Thursday, 2 June 2011

Basic Disgust

The best scholarship on disgust recognizes that it's made up of many "layers" - responding to a variety of unseen threats that have arisen over the course of biological and cultural evolution. There's no evidence, however, that any form of disgust is completely hard-wired. Like language, we have a built-in system of learning disgust responses. After we have learned them, from other people's reactions, they seem to come automatically and naturally. But very young children don't show disgust, and what exactly is disgusting seems to vary from culture to culture. With some primary objects (like feces or rotten meat) it makes good sense to recoil from them, because they can carry disease. Others are more variable; urine, for example, is seen as a health product in some circles in India.

The disgust that attaches to disease-carrying substances or people is known as basic disgust or core disgust. It's clear that people in earlier technological ages had a much higher threshold for this than we do now. In medieval European cities, waste disposal was done in the street. Late-medieval advice on courtly manners seem to be made for a modern five-year-old, telling adults not to wipe their nose with their sleeve.

"Dennis, there's some lovely filth down here."
The rookie mistake that's often made when re-creating such an environment, in fiction or a game, is to put all of these gritty, grimy aspects front and center. Lurching lepers, brimming chamberpots, rats and lice, skewed and missing teeth, all mark out this sophomoric "keepin' it real" approach.

All of this misses a huge point: disgust is a language. It needs to be translated to produce the right emotional effect against the cultural background of the audience. In just the same way David Milch, writer of the HBO series "Deadwood," recognized that his characters would have historically sworn by God, Christ and Hell. But because those oaths sound mild to the ears of a more secular 21st century, he intentionally replaced them with the Tarantinoesque obscenities that series is famous for.

The effect of putting a crap bucket in every kobold lair in gaming, too, is rarely as intended. It drives a wedge between the modern sensibilities of the players and the medieval disgust thresholds of the characters. This fights against absorbing play, which depends on making the players feel what the characters might be feeling. Worse yet, in gaming you are only depicting or talking about disgusting things (thankfully). This can lead to another unwanted response to second-hand gross-outs - laughter.

To be truly effective, disease-related gross-outs in a game should be few and far between. They should have the rules back-up to make both players and characters recoil. The rot grub in AD&D has been much maligned. But knowing it is out there did make players a lot less willing to root around in dung piles. It visibly stands for the invisible diseases that disgust at its most basic level protects us against. Rats, mummies, anything foul that gives a chance to catch a disease, likewise add to the keep-away factor.

Try grubby instead of gritty ...

Rolling chances to catch a disease for living in a city have never been satisfactory in gaming, even if they are historically accurate. The city is just too attractive a destination for your adventurer's purposes. Its disease perils are too abstract, failing to arouse burnt-out medieval sensibilities about squalor. But ordering disease rolls for too-cheap lodging, or hit point losses for sleeping rough, gives players something they can avoid, giving meaning to their fastidiousness.

There's one other thing about disgusting objects that most old-school rules don't model: they're contagious, like those invisible diseases. Once you have players figure out that someone with a disease has a chance of transmitting it to anyone nearby, you bet that curing them and setting a quarantine will take on urgency. A green slime that kills you instantly is bad enough, but one that settles on you and keeps you alive just long enough to send spores out to land on your friends is worse, a gruesome kind of living death.

Next up: Mutations and mutilations!


  1. This is an excellent post. I rather like the idea of giving disgust a tangible, in-game representation. I also found the explanation for why the DM shouldn't emphasize elements that would disgust a modern player but not his psuedo-medieval character very insightful. Nice job.

  2. One thing I really hate about the past 30 years of cinema has been the extreme advancements in gruesome and distasteful imagery. Not because they are evil or something, but because they have now become so common that they don't pack a punch anymore.

    In Book of Eli, he cuts off a dude's hand and it is pretty graphic. I watched the film today for the 3rd or 4th time and it barely even registered to me when it occured as something of significance.

    I don't know where we can go from here, to be honest. When cutting someone's hand off just isn't even noteworthy, where do you go?

  3. I've noticed that players react with disgust (or is it anxiety / fear) to NPCs with visible signs of illness - particularly coughing or sneezing. They almost always try and leave the area immediately, and there is almost never laughter or jokes.

  4. Not sure if my comment got spam-filtered or just didn't take because I was posting from a phone. Trying again, with more thought this time:

    The dirt issue's a tricky one, possibly destroying immersion in the game. I understand what you're saying here, that it's a filtering issue - you shouldn't constantly remind the players about irrelevant background, just like you wouldn't interrupt a modern thriller about, say, kidnapping and freedom to remind the audience that the hero's shirt was effectively made by slaves. On the other hand it's hard and maybe not good to skirt all social issues your pseudo-medieval setting is likely to throw up in order to cut to the sword-swinging. Like gender relations and religion, for instance.

    Could diseases be handled in a kind of superstitious way, I wonder? Like the disease is not just bacteriology and poor hygiene, but the attention of a malign spirit, which gives the PCs something to engage with? Telecanter recently introduced plague into his game, and the possibilities this threw up made me wonder why I've never done it - contagion, sure, but also a time-limited quest to find some sort of treatment, with isolation and/or taboos built in. What if the PCs are afflicted with something visible that makes them pariahs? Now they can only move around the city in secret: they are the monsters.

    @Greg: film-making is an exercise in manipulation. You feel what the film-maker wants you to feel and focus where they want you to focus, largely because you are at the mercy of their unfolding narrative to figure out where the importance is, while the film is going on. Afterwards you're free to assess the whole thing, but at the time this uncertainty is a vital part of the medium. So if the hand didn't matter in the film, that was deliberate, I'd guess, a feature of that film in particular (and of many films in general). The loss of a finger in The Piano is still devastating: the film makes it so. My point is your reaction to films is not an index of anything very reliable.

  5. Your ideas are excellent, but personally I like the comedic effect of adding a little poop to the dungeon.

  6. @Greg: Got that concern (desensitization to horror) planned in an upcoming post.

    @richard: I think there's more play possible around gender or social issues because we can deal with them in a more aware, less reflexive way. With disgust, I think an occasional light-touch reminder here and there (a boar's head banquet, a ditch where paupers' bodies are dumped) goes a long way, and those other background features are probably the same.

    @Jeff: Me too, but I like to make sure that comedic effect gets achieved intentionally and not otherwise!

  7. Perhaps there should be a "Notice Feotor" skill? And I am determined, someday, to roll Roger's "Catch a Veneral Disease while Carousing" outcome when spending spare cash in a town...

    I have a friend who works with army veterans, and apparently people react fine when they meet someone with a limb amputated, but behave completely differently round people with facial injuries. I suspect this is linked to disgust somehow (tragically unfair) - but how, I wonder? Or is it because we are so dependent on the familiar shape etc of other faces, and can't cope when they look a bit different?

    Katie Piper's documentaries are brilliant - perhaps the anti-facial-disfigurement reaction is superficial enough that programs like that could make a significant difference.

  8. @zoanne: Thanks for the query, it raises some issues I deal with in the next post. When disgust is seen as an existential defense to the possibility of losing humanity, the face defines a person's humanity in a way that the limbs do not.