[Review] I6 Ravenloft (AD&D); First Heretic

[Adventure]
I6 Ravenloft (1983)

Tracy & Laura Hickman (TSR)
Lvl 5 – 7

I6 Ravenloft (1e) - Wizards of the Coast | AD&D 1st Ed. | Ravenloft | AD&D  1st Ed. | Ravenloft | DriveThruRPG.com




“One day I shall have a hall that is dedicated to trad gaming. Through gates of gold and ivory, marked with the motto ‘Roleplayibus non Rollplayiberent’ the players will enter, leaving all their mortal burdens behind. Amid thick wallpapers daubed with the masterpieces of Michaelangelo, Donatello and Da Vinci and marble statuary of frolicking satyrs and nymphs we will recline on couches made of rare hardwoods and cushions stuffed with the swan’s eiderdown wrapped in silk and languidly roll up our characters with polyhedral dice cast from platinum, electrum, gold and bronze, with the numerals laid out in precious stones. The GM will present everyone with the novel he has written about the campaign world, and once, while idly enjoying the exquisite liqueurs and stuffed nightingale fingerfoods, the backstory has been absorbed, each player will lazily recite his character’s backstory, pausing to dip their fingers in a copper bowl of water scented with rose petals while the others are fed grapes by sultry and voluptuous librarians of exotic parentage. When the GM and the players have reached an amiable agreement, every detail of the character, including a complicated genealogy going back five generations, will be lovingly put down on thick, creamy rolls of vellum with rare inks imbued with powdered gemstone. The game itself will be narrated in iambic pentameter, with the common tongue being the English of Shakespeare, Milton, Peake, Eddison. Entire sessions will be spent enjoying a parade of lavish banquets through a richly detailed and beautiful land of plenty, a parallel to the idolent debauchery taking place within the hall proper and with breaks so the players may indulge in a dalliance with the beautiful dancing girls, or perhaps go on a merry chase to catch the live hummingbirds that have escaped from yet another roasted boar while the GM prepares the plot for the next scene. After a trip to the vomitorium, the players, who are obviously naked, will be hoisted in gilded palanquins and carried to the tepidarium, where the warm water will allow them to unwind from the stresses of a 4 hour duel of political machinations against an equal number of GM NPCs with equally complicated backstories and enjoy an evening of inter-character roleplaying while the GM recovers from the burden of his authorial duty with a relaxing nap. After the 12 hours have concluded, both GM and players will give a contented belch and sigh blissfully “In Roleplayo Veritas est!”
– Prince on Traditional Gaming, tenfootpole.org forum


The time has come at last. Once DnD was a game first, and maps were nonlinear, and peril was omnipresent, and encounters were tight and story was a premise. And it was good, for a while. But then, out of the mists, came Storylines, Roleplaying XP, Boxed Text, Railroading and 5 page backstories with a dreadful goal: To make DnD even gayer then it already was.

It is my thesis that many of these trends that ultimately spiral into sterile coffee-table object de’arthood begin with A) a good idea with some unfortunate implications if carried to its logical extreme and B) by being written by someone who is very good and could have made a decent traditional module to begin with. Enter Castle Ravenloft, arguably the herald of the Great Twin Satans Tracy and Laura Hickman and the dreaded time of the DragonLances. Ravenloft is an interesting case study because

A) while many of the story-like elements in it would later be implemented with all the grace and harmony of a pair of nails scraping down a particularly craggy chalkboard they work to the advantage of the module here

B) they are implemented in a manner that is reasonably unobtrusive and does not overmuch hinder the player’s beloved agency

C) It uses story-like elements to supplement its power as a classic module, it does not rely on them to carry the module by itself.

Let me take you along on this grande tour into a dark fantasyworld of baroque, gothic splendour. It is a dark and foggy night, and inside a particularly unremarkable inn in some nameless village, our characters receive a cryptic invitation to the township of Barovia from a mysterious and affluent stranger, who leaves almost as soon as he appears. If the characters heed the call to adventure, they find the entire township is shrouded in mist, with none of the villagers have left it for centuries! Overlooking the village like the gnawed petrified fingers of some hideous giant is CASTLE RAVENLOFT, here to lull you into a sense of false security with its atmospheric fuckery before FUCKING YOU INTO THE DIRT with some of the most brutal encounter tables this side of Carcosa. Its an evil castle, with an evil Vampire Count having lured the players here for a randomly determined purpose, only to bombard them with random fucking encounters every 3 turns.

Ravenloft leans into the tradition of Gothic Horror, particularly Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but you can readily find all manner of horrors within the manor, cob-webs, animating skeletons, ghosts, banshees, spectres, Wights, secret doors, and politically incorrect NE Gypsies (praise Gygax!), that would later become Ravenloft’s Vistani, servants of the Count, led by the enigmatic Madame Eva. 

There’s a few sort of gimmicky elements that are there to beef up the atmosphere but they also make the adventure more playable. You are supposed to cut a deck of cards and deal five of them. They could have used dice for this part but since it is a gypsy lady who possibly tells the players this (surprisingly this encounter can be avoided almost entirely) Three of the cards represent items that provide a crucial advantage in overcoming the nefarious Count Strahd Von Zarovich, the Book of Strahd (comes with a suitably gloomy and angsty Diary), the Sun Sword and the Holy Symbol of Ravenloft, each of which is placed somewhere in the castle. The fourth is the location of Strahd himself. The fifth represents Strahd’s motivation, and can vary from the very classic (but possibly cringeworthy) in-love-with-hot-female-NPC-who-he-thinks-is-his-dead-bride-to-be to the more hammy (but more game-design palatable) Wants-to-build-a-sphere-of-darkness-and-thinks-the-PCs-have-a-component. This last component moderates how Strahd is likely to interact with the players, and for a more story-oriented game, I am actually quite surprised there is no mention of separating players, considering the myriad tricks in the Castle proper that rely on fake deaths, separating the party or otherwise fucking with them. Perhaps this was considered par for the course.

The village of Barovia is included more for atmosphere/plot then gameplay, and lacks the interactive properties of something like Keep on the Borderlands or Village of Hommlet or Deadly Power. You’ve got a mad mother looking for her daughter (no XP value for success!), the Burgomeister’s son, an old decrepit church, and the NPC Ireena Kolyana who can accompany the party, but what is lacking is the hidden stuff, riddles that pay off later, hidden treasure, some guy in league with the enemy etc. Instead you get a tonne of exposition, atmospheric but ultimately static content, and some fuckery with the statistics. I’ll buy 4 HD gypsies because c’mon, gypsies, but a 9th level Stockboy fighter with 18/80 strength? Maybe the general store has Frank Castle and Sigurd Fafnirsbane as casheers? Elric and Anasurimbor Kellhus are in charge of condiments and dairy products? The natural order of things has been upset in service of the dreaded plot! This section is by far the most story-gamery and could have been covered with a more elegant rumor table.

Unlike almost every other village, the village is actually NOT safe. You still have the 1 in 3 chance of an encounter every 3 turns, with being inside a physical building merely providing A CHANCE of safety or the fucking wolves and bats come in. The fucking priest spends all night praying, windows and doors are barred etc. etc. You get a real feel of a hopeless place, under siege by evil. But it lacks that interactive component.

