A Draconic Autopsy

Histories of D&D and TSR have become thick on the ground. Representing the gold standard – in terms of completeness, standard of scholarship, and avoiding a slide into hagiography – are the works of Jon Peterson, such as Playing At the World (covering the design and initial publication of OD&D), The Elusive Shift (digesting the early fan discourse within the RPG fandom), and Game Wizards (covering TSR in the years under the control of Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers).

Peterson’s books hit the high standard they do largely because he primarily bases his research on surviving contemporary documents, which aren’t prone to the misrememberings, mythologisings, evasions, and other inaccuracies which creep in when you’re looking at statements made by participants, especially long after the fact. On the other hand, relying on witness evidence offered up decades down the line can often be more fun; Kent David Kelly’s Hawk & Moor series might be much more reliant on such recollections, but some of the material it is able to dredge up is pretty juicy.

Ben Riggs’ Slaying the Dragon takes a bit of a middle route here – Riggs admits his reliance on interviews with a good many of the primary actors in the story he’s telling, but he does a good job of flagging where this is the case, noting where he wasn’t able to talk to significant actors who might otherwise have given a different perspective, and even points out instances where he double-checked claims with other interviewees to corroborate some testimony. In addition, he is able to make some significant coups in terms of turning up documentation, and flags when he’s able to rely on that information in order to present his narrative.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Riggs extends the story into a period which has so far been poorly served by existing work. So far, most of the histories out there have tended to give a lot of attention to the Gygax-helmed era of TSR, and comparatively little to what came afterwards. Peterson and Kelly’s histories haven’t advanced the timeline past the Gygax era, but at least have the excuse of covering it in sufficient detail that giving a similar treatment to the Williams years would be a major undertaking in itself. Some of the more hagiographic treatments of the story have tended to either sing the praises of Saint Gary (a term Riggs uses here in jest – he doesn’t buy into the whitewashing of Gygax’s reputation) or maximise the role of Dave Arneson. (Riggs takes the position, which I think is the most reasonable one, that OD&D was the sort of thing which needed Arneson to come up with the seed idea in the first place, but Gygax to turn it into a product that could actually be sold to an audience and give them a faint hope of replicating something approximating similar gameplay.) Other, general histories like Shannon Appelcine’s Designers & Dragons have given broad overviews but haven’t gone into depth.

Slaying the Dragon, on the other hand, takes a much different approach. It dispatches the Gygax-helmed era in some 61 pages, and spends over 200 subsequent pages going into a deep dive on the next phase of TSR – the era which would see its critical and artistic zenith, its decline and fall, its purchase of TSR by Wizards of the Coast, and the initial phase of repairing burned bridges which Peter Adkison and Lisa Stevens of Wizards had to undertake.

In other words, this is the first deep dive into the Lorraine Williams era of TSR we’ve seen.

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Rising From the Grave

Confession time: though I thought the 5E D&D setting books from Wizards I’ve reviewed so far (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, Eberron: Rising From the Last War, and Guildmasters’ Guide To Ravnica) were all pretty decently executed, I haven’t actually kept hold of any of them, and indeed I’ve not bought into many of the new setting books Wizards have brought out (Strixhaven, Mythic Odysseys of Theros, the Critical Role tie-in one, etc.).

That’s mostly because I ultimately don’t have that much affection for the worlds in question. Forgotten Realms is so generic that I struggle to care all that much. Eberron is a setting which leans hard into a lot of ideas which were in vogue when 3.X was fresh, because it was explicitly designed for a 3rd Edition-era setting contest, so it largely reminds me of a time when I’d walked away from D&D. I was never that into Magic: the Gathering and don’t particularly care about its settings.

What I do have some affection for is Ravenloft. The 2E rendition of the setting may have had its issues, but it did a great job of adapting D&D to a style of play which on the one hand was several notches spookier than the default but still worked within a D&D framework, and offered an approach to horror distinct from the major offerings of the time like Call of Cthulhu or Vampire: the Masquerade. 5E’s first dip into the setting was Curse of Strahd, an update of the original Ravenloft campaign (much as 2E’s House of Strahd was that edition’s update). It was enough of a commercial success to prompt a lavish deluxe reprint (mildly revised to make the depiction of the Vistani less based in anti-Romani racist tropes), and seems to have been pretty critically acclaimed – on a purely anecdotal level, I’m aware of more people who’ve played or run D&D games using Curse of Strahd than any of the other major Wizards-released campaigns.

In this face of such success, it was probably inevitable that we’d get a 5E update of the setting as a whole, and that’s exactly what Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft offers. This brings in a swathe of tweaks to Ravenloft canon, but I don’t regard that as a problem; the design team have done a good job of adding in diversity in a way which enriches and enlivens the stories and makes the setting richer as a result, and if you really want the old canon the old supplements are right there on DrivethruRPG for you to consult.

