Author Topic: Gothic Conventions: Setting/Themes/Character/  (Read 94596 times)


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Gothic Conventions: Setting/Themes/Character/
« on: January 19, 2006, 11:44:32 AM »

I was talking with kaithos the other day when the idea to make this post occurred.  So, for anyone interested in exploring themes and conventions appropriate for the gothic Ravenloft setting, here we go :)

This should help with the writing of fiction as well as providing good ideas to use during game play.

Feel free to contribute.

"Goth" is a term that was applied to various Germanic tribes who ransacked southern Europe from 376-410 CE.  Because the Goths were credited with bringing about the fall of Rome and its classical culture, Renaissance and Enlightenment critics later applied the term "Gothic" negatively, to mean "medieval" or that which was considered barbaric. Medieval or "Gothic" architecture, for example, did not follow the classical ideals of simplicity, unity, and symmetry—instead, soaring towers, pointed vaults or arches, flying buttresses, gargoyles and other intricate or "wild" elements prevailed in churches, castles, and monasteries. "Gothic" gradually lost its negative connotation and was used to refer to an ancient past, often in a nostalgic way.

The Gothic movement in literature, like Romanticism, is viewed as a reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, a return to the primitive. The 18th century was an "Age of Reason" concerned with classical principles and scientific progress. The novel, a young genre, was predominantly realistic and didactic. Appearing near the end of the 18th century, however, Gothic novels drew upon the conventions of the medieval (chivalric) romances that told of knights battling with magic and monsters. Gothic novels presented a protagonist’s immersion into a dark, horrific realm of some kind and reintroduced supernatural elements into fiction.

Gothic texts characteristically deal with difficult-to-express issues and anxieties. Boundaries or limits (political, philosophical, sexual, etc.) are both established and challenged in Gothic fiction. Blurring or disruptions of borders are common (e.g., inside/outside, illusion/reality, masculine/feminine, material/spiritual, good/evil), and the tensions between the scientific and the supernatural are often prominent.  Originally called "Gothic romances," Gothic novels were consumed by a popular audience—often women—and initially considered to be of low literary quality.  The Gothic novel's "golden age" is generally cited as lasting from 1764-1840; however, the Gothic influence remains visible not only in literature, but also in film, television, music, and even dance.

  Conventions of the Gothic Novel:
--wild landscapes  
--remote or exotic locales
--dimly lit, gloomy settings  
--ruins or isolated crumbling castles or mansions (later cities and houses)  
--crypts, tombs  
--dungeons, torture chambers  
--dark towers, hidden rooms  
--secret corridors/passageways  
--dream states or nightmares  
--found manuscripts or artifacts  
--ancestral curses  
--family secrets  
--damsels in distress  
--marvellous or mysterious creatures, monsters, spirits, or strangers  
--enigmatic figures with supernatural powers  
--scientific tone (fantastic events observed empirically)  
--specific reference to noon, midnight, twilight (the witching hours)  
--use of traditionally "magical" numbers such as 3, 7, 13  
--unnatural acts of nature (blood-red moon, sudden fierce wind, etc.)


A little finger...went to the lipless lips...of the bone masked face...'shhh…' it whispered into the dead man’s ear."


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« Reply #1 on: January 19, 2006, 01:12:53 PM »
To stick with Crallbri’s ideas for this thread I would like to include a few ideas about what I think the Ravenloft setting is all about. I am not expert, nor am I trying to preach at anyone.  I just want to try and help if I may.

 Here is a link to a Gothic Cinema site.

I think these are fine references to use to get the general “feeling” of Prisoners of the Mist.

I believe that the primary ingredient to any gothic novel or setting is the ideal of horror. According to Webster’s Dictionary horror means the following:

Main Entry: 1hor•ror  
Pronunciation: 'hor-&r, 'här-
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English horrour, from Middle French horror, from Latin, action of bristling, from horrEre to bristle, shiver; akin to Sanskrit harsate he is excited
1 a : painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay <astonishment giving place to horror on the faces of the people about me -- H. G. Wells> b : intense aversion or repugnance
2 a : the quality of inspiring horror : repulsive, horrible, or dismal quality or character <contemplating the horror of their lives -- Liam O'Flaherty> b : something that inspires horror
3 plural : a state of extreme depression or apprehension

Definition number 1 states that it refers to a “painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay.”  These words open up a vast opportunity for characters within Prisoners of the Mist to custom fit or tailor their character for specific ways that he or she can deal with the perpetual “darkness” on the server. Whether this horror is expressed through terror, depression, melancholy behavior, or even madness, it simply must be expressed if one wishes to fully enjoy the mood and setting of the server.  Remember, this is not a mild discomfort.  Horror must be “to the bone” to be genuine.

