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.




Friday, March 17, 2017

The Ties That Bind


How do we know each other? Why are we adventuring together? These questions come up in all but the most tactic and combat-driven games. Since the issue really revolves around character social integration, I decided to address it here. 
I agree with those who say the decision should be left largely up to the players. But I came up with a number of options that could be put before the players while they are all engaged in the process of character creation. They could choose one of these, or come up with something on their own.
Fellow travelers

Village-based adventures:
·       All of the adventurers hail from the same village. Perhaps they are not particularly notable, and their fellow peasants simply select them to help solve a particular problem. Possibly, the adventurers are indentured or enslaved, but are offered freedom in exchange for performing the task at hand. Contrariwise, they may be exceptional youths that come from surrounding villages, and are already looked upon as Folk Heroes (regardless of their actual Background).
·      The adventurers are servitors of a local nobleman/woman. They are called upon to make the rounds to collect rents, defuse conflicts, or investigate any strange goings on in the lord’s/lady’s domain.
·      The adventurers are gathered together by a contractor who has been hired to populate a new village (or an old village recently ravaged by plague, fire, or raiders) on an estate. They are given favorable (rent-free) terms for a certain period of time. The village becomes their base of operations, though older residents may not initially be happy to see the newcomers.
·      The adventurers belong to a troop of wandering performers. Perhaps they are making their annual circuit, or perhaps they are looking for a place where they can winter, or lie low if hunted by authorities. Many villagers will be happy to see them, but expect tensions (or worse) with the local priest. There is no necessary reason for everyone (or even anyone) in the troop to belong to a particular class.
·      The PCs are agents of a foreign prince, rival aristocrat, or a group of bandits. They have come to scout out the village, because they intend to take it over.

Wilderness-based adventures:
The party members are:
·      Travelers in a merchant caravan
·      Pilgrims on route to a holy shrine
·      Hunters and trappers sent out by a local potentate to procure game for supper
·      Refugees from a natural (or supernatural) disaster
·      Captives of nomads or bandits following a slave raid
·      Heroes recently awoken in the middle of nowhere from an enchanted sleep

Urban-based adventures:
·      The characters are travelers who met in a caravan, pilgrimage group, or performance troupe, and have come to the city to seek their fortune, to offer their services to a ruler or potentate, or to gaze upon, buy, (or make off with) some wonder the city has to offer
·      They have come from the surrounding countryside to offer their aid to a city in crisis 
·      They have come from a village or domain to deliver tribute and/or to sell surplus items at a city’s market
·      They are clients in a network patronized by a noble oligarch, or an exilarch seeking a way to regain power
·      They are in the employ of a foreign potentate who seeks to trade with, spy on, or undermine the local authorities (alternatively, they are foreign clerics, artists and diplomats coming to take up a trade or a position at court in this town)
·      They are frequenters of a certain urban tavern, who sell their services to any client willing to match the price
Though I have changed the wording here and there to make these suggestions more generically applicable, they definitely reflect the Lukomorye setting they were written for. If your setting is clockpunky, postapocalyptic, tropical Bronze Age, or something else entirely, you’ll probably want to create your own options. But hopefully, this is at least enough to get your creative juices flowing.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Chapter 6 - And Cared He For His Own Dear Mother, And Minded The Cunning Crafts She Taught Him

In which our heroes extricate themselves from one predicament only to walk into another


