Places to Go, People to Be [Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

"Quoth the Raven" furthermore: Interpolated Gothic Peotry

by Travis Dunn


A few months ago I put myself to the task of reading the canon of great Gothic novels: The Monk, The Italian, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Castle of Otranto, Melmoth the Wanderer, and Vathek. Ostensibly, I was hoping that I would be enriching the experience by undertaking, all at once, a set of books which would enhance my pleasure with similar prose, characters, and thematic motifs. As soon as I had began, however, an ulterior purpose arose which, though unintended, redirected my reading so as to approach the books with a critical objective: as I read I would also observe and catalogue the tropes and literary devices they used, and afterwards, having exhausted the novels, adapt the most interesting and distinctive of these tricks into my roleplaying sessions.

On the face of it this might seem a relatively obvious exercise. Gothic literature is often criticized for its melodramatic scenarios, predictable plots, formulaic characters, and sensationalism. Essentially, the same complaints can be put to most roleplaying. The typical response, however, would seem to be simply denying that this really detracts from the experience and instead, in fact, effectively defines it. Not surprisingly, this is part of the defense of Gothic literature as well. But literature has more to answer for than roleplaying and although we find some important common ground between Gothic novels and roleplaying, the novels have developed a sophistication that roleplaying has not. For instance, although The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian are tiresomely similar, they are nonetheless both bracing reads because we enjoy other elements which overmatch and excuse their formulaic nature. And while most roleplaying games can likewise be excused for its repetitious stories, plot hooks, characters, and so on, they find excuse primarily in the simple entertainment of roleplaying. But while Gothic literature can, again, be primarily excused by the simple entertainment of reading, it also enhances its novels with other devices that support otherwise generic content and lend the story and characters additional interest.

One such device is the inevitably intricate tangle of characters, each either pursuing some personal agenda or complicating the agendas of others, mostly secret, and consequently exciting the illusion of complex plot and an atmosphere of mystery. Here, although the readers may recognize the setup, it's the execution and resolution of these various elements that's intriguing. Another device is evocative locations. Literature being literature, it has the luxury of dwelling at length on the poetics of landscapes or graveyards or castles with an eloquence difficult to match when roleplaying. Obviously, either of these devices could be feasibly adapted. Vivid descriptions can be given through meticulous design, and intricate plot by literally transcribing the situations from the novels themselves into game scenarios. But this would be an obvious exercise, so far do such devices already lend themselves to roleplaying. Yet neither would the more obscure aspects of the Gothic really prove instructive in complementing one's game. That is, the more abstract and psychological elements of Gothic literature like The Uncanny, The Sublime, and Terror vs. Horror, which all may very well be valid points of literary analysis but are quite difficult to reasonably incorporate into a roleplaying game.

For instance, TSR's Ravenloft made an admirable stab at crafting conditions where, say, a campaign could focus on exposing the psychological composition of a villain's psyche by exploring his castle which was a physical extension of the architecture of his mind. White Wolf has made a franchise of forays into landscapes of childhood, narcissism, incest, androgyny, sexual anarchy, the oedipal triangulation, the family romance, the significance of time, projective identification, and the fracture into self-other doubles. Unfortunately, I think both have failed in this respect and I have heard of no one who has carried off such a game where the kind of literary principals described in the sourcebooks have been present, much less artfully demonstrated, in regular gaming. Furthermore, the elite few groups who are able to consistently play games where complex thematic motifs constitute the campaign owe more, I imagine, to the brilliance of the players and gamemaster than to the system which they play and the pretentious guidelines it has proscribed. The difficulty, I think, arises from the fact that as easy as it is to write about, how, to imagine an extravagant example, "the Gothic partly consists of a set of analyzable displacements about what it means to be a conflicted human being and gendered" or Freud's "Unheimlich," it is another thing entirely to actually understand the nuances of such concepts, to adequately describe them to a gaming audience, and to effectively incorporate them into a roleplaying game so that everyone, not just the gamemaster with their sourcebooks, participates and comprehends the literary framework of the campaign. This last part is the hardest and, also, arguably not at all what most people want from gaming.

And so, it is with this appraisal in mind that I read the canon of great Gothic novels and determined to make my cataloging of their tropes and literary devices a bit more useful. Furthermore, I will restrict my conclusions in this article to a single trick, a single simple device which is unusual enough to warrant suggestion, practical enough to incorporate into most games, interesting enough to entice continued use, and open enough to permit a gamemaster's interpretation and creative license. I also think it should be taken as an instructive example of the sort of thing writers should be concerned with rather than producing mostly trite articles about Roleplaying as Art or game design which assumes that literary trappings are in themselves edgy and lend gaming dignity and sophistication.

