Friday, September 28, 2012

Arthur Machen's Green Book (Part 1)

And here we’re – the 300th post! I never thought I would reach 100 posts, let alone 300. On my 100th post (actually 101st), I created a small hack for “True” Vancian Magic use in Pathfinder. I let the 200th post go by without anything special. Let’s change that. What I’m going to do here is actually to start a series of posts around one of my favorite horror/fantasy short stories – Arthur Machen’s The White People.

Machen was an inspiration for many other writers, mainly H.P. Lovecraft. However, The White People in my opinion goes beyond a mere short tale. I see it more as a trove of treasures for any Gamemaster to pick. Many classic elements of horror/fantasy came out of it, and the curious thing is that Machen himself never explains most of the original weird stuff he mentions. In fact, I believe that the mystery, the hint that there’s a lot more “out there” is the true allure (and terror) of The White People’s small but fascinating legendarium. It has to do with that old “dragon rule”.

The White People tells about the opinions and ideas of the reclusive scholar Ambrose about the nature of good and evil, and the mysterious findings within a tome/diary called the Green Book (Sanity 2d6/1). I’ll try to address the mysterious subjects brought up by Machen, dedicating a post to each. I’ll purposely ignore the elements created by later authors (like Lovecraft) and RPG writers (like Pathfinder), instead suggesting new takes on the Machen’s material. Let’s see if it works.

For the first post on this (hopefully weekly series): On Good and Evil.

 The White People has a terrific beginning:

"SORCERY and sanctity," said Ambrose, "these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life."

He then goes explaining his worldview about good and evil – True Good and True Evil – not as moral, social or philosophical stands, but as absolute and polar forces. Evil is not merely the absence of Good or of that which was purged from Good (the classic “Fall” or “Original Sin” an element common to many religions and mythologies), but an opposite, equality powerful and – the catch – “pure” or “perfect” state of existence.

 "Yes," he went on, "magic is justified of her children. There are many, I think, who eat dry crusts and drink water, with a joy infinitely sharper than anything within the experience of the 'practical' epicure."

"You are speaking of the saints?"

"Yes, and of the sinners, too. I think you are falling into the very general error of confining the spiritual world to the supremely good; but the supremely wicked, necessarily, have their portion in it. The merely carnal, sensual man can no more be a great sinner than he can be a great saint. Most of us are just indifferent, mixed-up creatures; we muddle through the world without realizing the meaning and the inner sense of things, and, consequently, our wickedness and our goodness are alike second-rate, unimportant."

I don’t know about you, but this entire idea sounds to me like what the Good and Evil Alignments of D&D strived to be and always fell short of explaining it. In D&D/Pathfinder, Good and Evil are real, absolute poles of existence; they’re planar locations that exist outside of men’s souls.

Why it’s easy for us to align Law with civilization and order, and Chaos with dissolution and anarchy, trying to tag Good or Evil to any outside, absolute stand has always been hard for many Gamemasters. Most just using Good as “what comic book do-gooders would do” and Evil with “selfish murderer assholes would do”. In the end, it sounds absurd and leads to cartoonish NPCs (and PCs). It isn’t hard to see why many prefer to use the original Law x Order or to ignore Alignments entirely. However, Machen gives a good suggestion for a particularly scary and inhuman use of Good and Evil. Going back to The White People:

"And what is sin?" said Cotgrave.

"I think I must reply to your question by another. What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?”

Sin (or Evil) is then equaled with profanation, the unnatural – the corruption of reality itself. It’s not destruction, that’s Chaos (though Chaos isn’t only about dissolution). Note that it’s also not simply the supernatural or the fantastic. A gryphon or a dragon is a supernatural/fantastic creature, but the stones of a temple crying blood and screaming all the blasphemies hidden in the hearts of its worshippers – that’s Evil. It’s the corruption, the perversion of Nature (or of Purpose if you will). Even a dragon can be corrupted. Actually, even Chaos could be corrupted. That’s True Sin.

“(…) Then the essence of sin really is----"

"In the taking of heaven by storm, it seems to me," said Ambrose. "It appears to me that it is simply an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner. You can understand why it is so rare. There are few, indeed, who wish to penetrate into other spheres, higher or lower, in ways allowed or forbidden. Men, in the mass, are amply content with life as they find it. Therefore there are few saints, and sinners (in the proper sense) are fewer still, and men of genius, who partake sometimes of each character, are rare also. Yes; on the whole, it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a great saint."

By this logic, Saint Constantine, who killed thousands, was Good, while Dr. Frankenstein, a humanist, was Evil – if we classify both characters in Alignment terms. Good and Evil here are left with less subjectivisms, becoming good sources of conflict and – consequently – great sources of allegiance for campaigns and fantasy settings. The best part, for me at least, is that they can now be intermixed with Law and Chaos, generating an extra layer of drama to the game. For example, it’s easy to see why Elves can be Chaotic but Good.

Actually, if the Gamemaster wants to really radicalize, this new definition of Good and Evil can be a real good excuse (no pun intended) for explaining why 99% of the world is actually Neutral. As told by Ambrose, it’s hard to be truly Good or Evil.

“(…) Holiness requires as great, or almost as great, an effort; but holiness works on lines that were natural once; it is an effort to recover the ecstasy that was before the Fall. But sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain alone to angels and in making this effort man becomes a demon. I told you that the mere murderer is not therefore a sinner; that is true, but the sinner is sometimes a murderer. Gilles de Raiz is an instance. So you see that while the good and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is--to man the social, civilized being--evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall."

It’s an amazing concept, one that’s not new to roleplaying games (check the dark, but excellent, Kult LINK). Lamentations of the Flame Princess comes pretty close to this idea with its “natural” divine magic and “unnatural” arcane magic. In fact, LotFP show to us that, while engaging, this is however a tenuous concept (if analyzed closely). It’s tempting to just mix Evil with Chaos and Good with Law all over again, but I still believe that The White People offers to best take for a Good and Evil definition on D&D/Pathfinder.

Bonus Material:

Actually, there’s a second “funnel” that you can use to better define Good and Evil along the lines discussed above: scale. Try to see Good and Evil more as states of existence than world-consuming forces. Law and Chaos are about the structure of the Multiverse, while Good and Evil are about its state of being.

One can reach enlightenment in D&D/Pathfinder through pure Good or absolute Evil. This also means that Good and Evil are, ironically, necessarily personal (the Devil is in the details). Evil does not aim to “rule” entire worlds and planes. It is a lot more interested in perfectly corrupting YOU. Between having your soul or devastating an entire nation, True Evil will always choose the former. The same holds true for True Good (after all, the end doesn’t justify the means). This idea might help you when defining how your paragons of Good and Evil act. It’s also a good parameter to act really alien and weird with your outsiders (“But why does that Solar is letting all the villagers day just because of this damn child?!”).

Next Green Book topic: Aklo Letters!