[Meta Gaming] 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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[OSR D&D] Actual Play Report – Social Justice Warriors vs. Castle Ravenloft, Session 3

“I’m dead, aren’t I?”

“You’ve fallen a hundred and thirty feet. You tell me.”

So, when last we left off, Anura (Hark’s Paladin) and Svinish Ingmov (E’s Cleric/Thief) were parked in Strahd’s dining room and had flung abuse (and a chicken leg) at the “it’s all done with mirrors” Strahd, provoking his ire and pitching all things into stormy darkness. Unbeknownst to them, the spectre of the powerful evil cleric from the Chapel was still active, and would return after five hours to deliver its deadly screech at an inopportune moment.

They pressed on, huddled in the Continual Light from Svinish’s enchanted garlic clove, and Anura found the fake organ pipe that led into the passage around the outside wall. (Incidentally, the rather uninspiring “there is a secret door here” required a certain amount of dressing up – I would have preferred this to be more detailed since, again, if I’m lazy enough to run a module I’m lazy enough to not make up my own secret door mechanisms.)

Five Strahd Zombies awaited them in the tower floor at the far end; Anura successfully Turned them into hiding long enough for the party to proceed around the corner and fight a rearguard action. The zombies were overcome in a rather cramped combat where Anura took something of a beating and Ismar was guided to step in and finish things off. The Strahd zombies’ dismembered body parts were a nice touch, and much was made of severed hands, orphaned legs and slithering viscera; this really seemed to have some impact on E., who made eliminating these atrocities something of a priority in Svinish’s turns.

(At this level, combats feel like they take too long, with high HP totals being thwapped to and fro. Descriptive fatigue began to set in and after the fourth or so go, the turns were boiling down to “I roll to hit, I roll damage” in an effort to get this random encounter out of the way. Part of it, as E. noted in our after-action review, was the number of cramped corridor fights; one feels like the fights should be happening in places like Strahd’s dining room where there’s more scenery to play off. I don’t know if this is a weakness of my bad self as a DM, if I should be putting more interactables in corridors a la Diablo III where walls can be crashed down and dubious-quality floors broken in, but again, that feels like work that a module should be doing in and of itself… am I missing the point of modules entirely or something?)

The party ascended the staircase on the bottom right corner of the dining room and found themselves on the ramparts, breaking into Strahd’s cloakroom when they found the window thereto and making a big damn deal out of setting light to his cloaks and evening dress (presumably because they found him to be an insufferable poseur). When they proceeded through to Strahd’s boudoir they found Gertrude, snapped her out of her fairytale illusions with Svinish’s claim that “you think you’re the first? Eighteen other girls, babe, eighteen other girls” making her decide that she didn’t want to be in Bluebeard, and demanded that she lead them to the study, i.e. the room next door, i.e. the room where Strahd himself was lurking, invisible and aloft, alerted by the crashing of windows, the smell of smoke from his dressing room, and the noise of Svinish being oratorical.

This wasn’t the easiest thing for me to administer, since Strahd had Svinish Charmed and his stated objective was to capture Ireena, who was being kept safe in the middle of the party. In the end I had him drop onto the top of them as they entered the room proper, and abuse the surprise round and his superior vampire speed to yank her into the ‘Miss Havisham’ dining room next door, Hold Portal on the door and leave them giving chase the long way round, finding the steel door leading to the back stairs up to the next level Held by the time they got there.

Restraining Ismar for as long as they could, the players ransacked Strahd’s study and eventually found their way into the false treasury behind the fireplace. Svinish opened the chest and with a hiss of gas, the unfortunate and increasingly ineffective NPC Cleric Donavich passed out for the next four hours. The party left Gertrude to keep an eye on him and returned to the steel door (now un-Held).

The corridor beyond held another corridor fight with the two wraiths, and this is where I began to regret my “I’ll give you some extra levels since you’re only two characters” choice at the start of play. At the very least I should have stayed within the upper end of the module’s original threshold – two level sevens with a magic item each would have had a much less awkward/boring/player-frustrating fight here, with their Turns strong enough to pin the wraiths in their alcoves and the fight itself amounting to an exercise in punching fog, since there was so little to do in a cross-shaped otherwise-empty corridor. Ismar, who was in the lead and still only fourth level, lost all his levels in a single blow and perished, while Svinish lost a level in Thief from a hit during the first round before he had Shillelagh up and cast.

