why aren’t demons scary? pt. 3

I know your kind, he said. What’s wrong with you is wrong all the way through you.

Demons are almost always boring.

Part 2 here.
Part 1 here.

It really doesn’t take much to make someone go wrong. A minor frustration, the wrong comment at the wrong time. Somewhat counterintuitively, the more powerful the demon, the less power is ever revealed: it is the weak, the graspers and posers, who compete amongst each other to rain down the most spectacular calamities; those of age and power compete amongst each other, quite contrarily, to see how little they can do to ruin a soul. Beginners want to hurl hellfire; old-timers want to see how gently they can kick out the stool.

This is a challenge because we make it so easy. We, the people. The wisest of demons know that it takes so little to send us astray because we are always trying to go astray. To go wrong, the strongest of us may need a push, or a nudge; most of us, just a distraction.

Consider the demon whose preference is avarice. He doesn’t want you to get rich; rather, he knows your desire for wealth, and wants to use that desire to bring you low. The novice demon might find it spectacular to engineer a horrific situation where, through some concatenation of efforts, you end up thrown into a pool of molten gold. The experienced1 demon might engineer a situation where the temptation to embezzle is there, and resisted as selfish… and then a loved one falls ill.

Or consider the demon whose preference is lust. The restrained man might fight mightily against his impulses and be forever faithful to his wife. No harlot could draw his touch. Where he will more likely fall is when, walking hand-in-hand with his wife, he allows the quickest of sidelong glances at a passing woman.

The beginner tries to engineer the end result. The old hand creates the beginning. And everyone fails the same way: slowly, and then all at once.

It really doesn’t take much. Consider the man on his way to give at the almshouse. There are many ways to prevent that charity; but the simplest may be just to remind him that it’s lunchtime. Or the man endeavoring on an important but unpleasant labor: let the thought occur to him that the task, at rock bottom, need not be completed today. It takes some not-insignificant energy to introduce a comely young lady into a proto-lecher’s life; easier, then, to remind him that his wife is as old as he.

Demons are almost always boring. That’s why they’re so scary.

It doesn’t take much to ruin someone. It is the easiest thing in the world, because it doesn’t take much force to get someone to do what they wanted to do anyway. Just a nudge. It’s much harder to fill a tub than to pull out the stopper. Easy as tipping a glass off a table.

I do think the how is more boring than the why. More later.

1 It is left as an exercise for the reader as to whether the experienced demons simply seek to minimize their efforts, or if they are simply weary and no longer impressed by spectacle, or whether it is a more difficult sort of competition. The most refined taste is indistinguishable from happy accident, and the master is simply he who performs the basics best.

dragons, again

This is a good post: co-DMing a boss fight.

It’s interesting in the sense of mechanics, especially a counter-balancing of the mechanical action economy (in favor of the players) with a second DM, who can keep track of the overload of options and potential tactics available and come to intelligent conclusions while another DM adjudicates the actions called. This is doubly-true for genius-level opponents (a dragon, a lich, a beholder) rather than juggernauts (a tarrasque), where a creativity of tactics, a clever use of terrain can make a powerful, compounding difference. But, while not mentioned in the above post, such reasons also apply to fights with many smaller opponents. When one DM is running twenty goblins against the PCs, there simply isn’t enough time for that DM to step into the head of each individual opponent and faithfully replicate it. Such fights very quickly exhaust the options a single DM can keep track of, and that group of individual opponents is only thought of a mass—and a mass that tends to just charge.

But back to the post. A maximal red dragon. And how it turned into a war of dice and cleverness, a puzzle to be solved, as much storytelling and emotion as the twisting of a Rubik’s cube.1 What is more interesting to me is what it feels like to be attacked by a dragon, to go hunt one.

The closest I can come to is something like this.

Not seeing the breath weapon doesn’t make you alive again. Also, it’s even got teeth.

