This is RPG-ology #63: Pain, for February 2023.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally Game Ideas Unlimited: Pain, and is reposted here with minor editing [bracketed].
Not too many weeks ago I mentioned having poured flaming oil on my own hand. It’s a game session story, so I’ll tell it now under that excuse. It also has a Christmas connection, so it’s a good time to tell it.
This was long enough ago that we had never seen those little bags of microwave popcorn. There were plastic gadgets developed for microwave popping. Most people made the fluffy white stuff the old fashioned way. We, I suppose, were like most people, at least in that regard.
Bob Schretzman was over; that meant we were playing games. We always played games when he came over, even before we knew anything of role playing games. Bookcase games, card games, board games–he was the only person I ever knew who owned his own pinball machine. Even when we went out with Bob, it was to play games–miniature golf mostly, but sometimes bowling. After we discovered RPG’s, he was the party leader on our D&D days, the referee for our GammaWorld game, the technical wizard in our Star Frontiers stories, and more. So we were playing a game.
Forgive me if I don’t remember which one. What I do remember is that he and I were sitting at the dining room table while my wife stepped into the small kitchen to make some popcorn. Suddenly our conversation was interrupted. The oil in the bottom of the pot had spontaneously combusted, frightening my wife as it burst into flame.
I leapt from my seat and rushed to the stove. I could see the canister of salt on the stovetop beyond the flaming pot of oil. I had the presence of mind to realize that although it was the most accessible extinguisher available, it would be very unwise for me to reach over the flames to grab it. So, sped by the adrenaline that sharpens all reactions during emergencies, I grabbed the handle of the three-quart Revereware saucepot with my right hand and pulled it out of my way while reaching for the salt with my left.
My left hand never reached the salt. The action of moving the pot had been too sudden, and the flaming oil splashed out over the top onto my hand.
I don’t know that I can make you understand all that happened in that instant. I am certain that my eyes closed; yet at the same time I remember seeing the saucepot fall from my released grip, crash on the floor, and bounce away from me. I must have screamed, yet I cannot recall either feeling it in my throat or hearing it in my ears. Searing is the word used for pain like that, and once you have felt it, it takes on an entirely new meaning. It cut me off from control of my body in much the same way as an electric shock; for that instant I neither knew nor wondered what had happened. All that existed was the pain, and the vision of the pot slowly floating to the floor and away from me.
Mercifully, the flames were snuffed in the fall, and did not spread fiery liquid across the linoleum (although the blackened stain by the stove was never fully eradicated). In that small kitchen, the spigot was a very few steps away, and although the cold water stung terribly it was much less pain than the heat had been. I won’t take you with me to the hospital (we’ve already been there) or through subsequent treatment of my third-degree burned flesh. I will only give a few more details–but I’m also going to connect this to game ideas through more than just the rather tenuous connection of “something that happened at a game once”.
In our hobby we have created an extremely abstract distinction between attacks that cause damage and attacks that cause pain. I am guilty of this myself–I allow characters to take quite a few wounds from weapons that must have hurt without batting an eye, and also recognize as distinct attack forms which cause such pain that the character cannot think to do anything. They do exist as independent concepts. I speak as one who often finds that he has injured himself unknowingly, unable to identify the origins of various cuts and bruises. But injuries are usually painful, and serious injuries often are searingly so. Yet we gloss over them as if they were nothing.
Have you never had a toothache? Does it not take over your life while it’s there? Since the burn on my hand, I have collapsed with gall stones and kidney stones, pains that were crippling. But I always remember that moment when the flesh on the back of my right hand burned away. I understood pain in a way that my characters, who had been stabbed and shot and burned and blasted and beaten in uncounted ways, never had.
At times it may be appropriate for our characters to ignore their injuries. Damage systems in games don’t really purport to be a linear measurement of injuries inflicted–that is, a character with one of ten hit points left is not really ninety percent dead any more than that he was one hundred percent more alive before he was injured than the character with five hit points. That kind of wound tracking is not at all realistic. It is, in fact, a very good way of tracking the strength of an army in miniatures combat adapted to serve the same function for individuals. Real wounds are much more complicated, some being crippling but not life threatening, others rapidly fatal but not really very noticeable. My little brother once ruptured his spleen in a motorcycle accident; his last words in the emergency room before he blacked out for four months were, “Will I have to spend the night?” Recently in another emergency room a young man was left in the waiting room because the triage nurse thought mild back pain following an accident was probably just a wrenched back, and not the ruptured kidneys and massive internal bleeding that another nurse correctly concluded it might be. The severity of injury and the severity of pain do not always coincide. Besides, many of our characters are cast in the heroic mold, men who laugh at death, who shake off pain like dust from a feather duster.
But every once in a while, as I jot down those numbers that say a character was just injured, I remember that pain in my hand. The twinge is memory today. But for several years after the burn, that hand was particularly sensitive to heat and cold; and even today, patches of the skin in that area are not the right color, and don’t tan naturally. And as I recall that moment, frozen in my mind, I wonder whether this character has just experienced a moment of such excruciating sensation that nothing else mattered at all for that instant, that they could not move or perceive or even think. I know what that is like. Somehow my characters never seem to experience it. At least once in a while, I think, they should.
For Christmas that year, Bob bought us a hot air corn popper.