A few days ago, Sir Rob asked me if I'd review I6: Ravenloft, not to critique it so much as to analyze whether or not I thought it truly was the Hickmans who started the "Adventure Path" trend (with I6 and/or Dragonlance), and ALSO how I might go about making the game more "player-centric" while still maintaining its "gothic vibe." In other words, how would I un-couple the thing from its railroad aspects while not killing the mood. Being the gracious (and egomaniacal) type of guy I am, I said 'sure, why not?'
THIS. IS. RAVENLOFT!
But first, allow me to say this: when they look back at their lives, I'm going to guess that the Hickmans (Tracy and Laura) are going to say that the greatest thing they ever did for their careers, was to take a job offer at TSR and move from Utah to Wisconsin. Had they not done that...had they instead taken other gigs locally, gotten help from their parents, continued to raise their kids in the same town they'd grown up...I just can't see them going on to having the success they managed to achieve. Without the backing of TSR (and the built-in fan base)...would they have ever been much more than independent publishers of the occasional D&D module? Would they have even continued to do that?
The fact is, Hickman wasn't a great writer...and I say that as someone who has read the first six Dragonlance novels (multiple times!) and enjoyed the hell out of them. Maybe I'm wrong but I don't think Hickman becomes a famous, bestselling novelist without TSR. Steinbeck he was not.
[sorry, I've had Steinbeck on the brain a lot recently, considering the parallels between The Grapes of Wrath and our current pandemic-enhanced homeless crisis. But I digress]
What he was...what both the Hickmans were...were rather good adventure designers. I have no experience with Rahasia (one of two modules that got the Hickmans hired by TSR), but I've run I3: Pharaoh two or three times, I4: Oasis of the White Palm at least three times, and I5: Lost Tomb of Martek once or twice...both as "one-offs" and as part of on-going campaigns. While I have a notable soft-spot for anything Arabian Nights related, the adventures were quite interesting, filled with ingenious dungeon design, evocative situations, and (yes) whimsy (the floating tomb of Martek was written/published a year before the rather paltry knock-of appears in DL4: Dragons of Desolation). I especially like the combination of ancient Egyptian mythos with Golden Age Islam fairy tale stuff (this is best seen in I4: Oasis of the White Palm)...but skating over a sea of glass with light-powered sky-ships, avoiding sunspots and purple worms...I mean, come on, that shit is cool!
But it's been twenty years since I've read those modules and it's certainly possible I'd see them today in a less favorable light. The clever intertwining of adventure sites (with actual treasure!) is a bit of a "railroad" but the idea of needing to "solve an adventure to escape" (as in I5) has been around long since before the Hickmans came on board at TSR: Moldvay did this with X2: Castle Amber in 1981, and there's a bit of that in 1980's Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits as well. Likewise, there are other examples prior to the Hickmans' career of both "backstory" and forced compliance with the adventure (a common gripe with the I3-I5 series): you see the former in modules like N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God and B3: Palace of the Silver Princess, and the latter in the introduction to the G-series...all adventures that (generally) receive high praise and/or are considered "classics."
So, now...Ravenloft. For me, I think Ravenloft is best understood (and judged) by looking at what the adventure was and why it was designed. Published by TSR in 1983, the Hickman's wrote the adventure circa 1977 (long before they joined the company) as an adventure to be played on Halloween. It is thus best viewed as a one-off theme-style adventure, NOT something to be viewed as part of an existing or on-going campaign. It is NOT a regular, ordinary adventure.
Viewed in this light, many of the design choices not only make sense, they are...quite frankly...brilliant. The well-themed card mechanic that randomly determines locations of important artifacts, the adventure's antagonist, and the overall motivation of said-antagonist? THAT is an elegant method of ensuring the annual "spooky adventure" is different from year-to-year. Yes, we already know that the living tower is going to attack us with halberds if we aren't careful, but Strahd (or some needed McGuffin) might be up there this year!
It's almost like a tournament challenge: will we get Strahd this Halloween, or will he get us? Who knows?!
Many of the adventure's problems, I think, can all be laid at the feet of publishing the thing as an ordinary "I-type" adventure, and the changes made thereof. People attending an annual themed get-together are already going to be on-board with the spirit of the adventure...there's no need to add all the heavy-handed stuff that forces a party to act in a particular way (2 hit die villagers, 5 and 6 hit die gypsies, impassable mists, etc.). In a "true" adventure module, there's no need to randomly pull cards to determine locations of important items and adversaries...they should simply be placed in the most suitable, appropriate locations. You can still "read the tarot cards" (or whatever) but with all the "signs" fixed, i.e. set in place. Even though Ravenloft was never run at tournament, it would have fit well with the C series (there's a lot of 1980's C1: Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan in this adventure in Ravenloft), and probably would have benefitted well from a set of pre-generated characters, rather than mandating one PC "must be a fighter with a longsword" or other stipulations.
