Monday, April 17, 2017

Atypical books as campaign source material

There is nothing particularly innovative about using books as source material for setting RPG campaigns. Some, like the Lord of the Rings, A Song of Fire and Ice, the Call of Cthulhu, and the Amber Chronicles have already been used to build settings (and indeed, mechanics) for use in those specific worlds.

But what if we try to push the boundaries of what's acceptable material outward a little? There are many varieties of literature that do not typically fall into standard gamer purview, or fit into standard categories like "fantasy", "science fiction", or "pulp", but that could, properly handled, definitely serve as backdrops for highly unique and attractive game settings. Some of these might fall under the rubric of "serious literature", and are shunned by a lot of gamers because they are perceived as being "difficult", or "boring". Some may derive from linguistic cultures with which most gamers are not familiar. Some might be children's literature that have not yet been mined for RPGs.

In what follows, I select a number of such books, and highlight their gameable aspects. The list is highly idiosyncratic: it reflects books from my childhood that I have mused over through the years, or those I encountered later that immediately struck me as RPG quarry. There are certainly blank spots, which represent major oversights in my own fiction-reading history. On the other hand, the list deliberately avoids "genre books" classics that already have a strong RPG echo (e.g. Spencer's Faerie Queen, Dante's Inferno, or Stoker's Dracula) or cult classics (e.g. Burrough's Naked Lunch, the Illuminatus! trilogy, or Pavić´s Dictionary of the Khazars) that already have high purchase in the gamer community. The point is to get people to become acquainted with interesting books they may not be familiar with, to share their own lists of titles, and to stimulate a discussion that will expand our collective gamer horizons.

