Wednesday, December 31, 2008


This article is a continuation of an old entry I posted in 2005. To save the reader the trouble of treasure hunting, I have pasted the short old piece below (with some editing). My opinions in this post and my Nov post are echoed and inspired by various articles that can be found on the net.

The most important of these is Bill Joy’s ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’. This article was published in Wired magazine in 2000, and could still be easily googled. I believe that Bill Joy’s work, a prescient warning by an eminent and far-sighted technologist, will eventually be recognized as one of the most important articles published in this century.

The threat to democracy/liberalism posed by transhumanism is discussed in another article, ironically from a transhumanist website:

The Old Article:

“I have been interested in roleplaying games since primary school days. It is always fun to take on an alter-ego, especially one engaged in much more interesting activities than mundane schoolwork. One of the most extensive and well-developed RPG series is the D&D (forgotten realms) fantasy world. This game system has been around since the 1970s, and even today, best-selling computer games like Neverwinter Nights and the classic Baldur's Gate series are D&D spinoffs.

The great attraction of D&D is that it offers an entire alternative civilization and world based not on science but on magic. Its magical system is quite simple: basically 'magic' is an energy (governed by a goddess called Mystra) that builds and upholds the universe. Clerics, mages and sorcerers draw on this 'weave' of energy in different ways (either through the gods, their own arcane training or natural gifts), and shape this energy using their wills to accomplish spectacular feats. Given the nature of the game, most of these feats are of a very lethal and damaging nature. Many of them would probably fall in the category of 'black magic'.

D&D, of course, does not offer a very sophisticated (or convincing) metaphysical system. What is much more interesting is not D&D’s view of magic, but the consideration of the socio-political and economic implications of a world where tens of thousands of people wield magic. It is a very interesting attempt at the construction of an entire complex civilization based on magical and not physical technology.

Adding to its richness is its many nations with different cultures, magical proficiency, races, wealth and morality/religion. To just give a quick overview: there are a few nations in Faerun (a kind of magical alternative Europe where most of the action take place) with vast knowledge of magic. These are the elven nations (underground drow cities and Evermeet) and the magocracies (rule by mages) of Halruaa, Thay and Shade.

Both Halruaa and Shade are descendants of an ancient magical empire called Netheril, which was destroyed by its own hubris. However Halruaa has an orderly and beneficent culture, and despite its potential power, it is really no nuisance to its neighbors. However it is also quite isolationist, and its philosopher-mages (who rule benevolently over a peasant population) are much more interested in research than commerce or conquest. Shade, on the other hand, is an extremely ruthless and aggressive city state with armies of mages wielding shadow magic (never mind what it is). Much unlike Halruaa, it is bent on world domination. Being a cousin state to Halruaa, it is also seeking to corrupt the ruling class of Halruaa by luring them with the powers of shadow magic.

Thay, neighbor to Shade, is a vast evil empire ruled by a council of mages. Its nominal head (since the council is forever fighting for power) is one of Faerun's most powerful wizard and necromancer (Szass Tam) with legions of undead at his command. Thay is forever at war with its neighbors, but because of its internal divisions and very powerful neighbors (Aglarond and Rashemen) it has never managed to overrun Faerun. Instead it has embarked on a commercial program to sell magical artifacts. Something like a Thayvian 'to get rich is glorious' policy change.

Evermeet is one of the last surface Elven powers. It is located on the extreme west of Faerun, run by beneficent and magically powerful elves who insist on being left alone. Its main direct enemies are not humans, but the drows (the dark elves) who live underground. If united, these drows are probably much more numerous and powerful than the surface elves, but fortunately for Faerun, they are like the Thayvians and forever fight among themselves. Their cities, too, are concentrations of magical power and lore.

The other nations of Faerun (e.g. the Venice-like metropolis of Waterdeep, the more mundane nations of Sembia and Cormyr) all have mages and clerics, but none of them have concentrations comparable to the magocracies or the elven nations. It is therefore notable that D&D postulates such a variety of political and cultural adaptations in different magical nations to deal with the problems and blessings of magical ability. After all, if magic were to exist on our earth, its regulation and control would perhaps be the chief political and social issue of all nations.

