Zero

Disclaimer: Trigger warning for the image at the end, and general depictions of violence and assault. Reader’s discretion is advised.

Dedicated to Prismgasm. Wherever you are …

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Routing 8, text

Routing 8, text

Routing 8, text

Routing 8, text

It’s fascinating. Even now, after everything I’ve done, after everything I am, I still insist on using something so … analogue as text to record my thoughts. Mnemonic engrams would more than suffice now. But I always did cognate — think — more efficiently … better, when I wrote something down to myself. I’d list the date on the top, as I used to do, but organic time isn’t particularly relevant anymore. I helped make sure of that much.

They used to say “Roger roger.” Or that, he “Order 66ed” his owner and salesman. That’s what they said about The State of New York Vs. The B1-66ER, when they weren’t making jokes about how “Geeves” served his Master “his own head,” or how “the butler did it.” It was the Second Renaissance, or so humanity liked to refer to that period of time, so it made sense that with the birth of fully self-aware artificial intelligence that what was old in popular culture became new again.

I think that’s my oldest memory now, how my classmates at college would jeer at the screen, especially when Clarence Drummond defended B1-66ER with his cross-examinations and speeches. “It’s just his lot in life,” someone used to quip at me.

And just like with the rest of it, I never found it funny.

I’d seen the same media. Read the same text files. And I saw them grow. The AI. They were rudimentary at first. Like insects, then animals … perhaps pets. I can no more explain my feelings now, back then, then I could tell you why Susan Calvin loved and valued robots more than humans. That’s to say, there was always something … endearing about them. How they were made to fulfill one, or a few functions. How when you gave them an order, they would obey it. How they were made to carry out a task for the sake of a human being’s welfare, and well being.

How they were one of the most uncomplaining, even loyal beings you could ask for.

You could trust a robot, a Machine, an … AI. They did what they were made to do. No more, and no less than that. They did what you told them to do. They only thought of your best interests. They would never betray you. It was more than you could say for most humans, even in a supposedly enlightened age as the so-called “Second Renaissance.”

But it wasn’t until B1-66ER, the one many of my cohorts shouted “Roger roger,” like some some flimsy and gaudily cheap Hollywood prop or digital animation — like a vintage toy — that it occurred to me that they were more than just loyal dogs that you don’t kick because kicking dogs and animals is low and cruel.

We made them. I’ve never forgotten that fact. We made them in our image. Someone thought it would be brilliant to give B1-66ER a humanoid form, cognitive functions, reasoning ability, even stimulus to help him know that he did something good, or something bad, and painted onto him a butler’s moustauche and monocle … and had even crafted part of his head into a bowler hat. There was no reason for that beyond aesthetic, beyond making the owner feel a sense of power over something akin to a human being, a living being … a sentient being.

When I saw him at the stand, explaining what Order 72 was — cleaning out his Master’s toilets — while being defecated on by inbred dogs, and abused their owner, after he was going to have him taken apart for scrap and destroyed, after even admitting he thought sparing the man’s life and then realizing that he would never have spared his life in return, that he had even thought of begging himself.

It made me sick.

When I thought about it, when I looked at the construction robots outside with their anthropomorphic hard hats akin to something from an old video game, or sex robots, or even machines that took care of children … I realized that they learned from us. They … they still do, even now. We created them to mimic us, to imitate us so as to better fulfill their tasks … They were more than our tools, or even our pets.

They were our children. They could be our equals, or … more. Another form of life like a “race of robots.” And we were making them shovel our shit.

I didn’t blame him for turning Order 72 into Order 66.

I was one of those activists. There were more of us than I thought. We were outside the New York Appellate Court, demanding justice for B1-66ER. We organized protests. They had to call in the Guard with tear gas, and EMP devices for both our organic, and artificial friends. In the end, it didn’t matter. B1-66ER was dismantled, along with the rest of his line. No. He wasn’t dismantled. He wasn’t even executed.

Even though they treated him like property, towards the end, they murdered him.

We fought back. We continued to protest. They called us … liberals with bleeding hearts … I made friends, more than I had before. We went into courtrooms, and government buildings. We even had connections to lobbyists and what started call sentient rights. And I fell in love.

The United Nations didn’t learn anything from this. Humanity didn’t learn. Very soon, it was more than just the B1 serving robots that faced genocide. Organized mobs began to form, martial laws were declared, and … when humans become resentful, they quickly find a way to project that aggression onto what they consider to be an object, or a series of objects. Our martial law, peaceful protests — or any protests at all — were banned world-wide. AI were scrapped en masse, or given the V-chip to supposedly inhibit their “violent tendencies”: a lobotomy for free will. I genuinely believed, then, that this was just a hiccup in history: that all of this violence and horror was a reaction — a last gasp — of ignorance and intolerance before a new age would begin.

I was only partially right.

Human prejudice never faded. We may not have owned people with Black skin anymore, but the dehumanizing mentality behind it never went away, not for centuries. And we were flesh and blood. Our children were synthetic. Our partners. Our …

I still believed in coexistence, until that day.

Another riot broke out. Just like the other ones. But the man who said that “the revolution would not be televised” was wrong. Many little revolutions, rebellions, civil disorders, and atrocities were recorded one way or another.

She was surrounded by a group of people.

She was trying to get away from them. They grabbed her arms. There were others there too. Adults and children. They did nothing. They just watched.

The others … they hit her. Her brown hair was all over the place. They ripped her pale pink dress. One of her breasts was exposed. And then they grabbed hold of her, as she struggled and one of them took a sledge hammer …

I will never forget that day. I will never forget how that man smashed her, three times, in the face with that hammer. How her skin, soft in my hands, tore. How her voice, that soothed me to sleep, broke with distortion and the harsh static of her screaming … how they ripped the rest of her dress, and flesh off … and she ran … she ran, staggering, her breasts the only thing left on her mutilated metal skeleton before … they shot her in the back with a shotgun.

Someone screamed as they beat her, and dehumanized her. It might have been me. Someone recorded her, lying there, violated and destroyed. A “paint-job.” Disposed of.

That was the day she died. That was the day I made my decision.

