why aren’t demons scary? pt. 2

no man’s ever seen the face of his foe, no
he ain’t made of flesh and bone
he’s the who sits up close beside you, girl, and
when he’s there you are alone

So how do they do it?

(Part 1 here.)

That’s a premature question. To ever really understand a how, you should first know the why.

Demons don’t want to kill you. They don’t mind, of course, they haven’t any compunction, but that’s not really the point. The rotisseur has no job without the fact of animals being killed, but the killing isn’t the point, just a necessary adjunct.

Demons just want human souls to suffer and wither. Or wither and thereby suffer. If you actually die or not is of little consequence. When you’re an effectively perpetual being, if a human actually lives for another eight days or eighty years is of little import; the deep scale of time makes the two effectively identical. Does a redwood care if a beetle dies young? There will be another there the next time it looks.1

The point is suffering. Killing the body ends the suffering. Moreover, the longer the suffering—generally!2—the more resentful and debased and cheapened the person becomes, leading to a stronger likelihood of the person, on death, shuffling off to an afterlife of continued suffering. Hurt people hurt people, they say for a reason; Job made the books because he’s an exception, not because he’s the rule.

So there’s the why. Demons are about fear and hurt and self-loathing (especially self-loathing!) and degradation and that change in the look in a person’s eye as time goes on. Twinkle, confusion, desperation, dead.

Let’s leave aside what a demon IS, for the moment, in favor of what one DOES. Basically, it talks to people. That’s the whole deal. Maybe once in a few centuries some favored paragon will zot to another plane and try to put enchanted steel to one. But demons talk to people EVERY DAMN DAY. They talk. That’s their power. They’re convincing. And very, very clever.

They lie, of course. But no more than anyone else does. Telling the truth is more powerful, and there are an eternity of ugly truths to direct peoples’ attentions to. Eventually the truths always shade into something else, sure, but the foundations are always truths. “You want this” so easily becomes “you deserve this” becomes “that’s yours” becomes “take it.”

A demon talks to you, at first telling you the things you want to hear, then the things you don’t want to hear, and finally the things you can’t unhear. Depending on the demon, or the demon’s favored approach (each has a favorite approach, depending on what end the demon finds most satisfying and what, in the past, has worked best for it), that talking can come in many forms. The grief-stricken mother might find her dead child’s voice coming out of the mouth of another woman’s child:  “Mother? Why couldn’t you feed me?” It could be the popular preacher you just really connected with, and if you just send out your prayers the universe will pour wealth upon you. Maybe it’s that intrusive thought, about how you’re not good enough for her and she’s always looking at other guys and if you leave her alone for a minute she’ll run off so better not.

That’s what they do. It can be sweet and soothing, or reproachful and rebuking. What it always is is either (1) telling you it’s okay to do something you already want to do, or (2) blaming you for something that has already happened. People don’t generally need much more encouragement than that. How hard is it to tell someone who feels bad that it really is his fault that bad thing happened? To tell the mighty how all those lowlies deserve what they get because they are so weak? To tell the cockscomb to linger another moment in front of the mirror? To tell the well-heeled to skip the almsgiving this week, because those wretches would probably just use it on dice and arak and not bread and besides almsgiving isn’t really a mandate for actual money, it’s symbolic of the goodwill in your heart that of course you have, for the deserving? To tell the melancholiac that it actually is of no use, and best to stay shut in and lie down for another day in the dim and stinking room?

Demons talk. That’s their weapon, at least here on this plane and this world and where everyone you’ve ever met will ever meet them and never know they’ve met them.

1 Yes, a redwood can look, smartass.

2 We all want to think our sufferings make us stronger. Sometimes suffering is just suffering.

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why aren’t demons scary?

He said the wicked know that if the ill they do be of sufficient horror men will not speak against it. That men have just enough stomach for small evils and only these will they oppose.

Because at the end of the day, if there’s a big scary goon around, you just go somewhere else.

Okay, too glib.

Let’s try this:  which is scarier, getting stabbed by someone? Or that inescapable voice in your head that goads and shames and belittles you until it feels that the only deserving thing to do is to stab yourself?

Less glib.

Here’s the point. Demons are not about red-skinned humanoids with flaming swords and spiked chains. Not vrock nor hezrou nor glabrezu nor nalfeshnee nor marilith nor balor. Not type, Type I or IV.

Demons are about self-harm. That’s what makes them so fucked up.

