Interview: Ghastly Affair’s Daniel James Hanley

Art by Stacey Kaelin

Although I haven’t been an active gamer in years, I’ve maintained an interest in role-playing game world-building. What intrigued me about Ghastly Affair — The Gothic Game of Romantic Horror was its pre-Victorian setting. While my personal tastes run more towards the era of Stoker and Stevenson, it was cool to see a game that embraced the roots of Gothic literature.

What follows is an interview with writer and designer Daniel James Hanley where he discusses his interest in Gothic fiction and how it relates to RPGs. Even if you aren’t interested in gaming, I recommend checking out his website Engine of Oracles. It’s loaded with facts and trivia that might be of special interest to new authors looking to explore the Gothic genre.

Derek Tatum: How would you describe Ghastly Affair to newcomers?

Daniel James Hanley: Ghastly Affair is a game where players assume the roles of typical characters in a Gothic novel, set during the decades before and after the French Revolution. It explores themes of desire, death, crime, perversity, transgression, and the supernatural, with an emphasis on dark romance, and emotionally-charged situations. It’s intended for a play style where immersive role-playing will alternate with danger, and characters might spend as much time in glittering ballrooms as in ancient ruins and gloomy crypts.

Derek: What inspired you to create this game?

Daniel: In many ways, Ghastly Affair is the culmination of a lifelong love affair with the weird and Gothic. Halloween was a particularly big deal in my house growing up, and I was a major Horror fan in my teens. Already in high school I was incorporating Horror into my Dungeons & Dragons games, but I was personally dissatisfied with the official Ravenloft materials. Like many gamers I gravitated towards Vampire: The Masquerade in the 90s, and later played some Call of Cthulhu. I started getting more interested in the sources of modern Horror – the foundational stories, and the folklore behind them. I thought it would be great if there was a game that accurately reflected that material, in all its pre-modern strangeness. However, it seemed to me that the game I wanted didn’t exist. Therefore, I was obligated to create it! In addition, I was (and still am) gaming with a diverse, gender-balanced group that really enjoyed intrigue and deep role-playing as much as action. For them, spending a whole session role-playing a masquerade was (and is) as much fun as fighting monsters. Ghastly Affair is for players like that!

Writing Desk Ghost
Art by Daniel Hanley

Derek: A lot of contemporary Gothic entertainment evokes the latter Victorian and Edwardian eras. Why did you choose to set Ghastly Affair in an earlier time period?

Daniel: There were multiple reasons. For one thing, I felt that there were already enough Victorian-era games, especially with the recent surge in the popularity of the Steampunk genre. Also, I find the era of the late 18th to early 19th century utterly fascinating. At few other times in history does the beautiful collide with the revolting quite like then. Also, so much about the period parallels modern times, in its social unrest, revolutions, violence, and rapid technological change upending society. Remember, this was the period of the Industrial Revolution in England. It was also a time of catastrophic ecological disasters, including the 1783 volcanic eruption that blanketed Europe in a toxic haze, and the famous “Year Without a Summer” of 1816. In addition, it was a more morally permissive time than the Victorian Age. The Marquis de Sade’s Justine and Juliette weren’t obscure works – they were issued in lavishly illustrated editions sold openly in Paris. Much of the moralism of the mid-to-late 19th century was actually a reaction to the perceived frivolity and immorality of the previous era. And the period from 1765 to 1820 is the actual golden age of the Gothic Romance, which became so popular precisely because people were dealing with their own fears and uncertainties about a world that seemed to have gone completely mad.

Derek: It’s interesting that the website describes Ghastly Affair as embracing “the full spectrum of the Gothic.” Other than the time period, what makes this game different from other games of Gothic horror?