There are many elements already hard coded in the server for us to react to that should inspire dread.  The opening scenes after character creation places the character in a strange land, alone, vulnerable, and clearly taken advantage of by an unknown assailant.  Then the player character awakens in the presence of the Vistani, only to be treated with indifference and a mysterious card reading. Such dark occurrences instantly should inspire at least a small sense of horror in both the player character and the player him or herself. Use this initial reaction, and then build upon it.  In time, your character should develop a sense of horror.  Then the character must either find a way to overcome it, or role-play a way to pacify it.

*note* It is my opinion that this should be a long and drawn out experience.  Making it to level five, and then role-playing your character as if he fears nothing is a lazy way to play.  I am not judging anyone; however, if you genuinely want to experience the gothic horror of Ravenloft, you have to prepare yourself for the future with your current role-play.

Now let us explore some ideas about what inspires fear.  Is it the known dangers in life, or is it the disturbing unknown dangers that are lurking in the shadows?  Known dangers are easy to deal with.  If one knows there is a lion in the next crop of trees, then one will use common sense and avoid that area.  However, if one is left alone in a strange jungle, and he or she knows not what lies ahead, behind, or to the sides, then every sound is potentially perceived as the stalking lion laying in wait for its prey.  See the difference?  This is what the ideal of gothic horror is all about in my opinion.  It is not the seen, but the unseen that grips the heart and takes hold of a person’s very being.

Now envision that this jungle is not simply a patch of exotic trees and wildlife, but instead is a living and breathing entity within itself.  It lives just a certainly as the flora and fauna within lives. The jungle itself, not only the lion, is the hunter…and you are the prey. This is the feeling one would wish to evoke within the Ravenloft setting, for in essence it is true.  Barovia is a living breathing region in which the most harmless of creatures could in reality be a beast of measurable terror. A place where even the wind and trees have implied emotions as the wind howls with rage and the trees groan in despair.  Couple this dark landscape with the very real experience of Count Strahd von Zarovich and his personal command over the very wolves, bats, and animals of the land.  Add to this his ability to control the mists, and in affect control the destiny of a player character with only a whim and one can begin to feel the pulse of life that beats within the setting.  Strahd is the land, and the land is Strahd.  Of course this is not something the character knows, but it becomes more and more evident once the character begins to open his or her eyes to the ways of Barovia.

Definition Number 3 states, “a state of extreme depression or apprehension.” Ask yourself, “What in this role-playing environment brings my character to this condition?” If you cannot find anything, or if you are not role-playing something in your character’s life that mimics this feeling, then you are truly missing out on the most rewarding elements of Prisoners of the Mist. These need not be overt phobias.  The most challenging and rewarding feelings of apprehension are those left in the shadows.  A nagging fear of betrayal, a haunting feeling of paranoia, or even fear of romance or loneliness are good ways to drive your character into compelling role-playing situations.  

Believe me, there is much more to Prisoners of the Mist then simply hacking and slashing your way to higher levels.  For in time, many will want to experience the true darkness that lies in the server.  Be it through the experience of lycanthropy, the futile attempts of maintaining your humanity while afflicted with vampirism or the despair caused when the champion of light has a friend, comrade, or loved one captured by the lieutenants of Count Strahd von Zarovich. I am certain that all of these particular scenarios will be reserved for those whom the DM Team deem worthy through dedicated role-play, excellent character development, and stringent adherence to self imposed role-played actions placed upon a player character by his or her player.

I personally try to find these things in my characters via stories written in the Ravenloft Roleplay Discussion section.  The more I write, the better I know my character in how he would react to a situation. What he fears or what he holds dear is discovered as the words form on the page.  It seems the more I write, the more developed my character becomes.  This way, I am not simply creating a character and winging it.  I believe it creates more of a genuine feel to a character, and it gives me the opportunity to truly infuse the ideals of gothic and horror into the character if it is lacking in these areas. Trust me. Some of my characters really need the help. Perhaps others could try this option.  

As I say, I am not trying to preach or act as if I believe my roleplay is better than anyone elses.  I know I have many shortcomings; therefore, I only say these things to try and help others.  Please do not be offended by any of my words.  I am not the uber role-player, but I aspire to be so. :)

I suppose my point is…Try not to miss out on the fruits of the server. Become a part of the mood by instilling horror into this gothic setting.

Hope this helps a bit, and I hope I added to what Crallbri was trying to say.

Kai :)


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Gothic Conventions: Setting/Themes/Character/
« Reply #2 on: February 09, 2006, 11:48:53 AM »
The Uncanny.

