Category Archives: Games!


noun: “playfully quaint or fanciful behavior or humor.” (OED)

To me, it speaks of playfulness, perhaps some randomness, a willingness to play along and see where things go. Perhaps somewhere between the Pkunk and Dirk Gently.

If you played the old M:tG ‘Shandalar’ computer game[1], you may remember this card.

But I’m speaking of whimsy today because I had recently noticed that I had been feeling much less of it my life, due to some stressful circumstances that (I think) have now dissipated. You may have been following my writing for a while, and this is a large part of why I have not written in months, with the few sporadic mostly-picture posts being the most that I could put together.

I’ve been working with my life coach for some time now, on a number of things. One of the largest ones was finding space to create. I had spent a lot of time focusing on making physical and temporal space for creation, but had forgotten about creating the mental space, to be able to deal with distractions.

I almost said ‘push away’ distractions, but similar to the discussion of Saidin and Saidar, pushing away distractions is okay as a crutch, but being able to relax into the flow is much more powerful.

Either way, I’m excited to be feeling creative again, and have some ideas[2] about how to keep this going, even through the next set of distractions that will inevitably crop up.

It’s going to be an interesting year, thanks for being here with me.

-Nayrb 😀

[1]Still one of my favourite games of all time, and I think, even with all its faults, the best M:tG computer game.

[2]Interestingly, a bunch of these are around meditation, which I feel I only discovered very recently.

How do you Make Computer Games Challenging?

So, you’re designing a computer game. You want some sort of challenge for your player(s) to face. How do you design that challenge? We’ll assume some sort of single player game for now, but most of the things we’ll talk about should easily translate to multiplayer.

Almost[1] all games have a goal[2]. Most of the time, this goal is imposed by the game creators, some of the time this goal is invented or imposed by the player themselves.

For example, in Candy Crush, the goal is to match enough candies in a specified time period to gain points to pass a threshold (‘obtaining one star’). In Skyrim, the quest (at least at the start of the game) is to escape an area and survive.

As you attempt to reach these objectives, the game designers have provided you with various positive and negative obstacles.


Terrain is an excellent example of an obstacle that can be positive or negative. In Skyrim, you can hide around corners, or you can fall down a mountain. In Candy Crush, the shape of the board can make certain portions easier or much more difficult to match.

Offensive Items:

Special Candies can be classified as offensive items, compare them to a sword which allows you to do more damage with a single blow.

Defensive Items:

In Candy Crush, the candies can be encased in ‘jelly’, which acts as a shield that must be overcome. In Skyrim, you have various types of armour which you and your adversaries can wear. (Sometimes, only they can wear it.) There are also magical defenses.

Miscellaneous Items and Magic:

In Candy Crush, you can obtain a ‘Lollipop Hammer‘, which helps you by removing or triggering single candies.

In Skyrim, there is a wide variety of special purpose items and magic. The line between these is often blurry.

AI Adversaries:

I don’t think there are many AI adversaries in Candy Crush, unless they decide to tinker with the random candy generation algorithm, or if you count level design. Skyrim is populated with hundreds, if not thousands of NPCs who will interact with you in various ways.


An uninteresting way to make a game more challenging is to make it more repetitive[2.5]. You could make your player battle the same enemy 35 times, or solve minor variations on the same puzzle 50 times, or make them walk through an endless samey forest.

Ideally, you want to give a feeling of exploration and small but noticeable differences along the way.

Next time, we’ll compare two more games which are even more distinct. Suggestions in the comments below!

[1]I say almost, even though I can’t think of any games which don’t have a goal, and/or can’t have one created by the player. Inventing one sounds like a fun challenge. I don’t mean a game with an impossible challenge which always seems almost possible, I’m talking about a game which aggressively has no goal, and cannot, to the greatest extent possible.

[2]Or goals plural. Multiple interlocking[3] or interrelated goals are out of scope.

[2.5]Than usual…Most of these games are quite repetitive.

[3]Sometimes I think I write just because I enjoy using words such as ‘interlocking[4]’.

[4]Not to be confused with Interlochen[5].

[5]S: “Or Interleukins.”


They thought she was crazy. She would hide in trees, then wait for the correct moment, then leap down, drop acorns and nuts on unsuspecting passers-by, then run away giggling.