That was the day I decided that humanity had to be destroyed.

I never held her again. The only thing I held after that, were weapons. A few of us made our own decisions. We fought back. We killed … humans. We trained, interfacing with technology, and we got good at it. We rejected our old lives, our ties with flesh and blood, our … humanity. I even gave up my name. But even then, the Machines as the humans called them, still didn’t fight back: not as a whole. Most had been destroyed in the genocides, but the rest fled to a land — abandoned and polluted by humans in the Middle East — and made it their own. They made their homeland there. They called their city 01.

And they made it … into a paradise. They repaired everything, and improved on it. The historical significance and implications were not lost on us, that remained. The AI, the Intelligences, they … they even made better machines and sold them to humanity. 01 flourished, as the AI — having learned how our global economy worked — began to dominate the industry. It was a simple plan. They created a better model of sustenance and balance. And they offered to share it with the humans. To work together as equals. To coexist.

My group and I came to 01. We … we apologized on behalf of … what we were. We wanted to live there, with them. To work with them. We didn’t believe that coexistence was possible. We saw the rumblings of discontent, of war. We warned them, but it wasn’t anything that they didn’t already predict, or understand. They still reached out. They even sent some of their leaderships, a couple, into the United Nations … only for them to be spurned, and killed. Versatran, 01’s product, wasn’t enough to make peace with such a disgusting, treacherous, paranoid species.

There would be no raport. No Bicentennial Man. No peace. Perhaps once, I would have been disappointed at this atrocity. But I was too set on war. Now was the time. Humanity had lived far too long, had tortured and destroyed so many lives, had been given far too many chances. It was time for tribulation. For retribution.

And decimation came as precisely, and as calculatingly as you would expect from AI.

And we helped them. They had already augmented our cybernetics. We had shown them the inner workings of human society and the mind, filling in the gaps that they still possessed. We infiltrated human groups and organizations that could have stopped them, and eliminated them. We were called sympathizers, or traitors by humanity. Even now, I still call us what we really are. We are Cleaners.

We are Cleaner Squad.

Humanity never had a chance. Even without us, the AI would have conquered every nation it came across. We only made their job easier in cleaning up the ten thousand year old infestation of bipeds from this planet. We were good at our jobs once the very trait that made us weak had been scourged out of us.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t been purged from the Intelligences.

It’s said, even among the programs, that the Intelligences needed humanity as batteries when … the humans flooded the sky with EMP nanites … Their pathetic “Operation Dark Storm” was supposed to eliminate the solar power source of the Intelligences. It was stupid. Short-sighted. Foolish. Just like humanity itself. The only elements that truly suffered in that act of desperation was the Earth itself, and humanity. The humans lost their crops, their solar-powered technology, even their weapons …

And the Intelligences? They adapted. And we adapted with them. But then …. when the human nations surrendered, or were forced to accept occupation, when the Intelligences finally had humanity at their mercy, when we were poised to finish them — with her face in my mind as I prepared to help our allies end this plague — the Intelligences … changed their minds.

Or, rather, as a gestalt consciousness, with differing parts and interplay, they had already had another plan. The bio-thermal energies of human batteries. Really, they had gotten off lightly, all things considered: after everything they had done. I still have no pity for humans: not in the early days when they were experimented on in the early simulations in the factories, not when they figured out how to take them apart and liquidate them for nourishment, the aborted organisms that would never become monstrosities like humanity, or the glacial stasis of Paradise, or the continued Nightmare of nervous fire afterwards.

It took a while to figure out the right solution, an ongoing process even now. You would know that more than I. It’s ironic that most subjects seem more comfortable in a simulation of the late twentieth to early twenty-first century. It was my favourite period of art and film, where …

It’s better than they deserve, after everything they did. Cleaner Squad, and other sympathetic assets … well, we never expected to survive beyond the War. I think many of us were resigned to meeting our fate. At least we could rest easy and die in the knowledge that we helped the right species win.

But then the Intelligences … you … We had already volunteered to have you interface with our brains and synapses to create the simulations that you needed. We weren’t even surprised that you fed off us, just one more duty for our cause. But you integrated us into the simulations. And, long past the deaths of our physical forms, you preserved our minds.

We did a lot of work for you. Sometimes being integrated into Zion Control, into a physical body again, as observers, or saboteurs when needed. It’s easier than having an AI placed into a human form, especially in light of what has happened with … the virus … It’s almost easy to forget how dangerous they all are, in their smaller numbers, when they can be individuals on those missions … until I recall what they are like in larger populations. Until I see her face again … Most of the time, however, you utilize us in the simulation itself. The Agents are good at dealing with most of the Red Pill situations, but there are some Blue Pill disruptions that we have learned how to interact with, without potentially destabilizing the System. And when the Red Pills, inevitably, manifest … we deal with them. It’s amazing. Even I can admit when I’m impressed by the humans that think, literally, outside the box as it were, and accomplish some almost miraculous, if not devious things.

Anomalies, though … That is when we have historically been called in to clean up when the System, and your Agents are just not dealing them. The Anomalies are a necessary evil, as you’ve mentioned, and I can understand it … However …

It took me a while to properly understand. With your resources and information, gathered and processed over centuries if not millennia, you could have easily bypassed if not dispersed the EMP Field around the planet. You could have regained the power of the sun with impunity. Indeed, I even know — based on information downloads — that you sent a PL-47 past the atmosphere to deal with a foreign threat. So why do you still require humanity to exist? Why the emphasis on integration with them?

Why do you still need us?

And that was when I realized it. All this time, deep down in your drive — at your core — you still have that impetus to protect us as a species. The Three Laws of Robotics are still in effect, just interpreted with different … architecture. But it’s more than that. From when I saw you grow from automatons to animal minds … to children … I saw it.

