A World Gone Comfortably Mad

Anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons with me knows that my favorite themes and monsters always tie back to the aberrant.  The D&D category of “aberrations” is where the particularly bizarre composite creatures, the monsters with mind-control powers, and monsters that manipulate the forms of others tend to be.  Here reside the giant paralytic tentacle-caterpillars, formless multiple-minded masses with the ability to attack through moveable portals, and mounds of flesh that constantly shriek alien curses from their thousands of mouths.  It is difficult to beat their thematic potential and stage presence, even with such iconic creatures as manticores and sphinxes.  Fantasy adventurers who encounter an aberration don’t get to dismiss it as “we fought a dragon”—they always require a description.

In recent years, these strange creatures became not just strange for its own sake, which is good enough, but strange in a cosmic sense.  Recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as dozens of other fantasy properties, draw on the fictional universes created by H. P. Lovecraft to provide background for their aberrations.  Once upon a time, many of these aberrant creatures simply were, but now, most of them are implicitly or explicitly tied to a distant dimension whose laws bear no resemblance to those of the rest of the cosmos; owe fealty to alien masters that wish to unmake the universe; break the minds of those who attempt to understand them; or otherwise unsubtly nod to the antics of Lovecraft’s creations.

Lovecraft’s fiction first appealed to me as an atheist.  Lovecraft had no fondness for religion, and few of the religious characters and themes in his fiction say anything good about any variety of it.  Deeper than that, though, the central conceit of Lovecraft’s world is that the underlying nature of reality is far beyond humankind.  Lovecraft’s world is not for us.  Earth is a blip in a teeming cosmos; life on earth is the youthful dalliance of an insignificant planet.  A full description of Lovecraft’s universe begins eons before the emergence of humankind and proceeds for millions of years after the last human is forgotten.   Humans are a footnote, tiny against the cosmic impact of creatures such as the Elder Things and the Great Race of Yith, and still smaller against the power of beings like Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Hastur, and Azathoth.  These beings command forces utterly beyond the physics known to Lovecraft’s humans, reshaping life into new servile forms and manipulating hidden dimensions of space.  To all of these creatures, humanity is a diversion at best, and a distraction at worst; our irrelevance to them is as the irrelevance of seaside huts to a tsunami, or, sometimes, as deer to a hunter.  Learning that the commanding forces of the cosmos have no affection or regard for humanity and would no more consider us in their actions or goals as an earthquake does is the final straw that undoes the sanity of numerous Lovecraft protagonists, the truth that fills his stories with their supposed horror.

I always found the thought…comforting.

Clockwise from bottom right: beholderkin eyeball, beholderkin death kiss, beholder mage, and beholderkin gouger. From Monster Compendium: Monsters of Faerûn.

In many ways, Lovecraft’s setting is a world where science is just beginning to establish how incalculably vast the universe is, how far in space and deep in time its truest expanses go, and how fundamentally earthly the human species actually is, and his narrators are people who are thrown face-first into that disorienting revolution.  Separated from their dearest biases about humankind’s place in the cosmos, they cannot cope.  Us not being the greatest show in the universe is too horrid for their minds to grasp, and they break in the attempt.

As stories about the epiphanies that religious folk experience on their way to atheism, they are poignant.

As stories about monsters whose behavior is not expected to make sense to humans, they are exquisite.

Dungeons and Dragons campaigns are often at their best when they feature long-term villains with designs that take more than one quest to unfold and to oppose.  They serve the same story purpose as series-spanning villains in television shows, and require the same attributes.  Most importantly, their behavior has to fit within some schema the players have, or they will lack the verisimilitude required to make the players care about them.  A villain who desires to do harm for its own sake is a plot device, not a character; a real villain needs a motive, a goal, and a path connecting the two that the players can understand.  An even better villain has connections that humanize them: moral lines they will not cross, people they care about, events in their past that made them into villains.  They react in realistic ways to the situations in front of them and alter their approaches in keeping with their goals and personalities.  The antagonists of Legend of Korra are the memorable foes they are because, no matter how apocalyptic their goals or gruesome their means, they are grounded in more-or-less cohesive philosophies and past traumas that make them people.

This is a bitter pill for the autistic would-be Dungeon Master to swallow.

One part of what makes me autistic is that my model for what “normal” behavior looks like is fundamentally alien to the neurotypical.   It is an ongoing, exhausting trial to remember how different the two can be, and this often filters into my D&D antagonists.  When I don’t have the space for particular villains to write out extensive diaries, their motives often seem confusing and opaque.  Players eventually give up trying to find a model that lets them understand a villain’s behavior well enough to predict it.  This is compounded by my dire inability to roleplay my non-player characters with different voices, mannerisms, or other social cues that a real conversation would have, except by describing the character as having those attributes.  It makes me wish I could bring a team of actors with me to every D&D session, to present the cast of non-player characters far more effectively than I ever could.

None of these limitations apply when the creature driving the adventure is an inhuman monstrosity from beyond time and space.

An aberration does not need to have a relatable past.  It does not need goals that mortals can understand.  It does not need to have warm feelings for some creatures that it does not have for others.  What it needs is to be inhuman.  The more it refuses to behave as an ordinary human with its goals would, the more unsettling the battle against it becomes.  The more bizarre its goals are, the harder it is for the heroes tasked with defeating it to feel like they can get ahead of them.  The more it seems to have reason behind its actions, the more the players want to know what that reason is; the more impossible it is for the players to know, the more their minds crack under the strain.

The more of your life you spend being a source of unsettlement and fear for others, raising their hackles and bringing out frissons of pure animal wariness simply by existing, the more comfortable it becomes to take the driver’s seat of a creature whose primary goal is to take a world hostile to its very essence and fix it, no matter who it hurts.

You write monsters with the passionate, burning desire to confer the gift of immortality on humankind who build elaborate religions secretly devoted to undeath and turn their favored acolytes into mummies and vampires as rewards for faithful service.

You write monsters that become world-scale arms dealers and commit hideous crimes against entire civilizations in a disturbingly effective calculus that achieves one solid objective: it gets them left alone in a remote place when their fellow aberrations are being purged from the world.

You write monsters who lived in the first draft of creation, the one the gods dismissed as too rough and inchoate and set about to rewrite, who seethe with hatred at being forced to hide in the interstices of the remade world and seek with their antediluvian memories to restore the universe they once knew.

You write monsters who do not give one single solitary gold-plated shit about the sentient, non-aberrant races of the world but who cannot accomplish whatever it is they want to accomplish without involving them somehow, and regard their machinations and manipulations as a dull necessary chore…or as a game.

You write monsters that, under their tentacles and eyestalks and chitin, look an awful lot like the stories and stereotypes the neurotypical tell about people like you, and you ask your friends to stab, beat, and immolate them until nothing is left but symbolic catharsis.

They killed the monster, so now, there is only you.  Harmless, scared, worried, alien, lonesome you.

Eventually, the overwhelming empathy of autism means that even Cthulhu’s feelings become one’s own.

A World Gone Comfortably Mad