An Interview with Sarah Carapace
John: Sarah! You came on our show Wandering Monster, a podcast about games, and monsters and stuff and talked about a game you and two others are developing, called Dungeon Bitches, a game of body horror, and terror and violence but also of queer women doing awesome shit. It was a wild time, and anyone who wants to, can check it out on Monday, here. There were five of us, so we got pretty noisy and loud, and was worried that maybe we didn’t squeeze you for every drop of information you had, so I figured we could flesh some of that out here. To start with, how did you join the dungeon bitches team?
Sarah: Heya John, thanks for having me again. Yeah that podcast…well, it was a wild ride. I mentioned this in the
episode but, Emily is like, this award winning game designer, she’s fairly well established in the indie scene and is, like, super smart and has cool ideas. Which is all stuff I had no clue about when I DM’ed her out of the blue in late March 2020 after a mutual of mine on twitter re-tweeted her initial Dungeon Bitches post from her blog. I looked at the blog thought, ‘I would totally do art for this’ and then thought ‘fuck it, I’ll DM her’ and I did and we basically haven’t quit yammering to each other since.
When Emily started to playtest the game, she got together a crew of bitches and one of them was Khan and that’s how we met. Khan and I are, like, super tight now. They are very powerful.
John: How have you been working through blending the hard and soft aspects that go hand in hand with a game that is meant to be cathartic and healing vs a world that is terrible and horrifying? What aesthetic choices are you making to bring the themes of violence and queer media to the forefront?
Sarah: Catharsis is a very good word to use, in a lot of good horror there is this tension that ratchets up until it crashes in a series of violent crescendos…and, well, when you’re visibly part of a minority group, there is something a bit like that tension that is present as the price for existing. The difference is that unlike horror, there is rarely catharsis.
We are living at a time were there is something of a new-new queer movement in visual media that’s really exciting, but a lot of it is fairly gentle, like Steven Universe or She-Ra. I love these shows, but I’m always craving for something with a bit more teeth. A really good example is Monstress, which is a graphic novel series by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda and InSEXts written by Marguerite Bennett. There is a simmering rage in these works, and that’s a similar sort of attitude to what I’m hitting with Death Spiral.
In Death Spiral, almost every aspect of the world is actively hostile. The desert that surrounds the giant city is corrosive and will melt the flesh of a bitches’ bones if she tries to hide there. The edge of the desert and sections of the underground are infested with hungry feral creatures and in the city, well…there are cops. It’s almost absurdly viscous but at the same time, it’s raw and real. Aesthetically, what I’m going for are visuals that signify queer femininity, survival and violence. It all comes together in a sort of crust-punk-kinky-dyke look.
John: Part of the reason you’ve come on, is to talk about the supplement you yourself are in charge of designing, Death Spiral, which is, for those of you who haven’t listened to the episode a game that takes place on a rotting corpse world where everything is terrible. How did you come up with the themes of Death Spiral and how do they tie into the greater Dungeon Bitches design plan?
Sarah: In the core book that Emily wrote, there is an implied setting, one that’s assumed to be sort a dark fantasy
world. I think Emily mentioned it in the episode of Wondering Monster that fae was on; the game can be applied to almost any setting. What makes it unique is the tone. The tone is almost universal when treated right and there is a very simple, but ever-present cosmology that every Dungeon Bitch game has. The presence of the Hollow Men, which is a repeating systematic pattern of greed, abuse, and oppression by groups of men, and then the Wounded Mother, who can probably be best described as the patron god of gay women who refuse to die.
For the playtesting of Dungeon Bitches, what Emily did is get a crew together and started to run short, self-contained campaigns (or seasons as we call em) of the game, rotating the DM for each season. Emily went first of course, and I ended up going second.
Emily ran a bit of a classic, grim fantasy story inspired by historical Spain. It was really good, but I didn’t want to just do another fantasy game and wanted to put together a setting that was pretty unique, and which reflected her game to the core. Death Spiral is a mix of things that I love, things that I hate, and things that I’m scared of, all connected together by the gooey membrane and beating heart of Dungeon Bitches.
Death Spiral isn’t just a stand-alone apocalyptic setting, it’s not just Dark Sun with estrogen, the core concept of the Corpse is directly linked to the Wounded Mother, which is one of Dungeon Bitches most unique features.
The reason the place can even exist is because the Wounded Mother won’t let it die.
John: One thing that struck me is that Death Spiral is largely about eking out an existence in a world that is cruel, and often devoid of compassion, and one that the characters are stuck in. What is the inspiration, purpose , and decision-making behind the feel for the world?
Sarah: This…is really horrifyingly simple. For people like you or I, that exist within a minority, a lot of us are poor as fuck. I’m a lesbian, and I’m an abuse survivor, I’ve lived most of my life either struggling to stay just above the poverty line or trying not to drown as I’ve sunk under it. If you are poor, and you are in a bad place, kicked out of home, forced to live in a shitty rental place that’s falling apart, or stuck abusive relationship, it’s very, very hard to escape.
