“So how are we all positioned?”
“You’re all, like, sort of lined up on the banister and the knight’s just barely been knocked down to the third step. Shump’s in front, Lenne and Hingle are rounding the rail to get at him, you’re a little further back.”
“Cool. I’ma go WWE on his ass.”
Three rolls later, Crux had jumped over the safety rail, vaulted onto the steps behind and below the knight, swept an arm up between his legs, and threw him down two long flights of stairs. Several rolls after that, a note goes up behind the GM screen. Twenty minutes later, the knight – really just an empty suit of armor – can be seen hobbling up the steps with a spear as a crutch. Five minutes of Shumpian bullying after that, Crux stops and apologizes to the monster as a single greasy tear slicks down its visor.
This is Ravenloft. Mind the haunts.
I’ll open this review with a confession: I’ve never liked Dungeons and Dragons. Which is mainly to say I dislike the culture surrounding the game so much that it poisoned the actual game itself for me for years. The nuts and bolts of why are some other blog post for some other day – what matters is this: Last night, I finally had fun playing D&D.
It was 5th Edition Ravenloft. For those not in the know: Ravenloft is D&D’s attempt at a Gothic Horror setting. It began as a one-shot adventure module way back in the early ‘80s and eventually grew popular enough to have its own setting, sub-settings, and spin-offs. It’s spawned a fair number of tie-in novels and a video game or two. Its central villain, Strahd von Zarovich, is iconic to D&D as a whole, and was one of the earliest examples of a ‘smart’ antagonist – basically an AI in a roleplaying game – that actively sought out and attacked the player characters if they spent too much time lollygagging around. Its sub-settings have overlapped with Dragonlance (to Margaret Weis and the Hickmans’ great disdain) and with both Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms (re: the “core” D&D settings for most people).
Most player characters aren’t native to Ravenloft, at least not at the outset, and at least not as the game is more-or-less meant to be played. Ravenloft exists within something called the Demiplane of Dread – basically a collection of ironic personal hells for really powerful people created and maintained by the ultra-vaguely defined Dark Powers. Player characters bungle into the Demiplane through thick, shrouding mists, and then they either stay on forever or until a specific task is completed. The aforementioned really powerful people? They also stumbled into this place, where they became Darklords, with whole countries built around the idea of dangling what they want just out of their reach.
Ravenloft’s core sub-setting is a country called Barovia. Basically: Take Gothic Victorian England, Bram Stoker’s Transylvania, and that weird high fantasy/proto-steampunk Mainland Europe that seized mid-to-late 2000s Hollywood (see: The Brothers Grimm, Van Helsing, and the late-to-the-game-but-come-on-it’s-got-Amanda-Seyfried-in-it Red Riding Hood). Throw them all in a blender and then sprinkle in some unfortunate old school Romani/Gypsy stereotypes. Voila.
Player characters generally arrive not knowing a damn thing about it, and the game itself can be as much about exploration of the setting as it is cat-and-mouse with Strahd.
Our party bungled in through the mists and arrived at a creepy village late at night. Long story short: A haunted house lured us in with concerns about the family of two children crying out in the front yard. It wanted to eat us. We probably looked pretty tasty.
That poor house never knew what hit it.
Over the course of an eight-hour session, we proceeded to conquer the place in spectacularly disorganized, often violent fashion. Our Paladin tried to befriend everything, up to and including converting a psychotic nanny poultergeist into a reliable (if put-upon) ally with a fondness for smutty literature; our Barbarian destroyed a mirror, mutilated a mimic, and chopped chunks off an undead idol worshipped by a ghost cult; our Druid revealed himself as a master of both slick negotiating and magical legalese (re: he literally stole the house from its undead owners); and my Fighter went on enough of a rampage to effectively Rebuke Undead with mundane Intimidation rolls.
For all that D&D players bitch and whine about Fighters vs. Wizards, and for all that dual wielding characters with dark pasts are trite and played out, I had a good time. I played Crucious Constantine, a.k.a. Crux, a Chaotic Good Human Fighter suffering from a Haunting. In his past, he survived a harrowing event where a terrible monster slaughtered dozens of innocent people and left him alive for no apparent reason. The trauma broke his marriage and his wife left him. He took up monster hunting as a coping strategy, along with a fondness for poetry (Edgar Allen Poe, y’all – and not just The Raven). Until the session, he had no compassion for the dead, viewing them as ‘the lucky ones.’
By the end of the session, Crux had basically become a third father to two ghost kids, Rose and Thorn. He’d lugged their corpses through ghastly caverns and done some truly horrifying things to carry out a promise to get them out of the house and bury them in open air. While Shump the Barbarian went off to make bank and Hingle the Druid went off to get dank, Crux and Lenne the Paladin buried the kids out front with a borrowed shovel. As a group, we plan on turning the house into our base of operations. Crux is gonna build a little shack in the front yard to keep an eye on the graves.
In hindsight, I probably should’ve buried my Gothic Trinket with the kids. It’s a wineskin that refills overnight if you bury it with a dead body.
There are a lot of things that separate this game from my prior experiences with D&D. The big ones are as follows:
- The GM let us have fun. We weren’t inhibited from doing crazy shit just because it was illogical at a glance or above our level (see: the crazy WWE slam from the intro, Lenne befriending everything, Shump bullying monsters, Hingle’s entire Grand Theft Haunted House hat trick).
- We were allowed to point buy our stats. RPGs have a long-term love-hate relationship with the Random Number God. Frankly speaking, I’m mostly opposed to it in character creation outside of Call of Cthulhu. Yes, you sometimes get people with phenomenal rolls…and they have an irksome tendency to lord it over other players, while the players who don’t get phenomenal rolls just get kneecapped and don’t have anywhere near as much fun. Point buy kept us all relatively even and eliminated the risk of players being dicks to each other out of jealousy (as opposed to the time-honored tradition of being dicks to each other because it’s funny).
Pretty much everything else was window-dressing. That’s the big stuff.
I find, as both a player and a GM, you can get a lot out of just letting people have fun and build characters how they want to within a certain set of constraints (ie character levels). It’s a way of getting buy-in: players feel empowered when they can just make something without getting screwed over by a bad dice roll. When they feel empowered, they feel invested. When they feel invested, things in the game actually matter.
The one place where I did enjoy rolling dice on character creation was in determining Crux’s backstory. 5th Edition D&D has several spots on the character sheet dedicated to Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. These can be chosen from various tables in the rulebooks or made up from scratch, depending. Crux’s Flaws did a 180 by the end of the night, but the Traits, Ideals, and Bonds selected via dice were solid and remained unchanged. It helped that the GM rewarded us for playing to these things.
One other thing I really liked about 5th Edition was the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. Anyone who’s experienced D&D has at least one story of having to Google, houserule, or sift through a billion books trying to find rules governing one situation or another. 5th Edition neatly eliminates most of that by giving you Advantages or Disadvantages – you roll the dice twice and go with the lower or higher roll, no need to sweat the eleventy billion modifiers and penalties you used to worry about in older editions. That streamlined the hell out of things and kept the action frantic and enjoyable.
D&D is never going to be my favorite tabletop roleplaying game. But it’s getting better, and I like what they’ve done with 5th edition. If you’re new to the hobby, it’s a good gateway. If you’re already entrenched, it can still be a fun playthrough. I give it a solid three and a half out of five.