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.