There followed some discussion over what to do with Ismar’s body, since nobody wanted him coming back as a vengeful undead wossname (good job too since Strahd had that Animate Dead burning a hole in his spell list), and eventually they shut him in the chest in the fake treasury, spending some time staring at the dead guy and the torches, certain that there was something they should be doing but not twigging what it needed to be. In the end they took both the torches and proceeded up the stairs beyond the steel door, where they encountered…

… Leif, the Count’s Accountant! Deploying all the oily charm and Charisma at their disposal, they convinced Leif to show them into the King’s Chamber, wherein were kept the Sunsword and the Holy Symbol of Ravenloft both. Anura’s cursed +1 sword of genericness fused with the Sunsword to create, well, a sword of Strahd-murdering, and Svinish claimed the Holy Symbol. (If the players hadn’t both been kinda pissed at D&D combat I’d have had a random encounter here for them to test out their new toys and pose them a major challenge, but that wraith fight seemed to have left a bad taste in their mouths. Perhaps that evil cleric spectre should have showed up again…)

There then followed some… confused… exploration. My notes on this part are a bit scanty, but I recall a lot of trawling through corridors, finding the deep deep shaft through which the ‘elevator’ trap operates, and E. trying to climb down it, botching the roll and technically sending Svinish to his doom.

(Here follows a lengthy discussion of good DMing practice ‘twixt myself and E., in which I explain that this sort of “you did something dumb and now you reroll and start over” play is meant to be part of the game’s charm. E. was not convinced, or perhaps not entirely clear on why this was a good thing – it wasn’t a death that served any particular dramatic or narrative purpose, and she’d done the stupid thing because she had no idea what else to do with this room, no dungeoneering experience to draw on. Now, building up that experience through repeated character deaths is again, part of the game, and I wonder if we shouldn’t have started out as lowbies and learned those lessons instead of engaging with this module that has a kind of narrative shape to it. At least one of the authors was implicated in Dragonlance, allegedly the true birth of story-gaming, and it’s true that Ravenloft feels at times like something that’s not meant to work as a deathtrap dungeon in the old school sense. You’re meant to get through it and uncover Strahd and once you’re in there it feels a bit contrived to just… have a new PC turn up out of nowhere. I know that’s how old school works, but Ravenloft is so concerned with Strahd and his motivations and its own attempts to be rooted in a literary genre that it fosters a different set of expectations and creates a clash between narrative and the pure game.

For the sake of getting through the module I allowed a backsie, which I still feel was in some way the Wrong decision, a compromise of my integrity – but then I’d fudged around Hark’s arbitrary ‘whoops you rolled less than 5% and now you fall through the drawbridge to your death’ death at the beginning too, which I suppose outs me as a storygamer Swine who has no business feeling guilty about ‘proper DM practice’ in the first place. I think the difference here is that a player did something dumb and I have, in the past, stated that ignorance and carelessness are the things that will get characters killed, so it does feel like a betrayal of my principles. I felt, though, that E. hadn’t engaged with those principles, that we didn’t have the sort of good faith and common understanding that that was how the game worked, and that putting her out of action with this rather self-contained module incomplete would effectively put her out of the game, and leave the implied Gothic novel narrative of Ravenloft with a poor sense of closure. I wonder if that couldn’t be avoided with having each player control more than one character, so that there can be casualties along the way without a player being left out – but the ladies expressed that they definitely didn’t want to do that, so it wasn’t an option.

This is rapidly turning into gamer angst of the sort that I’m trying to get over and give up and avoid. Let’s just admit that I’m a storygamer and that the reason for Orks is Orks and that all this “but was that Right?” is MUKKIN ABAHT and move on.)

