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Literature / Worth the Candle

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[...] if a player ever tried something on the theory that ‘that’s how it works in stories’ then it was your duty as DM to slap them down so hard they didn’t try garbage like that in the future.
— Juniper Smith, musing on Narrative Causality

Worth the Candle is a Trapped in Another World Web Serial Novel by seasoned Rational Fic writer Alexander Wales (of The Metropolitan Man fame) under his "cthulhuraejepsen" Pen Name. The story's first few chapters were released in July 2017, and was completed as of August 2021

A short side story, The Council of Arches, was published in May 2018. It's set between chapters 55 and 56 of the main story, and features its cast playing a Game Within a Game.

Discussion of the story takes place on the r/rational subreddit. Has a wiki.


Worth The Candle contains examples of:

  • Always Chaotic Evil: The Infernals are fully sentient creatures with a good understanding of morality who seem to exist for the sole purpose of making mortals of Aerb suffer as much as possible, mainly through inflicting horrible physical and psychological tortures on all mortal souls who end up in hell (and unlike in most Earth religions, hell isn't a punishment for sins committed in mortal life). Without mortal suffering, Infernals live in a state of gray boredom. The sole objection anyone has to the idea of enacting the complete genocide of trillions of these creatures as soon as it becomes possible is that it would give them a common foe to rally against.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Second Empire, who's increasing extremism and need for control dropped the population of Aerb by almost seven billion people and caused multiple extinction events before they collapsed. Most things associated with them are considered irrevocably tainted, including hexal government and soul magic.
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  • Auto-Revive: Onion Penndraig's armor is capable of doing this to its owner at least twice.
  • Battle in the Center of the Mind: A few pop up, mostly after Joon learns Soul Magic and later Spirit Magic
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Tuung (an Explosive Breeder froglike race) have the doctrine they call "the supremacy of life", meaning that all existence is better than non-existence. This translates to having as many children as possible (and male tuung die soon after mating) and then making sure they all end up in hell rather than vanish from existence. Most other races find this abjectly horrifying.
  • Body Horror: Pustule Mages run on this. The one description we get of one in action is... unpleasant to contemplate.
  • Brown Note: Some of the books in the Infinite Library contain these, of varying severity.
  • Brick Joke: Juniper's obsession with needing to fly a helicopter, as one of the few actual skills he brought over from Earth, returns in his escape from the Omega Hell, where he indeed must fly to reach the exit.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Played for Laughs. Juniper gets served "smeerp" meat, which, of course, is from an animal that is only described as being "like a rabbit".
  • Cast from Money: Gold mages have a power (tactile telekinesis) that scales logarithmically off the total amount of gold they have in a vault. However, the act of putting gold into a vault essentially stops it from being a valid form of currency, since trading it for anything else instantly makes the gold mage weaker.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Brown paper bags are mentioned to be commonplace in grocery stores. They're mentioned again by Juniper as a joke about getting past Fel Seed. They prove vital in capturing the Cannibal.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The Cannibal.
  • Covers Always Lie: The author had a habit of describing the story as a self-insert LitRPG portal fantasy - while technically true, the loaded nature of these terms often put people off from the story.
  • Cool Sword: A few have showed up so far. Juniper uses the Anyblade and the Flickerblade. In Juniper's campaign, the Vorpal Sword is an example of this but it failed to harm Fel Seed despite a nat20 because Fel Seed created it
  • Crapsack World: Aerb is a horrible place to live in - there are more and more exclusion zones (almost all of which are a veritable hell on earth by itself), singular events that cause dips in population that it never recovers from, magical and technological research into making the world a better place overall usually ends in an exclusion (often taking the whole magical discipline with it), and when a mortal dies without having their soul extracted and destroyed, they go to a hell for an eternity of torture that will only get worse over time.
  • Deconstruction: Of "Trapped in Another World" stories - particularly the kind with game mechanics.
    • What sort of person is actually happy to end up in an extremely dangerous universe where he faces death on a daily basis? An extremely unhealthy one, by his own admission.
