Monday 14 December 2015

On Horror and 'Darkness' in OSR D&D

Recently, the fine folk over at Bundle of Holding put two OSR-related bundles of material up for sale. This, along with me noticing that Rafael Chandler's stuff on Drivethrurpg is mostly pay-what-you-want, has led to me picking up a large volume of OSR ebooks; and now that the teaching term has ended, I've had time to plough through them. In the last week or so, I've read Stonehell, Terratic Tome, SlaughterGrid, The God That Crawls, Lusus Naturae, Vornheim, and a whole bunch of other stuff. This means that I have been doing a whole lot of reading about people dying horrible, horrible deaths.

It makes you think. Or, at least, it makes me think.

I grew up during the 'video nasty' panic of the 1980s. My parents bought the whole line about how children who watched violent movies would be turned into brutal thugs and/or traumatised wrecks, and went to considerable lengths to ensure I was protected from them - a feat which was a whole lot more manageable back in those innocent, pre-internet days. Hard though it is to believe, I think I might actually not have seen a 15 rated movie until I genuinely was fifteen years old. So, naturally enough, now I study the history of horror fiction for a living. I have seen and read some sick, ugly stuff over the years, and I am not easy to shock.

I never did see 'Driller Killer', though. I should probably get around to that.

As a teenager, I gleefully embraced a 'more is more' approach to horror in RPGs. Everything I ran or wrote was grim and bleak and violent and hopeless and probably infested with cannibal ghouls. I read SLA Industries and had no idea that it was meant to be any kind of parody: a setting crammed full of serial killers and murder robots and giant mutant pigs who lived in the sewers and ate people just struck me as being pretty much par for the course. More than that, I felt that being 'dark' - a word which, at the time, I overused constantly - made things better: cooler, more grown-up, more morally complex, more interesting, more awesome. Why would anyone want to tell a story about an elf fighting an orc when they could be telling a story about a psychotic witch hunter fighting a demon that nailed its victims to the walls with their own severed legs?

Well: time passed, and I grew up, and as I did so I found that such material steadily lost its appeal. It wasn't that I turned against horror fiction, merely that I lost interest in its surface trappings: all the blood and splatter and mangled corpses ceased to be things that I found interesting in and of themselves, and became things which were only as interesting as the story which they were used to tell. Films like Se7en or Oldboy, or TV shows like the recent NBC Hannibal, are great stories which feature horrific acts of violence, but it's not the horrific acts of violence which make them into great stories: the same content, wedded to a weaker narrative, could easily be very boring indeed.

Hannibal. Come for the gore. Stay for the men's fashion.
Now, the kind of OSR material being published these days is, on average, a lot darker than the kind of mainstream material which WotC is putting out. Part of the original impetus behind the OSR was an attempt to get away from the sort of safe, sanitised fantasy material which had come to characterise official D&D: fantasy where the heroes always survive, the good guys always win, no-one really gets hurt or suffers (except the baddies, who don't count), and the curses always wear off after a few rounds. In fact, a lot of OSR material is written as pretty much a direct reaction to that sort of fantasy gaming: thus its heavy use of deathtraps, doomsday scenarios, save-or-die attacks, 'unfair' encounters, unremovable curses, and fates worse than death. No, the ankle-level scythe trap doesn't just do 1d6 damage: it cuts your fucking feet off. Don't like it? Maybe you should have thought of that before you went wandering around in a fucking dungeon! 

To a certain extent, I am totally onboard with this. I know that the 'romantic fantasy' line in my blog header must often seem weirdly out of keeping with the actual content, which is mostly about misery and horror in a dystopian clockpunk city-state, but romance and Gothic have a very long shared history: romantic fiction very, very often revolves around themes of cruelty and corruption, and is romantic rather than Gothic only insofar as it focusses on the ways in which people can help one another to heal, rather than on the ways in which they can drive one another to destruction. An emphasis on violence as violence, as a shocking and horrible act of violation rather than a bloodless and consequence-free fantasy of power, is an essential part of all kinds of romantic narratives: such violence is precisely what the protagonists have to overcome, usually through some effort of empathy, love, and forgiveness, in order to earn their happy endings. But... there's violence and violence. As the ever-brilliant Patrick Stuart pointed out almost two years ago, there are at least twelve kinds of darkness.

Last night, I read Rafael Chandler's Terratic Tome, SlaughterGrid, Lusus Naturae, and Obscene Serpent Religion in a single caffeine-fuelled binge. Chandler's a good writer, and he has a strong imagination; but despite some surface similarities with my beloved Fire on the Velvet Horizon, most of the material I read didn't do very much for me. The monsters looked weird and horrible, and they did weird and horrible things to people, but that was pretty much it: they were just horrorshow monsters-of-the-week, a cavalcade of betentacled beasties who exist only to flay, impale, castrate, crucify, impregnate, possess, and generally fuck with people. Most of them were mindlessly hostile. Almost none of them could be reasoned with. His adventure module, SlaughterGrid, took this even further: everyone, from the elves to the humans to the zombies to the halflings, seemed to be some kind of cannibal torture-fetishist. It made me wonder how anyone in the setting, or in the implied setting of his monster manuals, ever survived long enough to get anything done, let alone how they managed to stay alive for long enough to raise the next generation of murderers. Surely, after a generation or two of such omnidirectional carnage, there would be nothing left except mass graves?

