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.


Tim said...

As I read the article, at first I said to myself, "Thank goodness I decided my goblins are at Zulu warrior level of civilization instead of these feral woodland monsters."

And then I realized I had just erected a completely artificial barrier separating real people from monsters. When in reality, the best monsters are real people.

VeronaKid said...


I am struck by the idea that you have stumbled here upon yet another book that needs to be written: "How to Write an Adventure Hook." I definitely feel that a book full of ideas like the one that has spanned these last four posts on the subject, along with your commentary on why it works, would be a welcomed addition to any DM's library. Surely you realize how near-impossible it is for the majority of us to come up with stuff that matches this in depth; it's not for lack of want or trying, though.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes, it has occurred to me.

Jeremiah Scott said...

The horror in my world falls closely inline with what you espouse here--it is dark, disgusting, and realistic. And I like it for all the reasons you give. It is logical and it is a great source of tension.

But I have struggled lately with one player in particular who rejects that kind of violence. Recently, for example, the party investigated the disappearance of a local girl. When they got to the bottom of it, they found that she had been kidnapped, raped, murdered, then dissolved in a vat of acid (my world is industrial fantasy). I didn't provide these details to be specifically gratuitous, but to create tension and to teach the characters about the darkness of the plight of the common folk. The next day, I got an email from this one player asking that I refrain from such brutality in the future because "anyone who cares about kids" just can't stomach it (he has no children, which struck me as humorous, and I have little respect for any argument that invokes "the children"). He said that, as fantasy, the game should seek to escape the horrors of the real world. Obviously he and I are at loggerheads over what the "point" of role playing is. My problem is, due to the social structure of the group, I can't easily just ask him to leave if he doesn't like the flavor of the game.

Can you recommend other ways to generate the tension of real-world evil without causing these kinds of uproars? Do you think it would be enough simply to keep the description a little tighter? This player (and perhaps the others) would really be happier with a Disney-style adventure (barf!) with all that entails. But I can't stomach it and no one wants to run in anyone else's world. I am stuck to navigate this contradiction. I want to slowly draw them more into my type of world without causing them to revolt. Suggestions?

Alexis Smolensk said...

When I hear your story, Jeremiah, all sorts of alarms go off in my head. First of all, he is attempting to censor your imagination; he is doing so without making his opinion clear to the party as well as to you - a sure sign that he feels he can browbeat you so long as you're one-on-one. Finally, his use of 'children' to back his point indicates he's prepared to make any argument, even an irrational one, so long as he ultimately gets his way.

I seriously suggest you take up the matter with your other players; that you show them the email and express your feelings about it as you have done here. I know that you will probably feel that the email ought to be kept private, but it is evidence in a 'case' - that case being, does this player contribute to your campaign sufficiently that his continued participation is universally desired.

You may find you're not alone in your opinions about this one player. Or you may find the other players agree that you're over the top. Either way, you will KNOW. You need more information about the party's opinion before making any changes to your campaign!

Jeremiah Scott said...

Good point, thank you. I will take your advice. I felt a vague resentment at the way he was trying to manipulate me, but you've laid it out and made it perfectly clear. I'll let you know how it goes.

Giordanisti said...

Alexis, i just want throw in that i am LOVING this series of posts, and i'm glad they're enjoyable for you as well. The depth of explanation that you're able to explore with the use a single example has been immensely enlightening, and has given me so much food for thought to chew on. I wanted to give a quick "thank you", as this has been my favorite post series in a while.

Jason Juta said...

I haven't roleplayed in 20 years for all the reasons you give for campaigns and DM techniques being rubbish. This article struck me very strongly, and made me realise that the reason I don't play is almost nothing most people do can motivate me in the game - but this would. I would actually feel strongly that I didn't have a moral choice about helping those women. And I'd feel that if I moved along, those women would continue suffering in the background in your world. I'd probably go mental and burn the goblin village to the ground to be honest! I'll add a vote for a book on this subject!

Mujadaddy said...

Disney Evil is the suggestion of Evil. Regular Evil is the evidence of Evil.

Especially in the case where a party may be accustomed to Regular Evil, I would suggest that Disney Evil is great for civilized villains: the villain isolates himself from the horrors of his rule; those on the gilded side of the curtain are able to carry on with their lives without having to deal with the direct consequences of all those princesses locked up in the tower; just a bit of screaming in certain areas of the castle at certain times of night, if the PCs happen to be in the right place at the right time.

The party can of course choose to pierce the veil of Disney Evil to confirm their suspicions, finding the Regular Evil, if they wish, if they lack motivation to quash the Disney Evil.

But the best Disney Evil villains will generate that burning animosity and a desire to at least punch them in the face, regardless of whether the players have been presented with a detailed indictment of their acts.

I do agree that a non-civilized evil should be a depressing regularity, though.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes, after all Mujadaddy; people want to punch me in the face all the time and I'm completely ordinary.

Scarbrow said...

I'm disgusted. And piqued. And wanting to burn that goblin village to the ground. And I'm not even there on character. I've had character got into berserker mode for less than that.

I hope some day I'll be able to be as tough as you, Alexis. Because for the time being, I confess I have not the stomach to face true evil on the privacy of my own imagination. And clearly part of the failure of my hooks lies there. This is some more of your very well received advice on "improve yourself to improve your game". Keep it on, please. I know I'll have to review this in a few months, if not years. But review it, I will.