Appendix N Archaeology: The Famous Works of Edgar Allen Poe
by Bradley K. McDevitt
In my previous articles on Poe, which can be found here and here, I discussed first why Poe was worth a second look. I then did an overview of some of his lesser-known stories and how they could be used as inspiration in a gaming setting before it was pointed out to me that not everyone in the audience has read Poe since they fulfilled their English requirement in high school.
We all know the titles of his most famous works, but for some, it has been decades since we have actually perused them. So, without further ado, let us take the dust off our English Literature texts, crumple our less-than-fond memories of Poe into a ball, lob them into the nearest trash can, and dive in.
The Masque of the Red Death
This short story from 1842 is simple. During a gruesome plague (the Red Death of the title), Prince Prospero, a decadent nobleman, gathers his closest toadies and retreats to a remote castle to wait it out. To while away the time, he throws a masquerade ball in some morbidly-decorated rooms in the castle, only to find that the avatar of the Red Death has invited itself to the dance, to doleful results. There are precious little character development and no dialogue: Poe concentrates rather on descriptions of the horror of the plague, the rooms, and the events of the masquerade leading up to the chilling final lines.
“And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion overall.”
From a gaming perspective, Masque is a treasure trove. The details of the castle and the descriptions of the rooms is fully realized, and easily adapted to a dungeon setting; the Red Death itself would be an opponent worthy of the climax of an adventure, while Prospero’s followers would provide enough lower-ranked opponents to keep the characters busy as they sneak through the castle (possibly having escaped from the dungeon).
The Pit and the Pendulum
One of Poe’s best-known other works, also from 1842, has a single character: a narrator that has run afoul of the Spanish Inquisition and been imprisoned in a room with absolutely no light. The stream of consciousness of the text as he tries to gain his bearings in the darkness duplicates the panic one would experience at all but be buried alive. The terror of so narrowly avoiding the pit of the title is palpable on the page. His circumstances, once the light is returned, become even direr as the eponymous pendulum makes its slow descent towards the narrator, now bound tight in preparation of the blade slicing him in two.
The entire story reads like a trap from an adventure module… and I would not be shocked to find out that some of the trap rooms from the early days of Dungeons and Dragons were inspired by this story.
The Tell-Tale Heart
Lastly, from 1843, this short story is the least obvious in its influence on gaming, until one actually reads it. In it is the root DNA for every insane monologue from Renfield in Dracula to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, to every campaign at the eve of its final battle. That is all the story consists of: a rushing tumble of words by a deranged murderer exhorting to the listener how sane and clever he is, even as his words reveal him to be utterly deranged and sloppy in the execution and cover-up of the crime.
From his first mention of “the old man’s vulture eye” to the phantom heartbeat to the climax where he screams for the police to tear up the floorboards where he has hidden the dismembered body, it is a one-way trip into deeper and deeper depths of madness. For any judge wanting to really, really drive home to his players why his main antagonist needs to be stopped, even a light imitation of this story is essential.
There are other stories of Poe’s that could be looked at as influential. These are but three of many. Judges wanting to take to adventure on the high seas could do worse than reading the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, while any Victorian-era fantasy set in Europe would only benefit from revisiting Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Lastly, like his devotee Lovecraft, Poe understood the power of a snippet of exact information in establishing the credibility of a story or adventure. That credibility is essential to telling a story that stays in the mind, be it written or created communally by a group of players. Poe gifted us with that wisdom, and over 170 years after his death, it is still vital today.