Imagine that swooping down on you out of the blue sky. You first saw it seven seconds ago, in a screaming dive. Something lethal will erupt from its maw, and it will be gone. Maybe you have those seven seconds to stop what you’re doing, formulate a plan, prepare yourself. Maybe a generous second-and-a-half to fight back. In other words, you have the rest of your life to figure it out.

What are you going to do? No, I mean really. You’re there. Put yourself there. It’s happening now. You look up, it’s there. Right now. What does it feel like?

Is that how you felt reading the blog post? Unlikely.

Let’s get some emotional distance. You’re hunting the dragon. Let’s continue with the A-10 analogy. A dragon doesn’t just sit in a cave. It has the time, resources, and intelligence to put itself in a safe place. Don’t think that you’ll just tromp through the woods, following footprints, and get the jump on it. I’ll posit that the A-10 can be used as further analogy. How do you go destroy that? The dragon has an area under its control, maybe like an airbase. Even when it’s at its most vulnerable, on the ground, what do you have to do to get to it? Its intelligence network has known of your plans for weeks, and probably calculated that it is most efficient just to send someone to stick a knife through your eye when you sleep. It’s surrounded by obstacles—fences and concertina wire?—and traps—mines?—and early-warning sensors. All of those are overwatched by fighting creatures, who will not only notify the dragon, but actually fight you. And they communicate: not just with the dragon, but with the reinforcements who will also come fight you. And when you get through all of that, the dragon has scrambled: it’s not where you wanted it to be, it’s behind you, in the air, raining its own death upon you. Or it just left and will be five hundred miles away in a couple hours. Now you get to walk for weeks, to start the process over.

And what if, by happenstance, you find it on the ground? Somehow pinned, somehow cornered? You still have to fight it. It’s armored. That strafing attack works just as well on the ground. And you’re going to go hit it with your sword, because it’s super-powerful when you swing it with both hands? What does it feel like to try to creep up on an armored beast that spews fire?

Save for half, I guess?

I fall back on my previous views. Dragons—and their epic-level concomitants—are best seen not as individual beings to attack, but as institutions to be overthrown.

1 Okay, you caught me. The post describes a con game specifically designed to be a tactical puzzle. Let’s ignore that. How often does your game’s combat turn into a puzzle rather than a scene? . . . Yeah, me too.

minds that can never be our own

Human beings set out to encounter other worlds, other civilizations, without having fully gotten to know their own hidden recesses, their blind alleys, well shafts, dark barricaded doors.

As appears to have become a recurring theme in this blog, I am fairly captivated by the idea of what makes the classic building-blocks of D&D.1 What makes humans, elves, dwarves, and orcs iconic? And aasimar, tieflings, and eladrin stupid?2 I don’t think I’ve ever explained it particularly well—and I don’t think I am here, either—but I do have this consistent interest in what makes the most basic things tick, and what makes them stick.

There has to be something there. To the best I can tell, to get a relevant race—what makes one stick in a game, makes someone want to play one—you need a confluence of three things: (1) a distinctive appearance, close enough to human but clearly distinct; (2) a stat modification, providing a bonus and a penalty; and (3) a stereotype, an archetype, a shorthand, a feel that appeals to some type of player. The first is easy: an elf is slight and quick and beautiful; a dwarf, squat and solid; an orc, big and burly and ugly. The second is almost universal, and is a gamification, but a valuable one: a reskin without a stat difference feels almost empty. If there’s no stat difference, why not just play a short, stocky human with a beard and a burrowing instinct?

The third one is the hardest. It’s hard to explain. It’s not just the visual shorthand we use to immediately recognize a race. It’s more like . . . a type? An embodiment? How well it matches the idealized self-image of the player? I don’t feel like I have the words I’m looking for. When you hear “orc,” it’s the first thing that pops into your head. It is what I mean when I ask what an elf “means.” Or, more tangentially, when I wonder how to make this or that thing scary.

