Ubi dubium… | Skeptical Inquiry in a Fantasy Setting


There’s a thing that seems to me to result from sloppy storytelling and a deep failure of the imagination in many genres of fiction: the so-called “skeptic in a mystical world” trope I’ll call it. I’m side-eyeing here the first MCU Doctor Strange movie, many episodes of Supernatural, and Stargate Atlantis in particular.

Such poorly written, poorly imagined fare is an ill fit for the magical, superhero, and monster-ridden worlds it’s portrayed in.

I’d like to discuss an alternative I’ll call Arcane Inquiry, a fantasy-based version of the thinking and methods of real world skeptical inquiry that offers a much better fit story-wise to a fantasy milieu. Why arcane? Because of the implied meaning the word carries of things not generally known, even secretive knowledge. Unless the world-builder involved has a good rationale for it, critical thinking and a firm literacy in the workings of reality will likely not be widely known, much less universally taught, in a typical fantasy milieu.

In these worlds, often based on earlier fantasy literature or popular RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, magic and monsters are a demonstrable, repeatable, and actionable reality, and plausible Inquirers would be straying from their own methods and ethical values to deny these things, or even to deliberately hide or refuse to look at the evidence for them.

It’s my understanding that even when monsters and magic abound, modern skeptical inquiry, properly translated as the intersection of critical thinking, literacy in (the milieu’s) science, and consumer/buyer/customer protection would flourish among knowledge-experts like clergy or wizards.

Who hasn’t played a fantasy RPG and occasionally failed a perception check, fumbled a saving roll against mind-befuddling spells, or thought they were fighting one monster but really another masked by a disguise or spell of some sort? Clearly, skeptical thinking should and would convey some advantage when planning strategy or tactical choices.

Then, there are also those beings of various kinds who pose as gods and similar entities through their powers or guile; powerful wizards, witches, or sorcerers, undead like liches or vampires, and nether-worldly beings like demons, daemons, or devils.

Even in a world where everyone can conjure demons or djinn to do their bidding, opportunities for skullduggery and shenanigans abound. Sometimes the conjured djinn seek to subvert their master’s intent, or a summoned devil seeks to pervert the spirit of a bargain by brilliant lawyering of the contract; always look at the fine print before signing!

Every fantasy RPG I’ve ever played has rules, a system for its magic, to define the procedure, power limits, and the sometimes draining costs of casting magic. These rules translate well to the implied laws governing the setting, and at least in part amount to that setting’s science along with whatever real science the GM includes specifically or is otherwise implied in that game’s rule mechanics.

From my own previous experience in refereeing Call of Cthulhu in the late 1990s, magic is the physics of the true (CoC) universe, that true but thankfully hidden reality concealed from everyday scrutiny by a veil of sanity, obvious and comprehensible only to the mad and the horrors from beyond space-time with which they traffick.

Far more extraordinary to me than a world whose laws allow magic and monsters would be one in which there are no attempts by anyone to deceive anyone else, in which no one ever fools themselves, nor misperceive, misremember, or misinterpret and misreport what they think they perceive and remember, and in which there are no attempts by anyone to cheat, con, or defraud another for spite, fun, or personal gain. 

Such a world would be an incredibly unchallenging, boring, and implausible one. Most fantasy worlds in literature are rife with deception of some sort. In those worlds, there are scads of beings that make it their business to fool others. Outstanding examples include demons, devils, human and nonhuman thieves and assassins, fairies, tricky sellers of rare “magic items,” mischievous elementals, actual gods, and quite a few of the smarter dragon species…

…but most of all, those all-seeing Dungeon Masters, or GMs if GURPS is your thing. 

Even in a fantasy world, clear, clever thinking and thorough investigation can be your strongest weapon against the most powerful magicks or extra-planar beings, and any engaging, well designed setting will account for this.

