“Sandbox” play is extremely popular among devotees of Old School Renaissance RPGs, and for all its modern innovations, Ghastly Affair is still essentially an OSR game. Therefore, one of the design goals of the upcoming supplement “A Ghastly Companion to Castles, Mansions and Estates” is to empower Presenters to run Gothic Sagas in the “Sandbox” style. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Sandbox” here refers to a style of playing RPGs where the Game Master (“Presenter” in GA’s terminology) does not control the Player’s interactions with the game world, or force them into a predetermined story. Rather, Player Characters are self-directed, and allowed to wander as they will. Done correctly, it results in complete Player immersion in an imaginary environment. Because it can otherwise mean endless hours detailing all the places the PCs can possibly go (with lots of attention wasted on areas that never see game play), the “Sandbox” style often demands random generators to procedurally create conflicts and locations as needed.
As first glance, it may seem that Sandbox style play is incompatible with the the Gothic genre, which is heavily reliant on atmosphere, mystery, and situations where characters are trapped in one way or another. In the world of RPGs, Horror has become increasingly associated with long scenarios that demand that a given sequence of events occur in a particular order to create a novel-like plot. That’s definitely a valid play style, and there are some great and memorable examples of such scenarios in publication. However, the historical period and Gothic genre conventions upon which Ghastly Affair is based also allow for a more open approach, which “A Ghastly Companion to Castles, Mansions, and Estates” will address.
The aristocracy of 18th Century Europe was highly peripatetic. An estate had to be ready to host not just a constant flow of expected guests, but important people who might simply show up at one’s door unannounced, with a train of servants in tow. In fact, it was not uncommon for guests to be staying at a house even when the family itself was away! Also (with some notable exceptions), aristocrats across Europe shared a common language (French), and a similar (French-influenced) culture. In fact, the aristocrats of any given country generally regarded themselves as having more in common with the aristocrats of other countries than the commoners of their own, whose language they sometimes didn’t even speak! Thus, it was very much a part of High Society life that one would often travel, and could expect to be hosted and entertained in a manner to which one was accustomed.
Gothic Romantic Horror differs from other “Horror” genres in its emphasis on the personal. The horrible things are happening specifically to you, and these particular horrible things are only happening on account of who you are. Unlike Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror, which shares Gothic’s obsession with the past and emphasis on the sublime, Gothic does not posit an ultimately meaningless and impersonal Universe. The Devil is real – simultaneously the personal force of ultimate Evil, and an entity with a heart to fall hopelessly in love with some innocent young woman. He’ll pursue her whether she is in a convent, a far-away castle, or a luxurious townhouse. And when they are not shining paragons of virtue, Gothic characters are overripe with characters flaws and angst, and thus carry their stories around with them. Wherever they go, they magnetically draw catastrophes to themselves. They are the people who will always stumble upon the buried bodies, encounter the amorous ghosts, and meet the werewolves on their nocturnal hunts.
“A Ghastly Companion to Castles, Mansions, and Estates” will enable Presenters to run games where Players take the roles of wandering aristocrats (and their servants), attending one salon, masquerade ball, regatta, horse race, and dinner party after another, and constantly confronting the dark secrets of their hosts. Besides discussions of the various types of grand houses and estates (and how they function on a day-to-day basis), the heart of the book will be an extensive set of lists and tables that allow Presenters to easily generate a grand house and / or estate, complete with its inhabitants, mysteries, and supernatural occurrences. The book will give tools to quickly determine the purpose and features of spaces in houses with 100 or more rooms, at whatever level of detail is desired. Whether you prefer to keep the action going by only describing the most important feature of a room, or want to immerse your players in detailed locations of astounding opulence, you will be able to do it. A complete system for determining the daily schedule and activities of the house, and the unforeseen catastrophes that will inevitably interfere, will create nearly endless opportunities for role-playing emergent scenarios of Romantic Horror (and Horrifying Romance). And all of it has been carefully researched for historical plausibility.
The other style of play “A Ghastly Companion to Castles, Mansion, and Estates” is intended to facilitate is one where the Players assume the roles of the servants on a cursed and haunted estate – but that’s a post for another time!