‘Undead, Forever’ – Ravenloft and the Gothic in D&D

April 15, 2018 § 1 Comment

This paper was initially presented at the Gaming the Gothic conference, held at the University of Sheffield on April 13th 2018. The intial CFP is available here.

This is a transcript of the presented paper, edited with some last-minute changes made during the presentation itself and, where appropriate, links to external material.

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So begins our journey into the Dungeons & Dragons adventure of ‘Ravenloft’ where Strahd von Zarovich, a centuries old vampire-prince, rules his terror-haunted realm without pity or remorse. ‘Ravenloft’ is riddled with deeply gothic imagery from the flying buttresses of the eponymous Castle Ravenloft to the tortured, endless nature of Strahd’s vampirism. Yet, like all gothic fiction, there is more to ‘Ravenloft’ than simple theatrics. There is a deep sense of horror that comes not just from the story but from how the story is told and, crucially, how it is not told.

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Dungeons & Dragons, the roleplaying system created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, was first published in 1974. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a more complex version of the ruleset, followed in 1977 and the two would remain as separate streams until the introduction of the combined third edition, over twenty years later. D&D would go on to be a worldwide gaming sensation, a story-telling engine of unparalleled depth and, according to some, a gateway into the occult and Satanism.

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Although the core game, by its very nature, encourages players to invent their own stories and settings, a constant stream of official expansion adventures have been available since the game’s inception. The Intermediate series, developed for relatively experienced players, appeared through the 1980s, beginning with I1; ‘Dwellers of the Forbidden City’, where adventures must tussle with the twin threats of leopards and brain fever.

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The sixth entry in the Intermediate series, ‘Ravenloft’, written by Tracy and Laura Hickman, was released into an unsuspecting world in 1983. Since then, Ravenloft has been a key part of D&D mythology. In 2004 Dragon magazine ranked it the second greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventure of all time, behind 1986’s ‘Queen of the Spiders’ written by Gary Gygax himself, and it is the only I-series adventure to be re-released, as ‘The Curse Of Strahd’, for the current fifth edition of the D&D rules system.

What is it about ‘Ravenloft’ that holds the imagination, that mesmerises us with its vampiric stare?

In his essay for the British Library, John Bowen (Professor of 19th century literature at the University of York) highlights a number of key motifs of gothic literature and how they fascinate readers of the genre. I will use three of these motifs – which Bowen calls Strange Places, Power & Constraint and Doubt – to highlight how ‘Ravenloft’ not only uses gothic elements to make an effective adventure but, ultimately, to change Dungeons & Dragons forever.

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A key element of D&D is the distinction between the village and the dungeon;  at its most simplistic, a village is any civilised place where you rest and buy equipment, with a dungeon being any wild place were you earn treasure to buy that equipment. In ‘Ravenloft’, the player characters (also known as PCs or adventurers) find themselves in Barovia, a typically Transylvanian land of mist-cloaked forests and ice-scattered lakes, of furtive villagers and howling wolves. The immediate assumption is that the looming spires of Castle Ravenloft itself comprises the dungeon whereas the meagre hamlet that huddles below it, also called Barovia, is the village. This is not the case.

The entire concept of the village-and-dungeon dichotomy allows adventurers to retreat, regroup and resupply when faced with too-powerful enemies or too-fiendish traps. In Barovia, however, the PCs are never truly safe. This is because Barovia is a strange place in one very fundamental way

It is not a place. It is a trap.

Barovia is a tomb-prison that exists outside of the main D&D realities, a demi-plane in the D&D taxonomy. It was created, subconsciously, from the very will and malice of its most powerful inmate, Strahd Von Zarovich himself. It is a punishment both for his own crimes and those of the underlings he sees as having failed him. Barovia is transylvanian, literally “beyond the woods”, in a way that evokes the limits and rules of fairy tales more than mere geography. Once you stray from the path then you leave the safety and security of the daylight world. There is no trail of breadcrumbs to lead you back home. Nobody, not even the PCs, may leave Barovia as long as Strahd lives.

Not even the dead can pierce the choking mists that swirl around Barovia’s borders. The scattered groups of villagers that players encounter are actually mere shells that hold the same handful of tattered souls, endlessly reborn into a unliving nightmare.