  1. New Atlantis (Francis Bacon).     In general, early utopian literature is a great gaming genre. Here, I choose to focus on New Atlantis rather than on More's Utopia or Campanella's City of the Sun largely on account of its peculiar institution - Salomon's House, but an amalgam of the three is certainly possible. The settings for all these novels are large islands in the middle of an ocean, which are discovered by adventurers during an age of exploration. The society on the island is highly orderly, though it may be egalitarian (as for More), or divided into distinct castes (as for Campanella). Typically, the utopian society does not use money internally, though it is rich, and uses its stock of wealth to purchase what it needs from the outside world. The society is usually both open and closed - it accepts what it regards as rational ideas (for Bacon, that included astronomy, Platonic philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity), but it does not permit regular immigration, and free trade. Unlike for More and Campanella, who have highly visible monarchies, Bacon keeps governing institutions very much in the background, and focuses on Salomon's House  - a prototype of a baroque scientific academy, but also easily recognizable as a Mage's Guild and an employer of adventurers. Salomon's House can direct visitors to procure spell components, seek out ancient tomes and worthy collaborators, and even influence foreign politics by placing desirable candidates on thrones (if they are judged as having potential for advancing knowledge). At the same time, adventurers who reside in New Atlantis over long periods may find that as foreigners, they are deliberately excluded from the halls of power, prevented from integrating into the society, and used to destabilize the outside world to promote the New Atlanteans' "security". 
  2. Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann).     A sanatorium high up in the Swiss Alps attracts all sorts of ailing and neurotic patients. Although the book offers subtle commentary on fin de siècle Europe and various modernist projects, it can easily be read as early magical realism. The mountain is separated from the mundane world in the manner of a D&D demiplane, or a World of Darkness horizon realm, and escape from the sanatorium is either impossible or inadvisable (steep cliffs, or possible yetis/icepeople, as the GM sees fit). The denizens of the sanatorium - great models for quirky NPCs - may also be powerful mages, who are seeking to entrap other visitors in their lunatic fantasies (further horizon realms that could be directly accessed from their quarters). The inmates may even be deity-level entities, who appear as patients, but who are simply using the premises to test their mad schemes upon the world. The set-up is somewhat similar to Paranoia, or a Cthulhu Now adventure, set early in the digital age at an asylum where Cthulhu has infected a computer. Here, the role of the mad computer or Cthulhu can be played by a divine-rank psychiatrist, or perhaps even by the gnomes of Zurich, who live deep under the mountain, preparing to unleash a golem-like Davos Man upon the world in another half century.
  3. Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov).     The Devil, who holds an annual ball in a chosen city, has selected early Soviet Moscow, and has descended upon it with a retinue made up of Princes of Hell, in various guises. Some appear as gangsters, some - as middling bureaucrats, and at least one (named Behemoth) - as a human-sized, bipedal black cat. Along the way, they engage in theological debates with Marxist functionaries, hold seances of mass hypnosis, grant pacts to initiates (including the main heroine), and turn a theatre manager into a vampire for refusing to take his own phone calls. This is almost an ideal setting for an urban fantasy using Mage: the Ascension rules, as it involves hefty doses of paradox-generating spell use that completely undermines (or backhandedly promotes) a newly established regime of the Sons of Ether who have gone over to the Technocracy. Additional fun may be had courtesy of one of the resident NPCs (the novel's hero), who is building a conduit to ancient Judea in order to explore the relationship between Procurator Pontius Pilate and a certain Yeshua of Nazareth. For additional hijinks, throw in some of Bulgakov's other plot lines into this setting (a mad scientist who creates a dog-human hybrid; another mad scientist who makes a mistake, and imports the Eggs of Doom into his lab).
  4. War With The Newts (Karel Čapek).     Čapek is best known for inventing the neologism "robot", and with it, the trope of robot revolt against human masters. War With The Newts is a more mature, and in my estimation, better written work (Čapek's gifts as a lyrical writer comes through much better in novel than in dramaturgical form), but it explores many of the same themes. In the book, some pearl divers in the East Indies discover a colony of intelligent, amphibious newts. Local people are aware of them, and advise European sea captains to steer clear of the "sea devils", but sure enough, soon the newts are caught up in the wheels of industrial civilization - first, as zoo curiosities, then as laborers, and ultimately, as fodder for raw materials (the macaroni-class newts, bred on a mass scale simply to produce tissue for manufacturing and pharmaceutical concerns). The newts are overbred to such an extent that the World Ocean soon becomes too narrow for them, and a movement led by a Grand Salamander springs up virtually overnight to make demands to expand the ocean at the expanse of the earth's landmass (where the human masters reside). This is a great 1930s style pulp setting, though given the obviously environmentalist themes Čapek conjures up, it can easily be transposed to an apocalyptic scenario set in our own time.
  5. Old Khottabych (Lazar' Lagin).     This is a children's book that was originally published during the height of the Great Purges, but still gave several generation of Soviet (and post-Soviet) kids one of its most beloved heroes - Old Khottabych. A powerful djinn named Hassan Abdurrahman ibn Khattab (Russified as Khottabych) is punished by the King of the Djinns Suleiman ibn Daoud (the Biblical King Solomon) and imprisoned in a sealed bottle, which is then thrown into the sea. 3000 years later, it is discovered by 15-year old Young Pioneer Vol'ka Kostyl'kov, who scrapes off Solomon's Seal, and releases the djinn from his imprisonment. Khottabych has no greater wish than to shower his young benefactor with wealth (jewels, palaces), and to shield him from problems created by teachers and fellow students, all of which he effects by tearing hairs out of his prodigious white beard, and muttering ancient incantations. In Vol'ka, however, Khottabych meets his match, because the young man takes it upon himself to reeducate the djinn, get him to abandon his retrograde ideas on slavery, hierarchy, the power of money, and miracles, and to exchange them for faith in equality and technology: the novel ends with the djinn abandoning magic to become an engineer. Despite the clear ideological message, a lot of people read it as tongue-in-cheek; in any event, Khottabych's popularity is caused precisely by his colorful use of magic, and his eccentricity. In many ways, Khottabych is a Soviet version of the Famous Five books (the djinn leads Vol'ka and his school chums on global expeditions on a flying carpet, to battle Italian fascists and American bankers). It is perhaps even a forerunner of I Dream of Genie, which essentially shares its main plot line.  
  6. Neznaika (Nikolai Nosov).     Another classic Soviet children's book that later grew into a trilogy. Neznaika (literally, 'Know-Nothing') is a garishly-dressed bad boy with no obvious skills or talents aside from fighting, teasing, and generally annoying his friends. He is a Little Person, and lives Flower Town with others of his kind. But this classic children's book set-up soon yields a lot of peculiar elements. Neznaika's home is a gender-segregated commune, and when he inadvertently becomes the leader of a hot-air balloon expedition, he and his commune mates end up in a wholly gender-segregated town, whose population split into two separate settlements as a result of a war between the sexes. In the sequels, where Neznaika and friends travel to a suspiciously Campanella-like Sun City, and then to the Moon, it becomes clear that Neznaika's society is also a classless, money-less communism. Its denizens refer to one another as Brother, have mostly technological and artistic inclinations (but no religion), and end up leading an effort to help Little People on their moon to overthrow a rapacious capitalist order. At the same time, Neznaika, like Khottabych, is a lovable rogue who enjoys taking self-important and preachy Little People down a notch, and who exhibits leadership qualities precisely because he doesn't play by the rules. The fact that he doesn't exhibit much personal growth from book to book is a stark contrast with, say, The Wind in the Willows, where the forces of order succeed in taming Mr. Toad, and getting him to see the error of his ways. The setting, which encourages colorful (if whimsical) characters is easily reinterpreted as a fey scenario with a dose of windpunk and steampunk thrown in for good measure. 
  7. Generation P (Viktor Pelevin).     This is a post-Soviet answer to Generation X and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A literature student comes of age in the very late Soviet period, when the country had already effectively lost the culture wars to the West (the "P" in the title stands for "Pepsi", which became a major American import at that time). As he watches the system collapse around him, he is forced to apply his literary talents in advertising agencies, translating Western ad campaigns into a cultural medium that will be understood by culturally disoriented, and then increasingly nationalist Russophone audiences. After notable successes at work, psychedelic experiences in a decaying post-Soviet countryside, and seances with the ghost of Che Guevara, the hero is discovered by the mysterious and debauched Ministry of Beekeeping, which, as it later turns out, operates a media-driven virtual reality, which, among other things, is responsible for designing the entire Russian political system. But behind the Ministry is an ancient Babylonian cult, whose leader must consummate a ritual marriage with the goddess Ishtar in order to prevent an ancient apocalyptic beast from manifesting in Russia's northerly wastes. This setting, which combines the Matrix, occult conspiracy, and biting social and political satire, would make a good backdrop for a Virtual Adept-centered Mage campaign, especially as it can be supplemented by Pelevin's other World of Darkness-resonant themes (e.g. "A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia"). 
  8. Baudolino (Umberto Eco).     A 12th century bard, scholar, and likely pathological liar, the title character sets out to find the kingdom of the Legendary Prester John. After his patron  - the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa dies in the course of the Third Crusade, Baudolino continues eastward into the distant lands of the medieval European imagination. Some are inhabited by the classic beasts of fantasy RPG lore (manticores, basilisks, chimeras, satyrs, rocs, and unicorns), while others  - torso-faced blemmyes, skiapods, and the dog-headed cynocephali - have, inexplicably and unjustly, been ignored by designers of fantasy races. What Eco presents in this lesser known book (compared to the Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum) is a veritable master-class of medieval-type fantasy world design. Not only is there a credible (given sufficient suspension of disbelief) articulation between the real medieval world (from which player characters likely originate), and a fantasy realm packed with legendary beasts, monsters, and potentates; there is also a truly medieval geography - the eastern edge of the oikoumene, where Prester John's realm is located, simply ends: as in Pratchett's Diskworld, water falls off the edge of the world. It's hard to count all the people who won't countenance any but high-magic campaigns, and yet insist on drawing up continents on a globe, where standard physical laws must function. To account for this world's existence, one of the characters  recounts a Gnostic creation myth - a red thread that runs through most of Eco's novels. That makes it possible to run Baudolino as an occult conspiracy game like Nephilim, or, both of which strongly feature historical conspiracies and have modern echoes. But standard D&D - with a twist - is also an eminently workable option.
  9. We, the Gods (Bernard Werber).     We, the Gods, and the other two books of Weber's Gods Cycle, rest on a fairly simple premise: cultural heroes of each nation (both fictional, like the book's narrator, and real, like most of the supporting cast of characters), after spending time as transfigured angelic spirits guarding their assigned humans, are promoted to deity status. As gods, their quarry is no longer individual people, but civilizations. They are given training in world design by establishment deities (most notably, the Olympians), and then set loose on a planet of their own, contending against other newly-baked gods, to see whose civilization will come out on top as the globally dominant one (notably, Werber is a believer in a single world government). Along the way, they engage in intrigues against one another and the tutor gods (most importantly, Aphrodite), and try to give their people a push by entering their own civilizations in mortal guise. Ultimately, the series is best described as Sid Meier's Civilization video game transformed into an RPG. There are annoying aspects of the cycle, like the author clearly favoring 'his people', strongly drawn contrasts between "good" and "bad" civilizations, and strange takes on Toynbee's notion of civilizational affiliation (the Americans are a modern incarnation of the Romans). Still, it's an interesting twist on most conceptions of divine characters in play, and could be fruitfully portrayed using a game system such as Exalted or Scion.
  10. The Yiddish Policeman's Union (Michael Chabon).     Although it won the Nebula Award, this book is not commonly identified with the sci fi genre, but is better described as a noir detective novel meeting alternative history. Set in Sitka, Alaska, which became a locus for a resettled European Jewish population at the start of the Second World War, the novel looks at the final days of the autonomous settlement, which is to revert to the State of Alaska at the end of its 60th year. The resettlement plan succeeded in rescuing the majority of the Jewish population from the Holocaust, but the State of Israel never got off the ground at the end of the war, and Palestine is a messy jumble of sectarian statelets beset by militants of various stripes. The novel's hero - hard-drinking police detective Meyer Landsman - tries to solve a murder mystery as he negotiates the divide between Sitka's Jews and the native Tlingit Alaskans, pursues Jewish mobsters and millennarians, and uncovers an apocalyptic  US government conspiracy to usher in the Messiah and rebuild the Temple in a newly Jewish State. The unique and colorful setting could serve as a backdrop to an investigative game using the Gumshoe system, or perhaps even constitute a twist on an international espionage setting. But to me, Meyer Landsman and his Sitka offer a much richer take on a Dresden Files-type urban fantasy, with Yiddish dybbuks and Tlingit Land Otter People there as otherwordly presences for the professional wizard to summon, bind, and bargain with.    


