OSR: Baboons, Goblins, and Bicameral Kobolds

 Baboons are special creatures.

On the one hand there's the view of someone like Robert Ardrey that primate social competition is all about, who's got the biggest canines, the most muscle, and the biggest balls. This view is straight-ahead and deterministic. Later, a much more p.c. version came along that held that competition is all about social intelligence, forming coalitions, and being nice in your game theory. But what really happens is that you'll get some baboon that's absolutely physically adept and by Ardrey's logic should be doing just fine. He also knows how to use social intelligence to form coalitions, and so by Howard Gardner's reckoning he should also be doing fine. However, at a critical moment he just can't stop himself from doing something stupid, impulsive, and disinhibited. Amid the physical prowess and the social intelligence, you look at the baboons that are most successful, and not coincidentally pass on more copies of their genes, and they simply have more impulsivity control.

Here’s an example: When baboons hunt together they'd love to get as much meat as possible, but they're not very good at it. The baboon is a much more successful hunter when he hunts by himself than when he hunts in a group because they screw up every time they're in a group. Say three of them are running as fast as possible after a gazelle, and they're gaining on it, and they're deadly. But something goes on in one of their minds—I'm anthropomorphizing here—and he says to himself, "What am I doing here? I have no idea whatsoever, but I'm running as fast as possible, and this guy is running as fast as possible right behind me, and we had one hell of a fight about three months ago. I don't quite know why we're running so fast right now, but I'd better just stop and slash him in the face before he gets me." The baboon suddenly stops and turns around, and they go rolling over each other like Keystone cops and the gazelle is long gone because the baboons just became disinhibited. They get crazed around each other at every juncture. 

A typical male baboon is too impulsive and can't possibly do the disciplined thing. Baboons are far less disciplined than chimps and when you map their brain anatomy you notice that they don't have a whole lot of frontal cortical function. Even though there are tremendous individual differences among the baboons, they're still at this neurological disadvantage, compared to the apes, and thus they typically blow it at just the right time. They could be scheming these incredible coalitions, but at the last moment, one decides to slash his partner in the ass instead of the guy they're going after, just because he can get away with it for three seconds. The whole world is three seconds long—they're very pointillist in their emotions. 

Baboons know what they're doing; they can play chess in their social landscape almost as well as chimps in terms of moving the right pieces around, but at the critical moment they simply can't stop themselves from doing the impulsive thing. I once watched a Frans de Waal film, Chimpanzee Politics, at a primate conference, and I was sitting next to another baboonologist. There is a scene where some chimp had just pulled off a brilliant Machiavellian maneuver, and the guy next to me turned and said, "Christ, that is what a baboon would be like if it had a shred of discipline or gratification-postponement." You're watching a species where most of their social complexity and social misery is built around the fact that at every logical juncture there's a pretty good chance that they're not going to have enough frontal neurons to do the prudent thing, and instead they blow it. It's amazing to study.

-Robert Sapolsky, interview at Edge.org

Parents may recognize baboon-like behavior in their children.

First-person narratives can't easily handle this kind of impulsivity. "And then I decided to steer into oncoming traffic" doesn't really capture the process. The "I" doing the deciding (if deciding is even the correct word) and the "I" telling the story aren't on speaking terms. Allie Brosh comes close in some of her stories.

But RPGs can. Players, at a distance from the hidden inner world of of their characters, provide plenty of impulsivity. The Reaction Roll or Morale Roll can, if suitably adjudicated, remind the GM that not all creatures are rational actors. The goblins charge. The GM rolls, winces, and describes one goblin happily throwing a bomb backwards instead of forwards.

One goblin is a terrible threat, like a greasy racoon with a shiv. Two or more goblins are a disaster waiting to happen.

This may also explain the Law of Conservation of Ninjutsu. The minions aren't fighting as competently in a group because they're also keeping an eye on all the other minions and trying to work out who, in this world of full-contact office politics, is likely to come out on top, and who is likely to shove them towards the lone minion-blending protagonist. 

Really interesting fights tend to have three or more sides. In the absence of any other options, one side suitably disinhibited monsters can easily become two sides.

Matias Cabezas Montoya

Kobolds and Dragons

Most humans have an inner narrator. There's a voice inside your head that is, probably, you, or at least the end result of some high-level process that loops your thoughts back through your head for a second look. Kobolds don't have that.

The voice inside a Kobold's head is their Dragon's voice.

