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Hallmarks of Gothicism
These are the ten setting expectations we expect from ourselves, but also for the players to be invested in seeing and reciprocate with. We are going for a very particular feel with these game, which combines the cosmopolitan and factional atmosphere and setup of Sigil from Planescape with the gothic horror and dreadful aspect of Ravenloft, with some brutal tactical action and monster hunting from your favorite Souls game, or The Witcher. Any of these points of inspiration is all well and good, but we wanted to get down to really what makes the gothic fantasy we wished to evoke, well, gothic. Even when creating an Outworlder character, keep these hallmarks in mind, and try and incorporate them into your concept and play.
10 – The Savagery of Nature
"Mother Nature ain't very nice." In a gothic story, the natural world is cruel place, roiling with unmatched and uncontained elemental power. At times, civilization can seem to be hanging on by its fingernails, and the whole world becomes a wild frontier. Even the humblest wilderness hamlet is a bulwark against the brutal landscape. Only the tools in his hands and sheer will stand between mankind and certain death. Nature is unforgiving and can even seem malicious at times, despite its neutrality. As a story element, the natural world will be an adversary, but it is not a villain. Play up the amoral aspects of a merciless thunderstorm pummeling the characters or a hundred miles of sun-baked desert between them and the next oasis. Natural phenomena may also provide dramatic and symbolic shadings, and in this the more romantic view of nature enters the gothic sensibility.
9 – Nightmare Logic
Don't be afraid of being improbable in a gothic story, particularly in a Ravenloft campaign, where the Dark Powers can explain away just about anything. This goes for both players and Dungeon Masters. People appear and disappear, landscapes transform, the undead rule, the mind is fooled, and worlds collide. Rather than naturalistic logic, gothicism adheres to "dramatic logic", where that which is appropriate to the story and mood is what happens. If it seems stylistically appropriate, it can happen, and physics and causality be damned. Think of every time you've uttered "Cool!" in a horror or science fiction movie when something really weird happened. The Demiplane of Dread tends to follow the dizzying, freakish laws of a dreamscape, where nothing is as it seems and things can change in an instant. The only thing that binds us is the ruleset, and even that can be bent at times.
8 – Forbidden Lore
The wizened gypsy woman reading the tarot… The voudoun bokor and his shuffling nzambis… Hieroglyphics from eons pasts spelling out foul curses… These are the images of the hidden, occult world which terrifies and tantalizes the common folk. Prophecy, spiritualism, and diabolism thrust gothic stories beyond the material and into the unknown and otherworldly. In the minds of the many, association with the occult is sure to indicate dangerous connections to evil. In the Land of Mists, the existence of arcane and divine magic dampens the potency of this vision, but it can still be used to great effect. In fact, magics which bewilder even the most experienced PC wizard are sure to make the rest of the party more than a little uneasy. Furthermore, a character who wields their occult powers too proudly may find themselves under suspicion… or a gallows.
7 – Degeneration
Gothic tales are often characterized by downward spirals, morally and physically. The natural human condition, while wretched in many ways, is painted as innocent compared to what it is capable of becoming. Fear and Horror are just one way to bring this point home for the PC's, but the less heavy-handed approach is to illustrate the point through NPC's. If you want a great example of this degeneration, watch Jeff Goldblum in the remake of The Fly, as Seth's body and soul are twisted by the genetic taint of the insect within him. This theme of degeneration extends to society and even ideas. Think of the many literary clichés you've heard through the years: "The best laid plans of mice and men…", "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold…", etc. Things which begin with good intentions often become twisted to sorrow, and even the noblest visions fade eventually.
6 – Passion and Arrogance
What sins come more naturally to man than lust and pride? Together, they are the cause of nearly all misery and pain in gothic tales. Passion leads men to temptation, while arrogance ensures their downfall. Often, the two blend into one another. Dr. Frankenstein's arrogance at his own ability and his passion for knowledge both prevented him from seeing the true needs of his creation, with horrible consequences.
5 – The Sins of the Fathers
True evil does not die. Gothic stories often involve many generations, at least indirectly. They thrive on the idea that the repercussions of past actions echo across time, causing pain and destruction. Family curses, sworn vengeance, prodigal sons, buried secrets, and unforgiven sins are all hallmark elements of gothicism, especially older gothic tales. The resolution of ancient conflict is made all the more difficult by the ignorance of those caught up in its consequences.
4 – Heroes, Not Antiheroes
For all its darkness, Ravenloft is a game of heroism and hope. While alternative morality systems might have a place in the World of Darkness, the central characters of most gothic stories are traditional heroes, and they act appropriately. This doesn't mean that they're all paladins, striding into battle in the name of virtue. Many heroes are reluctant or more subtle in their pursuit of what is right. But it does mean that stories center around their deliberate struggle against evil. Though darklords can be larger-than-life figures, the PC's should be the center of any story, because they're the Good Guys! Or at least the Better People.
3 – Tragic Irony
Think of the sinners in Hell in Dante's Inferno, suffering darkly poetic fates for their lives of evil. Gothicism loves just desserts. The domain lords and their curses are perfect examples of this. Azalin sacrificed everything to spend eternity developing his magical skills, but finds himself incapable of learning a single spell. However, irony doesn't always work against the villain. Often, circumstances emerge where good intentions—or even pure happenstance—result in tragedy. Imagine a noble knight who pledges to protect a lady at all costs, and then accidentally cuts her down in a confusing battle. The wrenching emotional nature of such plot devices make gothic stories melodramatic, but also makes them powerful.
2 – Good Man / Evil World
The Western bias of gothicism comes through in its perception of the ultimate dramatic struggle. The world, to gothicism, is an evil place that snuffs out goodness. The hero, on the other hand, is virtuous. He wages a constant battle against the villain that reflects a cosmic battle against evil. His struggle is at once intensely personal and exhaustively universal. Though this is a very Judeo-Christian sentiment, its application is broad. The idea is a timeless theme in gothicism, stretching from The Castle of Otranto to The Crow.
1 – Virtue and Sacrifice
One of the most important factors in gothic tales lies in their resolution. One does not come through a Ravenloft adventure physically and morally intact merely by having the biggest guns, so to speak. Victory, no matter how hollow, is achieved through a commitment to what is right, no matter what the sacrifice. The young man who must fight back his tears and drive a stake through the heart of his lover-turned-vampire is the classic image of this ideal. The gothic hero must not submit to the darkness, and must be prepared to give up everything in the fight against evil. The rub, of course, lies in discerning good from evil…