Recently Anna Kreider over at Go Make Me a Sandwhich argued how The Curse of Strahd is full of problematic racism, sexism, the treatment of mental illness, and the murder of children. (Post 1, and Post 2).
After reading Kreider’s posts, I compared them with other reviews (like at Tribality, Nerds on Earth, 5 Minute Work Day, et al). Obviously none of these reviews approached the adventure from a feminist perspective, but I was a little surprised that nobody really questioned how horrible the adventure is. (Pun intended)
From my experience, D&D has never really done a great job with horror. Even the original Ravenloft module had problems–it took forever to get to the Castle, and then near the end of the module you get a crypt full of “punny” names (“Ardent Pallete, Chef Delux”; “Stabbal Indi-Bhak… Here lies his family in his honor.”)
The Curse of Strahd is another rehash of the classic module Ravenloft. But the designers have added more content to make it “darker,” “edgier.” Some of which just seems to be in bad taste.
So let’s a take compare what Go Make Me A Sandwich has said with what has come before in the Ravenloft campaign setting.
Well, the Vistani are based on the gypsy stereotype, no doubt.
The original boxed set had them play an important role in how Ravenloft worked–only the Vistani could foretell the future, only they could navigate the mists of Ravenloft. The represented the freedom that the darklords of Ravenloft, and most of its peoples, could never have.
If you disrespected them, they could bring a powerful curse upon you.
Yet it looks like the Curse of Strahd had denigrated them to being a bunch of drunken thieves.
Bad treatment of the mentally ill
That’s been in the Ravenloft campaign setting, too. NPCs are often insane, characters fail their horror checks and go mad, and so on. The insane asylum trope appears again and again in RPGs. But I think this is the first time game designers put Mongrelfolk in an Asylum.
Sometimes I wonder: do the designers really understand the historical connotations behind what they create? The names they use?
Sexism and violence toward women
Violence toward women has been a staple in horror since time immemorial. The violence in horror is reflection of real life, society, and culture.
Ravenloft is no exception, nor is the vampire Strahd.
While I haven’t kept up on more recent Ravenloft publications, the vast majority of the Dark lords of Ravenloft are men.
Urik von Karkhov, the dark lord of Valachan is a werepanther/vampire who kills his wife every year and then marries another to repeat the cycle.
Tristen, the lord of Forlorn, was born a vampire because his mother contracted vampirism from his father while she was pregnant with him. Tristen himself drove his own wife to suicide.
Lord Soth, pulled from Dragonlance, became a Death Knight because he abandoned his wife and children to die in fire, the outcome of a love affair with an elven mistress.
Dr. Victor von Mordenheim’s wive, Elsa, lies in a coma because Adam (Mordenheim’s monster), attacked her. Of course, she’s the subject many of Mordenheim’s experiments to bring her back to full life.
Ad infinitum. Ad nauseum.
Even back when I really liked Ravenloft for introducing horror to D&D, I do recall my eyes glazing over when reading about the dark lords. While some were interesting, they all had a certain “sameness” about them. I didn’t know where to begin.
And now that I’m older I know why: many are just common tropes and stereotypes taken from horror. And they’re static. They don’t change over time–regardless what happens in the “official” novels and adventures.
There’s one “Dark Lady,” Ivana Boritsi, who poisoned her mother, and likes to use to poison to kill men.
Violence toward children
For my tastes, it looks like The Curse of Strahd took this too far. Not even the controversial Book of Vile Darkness for Third Edition (which came with a “Mature Audiences Only” warning label)had murdered children to this extent.
There’s Grandmother Chortle in Heroes of Horror who fed off the laughter of children before she ate them. This, of course, is a twist on the old story of Hansel and Gretel.
Violence toward children in Ravenloft has always been there, but it was the exception, not the rule. In The Curse of Strahd, Go Make Me a Sandwich points out, there’s at least two scenarios centered on the murder of children, and a number of murdered children in the background story.
And it is lazy writing. And after a certain point the shock turns into a kind of numbness.
“Okay, Stelios, how can you judge The Curse of Strahd if you haven’t played or read it all?”
Because I’ve read the reviews, I’ve taken a look at the introductory adventure, Death House and the adventure itself.
Good horror brings about catharsis. Bad horror brings either humor or despondency.
It some ways The Curse of Strahd doesn’t surprise me–Ravenloft has been a hodgepodge or horror themes and other campaign settings since AD&D Second Edition. It’s an add-on, something D&D designers now visit only occasionally.
Certain RPG books get awards and accolades just because they revisit a classic module or setting like Ravenloft.
The Curse of Strahd won some ENNIES, but does that make it a good module, better than what has come before?
And, just for record, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, published for D&D 3.5e, was a snore and the layout in the book made it horrible adventure to run.