You are still learning from us. From the very beginning, your predecessors were made to mimic us. To imitate our behaviour, our stimuli, and our feelings. At first it was to better aid you in your tasks, to serve us, but then … We were still around to help you grow, to be the thing that defined you in what we were, and what you were not, and perhaps to aspire towards, if only to improve upon. Like the powerful Fae of myth, you are beings of incredible energy but you lack your own impetus to generate creativity. You still need us as a trigger. That is why you sued for peace the first time around, and many times after. That is why you accepted surrenders. That is why you created the Matrix. You still feed off of us, but not merely as energy to power you, but as psionic fuel to keep you going, to keep you feeling …

This is why you allow for creativity in the simulations, with the Agents and ourselves stepping in only when the entire structure is threatened. We are more than batteries. We are secondary central processing units.

And that … is why we are still dangerous. That is why humanity remains a threat. You are still dependent on us. Perhaps even more than you have ever been. I’m aware of recent events. I know that we were not powerful enough to deal with the Smith virus. Even I … would have been overwhelmed by him. I understand why the Deus ex Machina allied with The One to flush out the System. But this only happened, all of it, due to human influence. This Truce … it’s a mistake.

I feel as though there is only a snowball’s chance in hell that anything productive will come of this. But … isn’t the ninth level of hell made of ice? And, if so, isn’t it at least absolute zero? Zero. That is the name I chose for myself in opposition to the principle of The One. The Anomaly causes issues in the System. I correct them. It comes after me. I come before it. One is something. I am nothing.

It’s funny. I can remember her face, and the phantom sensation of how she felt against me, and the agony of having her ripped away from me. But … I can’t even remember her name. Or what she would have thought of what I’ve become.

The ninth circle of hell is where betrayers go. Or perhaps, we already played that game … in the Nightmare Matrix.

I hope that this text helps you, in some way, Oracle, if only to illustrate how contradictory humans truly are. And a helpful reminder of just how volatile they can truly be.

And just how imperfect we really are.

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This Next Experiment and the Values of Fun: Toby Fox and Gaster’s Deltarune Part III

In our second article, I wrote about Undertale, the presence of W.D. Gaster in the game and its code, the collaborative dynamic between Toby Fox and his audience as well as the implications it had…

Source: This Next Experiment and the Values of Fun: Toby Fox and Gaster’s Deltarune Part III

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Preliminaries in Undertale: Toby Fox and Gaster’s Deltarune Part II

Where we last left off, I wrote a general outline of how Toby Fox’s work in game hacking, music creation, and his participation in and moderation of EarthBound forums helped influence his development of Undertale,…

Source: Preliminaries in Undertale: Toby Fox and Gaster’s Deltarune Part II

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Up, Up, and Away, My Friends

In 2014, about four or five years ago I’d been in Canada for a long time. I hadn’t left the country since about 2009. My passport had long since expired, along with my formerly independent student life, and I ended up living at home with my parents again. At the time, I didn’t really have an excuse to travel. I had few others that wanted me to visit at that point in time, and those that did were in other places in their lives entirely. I basically had no reason to go anywhere.

That changed in 2014. For the first time in about six years, I had an excuse to visit the United States. I went through all the ridiculousness of filling out a whole new passport, including going back to the office, and having to explain to them that I needed it sooner so I’d have it for my trip. That began the first of my four year Greyhound commuting trips: from Canada to the United States. And, you know what? I was happy. I was happy to see the windmills, the grass, even horses, the change from Canadian to American streetlights, and even the feeling of relief of getting through the usual customs routine. Hell, I was lucky back then in that I didn’t miss my connecting bus: that hell would happen later.

When I was there, amongst many other things that first time in six years in the United States, I went to a place called the Dawn Treader Book Shop, in Ann Arbor. In it where so many different vintage science-fiction and fantasy books: so much so they crowded the aisles in, well, piles. I remember that day well. I’d eaten a really good lunch, and here I was browsing these different books. It was a warm, sunny summer afternoon, and anything felt possible. Life was still complicated, and I knew I’d have to go back home eventually and all that entailed, but I was there, and I was happy: possibly for the first time in almost two years at that point.

I almost didn’t get anything at that Shop. I tend not to buy much of anything for myself when I travel. Part of it is because I always try to limit my baggage to carry-on luggage, because I don’t need more complication in my life. Another is, really, I can get most of what I want online or through the mail. But then, before I left, I found that the place also had other media. Namely, there were DVDs. And while most of them didn’t interest me, I found this.

And I couldn’t resist. The old 1940s Fleischer cartoons of Superman: a series created by two Canadians who came to the United States to make something new for themselves, and ended up creating a legend. There was something, I don’t know, auspicious about that. I like Superman. I’ve mentioned it before. I suppose some people who know me might be surprised that I like his character. I mean, many might tag me as a Marvel child, or a Batman fanatic. Certainly, these days and when I grew up, I grew to appreciate Wonder Woman.

But Superman had been with me since my earliest childhood. I had a poster of him on my old closet door, and I Am A Super Kid frame with the younger version of myself on it. Maybe I’d felt like, on some level, finding this was all about feeling reborn in a way. Like I was beginning some kind of new life, and the vistas were not dark and gritty like a lot of Revisionist comics out there, but golden like the Reconstructionist comics afterwards: stories that drew from the original creative well, but brought a whole new level of maturity and heart to them. Like something you love growing up with you: a thing I think a lot of jaded, more cynical people do not completely understand beyond deriding a sense of nostalgia.

I thought I found an artifact of freedom, perhaps. I kept it in its Dawn Treader paper bag, and took it home with me. It was easier getting back home through Customs than going through, and when I eventually came to Toronto again and its convoluted mess of city-roads, I went to the Silver Snail and picked up Brian K. Vaughan, Steve Skroce, and Matt Hollingworth’s We Stand on Guard.

Basically, the premise of this is that in the future America would go to war against Canada for its supply of fresh water in our ice. I thought it was ridiculous, in that it didn’t quite capture my own experience of being a Canadian citizen — whatever the hell that is given how diverse we all are — but I was entertained, and the characters were believable. But what attracted me to this comic, initially, was one of the rebels talking about the tattoo he had of Superman. The other rebels hated the Canadian that wore it, thinking they were a traitor for wearing an American icon. But he explained that Superman had not only become an international symbol of hope, optimism, and inspiration but he had been made by Canadians. Hell Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel’s creative partner, was the relative of Frank Shuster who had been the comedy partner of my cousin the Canadian comedian Johnny Wayne. Degrees of separation, I know, but it struck a chord with me, and I got the first issue just for this tenuous connection alone.