Thus, I want to introduce interpolated poetry (poems knowingly contrived into the story) into our games. Admittedly, there are fewer things that can with greater justification be accused of thoughtless intellectualism and uselessness than poetry. First, however, please understand that there will be a distinction between the content of the poetry, and its presence in a game; the later alone is sufficient to make the novelty work. Second, even as far as content is concerned, there is an enormous volume of poetry that won't make the discerning reader wince, indeed, that lends itself quite well to gaming. But let me explain: why poetry in the first place? In Gothic literature, it's everywhere. The characters write poetry, it prefaces and concludes the chapters, it is found written in fragments and manuscripts around the scenes of the story, it is voiced in song, it takes the form of a riddle, it is remembered in timely recollection by the protagonist, it is everywhere. And for various reasons. To prophesy and suggest a turn of plot or the nature of a secret, to decorate and evoke the mood of a setting, to warn and caution by analogy or allegory, to reveal the thoughts of a character, to invest the story with a sense of history, or even to give the reader relief from the prose, create tension by disrupting it, or supply the story itself with the supplemental poetic authority of its sources. Obviously, all of these purposes can be marshaled for gaming, albeit with greater or lesser effect. Note, interpolated poetry generally carries off its intent regardless of its content and relies on the novelty of its presence, the literary device of riddling the story with oftentimes tangential poems, more than the subject's pertinent correspondence with plots and characters. That being said, a gamemaster could likewise assume the same liberty and, mostly at random, take to reading fragments of poems and epigraphic verse either from the mouths of NPCs or simply appended to the frequently called upon descriptions of the game world that all gamemasters must deliver.

Nonetheless, I think most people would agree that the novelty of interpolating poetry into roleplaying is best enhanced by giving it a reason to be there. That means finding poems, or writing them, whose content pertains to the story. Speaking as a gamemaster, it is also a much more interesting task to find logical ways to insert the poems into play rather than resorting to omnipotence. Merely thinking about the matter begins to generate plot hooks, characters, imagined scenes, and so on. This is exactly what we would want from a good literary device; it should stimulate ideas and motivate the gamemaster to develop new ways to address his players and communicate information to their characters. More importantly it's use can be put into concrete terms and examples, and this is where interpolated poetry is superior to, say, White Wolf giving Cainite Roads which, while unquestionably interesting and eloquently described, prove nonetheless difficult to truly incorporate as features of game play.

Perhaps the easiest and least jarring way to bring poetry to your game is to use it as a segue into the game itself. That is, at the beginning of each session the gamemaster will read a passage or poem and ease the transgression that marks the beginning of our games as troublesome periods of real life interrupt them. On one hand, this practice lets the gamemaster settle into their role as a narrator with something a little less strained than a rusty recollection of the last session and a subsequent "What are you all doing?" On the other hand, it has a hint of the pulps in it, like radio dramas which opened with a familiar introduction or runs of paperbacks which likewise reacquaint the reader through a snatch of flowery prose, a signpost of the world about to be entered. Like Gothic chapter headings, each session could begin with the gamemaster reading some suggestive passage. selected so as to presage events to come, though presumably the players would notice the connection only in hindsight. For this, any fragment could suffice, provided an oblique reference to the game can be made. As for actual introduction a little more care is called for in selecting a poem emblematic of your game. For instance epic fantasy D&D games may call for something by Sir Walter Scott, his Lochinvar comes to mind, or a Dangerous Journeys campaign might profit from Thomas Moore's The Epicurean. Vampire The Masquerade? Lord Byron's Manfred, of course. In my Warhammer game I read from Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, a stanza each session with plans to deliver it in its entirety before the players arrive at a similarly macabre tower in our actual game. Also, more story oriented and structured poems could be divided, the first half read to begin play and the second to conclude it. I have found that in doing so the game takes on an explicit structure, an opening and closing untroubled by a clumsy start at the beginning or an awkward tidying up at the end of the night.

The gamemaster should also try to place characters through whom poems and verse can be read. Freed from the task of conceiving descriptive lines and dialog off the cuff they can focus more on theatrics, gestures, inflection, grimaces, yelling, scowls, or dramatic pauses. Wayside inns, riverside taverns, rustic hostels or urban saloons and alehouses should produce no shortage of NPCs ready to gather round the hearth and relate some song, legend, or personal account. Sailors are particularly fit for the task and Samuel Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the perfect cautionary tale, especially if put to sea faring PCs. It may be a tale so well known to the local marines that the gamemaster fancies to change voices and posture as a different wizened sea dog takes up this part of the poem or that. John Cleveland's On The Memory of Mr. Edward King is suitably mournful. Coleridge's Christabel would make a fine bard's verse, as would John Keats' The Eve of St. Agnes, though both would need to be abridged. Picture heroes singing in Tolkien like incidents of quiet drama. One ideal setup is to strand the PCs in the classic stormy night, locked away in a cozy inn and listening to the macabre rambling of the resident versifiers. The Listeners by Walter De La Mare, anything by Edgar Allen Poe, Göttfried August Bürger's Lenore, and really any other ominous poetry would work, possibly followed by an in game plot mirroring to some degree the supernatural events of the poem.

