Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Lacuna: Winners Advance to Thought Eater Round Three

The winners of the second round of the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Contest are in...
source







Melville, Freud, Lovecraft beat the average


If any of the authors (winner or loser) would like to out themselves in the comments, feel free to do so now.

Ok, rules for the third round:

-This round is inspired by a line at the beginning of Houllebecq's essay on Lovecraft:

"If one defines a writer not by reference to the themes that they treat, but by reference to those
they repudiate, then one agrees that Lovecraft occupies a place totally apart."

...this is the essay where Houllebecq goes on to point out that Lovecraft studiously avoids sex and money in his fiction.

The crucial point here is: this is a lacuna that Houllebecq had to discover, it was not explicitly on top. Lovecraft's stories are not advertised as "Tales of cosmic horror that don't have typical human relationships or class in them".

So for this round I'd like the winners to take some subject and tell us what is avoided in it--and what this tells us and why it's interesting. It should preferably be something the authors may not even have been conscious of avoiding, and should definitely be something the rest of us are not yet conscious that they avoid.

So, for example, writing about how some iteration of D&D lacks noncombat task resolution is immediately out. Whereas if you discover that nobody laughs during the entire Morte D'Arthur or that no-one ever ever eats in a Clark Ashton Smith story or that agriculture never appears in any RIFTS module or that nothing from Green Ronin publishing ever has the word "pig" in it, that's fair.

As this is a fairly difficult and demanding remit probably requiring a little research, the range of topics is relatively unrestricted other than "it should be an RPG or obviously RPG-adjacent" and that it can't be Lovecraft or Tolkien as we've beat those two to death recently. I would definitely be interested in thoughts on RPGs outside the OSR usual.

-This is different than the previous rounds because I will exercise a veto/editorial power over these. If I get one that has a lazy line like "I don't know why this is, but I think it it's true, or at least interesting" about its central premise, I will be like "This needs to be better, try harder, rewrite". 

-If you are one of the winners named above, then email me your new essay by July 1st--zakzsmith AT hawtmayle with the all-caps subject THOUGHT EATER 3.
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Friday, May 27, 2016

Kill A Church

"the only Christianity they defeated was the last piece of Christianity within themselves. Which is a very good beginning, of course"
--Erik Danielsson in Black Metal Satanica, 2008


Short Preamble

Today's controversy. Remarkable for 3 reasons:

1-Most self-defeating moral outrage in human history.
2-RPG people are still signing onto it. Morally outraged that a comic book has a cliffhanger.
3-Some of the people reading this still pay attention to those RPG people when they talk about games and will keep doing it even after today.

I've long since accepted that 3 will always be true--there is no level of insane that an Indie game designer can be that people won't be like "Maybe I will give Crazy some attention and money?".

So let's not dwell. These conservatives are crazy, Some of you are still reading them, funding them, inviting them into the larger conversation about RPGs. You will never stop. It makes the world worse for fans online and creators, you don't care. Ok.
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But when the world is dumb: let's at least learn something...

Now fucktheory, who not only is very smart but comes at this--helpfully--from a wider philosophical and radical queer background (non-gaming, non-geek) is addressing the issue of cultural appropriation, but this pretty much applies to all the controversies of online psychoculture. Let's Read:

But this...


RPG examples abound. You must consult ninjas, the dumbest thing ever said about RPGs, etc.







This is an important point. The Drama Club never has a concrete checklist of what "doing the thing right" requires--whether that's use of violence, sexuality, cultural appropriation or diversity. At most they point to examples--which devolves to unbelievable vagueness ("be respectful") or, "Well I know it when I see it". In other words: they the critic get to decide what's morally suspect on a case-by-case basis rather than outlining a set of principles that their own work can be judged by.

Also: outlining principles or definitions (of, say "respectful") would invite discussion and Discussion Is Bad.







The obsession with whether a Cap storyline hurts me as a Jew and descendant of Holocaust survivors and all similar controversies where the Drama Club share a Concern on behalf of numb, objectified marginalized people whom they aren't which is inextricably linked to unacknowledged Contempt for the voices of equally marginalized artists they aren't isn't a condition arrived at through thought. It's just their own anxiety and desire for universal concession to concessions they themselves have made long ago made (there's a reason so many are religious or parents--conservatism is the fear someone else is having fun somewhere), writ large and pointed at anyone who points that out.

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So, ok. Maybe you aren't invested enough in the world being good to click the Unfollow button when faced with The Bad. But at least know how it got that way. At least learn something while you're here at D&D With Porn Stars, even if you never ever ever ever ever do anything with what you learned.

