Dracula (1931), clip courtesy Fear: The Home Of Horror
I first encountered Strahd many moons ago, when I still played AD&D. Back then there was no Ravenloft, not as we've come to know the term; it was just a big bad sat up in his castle, a spider in his web - and what a web! Tomb of Horrors might have been more lethal - just - but you couldn't move two steps in Strahd's labyrinthine lair without encountering something hideous, murderous and downright nefarious.
Which, as Tracy and Laura Hickman, progenitors of Ravenloft, admit was the whole point.
“Our [adventuring] party turned the corner and there [the vampire] stood," recalls Tracy Hickman. "I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing here?’ He seemed out of place with the other standard monsters we were encountering. I thought, ‘You’re lost. You’re in the wrong place. You need to have your own adventure, setting, and story.’ That’s pretty much where it all started.”
That was Strahd, and Ravenloft: one big backstory for one bad man. A former hero who'd done the unthinkable, and would spend eternity paying for it. The apex predator, locked in a Walpurgisnacht of his own devising, just as securely imprisoned as any serial killer in a supermax yet free to roam within his prison and tear all the other inmates a new one. His white-hot rage is what keeps the ordinary folk of Barovia deeply embedded in the magical mist that forms Strahd's prison walls, and if you want to get out of this hellhole, you have to deal with Strahd.
His impenetrable fortress was the dungeon the characters would have to navigate, in order to track Strahd down and put an end to his damned existence once and for all. Less a castle in the medieval sense, more Neuschwanstein, except the 6,000 tourists per day who visit the home of Wagner-fanatic Ludwig II don't have to worry about encountering rust monsters, giant spiders or 10-100 bats. Not unless they're prepared to pay extra for the special tour.
Then it grew. From a castle sprang a Manor, and from a Manor whole new lands filled with other Universal Monster-esque grotesques. You got yourself your basic Frankenstein's Monster, your basic Mummy, your basic Poe-inspired gothic giallo, and by that point things were migrating quickly over to 3rd and 3.5 editions.
I was already on my way out the door.
I'd been falling out of love with D&D for quite some time. It was too rulesy, too mathsy, it lacked the horror elements I enjoy playing with, and there were other systems that did it better. White Wolf, Chaosium, Pagan Publishing, those were the places I went to scratch that itch.
Besides, D&D then and (possibly) now has never been a good system for mystery-style games. Ultimately the whole point of D&D - at that time, anyway - was to march into a 10x10 room, hit something, and steal its treasure. There's not much room for story in 'see Dick smack Kobold. Smack Kobold. Smack.'
Things change. There's a new Ravenloft core book due this May, and I'm intrigued.
For one thing, D&D isn't the whack-smash-thanks-for-the-cash game I remember. There can be mystery, the unravelling of a complex story, strong characters playing out narrative arcs. That makes for a meatier, more interesting game at the table. So far, so good.
For another, the Ravenloft design team seem to be leaning heavily into Gothic tropes, which is even better.
Gothic literature often evokes memories of Stoker, Shelley, and Poe, but I like to think of it as the natural home of Le Fanu, Richard Marsh, (The Beetle!), Ludwig Flammenberg (The Necromancer), Arthur Machen, Gaston LeRoux and many, many others. The monster crowd. The steeped-in-sin congregation. The ones who delve into occult grimoires and hide out in ruined castles and dungeons, buried deep in the Black Forest. The Bad People.
Gothic is something entirely to itself, completely unlike other genres of supernatural fiction. There's a magnetic draw that fixes you in place and keeps you there. I suspect, if you were to put a gun to my head, I'd have to admit that one of the draws of this kind of story, for me anyway, is that there can be a hero character, central to the narrative.
You certainly don't get that in Lovecraft, or M.R. James, and you don't get it that often even in Stephen King. You get an Everyman, swept into the story by forces beyond their control. Their only hope of coming out the other end in one piece is to confront the horror, bearding the vampire in its den. Even then, victory is far from guaranteed.
Which, let's be clear, has its own satisfaction. The reader can easily imagine themselves in the same situation, terrified out of their minds and looking for a way out. It's more difficult to picture yourself as Sir Lancelot swooping in to save the day, than it is to imagine you're schlubby author Ben Mears, who decides to go home for the summer and really regrets his life choices.
Still, there's something satisfying about being a genuine, bona-fide hero confronting dark and sinister forces. The Hero is the Hero, and the d&s v's are as Dark and Sinister as it is possible to be. The canvas is splattered with crimson and gold, and it's your job to turn this into a masterpiece, even if you die in the attempt.
Dragon's Lair (Cinematronics) - home of more of my quarters than I care to remember.
This is an idea that draws you in, and keeps you playing. Even when everything seems hopeless you can be the single spark raging against the dying of the light. It's why Night's Black Agents works so well; you too, it promises, can be James Bond or Jason Bourne, facing off against something far more powerful than a mere Blofeld.
It's also why Swords of the Serpentine captures the imagination. The city of Eversink may be vast, its hidden face a thing of nightmares, but you - you're a free blade, a witty rogue, and you can beat anything Eversink has to throw at you.
It's why Ravenloft works. At least, I hope it's why Ravenloft works. Like everyone else, I'll find out in May.
Burying the lede! I'm also working on a couple of Ravenloft scenarios I intend to publish via DTRPG. Feel free to seek them out at your peril, once they launch. Not certain of the publish date. I want to look at the book first, obviously, and I'm not sure when that will arrive on-island.
Working titles: For The Sound Of His Horn (a haunting hunting party)
The Three Crows (terror lurks at a sinister coaching inn on the old Svalich road)
We'll see how that turns out. I'll let you know more when I post the scenarios.