Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Retrospective: Ravenloft

I give Dragonlance a lot of grief -- deservedly so, I think -- for the role it played in forever changing both Dungeons & Dragons and the way it's been sold, but Dragonlance was merely expanding on ideas first put forward in earlier modules penned by Tracy Hickman, particularly 1983's Ravenloft. Unlike the Dragonlance modules, which, even at the time, I liked more in theory than in practice, I used to love Ravenloft. It's easy to understand why. Module I6 is a very "moody" piece of work, unlike most previous AD&D modules, which achieved their moods much more haphazardly or at least less self-consciously. Ravenloft's evocation of Gothic horror was also unlike most other modules at the time and, given my relative unfamiliarity with that genre of fiction -- I'd not yet read Dracula in 1983 -- I found it all very compelling.

There are other factors too in why my youthful self loved Ravenloft. Strahd von Zarovich, while sporting one of the most ridiculous faux Eastern European names in gaming, seems tailor-made for referees looking for a pet NPC. He's immensely powerful, well nigh indestructible, and fun to roleplay -- an angst-ridden anti-hero before White Wolf made such things a staple of the hobby. That he's the central figure in a story that provides a backdrop to the PCs' actions only made him more attractive. Moreso than most modules published before or at that time, Ravenloft is about its villain. The actions of the PCs are, in many ways, beside the point, because their sole purpose is to help to facilitate a melodrama of lust, betrayal, despair, and love beyond the grave in which NPCs are the primary actors.

And then there were the maps. Dave Sutherland's three-dimensional maps of Castle Ravenloft were amazingly innovative for the time, providing a superb sense of how all the pieces of this vast dungeon -- for dungeon is it was -- fit together. I know I drooled over these maps for many hours as a younger man and, even now, looking at them, I find it hard not to be won over by them. The problem, of course, is that, in play, they're quite unwieldy and sometimes even a little confusing. I'd go so far as to say that they're emblematic of Ravenloft itself: attractive, innovative, and a clear break from the past.

Now, I think it's all too easy to emphasize how much Ravenloft differed from its predecessors. At the same time, as I just noted, this is still, at base, a dungeon crawl and an occasionally non-sensical one at that, given that, for all its Gothic horror trappings, we find sometimes find monsters not at all in keeping with that style of writing. Likewise, there's plenty of low humor, especially puns, to be found in the module. The names on many of the tombs in the castle crypt -- "The Lady Isolde Yunk (Isolde the Incredible). Purveyor of Antiques and Imports," for example -- are outrageously bad and make Gary Gygax's own efforts seem subtle by comparison. These puns wrench one back from the Gothic atmosphere other parts of the module are trying desperately to evoke. The module uses a method of placing important NPCs and magic items based on fortune telling with a deck of playing cards. It's actually a very clever idea and, from my memory of playing the module long ago, it's effective and lends something to the atmosphere. Plus, my icy old school heart melts when random generation is involved in such a significant way.

Effective though it was, the card reading system made me wonder at the time if it was introduced partly to give the module replayability. That is, because certain important NPCs and items were placed in Castle Ravenloft randomly, the system could, in theory, ensure that each playing of Ravenloft would be different. Brilliant! The problem is that no one is going to Ravenloft more than once, because, as it is written, you can't. Dungeon crawl it may be in many ways, but there's no overlooking the fact that Ravenloft tells a story and a heavy-handed one at that. Not only does it have a prescribed conclusion, complete with Harlequin romance level dewy-eyed sentimentality, but, ultimately, what the PCs do just doesn't matter, since everything in the module is designed to support a predetermined conclusion.

Ravenloft is, like the "Desert of Desolation" series (also by Hickman -- I see a pattern here), a transitional module. There's still a great deal of old school design in its pages. There are lots of tricks and traps, for example, and Castle Ravenloft itself is a monstrous labyrinth of rooms, corridors, and crypts, making for a very non-linear portion of the game. It's also a very unforgiving module, with death around every corner, particularly if the players are foolhardy enough to try and take on Strahd without adequate preparation. Of course, unlike the later Dragonlance modules, Ravenloft can afford to be a death trap, because -- and I hate to keep harping on this -- the PCs' actions don't really matter. Strahd and his story are the main attraction here and it makes little difference whether a player loses a dozen characters along the way so long as he eventually has some character who's able to be present to witness the melodramatic conclusion the Hickmans have in store for them. That's a pretty big crime in my book and, while new and innovative at the time, it laid the foundation for much mischief later.