Then again, it does say 'You were warned' and 'a meat grinder for level 2 characters' right there on the cover. One can hardly complain of false advertising.

Now, I totally understand why they're written like this. The horror-monsters who go around flaying people based on some obscure pattern are there to generate investigative scenarios: the PCs have to work out what the connection between the victims is before the killer has a chance to strike again. The splatter-monsters who just rampage around beating people to death with their own spines are there to generate fight scenes: the PCs have to work out how to defeat the monster, neutralising its strengths and exploiting its weaknesses, before it has a chance to eat their faces. But I kept wishing there was some kind of logic behind it all, some reason for it above and beyond 'this monster hates everyone and wants them to die screaming'. Something that the PCs and the monsters, if they somehow wound up drinking at the same bar between adventures or killing sprees, might actually be able to talk about. This was something which I thought Fire on the Velvet Horizon and Deep Carbon Observatory did very well, and it's also one of the strengths of Vornheim and A Red and Pleasant Land by Zak S and Qelong by Kenneth Hite. They're all full of death and horror - some of the stuff in Qelong is worse than anything in SlaughterGrid - but the death and horror is always part of something larger and stranger, rather than just being an end unto itself.

(This is why the single best thing I've seen in Chandler's work so far is the idea that halflings are an evil and merciless race who worship a goddess named Lady Elizabeth Lack-Heart: it implies that all the awfulness that they're responsible for is for something. I mean: Lady Elizabeth Lack-Heart. What's her deal?)

As I've mentioned before, one of the things I like about B/X D&D is that the morale, reaction, and henchmen systems encourage PCs to negotiate rather than fight as much as they possibly can. In a romantic fantasy game like ATWC, those negotiations will often lead to PCs making friends with the monsters, and maybe even persuading them to stop being quite so monstrous; in a more typical B/X game, they might lead to squalid compromises and low treachery on both sides; but, either way, they rely on PCs having someone that they can talk to. Weird, dangerous, alien monsters are fine - in fact, they're highly beneficial - but only if they're the kind of weird, dangerous, alien monsters that can be bribed, threatened, and bargained with, rather than the kind who just have to be beaten to death.

I realise that all this must sound as though I'm really negative about Chandler's work, and the strain of OSR death metal horror-fantasy which it exemplifies. I'm not. He's a very imaginative writer, even if his imagination is a bit heavy on the splatter; the monster books are good monster books, and Obscene Serpent Religion really will generate you a memorably horrible serpent cult with just a few rolls of the dice. He does use the words 'flay' and 'castrate' an awful lot, but that sort of thing really doesn't bother me. It's his use of the words 'Morale 12' and 'always attack on sight' that I take issue with.


  1. This subject has been occupying me for the last couple of weeks. I really want more out of RPGs than just dungeon crawling, treasure hunting, and monster slaying. And I think the fashion of dark fantasy/horror that has been going on for the past years is a great thing. Lamentations of the Flame Princess had the balls to fully commit to it with no appologies and also the quality to make people look at it seriously, and I think it did a huge service to RPGs as a whole.
    But while it throw open the gate, we somehow got stuck on the threshold, sticking to the save and familar gore and slasher stuff. The first step was a big accomplishment, but there appears to be a general lack of ideas what the next steps could be. From here on I think we should have a spreading out of various forms of more mature content, but it doesn't really seem to happen.

    When the new edition for Blue Rose was announced, Trollsmyth had a good post that argued for Romantic Fantasy being one of the heavier and more mature styles of fantasy. "If you're a person who requires trigger warnings, Romantic Fantasy is not for you."

    I like your approach to the use of the term Romantic Fantasy (which seems to have become part of the vocabulary only recently with Blue Rose, like how Sandbox started with it's use by Necromancer Press' Wilderlands) which looks at the style as a bigger thing than just Lackey, Price, and Bradley. And I think it's one one way to pursue the expansion of mature RPGs that has a lot of potential.

    (This things keeps deleting my post after showing it to be successfully posted. Weird.)

    1. I have no idea why the comments software keeps picking on you. I hope it stops.

      I think you're right that there's been a struggle to move forwards with horror in RPGs. Personally, I feel that they're strongest when they retain some connection to humanity (in both senses of the word), rather than just being abstract exercises in gore. Compare Slaughtergrid to Deep Carbon Observatory, for example. Both of them have the same premise: adventurers wander into ultra-dangerous relic of the ancient world, amidst scenes of wonder and horror, and then struggle to get out alive. But the events of DCO are given meaning by the existence of all those poor sods in the valley outside, drowning, starving, weeping, trying to survive all this as best they can, while SG just presents a dungeon full of psychos, in a wilderness full of psychos, presumably in a world full of psychos. I find the latter much harder to care about than the former.

      I think the Trollsmyth link is a good one. I agree that romantic fantasy is often much darker and heavier than people give it credit for, and potentially points the way forwards towards a more meaningful kind of horror gaming which places less reliance on sheer splatter. Funnily enough, I teach a romance fiction course at my university, and I *do* have to give content warnings in advance, because some of the material we cover is really pretty horrible. I'll try to pull together some thoughts on this for another post soon!