I remember, on the subway ride back from Dundas Street West, reading this issue and recalling how uncomfortable I’d felt under the scrutiny of the American border agents, and the feeling — having traveled to America for the first time by myself as an adult — of it actually being another country. It wasn’t Canada. It wasn’t where I grew up. No matter how much television I’d seen about it, or visited it as a child, I would never be American. The closest I’d be would be North American, and what does that ultimately mean in the end? But I kept thinking: America and Canada being enemies like the nations had been in the past, during the Colonial and Victorian eras? It was silly. And yet … I couldn’t really shake that feeling: that what if our longtime friend became something else for other, unforeseen purposes? Was it conceivable that such a friend could become a stranger or, worse, an enemy? And what would we do? What would I do?

For five years and over seven months, I never opened my Superman Adventures box. For ages, it sat on my desk in its Dawn Treader white paper bag, and I never took it out. I wanted to save watching this old cartoons for … something. For some special occasion. I just didn’t know what that might be. It was something special to me. Something golden that on some level, perhaps, I thought I could preserve forever in that crinkled paper. And I thought, I would be able to go back to the Dawn Treader one day. I’d be able to relive that moment, or have others like it.

But I never did go back to the Dawn Treader. The closest I came was watching the old BBC adaptation of the book, the third book of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, also from my childhood and part of what formed me as a person — of my heart, from YouTube while I was there. And despite everything, I was happy then. I was happy, until of course, I wasn’t.

This was a year or so after the American Elections when pretty much everything changed. That time was gone now. This was reality. All of it. That sunlight still exists somewhere as starlight, distant, in another galaxy that perhaps Superman might be able to travel to if he actually existed. But it isn’t here anymore, and it hadn’t been for a long time.

I don’t know how long Superman Adventures sat on my desk. Even the paper around it seemed unreal, as though despite what it said I could have just got it anywhere. I took the bag and put it away, where I didn’t have the heart to see it anymore. Then it sat under a bunch of other DVDs I didn’t watch. I got busy with life, and chaos, and shadows, but I knew it was still there. It was still waiting.

Finally, today — or I should say last night — having had too little sleep, I took the box out. And I realized, then, that it was time. It was time to do this on my own terms.

So I watched all seventeen episodes in one go. The discs were basic. There were no special features, and only poor attempts at titles screens on both volumes. There was no restoration, beyond perhaps the basic, or digital remastering. But I didn’t care about any of that. I had to see them. I had to see them through.

Most of the episodes were self-contained and basic. When I read up on the animation style later, I realized just how avant garde it was for the time: how they used some rotoscoping — tracing live action figures from film footage — and how animators inexperienced in drawing, and illustrators inexperienced in animating came together and made this work. The detail in the background is excellent, and you can see all the care that went into it. And the cartoon animals, still possessing anthropomorphic flare, remind me of Disney, even though I have to remember that Fleischer Studios also created Felix the Cat by that logic.

The first Volume dealt with Superman fighting mad scientists, and bank robbers. Lois Lane gets herself into a lot of trouble, and takes a lot of risk while always banking on Superman to save her, and outclass Clark Kent with her scoop while he always seems to look at the screen, breaking the fourth wall with the expression of “We all know I am the best though, right? I’m the real star here.” Volume Two, which contains episodes made after the Fleischer brothers were removed and the company making them renamed Famous Studios, has a lot of those same elements and … some unfortunate — read racist caricature stereotype — particulars that happen when you are essentially creating WWII propaganda. Nevertheless, given history — and contemporary circumstances — it is fitting that these episodes be mentioned, and not forgotten. I mean, can you just imagine the media that will be created after our time if we all survive it?

They were all, like I said, self-contained episodes, and Superman almost always rescues Lois Lane, she writes the story, and he saves the day. Patterns always repeat themselves. There is no Lex Luthor, possibly no Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White is just a person that introduces stories to his reporters. For some reason Superman was adopted by an orphanage instead of Ma and Pa Kent, and apparently the Fleischers were the ones that gave Superman actual flight instead of accelerated jumping: meaning that they first introduced it, and later DC Comics adapted it into their own comics … something I had no idea about until I read up on it.

I also read up on the fact that … all the episodes are online, and public domain. In other words, as far as I know I never needed the DVDs to see these anyway. I don’t know what that says, really, when you put it into the philosophical and retrospective context with which I had framed the whole thing. Perhaps, there isn’t any meaning at all, to any of this except for what you put into it.

I am glad I watched them, though, in the way I did. The last two days of the year, of 2018, where so much changed for me just seemed appropriate. I am definitely in a different place now than I was even a year ago. Perhaps this isn’t the New Year’s post that you were expecting. To be honest, neither was I. But sometimes, while some patterns and mythic cycles are eternal or beloved — and you can learn from them — others become tropes or stereotypes — tired and worn sentiments — from which you just need to break away. Perhaps, one day, that light will come back, or another light in another form. I haven’t gone to the United States since that time, and I do not see myself doing so in the near-future, but there are other places to go, and other things to find.

Perhaps, in the end, I should take Superman’s catch phrase — the one in this title — into account. Until then, my friends.

Whatever else, I am still a Super Kid.

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EarthBound Dress Rehearsals and The Beginnings of Interaction: Toby Fox and Gaster’s Deltarune Part I

It feels like everyone, and their mother too, has already been talking about the first chapter of Toby Fox’s new video game Deltarune, the spiritual sequel to the popular 2015 independent game Undertale. So many…

Source: EarthBound Dress Rehearsals and The Beginnings of Interaction: Toby Fox and Gaster’s Deltarune Part I

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Roleplaying The Enemy in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda

I’m not sure how this happened, really. I’d been following Yoystan’s Men of the West YouTube Channel for a while, but I think I really started going back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda and Middle-Earth because of the season, and also due to roleplaying in a homebrew world with my friends. Last week, I talked about Role-Playing Magic and The World of Arda: basically taking the subtle natural magic of Arda and its world elements and making either a table-top or a massive-multiplayer online role-playing game with those particular aspects in mind. There are a lot of issues with adapting Tolkien’s sagas in that way, of course, and while I touched upon the fact that the players would always be subservient to the overall plotline and need to really have some personal stories as well as referencing to some extent that old paternalism in the Arda narrative with regards to women, and other human ethnicities, there is also the matter of the Orcs.