Seeya.
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Monday, May 16, 2016

David Foster Wallace Correlating The Mind's Contents

David Foster Wallace talking about an early bout of suicidal depression--as quoted in David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself...

...it may be what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis or whatever. It’s just the feeling as though the entire, every axiom of your life turned out to be false, and there was actually nothing, and you were nothing, and it was all a delusion. And that you were better than everyone else because you saw that it was a delusion, and yet you were worse because you couldn’t function.

 What's interesting for RPG fans here is: that is exactly how the Cthulhu Mythos stat in Call of Cthulhu works. The more useful things you know about the Cthulhu stuff--the real engine of the universe--the lower your max Sanity.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Melville, Freud & Lovecraft (Thought Eater)

Here is an entry for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: this essay is not by me--it's by an anonymous DIY RPG writer who was assigned to write something interesting and original about hoary old RPG topics.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the second round Thought Eater essays are up...

The rules for the second round are here.

The difficulty is I am an idiot and accidentally left this one out when I was rolling out the entries, meaning this one's orphaned. This is how it'll work--if you like it,  send an email with the Subject "NUD" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it. If you don't, do nothing. At the end I'll look to see if it has more votes than the average entry. If so: it goes to the next round.



I reread Moby-Dick recently (you have to hyphenate it, it’s like Spider-Man) and I couldn’t stop thinking about how much it had in common with The Call of Cthulhu.

There’s a scholarly young man in New England who lets restlessness and curiosity drag him into a quest for a terrible sea monster rumoured to lurk in the Antipodes. He has a series of adventures, each more spooky than the last, involving half-mad sailors, derelict ships, strangely-shaped animals, the threat of cannibalism and the deep existential terror of having to interact with people from the Pacific Islands. By the time he realizes what a bad decision he’s made it’s too late and he’s pulled inexorably into a confrontation with the monster, which kills everyone aboard the ship except for one man who’s left alive to tell the tale. There’s a bunch of structural differences - Thurston is just reading about the voyage, Ishmael is actually on board - but the narrative progression is the same.

There are a couple of explanations for this. One is Freudian. Cthulhu’s a vagina, Moby Dick’s a dick, sex is a nightmarish leviathan that can never be looked at directly and the Pacific Ocean is the Victorian unconsciousness in which it lurks. As tedious as this kind of thing always is, I can’t help but feel like there’s something to it. More importantly, however, both Melville and Lovecraft had read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which is by Edgar Allen Poe and about all the same shit. We don’t have to invent some kind of weird laborious psychosexual code language when we can just say that they liked a book. I like that book and I’m not terrified of women. Melville didn’t write eighteen billion pages about whale biology because he was wrestling with his homosexuality. He probably was wrestling with his homosexuality, but he wrote those pages because he liked whale biology. We don’t have to assume that just because sex is super important, nothing else we do is important unless it can be made to relate to sex.

Now Melville is a much better writer than Lovecraft. This is because he is more specific. Lovecraft will tell you that the monster is spooky and you should be spooked by it. Melville will tell you how a whale’s dick works. There is a scene in Moby-Dick where a guy wears a whale’s foreskin as a poncho. And despite this, Melville’s whales continue to be spooky. Advantage: Melville.

But Lovecraft has a much greater influence over our culture than Melville. Nobody has ever tried to make a roleplaying game about Melville. And I think this is because Melville is more specific. You can take Lovecraft and put him in space or the Himalayas or the grimdark future where there is only war. You can’t do that with Melville. I mean, you can, but there’s like one or two space Moby-Dicks. There’s a million space Lovecrafts. Lovecraft gets in everything, like sand the day after the beach. Melville is less flexible. If Lovecraft is sand then Melville marble. Beautiful on his own, but denser and harder to cut and you need to be much smarter about it if you’re going to make anything out of him.

Lovecraft, because he is not very good, dares you to improve him. The first thing you do when you’re writing a Lovecraft adventure is to make it more interesting than anything Lovecraft ever wrote. Well, the first thing you do is cut out all the racism, but you get the picture. Lovecraft’s work is full of such clever phrases as “the Thing cannot be described”, and when you read one of these you immediately try to describe the Thing. You have to do all the work of making it horrifying yourself. Lovecraft’s not going to help you - he’s just going to tell you it’s horrifying and ask you to figure out the details. And whatever weirdness you come up with is almost always going to be better than whatever Lovecraft is thinking of.