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Chapter 8 – Obstacles Clear and Paths Open

Wherein the band ties up some loose ends, and grows yet again


A stranger with white hair and a patchwork overcoat stands on the banks of the Vydra River. He has a spear and a scythe strapped to his back, a drum hanging off his belt, and a large raven on his shoulder. The raven’s voice resounds in his head, urging him to follow the river eastward. But the stranger is drawn to the opposite bank. There, three fur-clad riders are trotting toward a village about a verst from the opposite bank. The man exhales a cloud of cold air, drowns out the raven’s voice in his head, and walks across the ice. The villagers fishing through holes in the ice cast askance glances at him, but he follows the riders toward the village.
At the waystation in Yelizarovka, the host informs four guests just rousing themselves on a frigid Gruden’ morning that his lord has come to call on them. Boyar Yurii Yelizarov and his two sons – Yulii and Lev, clad in coats with sable collars and cuffs, and with sabers hanging on their belts, stride inside the shed. Yelizarov says he heard about a commotion in the village the previous night. He then questions Dmitri about the previous days’ goings on, and inquires as to why he didn’t return to the fort. In response, Dmitri tells him of his travails, and indicates that he came upon a body in the woods that crows had begun to feast on. He left it in some confusion, and, rather than continuing to search for the dead man’s companions, or their hideout, he decided to head back before running afoul of the wood’s guardians. He encountered Chonkorchuk, Plamen, and Rodion somewhat later, and followed them back to the waystation to inquire into what they were doing in the woods. Chonkorchuk adds that the companions – students of local lore from Lazarevo – were combing through the woods to learn about the cairn, the crow swarm, and other landmarks. Rodion says the party was resting when Dmitri suddenly came upon it, and then engaged its members in conversation that lasted deep into the night.
To all appearances, Yelizarov does not believe these stories. As Dmitri is still in his employ, he tells him to retrieve the body, and to continue his search for the other smugglers, and their base. He agrees to have Chonkorchuk accompany him, though the hermit first wants to look for Lionia. Yelizarov stares at Rodion intently throughout the conversation, and then insists that while the other two are off in the woods, that the redhead remains at his keep as his guest. Rodion consents, and convinces Plamen to accompany him as well. 
Yuri Yelizarov lays down the law in his domains
 As the group is in the process of departing the waystation, it encounters the stranger coming into the compound. The host crosses himself in the stranger’s presence, while Yelizarov gives him, and his raven, a long, parting glance. At the shed, Chonkorchuk exchanges a few words with the laconic stranger, indicating that his friend Rodion also has a crow, before being informed that ravens are different. He gathers his things, and goes off in search of Lionia. From the villagers, he learns that Lionia actually lives in the village of Medunitsa two versts away. He follows the northwest trail, and soon arrives at what locals say is Lionia’s abode. Behind the hut, the owner keeps a large number of beehives (the village as a whole is apparently famed for its apiaries). But no one is home, and after knocking, Chonkorchuk leaves to meet the rest of his party at the Yelizarov keep.
While the rest of the group is traveling to the keep, the boyar points out that the stranger’s raven is following them. He invites Dmitri to a shooting competition: both draw their bows, and launch arrows at the raven, but fail to hit their target. The raven flies off toward Yelizarovka, back to the waystation, where its master is setting himself up for the day. Having paid the host, and setting aside bulky equipment such as his fishing gear, he awaits the raven’s story about what he saw. He then proceeds to follow the group into the woods.
At the Yelizarov keep, the boyar gives Dmitri a sack for bringing back the body. Along with the hermit Chonkorchuk, the trailseeker treads the previous day’s path. The crow flock is acting more aggressively now that Plamen is not there to placate them. Without aggravating the birds or troubling the cairn, the duo progresses until arriving at the clearing with the freshly dug grave. On top of the grave, they discover the body, though, with most of its face pecked off, it’s barely recognizable. It’s not clear why it's there – this is not where yesterday’s combat took place. Dmitri finds tracks leading in the direction of that altercation – clearly, the body was brought here, perhaps as a warning, perhaps as a way to keep people away from the smugglers’ compound. But that search should commence later – it is now time to get the body back to the keep in one piece.
Meanwhile, the stranger enters the woods after skirting the keep. After being set upon by crows, he tries to frighten them away, but after the birds draws back, he blasts them with cold magic. The crows fly at him, trying to beat him down with their beaks and wings, and the stranger barely gets away with his life. As he approaches the cairn, he meets Chonkorchuk and Dmitri, carrying a body. Formal introductions are finally exchanged. The stranger is named Druvvaldis, and he hails from the coast of the Western Sea. Long ago, invaders destroyed his home and killed his people, and he has been wandering the earth in search of what remains of the old world. He is a speaker to spirits, and a seeker of wisdom beyond the visible realm. His companion spirit has pressed him to seek a place called the Crows’ Meadow, where his fate awaits him. Chonkorchuk indicates that he knows the place, and that he and his companions are heading there as well, in search of a treasure.
As they begin to make their way back, they suddenly meet Lionia, who in typical fashion comes up behind them. The old man is fully armed, with a sabre at this side, and demands to know why they are still hanging around his territory. Dmitri explains that they were forced to collect the body, and asks why it was moved onto the grave. Lionia indicates that it was put there to make it easy to collect, and to keep people away from the base. Learning about Rodion’s detention, and expressing exasperation at the party’s failure to mislead Yelizarov, he says that he will have to handle matters with the boyar himself. He then attempts to engage Druvvaldis, and to learn who he is, but the newcomer stays tight-lipped. Chonkorchuk tells Lionia that the spirit-seeker may be useful to the group’s plan to recover the treasure. The Old Fox reminds him that he warned about more people learning about the treasure. He is willing to bring the newcomer along, but insists that the original deal, whereby he gets a quarter of the proceeds, is honored. After some wrangling, Chonkorchuk acquiesces. Lionia then parts ways from the rest – he heads to the Yelizarov keep, they – back to the waystation.
Druvvaldis - another corvid bearer
At Yelizarvoka, Chonkorchuk, Dmitri, and Druvvaldis talk about future plans. The hermit relates the stories of the polevik treasure, his relationship with Baba Yaga, and the search for the Alatyr stone. Druvvaldis expresses surprise that his new acquaintance knows Baba Yaga, but indicates that he has no interest in treasure and material goods, and voices his dislike of the ginger Lionia, and all those who pursue material goals. Chonkorchuk says the treasure is merely a means to an end, and so is Lionia, who is likely freelancing, and not telling his band-mates about the treasure. Dmitri wonders what he has gotten himself into. As Dmitri and Chonkorchuk have no coin, they head out to sleep under the stars, promising to meet their new companion down by the river in the morning.
In the night, Chonkorchuk’s extremities become frostbitten, and he catches cold. Managing to rouse himself, he meets his companions down by the river. The attempts to ice fish are less than successful, but by mid-morning, Lionia reappears. He has succeeded in placating Yelizarov, he says, and Dmitri, and the rest of the group are now off the hook, and free to proceed back to Crows’ Meadow unimpeded. Dmitri ask if Yelizarov would be willing to give them supplies – winter clothes, torches, sacks, a net, and a shovel. Lionia indicates that the boyar should be in a good mood, and amenable. He returns with the requested supplies, and with Rodion and Plamen in tow. He then calls on the rest of the group to lose no more time in attending to business.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Chapter 7 – Two Bands

