Thursday, January 8, 2015

RPG Voldenort Makes Me Think About Plants

...and now I make you think about plants.

+Zak Smith 's post/poll about plants got me thinking about a problem with plant monsters and other things I run into while DMing sometimes...

So plants. In "non-civilized" places, IE outside of town, mundane plants are often ubiquitous in the pre-industrial or post-apocalyptic type of places adventurers travel through to have their adventures.

Plant-monsters can be terrifying because they can hide in plain sight. The plant-monster, consciously or instinctually or incidentally, is hidden by non-monstrous plants until it acts in a way that violates the observers' assumptions about plants. You don't know what's dangerous or not dangerous til you're in danger, or if you've survived this particular danger in the past.

This is an ideal situation to create when DMing. The problem?

In visually immersive media (movies, video games, etc), you just show the background of plants-on-plants. The background noise from which the monster emerges, the normality which that specific type of monster violates, is instantly communicated visually. When the plants starts monstering, or like spraying seeds into your wounds, or whatever, the thing that shouldn't be moving moves, it creates a sense of horror. Something is wrong with the world, and it's being wrong all over you.

In a pen n paper RPG, the economy of communications often means you're not telling players every detail of the scene, only generalities and what they ask about specifically. When a monster shows up, even one like this, it doesn't produce horror so much as "another monster" and "oh shit it did damage to us before we noticed it."
Even with seasoned DnD monster killers, were they actual people seeing a weird green-haired lady pop out of a flower then realizing they have been walking through flowers a while and they don't know which ones have green-haired ladies and is she magical, poisonous, explodey? There would be far more of a sense of horror and nature gone wrong or at least forces-bigger-than-us-beyond-our-immediate-understanding.

This may be a trapping of DnD instead of like, Call of Cthulhu, and maybe I need to find more horror games to play in (someone with magically the same schedule as me start running horror games on G+ y'all).

The best horror-feeling situations I've experienced in DnD, as player or DM, were, like all the best results of DnD, emergent rather than planned. That's for the best, but the reason we tweak and tweak is to massage that emergence toward the results we want to happen most often.

DnD, sadly, is not a visually immersive experience. When done well, it veers between party-with-friends and collective-immersive-imagination. The visual experience is inside - sure, aided by pictures the DM shows you, minis on this Amazon box facing minis on that piece of painted styrofoam, every fantasy painting you've seen, etc - but it's not the same as wandering through a strange forest with pals and a plant suddenly opens to a face and says "Who the fuck are you and what is your nutritional content?"

Ugh fuck what was my point? I think it's to think about tools to capture this wrongness and innate hiding in plain sight that serves certain things like plant monsters in a way that's not relevant to other monsters. Methods to try and make up for the fact that characters have senses and players have senses and you're trying to account for the imaginary side of that equation and sometimes there's not a great way to make up for it.

Part of this in DnD revolves around your skill as a writer (prep before the game) and improvisationalist (gauging how to describe the stuff to your players to get across what they'd notice and what they wouldn't so they can react with meaningful choices).

It's also fighting that "monster" role any player will get in their head after a certain amount of time playing DnD, especially dungeon crawls. Like the serial monogamist trying to fit every person they date into the boyfriend or girlfriend role in their head, the players sort those they meet into NPC and Monster. I try to blur those lines often, with limited success, but if you have any great tools for that, let me know.

The thing to do when in doubt is describe what's happening to the characters and let them get themselves into more trouble, of course.

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