Thursday, September 20, 2018

Peterson and her effect on my role playing sensibilities

So as I see the leaves begin to change with autumn's approach I shouldn't be surprised that my brain shifted to Elvira, especially Monday when this post entered my brain. So I figured I should ramble a little more about comedy, terror, and memory.

A lot of my writing has a very strong horror theme to it,  partly that is due to the nature of the genre. The difference between horror and high adventure is often just your estimation of your chances of success. It is lack of adequate competence (in the broadest sense) that leads to horror and shifts it away from something almost lighthearted.

I also tend to write things that casually include the incredible suffering of mere existence that common peasants suffered in a historical setting. The aesthetics of ruin is a good read but I don't tend to have my writing wallow in misery, as there is an element of both comedy and suffering in the situation.  Without sounding too nihilistic, the level of ruin often has a form of bleak comedy about it. Comedy , to me, makes the horror elements that much more vivid and memorable. I believe there are fairly straightforward reasons for that which I'll come back to.

That concept of embedding comedy among horror is almost certainly something I picked up from Peterson in her role as Elvira.  I will make the controversial statement that although I have watched the Elvira movie many times, it is purely as a tradition. I think its generally garbage. It's bad because it puts Elvira front and center, while her talent is providing running commentary on horror movies themselves.  Movies made in earnest, if poorly, were a lot more enjoyable to watch.  I remember watching her Schlock-o-thon about a quarter century ago.  The jokes acted like a sieve to filter out everything but the few good kernels within the movies.  I don't recall all the dumb crap that is 95% of a movie like "Gargoyles" but I do remember the ominous scene where you realize it is in fact a demon succeeding in corrupting the mind of  a person (whose name and role I have long since forgotten) through fake claims of just being a different alien species trying to live in peace.   That may have actually been true for the crappy plot, but that one scene implied very different. The jokes filtered out all the dumb junk which was unable to rise past them in terms of quality, leaving behind that one moment as a little gem that remains in memory a quarter century later.  This is probably the same reason I enjoyed MST3K so much, but (second controversial statement) their comedy was much better. Elvira is linked to Halloween so that bumps her up a lot in my books, otherwise I would say there isn't even a contest between which one I like more.

The ability to create those "long term gems of memory" is one of my main goals when running games.  I want it to be fun and interesting in the moment  at the table yes, but part of the "stickiness" I do when writing adventures also serves the secondary function of creating good/interesting memories.  I want people to vividly remember moments of games I ran years or decades down the line.

Novelty can be part of this sure,  but if everything is novel then nothing sticks out from all the rest. Using familiar archetypes actually seems to work better, perhaps because similar stimuli are frequently encountered.  Each encounter then reminds you of the game and further cements the memory in your brain. They also help to contrast those components of the adventure that ARE novelty, making the novelty bits easier to remember in their own right. If most statues don't come to life and kill you, the one that does is memorable (and might succeed). If most statues you encounter come to life to kill you then everyone gets wise to that shit after the second statue.

This is one of the things LotFP as a publishing house does right with their submission guidelines (in my opinion),  they want things to be historically normal except for one weird thing which is the focal point of the adventure. One point I think LotFP doesn't do as well in this regard (though it probably isn't a goal of theirs) is shying away from folklore.

Lovecraft's weird fiction did a pretty good job on this to my mind. On the one hand they had aliens as gods and super-science as magic,  but they also had robed cultists performing sacrifices next to an idol and witches with familiars signing their name in a black book held by a humanoid with goat legs. Contrast his stories of pure novelty like "Shadows of out time".  You probably recall that Yithians look weird, have a massive library, and quantum leap everywhere right?  What about the other details?  On the top of your head, what more do you recall?  Do you remember they have no sense of touch?  Probably with a little goading. What about their government structure?  Their hovercars? Their highway infrastructure?  That all gets lost in the jumble.  Compare that to "The Shadow over Innsmouth".  You've got the coach (bus) driver with ominous foreshadowing.  You've got the creepy secret society. The old man who warns you of DOOM DOOM! All common archetypes that make the novel components (the underwater fishperson city) stand out that much more. The contrast of novel elements (at the time) alongside traditional folklore archetypes made those stories extremely memorable on the whole, even if details were lost.

Combining the jokes and comedy at the table as a sieve with an adventure featuring traditional archetypes contrasting a novel element has so far seemed like the most effective method for ensuring that moments are captured as long term memories. "A thousand dead babies" is a good example of this.  It has the novel component of [spoiler] but also a lot of archetypes that are classic like the black sabbath, or the farmer's daughter. While I play it straight, it is also specifically ripe for a lot of humour at the table. I generally try to avoid honestly complimenting myself, but that particular adventure does seem to generate those types of long term memories for people. 

1 comment:

  1. And here I thought I was going to read a blog post about Elvira's boobs... Good stuff, anyways!

    You're right about Lovecraft. When couching his weirdness around the ordinary, it was more effective.

    Keep the humor going, hoss!