Wherein our heroes grow into a band, and come to terms with another one after two tense confrontations

Assailants from the woods rain darts and sling stones, then come out swinging!
The dart hits Chonkorchuk in the shoulder, and is followed by two pebbles launched from slings. Four men dressed in sheepskin overcoats and hats, and with scarves tied around their faces to conceal their identity, step from out behind trees, and charge the group, waving cudgels. They surround Chonkorchuk and Plamen, while Fox-Raskel flees deeper into the woods. The battle initially goes badly for the companions. Chonkorchuk is struck square in the ribs with a cudgel, and decides to flee when he has an opportune moment. Plamen is left face to face with all four, though one turns to pick off the fleeing Chonkorchuk with a dart. He initially tries to fight back with his own cudgel, but to no avail – the men’s coats are too thick, and he lands only a glancing blow. He draws out a spirit of bear-kind from beyond, which bolsters the party’s morale, and likely keeps Chonkorchuk alive. He then summons forth a wave of thunderous force to lay low the assailants. The first wave does not deter them, but the second sends three to the ground, blood coming out of their ears because of the impact. The last one standing attempts to flee, but Plamen finally connects with his cudgel, and cracks him upside the head.
Fox-Raskel watches all this from behind a tree. The assailants seem to pay him no mind, but Kutkh the crow shortly informs him that another assailant approaches from the direction in which the companions were walking. He is similarly dressed, but otherwise looks different – bigger, faster-moving, and better armed. Raskel soon sees him – a dark-haired, bristly man armed with a spear and shield, and carrying a quiver and bow on his back. Raskel prepares for the worst, and changes into a fox-man in full view of the man. The man stops before closing with Raskel, and surveys the scene, though shortly, Plamen dispatches the last of the four assailants, and goes over to minister to Chonkorchuk does not pass out from the pain. Raskel asks the new arrival why he is following them, and the man explains that he was actually following the other four, who he claims are smugglers.
The armed man announces himself as Dmitri, and says he is in the employ of Yurii Yelizarov – the boyar whose fort the companions passed earlier in the day. Yelizarov asked him to track the smugglers, to see what they are up to and where their hideout might be. He lost them in the woods, and came upon a frightening cairn (which the companions also passed), and which he claims nearly killed him. He then assists Chonkorchuk and Plamen in checking to see if the assailants are still alive. One has apparently died from the impact of the blast, but the other three are still hanging on. Chonkorchuk ties their hands with their scarves, while Raskel takes the dead man’s overcoat, and rifles through their pockets. A few darts, sling pebbles, copper pulo coins, and two hunting knives are discovered, but nothing else of value, and nothing that indicates who they might be. Their faces don’t look familiar – they simply appear to be young villagers heading out to trap in the forest, but Raskel detects a slight meady, honey smell about them. Dmitri indicates that one of them has only one mitten, which matches a mitten he saw earlier on the cairn.
Dmitri - a well-armed hunter with a canid scent
Plamen uses one of his magical berries to revive one of the survivors, who is quite scared, and willing to spill the beans, apparently honestly. Though he does not directly admit to smuggling, he says that he and his companions were “working”, and that they were going to their hideout to meet up with other associates, who are preparing the base for winter, when sled traffic will travel freely upon the frozen Vydra River. Among their associates is someone named Radei, who apparently stays at the hideout, as well as Vasya – a one-armed guardian whose description matches that of the Galumphing Oaf the companions have been seeking. The smuggler indicates that they were aware that Dmitri was following them through the woods, and tried to mislead him by throwing a mitten onto the cairn. He is quite surprised, however, that Yelizarov had them followed, because he is under the impression that Lionia had “arranged everything” with the boyar. It thus appears that Lionia is part of his band as well, though the smuggler insists that he works with him, not for him. The smugglers attacked, he says, because they thought the group was trying to surround them on their own turf, but he denies they were trying to kill anyone. 
It is now decision time. Dmitri and the others are a bit taken aback by Yelizarov’s role in this, but they conclude he was probably trying to press the smugglers to get a better deal out of them. The nearby cottage might contain the band’s cache, but there is little desire to move against Lionia’s allies at the moment. Unsure what to do, the companions decide to go to Yelizarovka to search for Lionia so they can get some answers, figuring he would have an easy time finding them there. Dmitri follows them, thinking he can at least learn more about what he was really doing, and pick up some new work after his deal with Yelizarov expires – the companions indicate they are looking for treasure, and might be interested in taking on a little muscle. They release the prisoner, who runs off in the direction of the hideout, and leave the two survivors warming one another under their coats (they take two others sets of clothes, as well as the other objects found on the smugglers), and head back to Yelizarovka.
After a few misadventures (Raskel gets caught in a snare near the fresh grave, Dmitri pokes at the mitten on the cairn, and feels a bit queasy as a result, Plamen sends the flock of crows to feast on a dead body near the smugglers’ cottage), the four arrive in Yelizarovka, and buy a place to stay for the night at the local waystation. After they finish off the venison, Kutkh informs Rodion (who by now has changed back) that a sizable group of people is resolutely approaching the waystation compound. They take positions around the perimeter, and one of them heads for the front gate, converses briefly with the host, and then heads toward the shed where the companions are holed up. Nervous, Dmitri slips out the back, and hides.
The man turns out to be Lionia. He tells the party that it’s time to deal, as he has something they want, and they have something he wants. There is a bit of wrangling regarding who was responsible for the altercation. The companions now know where Vasya is, and where the hideout is located, though Lionia points out that they can’t relate this information to Yelizarov, because they are responsible for the death of one of his peons, and he will want restitution. He does seem grateful for the information about Yelizarov’s spying on the smugglers. In turn, he pointedly reminds the group that the longer they wait, the more likely it will be that someone else will move to take the treasure. Plamen is still reticent to move against Plamenka, though he is willing to stand aside and let Lionia and the other companions take the treasure provided they use stealth or magic to keep her asleep, instead of trying to kill her. The old fox suggests that the tracker may make a useful ally, and replacement for Plamen in this endeavor, and asks if he might come back inside and join the parlay. Dmitri returns, and the rest of the group fills him in on what they know about the poleviks under Crows' Meadow warren, the treasure, and its ultimate destination. Lionia agrees to meet the group outside of Lazarevo in three days time, when everyone has finished recuperating. With regard to Yelizarov, Lionia agrees with the group that it’s a good idea to play for time, and then to blame the death of the smuggler on the crows (who were invited to eat his body anyway). Before he departs, Lionia asks for the two sets of winter clothes the companions took off his smugglers, and they acquiesce.
 


