Is Brett Kavanaugh guilty of sexual assault?
I don’t know.
I just watched an entire day of Senate Testimony on that very topic and I still don’t know one way or the other.
Should Brett Kavanaugh be on the U.S. Supreme Court?
If ever I had any doubts as to that judgement, today’s testimony was certainly enough to alleviate them. Of course, the man is a real threat to liberal politics, and I knew that before today. With a Republican President (even a complete lunatic of a Republican President), I would expect no less. But being opposed to someone’s politics, and thinking them unqualified for office aren’t exactly the same thing. After watching him today, however, I am convinced this man has neither the character nor the professionalism that one ought to expect of a Supreme Court Justice, regardless of his political persuasion.
Well, let me tell ya!
First, let me say that there are a couple variants of political hard-ball to which I do not really object, at least not on principle. Frankly, I think the Democrats would be well within their rights to reject any and all nominees the Trump administration puts forward at this point. The Republican Party made it damned clear that they weren’t going to work with Democrats when Barack Obama was in power, and I see no reason why the Democrats should be any more accommodating now that the Republicans dominate every branch of government. With a Supreme Court already tilted far to the right, this next appointment could well close quite a few doors for liberals and even moderates well into the foreseeable future. So, if Democrats want to fight about it, I’m on board to support them. Their prospects for victory are another question. What tactics are permissible, or even practical? That too is another question.
So, if the Democrats had wanted to just say ‘no’ and stick with that without even providing an argument on the merits of this particular nominee, that would be fine by me. The problem is of course, that they don’t presently have the numbers to win such a battle. The Republicans will beat them in a vote, and there is only so much you can do with procedural gambits. Even the filibuster will only accomplish just so much these days.
So, what’s to stop the Republicans from just ramming the whole nomination through? Apparently nothing. And why not? I may not like it. Other liberals may not like it. By I’m not sure they owe us any real seat at the table. As I mentioned, I think it’s Republicans that broke the goodwill necessary to negotiate these things in good faith, but the fact is that no such good faith exists at this time. Republicans and Democrats are no longer simply parties likely to disagree; they are enemies Hell-bent on each others’ destruction. There is no use crying about it or pretending otherwise. The bottom line is neither side here can be expected to make any effort to work with the other. Democrats were bound to say ‘Hell no’ going into this, and Republicans were bound to say “go fuck yourselves!” Anyone who was surprised by the vicious nature of this process has not been paying attention.
Our country is broken, folks. That’s a fact.
So how did things stand going into this? Right wingers assure us that Kavanaugh is an upstanding jurist with impeccable credentials. Having spent the last decade as a circuit court Judge, Kavanaugh is certainly qualified to handle important questions of constitutional law. Critics point to history of political extremism, much of it stemming from his work on the Starr investigation and later in the Bush administration. Kavanaugh may be an accomplished Judge, but he is also a judge with a history of highly partisan brinksmanship behind him.
One of the more serious (and odd) questions about Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve as a judge stems from his purchase of baseball tickets which led him to amass anywhere from $60,000-$200,000 in debt, which was paid off quite suddenly and without any clear explanation as to how. (It’s not likely the money could have come from his own salary.) That’s hardly enough evidence to convict the man of a crime, but it’s certainly cause for concern about the ability of a judge to do his job without undue influence by outside parties.
Perhaps the most serious questions about Kavanaugh’s professional conduct stem from the 2004 and 2006 confirmation hearings in which critics allege Kavanaugh misled the Senate on his role in the hiring process for several parties, and in the adoption of warrantless wiretapping procedures after 9-11. In the confirmation hearings of the time, Kavanaugh adopted the practice is answering questions about his involvement in these politically touchy matters with hedging statements about whether or not he ‘handled’ a case or took a lead role, etc. He may or may not have maintained this word-game consistently throughout the process, but it certainly had the effect of misleading the Senate into the impression the he played little or no role in decisions over which subsequent revelations have shown clear involvement on his part. Whether or not this amounts to perjury, depends on who you ask. However you might answer that question, it certainly reveals a pattern of deceitful conduct in the confirmation process, and that alone could be a deal breaker for some folks thinking about his present nomination.
It should be.
And then there are the allegations of sexual misconduct.
Pardon me, predatory sexual misconduct.