But it’s also not Lovecraft. Because Lovecraft is that shit writing. The implicit challenge of Lovecraft is “can you do what I did, but not shitly?”. And you can’t. So people are constantly Doing Stuff with Lovecraft, trying to Use Lovecraft, trying to make things Lovecraftian, and Lovecraft is constantly in the public eye but never actually supplanted. He can’t be. It always seems like there’s something Lovecraft never quite pulls off, some great achievement that’s persistently evading him, but if you actually achieve that - as Melville pretty much does - you don’t solve Lovecraft’s problem. He wants to pull it off while still remaining Lovecraft, and he can’t do that, because the inability to pull it off is what makes Lovecraft Lovecraft.

This is also D&D. D&D is pretty shit in most ways, and there’s a million spinoffs which are technically better, but you will never get rid of original flavour D&D because what makes D&D D&D is the big hole at the heart of it where something awesome should go. In order to radiate potential you need to not fill that potential. Patrick Stuart says here (http://falsemachine.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/art-in-games.html) that it’s actually easier to notice that a thing has psychic energy when it’s bad. I think this is maybe why. A good thing, like Moby-Dick, has a great idea and then lives up to it. The guy who wrote it did his fucking job. He did all the work and there is no room left for you to do any. But you want to do the work, you feel compelled to do the work, which is why you are drawn towards shit things that have ideas and fuck up the execution. There is something left in them for you to work with.

And I think this also accounts for the persistence of Freud. Freud has psychic energy. Freud actually talks about psychic energy, a little. He has a whole theory of cathexis, which is the process by which the erotic charge that’s supposed to accrue around people you want to bone gets redirected to something else, like a whale or a child’s hat or a piece of wallpaper or whatever. This is clearly stupid. People don’t become obsessed with weird shit because they’re not allowed to fuck their dads. But Freud is all about the unconscious and the inexpressible and terrible forbidden things lurking just beyond sight - the same shit Lovecraft talks about - and his stupid theories about it demand that we try to explain it better. We think we can outdo him, and so we keep coming back to him, and so he’s a constant presence in academia and literature to this very day. We don’t want to explain away Moby-Dick by saying it’s about sex but there’s something in that idea that prevents us from ignoring it. I still felt the urge to talk about Freud at the beginning of this essay. I don’t think Moby-Dick is about sex, I think it’s about whales, but I can’t just fuck the idea off altogether.


You might be more comfortable ignoring Freud then me, of course. That’s fine. The point is, the kind of infuriating vagueness that both Freud and Lovecraft possess can wield a huge influence over us and our creative process, even as we consciously acknowledge that it’s dumb. And also that Patrick Stuart should read Moby-Dick. Have you read Moby-Dick Patrick? I think you’d really like it.
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Monday, May 2, 2016

A Mere Wrecca


Participants in- and gawkers at- the tabletop RPG scene will have noticed a theme in commentary on D&D and its ilk: Played in the default style, D&D doesn't come out like Tolkien, and this is the subject of much wroth and writhing. For instance, Burning Wheel--one of many attempts to remedy that and the world's accidentally funniest RPG--introduces itself like thiswise:

Like the old grand-daddy RPG, Dungeons and Dragons, Burning Wheel is nothing more than a template—a trellis for the vines of imagination to grow on. But unlike it’s [SIC] predecessors, this system is versatile and powerful; it can handle any fantastic situation with consistency and accuracy.... 
Without being hokey or gimmicky, the system attempts to create an accurate portrayal of the model that inspired all of these games, epic fiction. Initially my mission was only to build the proverbial “better system,” but my true motive emerged as the system took root. I wanted to construct a game that could create better stories—something closer to the thrilling narratives that we all grew up on and that still grip our imaginations.

One of the very many absolutely undyingly adorable things about this intro is the author's faith that everyone of literate age grew up on "epic fiction" and not, say, Conan or Fafhrd & Grey Mouser or Arzach or James and the Giant Peach thus justifying his game's desire to be "closer" to a model he presumes all stabgames aspire to.

JRR Tolkien himself addresses just this kind of confusion in his lecture on Beowulf...

Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on Beowulf has been due either to the belief that it was something that it wasn't, for example, primitive, pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic; or to disappointment at the discovery that it was itself and not something that the scholar would have liked better--for example, a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica.