But somehow, they could never find her. There would always be some obstacle in the path, perhaps a horse-drawn carriage, perhaps one of the Central Park dog walkers, perhaps a squirrel that would chitter at you, distracting you just long enough for her to get away.

Sometimes she would sit outside and just watch the rainbow, the rainbow of brightly coloured birds and people’s clothing. Sometimes the rainbow of fruit flavours. Rainbows were tricky like that. Variegated by definition. The fruit of rainbow flavours sounded like it would also be delicious, but no one ever talked about that. Why was that?

Oh! More unsuspecting passers-by! Time to go!

Analysis: Ascension CotG Card Drawing Cards

…Or is that ‘Cards Drawing Cards’?

Anyways, in a recent installment, we talked about 1- and 2-rune cards, but forestalled the conversation about cards drawing cards. Here is the list:

Spike Vixen (2 runes/1 honour, gain 1 power & draw one card)
Arbiter of the precipice (4 runes/1 honour, draw two cards and banish one of them)

Arha Initiate (1 rune/1 honour, draw one card)
Temple Librarian (2 runes/1 honour, discard one card, draw two)
Ascetic of the Lidless Eye (5 runes/2 honour, draw two cards)
Master Dhartha (7 runes/3 honour, draw three cards)

Kor the Ferromancer (3 runes/2 honour, two power, draw one card if you control two constructs)

Wolf Shaman (3 runes/1 honour, draw one card, gain one rune)
Flytrap Witch (5 runes/2 honour, draw one card, gain 2 honour)

There are a number of things you can see from this list. First, enlightened really likes drawing cards, it’s kind of its thing. Let’s reorder the cards to show some other patterns. I’m going to put them in ascending rune cost order, secondary sort by descending honour order, with the idea that a 3rune/1honour card is considered more powerful than a 3rune/2honour card, and you are being compensated at the end of the game with the extra honour point:

Arha Initiate (1 rune/1 honour, draw one card)
Spike Vixen (2 runes/1 honour, gain 1 power & draw one card)
Temple Librarian (2 runes/1 honour, discard one card, draw two)
Kor the Ferromancer (3 runes/2 honour, two power, draw one card if you control two constructs)
Wolf Shaman (3 runes/1 honour, draw one card, gain one rune)
Arbiter of the precipice (4 runes/1 honour, draw two cards and banish one of them)
Ascetic of the Lidless Eye (5 runes/2 honour, draw two cards)
Flytrap Witch (5 runes/2 honour, draw one card, gain 2 honour)
Master Dhartha (7 runes/3 honour, draw three cards)

Starting with the Arha Initiate, it costs 1 rune to add ‘one free honour’ to your deck. Interestingly, Spike Vixen (+1P,+1C) and Wolf Shaman (+1R,+1C) are parallel to and similar to Heavy Infantry (+2P) and Mystic (+2R). One would expect them to be strictly more powerful, due to their relative rarity (as you can always purchase a Heavy Infantry or Mystic). Also, the next card you draw is at minimum an apprentice or militia, so you will get a minimum of +1 something with your card drawn, likely more, especially in the end game.

Temple Librarian and Arbiter of the Precipice deal with the issue of unwanted cards in your hand in slightly different ways. Each of them is overall card neutral (+2 cards, discard or banish one). It is telling that the act of banishing a card over discarding one is worth two runes in card cost, even more, as the Arbiter only gives your one honour rather than the normal two for a four-rune card in the end game. But as our previous simulations suggest, the banishing is totally worth it.

Kor the Ferromancer is a tricky card to get a bead on. At +2P,+0.5C for 3R/2H, it’s considered slightly more powerful than +1P,+1C for 2R/1H. I find this a bit surprising, as you would think the card drawing would be more important. In gameplay, it turns out that +2P is much more powerful[1] than +1P, and you end up drawing the card much more often in later gameplay, making the card worth more when it counts.

The last three cards are the most costly of the card drawing cards in the basic Ascension set. Master Dhartha (+3C for 7R/3H) is considered the most powerful card in the set[2], and it should be[3], as it gives you two extra cards, or a 40% stronger hand. Interestingly, it’s 1R/1H for +1C, 5R/2H for +2C and 7R/3H for +3C, suggesting that it’s either much easier to get 5 Runes than 7 Runes (which it is), or that +2C is that much more useful than +1C than +3C is to +2C.

