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.

elves have to be fucked up, pt. 2

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

(The second in a series about how either elves are the dominant humanoid species, or somehow screwed-up, the first of which is here.)

Possibility 1: Evolutionary Misfires

Elves are heavily K-selected.

Elves haven’t conquered the world because there are just too damn few of them, there are too few because they reproduce too slowly, and because they reproduce so slowly they are exceedingly risk-averse.

Roughed out for the gaming crowd, in ecological theory, r/K selection is the idea that organisms will converge on one of two reproductive strategies. An r-selected organism emphasizes speedy growth, early onset of maturity, production of many offspring, low parental involvement in the raising of those offspring, comparatively low survival rates of those offspring, along with smaller body size and shorter lifespans. Think rats, or goblins.1

Alternately, K-selection is a strategy typified by slower growth and later onset of maturity; production of fewer, but better cared-for, offspring; extensive parental involvement with those offspring leading to better survival rates; larger body size and longer lifespans. Think elephants . . . or elves.2

We know elves have a relatively large body-size for a humanoid.3 We know that they live a tremendously long time and undergo a childhood and adolescence the length of a long human lifetime; we can easily presume a parental involvement and investment in single offspring orders of magnitude greater than that provided by other humanoids. Elves are quintessential K-strategists. From what we know we can infer that elven children have superb survival rates and elven adults, exceedingly low reproductive rates. If an elven child requires a century of rearing, we can assume that each elven family—not just mothers, as that level of resource-investment likely requires the fathers, as well, or the community as a whole—spaces births in increments of scores of years.

When you have so much resource investment in each and every child, each of those children is tremendously precious. So many resources, in fact, that we could plausibly assume that any settled elven society has the majority of its resources invested in its people rather than anything material. Why would it then send those resources off—in the form of young men and women—to war for any reason short of an existential threat? Any elven society will consequently become incredibly risk-averse, perhaps to a self-defeating degree.

Even if elves overcome this risk aversion, the extremely slow reproduction rate means there just aren’t that many elves. Sure, an exquisitely trained elven swordsman may defeat a dozen orcs, but there are a dozen dozen more standing behind them. Sometimes quantity has a quality all its own.

Maybe elves haven’t conquered the world for no other reason than that there are too few of them, each is worth too much, and the elves are paralyzed thereby.

To be continued in part 3, “The Price of Purity.”

1 Actually, think of litters of rats under your floorboards. Or litters of goblins under your floorboards. Actually actually, don’t.

2 In unstable environments r-strategists tend to dominate, as survival becomes a numbers game when there is no clear superior adaptation to the changing circumstances. Conversely, in a stable environment, there is time for evolution to produce smaller and smaller incremental improvements suited to that specific environment, intensive—slow!—nurturing pays bigger dividends, and K-strategists emerge.

3 Your elves are taller than humans, right? Right?

elves have to be fucked up, pt. 1

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet?

Why haven’t elves taken over the world? They’re just as smart (if not smarter) than humans, adaptable to many environments, generally considered attractive and charismatic by other humanoids, and, most importantly, they live for-fucking-ever. They compete with other humanoids for the same basic resources— water, arable land, game, metals and lumber, space to expand—but, for some reason, haven’t extirpated their competitors.1 Why?

John Martin, The Hubris of Elvenkind is Rewarded (1831).

Intelligence and tool-making, whether those tools be mundane or magical, are the killer advantage in conquering an ecological niche; once in the realm of technology,2 physical attributes are less relevant. With technology taken hold, strength matters little: a muscular build pales in comparison to the work that can be done with a simple lever. Dexterity matters more, but not insofar as we care about stealthy backstabs; rather, dexterity supports the manipulation of tools, the knapping of flints and the sewing of hides into clothes and the planing of spokestaves. Constitution always helps, but not to the extent we would wish: a tough guy can withstand the cold, but a whole tribe of weaklings can huddle around a bonfire.

The key here is that elves live a tremendously long time. By itself that matters little—a bristlecone pine can live longer than five elves—but when combined with intelligence, it means that techniques, proficiencies, and advances can be continually built upon without losing ground to senility, death, or errors in transmission. Say, roughly, that an apprentice is useful at ten and spends ten years learning the trade. If you live eighty years, and ignoring senescence, that’s three quarters of your life productively working. But if you live a thousand years, that’s 98% of your life spent productively. Maybe elven children take much, much longer to develop: but even if an elven childhood is roughly the length of a human life—and holding the time spent to learn a trade the same, befitting equivalent intelligence—that’s still 90% of a life spent productively.

The more experience you have practicing a trade, the better you’re likely to be at it. It doesn’t matter if that trade is tanning or masonry or generalship. The skilled elf simply gets more time to improve, try new things, and figure out more efficient processes. Included in this mastery is improvement of teaching the trade to proteges, to get them up to speed faster, or barring that, to a higher level in the same amount of training. Absent something fundamentally wrong with the elf, an elf should be better than any other humanoid at whatever the elf chooses to do.

But what we see in most settings is that elves—along with humans, and dwarves, and secondarily with gnomes and halflings and orcs and goblins and hobgoblins3—exist in a sort of hand-wavy equilibrium. Maybe the dwarves are in the mountains, the elves in the woods, and we ignore interspecies competition for resources by pretending that they all just stay where they’re supposed to. But there’s no reason to suspect that such an unstable equilibrium would develop, and were it to spring afresh sua sponte, no reason to expect it would last. Even if everyone starts in their canon-proper places, successful reproduction means they’ll have to expand to fill their environment, and now we’ve got elves creeping down old mineshafts to take habitat from the dwarves and taking to horse to run off those plainsmen.