So, let’s continue apace. I don’t care for the races-as-races we’ve always been given in D&D—and the cultural shadow of D&D is long, and so very few of us have emerged from it, or want to. I don’t care for them simply because they’re flat. Thin. Elves are glam humans. Orcs are hardcore humans. Dwarves are . . . eh, I’m not a scenekid anymore, if I ever was,3 so let’s move on. I don’t like this thinness because it makes all the races just reskinned humans, Star Trek aliens, humans in funny makeup. I don’t like the stat mods not because it’s not a good gamification idea—it isn’t a bad one—but because without any real depth, it just feels tacked-on, and leads to a clustering of race/class, without a satisfying variety. When was the last time you saw a dwarven thief, or an orc mage, or a gnome fighter? They’re there! But there ain’t many.

So that’s a lot of preface, and is just me wandering through the basis of why we keep getting all these posts about some of the most basic elements of our game. What I want to talk about is alienness. To make our elves and dwarves and halflings and gnomes interesting, as interesting as they ought to be. We need to make our races something more than reskins; we need to make them what they are, which is fundamentally different from normal humans.

What is alienness? For our working definition, how about the great gulf between how we expect persons to act, and how they do act; how we think, and how they think. But for us, instead of thinking, “huh, that person talks funny,” let’s try to turn it up—we’re talking ineffably different—let’s try “how could something that looks like a person even be like that?”

This is the great gulf. What is the interior subjective world of a dead-eyed shark? Does a wasp have, however limited, thoughts that a person could even recognize as thoughts? What about a whole nest of eusocial wasps? Does an individual wasp have thoughts? Does the nest, as a corporate entity, have individual thoughts? If an individual wasp does not, how does the nest? What about ants? What about an ant colony? Or supercolony? Does it have a hundred million minute thought-fractions? Does it have one megathought? What is it thinking?

Moving further out, what about a myconid? If a myconid could talk, or you could telepath, could you communicate? Could we even posit a language with enough common concepts that a human and a myconid could pass a single mutually intelligible message? Or is the conceptual gulf so great that nothing could be communicated?

How about your dog? Does your dog understand you? Do you understand your dog? You see him every day. He responds to certain sequences of noises or gestures you make, and performs predictable actions. He understands that if he performs certain actions, you will likely act in a certain way. But does he have internal emotions you would recognize if they were somehow implanted in your head? He looks like he does . . . but does he? How could you ever know? Is your dog your friend, or have dogs domesticated humans as a food source? Does your dog love you, or does he somehow know that certain random—to him—behaviors happen to make food appear?

How can we know the internal mental state of anything that is not a human?

To be continued.

1 And by D&D, of course, I refer to just about every elfgame out there. Damn near all of us, whether we play it or not, are at least culturally aware of what D&D consists of. Maybe you don’t know what THAC0 is, but just about everyone knows what a gnome is, or a magic-user, or a hit point, or a saving throw.

2 I actually don’t know if these are popular things. I’m just crotchety.

3 “You buy that dye at Hot Topic? Fuckin’ poser!”

what do elves mean?

I always had a repulsive sort of need to be something more than human.

(Third in a series. Haven’t made it to “elves have to be fucked up, pt. 3: the price of purity” yet. Think of this as an interlude: what do elves mean? In our collective gamer consciousness, that is; why are they in our game? What pulls us to play them? Why are tieflings some bullshit made-up thing, but elves are canon? What do they say that we want to say, over and over? First in the series here. Second here.)

Yeah, yeah. I know. Fuckin’ Legolas.

No, none of that. We’ve had too much of that. We’ve had better before and after.

What do elves signify? Is an elf really simply the forest-man, a wild person who doesn’t clear or plow, but spends time carefully tending and gathering what is already there? Maybe not wild—there are game depictions of “wild” (primitive, barbarian, savage—insert your chosen denigration here) forest elves, but they are not the norm. Think Kagonesti, contra Silvanesti, Qualinesti.