 

 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Sociological Abuse of Curse of Strahd





I have previously expressed my reservations about the Curse of Strahd Adventure Path (AP) (published by Wizards of the Coast in March 2016), but I never intended to expand them into a full blog post, since my focus here is directed toward analyses of fantasy worlds in general, and my own Lukomorye setting in particular. However, I decided to return to this topic after encountering an academic article in the online journal Analog Game Studies called “The Psychological Abuse of Curse of Strahd”, by Shelly Jones. Jones explores this adventure as a “site for witnessing and performing the psychology of trauma, and specifically the psychology of abuse.” The author finds game play in this particular AP therapeutic because, unlike the traditional D&D module, which tends to be instrumental, and to overfocus on themes of conflict resolution through violence and plunder, the Curse of Strahd has, in her estimation, a rich thematic and emotional backdrop which opens players up to experiences of overcoming emotional trauma, as well as diversity and otherness – thus - to a variety of role-playing experiences. These experiences, according to her, are encoded both into the narrative structure, as well as the actual mechanics of game play.
 
Before laying out Jones’ analysis, as well as offering one of my own, I would like to briefly review the scenario in Curse of Strahd to those uninitiated into the mysteries of D&D, or the history of this particular AP in particular. The action takes place in Barovia – a small, generic, vaguely Eastern European Ruritania of fin de siècle Gothic imagination. Barovia is a land of steep mountains and dark forests dotted with settlements populated by sullen peasants, desperate burgomasters, and gypsies, all bearing vaguely Balkan, Russian, and German names. Its resident Dracula is Count Strahd von Zarovich. Strahd cursed himself and the land through entering a pact with Dark Powers, and then committing an act of fratricide – he killed his brother Sergei and drank his blood, because Sergei, not he, had won the love of the beautiful Tatyana. Pursued by Strahd in the aftermath, she jumped to her death rather than submit to Strahd. Enraged castle guards then slew their bloodthirsty master, but owing to the pact sealed with this original sin, he did not die, but became a vampire. But the curse of deathlessness came with a further complication: Strahd’s would be trapped in Barovia forever, as the land became surrounded by a deadly mist that could be traversed by those coming from the outside, but not by those wishing to leave, including Strahd himself. In the centuries that followed, Strahd amused himself by terrorizing villagers, abusing women, pursuing the occasional incarnation of Tatyana who he hoped in vain would save him, and bedeviling adventurers who would occasionally wander in past the mists to become unsuspecting pawns (but also possible successors) in the vampire’s cat-and-mouse games. Until, presumably, the adventurers portrayed by the players break the curse, slay the vampire, free the people, and allow Tatyana and Sergei to reunite in the hereafter.
Two preliminary comments to disclose my own feelings about the Ravenloft game setting, and Jones’ project of gameplay as therapy are in order. Regarding the former: when I first learned of the original Ravenloft module as a middle school student in the early 1980s, I was impressed by many of the same features that Jones (as well as numerous fans) find attractive today. I liked the different feel of the adventure, and the fact that it resonated with a gothic theme. Rather than just another meaningless dungeon crawl, here was a villain had a personality, rather than just a set of statistics and powers. Here was a locale where everything – the village, the woods, and the castle had a reason for being, and could be explored in whatever order the characters saw fit, instead of progressing down the corridor from one room, one monster, and one treasure chest to another. Early on in the Ravenloft narrative, the adventurers encounter Madam Eva, a Vistani (i.e. gypsy) fortune-teller who does a reading for the characters. On the basis of the reading, the characters discover where the vampire lurks, and where they can discover special items that will help defeat him. Since a whole host of different results (linked to particular cards drawn from a regular playing deck) were outlined, Ravenloft was supposed to be different every time you played it. This added to the non-linear quality of the adventure, and encouraged reuse. Indeed, I played Ravenloft several times, and even used it for different games (though the excellent three-dimensional castle maps included in the module were perhaps the clinching factor in this regard). When the module was reconfigured as a 256-page hardcover AP for the new 5th edition rules, I bought it, relying on my old, positive memories of the original module. To date, it is the only 5e AP I have purchased. I did not buy the accompanying Tarokka Deck – a unique game aid representing the cards Madam Eva was to use in her reading – because it seemed like a purely marketing gimmick geared for an age dominated by collectible card games. But it was not a clincher, and by itself has not really influenced my appraisal of Ravenloft one way or the other.
 
Concerning Jones’ recommendation of playing Ravenloft for therapeutic purposes: I have no issue with using Ravenloft, or any other RPG adventure or setting to help people who have lived through abusive relationships to overcome them, to take control of their lives, and to make friends and loved ones understand what that person’s experiences. Generally speaking, I find arguments to the effect that “it’s just a game, and should be played only for enjoyment” tedious, and beside the point. In fact, I have experienced this exact attitude in response to my own critiques of the Curse of Strahd, by people who were blissfully unaware that original module author Tracy Hickman had a distinct agenda that went beyond gameplay, one which he explicitly outlined on numerous occasions and indeed recapitulated in the Foreword of this very AP. In principle, my attitude is, if people find RPGs useful in processing painful episodes or developing techniques for deconstructing abusive hierarchies in their own lives, more power to them. And in this specific case, using a vampire antagonist to shed light on real-world abusive relationships is amply justified by the well-established psychological notion of emotional vampirism – a condition attributed to emotionally immature people who drain the energy of others to make up for their lack of empathy, independence, or low self-esteem.
My problem with these “deconstructions” begins when they themselves depend on perpetuating abusive and hierarchical relationships. In this case, the relationships I have in mind are less personal, and more political, existing more on the level of relations between states, cultures, societies, and civilizations. Such relationships generate long-lived Orientalist, Russophobic, and Cold War stereotypes that legitimate intervention by “progressive”, “democratic”, “healthy” Western liberators in non-Western societies in order to remove evil rulers and regimes, and to restore these societies to “normality”. Frequently, these interventions are said to be necessary because they are in defense of oppressed groups who are prevented from articulating themselves as subjects (or even identifying with their abusers). In recent times, such interventions have been recommended (and occasionally prosecuted) for the benefit of ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities. In my view, the Curse of Strahd itself, and one-sided analyses that stress the AP’s therapeutic qualities but neglect its toxic ones help perpetuate cultural (and less directly, political) imperialism.
  
