Monday, 22 February 2016

“You can’t ever let that see print”: Horror, Pathfinder and the limits of the publishable

The worst horrorshow of all is that wizard's fashion sense. I really hope she's wearing something under those skirts.

[Warning: spoilers for some 9-year old adventure modules below.]

The Pathfinder adventure paths are pretty good but they're way too long. Like, I've just finished reading The Skinsaw Murders, and the whole thing is basically five scenes:
  1. A serial killer stalks the town, and they're obsessed with one of the PCs! The only surviving witness to the killings is being held in an asylum; but when the PCs visit him, he bursts his bonds and attacks the PC who the killer is obsessed with, screaming about how he should be the favourite one! Examination of his body shows he's suffering from ghoul fever...
  2. A half-mad farmer stumbles into town gibbering about all his neighbours being eaten by scarecrows! The farms are full of ghouls; they're infecting their victims with ghoul fever, and tying them up in the fields as scarecrows while they transform into undead. Come too close and the 'scarecrows' rip off their bonds and try to eat you!
  3. Clues from the ghouls point to the big haunted mansion outside town! Wander around in it having visions of the horrible things that happened there, then go down into the basement and kill the boss ghoul, who's also the serial killer.
  4. The boss ghoul was part of a murder cult in a nearby city, operating out of a lumber mill. Go there and kill them all.
  5. The cult's leader had been charmed by a lamia living at the top of an old clock tower. Fight your way up it, battling her minions while she drops bells on you from above, and then kill her. THE END.
That takes up about fifty pages of closely-printed, double-column text. I'm confident it could have been done in less than half the length without losing anything of substance. 

Anyway. At the start of The Skinsaw Murders, Paizo editor-in-chief James Jacobs explains why he commissioned a series of horror-themed adventures: as he writes, 'after working in the adventure-publishing industry for nearly half a decade, I’ve noticed that horror-themed and “gritty” adventures are usually the ones that become the most popular.' But at the start of its sequel, The Hook Mountain Massacre, Jacobs writes that he had to heavily edit the manuscript which he was sent by the module's author, Nicholas Logue:
Nick went a little… over the top, shall we say, in places. A few of the scenes in his original draft were things I can never unread. [...] Even as I was cackling in glee to myself at what three not-so-lovely hags had in store for an unlucky commander of a remote mountain fort, or re-reading in disbelief what Jeppo Graul was doing to his brother Hograth when the PCs were scheduled to show up, the editor in the back of my mind was shaking his head. “You can’t ever let that see print,” he said. “The police would show up at Nick’s house and take him away, and then he’d never be able to write adventures for you again!”
Now, this is clearly hyperbole, unless the original manuscript was hundreds of times more extreme than the published version. But I believe Jacobs when he says that he felt he had to edit the manuscript Logue sent him before it was publishable: not because the original version would have got Logue or himself into legal trouble, but because it was simply too extreme for the mainstream RPG audience which Jacobs was aiming for. This, in turn, makes The Skinsaw Murders and The Hook Mountain Massacre very interesting documents, as they allow one to calibrate with some accuracy exactly what kinds of horror material were felt to be publishable in a mainstream fantasy RPG product circa 2007. Clearly, Jacobs wanted horror, but not too much horror. So where exactly was the dividing line?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out to be all about sex.

Francisco Goya, Great Deeds Against the Dead (c. 1810-20)

The many graphically-described mutilated corpses that litter these adventures, impaled, skinned, disembowelled, posed in gruesome tableaux... they're all men. The horribly deformed ogres who carry out these crimes, their heads sagging with giant tumours, their faces carved away with hooks, their lower jaws missing, their teeth pulled out and replaced with metal fangs... they're all men, too. It's a veritable carnival of male-on-male violence. The family of cannibal ogrekin hillbillies in The Hook Mountain Massacre are led by a grotesquely obese matriarch, who murders all her female children at birth to avoid competition - and while that does add to the horror, it also allows their home (which is essentially one long homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) to be an essentially all-male domain. There are dark hints about what her sons may have done to female captives in the past, but nothing explicit - and the captives in their basement when the PCs arrive are, once again, all men.

The ogre clan later is, once again, virtually entirely male: there's one brain-damaged female ogre sorceress, but all the most horribly deformed, mutilated, torture-happy ogres are male, as are their victims. (There's one passing reference to female corpses having been incorporated into some taxidermic horrorshow, but it's very brief.) When the text does deal with damage to female bodies, it suddenly becomes terribly vague, as when the ghost of a murdered nymph is described: 'Her lower torso fades away to smoke, savaged too cruelly by the ogres for even her insane ghost to keep.' (There's probably a coded reference to sexual violence, here, but it's well below the level of plausible deniability.) Given that Pathfinder is in most respects notable for its commitment to gender diversity - after all, three of the four pre-generated characters provided for use with the module are women - I think that this very striking focus on male-on-male violence must stem from a worry that if the same scenes featured female corpses, they would instantly be interpreted as examples of sexual sadism, and thus fall under the heading of things that could not be allowed to see print.

Think of this rogue next time you blithely assert: 'Oh, yeah, my guy is totally carrying, like, twenty throwing daggers...'

The document that survives - the edited, published text of The Hook Mountain Massacre - is an exercise in textual repression. Rape hovers behind every scene, but is firmly kept at the level of dark insinuation, as in this passage on the origins of ogrekin:
Savage, cruel, and lacking all conscience, ogres typically raid for three reasons: out of greed, for love of slaughter, or—worst of all—to procreate. Fortunate victims of ogre attacks are quickly killed, their bodies turned into morbid playthings. Those who survive such attacks, however, face much worse.
Much worse. Full stop. End of paragraph. The next sentence moves straight on to game mechanics. What's being implied is obvious: that the ogres kidnap human women for use as breeding stock, forcibly impregnating them in order to give themselves a source of ogrekin minions. But it doesn't actually say it, as though to actually use the word 'rape' would be to cross some invisible line. Given what happened to Black Tokyo last year, this may not be too far from the truth. Everyone appears to have been fine with the fact that Scorched Urf were publishing a rape-fetish hentai game, and had been for years, right up until they made the mistake of publishing a book which actually used the word 'rapist' in the title...

