Thursday, October 21, 2021

Beating, Beefing Up Ravenloft

Was not intending to write a post today (extremely busy today), but hot on the heels of yesterday's post, I started going through Ravenloft to make it a playable, B/X one-shot. 

Oh, boy, is it awful.

And I feel a little bad writing that after giving it some (faint) praise in my prior analysis, specifically I wrote:
There is no way in hell I would ever rank Ravenloft "the second greatest adventure module of all time." I wouldn't even call it the second greatest adventure module written by the Hickmans! But it's not's pretty great as a light-hearted one-off played for a spooky theme night. 
Perhaps I wrote that in one of my "come to Jesus" moments of trying to see things in as positive a light as possible. Because it IS terrible...back to front. It's not ALL terrible, but much of its individual parts (and the sum of its whole) is pretty bad.

At least from the perspective of D&D adventure design.

[before I dive any farther, understand there'll be *spoilers* and I will be writing this from a B/X orientation as there is substantial evidence to suggest that the original adventure was written with OD&D as the designers' frame of reference...for an "AD&D" adaptation of an adventure penned in '77, it shows quite a few missteps and misunderstandings of basic PHB/DMG/MM systems. B/X being largely based on OD&D+Greyhawk, I'm fine with using a more lenient view based on its systems]

Let's look at some of the raw data:

Total Number Encountered Areas: 128
Total Monsters Encounters: 25
Total Encounters with Treasure: 16

This does not include Strahd or the random artifacts (the Sunsword, the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, the Tome of Strahd)...none of which have any monetary (x.p.) value...that will be encountered within the castle. 

That's a lot of nothing. Mmm...scratch that. It's a lot of empty padding. Every encounter area has a read-aloud bit of boxed text that will (presumably) help "set the mood" for an atmospheric dungeon crawl. Assuming your players don't get bored and start punching their DM. Even making a list of emptyrooms that had something INTERESTING in them (creaky stairs, hanging skeletons, bronze doors, a bathtub, etc.), I still find upwards of 45 numbered areas that have NOTHING WITH ANY INTERACTION AT ALL. And, I'm not counting the double "nothing" entries as multiples (for example there are two separate encounter areas marked K12 and K13 on the main floor, both with zero going on, but I'm counting those as "2" not "4" despite the potential for a party encountering the same useless box text twice).

Remember your Moldvay instructions on dungeon stocking? Here's a quick refresher: after placing special monsters and treasures in appropriate rooms (for I6, this would include Strahd and the aforementioned artifacts), the ratio should be roughly:
  • one-third monsters (half with treasure)
  • one-sixth traps (one-third with treasure)
  • one-sixth special (one-sixth with treasure)
  • one-third "empty" (one-sixth with treasure)
With 128 numbered encounters, I'd be expecting more than 40 areas with monsters (and a similar number with some type of treasure). But maybe such wasn't wanted because of the scope of the adventure (as discussed, meant to completed in a single evening's play). In which case the adventure site may simply be too large for its intended purpose?

Let's work backwards for a moment. Throw out the living tower and guardian portrait (both of which might be considered "traps" or "specials" despite having monster stats being countered with combat), and we've got 23 monsters. Still probably too many for a single evening's play, but let's go with it for the nonce. That would indicate some 69 encounter areas. Throwing out the nothing descriptions of corridors and stairways (i.e. the 45 worthless entries listed above) gets you down to 83. Remove the outer courtyard from the encounter areas (are PCs really going to explore the garden?) and you're down to 76. Toss the closets, smokestacks, slippery roofs, creaky stairs, and "mechanism" rooms (or incorporate them as part of existing encounter areas) and we're down to some 68ish, which would be just about right. Heck, I could probably shave more off (and probably will) but as I said I'm running low on time today. And, anyway, looking at the scale of a number of medieval castles, it's not terribly off, except for its height: the tallest castle tower in the world is 55m (about 180'), and Ravenloft has three that top that (190', 260', and 360'). 

Treasure is awful. A bag of coins here, a coffer of coins there, a scattering of coins under the accountant's paperwork, or a crypt with "three pieces of jewelry valued at 5,000g.p." The magical Icon of Ravenloft in the castle chapel (area K15) is described as "a small statue;" that's it. Statue of what? Doesn't say. The box text tells players that a piercing shaft of light "falls directly on a small statue." The DM text tells us "the small statue is the Icon of Ravenloft." It is carved from "purest silver" (no value given). "It is 12 inches tall and 6 inches across." Gar. Bage.

I already wrote that the total treasure amounts to a bit more than 120,000g.p. total, but I was including the witch's spell book in that total (about 47K worth of spells for the AD&D game). For OD&D or B/X this wouldn't be worth anything and the total monetary value found is very, very low. Too low to justify PCs (of the requisite levels) exploring the cavernous emptiness that is vampire Strahd's castle. And nothing about the stuff here is tempting in any's placement is just an afterthought. 'Oh, here's a bag of platinum coins sitting under a chair on a balcony." this asking us to risk anything? Is it rewarding PCs for taking the time to sit down? What the hell is this?

