Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Devil Strahd

No posts for a while because I've been on holiday in Devon. In Teignmouth you can still touch the cannon-balls embedded in the walls from when the French burned the place in 1690. Sadly the whole incident comes a bit too late for me to use it in The Coach of Bones...

Anyway. My employer has given me a bunch of Amazon vouchers in lieu of some actual money (presumably as part of some complicated tax dodge), so after reading Bryce's surprisingly positive review of the D&D5 adventure book Curse of Strahd I decided to buy a copy. It's tediously overwritten, terribly organised, and weirdly obsessed with treating every location like a dungeon even when there's no reason why it would be used like that in actual play: if I was a D&D5 NPC, my write-up would consist of a single short paragraph about me, followed by a three-page room-by-room description of my house. ('The understairs cupboard contains a vacuum cleaner, a broom, and a stepladder. They have no value as treasure.') But among all the pointless read-aloud text and mind-numbing descriptions of empty rooms there really is a lot of good material in this book, even if it can never quite decide how far into horror-fantasy it's actually prepared to go. Vampire spawn crawling along the ceilings. Animated scarecrows with rusty knife-blades for fingers and heaps of dead ravens stuffed inside their chests. The vestiges of the dead gods of hate entombed in slabs of enchanted amber, watched over by a senile lich so ancient that he has forgotten his own name. There's something there, y'know?

For me personally, though, the biggest weakness of the book is Strahd himself. I get that they're trying to evoke the classics, and that the whole thing is supposed to feel like a Hammer Horror movie in D&D, but it's all played so straight that I have trouble imagining many players being able to take the whole thing seriously. Frightened villagers. Looming castles. Wolves and bats and undead brides. An evil vampire lord wearing an evil vampire cape while sitting on an evil vampire throne. How much of that would your players sit through before they started doing crappy Bela Lugosi impressions? Twenty minutes? Ten? Five? I absolutely loved the mad druids worshipping Strahd as a dark spirit of the land, but come on... a giant wicker man with fangs and a cape? How is anyone supposed to find something like that scary instead of comic?

I think there's a simple alternative, though, and it's one that's hinted at within the book itself. The people of Strahd's domain don't really know what his deal is: they just know that 'the devil Strahd' has been up in his castle for pretty much forever, and believe that he had been placed in their land as punishment for some forgotten sin committed by their ancestors. So instead of making him a straightforward Dracula knock-off, why not draw on all that? Embrace the strangeness and the indeterminacy of it all. Give him his mystery back again.

How's this for an alternative set-up: instead of having Strahd openly riding around Barovia in a big vampire coach that looks it was stolen from Christopher Lee in 1968, make him a dark legend, something that people whisper about but never actually see. What lives in Castle Ravenloft? No-one knows. Something horrible. Something that creeps out by night to prey upon the people of the land. Vampires and zombies and wolves and witches do its bidding, but it is not any of these; it is something older and stranger, the embodiment of the land's collective damnation crammed into a human shape. How was the land damned? No-one knows. It coincided with the deaths of the Von Zarovich family - but correlation is not causation, is it? Various NPCs can still have theories about it - that the thing in Castle Ravenloft is their old lord, that he's become a demon, that he's become a vampire, that he's a black magician, that he could be redeemed if only he was united with his one true love, whatever - but there doesn't need to be any rush to confirm any of them. Even Strahd himself may not really understand what he now is, or how his powers work, or what (if anything) may ultimately be able to kill him. All that the adventure actually needs to function is some kind of brooding evil at Castle Ravenloft's heart; and given that Strahd is, frankly, kind of a loser, I'm inclined to think that the more his mystery is kept intact, the better.

I mean look at this guy. Honestly. This is your arch-villain?

I guess this ties back to a more general point about information management in horror games. Keeping your players completely in the dark is frustrating for everyone; but the more you reveal, the more you risk an 'oh, is that all?' reaction from the players. To these ends, it's probably worth distinguishing between functional information (what is going on and what can be done about it) and explanatory information (the reason these things are happening, the process by which this situation originally came to occur). The former needs to be something that the PCs can figure out; but the latter will often benefit from being left partly (although not completelyundefined, because the more thoroughly it's explained, the more its power will be diminished. This is especially true of things like zombies and vampires, which have experienced so much pop-culture over-exposure that they have lost almost all the symbolic power which they might once have possessed. ('He's just some stupid vampire? And to think I was worried he might be something scary!') There is a lot to like in Curse of Strahd, and I'm sure I'll be raiding it for my own use at some point. But for a horror story, it does rather over-explain things; and I think Strahd's nature, history, and motivations could all benefit from being made just a bit more shadowy. 


  1. I'm curious if you ever read John Wick's commentary on the original Ravenloft (http://johnwickpresents.com/updates/the-best-adventure-of-all-times/). He has nothing but high praise for it.

    I flipped through this adventure a few months back and was also struck by the over mapping/explanation of it all. Certainly looses dread when so dryly explained.

    1. Hm. Wow. OK. No, I hadn't seen it, and I... ah... respectfully disagree with Mr Wick about a lot of things he says in it. I'm sure that I6 Ravenloft is a fine module, although I've not read it personally, but I think that he and I have very different ideas about how to run RPGs. And how to watch horror movies, come to that.

  2. You say "crappy Bela Lugosi impressions" like that's a bad thing...

    1. 'Strahd! Before we fight, there is one question I *must* ask you! Do you evah dreenk... vine?'