[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.

[Meta Gaming] Vintage Years For Grimdark

In a comment thread on the House of Paincakes, resident genius Mr. Cedric Ballbusch staked out the idea that it was a terrible, terrible mistake on the part of Games Workshop to set its space fantasy dakkafest at the end of the titular forty-first millennium. Easy enough to say with the benefit of hindsight, says I, but at the time I don’t think a) Messrs Priestly, Stillman, Halliwell et al were expecting the game to last for twenty-six years and counting, and b) they could have done things any differently.

Perhaps some context will help.

I was born in 1985; the same year that, for the first time since its launch, Doctor Who was deemed too shite for public broadcast, and the same year that The Sisters of Mercy sold out the Royal Albert Hall. It took another couple of years for the other great loves of my life to materialise – Hark was born in 1986 (obligatory mushy stuff here) and, in 1987, the aforementioned Sisters released Floodland and Games Workshop launched this funny thing called Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader.

While I don’t think there’s an explicit link between these latter two concepts, you have to understand that in the third term of Thatcher’s Britain, living with the rattling madwoman-in-the-attic spasms of the Cold War’s final years and under the dusty toxic shadow of Chernobyl, a definite sense of fin de siecle seems to have hung in the air, which the two products under the microscope here illustrate beautifully. While not the literal turn of a century in the same sense that the Decadence of the 1890s was, there’s a definite sense of closure, shutting down, boarding up the old shop windows and getting ready to call it a day. How else does one explain the brief fashionable flourish of gothic rock, a prevailing cultural mindset in which the Sisters can nab three Top Ten hits in a year?

The associations between the Games Workshop of the 1980s and the seemingly-invincible Iron Lady have been well documented (here and also here). Everywhere North of Watford and west of, say, Oxfordshire, there’s a sense of hard times, watching the skies, wondering if the rising waters or the falling bombs are going to kill us first. It’s no accident that The Sisters Of Mercy emerged from Yorkshire and no accident at all that 1987 saw them metamorphose into a synth-driven brooding engine, dropping out three singles around three themes – personal revenge elevated to pompous epic, geopolitical economics reduced to a semi-plausible adventure of loss and betrayal, and a seething, sexy, fuck-it-all-let’s-have-a-dance-in-the-ruins post-industrial foot-tapper. What else are you going to do in all those empty mills? Floodland is a personal breakdown wedded to a political quagmire, the one serving as metaphor for the other; it’s unrelentingly, gloriously doom-laden and yet there’s three songs which are basically elaborate sex metaphors and one about soaring away on an amphetamine-fuelled high. Steve Sutherland said at the time:

Dying on record is a dicey business, especially when it’s world destruction that dogs your every waking minute because there’s nowhere to go artistically – the bomb doesn’t get worse, it’s just there. Facing up to that, Floodland is a triumph of sorts, neither optimistic enough to suggest there’s a Noah’s Ark nor pessimistic enough to accuse us all of navigating like a ship of fools. It simply says rust never sleeps and this is what it sounds like.

I’m of the opinion that Warhammer 40,000, with its looming fin de grande siecle feel, is tapping into that same sense that there’s nowhere left to go but that we might as well have fun while we’re waiting for the bombs to start falling. The sense that there may soon be nowhere else to go, that our leader is simply not going to go away any time soon, that everything is falling apart but we keep it together because what else is there? That’s Thatcher’s Britain writ large. That’s the vision at the heart of Floodland. That’s the essence of 40K right there.

How could they not set it when they did? The ol’ China (Mieville, of course) never spoke truer words than “when you sit down to write, society is in the chair with you”, and the society of the mid-to-late-Eighties was one in which, for a brief moment, Mr. Eldritch and his drum machine were right on the cultural button.

It couldn’t last, of course. 40K’s black humour and smirk in the face of oblivion would be exaggerated and distorted as we moved toward the actual end of the millennium and realised that the end of the world has still failed to arrive on time.

The process started, I think, in 1993. Doctor Who‘s thirtieth anniversary, ‘celebrated’ with the cack-awful ‘Dimensions In Time’, a special which – sweet, nourishing irony! – crossed-over with the very programme in favour of which Who was cancelled. (Incidentally, if you think goth music and 40K are depressing, watch EastEnders for a month. Especially at Christmas.) The Sisters released their last single, and have since lurched along on permanent strike, touring every couple of years, trotting out a few new songs every time, but refusing to release either Jack or Shit.

Meanwhile, 40K received its Tom Kirby Big Box Game treatment (although this is where I came in, so I can’t be too hard on it). The words on the front of the box? IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FAR FUTURE THERE IS ONLY WAR. ‘Grim Darkness’ has become ‘grimdark’ since then, said with a sneer, in much the same way as “I still like The Sisters Of Mercy!” has become perfect shorthand for being sad, out of touch, trapped in one’s own memories. 40K wallows in its own pomposity, cranking its own release cycle like mad, subsequent Codices acting as ever-bigger giants, turning full circle back to random tables, Vortex grenades and psychic powers on cards (y’know, those things from… 1993’s second edition); forever ramping up the thread of an apocalypse it’ll never have the balls to see through.

At the time, it made perfect sense. Now? I don’t know. All the things I love have turned into zombies. I’ve spoken of my love for ‘dead’ things before, things which aren’t going to be fucked around with in order to produce a new iteration for the sake of paying the bills, and yet I can’t quite put down Doctor Who, or The Sisters Of Mercy, or indeed 40K.

I’m still selling my Necrons, though. And I still type things in Caslon Antique.

[Meta Gaming] Dreams in the Lich House – ‘What is the Weird’?

In discussing the difference between ‘weird’ and ‘gonzo’, and the internal consistency of a fantasy setting, Beedo asked:

Here’s a good question, like a thought exercise – is an alien ruin in a historical Viking game different, in terms of Weird vs Gonzo, than placing it in a high-magic fantasy campaign loaded with magic items and high level wizards?

An alien ruin in a high-magic fantasy setting is just as out of place as it is in the historical Viking setting, but the place that things are in or out of is different in each of these settings, and so we notice alien-ness more in the historical than in the fantastic.

Continue reading “[Meta Gaming] Dreams in the Lich House – ‘What is the Weird’?”