The monsters are crappy; here's the list:

4 small (18hp) red dragons that are sometimes statues
8 gargoyles that are sometimes statues
2 "Strahd" zombies (4HD, turn as mummies)
1 vampire "maid" scrubbing floors
2 wraiths
5 giant spiders
3 black cat "familiars"
7 "witches" (2 HD magic-users)
3 normal zombies
10 skeletons
1 shadow demon (immediately attacks)
1 werewolf (befriends and betrays party)
6 "Strahd" zombies
2 iron golems (!!!)
1 ghost (jack-in-the-box)
1 spectre (jack-in-the-box)
15 wights (jack-in-the-box)
1 vampire "wife" (jack-in-the-box)
1 banshee (jack-in-the-box)
3 huge spiders
1 trapper (12 HD)
3 hell hounds
1 nightmare

[a "jack-in-the-box" monster is one that jumps out after the party pops the lid off a crypt. There's a bunch of these in the catacombs]

This is...uh...not great stuff, and it's all over the board. Huge spiders? Black cats? Skeletons? Waaay too weak for the expected character levels. And yet iron golems, ghosts, and banshees are far too powerful. I won't even go into the wandering monsters, but they are fairly addition to being rather bland.

All right, I really have to go now (I'm actually 30 minutes past were I expected to cut off). I apologize for the bashing of a beloved favorite adventure of many, many folks. I still give a lot of credit to the authors for writing this when they were just kids (and creating a whole franchise from a movie Dracula knock-off)...that's, frankly, amazing. But I6: Ravenloft is bad. Really bad. 

I have my work cut out for me.

He's laughing at me. I can tell.


  1. I imagine a montage of you writing furiously at your desk, set to this:

  2. I think I have run Ravenloft about 6 or 7 times now since it came out. The secret is this.
    Ravenloft is not a dungeon crawl. It is Hammer Horror.

    Think about the novel Dracula. How much of it does Dracula appear in? Just the beginning and the end and even then not much.

    Are there some lame encounter areas in the castle? Hell yes. Are there some really dumb ones? Even more Hell yes.

    The charm though is the ability to run it and provide enough atmosphere to keep the players engaged.

    Ravenloft is a horror movie and has to be run with that logic in place.

    1. Ugh. Internet ate my (long-winded) reply. Let's try again.

      Timothy, I really, really appreciate your comment. I know that when I write a beloved classic is "awful" that I'm bound to ruffle feathers, and I'm grateful that you took the time to explain a way to run the adventure in a manner that best suits its form/function.

      [skip a bunch of stuff about why I don't want to run the adventure that way, aaand...]

      I suppose I am curmudgeonly in my approach to the game, but running it in the "standard" fashion IS the best way I've found to "keep the players engaged."

      But it probably doesn't help that I'm not the horror film aficionado you ability to run a game in the style of cinematic horror is pretty limited (and THAT is a gross understatement).
      ; )

    2. I think in the end that is key really. It (and this can apply to any adventure) has to be played in the way the authors envisioned it, or at least in the vein (heh, see what I did there) it was envisioned.

      Normally I would say pop in some Hammer Horror and watch a few hours of Christopher Lee as Dracula. But I think the secret to this one is to have a love for these movies to start with. If I call Barovia a "Hammer Hamlet" that has some meaning more than just "a little village with some scared villagers."

      So I am at, what is it you want to get out of Ravenloft? Is it to run the classic adventure OR to run a horror one? If just a horror adventure, maybe some other one is better? I am sure there has to be something.

    3. I *did* see what you did and I approve (only because I make the same kind of joke).

      Yeah, you know, I'm not sure I've ever seen a Hammer film (amazing), despite mu general love for all thing Chris Lee. So...probably not going to develop a passion for that anytime soon (or soon enough).

      My original idea? I was asked to run a D&D game for my son's group for Halloween. I thought: "perfect opportunity to run Ravenloft for the first time." But these (young) kids haven't been weened on this time of's not just the "horror" aspect (a term I use loosely; D&D in general has plenty of horrific aspects) but the...well, ALL (most) of it. They're not used to box text and dictated plots and such. Recurring antagonists and 120+ room dungeons with little treasure. Ya' know what I mean? They want to play D&D not be scared or act out a cinematic horror film.

      ANYway...there may be something, but I'm just rewriting the thing. It will use the same (castle) maps and it will have a vampire or three. And most everything else will change. Conceptually I've made a lot of progress on the outline.

      It will be set in Port Angeles, Washington.
      ; )

  3. My various players and I had a blast with the original Ravenloft module, though I confess I've never run it in any kind of D&D [I don't think].

    I've converted it into a Supervillain Lair for Villains and Vigilantes and the home of a Q/Squire of Gothos-like character for Star Trek and so some liberties were taken.

    Based on your math formulas above, which I assume divides the number of Encounters by the square root of XP multiplied by the number of Monsters per square foot as long as that's greater or less than the monetary value of X Gold Pieces...yeah I still don't understand it. Read it three times and each time I had to start over when the 'Adventure' started to boil down to numbers of this or that.

