There’s a quote from an interview with John deLancie (Star Trek’s “Q”) which has stuck with me over the years. When he was at a Star Trek convention, he was asked what his cosmic trickster character ate for breakfast. Down in the front row, he noticed one kid nudging the other and whispering, “Q eats spiders
for breakfast!” and thought, “Y’know, that’s awesome! I never would have thought of that!” And deLancie responded to the questioner: “I’m an actor. My job is to give you a taste of this and that. It’s your job to make a meal out of it.”
Jack Shear’s Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque (“Tales”) takes DeLancie’s advice to heart. Each “taste of this and that” that Shear provides helps the reader construct their own personal meal.
Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque is a 162-page compendium by Jack W. Shear focusing on bringing a Gothic fantasy touch to “old-school fantasy role-playing games,” as the book’s subtitle indicates. It contains discussion of how to include Gothic fantasy elements in one’s games, as well as serving as a mini-gazetteer for The World Between, Shear’s campaign setting.
The mechanics within the book are based off of Labyrinth Lord, but it is trivial to port them over to TSR-era D&D, or any OSR game. Fans of later editions may be pleasantly surprised by the quiet inclusion of, and occasional reference to, several newer races of D&D – warforged, eladrin, and so forth.
Tales begins by providing a bit of discussion on the nature of Gothic fantasy, and why the book exists. Shear traces the origins of the Gothic tale (and examines some of its modern descendants). He notes that we’ve already seen a great deal of work on Weird Tales, science fantasy, and fantasy noir, but that Gothic Fantasy is a currently underserved and overlooked area to be developed. He also clarifies that the precise mixture between “Gothic” and “Fantasy” will shift back and forth between GMs – and between individual sessions, in fact. It’s worth keeping in mind that Tales is serving a dual function here, both as gazetteer and as a guide to Gothic fantasy.
We get a quick rundown on the various nations of the World Between – wonderfully evocative, with fragments listing ideas and concepts in quick succession (“black dragons, kenku, owlbears, and hook horrors; the Orxham school of magic and other occult universities”) for each of the nations, along with a suggested taste, sound, and image for the region. This format is excellent. It is concise and evocative, allowing the reader to get a strong impression of the feel and theme of each region without bogging down in minutiae.
After the nations, there is a listing of the setting’s deities, similarly brief and evocative. The descriptions give you all you need for the feel of the god, while leaving the implementation and details to you.
The next section of the book is the rules changes and modifications – a series of houserules, mostly minor in scope (humans only, Trollsmyth’s Shields will be Splintered! rule, and so forth). The cleric and druid have been modified so that the GM selects their spells, rather than the player – an interesting twist, but one whish I worry will cause more hassle for the GM than it’s worth. There are new barbarian, bard, and warlock classes set out for Labyrinth Lord – of these, the warlock (based off the LL elf racial class) is the most interesting. There’s a pre-adventuring occupation table, which provides some random stat modifications to compensate for the lack of demihumans, and provides a leading question to get a player thinking about their character’s backstory. Most of the stat modifications on the occupation table allow a +1 to one of two stats (actors can increase their Charisma or Dexterity by one, while witch hunters can increase Constitution or Wisdom). There are three entries which allow the character to cast a single first-level cleric or M-U spell in a day, regardless of class; I’d have liked to see more of this sort of option over a simple stat increase.
Shear presents a Second Wind mechanic, with the caveat that it can only be used once per game session, and that the player must explain how exactly their character is getting their second wind. “Pithy one-liners,” furious speeches, and so forth are suggested – as are long monologues about the transcendent beauty of nature, if you’re ramping up the Gothic themes in your game.
Each region in the World Between is also given a few pages with some nifty items for it – NPCs, items, monsters, extra rules, and so forth. Most of the rules will transfer easily – poison and madness/horror rules are not unique to the Iron Principalities or Harrowfaust, for example. These pages are a wonderful way to provide a strong idea of the region’s character with just one or two entries per region.
After a few pages of random tables (excellent, barring the Gothic Names table, which could have been presented more concisely), Tales also includes a bibliography (for further Gothic exploration) and the excellent Thirteen Flavors of Gothicism.
Thirteen Flavors of Gothicism (originally called “Thirteen Flavors of Fear,” I believe) is a list of staging suggestions for introducing Gothic elements into several different settings beyond the traditional High Gothic setting. These range from “The Cold Northern Wind” (Gothicism in winterlands, think Beyond the Wall from Game of Thrones), “The Urban Gothic”, “The Gothic West,” and so forth. Each setting includes a few paragraphs of introductory setting description, suggested themes and opponents for the setting, plus soundtracks and inspirational reading/other media.
There is a wealth of information and inspiration available in Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque. The short snippets of detail that Shear provides for each of the various settings allow a GM to quickly and effectively envision how they work, what sort of dynamics they are likely to have, and so forth. I feel pretty comfortable saying that there’s going to be something interesting and worthwhile in here for most any fantasy GM, regardless of system or setting.