As for handouts, there is found poetry, interpolated into the game as dusty manuscripts in the bureau of a bedchamber or half hidden on a bookshelf, Alfred Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott, for instance, would enliven a certain chamber window, or scattered as loose sheets of scribbled verse unattended by its author or buried in diary pages confessing some foul murder or forbidden tryst or the dark thoughts of Charles Baudelaire or Guillaume Apollinaire-esque minds, revealing one's character as when the PCs, say, find an aristocrat's verse that's John Wilmot's Regime De Vivre, or on the other hand, more simply, found poetry as a fable like Jeff Chaucer's The Knight's Tale or one of Frank Belknap Long's fantastic poems. A Night-piece on Death by Thomas Parnell could be found as a deathbed vision, the letters clutched in the hands of a man deceased, even while the ink still dries. Or Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night could be a prophet's words, scripted on stone in blood from his broken fingertips as he scraped and ceaselessly retraced the letters. If the players have reservations about reading something that can be found on, place names, mythological references, and characters can be altered to refer to elements in the actual game. Or reading may be necessary because the gamemaster hides messages, say, by capitalizing the letters of various stanzas to spell out some clue pertaining to the adventure at hand. Ideally, though, the players will enjoy the device and recognize the ingenuity of interpolating it into their game. Dreams offer a personal way to target a single player, giving them a poem that their character has dreamed. For instance, a player in my game has received A Child's Nightmare by Robert Graves, in reference to his obsession with a mystifying cat demon encountered earlier in the campaign.

Robert Graves also wrote The Shivering Beggar which can be easily transformed into an object lesson for nobly altruistic PCs. Likewise, the precise content of poems is often ripe with images and plot that can harvested to good effect, even more so if the players can appreciate the pastiche. For this I can think of no better example than Clark Ashton Smith (without the appreciative players part). While Thomas Boyd's The King's Son or Alice Furlong's The Warnings might suggest an interlude or fleeting scene in a game, Smith's boundless imagination, mordent humor, and exceedingly bizarre and fantastic poems are unmatched. Seriously, look into anything by him and it will be found to beg inclusion in any campaign. As for others, The Night Before Larry Was Stretched, authored anonymously, would make a grand scene at an inn. Dora Sigerson Shorter's The White Witch could be elaborated into an entire adventure. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Queen Mab and Alastor which are both long and rich enough to provide characters, themes, scenes, and plots for the enterprising gamemaster. William Wordsworth wrote a vast selection of pieces, each with a character or two, twist at the end, myth, or idea that's palatable to the roleplaying palette, and thus his work as a whole warrants a good look, though only perhaps after Graves is exhausted. Some of the poems mentioned are as much as lyrical stories, making adaptation into an adventure fairly easy, while others are accounts of a brief or abstract occurrence that must be recreated in play, and even less tangibly, there are some still that describe merely a character, thought, or location central to the poem that may motivate a plot without explicitly giving one outright. How poems are used to actually fill the plot, or brace it, and how evident this is to the players, is a dilemma for the gamemaster. They may seek to control the flow of the game to match the poem by strong artifices such as having lines of it on handbills tacked onto walls, or whispered or idly commented by a passing NPC, or they may simply use it to inspire their descriptions, NPCs, and plots preferring subtext over recognized homage.

The Gothic authors were never so daring. At their most inventive, they might foreshadow with poems or use them to punctuate a matter already expressed in the novel itself. For roleplaying, however, the possibilities broaden. Certainly, there are the suggestions I've already put forward but if the goal of interpolating poetry into play is jointly shared by novelty, allusion, inspiration, a bit of aesthetic pleasure, and the general interest of fun, then there remain plenty of further devices to employ. A spoken poem as the activation of an item, the incantation to a spell or ritual, an oath. The text, the layout, the letters and form of a poem, turned into a cryptographic key to unlock some cipher of the gamemaster's design. A ready handout to be left for the players, as a genuine poem, a decoration scrawled on the back of some other handout yet somehow meaningfully related, a historic fable or legend about to be resumed by the PCs, a dream or a vision, an esoteric object of hidden knowledge disguised by innocuous prose and sought by lost cabals. A knowing joke between an educated gaming group.

I hope my wandering essay has been instructive. I hope that you might now appreciate how interpolated poetry - in an entirely non-intellectual way - could be used to great effect in roleplaying. And if you happen to be a gamemaster yourself, I hope that you find the confidence to experiment a little and try to integrating poetry into your campaign. But moreover, I hope this serves as an example as to how something rooted in literature can be extracted and practically integrated in a campaign. Indeed, I hope it serves as a selection that shows how one might chose a device that lends one's game some interesting tricks and without worrying quietly whether it lends it some kind of artistic dignity in the way that other literary ideas seem to suggest. And if roleplayers spent more time looking at devices such as interpolated poetry whose purposes can actually be enlarged by transfer into games, and once there can be practically implemented without pretense or ambiguity, then when it comes time to try and provide guidelines for running themes and psychology and other more abstract notions as the focus of one's campaign (or entire game system!) then the foundations providing tools to facilitate that will already be in place.

[Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

Copyright © 2002 Places to Go, People to Be, all rights reserved. May only be reproduced with permission. Refer to the copyright page for full details. Email us:

Click to Go Back