Comparing Flytrap Witch (+2H/+1C) to Ascetic of the Lidless Eye (+2C), both costing 5R/2H shows how powerful card drawing is perceived to be, that drawing an additional card is worth two honour! If you have multiple card-drawing cards in your deck (as I generally do), this can easily be the case. If the card you draw is a heavy infantry, +2P can easily be worth +2H, and the cards scale up from there.

As always, thanks for reading, comment if you want specific parts of this game (or others) analyzed!

[2]Except for possibly Hedron Cannon (+1P/turn for each Mechana Construct, for 8R/8H)
[3]Except possibly for an early ‘The All Seeing Eye’ (+1C/turn for 6R/2H), which we removed from our games for being too unbalanced.

An Elemental of Surprise


Elementals are incarnations of the elements that compose existence.

Surprise Elementals

Surprise Elementals inhabit the demiplane of Surprise, a mildly chaotic-aligned[1] plane loosely connected to the Prime Material plane. They embody the plane’s ethos of “always be surprising, especially when you are not”. This ethos separates the demiplane of Surprise and the Surprise Elementals from beings of pure chaos, as it acknowledges the refractory period between surprises which exists in most species.

Stealth-related skills are very common among denizens of the demiplane of Surprise, and Surprise Elementals are no exception. As surprise is a key component of their makeup, there are actually many exceptions. There are few things more surprising than a Surprise Elemental walking down a hallway towards you, sword in hand, yelling about bees[2].

The demiplane of Surprise is loosely connected to the Prime Material plane in a manner similar to that of the Ethereal plane. Any Surprise Elemental summoned will likely have been observing the actions of the summoner for some time.

When summoned to the Prime Material plane, Surprise Elementals are (usually) composed of the least likely substance nearby (DM’s discretion).

Relations with other Elementals:

Surprise Elementals are standoffish towards the four standard types of elementals. Surprise Elementals consider them excessively regular, that even the chaos of Fire Elementals is of an expected kind.

Relations with other Planes and Demiplanes:

Surprise Elementals have more in common with beings from the positive energy plane, who are some of the few beings who can be quicker and more energetic.

As Surprise Elementals are mildly chaotic-aligned, they tend to get along best with beings from planes that support changes of all forms. Beings from lawful-aligned planes tend to try to destroy or banish Surprise Elementals whenever they see them. Beings from the strongly lawful-aligned demiplane of Expectation are in direct opposition to beings from the demiplane of Surprise.


Surprise Elementals always act in every surprise round, and can take full round actions, even though most beings can only take one action during a surprise round. Note that this means that they can use their ‘Surprise!’ special ability (see below) during a surprise round.

The actions and abilities of Surprise Elementals can vary from encounter, even from round to round, depending on their whim. Some ideas for skills, feats, and special abilities are below.

Surprise Elementals are often described as ‘going faster than one might expect’. They can travel as fast as is required to be surprising, up to a normal maximum of 120′. It is not fully known what method of transport they use. It may be somewhat dependent on the materials from which they are formed.

                     Surprise Elemental, Medium   Surprise Elemental, Large
Size/Type:           Medium                       Large
Type:                Elemental (Extraplanar)      Elemental (Extraplanar)
Hit Dice:            4d8+8 (26 hp) 	          8d8+24 (60 hp)
Initiative:          +8 (+see above)              +8 (+see above)
Speed:               Up to 120' (see above)       Up to 120' (see above)
Armor Class:         4d8+8 (26 hp) 	          8d8+24 (60 hp)
Base Attack/Grapple: +3/+4                        +6/+12
Attack: 	     Surprise. (see below)        Surprise. (see below)
Full Attack: 	     Surprise! (see below)        Surprise! (see below)
Space/Reach: 	     5ft./20ft. (see below)       5ft./20ft. (see below)
Special Attacks:     Surprise. and Surprise!      Surprise. and Surprise!	
Special Qualities:   Varies (see below)           Varies (see below)
Saves: 	             Fort +1, Ref +3, Will +9 	  Fort +2, Ref +5, Will +13
Abilities: 	     Varies (see below)           Varies (see below)
Skills: 	     Any (see below)              Any (see below)
Feats: 	             Any (see below)              Any (see below)
Environment: 	     Demiplane of Surprise        Demiplane of Surprise
Organization: 	     Solitary or groups           Solitary or groups
Challenge Rating:    5 or varies                  7 or varies
Treasure: 	     Varies (see below)           Varies (see below)   	
Alignment: 	     Mildly Chaotic               Mildly Chaotic
Advancement: 	     5-7 HD (Medium)              9-15 HD (Large)
Level Adjustment:    —                            —

Surprise.: As a move- or attack-equivalent action, a Surprise Elemental can attempt a ‘Surprise.’ This is based on any skill that the Surprise Elemental chooses, although they may not choose the same skill in two consecutive rounds, unless they do. The damage done is all subdual, and is equal to the DC achieved minus 20. The damage may be avoided by the target spending an action on an opposed skill check.