At some point during the confused ramble through corridors, with player frustration mounting due to Ravenloft’s no-real-castle-is-like-this internal structure, the party elected to go down the set of stairs through which Strahd had escaped. Hark expressed no desire whatsoever to pass through the guardroom full of mould – “stuff’s going to jump out at us, probably skeletons, we’ll all get poisoned, let’s not” (at least one of us has a sense of old-school dungeon savvy). Instead, the party went on and startled Cyrus. By this stage the girls were sick of Ravenloft’s interior bullshit and I was sick of the schizoid module and the further disconnect between the players’ expectations and the provided material and so I did what I always do when I try to run anything By The Book and skipped to something dramatic. Cyrus was startled and fled up the servants’ staircase and ladder into the spires, the party followed, and there was a final confrontation at the top of the 230-foot shaft.

Strahd was there, attempting to put his ‘fluence in Ireena, who had her back to the drop. When she saw the players arrive, she took a dive into the shaft. (Note: for reasons of Making This Thing Interesting I’d made Ireena a Bard rather than a Fighter, which was a mistake and something I’d not do again. She cast Feather Fall on herself as she fell. Now, in another time and place I would have killed Ireena off and let the whole thing stand as a Pyrrhic victory, a no score draw as it were. Doing so would have underlined the futility of Strahd and his curse – no matter what he does his ‘bride’ always ends up plunging to her doom. I sort of regret not doing that but I think it would have been a wasted effort since the ladies were both sick to death of the module and of Strahd by that stage and we all wanted proper closure.)

This ended up as a weirdly bathetic climax, and yet with traces of the epic about it. Anura managed to lose the Sunsword on her first attack, a natural 1 sending it spiralling down the shaft. (I have no idea if that’s actually in the rules but we were already mishmashing OSRIC and 2e and fuck knows what else, and I’ve always had the ‘lowest natural roll is a fumble, highest natural roll is a cric’ house rule in play and I don’t intend to stop now. Von fails at Refereeing yet again.) Hark lost two levels to Strahd’s return attack, but Svinish’s Turn Undead triggered the Holy Symbol‘s sunlight power and pinned him in place long enough for a Call Lightning to mostly fry him and the Shillelagh to batter off his head while Anura rammed the stake-dagger from the first session into his heart, mercifully sparing us the obligation to do another session of catacomb crawling to find his tomb. Another lightning bolt took the roof off the Spires as the party descended to find Ireena alive and well, lowering the drawbridge to admit the mob of peasants roused in the second session. Sergei manifests, is reunited with ‘Ireena’, Ravenloft is reclaimed for the followers of the Raven Goddess and her last surviving cleric, and all is once again well.

Now. Despite this being a mixed bag of a long session which left my DM chops on questionable territory, neither of the ladies hate either my DMing or the game of D&D – they just want some better material next time. E. even has an interest in taking over the throne once we’ve done a few one-shots to give her an idea of what other rules systems and other, less schizoid games are like (see above point about Ravenloft kind of pulling against itself a lot of the time). The irony of it all is that what E. is interested in is the kind of political, discursive domain-level play which a) forms the Original Game’s ‘endgame’ and b) is my default setting as a World of Darkness GM, and following the clearance of Castle Ravenloft I can see how that form of play could easily unfold.

With Barovia freed from Count Strahd’s curse and the upper Spires of Ravenloft destroyed, the old monastery can be rededicated and serve as the centre of the PCs’ domain. There’s the small matter of the catacombs themselves left to be cleared, possibly by a group of lowbies so that some proper dungeoneering can be learned. Strahd’s banshee apprentice/lover Patrina could well make an appearance there. Helga, the other named vampire in the module, wasn’t encountered and would be interesting to deploy. There’s a lot that I could do to redeem the experience of Ravenloft, but I think we’re all a bit sick of it and want to move on, find or build something that’s more in tune with itself and with the expectations of these players.

For my part, I feel vaguely unsatisfied, but I’m determined not to brood over it. Posting and writing these reports has served as reflection, but it’s left me with no clear resolution. Rather than sit here being all autistic-persistent and fretting over the same dilemmas I’m turning the conclusion over to you, dear readers. What lessons do you think I should learn from this?