One of the most exciting aspects of the Dungeons & Dragons game is the fact that it can tell stories in countless ways. Since stories were being told long before D&D appeared on the scene, an enterprising dungeon master (DM) can draw inspiration from centuries-old literary genres when designing adventures. Gothic horror is one such genre, and this post will describe both the elements of Gothic horror stories and a method for employing them as tools for D&D adventure design.
Origins of Gothic Horror
The genre that we currently call Gothic horror developed in the 18th Century; it combined elements of horror literature with that of the Romantic Movement. Thus, gothic writers temper the emphasis horror places on fear and dread with the high emotion, primal sublimation and awe of nature’s power typically depicted in Romantic works. In short, Gothic is a genre of emotionally-charged tales of the supernatural, in which primal and/or evil forces battle against “civilized” forces represented by – or within – heroes.
Elements of Gothic Horror
By definition, a literary genre represents a group of works with traits in common; through listing those traits typically associated with Gothic horror, this post can provide a clear definition of the genre by example.
While there are no formal setting restrictions for Gothic tales, the Gothic literary tradition gravitated toward setting stories in mysterious, ancient places, places of spiritual significance, and isolated locales, often punctuated with astonishing natural beauty. By night, these same locations become dark, lonely, foreboding settings.
Common “ingredients” for gothic tales include:
- Death and undeath
- Dreams and nighmares
- Intense emotion, sometimes taken to obsessive extremes
- Madness, possession, or exorcism
- Presence of the supernatural
- Religion, often represented by a conflict between ancient and modern religion or an inquisition
- Revenge for real or imagined slights
- Superstition and
- Torture, Sadism or Masochism
Gothic villains and monsters
Gothic villains tend to be sinister, scheming types who place little or no value on human life. Since part of a Gothic protagonist’s journey usually involves visiting a pristine location and then discovering a dark secret or force lurking nearby, Gothic authors often developed villains that were difficult to identify or locate, so that the illusion of normalcy might be maintained in the setting. Interestingly, common Gothic villains and monsters have counterparts in the D&D rules, such as demons, shape-shifters, vampires, werewolves and witches.
Gothic neutral characters
These characters populate the Gothic setting, typically to illustrate the superstitions of the area or to provide the hero with hints about events that are transpiring. In a Medieval Gothic tale, they include peasants and commoners, clergy and scholars.
Translating Gothic Concepts into a D&D Adventure
To apply these literary conventions to D&D adventure design, follow these five steps:
- Pick three elements from the “Plot Elements” list above.
- Choose one or more settings.
- Define the villain and detail the villain’s allies and servants.
- Extrapolate the plot from what has already been determined.
- Ensnare the heroes.
An example of a Gothic D&D adventure plot
Step 1: We choose religion, revenge and secrets.
Step 2: We decide upon an ancestral family castle, a church of an “old” religion and a church of a “new” religion.
Step 3: How about a demon? Better yet, let’s have a shape-changing demon who has fooled a group of clerics into thinking it is an angel or other celestial entity.
Step 4: Let us imagine a small, remote mountain village where the Old Ways (some form of ancient, Druidic religion) are still largely followed by the common folk. The young Lord Julian, whose lands include the village, lives in his family’s ancestral home and is a recent convert to the New Way, the religion of Erathis. Of late, Julian has become enthralled by a local beauty, the daughter of the village blacksmith; Julian is pressuring the girl’s father to give the girl in marriage to him.
Both the girl and the blacksmith are reluctant to agree to the union, for two reasons. First, the girl was planning to devote her life to becoming a priestess of the Old Way, and second, the last two girls Julian voiced an interest in marrying disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
This is where the secrets begin.
Secret 1: Julian maintains a private chapel in his castle’s basement (the church of the “new” religion), where he practices his version of the religion of Erathis. Unfortunately, Julian’s religion involves obeying the orders of a demon disguised as an angel; the demon tells him that his brides-to-be must be purified from the taint of the Old Way through pain. Julian has introduced the priests from the village shrine of Erathis to this entity, and they are convinced that the demon speaks with Erathis’ authority. When their divine powers were no longer granted, the clerics were convinced that the “taming” of the village was a task designed to test their abilities without divine power. The clerics have begun rooting out heresy among the villagers, and several have been burned at the stake.
Secret 2: Julian’s “purification” techniques amounted to nothing more than brutal torture. Encouraged by the demon, he has resorted to increasingly severe ways of hurting his captives, and has gradually become a sadist. By the time the heroes arrive in town, Julian has tortured no fewer than five women to death.
Secret 3: The bodies of the slain women are buried in unmarked graves, not far from a grove of Elms sacred to the Old Way (the church of the “old” religion).
Secret 4: The spirits of the slain women couldn’t pass into the next world without a proper burial, so they have taken to haunting the castle. They will provide the heroes with information about the hidden chapel and torture chamber if the heroes will find the women’s graves, bury them properly, and avenge their deaths on Julian.
Step 5: The DM can employ several plot hooks to ensnare the heroes, including:
- They may be asked by the Temple of Erathis to stamp out a primitive religion in the village.
- The heroes could be summoned by Lord Julian for help with putting an end to the haunting of his castle.
- They may be called by the Druids of the Old Way to stop what is quickly turning into a religious inquisition.
- Or they may be related by blood, honor or friendship to the blacksmith, who calls for aid when he finds his daughter in danger.
In any event, the heroes will find themselves journeying to a beautiful mountain valley, where they must investigate the castle, speak with the ghosts, locate their graves to end the hauntings, find the hidden shrine, identify Julian’s heretical practices, confront and defeat the demon, and put an end to the inquisition. Through all these trials, the heroes may not learn the identity of their true enemy until the final battle – but that is the stuff from which Gothic adventures are spun.