I think you could create a gothic spectrum something like this: Edgar Poe, Emily Bronte, Warhammer Fantasy, romance novels, Batman, X-Files, Addams Family, Elvira’s Haunted Hills. I also think you could do an Old School Hack game that settles anywhere on that spectrum.
In fact, I think Old School Hack is better suited for gothic fantasy than Dungeons and Dragons, and just as good as Warhammer (a major claim.) Why?
Old School Hack has a flatter power structure. That’s a major advantage. By the time you are a 7th level cleric or wizard in D&D, you’ve got superhuman world-bending powers. If you can fly or teleport or fling fireballs, then it is difficult to stay connected to the fundamental roots of gothic horror that viscerally affect the players–just like Justice League power scale is no longer suitable for tackling gangsters and bank robbers. The more alien your character is to the player, the harder it is for visceral terror and horror to transmit through that character to the player.
So, about those fundamental roots of gothic horror. I think Jack Shear really nailed it with the essay at the beginning of his compendium. He makes the point that gothic survived as a genre as adapting to blend with other genres–a mode of literary production rather than a genre. “A genre assumes that the literary form has some immutable internal structure; while the imagistic and stylistic conventions that define the Gothic are recognizable, the Gothic’s mutational proclivities are far too broad, changeable, and migratory to fit into a strict generic designation.” He goes on to note “The Gothic both absorbs other literary forms and hybridizes them and functions as the raw material from which other forms of artistic production are created.”
So what “imagistic and stylistic conventions” are we talking about? He’s got a great list from the essay.
Gothic literature is filthy with the following generic conventions: an
imperiled heroine whose life and/or virginity is often at stake, a
Catholic setting (generally either Spain or Italy in the early Gothic
novels); a focus on terror (psychological fear) or horror (disgust) or
both as affect; a long-buried secret from the past that can no longer be
repressed; monstrosity (whether human or inhuman) or villainy (often
a patriarchal figure of power); violence and sexuality that passes
beyond the border of the socially acceptable; incest; doubling
(doppelgangers, mistaken identities, etc.); a decrepit castle,
monastery, fortress, dungeon, or other medieval structure as part of
the setting; the Inquisition and the misuse of religious authority;
specters, ghosts, or phantasmal visions (remnants of the past that
cannot be repressed); mysterious veiled women; fragmentary
narratives (framed narrative, missing text, etc.); enclosure, premature
burial, and imprisonment.
Okay, for people who want to pick Old School Hack up and run with it, keep this list handy, and if you’re not sure what happens next, pick something! You can play it for creeps and also for laughs. (Elvira’s Haunted Hills is a GREAT example of playing it for laughs.)
At the heart of a successful Old School Hack game is the Awesome Point economy. People give each other Awesome Points to reward behavior that makes the game better. This can be goofy fun, but if the group wants to play a more serious gothic game… see where this goes? The players decide what is awesome! So if they want a gothic atmosphere, then they play that way, and reward each other for reinforcing that play style. The rate of character leveling, the ability to overcome challenges even when betrayed by the dice, the capacity to use talents that are not yet earned, and some management of damage given and received are all regulated by Awesome Points–you key into Awesome Points, you key into the whole game. The mood is, in this way, mechanically consensual.
The underlying philosophy of “awesome” clearly undergirds Jack Shear’s vision of the World Between, as well as Old School Hack. His section on “The World Between in Detail” involves a one-sentence summary, a paragraph of run-on imagery, a taste, a sound, and an image. He can fit three national/regional “in detail” summaries to a page. The evocative foundation this provides is very Old School Hack, but it lacks the sort of information normally needed to run a game without doing a lot of foundational work, or improvising the whole thing.
The World Between, in my opinion, takes the standard D&D setting and trims back character diversity while going into overdrive making the setting varied and interesting. If you play aliens, being confronted by alien influences has less punch.
Old School Hack, the Fictive Way, is prepared for this. A mass of human templates mean you can create extremely varied low fantasy adventurers. My work already marinaded in Warhammer Fantasy, a clear influence on Shear’s work also. However, the World Between stomps on the gas for weirding the world out in a way Warhammer is not prepared to do–but Old School Hack is. Keeping the power scale lower means characters have fewer “win button” spells or items, so while they are over the top they are still mortal and can be threatened without resorting to huge hit die monsters or tiresome spell lists in the hands of NPCs.
There is more to come as I continue to delve into the compendium and adapt many of the pieces that are there, as well as fleshing out some implied elements (like the map and the history.) My special thanks to Jack W. Shear for such a great inspiration, and for his approval of my efforts here. Stay tuned, more to come.