Monday, April 13, 2020

Dealing with the Demons in Dark Corners

[CW up front, this is not a fun post and it's primarily about sexual assault both real and fictitious.]

This post is brought on by the recent incident with Adam Koebel, but it is not about him. Consider it part of the following discussion folks had on safety tools and whatnot.

All of these words and thoughts are my own, and reflect my own experiences. If I sound like I am speaking with any authority on the matter, it is purely from within the sphere of my own life.

More under the break.

Part 1: Where I'm Coming From

My first job out of college was as a counselor in a group home for juvenile sex offenders. Mental health unit. It was six months of grueling, miserable, emotionally exhausting and very, very educational work. I was isolated from almost all other human contact (literally living in a cabin in the woods at the time) that wasn't forays into town for groceries on Sunday or the occasional trek to visit family. My father's stroke had been maybe two or three months before I started. I had no money and no other career prospects.

My first full day at the job saw me staying half an hour late, because an incident that required all five of the other staff members on duty to break up started three minutes before the end of my shift.

By the end of the first week, someone had to be rushed to the doctor because another client had stabbed him in the ear with a pencil.

The house was built for 15 clients, and I don't believe that number ever went below 12 when I was there. There were a couple clients that were proper sociopaths, one who had symptoms of schizophrenia, one who was extremely bipolar, but by and large the milieu was more mundane than comfortable - a mix of ADD, ODD, PTSD, autism, learning disabilities, abusive parents, none of which had been adequately treated beforehand. Many were compulsive liars, and most of those were terrible at it most of the time, and some of them believed what they were saying to the point of actual delusion.

A fact: A total lack of any sort of sex education is very common among juvenile sex offenders.

By my entirely gut-based subjective calculations, I say that maybe a third of them had a shot at an okay life on the outside. For the rest, I could only hope that they didn't re-offend.

An anecdote: There was an evening late in my time there when the house was calm and we had extra staff, so I was sent to go help the female mental health sex offender unit for a few hours. The counselor who opened the door for me had scabbed-over cuts all over his face, because the previous night a client had been swinging around a broken vaseline jar in a sock. My unit had been rough, but spending the evening working our sister location was scary, even if it was completely without incident.

Few of the lessons of the group home were pleasant, but all of them valuable.

Lesson 1: There but for the grace of God go we all.

If there was anything that was hammered home in all of this, it is the role that material circumstance plays in shaping a person: family situation, brain chemistry, economic bracket, all interacting on this vast sliding scale of quality. Get dealt a bad hand, and it's hard to climb your way out of the hole because the support structures that might be able to bear some of the weight are weak or absent themselves, and harder still because the house has rigged the game in its own favor.

It's not impossible, but it's not good odds. There were quite a few clients that needed more help that we could provide, and we had to send them off just with what we could teach them we had.

I don't like thinking about what their futures might hold. I want to believe they did okay, but...

Lesson 2: I guess Tolkien was right

I like to say that orcs are just people who have had Maslow's pyramid kicked out from underneath them. This job is the source of that saying, and the damage that is done when people are denied those basic goods and needs. If someone is denied of food, shelter, safety, dignity, is it any wonder that things go bad in their life? (No. The answer is no. Want is corrosive. Outside oppression makes it worse.)

Lesson 3: Real evil is banal shit. 

The most valuable lesson of the lot. Real evil is boring. It makes for terrible stories. It's people being cruel for petty, selfish, stupid, self-destructive reasons. It's a septic wound that spreads from person to person and generation to generation and it will not stop if the cycle is not broken. It is not flashy. It's just awful. It's people acting on their desire to exert power over those who are weaker than they are. That's it. That's all you need to know.

Lesson 0: Granny Weatherwax was right.

Sin is when you treat people like things.

Now, by great circuity we have come to the crux of the matter of this damnable post - how does this thing, this rough amorphous beast, fair in translation?

Part 2: As a Reader

Everyone has The Line. Most folks have multiple Lines. The Line is a subjective thing formed as all subjective things are by the experiences of the possessor. The Line may act according to strict principle, or it may act by descent into the particular. The Line ought to be respected without question or complaint, and forgiven its inconsistencies when they arise.

Bear with me, this is eventually going to go very inside baseball.

