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Too Much Horror Business - Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft Review

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20 May 2021 09:30 #323340 by Michael Barnes
Ravenloft is one of the crowning glories of Dungeons &...

Too much horror busines.

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20 May 2021 11:39 #323341 by charlest
I love seeing Ravenloft get some love. It was the setting we played mostly in AD&D and 3.0. I even used Ravenloft as a setting for a Burning Wheel campaign.

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20 May 2021 12:01 #323342 by dysjunct
The Survivors sound like a great idea; are they basically zero-level nobodies?

The idea of running horror in a setting where there's Wish and Meteor Swarm always sounded a little silly to me, but I'm not out to yuck anyone's yum. Does the book address horror with the typical 5e demigod PCs?

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20 May 2021 13:32 #323347 by Shellhead
I loved the original Ravenloft adventure, aside from the deep crypts with all the cheesy puns. The maps were fantastic, and the monster selection strongly supported an atmosphere of gothic horror. It was a big hit with my gaming group.

The sequel, The House on Gryphon Hill, had some interesting ideas, but our group was heavily into GURPS by the time I got it. So I re-statted both Ravenloft adventures for GURPS and created variant character sheets for all the player characters. Their normal characters went through Ravenloft as a horror-themed fantasy adventure, but the variant characters went through Gryphon Hill as a victorian-style horror adventure with some fantasy elements. So for example, the player running a drow magic-user type in Ravenloft became an albino human alchemist in Gryphon Hill. And I left the players with intact memories carrying over both ways, leaving them guessing if one adventure was a dream, or if both adventures were happening concurrently in alternate realities.

The players struggled against the more realistic conventions of my Gryphon Hill setting. They liked the blunderbusses, but resented the lack of armor or magic spells. The fighter types looted some decorative suits of plate mail at one point, and both later suffered for it. One fell in a deep pit trap, and GURPS deals out extra damage if you fall while wearing metal armor. The other one drowned after getting knocked overboard in the harbor.

By the time TSR made Ravenloft a full 2E setting and started churning out more modules, the magic was gone. The superficial trappings were still present, but the published adventures railroaded players through shallow schemes with minimal payoff because the domain lords were unkillable. And as dysjunct mentioned, the horror setting didn't mesh well with the more powerful D&D spells. I skipped over the 3.0/3.5 Ravenloft, despite hearing good things about it.

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20 May 2021 19:39 #323358 by jason10mm
Spelljammer is ALWAYS the answer! Still my favorite boxed set. Seeing the Ilithid Nautilus in Baldurs Gate 3 gives me high hopes. I want my Hammerhead!

I'm not really sure a DM needs "consent" to kill a player character and driving players against a wall where their characters have to say "no more, we are going home" is a very valid tactic in a horror game. Some of this stuff just makes it seem like DnD players are uber fragile porcine dolls that will shatter under any adversity. It seems odd to me that stuff like "Charm Person" and similar spells still exist in this environment but maybe I've not read the 5e versions very closely (that type of magic was never my bag).

I'm curious when the eastern European setting origin of Ravenloft will be considered cultural appropriation since it was LOADED with stereotypes derived from Stokers British POV, the gypsy was only first amongst equals. Is it really any better than DnDs forays into "asia", the new world, or the like? Best to stick with all fantasy IMHO.

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20 May 2021 21:22 #323359 by Michael Barnes
Safety and consent are absolutely imperative in a game where players may be emotionally and personally invested in their character. There are matters of identity in play for lots of folks and there is nothing “fragile” about them. If a character is going to be at risk, this needs to be communicated, expectations should be calibrated, and the player should be OK with it. Only an entitled, selfish, clueless and cruel DM would push players beyond their comfort levels for an in game effect. And assholes like that have no place at the table.

Witness what happened a couple of years ago when a DM at a convention had a table full of players captured and gang raped- including younger players. And without advance content warnings and consent from the players. This fucking edgelord probably thought he was being transgressive and daring, really he was just being an immature lump of shit poisoning a game for folks who sat down to have a good time. If I were at that table I might have broke his fucking jaw.

I know things like the X card and safety discussions are viewed negatively by a lot of old school players but they can fuck off. Sick of white boys pining for the way things used to be back when they didn’t have to answer for their sexism, racism, homophobia, and general lack of compassion. If my game is going to feature violent or potentially upsetting material then I want everyone to feel OK with that and also communicate with me as to where the boundaries are.

The Vistani issue is definitely a thing- they’ve done a fairly good job of redressing the bad stuff and casting them in a different tone. They are much less the cartoonish, malicious “gypsies” they were in every edition of Ravenloft up to Curse of Strahd.