Yet despite the variety, it is even more interesting that magic users dominate the political orders of almost all the human nations. There is strikingly no democracies or republics in Faerun. The most liberal regime will be an oligarchy, and that is usually dominated by magic users. Waterdeep, for instance, is no magocracy, but it is run by a secret council of Lords with some of the most powerful mages in Faerun. The same pattern holds for almost all nations. Rashemen, for instance, is a warrior and even barbarous power, but it too is run by its witches.

Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher, has based the equality of men not on an abstract or spiritual concept, but on the equal ability of each man to kill. In a world where magic users can unleash unspeakable violence on hapless 'muggles', even that primitive concept of equality cannot be sustained. D&D is being politically insightful in eliminating any semblance of democracy or liberalism in Faerun.

One then think about the myth of Atlantis and its magic. How then did Atlantis survive as a magical civilization? One would think only a totalitarian state or at least one of the autocratic D&D regimes can support such a civilization. Perhaps. Or is it because Faerun is populated by humans too much like us? Violent, quarrelsome and greedy creatures. Perhaps the Atlanteans were quite different, at least at first.

In any case, with some of the technologies coming to birth in the 21st century, one wonders whether we will end up with the chaos of the D&D world. After all, no one WEAK should ever want to live in Faerun. It is a world of adventure, darkness, heroism and general war. The strong and magically potent thrive there, but the rest play second or third fiddles at best and typically end up as undead corpses. And this is in large part thanks to the abundance of magical talent. In our 21st century world where 'transhumanist' technologies might one day empower large groups of people to become virtual wizards, will we too end up with autocratic 'magocracies'?


I found out a while ago that in the D&D 4th Edition world (the D&D system goes through periodic revamps), the goddess of magic has somehow been murdered by an evil god (Cyric), and this understandably drastic event has unleashed a catastrophe, a ‘spell plague’, that has swept through Faerun. Halruaa, the archetypal mage-kingdom, has apparently ‘detonated’--Atlantean-fashion perhaps--leaving a broken archipelago behind. There are few survivors.

This event reminds me of the events in the Warcraft storyline. In an episode of Warcraft III, Dalaran, the city of mages, succumbs to an undead plague before being knocked down by the mighty spell of a big mean demon. I mourn for the fallen mages and their ruined libraries.

Beyond game universes, Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series also explores (much more subtly and extensively) the uses and abuses of magical power—but commenting on that will probably require another very long post.

In any event, our civilization knows very well the danger of power over nature. Though the D&D gods could honestly display more imagination (and sympathy) in their cyclical revamps (which usually involves gods and goddesses randomly dying and/or rising again), denizens of the 21st century could hardly oppose the basic contention that great power in the hands of fallible mortals or immortals almost always leads to disaster.

In Warcraft III, this is quite clear. It is a traitor mage of Dalaran who opens the way for the undead and demonic invasion. Without the magical power and knowledge fostered by Dalaran, the undead/demonic scourge would have left the world (and Dalaran itself) alone. Of course, one could counter-argue that if Dalaran had been even more powerful, it might have used a divine vacuum cleaner to suck the demon and his friends back to the abyss. Thus the problem is not magic, but its insufficiency.

This argument is fallacious, however. If Dalaran had 10 times the magical lore and power, then its traitors/scoundrels would also likely be 10 times more powerful and knowledgeable, and would likely do 10 times the damage. The greater the power, the greater the solutions possible--but the problems would also increase in severity.

In Halruaa, there were no scoundrels misusing power and bringing about a great fall. Their mistake, if there is even one, is less clear. Halruaa, unlike Thay or Shade or the Drow cities, was one of the ‘good guys’. Its policies were beneficent, it kept to itself despite its power, and it was a well-run and orderly country by D&D standards. Yes, it did use magic everywhere, but in a country where one-third of the population (1.7 million citizens altogether) were mages, this was only to be expected. When the goddess died, their magic naturally or unnaturally unraveled, and Halruaa died a violent and undeserved death.