Some of the changes are more radical than “inject more diversity into the cast of NPCs”, mind you. A major shift is that the idea of Ravenloft’s “Core” has now been abolished. Cosmologically speaking, rather than Ravenloft being a single Demiplane of Dread, its Domains are basically all pocket planes in the depths of the Shadowfell (a clever application of a bit of post-4E cosmology which makes a lot of sense), and when you leave a Domain you enter the Mists and can conceivably end up in any other Domain. In other words, they are all now like the old island “Domains”, and the idea of having (for example) a consistent road between Barovia and Darkon is now gone: now the road out of Barovia goes into the Mist and you don’t know where it will take you when you go in.

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Castles Forlorn, Module’s Smedman’s

Hailing from 1993, Castles Forlorn‘s original form was as a boxed set adventure supplement for Ravenloft. In fact, it was one of the last products of the game line’s earliest version – making reference not to the 1994 revised boxed set, but to the original Realm of Terror box from 1990 and the 1992 Forbidden Lore box which expanded it somewhat. The other products extensively referenced therein are the Monstrous Compendium volumes (generally the core ones and the Ravenloft appendices) and Van Richten’s Guide to Ghosts.

Indeed, to a certain extent the adventure is a worked example of how you apply the Guide to Ghosts, since the castle which gives the module its title is absolutely stuffed with ghosts given extra depth using techniques and ideas along the lines of that book’s suggestions. Wait, though, isn’t the title Castles Forlorn? Why, yes it is -for the castle at the heart of the broken realm of Forlorn is three in one, existing as it does in three time periods at the same time, so characters venturing therein may, through their experiences in those time periods, have a shot at unpicking the terrible story underlying the fall of the realm to the Dark Powers.

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What Music They Make!

Some recent discussions on the Discord channel had prompted me to take a second look at Ravenloft, and as luck would have it I had a chance to pick up Children of the Night: Vampires at a very reasonable price. This was the first of the Children of the Night series, conceived as a sort of companion to the popular Van Richten’s Guides.

Indeed, the credits include a dedication to the late Nigel Findley, who wrote the classic Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires, both setting the format for the rest of a series and providing a classic examination of how to take a generic monster manual entry and extrapolate an interesting villain for it. The Children of the Night supplements carry that idea forwards by providing sets of “worked examples”, if you will, of distinctive characters of the relevant type, fleshed out into fully-developed NPCs. In a nice touch, each NPC writeup also has a mini-adventure associated with it, providing an instant hook for getting the character in question involved in your campaign. Whilst optimised for Ravenloft, as with Van Richten’s Guides themselves it’s no big burden to adapt the material here to other campaign settings, which was an aspect of the Ravenloft support line which I always thought TSR didn’t make enough of.

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My Silly Dragonlance/Ravenloft Theory

As promised in my Dragonlance and Ravenloft articles, I’m going to get self-indulgent here and share my personal fanfictiony idea about the link between the two campaign settings.

A health warning applies: this theory combines the worst habit of Dragonlance fandom (hyping up how totes kewl Raistlin is) with a cardinal sin of Ravenloft fandom (making a specific assertion about the identity of the Dark Powers). Then again, these are both sins that those who write for those settings have committed in their own right – “Raistlin is kewl” was the basic premise of the second Dragonlance trilogy, and the Ravenloft authors did occasionally slip into presenting theories about the identity of the Dark Powers, though in the latter case they seem to have had the good taste to retcon that away.

It is also a headcanon which, if made true, would have no real effect on either setting, and there’s no real way anyone could find it out or do anything useful with the information.

Oh, and spoilers for the second Dragonlance trilogy will follow.
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Ravenloft and the Dark Secret of Context

So, the news broke a while back that the next big published campaign for 5E will be Curse of Strahd, a return to the Ravenloft campaign setting, so I thought it was a good time to dig out my old Ravenloft bits and see how they’ve held up over time.

In case you aren’t familiar with the history, Ravenloft‘s first incarnation was not as a campaign setting but as an adventure module for AD&D 1E penned by Tracy and Laura Hickman which pitted PCs against moody vampire Strahd von Zarovich, ruler of a foggy land called Barovia that could be dropped into any D&D setting. The module was notable for the way it randomised key plot elements like the location of crucial items and what Strahd’s current scheme is, and its spooky atmosphere made it a big hit, prompting sequels like House On Gryphon Hill and Feast of Goblyns.

The full-blown campaign setting, an attempt to find a common context for the otherwise disconnected adventure modules and provide a basis for more horror-themed gaming, came out in 1990 – hot on the heels of the release of the 2E core books. (Notably, this puts it a full year before the release and unpredictable runaway success of Vampire: the Masquerade kicked off the 1990s horror RPG boom, so Ravenloft was simultaneously ahead of the curve in seeing an under-served market and at the same time was the last major horror RPG release before White Wolf changed everyone’s ideas about what a horror game could be like.)

It makes a lot of sense for D&D to have a setting focused on ostentatious gothic horror in the Hammer mode, particularly since such material is an often-overlooked influence on the game – for instance, it’s easy to forget that the cleric class was originally conceived to depict a vampire hunter in the vein of Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Van Helsing, designed to counterbalance the runaway depredations of a vampire PC called Sir Fang in Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign. Whether or not Ravenloft succeeds in that is another story.

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