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There is an immediate parallel here in gothic fiction with how Jonathan Harker is summoned across Europe, through the symbolic gate of the Borgo Pass, and into Dracula’s domain, where he is imprisoned in a timeless, fog-haunted realm. Like Harker, the adventurers are lured into Barovia by a not-entirely-honest offer of employment and, like Harker, they soon realise that they are unwitting pawns in a larger, more insidious plot; in this case Strahd’s attempt to regain the affection of Tatyana, an unrequited lover from his human days whose suicide drove him into vampirism but who has now been reborn into a new body.

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This fencing-off, in a geographic but also more spiritual sense, harks back to what cultural theorist Johan Huizinga refers to as a ‘magic circle’; a strangely prescient term when considered in the realms of Ravenloft.

Huizinga uses this term in his 1938 book ‘Homo Ludens’, a founding text on the nature and role of play.

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Huizinga’s theory can be seen most clearly when painted arcs and lines on a flat surface turn into the ritualised zones of a football pitch or baseball field. The very rules of the game become manifest in the world to create a sigil that is impenetrable to outsiders but redolent with meaning to the initiated. The magic circle of play, a space where real-world rules are suspended and an ritual significance is placed upon otherwise insignificant acts and zones, resonates strongly when we talk about Dungeons & Dragons; the playing area that’s abstracted almost to nothing, the occulted space behind the Dungeon Master’s screen and the power-differentials that creates, the dice rolls that signify life or death.

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There is also another very relevant implication of Huizinga’s theory. In a playing field, in a magic circle, some players can do things that others can’t, certain actions override others; magic circles delineate player agency and how, and when, that agency can be elevated or suppressed.

D&D is a game that, perhaps more than any other game and certainly more than a standard board game, is about agency. There are rules but those rules serve the overarching aim of creating an interactive narrative. The rules of D&D, unlike more traditional games, don’t tell the players what can and can’t be done but rather how difficult an action would be to perform. Even if failure is near-inevitable, success is still a possibility.

This, for many people, is the main draw of D&D. They can be anyone and do, or attempt to do, anything.

In specific terms, Dungeons & Dragons maximises player agency.

‘Ravenloft’, like gothic fiction, changes this. Entering Barovia is akin to entering a corrupted version of the magic circle, where rules are not simply changed but perverted.

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Most immediately, player agency is limited by the breaking of the barrier between dungeon and village. They can’t hide, they can’t flee, they have trouble even resting. As we have seen, this is similar to Harker’s incarceration in Castle Dracula but it follows a much longer thread back to the beginning of the gothic genre; the concept of the accursed destiny, and the binding ropes of family and legacy, that forms the heart of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto’. Once the party enter Barovia then they, like the denizens of Otranto, are cursed to act out the story of ‘Ravenloft’; a story which, canonically, has happened many hundreds of times before.

Yet this loss of agency is balanced elsewhere.

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Like the players, Strahd von Zarovich is prevented from leaving Barovia. Unlike the players, however, he has almost unlimited power within his realm. He is free to move about his domain as he pleases and can be encountered long before the adventurers are prepared to face him. Indeed, the adventure makes this is almost inevitable. This contrasts sharply with previous adventures in D&D’s Intermediate series, and the stereotypical construction of roleplaying adventures across the board, where the ultimate enemy – the archetypal end-of-level-boss – waits in the sanctum sanctorum of their dungeon, behind waves of increasingly powerful underlings, until the heroes eventually find and then slay them.

Again we think most immediately of Dracula, crawling down the sheer sides of his castle to roam abroad whilst Harker, the very model of worldly agency as a white, male European, languishes in his confinement.

One of the most startling, and subtle, changes that the magic circle of Barovia brings about, however, is not that Strahd has agency but the way in which Strahd’s agency is exercised.

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The use of a deck of cards, portrayed as an in-game tool of divination called the Tarokka, determines a number of aspects in a ‘Ravenloft’ campaign; the position of certain powerful artefacts, the disposition of certain characters, the movements of Strahd himself. This handing-over of decision-making to a mechanism that is itself part of the game limits the agency of the one thing that D&D has to an all-seeing, all-knowing deity; the Dungeon Master themselves.

This is a fundamental break with an unwritten rule of roleplaying; the narrative arc, if not the details of that arc, is normally entirely in the control of the Dungeon Master. Ravenloft reins in this control. A reading of the Tarokka, something which can happen multiple times during the adventure, may change the narrative arc substantially, and the Dungeon Master will need to react to this change as much as the players do. Again, this harks back to the unreliable or ill-informed (or simply deranged) narrators of gothic fiction. The epistolic format of ‘Dracula’, for example, leads the novel’s characters to take actions based on incorrect or out-of-date facts just as the players of ‘Ravenloft’ must interpret the gnomic results of the Tarokka.