And that’s the Corpse. It’s the one room apartment with black mould that you and your friend have to room together in. It’s being being alienated and isolated from the rest of the world because your partner won’t let you speak to anyone. It’s the cops dehumanising and dismantling your personhood and community.
There is hope, you can live, and you can change it. But you are gunna need friends and you are going to need to fight for it.
John: We talked a bit about eating cops and the races, but we talked less about monsters than I would have really liked to. Can you give us some insight into not only some of the coolest monsters of Death Spiral, but what in your philosophy makes a good monster?
Sarah: I’ve always been drawn to monsters on an aesthetic level, so any show or movie that has a lot of creatures, aliens, demons, mutants, and robots gets me on board pretty quick. I have a particular affinity for creatures based on insects, like a lot of the heroes and villains from the Kamen Rider tokusatsu shows (my personal favourites being Kamen Rider ZO and Shin Kamen Rider).
A lot of the time, insects get used as a way to really other a monster, to make it as far away from human as possible to make it hard to relate or sympathise with them. Which, I find interesting because first off, I think a lot of bugs are really cute. And second, it’s interesting to me, the idea of specifically making a creature that is so ‘other’ that the creator will assume that most of the audience is going to be scared of it, and be okay with the creature being killed. It’s like this forced morality that I find pretty fucked up, manufacturing this perfect other to kill.
So, for myself, as a queer person…through that lens, it’s easy for me to say ‘justice for bug monsters.’ That’s one of the reasons that some of the player heritages are cute bug folk. My approach to monsters is to make a given creature have a combination of at least two of the following: ‘elements that reinforce the story and setting’, ‘things that are relatable’, and ‘things that are an allegory about as subtle as a brick’.
There two separate mini bestiaries in Death Spiral: one for threats and one for critters that are like edible fauna (and notes on how to prepare them). So, just straight away that lets the players know that surviving and finding stuff to eat is important.
Some of the creatures and threats that I really feel capture the spirit of the game are the Parasite Dolls, Marrow Corps, and the Butcher Jacks. All of these creatures tap into body horror in different, contrasting ways, exploring themes of agency and loss of control over one’s body and mind.
In the Core Book of Dungeon Bitches, one of the main Deals you can play as is the Corpse Doll, which can be interpreted in a few different ways: reanimated gal akin to a zombie, a creation a bit like a Frankenstein’s monster, a clock-work machine, and so on.
In Death Spiral, there is a variant of these women called Parasite Dolls. If a person dies, her body is often absorbed by the membrane of the Corpse, but sometimes, the Corpse spits them out, being unable to digest them for whatever reason. Parasite Dolls awaken feral, their memories either muddled or totally absent, their capacity to understand language shot, and a crawling hunger that is painful and constant. They tend to find each other and skitter around in packs, but they aren’t mindless zombies…they could be you. In fact, it’s not super uncommon for a Parasite Doll, if given some care and attention, to gain back some measure of what they have lost. The Parasite Dolls are not just NPCs, but also an option for players to have as their deal. I think it’s really valuable to have creatures that can reflect the players, be a cracked mirror to hopefully make them stop and think ‘If I hurt this thing, will I have done something wrong, and if I don’t, will I survive this?’
The other two are sort of intertwined. The Marrow Corps are essentially the police of the setting; they are all constructs, built by one of the setting’s main antagonists: Vicky Valentine. She collects and accepts donations of fresh bodies, usually alive. She strips them of their personhood and surgically rebuilds them into bone-plated, exoskeletal storm-troopers. They retain nothing of their previous life (or lives if multiple sources were used during their construction), they follow simple commands, and are fed nutrients through a ropy umbilical that’s connected to their transport vehicles (which are big crab monsters). They are backed up by Butcher-Jacks, which are shock-troopers, carefully handcrafted by Vicky Valentine (unlike the mass-produced Marrow Corps) who are essentially faux Corpse Dolls, made from parts of Wounded Daughters. (which is one of the game’s other signature deals, women who have embraced the Wounded Mother and who refuse to die. They fully regenerate after death, losing a small piece of their humanity in the process)
The Marrow Corps and the Butcher-Jacks represent the system. They are bizarre and cold. They are militarised bureaucracy on autopilot. If you get caught up in the system, it will strip you down, de-person you and toss your bits in the trash unless you conform and become useful to it.
John: Speaking of being trapped and philosophy, there are two “gods” trapped in Death Spiral, The Empress of Chains which is a BDSM hellraiser entity after my own heart, and The Flayed Lord, but there’s also this entity or power called “The Wounded Mother” can you tell us a little bit about her, and maybe give us a peek on how your cosmology came together for Death Spiral?
