Terror, Horror and the Gothic Fantasy

There is a split in the tradition of Gothic fiction, almost as old as the recognisable genre itself. At its most clear, the split is between the ‘terror’ Gothic of Ann Radcliffe and the ‘horror’ Gothic of Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. This is not after-the-fact critical flimflam but a distinction articulated by Radcliffe herself, around the time she was writing The Italian as a repudiation of Lewis’ style and proclivities.

Radcliffe’s Gothic plays upon the sensibilities of the novel readers of her day – middle-class women for the most part – and beneath its explained supernatural trappings it is as much a matter of manners as Austen. Among its qualities is the emphasis on ‘imagined evils over actual, physical threats, in accordance with theories of the sublime (terror expands our mind through imagination, while horror contracts it through earthly fears)’. The surroundings and situations in which Radcliffe’s heroines find themselves prey upon their susceptible, sensitive minds until they keel over in a swoon of pure terror at the thought of what might be about to happen.

As you’d expect, Lewis’ ‘horror’ Gothic is much more about physical threats: the dagger held to Matilda’s bosom presents the threat of injury to her own person and of sexual temptation to the onlooking Ambrosio, while the novels’ incidents are full of physical desire and panicked flight through dark places.

This is not to say that a given work is either terrifying or horrible, although Lewis seems to have won out. Terror and horror are present to varying degrees in varying works within the tradition. Masterpieces of the Gothic successfully blend them to some extent.

Frankenstein has the grotesque appearance and physical power of the Creature, but it also has the moral sensibility of the Creature and his creator at its heart, the ethical struggle over what the Creature might do or be. Dracula is closer to Lewis, a series of perilous incidents unfolding upon one another, but the physical and spiritual contamination of undeath is a threat of terror to the rational Victorian middle classes forming Stoker’s cast and readership. Gormenghast, the peak of the tradition as far as I’m concerned, comes in for flak because ‘nothing happens in the first book’ – the truth is that the first book is a slow burner which explores terror and, barring the library fire and Steerpike’s flight across the rooftops, provides little physical threat. The third book is a fever dream of horror as Titus reels from incident to incident with little comprehension of where he is or what is happening to him – the great evil which he imagines is the absence of a physical qualifier for his experience, the possibility that Gormenghast does not exist and never existed, but he is constantly beset by lesser physical evils and these drive the narrative. The middle book is the pinnacle, in which the physical perils of fire and water harmonise with the psychological perils of ritual and unfettered nature. But I digress.

On screen, Gothic often slides too far into horror. Horror films are rich with incidents and implied physical threats but they do not always achieve that access to the sublime sensibilities which is necessary for terror and thus the complete Gothic experience. Without cultivated access to the inner lives of characters, the events of Gothic cinema – however faithfully adapted – lose their ability to terrify. This is further compounded by the tendency of Gothic cinema to go easier on the physical threats than the gore porn of ‘pure’ horror. The result is the cosy non-horror of the Hammer movie or the Hinchcliffe-era Doctor Who serial: the style of the Gothic without its substance.

What is all this to the Master of Games? Well, let us consider Ravenloft. The original Module I6 is a blur of Hammeresque visual trappings and generic events which falls into exactly the same trap as the films which set its tone. It has too much of Lewis’ lurid adventuresome romp and not enough of Radcliffe’s excision of sensibility for my liking.

This is a problem of D&D and its ilk, if I’m honest. Terror resides in the imagination and the characters, the avatars by which we navigate the imagined world of the RPG, do not have an imagination of their own. It is the sensibility of the players at one’s actual table which must be identified and incorporated into the events of the game, and we must go beyond “your character may die!” – this is an imaginary peril which puts the wind up a player but it is nothing that roleplaying in some other genre does not accomplish equally as well. For the Gothic we must go further.

I have lunged for and sometimes achieved the complete Gothic experience in my gaming. It has invariably been done with players who I know well. I know their heartstrings and can saw on them as a virtuoso on his fiddle. In the early days of my Victorian Age Vampire group (fourteen years: we were so much younger then…) things were more Lewis than Radcliffe, a lurid bloodsoaked romp through Victorian London, more style than substance. It wasn’t until I knew the people behind the characters that I could feed them clashes in sensory perception, fragmented awareness of time, isolation in exactly the sort of place that preyed on their thoughts or the looming presence of a genius loci, and in so doing provoke them into roleplaying convincing fear or madness – and in one case have one player sleeping with the lights on for a week.

A Gothic module will only ever achieve tired aesthetic Hammerisms – the genre’s lowest common denominator played for lighthearted, unmoving fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the pinnacle of Gothic roleplaying. That needs tailoring. It needs players with sensibilities which can be played upon by a DM willing to do so to a point just shy of trauma. It’s not for everyone. Too much resilience drives it back into the realm of cliché and pastiche: not enough and the DM becomes a mere bully, fucking with vulnerable players who aren’t entertained by his antics. I haven’t had a group who can do it right for years and the last time I did I let them down by running Module I6 by the jolly hollow book instead of reaching out for what I knew was there, but I now have a couple of players with whom the right chord (D minor) might just be struck.

