[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.

[Vampire: the Requiem] Rebuilding the World

Phase One: And The World Will Be As Gehenna


There are many prophecies, and all are true. The coming of the red star heralds the world’s ending. The world’s Cainites awake from a dream in which their Father kneels and repents, and the Curse begins to lift. The Antediluvians emerge, as foretold: ravenous and afraid for their suddenly-fragile lives, they become tyrants or monsters. The sects are abolished: the Camarilla’s grand lie is revealed and the Sabbat is decapitated, the Regency destroyed by the rampaging Absimiliard. Half of Venice disappears overnight, the Giovanni seeming to vanish from the world. Soon, the Masquerade lies in tatters, either by the actions of the ancients themselves or by the efforts made to prevent them.

The wiser of the Cainites realise that their dream is a vision: Caine has accepted the error of his ways and seeks reconciliation with his God. Surviving elders scramble for Gehenna, where something happens. Accounts vary. Some say that Caine dies for his sins and the sins of his childer; some say that Lilith, mother of monsters, helps her former lover to die and accepts the sevenfold vengeance of the Lord; some say that Malkav, his madness lifted with the coming of the final night, claims the blood of the First and all the power it implies. Whatever happens, something changes. The world changes. Game over. Would you like to play again?

(This emerged from a morning’s chat, post-VtM, about the Gehenna scenarios and the Requiem; how the Requiem might be a continuation of the old WoD instead of its replacement; how the apparent merging of old clans into new, or divided archetypes back together, and the new weaknesses and powers of the clans, all suggested it might just be possible that Malkav might have been the author of the new world, since so many of the changes are sited in the mind.)

Phase Two: World War V

13448964489902_fWith the Masquerade in tatters, vampires have become a public enemy. Massacres ensue: panic in the streets, lynchings for the good of the community, daylight strikes on havens, hunts and burnings. The vampires’ powers are not what they were, the generations flattened in the absence of a source; the retaliation is slow and intermittent. Individuals cut deals with communities, collaborate against the stupid and the crazed among their number. In several countries, laws are rushed through to register and sanction vampires – not that this does them any good when some occult equivalent of the EDF are kicking in doors and ‘protecting the real people’. Dead Rights becomes a cause celebré among the bleeding hearts of the developed world, for all of a week. The Society of Leopold is now a public arm of the Vatican, and revelling in its vindication.

Not everything goes against the vampires, though. A group of mortal mages is sympathetic to their plight, offering sanctuary and protection for the more… civilised… undead. Those who’ve been smart enough to create thralls, herds, secure havens, webs of allies and so on find that the blood bond still works. A covenant of the open-minded – the Carthian movement – is founded and demonstrates that human-vampire co-operation is possible. And finally, reappearing as suddenly as they left, the Giovanni clan (those who made it back from the underworld, at least) flex their muscles and demand some peace of mind for themselves. It helps that the Giovanni command forces which are quite the match for amateur hunters, and are not afraid to pursue a vigorous self defence; it also helps that they are capable of bankrupting several governments if pushed. Gradually, an uneasy peace emerges…

(Going down to street level makes it clear that we’ll be playing a troupe game here: Ben has a lot of practical ideas on how amateurs can hunt vampires, which compute to interesting scenarios and encounters for vampire PCs. I’m retaining the Giovanni because they’re my favourites, because I think the shadowy necromantic corporate family make excellent antagonists or alternative PCs, and because I was so amused by their clanbook synching up perfectly with what we were trying to achieve here; their grand design ultimately meant they sidestepped the apocalypse, and while they don’t rule the new world they’re certainly very influential within it.)

Phase Three: New World Order

bloodlinesThe Vampire Nation. The New Order. The Covenants. Call them what you will: they have emerged as the state of uneasy co-operation, official denial and wilful ignorance has settled. The Invictus and the Carthian Movement are two poles of vampire-human relationships: one sees it as an association between natural, superior masters and servants, the other as a dependency and a debt to be repaid. The Ordo Dracul are an echo of Metamorphosis and a memory of a transcendent horror; to them, the challenge is not merely survival but evolution, the perfection of homo desmodeus as a species discrete from its origins. The Circle of the Crone and the Lancea Sanctum have profound differences of opinion over who did what to whom at Gehenna and who learned what from whom in ancient days. The Dark Mother is contested as the saviour of all – or is it that Caine loves you, having died for your sins?

They have adversaries. VII, whoever or whatever they are, vampires of prodigious power who hover in the shadows of the New Order. Belial’s Brood, idiot infernalists whose boorish behaviour demands a good quashing for safety’s sake. The Society of Leopold, and others like it, who are convinced that the bloodsuckers have to be up to something. And, of course, the Giovanni; clan and house and covenant unto themselves, a league of perverts whose dreams of conquest have not abated in the dozen or so years since the Requiem began. There are wolves in the wilderness; the Hollow Ones could call in favours at any time; and there’s something nasty brewing in the underworld.

(Now isn’t that a fat sight better than a retcon?)

Extra Tips For Vampire GMs

Ask the players where their characters get their blood from. Really make them think about it, especially if the PC in question has no business hanging around fingering hoboes or picking up prostitutes. Do they have a trusted servant who bares vein for them twice a week (paid overtime for the pleasure, of course)? How does the servant feel about this? Above all, what would happen if that safety net of regular, planned, safe feeding was taken away? This is always a good plot to break out if the PCs don’t create one for themselves, or in the lull while you frantically work out how the hell the local Tremere are going to react to having their chantry filled with lawn ornaments or what the Toreador primogen thinks about having her childe’s illegal blood doll left in her conservatory with a note saying “people who live in glass houses can’t throw stones”.

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