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.

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?

the evil of orcs, pt. 1

Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil.

Orcs are intrinsically evil.

There are no “orcs” and “elves.” They are the same thing. They are polymorphs (no, not like that, wizard) of the same creature.

The switch is, somewhat inexplicably, the moral choices of the individual. At most basic, an elf is one which has consistently made good—altruistic, empathetic, righteous—choices in her life; an orc, one who has made wicked—selfish, callous, violent—choices in hers. The making of these choices moves the individual along a spectrum, one little bit at a time. The spectrum runs from the most ethereal elf to the most brutish orc, and while there are no hard stops along the way, every observer seems to exhibit a desire toward amateur taxonomy. Barring extraordinary event,1 each little choice—keeping the last bit of butter to oneself, lending a hand in another’s garden, standing with one’s friends, or casting insult—changes one imperceptibly in one direction or another. It is the sum of innumerable unthought-of actions that produce the dramatic change in phenotype.

Absolutely no one is happy with this situation.2 Elves, thinking themselves (often rightly) so very virtuous, want no mention made of any relation to that most brutish of humanoids. These are the bedside whispers given to little elflings: “Be good, or your sins will show themselves on your hairy body!” Everyone knows, or thinks they know, someone who has fallen; one day, someone disappears, is never seen again. It is said, if anything is said, that they killed themselves, a less-embarrassing story. A whole line can be besmirched by the fall of one son. What does it say about you, they’ll mutter when your back is turned, that you raised a son so wicked that he turned into a beast?

The orcs don’t much care for it either. For a people built on strength and ruthlessness and a narrow-eyed focus on getting things done, any kinship with the effeminate lightweights is a snub, like the birth of nearsighted runt. But where an elf making the turn quietly disappears, self-exiling into either a period of contemplation in an attempt to reverse the process or a rampage free of the oppressive strictures of elven society, an orc turning slight will, with any sense, just disappear into the night. Those with less sense will awaken—for a few sputum-gasping moments—with knives lodged between their ribs. So hated are the elves, and those looking as though they will turn to one, that any sign of wasting or emaciation or weakness will often be taken as the turn, and culled nonetheless.

But the turn is a slow one, and is a progression along a spectrum rather than an on-off switch. Hence, half-elves and half-orcs. They would like to have you believe that these folks are the result of forbidden love or more vicious abuse, but that’s a façade all pretend to. A half-elf or half-orc is simply an intermediate step along the spectrum. A fallen elf slowly gains strength and loses some grace, and becomes what is commonly called a half-elf. The process continues from half-elf to half-orc, and from half-orc to orc. And these poor folks have the worst of both worlds, hated from all ends for not being enough … whatever “enough” means. Is it any surprise that such people tend to the extreme, either paragons of goodwill or redoubts of perfidy, in an effort to become all one or all the other?

Orcs are, by definition, evil. Elves are, by definition, good. An elf who does evil becomes strong and coarse and brutish. An orc who does good becomes slim and graceful and clever. Can there be any surprise that they—flip sides of the same coin—hate each other so? The sight of the other reminds each of what they could become if they stray from their path. There is no thing so hated as the incarnate reminder of one’s own shortcoming.

1 Some acts of enormous import—saintliness or atrocity—can change one much more quickly. It is these sudden transformations, typically an elf turning into a beast overnight, that is what most commonly betrays the truth of the situation to outsiders.

2 This is a lie. There are some remarkably well-informed sages who both know of this situation and think it is, intellectually, interesting as shit. They don’t get out much.

Continued in: “the banality of orcs, pt. 2

elves : humans :: humans : goblins

In most settings, humans treat goblins as little more than vermin. Goblins are weak, annoying creatures, dangerous in the way a rat might be. Ultimately of little concern. They live short, frantic lives, causing trouble and breeding prodigiously. They find empty or weakened niches in geography or ecosystem to populate, and when those are filled, overrun outwards, rapidly depleting the resources (food, fuel, patience, goodwill) of the places they spread. They are nearly universally despised by the longer-lived, more-civilized races, and seem just as universally ineradicable.

So why don’t elves consider humans in the same way that humans consider goblins? In most traditional fantasy settings (read: those derived extensively from Tolkien), elves are nigh-immortal elder beings, cultured and thoughtful. To an elf whose goals and experiences likely span centuries, humans must seem obnoxious upstarts, never to mature and incorrigible in their violence, dizzyingly busy and almost infinitely resilient. How could an elf ever see a human as a peer? How could an elf see human social structures as anything beyond a child’s attempt at playing civilized?

If goblins appear to humans as the embodiment of id-driven wasteful children, humans almost certainly appear to elves as forever-teenagers, discomfitingly mature in body but never able to gain the wisdom that comes with experience. At least goblins are manageably small; all else equal, they’re still only three feet tall. A human has the ability to do much greater harm, lumbering man-children given the tools of destruction but never the temperance to match. Can a human aspire to wisdom any more than a dog can aspire to song? If a goblin dies of his foolhardiness after fifteen years of life, or a human after seventy, how much difference does that make from a perspective of seven centuries? Or six millennia?