    • The first person Juniper meets is a merciless Action Girl who openly attempts to sacrifice him on several occasions to increase her own chances of survival. She's a princess - the most direct descendant of the legendary king from ages past - but her family is chock-full of intrigue and backstabbing, and she's as cutthroat as any other member.
    • Said legendary king never got to enjoy peace, because plot threads kept appearing as he tied off old ones. The Good Guys Always Win, eventually, but they're Phyrric Victories at best. His associates - particularly lovers - had a nasty of habit of getting killed off.
    • Juniper's stat growth directly changes his body, mind and values. Instead of gleefully exploiting it like in, say, any given fanfic based on The Gamer, the cast spends plenty of time agonizing about the terrifying existential implications of this - but exploit it anyway, because they need to survive.
      • It turns out that the typical "died and ended up in another world" protagonist was Juniper's best friend, who became the aforementioned legendary king. The story explores how that loss affected Juniper and his friends in great detail - something which most Isekai stories would be perfectly happy to ignore. Furthermore, it seems that Juniper and Arthur weren't the only people from Earth who were sent over; the others apparently didn't succeed in impacting Aerb in the same way.
      • The "game" has a Relationship Values system called "Loyalty". Party members get certain perks at certain levels of Loyalty to Juniper. This comes with its own existential implications, which Juniper doesn't like one bit. When Amaryllis literally sits there and makes herself more Loyal to Juniper, he freaks out a little.
    • Juniper tries a Dangerous Forbidden Technique - not to defeat a bad guy, but simply to survive. It doesn't quite kill him, but makes him much more fragile.
    • Video games are often designed to give the player a rush of dopamine when they Level Up. This still happens to Juniper, but the rush increases with each successive level - he soon finds himself on a Descent into Addiction.
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique: Burning one's own bones works when none are at hand, but it has devastating long-term consequences.
    • Druids have a ritual that lets them find nearly anything. If it can't be found, the caster dies.
  • Genius Loci:
    • Kuum Doona is a house capable of assimilating and taking the properties of other entads, which eventually made her sentient.
    • The prison of Sulid Isle was built sentient.
    • A druidic locus is one, with an avatar to represent it.
  • Easy Road to Hell: The 9000 Hells are the only afterlife, and have nothing to do with a person's morality. The only escape is to have one's soul destroyed instead.
  • Door Stopper: As of its completion, the story stands at 1,654,265 words across 254 chapters.
  • Enforced Technology Levels: Enforced by the Infinite Library to avoid several timelines where technological progress leads to the end of the world, including one instance where the invention of broadcast television brings the world into contact with an entity who quickly convinces them to sacrifice the vast majority of the population to it.
  • Elemental Powers: Some schools of magic.
    • Making a Splash: Water magic is a form of macrohydrokinesis, capable of doing things on the scale of diffusing (or creating) storms, but likely with no fine control.
    • Kill It with Fire: Fire mages are capable of at least throwing fireballs. Fire magic is gained by repeatedly setting yourself on fire.
    • Power of the Void: Void Crystals are very good at putting holes through things, although it's not technically a form of magic as far as the locals are concerned.
    • Shock and Awe: One species is capable of this innately.
    • Blow You Away: Air magic.
    • An Ice Person: Ice magic, considered a lost art and likely excluded.
    • Light 'em Up / Gemstone Assault: Gem magic lets one emit destructive rays of light with properties depending on the gem used.
    • Casting a Shadow: Penumbrals have a specific form of shadow magic unique to their race.
    • Green Thumb: Flower and wood magic.
  • The Everyman: One of Juniper's friends once pointed out that he "looked like someone had chosen ‘default’ for every option in the character creator", leading to an endless series of variations on that theme from the rest of the gaming group.
  • The Face: Amaryllis, being a princess and having spent much of her life at court, usually plays this role for the party.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Averted. Aerb has guns, but magic armor, velocity wards, and various other defenses make them less of a big deal than they are on Earth.