The trip up to the castle is essentially random encounters, maybe get your fortune read by Madame Eva (10th level fucking Cleric) but after that you are on your own. The encounters themselves are divided between Day (merciful, angry bands of villagers, wandering gypsies, 2d4 Worgs) and Night (Hell, 2d10 Worgs, 1-4 Wights, a fucking Ghost, a Maiden Vampire) so good fucking luck in case you decide to try and stay in the village (forget about memorizing new spells via uninterrupted rest). Then you get in the carriage somewhere down the road and its time for the Castle Proper.

Given Ravenloft’s almost indigestibly storygamery opening, you might be surprised that the Castle Ravenloft proper is a wholesome, brutal murder labyrinth of towers, secret doors, multiple means of egress, hidden treasure, and brutal random encounters, that explode in the manner of the old dungeon tables, with the merciful table having at its worst 2d8 Wights or Gargoyles, while the less merciful table has all the upper echelons of the AD&D bestiary (1d6 fucking Spectres), ending in ye aulde fucklord himself, Strahd Von Motherfucking Zarovich, here to do his best Albert Wesker impression (and I personally think the adventure could only improve if you made the substitution, zoomers/millennials that might be reading). And this was before the 2e days of Negative Plane Protection and Lesser Restoration. Say goodbye to those levels, Chris!

The map is stunningly, staggeringly intricate, an isomorphic masterpiece in 10 parts, with stairwells, towers, bridges, rooftops, cliffs you can climb down to enter the catacombs via a set of stained-glass windows, secret doors, sliding stairwells, near bottomless shafts and teleporters. It will require detailed analysis of the dungeon proper, perhaps an hour or so, to grasp the way each floor is connected to the whole but once this is done the end result is a thing of beauty, a fine example of the unity between form and function, passable as a castle but complex and sprawling, where the clever will discover hidden passageways while the incautious are punished.

The content is surprisingly solid, with several caveats. The Castle proper can feel somewhat empty (and perhaps it should at that), with many of the rooms having lavish descriptions of decaying furnishings but little to interact with. The rules of treasure distribution (but not placement!) have been handwaved, with the bulk of the phat l00t being located in a single area, with very little to show for it besides. This does serve to emphasize the more horrific aspects of the Castle. Several rooms have fake scares, armors that are just armors, a figure hanging from some threads that turns out to be a simple (dead) skeleton. A suit of armor strikes at you but it is a simple mechanical hazard, intended merely to titillate. AND THEN it hits you with animating dead. The Gargoyles standing in the hall don’t animate…the FIRST TIME. These are excellent touches that lull you into a false sense of security, and then punch you in the dick.

And then you see the boxed text.

This is a magnificent 40-foot-square room, brilliantly lit by three massive crystal chandeliers. Pillars of stone stand against dull white marble walls, supporting the ceiling. In the center of the room, a long, heavy table stands covered with a fine white satin cloth. The table is laden with delectable foods of every type: roasted beast basted in a savory sauce, roots and herbs of every taste, and sweet fruits and vegetables. Places are set for each of you with fine delicate china and silver. At each place there is a crystal goblet filled with an amber liquid whose delicate fragrance tantalizes your senses. At the center of the far west wall, between floor-to-ceiling length mirrors, stands a massive organ. Its pipes blare out a thunderous melody that offers in its tone greatness and despair. Seated before the keys, its back toward you, a single caped figure pounds the keys in raptured ecstasy. The figure suddenly stops and a deep silence falls over the dining hall. The figure slowly turns toward you.

Gaaaaah!

The module seems inordinately brutal, even by Gygaxian standards. As soon as the PCs arrive in the castle, the portcullis closes and it is difficult even to exit back into the courtyard. There is a 1000 foot climb down steep cliff walls. There is no place of safety within the castle. The PCs must find and kill Strahd Von Zarovich in a single Night’s rest, with virtually no replenishment, with a formidable host of level-draining bastard monsters arrayed against them. Yet I don’t think this module, as written, is unfair or even impossible. The cryptic nature of the Castle’s treasures and the random location of the crucial objects like the Sun Blade or the Symbol of RavenLoft are offset by multiple opportunities to ask Questions, be it from the cursed statues of Ravenloft’s former lords, or the mournful spirit of one of Strahd’s victims. In addition, if the PCs (6-8 PCs of level 5-7, a formidable force!) do manage to snag themselves some of the rare magic treasure and somehow discern their use, it is all the more formidable. A blade with a single wish spell is a lifesaver, a fucking raise dead scroll is a good consolation prize and not many designers have the chops to put a Deck of Many Things in their module and have its inclusion make actual fucking sense. Hell yes! Seal of approval! There is of course, the classic fake treasure room, then a cunningly disguised secret door, and then a real one. Chef’s-kiss! Magnifique!

As previously mentioned, the contents of Castle Ravenloft have been huffing deeply the heady fumes of the more Gothique side of Appendix N, and all manner of classic monstrosities may be encountered. The big moody Dracula-asshole Strahd himself, complete with a hidden fucking coffin that he will retreat to if you reduce the sonofabitch to 0 (it pays off!), special Zombies whose limbs, once chopped off, continue to attack independently until the entire thing is destroyed, spirits, ghosts, ghouls, Werewolves that pretend to be your friend. A mad accountant chained to a desk to manage the estate’s finances! A variety of lascivious buxom vampiric wenches seeking to ensnare the PCs with their enervating caresses (classic!). And its not just standard stuff either. An animating portrait guardian? Hell yes! 7 Witches and their evil cat familiar. A tome of great evil. A monstrous heart that makes the stairs of a tower shake and attacks those attempting to ascend them with animated halbeards? Shades of Castlevania, which is itself a derivative of Dracula. The worm devours its own tail. Do I get into the hourglass room with the two Iron golems? Holy oldschool fucking dungeons batman!

I can probably wax lyrically about the atmosphere of the place, the GOFFIK npcs, the monsters, the variety of traps and the way the module uses elements of the map to likely separate the PCs so they can possibly be attacked by fucking Strahd, or the way some effects reinforce a sense of dread but are also seamlessly integrated with the dungeon exploration process but there is a larger takeaway to this baroque monstrosity that is easy to miss amid the myriad blinking lights and it is this.

I read something like Ravenloft which is thick, dripping with atmosphere, definitely too padded with boxed text, but otherwise a completely legitimate adventure, it provides the PCs with an interesting antagonist that can (mostly) be run without cheating, and it has the gothic elements but it integrates them into the bread and butter of AD&D and I smile to myself and nod. Atmosphere, context, richness, these are things that decades of overwritten, padded trash tier supplements have caused the OSR to recoil from them and say, hey, sometimes there are oozes here just because. And that is fine. But modules like Ravenloft show us that, with some discipline and restraint, you can create an experience with atmosphere, some depth to it and the odd set piece WITHOUT SUPPLANTING THE FIRMAMENT OF WHAT MAKES AD&D GOOD. Gygax does it ALL THE TIME, but he works it into the background.

It is precisely because this mixture of atmosphere and gameplay worked out so well and it was new at the time that everyone’s mind was blown, took it to eleven, attributed its power to the gimmicky or novel elements, and neglects the solid oldschool foundations on which is what built. Even the incorrect rejection of this style produces material like Mörk Börg modules, meaningless jaunts into vaguely gothic environs, with senseless inhabitants having all the substance of a strip of gauze. What we need are creations that are firmly embedded into a fantastic environment, whose elements do not originate ex nihilo, whose contents are not arbitrary, and whose attempts to evoke a mood or create that substance are done in harmony with, and never at the expense of gameplay. Fortunately for everyone, I happen to have written a module just like that myself.

