Orconomics/The Dark Profits Saga is a GameLit Masterpiece

There’s a lot to enjoy about The Dark Profits Saga.  The cast features a rich and diverse group that acts as counterpoints to each other.  This is difficult in a book that a pretty large main cast, so whenever an author can pull it off, it’s impressive and good to learn from.

What’s more impressive is that this book does social and political commentary in a way that both enhances the story and doesn’t feel preachy.  In my review of Dominion of Blades, I didn’t have a good example of how social/political commentary should be done in a book.  Orconomics is that book.

First, there’s the satirical nature of the book.  This plays out in the first scene.  A farmer tells a Hero that the Paladin who saved the princess asked for nothing in return, because he was a true hero.  The Hero replied that he’s a professional one and expects to get paid.

The farmer snorted and gestured to the turnips haphazardly scattered around him. “You an’ yer so-called professionals tore up half my fields!”

“In pursuit of the reported Goblin threat,” said the hero. He made another mark on the document.

“You burned down my barn flushin’ the varmints out!” The farmer pointed his three-fingered hand at a pile of smoldering beams and charred hay. “Where’s the sense in that?”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t matter if it makes sense,” said the warrior. “It’s standard procedure.”

“But you broke all my barrels!” “Standard procedure.” The farmer was aghast. “You looted my basement!”

The hero shrugged. “Standard procedure.”

“But … but …” The farmer grasped the hero’s arm and spoke in a low whisper. “But you and … and my daughter.” The nervous tittering of an infatuated young woman rang out from within the ramshackle farmhouse. A hint of a smile twitched at the warrior’s mouth. “Standard procedure,” he quipped.

Pike, J. Zachary. Orconomics: A Satire (The Dark Profit Saga Book 1) (p. 7). Gnomish Press LLC. Kindle Edition.

This makes fun of most video games where you get a quest to rid some pests, then you spend your time ransacking the house and smashing barrels looking for loot.  Logically, that makes no sense for the mission you’re supposed to be doing, but within video game logic, it makes perfect sense.

But the scene isn’t just here to make fun of video game logic.  It sets up the entire plot for the book.  We learn that there’s a Hero Guild, which puts out contracts for heroes to kill designated F.O.E.s (Forces of Evil) in return for a percentage of the loot. We also learn that loot is whatever the foes have on them, which is usually stuff that they’ve stolen or hoarded.  Your access to contracts is also dependent on having completed other contracts in the past, in a ranking system that has heroes leveled 1 to 10.  Because killing anything designed a FOE is the quickest way to advance in rank, and hence access to the high paying contracts, several adventurers wander around looking for something to kill.

The other thing we learn is that the shares of loot are drying up.  As adventurers and heroes have already taken out the most lucrative contracts, the contracts heroes are forced to undertake get more expensive and less rewarding.  The entire economy runs off of this imperialist system, and the fact that its slowing down has the bankers of the big cities very worried.

We learn that from this passage.

Any professional hero will tell you that the most important step of any quest, big or small, is dividing the loot…

Of course, a monster’s killers aren’t the only ones with claims on its loot. A quest-giver, be it a simple shepherd or an entire city, could lay claim to nine-tenths of a hoard, minus the heroes’ fee. And quest-givers could often capitalize on those claims by selling shares of the hoard, even before the foe in possession of the loot had been slain. The speculators who bought those shares often bundled them into plunder funds, which were then divided up and sold to other companies, who were owned by other companies…

Pike, J. Zachary. Orconomics: A Satire (The Dark Profit Saga Book 1) (p. 17). Gnomish Press LLC. Kindle Edition.

Pike clearly has his sights on derivatives and the overly complicated and economically questionable practice.  For example, in 2008, the derivatives market was valued at 516 trillion dollars.  The entire World’s economy is currently worth around 75 trillion dollars.

So derivatives are somehow worth seven times more than every good and service on the entire planet.  This seems like an economically dubious assertion, part of the reason that Warren Buffet called them “Weapons of Mass Destruction”.

Of course, there are a lot of different types of derivatives, but the one that both investors like Warren Buffet and J. Zachary Pike are targeting are derivatives that based entirely on speculative wealth of future earnings, which is prone to wildly exaggerated and optimistic estimates of future earnings.  You can read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness for a larger discussion of the problem of optimism bias in financial markets.

We get introduced to all this via action.  The anonymous hero’s contract is to exterminate a group of goblins that set up residence in a farmer’s basement, but one of them escaped.  The farmer realizes that if the hero doesn’t exterminate the goblins as specified in the contract, the contract is void.

The hero chases after the goblin, and runs into Gorm.  Gorm is the protagonist of the story, and he’s an alcoholic dwarven berzerker ex-hero. Despite not having anything special in terms of equipment, he’s able to easily beat the anonymous hero and take his gear.