Plamen’s companions swing into action. Chonkorchuk attempts to control Plamenka’s mind, but is unsuccessful. Raskel, on the other hand, unexpectedly manages to send her back to sleep, but it’s not clear for how long. Lionia scowls at the clumsy changeling, and withdraws a dagger from his sleeve. She has seen us, he says, and now, unless we put her down, we will never have a moment’s peace. Raskel scowls at Plamen, too, but the changeling shakes his head, replaces the lantern on the floor, and urges everyone to flee back toward the entrance.
Once outside, Lionia lectures the group about their predicament. They have been seen, even if it was in a different form, so they must go and finish the job. Even if Plamenka does not find them, someone else will learn of the warren’s secret, as always happens when treasure is involved. In any case, Plamenka does not deserve it, and killed many people to make it her own. In response, Plamen categorically objects to killing his mother, though he is possibly open to taking the treasure by stealth, and wonders if Baba Yaga will accept only part of it, so the treasure-hunters can keep the rest. Chonkorchuk thinks Plamen has talked enough about Baba Yaga already, and objects to talk of cheating her, though he thinks the treasure can still be accessed with the proper use of the items Plamenka was holding onto. Raskel points out that the crone never articulated a precise set of demands. It’s not clear how much of the poleviks’ treasure is really Baba Yaga’s. The group wonders if it might be best to move onto one of the other tasks, such as getting the bride, or looking for the Galumphing Oaf. Lionia counters that any choice will involve moral quandaries. He must be on his way, and says if the companions ever make up their minds, they know where to find him. After a brief private chat with Raskel, he heads back to Lazarevo, while the three companions head back to Chonkorchuk’s hermitage.
Chonkorchuk is fortunate to bring down a small deer, and the three roast over fire at his hideaway. The vedun practices forming illusions with Raskel-Rodion, who has changed back to human form, and casts bones to see where to find the Galumphing Oaf. Though he casts twice, the bones give him the same vision – he sees a fox delivering honey to a bear. Not understanding the possible symbolism, and not receiving a clear answer, he goes to sleep with the others. It becomes very cold overnight, and the three companions must huddle together under Plamen’s bearskin and Chonkorchuk’s blanket to keep from freezing, but the last week has toughened them up, and they make it through the night. Before daybreak, Plamen notices a pack of wolves that have surrounded the hermitage. They do not attempt to enter – perhaps because of the wards on its walls – but the companions are clearly under siege. A keen observer and animal whisperer who received instruction from his family, he tries to ask the wolves what they want in exchange for being left alone. The pack’s leader indicates that they are hungry, and will leave if they are given the roasted deer. The group saves a few cuts of meat for itself, and gives the wolves the rest. The pack leader upholds his end of the bargain, and leads the wolves away.
Out of danger, the companions set off in search of the Oaf. Rodion’s swelling has gone down entirely, making their progress easier. They walk north, to the line where the broadleaf trees disappear. This is Baba Yaga’s domain, Chonkorchuk thinks, so the group turns back. Plamen talks to a bullfinch, and asks it if it has seen any bears or bees in the vicinity. The bullfinch isn’t aware of bears, but says there are many bees to the west, around a place where a lot of humans live. Plamen leads the companions in the direction the bird indicated. But the Rys’ River is in the way, with no obvious ways of crossing it. So the group decides to go the way it knows. Fording the Vydra near the Trofimov fort, it returns to Crows’ Meadow. Chonkorchuk and Rodion decide to send Plamen down the chute to scout out the warren, to see if anything has changed. As he slides down the chute, his feet bump into something soft. Rodion shines a light down, and Plamen sees his mother’s dough guardian. Though the guardian makes no move against him, he informs his companions that his mother has probably become aware that people are getting in through the chute, so using this entry point is no longer safe. He returns to the surface, and, since the sun is already low on the horizon, and no one wants to spend another night in the village, they search for a place to stay. Before long, they locate an animal den at the bottom of a large tree. As it’s empty, they start a fire outside the tree to keep away predators, crawl in hole, and go to sleep under their blankets. To ensure he stays warm, Rodion transforms into a fox (after summoning forth Kutkh the crow to keep a lookout)..
The warren guardian. Not what you think. Not a verklempt Pillsbury Doughboy, either.
 After surviving another frigid night, the trio wakes up cold but refreshed, and, having eaten the last of their venison, heads to Lazarevo. There, Chonkorchuk in disguise, and Plamen with his pet fox under wraps try to find passage to the other side of the Vydra. A boatman is hired for several of Plamen’s goodberries, and after repeatedly asking them whether they want to go to the abbey, and about their fox, he gets them to the other side. They follow the river west, hoping to find some clue about where a bear might be. By noon, they see a village about a verst up from the river. After discussing whether to look for some honey there, they decide to press on. They pass another fort just up from the riverbank, and then, they see a huge flock of crows settled on trees a little way to the north. They approach the flock, and find themselves in some sort of bewitched place, where dead birds hang suspended by strings from tree branches. Plamen attempts to converse with the crows, and they inform him that they are in the domain of a ‘forest master’ – obviously nechist’. Their master is asleep underground for the winter, and while they will not say where precisely, they will grant the group free passage through the domain as long as they promise not to disturb the master or the burial mound which lies ahead. There is apparently a bear that prowls around not too far off to the west.
Plamen agrees to the crows’ terms on behalf of the group, and the westward journey continues. The woods grow thick and brambly, but in a clearing a little ways ahead, they discover a burial mound piled with stones and animal bones. Keeping to their promise, they continue after briefly looking it over. Another verst ahead, they discover a freshly dug grave, with animal bones poking out of the ground. A wooden headstone above the grave reads: “if you go ferthar in the wodes, akursd you shall be, and fated to ly here until the ende of days”. There are also a couple of volkhv runes on the sign that Plamen does not recognize. He has become quite adept at animal speech, so Fox-Raskel is able to inform his illiterate companions about the content of the inscription. Deciding that someone is trying to frighten them off, they continue.
Fox-Raskel telepathically instructs his crow to scout ahead in hopes of finding a bear. Kutkh the Crow flies off, and returns in under a half hour, with news. Less than a verst ahead, there is a cottage surrounded by a hedge. Outside the cottage is a person chopping wood, and he appears to have only one hand. That must be their man! Now, they must decide what to do. How do they lure him to come along? Chonkorchuk says they need honey, so perhaps they should return to the village first. Plamen suggests that they tell him his family back in Lazarevo are looking for him. They settle down under a tree to discuss this, not wanting to confront the likely Oaf without a plan. Suddenly, a dart whizzes toward them from behind a tree…
Burial mound? Scare tactic? Or vision of impending doom?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Chapter 5 - The Secret of Crow’s Meadow Warren