Even in fantasy, superhero fiction, or the realms of horror where monsters bring vast and frightening powers to bear, using your brain instead of thinking with whatever supernormal powers the setting permits will often be your greatest asset. 

Mongo Fiction | Evicted


The clawed octopoid towered over the comparatively tiny human standing defiantly at its feet. With its waking, a wave of madness had swept the planet, and this world looked as though it would meet its end. But still the lone human stood there, waiting.

“I know you can understand me, just like last time. We both know I can speak with anything that has language, so I’ll warn you just once: leave. This planet is protected, and you are not welcome here. Maybe come back in a billion years after the sun brightens and the oceans have boiled away on their own. And I know how you’re causing the madness outbreak, you fraud. ‘Cosmic Mysterium Tremendum,’ my ***! You’re using a planet-wide psychotronic disruptor network, which I’ll just shut down like so.” The human clicked his finger, as a wave of blue light rippled across the planet, shorting out the network of alien devices as sanity returned to the suddenly lucid but bewildered humans, those who did no serious harm to themselves or others under the influence.

“Get off this planet, you charlatan. I’ve got worlds to create, not pretend gods to unmask!”

The octopoid stood silently for a few seconds as others of its race gathered nearby. Then, it began to unfurl massive membranous wings, of the sort that could ride the solar wind, and soared skyward as its fellows followed suit. In minutes, they were gone. This world would survive, at least for a little while longer.

Humans nearby gathered around the man from a distance, terrified by the fact he had the power to stand down Old Ones, but grateful that he had saved their lives and minds.

The man glanced at them, saying, “You’re all safe for at least another few million years, until the next alien catastrophe ambles along, or you get smacked by an asteroid. But don’t get used to it. I only sent him on his way this time because he once tried to cheat me in a game of cards. I hate cheats.”

Mongo Fiction | The Meera


A nondescript-looking young woman made her way down the poorly lit street. It was quiet, too quiet this night, and her senses were alert to the slightest disturbance to her peace of mind at this late hour. She was in no mood for threats, so she smiled when she saw the ludicrous — ahem — gentleman — step out of a side alley with shiv in hand, evidently eager to try his hand at gutting her and taking her stuff. Never mind that the only apparent goods on her person were her mirror-shades and her scavenged work uniform. She saw the idiot in augmented reality overlay in her field of vision, thinking he was hiding before he even stepped out into the street. This would be quick.

“All dressed for Halloween, are we, girly? Why the shades at this hour of night? They look good enough to take! Hand ‘em over, and your money, too, or I slit your mongrel face!” She quickly downgraded her estimation of his intelligence by several standard deviations below the mean. He waved his blade “menacingly” just half a meter in front of her, trying pathetically to look impressive and scary. Scary? To a girl who’s killed planets all by herself?

The farce was quickly ended when she casually grabbed him at the waist by his belt, and with a strength and ease seemingly impossible for someone of her size and build, lifted him over her head and tossed him headfirst into a nearby waste bin with a muted “thud,” and what sounded like the “crunch” of a likely skull fracture. Oops.

Hmm. Moron dropped his knife when he took a dive, she thought.
She picked up the blade, balancing the tip on her finger. It’s dull. Badly balanced. Crappy workmanship. Meh.

She tossed it aside, and silently giggled inside at the thought of anyone trying to threaten her with such a shoddy excuse for a weapon.

Not worth the effort of writing, “I got punked by a girl,” on his face with his own blade, she thought.

Fictitious gods. You’ve one hell of a mean streak, said the silent voice within, heard only in her mind’s ear, the constant companion riding around in her skull. She knew who it once was. A digital consciousness deep in her hypershard’s fractal-like q-bits had kept her company since she first regained control of her own mind on a dead planet. A planet that she had just killed as the resurrected Magna.