The rescued goblin starts following Gorm around, to Gorm’s consternation.  This introduces the readers to the two-tiered society of Orconomics.

Society is broken up into two large groups, the Lightlings and the Darklings.  The Lightlings compose up the main species you’d expect:  Orc, dwarf, elf, halflings, etc.  The Darklings compose every other group.  Every Darkling was automatically considered a FOE unless they had proof that they weren’t via the NPC papers (Noncombatant Paper Carrier).

Yes, this is the same thing that happens in Dakota Krout’s Divine Dungeon series where the acronyms are clearly made up to suit a game world.

Gorm realizes that the lone Goblin is a Darkling and almost certainly going to die, as goblins are social creatures that aren’t a threat on their own and the goblin will either be killed by far more deadly Darklings or hunted by guild members so they can improve their rank.  So Gorm takes the goblin into the city to get his NPC papers.

We then get Gorm’s backstory.  He was once considered a top-rank hero, but during a quest where an assembled group of heroes were chosen to take down a necromancer, every one of the heroes were killed except two:  Johan the Paladin and Gorm.  Gorm survived by fleeing the battle.  As berzerkers go into a rage that makes them unable to recall events, Gorm doesn’t remember what happened in the battle, but does remember fleeing for days on end.

As the only berzerker to have ever fled battle in history, he was disowned by the Dwarven clans and stripped of his official rank by the Heroes guild.  As a pariah, he was unable to obtain work until he stumbled upon beating up heroes and taking their money as a means of making money.

Gorm gets hired by an investor’s group to fulfill a prophecy from a mad goddess, with the bonus deal that if he doesn’t manage to die, (virtually everyone who has attempted the quest has died), but if he’s successful, he’ll be reinstated into the guild and his numerous sins will be washed away. Goldman Sachs

The guild that’s hired him (Goldson Baggs, a play on Goldman Sachs), is fretting because their revenue is continually going down from questing.  This introduces us to Poldo, who is a quant, (a group of mathematicians that came up with esoteric market formulas), but is also a decent person with enough economic sense to recognize that many of the ways that Goldson Baggs makes money are not stable in the long-term.

Goldson Baggs and other investors use what are known as “plunder funds”.  Plunder funds are the result of heroes going into an area and killing all the FOES.  Plunder funds pay the Heroes upfront, based on speculation of what the hoard will be worth from assessors estimates.  The heroes, in turn, give all the loot over to the investors to divide up amongst themselves.

Investors were keen on spreading the risk over multiple foes’ hoards. Goldson Baggs and its competitors could make a profit selling shares of monstrous hoards before the monsters were slain, and eliminate the risk altogether. Poldo saw the benefits of plunder funds. However, all of those reasons were built on one vulnerable assumption: that shares of the hoards were worth more than what a plunder-fund paid for them.

Pike, J. Zachary. Orconomics: A Satire (The Dark Profit Saga Book 1) (p. 46). Gnomish Press LLC. Kindle Edition.

I’ve mentioned Orconomics as a great example of economics in game design.  The problem in most video games is that the economy is inherently inflationary, each creature killed will drop loot worth a certain amount, and the enemies will respawn in a certain time, meaning that there will be a constant stream of new gold introduced into the economy.

Orconomics has a deflationary economic scenario, at least as far as questing goes.  A finite amount of foes with loot exist, and as they get killed off, the loot diminishes.

Even the relatively minor characters still play an important role.  Poldo’s role in the story advances a bit in Son of a Lich.  In Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,  Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a senior figure in the Nazi regime.

Far from being an agent of Pure Evil, Eichmann was a person who filled out checkboxes on a sheet that sent thousands to their death.  Everything was done in an ordinary, bureaucratic, and boring fashion, even though the consequences were horrific.  She didn’t see a raging anti-Semite bent on transforming the World into an Aryan superpower; she saw a man who was willing to authorize mass murder in order to advance his standing in an organization.

Moreover, Eichmann was so intent on climbing bureaucracy that he couldn’t speak outside of cliches for most of his defense.  He apologized to the court for it:  “Officialese [Amtssprache:] is my only language.”

But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché….

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such…

It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

If Gorm’s heroic rebirth is through facing his fears in combat, Poldo undergoes a similar transformation in a bureaucratic rebirth.  He learns how all of the quests that he issued were reeking havoc on the darklings, many of whom were not threats to actual cities.  He uses his power at managing money and markets to help out the darklings.

This is where the social commentary in Orconomics is far better than many books which try to use fiction to make serious social commentary.  dd96slsvaae3ffy

Many of the times media tries to make political commentary, it is either clueless or even opposite of its own point. Detroit: Becoming Human and Far Cry 5 fall into the clueless category.

