Colonial Gothic rules. No, not the game itself, which I’ve never played. I mean the genre. Let’s talk about how much it rules.
So, this post is timely because Zweihander has recently announced their new tabletop game in cooperation with Rogue Games, Colonial Gothic Grim & Perilous RPG. Rogue Games produced several versions of their Colonial Gothic RPG before turning to the Zweihander system. This time around, it’s going to wind up sort of like WHFRP 1e set in the early “thirteen colonies” era of modern American history, and I am sure it’ll be plenty popular given Daniel’s experience with marketing, tireless hustle, and large, loud, and aggressive budget for ensuring his projects get in front of every eyeball he can find. I don’t play Zweihander, but I am excited for this, because “weird colonial era America” is one of my favorite genres of fiction and roleplaying and I hope it gets more people into it. I’d like to talk about why, since I bet people are in the mood to think about this these days.
An important note from the caution possum, before we begin: This genre, like most historical fiction genres when you really get down to it, is fraught with issues of race, gender roles, imperialism, colonialist attitudes, reductionist or at least incomplete pictures of rich and varied cultures with histories stretching back centuries or millennia, and a generally troubling way of whitewashing things. That’s the case in a lot of genre fiction and pulp fiction and therefore a problem in derivative settings for role-playing, but it’s especially the case with European colonization of the Americas (and the colonial era in general). It just is. There’s no escaping this, and pretending it isn’t there isn’t fooling anyone. I’m a fan of this genre as a pale-ass Italian-Canadian immigrant to America. My parents are the first generation of my family born in North America, to immigrants. Because of that cultural background, it’s “safe” and easy for me to enjoy this subject matter; for others, it is not so easy. There’s no way on earth this setting isn’t going to play host to issues of race, sexism, and colonialism, so everyone playing or creating in this space bears responsibility for ensuring they’re actively aware of it and behaving responsibly about this. That’s what comes with enjoying works of fiction based on a really difficult, checkered past that remains very real for many peoples and cultures. Please proceed accordingly, with awareness and kindness!
Okay. All that important stuff said, let’s get into the dumb nerd stuff about witches.
Colonial Gothic isn’t just the name of an RPG I’ve never bothered to play. Colonial Gothic also refers to a specific breed of American Gothic fiction, much of which stretches back to the early days of America as a nation. It (and the related, tail-end-of-the-era Revolutionary Gothic) is anything set in the weird, ominous, spooky, dangerous, abnormal US colonial era. The period stretches from the Mayflower all the way to the Boston Tea Party, after which it seems to just be American Gothic as a catchall term. If you like the idea of Satanic witches, paranoid religious orders, inexplicable disappearances, devastatingly dangerous wildlife, cryptids, single-shot firearms against bows and arrows, swords, the last days of medieval body armor, relicts, and horses, you’re in luck.
It’s awesome to imagine a dude dressed in Solomon Kane Puritan gear wielding an heirloom sword and a pistol trying to shoot a Wendigo to death. It’s awesome to imagine a valley filled with neolithic cannibals clearing out an English colony, and the party being tasked with finding out what happened and eliminating the threat. It’s awesome to picture the ruins of a lost civilization, littered with the ghastly remnants of their demonic dalliances. It’s cool just to think about Satanic witches going bonkers on orderly religious villages full of upstanding people utterly unprepared to fight a paranormal threat until the party shows up. It’s great to imagine a stoic First Nations warrior fighting a vampire he is wildly outclassed by and never giving up. It’s awesome to fight Bigfoot. Tell me that doesn’t sound rad? It’s all cool all the way down.
There’s something tremendously appealing about this genre space. It’s got so many incredible things going for it. The unknown, the threat of nature and beast, the supernatural, the confluence of so many cultures (English, Spanish, French at war; the many different First Nations peoples), the potential for horror and the grotesque and macabre all over the place, the political machinations of land ownership and fortunes being seized under the guise of accusations of witchcraft… So many elements rife with plot hooks and interest dripping from every angle. It’s very easy to start a game. It’s easy to get a map, too! It’s easy to find historical references as well as inspiring works of fiction.