In practice, this leads to the campaign having a feeling of sweeping all involved along in its own narrative. There is, again, a feeling of twisted and ancient destinies being played out, with the players as mere marionettes.

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This breaking of agency leads to the third key gothic motif in ‘Ravenloft’; that of Doubt and its darker sibling, Corruption.

‘Ravenloft’ works tirelessly to undermine player confidence in their supposed certainties; their character’s abilities, the unity of their party and, most key of all, the neutrality of the Dungeon Master. The PCs are constantly exposed to visions of their own deaths – spectral doppelgängers hang from gibbets, mirrors reflect aged and decaying faces – and their abilities work haphazardly or simply fail. Even the most powerful spell available to mortals in D&D, the spell called Wish, can’t help them escape from the twisted geographies of Barovia.

What happens, then, when you can’t trust yourself? How can you bring yourself to trust others?

Quite simply, you can’t. ‘Ravenloft’ features a large number of non-player characters who are fundamentally untrustworthy, irrevocably insane or purely monstrous. NPCs will appear to aid the adventurers until they have furthered their own aims before turning on them, often violently.

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This presents a number of ethical issues for the players. Is it right for a good character to give in to mistrust and suspicion, even if that seems the only way to survive? Should good characters side with evil allies, if their mutual enemy is even worse? If you betray someone before they inevitably betray you, is that proactive or prejudiced?

Doubt, the worry that you are not good enough, then turns to corruption, the acceptance that you don’t need to be good. In D&D, where moral alignment has in-game effects, this can be as dangerous as it is in the real world. Clerics or paladins who drift from the behaviours that their deity supports can lose their divine powers entirely. Characters may be shunned by once-friendly organisations, or even attract the attention of the authorities.

In Gothic fiction, corruption goes hand in hand with physical illness and with madness. The loss of sanity and humanity, and the realisation of that loss, is often seen as more terrifying than death. In ‘Dracula’, one of the most horrifying scenes, for both the reader and the characters involved, does not directly feature Dracula himself.

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Lucy Westenra’s corruption into a vampire, described by Dr Seward as her becoming a thing that has ‘taken her shape without her soul’, is chilling not just because she walks after death, drinking the blood of children, but because it is a fate that could befall any of them. Lucy is not evil rather she has had the goodness literally sucked from her, so she must then drain it from others. Killing Lucy, killing the Thing that she has been turned into, a word which Seward himself intentionally capitalises, is described not as murder but as ‘an infinite kindness’. Death, true death, is far preferable to undeath. Yet it is still death and Lucy’s existence as a sentient, if undead, being was still ended by her friends, her lovers. The act still stains their hands.

‘Ravenloft’ is a populated with gothic monsters – vampires and spectres, werewolves and revenants. These are not traditional fantasy monsters like trolls and ogres nor even the inscrutably inhuman aberrations beloved by D&D such as beholders or mind flayers but, like the creature that Lucy Westenra becomes, they are all the more terrifying because they are what we could become if we allow doubt to become corruption.

In ‘Ravenloft’ the horror comes not from fighting monsters but from fighting ourselves, depicted as monsters.

It is my contention that ‘Ravenloft’ has used these three motifs, sourced directly from the heart of gothic fiction, to influence the development of D&D and other gaming systems that came after it. The use of landscape not simply as terrain but as a character in itself, placing limits on the abilities of the players and the combination of both of these into a kind of psychological warfare allowed roleplaying to go down darker paths as its players grew out of standard fantasy tropes.

For example, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s unremittingly grim and corrupted world, and the stereotypical ‘grimdark’ settings of other Games Workshop products, can be seen as a natural extension of Barovia.

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The 1987 ‘Death On The Reik’ campaign, perhaps the crowning glory of the WFRP system, builds to a terrifyingly gothic finale, complete with a lightning-lit, castle-top battle against the necromancer Lady Margritte von Wittgenstein and her Frankenstein-ian monster, whilst mutants and monsters pour in from every direction. More recently, games like Silent Hill, Dark Souls & Kingdom Death Monster have taken this gothic corruption to an even darker pitch.

Yet it is ‘Ravenloft’ itself, and all the children it spawned, that role-players keep returning to. Every play-through of ‘Ravenloft’ is different, bringing its own challenges, and this is due purely to the way it changes the assumptions and expectations of D&D.

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There are other contenders for the dark crown of role-play but Strahd von Zarovich will always be “undead, forever”.

Thank you.


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