Thursday, October 2, 2014


Now, where was I?

I'm rather enjoying the opportunities offered through presenting an adventure this way - explaining the motivations of the npcs, strategies for providing detail, expressing the patterns of tension and so on . . . and today, discussing the ambiance of the campaign, or rather it's 'mood.'

The party has set out in the forest searching for two women kidnapped by goblins, very likely with the husband of one of the women - Mazonn - coming with them.  Mazonn's son and his brother Vasile, the reader may remember, are taking the wagon forward to the next town.

Regarding these women, we should be asking why the goblins would take them.  What purpose would they serve?  They're human women, so they're much larger than goblins and therefore they would be a lot of trouble.  Yet before I can properly answer that question, I find I must speak first about the principles of evil, as it occurs in role-playing and as it occurs in reality.

D&D 'evil,' as it typically manifests, is really a sort of namby-pamby evil, or Disney evil, the sort of evil where bad things are spoken of in vague terms but never candidly.  The princess in the tower is restrained and mocked and fed poorly, but she keeps all her clothing, she never gets dirty and no matter how evil the villain is, sex never actually occurs.

Ordinary Evil, on the other hand, would be the sort of thing we would expect if two women were kidnapped by monsters in the real world.  To illustrate this, allow me to propose that the evil goblins, so designated as the book, are of like mind to several of the sadistic, merciless organizations that run rampant over Africa, Asia or Latin America.  Here I'm speaking of the unimaginable brutality that we think of when considering the atrocities perpetrated by armed groups in Rwanda, the Congo, Burma and elsewhere:

""Women are gang-raped, often in front of their families and communities. In numerous cases, male relatives are forced at gun point to rape their own daughters, mothers or sisters. After rape, many women were shot or stabbed in the genital area, and survivors told Erturk that while held as slaves by the gangs they had been forced to eat excrement or the flesh of their murdered relatives." - CNN

"Men throw acid on us because men are angry with us for ending relationships and for refusing sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, proposals of marriage, demands for dowry.  They throw acid on us for attending schools, for not wearing Islamic veils, for not behaving well, for speaking too much, for laughing loudly."  #SAAfacts

"Over 500 Muslim villages have been incinerated. Tens of thousands have been murdered. The persecution and killings of the Burmese Muslims at the hands of the Burmese government and its collaborators is in full swing." - the spiritual UN

We don't have to make up ordinary evil.  We only need to open our eyes.

Some players of the 'game' are, at present, pressing their fists into their ear and chanting, "NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA" rather than remotely considering that any of the above might have a place in their fantasy make-believe.  Disney evil is much more tolerable and much easier to sell.  No one ever needs to feel uncomfortable.

Tension is discomfort.

The reader should truly and carefully think about that relationship.  Tension, or stress, is the accumulation of chemical responses to situations that require effort to overcome or interpret.  Even as we read the brief accounts I've included above, we immediately grasp that our body has begun producing hormones that, in turn, produce tension.  We're frightened; we feel inadequate; our equanimity is thrown askew and we're suddenly forced to reconcile our Disney world view with the world view that actually exists.  People are suffering and dying - and though we're unable to do anything about it, our bodies shove us onto a defensive stance, readying us to fight or flee.  Our bodies make this decision for us.

Now, were we in Somalia or any one of these places, and we had just learned that seven soldier/warlords had kidnapped two women and driven off with them into the desert, none of us would be surprised to find them the next day, raped and hacked to pieces.  Horrified, angry, helpless, yes - but our worst fears about what was about to happen would be based on what we expected from power-wielding, lawless, evil men living in that place.  Understanding that, and understanding what it would be like to climb into a jeep and set off into the desert to try to find those men before they were able to accomplish those acts, what should we think of when someone says that 'goblins' are evil?

Disney evil or ordinary evil?

Do try to understand that the tension that exists in a Disney movie - or any Hollywood movie where the average audience member doesn't want to look directly at ordinary horror - comes from how close we dare come to the real thing.  The writer's words are carefully chosen and ordered to allow the tiniest bit of ordinary evil to leak through a crack in the door and no more.  We want just enough to get the audience to squirm in their seats without actually giving them PTSD.

What is 'just enough' is a question you must ask yourself when presenting your world.

For my players, who are used to seeing the very worst, they wouldn't be surprised to discover both women a half mile into the forest, disemboweled and the blood and organs partially eaten.  My goblins are pretty evil.  At best, they might expect that the women are being taken somewhere so that someone more important in the goblin tribe will have the opportunity to disembowel them and eat them.  At the very least, the women will be stripped naked.  Stripping them naked makes them more vulnerable, less likely to flee (since they have no protection whatsoever against the environment), weaker (from their body temperature dropping) and easier to grasp with clawed hands.  Additionally, a whip or belt works better when applied to bare skin.  How are these short, light-weighted creatures going to move their prisoners along?  The same way we move other unwilling animals that are much bigger than us - with prods, spurs, whips and rods.  What, you think the 'evil' goblins are going to nicely ask the women to walk along?

Because I like the little abominations of ordinary evil to make a good showing, the 'sign' the ranger will almost certainly use to find the goblins will not be their tracks, but the smell of blood as well as the urination and defecation of the women.  If the women are found, alive or dead, they will not be clean with their hair coiffed; they will be filthy and stained with their own feces.  I don't like to pull punches.

My players get used to that.  They even get to like it, because the logic fits so much better with their personal experiences and the noise they hear from the real media.  They - both men and women - know perfectly well what it would mean to be seized and taken prisoner in Somalia.  Fuck, they know what it would mean to have their home invaded, late at night.  Like any sane person, when locking their front door or taking other precautions when moving outside after midnight, they're already running the motion picture camera in their minds of what being attacked will involve.

How could you expect me to make a modern city dweller feel uncomfortable by having these women kidnapped by Disney goblins?   Ridiculous.

Reasons why your world isn't building the tension you hope for?  Begin with the formula I've given:  tension equals discomfort.  Then realize, if you're going to make the players uncomfortable, you must first deal with that discomfort yourself.  If you can't do that - if you can't overcome your own tendency to stick your fists in your ears - you'll never be strong enough to push your players to the wall.