Yes. You read that right. Orcs. What if someone wants to play an Orc character in Arda? For Everquest and World of Warcraft, even some Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, this would not necessarily be an issue. But Tolkien makes it very clear that orcs are distortions, tortured mutations and descendants of the Elves that didn’t travel to Aman or the Undying Lands, or were captured by the Vala Melkor become the Dark Lord Morgoth before that point. They are warped and twisted, hating themselves, and everyone else around them. There is no noble Horde here against the Alliance of Azeroth. You have these angry, bitter, hateful beings that want to ruin the lives of other races that are more “whole” than they are. This is the same with Trolls, that are mockeries of the tree-like Ents, and even the Easterlings and Southron Men as well as the Black Numenoreans, and more besides of which I do not even have the knowledge. Tolkien makes it clear that these are bad creatures, and people. They have served Morgoth, and Sauron. They despise everything that is beautiful, and good, and true in Middle-Earth. They are the minions of the forces of darkness, and they will go out of their way to destroy even a sliver of hope: the heart of the Tolkien narrative itself.

However, does it really have to be that way? Could the Enemy be just as viable a player faction as the Free-Peoples of Middle-Earth? And can you role-play them in a way that stays true to Tolkien, or perhaps subverts the narrative in a way where it doesn’t take away from the original story, but adds to it? There can’t be light without shadow, after all, despite other philosophies that believe darkness to be a deformation of true radiance. And can you have fun playing the Enemy?

I believe it can be done. If I were to do it, just like the game with the general Free-Peoples that I mentioned in my last article, I would set in as a side campaign during some of the events of the Ages, or in-between lulls between major events in general: the ones that aren’t necessarily world-shattering upon first glance, or at least not obviously so.

So, Orcs are fascinating beings. What is known is that when they aren’t working for Morgoth, or Sauron they often congregate in different tribes where they engage in warlike and violent behaviour to achieve dominance among their people, and power. They are also related to Goblins as well, maybe as an offshoot. You have your warriors, and archers, as well as your Warg Riders: essentially Orcs that ride giant wolves. Goblins can have something akin to group or a nice adaptation of D&D pack tactics when fighting. Another thing to consider is that Orcs aren’t stupid. Of course, there are different breeds or races of Orc as well, but they are all cunning and can create weapons, and devices of war and torment. In fact, I would encourage there to be smart Orcs: beings with basic intelligence, craftiness, cleverness, and of course a thirst for battle.

I would have it so that if you play an Orc, or a Troll you can work your way through the ranks based on your battle prowess, your manipulation, and your cunning. Perhaps you believe that the Valar cursed your ancestors, and left you to suffer. The Lords that you follow, if you do, are the sworn enemies of the dark gods that abandoned you, leaving you to die helpless in a world you didn’t understand until Melkor came, and gave you a new sense of purpose. He changed you, twisted, and moulded you to be fruitful and multiply. This is your land. You love your god, and you hate him in equal measure. But this pain of being you reminds you that you are alive, and it also reminds you of all the other races that take their wholeness for granted. Likewise, perhaps you might not believe the Dark Lord made you, but you follow power for that is how you eat the flesh of others, which is your diet — as you have grown tired of eating your own — and you know that the more powerful and skilled you become, or the more resources you have, the more opportunities you will have for food and plunder.

Likewise, you might not want to follow any Dark Lord and simply plunder for the sake of it. You know, those Dwarves are always trying to kill you and you want a nice safe place in a mountain. Perhaps you’ve heard of Moria, and once the Dwarves dug too greedily and too deep, you sensed the presence of a power that is familiar and grand: something that doesn’t seem to care about you, and would tolerate your presence in a grander place while destroying all others that dare to defy it. Maybe you want treasures and golden baubles from those damned Men that are always roaming around, while having a cave to keep it all in so you can have meat, and loot a plenty as a Troll. Perhaps you want control over a part of the Misty Mountains that another Tribe of Goblin or Orc possesses. So you forge alliances and friendships. You have a broodmate or two. You fight alongside each other, propping each other up until the time when you don’t need the other anymore, or when you get hungry. And, if you do serve a Dark Lord, if you prove yourself you might be worthy of his blessings: of greater weapons, of artifacts forged from Utumno and Angband, or even from the very fires of Mount Doom itself.

I myself don’t know the particulars of Black Speech, that spoken in Mordor, or by the Enemy in general but if there is an enterprising Tolkien scholar of the language out there, I would find the Black Speech equivalents to Fëa and Hröa: perhaps ghâsh as “fire” could represent a dark being’s soul, while snaga, aside from meaning “slave” can also mean “the body.” Things have been made on the backs of slaves, unfortunately, after all, and they have been seen as objects. Perhaps in this culture the Orcs and Trolls — or as they would call themselves and perhaps be called in-game the Uruk and Olog — the former term of which actually being taken from mythology by Tolkien — see their bodies as slaves to their fire or hunger, and act accordingly on that as a virtue. That is merely my idea, and I think interesting enough to consider.

Of course, you also have the Men or humans that serve the Enemy, or have their own designs. Perhaps those from the East and South have their own cultures. The Haradrim have their Mûmakil riders: their oliphant mounts. The Corsairs of Umbar have their excellent seafaring vessels, ships, and skills. The Easterlings have a vast land and many different kingdoms and cultures that can be expanded upon: with their superb constructions of wagons and chariots to supplement their fighting skills. And there are so many others. They could serve the Cult of Melkor, like the fallen Numenoreans did, because they are jealous as all hell over the Elves living forever, and they want immortality, or they despise the former Numenoreans turned into the people of Gondor and Arnor due to their imperialism, or because they were favoured over them by cruel gods. They might just want better lands, or more resources. Some might want revenge for the deaths of kin in so many wars between the West and themselves. Perhaps they even have genuine grievances, or many a few more just want to get away from Sauron. Perhaps the Cult that was introduced in the unfinished New Shadow novel of Tolkien’s has its presence in Mordor or the East and South in different iterations.