Surprise!: As a full-round action, a Surprise Elemental can attempt a ‘Surprise!’ This is a similar attack to ‘Surprise.’ above, but with a +5 to the roll, and if the attack is successful, the target is confused for one round. Note that this ability can be used during a surprise round, as Surprise Elementals are able to perform full-round actions during a surprise round.

Space/Reach: Normally, medium and large Surprise Elementals take up a 5′ square. If it is surprising enough (DM’s discretion), they can reach up to 20′ away to perform an action.

Special Qualities: Most Surprise Elementals have Sense Darkvision, 60′, so that they can better understand what the beings around them can perceive. Surprise Elementals have the following general traits of Surprise races:

– +1 bonus to Surprise lawful creatures, +2 to those associated with the demiplane of Expectation
– -2 penalty to saving throws against spells, spell-like abilities, and supernatural abilities with the Expectation subtype or used by creatures of the Expectation subtype
– Any one of the special abilities of any elemental subtype (does not breathe, stability, fire resistance, or natural swimmer)

Saves: Surprise Elementals depend on mental flexibility, and therefore are not as physically flexible (except for when these are reversed).

Abilities: Typically, Surprise Elementals will have the following abilites:

Medium: Str 11, Dex 14, Con 4, Int 21, Wis 11, Cha 11 	
Large:  Str 11, Dex 16, Con 6, Int 25, Wis 11, Cha 11

Note that Surprise Elementals are typically very intelligent, and will plan their surprises, skills, and feats to be the most surprising.

These abilities may vary wildly with no warning from one Surprise Elemental to another.

Skills: Surprise Elementals receive (6 + Int modifier)*4 skill points at first level, and 6 + Int modifier per hit die above that. All skills are class skills. The skill points may be allocated any way the DM wishes. a random generation may yield the best results. Remember that the Surprise Elementals will be working to optimize their ‘Surprise.’ and ‘Surprise!’ attacks, and so will tend to specialize and diversify, except when they don’t.

Feats: Any. Choose the most surprising. Horseback riding for an elemental that commonly takes the shape of a horse is a good example.


Surprise Elementals cannot generally bring items from the demiplane of Surprise when summoned, but will pick up any surprising items as they go past them when moving on the Prime Material plane. Treat this as version of ‘Kender Pockets’.

When encountered on the demiplane of Surprise, Surprise Elementals can be carrying literally anything, even things one might not expect them to be carrying, or they should not be able to carry (DM’s discretion). It is rumored that some Surprise Elementals incorporate dimensional rifts into themselves (similar to a portable hole) so as to be able to carry arbitrary objects.

Player Characters as Surprise Elementals:

This should not be allowed, unless you are running a very unusual campaign, and all characters are elementals or similar creatures. Any player character playing a Surprise Elemental should be expected to roleplay all surprises.

[1]The demiplane of Surprise is mildly chaotic, while Delight is mildly chaotic good and Prank is mildly chaotic evil. Expectation is strongly lawful, while Hope is strongly lawful good and Presumption is mildly lawful evil.


Go and Weaknesses of Decision Trees

Yesterday, we reported that an artificial Go player had defeated one of the top human players for the first time, in a best of five match.

Today, Lee Sedol responded with a ‘consolation win’, to make the score 3-1.

From this analysis of the game, it seems that (at least) two things were at play here (Hat tip PB).

The first is called ‘Manipulation’, which is a technique used to connect otherwise unrelated parts of the board. My understanding of it is that you make two (or more!) separate positions on the board, one which is bad unless you get an extra move, and the other which might allow you to get an extra move. Since the two locations are separate, the player has to have a very specific sense of non-locality in order to be able to play it correctly[1].

To me, this feels like an excellent example of why Go is so difficult to solve computationally, and why there is still much fertile ground here for research.