Demons are not creatures, running around on some other plane, doing battle with each other for what always look like suspiciously human reasons.

Demons are whisperers. Whisperers and convincers. Underbreath mutterers and mumblers, murmurers and susurrators, grumblers and contemnors, maunderers and mussitators, scolds and rebukes. And not really liars, not really. It’s not so much untruth, as an expansion on little truths, little unpleasant truths carefully tended and nurtured, until the melon seed has grown large and full and then shrunk, just a little, skin of wrinkles, full of black rot inside until some little blow collapses the whole thing.

Are demons even really a thing? Is there a place where you can go, if you want to find a demon, to lay hands on it? Is there some journey you can take, some heroic journey where if you overcome enough adversity and display a pure heart you can walk up on one and put your dirk in its throat and make it grovel for its sin and shake your head at whimpered justifications and press through and watch its boiling blood spill and come back to the acre-a-day life you walked away from at the beginning of our story?

No.

Probably not. If there is such a place, you don’t want to be there, not for any reason, least of all those reasons you think most justify it.

None of us, the best of us, even know if there are a million of them, all bickering and hissing for their meat, or if there is one, with little whispering hyphae sliding up all over the place. Does it matter? If they are legion, there will be another to take its place; slice a hyphae, the root grows two.

Even if there are many, they don’t so evenly divide into types. There isn’t the bird-beaked one and the spike-chained one and the fiery one and the snakelady one. There is no taxonomy of demons. If anything, each has a preference, a modus operandi as it were, a preferred sin—and by sin, a way of bringing a human soul low.

Men love allotments and sortings and hierarchies, and repeat them often enough to convince themselves of order when there is none. Demons just have preference. Men will categorize demons by their sin—mens’ sins, that is, as demons have none, for without the possibility of grace there is no sin to forfend. Men will tell you what demons love. In one of the greater ironies, they are not so wrong as may be supposed.

the forester’s lament

When you read, in a setting or in an adventure, about a forest, what do you picture? In your head?

Is it something like this?

The elves are hiding in the trees, natch.
Photo: debabrata

Green, pleasant . . . generic?

I know. Me too. It’s really damn hard not to. Fantasy forests are benign, commonplace. Set dressing without the dressing. Somehow, they’ve become so well-used and ill-described that an open, sun-drenched plain feels like it has more narrative potential.

But forests are interesting. In a former life hella had occasion to spend quite a bit of time—tromping through, sleeping under, getting lost as fuck in—in forests.

Sometimes they look like this.

The dwarves are hiding in the trees, obvs.
Photo: Hansueli Krapf

So what’s the difference? It isn’t just what we’re imagining—although, we are playing a game where all the action takes place in the imagination—but the actual implications are fully different. Before we were in a nice sunlit wood, not really hampered by anything: sure, there are hiding spots the bad guys can use, but nothing is really hindered or hidden. Here, we have to worry about elevation, taking the high ground; we have to worry about scree shifting underfoot; we have to worry about temperature or thunderstorms.

Above all, it just feels different. It’s a forest. But it’s not bog-standard elves-in-the-leaves sameness.

Or maybe your forest doesn’t look like that. Maybe it looks like:

No place to hide.
Photo: MeegsC

The only elves in this forest are the tatterdemalion sneakthieves of my setting.

Or what about here?

Not fog; smoke. Arsonist eucalypts!
Photo: Fir0002

Or here?

“Where’d he go?” “No, when’d he go.” “When’d he go?” “No, asshole, WENDIGO!”

The point being, when you think forests, don’t think gentle green foliage and shafts of sunshine and rabbits hopping about and sparrows flitting around. There’s so many forests—adventure in a different one.

the necessary spectacle of evil

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table[.]

Augustine fails in a world with explicitly evil gods.

My theodicy is weak. hella still hasn’t figured out the problem of evil. And still hasn’t figured out how to implement real evil in this game.

But my problem is prosaic. How do I depict evil, in play, that makes any sense?

The D&D I grew up with was the same bullshit high fantasy I saw in every one of those dozens1 of fantasy novels I read as a kid. It’s not even that good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys and there’s no moral ambiguity, nor much consideration of each actor as a mix of good and bad and generally self-minded and mostly morally indifferent and . . . complicated.