The Barbarous Count
 A key aspect of the “cautionary tale” initially told by Hickman in the old Ravenloft module, and underlined by Jones in her article, is a critique of the contemporary image of the vampire, which has “taken a turn from its roots in recent years”. Their targets are Stephanie Meyer’s popular Twilight book and movie series, but also, explicitly or by implication, HBO’s TrueBlood, Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and White Wolf’s Vampire:the Masquerade game (in which players assume the role of vampiric characters). In these reinterpretations, as they see it, the Byronic vampire – a “decadent predator, an abuser hidden behind a romantic veil” is transformed into a misunderstood antihero who could be transformed or redeemed through (typically, a woman’s self-sacrificial) love. However, one doesn’t have to disagree with the Hickman-Jones cautionary message, or with their critique of contemporary vampires to notice that there is one vital feature of the evolution that they miss. The romance of the Byronic vampire, from Lord Ruthven to Dracula, derived from his fundamental otherness. Whereas his victims were generally prosaic European middle-class women, the vampire was poetic, noble, and mysterious. And with the enthronement of Dracula as the classic of the genre, he became foreign, from lands far from the centers of modern civilization, and wrapped up in ancient conflicts and prejudices (therefore, decadent).
In Twilight, and in the mainstream of American vampire fiction since Joel Schumacher’s Lost Boys, conversely, vampires live among us, and are normalized, not just romanticized. They are other exurban teenagers (increasingly of both sexes) whose lives are dominated by consumption and peer pressure. In True Blood, they are business owners, politicians, and religious leaders who struggle to overcome deep-rooted prejudices and fit into a diverse society in which the distinction vampires and mortals is starting to blur. In this more complex moral universe, vampires are not the only perpetrators of abuse and violence. In Coppola’s film, Dracula becomes a vampire largely because of the Church’s prejudice against burying suicides (Dracula’s wife Elisabeta) in hallowed ground, which prompts her husband to reject it, and to seek life “beyond the grace of God”. Similarly, in the Vampire: the Masquerade mythos, worse horrors than vampires exist – a vampire’s rejection of his or her nature being chiefest among them. “Monsters we are, lest monsters we become” is the game’s unofficial motto. Denying the vampires’ (and by extension, humans’) problematic nature leads to the perpetration of even more terrible crimes.
None of these issues find purchase either in Ravenloft or the Curse of Strahd. The vampire takes the classic form of a suave, silk-cloak-wearing, red liquid-sipping count (presumably, he “never drinks… wine”). His name and the general environment of Barovia spotlight his “ethnic” character. Some of the role-playing suggestions for other NPCs in the adventure clarify that their speech should be accented. This instruction is not necessary in the case of Strahd himself: it is assumed, and masterfully reproduced by the Adventure Path’s lead designer Chris Perkins in the video gameplay version of the AP. 
A prototype guide to Barovia

The ethnicization of the gothic elements that embody the modern representation of the vampire is not problematized in Jones’ analysis, though the issue has received attention elsewhere. It is widely accepted that Stoker’s Dracula replaced Polidori’s Ruthven as the dominant image of the vampire at the turn of the twentieth century (Gordon and Hornick, The Vampire in Folklore, Literature, etc., pp. 75-76). Though the reasons for this change continue to be debated, a strong case has been made that the culprit is the rise of British Russophobia (based on fears of “reverse colonization”) in the aftermath of the Crimean War (significantly, Stoker’s father was himself a representative of British imperial power - in Ireland). Precisely at this time, “the term gothic [began to] reinforc[e] cultural and regional prejudices directed against a series of ostensibly lesser peoples and cultures”, “originally Germanic uncouthness and unreason”, but over time, “signify[ing] an ever-expanding and changing host of despicable others”, and particularly, the “dangers posed by the threat of oriental autocracy to middle-class economics and democracy” coupled with “racially suspect Eastern European immigrants” (Jimmie Cain, Bram Stoker and Russophobia, p. 7). The Germanic-Slavic amalgam of the von Zarovich clan (father Barov, mother Ravenovia, and children Strahd and Sergei) is illustrative of the “standard” evolution from Ruthven to Dracula, which Ravenloft perpetuates.
The unchanging and unchangeable nature of Strahd’s behavior also point to its endemic, ethnic qualities. His fall is portrayed as being the product of an inner character flaw, necessary and without alternative regardless of circumstances. “Strahd… can never find a release. [He] cannot not be changed. Like an abusive partner, like Bluebeard himself, no amount of love or effort will ‘make him better’; there is no fixing Strahd. He is stuck, and he knows it,” says Jones. But the gateway that initially led him down his predatory and criminal path was the clannish imperative associated with elites in “backward” societies – military conquest and duty toward the maintenance or restoration of family fortunes. Strahd initially comes to Barovia at the head of an army to fulfill his father’s legacy, to give him a proper burial place, and to give make his mother a present of a new castle named in her honor “to demonstrate his love for her” (Perkins, Curse of Strahd [hence, CoS], p.9). Even after the onset of his vampirism, he (like Stoker’s Dracula, but unlike the historical Vlad Țepeș) perpetuates the peculiar Oriental institution of polygyny – his wives still sleep in the castle crypt, and rise nightly. Aside from his hunt for Tatyana, his main obsession is the perpetuation of his patrimonial state – by finding someone deserving enough to replace him as its ruler (and like most autocratic rulers, “operation successor” always exceeds his capabilities, so irreplaceable he remains). Strahd’s clannishness and traditionalism exoticize him in the way that matters most – in the eyes of the heroes who will serve as his antagonists throughout the adventure. Unlike him, they are either driven by purely altruistic motives to destroy monsters, or at least by understandable gain. Family, duty, customs typically mean little to rootless adventurers. And in seeking to seduce new victims and to trap them in Barovia forever, Strahd is less Bluebeard (a serial abuser who killed his wives once he was through with them) than ‘Moody’ Mahmoody – the abusive Iranian husband in the film “Not Without My Daughter” (1991), who lures his American wife and child to post-revolutionary Iran and traps them there with his family. The movie  - another cautionary tale of relationship abuse at the hands of a “mysterious, misogynist Easterner” was universally deservedly panned for its portrayal of Muslim Iranian culture and its whitewashing. Its resonance with the original Ravenloft module derives from a common zeitgeist. 
'Moody' Mahmoody in a vampiric pose