I still have a fondness for Ravenloft despite it all, but that fondness is born mostly out of nostalgia and that's fine. I don't think Tracy Hickman is the Devil any more than I think L. Sprague De Camp was. Nevertheless, I don't think it's possible to deny that, in both cases, these men planted seeds that would eventually bear bitter fruit. We're still wrestling with the consequences of design decisions Tracy Hickman made in 1983. The adventure path style of play, for example, is a direct descendant of modules like "The Desert of Desolation" series, Ravenloft, and Dragonlance, which represent an about-face from the more open-ended, sandbox play of the old school. The fetishizing of "super NPCs," whose actions overshadowed those of the PCs, got a nice boost too with the creation of Strahd von Zarovich. Neither of these things necessarily had to become the abominations they would one day be, but the immense popularity of Ravenloft made it hard for them to avoid this destiny. I think, with some work, Ravenloft could be remade into a perfectly acceptable and throughly old school module. That's more than can be said of the Dragonlance modules, so, in the final analysis, I'd have to say that module I6 isn't wholly without virtues, even if they are buried beneath even greater vices.

18 comments:

  1. I realized on my first readthrough that no player (or PC) I've ever encountered would give a damn about the vampire's biography. I just used it as a great example of a Gothic-tinged vampire's castle dungeon. It's fine on that level.

    As for the puns on the tombs, I suppose they're there to break up the otherwise oppressive atmosphere. It's an old trick. Get the reader or the audience member (or the player) to laugh and relax his guard a little so that the next shock works all the better.

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  2. I just used it as a great example of a Gothic-tinged vampire's castle dungeon. It's fine on that level.

    Yes, it is and I think that's the module's saving grace. You can simply remove all the story elements entirely and enjoy it as a dungeon crawl, which is not the case with the DL modules, for example.

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  3. After a half year of reading this blog and others and the musings across a dozen forums, I've reached some conclusions. As I posted elsewhere, I'm a prodigal gamer, having "left" more the most part around 1985, and only came back to the hobby full swing this year. Bought and read some things in between, but not to such an extent that I noted the transition from "the way we did it" in the early 80s with D&D, TFT and Traveller, to "the way it's done now".

    I replied yesterday in the Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting Review that "...a good majority of 3.x fans want everything to be canonized for them". I'll tweak that a bit, and take it two steps further:

    1) Around this time, some of the pre-eminent designers coming into the hobby (like Weis and the Hickmans) were really authors with stories to tell. D&D modules were a way to tell those stories.

    2) The hobby and the franchise grew, possibly in part due to #1. The barrier to be or find a DM was lowered because the entire story was already there. This second generation of DMs were now accustomed to having all the details there in print. Plus, they got the bonus of being able to have a starring role as Super NPC.

    3) This design philosophy crept into the Player realm as well. Splats would define what a Player could be or do. By the time D&D gets to 3.x, this approach not only gets codified, but has become the very heart of the marketing strategy.

    It sounds a lot more insidious and purposeful than I suspect was actually intended, but those were the end results that re-defined what an RPG should be, and the roles of the people involved (designer, DM, Player). And it wasn't just D&D apparently. I see the same thing in the "canon wars" associated with Traveller these days.

    This is not to pass judgment. Perhaps this was the only way the hobby could have expanded over the past 20 years. But I find it saddening because it has manifested itself in things like:

    - "There are lots of reasons not to like this game, but I don't like this version because it doesn't tell me how to play my Half-Orc Paladin/Bard"
    - "I don't like this game because it's a toolkit and the metasetting isn't defined well enough for me to run"
    - "You can't do that in Game version Y because Game version X already defined the events of that history over a 12,000 year period; and if you step outside of that 12,000 year period, it's not Game anymore."
    - Drizzt.

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  4. Yes, it is and I think that's the module's saving grace. You can simply remove all the story elements entirely and enjoy it as a dungeon crawl, which is not the case with the DL modules, for example.

    While I agree with you for the most part concerning the Ravenloft module and the DL modules, I do have to say that the DL modules do have a saving grace or two in them.

    Primarily, for me, is the dungeon maps. Though theys till suffer horribly from the 3-D projection style in some cases, they are, to me, great stuff to pick out of context and drop wholescale into my own campaign at will. The High Clerist's Tower in particular has always been a favorite of mine, not to mention the floating dwarven crypt that I can never recall the name of. Xak Tsaroth, if you strip out some of the heavy handed plot elements and purple prose, is a pretty nifty little dungeon rife with potential implications for any other campaign world.

    While you might rightly dislike the monorail plot of the DL modules, you have to admit that they do have their bright spots in terms of mechanical design.

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  5. Primarily, for me, is the dungeon maps. Though theys till suffer horribly from the 3-D projection style in some cases, they are, to me, great stuff to pick out of context and drop wholescale into my own campaign at will.