I am currently reviewing for a Praxis exam on the subject of English Literature, so I might be adding on to this thread over the next month when I come across relevant concepts or ideas.   It will aid me in the process of studying and it will contribute to providing appropriate resource materials for those players interested in making the most of role playing.  I have a few things on file related to Gothic Literature, *coughs* I just need to dive in and reorganize.  But anyways, a conversation on the gothic would be incomplete without devoting some time to the concept of the uncanny.  

Wikipedia is one place you might want to check.  If your reading endurance is strong, you can even read Freud's most valuable piece of literary criticism regarding Gothic which is titled *drum beat* The Uncanny.  He uses the story of The Sandman to explore the uncanny.

I first explored the concept through a reading of Stevenson's Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.  Stevenson did a nice job in disrupting the boundaries between reality and dream.  You have the reader, and protagonist, working to solve the mystery via rationality only to continually trip up over the uncanny; the irrational, the intangible.  There was also something unnerving in the character of Mr. Hyde in that there was some nameless intangible quality about him.  I tried attributing the landscape itself in chapter three in the Gibrana thread with this very intangible quality.  I'm relatively new to writing fiction though, so I'll keep trying ;) I think the mists itself and its relationship to the land and its people opens up possibilities for the uncanny.  

Here is a brief treatment of the concept:

The German word "unheimlich" is considered untranslatable; our rough English equivalent, "uncanny", is itself difficult to define. This indescribable quality is actually an integral part of our understanding of the uncanny experience, which is terrifying precisely because it can not be adequately explained. Rather than attempting a definition, most critics resort to describing the uncanny experience, usually by way of the dream-like visions of doubling and death that invariably seem to accompany it. These recurrent themes, which trigger our most primitive desires and fears, are the very hallmarks of Gothic fiction.  

According to Freud's description, the uncanny "derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but--on the contrary--from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it" (Morris). Freud discusses how an author can evoke an uncanny response on the part of the reader by straddling the line between reality and unreality within the fiction itself. In The Fantastic, Todorov goes to some length to distinguish his structuralist approach to this genre from a Freudian psychoanalytic approach; nonetheless, he shares many of Freud's conclusions, especially in attributing literary terror to the collapsing of the psychic boundaries of self and other, life and death, reality and unreality.  

This emphasis on dreams is also essential to any analysis of Frankenstein, a text which is itself the product of a dream-vision and which seems to capture the very essence of the uncanny.

A little finger...went to the lipless lips...of the bone masked face...'shhh…' it whispered into the dead man’s ear."


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« Reply #3 on: March 01, 2006, 04:32:06 PM »
Topic: Monsters

--The monster is the harbinger of Category Crisis.  The monster resist any classification built on hierarchy or a merely binary opposition, demanding instead a 'system' allowing ployphony, mixed response (difference in sameness, repulsion in attraction), and resistance to integration.  At the same time, the monster offers an invitation to explore new spirals, new and interconnected methods of perceiving the world.  In the face of the monster, scientific inquiry and its order rationality crumble.

--The monster stands at the threshold of becoming.  Monsters are our children.  They can be pushed to the farthest margins of geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden recess of our mind, but they always return.  And when they come back, they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge, and a discourse all the more sacred as it arrives from the Outside.  The monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place.  They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expression.  They ask us why we have created them.

A little finger...went to the lipless lips...of the bone masked face...'shhh…' it whispered into the dead man’s ear."


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Gothic Conventions: Setting/Themes/Character/
« Reply #4 on: June 22, 2006, 12:29:41 AM »
Gothic Convention:  Hysteria

Wikipedia says that "Hysteria is a diagnostic label applied to a state of mind, one of unmanageable fear or emotional excesses. The fear is often centered on a body part, most often on an imagined problem with that body part (disease is a common complaint). People who are 'hysterical' often lose self-control due to the overwhelming fear."

I am sure more can be said of the significance of hysteria in the gothic genre.  I'll share as I uncover and discover more.

A little finger...went to the lipless lips...of the bone masked face...'shhh…' it whispered into the dead man’s ear."


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Re: Gothic Conventions: Setting/Themes/Character/
« Reply #5 on: January 28, 2007, 02:38:09 AM »
From The Lonesome Road ( I liked the read even though it is mainly targetted at DM's in PnP campaigns with a small party:


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 can be an adversary, but should not be 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. 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.

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. Terror Tracks are an excellent way to bring this point home for the PC's, although a 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 VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE, 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 domain lords can be larger-than-life figures, the PC's should be the center of any story, because they're the Good Guys!

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 exhaustingly 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 game 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...
« Last Edit: January 28, 2007, 02:39:43 AM by EO »