Sarah: I’ve mentioned the Wounded Mother before, yeah. She’s like the most constant deity that appears in every Dungeon Bitches game. I’m just gunna go ahead and say it, if someone gets the game, and runs the game and as a hack they remove her? Then they are no longer playing Dungeon Bitches. She is essential to the tone and themes of the game. The Wounded Mother is like a powerful drive to survive at all odds, no matter the cost, but given life and agency. In the core book, if a Bitch dies, and she refuses to give up, she may allow the Wounded Mother to embrace her, granting her unstoppable life and become a Wounded Daughter, one of the game’s signature Deals. The Wounded Mother is a purely Emily creation, but I have my own twist on her in Death Spiral! … But you’re gonna have to wait and see.
The other two are what Khan would call ‘Carapace Originals’ .
The Flayed Lord was sort of a generic demon thing that some shitty men were attempting to appease in order to gain power in our season 1 playtest of Dungeon Bitches, and I wanted another thing to connect the games together at least in a small way. So I took him into my care with Emily’s blessing, and brought him into Death Spiral with a new context.
The Flayed Lord is a proxy entity to an existential force of anatomy. If you curry favour with the Flayed Lord, he can grant you preternatural knowledge of how bodies function on a fundamental, anatomic, mechanical level. At the start of the game, the Death Spiral have him chained up, drawing his power for themselves, channelling it into the Marrow Corps. He’s not a chill dude, he is a vicious and capricious entity, but can potentially be negotiated with and set loose; he’s the closest thing to a more traditional demon in the setting.
And the Empress of Chains, well, she’s special…and tragic, and it’s fun that you mention Hellraiser.
There is a long, long history of coding villains as queer, kinky or kinky and queer. Hellrasier is a good example of this (no shade, Hellraiser I and II is like a perfect double feature and I love them) as are movies like the Crow (which again…great movie…but) and I wanted to go against that grain.
I’m a kinky gal. I’m a switch, usually falling into more of a Domme role, and like, good kink has a few elements that I feel is really important: that as a Dom, I put on a good show, and that despite how things look, things are always safe, that my Submissive is always actually in control even if it would appear to be the other way around. And that’s a big thing when being Submissive, there is this unique kind of safety that comes with being treated well by a good Dom.
The Empress of Chains is a proxy entity of desire and restraint. She is a deific, loving Dominatrix and her place of worship, the Basilica of Binding, is one of the only truly safe places within the Corpse. The Death Spiral gang got a favour from her, Binding the Flayed Lord within his Clinic, and in return, she and her followers were given the privilege of being left alone. But, life on the Corpse is slowly driving the Empress insane. She’s the penultimate force of restraint and release, but she’s trapped in the Corpse just like everyone else. And being trapped is like, antithetical to her existence.
So these elements, of providing safety and sanctuary through kink, and that sanctuary crumbling because of outside forces, are what’s being explored with her.
John: The Death Spiral Gang, which we did speak about on the show is terrifying, abusive, and insane, you called them “anti-bitches” when we spoke, but it feels like they are a natural part of the cruelty of Dungeon Bitches that exists. Where do they come from, not only in fiction but their inspiration?
So…big CW for sexual abuse in this answer.
I’d say that they are not so much a natural part of Dungeon Bitches, so much as they are the antitheses of the game’s themes.
In the core book, queer women band together to survive, and the assumed antagonistic force is assumed to be hetero-cisnormative patriarchy. The villains are straight, cis men. There is a type of catharsis of playing the game like this, a sort of ‘my revenge on the world’, and that is not something that happens in reality.
Death Spiral denies that particular type of catharsis. There are still shitty men! Emily’s Hollow Men appear in the setting, largely centred in the Corpse’s bank, the Mint Leaf Exchange. But, the true villains are the Death Spiral gang. This is really hard to talk about, but in-community abuse is not that uncommon. Almost every queer woman that I’m close with has been abused by another queer woman, and that’s where the Death Spiral are drawn from.
One of the few bits of canon in the game that I would totally understand if players changed or avoided is that one of the Death Spiral gang members is a rapist.
At some point in the recent history of the setting, Jane Heratic, Death Spiral’s second in command, decided that the Empress of Chains should be reminded that she’s only safe as long as they want her to be.
So, the ex-amazon giantess, Mercy Croix, invaded the Empress’ sanctuary and raped her.
Most of her followers have no idea that this has happened and are confused and worried that the Empress has become withdrawn and quiet, for those that do know, their sheltered world of safety is shattered.
Having a queer villain in a narrative, especially one that is psychologically and sexually abusive, is a really, really shitty thing to do in a story, if they are the only queer characters in the story. It’s a whole different thing when the world is queer, when every other character is a lesbian and all the players are too. I’ve certainty had players tell me that confronting the Death Spiral has been very cathartic for them, because it was so real and so raw to them.
Being queer isn’t always about trauma, it isn’t always about pain, it isn’t always about surviving abuse. But often, it’s there, and we somehow need to deal with that.
John: I want to thank Sarah for taking the time to talk to us as well as Khan and Emily, as I mentioned you can check out the two episodes we made with them here, and find the Kickstarter for Dungeon Bitches here.