Jason your comments about the D&D elements existing in a horror setting are something I think Ravenloft has always struggled with...how scary is a v-v-v-vampire when you are a devil man that can essentially nuke it from orbit. This is one of the areas where those Survivor characters will come into play- they are specifically low power and vulnerable.
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20 May 2021 22:03 #323361 by ChristopherMD
Edgy DM's are the fucking worst. Rule #1 of DMing and Playing is make sure everyone has a good time. I think it's that social contract thing people are always going on about.
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20 May 2021 22:33 #323362 by jason10mm
I mean, you can just get up and walk away.

Just saying.

But for a legit horror experience the PLAYER needs to feel some degree of loss of control. If it is all projected through the character and the player is chill and comfy then it isn't a horror experience, it just becomes heroic trappings 'cause that nasty stereotypic vamp muppet just requires X and Y items to defeat like any other big bad. If you are gonna sit down for a horror game you gotta put on the big person pants because your boundary is not going to be the same as the other players and you all have to get through it together.

But I agree with you on the sex stuff. None of that shit really has a place in public games IMHO and quite frankly I don't think I've EVER had a really successful or fun romantic, sexy, or even lusty RPG encounter. Maybe elementary school flirtation with some NPC or whatnot to get a discount on some dungeon swag. It's just....eww.

But DnD is always gonna be a nerf-coated version of RPGs, it's too big to be really risky with its mechanics, themes, or play style. That's fine, plenty of freaky fish in the deep abyssal end of the pool.

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21 May 2021 08:33 #323367 by Sagrilarus

jason10mm wrote: I mean, you can just get up and walk away.

Just saying.


Yeah, there's a lot of social pressure not to do that. You can talk extremes, but as often as not it's the kind of passive BS that just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Your character is in a place where you're looking at the DM and thinking to yourself "I gotta be strapped to this guy for the next two hours." Even pushing back (i.e., renegotiating the parameters) midway through the evening can be a mess.

As in most things, communication is key. There is a LOT of potentially hazardous ground, violence, sex, substances, religion, race, gender . . . and something else you're not aware of when you sit down to DM, even with people you've known for years. In the horror genre in particular set up your scenario in advance and talk through the parameters. Your players are likely ok with some level of discomfort, you just need to figure out where that line is.
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21 May 2021 10:09 #323368 by jason10mm
I dunno, I guess my perspective is the opposite. In these types of games the DM might ask for specific DOs (like a couple things the player finds scary/creepy so the DM can exploit that, or some character hooks the player would like to see worked in if possible) but never really any DON'Ts because those used to be pretty self evident before folks started using RPGs as therapy, or at least getting so attached to a sheet of paper that it became a reflection of themselves and they require constant affirmation that their choices as a player reflect well on their choices as a human.

Or we just buried our trauma deeper back in the day :p

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21 May 2021 12:25 #323375 by Sagrilarus

jason10mm wrote: I dunno, I guess my perspective is the opposite. In these types of games the DM might ask for specific DOs (like a couple things the player finds scary/creepy so the DM can exploit that, or some character hooks the player would like to see worked in if possible) but never really any DON'Ts because those used to be pretty self evident before folks started using RPGs as therapy, or at least getting so attached to a sheet of paper that it became a reflection of themselves and they require constant affirmation that their choices as a player reflect well on their choices as a human.

Or we just buried our trauma deeper back in the day :p


No, I've been playing since 1975 and it's been around since then. Some people just don't want to game some parts of life, and as a DM it's easy to damage a player's view of their character without realizing it.

I'm not talking PTSD-level trauma. But as a DM you control an awful lot, and can fundamentally change a character, at least in the player's mind, without realizing you're doing it. Things like "Don't make my player drink alcohol" are things that have tripped my up as a DM. Gambling, religion, a couple others have stopped game night and really been downers for my players.

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21 May 2021 13:32 #323376 by Shellhead
A DM should not lose sight of the fact that the primary purpose of role-playing is to have fun. A good DM should get to know the prospective players well enough to know what sort of fun they are seeking in the game, to make sure that there aren't incompatible players in the group and that the intended campaign will address their interests. For example, a power-gaming munchkin would probably get frustrated playing in a normal Call of Cthulhu campaign, where it's often better to run than fight.