At the heart of the concern that D&D isn't a Tolkien epic is the figure of the murderhobo--the greedy engine of unplotted terror that haunts the dreams of aspirationgamers everywhere. Urban Dictionary:

Murderhobo: The typical protagonist of a fantasy role-playing game, who is a homeless guy who goes around killing people and taking their stuff. The term originated in discussions of tabletop role playing games by authors seeking to create games aimed at styles of play not supported by traditional games like Dungeons & Dragons.

Typical forum post dredged up by random googling:

The murder hobo has been a problem for RPGs for years. These characters have no purpose or reason aside from killing people, taking their stuff, and then buying better tools to kill more people with. While we all admit these characters are a problem, we don't always have a suggestion for ways to fix them.

Typical blog dredged up by random googling:

If you feel you or players at your table are at risk of allowing a murder hobo (or worse a pack of them!) to flourish then follow these simple steps to inject genuine character and pathos into your game...

Heavens! A pack you say?

Notwithstanding the fact that even Robin Laws seems to not grasp the awesome storytelling possibilities of murderhoboes, intelligent gamers have long been aware of them. However, it's interesting to note Tolkien, the sore spot and source-point of all these dreams of morally-redemptive mythopoesis, himself creeps up to the edge of a similar complaint against Beowulf:

The plot was not the poet's; and though he has infused feeling and significance into its crude material, that plot was not a perfect vehicle of the theme or themes that came to hidden life in the poet's mind as he worked upon it. Not an unusual event in literature. For the contrast--youth and death--it would probably have been better, if we had no journeying. If the single nation of the Geats had been the scene, we should have felt the stage not narrower, but symbolically wider. More plainly should we have perceived in one people and their hero all mankind and its heroes. 

This at any rate I have always myself felt in reading Beowulf; but I have also felt that this defect is rectified by the bringing of the tale of Grendel to Geatland. As Beowulf stands in Hygelac's hall and tells his story, he sets his feet firm again in the land of his own people, and is no longer in danger of appearing a mere wrecca, an errant adventurer and slayer of bogies that do not concern him.

...and if you're fun you immediately go Who's this wrecca? Tell me all about this motherfucker. And if you're really fun you have access to Bosworth's Anglo Saxon Dictionary:

Wrecca, Wræcca: one driven from his own country, a wanderer in foreign lands, an exile, a stranger, pilgrim.

From wrecan--to drive (out) or to avenge--like the Swedish vrak--trash, the Icelandic rek--anything drifted ashore, related to wreck, of course, and wretch and wreak (as in vengeance or havoc).

Wrecca. Good name for a game.
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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lovecraft, Nerds And The Uses of Ick

You might not like Lovecraft, but chances are you like something Lovecraftian--like this or this. So, one more time, let's talk about Lovecraft....

Imagine someone loved, someone you know the story of: your brother, your dog, your lover, your parent, Prince, Lemmy, yourself--someone with a definite content you can imagine, with unique details that apply only to them.

Then imagine you discover their story has ended. They're done, as are their works. Something was continuous and unique and now it isn't anymore.

That's fear of death. That fear is not Lovecraftian. The weak, worried man and his bleak work were afraid of many things, not death so much.


In his most classic works, the ones that make him important to later writers, artists, filmmakers and game designers, death is rarely the point. Death is one of many by-products (insanity, disturbing hybridization, obsessive Cassandrian documentation) of a more terrible revelation. Half the time the monsters are barely active, much less murderous. The horror is simply that there was contact.

Alien is a lot like At The Mountains of Madness (and Prometheus is even more like it, as many folks have noticed) except when it's being a thriller--Jones! Here kitty kitty--that is, when it's afraid of death.

The old gothic horror's set dressing is death: skulls, skeletons, vampires--and the gothic has love in it, so that you care about the victim when death happens. Lovecraft was another thing: characters you didn't come to care much about discontinuing--or living right past the moment they might've died and instead, at the real climax, being made witness to a horror. And what was the horror of, if not of death?

It was a horror of a pullulating, spawning, unknowable, inevitable and important otherness--that thing Werner Herzog was talking about when he went into the jungle and described as "…this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication...overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order." That is: life.


Autobiographically:

He faced death with courage. Struck by a cancer of the intestine which had spread throughout his body, he is taken to Jane Brown Memorial Hospital on the 10 March 1937. He will behave as an exemplary patient, polite, affable, of a stoicism and courtesy which will impress his nurses, despite very great physical suffering (happily attenuated by morphine).