It’s important to remember that Kavanaugh is not merely accused of doing something sexually inappropriate; he is accused to doing so against the will of the women involved. Whether or not there is any evidence to support these accusations, it is important to recognize the gravity of the accusations themselves. Kavanaugh is accused to consciously and willfully hurting the women in question, not merely getting fresh, but of taking steps to thwart their efforts to fend him off. That’s not just inappropriate; its predatory.
For purposes of brevity (lost hope that that is) I shall stick with the one accusation at issue in today’s hearings. This accusation comes from Christine Blasey Ford, who maintains that Kavanaugh and a friend, Mark Judge, pulled her into a room during a party back in high school, closed and locked the door, and sexually assaulted her. (More detail is just a google away.)
Many find Ford’s accusation in itself troublesome, partly because of the length of time between the event in question and the moment at which she went public, and partly because Senator Diane Feinstein had been aware of it for sometime before presenting it to the committee reviewing Kavanaugh’s nomination. Why did Feinstein wait so long? Many feel it was because this is an obvious ploy to delay the Senate’s confirmation vote. She maintains that Ford had asked her to keep the accusation confidential until the late date. So, which is it? Both is certainly an option. As to the length of time it took Ford to come forward, this does put a Hell of a strain on the effort to establish the facts of the case. Nevethertheless efforts to cast this delay as obvious proof that Ford is lying fall flat. Far from unusual, such delays are common among subject to sexual abuse. They often face serious backlash and stigma, and the accused often go unpunished. Not surprisingly, such victims often try to live with it themselves. This sort of thing may throw a wrench in the conceits of critical thinker hoping to sort the whole matter out with an honest debate, but it remains the task of committees like this to do their best.
It is worth bearing in mind that this is not a criminal trial. Kavanaugh will not go to prison on account of today’s events, but he might lose a job over it (maybe two). The question here is not whether or not he has been proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Quite the contrary; it is whether or not the Senate can say with confidence that he belongs on the highest court in the land.
Watching today’s hearing, I saw little in the way of objective evidence telling us whether or not Kavanaugh did the things Ford said he did. There are several angles that could be taken to find out more, one of them of course being the possibility of asking the FBI to investigate the charges. Other options may exist, to be sure, but that is one with a degree of promise, not because the FBI will make any decisions on the matter, but because they can help to sort out many of the details at issue in the case. In any event, that would take some time. How much time, nobody can say, but it’s a fair bet they wouldn’t have a decision ready by tomorrow, which is when the Senate plans to vote on the matter. In the interim, there just isn’t much factual information to go on, certainly none that points conclusively one way or another.
This is certainly a problem. It may even be a problem for which Ford and/or Feinstein bear some responsibility. Were this a criminal trial, it would probably be enough of a problem to get the whole case tossed out, but this is not a trial, it is a political decision, and that decision is about whether or not Kavanaugh is worthy of a seat on the court.
Luckily, today’s proceedings did give us plenty of information to help answer that question. Simply put, Kavanaugh’s approach to the hearing was beyond reprehensible. No, I am not talking about his anger. It might be fair to suggest a nominee for such a high position ought to be more composed than he was, but I think the nature of the accusations make an emotional response understandable. There may even have been an element of an conscious choice to it, one perhaps urged by the idiots currently occupying the White House. Still, I think it best to give Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt as to his emotions. No. What bothers me isn’t his combativeness it’s the pattern of deceit he revealed in his answers to the Democratic Senators.
First, there is the whole matter of whether or not Kavanaugh would support asking the FBI to investigate the case. Asked this question repeatedly, Kavanaugh dodged it every time. He blamed the Democrats for delaying the investigation themselves. He lectured people on the limits of such an investigation as if literally every person in the room and a good number of us watching on television didn’t already know those limitations. He tried all manner of ways to explain why such a request might not be necessary. What he didn’t do, couldn’t bring himself to do, was simply answer the question. Hell, I could have done it for him; “No sir. I want this over. The vote is scheduled for tomorrow, and I want this concluded at that time. Full stop.” …I really think that was the answer (unless the real answer had something to do with fears of what the FBI could find). However he might have explained his response, Kavanaugh’s failure to answer a simple yes or no question is a index of insincerity.
Kavanaugh’s refusal to support inclusion of Mark Judge directly in the hearings was similarly evasive. Kavanaugh kept telling us that Judge had already spoken on the matter, but a simple question from Leahy very quickly demonstrated the value of questioning Judge directly in a hearing. Neither Kavanaugh, nor the Republican Senators ever acknowledged this fact, and their excuses grew increasingly disingenuous over the course of the hearing.