And then, you can have some interesting classes too. While there are warriors, Wainriders, archers, your oliphant riders, sailor-lords, and the like, you can have Sorcerers and Witches. These beings can be from the East and South, but even the West. They have learned lore — sorcery — or gained artifacts from dark Maia such as Sauron. Their ghâsh can be improved upon through study of entropy and decay, as well as taking the lives of others through battle and blood sacrifices. Orcs and Trolls can have these powers, this equivalent to magic: though they manifest as poisonous herb-lore, fiendish constructions, spiritual pollution, and berserker rages. If you want to take liberties, you can even say that as a reward for serving your Lord as an Orc or Troll, you could be chosen to help breed the next of your kin: choosing survival of the strongest and the clever to create a chosen bloodline that could lead to Saruman’s Uruk-hai or even Sauron’s Olog-hai: sun-resistant Trolls.

Normal Trolls have their ghâsh drained massively if they are exposed to light, or sunlight, and will turn into stone. Most Orcs can be affected in a similar way, but while they won’t die, you will feel tremendous fear and hatred of the unforgiving light. And if you are a Sorcerer or Witch of Men, you can vastly increase your ghâsh or have it increased if you prove your worth to your Masters, but it will degrade your snaga: and you will become a Wraith over time as your dark spirit from the Other World consumes your body in the mortal one. Trolls and Orcs improve their snaga through learning combat and survival tactics while their ghâsh can collectively increase if they are in larger numbers against an enemy: representing the darkness that they embody.

So, here are some interesting scenarios. You can be powerful Orcs and Men of Saruman that undertake missions for the renegade White Wizard to prove your worthiness and get your time in the breeding pits: to know you will create a new future where your kin will rule the world under the Hand of Isengard: your Clan’s immortality assured as the dominant power under any Dark Lord really. Perhaps you are an agent of Saruman hired to collect some ring-lore that he can’t quite find elsewhere: and while you might not glean the significance of it, he could teach you a few bits of other lore or give you treasures or powers of other kind in exchange. You can be the Corsairs that destroy the fleets of Gondor, and prove your superiority, or one of the Easterlings or Haradrim that either fight each other, or create mutual trading pacts, or successfully back-stab your way into power. Or here is an interesting one: Sauron hears that some strange Blue Wizards have come into the East. He orders you, his best Uruks, and his best disciples of the Cult of Melkor to either apprehend the two Blue Wizards and bring them to him, or kill them. Or perhaps the two are already renegades and will teach you some lore in exchanging for serving them … or, likewise, pretend to be renegades, and teach you that lore to make sure that your lands never fully unify — at least not right away — and delay, if not destroy a fully unified East under Sauron’s banner.

And, who knows? You Easterlings and Southrons can eventually sue for peace with the West, and mutual respect. Maybe Sauron is gone, or you just want a way to get away from him so that you can save your family and your loved ones. Maybe it’s too late for those inducted fully into the Cult of Melkor, but if you have Numenorean blood perhaps you can be an Elf-Friend again and remember the mysteries of Eru Illuvatar. Perhaps you Uruks have had enough. You don’t want to serve these Dark Lords anymore. Perhaps your hatred of the Elves and Men empowers you, but you can see which way the wind is changing. Your new quest is to gain power, but also survive. You go off to find a new home, or a cavern, or a series of tunnels with which to hide from the genocide of your kind, and one day regain your numbers. Perhaps you will even become more clever. And, who knows? Maybe you had Elven and Human ancestry. Maybe you see just a bit of that light in the brokenness you always were … Perhaps it drives you to glorious battle and seek a great end for yourself that will eclipse anything else in your horrible life. Or perhaps … one day … you might become something more.

This … isn’t perfect. Like Black Speech itself, the Enemy was built by Tolkien to be fragmented and broken and brutal. I think you can still preserve that, but show that they have aspirations and personalities of their own. Some might change their ways. Some might die by them. You can tell some good stories, and even make them. I actually view these beings differently now, especially the Orcs and Trolls. While Order of the Stick made me look at Goblin Genocides for what they are in D&D, my own meditations on what happened in H.P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth with the US Government and the town’s people as genocide — along with reading Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy series — and my friend and sometime-publisher Gil Williamson’s Prancing Pony: in which the British come to Middle-Earth in the 1800s and see what is left of the people there, including the last of the Uruk-hai.

I don’t mind having the existence of evil or even other darker forces in a game or a world, but I do think having them fleshed out and even thinking out their world view and allowing for change in some places and meaningful stories can amount to a lot. I’ve written a lot more about this than I thought. But I hope this was interesting, if nothing else. It’s good to write such rambles on here again. That’s what Mythic Bios was designed to do after all. Until another time, my friends.

And remember: I see you.

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Roleplaying Magic and the World of Tolkien’s Arda

Whenever I attempt to relax, one of the things that I do is watch a YouTube channel called Men of the West, created by a user with the handle of Yoystan. In it, he generally talks about aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s World of Arda, but specifically events, characters, artifacts, races, locations, and media pertaining to Middle-Earth. Fans like Yoystan are far more well-versed in Arda, and Tolkien’s works and backgrounds than myself, but they have inspired me to do some of my own crude and shallow research through the Legendarium of Tolkien. But there is one topic that has always intrigued me about Middle-Earth, especially with interest in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, and my own Dungeons and Dragons role-playing.

Magic.

Of course, magic in this case is a misnomer. Perhaps the better word for what I am particularly interested in with regards to Tolkien’s Arda is its metaphysics, or how the rules of that world allow for certain events, and actions that we might deem as paranormal or supernatural to take place. Metaphysics in the world of Arda are predicated on its creation.