In which an investigation of one of the heroes' homes concludes with bang!


The following morning the companions attend to some business in the waystation shed. Lionia and the rest of the village go off to attend Nedelia services, though Terentii leaves a couple of his stablehands behind to keep an eye on the visitors. Plamen cleans Rodion’s wound once more, and notices that the swelling is finally going down. Rebandaged, Rodion prepares for the expedition by recalling some formulas from his younger days, and fills several sheets of paper with magical scribblings, using up his entire inkwell in the process. Chonkorchuk spends the morning muttering insane incantations, apparently searching for something.
When the sounds of the boats returning from the abbey reach the shed, the three companions depart for the meadow. Chonkorchuk paces around the field, still mouthing incantations, and hoping to get a read on any treasure in the vicinity. He does not, though he does detect a vague necromantic aura emanating from the ground itself. As he ponders the potentially disturbing implications of this, Lionia suddenly appears behind him, asking him what he was able to discover. After getting over his fright, Chonkorchuk relays his discovery, but complains about not being able to locate any massacre victims or treasure. Upon being questioned by Lionia, Plamen reveals that there are warrens underneath the meadow fashioned by his polevik family. He is aware of two ways in – one from a tight chute hidden under dirt and matted grass in the field itself, and one by way of a long tunnel leading from Tsibulka’s tavern in Lazarevo. He knows of no bodies, though the companions are already aware of scattered bone remains in the field – they used them in the ritual to summon Rodion’s raven. He also knows of no treasure hoard, but is aware that his kinfolk have money, which they occasionally distribute to the villagers for their deference and services rendered. Chonkorchuk is unconvinced, and thinks that too many people would be aware of the presence of treasure if it were indeed here, and the Kochmaki would surely have returned for it. Lionia disputes his reasoning. He says that the raiders were likely humiliated by their loss, and probably preferred not to invest any more lives and energy in recovering it. In any event, the group will never know what happened if they do not look, so he advises Plamen to lead them into the warrens.
Having performed the feat many times, Plamen easily slithers down the chute into the polevik tunnels. Rodion summons forth some lights to help him see. Chonkorchuk follows him, but the big, lanky man immediately gets stuck, and Rodion must summon an appendage to poke him so as to pry loose his knees and elbows, while below, Plamen grabs hold of his ankle and pulls him down. Rodion transforms into Raskel the foxman, and crawls down, and Lionia follows close behind him.