I make my own rules, Mirus. She responded. Understood. Still, you’re a wanted woman, and you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. Even during my life, I had to travel with an assumed name and identity to avoid bringing the local military down on my head. Thinking with your powers will only get you killed. Really? She asked. You had an assumed name? What was it? That was Murugan Sanchez. My real parents were of Tamil and Filipino descent, and it showed in me, so the name worked. You’ll need one too, at least for the mundane things like forging documents and such. I can teach you how to do that, and to do it well. So, what’ll it be?

The girl thought for a moment. Murugan. That was the name of an old god of war wasn’t it. So I’ll go as Korravi – and I’m stealing your surname, Mirus – Korravi Sanchez, it’ll be. There are few ethnicities I can’t easily pass as with a little touching up, and several hundred years after your time no one will notice.

For those who find out the hard way, my life as the second Magna is officially over, she thought to herself.

I’m the Meera, once the destroyer of worlds. But one day, I’ll be able to walk in the open without terrifying every planet I set foot on.

And that day will be good.

Mongo Fiction | Gr’ozz on the Hinterlands: Conclusion


The centaurs moved in formation to take best advantage despite their small numbers. Gr’ozz was with the chief, and seemingly tireless as the long stride of his massive legs helped him easily keep up with the centaurs’ four on only two. Gr’ozz’s gills let him breathe silently despite his need for oxygen, hardly making a sound in the cool night breeze.

Gr’ozz suddenly had an ill feeling, like something would go wrong, and he had the wisdom to show it, gesturing his misgivings to the chief, who nodded gravely, for he felt it too. Still, to let the enemy advance was the greater danger, so on they went.

Suddenly, their eyes adapted to the night, was the painful glare of floodlights in their path. The enemy knew they were coming. They had been expected. Through the glare, they could see the enemy in formation and ready to attack, gauss weaponry with depleted uranium slugs aimed at them, reptilian lips under helmet-shrouds pulled back in serrated-toothed smiles clearly not expressing good intent.

“Me, Gr’ozz will burn you, Bad Men!” roared the dimwitted reptilian giant, fully twice the height of the Dragons, as he opened his mouth wide, and spat forth a stream of superheated flame, hot as the atmosphere of the sun. He incinerated three squads of enemy troops before they could pull back and regroup. The centaur chief drew his massive steel longbow and with his fellows, fired into the enemy formation, as orders were shouted to subordinates on both sides.

Dragon troops fell as heavy, steel-tipped arrows mowed down the front line while those to the rear took their place and began firing. Now it was the centaurs’ turn to die. Then Gr’ozz went berserk, rushing into the enemy formation with his bone mace flailing, broken bodies in crushed armor plating falling with each swing. Behind him, the centaurs had pulled back, and though having taken losses, fought like devils as the Dragons tried to target them with gauss rifles.

Gr’ozz had effectively lost it, crushing and burning Dragons as he drove into the enemy ranks. It seemed as though he would win as the Dragon formation became increasingly chaotic. That is, until they played their ace. A heavy armored vehicle had entered the fray, a Dragon assault tank, aiming its main cannon array at the centaurs.

“NO! You not hurt half-horses!” roared a berserk Gr’ozz, “Me, Gr’ozz will save!” He dove forward, placing his massive body between the cannons and the centaurs, and took the brunt of the shots to his own midsection, falling backward, prone and bleeding, but not before preventing what would have been certain death for the centaurs. At the instant he was shot, he had crushed in the turret of the vehicle with both fists, effectively putting it out of action.

The Dragons pulled back in full retreat, as the surviving centaurs continued firing into them. In moments, all was quiet, as the centaurs gathered around the fallen giant.

Gr’ozz opened his eyes, not yet glazed over. “Half-horses safe?” He rumbled to the chief.“Yes, they’re gone, for now. We’re safe until they bring a larger force. You did it.” “Me Gr’ozz am happy. Gr’ozz do good. Now Gr’ozz to go to sleep forever . . . .”

Motionlessness, a brief hiss of escaping breath, then silence.