That's from Michel Houellebecq's H.P. Lovecraft - Against the World, Against Life, which argues, well, that HP Lovecraft was against the world and against life. Ok, so he wasn't scared of dying, was he so weird as to be scared of living? Absolutely, totally and--in a letter written a few days before his improbable marriage--articulately:

And as for Puritan inhibitions-I admire them more every day. They are attempts to make of life a work of art - to fashion a pattern of beauty in the hog-wallow that is animal existence - and they spring out of that divine hatred for life which marks the deepest and most sensitive soul...An intellectual Puritan is a fool - almost as much of a fool is an anti-Puritan - but a Puritan in the conduct of life is the only kind of man one may honestly respect. I have no respect or reverence whatever for any person who does not live abstemiously and purely.

Lovecraft was so grossed out by sex, commerce and casual social ties that he left them entirely out of his fiction. As for race:

 The organic things inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call'd human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of the earth's corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities. They — or the degenerate gelatinous fermentation of which they were composed — seem'd to ooze, seep and trickle thro' the gaping cracks in the horrible houses ... and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and inundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness. From that nightmare of perverse infection I could not carry away the memory of any living face. The individually grotesque was lost in the collectively devastating; which left on the eye only the broad, phantasmal lineaments of the morbid soul of disintegration and decay ... a yellow leering mask with sour, sticky, acid ichors oozing at eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and abnormally bubbling from monstrous and unbelievable sores at every point …

There are two remarkable things here: first--it's vintage Lovecraft. Second, it's not from The Horror at Red Hook, it's from HP's letter to a pal describing my grandfather's neighborhood in NYC. 

Lovecraft's specific brand of racism arose from disgust, the disgust from ignorance, the ignorance from another and larger fear: fear of unmediated intercourse with other people. That is: life.


Lovecraft is what happens when we take a familiar figure--the shy, nervous, fragile, conflict-averse, fastidious, introverted bookworm who is hopeless with money and whose main social outlet is nerd conventions--and put him in an era, class, family and professional situation where avoiding The Other is the path of least resistance. This is a man who never learned anything in a bar or a short-order kitchen or on a ballfield; he learned from parents and books and nothing he learned there taught him about these “italico-semitico-mongoloids” he lived among.

In these conditions his fear of life--which we can just go ahead and call his nerdiness--could only encourage his racism. I just want to be alone in bed with my books. And he is kind of a perfect test-case because he wasn't otherwise generally an asshole: people who he did mix with reported a courteous, kind, generous man, eager to reach out through amateur press associations (the pre-internet) to help fellow aesthetes through the terror and darkness that is this mortal coil and its ungentlemanly expectations.

He looked on New Yorkers with repulsion but he looked on New York with awe:

I fell into a swoon of aesthetic exaltation in admiring this view – the evening scenery with the innumerable lights of the skyscrapers, the mirrored reflections and the lights of the boats bobbing on the water, at the extreme left the sparkling statue of Liberty, and on the right the scintillating arch of the Brooklyn bridge. It’s something even more powerful than the dreams of the legend of the Ancient world – a constellation of infernal majesty – a poem in the fire of Babylon! (…) All of this happens under the strange lights, the strange sounds of the port, where the traffic of the whole world is concentrated. Foghorns, ships’ bells, in the distance the squeals of winches… visions of the distant shores of India, where birds with brilliant plumage are set singing by the incense of strange pagodas surrounded by gardens, where camel-handlers in their colourful robes barter in front of the sandalwood taverns with deep-voiced sailors whose eyes reflect all the mystery of the sea. 

...and, though not experience-curious, he was book-curious. He knew at least that the amoebas and pithecanthropoids that occupied its streets came from faraway places and these places had cultures--and it might be to this vision of the city and this knowledge that we owe an insight that makes his stories more than the sum of his terrified parts. The honest, perceptive, innovative artist in Lovecraft is decisively getting the upper hand over the arrogant racist whenever the stories remind us that the incomprehensible and inimical aliens are not just bigger, but older, wiser and immensely more sophisticated and significant than those they disturb.

This reveals a strange paradox of the imperial racist--the works of these foreigners are magnificent, their physical presence is loathsome. In Lovecraft, the "primitiveness" and "degeneracy" only come when the xenomorphs mix with-, or are worshipped by-, the humans--again, it is contact that is bad.

The racist made these stories horror stories, but the artist made them about gods. And if there are any gods, we should all be afraid of them. This is a fear that can be about many other things, it has legs.

Lovecraftian horror--the genre--is easy to copy: books, neuraesthenia, tentacles, all that. But if the ideas were all there were to it, we could just read Burroughs instead. Lovecraftian horror--the emotion--is rarer: disgust and awe in the face of the alien. 