So then, what if you WANT to make Ravenloft an "actual adventure" for insertion into your campaign?
Well, the module has another rather large issue (besides being purposed for something other than it is) and that is a matter of scale: Ravenloft really wants to be a low-level adventure rather than a mid-level one. I think there are three main reasons it is written for levels 5-7, and they lead to a host of cascading problems:
- Being placed in the "I" (intermediate) series suggests mid-range (though suggested levels fluctuate wildly across I modules).
- Having a big, bad Vampire suggests a higher level of character (because vampires are one of the most powerful forms of undead...THE most powerful undead in OD&D and Basic play).
- General survivability: more levels mean more hit points, which means a longer game experience (especially appropriate in a one-off, theme-night adventure).
The adventure would have been served better by writing it for levels 2-4. This mitigates a lot of issues: the treasure is more appropriate for this level of party (it's pretty slim for any adventure this size, but downright criminal for a 1E adventuring party of levels 5-7...again, remember this was not designed for an on-going campaign!!!). Villagers can be level 0 in stead of 2 hit dice (otherwise, we're going to cast charm person on that 9th level fighter with the intelligence of 3 and retain him FOREVER). The "evil gypsies" can be re-scaled as ordinary bandits rather than wandering minotaurs. Madame Eva doesn't need to be a 10th level cleric (I mean "she never gives aid and never needs any" so why does she need to have spells like raise dead or cure serious wounds available to her? Just make her high enough level to curse insolent players!). Get rid of the wandering specters, banshees, and ghosts (all too powerful as is), maybe substituting a wraith or two, knock the Strahd Zombies down to 2HD (and have them turned as zombies not mummies), and re-do trap damage where appropriate.
[actually the traps are all pretty good, even for low-level parties. The sleep trap at #38 doesn't need to carry a -4 penalty...low level characters fail saves just fine...and the crushing trap at #31 should probably just be an auto-kill anyway (how are they going to pull a party member out that survives the damage?!). Most of the killer traps (thousand foot falls and whatnot) simply need to be telegraphed better to give players a choice of risk/reward]
But what about All The Vampires, JB?! First off, vampires DO have vulnerabilities. Garlic, mirrors, and holy symbols will hold a vampire at bay, and don't require a cleric "turning" roll (would a 7th level cleric really have much chance anyway?). The module gives specific ways that Strahd will attack the party and stipulates he will only attack three times (once each of three methods)...and only ONE attack will be direct combat.
[of course, the module appears to assume that the adventure will be completed in a single 24 hour time period. Remember! The thing was designed to be played one night (Halloween) per year!]
Whatever happened to half-strength undead? Why are all these "brides of Strahd" full hit dice vampires? Is that not a thing in AD&D? Oh, wait...it is (page 119 of the DMG). As I wrote when first exploring the Dragonlance stuff, the Hickmans come off as DMs used to only using OD&D + Greyhawk, and here's another example. Half-strength (4 hit die) vampires are fine opponents for low-level characters, assuming they don't attack in packs (they don't in Ravenloft)...I might even rule they only suck one level on a hit, rather than two, which puts them on the same footing as an encounter with a single wight, right? Except that they have all the extra (vampiric) vulnerabilities, too. Give them a lesser charming ability (no save penalty) if you like.
As for Strahd ("The First Vampyr"), parties have multiple resources for aiding in their fight, including the Icon of Raveloft and the Sunsword (just allow the entire sword to be found, instead of only the hilt) while using normal preventative measures (listed above) for holding him off till they can find the artifacts. OR they could just use that time-honored method of hunting vampires: wait till daytime and hunt for his coffin, stake in hand. Even low-leveled parties can handle that, and properly hit diced monsters can serve as great guardians.
Strahd himself isn't all that great shakes as an antagonist. He's not the earliest "classed" vampire to appear in a TSR module (Drelzna the fighter vamp in Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth might be the first) nor even the first magic-user vampire (see Vlad Tolenkov in Q1 or Sakatha in I2). He's not the first antagonist to have a "motivation" that involves more than killing every murder-hobo that enters his lair. He's a Dracula knock-off (much as Vlad was) and there's nothing wrong with that...for an annual Halloween adventure. But there was nothing particularly original or outstanding about Strahd, even in 1983. Regrets over a dead sibling? Unrequited NPC romance plots? See X2 and B3 respectively.