This genre has some incredible works of fiction (and non-fiction, naturally!) to base your games off of. As a kid, I was obsessed with all kinds of history stuff, and, like any imaginative child, the supernatural. This subject combined both interests even if I didn’t recognize it as a genre I was peeking into until much later; at the time, I was just very interested in witches and ghosts and history, and the little tidbits I could get my hands on about Salem witch trials and Roanoke and such really scratched that itch. Later, as I got older and learned of various works of fiction by famous authors, I got to actually pursue this genre intentionally.
If all of this sounds cool to you, and you’re wondering how I got into this sort of thing, or maybe what you can get into yourself in order to see if it sparks your imagination too, I’ve got you covered!
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Who in our (general) age group did not love seeing this on television every Halloween? It was part of why I loved Halloween so much! The animation was lovely. It was approachable, funny, and the Headless Horseman was among the most exciting and scary things I had witnessed as a child! To this day I think the Headless Horseman coming for Ichabod’s head with his sabre is one of my most favorite scenes. BR/DVD & Stream
I watched the film version of The Crucible late one night after my parents had gone to bed. I was fascinated by witches and ghosts and things from a young age. I’ve always been a non-believer of that sort of thing, but the enduring nature of the legends and my love of Halloween made me scour libraries for books about witches, ghosts, zombies, and all other kinds of monsters. The Crucible was about witches, so I had to see it. I think it launched my interest in the Salem Witch Trials. BR/DVD | Stream
It’s not a great movie, but it has some outstanding visuals and plenty of creepy scenes. The first time I saw this I actually thought it did a great disservice to the story but after being roped into seeing it again I softened and came to enjoy it as a popcorn flick with some cool stuff to look at. Walken as the Hessian was inspired. BR/DVD | Stream
The VVitch (The Witch)
This is one of the best slow-burn horror films ever made, and it’s also extremely in this genre. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Do not Google it, do not read up on it, do not look for the plot on Wikipedia – just go to your Netflix account and watch it right now for free (well, for your monthly tithe to the Netflix Gods. If you’re not Netflix-enabled, it’s also available to rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vudu; I tell you this so you won’t Google it and wind up ruining it. Please do not ruin it. Please just watch this baller film. It rules. You can also purchase physical copies on Amazon.
Okay, this one is purely for the visuals and themes. A dude in Puritan dress fighting demons? Come on, easy money. Robert E Howard’s Other Hero deserves a lot more attention than he gets, in my estimation. Cool stuff happens here. Great popcorn watching; don’t expect Citizen Kane – but honestly? I think people are too hard on fun action/adventure movies these days. Like, what, Hawk the Slayer was the Breaking Bad of the 1980s? Come on. Regardless, I think this is fun, it’s period (if not location) appropriate, its contents are perfect for the game we’re after, and it’s a huge inspiration for a Colonial Gothic campaign! BR/DVD | Stream
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, The Minister’s Black Veil, The House of Seven Gables
Of these, the House of Seven Gables is easily the most frightening and disquieting, but the paranoia and fear of sin present in the first two is also extraordinarily on-brand for this. These are seminal works of Colonial Gothic fiction and all of them inspired HP Lovecraft’s later works of the unusual and horrific. Strongly recommended. Public domain means these are free; most have LibreVox public domain audiobook versions as well: The Minister’s Black Veil | Young Goodman Brown | The House of Seven Gables
Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Who didn’t expect this to be on the list? It inspired two of the films directly and is, again, one of the most enduring tales of witchery, the macabre, the criminal, and the bizarre in the entire American corpus. Necessary reading. More public domain goodness!
Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket*
(*not period correct, but a lot of cool themes)
This is a softer recommendation. It’s not the right era. It’s post-Revolution, and it’s a seafaring story to boot. But the way this story begins straightforward, foreshadows difficulty, takes a left turn into the dark and bizarre, and winds up exploring some truly grim circumstances is extremely transferable to a Colonial Gothic sort of thing. Great book from a great author, besides. If you guessed this might be public domain too, you’d be correct! Find it here.
Andrew Lawler’s The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke
Roanoke intrigued me as a child. When I first heard about it, and the CROATOAN inscription on the tree, I was fascinated. I forget what book it was that taught me about this back then, but it posited numerous possible causes for the disappearance of the colony, including a list of purported supernatural legends of the area. I stayed up all night thinking about it. The next day I asked my father about it and he calmly explained the most likely explanation – Roanoke was a shitty location for a colony, they had moved to a better location in a time of difficulty, and probably joined a First Nations settlement of some kind and assimilated into that group. This was obviously the practical answer and I even recognized it at the time, but like most of history, the lure of the unknown and unknowable has never lost its glimmer to me. This book is much too new for public domain, so it’s over here on Amazon.
Nerd Glows On’s Times That Fry Men’s Souls
An RPG thing! This is a supplement for old-school gaming that sets the strange and horrifyingly Lovecraftian against the backdrop of the American Revolutionary War. It’s very substantial, well organized, and the layout is unmistakably that of a very old book. It’s terrific, artistically. It’s a great book that I would love to see earn more attention. I should write a full review of it. I will in fact do so. In the meantime, you can get a copy and see why I like it. I’m gonna stop writing this article for a second and go start that draft so I remember to do it. Okay, I’m back.
Robert E Howard’s Solomon Kane
Like the film, this is sort of tangentially related rather than directly. Solomon Kane was written by Robert E Howard, author of our beloved Saint Conan, and adapted into comic form as well many years later. It’s all neat. I recommend anything you can get your hands on. A bloodthirsty monster of a pirate/privateer/mercenary damns his soul eternally and then repents as a Puritan and takes to pacifism to try to salvage his eternal reward. Eventually he is forced to take up arms against greater Satanic threats and the horrors of man anyway. He struggles with this balance all the while. Great stuff. A collection of stories | Comics Vol 1 Vol 2 Vol 3 | At least one public domain collection
Luka Rejec’s Witchburner
Another RPG thing! Okay, I’m cheating with this one. It’s thematically appropriate, but it’s not canonically colonial gothic in its setting. However, Luka very intentionally made the default setting incredibly amorphous so you could adapt it to your game. You’re encouraged to place the town and its witch problems wherever you need. I’ve put it in Faerun very easily already. I speak very highly of this book for a reason. It’s a terrific, paranoid, intimate, tense, messed up little social adventure that will probably cause your players to up-end their image of themselves and their characters. Is there a more perfect thing than this when you’re playing in a genre built on a fear of witchcraft? I mean, come on. Perfect. Get yourself a copy of this no matter what genre you play in; you can plop this down in anything from basically the stone age to modern day.
So what’s my point?
- This is a great setting for fantastic gameplay. I encourage you to use it for your next old-school D&D game, especially Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The longest LotFP campaign I ever played in was set in colonial-era America (Maine) instead of Europe. Hell, one of the zines I backed during Zine Quest is entirely about this exact idea. I encourage you to explore this super fertile era and locale for your games. Firearms are still single-shot and largely impractical, Satanism is widely feared and believed to be rife, and the great landmass of the New World is unexplored and alien and generally threatening.
- More games need to be published in this genre. I hope more people put out work in this space. I think it’s a niche that needs more exploration in RPGs. I want more witches. I want more Puritans with halberds and muskets. I want more shamanic spellcasters using nature spirits to combat demons. I want more seams of hellfire and sulfur splitting the earth in bleak valleys that none dare enter in a cursed new continent rife with the innumerable lures of Satan. I want priests in cuirasses holding the Good Book in one hand and a pistol in the other shouting for the devil to take not another step towards their flock. I want more of all that stuff.