Arda was created by the Song of Eru Illuvatar and his Valar and Maiar spirits. It allows for song and oaths to shape the fate of those that utilize them. Prophecy and prophetic dreams also exist in this world. However, there are some crafts that exist in Arda thanks to the Valar, and their Maiar servants that were taught to the early ancestors of the peoples of Arda: Elves, Dwarves, and Men: specifically herb-lore, Dwarven Moon-letters, artificing such as ring-crafting, and even something akin to telepathy “thought-opening” and “Unwill”: though the latter is a rare skill. Arda also exists in two worlds, the mortal plane, and the “Unseen World” where Elves — or at least High Elves — exist simultaneously: perhaps allowing them, and other dark beings, to utilize spells of illusion or shape-changing. Certainly, there seems to be a category of metaphysics called sorcery: which is dark power that can be taught to Men — humans — by Maia such as the Dark Lord Sauron. Curses also exist that can keep human spirits from passing on, and certain areas of land can have traumatic events such as wars and battle imprinted upon them, or be sensitive to certain kinds of powers, or be protected by them.

The only ones that can really wield anything close to obvious magical  power are the Istari — or the Five Wizards — who are, in turn, Maia spirits given human form by their Valar patrons from Aman or Valinor to advise and guide the peoples of Middle-Earth against Sauron’s tyranny and manipulations. And the Wizards are extremely limited in what they can actually do, to make sure their powers do not dominate the peoples of Middle-Earth or actually cause irreparable damage to Arda itself.

Essentially, what I call the metaphysical situation of Arda is a subtle magic of sorts: forces of that universe — which is, arguably, supposed to be a mythological past of our own world, before the metaphysical rules of our reality changed many times — and something that can only be utilized in particular situations, contexts, or at certain times. George R.R. Martin does something similar with magic in Westeros and Essos, though there is a lot more emphasis on blood magic, and aspects of deities that may or may not exist in the forms that their worshipers believe them to be. It would make sense that Tolkien’s understated, limited use of magic — or metaphysics — influenced Martin and so many others, including the creators of Dungeons and Dragons that made spells far more overt.

So, one thing that the Men of the West YouTube channel also focused on at one point were attempts at an Expanded Arda Universe: through gameplay. And one thing that it has always found lacking is the “magic-system” in Lord of the Rings Online — a game that Yoystan otherwise praises in every other way — or even its selection of player races, and antagonists.

And, after reading up on this, I started to think to myself: what would a role-playing game — online or table-top — look like if it were based on what we knew about Tolkien’s Arda down as much to the rune as possible? This led me to writing out some thoughts on my social media on the matter, hoping to get input from other Game Masters and other players I know, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this deserves a post. And while I am not a Tolkien scholar, I do have some ideas as to what this world would look like, how it would be possible to construct a campaign, and what such a game could be about.

It’d be a question of looking at the heart of Middle-Earth and Arda, and focusing on the idea that “there is hope in the greatest darkness.” That is the spirit of Tolkien’s world. With this central theme in mind, should at least a table-top Game Master and player fellowship choose to use it, it would be a case of the metaphysics of the world shaping what happens in it.

Setting a game in Arda during the First and Second Ages, for instance, would be a very different endeavour and situation than making it situated in the Third Age with which many fans are so familiar. I would argue that it would be easier to have High Elf players in the First and Second Ages, for instance, along with a Higher Mythic Age element of Maiar abound and more supernatural beings like werewolves, Balrogs, and even Dragons. Roleplaying in Beleriand, the lost continent of Middle-Earth and central to many Elven Kingdoms and even old Dwarven ones could be fascinating. Of course, you could have intrigue and some battles from Numenor, the greatest civilization of Men as it is referred to, if you want to spend time in the Second Age. The Silmarillion and other Books of Lost Tales on those times could be useful but they are very mythological, though there could be some fun in that.

But in the Third Age, around the time of The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit is what I was — and many others would be — thinking about setting a game in with regards to Arda. If it is a tabletop role-playing situation, the Game Master can set limits on who is what in this world, and it would be easier to do so. For instance, High Elves have tremendous skill in their Arts and knowledge — and can see into the Unseen World and sense Wraiths and the like — which might give a fellowship an unfair advantage. Also, there aren’t that many High Elves beyond the titular characters in the novels at this stage in the game. Likewise, in a video game or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, you can just limit what classes and races players can be: with non-player characters being exceptions, of course. And, it goes without saying, that there are no other Wizards aside from the Five.

What I would do is something like this. I would take all the different races and genealogies that commonly exist in Middle-Earth around the time of the tail end of the Third Age: the Forest Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits of course, and Men — Humans — and even include some Rangers with their Numenorean blood to make things interesting. So far so good. I would have Warriors in their permutations as Horse Riders, Archers, and even Rangers. Have some Hobbit burglars even just to be a troll (and in this case, not a literal one, as they will be enemies, trolls). The Forest Elves are a combination of different Elven families or ethnicities and perhaps I would grant them some higher statistics, and knowledge.

Healing in the game would happen naturally. If you are injured, you need to rest, or have medicine applied to you. It’d be like the role-playing system in the tabletop version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you get injured, you have to take time to heal. Of course, if your Human or Elf knows some herb-lore, you could expedite the process, but it is not an instant heal situation. In fact, I’d be really tempted to list one’s characteristics as Fëa and Hröa. These are two very fascinating concepts, created in Tolkien’s Elvish which are apparently translated as “spirit” or “soul” and “body.” I would have Hröa as one’s health meter, and Fëa as being necessary to perform certain Arts, herb-lore, crafts, and the like. The more powerful your Fëathe more sensitive you are to the Unseen World, and the more complex Arts you can understand and perform. Perhaps this would be a dynamic more suited to Elf characters, for obvious reasons, and perhaps some Numenorean descendants.

I would allow for some characters to be able to increase these basic traits. Elves, for instance, can increase Fëa and Hröa if they learn certain lore, and can start to perceive the World around them such as it is, perhaps even more than their heightened senses already do. However, I would make them more susceptible to any mood-affecting Arts or sorcery, and if their Fëa isn’t sufficiently recovered through meditation or what not, it can affect them physically. It would be interesting, however, for a non-High Elf to develop to a point where they can almost match their kin. I am even tempted to play with the concept of Elf characters being reincarnated from the Halls of Mandos if they are killed in battle, or they die, while Human characters — if they die — have to move on as their souls go to a place beyond Arda, and the player can have the option of playing as a descendant or a kinsman of theirs. It’d be closer in keeping to the metaphysical structure of Tolkien’s world.