All four of Strahd's possible goals are pretty lame, actually. If he wanted to switch identities, why do so now? What's so special about the PCs? Would a genius level intelligence really make the mistake about the black opal spell component (never mind the fact that a 10th level magic-user is incapable of manufacturing magical items!)? The missing sunsword is pretty dumb, unless you set this up in an earlier adventure with the thought of later running Ravenloft...and the "reincarnated love" living in the local village...I mean, this thing worked for Bram Stoker's Dracula when she was living in faraway London, but do you really need the machinations for the local damsel? And would such an adolescent ploy ever work better than simply offering her a castle and immortality? And didn't we say this guy has genius intelligence?
[just by the way, can I just say I HATE the whole polymorphing undead thing? A walking corpse...or incorporeal spirit...is NOT an animal to be polymorphed, so should fall under the purview of polymorph any object, if such transformation is possible at all. The idea of Strahd polymorphing a PC into a vampire is just...so...arrghh! That is NOT how one makes vampires!And even if it was, why not do that with one of your willing gypsy henchmen?!]
In the final analysis, I think the best way to uncouple Ravenloft from its story is to treat it as a straightforward monster hunt. IGNORE Strahd's "motivations." Who cares what turns his crank...what is it that motivates the PCs? The Hickmans' original impetus for writing Ravenloft came from playing in a dungeon that had some random vampire sitting in a room next to the oozes and goblins for no good reason. Yeah, that's dumb: but that's not what you have here. This vampire has a reason for being in this room: it's his castle! He's been the lord of the realm for a couple hundred years! The villagers are his prey! Etc. Etc.
[I actually really like the idea of Strahd being a greedy bastard. If you draw the card that says Strahd is in his treasury, you find him gleefully "counting his ill-gotten gains." That's motivation right there! The guy is milking the surrounding territory...and any would be passers-through (like the PCs)...to add to his ever-growing treasure hoard. He's the undead equivalent of a miserly dragon! Love it...probably killed his brother over some piece of treasure. Oh My Precious!]
To run Ravenloft for a NORMAL campaign adventure (as opposed to a one-off) I'd do the following:
- First, decide on a motivation for the party to confront Strahd. Maybe they are looking for an artifact that he's rumored to have in his hoard. Maybe they're looking for a friend, relative, or colleague ('what's up Jonathan Harker?') that's being held in the castle. Maybe they've been sent to collect outstanding back taxes due to a greater lord. Maybe their deity visited them in a dream and told them they had a sacred duty to stamp out the undead fiend (or face excommunication). Whatever. If nothing else, appeal to their greed (that guy's been sitting on a load of loot for generations, people!)...it IS AD&D, after all.
- Next, figure out why the villagers remain in this cursed locale. Look, Dracula had his peasants, too, and they weren't sticking around because of some magic, poisonous fog. There are many reasons why a community might decide that sticking it out is better than the alternative: persecution in other lands, friends and relatives, food supply, the devil you know versus the unknown. Vampires only attack at night, right? So as long as you're indoors after dark (and have your garlic/cross nailed over the door) you're safe to go about your daily farming business during the daylight hours and only need worry about the occasional gypsy abduction. Treat Strahd like any other nobleman/lord and his "gypsy servants" as his equivalent of patrols and men-at-arms (which they basically are anyway). Decide who might be helpful/sympathetic to the PCs, and who is firmly in the pocket of Strahd (for example, the town mayor or anyone else who benefits from Strahd's magnificence...i.e. not being eaten...in exchange for cooperation and spying). Remember that Strahd has some human servants, who may actually be "hostages" of village families. Other village families might have made "deals" with Strahd (given over daughters to be his "brides" in exchange for concessions). We are talking a campaign game, not a Sunday night movie!
- Re-write the thing for a low-level party. I'd say 3rd or 4th would be best (because one vampire hit to a 2nd level character is going to end her adventuring career), but definitely nothing 5th or higher (no need to be flinging fireballs and lightning bolts around your gothic castle mood piece). Gypsies as bandits, villagers as villagers, village idiots as strong villagers (not 9th level fighters...dude should have his own castle!). Shadows and wraiths in place of banshees and ghosts and specters. Half-strength vampire wives instead of full strength ones (treat as wights in all regards). Strahd zombies exactly as written except they only have 2 hit dice and turn as ghasts (inside the castle...outside, they should turn as normal zombies). Probably get rid of the 12 HD trapper (make that the lair of the wandering rust monsters, if you like...clever PCs will find a way to use those on the iron golems). Much as I like the jack-in-the-box of three hell hounds in a crypt, they'll probably destroy most low level parties...knock 'em down to two at 4 HD, if you want to keep Strahd's "hunting dogs" (who wouldn't?). And I kind of love the nightmare (Strahd's "steed") and like the idea of him riding through the streets, bellowing challenges and calls for vengeance the night after the party's first foray into his home.