I have two Lines that are relatively clear cut.
  • Absolving / ignoring / eliding an abusive figure on faith, rather than by any concerted effort at correction and redemption on the guilty party's part and clearly without any thought on the writers' part. (Hey there, Kylo Ren & the jellyfish from Binti)
  • Exploitation of vulnerable persons & their suffering for the entertainment or profit of other parties. (Hoarders, as a non-assault example)
The Chapter 25 Interlude II of Unsong, despite being the most horrifying thing I have read in my functioning memory, did not trip over The Line despite being extremely graphic (It's documentary footage of a National Geographic host who went to Hell and it pulls no punches) It fits logically within the world, even if it is a huge tonal shift from the typical pun-filled Kabbalistic funtimes.

GRRM's Wild Cards fell flat on its face because it contains four consecutive short stories that hinge entirely upon sexual assault or the threat thereof, and all of them involve the death (or threatened death) of the victim. That's an exploitative hackjob, over The Line, get outta here. Maybe if it was just one, I could have forgiven it, but four in a row is a shocking lack of creativity at best case scenario.

So using sexual assault for shock value, heightened stakes, and drama is a hard pass for me - it doesn't line up at all with the lived experience, of becoming swiftly inured to shock as a survival mechanism, of that patina of tension that draped over each day until they all blended together: who is going to get in a fight today? Who lied about passing their weekly treatment goals? For how many hours of this twelve-hour weekend shift can we maintain the peace?

A fact: Twelve hour weekend shifts are the fucking worst.

Another fact: Excitement is not something you want in a building filled with sex offenders. Anyone who would claim that the inclusion of sex offenders makes things more exciting, within a building or no, is free to go and try a twelve hour weekend shift and see how fast their opinion changes.

The initial outline of this post had "inside baseball with the SCP wiki" on the docket for this part, though now after actually writing it, I think it would be overly burdensome and not do much besides restate the point, and so I will leave it for another day.

Part 3: As a Writer

I recently put up the ashcan version of my adventure Unicorn Meat on my Patreon. Throughout writing it I have found myself constantly stepping back and checking my sums to see if I stepped over a line somewhere. Because while I make clear warning of its contents, that is going up against the looming shadow:

Unicorn lore is inherently fucked up.

Consider: A young girl (defined by her virginity, and thus subject to the dichotomy of pure/impure |innocent/sinful) is used as bait to lure a rare and beautiful creature (itself associated with innocence/purity) out of hiding so that wealthy men (let us not forget this part, it is very relevant) might kill it for no reason whatsoever beyond their own glory.

That right there is some grade-A fucked up. Pointless murder of a beautiful animal aside - the maid and the unicorn are both keyed as innocent (and thus to some extent, equivalent), and the knights murder the shit out of the unicorn. Because it makes them feel like Big Powerful Men. When the maiden is no longer able to be exploited (ie, she is no longer a virgin and thus "impure"), she is considered useless for the task and another bait needs to be found.

It is horrifically anti-human. The unicorn hunt encapsulates a perfect symbol of that dreaded Moloch I ramble on about.

The men with power have come, to exploit those who cannot fight back, to traumatize them, to destroy their lives, to break them, and then dispose of them.

Because it makes them feel like Big Powerful Men.

Maybe they'll make a profit off of it.

Depictions that whitewash this fucked-up-ness (like, say, 5e D&D for an example off the top of my head no I am certainly not angry about this I am p e r f e c t l y c a l m) are, as far as I am concerned, total cowardice.

If you are going to write about things being fucked up, if you're going to write about real evil, stare it straight in the eye. Do not flinch, do not blink. Name it. Strip it of the mystique it has gathered around itself, its shield of false grandeur. It is banal, it is stupid, it exists only to hurt. The cruelty is the point. 

This is the core of Unicorn Meat.

But, and this is the super important part, it is my responsibility to make sure that I weigh the fucked-up-ness of the material I am presenting against The Line of my readers.

Let me say that again: it is my responsibility to do everything in my power, and to the best of my ability, to both be honest about the subject matter AND not go over The Line.