Lovecraftian disgust and awe can be evoked in relation to things that don't appear anywhere in Lovecraftian fiction--for example, in Alien it's about the processes of human reproduction.


The awe is the reputable part, we understand awe, if not the objects of awe. So let's look at the disgust:

Mandy instantly dislikes anyone wearing a one-sleeved dress and I am suspicious of those who, for any reason, wear Crocs. Very many people, far past any genuine concern for physical safety, are scared to go into a porn theatre--or to certain bars.

These are minor examples of Lovecraftian disgust.

While Lovecraft was afraid of life and intercourse with people unlike himself, Lovecraftian disgust more generally--the kind the stories expand on and incarnate--is aesthetic, taste-based: an aesthetic fear so severe that it overrides the curiosity or sense of fairness that would discover whether that fear was justified.

It is kind of the opposite of Stendahl syndrome.

Lovecraftian disgust is not disgust at clear signifiers that death is near--wounds and wolf tracks--that would be rational. Lovecraftian disgust is never rational, it is emotional and emotions are evolution's first-drafts of thoughts, made for when there's no time for evaluation, or no imperative demanding one.

Lovecraftian disgust is visceral, the kind that goes ick. The feeling of having a gun to your head isn't ick. Ick is a fear of life--someone else's icky life. Fear of mollusks, for instance--which are totally harmless--is Lovecraftian.
ick

Once I met an art student who was making a really ugly painting of bearded men at prayer and doing it on purpose. I asked why and she said they were Muslim fundamentalists and she (she was of Middle Eastern descent) wanted to make Muslim fundamentalists look ugly and ridiculous and gross, and make people associate the image of fundamentalists with grossness. This was an attempt to recruit Lovecraftian disgust as a propaganda tool.

Likewise Trump complaining about how John Kasich eats is an attempt to recruit Lovecraftian disgust to political ends. But then so is the way we retweet how hideous Trump's toupee and terrible pigleather face are. 

In Taxi Driver, DeNiro's disgust is supremely Lovecraftian:

Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It's full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. Whatever-whoever becomes the President should just really clean it up. You know what I mean? Sometimes I go out and I smell it, I get headaches it's so bad, you know...They just never go away you know...It's like...I think that the President should just clean up this whole mess here. You should just flush it right down the fuckin' toilet. 

...as is Rorschach's disgust in Watchmen (created by avowed Lovecraft disciple Alan Moore)--in both cases the filth is clearly literal grime and a metaphor for every other sin in the city.

The dirt in a city, the tan, the toupee, eating, praying, the simple ugliness of people we think are ugly: all signs of life, not death. And icky.


Silence of the Lambs is a fascinating case: Hannibal Lecter is pure gothic--cold, crisp, polite, intelligent, quiet, patient, efficient, articulate, inevitable, living in a stone room, arguably charming. Like Dracula, he is asexual but apparently capable of a weird kind of romantic or at least personalized affection toward our hero and he is as bald as a skull. And he is seen killing, repeatedly, because people are in his way.

Buffalo Bill--whom he never shares a shot with--is sloppy, shifty, loud (always listening to music--and pop music, not dead people music like Lecter likes), awkward, breeds moths, has a dog and long hair and moans about fucking. Bill is all about life and therefore Bill is icky. He is a whole subculture of one down in his lived-in basement. (A trans friend who loves this film said she feared transitioning for years because she was afraid of being like Buffalo Bill.) And we never see him kill anyone--and even Lecter points out that for Bill, the murder is incidental--it's simply a result of Bill's total indifference to the lives of others while carrying out his own imperatives.

Lecter is bone, Bill is flesh.



As even the dullest bulbs notice, DIY D&D and OSR gaming in general emphasize the horror end of D&D--a lot more than TSR ever did. Part of it is the high mortality rate of the low-level game: If you're playing zero-to-hero D&D, then you'll lose a lot of zeroes and when this happens the only consistent aesthetic this really fits is either Dungeonmirth/Python style life-is-cheap black humor or survival horror. Horror is totally metal and horror is grimdark and those things, done well (ie like Warhammer used to do it) are both good.

LotFP: Weird Fantasy and other DIY D&Ders have often foregrounded horror--and occasionally even went ahead and claimed horror is helpful and good for you and worth pondering.