    I will heartily second this. I've never been able to get past the first 50 pages of the first Dragonlance novel, and I never owned any of the modules, but I both the Dragonlance Atlas and looted the hell out of the dungeons, creatively speaking.

    Perhaps the most infamous incident that arose out of my using the DL dungeon maps was when a PC (a cleric/thief) tried to scale down the well that sat above that huge-ass gully dwarf city. He blew his climbing roll and started to plummet 500 feet towards the city below; in desperation, he tried to use his shield as a hang glider/parachute to slow his fall. Didn't work.

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  6. Oh man. I remember in the early 90's being at a rehearsal in Westwood with the three girls that were playing in my regular campaign. They suggested we go spend the night playing D&D, but I had nothing prepared. I had read the Ravenloft module recently, so I jammed home, grabbed my game stuff and the module, and during the 20 minute drive to the session eliminated most of the backstory, and had Strahd be hot for the female paladin of the group - his "Mina" who reminded him of an ancient love. Most of the session, and the most fun, was visiting the misty village and encountering Werewolves and undead on the roads and in the woods. I don't think they ever got deep into the castle before the vampire confronted them and drove them away. It was an easy to use, and improvise, module up to that point - but yeah, I would have hated to have to use those 3D maps. Especially 6 beers and 3 tequilas into the game.

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  7. The maps so put me off this module I never read it. I happen to have acquired a copy of the HackMaster version though. Maybe I'll crack that open tonight.

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  8. James absolutely nailed it on the head, only he was far more polite about it than I would be. Ravenloft is the first tolling of the bell, when packaging and production value took over for actual quality. Ravenloft, to me, is completely antithetical to what made AD&D great. "Story" is what happened when the players tried to navigate the challenges put before them, not rigid and unchangeable events to which the PCs are, at best, accomplices. The fate cards and the wholly unusable maps are the straws that broke this camel's back. Additionally, I loathe Caldwell's art, and he did everything for this one if I recall correctly.

    (I also have always hated the romantic, Ricean, anti-hero approach to vampires. They're villains and badass villains at that, period. Keep your angst and centuries of brooding. My vampires are out for blood, and aren't nice about it.)

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  9. As someone that has read through the 1ed, 2ed and 3rd versions and has either played or DM'ed these version, I feel I should weigh in on the discussion. While I agree with most of James' post, I feel the need to quibble on a couple of items. I figure that a discussion in which everyone agrees is a rather short plain one, so I will offer some different opinions.

    I actually have this module ranked higher up on my list of the most important modules, as I think that is was very cutting edge when it was released. It was very different than what had gone before, and offered several new features including the tarrot deck, gothic horror, and a fully mapped out castle. I agree that this is a transition module and opened the door to new school story plots, which ultimately lead to the creation of the adventure path. I am not a fan of the storybook railroad adventure, and I do agree that this adventure has those tendancies.

    At its heart, this is a dungeon crawl with a BBEG that is trying to kill the party. While the story is in the background, it does not have to overshadow the main elements of this module. When I played this one, I did not get carried away with the sappier story elements, but rather focused in on the castle exploration aspects of the module.

    I really liked the castle maps. Looking at the comments, I may be in the minority on this. The maps are beautiful, and it is easy to become fixated on them. When it comes to castles, I like a certain complexity. When actually playing through this module, I did not find the maps that bad to navigate through. I do agree that it can get a little confusing, but as long as the DM stays oriented, it is very playable. I really liked the little things that they did with the castle map to give it a feeling that this was a "working" castle. The built in dumb waiter, and the servant quarters in the back along with the chapel, were nice touches. Even to this day, I would claim that there are very few castle asdventures that include a castle layout that is this interesting and innovating.

    Now I have to agree that there are some parts of this module that are very corny. Some of the names on the tombs are a little much. I also agree that Strahd is a bit over the top in several areas, which I think you have hit upon. I would say that as originally created, he is tough, but not impossible. Clearly the DM has the flexibility to tone him down depending on the strength of the party going through. I also agree with the poster above on the subject of overly sensitive, metro-vampires. A vampire should be a cunning foe, with a touch of aristocratic arrogance.

    I want to go back to my earlier comment and state that when this was released it was cutting edge and was very different than what had proceeded it. I do not necessarily think this is a bad thing. I think that adventure designs should push the envelope, and be innovative, other wise we are left with going back to the same old creative fields. I have to applaud designers that go in new directions, and I think we need to encourage this. Now I do agree that some directions do not appeal to me, but I would rather see that then see more of the same.