So, people, but who live in the woods? But not grubby people, not logclearers and charcoalers and poachers, but people who live in the woods without dirt under their fingernails, people who live out there and turn that little copse into a place of windchimes and incense and no discernible labor, like a new-age shop? The woods, of course, always pictured as the primeval oak and hazel and beech forests of ancient England. Is that what an elf is? The man who doesn’t tame the looming wood, but submits to it; living in kind, rather that in opposition. Is an elf just a bourgeois city-dweller’s imagination of what living in the woods looks like?

Maybe the elf isn’t simply the forest-man. Maybe the elf is the ascended man. The elf is cerebral, a lover of beauty and art. Soft music floats through elven settlements, lovely fragrances waft. Maybe there’s no obvious way all of these folk actually support themselves, no evidence of the baseness of physical bodily functions.1 Do elves just waft—there’s a lot of wafting involved—through their many days with no obvious means of support, like a Silver Lake trust-fund kid, creating art no one cares about, writing books no one will read, getting into interminable status spirals over eye-rollingly abstruse controversies through infinitesimal fashion signals?

Or do elves signal the desire to be the Ubermensch, not so much the ascended man, floating passively in an assumed natural superiority, but the ruthless artist-tyrant, the Elric or the Thin White Duke? The hypercompetent aesthete who can subsist off liquor and all-night Weimar nightlife and drugs you aren’t cool enough to have even heard of much less consume and a single raw egg in the morning because you can never be too thin or too rich or too ironic and even in the 10 a.m. skullcrushing leftover morning he still knows more than you and still somehow looks better? Is there any reason to even posit that he isn’t just better than you? At everything? The only thing an elf cannot do is laugh at himself.

Jean-Luc Ourlin

Maybe elves are intended to represent something altogether different. Maybe elves are the prototype market-dominant minority. Planning and foresight produce good outcomes, outstripping the hasteful actions of others; longevity allows both. Heavy K-selection makes a permanent minority save in a few limited enclaves; longevity doesn’t help here. Returns compound with time, and when estates risk dissipation one-tenth as frequently as in a human clan, financial empires are created.

But doesn’t that sound so anodyne? Everyone else sees the cause of this particular form of dominance not as a predictable result of starting conditions but rather what it really is—elves are sneaky and sly, unloyal, dual-loyal, not to be trusted, clannish and unmanly, dishonest, sharp-dealers and cheaters—every slur ever hurled. And perfect targets for the ugliest violence. What’s the elvish word for pogrom?2

1 Elves are smart and elegant, which means, in Gaussian style, that there are nonetheless both some that are comparatively less smart and less elegant than their peers, and simultaneously more smart and more elegant than the average human. How does that kid feel when he learns that he gets to be a ploughboy, rather than trained up for sword-dancing or discoursing on planar metaphysics? And where’s the latrine, anyway?

2 And how much more likely is the formation of a market-dominant minority when that minority actually is smarter, on average, than humans? That +2 intelligence has killed more elves than it has helped. THANKS PATHFINDER.

why aren’t demons scary?

He said the wicked know that if the ill they do be of sufficient horror men will not speak against it. That men have just enough stomach for small evils and only these will they oppose.

Because at the end of the day, if there’s a big scary goon around, you just go somewhere else.

Okay, too glib.

Let’s try this:  which is scarier, getting stabbed by someone? Or that inescapable voice in your head that goads and shames and belittles you until it feels that the only deserving thing to do is to stab yourself?

Less glib.

Here’s the point. Demons are not about red-skinned humanoids with flaming swords and spiked chains. Not vrock nor hezrou nor glabrezu nor nalfeshnee nor marilith nor balor. Not type, Type I or IV.

Demons are about self-harm. That’s what makes them so fucked up.

Demons are not creatures, running around on some other plane, doing battle with each other for what always look like suspiciously human reasons.

