Gaming in Gothic Horror

Gothic Fiction

Obviously this topic is on my mind of late, as my upcoming Ravenloft game lurks ever present in the back of my mind. A horror is tough to run at a table, let alone going further down the niche of Gothic style horror. So what sets this style of play apart from your regular gaming campaign? What kind of work behind the scenes and on game night must you do to correctly set the tone? Well, here’s hoping some of the ideas I have for my upcoming Ravenloft run might assist you.

UNDERSTANDING GOTHIC HORROR

I think the first step for something like this is to understand just what Gothic horror represents as a genre. While all your regular horror tropes may appear in this subgenre, your slashers, beasts, death, and despair, a truly Gothic setting must also up the ante on pure tragedy. It’s villains are best when served up as either heroes gone bad or someone who gave into their craven desires and then strive for said desires, never to be sated. Ravenloft is filled to brim with horrifying figures of tragic circumstances. Strahd von Zarovich is the prime example, namely because so few do not know his legacy, he forever seeks someone to fill the place of his one true love whom he will never again be with. His jealousy and rage caused his downfall and he became the horror he is to this date.

I think one of the best things in the Curse of Strahd Adventure Path was the fact that the vampire lord was not idle, true villains of Gothic horror rarely are. They are not eveil lords content to sit back in their strongholds awaiting the PC’s to storm the gates after conquering their minions. In a Gothic setting if you draw the eye of the monster you seek, you will become wrapped in their games.

Gothic Fiction 02

Gothics are often referred to as Romances, and with good reason. Even if there is not the physical love between two or more people it is all about “romantic” ideals. Look to the typical hero of a Gothic tale. Victor Frankenstein can hardly be called a hero but his romantic notion to bring the dead back to life created his own horror on Earth. The best of heroes in a Gothic setting are typically less capable than you would see in other genres. The hero of Dracula was Professor Van Helsing, not the crossbow wielding adventurous guy you may have seen in other depictions, but instead an older gentleman with his own set of flaws. He doesn’t discern the true nature of the issue until it is too late for one life and he is not capable of saving all in his care as he drives them to track Dracula back to Transylvania. Heroes in these stories are rare, they are also often flawed.

Essentially the truly Gothic tale will be one where the heroes clutch and claw about, looking for the cause of the dismay and confusion that surrounds them, only to eventually have all the clues snap into place. The best realization of the horror that surrounds them then should be a simultaneous feeling of dread and despair, sometimes even for the monster they seek.

HOW TO BRING THAT TO THE TABLE

To give a Gothic game that truly dreamlike grandness it deserves can be hard, both the players and the GM often need to be invested in the story. This isn’t the type of game that lends itself to a “battle a week” format very well. There needs to be a leadup to that point, and it can often work best when the fight isn’t even entirely fair. Though I will say I have no intention of going full on Lovecraftian on them, if I wanted them to have no chance I’d just run a Call of Cthulhu based game.

I know I’m already urging my players to have connections to one another but I think I’m going to go one step further and have them, for whatever reasons their characters have, residents of the same small village. In this move I plan to start their troubles somewhat small, get them involved on a personal basis early on. Their characters will know, and presumably care, for every member in the village. I can’t go too much further into this though because some of my players actually read this stuff.

l021b-most-haunted-house_1

Potential game night location

For some of the ambiance, I plan to incorporate music and sound into my game as much as possible, utilizing Battlebards as I’ve mentioned many times over the last few articles. Hopefully I can even dim the lights or something but I have learned that D&D by candlelight doesn’t work well, people just can’t see a damn thing. I’ll ask that phones be placed away from the table, I can’t stand people on their phones while I’m running a game.

In game I’ll be pulling creatures from the Children of the Mists supplement I described in my previous article a lot. Ravenloft can be a place of straightforward dangers like banditry and such, but I want my enemies to have dark purpose and I hope to convey it.

IN CONCLUSION

There are a ton of things I could throw onto this page about my plans but it might ruin some of what’s to come. I hope the guys go for it, I’m pretty excited. Stay tuned to the site because I’ll probably work up a few post game write ups, or at least let you know some of the things that have worked\not worked for me. If you have advice for a burgeoning Gothic Horror GM, let me know in the comments! I don’t profess to be an expert yet, this is my first run at it.

-Melvs

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3 thoughts on “Gaming in Gothic Horror

  1. I run an ongoing Gothic Romance game. In my opinion, the most important bit of practical advice for the genre is to know the limits of your players. Its best to explicitly ask them what they consider to be unacceptable content before game-play starts, and to give them some means (such as bell, safe word, etc.) to stop the game if it crosses their personal lines. The use of such techniques may sound excessive to some, but in practice I’ve found that players will be willing to explore some pretty dark territory if they know their personal boundaries are respected.

    Secondly, give your players regular respite from the horrors. If everything is horrible, eventually nothing will be. You don’t want players to get used to everything being grim, fearful, and disgusting. A significant portion of Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, for example, consists of descriptions of beautiful landscapes. When the horrors come they remain shocking. Moments of horror work best through contrast with scenes of peace, ease, and pleasure. People must first have something to lose before they will fear losing it.

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    • This is great input. For my part, I’ve played with these guys a long time and the first bit of advice you gave won’t be as necessary to my table but certainly stands out for any table where you may have a new face or individuals who you may not know very well.

      Your second bit of advice is going to help me a ton. I think I instinctively knew this, but I probably needed the reminder. Ravenloft can’t be fully grim right? there has to be some bits of joy to make life worth living and to struggle against the darkness in the world.

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      • Many of the original 18th century Gothic Romances, such as Matthew Lewis’ “The Monk” (otherwise known as one of the most extreme and lurid of the Gothics), actually contain comedic parts. “The Monk” even has complete poems inserted into it, the literary equivalent of song and dance sequences! To modern eyes, “The Castle of Otranto” (the first Gothic Romance) reads more like medieval fantasy than a horror novel – there’s only a few parts that are actually seem intended to be frightening. There’s definitely precedent in the original genre sources for letting in enough light that Players never get used to the dark.

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