    To conclude with my post, I liked Ravenloft a lot. I do not think that the story overshadows everything, and I do not agree that it does not matter what the PC's do during the course of it. I think in the end it becomes a show down between the BBEG and the characters. If the characters win, the curse is lifted. If the PC's lose the curse remains.

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  10. Over all that's been said of this module, this is really the most significant: "the immense popularity of Ravenloft . . ."

    The module changed the game in more ways than one and remains immensely popular.

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  11. This is not to pass judgment. Perhaps this was the only way the hobby could have expanded over the past 20 years.

    That's very possible. One of the important factors to remember is that OD&D arrived during a perfect storm and its phenomenal growth was fueled in no small part by cultural currents it didn't create. Had the "Hickman revolution" not occurred, it's quite possible that D&D might have lost some of its vigor and roleplaying might have joined wargaming in the ghetto of obscure hobbies.

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  12. To conclude with my post, I liked Ravenloft a lot.

    At the time I did too, precisely because it felt so different from all that had gone before. I was also a huge fan of the 2e era campaign setting for much the same reason.

    I do not think that the story overshadows everything, and I do not agree that it does not matter what the PC's do during the course of it. I think in the end it becomes a show down between the BBEG and the characters. If the characters win, the curse is lifted. If the PC's lose the curse remains.

    You're correct that the PCs' actions determine if there is a conclusion at all, but the nature of that conclusion -- Ireena's realization of her true identity and her reunion with Sergei von Zarovich -- are absolutely outside the control of the PCs. The final bit of boxed text in Ravenloft is egregiously heavy-handed and is a good contender for one of the worst bits of game fiction ever written. It hits home that, in the end, the whole module was about a bunch of NPCs, who are the true stars of the piece. That's very hard to forgive.

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  13. The module changed the game in more ways than one and remains immensely popular.

    Yes, it does. I rather expected far more defenders of the module to appear in my com box than have, precisely because I know it's a fan favorite of long standing.

    As noted in a comment above, it's quite possible that Ravenloft "saved" D&D by giving it a new lease on life, even at the cost of divorcing it from its roots. I think the lasting popularity of the module is good evidence in support of this. Speaking as someone who is unhappy with the way D&D changed as a result, I hope I can be forgiven for lamenting this rather than celebrating it.

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  14. Had the "Hickman revolution" not occurred, it's quite possible that D&D might have lost some of its vigor and roleplaying might have joined wargaming in the ghetto of obscure hobbies

    I have no data on the relative popularity or fortunes of the RPG hobby before and after Ravenloft, but this strikes me as a very extraordinary claim. Over in the UK, at least, although it was the biggest player, D&D was not the be all and end all of RPGs in 1983, and the popularity of the hobby was in a rapid growth phase at the time anyway. There were plenty of other non-sandbox games coming out at that time that one could "blame" adventure path on, while Games Workshop - which always did follow the faddish crowd - released their sandboxy and extensively-hooked but not pre-plotted WFRP in 1986.

    Perhaps my perspective is distorted because of my being located in the UIK at the time, maybe the fortunes of the hobby appeared, in the US, to be directly tied to TSR's fortunes.

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  15. Sorry, I should have said "Ravenloft and Dragonlance", since you're talking here about the "Hickman revolution." I agree wholeheartedly that the HR spawned adventure path in its D&D guise. I'm still not convinced, though, that the RPG hobby as a whole had its destiny determined by it. Your musing here has made me wonder what would have happened to RPGs if TSR had folded in 83, given that that was the year Williams took over.

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  16. I'm still not convinced, though, that the RPG hobby as a whole had its destiny determined by it. Your musing here has made me wonder what would have happened to RPGs if TSR had folded in 83, given that that was the year Williams took over.

    Lorraine Williams takes over in 1986, actually, after Brian Blume sold his shares to her.

    That said, you're right that the failure of D&D wouldn't have spelled certain doom for the entire hobby, but it would have been disastrous for it and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we'd probably have a much smaller, less professional industry as well. TSR was the trendsetter in RPGs and most games, until the late 80s at least, were either imitating or rejecting the template laid down by that company and its products.

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  17. Kudos on the excellent piece of writing here, one of the best on the site. Nothing to add from my end.

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  18. I'll add a comment from the far-flung future of 2012.
    I'm a huge fan of any iteration of the Dracula mythos, and I'm super-pumped about using this module (keep in mind it was released before I was born). Its weakness as a storybook railroad is valid: So instead of playing it straight, I'm going to use it as my universe's tale of the First Undead. An ancient NPC will offer to tell the story to the players, and if they agree, we'll play through module as if it's being told as a story by the NPC. The PCs will play characters in his story. It works perfectly because the module has a distinct beginning and end, and once it's over we can go right back to my main sandbox campaign free of railroading.

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