When I started writing this post, is was quite short. It highlighted the mechanics of my thought process then segued into the mechanics of monster creation. After discussing it with Dave, however, I realized there were really two aspects of creation I wanted to talk about. One was the crunchier aspect of monster design (which you can read about in Part 2 soon), but the first was more personal than I’d originally given credence.
Artwork by Liz Green
A few months ago, DASTOW Games published Monster Mausoleum, our first non-adventure and our first release for 5th edition D&D. Alongside the undead monster classics like the pennangalan and the huecuva, this book also featured our new monster, the gaslight.
The gaslight began with me wanting to create a physical manifestation of gaslighting, the phenomenon of making someone think that their valid ideas or concerns are crazy or unfounded. Gaslighting is an all-too-common way of controlling someone else, and I know many people—myself included—who have experienced it. At first, I just thought the concept would make for a really interesting breed of monster (and I think it’s turned out to be so), but as I thought about it more, I considered some of the more interesting aspects.
Let’s take a step back for a moment to look at the power of games. Some, certainly, offer nothing more than entertainment. They’re fluff if they’re anything, and they’re intended to be that way. That’s totally fine, and there’s nothing wrong with playing a game for that very reason. Other games, however, aim to dig at your subconscious, whether it be with conflicting moral choices or very significant parallels to certain horrors of reality. Some games aim to make you think about the world or the people in it differently.
In the same way that different games aim to fulfill different roles, so too do people come at different games for different reasons. Sometimes I’m looking for a game to make me feel something, and sometimes I just want to hit pixelated monsters with pixelated sticks or beat some internet rando at a card game. I think Gone Home is one of the most beautifully honest games I’ve ever played, but I also just got my fourth golden hero in Hearthstone (#humblebrag). Often, we come to games to feel powerful, whether it’s as a gun-toting soldier or a fiery mage. Some studies have even shown that a short stint of playing a powerful character can make a person feel more confident and decisive for over a day. Games are actually good for us.
I’ve referenced video games here, but this is arguably even more true with roleplaying games. Video games have the limits of financing and time and hardware, but in a roleplaying game, the only limit on what you can do is your imagination and the GM’s approval. Facing things in real life is often difficult. Facing things in a fantasy world where you wear magical armor while shooting arrows or swinging swords or blasting out a few fireballs is way easier by comparison. When you imagine yourself as a powerful character, a lot of things become easier to face.
So let’s bring this back around to the physical manifestation of gaslighting. One of the real hells of being on the receiving end is that you can never be sure it’s happening. By the very nature of gaslighting, it casts doubt on your interpretation of the situation, and breaking free can be extremely difficult. But now let’s say you think you’re struggling with this very issue. If pretending to be a powerful character for an hour can make you feel powerful in real life for a day, maybe facing a gaslight head-on can do something similar. Maybe it can wipe away some of the cobwebs and give someone a chance to really figure out the truth of their situation. And then maybe it can’t. But if the cost of finding out is creating what Dave and I think turned out to be a pretty cool monster anyway, then there’s no reason not to try.
Games are a powerful medium. Many still see them as infantile, and that’s a damn shame because I have had games deliver more deliberate, honest, heart-wrenching stories than half of whatever’s on TV. Many are truly immersive art, and well-done art can change you. Games can make us stronger in our day-to-day lives. I want to add to that. I want to be part of that—part of using games as a way to not just entertain, but make people stronger. I want to be part of what pushes the industry forward and gives it more freedom to examine that side of itself.
That’s one of the reasons the gaslight exists. That, and because you simply can’t have enough creepy floating skulls in D&D.
(The second part of this two-part article, On Creating the Gaslight, Part 2: Working out the Mechanics, is now live.)