For examples of it being directly counterproductive to its own point, we can look at the movie Bright. It very deliberately tries to evoke Orcs as an underclass similar to African American communities.  Which, ok.  Then it shows that the Orcs are incredibly dumb.  So…. what’s the message there exactly?

True Blood (tv series) tried to do this by pairing the Vampire Rights movement with the LGBT movement.  Except vampires unleash a strain of Hep V vampires into the city that infect people.  So… is the message that gay people are contagious?  Is it that gay people commit violent acts of murder routinely?

Even when the commentary is on point, it can sometimes have nothing to do with the actual story, a trap that Dominion of Blades fell into.

The obvious inspiration for a lot of what happens in the story is clearly a look at the Holocaust and the policies proceeding it.  But there’s more you can read into it.

The creation of a legalized form of theft from a minority?  You can look at the treatment of Native Americans as an example:

In 1850, California law made it legal to declare any jobless Indian a vagrant, then auction his services off for up to four months. And it permitted whites to force Indian children to work for them until they were eighteen, provided the permission of what the law called a “friend” was obtained first.

Whites hunted down adult Indians in the mountains, kidnapped their children and sold them as “apprentices” for as little as fifty dollars. “If ever an Indian was fully and honestly paid for his labor,” one white settler said, “it was not my luck to hear of it.” Indians could not complain in court because by another California statute, “no Indian or black or mulatto person” was “permitted to give evidence in favor of or against a white person.”

Creation of a system that paid for extermination of minorities?  American settlers payment for scalp bounties in  Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona, California, and New Mexico.  Ostensibly only to be paid to settlers who killed and scalped enemy combatants, it became a way to earn a living slaughtering peaceful Native Americans.

Now, when you lay it out like that in plain prose, it reads like you’re trying to browbeat the readers to death.  But when you allow the room for the connections to be made, it’s far more effective since the readers can get the moral of the story without feeling like they’re having it shoved at them.

Orconomics makes plenty of connections that have real World counterparts without beating you over the head about it.  It’s social commentary, but it’s not beating you over the head with an axe to make its point, and it’s all woven in as an integral part of the plot.

“And what makes you think that I haven’t seen enough of the world?”

Gorm looked up from the contract straight into the priest’s mismatched eyes. “Yer still tryin’ to save it.”

Pike, J. Zachary. Orconomics: A Satire (The Dark Profit Saga Book 1) (Kindle Locations 787-788). Gnomish Press LLC. Kindle Edition.

Zachary Pike even goes into details like the difference between a thug and a goon, union due payments, and the cost of worker’s comp and health care premiums when working as a professional goon.

The Thugs’ Union and the League of Goons existed to provide discreet protection and rule enforcement to private entities, but thugs also specialized in the control and suppression of licensed heroes….

The Thugs’ Union maintained that heroes belonged deep in dungeons, not in intrigues, and it worked to protect the image of thuggery as a respected and valued part of society.

“Attempting to coerce guild members is very dangerous work,” said the pimply little Silver Talon… “Do you know what health insurance costs if you’re dealing with professional heroes without thug certifications?”

Pike, J. Zachary. Orconomics: A Satire (The Dark Profit Saga Book 1) (Kindle Locations 936-944). Gnomish Press LLC. Kindle Edition.

This is something I call Shandification.  It means creating a World that feels like it’s real to the audience.  Political intrigue, characters, economic deals, union dues, the entire World of Orconomics is fully fleshed out.

He even has an economic warning for cities that try to woo companies with massive public spending for private companies.  Goldson Baggs unintentionally engineer an economic disaster, (with the help of the government), and the government turns to them for funds helping with it.  Goldson Baggs reply that they can simply move wherever they want, so they feel no obligation to help the government out.

Real world parallels abound.  Louisiana spent billions of dollars trying to woo the movie industry, and a few studios opened up there.  As soon as the tax credits dried up and Louisiana literally had no money, the industries all left.  Businesses are there to make money and they will leave when the conditions change.  They feel no obligation to the local government.  You can see the same scenario play out with professional sports teams who book billions in subsidies off of taxpayers and give nothing back.

Some of the ideas have been explored in more detail in other books.  I.e. the ethics of killing monsters for money gets explored in The Witcher book series, the first book shows Geralt of Rivia has a hard time making it as a witcher because there are so few magic creatures left and he tackles the ethics of when it’s okay to kill a monster.  (Geralt kills very few monsters in the Witcher books).

Still, there’s nothing that feels underwritten or poorly done, and it’s only by comparing works that tackle this in a decidedly non-comedic fashion by writers like Terry Pratchett and Andrjez Sapkowski that there is any dissonance.

Some readers have proposed there be a special GameLit only award, similar to the David Gemmell Awards for fantasy.  If that ever happened, Orconomics would be on the top of my list for deserving an award.

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