Daniel: A lot of the existing Gothic games are either concerned with fighting supernatural monsters, or else being them. I wanted Ghastly Affair, however, to reflect the broadness and complexity of the original Gothic Romances, which included elements of not only Horror, but Romance and Crime fiction as well. And let’s not forget that Science Fiction branches off from the Gothic, through Frankenstein. Gothic as a genre is also deeply intertwined with Romanticism, and the Romantic element is essential to the game. “Romantic” here refers both to the importance of True Love as a force in the game, and the themes of literary Romanticism. The primacy of desire, the contrast between the natural and the artificial, the omnipresence of ruins and ruined things, the mixture of awe and terror called “the sublime” – all are important facets of the game experience. There’s real beauty, love, and even hope still in the world, which makes the darkness that much deeper by contrast. And the just like the original Gothics, it’s often bandits and other criminals that are the objects of the protagonists’ fear (and guilty desire). In addition, an important facet of Ghastly Affair is dealing with the human monsters that dwell amid the opulence of High Society. Of course, there’s also plenty of supernatural evil to battle in Ghastly Affair, it’s just that the game is about more than that!

Art by Daniel Hanley

Derek: Did you find it easy to translate the flavor of this era’s Gothic to an RPG?

Daniel: Well, many of the typical motifs and themes of RPGs are actually Gothic in origin. To modern eyes, Castle of Otranto (the very first Gothic novel) reads more like medieval Dark Fantasy than Horror. Secret doors, undead creatures, gloomy dungeons – staples of modern fantasy RPGs – are all originally characteristic of Gothic novels. You read the scenes set in the underground crypt in Lewis’ The Monk, and and it reminds you of a fantasy RPG “dungeon” – except The Monk was first by two centuries! Things like escalating “Hit Points” and “Levels” likewise reflect the close escapes and miraculous rescues characteristic of Gothic novels. And the eponymous protagonist of Sade’s Justine definitely had a lot more Hit Points than the average person!

A greater challenge was presented by the nature of the material itself. Early Gothics could be much more salacious and extreme than the later Victorian neo-Gothics. For every Radcliffian romance like The Mysteries of Udolpho, there was a shocker like the aforementioned The Monk. Plus, early Gothics (like all 18th century literature) could be sexist and racist by modern standards. They weren’t generally quite so racist as later Victorian writings, but can still be potentially problematic. In particular, there was the issue of “Gypsies” – essential to the genre, but almost always portrayed in a highly prejudicial way. I wanted the game to be absolutely authentic to the source material, without being repugnant to a modern audience. On the other hand, a game should always be fun, and never preachy. One solution for me was to institute the use of Safe Words, allowing Players to feel secure that the game will only be as disturbing as they want, and not cross over into offensive territory. In the specific case of Gypsies, the rules directly address the unfair persecution they face in-game.

Another challenge has been has been that many modern people can have a hard time believing how different the late 18th century could be from the Victorian age. People who think that their ancestors were all uptight prudes can be shocked to learn that the necklines on 18th century gowns were often so low they exposed the wearer’s nipples, that in in Directory-era Paris they would have seen women wearing translucent white dresses and guillotine earrings, or that in the courts of Italy married noblewomen openly paraded around with their lovers.

Derek: Do you envision Ghastly Affair as being geared more towards one session games or recurring campaigns?

Daniel: It was always intended to work equally well for both styles of play. I developed it with my regular gaming group, so obviously it had to be able to sustain a continuing story. On the other hand, a one-shot can be particularly thrilling, because anything could happen. The Presenter can go for the throat, because the Players have no expectations of character survival. And Players can use a one-shot to explore characters with exaggerated or vile personalities, which might become grating if one had to deal with them repeatedly, but would be fun to portray for a night!

Derek: Where can people find out more?

Daniel: My blog, The Engine of Oracles, is regularly updated with new material for the game. There you can also download character sheets, quick references, and even try-out free PDFs versions of the game rules. The full, illustrated versions of the Ghastly Affair Player’s Manual and Ghastly Affair Presenter’s Manual are available in print on Amazon, and in PDF on DriveThruRPG.

Thank you for your time, Daniel!