Friday 21 November 2014

When Many Adventurers Do One Thing

Sometimes the efforts of many add neatly, as when many arms try to lift a gate.

Other times, they add imperfectly, as when many eyes try to sight or many ears to hear. It's a mix of varying factors: what's being sensed "out there" and the individual's attention. The individual can only contribute so much.

Other times, additional hands are useless, as when picking a lock, or downright counterproductive, as when many people try to hide or sneak.

In a game, very few skills add neatly except for the sheer application of brute force. Those that add uselessly should be obvious. Which leaves the imperfect and the counterproductive situations to deal with.

So when adding skills imperfectly (and why not, there are diminishing returns even when opening a door because only so many people can get good leverage):

One person = one check
2-3 people = 2 checks
4-7 people = 3 checks, made by the 3 best people
8-15 = 4 checks, made by the 4 best, and so on.

Each power of 2 adds another check.

And when skills interfere - as when a large group is trying to sneak:

One person =one check
2 people = 2 checks
Up to 4 people = 3 checks, made by the 3 worst people
Up to 8 = 4 checks, made by the 4 worst, and so on.
Up to 16 = 5 checks and so on.

Failure by any one means noise is made or they can be seen.

Monday 17 November 2014

Junji Ito's Psychological Horrors

Pure body horror only goes skin deep. Although Junji Ito's stories sometimes try for little more than pure gross-out (most successfully in Glyceride, with its palpable conflation of grease, fat, meat and acne) the best ones touch on psychological anxieties below the surface.

Western stories often present the loss of individuality as a horrific fate. In Poe it's the 19th century horror that a gentleman's reputation might be ruined by a debauched double, in The Case of Mr. Pelham, possibly the best episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (by Cockrell and Armstrong), it's the 20th century horror that your salaryman double might be better, more confident, harder working than you. Think about the end of 1984, or of The Stepford Wives.

Junji Ito sometimes writes from the other point of view. What if the horror is not to lose your individuality, but to have it?  What if the monster is personalized; what if the horror is not in being forgotten, but in being targeted and sought out? Japanese culture may be particularly sensitive to this question, as its collectivist tradition collides with a postwar individualist modernity.

Spoilers, of course, follow.

Enigma of Amigara Fault (previously) and Hanging Balloons both evoke the horror of individuality. In Enigma, perfectly personalized holes in the rock call out to people, seducing and ultimately warping them. In Balloons, large balloons with the faces of individuals appear, pursuing their originals with pendant nooses and relentless cunning. Despite their preposterous premises, both stories succeed in haunting the reader with unease, a clue that deeper allegories are at work here.

The Internet uses personal data as a kind of soul you can sign away for content and functionality and connectivity. But it seems that people only get creeped out when reminded explicitly who has their data - when Google puts up an ad that's a little too close to the content of one of your emails. And in the case of identity theft, or getting doxxed, the creepy becomes frightening. Ito's stories from the 90's prefigure the anxieties of hyper-personalization. Significantly, the first victim of the Hanging Balloons is a celebrity; fame as a curse.

In gaming it is all too easy to put the players in the eye of peril, thanks to the omniscience of the game master. One of the best instances is in Death Frost Doom when the characters find a portrait of themselves. The doppleganger is a well-known adversary, and the corny plot hook of being the "ones spoken of in prophecy" can have as much dread as promise resting in it..

A particularly evil twist would be to confront the party not with their exact doubles, but with a group of rivals that by coincidence duplicates their class and character concepts ... only with a turn toward the cliche side. The fair and noble warrior becomes a bland do-gooder, the sneaky thief has the brooding and antiheroic angst turned up off the dial, and so on. Who dares steal the most vital element of player character identification - individuality?

If modern individuality is scary in Ito's world, so is tradition. I wish I could just erase time and have "human centipede" refer instead to the monster in My Dear Ancestors. This less gross, more disturbing insect is made up of a centuries-old chain of brains, skulls and hair, each one growing on the next head (literally) of the family. The allegory about the dead weight of obligation is heavy, but not heavy-handed, as the lineage-beast is revealed as the sinister force behind its only heir's courtship of our heroine.  The composite creature practically writes itself as a monster, and in a world of wizardry, might represent an accumulation of power to rival even the oldest lich.

Ito's psychological adroitness comes through even in the stories that fail. In Ice Cream Bus, a divorced father's need to win his son's affection is expertly twisted as he finally gives in and lets the kid go onto the titular vehicle, and, well, what do you expect from the free ice cream rides around the block? The strong point is the sticky sweetness of ice cream as a bland mask for unspeakable desires, from the moms purring after the handsome ice cream man, to the unforgettable glimpse of mounds of ice cream inside the bus, children crawling and licking away on them. The denouement, sadly, falls flat and silly - a less literal, less fantastic final horror would have worked better.

Another chilling story with an unsatisfying ending is House of Puppets. Here we consider how people may choose to live as puppets - exerting no energy, their limbs responding to the impulses of puppeteers living in the upper story, freed from the difficulty of life. There are shades of Erich Fromm's "escape from freedom" here, but also of the more sinister tones of Thomas Ligotti's existential horror. Not  coincidentally does Ligotti also make use of puppets and dolls as he opens up the nihilistic possibilities of denying and rejecting the self.