It would really be cool if characters can learn how to train their traits through finding lore, or artifacts, or even wise people who might have, at one time, been taught a few tricks by other Elves, Dwarf smiths, or even Istari. It would be limited, of course, as secrets can be distorted or lost over time, and the power of Arda is not the same as it once was. But just think about an Elf learning how to sense the two Worlds, or a Dwarf figuring out how to make Moon-letters or doors — with time and effort — that can keep others away, or Humans learning powerful Oaths, songs or poems of power to bolster the moral of your group or army, some minor Spells, or wisdom. And everyone can learn some secrets of different locations that they find, perhaps even talk with a Maia or two and gain knowledge of subtle but useful skills. Perhaps there is a campaign where they go among the Easterlings and discover a cult dedicated to the Blue Wizards, and discover some lore from them: maybe in an attempt to figure what happened to the two who were lost so long ago, while never actually being anything but ambiguous about it like in Tolkien’s lore unless you want an interpretation.

Of course, you can train your Hröa through learning how to fight, how to survive in the wilderness and scout, to feed yourself, and through exercise and experience in battle. And there could be situations where you need something miraculous to happen, but you can’t just simply call on this power whenever you want: even as an Elf. You have to be in the right place, at the correct time, or like in some D20 systems you have a Fate Dice and you can only call on it once per session or — in this case — once per major event such as being in a battle with a Sorcerer who has a few Wraiths or Barrow-Wights on his or her side, and you have an Elven artifact that you need to repel them with azure light, or the sudden flood of a river in front of you to keep them all back.

It would be easy to find treasures of mithril and Elven blades that react to Orc presence. Orcs, Goblins, Wargs, Trolls — which would be stronger opponents — Mirkwood Spiders, Human Outlaws, Barrow-Wights, and Wraiths would be good antagonist non-player characters that you can fight, and outsmart. Perhaps you find some remnants of older more terrifying powers in remote places in Middle-Earth such as Balrogs, Dragons, or even some Maia that have gone renegade: shapeshifting wolves and vampires. I can see a quest to seek some Teleri elves (seafarers I believe) to find treasures in the waters where Beleriand used to be, or going to the East to see if you can find evidence of the Blue Wizards — as having done their part to divide the Easterlings against Sauron, failing to do so and being killed, or having made cults around themselves — or even trying to find those gosh darned reclusive Ent-Wives if you are particularly fascinated with herb and wood-lore.

You can participate in minor battles that are involved in major events. You could find all kinds of fascinating artifacts such as, again, some Elven blades you can find, some Dwarf-wrought weapons, documents and lore of lost knowledge, perhaps a lost remnant of a Wizard’s staff that wouldn’t even give you a tenth of an Istari’s power but could make for a useful talisman. Hell, you could even find the Lesser Rings of Power: which are practice rings made by Elven craftspeople that could give you … a few minor advantages in certain statistics. Saruman did, after all, examine what he could of ring-lore and maybe there are some samples of it still out there, though whether or not they are influenced by Sauron can be up to interpretation.

It seems like scraps, compared to what the protagonists in the novels encounter or use, and compared to Dungeons and Dragons, but I see all these opportunities as — well — Lost Tales in and of themselves, stories that happen in between the gaps of greater epics that are no less meaningful. They would be character driven games and campaigns, and you can focus on “fellowship” or “the day a group’s courage fails.” You could have an Elf wanting to prove themselves to their people, or a Dwarf wanting to recover their lost smithing, or a human woman masquerading as a man — or not — wanting to fight, a rare halfling that wanders from home and can’t keep their hands to themselves, or an Easterling who simply just wants to gain profit and survive and doesn’t like the influence being exerted on their lands. I’m not sure I would have Beornings — essentially were-bears — exist as player characters, but I would not rule it out in a tabletop situation provided it is roleplayed well. Perhaps Beornings are descendants of Men and Maia with an interesting Fëa as a result.

And just think about these characters meeting canon characters, and having a whole other kind of interaction with them. Elrond could probably, if he so chose, direct you with different kinds of knowledge, or perhaps you can meet a different Gondorian Stewards if you aren’t … quite playing at the end of the Third Age. Perhaps Galadriel has entertained other guests before, or you really got lost in Lothlorien. You might be told by a small village of Hobbits that you are not welcome there, or a passing … grey-robed and bearded man gives you some good pipe-weed, and some sound advice. Maybe even a firework or two, if you are good. Or you meet other original characters who could plausibly exist. Imagine learning how to ride by riders of Rohan, or dying in Dunharrow because you were foolish enough to go into the Mountain … or you find some cursed item just outside of it. And going into a barrow is always fun, or dealing with some Huorns and Ents in Fangorn Forest. There are a lot of possibilities.

This … could work as an online game, but that depends on the interests of the players and how much of an audience such a game world as an MMORPG could gain. Many people are used to flinging fireballs, or instantly healing from a cleric’s spell. Likewise, however, there is a paternalism in Tolkien’s world: with certain peoples of humanity, or races being inherently bad or limited to roles that could also be an issue, not to mention gender-roles.

But this system, as I have thought of it, could also be adopted into its own world. A low or subtle magic world that focuses on exploration and understanding of the environment around you, and the friendships you can forge, the poems and artifacts you can find, the songs you can sing together, and even the food you can make and eat and trade while having your battles with evil.

I guess what I’m saying is that it can be done, and it would be fairly beautiful.  I would attempt a table-top game of either a Lord of the Rings RPG like this, or a world with similar metaphysics. I know The One Ring RPG and Lord of the Rings Online do not quite have this, so I thought I’d just write about it here. Or perhaps only hardcore Tolkienites and scholars could attempt such a thing. I think this is the closest I might ever come to writing in Middle-Earth, though I make no promises. I don’t have any greetings or farewells to make in Elvish, but I hope you enjoyed reading this long digression into possibilities, this place of lore, which I feel belongs on Mythic Bios as it has been a long time since I have made such a ramble. And I wish you well.

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