  • A Fate Worse Than Death: Juniper has an in-game setting to automatically die instead if he's ever caught in one of these. He immediately deselects it, on the grounds of not knowing who's the judge of that.
  • The Federation: The First Empire, which Uther united many of the nations of Aerb under, and is considered the foundation of modern political principles.
  • Fictional United Nations: The Empire of Common Cause, the current world government of Aerb. Due to the crimes of the Second Empire, it is kept weak on purpose, though it still has theoretical access to the collective resources of 98% of the hexal.
  • Flashback Echo: The events of the main plot are frequently interrupted by relevant flashbacks to Juniper's gaming group in Kansas.
  • From a Single Cell: One of the many reasons Fel Seed is impossible to get rid of, although even destroying literally all life within its exclusion zone (as confirmed by a god) wasn't enough to keep it from coming back.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Of a few varieties, most notably with regard to half-elves.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Not just half-elves; there's an entire in-universe book devoted to which species can interbreed.
  • Hell: Aerb has several thousand hells, but no heavens (as far as anyone can tell). Even the mildest are still bad, but there are places on Aerb itself that are awful enough to be as bad as many of the worse ones.
  • Human Resources: How the Doris Finch clones feed and clothe themselves; corpses are the one thing they have an inexhaustible supply of. (See Self-Duplication, below.)
  • Game-Breaker: invoked Anything that's too powerful or world-destroying tends to get "excluded", restricted to a single individual and/or geographical region. Juniper discovers that temporarily maxing out still magic lets him make any temporary effect last for as long as he can stay awake. There's a magic tattoo that gives six seconds of immunity to damage to him and his entire party, which he gets to exploit for a while. When he adds another tattoo that lets him temporarily (which with still magic also means permanently) not need to sleep, magic tattoos are immediately excluded.
  • Game-Breaking Bug: The "game layer" seemed to break for a moment when Juniper made "[Null Pointer Exception]" a companion and then raised her loyalty to 10. It also responded oddly when Juniper was exposed to a meme that is supposed to leave you unable to think about anything other than itself.
  • Ice Queen: Amaryllis, though she's technically a princess.
  • Insistent Terminology: Athenaeums are not "colleges" or "magic schools", they are Athenaeums.
  • Killed Off for Real: It takes significant sacrifice to revive the first party member to die, and the game itself tells Joon that next time it "wouldn't be so easy". The second seems to be dead for real - though Joon plans to bring her back, there's no known method that would work, and she's completely gone from the game layer
    If another of your party members dies, don’t expect it to be so easy.
  • Lampshade Hanging: All over the place - but mostly by Juniper, who is well-versed in fantasy and tropes.
  • Logical Weakness: Due to being both literally and metaphorically a meme, one of the Cannibal's few weaknesses is antimemetic effects, which work to escape him where all actual magic fails.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: True for many of the magic systems presented in the story, though there are some exceptions.
  • Mind Manipulation: Both soul magic and spirit magic are capable of this. Soul magic is highly illegal and spirit magic is a lost art thanks to Uther's deliberate attempts to eradicate it.
  • Mordor: Many of the exclusion zones are like this, especially the one containing Fel Seed.
  • Nature Adores a Virgin: Unicorns like virgins. This is not depicted as a good or healthy thing, and more as a psychosexual obsession with purity. They don't much like it when people try to take their girls away.
  • Medieval Stasis: Aerb has Schizo Tech that mostly peaks at around the 1920s.
    • Certain technologies (such as nuclear weapons in particular) have been realized and then "excluded," usually to a particular location.
    • Other modern discoveries, such as cathode-ray tubes and plastics but not the radio, turn out to have strange properties that would lead to disaster when mass produced. Such inventions have been averted by a dedicated group with foreknowledge.
  • Never Found the Body: Uther Penndraig vanished five hundred years ago. While most people do assume that he died, the fact that the body (or the soul) was never found makes it a custom to refer to him as simply The Lost King, and the kingdom of Anglecynn still formally recognizes him as the de jure ruler while his inheritors are all merely princes and princesses.
