Monsters in Love

Jul 13, 2020 by Karen Janowsky, in Superheroes , Writing

Shakespeare handles human intelligence for her team. She is an expert at setting honey traps and willing to follow through with anything her target wants in order to get them to do whatever it is she wants. She’s beautiful, adept with disguises and languages, and has built her identity around her job. She’s also an assassin and enjoys the freedom to manipulate bad guys (or sometimes neutral guys) and then kill with impunity. Her colleagues tend to shy away from examining exactly what unethical or unspeakable things she does; she’s effective and they know better than to dig too deeply.

Her lover is a military attaché to the team whose job is to provide muscle and firearms expertise. He’s a regular guy who loves baseball and working out. Not exactly a match made in Heaven, here.  Now you have the basic premise of my angle on the very first RPG I ever played, Spycraft 1.0.

If you’re familiar with my other blogs, you know that I am, first and foremost, a writer. So, when I began to play RPGs, the character arc of the campaign was the most important thing to me, more so than the details of any particular gaming adventure. The romance part started because the military guy, whose name was Grimes, was an NPC who the GM thought would be entertaining to give him a crush on the most goddessawful choice of women ever.

And so began an epic love story.

It has been decades since I’ve played Spycraft (I’m pretty sure Alderac doesn’t even exist as an RPG company anymore). But when I found a call for short stories for an anthology of horror stories by women authors I thought of Shakespeare right away. She certainly did some horrific things over the course of her career but, that’s not what people usually think of when they think of horror stories. For that, I needed Call of Cthulhu.

As you know if you’ve read my earlier gaming blogs, I explored Shakespeare’s motivations deeply. I knew that her actions and beliefs stemmed from trauma. The anthology was meant to give its proceeds to the Doves Program, an organization for women in flight from abuse. I wondered, “At what point do trauma-based behaviors become so woven into your genes that they’re inextricable from who you are metaphysically?

That made me think about Shakespeare’s tenure as my alter ego. She didn’t just delight in tantalizing and killing what she thought of as prey; she didn’t know what to do with herself if she didn’t get to do it regularly. That often ran counter to her other burgeoning need to be “normal,” to be in love, to separate her professional and personal lives, and knowing the separation was necessary to protect someone she loved.  What if that was impossible? What if she wasn’t even human, and her behavior was largely instinctual?

In Call of Cthulhu there are plenty of examples of hybrid monsters—half human, half something that humankind was never meant to know about. I gave Shakespeare that dilemma. The part of her parentage that was human contributed to her emotional life and need to belong. In fact, that need, being biological, allowed her to create lots of coping mechanisms, including altering her behavior and ignoring the monster aspect that made her the perfect assassin.

However, beneath the pretty exterior with the charming manners was a hungry, amoral, tentacled thing—the daughter of an elder god.  She was incomplete without accepting that part of her identity as well. When I played the original, human character all those years ago, her motivations were fraught enough. Now, no amount of will saves were going to help her for very long. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were one and the same; one simply couldn’t exist without the other, and human love was a need and a curse because of this.

As a writer and as a gamer, my character decisions are fairly well thought out. Even when I’m emotional or make rash decisions during a gaming session, I find myself going back and interpreting what’s happened from the perspective of the character’s psyche. If we put aside the additional complication that the character came from my own imagination, it becomes easy to both create a multi-dimensional fictional person and play deeply in character for a few hours’ worth of gaming.

The story was accepted into the anthology and became popular enough for readers to contact me and ask for a novel featuring the characters. I avoided drafting the novel for a long time but, now that my superhero series is ending (the last novel is with the editor), I’ve returned my attention to Shakespeare’s complicated existence. I even went into the basement and grabbed the Spycraft 1.0 rulebook and all of my saved notes from that time in order to get back into the spirit of the thing. I even have action charts and dice around and have been known to diagram action scenes as if they were happening on a hex map.

There are so many reasons why people come to gaming, and even though it helps to be a little dorky, the reasons go beyond light entertainment. I think many gamers immerse themselves into their fictional worlds as a way of working through other issues. It’s a complex activity and for me, writing Shakespeare’s story has brought me back to the question I had about her from the beginning, except now there’s a tentacle component: when it comes to love, and protecting a person and a relationship, what actions are unjustified, and who is the real monster?