Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Horror, Sanity, Cats

I've been working, in my mind at least, on two different posts, one about SA's (and the world's) military stupidity and another about my exciting weekend in nature (featuring otters). Then my cat, Frost, got hit by a car sometime early Monday morning, and while he survived and is still with the vet for treatment and observation, I've been knocked flat, psychologically. It may even have physiologically exhausted me, but that's more likely entirely due to the unusually active weekend I had. Either way, I lost all my motivation for a couple days and found myself terribly angry at nothing in particular. It didn't help that I had to face anti-vaxxers literally laughing off child death stats. Fuckers.

Now, while I'm still too focused on Frost and not sufficiently focused on the other posts (or anything I've been trying to get done since the weekend), I've at least had an odd thought that might be worth sharing. It seems I find it easiest to interpret the world as a roleplaying game these days, with quantifiable skills and possessions evaluated either in terms of their survival use or their value as sellable loot. And the last few days, I've been noticing my own psychological responses and explaining them to myself in terms that I first learned from playing Call of Cthulhu: I have failed a SAN check.

For non-gamers, Cthulhu is a game of horror and things-man-was-not-meant-to-know, and it incorporates a quantitative measure of characters' sanity, with negative consequences for those who see too many horrors and who know too many not-meant-to-know things. It's not usually something that people can portray on their own very well, because those who really know what going insane is like are, I think, less likely to want to re-hash the experience as a social game for funsies. It's also hard, as either a game writer or GM, to come up with novel and reliable ways of making monsters and events scare the players even a fraction as much as they're supposed to scare the characters. In my experience, most people seem to just play along with a game's sanity mechanics, nothing more, nothing less. We abstractify a lot of other things in roleplaying (e.g. injuries, skills or physical movement), so what's one more?

Still, it never hurts to keep the reality from getting totally hidden behind the abstraction, and I've been paying close attention to my own mind, to report and provide some stuff for thorough method-roleplayers to borrow from. It's not that I think I've gone anywhere near properly insane (what Cthulhu would represent with a 20% drop in Sanity, and Warhammer would represent with a gain of 6+ Insanity Points), because that really is serious business and much harder (and more unpleasant) to describe. Instead, I'm limiting myself here to describing a short, sharp shock, the experience of finding a specific occurrence truly disturbing (what either of those game systems would represent with the loss/gain of only one or two Sanity %/Insanity Points, respectively). I believe it's what real-worldists might call an acute stress reaction. Let me be clear that I'm not suggesting that my experience is the only possible reaction to something like this. The Wikipedia link there will give you a much wider variety of symptoms. All I'm trying to provide here is a bit of an inside perspective of what some of that can feel like, beyond the dry, external, academic descriptions. Realistic roleplaying is not just about stating that something happens, but also understanding as well as safely possible what it feels like for that thing to happen to you.

The main thing that struck me was an inability to get the unpleasant experience out of my head. I didn't spend a lot of time examining Frost's wound, as getting him to the vet was a more urgent priority, but the quick glimpses stuck with me. He'd lost a large chunk of skin and outer flesh, exposing the internal organs rather neatly, like a plastic anatomy model, waiting to be clicked apart and clicked back together again. I don't know feline internal anatomy at all well, but I could work out easily enough which bit was the large intestine, because one side of it was grazed off at one point, and the feces inside was visible but fortunately not leaking out. Framing the whole wound was bright red, lumpy tissue, almost like little bubbles. Fat, I think? Muscle? He'd also bled the whole way from the road, through the house, and had somehow squirted quite a lot of blood a good 40cm up the wall just outside my bedroom door, which was odd, as the wound was on his left side and he would have been walking with that wall on his right if he'd gone straight through the house to where we found him sleeping next to a large puddle of dried blood. The whole scene was very vivid, but the bit about the red lumpy tissue was clear as fuck later that night, while I was eating my supper of soy mince (completely vegan, but also sort of lumpy). It didn't disgust me or put me off my food (I'm not squeamish at all), but the image stayed in my mind very persistently.

