Thursday, November 20, 2014
Reflections on Ravenloft
Ravenloft is an interesting story in the world of RPG settings: It started as a breakout adventure module that inserted horror tropes into D&D and introduced the nefarious Strahd von Zarovich, the game's first Vampire wizard. It was followed up with another module called The House on Gryphon Hill that is widely panned but introduced a character that would become very important: The Lich Azalin.
From these humble beginnings, Ravenloft evolved into a full-fledged campaign setting although it was constructed using a weekend in hell design philosophy that empahsized easy one-shots.
At its core, Ravenloft is a setting about the Human struggle of good vs evil, sin, guilt, and hubris. In Ravenloft, those who have committed particularly horrendous crimes tend to become Darklords; these Darklords are awarded with new realms by the mysterious Dark Powers of Ravenloft but are also forever bound to them. The setting is also dripping with cruel irony. Strahd bargained with the Dark Powers for the power to kill his brother and claim his bride for himself; she committed suicide to escape him and reincarnates every few decades but always slips from the grasp of the now-immortal Strahd. Similarly, Azalin was a mighty Wizard-King who feared death and loved magical knowledge; the Dark Powers gave him the secrets to Lichdom but he cannot learn new spells. Azalin's domain also has a similar cruel twist in that the world he left was a civilization at its peak while his domain is (or was, if you take later AD&D products to heart) filled with the citizens of that same empire after centuries of collapse.
But there's on big problem with Ravenloft: It's a Dungeons & Dragons setting. There are Elves, Dwarves, hundreds of Liches and Vampires, Mind Flayers, Werebeasts of a dozen varieties, and a Fey kingdom. And many of the domains and Darklords are from canon D&D worlds like Forgotten Realms or Dark Sun. In worlds were Liches are a dime-a-dozen enemy then what makes Azalin so special? If Vampires are running around everywhere, then what sets Strahd apart? If Ravenloft scoops up all these terrible sinners then why aren't all of the Orc chieftains and Drow generals in it?
In my opinion, the best way to preserve the flavor and themes of Ravenloft is to cut out a lot of the D&Disms. Dwarves, Halflings, and Elves should be virtually non-existent. Azalin should be the only Lich, and Strahd should be perhaps be the only vampire or the progenitor of a certain strain of vampires. The Darklords should be almost entirely baseline Humans, perhaps with some monstrous ancestry to sweeten the taste; alternatively, they were Human but now can't truly be called that.
Some realms, like the ones from Dark Sun, Forgotten Realms, and Azalin's own will need to be trimmed or heavily altered. When thinking of the tone of Ravenloft in general, I think that approaching it as a strict historical fantasy then adding the horror and supernatural elements is the best way to go.