The second seems to be an instance of what is called the ‘Horizon Effect‘[2]. Simply put, if you only search a possible gameplay tree to a certain depth, any consequences below that depth will be invisible to you. So, if you have a move which seems to be good in the short term, but has terrible consequences down the road, a typical search tree might miss the negative consequences entirely. In this particular case, the supposition is that Sedol’s brilliant move 78 should have triggered a ‘crap, that was a brilliant move, I need to deal with that’, instead of an ‘now all the moves I was thinking of are bad moves, except for this subtree, which seems to be okay as far out as I can see’. The fact that at move 87 AlphaGo finally realized something was very wrong supports this hypothesis.

Is the Horizon effect something you can just throw more machine learning at? Isn’t this what humans do?

[1]Specifically, the idea that two things can be related only by the fact that you can use resources from one to help the other.

[2]One wonders what types of ‘Quiescence Search‘ AlphaGo was using that it missed this.

Beautiful AI and Go

Something monumental happened today. An artificial Go player defeated one of the top human players three times in a row, to win the best of five match

But I want to go back to game two, where Alpha Go played an inhuman and ‘beautiful’ move 37, a ‘very strange move’.

This is what it must be like to have one of your children, or one of your students surpass what you could ever do. You have given them all you can, and they take that and reform it into something beautiful.

They mentioned that Alpha Go plays the entire board at once, and so is more able to see unusual move possibilities like the one above. Fan Hui mentioned that he’s improved (from ranked 633 to in the 300s) as he plays against Alpha Go.

What else can deep learning teach us? What other amazing, inconceivable things will we learn from this new child which is just beginning to flower?

Ethical In-Game Purchases

Throughout the history of computer gaming, people have tried many different business models.

Early on, models included rental and sales of coin-operated machines, shareware, mail-order sales, sales through distributors, and doubtless others that I’m forgetting.

Monthly subscriptions were a more recent innovation, for games such as World of Warcraft, in an effort to find a more consistent revenue stream.

More recently, ‘Downloadable Content’ or ‘DLC’, and ‘in-app purchases’ have become de rigeur.

At their heart, they seem to be trying to solve the same problem as monthly subscription fees, but in a more explicit and a-la-carte fashion.

My recollection is that DLC was first, being a model very similar to the old shareware and multi-episode games. You would try the first one for free, or perhaps pay for it (depending on whether it was shareware), then that would entice you to purchase the next episode, and the next.

You knew pretty much what you were getting, the developers got a more consistent revenue, everyone was happy[1].

DLC then started branching out into partially or mostly cosmetic items, like the Oblvion Horse Armour

This still seems reasonable to me. You were playing a single player game, you wanted more features, the developers gave them to you for more money.

Then the ‘Free to Play’ games started becoming more and more popular. They would start out being free to play, but you would then need to play to continue after a certain point. Almost exactly the same as shareware, no problem. You purchased access after you had tried out the game. Totally reasonable, still very ethical.

But then the ‘Freemium’ games started coming out, the games that which were ostensibly free to play, but you could only play so many turns before you had to wait for your energy or whatever to recharge. However, you could play ‘just one more turn’ if you were to pay a little more money. This has gone from ‘money for content’ to ‘searching out and exploiting addiction‘.

In a somewhat orthogonally unethical category are games which allow you to pay to achieve an unfair advantage over other players in a multiplayer game. One of the games I currently play is an online turn-based strategy game, where you can pay money (about $15CAD) to get unlimited turn undos. This allows you to not pay for scouting units, and know the disposition of all of your enemy’s units, mostly obviating the ‘fog-of-war’ game mechanic. I’m sure it’s also very profitable.

In summary,

– Pay for more content/features
– Pay a subscription fee to keep playing on company-run servers[2]

Not so ethical:
– Pay to take more turns in the game with no ability to unlock as many turns as you want for a reasonable sum of money
– Pay to achieve an unfair advantage over other players

[1]Perhaps not game developers, but that’s a different story.

[2]We haven’t talked about games which stop working when the game company goes under and the server goes down…

A Long Tail of Whales: Half of Mobile Games Money Comes From 0.15 Percent of Players

Space Junk Miner Wilco

They called her ‘Wilco’. They’d been calling her that since she was selected to be part of ‘Satellite Control’. “‘Space Junk Control’ more like” she had said under her breath during the induction ceremony, but not out loud, as this was the only way most people could get to space.