My first point about roleplaying insanity points is probably that this vivid persistence of memory is a fairly obvious thing to consider. It doesn't have to be the only thing your character talks about (or even mentions at all), but when they see their first shambling, slimy demon or whatever, the specifics are likely to stay with them for a while and spring back to mind with only the slightest reminder. GMs could put extra effort into describing memorable details, and players should make note of at least one or two things that really stand out for their character. Bring these details back to mind anytime the character should be reminded of the event, and even if they don't get explicitly mentioned, they give a more visceral long-term hook for players to hang the effects of their accumulated insanity points on.

The other big thing I noticed was the mood stuff. I'm pretty good in a crisis and getting Frost to the vet was technically pretty simple. Keeping it together in the short term is feasible, but once he's booked in to stay at the vet and I'm home with nothing else to do, things start catching up. Half of it's been simple worry about poor Frost. He's probably losing his entire tail. There may be spinal damage. There may be infections. He may become incontinent and have a miserable life. He might even still die. But I'm ok with worry, I can keep some perspective and wait for more complete news from the vet, instead of letting the uncertainties overwhelm me. What did overwhelm me was anger, rage, frustration. Last night, I wanted to burn everything, smash people, shout. Not directed at anyone or anything in particular; just an expression of displeasure combined with powerlessness. The fucking anti-vaxxers almost caught that, but I realised it would do more harm than good there, so I took it out on virtual people instead, with a few bloody levels of Hitman. Bombs thrown indiscriminately into Mardi Gras crowds worked wonders for that, and incidentally show how great the 21st century is. Real rage is very unusual for me, and real violence simply never happens at all, but what would I have done with myself a century ago that wouldn't have caused actual, real damage to myself or others?

This is quite an important point for roleplayers too. Most insanity systems have "run away/hide" as their default outcome for a failed sanity check, but that's only one half of the fight-or-flight response. Realistically, sometimes you should favour "fight", even when/especially if it's not the smart thing to do. A few roleplaying systems have mechanisms for mad barbarian berserkers who wildly (though usually voluntarily) charge into combat to slay without concern for their own safety, but usually this amounts to a huge pile of unrealistic benefits, offset only by the so-called disadvantage of potentially killing your own party too. But where's the mechanism for normal, usually-sane people who just lose their cool and start swinging when they shouldn't? Most of us don't get super powers when we're angry, and if we do more damage, it's probably only because we're bothering to hit more often before giving up. Non-physical violence, like vigorous verbal abuse, is another possibility, especially if physical contact is impossible.

It may also be relevant that the one and only properly scary nightmare I can remember from the last 3 or 4 years (the post-teaching years) was about Frost getting injured by a car. That was kind of weird, because he ended up with tomatoey noodles for legs after the car crushed them, but I was sufficiently distressed by this that I woke up in a sudden panic. I hardly ever remember dreams, and I hadn't been truly frightened by a nightmare since childhood, when I had that one. Clearly, the safety of my pets is something that already weighed heavily on me, and Frost in particular has already spent more than his fair share of time at the vet, getting stitches for bites from feral cats and having poison mushrooms pumped from his stomach. He's less than 3 years old and has already had 11 or 12 general anaesthetics. He is incredibly unlucky, especially compared with his brother, Byron, who's dodged all of this shit.

Cthulhu's Sanity rules are kind of realistic here, because exposure to horrible things will only ever make you less tolerant of them, less mentally tough, though repeated exposure to exactly the same thing will decrease the effect of that specific thing (which may be a house rule of ours; I never read that part of the rule book). But I think it makes sense that repeated exposure to vaguely similar things (monsters in general, cat/car accidents in general) should tend to heighten your fear of them, because the reality of their existence keeps getting confirmed. And when they do hit you in reality again, the psychological damage should be harder to shrug off.

So there's a few thoughts for you. It's far from a complete list of possible reactions, because it's not drawn from a complete list of distressing horrors. But it's something to consider during horror games, and I already feel a lot better for having gotten this all off my chest.