Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Review: Gothic gaming and "Curse of Strahd"

Curse of Strahd is the latest official adventure for the world’s oldest tabletop roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons, and a successor to D&D’s original foray into the Gothic mode – Ravenloft (1983).

Ravenloft is the castle of Strahd von Zarovich, once a cruel warlord who murdered his brother so that he might seize his fiancée Tatyana, now a vampire cursed to watch Tatyana reincarnated in every generation but forever out of reach. The player-characters (PCs) are drawn into the mists of Ravenloft, from which there can be no escape without ending Strahd’s tyranny over the land. Only the Tarokka deck can tell what fate has in store.

Curse of Strahd is a ‘sandbox’ adventure, meaning that the players are free to explore the land of Barovia at their own pace (and in whatever order they choose), rather than being forced down a linear narrative path. Each chapter details a location that the PCs might explore in their search for allies and weapons against Strahd. Each place has its own events and subplots, characters to interact with, and monsters to fight. A fortune-teller’s card reading, from the aforementioned Tarokka deck, cements certain elements (such as where those allies and weapons might be) into the sandbox. The overall model is one that emphasises (regulated) player freedom with the expectation that a strong narrative will emerge from it.

I was unbearably excited when I discovered that Curse of Strahd was on its way. I’ve been playing roleplaying games for some twenty-five years and Ravenloft was my first sustained brush with the Gothic. Strahd and his castle have seen several iterations. A version of Ravenloft has been published in every edition of Dungeons & Dragons since the castle was created by husband and wife team Tracy and Laura Hickman in the early 80s, providing us with a (spiritual) sequel (Ravenloft II: the House on Gryphon Hill, 1986), two expanded versions of the original (House of Strahd, 1993; Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, 2006), and a board game (Castle Ravenloft, 2010). My formative experience however, was the Ravenloft campaign setting Realm of Terror (1990) – a whole world of tragic villains, the temptations of evil, and things that go bump in the night. For me, as I’m sure for many others, Stephen Fabian’s iconic art was how the Gothic should look. The themes that Realm of Terror delighted in – frustrated obsession, the uncanny, self-deception – set it apart from the rest of the D&D oeuvre. Since the beginning, Ravenloft has always had a certain amount of class. The card reading element of Curse of Strahd has been with us since the Hickmans’ original version; Strahd himself has always been a more developed villain than most of the antagonists that D&D has offered us.

"Kneel before Strahd!"

In this respect, Curse of Strahd is a bit of a let-down. Don’t get me wrong, the book is a solid and professional Dungeons & Dragons adventure that will probably offer gamers a lively experience. What it lacks is the panache of the earlier incarnations. Much in the Hickmans’ original was innovative (esteemed roleplaying controversialist John Wick discusses its impact on him personally) although it was in practice little more than a stylish dungeon crawl. Realm of Terror and its supplements went deeper by treating every antagonist as a character in their own right, in stark contrast to the ‘hack and slash’ paradigm that had dominated tabletop roleplaying since its origins in wargaming. True to its gothic style, the Ravenloft setting made evil sympathetic and attractive – the rules offered double-edged boons for characters that consciously took the darker path, pushing them on until they became creatures of the night like Strahd himself. The 2016 book imitates all these things, but uses them clumsily.

In Curse of Strahd’s defence, its antagonists have their own stories. Sadly, some are only justifications for their plot-function (Rahadin, Madam Eva, Baba Lysaga), others simply fail to go anywhere despite their potential (Izek, the Velikovs, the Abbot, Pidlwick). I’m inclined to read the latter sympathetically – the practicalities of writing a sandbox adventure are such that it is often better to create a thread and leave it hanging (as a seed for an imaginative referee) rather than to devote precious column inches to elements that might never be used. I am rather more critical of the book’s take on ‘the temptations of evil’. The chapter detailing the Amber Temple is clearly inspired by the ‘Dark Powers’ system seen in earlier versions of the Ravenloft setting, its engagement with those ideas is somewhat lacklustre: rather than acting as a response to the PCs moral choices, Curse of Strahd invites the characters to press a button marked ‘evil’ and offers them questionable rewards for doing so. As with the backstories, we might choose to forgive these elements for not going anywhere, but as a nod back to the earlier books it comes as a disappointment. It feels as if the elements of the ‘Ravenloft formula’ have been identified, but that their value has not been understood.

This review runs the risk of sounding too harsh. Curse of Strahd adapts the Hickmans’ original to the current rules and expands greatly from it. There is much to commend here: the art is attractive, the book is packed with ideas, the representation of gender and sexuality is appropriate and progressive in a way that was rare in roleplaying circles only a few years ago. The adventure has a number of set-piece encounters that have tremendous dramatic potential (Yester Hill and the Heart of Sorrow are two standouts). The author makes a concerted effort to discuss how the referee can create atmosphere in certain scenes, though this is pursued inconsistently, and favours cheap scares over anything deeper. There are, however, some genuinely interesting ideas in the book. A handful of episodes rest on a certain metaphysical conceit established at the beginning: if Tatyana is reincarnated to torment Strahd, where do souls go in Barovia? The author makes little attempt to resolve this, and the adventure is better for it.

Gothic motifs in Curse of Strahd

For newcomers to Ravenloft, Curse of Strahd has a lot to offer. The adventure is well constructed and, were Sheffield Gothic’s usual readers to take a sudden interest in Dungeons & Dragons, this is where I would direct them. The material is solid, rather than sophisticated, but a familiarity with gothic conventions would go a long way to improving it. The book is most definitely accessible.

I have a strong sense, however, that the adventure has not been produced to appeal to D&D neophytes but to court the affections of veterans like myself. Rich seams of gaming nostalgia run through the book, referencing other works by the Hickmans and featuring a cameo appearance from a character whose pedigree derives directly from the game’s origin (unconnected with Ravenloft otherwise). Curse of Strahd certainly does not take itself all that seriously, and has a heavy dose of camp to balance its horror. Perhaps its predecessors took themselves too seriously, missing the sense of fun that has been with the Gothic since Walpole, but Curse of Strahd’s silliness is occasionally jarring. Given the frequency with which the adventure seems to miss the point of what its predecessors did, the humour feels less like a deliberate antidote to earlier po-facedness, more like a lack of conviction in conveying the atmosphere of the Ravenloft setting. The irony here is that, while what the author has produced here is good, it seems to fail on the terms it has set out for itself – to engage the enthusiasm of those who have never quite escaped the mists.

Dr. Richard Gough Thomas is an Associate Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is also Sheffield Gothic's official RPG expert and our Dungeon Master-and-Commander-in Chief.  

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