[LotFP] A Swansong for Ravens

I have been perusing some of the 2e Ravenloft sourcebooks – not many, for life is too short to wade through all the grist ever flung to the TSR mill. I feel they are of little use to me. From the two major examples I (or anyone with three brain cells) could derive the principle of the darklord and from there on what matters is the process by which the gothic villain is translated into D&D terms, a process which should be demonstrated through a walkthrough wrapped up with a “now you try”. Instead there is product, product, product; canon facts for people who never make anything up and whose first thought on being invited to a campaign is “what sourcebooks should I read?” Most of it is workmanlike to say the least.

In dismay I have turned my back on all this and taken the essence of Ravenloft: a pocket hell for Gothic villains, in which they have everything except that which they truly desire and are well aware that their dark gods laugh at every sip they take from the poison chalice of their victory. Strahd will never possess Tatyana. Avelin has eternity to study arcane lore that is now meaningless to him. Lejandro (don’t ask: I made him up) holds a principality within his iron grip but the peers over whom he’d wish to lord it can no longer perceive his presence or his mastery. Stat up some domain level NPC/monsters who’ve done some terrible things and who have an ironic curse which also becomes a tactical weakness.

At the heart of it all, of old Module I6, the titular Castle Ravenloft. You’ll recall this was partly cleansed by witch hunters from the Church of St. Thoggua and its ludicrous upper architecture presumably made good and sane again. Now the Castle is a Citadel, the seat of the Consort of the Raven Queen (apparently 4th edition D&D has one too, although I maintain I made her up all by myself), though the depths remain sealed, guarded and untouched. Consequently, something passing for Strahd remains confined within them and there is at least one dungeon of the old school available for when the time comes. Slavish adherence to the original is uncalled for but the call back to previous adventurers now lost in legend is irresistible.

I’m using Lamentations of the Flame Princess because it has the right old-school feel, is calibrated for the Renaissance period (more firearms, less sword and board), and is a uniformly “high numbers are good” system, a necessary evil when dealing with players for whom consistency is desirable and complexity is not. Situations may be complex and decisions demanding, but rules must be accessible. I aim for something more Ann Radcliffe than Anne Rice, if you’ll forgive me: something tinged with the terror-gothic rather than the horror-gothic that inspired Hammer movies and trickled down into Ravenloft as we know it.

The result is something very much like fun. A Ravenloft developed away from Module I6 as though almost nothing after module I6 existed. I said this could happen at the end of my run through the original module and now it is.

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The Nameless Von

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I owe Planescape Torment an apology. Whatever was going through my head the day I rejected it out of hand was a BadWrongThought of the lowest order. While there is a certain amount of grey/brown everything-is-shit going on so far, I have thoroughly enjoyed tooling around the Hive punching thugs in the face and looking for minor deeds to do while I make some sense out of it all.

I have deliberately chosen to avoid the Wiki and the strategy guide this time out. My obsessive double-checking in ref. Baldur’s Gate has, together with my familiarity with the game’s plot after (so many) aborted runs, robbed the exercise of much enjoyment, so I’m going in blind. I’m only using references when I flat out can’t find things (because the pathways to them are well hidden behind the game’s fixed perspective) or have totally forgotten where a quest-giver was (only happened once).

In the absence of any clue what’s going on, my Nameless One is a genteel but hard-headed bruiser (CON18, WIS16 with levelling bonuses, CHA14, everything else at 10), living up to his True Neutral alignment thus far and with a drive to establish what the fuck is going on, with the minimum of fuss and nonsense, and then die quietly. He also seems to be pulling a bit of a Night Haunter, insofar as he is trailing dead street thugs across the Hive and is quick to react to clear injustice, even if he drinks baatezu whiskey on his downtime.

Sigil seems pretty compelling so far, more out-and-out Fantastic than the faux-medievalisms I’m used to. The soundtrack is excellent and the variety of strange beasts and other sentients on the streets feels closer to Star Wars than the D&D norm. I also like the collection of characters and sketches present within the GOG.com download, and will probably find a way to use them for something. I begin to see the appeal in this Sword and Planet stuff. I am however slightly perplexed at the priorities of the locals: there are a dozen harlots on any street but a man cannot purchase a shirt, let alone armour, anywhere. Shambling around in a skully codpiece with a +1 battleaxe may be the stuff of barbarian heroism but I like to think I’m a bit more civilised than that. Perhaps trousers will be forthcoming later in the affair. For now, I intend to sort out this weird display bug where an uncentred camera pursues the void in the top left of the screen and a centred one doesn’t always move the view around with my characters. It’s making the adventure quite awkward.

I shall doubtless return to this post for liveblogging purposes as the adventure continues. Stay tuned.