Demons are whisperers. Whisperers and convincers. Underbreath mutterers and mumblers, murmurers and susurrators, grumblers and contemnors, maunderers and mussitators, scolds and rebukes. And not really liars, not really. It’s not so much untruth, as an expansion on little truths, little unpleasant truths carefully tended and nurtured, until the melon seed has grown large and full and then shrunk, just a little, skin of wrinkles, full of black rot inside until some little blow collapses the whole thing.

Are demons even really a thing? Is there a place where you can go, if you want to find a demon, to lay hands on it? Is there some journey you can take, some heroic journey where if you overcome enough adversity and display a pure heart you can walk up on one and put your dirk in its throat and make it grovel for its sin and shake your head at whimpered justifications and press through and watch its boiling blood spill and come back to the acre-a-day life you walked away from at the beginning of our story?

No.

Probably not. If there is such a place, you don’t want to be there, not for any reason, least of all those reasons you think most justify it.

None of us, the best of us, even know if there are a million of them, all bickering and hissing for their meat, or if there is one, with little whispering hyphae sliding up all over the place. Does it matter? If they are legion, there will be another to take its place; slice a hyphae, the root grows two.

Even if there are many, they don’t so evenly divide into types. There isn’t the bird-beaked one and the spike-chained one and the fiery one and the snakelady one. There is no taxonomy of demons. If anything, each has a preference, a modus operandi as it were, a preferred sin—and by sin, a way of bringing a human soul low.

Men love allotments and sortings and hierarchies, and repeat them often enough to convince themselves of order when there is none. Demons just have preference. Men will categorize demons by their sin—mens’ sins, that is, as demons have none, for without the possibility of grace there is no sin to forfend. Men will tell you what demons love. In one of the greater ironies, they are not so wrong as may be supposed.

elves have to be fucked up, pt. 2

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

(The second in a series about how either elves are the dominant humanoid species, or somehow screwed-up, the first of which is here.)

Possibility 1: Evolutionary Misfires

Elves are heavily K-selected.

Elves haven’t conquered the world because there are just too damn few of them, there are too few because they reproduce too slowly, and because they reproduce so slowly they are exceedingly risk-averse.

Roughed out for the gaming crowd, in ecological theory, r/K selection is the idea that organisms will converge on one of two reproductive strategies. An r-selected organism emphasizes speedy growth, early onset of maturity, production of many offspring, low parental involvement in the raising of those offspring, comparatively low survival rates of those offspring, along with smaller body size and shorter lifespans. Think rats, or goblins.1

Alternately, K-selection is a strategy typified by slower growth and later onset of maturity; production of fewer, but better cared-for, offspring; extensive parental involvement with those offspring leading to better survival rates; larger body size and longer lifespans. Think elephants . . . or elves.2

We know elves have a relatively large body-size for a humanoid.3 We know that they live a tremendously long time and undergo a childhood and adolescence the length of a long human lifetime; we can easily presume a parental involvement and investment in single offspring orders of magnitude greater than that provided by other humanoids. Elves are quintessential K-strategists. From what we know we can infer that elven children have superb survival rates and elven adults, exceedingly low reproductive rates. If an elven child requires a century of rearing, we can assume that each elven family—not just mothers, as that level of resource-investment likely requires the fathers, as well, or the community as a whole—spaces births in increments of scores of years.

When you have so much resource investment in each and every child, each of those children is tremendously precious. So many resources, in fact, that we could plausibly assume that any settled elven society has the majority of its resources invested in its people rather than anything material. Why would it then send those resources off—in the form of young men and women—to war for any reason short of an existential threat? Any elven society will consequently become incredibly risk-averse, perhaps to a self-defeating degree.

Even if elves overcome this risk aversion, the extremely slow reproduction rate means there just aren’t that many elves. Sure, an exquisitely trained elven swordsman may defeat a dozen orcs, but there are a dozen dozen more standing behind them. Sometimes quantity has a quality all its own.

Maybe elves haven’t conquered the world for no other reason than that there are too few of them, each is worth too much, and the elves are paralyzed thereby.