You see, all non-essential spaceflight had been cancelled since a number of high profile fatal collisions with space debris in the 2020s. There were the few essential robot missions to Moon Base Alpha, to provide them the equipment they couldn’t manufacture themselves yet, the constant replacement of GPS sats (now dual-purposed to carry data), and the occasional deep space probe that made its way through the space priority committee, but no more pleasure craft, only ‘Satellite Control’.

‘Satellite Control.’ Even the name was pompous. The mission was equally so, to think that they could actually clear LEO, MEO, and GEO of space debris, when they hadn’t even been able to clear LEO after years of trying. Of course, the constant rain of new debris from GPS-debris collisions, and the rain of debris from MEO didn’t help.

‘Wilco’ walked over to her ship, that she would call home for the next two weeks. The next two lonely weeks. The ship was basically a giant shielded cone, with a tiny cockpit living module at the point. From the ground, even with the best of adaptive optics, ground sensors could still only reliably detect debris of about half a centimeter or larger. The billions of smaller pieces of debris would skeletonize an unshielded ship like piranhas.

Strapping in, flight checklist. Fuel check. Computer check. Sensors check. Engines check.

“Wilco reporting. Ready for launch sequence.”
“Roger that, Wilco.”

(She hated that, even though she had always enjoyed the exploits of the space ‘sanitation engineer’ Roger Wilco from the Space Quest games, her nicknamesake.)

“Thrusters online.”
“Docking clamps disengaged.”
“Disengaging at 0.5 meters per second.”
“Okay, you are now clear of the station. Nose to the wind.”
“Nose to the wind.”

‘Nose to the wind’ was now the traditional call sign and benediction for the ‘Wilcos’. It had to do with how they flew their ‘collection’ ships. The massive cone was pointed in the direction of travel, collecting the space debris and not incidentally protecting the pilot. There was also a magnetic cone which extended the size of the cone, allowing the ‘nose ships’ to collect more of the ‘heavy dust’, the dark tiny shards of metal which did the most undetected damage. The ‘wind’ was similar to that of riding a bicycle down a hill on Earth. You would be going so fast that it seemed that everything was streaming towards you, on Earth a benign pushing force, up here a deadly rain of metal shards.

She settled in and started navigating towards her first target. A cloud of debris from a commsat which had been on its way to its graveyard orbit when it was hit by unexpected booster debris.

It was going to be a long day, but for now she was free, and IN SPACE! It was beautiful and quiet. All the many stars that humans would go to one day, as soon as they cleaned up the orbits around their own world. Thinking about it, maybe Earth wouldn’t be considered a planet until it (they) had cleaned the orbit again. The cloud was approaching. Arguments about Pluto and Eris for later. Time for work.

References: (3rd part of definition)

The article that inspired me:

“Humans are messy, and not just here on Earth. Now, you can see all the junk we’ve launched into space for yourself with a data-driven animation created for the United Kingdom’s Royal Institution by Stuart Grey, an astronomer at University College London. It all begins in 1957 when the Soviet Union launches Sputnik, a 58.5-centimeter-wide ball emitting radio pulses. A piece of the rocket that took it into orbit was the very first piece of space junk. The United States launched its own satellite, Explorer 1, the next year. Almost every mission into space has created new debris, either from the launch vehicles, objects falling off satellites, or unintended collisions. By the time the USSR launched the first human into space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, there were 200 objects floating around up there. By 1980 we had landed a man on the moon and left nearly 5000 objects in orbit. And because of deep space exploration, not all of them are tiny. Entire rocket engines are lurking around up there. The number of objects remained stable at about 9000 until suddenly, in 2007, a Chinese ballistic missile test exploded and added 2000 chunks of metal to the mix. In 2009, a couple of big satellites collided and added yet another 2000. You get the picture. We now stand at about 20,000 known pieces of space debris bigger than an apple—that is, an apple capable of ripping through a steel wall at 17,000 miles per hour—and there’s bound to be more. Space is becoming a very cluttered place, making it all the more dangerous to send humans up there to our orbit and beyond. (Video credit: Stuart Grey)”

Why Would Alduin Save the Dragonborn?

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

So, some of you may have heard of a little computer game called ‘Skyrim‘.

In the game, you play the part of a ‘Dragonborn’ character, whose special ability is being able to learn ‘shouts*’ by consuming dragon souls.

