Friday, June 9, 2017

Reinterpreting the Ravenloft setting in light of Curse of Strahd

Its no secret that I really enjoyed running Curse of Strahd last year, and am running The Evil Eye during Ramadan this year. I've even got my eye on running Castles Forlorn and/or Feast of Goblyns in the future. What I've found particularly interesting about trying to run these Ravenloft adventures is the subtle re-interpretations of the setting that Curse of Strahd gives. So I've been thinking about how Ravenloft could be a bit more coherent in 5e cosmology and my interpretations of it.

Isolation and the mists. The big change in Curse of Strahd (from the Ravenloft setting, not the original module) is Barovia is about 99% isolated. I think this is an artefact of them wanting it to be self-contained. There are no clear neighboring Ravenloft domains for Barovia. This didn't bother me too much, except for during Curse of Strahd, the Darklord card indicates no ally. Had I picked this for my group, I would have given them each an uncommon magic item (a simple weapon +1 or a scroll of daylight maybe) per person with a note just signed A. The Tarokka reading could have indicated that one of Strahd's greatest enemies would send aid, or maybe "A foul and evil enemy of Strahd will make himself known when the time is right." When trying to pick a second Ravenloft adventure to run, however, this made it tougher. Feast of Goblyns, a widely noted great adventure, explicily involves some domain hopping, and The Evil Eye involves some visitors from other domains. I picked Evil Eye because I thought I could downplay the visitor part, or make it clear that the visitors are also not free to move around as they wish.

My solution to some of this issue, is to make domain hopping difficult, and knowledge between domains less certain (or at least more difficult / less certain that some of the adventures imply). Ravenloft domains are part of the Shadowfell, and are not always aligned properly. They're all islands, essentially, but some collide with some regularity, while others may essentially bump into one another randomly. New domains are created with some regularity, and their creation can disrupt previous cycles. This means the people of each domain will know that the mists generally block travel, but merchants and scholars may know when the mists generally lift. Domains may not be synched in time, as each small flat earth has different seasons or celestial properties. Scholars may also know that there is a dark lord of each world that can control if these borders truely open, so the citizens may be most likely to appease (or petition?) the darklords at certain times to ensure the borders are open. Even a darklord, however, may not be able to align two domains or planes, however, so some scholars may know that traveling down a road or river doesn't alway take you where you expect to go.

Somehow, I intend for both the Vistani and some members of the Church of Ezra to have the ability to cross the mists to other domains, and possibly even arrive where they want to (most of the time). One could also introduce a tool proficiency, like a planar orery or planar etherscope which could be used to predict where one might end up upon entering the mists.

Souls and Husks. Curse of Strahd establishes that souls are trapped in the Domains of Dread, reincarnating. Furthermore, the majority of people in a domain are soulless husks who can never leave. I do like this idea. It hampers travel, so only a select group of besoul├Ęd heroes (or villains) can domain hop. Communities that establish themselves in a new domain will end up developing husks as well, and essentially be trapped since the entirety of the group can never leave.

A soul, however, always knows its home. Mist-travelling out of the demiplanes is likely to take one back to their own home, or a shadowfell duplicate of it.

The mysterious Dark Powers' true nature.  In Curse, there's a strange side quest that reveals some of the nature of the mysterious Dark Powers of the Domains of Dread. This is kinda taboo, because they were always written to be mysterious in the old stuff. My solution to this is to let some be the odd vestiges that Curse of Strahd uses, but also to define (at least for myself) the nature of the demiplane(s): they aren't just cages for evil beings, but the dark powers need evil to sustain themselves.

To keep it mysterous though, scholars stuck in the demiplane(s) or outside of them may have different theories. I plan to use this to great effect for one of my alternate sets of plot rails in The Evil Eye, as they party might work with a local arcanist (of the Fraternity of Shadows) to achieve their goals rather than what the module suggests. This lets me play with crackpot flat-earth or twisted religious theories (e.g. "Do you know that no one in this realm has reliable memories before the Witch of Loupet came to Invidia?" "If the gods truly feed on acts of malevolence, is it not the duty of the pious to ensure they are fed?" "What remains to be seen is if those bright-eyed souls who can move about the lands are the only ones who's pain feeds the gods or if even the dreary dull-eyed plebians' pain is effective."

Darlords and domains differ from one another. One thing I never quite understood about the old Ravenloft setting is how much the common folk knew about the darklords and the nature of the demiplane they were trapped in. Given my assumption about the dark powers, I intend to work to make sure that a domain is a reflection of the darklord's psyche. I think this is, to an extent, done in the old Ravenloft materials. But for a weekend in hell or sliders-style domain hopping, I want each domain to feel different. This can be reflected in the types of creatures encountered, how husks and souls are distinguished, how the domain borders are closed, among other things.

What's interesting about this, is one could try to add in horror tropes that relate to a character's inner struggles (aligntment, background, perosonality trait, ideal, bond, flaw or general backstory). I think this is, perhaps, the key to getting the weekend in hell style of game to work, and I wish I had explored this a bit more in Curse of Strahd and had time to add it into the Evil Eye.

Conclusion. There we have it. Some preliminary thoughts on the setting. I should gather some of my other ideas, weed out the bad ones, and throw these up on the DM's guild at some point. Some of the things like Ravenloft minor properties for magic items or Tarokka-based personal characteristics might be useful, even if these musings aren't.

1 comment:

  1. Aaand, waking from a half-dream state, I realized that perhaps one way to get out of the domains of dread is by doing good and compassionate acts. If the theory that the dark powers feed on evil is right, they'd be inclined to let foreigners who resist temptation and continue to do good go. In other words, the dark powers would banish do-gooders who resit their corruption.