  • Never Split the Party: Discussed, specifically as a trope in tabletop games, but ultimately Let's Split Up, Gang! comes into effect.
  • Noodle Incident: "A Manxome Foe", one of the last tabletop campaigns Juniper organized, featured some of the most twisted creations he came up with, with its final boss being particularly evil and twisted as well as deliberately designed to be unbeatable. It went badly both for the players and their characters, and keeps getting mentioned in passing because said final boss made it to Aerb wholesale.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: All entads are made over the course of a single "forge frenzy", an altered state of mind in which an artisan isolates himself and produces an item from their mad visions. When they're done, they themselves can't explain how they built the item and how it even works, much less how to make more.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: Bethel makes several passes at Juniper, and when she gets a body capable of feeling sexual pleasure, she sets out to seduce him in earnest. He says no despite being sorely tempted, but Bethel refuses to take no for an answer. Juniper resorts to using Mind Manipulation on himself to deal with the aftermath.
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: People in the Risen Lands get up in arms when Juniper uses that word, but the reason isn't explained until much later in the story. It eventually transpires that a specific necromancer trademarked the word "zombie" to refer to a particular type of undead only he could create, a reanimated corpse that could follow simple orders until it eventually decayed away to nothing. He used them as cheap industrial labor and advertised his goods as "Zombie Made." Unfortunately it turned out that the souls of the people turned into zombies were bound to the corpse and fully conscious - unable to act and suffering all the pain of being stuck in a decaying body. Ever since the public found out the truth, the word "zombie" has been taboo.
  • Our Dwarves Are All the Same: Mostly played straight - except that they're a literal One-Gender Race thanks to Bizarre Alien Sexes.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: You have to destroy the heart, not the head. Naturally, this was a deliberate feature designed by Juniper to trip up his gaming group.
  • Portal Cut: One of the exclusion zones is for portal magic. The person who invented them is stated to dispatch transgressors in this way.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: When the Dungeon Master (re)introduces himself to Juniper, the first thing Juniper does is beat his avatar to death while accusing him of being directly responsible for all the horrible suffering that exists on Aerb.
  • Rational Fic: A rational look at Trapped in Another World stories. It's easy to think the whole thing's just an excuse for Alexander Wales to show off his Worldbuilding chops.
  • Reconstruction: Several common tropes are modified to withstand scrutiny by both the readers and the characters.
    • An important concept is the "exclusionary principle" - the name given to the phenomenon of certain forms of magic or technology suddenly, permanently ceasing to function outside a geographically restricted area, called an exclusion zone. The actual mechanism is a mystery to the people of Aerb, but it seems to happen whenever the excluded magic or technology is about to threaten an Apocalypse How scenario. This allows the world to exist in spite of several active threats which should by themselves be world-ending. It also helps maintain the (partial) Medieval Stasis and puts a dampener on Munchkinry, since powerful enough discoveries or exploits are liable to be excluded.
  • Roman à Clef: The pre-Aerb events of the story are stated to be autobiographical to some degree - Juniper's friends have different names, but the real-world people they're based on would probably recognise themselves immediately.
  • Scary Teeth: Elves have sharp pointy teeth.
  • Self-Duplication: Doris Finch learned how to do this when she was nine years old. Unfortunately she grew up to be a total bitch with a bad case of Chronic Backstabbing Disorder, and there are now about nine million of her in the exclusion zone that she and her power are restricted to, all of which are constantly at each other's throats.
  • Self-Inflicted Hell: Doris Finch's exclusion zone ended up as one because of her Chronic Backstabbing Disorder and self-loathing.
  • Self-Insert Fic: Juniper, purportedly - though the author keeps quiet about the extent to which Juniper is an Author Avatar.
  • Shadow Archetype: Since the universe is drawn from Juniper's ideas, nearly all the villains in the second half of the story serve as mirrors to him, each a single one of his flaws expanded infinitely. Bethel is his desire to exert power over others, Doris Finch is his inability to stop hurting himself; Captain Blue-In-The-Bottle his self-justification, and Fel Seed his desire to lash out. This is, of course, recognized in-universe; he makes it to most of the villains only after he's overcome the flaw, but the villains are still there - as is the damage the flaws have done.