Ravenloft is the best AD&D horror module and certainly the best DnD/OSR Vampire hunt that I have ever seen, and how could it not be? If you are going to do something archetypal, embrace it wholeheartedly and impale yourself on it if need be. Sometimes that means you have to railroad your players into a magical land surrounded by strange mists that operates under slightly different rules from the rest of the world and has bands of evil level 4 gypsies roaming the countryside and doing Strahd’s evil bidding. Roll up some clerics, practice operatic recitation of boxed text and treat yourself to one hell of a mega session of dirty 1983’s semi-traditional gaming. And probably TPK everyone. A classic, just ditch the ending cinematic and don’t go overboard with the boxed text.

****


57 thoughts on “[Review] I6 Ravenloft (AD&D); First Heretic

    1. I think I read…I, Strahd? when I was just out of highschool. Terrible. Imagine going to a wallmart employee and say, I want you to write the exact story of Dracula but better and from the monster’s perspective.

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  1. How would Ravenloft compare if it were released today as a new thing, and wouldn’t be seen through the lens of an old school legend?

    I’ve ready it only recently (for the first time!), and found it mostly uninspiring. The map and the exploratory elements (+ random placement of important stuff) is a work of beauty but interactivity is thin and mostly based on combat. There is, how many? – perhaps ten nice interactive situations? In a dungeon of 100 rooms? And the rest are fights against things you can’t even talk to. To me, it read like an undead-heavy combat slog with tons of healing spells and healing potions (otherwise, you stand no chance).

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    1. In my opinion still better then 90% out there, though the useability and the boxed text have aged poorly. In terms of mapping, proper use of the tools of horror, treasure placement and some neat dynamic interactions without going entirely overboard i’d say its still the best take on the vampire hunt I’ve seen. Maybe palace of the blood vampire something will be better, but I don’t suspect it will be. There’s a sense of ambition and grandeur to it that the newer stuff can’t always muster.

      I think the ratio of interactive encounters v. straightforward combat is low but probably on par. Seemingly friendly NPCs turning out to be secret traitors is a design that is used a bit too often, but otherwise, Strahd alone should provide plenty of interactive fodder for the PCs to dally with, and there’s the daughter, vampire ladies, the spirits of the previous owners, the gypsies in the beginning, you can take Ilyana along as a friendly NPC and there are of course the asshole werewolves/vampires that pretend to be friendly. There is also something to be said for the observation that too many interactive encounters would take away from the pressure and the sense of entrapment that Ravenloft seeks to instill.

      I think a legitimate criticism might be that it does not allow for complex faction play but there are other ways to make a good adventure, and I appreciate the inclusion of dynamic elements like the randomly placed treasure, the deck of many things, the wish etc. etc. that serves to add a delightful whiff of dynamic unpredictability.

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      1. Quite correct, and whilst some of the extra material isn’t too bad, the whole now feels bloated, with the PCs seemingly pushed from level appropriate area to area rather than allowed to wander. You can accuse the 5e hardbacks of many things, but giving you a lean and concise adventure is not one of them.

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  2. I never owned this module until the 21st century because one of the other guys in my old group had “claimed” it and intended to run it for us. We made two or three attempts but always got bogged down in the early parts with the village and the outdoors and the ridiculous random encounters and I don’t think we ever actually made it into the castle in any of them.

    When I finally got my own copy and read it I was so put off by all the proto-bad elements (the boxed text, the random encounter tables, the mandatory NPCs, the gross happy ending epilogue) that I was pretty much blind to all the vestigial good elements that you highlight here. This is still a tough one for me, because it has one foot firmly planted in the good tradition and the other one firmly planted in the bad tradition that it is in a very real sense the wellspring of. Just like Tomb of Horrors before it, inferior designers took all the wrong lessons and copied all the wrong elements of it in a way that makes it seem worse in retrospect than it is on its own merits.

    I don’t know if I’d have fonder nostalgia-tinted feelings towards this module if we had played through the whole thing – the castle is clearly the best part of it, but also my friend wasn’t a very strong DM so it almost certainly wouldn’t have lived up to its potential.

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  3. (cont’d)

    I think that, like the EX series, this could be a good change-of-pace interlude in a more standard Gygax-style campaign, but I don’t think I’d use it that way now because too much has grown up in its wake (with Dragonlance, then the whole 2E Ravenloft setting, all the way through to the 5E remake) that it carries too much negative baggage and I’m not sure it could be made to stand apart from that as just a vampire-hunting dungeon-crawl.

    One more word on the over-the-top random encounter tables: this became a persistent feature of bad late-1E-era adventures. I’m convinced that nobody thought this through or made any attempt to make these things reasonable. I’m almost certain the actual designers never used them in their games, and probably didn’t even include them in their manuscripts. I bet that some editor at TSR (probably the same guy every time) inserted them at the last minute, just pulling stats and numbers from the books and not giving a single thought as to whether 2-16 wights or 1-6 spectres is reasonable to randomly throw at a mid-level party in what’s supposed to be a minor side-show encounter.

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    1. The 2-16 Wights is certainly brutal, but it might not be quite as brutal as it appears at first glance. 5th level clerics have a 50% chance of turning 2d6 of them, mitigating the threat considerably, and 7th level clerics auto turn Wights. 6-8 characters will have at least 1 cleric, and with 2 the scenario becomes almost a joke. (I’d be curious to see a 7 clerics + 1 fighter run, maybe something for the gentlemen at K&KA).

      Then there’s the fuckyou table (groaning spirits, Ghost, Strahd etc. etc.), but the fuckyou table only triggers on a 1 in 4 on the regular table, so the likely outcome is that you will get a fuckyou encounter every 28 turns, or 4.5 hours. Even 1d6 Spectres can be repelled at 35% probability at level 7. Otherwise there’s, well…running? In plate armor?

      I think its very easy to get depleted in Ravenloft, especially with all the level drain, and if your party doesn’t catch on that there aren’t going to be places to replenish they might fall into the trap of using their offensive abilities too quickly, or go in with a wrong spell set and set themselves up to fail.

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      1. One of the things that bugs me about Ravenloft is how much of its difficulty comes from it being billed for level 5-7 characters. A level 9+ party would have much less of a hard time with it, and good tactical-minded players will realize that their level 5-7 guys are overpowered and that the smart thing to do is retreat and either leave this area to other heroes or come back later, but the module doesn’t allow for that – instead you’re forced to take your underpowered party through it as, effectively, puppets on the DM’s string. It’s a combat-heavy module that becomes “horror” because the PCs are about 3-4 levels too low for the combat, which feels cheap to me.

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      2. Here I would respectfully disagree. Part of the point is that the PCs need to find some of the powerful magic items scattered about to have a fighting chance against Strahd. Also more powerful PCs will have access to passwall spells and similar, and physical defences of the castle crumble.

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      3. But the trap part is what racks up the tension, otherwise, as you say, smart players would leave. You are stuck in a bad spot, your obvious means of retreat thwarted (although well prepared players could conceivably feather-fall the fuck out of there), you are hunted by a powerful antagonist that, unlike you, can retreat and reform and then it becomes do or die. Taomachan and A3 use similar methods, which, if used sparingly, are permissible I think. The Black Gem by Jeff Sparks and The God that Crawls are also good examples. If it is done habitually it takes away all player agency and makes the game shittier but trapping the door behind the players and forcing them to find some other method of escape is a time-honored DnD and adventure-game tradition.

        6-8 5-7 guys should be able to take out Strahd at least once, and if they engage sparingly and take the option to flee if they can, should last a while against most of the encounters. The problem is that Strahd can just cast a spell, make one attack and then flee and if he returns later he is fully healed and the players are not.
        I’m skeptical about the Wights in the Tomb, the Banshee under bad conditions is a nightmare and 1-6 spectres is something you don’t run away from without some permanent scarring but at the same time I think a 9th level party would run roughshod over any of the castle’s inhabitants, and could Mordekainen’s Magnificent Mansion their way into an 8 hour rest too (was that a 1e spell?), and the turn undead ability of a 9th level cleric would cut through most of the undead like a knife through hot butter.

        This one I’d like to run sometime. I’m very curious how it would play out and if it would suck etc. etc.. I ran Red Prophet Rises a while back and the players did something I had never foreseen which is climb the canyon walls and use it to scout the entire place. Marvellous. Some things are hard to anticipate which is why Actual play gives additional insight.

        (shuffling wombat beat me to it I think).

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      4. —If it is done habitually it takes away all player agency and makes the game shittier but trapping the door behind the players and forcing them to find some other method of escape is a time-honored DnD and adventure-game tradition.

        Okay, point taken. I guess my concern is that thinking about if I were to use this in a game if I were to do so I’d make it like any other sandbox feature – a remote location that the PCs hear intriguing rumors about and maybe decide to go explore, and as such I don’t think most players would bite on that hook until they were higher level than the module recommends unless tricked or forced into it. I like a de-facto rather than level-dynamic D&D world where the challenges are all out there from day one and it’s mostly up to the players to assess those challenges and decide whether they think they’re a good match for them, too weak for them, or too tough for them (i.e. the rewards will be too puny to make it worth the bother), and something like Ravenloft that has a baked-in assumption that the party is lower level than they “should” be is hard to reconcile with that. I know that Ravenloft isn’t and wasn’t written to be that type of adventure, and I should stop trying to pound a square peg into a round hole and should accept the Hickmans’ story on its own terms, but I can’t help myself from trying. I like that isomorphic map and the idea of a D&D version of Dracula like the D&D version of Lewis Carroll, and would like to find a way to make it usable without being too heavy-handed about it.

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    2. The point about random encounters is a strong one: they should be about whittling down (if not avoided) party resources, possibly representing patrols, adding flavour, rather than surpassing the set encounters in importance and difficulty. If six spectres is rolled, I suggest making this a group of past victims who don’t attack, say a few sorrowful words, and then howl in pain. As a referee I have no qualms about altering bits of modules I don’t like.

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  4. AD&D has nullification of horror built in at its core. Monsters of all kinds exist and the supernatural beings of horror fiction and film are not different in kind, they are just … more monsters with Vampires among the most gorgeous.

    The DM has to think deeply how he might present monsters which depict the mood of horror he has in mind. Geoffrey’s Carcosa has been the only *attempt* to arouse at the gametable real feelings of loathing and fear that I have read. The chief genre writers have invented several modes of horror, which appeal according to taste, but none have been examined by gamers and published. Geoffrey was correct in digging back to the trunk of D&D before returning on a new branch, I think horror requires this.

    I6 Ravenloft is like a halloween party where a child’s rudimentary fear of outlandish costumes and painted faces is exploited, but all the load groans echoing around the place are from bored adults dying to get home.

    As an aside, I did an hour’s reading online and downloaded the best of the Hammer Horror films from roughly 1960 to mid 70s. This is how long a review of a dozen shit films should be:

    —At times the photography is elegant, but the acting is stolid and predictable and the dialogue is to be deplored. Watch with the sound off if you must.

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    1. The omnipresent existence of relatively tame and straightforward magic and especially monsters removes much of the impact of the supernatural evil, agreed. Halloween is not a bad comparison. I should have used the term ‘spooky’ or ‘atmospheric’ adventure, since all of the Gothic stuff is by now so familiar to everyone it has a type of kitch value. I think a similar thing has occurred with Lovecraft’s writing. The genre has not losts its appeal but ironically every time you include a creature that is actually from his mythos the effect is likley to be lost because players are familiar with it.

      Carcosa works at first because the supernatural in Carcosa is something abhorrent that only underlines the wretched nature of mankind at the bottom of its totem pole but having played a campaign of 25ish sessions in it your players will grow jaded, particularly if they die often(1.9 fatalities per session I think). There’s a reason you don’t see very many lengthy horror series I think, as familiarity breeds rapid contempt. Cobbling together some sort of ersatz appendix N to illustrate the fantastic underpinnings of a game of Carcosa still fascinates me as an exercise, I see Lindsay, Rice Burroughs, Lovecraft, C.A. Smith and some of Howard’s stuff but there is some Eye of the Overworld and maybe some Night Land to be found if one squints.

      Need I send His Majesty a copy of Palace so he may cast his critical eye on the author’s own humble efforts at evoking a sense of dread or will He be too busy writing disparaging letters to the widows of Mr. Cushing and Mr. Lee to bend his weighty intellect to the endaevour?

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  5. —having played a campaign of 25ish sessions in it your players will grow jaded, particularly if they die often(1.9 fatalities per session I think).

    Statistics is not Geoffrey’s strongest skill. Especially with a unique world you must allow characters stick around long enough to gain knowledge of its peculiarities; experts must exist. I am sure with a few adjustments and get-out-of-jail-cards to balance the titanic-nuclear-horrors some Van Helsing or Randolph Carter should emerge in every party. That might mean for example that in every player party of four, one has 90% luck [ usually the intellectual but what if the punchy-man] and the others share the 10%.

    Like I said when it comes to Horror — the unknown — the players should not know what the fuck is going on, even at the mechanical level. Which is not to say the mechanical level is not rigorous and fair. The mechanical level is sacrosanct IMO, but every probability in the campaign has been set by the DM — which is why random tables are feeble irresponsible homogeneous tools IMO. I have a sophisticated understanding of probability by training but I ignore that in favour of good judgement which has pleased me and the players more. I do entertain argument on probabilities — my favourite parts of Gygax’s modules are where he reveals his adept’s sensitivity to probability on areas not covered in the DMG. Most valuable things in Gygax’s modules are *outside* the tedious room descriptions, and so for for *any* module.

    What SHOULD Gygax have done: maps, tactical monster behaviour on the map and introductions where he introduced RULES not in the DMG and indulged in his novel writing tendency. But I bet with a 32 page limit for the lot his prose would have been magisterial . Everyone knows this. Gygax was capable writing beautiful paragraphs.

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    Horror mechanics should incorporate mental illness, but not in a legal binary — Nutbag – Sane. In a world of horror aberration needs to be as rich in colour as watercolours. It should inspire players in new behaviours which are reasonable for the environment. There is nothing wrong with a player saying he wants his F1 to react with PTSD to his first encounter with a gang of Orcs.

    =======

    You can send me anything you write of course. It may not be of any worth because I think you are a good guy and so will not say anything unpleasant and will struggle with anything in module format because I always have. You know I like DCO and Carcosa, unusual formats. In all probably not a good idea for a good review.

    Ignoring the genius of Gygax, jaquays, Bledsaw, Barker, Staffard It amazes me how formulaic module design became because I have no business sense. I have thought about the concept of *module* and I think it is essential but from TOP to BOTTOM, for 3 decades I think the concept of *module* has been misunderstood. Judges Guild understood it better in hierarchy but their taste as chaotic.

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    1. [Long campaigning]
      By the end, I’d increased the chance of psionic powers so by random chance 1 in 50 characters would start with psionic powers, we actually had one. There was another one who got elevated with a psionic artifact. I think they at some point managed to destroy the Octopotamus after retreating from a fortress ruled by a mummy brain in the Yuglathep swamp. They were around level 3-5, and zero fucks were given. I think I stopped at the point they managed to obtain a robotic spider droid with a control circuit from some greys. It was great stuff.

      [Adventure]
      Sent it to you.

      [Critique/Good guy]
      The most painful, wasteful, wretched thing in the world I see is wasted potential. There are too many people around me who are talented, sometimes even brilliant, but whose drives, the summation of their creative spirit has been inverted or has been turned to meaningless ends by this shithole age because they believe in nothing or worse, because they have absorbed the poison that is fed to them in their very soul. I have watched my father, a man with two masters in mathematics and physics, summa cum laude, a fucking university statistics professor, become a fucking bugman whose only passions are household appliances and CNN. I think you have great insights but something causes you to sabotage yourself and make enemies that you don’t always need to make and there is a negativity there that I relate to. You had a readable blog too. Review as needed, I always appreciate a good eye. Take care, man.

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  6. Excellent review of a much discussed classic. There is a very good review on Dragonsfoot by Fiasco.
    I think four stars is right: this is a worthy attempt at creating a more interesting antagonist for the party, and the gothic horror tropes are well used. I particularly like the card reading, creating atmosphere and giving out clues at the same time. But why give the travelling folk several levels: if the PCs want to slaughter them, let them. The dreadful puns in the crypt area are a low point; also the ridiculous happy ending if Strahd is slain should be skipped. Yet as a whole it worked so well that it spawned a 2e setting. As you state, the module has its roots in the classical dungeon; it should be judged separately from the evil smelling turds that followed.
    In play many years ago the PCs took a battering until a paladin managed to claim the sword; at least a couple of sessions were spent in the crypt area, and a PC did fall foul of the teleport into the sarcophagus trap.
    There is a top class Fantasy Trip solo adventure Vampire Hunter Belladonna, which riffs off Hammer House of Horror to create a rousing adventure. I’m tempted by Halls of the Blood King. Widening to more general horror, I liked the recent OSE adventure Hideous Daylight.

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  7. I’m almost scared to see what results, but… could you do a review of the 5E Curse of Strahd adventure? Hailed as the best of the WotC efforts by many, I still suspect it makes this look like a masterpiece.

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  8. Bryce did a review of that some years ago, as I found out after reading this one. He said some of the encounters are good, there’s a lot of npcs with their own agenda and some new locations, but the pay by word nonsense of wotc ruined the usability of the module. I don’t know how his view on the subject changed over the years, though.

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  9. I don’t think any of the parties I have run this for, or when I have played through it, have ever completed the adventure. There is no give at all in the adventure, and the Party will get separated and picked off over time…also retreat is pretty much impossible as there is no where to retreat to.

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  10. Ah yes, this is a wonderful module for us Heretics.

    The Castlevania comparison is interesting, because I believe the first Castlevania game used the exact same cover art (!).

    I’m eager to see your review of I3 Pharaoh. I3 and I6 are probably the best things that the Hickmans ever wrote.

    Also someone should put together a Melan diagram of Castle Ravenloft. This thing is definitely complex.

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    1. Hahaha it must have been SOME other cover art right? I remember Trevor Bellmont standing on the front with a whip, but otherwise yeah, very similar vibes, good games too.

      I3 is a tomb so I’ll get to it at some point no doubt.

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      1. It might’ve been the art on the cartridge itself. My nephew had it and I did a double-take when I saw it. Same profile of the Count at his castle, but much more cartoonish. I’ll have to see if I can find an image online.

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  11. Regarding Horror:
    Gothic Horror, and especially the Vampire story, are utterly bourgois concepts. Most non-bouge do not feel it, if so, then it is aspirational. This is why the Kitsch & Nintendo versions of Gothic Horror at least have appeal beyond people who have to worry about their inheritance taxes and were to place the piano (to put it mildly). This goes double for Lovecraft, which is crack compared to gothic’s cocaine for the recpetive audience.

    On the more general subject of horror & fear in D&D, I have found that it can come up mightily and organically if it is your character and the NPCs you know and love from your campaign. The nice and mundane, the likable & loveable must exist, otherwise it is not horror, but romantic nihilism (LotFP, Heavy Metal) or worse crypto-fascist Übermenschen-Weltschmerz (WoD, Mörk-Börg).

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    1. [Gothic horror bourgeois]
      Not going to beat around the bush; That sounds like a pretty retarded pop-science take to me. Have you actually read Dracula, Poe or Frankenstein or Melmoth the Wanderer or is this just straight from the textbook (Red Army/Khmer Rouge Pamphlet)? Gothic horror is about universal themes; Damnation, Sin, Guilt, etc. etc., and uses monsters derived from classic faery-tales as antagonists. It is no coincidence monsters in the Gothic tradition are often tragic as well as menacing, embodiments of sin, that of themselves or of the person that created them.

      The reason Lovecraft appeals more is that A) Lovecraft’s horror is the horror of the Unknown but also the Horror of the Secular Worldview, and is thus closer to our modern worldview then the still very much religious/moral worldview of a Gothic Audience and B) He creates an entire world and mythology through his short stories, which has greater staying power the singular instance of a Gothic tale.

      [Horror-take]
      I agree with this statement, that connection to a character is necessary for deeper horrific themes to emerge, albeit it not always, and your analysis of WoD as power-fantasy is basically accurate. I will of course appropriate Crypto-Fascist Übermenschen Weltschmerz as the title of one of my future modules but I will give you credit.

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  12. “Damnation, Sin, Guilt,” those are not universal things but decidedly bourgois categories, could close my case here:-)

    Regarding the specifics, Dracula is a novel in the form of letters. About a Lord who does weird things and the bourgoius people (houses are bought, advocate, fiances had etc.) who are influenced by that.

    Frankenstein, in a way, is as bouge as Faust.

    Now all are classics of the canon for a reason and you might enjoy them, as many did.

    But these classics are very class-specific, and the fetishization of Vampires especially needs any shock value in a Lord being improper. For the peasant/worker, any Lord/boss already is a rapacious monster in real life and no romantization or sympathy is called for or possible. In Frankenstein, the mob is right, but oh noes two/three special snowflakes want us to shed tears. Give me a break. IIRC the original goes on a longer time with the monster travelling to Antarctica and so on .