To be continued in part 3, “The Price of Purity.”

1 Actually, think of litters of rats under your floorboards. Or litters of goblins under your floorboards. Actually actually, don’t.

2 In unstable environments r-strategists tend to dominate, as survival becomes a numbers game when there is no clear superior adaptation to the changing circumstances. Conversely, in a stable environment, there is time for evolution to produce smaller and smaller incremental improvements suited to that specific environment, intensive—slow!—nurturing pays bigger dividends, and K-strategists emerge.

3 Your elves are taller than humans, right? Right?

elves have to be fucked up, pt. 1

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet?

Why haven’t elves taken over the world? They’re just as smart (if not smarter) than humans, adaptable to many environments, generally considered attractive and charismatic by other humanoids, and, most importantly, they live for-fucking-ever. They compete with other humanoids for the same basic resources— water, arable land, game, metals and lumber, space to expand—but, for some reason, haven’t extirpated their competitors.1 Why?

John Martin, The Hubris of Elvenkind is Rewarded (1831).

Intelligence and tool-making, whether those tools be mundane or magical, are the killer advantage in conquering an ecological niche; once in the realm of technology,2 physical attributes are less relevant. With technology taken hold, strength matters little: a muscular build pales in comparison to the work that can be done with a simple lever. Dexterity matters more, but not insofar as we care about stealthy backstabs; rather, dexterity supports the manipulation of tools, the knapping of flints and the sewing of hides into clothes and the planing of spokestaves. Constitution always helps, but not to the extent we would wish: a tough guy can withstand the cold, but a whole tribe of weaklings can huddle around a bonfire.

The key here is that elves live a tremendously long time. By itself that matters little—a bristlecone pine can live longer than five elves—but when combined with intelligence, it means that techniques, proficiencies, and advances can be continually built upon without losing ground to senility, death, or errors in transmission. Say, roughly, that an apprentice is useful at ten and spends ten years learning the trade. If you live eighty years, and ignoring senescence, that’s three quarters of your life productively working. But if you live a thousand years, that’s 98% of your life spent productively. Maybe elven children take much, much longer to develop: but even if an elven childhood is roughly the length of a human life—and holding the time spent to learn a trade the same, befitting equivalent intelligence—that’s still 90% of a life spent productively.

The more experience you have practicing a trade, the better you’re likely to be at it. It doesn’t matter if that trade is tanning or masonry or generalship. The skilled elf simply gets more time to improve, try new things, and figure out more efficient processes. Included in this mastery is improvement of teaching the trade to proteges, to get them up to speed faster, or barring that, to a higher level in the same amount of training. Absent something fundamentally wrong with the elf, an elf should be better than any other humanoid at whatever the elf chooses to do.

But what we see in most settings is that elves—along with humans, and dwarves, and secondarily with gnomes and halflings and orcs and goblins and hobgoblins3—exist in a sort of hand-wavy equilibrium. Maybe the dwarves are in the mountains, the elves in the woods, and we ignore interspecies competition for resources by pretending that they all just stay where they’re supposed to. But there’s no reason to suspect that such an unstable equilibrium would develop, and were it to spring afresh sua sponte, no reason to expect it would last. Even if everyone starts in their canon-proper places, successful reproduction means they’ll have to expand to fill their environment, and now we’ve got elves creeping down old mineshafts to take habitat from the dwarves and taking to horse to run off those plainsmen.

Elves should be able to outcompete their peer competitors for resources, and consequently either exterminate them or push them into unproductive environments and irrelevance. So why haven’t they done so? Something must be wrong with the elves.

To be continued.

1 For further commentary on the effects of competition between humanoids of overlapping ecological niches, consult your local neanderthalensis colony.

2 By technology, here, we include magical advances.

3 Bigger, stronger, faster, just as smart—and very well-organized. Why haven’t the hobgoblins subjugated the world yet?