A formidable example comes from the poet Patricia Lockwood contemplating a Donald Trump rally, which I recommend you read but which I'll excerpt a bit of here to keep life linear:

It’s us, was the undercurrent. It’s just us in here. A handshake moved through the air as the speech walloped on, and then something more than a handshake. The more he spoke, the more Trump sounded like a rich man at dinner with a young woman whose passport is her face and her freshness, explaining to her the terms of the arrangement: that he would wear her on his arm, turning her toward the lights, that she would defer to him in public, that he would give her just enough of what he has to sustain her. I wrote in my notebook, “Trump is offering to be our sugar daddy? He wants to make America his trophy wife?” What he was really promising was freedom to move in the world the way he does, under his protection, according to his laws. Nobody owns me, he keeps telling us, not the lobbyists, not the Republican high-ups, not the Washington insiders. I’m not in anybody’s pocket; hop in mine. His wives, you might have noticed, grow lovelier and lovelier. It is a practiced seduction; it has worked before. We ignore it at our peril.

An example of the dangers of avoiding horror is offered by the RPG community itself:
From Something Awful's RPG forum--where people go to reaffirm each others' Lovecraftian disgust about women not playing the same edition of D&D they do.
There's a decent chunk of people who think Lovecraftiana and other disturbing horror themes in games are badwrongfun--and in fact that all not-power-fantasy themes are badwrongfun--and they all have something in common: they definitely do not want to talk to gamers who disagree with them. They're cool with attacking them, smearing them, and even reading their books to make fun of them, but they view the idea of engaging them as a contaminating anathema. A good chunk of them would be suspicious of this essay simply because it contains someone talking about Lovecraft (who is icky).

Again: an aesthetic fear so severe that it overrides the curiosity or sense of fairness that would discover whether that fear was justified.

This person who attacked Scrap Princess for inventing a biohorror stinger monster said "I lack both the capacity and the will to understand anyone who would accept that in their game".

The person on RPGnet who attacked Shanna Germain and a part of the game Numenera she wrote said "When I read the Numenera page in question, I thought/felt 'Whoever wrote this is probably evil”--and many game designers and moderators piled on.

Fred Hicks--the game publisher who attacked Kingdom Death--refused to talk to the women who defended it or the creator of the game explicitly on grounds of his (Fred's) fragile mental health.

The designer who claimed sexy zombies appear in games because people are secret necrophiliacs explicitly refuses to talk to, say, women who cosplay as sexy zombies, refuses to talk to anyone who disagrees with them, like Fred, on grounds of fragile mental health and deletes them when they talk.

These acts of Lovecraftian disgust are the result of years spent in sheltered internet pockets being told there are no personal or professional consequences to dehumanizing someone just because they like something you think is icky--and nothing good can come of talking to someone less than human.

These sheltered, life-phobic souls: shy, nervous, fragile, conflict-averse, fastidious, introverted bookworms, whose main social outlet is nerd conventions, with their small circle of gentle hobbyist correspondents are, ironically, imitating Lovecraft because they haven't read Lovecraft, or haven't learned anything from reading him. They aren't recognizing the disgust they're feeling for what it is despite having its consequences cleanly personified in the historical record.

When there is ick, there is fear, where there's fear there is ignorance, where there's ignorance there's disgust, and where there's disgust, prejudice.

Not everyone needs to face every horror---but if you never learn from horrors, you become one.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Casablanca Orphan

Here is an entry for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: this essay is not by me--it's by an anonymous DIY RPG writer who was assigned to write something interesting and original about hoary old RPG topics.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the second round Thought Eater essays are up...

The rules for the second round are here.

The difficulty is I have an odd number of entries, meaning this one's orphaned. This is how it'll work--if you like it,  send an email with the Subject "TNA" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it. If you don't, do nothing. At the end I'll look to see if it has more votes than the average entry. If so: it goes to the next round.

Everybody games at Rick’s
Casablanca is better at D&D than The Lord of The Rings.

For the purposes of this piece, I’ll specify that the 1942 Hal Wallis production has more to offer an aspiring Dungeon Master than the entire Multi-Media entity that is The Lord of The Rings. There’s a lot of discussion about the influence that Tolkien may or may not have had on Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not going to rehash any of it. It’s online. Go google it—it’s fascinating to me and I think considering the obvious connections, it’s worth your time to investigate.

But now, I’m going to tell you that Casablanca is a better use of your time, if you’re mining something for ideas or just looking for inspiration. If you haven’t seen it, you should go fix that. Casablanca is one of those things that lives up to its hype—it is a satisfying use of your time, and I recommend it to everyone. There’s something in it for you. Tolkien and Tolkien derived works though… Your mileage is going to vary.