Ito's supernatural, trite turn betrays the real possibilities of the setting. Psychology experiments, from Milgram's Cyranoids to Wegner's less well known explorations of the merely perceptual nature of agency, leave it a real possibility that the sensation of self in ourselves is an illusion; that things we think we have done are the work of unconscious automatisms. Now imagine the surrender of something as precious as the self as an ambiguous horror, pulsing also with relief.

Fantasy gives us such a possibility through magic, so that a critical failure to save against a charm effect might indicate a Stockholm syndrome- a newly acquired flunky whose lack of initiative is as disturbing and counterproductive as it is useful.

Or for a more perverse act of gamemastering, offer a Faustian bargain; through sorcery, the control of a player's character to be transferred to an altogether more competent agency, unearthing powers and possibilities, earning experience at a double clip while so possessed, seemingly (or in a shocker, actually) working for the good of the character and the party with inside knowledge and superior craft.

What price freedom, indeed?

Saturday 8 November 2014

Junji Ito's Body Horror

Junji Ito is a manga artist you may know through the widespread dissemination of his horror piece, Enigma of Amigara Fault; the one where an earthquake exposes many human-shaped holes in a cliff face. 

That story is one of his best and also a fair representation of his method in general. Ito specializes in presenting situations at the far edge of plausibility and driving them through to their halluci-logical conclusion. His illustration style, seemingly stuck in the late 80's for normal characters and scenes, opens up into meticulously stippled and hatched vistas when rendering abominations up close. As those who follow through to the end will see, body horror is his main theme, with occasional psycho-horror and ghost story digressions.

NOTE: Fan translations of many of his works are available online.

Spoilers follow.

Although he sometimes traffics in monsters, his most compelling works are better seen as curses, documenting unnatural misfortunes and transformations of the once-normal body. After all, the monster can be straightforwardly fought; the curse confounds this impulse by tying the horror to a human person, deserving of our care. Sometimes literally, attempts to destroy the monster will destroy the person; a technique I picked up recently in running a semi-improvised game, where among other Boschian horrors, a monstrous fish gaped, disclosing a terrified victim imprisoned behind golden bars; what was done to the fish, happened also to the victim. 

Ito uses this dilemma in Blood-Bubble Bushes, Hanging Balloons, and memorably in Slug Girl:

In this curse, the tongue grows thick over a period of several days, eventually transforming into an living but rooted swollen slug. An even more gruesome transformation is in store, in the manga a result of the parents' attempt to salt the slug-tongue out, but in a game it can happen naturally: the body withers away, leaving the slug to pull along the still conscious head.

The curse is contagious; coming upon a nest of heads and skulls with fat, pink, living tongues, under no circumstance must they be allowed to slime open, uninfected flesh.

The curse in Red Turtleneck is also, more directly, about the head.

By wrapping a hair around the victim's neck, or tricking them into wearing an object around the neck with the magically treated hair inside, the head detaches from the body by an imperceptibly thin cut. It must be held on rigidly to have any hope of being healed. The manga story itself gets unbearably silly about two thirds of the way through but the basic idea is gripping. For best effect make it unclear whether the curse is real or a delusion, complete with psychosomatic bleeding around the neck.

Ito's masterwork of body horror is the long-form Uzumaki, a suite of increasingly connected variations on the horrific potential of spirals. Various victims: become rolled up like a Swiss roll in cross-section; sprout grotesque warts like a unicorn's horn; grow an inward-spiraling mark on the forehead that consumes more and more; grow a spiral mark on the back that humps outward, transforming them into a giant snail; get rubbery limbs that twist like snakes mating; and the best curse of all, the curse of outlandish spiral hairdos that grant medusa-like shock and awe and hypnosis and choking and grabbiness at the cost of major Constitution drain and the hair getting ideas of its own ...

And variations in counterpoint; like the woman early on who becomes terrified of the natural spirals of her body; or the way the environment expresses the spiral curse, with air, water, earth and the town itself succumbing to vorticist force and form.

With one final idea for gaming: the shape as theme for an adventure, cult or region. The spiral expressed in an array of spiral jewelry, sphincter-like doors and pits, spring-loaded traps, flail snails, air elementals, curling snakes and worms, morkoth labyrinths, hypnotic patterns, maze spells.

The triangle, the zigzag ... the disk.

The horror.

Next: Junji Ito's psycho-social horror.

Monday 3 November 2014

Baroque Tricks, Traps and Hazards

So many of the old evergreen roleplaying tricks were prefigured (or just plain figured) in Gary Gygax's Supplement I: Greyhawk. Among them:

The "monster body" dungeon.
The shrinking ray.
Looting monster corpses for built-in treasure.
Animated plants and furniture.
Items which cause warning devices to fail and alertness to wane (the beginning of a long slippery slope into giving with one hand and taking away with the other...)

As well as less perennial ones such as

A box of animal crackers which will come to life when grasped ...

Anyway, with all this in mind may I present the next installment of the 52 Baroque Pages - including a few twists on old tricks. Click it to enlarge ...