Kavanaugh was also asked to explain several comments in his High School, yearbook. Here is a copy of the text as produced by Vox.com (the relevant quotes are in red):
Varsity Football 3, 4; J. V. Football 2; Freshman Football 1; Varsity Basketball 3, 4 (Captain); Frosh Basketball (Captain); J. V. Basketball (Captain); Varsity Spring Track 3; Little Hoya 3, 4*** Landon Rocks and Bowling Alley Assault — What a Night; Georgetown vs. Louisville — Who Won That Game Anyway?; Extinguisher; Summer of ‘82 — Total Spins (Rehobeth 10, 9…); Orioles vs. Red Sox — Who Won, Anyway?; Keg City Club (Treasurer) — 100 Kegs or Bust; [redacted] — I Survived the FFFFFFFourth of July; Renate Alumnius; Malibu Fan Club; Ow, Neatness 2, 3; Devil’s Triangle; Down Geezer, Easy, Spike, How ya’ doin’, Errr Ah; Rehobeth Police Fan Club (with Shorty); St. Michael’s…This is a Whack; [redacted] Fan Club; Judge — Have You Boofed Yet?; Beach Week Ralph Club — Biggest Contributor; [redacted] — Tainted Whack; [redacted]; Beach Week 3-107th Street; Those Prep Guys are the Biggest…; GONZAGA YOU’RE LUCKY.
Michael Avenatti suggests that the FFFFFFourth reference is slang for “Find them, French them, Feel them, Finger them, F*ck them, Forget them.”
Others have suggested that the Devil’s Triangle was a reference to sex involving two boys and a girl.
Some have suggested that boofing is either sex in general or anal sex in particular.
According to Kavanaugh, the first was a joke about the way a friend pronounced the F-word, the second is a drinking game like quarters, and the third refers to farting. If Kavanaugh is telling the truth, these comments might be crude, but they are essentially consistent with his own self-presentation as a man who retained his virginity for several years after high school. If he is wrong, then these are lies, as is his earlier effort to present himself as a virgin at the time this was published.
More importantly, Kavanaugh’s response to the phrase “Renate Alumnius” suggests genuine malice. In today’s hearing, he suggested that this was merely a way to show that he and his classmates wanted to include a young lady, Renate Schroeder (now Renate Schroeder Dolphin) from a nearby school in their yearbook. In was not, he stated, a reference to sexual conquest as others have suggested. The problem is that she herself was unaware of these comments made by Kavanaugh and several of his male classmates. If the point was to include her, they forgot the most important part, which was actually talking about it with her. Still more to the point, when she herself learned about this, Renate was angry (even withdrawing her name from the list of 65 women supporting his character in the wake of Ford’s accusations). When Senator Blumenthal asked Kavanaugh about Dolphin’s reaction in today’s hearing, Kavanaugh feigned outrage, suggesting that Blumenthal was inappropriately sexualizing the comment.
That Dolphin herself interpreted the comment in question to be a sexual reference is clear enough from her own comments on the matter, but Kavanaugh pretends the implication has been fabricated by others. And thus he projects his own thinking in the yearbook onto those trying to call him out for it.
If the other denials are lies, Kavanaugh’s response to questions about Renate Dolphin amount to gaslighting.
Then of course, there is Kavanaugh’s repeated claims that all four people who were supposedly present at the party in Ford’s accusation have said it didn’t happen. At some point in the hearing, Kavanaugh was content to suggest that they didn’t remember it, which would be accurate, but by the end of the hearing, he kept telling everyone that the others had said it didn’t happen. ‘That didn’t happen’ and ‘I don’t remember it’ are not the same thing. There is a world of difference between those two claims, and I for one would expect anyone on the United States Supreme Court to know the difference between them. If this was a conscious deceit, then it was one worthy of a slow-witted sophomore; it isn’t a gambit worthy of an accomplished judge.
So there it is!
This is an awful lot of deceit for someone looking to be named a judge for life, let alone a justice on the highest court of the land. In the heat of the arguments, questions about these claims might have seemed a little suspicious, but upon reflection, they become a lot more important. Like Kavanaugh’s comments in his 2004 and 2006 confirmation hearings, his responses demonstrate a consistent effort to mislead the Senate regarding the matters at hand. Some of these deceits simply aren’t even necessary, or at least they wouldn’t have been if Kavanaugh hadn’t committed himself to a certain narrative about his sexual history. Whatever his reasons for producing them, these lies tell us a great deal about Kavanaugh’s character and his approach to legal matters.