- Figure out where you want to put the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, the Tome of Strahd, and the Sunsword; I would not stash any in his crypt, but you could still draw cards to figure out where they are, if you don't have a preference (I would not use the bonuses/penalties associated with card suit). Since Strahd (presumably) moves around a lot during the night, I'd just roll a D6 whenever the party enters one of his possible encounter areas, perhaps with a cumulative chance of finding him (1 in 6, 2 in 6, etc.). I would NOT have Strahd in his crypt except during daylight hours (when he'll always be present).
- Treasure: the total value of monetary treasure in Ravenloft is a bit more than 120,000 g.p. -- close to double what eight 4th level characters need to level. However, in an adventure with this much expected energy drain, I don't mind the extra experience points. Magic items range from good (helpful scrolls and potions) to weird (three maces +3 in the treasury?) to wow (a deck of many things!). Probably needs some modification with regard to the blander magic weapons.
- Stocking: however, the distribution of treasure needs work. In a dungeon this size, I'd expect to find some type of treasure in around 30 encounter areas, not 10. Monsters should be in one-third of the areas, not one-fourth. Around 56% of the castle is EMPTY...just box text description...and while there's fairly good interactivity (especially for DMs that don't mind doing some improvisation when they see "carriage room," for example) I'd want to spread things around a bit more, and probably add a couple more encounters (gypsy henchmen and the like...especially during the daytime). The crypt area especially is a little bland...I can see PCs simply knocking down tombs, one after another, which is more-or-less the same as the (often lambasted) Kick-In-The-Door style of dungeon. Rather than an empty tomb with a bag of coins, I'd prefer to furnish the castle a bit more with golden candelabrum (never lit) and decorative china- and silverware (never used)...maybe a well-stocked wine cellar full of expensive vintages. Maybe figure out where the vampire wives go during the nighttime hours and what the witches are doing when they're not brewing in Ye Old Cauldron. Maybe give the witches a few potions, and give their 42,750 g.p. spellbook to Strahd (they only peruse it when they need to memorize a spell). Hell, put it in his study...simple enough.
With regard to RUNNING the adventure, I'd want to make sure I was keeping excellent track of time, because sundown and sunset becomes VERY important when you're hunting vampires. Party encumbrance and movement rates are going to be essential for tracking time, and every ten minute turn spent searching for secret doors is going to bring the party closer to the witching hour. Probably need to prep some sort of graph beforehand, just to make it all go smoothly. The adventure lists "types of attacks" for Strahd, but they're kind of nonsensical for a character with genius intelligence and centuries of experience. A situational list of actual tactics (based on party location, party defenses, level of vampiric ire, etc.) probably needs to be mapped out and available to the DM so that your players aren't asking 'hmmm...where did these 15 Strahd zombies suddenly appear from when we locked ourselves in this tower room?' Anyway...
It is doable. That is, it's an adventure one could run FAIRLY EASILY with MINIMAL MODIFICATION. Nothing nearly as extensive as what I'm doing with the Dragonlance modules, because Ravenloft IS a fairly straightforward adventure. It was not the advent of (or precursor to) the Adventure Path or "story driven" adventure design, with its railroads and plot-protected NPCs. Heck, you can't even blame box text on the Hickmans, as that was certainly showing up as early as 1980 (see C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan as Exhibit A). Ravenloft is not some sort of linear rail path requiring specific action from the PCs (besides destroying Strahd, of course). Nothing compels the PCs to deal with (lovely NPC) Ireena Kolyana in any particular fashion...or even keep her alive! The fact that she only has six hit points (as a 4th level fighter?) and no CON score (um...) means she's probably not long for the world anyway.
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 terrible...it's pretty great as a light-hearted one-off played for a spooky theme night. And considering it was written by the Hickmans in their early 20s (they weren't even 25! Just kids!), it is a remarkable testament to their abilities as game designers that they were able to craft something that touched so many people and launched an entire game line and setting.
Then again, it may be that people just love vampires.