In the dust of this planet / Eugene Thacker

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This book has a gained a small measure of notoriety because its cover appeared in a few places in pop culture and because professional moron Glenn Beck singled it out as a destructive force in American culture. However I can’t imagine many people reading this — it is essentially a short work of philosophy that looks at how twentieth and twentieth-first century horror (in fiction, films, and music) might help us comprehend the unthinkable world we now face: the world that might be: the world after human extinction. (I am reminded of the ancient skeptical quip that just as we do not fear the nonexistence we enjoyed before we were conceived or born, we should not fear the nonexistence that follows our death, but Thacker would probably want to say: The individual’s nonexistence is one thing, the nonexistence of humanity, perhaps even of rationality, is another.)

Thacker’s basic idea is subtle and difficult to paraphrase. If I am understanding him (and as someone who studied philosophy pretty extensively, and in particular a lot of nihilism, as well as someone interested in or familiar with most of the writers he uses to illustrate or explore his ideas, I may be among the relative small minority of people who actually comprise his audience) — if I understand this book, the first premise is that we need to distinguish among three “worlds”: the world-for-us, the world-in-itself, and the world-without-us. (For my money this distinction alone was worth the price of reading this short but difficult book.)

Briefly, the world-for-us is the world understood instrumentally*, the world as something for our use as humans; the world in relation to humans. This concept of the world is most fiercely promoted in myth and religion, but it is also how we usually think of the world in our everyday interactions with it. Thacker uses the generic term “World” for this world.

The world-in-itself on the other hand is the world as it exists independently of human concerns and interests, the subject of scientific inquiry perhaps but potentially hostile. Paradoxically our scientific investigations generally convert the world-in-itself to the world-for-us because we normally undertake these investigations to solve some problem or gain some understanding of human problems, however it was the rational, scientific mindset that reveals the possibility of the word-in-itself. But philosophically, at least, we acknowledge that the world-in-itself is not just some human construct or a world made for- or by- us. The Kantian noumena (“thing-in-itself”) is obviously being invoked here, but Thacker is not strictly being Kantian here. For one thing he doesn’t necessarily agree with Kant that we know nothing about the world-in-itself; we in fact have a concept of the world apart from human concerns. Thacker calls the world-in-itself “the Earth”.

Lastly the world-without-us is the world that is, by definition, hidden from us and beyond our reckoning, and its reality is most plain when we think of the world after human extinction. This concept is of fairly recent vintage because it is only in fairly recent times that we’ve had any idea of a world with no humans. In the mythological/religious past, we could only think of the end humans as the end of the world itself. But climate change, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the threat of extinction-level pandemics, the notion of civilization-ending disasters generally: these possibilities evoke the world-without-us. Thacker calls the world-without-us “the Planet,” because when we imagine the world without us we are considering our world “objectively,” as one planet among many, and not merely in-addition to humanity but apart from and independent of humanity. The Planet is not even hostile to us; it is indifferent to us. This indifference is terrifying to us, because it negates the humanocentric world. I should hasten to add that the alienating thing about the world-without-us does not depend entirely on human extinction. The very idea of the multitude of worlds, the near-infinity of time and space, and the possibility of alien intelligences also invoke the world-without-us.

Thacker’s thesis is that modern horror (in film, fiction, and even music) provides a non-philosophical approach to grappling with the Planet, that is to say: the world-without-us. The bulk of the book tries to illustrate this thesis, drawing on everything from black metal music and Hammer films to H.P. Lovecraft and Georges Bataille. Theological and occult writings on magic and demonology are also analyzed as precursors to modern horror. Along the way Thacker uses a variety of philosophers, especially Schopenhauer and Aristotle (!) to explain how the world-without-us can be understood philosophically. Perhaps obviously, Lovecraft’s notion of “cosmic horror” very aptly describes the human response to the idea of the world-without-us. Towards the end of the book he suggests a mystical approach to comprehending the world-without-us, using certain “darkness” mystics (Bohme, John of the Cross) to analyze a strange, supposedly anonymous poem that is probably the work of the author himself.

I should finally comment on the utterly strange but effective structure of his book: we are treated to a series of medieval scholastic forms (quaestio, lectio, disputatio) each exploring specific questions or topics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thacker does not settle on a clear conclusion, but there are at least two more books in his “Horror of philosophy” series.

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*Thacker doesn’t specifically use Heidegger’s concept of “instrumental rationality” here, but Heidegger certainly applies: The world-for-us is the world for Dasein.

Published in: on July 22, 2015 at 8:57 am  Comments (1)  
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I am so dead

You can tell cause there’s my name on a tombstone, in the back there:

Dylan Hartwell, the “Digital orc“, has just published another creepy module — just in time for Halloween.  I got a preview of this, being one of the proofreaders/commenters, and it’s a nice adventure with a good mix of role playing, tricks, puzzles, and funky new monsters.  Also the best use of the folkloric sin-eater in a module yet.

It looks like it would be pretty fun to run, and deftly mixes horror and dungeon crawling in a way that certain a Finnish company used to….  The action centers on a graveyard, and the party must defeat a series of baddies in a variety of environments.  It is a fairly traditional dungeon crawl style of adventure: enter location, defeat monsters, exit, repeat.  But it is also creepy as hell in parts, and many tropes of horror are there, sometimes presented in a traditional manner, more often with a twist.  Although the module was very concise when I previewed it, there was clearly enough material for several sessions of play, and you should have no problem dropping the troubled town which houses the graveyard into your campaign.  I’m not even sure you have to follow the “plot” of the adventure and you might find the individual adventure sites useful little distractions when you’re DMing on the fly.  (I’d keep them all linked, though, as they really fit together nicely in terms of offering a range of challenges and requiring a variety of tactics, so that the whole looks even better than the parts.)

Full disclosure, I will be getting a free copy of the module for my editing help, but have no further “interest” in this product.*

For less than the price of whatever drinks or snacks you’d normally get for game night, you could pick up the pdf here now (or wait a few days and get it in print).  You won’t be disappointed.

 

*In the sense that I am not a co-author nor receiving royalties & gain no benefit from its sales … but I do take an interest in seeing this succeed because it a cool adventure and Dylan is a cool dude who deserves success.

Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 3:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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Out where the buses don’t run…playtestish

This week our regularly scheduled DM was feeling under the weather so we played something else.  I volunteered to run Out where the buses don’t run, a module released earlier by the Digital Orc

I didn’t have time to re-familiarize myself with the module, although I’d looked it over last month and had the jist of it down OK… it did however turn out that I’d never really studied the map, and did not recall some important details…

Anyway I decided to try out the super-simple “Optional Resolution System” as the core mechanic of the game.  PCs were handed a d6 and a note card.  The note card was for their character’s name, background if any, and inventory.  The d6 was rolled first for initial Luck Points and then was the die they used to try to do stuff.  Simple as pie. 

The players (John, Matt, Chad, and Aaron the new guy) were all told, they need to come up with a character — someone from roughly the present day, who might be out at an isolated, old mansion late one afternoon.

John made an amateur TV producer, scouting a supposedly haunted house for his ‘paranormal reality TV show’.  His character was more interested in recording the odd events than participating…he even stood by filming while a ghoul attacked.

 Chad made a gas company employee, there to investigate a gas leak at a house where the gas should have been turned off some time ago.  His character had a pack of cigarettes, but no lighter, which was a running joke, as there are no open flames in the house; at least, no normal fires…  He also proved to be the ‘moral compass’ of the party.

Matt made a mute young man, who had been hitchhiking, and was looking for a lift or directions.  He would turn out to be a fairly nice guy, but kind of stabby. (“I stab her in the head, just to be sure…”)

Aaron’s character was a college student, pranked by his friends who told him a party was going to be at the house.  A typical fraternity/party boy type, he only put down his beer to arm himself later on with a dead cat.  As play progressed we realized he was also the ‘doomed black guy character’ in this horror scenario — always going first and drawing monster attacks. 

I was really tickled that everyone willingly made characters with various weaknesses and quirks.  I suggested a few ideas but they mostly came up with these characters, which play on various horror tropes, on their own while I was busy looking over the maps.

I know most readers don’t care for play-by-play accounts of sessions, and I don’t want to spoil the plot for people who might play this module some time, so I just note some highlights and problems.

I should get the problems out of the way first, and mention that we had a great time playing this.  My wife heard wild laughter coming from the basement all night, and dryly observed “You guys were really having a ball, huh?”  In fact the time flew by, for me at least, so I think we were all having fun.  But the module could be better.

First, this Dylan guy should fire his editor.  There were errors in several places of the texts (the Luck Points optional rules give a 1. and 3. but no 2.!); the key (room 20 mis-cites a critical verse from a book); and the random tables (one typo and a few more errors citing the verse in question).  What a mess.

Third, the module’s resolution depends on the PCs figuring out that they need to do something.  The get a load of clues as to *what* the thing they need to use is, and *where* to use it, but the *how* is up to them to figure out.  They might figure this out on their own, but there are a few things in the module that might actively dissuade them from the ‘correct’ solution — notably a cemetery scene that will punish them for doing the thing they’ll need to do, and the larger issue that some of their clues about what they need to do are coming from very suspect/hostile sources.  Nothing that makes the thing unplayable, but definitely a hinderance.  As GM in other circumstances I would have probably just dropped some hints about the *how*, but they seemed on the verge of figuring out, and I wanted to see how it played out as written.

So some of the highlights of the game, for me anyway, were:

  • Aaron’s character killing a cat, and then using it as a weapon until the party slew a knife-weilding witch.  He threw the cat at the witch to distract her, and before that he used it as a ‘cat mace’ to bludgeon a ghoul.  (I made the cat hit on a 4+ but only damage on a 6)
  • The party realized, after killing a witch that jumped out at them, that they’d just killed someone, on camera, and were probably pretty screwed if the authorities ever showed up.
  • The random effects from the telephones and other features in the house kept the party on edge, especially when the phones began ringing. 
  • The module references a dozen or more classic and/or cheesy horror movies, and players noticed a lot of them in play, leading to quick discussions of various movies, Bruce Campbell, etc.  The comedy/horror mood was not really hurt by these ‘distractions’ and in fact probably helped contribute to the hilarity of the game.
  • My inept accents/voices for the various deceased relatives of PCs provided some comedy relief too. 😦
  • The party bravely sent a comatose, helpless pregnant woman through a whirling vortex to who-knows-where… as a humane alternative to Aaron smashing her head with a shovel or Stabby Matt stabbing her to death, in order to prevent the birth of her possibly demon-spawned baby.  Heroes indeed!

I think my one fear, going into this, was that in my mind horror really works when you care about what happens to the characters, and we played this pretty silly.  But I think the investment the players had, just coming up with a character, was enough to make the menace/fear real in places, even if we mostly played it for laughs.  I would strongly recommend trying this out.  I’ve already given Dylan some feedback and he’s planning a revision, so you might wait until the next the revised version if you like ‘complete and ready-to-play’ modules.  By then it may be available for sale.  But if you are willing to adjust a few things on the fly, this is a really fun one-shot game, and would be very easy to adapt to any published horror game, whether or not you want to use his ‘optional resolution system’.

Published in: on December 1, 2011 at 10:16 am  Comments (4)  
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Out where the buses don’t run

Dylan Hartwell (“The digital orc”) has just released a modern horror module (link) that you should look at (unless you’re in my regular gaming group because I’d like to run this some time when we are short on players as a one-shot).

It includes maps and illustrations, and a bunch of cool tables you could use in any modern horror game.  But the thing that I especially love about it is that it includes his “optional system for ruling”  — an ultralite set of rules that anyone should be able to use, gamer or not.

Personally I think horror games ought to be mostly one-shot affairs.  The characters should be mostly ‘normal’ people and death should be easy.  The system presented in the module would work perfectly for that. You character is basically a single die (d6), and you roll it to accomplish tasks as needed, and if you are injured you are booted down to a d4, and if hurt again, adios amigo.  You could expand on this a little, maybe have a few dice for each PC, perhaps a physical, knowledge/mental, and perception (or insight/spirituality/psychic) die, and even throw in a d8 for the character’s strong suit.  Physical damage might reduce the physical die; insanity-inducing horrors might reduce the mental die…you can see where this is going, yes?

Anyway both because it is neat little scenario (which really is a sandbox locale…no railroading!) and because it has a super easy system you could use to draw anyone into a gaming session, I heartily recommend it.

Dylan also let me offer some suggestions, so I have an ‘editing’ credit on it.

Published in: on October 16, 2011 at 9:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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