The other day I was thinking back about the Skinned Moon Daughter B/X class that my friend Benjamin wrote for the Undercroft #9. I wanted to write a blog post about using the articles in the Undercroft #9 as the building blocks of a campaign but as I was rereading the zine I was taken aback by how nihilistic some articles were. I checked on the back cover and I noticed the “Compatible with Lamentations of the Flame Princess” logo. This made me think about the influence of the LotFP horror genre in the OSR and how it intermingled nihilism, gross out and horror together. By nihilism I mainly mean the dead trap nega-dungeon or settings and scenarios where everything is amoral, horrible and hopeless.
I thought about underground comics and the art of Julie Doucet, one of my favorite comic book artist who gleefully represented gross things in her comics but in a often playful way. Yes there was some self depreciation and angst in some of her strips but her art also feel positive and liberating.
There is a inherent power in daring to represent and to explore gross things, underground comics certainly understood this. There is also waves of women artists who try to appropriate the right for women to be as gross as they wish. They dive in the trashy and gross out but still, there is often sometime positive to retain from their work, not just emptiness.
While working at the library I also often see children books about farting and other gross things, these books tell kids that it is ok to be gross and that gross things are not scary. Daring to be gross can be sometimes cathartic, liberating and even empowering.
Gross things don’t have to be about abuses and cruelties or nihilism, I think that it is important to also be able to explore the gross in a positive way. I wish there was out there, creators or publishers that balance the nihilist-gross popularized by LotFP with material that explore a more playful and positive gross. I am not saying that nihilistic-gross should never be explored but that balancing it is important. I don’t want to see the nihilistic-gross balanced only by materials that move away from the gross to explore different things, I also want to see products that balance it by embracing the gross without linking it with forms of abuses and cruelty.
A good starting point could be to explore your own darkness. The video that Contrapoints made on this question is good food for thoughts. Try to explore your own gross or darkness first.
Some possible paths to explore:
- Feature the gross as something liberating. Something that break stiff social norms or that is good to vent out or to unleash in a cathartic way.
- Gross, like chaos don’t mean evil. If we can have chaotic-good things, we can have gross-good things too. Chaos is also often about change, transformation and revolutions, same for the gross.
- Present the gross as allies, tools or resources instead of presenting it as threats.
- Play characters imbued by the gross. Make the gross personal and familiar instead of about otherness and external fears.
- If you make the gross external and scary make it so that you can communicate with it in some way. Present the scary gross as something that you can make peace with instead of something that you have to destroy.
- If you present the gross as something to be fought, contrast and balance it by making the characters or their allies gross too. Motley of cheerful-gross friends vs the evil-dangerous-horror-gross.
- Don’t link the gross with abuses, keep it consensual, let the players trigger it or dare them to dip their toes in it. Same for the NPCs, don’t force the gross on them, make them embrace it through their emotions or actions.
- Empower the gross, don’t always link it with misery and suffering, make it sometimes amazing or wonderful in it own grotesque way.
- Humanize the gross, don't always make it comical or ridiculous. Diversify it expressions or it reactions.
- Develop safety tools about gleefully grossing each other out, tools that let us safely dare each other. Tools that let us safely push our comfort zone to explore gross things. Maybe something inspired from the emotional safety flower. Read about the tools that already exist, hack them if needed. Thinking about content warnings could also be a good thing. I feel like there is exploration to be done here, especially for the OSR who often shy away from these tools.
The gross as player characters and as the familiar and the mundane:
Gross as someone that the characters can gain as a ally:
There is a lot to explore.