The game starts (although the player doesn’t know if yet) with the ancient dragon king ‘Alduin**’ arrives after being thrown forward in time by thousands of years. Alduin then*** flies to where the player is about to be executed, and attacks the town, freeing the player.

You learn later that Alduin’s goal is to resurrect dragons (who were all or mostly all killed before recorded history), and conquer the world**** again.

So, why, as Alduin’s first act would he save the life of the one person who can thwart his dragon resurrection**** plans? There are two main theories:

1) Alduin reappears after being thrown forward in time, perhaps confused, and attacks the nearest human target, perhaps the nearest human military target.

The nearby towns:
– Ivarstead (small town) is 5+4 (6.4 units as the dragon flies) away SE
– Helgen (fortified town) is 8+9 units (12 units as the dragon flies) away SW
– Riverwood (medium town) is 8 units away W
– Whiterun (major city) is 7+9 units (11.4 units as the dragon flies) away NW, but is where a dragon was trapped before, and is heavily fortified.

From this it’s a stretch to see Helgen as the obvious target, as it’s the furthest of the nearby settlements. Perhaps Alduin enjoyed flying over mountains, or was flying in the opposite direction from High Hrothgar (where humans taught each other shouts, also heavily fortified). Perhaps the people who threw Alduin forward in time were from Helgen, many thousands of years ago, and he was following them back.

2) The other person saved by Alduin’s attack is ‘Ulfric Stormcloak’ (another human who can ‘shout’), whose capture was about to end a civil war. His escape after being saved by Alduin reignites the civil war, distracting humans, and not coincidentally providing Alduin with many more souls to eat in Sovngard. Sovngard being the afterlife for honoured warriors, where Alduin resides so as to be impossible to kill on the mortal plane.

This theory feels like it makes a lot more sense. Alduin having been defeated by humans once, and needing time for his dragon resurrection campaign needs something to distract the humans. How he would have figured out that freeing Ulfric would help this is unknown. He could also feel that Ulfric could ‘shout’, and seek him out as a source of power, to defeat him, or to release him to cause chaos. I feel Alduin’s arrogance would only let him respect (and only barely) a human who could ‘shout’.

Other ideas:

3) Alduin senses the dragonborn (the player) (either because they feel like a dragon, or like a powerful human), and attacks to try to kill them*****. Ironically, this ends up saving them. Why Alduin didn’t finish the job is beyond me. Perhaps the player escaping into the keep and going underground caused Alduin to lose them, and he went off in search for other prey or dragons to resurrect. Perhaps because the player had not yet come into their power, or did not shout back at Alduin, they were nothing but prey, or beneath his notice.

4) The Elder Scroll****** or whomever empowered it to be used to throw Alduin forward in time brought him forward to the exact time and made sure he was in such a mental state that he would through his own actions save the very person (the player) who would cause his downfall. It was suggested that the time/dragon-god Akatosh was displeased with Alduin’s arrogance, so they could have been responsible.

5) Other ideas? Let me know what you think in the comments!

*’Shouts’ are an innate ability of dragons, for whom ‘shouting is as natural as talking’. ‘Shouts’ are special words of power which do the standard type of dragon things you would expect, like breathing fire or ice, or various other spell-like abilities. It is also mentioned in-game that a dragon argument involves them ‘shouting’ at each other, leading to very blurred lines between dragon arguments and combats.

**Alduin was the first dragon, created by the dragon-god of time Akatosh. Alduin’s original purpose was to be the ‘World-Eater’, to devour the world at the end of time, but Alduin decided to try to conquer the world and become a god. The humans rebelled (with some dragon help), and eventually used an ‘elder scroll’ to throw Alduin forward in time.

***It is unclear if anything else happens between these events.

****Dragons were originally the creation of the dragon god Akatosh. They are normally immortal, and can be resurrected by Alduin (and perhaps others). Consuming their souls prevents this resurrection.

*****Dragons ‘shout’ to argue with each other, so Alduin could have sensed someone like a dragon (dragonborn), and ‘shouted’ at them just to try to speak with them. This is not canon at all, but could make for a much more poignant story, if the whole story was all over an inability to communicate.

******’Elder Scrolls’ are fate-linked artifacts which have amazing and special powers, but these powers seem to be linked to the threads of some larger story woven by the gods or perhaps something even more powerful and ancient.