  • Speak of the Devil: Saying the name Shia LaBeouf summons a horror movie villain version of him that will inevitably kill the person who says the name, along with anyone else in the area he feels like killing.
  • Sudden Game Interface: It's revealed at the end of the first chapter that Juniper has access to a character sheet that appears when he closes his eyes for three seconds - but even before that there are text pop-ups. The game system is apparently based on the one that Aerb!Juniper made. Or the one that the DM made him make... it's confusing.
    Achievement Unlocked: Down, But Not Out …
  • Tabletop RPG: The primary focus of the story, both in flashbacks and in the elements of the world. At one point the primary characters sit down to play a Game Within a Game.
  • Talking the Monster to Death: Juniper solves the quest related to the Doris Finch exclusion with diplomacy instead of violence. This is then immediately deconstructed in the next arc, when the villain immediately surrenders and stops fighting when they show up - which starts the plot, not finishes it, because he's suffering from a case of Never My Fault much, much worse than just having an evil alignment.
  • The Dog Bites Back: [Null pointer exception] spent most of her life possessed by demons. Then she gets the ability to possess them, and Valencia The Red gets started wiping them out.
  • Title Drop: Juniper's prayer to the Dungeon Master.
    “I don’t want Fenn to change because her loyalty metric increased. I want her loyalty metric, if she’s going to have one, to just be a reflection of how loyal she is, not an invisible lever controlling her. I want her to be a real person, or at least as real as I am. And … I’m hesitant to want that for everyone else in Aerb, because sometimes existence is pain, but … if they’re not going to be real, or at least as real as I am, then I want them to be real enough that I can’t tell the difference. I want that for the whole of Aerb, alright? I want to poke at the seams and find out that you thought of everything. And at the end of it, I want Arthur back. That’s the only way that this game is ever going to be worth the candle.“
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Juniper was a total Jerkass to his friends on Earth after Arthur died. He's aware of this and has been trying to be better to his friends on Aerb, but being aware of his flaws - that he's basically an immature, self-centered teenager who doesn't understand other people's needs very well - only goes so far in helping him actually be a better person.
  • Theme Naming: Uther's descendants are invariably named after plants in one way or another.
  • Theory of Narrative Causality: Frequently discussed and partially Jossed. According to the Dungeon Master, it doesn't have nearly as much weight as the characters seem to think. Despite this, after Fenn's death Amaryllis bushes for it even harder.
  • Trapped in Another World: Emphasis on the trapped. Juniper thinks that Uther disappeared because he tried to use the Long Stairs in Fel Seed's exclusionary zone to get back to Earth
  • Totalitarian Utilitarian: The guiding ideology of the Second Empire amounted to this, and Juniper is regularly tempted to repeat their mistakes.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Juniper based some things in his tabletop games on ideas from the SCP Foundation. He ends up having to fight creatures with "anti-memetic" properties; one is a giant monster that anyone not in its presence can't remember exists, and others are creatures that are effectively invisible because people's brains can't perceive them properly while they're still alive.
  • Unwanted Harem: Juniper is very disturbed by the fact that his companions (almost) all seem to be potential love interests, and wants very much not to have to deal with this particular trope.
  • Villain Sue: Fel Seed was an in-universe example in Juniper's campaigns, born from Juniper's despair about Arthur's death... which makes him an Invincible Villain in Aerb, even by the standards of the serial's villains.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: The Cannibal will stop his rampage if you put a paper bag over his head. Actually doing this, though, is much easier said than done.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Entads are legally classified as property, even when they possess self awareness. Since the number of self aware entads is maybe a few hundred across all of Aerb, there's not a whole lot of political pressure to change the status quo, especially when each case would have to be judged individually and would potentially deprive a powerful faction of a valuable tool.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: