I6 Ravenloft (1983)
Tracy & Laura Hickman (TSR)
Lvl 5 – 7
“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.
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.