Thursday, October 22, 2009

Retrospective: Ravenloft II

If the original Ravenloft module, published in 1983, represented a shift away from the presentation and design of the modules of the Golden Age, what is one to make of its 1986 sequel, Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill? Whereas I think there are some legitimate grounds on which to defend module I6, module I10 has no such grounds. Ravenloft II is a textbook example of brandification: emphasizing the importance of familiar names over actual content.

According to the cover credits, Tracy and Laura Hickman were the authors of this module. Inside, however, the credits tell a different story: "Based on an Outline by Tracy & Laura Hickman." I'm certain this isn't the first time a D&D product was created based on the outline of someone who otherwise had nothing to do with the product in question. Nevertheless, I think it telling that TSR, who, after all, owned the Ravenloft brand, felt the need to promote the Hickmans' involvement. The actual "design team," as the credits call it, consisted of David Cook, Jeff Grubb, Harold Johnson, and Douglas Niles, along with whatever actual contributions the Hickmans provided in their outline.

Even more interesting is the fact that, despite its name, Ravenloft II isn't a direct sequel to its predecessor, except perhaps thematically. Indeed, all the indulgences of the original module -- high melodrama, boxed read-aloud text, a heavily NPC-dependent plot -- are here in abundance. Indeed, they are, in many cases, much worse this time around, as the text is, for example, peppered with lots of words like "should" and "will" when describing the actions of the PCs as they meander around the module's "story" -- a word the module itself uses to describe its contents. Moreover, that story is a strange one, as it casts the events of the original module as possibly a delirious dream rather than having actually happened. Similarly, the identity and true nature of pet NPC Strahd von Zarovich is also called into question by suggesting that he might be an evil sub-conscious "twin" of a kindly alchemist given life through a magical experiment gone wrong.

The end result is an incoherent mish-mash of characters, elements, and themes that, frankly, bear very little connection to the module with which Ravenloft II shares its name. As I noted, the original Ravenloft, for all its faults, at least includes a cleverly designed vampire "lair." The module could, with some work, be run in a largely old school fashion, with the PCs rather than the NPCs taking center stage. Ravenloft II, by contrast, isn't so easily adapted, mostly because it's unclear what the adventure is supposed to be about. There are some intriguing ideas about split personalities and body swapping that could, I suppose, be re-purposed, but so much of the rest of the module is filled with confused -- and confusing -- attempts at creating a NPC-driven Gothic novel in D&D dress that I'm not sure it'd be worth the effort.

More distressing, I think, is the way that many of the surface elements of Ravenloft have just been transported to a different module in the hopes that that alone would be enough to create something memorable. It's almost as if the writers of Ravenloft II didn't understand the appeal of the original and instead focused on whatever bright, shiny bits most attracted their attention. So we get random placement of items and NPCs, for example, with the associated information imparted not through a Gypsy card-reading but by a trip to the local mesmerist! The result is not only ludicrous but uninspired, a repetition of an idea that once was fresh but now so often imitated as to become hackneyed.

The whole of Ravenloft II feels as if no one's heart was really in it, as if TSR was simply looking for a way to catch lightning in a bottle a second time and figured "re-imagining" one of their most popular modules was the way to do it. Unfortunately, resorting to such a formula proved insufficient. Ravenloft, while not to my taste, was indeed revolutionary -- it offered up something new for D&D. Ravenloft II, on the other hand, offers nothing new and what little cleverness it does display is largely overshadowed both by its own defects and the reflected glory of its namesake.

15 comments:

  1. "...many of the surface elements of Ravenloft have just been transported to a different module in the hopes that that alone would be enough to create something memorable..."

    Oddly, this description instantly conjures up the two Ghostbusters movies for me.

    Ghostbusters I has the one scene where Venkman gets to say, "He slimed me", and we all laugh. Funny scene.

    Ghostbusters II responds by making the damn film all-slime-all-the-time. Slime everywhere. Rivers of slime. Dunkings in slime. Canisters of slime-throwing weaponry. Not funny!

    "It's almost as if the writers... didn't understand the appeal of the original and instead focused on whatever bright, shiny bits most attracted their attention."

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  2. Ravenloft II has lots of good atmosphere and the story is (at least IMO) more interesting and complex than the first time around. The mix of the familiar and the strange (all the elements from the original are present, but in different shapes and guises, which is confusing and unsettling and serves as a mystery hook beyond the actual plot itself) is appealing, and gives the whole thing a sort of dreamy, surrealistic feel.

    I think this setting and plot probably would've made for a pretty good novel. Alas, as a game, it's really really terrible -- the PCs literally have nothing other to do than first try to figure out what the NPCs are doing, then watch them do it.

    A DM willing to devote a LOT of extra effort could probably make something more traditional and playable out of the elements presented here -- the settings, the NPCs, the location maps -- but it's not likely worth the effort.

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  3. I recently re-purchased I6 Ravenloft and re-read it for the first time in 5-ish years. My opinion of the module had always been that it was well-executed, but not to my taste.

    But after reading it again, I think I have to upgrade my opinion of it. I think I could run it quite easily in my accustomed, free-style manner.

    Anyway, reading it and looking at the map made me think of ways of expanding it, and I think it's interesting the uninspired way TSR did it with I10.

    There are numerous references in I6 as to other lands ruled by Strahd, and the obvious and coolest thing would have been to detail these. Of course, having them each reflect another fantasy-ized Universal horror film would be the natural thing... a village beset by werewolves, a mad wizard creating flesh golems, etc.

