the story?

I was so stoked that this worked!
{I was so stoked that this worked}

And Stoker isn’t clumsy about this: the early narrative is filled with an ebb and flow of menace to charm. Harker describes the countryside, the colorful people, the marvelous food. You have plenty of time to recover your senses, and like Harker you doubt that it’s fully as dangerous as it turns out to be, until too late. Even after he meets the Count, they speak of mundane things like property rights and legal matters. You feel a glimmer. But slowly, like the dish steeped in paprika Harker ate on the first day, the taste of menace pervades the entire meal, and everything you read in the story too. And it leaves one… well, thirsty.

Survival of the Fittest?

Final point about the end-of-the-beginning. If you didn’t read it yet, shame on you really. But you probably already know something you shouldn’t. When Harker is at the very peak of menace he takes a desperate chance. The Count has left him to the mercies of the three female vampires, and as soon as this last day is over they will come for him. Harker decides to risk all and try to climb down the precipice on which the castle is set– hence his last journal entry. That’s the extremity he’s been driven to and it’s a marvelous moment.

But here’s what hit me. If I’m reading this the first time, if I haven’t seen any of the

Sooo many jokes I avoided. Like anything to do with the plot and, um stakes...
Sooo many jokes I avoided. Like anything to do with the plot and, um stakes…

umpty-dozen video versions of this story, then there’s something crucial I don’t know. I have no idea whether Harker survives. So we enter the next phase of the tale, from the journals of Lucy and Mina, and the latter increasingly worries that she hasn’t heard from her betrothed. The menace only spreads, like ripples in a pond. My immersion was so complete that I felt sympathy for poor Mina, hoping Jonathan was not hurt, etc. And that, this gift of threat that Stoker so carefully built in the first few chapters, echoes through nearly half the book, until of course Jonathan is located, still alive.

What a magnificent piece of work, to carefully and delicately construct this edifice of menace. And what a fabulous pay-off it gave Stoker throughout the following pages.

Lessons to the End

Read the whole thing, by all means. If you like epistolary tales that build a sense of reality from many points of view, Dracula is your thing. Stoker’s airtight commitment to the bulletin, diary, letter or telegram is a wonderful way to elevate the writing, because of the structure and limitations it imposes. I have used journal entries and letters myself at points in my fantasy tales where

2 of my faves, but gotta' say... too much cape.
2 of my faves, but gotta’ say… too much cape.

things dip toward horror. Reading long-ago words from those now dead automatically imposes a patina of creepy; and of course any distraction from the act of world-building is a good one (sshhh). Folks in the North Mark whisper of a vampire up in the Barony of T’yr: fortunately, undead of the second form are rare in the Lands. Time will tell.

If you want to see

  • a dead ship captain tied to the wheel with a rosary
  • an old salt talking in slang that’s completely impenetrable yet perfectly clear
  • so many nice people dying at once, you’ll think you found a lost volume of Game of Thrones
  • a room that smells so bad the heroes improve the aroma by lighting cigars
  • a story that manages conflict and doubt of success, despite a lack of the usual barriers

Then Dracula should be at the top of your list.

On that last point, I mean the heroes often despair of their chances, but the tension does not arise from the kind of tried-and-true barriers we often are urged to consider. They are not poor, never hungry- one of them is a Lord and can sweep away obstacles with a word to the consulate. They know multiple languages, are well armed and skillful (not just brave and honest). They flash across Europe hiring transport and buying supplies wherever needed. You don’t need to throw those obstacles in their way because their opponent is beyond natural, larger than mortal. Again, there is no fighting until the end: the heroes fall back not from weapons, but from the moment of sunset.

Everyone knows the power of a good beginning: those who follow me have heard Drac-van Helsingmy admiration for efforts like the Immerse or Die challenge. Here we have a foundation built by a master of the craft (or perhaps an author writing his most inspired piece, I have made no study of Stoker overall). The payoff resounds throughout the rest of the epic, bringing rewards time and again in the depth of character and in constant triggers to your interest and sympathy.

Where is that sense of threat in the beginning of your story? How many times do you turn the crank to tighten the menace, and how many different tools are in your toolbox to do it with? I wish your current heroes every success– after they’ve come through the wringer with Jonathan Harker.