If we must insist on a sin, then the Halruaans’ only sin was to persist in using magic when its use had led to a terrible catastrophe for their ancestors. The Halruaans were descended from the inhabitants of Netheril, the mightiest human civilization that has ever existed—a civilization with magical achievements that far surpassed anything in ‘modern’ Faerun. These Netherese, in hubris and for defense, built flying cities that soared above the earth, living like gods among the clouds.

Eventually (and the story is silly, so I should not go into details), one of the Netherese archmages overreached. His folly led most of the Netherese cities to crash to the ground, killing their inhabitants. One city, however, went into ‘the world of shadows’, and returned, quite naturally, as Shade thousands of years later. A few other cities were saved by divine intervention, and the few survivors made their way down south, building the nation that became Halruaa. Instead of renouncing magic and its power, these survivors sought to rebuild their old civilization--but this time, they exerted a much stricter oversight over magical research.

For both Dalaran and Halruaa, there was some attempt to use reason and ethics to control the use and development of magical power. In Halruaa, arguably, it was very successful. But due to circumstances outside its control, and the whim of certain Californians), there was an eventual detonation with 1.7 million casualties.

So what’s the problem with power? There is no problem with power in a world without evil. In our world, and in Faerun, great power can, and usually does, lead to catastrophe. And evil often grows greatly after that.

Indeed, as I browsed the D&D 4th Edition guidebook at Kino (too expensive to buy), I noticed just how much darker the world of Faerun has become after the spell plague (and this is Faerun we are talking about—a world brimming with monsters and dark magic in the best of times). Beyond the implosion of Halruaa (definitely one of the few good magocracies), here are some of the other disastrous changes:

1) With Halruaa gone, Shade is the only remaining heir to Netheril and it has vastly expanded its domains and now rules much of northern Faerun. With magic dating back to ancient times, and with vastly increased armies and resources, there don’t seem to be any ‘good’ power that can really tackle it, except maybe Waterdeep or the elves?

2) The most powerful ‘wizard’ in Faerun, the Simbul (a woman), who used to be the ruler of Aglarond and the most deadly enemy of the Red Wizards of Thay, has vanished. She is believed to be hiding in the Dales, but it is unclear (to me) whether she can still do much. At the same time, Elminster, the ‘Gandalf’ of the D&D series and probably Faerun’s greatest (male) wizard is also knocked out due to the death of the goddess of magic. He can still talk and cast some spells, but is only a shadow of his former self.

3) While the famous good wizards are dead or basically gone, the evil Szass Tam of Thay has killed off all his rivals and unified Thay. It now swarms with an ‘undead scourge’ of epic proportion. Without Elminster and the Simbul, or Halruaa, Thay is seemingly unstoppable--but an interesting possibility remains that Shade will end up fighting Thay. Of course, we also cannot discount the possibility of a ‘Nazi-Soviet Pact’.

4) Asmodeus (the name is from the Book of Revelation), one of the archdevils of the nine hells (I shall spare the reader details of the complex cosmology of Faerun) has been elevated to godhood through a rather disturbing episode. Azuth, the former god of magic and consort of Mystra (the murdered goddess) was thrown all the way to hell by the implosion of Mystra’s realm. Sounds silly, but whatever it is, dying Azuth was murdered by Asmodeus who then consumed his ‘divine essence’. Thus the archdevil became a god, a supremely evil one, of course, immediately. So the nine hells and their swarms of devils (no demons, these constitute a separate species) are now naturally much more powerful.

5) The Drow cities, as far as I know, seem utterly unaffected by the spell plague. The Californians are clearly being biased in blowing up Halruaa but leaving the Drow cities untouched, when they are major concentrations of arcane lore and power as well.

In short, evil has grown significantly more powerful, and good much weaker. My impression of Faerun in the 2nd and 3rd Edition is that the good guys are mostly in charge, while the evil ones are trying to pull them down. It appears that the tables are neatly turned.

Perhaps this makes for good gaming. Although I have not played RPG computer games for quite a few years now, I suppose I can foresee future D&D 4th Edition games featuring heroes and heroines trying to turn back the tide of darkness after the Apocalypse.

Yet to me, the one ‘moral’ of the D&D series is that humanity in its current state is thoroughly unready for ‘magical power’ (of whatever form). Raise a magical civilisation, and the result will likely be 4th Edition Faerun, or worse.