Dark as a dungeon down here in the warren

The tunnels below appear quiet. Plamen knows that the poleviks are asleep until spring, though he was warned on multiple occasions to never wake them from their hibernation – especially not his mother Plamenka – the family matriarch. He also relates to the rest of the group that there is a guardian fashioned by his mother to patrol the tunnels where his siblings and stepfather sleep, and that he was told to never go beyond a certain point past his mother’s chamber by himself. That seems like the most promising place to look. Nearby is the chamber he stays when he is living in the warren. He looks in on a ewe he left there to heal a few days ago, and gathers up enough straw to make a torch, so that everyone can see. Then, the group follows a series of tunnels to a wooden door leading to Plamenka’s room. There is loud snoring coming from inside, and Chonkorchuk senses magical auras inside, but the room is latched from the inside, so Rodion motions for Lionia to make himself useful. The old man tries to unlock the door using some awls and wires, but to no avail. He then performs a pirouette, and also changes into a foxman who has greater range of motion. With additional effort, he manages to unlatch the door.
Inside a square chamber, a human-sized, hairy creature sleeps on a straw mat atop a stone palette. She – Plamen’s mother – is partly covered by a blanket, and she holds a scythe in her left hand, and a wooden whistle in her right. There is a thin sash around her neck, the ends of which are tucked under the blanket. Chonkorchuk whispers to his companions that the scythe, the whistle, the sash, and a lantern on the floor next to the bed all give forth arcane force – transmutation in the case of the scythe, sash, and lantern, and enchantment in the case of the whistle. Plamenka herself also radiates a necromantic aura – she is nechist’, of netherworldly origin, and that is to be expected. Plamen quietly picks up the lantern and fills it with oil, to have a more durable light source. His mother lets out a stifled snore, but remains asleep. Then the four interlopers tiptoe up to the other door, open the latch, and depart. The door nearly slams, but Rodion manages to catch it at the last moment. Plamenka grunts again in her sleep, but danger is avoided.
The group follows another windy passage with several dead ends. It is confusing, but Plamen has been here before, and Raskel uses his mnemonic powers to memorize the way, since he can’t record a map on account of a lack of ink. Shortly after passing the intersection beyond which Plamen was warned not to wander, they come to another dead end. Raskel indicates that there is a strong, grainy smell, and notes that the tunnel has been sealed here. For his part, Chonkorchuk avers that there is transmutation magic built into the wall, beyond which, he detects a very strong presence of necromancy. Perhaps there is a secret storage chamber beyond the wall, but how to get in? The wall does not budge. Plamen has a choice to make, Lionia tells him. There is clearly something hidden here, and it likely has something to do with the vanished hoard and the massacre, but it now belongs to his people, so he has to decide what he wants to do. Plamen says he wants to return to the surface to think it over.
The group treks back to Plamenka’s chamber. Lionia opens the door, and Plamen goes to replace the lantern to the place he found in. An incautious step, and he accidentally kicks a clay chamber pot on the floor, knocking it over. His mother lets out a loud groan, and begins to rise up from the bed…

A rude awakening for Mother Plamenka