I'm usually good at reading a room, but I got in over my head when I first moved back to the Twin Cities and ran a GURPS Fantasy campaign for 11 people that I barely knew. Within six months, we were down to 8 players, partly due to conflict amongst the players themselves. But I feel responsible for one female player quitting. She was running a swashbuckler sort of hero, and her character got disarmed and subsequently grappled by an orc fighter during one big fight scene in the Orcslayer adventure. I sort of picked up on her distaste for the way the fight was going, and on later reflection, realized that she would have been happier with a more traditional combat. In the moment, I was thinking that the significantly stronger and heavier orc would instinctively seek to exploit his weight advantage. I did not think take a second to think that it could be offensive or even triggering for a female player.

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21 May 2021 14:05 #323377 by ubarose
This past Autumn was the first time I ever received a “consent” form from a DM. I guess it is a standard form that DMs have started using since the gang-rape debacle. It starts out getting pretty run of the mill info about your character and the type of game you are hoping to play. Then I got to the second page with was a list of things that you could check off if you consent or object to them possibly being included in the game.

It started out pretty tame - things that you could imagine happening in a typical hack n slash RPG that might bother someone or someone might have a trauma or phobia about, like consuming alcohol, drowning, trapped in a burning room, buried alive, losing an eye... But, by about half way through I was like “WTF!?!” I was floored that there might be DMs out there to whom it would even occur to have these things in a game. I finally just messaged the DM and told her that I was unable to even finish reading the list, because it was way too disturbing. She was like, yeah, don’t worry, the list gets pretty sick.
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21 May 2021 14:50 #323378 by jason10mm

Sagrilarus wrote: No, I've been playing since 1975 and it's been around since then. Some people just don't want to game some parts of life, and as a DM it's easy to damage a player's view of their character without realizing it.

I'm not talking PTSD-level trauma. But as a DM you control an awful lot, and can fundamentally change a character, at least in the player's mind, without realizing you're doing it. Things like "Don't make my player drink alcohol" are things that have tripped my up as a DM. Gambling, religion, a couple others have stopped game night and really been downers for my players.


Again, I'm not sure how a DM can "force" my character to take a drink, only present it as a choice and some idea of what the consequences of refusing are. Then, if for some reason my character on a sheet of paper shared my player aversion to drinking, the negative consequences would play out. But yeah, I get the drift of verboten topics, it's just presenting them in a list like the above seems kinda odd, forced, and eyebrow raising. I'm usually witnessing deviant behavior from PLAYERS (via their characters), not from the DM.

I mean, if I were in a game and somehow my character got faced with a choice of killing my characters kids or raping the characters father and there was no alternate solution and I just didn't punch out right there, A. that's just bad DMing from the get go (there should ALWAYS be a third option) and B. my imaginary kids are gonna have awkward imaginary family get togethers from here on out at our imaginary stronghold (key word being imaginary).

If I had a player that went all in on the "orcs represent POCs" mindset and objected to being put into situations where the party had an option to casually kill them and take their stuff, then as a DM I should be construing that EXACT scenario so the player, thorough their character, can step in, intervene, convince the rest of the party to change their murderhobo ways, and then promptly be backstabbed by those same orcs because, hey, they were just evil cannon fodder after all (though in actuality it would probably earn some extra XP for good role playing, that orc tribe helps out down the road, and I've been through this very thing).

My point being that safe spaces, consent documents, and trigger warnings ought to be redundant, or at least unnecessary, because the culture of the game itself should serve as fair warning about these things or be a barrier to them occurring. Kinda like how a game of co-ed touch football doesn't really need a long speech about no grab-assing before play, just because it is a game doesn't mean the rules of polite society suddenly disappear. But I suppose in an era where online parties of relative strangers are committing to a long form shared experience and societal social boundaries are largely fluid this kind of formal process is required, however awkward it may be.

"I checked yes to tentacle rape but drew the line at necrobeastiality, anyone else excited for the possibility of body horror genital mutilation?"

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21 May 2021 16:05 #323379 by blatz
I don't know. Maybe I've been playing RPG's wrong all these years but I just don't really get a lot of this. I've never treated a character I've run like it was "me." I've always envisioned them as video game characters under my control where half the fun is seeing what kind of crazy shit happens to this guy. At WORST, my reaction might be "Oh man that sucks, I kind of liked him. It's a shame I rolled that 1 and fell off the wall into the poison oil."

Obviously springing rape and other shit like that on people is not okay at all but if there's no risk of dying a terrible death, what's the point? I thought we were investigating subterranean hellholes here.

Maybe the modern, group storytelling thing is just not for me. I want to feel like I'm playing a game where my careful play and smart decisions are what carries the day. I have almost no interest in playing fantasy tea party where whole sessions might be spent talking to shopkeepers. Or using RPG's as a vehicle for "meaningful" discourse on serious topics.
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