So here's what I did:
  • First Obvious Step: I didn't write anything that would cross my own Line.
  • Second Obvious Step: Content warning up front in the "running this module" section. 
  • Third Obvious Step: I got other people to read it.
  • "LISA the Painful + True Detective S1 + Lord of the Flies" has remained my go-to description, both for its accuracy and its effectiveness. If someone can see that and not know what they're getting into, I don't think I can help them.
  • The absence of adults on the farm means that they aren't a direct threat to the players (because that could go real poorly real fast), but the knock-on effects (the thematically important part) are still active and potent.
  • Anything involving the abuse is presented implicitly, rather than graphically. The details are sufficient for observant players to figure out specifics, but they can be omitted without hesitation or trouble. And frankly, with a setup like Sunny Smiles Unicorn Farm, people don't need things spelled out for them. They'll get it. It would be very difficult to be less subtle.
    • An example: In the medical hut you can find Stitches the surgeon. Investigating her medicine shelves reveals a stock of abortificients. That is more than sufficient on its own.
  • The use of implicit horror is also intended to prevent the sort of gawking trauma tourism I railed about earlier - the players are a brief intrusion into the lives of the NPCs, and so only ever get a passing glimpse at the contents of those lives. It is present, always in the background, but the foreground is food and gang rivalries and monsters in the night. That's the focus.
  • The violence and body horror (which is quite graphic) serves as the outward sign of the underlying poison. They're the knock-on effects, the vectors by which the abuse can and does spread. They're also common parlance of the OSR, and so a relatively safe place to be graphic.
  • If the players want to engage with the thematic core further, track down the people behind it all and see justice done, that is entirely in their power. If they just want to ride off into the sunset, same.
As it stands now, I think the module is in a good place. Sometimes I worry, but then something like the inciting incident of this post happens and I think "you know what, I think I did it okay, 'cause it's definitely not that bad."

Part 4: Where We're Going

I don't rightfully know. The world is a terrible place a lot of the time, and the things we create are often our way of working through what's been foisted upon us by circumstances beyond our control. And that's a good thing, when exercised with care and responsibility. People need to have the space to wrestle with issues meaningful to them, with the tools they have available to them.

RPGs have a long way to go. We'll get there, I hope. But we aren't there yet.

If, somehow somewhen, Unicorn Meat helps someone - offers them some sort of blood-soaked mud-caked scream-at-the-heavens catharsis for whatever demons assail them - good. That is, if not the stated goal, the real goal of it all.


  1. Not a fun post, but it's been on my mind the last few week or so.

    Eventually I'll do the SCP inside baseball, I promise.

  2. I'm probably not getting what you're driving at with the 5E dig, but what's the difference between whitewashing evil and just not... focusing on how awful it is? I would be under the impression 5E would go out of its way to portray non-specific vague "evil" for content/marketing reasons, but I'm not familiar enough with it to understand how it's making it out to be something other than it is.

    1. 5e unicorns are portrayed just as guardians of sacred places - gone is the hunt, gone are the maids, and gone are its violent tendencies towards not-maidens. But they still have stats in the manual, despite the fact that very few parties would ever consider fighting one, and there's no culturally-significant hunt to motivate hunting one.

      So it's sitting in this weird middle space where it's taking up page space that should go to something else, and the reasoning that would make its presence in the monster manual sensible is gone.

      As for the difference, that comes down to the person. Myself, I think that it comes down to "you could have done something interesting and difficult, but you didn't, and that's a good move too, but you didn't just avoid the topic either so..."

    2. The mushy middle position is good for sales, but it requires a certain lack of self-awareness (see the disaster that was the UA coercion domain cleric they labeled as love) and an unwillingness to go one way or another.

    3. Ah, so it's more a dig at it being a pointless filler creature/statblock instead of something stronger. Mediocre and thoughtless, instead of evil.

  3. I run 5e, and I recently brought unicorns into my last campaign, with one small alteration.
    The horn has to be removed while the creature still lives for it to retain its magical properties.
    Watching the looks on my players' faces when they found a horn in a treasure hoard was a thing of fucked-up beauty.
    (The cleric decided to destroy it.)

  4. (This comment is just about unicorn folklore.)

    While I see how the unicorn hunt can be deployed as a sort of modern allegory in the way that you describe, in context I think the stories can be a bit more nuanced. You left out the parts about how a unicorn horn could be used to cure diseases (in some myths) or could be used to fabricate a drinking vessel that would detect poison (in other myths). So the hunt was at least potentially about something more than ego. In modern terms, the hunt would be for a creature that could cure, say, a family member's cancer. That is substantially different in meaning from no reason whatsoever beyond their own glory.

    The aspects related to virginity make the myth a bit more complicated than simple adventure and reward, but that just means that there are some dark or mysterious aspects mixed in with everything else, rather than the whole myth is just allegory for oppression.

    A useful comparison might be lion hunting. Now it is just sport and serves no purpose beyond entertainment, but in the past people pasturing livestock lived much closer to subsistence and protecting the flock was a functional necessity (or at least that is how I think people would see the hunt in that context).

    1. I tend to bundle the horn and its properties under the greater umbrella of the commoditization of the creature and the hunt for it - there's only half a kilo of that cancer cure in all the world, and you have no access to any of it, and the hunger for more will drive them to extinction.

      The unicorn-rhino connection is appropriate here.

  5. Thank you for speaking so openly about this.