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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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? pt. 2

no man’s ever seen the face of his foe, no
he ain’t made of flesh and bone
he’s the who sits up close beside you, girl, and
when he’s there you are alone

So how do they do it?

(Part 1 here.)

That’s a premature question. To ever really understand a how, you should first know the why.

Demons don’t want to kill you. They don’t mind, of course, they haven’t any compunction, but that’s not really the point. The rotisseur has no job without the fact of animals being killed, but the killing isn’t the point, just a necessary adjunct.

Demons just want human souls to suffer and wither. Or wither and thereby suffer. If you actually die or not is of little consequence. When you’re an effectively perpetual being, if a human actually lives for another eight days or eighty years is of little import; the deep scale of time makes the two effectively identical. Does a redwood care if a beetle dies young? There will be another there the next time it looks.1

The point is suffering. Killing the body ends the suffering. Moreover, the longer the suffering—generally!2—the more resentful and debased and cheapened the person becomes, leading to a stronger likelihood of the person, on death, shuffling off to an afterlife of continued suffering. Hurt people hurt people, they say for a reason; Job made the books because he’s an exception, not because he’s the rule.

So there’s the why. Demons are about fear and hurt and self-loathing (especially self-loathing!) and degradation and that change in the look in a person’s eye as time goes on. Twinkle, confusion, desperation, dead.

Let’s leave aside what a demon IS, for the moment, in favor of what one DOES. Basically, it talks to people. That’s the whole deal. Maybe once in a few centuries some favored paragon will zot to another plane and try to put enchanted steel to one. But demons talk to people EVERY DAMN DAY. They talk. That’s their power. They’re convincing. And very, very clever.

They lie, of course. But no more than anyone else does. Telling the truth is more powerful, and there are an eternity of ugly truths to direct peoples’ attentions to. Eventually the truths always shade into something else, sure, but the foundations are always truths. “You want this” so easily becomes “you deserve this” becomes “that’s yours” becomes “take it.”

A demon talks to you, at first telling you the things you want to hear, then the things you don’t want to hear, and finally the things you can’t unhear. Depending on the demon, or the demon’s favored approach (each has a favorite approach, depending on what end the demon finds most satisfying and what, in the past, has worked best for it), that talking can come in many forms. The grief-stricken mother might find her dead child’s voice coming out of the mouth of another woman’s child:  “Mother? Why couldn’t you feed me?” It could be the popular preacher you just really connected with, and if you just send out your prayers the universe will pour wealth upon you. Maybe it’s that intrusive thought, about how you’re not good enough for her and she’s always looking at other guys and if you leave her alone for a minute she’ll run off so better not.

That’s what they do. It can be sweet and soothing, or reproachful and rebuking. What it always is is either (1) telling you it’s okay to do something you already want to do, or (2) blaming you for something that has already happened. People don’t generally need much more encouragement than that. How hard is it to tell someone who feels bad that it really is his fault that bad thing happened? To tell the mighty how all those lowlies deserve what they get because they are so weak? To tell the cockscomb to linger another moment in front of the mirror? To tell the well-heeled to skip the almsgiving this week, because those wretches would probably just use it on dice and arak and not bread and besides almsgiving isn’t really a mandate for actual money, it’s symbolic of the goodwill in your heart that of course you have, for the deserving? To tell the melancholiac that it actually is of no use, and best to stay shut in and lie down for another day in the dim and stinking room?

Demons talk. That’s their weapon, at least here on this plane and this world and where everyone you’ve ever met will ever meet them and never know they’ve met them.

1 Yes, a redwood can look, smartass.

2 We all want to think our sufferings make us stronger. Sometimes suffering is just suffering.

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.

the forester’s lament

When you read, in a setting or in an adventure, about a forest, what do you picture? In your head?

Is it something like this?

The elves are hiding in the trees, natch.
Photo: debabrata

Green, pleasant . . . generic?

I know. Me too. It’s really damn hard not to. Fantasy forests are benign, commonplace. Set dressing without the dressing. Somehow, they’ve become so well-used and ill-described that an open, sun-drenched plain feels like it has more narrative potential.

But forests are interesting. In a former life hella had occasion to spend quite a bit of time—tromping through, sleeping under, getting lost as fuck in—in forests.

Sometimes they look like this.

The dwarves are hiding in the trees, obvs.
Photo: Hansueli Krapf

So what’s the difference? It isn’t just what we’re imagining—although, we are playing a game where all the action takes place in the imagination—but the actual implications are fully different. Before we were in a nice sunlit wood, not really hampered by anything: sure, there are hiding spots the bad guys can use, but nothing is really hindered or hidden. Here, we have to worry about elevation, taking the high ground; we have to worry about scree shifting underfoot; we have to worry about temperature or thunderstorms.

Above all, it just feels different. It’s a forest. But it’s not bog-standard elves-in-the-leaves sameness.

Or maybe your forest doesn’t look like that. Maybe it looks like:

No place to hide.
Photo: MeegsC

The only elves in this forest are the tatterdemalion sneakthieves of my setting.

Or what about here?

Not fog; smoke. Arsonist eucalypts!
Photo: Fir0002

Or here?

“Where’d he go?” “No, when’d he go.” “When’d he go?” “No, asshole, WENDIGO!”

The point being, when you think forests, don’t think gentle green foliage and shafts of sunshine and rabbits hopping about and sparrows flitting around. There’s so many forests—adventure in a different one.

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?