Let's look at those other dark hints: the points where Jacobs mentions the things in the initial manuscript which made him think that "You can’t ever let that see print". What were the hags doing to the fort commander, which was so horrible that Jacobs felt it couldn't be published even in a horror module? What was Jeppo Graul doing to his brother Hograth? It could have been anything, but the obvious answer, in both cases, is rape: rape of men, as one would expect from the module's overall aesthetic (and more-or-less confirmed by Jacobs' reference to 'banjo music', an allusion to the famous male rape scene from Deliverance), but rape none-the-less. Rape, and other forms of overtly sexualised violence, is the thing you can hint at but not mention. It's the thing that lies beyond the pale. Mention that a male body has been dismembered and mutilated and people will accept it as 'just' violence; but mention that a female body has been treated in the same way and it will be read in sexualised terms, and that's simply not acceptable.

Now, in real-world terms, this is a pretty silly distinction: anyone who obsessively mutilates human corpses obviously does so because it gives them an erotic thrill, regardless of the sex of the corpse in question. To imagine that there is no sadistic erotic charge involved in mutilating, torturing, flaying, dismembering, or eating someone, and that as long as both parties keep their pants on then it's all just good, clean, entirely non-sexual fun, is merest wishful thinking. To imagine that rape is a 'fate worse than death', so much more horrible than any other that it cannot be mentioned even in a book full of cannibalism and dismemberment, is honestly pretty insulting to actual rape survivors everywhere. (I know lots of people who have been raped. None of them would rather have been murdered, let alone killed in the kind of slow and awful ways that appear in these books.) In this sense, Chandler, Raggi, and McKinney, whatever their other faults, strike me as being more honest in their handling of horror and violence, because they don't artificially wall off its overtly sexual components and thus don't attempt to create the (entirely misleading) impression that the violent content which remains has nothing to do with sex. I entirely understand why Jacobs made the editorial decisions he did: media depictions of sexual violence have become a talismanic issue in recent years. But I find the resulting attempt to have it both ways, to dwell in pornographic detail upon spectacularly damaged human bodies while skirting around the edges of the obvious sexual implacations of such sadism, is... uncomfortable? Distasteful? 'We're totally going to publish an adventure full of redneck rape ogres straight out of The Hills Have Eyes, but we're not actually going to include any explicit sexual violence, so it's all OK!' It seems like a trivialisation of the material involved, in a misguided attempt to render it 'safe' for mainstream consumption. Better to accept that some material isn't safe, that it can't be and shouldn't be safe; better to treat it with the seriousness that it deserves, or not to engage with it at all.

This is one of the many ways in which I've found romance fiction helpful, actually: romance re-inscribes the erotic dimension into everything. It won't let us pretend that violence has nothing to do with desire; in fact, it's often much more grown-up about this stuff than horror is. It's an insight which I've tried to draw upon in my own game-related writings, although probably not with unmixed success.

The Skinsaw Murders is a better adventure than The Hook Mountain Massacre anyway. 


  1. Great article, thank you. But I think it should be kept in mind that there are so many diverse factors influencing the cultural hierarchy of acceptability (what is currently deemed acceptable for media representation and what's not, and to what extent), that the latter naturally can't be a straightforward reflection of how horrible something is in real life. Like, death on the battlefield is nowhere good and clean, but it has been glorified for millennia, and we are still raised on this kind of discourse. Now, rape in its 'traditional' form (and I shudder to think how fit the word is) is special exactly because it is common and pervasive. Cannibalism and disembowelment are rare enough to feel 'exotic' and completely external to real-life experiences for most of us, and they are universally acknowledged as something extremely wrong. But a sexual act forced by a male on a female who does not want it is, alas, a relatively common feature of our human landscape, and that affects the emotional response.

    1. Everything you say is true, and I certainly understand *why* sexual violence is handled differently to physical violence in RPGs; outside of very specific circles (e.g. army gaming groups on active deployment) most gamers will have had very limited exposure to extreme physical violence, whereas the chances of some of them having had direct experience of sexual violence is depressingly high. But I was troubled by how blatantly the division was enforced in 'The Hook Mountain Massacre'. The text makes abundantly clear that the ogres are engaging in all kinds of appalling physical and sexual violence... and then proceeds to actually show you *all* of the former and *none* of the latter.

      I mean, if you're not prepared to show it, to engage with it, to actually *deal* with it, then why bring it up in the first place? Why not just declare that humans look as unattractive to ogres as ogres do to humans, or that ogres think that humans smell so delicious that no ogre could ever resist eating a human captive for long enough to mistreat them in other ways, or any one of a dozen other excuses for why they might kill but not rape their victims? Why not just do what most fantasy fiction does, and simply neglect to mention sexual violence at all? (We know it's not 'realistic', but if we wanted realism we wouldn't be spending our leisure time playing D&D, would we?) Why all this dark hinting, as though sexual violence was fine and good to fantasise about, but far too horrible to actually talk about or depict? As I say in the post, it's the attempt to have it both ways which bothers me.

  2. Very interesting read. But now that I am thinking of it, even LotFP doesn't seem to go to the extends that are implied in Hook Mountain.

    Not having read Hook Mountain, it does sound rather excessive, though. When you pile that stuff too high it just turns into absurd. Less is more.

  3. I was with you until you started moralizing.