In some cases, this is literally true. Some dragons are telepathic and will casually broadcast orders. But most of the time, a Kobold's thoughts are conceptualized as a running speech from a higher, more rational, and more powerful being. The voice saying, "Be careful, that looks sharp" or "We attack at dawn" isn't the Kobold's voice, it's the Dragon's. They live in constant, natural communion with the divine. This leads to all sorts of interesting neuroses.

Issues arise if an actual Dragon's commands start to conflict with the Dragon-in-the-mind. Kobolds can rationalize a lot, and their internal narrators will shift to match outside reality, but an un-Dragonic Dragon might not be a Dragon at all.

Kobolds with second thoughts (i.e. an inner narration that can argue with the Dragon) tend to become leaders, seers, or heretics.


Dwarves do not have inner narrators. They have no visual imagination. In the mines, it's very important to distinguish between real and imagined sights and sounds. Hallucinations get Dwarves killed. Asking a Dwarf to imagine an apple is like asking the average human to visualize an eight-dimensional hypercube. Dwarves rarely dream. When they do dream, the results are inspected for hints and prophecies, ignored, or medicated.

If a Dwarf does visualize something, they almost compulsively try to create it, as if to prove it wasn't a hallucination. 

Dwarves tend to process incoming telepathy as "speech-but-close-to-the-ear", and audibly respond (though in a whisper). Dwarven telepaths tend to move their lips a lot. The beard helps.


  1. Goblins in my games are already slightly more clever baboons, so this post works really really well for my games hehe.

  2. This is brilliant. Definitely gives a solid explanation as to why the master trap setting kobolds and goblins *can* be organized, but aren't. And when they are, taking their leader away results in chaos.

  3. Stealing this for kobolds many thx. Also that is the most concise description of the standard fantasy Dwarven psyche i have ever read!

  4. That was super interesting, thank you!

  5. Love your take on Goblins. But, when it comes to dwarves (if we are talking the traditional fantasy trope) wouldn't the "lack" of imagination be a hindrance in creating weapons in general. For me the dwarves always had this middle-ground between a comic robot-like pragmatism in working, as well as a strong creative will.
    Not necessarily "artsy" but a pragmatic creativity (the best/most useful weapon, lock, fortress, etc.)

    1. Dwarves can imagine things, it's just that their imaginations don't loop through the visual/auditory systems like most humans'. They don't "see" a weapon before making it, in the same way that you probably don't visualize a dish before cooking it. They just make it. Some sculptors say that working with stone is "freeing the sculpture from the block", and Dwarves love analogies like that.

  6. I think you give humans too much credit. Obviously we are more capable than baboons, but principally cognition is nowhere near as coherent as most people think. I agree that there is an uncanniness in the idea of a first person narrative where the reader must necessarily confront that this is a being with self awareness and agency while also seeing the machinery break down underneath that and expose all of the ways in which that consciousness is actually just a bunch of heuristics, pre- and post-processing, interpolation and extrapolation and inference off of data that are both more rich and more impoverished than we perceive them to be. There are many reasons why cognition / consciousness is nowhere near as coherent as most people think, but among them, and I think most relevant to this blog post, is that there is simply often a greater latency to the response.

    We all, not figuratively / hyperbolically all, truly all of us, make decisions which are wholly irrational, short sighted, not actually warranted given the data available to us per se, etc., but if the number of variables and interactions between those variables, time among them, are sufficiently complex, it can be difficult to map the feedback to it's origin. This is among many other things of course, not the whole story.

    But this also raises an interesting speculative fiction question. What if a "baboon" leverages that to their favor? If our hypothetical creature, we'll continue along with baboon, can somehow recognize that it has this extreme limitation in impulse control, it can start tooling itself around that fact, and then it has developed a framework to systematically get faster feedback than it's "smarter" competition. Now realistically a baboon is not going to be able to do that, it's just too limited. But maybe a kobold.

  7. This is some Origins of the Bi-cameral Mind level shit and I'm here for it.

    1. I used to do academic research on the cognitive neuroscience of language so I get really into this kind of stuff, even if that's no longer the kind of work I do. While I've read a lot of academic journal articles, I have not read some of these older books, but I should do so because these are fascinating topics :).

  8. This was amusing enough on its own.

    It was more amusing when it veered off to talk about The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, one of my favorite pop-psych fringe theories. (I've owned at least three copies of that book over the years.)

    It made me squeal and clap when it cited a TV Tropes page that =I STARTED.=