Strahd the Terrible
Strahd’s backwardness is evident not only in his personal, but in his political relationships. His long-suffering subjects have had to deal with the fallout of his conquest for centuries, during which the character of his rule has not changed. The “Devil Strahd” (as they call him) attacks villagers at whim, occasionally taking them to his castle, or infecting them with his curse, and leaving their families to deal with the consequences. His monstrous and animal minions prowl the woods around settled areas, causing people to fear travel, thus undermining commerce. The preponderance of power in Strahd’s favor make it so that “only a handful of [Barovians] have the will to oppose him” (CoS, p.23), and, given the surrounding Mists, flight is impossible. Despite having been happy “once” (before Strahd’s conquest), Barovians are now hyper-conservative, xenophobic and sullen – characteristics that are instantly recognizable as common descriptors of people residing under totalitarian regimes. They “are deeply invested in their homes and their traditions. They are wary of strange peoples and customs. The way Barovians deal with strangers can be unsettling to those newcomers. Barovians have a tendency to stare openly in silence, thereby expressing their disapproval of anything not familiar to them. Barovians aren’t talkative with strangers, to the extent of being pointedly rude. Most Barovians have violent tempers that boil up through their customary silence when they are provoked. They also have a social cohesiveness (thrust upon them by their weird circumstances) that can make them act together against outsiders if a Barovian is mistreated.” (CoS, p.24). This chauvinism, collectivism, and rudeness are therefore unnatural, and dictated by the suppression of their (initially multiethnic, as they are descendants of various groups settled in the valley by Strahd) society by Strahd’s all-embracing state. Barovian children are literally said to be raised in a “culture of fear” (CoS, p.24) – a term that emerged in the early 1990s to characterize the regimes of petty dictators where reasoned discourse and resistance are said to be futile. A more recent variation – “Republic of Fear” – applied to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, in a book that advocated his overthrow, puts the admonition not to seek accommodation with or understanding of the abuser into stark political relief. Just as, for Jones, “there is no fixing Strahd”, so must the heroes perceive his regime with what can only be characterized as moral clarity – a favored neoconservative term applied to the War on Terror.
Strahd’s rule is not merely a practice of political autocracy; it is a biopower that has a profound othering effect on the Barovian environment and its people as living beings. The realm of Barovia as a whole is a “grim reflection of its undead master” (CoS, p. 7). Strahd himself tells us that he is the land (CoS, p. 252), substantiating the old “blood and soil” vampire mythology that projects an unbreakable bond between the bloodsucker and the earth in which it is buried. The integration of master and realm also extends to the climate: “the sun never fully shines in the lands of Barovia” (CoS, p. 24). The land and air are surrounded by the Mists of Ravenloft, which are impossible to escape without destroying the vampiric Dark Lord, though his Vistani servants are given leave to move through the Mists at will, and though Strahd’s “guests” are spontaneously caught within them. Their function is to keep people trapped within, rather than to defend Ravenloft from external threats. The upshot is that Strahd rules over a “closed ecosystem” (p. 25) that is supposed to have, according to Jones, an “alienating effect” on those (characters and players) who enter this realm from without. The dreary sunless climate and poor ecology invoke not so much the classic Transylvanian homeland (which, even as described by Stoker, was a land of stark and brutal majesty and beauty), but that of a 20th century Eastern European dystopia. And the Mists behind which Barovia is hidden are more than reminiscent of the Iron Curtain, or the Berlin Wall, strengthening the Cold War allegory encoded into the adventure.
Ivan the Terrible, a near-contemporary of the historical Dracula


Perhaps the greatest impact of Strahd’s biopower is on the people of Barovia. Only 10% of the people born in the realm have souls (a new feature that did not exist in the original Ravenloft module). The majority born without them are mere shells of humanity, “bereft of charm and imagination”, who “can neither laugh nor cry” (CoS, p. 25). Not only is this feature reminiscent of frequent claims to the effect that communist regimes destroyed the gene pool of the population; the truly frightening feature is that the vast majority of the Barovian population only stand to lose from liberation from Strahd. Once the Mists lift following Strahd’s demise, “those without souls fade into nothingness as they take their first steps beyond the edge of Strahd’s former domain” (CoS, p. 208). They are the biomass that have “failed to integrate into the market” of the D&D multiverse, and their treatment as superfluous people puts the whole liberation narrative that permeates the Curse of Strahd into question (to put it mildly).
But what of the liberators themselves? Although concrete details about them are impossible since they are characters created by individual players, their general function and identity are outlined quite clearly, because they are no less a fundamental aspect of the Curse of Strahd than the vampire himself. Given the inert character of the majority of the Barovian population, liberation can only be effected by external forces. The heroes enter Barovia in response to a plea for help from its Burgomaster, are lured or chased into Barovia by Strahd through various minions, or simply wander through the Mists by accident. That is, they do not come to Barovia because it serves someone’s interest in their world – they come because the situation itself calls for it, or the Dark Lord initiates the action; the more likely explanation that would apply in our own world plays the role of the “hidden but obvious premise”. There is no clear indication of the particular place the heroes originate from (since that is up to the players and the Dungeon Master), but the one specific example given is the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms, the default and generic setting where most published D&D APs take place. Unlike idiosyncratic and isolated Barovia, the heroes’ home worlds or realms teem with diversity. The multiple race options that are available for players to select for their characters are barely known to Barovians, who are almost exclusively human, have never seen dwarves, elves, halflings, and the like, and treat such outsiders with scorn and fear. Like other typical D&D worlds, the Forgotten Realms are linked to a vast multiverse of different planes where creatures can travel to at will, assuming they know how. Spirits of the dead also travel through such conduits in search of rewards and punishments, whereas in Barovia, they remain trapped in a kind of limbo only, like Tatyana, to be reborn, in virtually identical bodies. The resemblance of these open, complex worlds which reward people according to merit (and into which Barovia can reintegrate after the demise of its tyrant) to the typical construction of the ‘Free World’, though it is nowhere noted explicitly, is simply too suggestive to be ignored. At one point in the video gameplay version of the Curse of Strahd, Chris Perkins tells the player characters, who have just knocked on the door of a peasant hut: they react to you like people in a distant land who have never seen Americans before. Few things are more revealing of the Western missionary complex written into the adventure – though its impact on Hickman’s own life is a matter of common knowledge.
 Deconstructing Ravenloft
In light of all this, it is hard not to conclude that the vaunted empowering benefits of Curse of Strahd for victims of abuse and violence rest squarely on the perpetuation of conceptual violence against untold numbers of other victims. Lest this claim is once again dismissed by people claiming that the adventure path is ‘just a game’ without real world impact, I would reminder the reader that the Foreign Service is a career with serious nerd appeal. People often become attracted to exotic places because of stories, films, and yes, role-playing games experienced as youngsters. Attitudes toward such places are shaped by the myths contained in such narratives – myths that are supremely empowering to those with opportunity to use them as foundations for their personal progress and worldview. The power of this myth accounts for the intense attraction exercised by Ravenloft over the years, though the stereotypes it relies on have the opposite effect on people on whom they are imposed from the outside. Eventually, such stereotypes may also have a deleterious effect on the societies that perpetuate them when they blind us to the complex realities of other societies – a point that should be abundantly clear to those who have lived through the hysteria of the post 9/11 War on Terror, as well as the ongoing Russia scare following the US presidential election of 2016. Moral clarity toward the Other (of the type recommended in Ravenloft and the Curse of Strahd) has seriously misled us in both instances.
A modern-day Strahd