Gills stopped opening and shutting. Eyes were now blank and staring into eternity, dead eyelids closed by semi-equine fingers as a sign of respect. “He shall be remembered in story, in legend, as the Great Scaly One, slow in mind though quick in cunning, first in battle, and of hearts three sizes larger than most.” The centaurs gathered ‘round, and gathering brushwood, set Gr’ozz upon it, lit it, his body to be consumed by the flames as the centaurs, voices lowered and chanting a litany for the dead, tossed rare herbs into the immolating giant’s pyre to send him on his way.

Goodbye, Gr’ozz. You were fun to write about, but for you, this is The End.

Mongo Fiction | Gr’ozz on the Hinterlands, Part 2


“Me, Gr’ozz say that Bad Men carry weapons more scarier than bows! Much more scarier!” Gr’ozz rumbled to the centaur chief’s council around the campfire that the war party had lit to frighten off predators at night. “Half-horses in big danger! But Gr’ozz want to help, maybe help drive them off if lucky!”

“How many have you seen, Scaly One?” the chief inquired. The humanoid vocal equipment of the centaurs would not permit them to pronounce Gr’ozz’s name properly, which sounded like a bull elephant trying to trumpet in a quartet with three asthmatic crocodiles.

“Me, Gr’ozz seen many, lots of squads, with big, big weapons, big tanks and guns! Kill many small armies!”

“I have fifty troops with me, Scaly One. With bows we can take out the troops, but any war chariots will be a problem. But you have no ranged weapons, and surely you cannot take them out with just bare hands,” He gestured to Gr’ozz’s left arm, tipped with a mace of sculpted bone grown from his arm, “We MUST arm you with something more your size that can take them on at range. It would be suicide to go head-to- head!”

“Ha! Me, Gr’ozz am good with fists; strong like elephant, wise like zen master, tough like steel. Plus, Gr’ozz use trick on dumb Bad Men that work every time!” “Then we may make it out of this alive, even victorious!” A scout had just entered camp and whispered something in the chief’s ear. The chief nodded and whispering an order to her, turned to the others.

“The enemy has set down for the night. It will not be the most honorable thing we can do, but we move out in an hour for a surprise attack. We need any advantage we can get. Scaly One, you will be with me and on approaching try to disable their war chariots, or ‘tanks’ as you call them!”

“That good! Gr’ozz can do!” “Then we ready within the hour,” the chief addressed all in the camp.“This is our only chance of stopping them, advanced weapons for not. Let’s not waste it!”

To be concluded . . . .

Mongo Fiction: Extinction


It had come to pass, that the sun’s plan for his people had not failed. But all was at an end. It was the day of extinction for the Race on this world as the sun grew large and red in the sky, taking up most of the horizon as it became bloated and hungry.

Its radius had already swallowed the inner planets, and this world was next. The solar shielding was collapsing, the only time bought for its survival, long since paid with ancient technology, expired. The wall of plasma and radiation raced closer, its surface cooled, though that mattered little to the planet as it rushed outward.

So, tentacle in tentacle, they faced the fire, as their world was consumed by the dying might of the sun, no more to be a land of songs and glory but only dust and death, the last vestiges of its spirit already spread among the stars . . . .

. . . To remember the world and the Race that once was!

Mongo Fiction: The Recognition


I recognized it instantly, the face unforgettable. It was once my friend, now made monstrous yet with unmistakeable resemblance to the human being it once was.

Tentacular limbs sprouted from its neck and torso, and its mouth gaped open and shut as though a fish passing water through its gills.

But friend though it once was, it seemed not to recognize me, and its dull eyes bulged outward, clearly resembling more those of a goat than anything human.

Then those eyes suddenly fixated on me, and suddenly its mouth stopped gaping as its lips moved. It seemed to know once again who I was, in a horrid instance of clarity, as it tried to form words, mouthing something . . .

And then it spoke my name as it pulled itself toward me along the basalt floor, as a tear formed from one of its eyes while the mouth opened its many jaws to feed.