    I know TSR did a little of this with the 2e version of the Ravenloft campaign, but it seems to me the whole thing could have done a lot cooler, not making it the dumping ground for every other published campaign's villain.

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  4. True, the Ravenloft campaign setting made a few pretty bad mistakes. The problem is those mistakes were the Big Ideas of the setting.

    A: Each little area is a domain ruled by a villain thrown in from another plane. The villain can wall off the domain magically and he has absolute power within it - a demigod really.

    B: If your character sees something scary or horrific he must make fear or horror checks. Basically, if the DM says you should be scared then you have to roleplay being scared.

    C: If you do evil things you become evil and twisted. I'm not talking about burning down orphanages here, you can eventually become a Chaotic Evil mutant if you scream at chickens and scare them long enough.

    Both of these contribute to a campaign setting tied to the rails so hard it squeals. It's great if you're an aspiring novelist who wants to share your story with some friends. But if you want to DM a group of players who have any agency whatsoever you need to ignore A, B, and C. And at that point you might as well not even be running Ravenloft.

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  5. B: If your character sees something scary or horrific he must make fear or horror checks. Basically, if the DM says you should be scared then you have to roleplay being scared.

    This was the problem with 2nd edition in general. It was a mechanics-focused system (which by themselves are not necessarily bad) made by people who were really bad at designing mechanics. While 1st and older also had really bad mechanics, they were simple enough that freestyling was inobtrusive.

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  6. I always considered the horror check mechanic TSR's version of ripping off the sanity check mechanic from Call of Cthulhu. And while I can see where this is telling the PCs to roleplay being scared rather than actually being scared, I think most players of COC consider the sanity system one of the hallmarks of that game.

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  7. When I first read the module Pharaoh and then The Lost Tomb of Markek (which is module I5), it was clear that something was changing. A professional gloss was on the modules now. The amateurism and idiosyncratic creativity seemed to be leaving. I liked those modules, but I didn't feel as though there was a community behind them that I was joining by playing. I'm thinking of the monochrome modules, really. When I saw I6, Vlad, and Bela Lugosi on the cover of a AD&D module, well... **** off, I thought. It seems these modules were separated from the initial pool of creative ideas and weird ideas summoned by guys at cons, and now we'd entered a period of cultural carpetbagging. Look! The Middle East! Egypt! Look! Transylvania!
    The heart of these modules was as big as a committee, not a community.

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  8. When I used the original Ravenloft in my game in the early 90's, I pretty much blew off most of whatever story was there. Pretty much had the party come into the strange misty valley meaning to do the usual dungeon delve. There was some "Strahd" (being a much younger idiot I called him "Alucard"), but I had him be attracted to a female PC (actually, my entire group was pretty much females in the early 90's - lucky me) who reminded him of a lost love just like in Dracula. In the end though, the party just explored the villages and dungeon crawled some of the castle before finally fleeing the area due to his overwhelming power (the party was only around 4th or 5th level).

    I dunno what happpened to my copy, but I would love to have a copy again to maybe get some more use out of it. That was a fun game. I'll pass on Ravenloft 2 (Electrick Boogaloo).

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  9. See also this page on Ravenloft 2:
    http://www.wizards.com/dnd/article.asp?x=dnd/dx20020121x9

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  10. Delta: For some reason, your comment about Ghostbusters II made me think of this essay about Star Trek:
    http://www.stardestroyer.net/Empire/Essays/BrainBugs.html

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  11. I used the maps and bodyswapping thing for a Doctor Who game.

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  12. JM: I think you are far too kind to this module.

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  13. One of my earliest memories is of watching the old Dark Shadows soap opera daily on ABC with my grandmother. When I first read Ravenloft II when it came out, I remember thinking how it felt heavily influenced by Dark Shadows - even the plot is very similar to a storyline from the soap. I could almost picture the authors (and maybe the outline writers) running straight home after school to catch Dark Shadows, much as my older cousins did. My belief that this was indeed the case solidified when I re-watched the old Dark Shadows when the SciFi Channel re-ran it afew years back. And much like a soap opera, Ravenloft II felt more like the players and their PCs were passively watching the story unfold rather than assuming the active role they did in I6 Ravenloft. While RLII was not a very strong product, I still love Mordentshire as an atmospheric setting, especially when it was developed in the later Ravenloft Campaign Setting.

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  14. Ha! James, if you think railroading is bad, just be glad you weren't an German in about 1987.

    For that time the RPG scene in Germany was an incredible decadent time where everybody wanted to play "city adventures": adventures drained from almost all magic, practically no monsters, and no high levels either.

    Everybody (the GMs included) wanted to play something very similar to Historic Fantasy, albeit set in a imaginary world.

    It went to the point that I was accused of having no imagination, simply because I wanted Fantasy in my games, instead of having to watch bad actors making fools of themselves...

    And you think you people in America had it bad? With that unlimited amount of creativity in the stores?

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  15. Chris Tichenor: When WotC updated Ravenloft to 3.5E, as Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, they expanded it substantially, in a way similar to the one you suggest. They didn't expand on Strahd's other lands, but instead developed other parts of Barovia, making the adventure into a kind of mini-campaign that builds towards a confrontation with Strahd. They did incorporate some other classic horror tropes, however. There's an interview with the writers that talks about this in a bit more details here:
    http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/ps/20061006a

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