This post comes about because as I was thinking of DMing ' The Curse of Strahd,' a 5th ed Dungeons and Dragons module that is the Horror module for Dungeons and Dragons. It takes place in and around the infamous Castle Ravenloft and has players oppose the vampire
I'm instantly intrigued by the Halloween Level of Dungeons and Dragons that Castle Ravenloft has become, sitting alone on top of its mountainous perch. It's a unique and well remembered module and it's had an iteration in almost every edition of Dungeons and Dragons since first edition. A lot of modules have come out, this is one of the ones that has stood the test of time. In a way it mirrors its source material as it defiantly stands as a bastion to an age far past.
But things have changed.
'The Curse of Strahd' is the most recent iteration, like all iterations, draws from its Gothic Horror source material. Sometimes its from pulp, other-times its from the Victorian era, but a bothersome thread remains; it's lack of modern sensibilities.
How do all the elements of 'The Curse of Strahd' make it better? How does it connect with itself and the real world to make a better d&d module?
I know people will say it reinforces the 'Gothic' element of the horror or references the source material it draws from. But that just pushes the question on to the source material. Do the elements we find racist today actually make the work better? Most times they don't. It's just a product of the times and culture the work was made in. It doesn't play into the story, and could be swapped around without making the story worse.
I like HP Lovecraft, and he's a racist. Actually, to be fair, I've never met the guy and I don't think I could really like someone so racist and so bothered by some romance stories to write a letter to the editor. But I think the racism does add something unintended to his work. It moves a lot of his characters into anti-hero territory. His characters and their racism are not aspirational. While it's certainly not true for all of Lovecraft's work, the racism sometimes serves the story. His themes of cosmic horror also tend to push against his racism; making it seem like a folly that befalls people who are eventually driven to madness. Authors of color have talked more about having complex relationships with Lovecraft. It's bigger than you think. (Oh and if you are writing a horror something, including issues like racism is probably not worth it. It's not a good way to make your story scarier).
Return to Castle Ravenloft
What first tipped me off to some questionable themes was the treatment of the
Romani Vistani. They are portrayed as untrustworthy drinkers, travelers, charlatans, and thieves. I was honestly kinda surprised that this got through. This isn't some indie rpg, some small time author, some fan module. This is D&D, the property that is synonymous with table-top role-playing games. This came from Wizards of the Coast; one of the largest table top game makers in the world. They are a subsidiary of Hasbro! There is an HR department! They had editors and assistant editors, they had no less than 50 people involved on this. Did nobody notice? Did they decide it wasn't that bad? Did they just forget that Romani are a real people? Did nobody google 'Gypsy' or 'Romani' during the entire duration of the projects development? Did they just lock some intern in a cubicle and tell them to update Vistani for the setting? Was it too hard to change or revisit these issues? Was it considered 'ok' because you just changed the name? Did they not want to take the time to try to do something better? (to be fair, I think someone probably raised the issue and instead of delaying and rewriting the whole 'product' and then released it because of the schedule and money. I don't think that makes it OK, it kinda makes it worse).
The real problem is that changing this stuff could result in a better module. It might be more inclusive, but definitely more believable, more nuanced, and better written. The very ending of the module has a moment where Ireena (a reincarnation of Strahd's unrequited love, Tatyana) meets up with Sergei (the actual lover of the long dead Tatyana). Magically her memories for Sergei come back and they walk off into the sunrise. Like, what the fuck? That's not romantic, that's weird! It's a strange and terrible end to the story, to one of the NPCs arcs, to everything. I get it's the Epilogue and nobody is supposed to really care, but seriously. There is an optional earlier scene around reuniting Ireena and Sergei that's not much better.
Instead of some convoluted magical true love triangle of vampires and reincarnation, what if the same thing still happened but there was not magical true love reincarnation? What if Strahd is so delusional that he just thinks it's the case? Maybe his unrequited love for Tatyana all those years ago was all in his head, and she was just blissfully unaware of his attention when she fell for the dashing (prehaps promiscuous) Sergei. Maybe every reincarnation was an attempt to find a reincarnation of a Tatayna that only existed in Strahd's imagination; a soul that never existed. The Curse of Strahd could be a real tragic horror, something not so simple as a vampire in a castle, but a curse people all too often inflict upon themselves. For Strahd, so wrapped up in his world, he makes the curse it's own realm, trapping everyone inside his beautiful dark twisted fantasy. #kino
To Run the Game
I already did want to add some stuff to 'The Curse of Strahd', but I was really hoping for something that I could slap down and be done with. You know just run and not offend anyone. Honestly, I know I can run this for a group of white guys and it wont be an issue (unless I find out one of my friends has Romani in his family). D&D has always had issues and is slowly but surely getting more inclusive and better; but it's the main stream Table Top RPG and it needs to act like it. I'm not supposed to have to deal with this from professionals.
I know not everyone only gets to feel disappointed that 'The Curse of Strahd' isn't something you can just read and run. While it's always good practice to have open communication with your players, it's probably more important with this setting. At some point some serious modification is gonna have to be done to punch up the characters and remove some things that really distract from the tone. I think with some modification it can be a really interesting setting. But for now, I have to comb through 255 pages to edit it into something a little bit more interesting.