For starters, it’s more efficient. I’m always looking for ways to save time—to waste as little of my life as possible. Casablanca clocks in at a lean 102 minutes.  Any version of The Lord of The Rings is going to take up way more of your time and head space. Even Ralph Bakshi’s animated film is another half hour on top of that, and it doesn’t even finish the damn story.

More than that, it offers dungeons dark and dangerous, more so than The Mines of Moria. Enemy occupation, underground resistance, rampant and organized crime, desperate people, exotic locations, villains, heroes, ancient streets, harsh wilderness, love, memorable characters, are all features of the city of Casablanca.  And the way to around or through any of them isn’t as clear as the, “Go East”, path to Mordor.

The stakes are the same. You’re playing for the fate of the world. In The Lord of The Rings, Frodo destroys the ring or the world falls to evil and the free peoples of Earth either perish in flame or are crushed under the heel of a seemingly omnipotent dark lord. In Casablanca, it’s the same thing—though, “The Ring”, in Casablanca can be Letters of Transit or Victor Laszlo, or Rick’s heart, depending on your interpretation.  Whichever your McGuffin of choice, it needs to get where it needs to go or Nazis conquer the world. It’s time to save the world.

But The Lord of The Rings is Epic High Fantasy that doesn’t ask any questions as to how. The way to the end is never in any kind of doubt. Strider will re-forge Narsil into Anduril and lead The Men of The West against The Dark Lord. Frodo must go to Mordor.  We must fight to the end or all is lost. As an adventure, or a narrative, it’s rail-roady. Of course we go to Mordor.  The only road is through the long dark of Moria. If we don’t, we all perish in flames or we bag out on this whole role-playing game thing and do something else. It is the on or off switch of adventure. You accept the call, and send your hero on their little journey or you don’t.

Casablanca, like any given night of a role-playing game with your friends, defies any one genre. It’s a war-time romantic barbarian musical comedy propaganda action spy flick with some shout-outs to film noir. (Note: This is exactly what happens in a good game of D&D) And the way to the end isn’t clear at all. The path to victory is any way you want to go, and the small choices your player characters make, change the conditions of victory as you make them. Do you help Victor Laszlo escape and ensure this NPC of great power and influence can live and continue to fight The Nazis? Or do you sneak into Rick’s after hours and steal the letters of transit to ensure your own escape? Do you help two old lovers reunite and shepherd them to safety? Do you stay in Casablanca and help refugees to escape? Do you turn rebel and kill the Nazi commanders visiting Casablanca before heading into the desert to the Free French in Brazzaville?

Or maybe you turn pick-pocket, and join Ferrari’s organization. Your next job is to find a way to persuade Sam, a bard of some renown, to leave Rick’s behind, and come work for you at The Blue Parrot. And that becomes the adventure, because any of your choices is going to shift the narrative and change the course of the game and the story. In Rings, Evil does shit. Then Good has a meeting, recites some poetry, forms a fellowship, and does what it’s supposed to do.

If you reskin Casablanca with fantastic monsters and characters, change the nouns and give everyone swords and magic, you have whole campaigns worth of adventures, ones where you set your own limits and decide your own fate. Your choices, being small and varied with no immediately obvious consequences to the metaplot, are more meaningful because they shape the game and the game world. There is more to explore, and you’re not just moving from one encounter to the next.

 While wading through orc hordes in Moria to get to The Balrog at the end of the bridge and face him in battle to escape to the surface might be a few really cool fights and an okay evening. And there’s nothing wrong with it. But for my time and money, give me more. More choices, more gray, more intrigue. More everything! Don’t force me to accept this one chance to save the free peoples of Middle Earth. Let me go forth and find another way.

This sounds like I’m baggins on ToIkien (see what I did there?), but I’m not.  I am forever grateful to Mister J.R.R. for his work.  For Halflings, rangers, wraiths, orcs, giant spiders, wizards, et cetera. I read my Illustrated Middle Earth Encyclopedia for fun, damn it! It’s all awesome! But I never understood why anyone would want to play a Middle Earth RPG-- MERPS or The One Ring or anything like them. I just find them limiting in a way that something like Casablanca isn’t, and I’m against limits in my adventure gaming. There is more to offer players and dungeon masters when you don’t limit your game to epic high fantasy.

The ability to shift, change, and build on the imagination of the players is the strength of D&D. It is not a novel, nor is it epic. It’s better.-
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