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!”

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the banality of orcs, pt. 2

A bookend to a post on why orcs are all evil. Except maybe they aren’t.

Orcs are not evil. At least, no moreso than anyone else. Orcs are merely competitors.

In a world where humans are the end-all be-all of all things, everything is seen through a human lens.1 Humans want a lot of things (every thing, depending on whom you ask). Humans want water to drink and arable land to crop and grass to graze upon and byways to traverse. They also want the same lead and copper and iron and sapphires and spices and dyestuffs everyone always wants.

And that’s the problem. Orcs want all of those things too. And of those which are needs, they need them just as much as humans do. But orcs tend toward stupid, foolhardy, and unlovely. They’re just smart enough to seriously compete with humans (and the other demihumans) for resources, but not smart enough to consistently win, or even subsist. If they were stupider, more feral and beastly, they may have carved out an ecological niche not in direct competition with humans; as it stands, however, they’re in a tough spot.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Ain’t No Party Like an Orc Party, ’cause an Orc Party Don’t Stop (1609).

Orcs are always winning battles and losing wars. They have managed to survive on grit and strength and an ability to make a hardscrabble life of places humans care least for. Their strength has allowed them to survive, but never thrive. Their life is one of war: war against the elements, against aching bellies, against pestilence, and against everyone else who wants the same subsistence as they do.

And it’s not always blood-and-billhooks war, either. Orcs tend to get the shit end of the deal in trade, both in receiving less than expected from the cleverer folk and in finding few markets for their own goods, which tend to be shoddier than others’. Even amongst those who are willing to trade with orcs, the orcs can only compete on price: their goods tend to be simple, strong, and unsophisticated.2 They tend to copy technological improvement rather than create it, and always find themselves one step behind the power curve.

Orcs are not inherently bloodthirsty, any more than anyone else is. They simply have to play to their strengths. Where they can’t compete on technological or thaumaturgical prowess, in sharp dealing or collective endeavor, they can compete with fire and falchion and ferocity. But that’s a mug’s game, and they know it. And resent it. They resent it in the shit-smelling foetid marshes, in the howling tundra of the wild north, and on the scrubbrush slopes of arid mesas. They resent it in driftwood hovels and tattered rawhide tents; they resent it in their frenzied dances and childrens’ stories and hearts. They resent it when breastplowing stony barrens and when hauling poorly-coopered buckets of fresh water and when undermining dwarven fortifications.

Humans think orcs are evil because they compete for the same resources, resources that are “rightfully” humanity’s; orcs’ consistent losses in that competition bolster humans’ self-congratulatory impulse to attribute market failure to moral failure; and because orcs are, to human eyes, ugly.3

With many thanks to Frank Trollman, who put the idea into my head that orcs aren’t bad, they’re just evolutionarily obsolete.

1 Of course. We’re humans playing a game with humans in it: everything becomes about humans. Which is why, in these complacent latter days, our elves are just skinny, pretty human dudes, and dwarves are just short, stocky human dudes. I’d prefer, of course, my elves to materialize out of hedgerows and eat the baby in trade for a peacock’s tear, or whatever high-weirdness your crazy brain and centuries of batshit folk mythology can come up with.

2 Interestingly, orc-made farm implements tend to be pretty good. That plow might be heavier than you’d like, but it’s not going to chip off when you turn a stone.

3 Ugly things are evil. Obvs. Disney told me so. Also—and I digress—I enjoy footnotes. One of the oddnesses of blogging is that footnotes and endnotes become sort of the same thing, depending on the length of your post, despite the fact that footnotes are useful and good, while endnotes are the page-flipping abominations of information design.1

1 I can footnote my footnotes. This is useful for cascading digressions.

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