Secondly, the restorative effect of working through the trauma of abuse that Jones locates in the Curse of Strahd stands in stark contrast to the actual method of overcoming the vampire in the adventure. In actual therapeutic practice, the purpose of reliving the traumatic experience is to restore control of one’s life by reconnecting the present with the past as a linear narrative, and to break pathological cycles by breaking ties with the abuser, and the business of restraining to the authorities. In the adventure, however, the cycle of abuse and violence can only be broken by finding the necessary tools to defeat Strahd through the use of violence. Though Jones contends that the “adventure begins to eschew the standard RPG premise that all players are robust heroes who will ultimately defeat the great evil that stands before them or else die trying”, experience with actual play, as well as numerous recorded versions available online suggests that in the final analysis, the conflict between Strahd, his victims, and their self-appointed liberators is resolved through force one way or the other. Given the widespread identification of the D&D ruleset as a combat-centric system, most players expect precisely that kind of resolution. This is not to say that the focus on combat is itself “wrong”, or that it cannot have a cathartic effect on victims (among whom we may number the adventurers, who are after all lured and harried by Strahd). But it’s the combination of the promise of therapy with remedy by violence that creates an especially toxic brew  - it’s not just a beer-and-pretzels hackfest where you try to kill the monster – it’s a hackfest that is advertised as having psychologically salutary effects. We witness a similar linkage, over and over again, in the real-world international arena, where no legitimate regulating agency to punish state-level abusers exists. The assumption of such legitimacy by one set of institutions and agents claiming to act on their behalf is in fact what produces a cycle of violence and trauma in which our own “realm” is trapped.
The way this cycle is reproduced in the Curse of Strahd ultimately undermines claims to the effect that it is a uniquely open-ended and non-linear “sandbox” adventure, which is different each time it is played. Certainly, the realm of Barovia is a wide canvas, in which player characters do have a choice which village, ruin, temple, or castle they will explore first, and where they will seek potential allies. However, in the grand scheme of things, the direction of the adventure is always the same: figure out what’s going on, find help, find the right tools, slay the vampire. Even the purpose of bumbling about in Barovia is instrumentalized: they do so to gain experience, power, and allies, so as to tip the scales in their favor for a final confrontation with their host (CoS, p. 6) The Tarokka Deck, which is supposed produce a different adventure every time the AP is played, is in reality just a way to turn it into a glorified game of Clue. Sister Scarlet the Paladin can kill the vampire in the parlor with the Sunsword, or Father Mustard the Cleric can impale him with a stake in the crypt. Either way, Strahd cannot be reformed, must be killed, and will not stay dead for long.
Miss Scarlet - a draw from the Tarokka Deck?

What if the cards and the structure of the adventure actually allowed for multiple open-ended outcomes and original solutions – the true hallmarks of sandbox style adventures? What if the character of Strahd, the heroes, and the supporting cast of non-player characters (NPCs) were in fact more ambiguous? A few ideas that might be thrown into the mix could be:
  • Strahd’s original downfall could have been partly caused by an institution like the Church in Coppola’s version. It was the Church’s normative intransigence that led it to refuse to bury Elisabeta, which in turn prompted Strahd’s revolt against the divine order. This normative intransigence was later reborn in a scientific guise in the character of van Helsing. Like Hickman and Perkins, van Helsing believes that the vampire must be destroyed (by fully rationalizing - almost industrializing - the religious instrumentarium of incantations, stakes, holy water, and communion wafers). But in the film, van Helsing is at best an ambiguous figure, and at worst a villain more evil than Dracula, because he forecloses even the possibility of redemption, and in refusing to address the root cause of the problem, condemns Elisabeta/Mina to an endless cycle of incarnation. He also threatens her with the same “cure” reserved for Dracula. What if the van Helsing character in Curse of Strahd – the vampire hunter von Richten, is transformed into a similarly problematic character, who represents an institution that is ultimately responsible for perpetuating the cycle of horror? 
  • Strahd comes around to seeing that escaping this cycle is possible if he sacrifices himself, like Coppola’s Dracula did. Perhaps there is an item that leads him to make that decision. Perhaps someone convinces him of this as he is about to turn Tatyana, and he recoils from the prospect of forcing her to live an eternal nightmare. Coppola’s Dracula was like Strahd a murderer and abuser, and yet love forces him to change. To the degree that the vampire represents a certain kind of autocratic regime, it is interesting to recall that Soviet and Chinese communisms, which the champions of moral clarity said would never change, did in fact transform themselves from within (the former by liquidating itself, in a way quite analogous to that of Coppola’s Dracula).
  • The Vistani, who play the role of Strahd’s secret police, may be angling to use the heroes to drive Strahd from power, so as to take over Barovia themselves. It is possible that they are in the employ of an external force, and connived with it to trap the heroes in Barovia with precisely this end in mind. This would bring up a complex three-cornered struggle, in which the heroes have difficult choices to make. Do they ally with those who manipulate them in the hopes of a kinder, gentler autocracy? Or do they stick with the devil they know?
  • The people of Barovia play a wild card role. Some may realize that the fall of Strahd will lead to their destruction. So they may conclude that Strahd is a monster, but at least he is their monster, and they may offer the heroes more active resistance on the master’s behalf.
  • Other side characters can serve as critical reminders of the complexity of the situation. An ally NPC can host the PCs in his villa, wining and dining them on all the best Barovia has to offer. In the meantime, all he would talk about is how great life is beyond the Mists, and how the PCs are so much better than most of the zombie-like inhabitants of Barovia, who would simply become superfluous if the vampire were no more. But he would also constantly lecture them about how the practice of burial in their own realms is a huge mistake, and a slippery slope that necessarily leads to vampirism in every instance. He would become increasingly more insistent on the last point. Perhaps he would also serve as a reminder of similar people in our world.
  • The player characters could originate in Barovia, and begin the adventure there, not beyond the Mists. That means their backgrounds and personal narratives will be wrapped up with the place and its people. They wouldn't look at the locals just as projects in need of salvation, but as family members, friends, and neighbors. Perhaps they would be unsure if they themselves had souls, and if they would survive getting rid of their Dark Lord. In any event, they would care more about Barovia and its future, and they would be more likely seek solutions that had lasting benefits to the realm as a whole, instead of just moving on to the next adventure elsewhere (to Chris Perkins’ credit, he does in fact give two of the four characters in the video gameplay presentation of the adventure local roots, though this is not stipulated anywhere in the write-up). 

These things could all be determined by draws from Madam Eva’s deck, and be unknown to all (including the DM) at the start. There is no reason to eliminate the original option of Strahd as an irredeemable abuser and tyrant, either – it would just be one variant among several. But this way, the adventure would become a true sandbox, and in forcing us to think through the often unpredictable implications of upending or continuing Strahd’s rule, it would go some way toward helping us to work through and overcome the abuses in global politics, as well as those in intimate relations.