    Regarding Lovecraft, I am very doubtful of that cosmic horror vs religion reading, common as it may be.
    To me, lovecrafts appeal lies in him being a ridiculously high orderliness person with super high disgust rating, but using these outlier traits as fuel for art. His disgust was aimed at anything regarding the mixing of races and cultures, Zak would say. Ultimate fear of the strength of ‘the other’ and a sense of his own impotence, drawn so large, so stark, in so unique words and images, that it resonates with people across the decades and the globe.
    The trappings of Lovecrafts protagonists are utterly bouge (inheritances etc.), but his disgust is so permeating, that it transcends the mere setting. In that way it can create horror for many by masterfully by tapping into feelings of impotence and powerlessness. The whole insignificance thing I do not buy, YMMV, of course.

    Neither Lovecraft nor gothic horror do anything for me personally, and I a not defending Lovecraft, just giving him his due. His angst was so pure and strong, it pierced into the universal and he found words for it.

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    1. If anything the purpose of literature is to depict humanity with broad sympathy and ignore such things as class grievances, which is why communists decry it so vehemently. Comrades must gnash their teeth and pull on their beards at all times and the books they read should facilitate these anti-aristocratic protests.

      I understand your lack of sympathy with those of our fellow men who are substantially more fortunate. When I was young I could not see the appeal of PG Wodeshouse but I soon recognised that few authors have done more to raise the spirits of all men and women.

      ==== To me, lovecrafts appeal lies in him being a ridiculously high orderliness person with super high disgust rating

      Everyone please ignore the prevalent systems of psychological typing. They are junk science. They are statistically derived and so can only be applied to populations and have little significance to individuals.

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    2. [Damnation, Guilt, Sin]

      I can forgive a poor defence of a position under pressure but plastering the weakest point of your entire argument with a smiley face comes across as somewhat coy.

      This defence is incorrect; existential questions, guilt, meaning, these are universal traits, having occupied the whole spectrum of human beings throughout history, and if anything religiosity only increases with harsher living conditions.

      Your perspective is retarded, as in, its growth is stunted, it is limited. Vampires are for the bourgeoise you claim, and then point to some surface trappings and forms in the story, ignoring any deeper sort of meaning a story has that causes it to be intelligible to people centuries later, or deign to explore character motivations, themes etc. etc.. Using the same reasoning, the Illiad is for Bronze Age Greeks, or Golden Age sci fi for Americans, or whathaveyou. Everything is locked in rigid categories of class, and understanding is not possible.

      The problem with this type of postmodern literary analyses is not only that it inevitably reaches banal and trite conclusions in service of its own ideology but that it enables envious midwits to cast moral judgement over past people of superior accomplishment. I once with horror listened to a woman talking about how she had read the Odyssey from a feminist perspective and concluded, hold your breath, THAT PEOPLE IN BRONZE AGE GREECE DID NOT HOLD 21ST CENTURY COSMOPOLITAN COASTAL CITY VALUES.

      This is the philosophy of a bugman.

      [Lovecraft]

      I love early 20th century weird fiction, far more then gothic fiction. D. Lindsey, W.H. Hodginson, Merritt, C.A. Smith, Dunstany. Excellent stuff.

      This is better but again, something is reduced to a single answer in service of a parochial and reductionist worldview. No analysis is spent on Lovecraft’s style, his use of ambiguity and the reader’s own imagination in his barely described terrors, no thought is spent on the creation of an entire mythology, almost unprecedented then (only Dunstany preceded him I think), his central theme “Lovecraftian”, this word is handwaved away. No, says you, it is because he was really racist, and his transcendental disgust is what made him so good. If only Lovecraft had advocated for the execution of everyone who wore glasses, perhaps he would have gotten a better rep.

      r.e. the psychological blather, some personality traits in the Hexaco are fairly reliable predictors for future behavior (such as workplace performance and Conscientiousness) with self-reported stability over time but meh, who cares. I have a Masters in Psychology that I consider almost worthless (there are interesting fields like behavorial genetics or history of science philosophy), essentially a 10.000 euro IQ test.

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  13. “I understand your lack of sympathy with those of our fellow men who are substantially more fortunate. ”

    I just said: Gothic Vampires are written for and by the upper middle class,do not be surprised if everybody else schlockifies (Castlevania, From Dusk till Dawn, Rifts Vampire Kingdoms etc.) them. And I think the greatness of D&D lies more with the truly universal rather than the specifics of social or economic groups.

    Make of that what you will.

    Regarding psychological traits: I think you are in the wrong, especially statistically. The Big five (or the 6 model) and their sub-categories can be reliably tested for on an individual level, like IQ.

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    1. It is little understood, even among statisticians that while you can derive information from a population about a population, that this information cannot be applied to individuals. I know my height, the height distribution in the population is irrelevant to me. I either have or will get cancer or I don’t and will not. Assigning a probability from statistics is meaningless to individuals, I don’t carry around a 4% probability, I have a 0% or 100% probability as an individual. All statistically derived psychological information about populations is very useful for corporations and governments but utterly useless to the individual.

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      1. You are a mathematician so I will assume this is accurate, but might you elaborate?
        If I score high on an IQ test, does this not then give me a basis for comparison against the general population. I.e. can I not then estimate, based on this figure, the probability of myself performing well on future IQ tests (as the trait is relatively stable over time) and the tasks that these IQ tests are strong predictors for?

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      2. With IQ tests the correct answers are determined in advance so it is a counting exercise. IQ tests are flawed because they can be practised for. Money can project the very wealthy average brain into the top 1% on predictable test. The only true test of intelligence is the spontaneous patient interview by intelligent experts.

        With the psychological questionairres the idea is to identify patterns in the responses of massive populations and apply meaning to the patterns from above. Again these concepts are useful to organisations which herd populations but hold no value for the individual. Jung tried to categorise from below displaying novel insights but the resulting extrapolations by third parties for entire populations – Myers-Briggs – are equally tiresome.

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      3. @Molloy

        This practice effect is a limitation true but the difference is about 10 points which is significant but does not render the test entirely meaningless and it also does not follow that the information is useless for an individual in that it has no predictive value, which was your initial claim. There is a range that practice can place one in but, for example, someone with an IQ of 85 is not going to score 120 on the excercize, particularly as the more robust ones are timed as well.

        Likewise, while one may question the use of general categories versus more nuanced autobiographical studies it is a stretch to say that any model inferred from commonalities in large groups of people is utter bollocks on that basis alone. Psychological research uses similar methodology to medical research yes?

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  14. “Using the same reasoning, the Illiad is for Bronze Age Greeks, or Golden Age sci fi for Americans, or whathaveyou. Everything is locked in rigid categories of class, and understanding is not possible. ”

    You are fighting a strawman here. I was not being an agent of any culture war side. If we can agree the culture wars and their reductionist arguments are inane, class still exists. Because to deny that is just the other kind of reductionist inanity.

    And Gothic Horror strikes me as a very class-based, especially compared to other genres. [We might agree to disagree on that point, because in essence that is my whole point.]

    Whereas the Iliad and the Odyssee indeed capture something eternal and universal. not just something but a whole spectrum of universals. To me the Odyssee is much closer, much more human, especially in the details regarding hospitality (in my reading the main theme, but surely there are more dimensions) than Dracula or Frankenstein.
    Interestingly, many middle-brow people these days think the original text of the Odyssee to be rather alien, because they are missing all the navel-gazing and “Guilt” & “Sin” shlock, they are trained for.

    “Sin & Guilt & Damnation” in Dracula, Faust or Frankenstein are not universal things. They are very specific and (obviously, I thought) very class-related.
    You can understand them just fine and still be utterly unmoved by them.