Contrast this with Christine Blasey Ford, who conducted herself admirably throughout the hearing. She too had trouble handling her emotions, but she sure as Hell did a better job of it than Kavanaugh. Rachel Mitchel, the prosecutor who questioned Ford in this hearing brought out some inconsistencies in Ford’s overall story (her fear of flying, for example), but none of these proved central to the claims at hand. Significantly, Ford answered the questions in a straight-forward manner, conceded points and even corrected errors herself. We can say of Ford that she doesn’t have a lot of evidence proving that her accusations are true. What we can’t say of Ford is that she lied her way through the hearing. Kavanaugh definitely did. So, if I have nothing else to go on than the credibility of the two people in question, then I know damned well which one to go with. Simply put, Ford proved herself to be a more trustworthy witness.
Would I want to see a man locked up with so little to go on?
Am I comfortable denying someone a seat on the Supreme Court on that basis alone.
At the end of the day, this confirmation hearing still leaves us with an image of a political process so broken it taints everyone who touches it. Today’s hearing was a disaster. Something about America just doesn’t work anymore, and this hearing (like the other disaster unfolding in the White House) is just one symptom of it. But if we Americans really must charge right off a cliff, as we seem to be doing these days, then let us do it without this particular judge!
Kavanaugh does not belong on the Supreme Court. He doesn’t belong on a Circuit Court Either.
One of the more iconic images we get from The Searchers, features John Wayne standing in the doorway of a home, the majestic landscape of Monument valley behind him. It’s a recurrent motif in The Searchers, looking out through a doorway; it makes a great metaphor through which to view the content of a western. Those of us watching in the present look out into the wilderness beyond, almost as if we were viewing the frontier from the shelter of civilization itself. Men like John Wayne move back and forth across that threshold, but we don’t. We view the mythic American frontier from the safety of the hearth while dangerous men, real men, like John Wayne transform the world beyond into the safe environments we now call home. After standing in the doorway a bit in the final scene, Wayne saunters off back out onto that wilderness. He may be an agent of civilization, but he’s never quite at home in it. Wayne belongs out there, in the desert with all kinds of wild men. It’s about as powerful a statement as anyone ever made in the western genre.
This image returns to us in Malaglutit, a remake of The Searchers by Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Angalaaq featuring an all-Inuit cast. This time what passes for an entrance is a hole torn into an igloo by men for the explicit purpose of taking women by force. Just as in the John Wayne/John Ford version of this story, the raiders have carried women off to parts unknown. The effort to reclaim these women will of course provide the substance of the story itself, but that moment when the men in either film return to find carnage in what should be a home is one of the more powerful scenes in the story. In The Searchers, Wayne enters the wrecked home and pauses in a small doorway, clearly distraught by what he sees. In Malaglutit, the porthole isn’t even a doorway it’s a gaping wound. This porthole isn’t about frontier mythology; its symbolism is more direct, far more graphic, and it speaks far more directly to violence that has occurred inside, the violence still occurring somewhere out there.
This film has been on the festival circuit for a couple years now, but it’s still rather hard to come by. I finally got a chance to watch it when we showed Malaglutit at the Motif Film Festival in Fairbanks last month. Zacharias Kunuk may not be that well known south of the arctic circle and outside of indigenous circles, but he probably should be. His movie, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner), is perhaps the most well known of his creations. Now THAT film you can get ahold of. It’s well worth the watch. Angalaaq is best known for playing the lead role in Atanarjuat, though he was also excellent in The Necessities of Life. And it’s one of the reasons I have been looking forward to Malaglutit. The Searchers is easily one of the greatest westerns ever made. To see it remade as an indigenous production raises all manner of interesting prospects. To see it done by people as talented as Kunuk and Angalaaq makes them all that much more interesting.
Oh yeah; Spoiler alert!
It’s difficult to make a sustained comparison between the two films, though that seems to be where I am going with this. Kunuk’s cast is all Inuit. The villains, the heroes, the heroines; all of them are Inuit. So, the many racial themes present in the original Searchers just don’t enter into this version of the story. Along with the absence of race, I think you’d have to say the essential themes of an American western are largely missing here (though at least one critic has referred to it as a Northern). It seems that some of the landscape Kunuk filmed might echo the rock formations of Monument Valley, but if so, the resemblance is slight. Most significantly, the central protagonist here is doesn’t carry the moral complexity of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. At least, we don’t have to wonder if Kuanana (the hero in Malaglutit) will kill his wife and daughter instead of rescuing them. That was a big part of the original Searchers, and it’s not present in this story.