- At least three people will read this blog post, and maybe one of them will have further reading and viewing suggestions. I want more of this genre to read and watch. If you have favorite books or movies or whatever, hit me up with them below in the comments or over on Twitter or email me or something. The more horror and Satan you can cram into it, the better.
Hopefully I collected enough links to point you in the right direction, but to be honest I am hoping you folks have some links for me! As always, shout at me on Twitter @dungeonspossums or in the comments below. Bonus points to anyone who brings me more great stuff to consume on this front.
I for one really enjoyed the Solomon Kane movie, and I don't understand the hate it gets (I also really enjoyed most of the SK stories). The movie was a big influence on my LotFP game.
I hazard to guess it was an influence on the last big LotFP game I played, too, as it was a couple years after the film came out, was set in Puritan colonies in the New World, featured a former Royal Navy privateer turned God-fearing priest after some Incident during a raid on French settlements, and had a black-hearted Spanish Conquistador who did not age who had turned into a mercenary to fund his search for the other lost cities of gold as an NPC.
I agree, it is an awesome period to play in! And Times That Fry Men's Souls is amazing, I reviewed it recently.
There was a topic on reddit recently, about Colonial American resources: https://www.reddit.com/r/osr/comments/au6e0s/searching_for_colonial_american_rpg_info/
I’ve been tempted on and off by this setting. I prefer historically based settings which is why when I was looking at getting back into D&D via the ‘clones’ I ended up with LotfP. Flashing Blades, for example, is one of my favourite RPGs. I recently saw Tamas’ review and that revived a certain interest here, so thanks for the extra nudge in that direction. And the list of good source material. Also thanks for the reddit reference Tamas.
There's also Sabres & Witchery by Simon Washbourne, an 18th century monster hunters game (based on Swords & Wizardry). Very much in the style of Solomon Kane, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Hammer movies.
I have a couple of suggestions for non-fiction books.
The major one is "The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England" by Emerson W. Baker. Its a pretty short read that provides an interesting insight into the social and political forces that shaped witchcraft accusations in 17th century America.
"The Enemy Within" by John Demos has a chapter on witches in the early colonies, as well as a separate chapter on Salem.
I also recommend "The Lancashire Witches" by Philip C. Almond, which is about witches in early 17th century England, but provides a nice bookend to reading anything about Salem and the late 17th Century.
Don't forget Brotherhood of the Wolf! Technically it takes place in France but it's very much in the same milieu, it's basically the best Solomon Kane movie that does not have Solomon Kane in it. It was also one of the major inspirations for the game Bloodborne
Big cheers for this link. I'm gonna link your review here for others who come by this post later, but I won't read it until after I write mine (then I'll drive over there and comment on yours :P)
I feel I tend towards the opposite – while I want to drag as much historical nerd stuff into the game as I can, I prefer weird settings. I actually viewed LotFP with some serious suspicion and vague disinterest when it was introduced to me by a friend! Interesting how we ended up in a similar place anyway!
You're killing it with the links Tamás!
Hey, many thanks for these Dave. I have added them to my Amazon cart for whenever I next check out. Especially curious about the first two – a general history of witch hunting would have been an immensely popular book with me as a youth (and today, naturally) and I'd never heard of this other incident mentioned in the Baker book!
I remember when this movie came out – my best friend and I, at the time, used to watch basically every video in the local Blockbuster and Rogers Video and we got that one with a mix of "this sounds awesome" and "will this suck?".
We were awestruck. What a baller movie! 😀
It definitely suits this.
"…killing me softly
killing me softly with his links…"
Cool, looking forward to your take on Times That Fry! Obv. it's always better if you don't read others' reviews beforehand.
Highly recommend "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to go along with any other Colonial Gothic reading, really puts you in the mind of an angry puritan preacher. I also think Charles Brockdon Brown's "Edgar Huntly" is worth reading, lots of super weird ideas, though not a quick read and it takes a bit to find the gameability of some of it.