Return to Ravenloft

Vampires shouldn’t sparkle because of sunlight.

I was very happy to hear that WotC is putting out a new Ravenloft campaign book (Curse of Strahd) in March, and especially that Tracy and Laura Hickman are part of the project! (Side note: When I was a kid, I loved Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s books. The original Dragonlance trilogy got me started reading D&D novels. I think they hold up fairly well today, but possibly because I’m reading them with my +3 Nostalgia glasses. And then I end up thinking I’m in Grade 4 and wondering when recess will be…)

The original module for AD&D involved a card drawing mechanic to randomize certain item locations, Count Strahd himself, and what he’s up to. The new campaign will feature a “tarroka” deck to do something similar, and there will be a physical deck produced as well. (Not sure yet if it will be of the same quality as the great tarot deck put out as a companion piece to the board game Loka. That one was designed to function as a proper tarot deck in addition to being a game piece. Both of those were started as Kickstarters and follow from Alessio Cavatore’s riffs on Chess.)

One of the things that drew me to Ravenloft as a setting was how they described that world and realm. Powerful enough evil characters are drawn into a mist, and find themselves in a world of their own. But, like a wish from an unhelpful genie, the world is always somehow wrong. (For example, Lord Soth from Dragonlance has two Ravenloft novels, and hated his realm. The banshees that are supposed to torment him nightly get his story wrong, his castle wasn’t correct, and a number of other little things that drive an evil and detail obsessed Death Knight mad.) From a gaming perspective, it’s an easy pocket dimension for players to stumble into. And then need to quest their way out of again.

For a DM, there is a challenge in how they tell the story. Tension can be created through the pace of combat, but Ravenloft really shines when the setting is allowed to drive unease and dread. It’s not a nice place to be. And the people who live there are trapped, trying to get by, but know things will likely end badly. There’s a lot of opportunity for colourful NPCs. I wouldn’t recommend it for first time DMs, even though the campaign is geared towards level 1-10. There’s a mood that needs to be created and maintained to get the best out of this. Otherwise it could just be any “castle with a vampire” in any setting. In a way, one could look at the Ravenloft board game as how not to run a D&D campaign. In that, players are tense because the game is trying to kill them as quickly as possible, but only get a short paragraph of flavour text to start and end each scenario. (Full disclosure: I own and love the board game, but not for its narrative quality.) The other D&D board games mostly run and feel the same way, but a proper campaign shouldn’t in those varied settings. If the DM is really playing along, they’ll also need to accept a random element introduced through the tarroka deck. (Or they could just stack it and do some sleight of hand to make it seem random to the players….) Mind you, if they can’t handle a few random locations how will they handle what players do? In the Out of the Abyss campaign I’m playing in we skipped over a fairly large amount of content because my character had reasons not to go to Gracklstugh, and everyone else went along with it. Our DM didn’t bat an eye, and didn’t try too hard to kill us all in revenge.

I have high hopes for this book, as it ticks a lot of the right boxes for me. It should also let a DM push their creativity. In this case, the fact that the original authors are involved is I think a very good thing. Now, where did my copy of Realm of Terror go?

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