What is present here, what is new to the basic-story-line, is an extraordinarily frank meditation on rape. In the original Searchers, violence between men is all over the screen, but the rape and torture of women takes place off-screen. We are invited to imagine its horrors, but what we see are men shooting at each other in a plot-line shaped by those horrors. In Malaglutit, we see much (though not all) of the sexual violence. From the moment of capture to the actual rape of the women in this film the camera lingers; we are forced to watch this play out slowly on screen. I wouldn’t say that the scenes are all that sexually explicit, but I would say that they are emotionally explicit. What we see isn’t body parts; people struggling with one another. Perhaps the most disturbing scene in the whole film, at least for me, occurs shortly after the initial capture when the kidnappers pause for a break in their travel, their captives still tied to the sleds. Ostensibly a chance to eat and rest, it is also the first time they and their victims are alone together with enough time to contemplate the prospects ahead of them. It is a moment of calm, and yet one thoroughly saturated with violence.
There is something about the stripped down nature of this story line that helps us focus on the violence against the women here. Yes, there men struggling to save these women, but the epic battle between good men and evil men doesn’t eclipse the struggle between the captors and their captives in this story. We are never afforded the luxury of thinking about this as a story about men. The unimagined horrors of The Searchers have been put right there in front of us in Malaglutit. In the original, John Wayne’s character is driven made at the thought that his niece might have gone native so to speak, that she had been sullied by a Comanche and (worse) that she might have grown to accept it. Racial themes play a big part of the horror through which Wayne’s character views the events in question. In Malaglutit, racial differences are non-existent, and the violent process by which a captive might be made to give up hope unfold right there on the screen in front us us.
But do they?
Do they give up hope?
That was the question that occupied my attention throughout this story. Of course I also wanted Kuanana to rescue them, and I wanted the bastards who committed these terrible acts to be punished. But more than anything else, I wanted the women, Ailla and her daughter, to come through themselves. I wanted to see them hold on, not because Kuanana would have wanted them to, but because I saw enough of their story to care about their own struggle, their own part in this story-line.
At the end of the day, this really is its own film
(Kunuk on Malaglutit)
I have papers to grade. So, I guess summer is really over.
I was planning to take it easy this summer, but it didn’t exactly work out that way. A move across town took up a lot more time than Moni and I expected. Our trip to Valdez is still the highlight of the season for me, but I also made it down to Montana on a work-related trip and down again to Fairbanks to help put on the Motif Film Festival. When I wasn’t traveling or taking boxes upstairs, I was busy working on class materials and whatnot. Suffice to say, it was an interesting summer.
One of the most interesting things about this particular summer is just how long the sea ice seemed to remain intact, and how long much of it stuck around shore. It seems like this last winter got started late (snow didn’t start sticking here in Barrow until well into October), so I suppose it’s fitting in some sense that the remnants of that winter would linger a bit. It certainly made for some beautiful views. Few sites compare to the midnight sun shining down on an entire ocean served on the rocks, so to speak.
Yeah, people do swim in this stuff, usually just for a minute or two, just long enough to say they did it.
Other people do this.
(Click to embiggen.)
An ice bow, some sea ice, and an annoying little blue dot.
Sorry, for the poor quality of this video, and in particular for my very shaky hand.
What is witchcraft?
In mainstream RPGs, I think it usually takes the form of a malevolent spell caster standing somewhere behind a few minions blasting away at the PCs. To give her attacks a the flavor of witchcraft, the Game Master might choose a few spells thought fitting for a witch. Polymorph (or some other form of malevolent transformation) is a common choice. (I once put some player characters up against a mean old witch who had been transforming live gnomes into yard sculptures.) In any event, I think players usually experience witchcraft in the form of a conventional battle with a boss, one whose attacks are well known to them.
The problem of course is that this isn’t really the nature of witchcraft as we find it in the real world. I know. Witchcraft ain’t real, but the fear of it sure as Hell is. Having lived and worked in a community where fear of witches is a common concern, I’ve had the subject in the back of my mind ever since. I think about it most when gaming, because the experience of world full of malevolent magic is nothing like the treatment commonly given the subject in role-playing games.