Elves should be able to outcompete their peer competitors for resources, and consequently either exterminate them or push them into unproductive environments and irrelevance. So why haven’t they done so? Something must be wrong with the elves.

To be continued.

1 For further commentary on the effects of competition between humanoids of overlapping ecological niches, consult your local neanderthalensis colony.

2 By technology, here, we include magical advances.

3 Bigger, stronger, faster, just as smart—and very well-organized. Why haven’t the hobgoblins subjugated the world yet?

a time for ghosts

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths[.]

Carolina Death Crawl (free PDF, here) is a storygame with a particularly interesting mechanic perfect for an OSR game. As a game, CDC is about a ragtag group of Civil War soldiers—Southerners, fighting for the North—making their way through the ravaged countryside, trying to find home or hope or redemption—and finding none—along the way.

William Strang, Come Hell or High Water, etching (1893).

Characters die. But as the game is a one-shot, there’s no rerolling (or replacing) characters. Rather, when a PC dies (and they will), it becomes a swamp ghost. That is, some fragment of the collective spirit of spite and loss and recrimination that haunts the Carolina swamps and brings grief to the living. What this means in game terms is that the player ceases playing the dead character, rises from the chair, and becomes a vengeful ghost. “The job of the Swamp Ghosts is to compel the survivors to reflect on the horrors and atrocities in their past and guide them into an unspeakable future.” The ghosts—should there be more than one—scheme and conspire in secret, then return to pace the room, always at a (still-living) player’s shoulder, whispering imprecations into an ear or casting portentous doom upon the table.

This, of course, just feels right for a certain sort of ugly D&D shitgame. But there’s a different feel here. It’s too easy to create a game of grit and unpleasantness—mire, disease, sullen go-nowhere villagers—for a mood of poverty, physical and spiritual. There’s a difference between mud and venom. CDC is about guilt and spite and the weight of your own actions accreting to you. If you’re going to have a shitgame, may as well go all the way.

Next time a PC dies, instead of rolling up another one or animating a hireling, make a ghost. And let the ghosts of PCs-passed1 remind those living just how foolish and morally bankrupt they are.

1 I see what you did there, hella.

there are no monsters in the Monster Manual

Pale manchild were there last agonies? Were you in terror, did you know? Could you feel the claw that claimed you? And who is this fool kneeling over your bones, choked with bitterness? And what could a child know of the darkness of God’s plan? Or how flesh is so frail it is hardly more than a dream.

I’m thinking about monsters again. I pulled out GURPS Horror recently, which made quite an impact on me way back in the day (the one with the not terribly scary skeleton-slasher on the front). I don’t care for GURPS—less for that certain sort of “but there’s a rule for everything!” GURPS evangelist—but this splatbook is good, and has been through the editions.

I don’t play GURPS and I don’t play WoD, but I read the splatbooks because they can, when good, be really good, at least insofar as conveying a certain grim tone and bevy of evocative ideas you don’t usually get from D&D. It’s hardly new to complain that whatever edition and whatever setting of D&D you play, it feels the same. Oerth and Faerun and Krynn differ in the details, but can anyone straightfacedly say they feel like fundamentally different worlds? There have been a few settings that stand out as “yes, this is a different thing”—Athas comes to mind—but how many have there been in the last forty years?

GURPS Horror is pretty good at conveying (if you ignore the crunch) what makes things scary and how to use them in games. But where it shines is in taking a fundamentally different (coming from a D&D perspective) approach to monsters. The Monster Manuals aren’t really about monsters; they’re really just encyclopedias of various animals. There’s nothing there to tell you why these things are scary, or how to really make them so. They’re only frightening to the extent that the combination of numbers in the statblock compares to that of your character; there’s nothing about what is fearful, to the player’s psyche, about this creature.

Alfred Kubin, No Shit, There I Was, Rowing This Boat (1905).

GURPS Horror takes a different approach, which is as breathtakingly obvious as it is woefully underused: there, they categorize the monsters by what archetypal human fear they embody. That is, the process is reversed: “here’s a universal human fear, and here’s how it has been reflected in our cultural imagination,” rather than “here’s a creature, and here’s why it’s scary.” Thus the fear of our own sin gives shape to demons; fear of the unnatural gives us ghosts and doppelgangers; fear of the wilderness, werewolves and the fae; fear of the monolithic state, men in black; fear of starvation, wendigo.

For D&D, you have to think about monsters in this reverse order, or else your monsters are just creatures you’re hunting. A wight isn’t horrifying because it drains abstract levels; the fear is of men who lived by terrifying violence whom even death won’t stop, and will continue regardless. An ogre isn’t scary, but the childborne fear of huge, violent, and capricious authority is. A lich isn’t inherently dreadful, but the dead hand of generations past living on to control the world through the present, is.

A “monster manual,” isn’t. It’s just a list of creatures to hunt. If you want real monsters in your game, start with a very-human fear—corruption, disease, starvation, the uncanny, the vastness of the sky—and find or write a monster that embodies that fear.

As a special aside, you won’t find much better than Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, Vol. I.