    Is that always the case with everything if you are not of the same background? No! I did not even imply that. But Vampire Horror is as crystal clear an example as one can find, if you ask me.

    As for Lovecraft, the facts remain that he inspired hundreds if not thousands of accomplished creative people. So his form alone must be special, I never said or implied anything else. I only rejected a single argument, namely: “horror of the insignificance of humanity” or cosmic horror. I do not believe that is his main draw or that he even was good at that or that anybody was too shocked by that, ever. The great narcissistic insults for western religions had already happened.

    As for his Mythos: is it not mostly alluded and implied but not actually spelt out? I have read quite a bit of Lovecraft especially in search for Mythos content and was very underwhelmed. There can be no debate, though, that the network of writers keeping and expanding his Mythos was a substantial achievement, probably even fueled by the allusiory and ambigue originals.

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    1. Good composure. I am warming up to you.

      [Class]

      I am not arguing that its not there, I am arguing the application of said man-made category in literary analysis in this current format on this current topic by you is asinine and reductionist, but that this is by no means a fault unique to yourself.

      [Odyssey]

      The Odyssey is spectacularly good, and very unlike other epics. It’s very easy to find a ‘something something’ Illiad. The Tain, the Tale of the Heike, The Volsunga Saga, these can all be compared. Very few stories are like the Illiad. Maybe Beowulf is closer, its more melancholy, but this idea of Homecoming after a long battle does not really have many parallels. I won’t argue with you that the Odyssey has more appeal then Gothic Horror, since its a different ballpark altogether and concerns a much broader and richer spectrum of the human condition. But if you were to compare it with say, Milton’s Paradise Lost, I don’t think one would trump the other.

      The navel-gazing stuff is an artifact of the novel format in general I think. I have found that in my crawl through the Viking Sagas, the epics of China and Japan and, say, some plays, this type of introspection is entirely absent, and it has actually been added fairly recently, and was considered low brow entertainment compared to sagas or plays.

      [Vampire/Class]

      You keep re-iterating your point with more emphasis, but you aren’t making headway. You claim things like Guilt, Damnation, Sin etc. etc. are bourgeoise concepts, I in response have pointed out that religiosity and questions of good, evil, guilt etc. etc. are historical constants that occur across different cultures throughout history (for example Hellenic Greeks or Indians have a concept of Sin, this is not the same as the Christian concept! but they most certainly have the concept) and that your method of arguing for said class-based uniqueness is based around the trappings, not the fundamentals, and can be used to make seemingly absurd claims (such as that the Illiad is a…what did you call it, a Crypto-Fascist übermenschen weltschmerz), which is should be an indication that the underlying reasoning is deficient or incomplete.

      [Lovecraft]

      Fair on the rest, R.e. Insignifance of Man. You are claiming that a core component of Cosmic Horror by the man who more or less invented it and is certainly the one most immediately referenced by it is not a primary reason for his success, but I can’t really figure out why. You basically state a vague disbelief. If such ideas had been promulgated before this, it was in the form of philosophy, not popular fiction, so I would say that in fact, yes, it was certainly a novel concept at the time.

      Was the grand narcissitic insult to religion the hundreds of millions that were destroyed by the communist and facist regimes that followed in their wake?

      [Mythos]

      His Mythos is an artifact of people collating and categorizing his work absolutely, and initially began as references to his own and other writer’s works, as did they, but this gave the impression of one big, shared, weird fiction universe, encompassing all of these authors, from C.A. Smith to potentially R.E. Howard. He never set out to create a structured systematic universe, but that is what makes it compelling too, the ambiguity, a delightful puzzle of occult, eldritch horrors from beyond the stars, a vast epoch of time with all these different civilizations of hideous life from the stars, that stretches from the very beginning of the universe to far into the dark future and into the realms of Dream. DESPITE this it is vast, rich and beautifully imaginative.

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  15. Can you expand on what you consider to be “navel gazing?” For example, is the Bhagavat Gita navel gazing (it is essentially a conversation on what justifies certain actions- in this case going to war, and potentially killing loved one’s and teachers, though much broader from a philosophical point of view). I have found the “war” part of the Mahabharata to be comparable to the illiad, with even interesting parallels between certain characters (Hektor and Karn as an example).

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    1. I had missed this. I assume Navel-gazing to be the constant hum-drum of background chatter that informs us of the emotional reality within the character, something which is a modern invention not present in the old sagas. It was customary for characters to let us know of their thoughts by voicing them, but in some cases, most notably the more taciturn Norse Sagas, they can only be inferred from actions. “The King grew wroth with him,” is the most you will get.

      I think my penguin edition has the Bhaghavad Ghita incorporated in it as my previous edition of the Mahabharata had just omitted it (among many other things). Hektor and Karna is not far off, though the main champion of the Kauravas is more clearly Bhishma. “Make me a bed worthy of a Ksatriya.” Very awesome.

      Have you ever read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms or the Tale of the Heike?

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  16. [Guilt, Damnation, Sin ]

    I specifically tried to be consistent in putting “Sin, Guilt & Damnation” in quotes, to mark I was still referencing the concepts you see in Dracula specifically and Gothic Horror more generally. To me that is much narrower, much, much narrower, than broad applications of these terms. Jordan Peterson is very fond of saying ‘to sin’ is from the greek ‘to miss the mark in archery’. But “sin, guilt & damnation” in Dracula Faust or Frankenstein are not broad, across cultures. Nobody misses the mark, people are utterly transgressive because of their monsterdom (“born this way, a special snowflake Lord who preys upon the weak! Sorry!”) or because of romanticized career ambition (Faust, Frankenstein). One of the funnier readings of Frankenstein is to look at the Frankenstein as desperately trying to gain the female power of creation, others are about him being a stand-in for modernity and the creation of the working class etc. etc..

    Many other interpretations exist on what each work supposedly really is about. All these interpretations share one thing though: Their conceptualisations and frame of reference of what guilt, sin and damnation comprises is utterly tied to upper middle class thinking and in the case of Dracula, Victorianism. I spare you a figurative dozen references of variations on such analyses.

    Without rehashing hundreds of pages of debate re: special snowflakes vs Evul Wurld in RPGs, a distilled and concise answer would be: To make Sin, Guilt and Damnation the major themes of a work is in itself provably class-based. I called that bourgeois, with a neutral flavour. I am informed it is not neutral in english parlance, so please insert “upper-middle-class”, “civiel” or somesuch.

    One of the attractive things of Appendix N and the OSR is the absence of most of the whole “Woe is me!” character or villain-centered introspection.

    [Was the grand narcissitic insult to religion the hundreds of millions that were destroyed by the communist and facist regimes that followed in their wake?]

    No, it was science. The enlightenment. Kant. Kopernicus. Hundreds of years upstream.

    I am not sure, are you saying that fascism and communism are answers to the loss of religion? I am not trying to solve the question of totalitarism in a D&D blog comment, so I refrain from my own opinion. Just wanting to parse where you are coming from.

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    1. [GDS]

      Was not Vlad Dracula himself consigned to his wretched fate because of some great sin or crime? I recall something of this manner? Regardless, I thank you for rendering the point more nuanced. I am not convinced, but the definition falls within sufficient degrees of accuracy that further worrying at various points amounts to hair-splitting.