Setting aside for the moment the many benign variations of paganism, the form that witchcraft takes in human history isn’t a toe-to-toe with a green-faced woman zapping away at people with her wand. No, witchcraft isn’t that ugly old lady over there about to hit you with 3d6 worth of fire damage. Her attacks just aren’t that obvious.
Witchcraft is wondering why your crops failed this year. It is the deep suspicion that there is a reason your son fell down the stairs and twisted his ankle last week. Why did the cow stop producing milk anyway? And is that a sore throat you woke up with this morning? Wonder how that happened! Witchcraft is the deep dark suspicion that someone out there, perhaps someone you know and love, is responsible for these seemingly random accidents. It’s the near certainty that someone you know, someone you probably think of as a friend, may actually wish you harm. Witchcraft is the fear that those very people might have the power to act on that wish and actually bring you to harm. It’s the fear that the pEetty disasters of every day life could just be happening because someone you know is wielding just such powers against you.
Of course, this is only a problem if you choose to see it that way, but the challenge as I see it that witchcraft poses for conventional gaming is how to cloak witchcraft in the form of uncertaintVy? Nobody has to do that, but doing so strikes me as an interesting challenge. To carry out this off, the witch must be able to attack without being detected. More than that, the players must not be all that sure whether or not they have been attacked at all. Better still, a world full of such wiItches would present players under no such attack whatsoever with the lingering fear that seemingly minor set-backs might well have been due to malLevolent causes. In such a world, every difficulty, and every problem, no matter how innocent it may seem, is actually cause for suspicion. The question is, of course, how to inflict that level of paranoia on them?
Story-teller games aren’t my favorite flavor of geeketry, but I suspect this is something they can probably hHandle a bit better than the usual D&Desque gaming format. At least part of the problem here is balance. Combining magic with stealth generates a great deal of power. Hence, the rarity characters wielding such power, and the general tendency to nerf that power whenever it is allowed in the world at hAand. Another problem has to do with the mechanics of the games in question. Players usually know when they’ve been attacked even if their characters don’t. (“Make a save! …uh, no reason.”) A third problem is that conventional games rarely incorporate the kind of mundane evils that give witchcraft its pPeculiar power over the imagination. Player characters don’t usually have families or cows to take care of, and they almost never just slip on the staircase. Sure a GM may tell the players that this or that non-player character character had an accident, but when a player character is hurt, she is generally hurt in the course of some meaningful encounter with a clear threat unfolding in a soon-to-be-obvious story-line. You can generate exceptions to these problems, but the fact remains that the mechanics of most such games just don’t lend themselves to the level of uncertainty that makes susPpicion of witchcraft a reality in so many parts of the world.
I once tried to resolve this problem so as to enable attacks from witches and witch like villains. I figured the keEy was to introduce random disasters into the game. So, I generated rules for such things in both 3rd edition and my home brew (Worlds of Hurt). I made-up 3 different kinds of random disasters; diseases, accidents and ill-omens. Player characters then had a random chance to encounter one or more random disasters over the course of a game. They would have to make a defense roll against these disasters, which I ensured would be the same roll regardless of the source. I designed it so that this would be rare, but not so rare as to be freakishly out of place. In general, I aimed for about one such disaster to one player character in the course of any giveNn game session. None with good luck, and more than one with bad luck.
I also gave the landSscape in my worlds moral characteristics so that PCs could experience a greater or lesser chance of encountering random disasters depending on how well they fit with the local environment. A Paladin traveling through Morder, for example, had a much better chance of stepping on a thorn than an orc thief in that same setting. The Paladin would also have a better chance of getting an infection if he did step on that thorn. Now take the orc into the elven forest, and he’s the one who falls out of the tree house and breaks his leg. When characters are matter out of place, so to speak, the landscape works against them. It tries to get rid of them in subtle ways, and the end result is an increase of random disasters.
This approach was fun for awhile independent of the whole witchcraft theme, but I have to admit, what got me headed down that path was the hope of a scenario involving witchcraft, or at least the suspicion of it. I wanted the players to wonder at some point if a character was under attack. I wanted them to struggle with the uncertainty.