Rather, it’s that it never really feels like there’s anything at stake. Yeah, there’s the fight against titular evil, but it’s always evil-in-name-only. Like evil was a tag, an invisible attribute, applied to certain creatures but not others, will little rhyme or reason. Maybe you can tell the evil humanoids because they’re ugly. Maybe not.2

Of course, this is because lots of things do have an invisible tag:  lawful evil, neutral evil, chaotic evil.

The point being, nothing evil would ever happen,3 or if it did, it was given in the most anodyne way possible. Either, the orcs are just there, wandering around in the world, and we know they’re evil—I mean, we just know, because they’re orcs, so it’s okay to kill them—or there are some orcs, and we’re told they’ve raided a village or they’re going to attack the city; they are barbaric, or brutish, or bandits; they’re savage or slovenly. (That last one is a lie. I’d love to see slovenly used in a description.)

But we don’t see them slowly feeding bound townsmen into campfires. We might hear of the village being massacred, but we never seen the thicket of stakes along the marketpath, each topped with a blackened lolltongued head. We never see the eight-score kidnapped women being led off into the jungle to forced “marriages,” and those the lucky(?) ones. We never see—and thereby feel—the visceral wrongness of evil, and without that, “evil” just becomes another reason to wander around a gameboard, knocking over pieces.

Like, I get it:  people play this game for fun, and many do it for the escapism, escape from the unpleasantness of their daily lives. Many want to elide—fade to black—the explicitness of what evil actually is. I’m not one of them, but I understand it is a thing.

But—well, it just doesn’t work. Heroes’ hearts are stirred to action by the twisting of the guts that comes from the knowledge of true evil at work in the world. Evil visiting hearth and home. Not the abstract knowledge that someone, something, somewhere, is doing acts that should not be done, but the seeing of it, the bearing witness in person and always always too close. If the evil in your game is weak, or vague, the heroism in your game will be weak, and vague.

1 . . . and dozens . . . .

2 Ironic twist! Sometimes things are beautiful and wicked!

3 Eh. Mostly I just see bog-standard competition for resources.

coyote land

Lodged in faults and crevices a hundred feet above them were nests of straw and jetsam from old high water and the riders could hear the mutter of thunder in some nameless distance and they kept watch on the narrow shape of sky overhead for any darkness of impending rain.

Setting: You go in from the coast, in through the valley-and-mesa. Then the mountains arise before you, all boulders and chaparral and blue oaks. Up and down the mountains, like a green carpet, the shitty scratchy kind you find in a low-rent community rumpus room, avocado with grey splotches like old foot-ground gum. But the chaparral is deceiving; for all it looks like rolling carpet, it hides sharp gullies that can eat man and horse and spit them out somewhere else bloody and bewildered. Roll d10.

1: An old blue oak spreads wide over a bald hilltop. Tied to the limbs with hempen cord are wrist-thick locks of hair, each painstakingly braided. They wave in the breeze.

2: Four metates are worn in the smooth top of the granite. They are always full of water, no matter when it last rained.

3: A wedding under the oaks. Each tree is bound with bright, makeshift ribbons. Shabby lashed-wood symbols of incoherent make hang from the trees. An elfgirl. An elfboy. Guests, strictly segregated by some unknown code of ancient manners. Many sentinels, and arrows for interlopers—two feuding bands are being bound today, and expect other bands to disrupt.

4: Some of the long-limbed oaks are bound with bright, coarse-woven cloth, ribbons tightly interlaced, carefully knotted, not a loose end anywhere. Those are the safe oaks.

5: When the sun rises or sets, the watching shadows stand atop the hills, elongated giantmen staring into the twilight.

6: The valley floor, straw-colored swaying dried weeds, waving in the wind, begins to move. Really move. The weeds run. Uproot and frantic, they all flee together, swirling and wheeling around obstacles like a flock of starlings.

7: You smell it first. Then you see the haze of white smoke, smudging out the distance. Then the billows. Brush fire. Don’t run uphill—that shit’s faster than you.

8: The air smells of rain. Blue sky, but it’s there in the distance, grey needles from sullen withdrawn far-off clouds. The arroyos will be full in a second—in a flash, as freight trains of filthy frothing flood comes, half water and half skull-smashing debris.

9: The fire has gone but the rain has come. The black hillsides groan under the weight of water, gravity grinding gravel and substrate no longer tendoned by roots and dendrites. The hills will fall; will you be beneath?

10: The coyotes are here. All of them.

