Dungeons & Dragons, Southern Gothic

Exploring the Southern Gothic

Bare with me for a moment as I’m working through an idea when it comes to storytelling in my games and the sort of themes that I’m wanting to explore. Which brings me to the title of this post: what do we mean when we talk about the Southern Gothic?

At its core we’re discussing a way to thematically explore our fantasy settings that veers towards the traditional Gothic settings, like Cthulhu and Ravenloft, while doing so in a distinctly Southern manner. These settings tend to have the macabre and ironic events that are hallmarks of the American South while also exploring social issues to reveal the cultural character through a fabulist (a magical, almost fable-like retelling of the world) lens.

The themes of Southern Gothic tend to explore decay and despair, the weight of the past on the present, madness, violence, a fear of the outside world, and racial hostilities. Not every story told within a Southern Gothic tale must explore all of these themes, or even more than one, but it must be recognized that they are present within the genre nonetheless.

Other characteristics of the Southern Gothic include the presence of the irrational and the horrific; grotesque characters, both in their appearance and in their behavior, populate the worlds while a dark humor colors most things. And the line between the victim and the villain can be blurred so much that it’s hard to tell the difference.

At its core, though, the goal of Southern Gothic stories is to explore the tension between the old, imaginary South and the New South. The Old South is an imaginary reality where slaves were either non-existent or happy in their positions; where the poor were only poor because of being lazy or low breeding; where the proud, white, Southern Aristocracy could do no wrong. The New South, by contrast, is a land marked by the loss of the Civil War and the scars of slavery, racism, and the depredations of the Southern Aristocracy. The New South is constantly confronted by the tension between what they would like to believe the Old South was and the reality they have to deal with today.

There is often a sense of wrongness to the world with a palpable sense of evil present. The monsters in Southern Gothic are often symbolic reminders of the sins of the Old South and their use is often designed to explore the themes of the genre.

Now how does this work in relation to role-playing games?

This style of story telling is something that I’ve been struggling with understanding when it comes to my own games for years now. I find myself naturally trying to explore these themes, and to touch upon them when I’m running my games, but often I pull back from those instincts.

I’ve locked myself into this idea of what I’m supposed to be as a Dungeon Master where I’m only supposed to follow the “traditional” themes, as I understand them, in the game worlds. We’re supposed to be going out finding treasure, rescuing princesses, and killing bad guys.

Only I’ve never been very good at that sort of thing.

For years on Dyvers I used to have a banner that read, “Kill the Treasure, Save the Dragon, Loot the Princess.” I would rotate the who was killed, saved, and looted from time to time but it would never be the correct order because, as a group, we never did that.

Often we, my friends and I, would go out looking to save someone only to get distracted and find ourselves running from cosmic evil while trying to gamble on who would die first. We saved more monsters than we probably should have and made the scariest enemies into pets. At every point when we were supposed to turn right we went left, and when we were expected to do that we did something else entirely.

We would explore the themes of the Southern Gothic genre without fully committing to any of them – almost as though we were afraid that by doing so we would somehow be violating the spirit of the game. And we missed out on an opportunity to explore the game in ways that would have been more fulfilling to us.

I feel like it’s time that I embrace the side of me that wants to explore the Southern Gothic themes that I’m always touching on but rarely fully interacting with in my games. I hope you’ll enjoy that journey with me, dear Reader.

It’s the way I’m going and I’ve no interest in swimming against the tide.

3 thoughts on “Exploring the Southern Gothic”

  1. I seem to recall a situation relating to “kill the treasure, marry the dragon, loot the princess” in a campaign I played in a few years back. Our DM (lets call him Harley for anonymity) decided to give the party a very subtle cue as to the direction the campaign should be moving. We were all gathered in a tavern (as is custom) when a 20ft tall frog hops past the window and down the street in the direction of the local wizard’s guild. After deliberating on what course we should take for an exhausting few seconds, one of the players (a gnome bard, we’ll call him Grayson) picked up a serving tray and started working for tips. While Grayson started lining his pockets unbeknownst to the proprietor of the establishment, the party’s Druid (PJ) made the kitchen his new home and began his culinary explorations. Grayson and PJ pooled their money together and bought the tavern, where Grayson would perform folk songs about himself for the rest of his days.

    To this day I wonder what would have happened if we had followed the hippity hop down the cobble trail. Mystery? Horror? Maybe there was a carnival around the corner and we could have picked up some caramel apples and ridden a merry-go-round. I’ll never know, and that keeps me up at night. I don’t regret it at all, but there’s always that voice in the back of my head saying, “maybe PJ could have cooked that frog’s legs.”

    With love always,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This topic really hits home for both as a player and a DM. I’ve been playing in an excellent D&D game for over a year and I’ve found that out of 6 players, 1 of them consistently drive the game. She’s the newest member of our group (though she’s been playing with us for at least 3 years) and her characters always take risks and they often don’t work out, but as a DM its a heck of a lot of fun. When you played in my games she drove most of the plots too. Chatting with out DM made me realize he was a bit frustrated because she had to take an extended break and none of us stepped up. We’d react just fine to whatever the DM threw at us but we didn’t add that extra oomph and it was weighing on him.

    And it dawned on me that, yes, we were veteran players and yes we had seen what risky decisions could mean, but what is the point of playing an RPG if you don’t take risk? Without risk its like writing fanfic or seeking to write a novel. These characters…at least at this point in my life as a gamer…is merely a bunch of math in a game of make-believe with more math. Why not jump to the next roof? Why not try to pick pocket the High Priest? Why not draw from the Deck of Many Things?

    Our group is solid enough that fun is still the most important part of our time together. We can make new characters and we can even build a new campaign, but what we shouldn’t be doing, in my opinion, is not to miss the opportunity to be a risk in a fantasy world.

    So go against the grain and enjoy the journey of what Southern Gothic D&D is and please share it with us. I’d much rather read about what makes you happy than what you might write to keep the status quo.

    Liked by 1 person

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