For balance, I ensured that witchcraft would require either direct contact with a victim, or some kind of sympathetic magic (e.g. possession of an item from the victim). I also ensured that witchcraft and any comparable form of attack would take an enormous amount of time to unfold, not rounds but game sessions. Such attacks would be progressive, letting players struggle to grasp the significance of seemingly random events while evil took its course. The potential solution to such attacks would involve divination and/or magical spells which could turn a curse back on its source. This fit with the kind of scenario I had in mind. At some point, it would become clear to the players that they were under attack, and they would have to devote time and energy to deal with it. But would they realize it in time? I wanted the sweet-spot for realization to fall on or near the point where success in fighting off a curse on depended on the players taking action within a game or two. Part of the problem posed by witchcraft would be managing this attack while dealing with whatever other problems they already had on the table. They would have to sort the results of a curse from random accidents before the results became lethal.
My first real test of this approach took the form of a succubus in my home brew. As with a witch, the attack of a succubus shouldn’t be obvious, I reckon. It should be a lingering guilt about those dreams, and perhaps a suspicion that they are the reason your backpack feels heavier and your sword feels just a bit more awkward. Since telling a player about the dreams would be a dead giveaway, I created a process that would put this near the end of the attack. I designed my monster and put one into the campaign.
While in town, the players had a number of odd encounters, but one of them was with an old lady in some kind of need. A PC resolved this by giving her something and got a big hug in response. Having concluded their business in town, the PCS wandered – as PCs will do – off on some new adventure. The next game session, the PC that had helped her had a small accident, nothing major, and not entirely out of the ordinary. The players continued on. The next game session that PC had two or three accidents, one of which hurt him a lot more. The players began to talk about the possibilities. Three games in, the PC had several injuries, one of which proved quite serious and then he fell ill. Somewhere in here the PC remembered an erotic dream, and then he realized it was happening on a regular basis. The players hadn’t encountered a succubus in this system yet, so it took them awhile to get the connection, but they were on the whole witchcraft angle very quickly.
It was time to consult a shaman!
I actually don’t remember whether a Player Character or a random NPC performed the magic in question, but the magic worked and they discovered the source of the attack. By now the party was a good hundred miles away. They tried a healing spell, but it wasn’t powerful enough. Instead they would have to find the original source of the attack. Lucky for them, she was trailing the party with henchmen in the hopes of finishing the whole lot of them while one fighter was badly weakened. (Had they delayed acting a game session or two, she would likely have succeeded!) This of course did lead to a conventional face-off with the baddy, but one that followed at least 3 games of uncertainty and a lot of effort to unravel the mystery. For an extra twist, the attack form used by the succubus would leave a permanent wound unless her victim scored the killing blow. If he succeeded, he would gain an extra benefit, but by now he really needed to be the one to do the killing.
…which of course, he did.
All in all, I’d say that scenario was quite a success. The players were a little more wary of random disasters after that, but no major witch hunts followed. They didn’t turn on each other or any of their NPC allies. To make that a genuine hazard I would need to keep them in once place, which we could do in a different campaign. In any event, I was happy with the succubus scenario. In this instance, at least, my system had worked.
The problem of course was that the system worked well because I had a plot in mind that relied on the mechanic in question. I didn’t mind the accidents, and the players humored me until the plot thickened, then they were as into it as I was (I think).
Random disasters are interesting when they really could be central to the story, not so much when they aren’t. But of course, that’s the point. Sometimes random disasters will be just that random, and then they quickly become tedious. These factors have been interesting when the game is heavy on role-playing and I’ve had time to develop the setting. Questions about who does and doesn’t thrive in a given physical setting can carry the interest in random disasters when no witches are around. So, the idea that the physical environment can increase the risks of random disasters makes it a bit more interesting. Still, in a hack and slash campaign, I usually don’t bother with them. The trouble is, I mostly do hack&slash campaigns these days. Nobody I now know has time for in-depth story-lines.
Ah well, one day!
In any event, I think the trouble with this approach is that it only really works if you are focusing on stories that use the mechanic, but the point of the mechanic is of course that sometimes it won’t be that important. If you want to run a couple game sessions of a conventional orc war, or maybe even do the standard bar fight, then the effort to deal with random disasters quickly becomes an unhelpful distraction. Still, this is one effort to try and reproduce the experience of a world saturated with suspicions of witchcraft. I wonder if anyone else has tried anything with a similar effect, perhaps using a different approach? What interests me about this is the uncertainty of evil magic. There must be many more ways to set that up.
If per chance you noticed a typo or two in this post, I ask only that you consider the possibility that it might not have been me.
Malevolent forces are out there!