October 26th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Atlas Games' Gloom: The Bulwer-Lytton Tabletop Game

What's the difference between a late 19th century gothic horror novel, a late 19th century gothic romance novel, and a late 19th century serious social novel? In the gothic horror novel, a mixture of upper and/or lower class decadent characters, trapped by awful cosmic forces and secrets man was not meant to know, has only the slightest chance to escape a Fate Worse than Death. In the gothic romance novel, the same characters, trapped by the tragic and unstoppable power of True Love, have not even the slightest chance to escape a Fate Worse than Death. In the "serious" social novel, the same characters are, due to the crushing and inevitable threats of "progress" and "development," already experiencing a Fate Worse than Death when the novel begins, and thus the Fate Worse than Death drags on longer.

Edward Gorey's poetry relentlessly and whimsically mocks the holy heck out of that whole gothic melange. So do Charles Addams' cartoons. And so, to my absolute delight, does a card game I only just discovered by Keith Baker, published by Atlas Games (of Lunch Money fame), called Gloom, which Baker openly admits was inspired by Gorey and Addams. My copy of Gloom, and the out of print and therefore a little harder to find Unhappy Houses expansion deck, just caught up with me today, and except for one tiny nitpick, it looks like it's everything I hoped it would be. I'm dying (tragically, poetically, of broken heart and consumption of course) to find some people to help me play this thing for the first time.

The basic premise of Gloom is that each player is responsible for their own Gothic horror, romance, or tragic social novel. Each of them starts with a "house" consisting of five stock characters, the kind of people that awful things happen to in gothic fiction. There's the the "mysterious manor" Hemlock Hall, with its family of decadent nobility and retainers suffering under a terrible curse. There's the "weird workshop" Castle Slogar, where a deranged but brilliant female mad scientist reanimates the corpses of her loved ones because she can't bear to let them go -- what, and stop tormenting them? There's the pathetically inadequate "sinister sideshow" Dark's Den of Deformity with its incompetent ringmaster and sadly unimpressive freaks. And there's the swampy "forbidding farm" Blackmoor Watch, whose aging matriarch means her inbred family of psychopaths no good and strangers even less. If you get the expansion, they add my personal favorite, the decadent Left Bank "cursed café" Le Canard Noir and its permanent collection of artisans, parasites, and hangers-on. Once each player picks one such family and spreads their cards out in front of him, they all draw a hand of five random events. From here on out, the object of play is to make your own characters' fate as tragic and awful as you can before playing an "untimely demise" card on them, which locks in their score. You also have happy event cards that you can play on the other players' characters to cheer them up or even give them happy endings. That's terrible from their point of view, because the readers of all gothic fiction know that happy endings for characters Simply Won't Do, they're evidence that the novel is frivolous and unimportant, that the author is an incompetent hack. Once one player runs completely out of characters, everybody totals up the accumulated misery of their own killed-off characters, and the one with the most totally miserable corpses wins.

The game mechanic for this is elegant, if a little bit flawed in execution. The cards are printed on heavy transparency plastic. You simply stack each event you play on a character on top of the character. The portrait and their name continue to show through, as do some of the scores and modifiers from previous events; only the modifiers that are currently visible count at any given time. The expansion adds the extra mechanic of a "house" card next to the 5 "character" cards, that has its own special class of events called "mysteries." Each house can only have one mystery going at a time, presumably giving your little gothic novel its title, such as (for example) Le Canard Noir and the Deadly Dress, or Hemlock Hall and the Sinister Surprise, or Castle Slogar and the Thing in the Attic. If you meet the special goal of the mystery, it adds extra misery points to your corpses and may give you other special abilities. My favorite so far is an explicit Gorey tribute, "and the Mournful Muse," where any pair of characters' deaths count for extra misery points if the titles of their demise cards rhyme. "Lord Wellington-Smythe ... fell from on high; Lady Wellington-Smythe ... choked on a pie." In addition to Gorey and Addams, the whole two deck set is just chock full of allusions to Poe, Lovecraft, Bulwer-Lytton, Machen, Chambers, DeFoe ... and those are just the ones that I "got." There's even a throw-away Scooby Doo joke.

My only real complaint with this is that I'm not crazy about the production quality. The cards are tiny; the typefaces tinier still. I think I may need an illuminated magnifier to play this in anything less than direct sunlight. And several of my cards arrived with the printing either incompletely fused to the plastic, or already flaking off. I'm going to have to write to Atlas Games and see if I can get them to exchange those cards, or else I'm going to have to pack a printout of what the smudged and incompletely readable cards are supposed to say with my deck and the rule sheet.

I got mine through Amazon.com, which has Gloom for about $20 plus shipping, and had (but all sellers have currently sold out of) Unhappy Houses for around $12.
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