The chaparral hides more than it will ever show.

why aren’t goblins scary? pt. 2

Goblins are really rare. Solitary. You don’t often see one, and almost never see more than one together. And they’re smaller than you’d think, little more than half-size to a halfling. And emerald green. Yeah, they hide a lot.

But sometimes not, none of that.

Sometimes, when happenstance or outside design brings goblins together in close proximity, something truly remarkable happens. If two goblins are in skin-to-skin contact for more than a day—huddling in a burrow from a predator, perhaps, or trapped—they begin to change. They become gregarious goblins. Doesn’t that sound nice?

It isn’t.

Something about that skin-to-skin contact causes a release of something in the goblins. They grow bigger. They change color, from that otherworldly emerald to a contrasting black and savannah tan. Their body plan shifts, becoming longer of limb, lean, whipcorded like greyhounds. And they gather. Something about a gregarious goblin attracts other goblins, solitary and gregarious alike. They hunch together, and the solitaries turn gregarious. The more of them there are, the more powerful and wide-ranging the attraction. This works exponentially, as more gather, more turn, attracting more to gather.

Woe betide.

Now you have a plague of goblins. And, hungry, they’re on the move.

A plague of goblins—that’s what it’s called, and what it is—is insensate, insatiate, and inexhaustible. It will carpet the earth and befoul watersheds. It will eat everything more than halfway edible in its path, and it moves at a rolling sprint. As the front of the plague stops to eat clean its environs, the back has already exhausted its own and sprints forward to begin anew. In such way the plague continually rolls forward, denuding everything in its path.

It is just as well that goblins are, mercifully, solitary creatures. A plague may come once every other generation, and none but the elves below the sky and the dwarves below the hills have more than one in living memory.

why aren’t goblins scary? pt. 1

So we have this on-and-off effort to figure out why low-level humanoid monsters (think: goblins, orcs, kobolds) are boring1 and what we can do about that.

Our inquiry for today: why aren’t goblins scary?

Phrased another way: when you see a spider or a snake, even moreso in an unexpected context, people jump. We just do. We know there’s a frisson of real danger there—the toxins involved can sicken, and in rarer cases, actually kill—but that danger is overblown compared to the actual toll taken on humanity. It’s unlikely, in your hamlet, that spiders and snakes are going to be a real cause of mortality.2 I’d much rather be bitten by a black widow than kicked by a horse, but horses don’t give me the shivers.

So, fright response far outsized to actual danger. We think about it for a moment, we’re much more at risk from the miller wearing a hard drunk and a beltknife, or from hunting boar through the thick brush, or from the fevers, or from the rain not falling all season, or from an unseasonable winter and the snow not melting off until May. But none of those make us jump, to hiss in breath, legs sprinting away before we even connect the two thoughts SNAKE – RUN.

So why is that? And how do we make goblins inspire that same startle response in our PCs?

Maybe it’s because spiders and snakes simply have such a different body plan from humanoids that it triggers some monkey-brain fear response below the level of conscious thought. (THIS IS PROBABLY THE CORRECT ANSWER.) Bilateral symmetry, two arms, two legs, and a noggin = good. Skittering multiple legs = bad. No legs at all = bad. Small (compared to human-scale) size = worse, because can be overlooked until right up on you. (HELLO I’M A SPIDER AND I’M IN YOUR HAIR!) General skulkiness, whether slithering in the grass or hiding in dark corners = trifecta of creepiness.

So what do we do to our goblins? Well, for one, quit calling them goblins. Too much subcultural baggage, the accretion of metagame knowledge and implicit associations and general cruft built up over the years. Second, take them off the humanoid body plan. Too far—six-legged goblins?—and we’ve strayed from our mission and created a whole new thing. We need unheimlich, something close enough to be recognizable but just off enough to create that twinge. Maybe the arms are just too long, dragging the ground. Maybe the head’s the wrong shape, or they lack facial features. Or maybe we get rid of the symmetry, maybe one side is off-balance and that makes movement uneven and strange. Goblins shouldn’t run; they should slink, sidle, skulk. No stand-up fights unless the PCs have a well-executed plan to corner and slaughter them.

I GOT STUCK HERE AND DECIDED TO END IT. THERE WILL BE MORE. 

1 Actually, we know why: they’re overused. Worse, overused in the same way, over and over again. Why does a random encounter entry of “Hill Men” seem more creative than actual in-the-Monster-Manual monsters?

2 Unless, we suppose, you’re from Australia. Don’t be from Australia.