    Does this really make for an interesting and exciting session? More fun than a 'Vampire Maid' and 'Banshee Jack-in-the-Box' (incidentally the name of my new Siouxsie and the Banshees cover band).

    1. [I was a big fan of Sioxsie Sioux, back in the day]

      Now I'm even MORE sorry about my reply to Tim being lost in the abyss of the directly addressed some of this.

      But...oh, well. The number crunching I'm doing here, Adam, is pretty rudimentary...mainly to make sure there are ballpark accurate figures regarding risk-reward commensurate with the expected group of PCs (based on level and number of party members). Make snide remarks if you like, but this is hardly rocket science...and it's not even close to the calculations required for 3E D&D's challenge ratings.

      The fact that this annoys, bores, or troubles you is, I suppose, an example of why WotC has moved away from such things most recently, instead simply leveling PCs based on arbitrary goal setting. Which is fine (if that's fun for folks who feel "math is hard" or whatever), but it raises the question of the point of leveling/advancement at all, especially considering the increased survivability inherent in the latest edition of the game.

    2. It's not so much 'math is hard' as it is 'math isn't particularly exciting' for a lot of folks. I don't doubt your numbers create a perfect risk/reward ratio and have other mechanical benefits. I just don't see that as what makes Ravenloft fun.

    3. The math is, of course, not part of the fun so much as part of the prep. And apologies...I meant to write a post specifically about "treasure" (in response to recent posts on your blog), but I've dropped the ball. *sigh*

      But the TL;DR version is: doing the math beforehand (as prep) helps make the game "fun" because it prevents disappointed expectations: too few encounters, too hard (or easy) encounters, too little treasure. It's all well and good to say, 'we had a great time role-playing' at the end of the session, but if you have little to show for multiple, multi-hour sessions (in terms of character development) it can be frustrating. At least in a game like D&D where development is tied to character effectiveness, and character effectiveness opens additional content to players.

      Mmm. I'll try to get a post up about this tomorrow. Today was just a beast.

  4. If you want a sports car but you buy a station wagon sure you can put the work into it and eventually get what you want. But why not just buy a sports car?

    I am sure somewhere on Dysons blog he has a recommendation for a decent horror adventure.

    I get Ravenloft has name brand recognition, but it doesn't seem worth it if you are that dissatisfied with the starting point.

    1. I like the maps.

      ALSO (here's the real thing): it is far easier for me to work with, and tune-up, someone else's shoddy design than it is for me to come up with ideas whole cloth. The spontaneous generation of idea from nothing just ain't my thing.

      Besides: Prince of Nothing calls it the best vampire hunting adventure ever written for D&D, and I'm inclined to agree. It just set the bar remarkably low.
      ; )

    2. That's fair.

      Maybe you should do a whole series on fixing adventures with cool isometric maps. Ravenloft, Dragonlance, Quest for the Heartstone.....

    3. Well, I’m already (mostly) done “fixing” DL1 which I’m running for my home game, and I had intended to develop at least a couple of the other DL modules…

      But fixing is…*sigh* I hate to beat up on these old adventures. I mean. I LOVE to beat up on them (critique/criticize), because that’s what I do (I guess), but I hate the negativity I breed in doing so.

      Hickman has said Ravenloft was his proudest piece of adventure writing. I find that nuts, but (I suppose) it’s hard to argue with the success and fandom. I find it embarrassingly bad, especially compared to something like Pharoah. But it ain’t my baby.

  5. Specific gravity of silver calculates to 6.069 oz. per cubic inch.

    Assuming a cylindrical icon, 12 in. tall, 6 in. wide, the total weight would be 2,058.981 ounces; assuming the statue isn't cylindrical, but possesses a buddha-like shape, we can shave that down 10%, giving us a weight of 1,853.083 oz., or 115.82 lbs.

    By the price of silver at the time of writing this comment, this is worth $44,863 & 11 cents. Allowing for workmanship, 5 times the value is an extremely low estimate; then adding the "halo effect" for the item - it is the "Icon of Ravenloft" - that can increase the value 50 times, easily. Consider the cost of a legitimate Gretzky jersey vs. the cost of the actual jersey.

    This gives us a final present-day value of $11,215,786 and 11 cents.

    Doesn't seem like garbage to me.

  6. The "garbage" part comes from the lack of, you know, not doing the work of a even a poor adventure designer, to say "oh, it's shaped like a bird," an/or "oh, it's worth 5,000 gold," etc.

    These are good calcs, by the way. I'd probably convert to 1983 dollars (seeing as how the module was written then and I'm funny that way) and then divide the amount by 20 to find the gold value (since I generally use a $1 = 1 silver kind of ratio). Not sure if I'd try tracking the VALUE of silver in 1983 versus today, but the internet sure makes this kind of thing easy enough.

    Ah, technology!
    : )

  7. My next humanoid NPC will be called Gar Bage. ;)