      I was in fact aware of the reading of Frankenstein as an early feminist novel, an interpretation I think might have surface credibility, depending on when it was written (Frankenstein I have NOT read).

      [Totalitarianism]

      No problem.
      I subscribe to the notion of State and Church works as a mediating influence and that religion and tradition fill a sort of existential need that is inherent to the human brain (or inherent enough to be a significant factor in human society). Therefore, it is my suspicion that the falling away of said factors leaves a gaping existential hole of ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ in the human mind and people will search out such a thing quite naturally. This can lead to harmless obsessions (i.e. nerds fighting about Sonic and Mario), but it does also make one more susceptible to totalitarian ideologies. It is my further belief that the more excessive tendencies of autocrats are curbed by their existence within a framework that not only provides for their legitimacy (beyond the obvious use of force) but also shoulders them with obligations and duty, which can (but most certainly not always, see Cambyses or Nero or Louis XIV) act as a cushioning factor.

      [Science]

      It is undeniable that the advent of wide-scale scientific invention and exploration diminished the influence of the Church as the primary authority for explaining the ways of the world but I do not believe the two are of neccessity antithetical, especially not if one considers the number of scientists that were monks or the role of monasteries in the preservation of knowledge.

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  17. [Lovecraft]
    Your enthusiasm is heatwarming. I happen to be quite interested in the grand csomic metaplot(s). Did Lovecraft invent that? In a way. No contest there, any other line of tradition would be much more involved.

    Am I convinced this is the main draw of Lovecraft? Well, at least in RPGs, we have very, very few Cosmic situations but many, many involving inheritances.
    Go to a CoC LARP or convention and count the Worker’s outfits or count the CosmoPhysics sessions or even the drug experiences with Laudanum or MDMT or shrooms or what have you: you might find that 99,9% wil be interested in 1920ies costumes and Whiskey/Champagne and situations starting with an inheritance, some dark family secret and ending with somebody becoming too cozy with a monster in need of killing. if you say Lovecraft is much better and bigger than his fans, ok. But at least this is what I mean.

    Who followed up on Lovecrafts Cosmic Horror? OTOH? Lem?

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    1. [Lovecraft]

      Lovecraft I have read and reread over the years and my fondness only deepens.

      I think as you yourself point out the comparison between rpg-fans and fans of the stories is not quite fair as the requirements of what makes a good yarn and what makes a compelling session of play are not likely to entirely overlap. I’d just ask what stories people remember of Lovecraft and what elements they found particularly noteworthy. I can’t imagine Lovecraft’s bestiary of horrific, barely described terrors or his vast epochs of time do not feature prominently in such recollection.

      [Successor]

      Lovecraft is like the prometheus alien in that he drank some sort of black goo and then his body disintegrates and its DNA is found in places all over the fictional landscape as time goes on. An obvious inheritor seems to be Sword & Sorcery, with C.L. Moore or K.E. Wagner occasionally flirting with Lovecraftian concepts. Then you get the Great Death, and all manner of different genres are expunged and all but entirely replaced by Lord of the Rings copies for two decades. In the current age, it is stronger then ever, with authors like Mevielle making some stabs at resurrecting the New Weird, and the Lovecraftian showing up in games, shows and comic book adaptations.
      In horror it seems to be mostly absent after the extinction of the Weird Tale until of all things Steven King comes along and borrows the idea of cosmic horror for IT, or as a foil in his Dark Tower saga.

      SF-wise: Lem does not hesitate to portray Science Fiction at its purest, that of man meeting the unknown, and (often) inimical. Solaris has a whiff of the Lovecraftian in the immense and fundamentally unknowable nature of the World Ocean, itself a mirror for the desires of the men who investigate it. More upstream, the use of at times malignant but always unintelligable god-like powers beyond our understanding would return in works like Baxter’s Xeelee sequence, Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and Meany’s Nulapeiron sequence (almost certainly mispelled), but nothing truly deserves the appellation Lovecraftian until Watts’ pitch black duology of Blindsight and Echopraxia with their volific nihilism and their burning down of various sacred cows.

      I posit that it is possible some lovecraftian badguys show up in early Space Opera but for a while afterwards SF was very much based on the ideology that the universe was a rational machine whose contents could be understood and the stories reflected that for the most part. The 70s are very introspective, with only Philip K Dick emerging as a possible successor with his stories of invasive other realities and alien gods; The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is practically a lovecraftian tale.

      Who is OTOH?

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  18. Just my luck to be asleep at the wheel when you review something I’ve actually played.

    Your assertion regarding higher level characters is correct, as is the instinct of players with some sort of grounding in either D&D or common sense to back out and make all of this someone else’s problem. The fairly tight level range, the power of Strahd and decline in levels, ticking clock and state of entrapment within haunted Barovia: it all adds up to a pressing sort of almost survival horror, that exists in the mind of the player, more subtly than “gain another d3 Insanity points and adjust your performance accordingly.” You are locked into this module with Strahd, and the only way out is through him. Go to.

    I found it interesting that my historian player didn’t have any time for the “implausible” or “bloody stupid” internal layout of the castle, even when Strahd’s ability to move through it in various shapes became a key element of the playthrough. Too much stuff that made not realistic sense nor served an apparent narrative purpose.

    I’d like to run it again with a larger group who’ve cut their teeth on more traditional D&D experiences for those first five levels. I hope the instincts thus developed would lead them onto the spike here and force some adaptive behaviours: level up, nerds.

    Regarding the discussion of the Gothic in Ravenloft I will say only that it borrows the elements we think constitute the Gothic but doesn’t bother with the aesthetic (as in “experience”, not “what it looks like”) or moral co-ordinates along which they are traditionally laid out. For example, I don’t sense the sublime, the transcendent beauty of the unparseable world, in Ravenloft: no more than I do in a Tim Burton film (except Big Fish, his least gothy-looking effort, but I digress). I could go on about the lack of a nineteenth-century moral context, Míeville’s “writing in the chair”, and the increasing remoteness of twentieth-century movie Dracula (the tradition from which Strahd is derived, the book is sadly irrelevant here) from the novel but I have to save something for the conference circuit.

    TL;DR it’s not the presence of vampires, ghosts, mist, etcetera in Ravenloft that provoke horror (Molloy is correct about their impact) but the constraints and, yes, challenges in the mechanics of play. Spooky noises aren’t scary but a level drain and no rest puts the wind up ’em.

    Regarding the introductory example of play: sounds ideal. Prepare the fainting couch and roast me another quail.

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    1. There you are, arriving at the party after everyone’s left with your packets of crumpets and your nine litres of Guiness, with nary a grognard to drink it and even GASP the discussion of the inherently classist trappings of Gothic Horror having long since dissipated in sticky puddles of angry urine (my own thank you very much).

      But a fine summation it is. I think the McGothic theme park haunted house trappings are a compliment to the, probably merciless, survival horror components that would not be emphasized as heavily if they were omitted but otherwise you’ve hammered the nail quite precisely onto its head.

      Mr. Molloy is the esteemed Poet & Mathematician in Exile.

      Good to see you again man.

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      1. Oh yeah, the Hammer-horrisms do a job for sure, but it’s window-dressing.

        Nine litres of Guinness is dinner for four people and a dog if you ask me, but I’m English and therefore a lightweight.

        I recognised the gentleman in question from the time-honoured ===== separator alone, never mind style and content. May his optics never run dry.

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