“Terror on top, horror below it, and lowest of all, the gag reflex of revulsion…. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her [The Reader], I will try to horrify and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” —Stephen King, Dance Macabre.
Is this why there’s so many dead children and murdered women in The Curse of Strahd? The designers couldn’t do better?
Over the years the Ravenloft campaign setting has offered lots of advice on horror in RPGs.
Yet the game designers keep flubbing the execution.
For example, I6: Ravenloft, the original module–it took forever for the characters to reach Strahd’s Castle. It was a long and boring build up.
Something similar happened in The Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, for D&D 3.5e. You had all of these little side quests before you could go to the castle. And it didn’t help that much of the horror went away because the rules required you use miniatures–seeing a tangible monster out of the tabletop takes it out of the mind’s eye of the player.
Many of the adventures themselves revolved around keeping the characters in the dark about the villain as long a possible. Why? Because they’ll try to kill the villain immediately. End of horror. Or TPK.
Even a classic adventure like The Night of the Walking Dead for AD&D 2e had methods to keep the PCs from going too far, too quickly, to confront the villain before all of the “events” had taken place.
Oh… these are the downside to nearly every published horror and investigative adventure out there. If certain events don’t happen in the right order, the story gets screwed up.
Another downside to horror adventures are clues.
Why the hell do the players NEVER pick up on obvious clues, but then somehow go off to investigate some obscure thing you never intended to be a red herring?
Yet, what I think is the biggest downfall to Ravenloft is:
The horror in Ravenloft isn’t personal.
Sure, horrible stuff happens to the characters, but the characters aren’t really part of the story of whatever published adventure the designers cook up. The characters are coming in at the end of a sequence of horrific events. They weren’t part of the sequence all along.
This is why, for example, games like Vampire: The Masquerade, will always be more horrifying than Ravenloft. Same with Call of Cthulu RPG. The horror is happening to the characters, its personal.
Sure, you’ve got fear, horror, and madness checks in the old Ravenloft material (I’m not sure about The Curse of Strahd), and they work okay. But nothing compares to the insanity check of Call of Cthulu RPG. Or the multitude of ways a character can lose his or her humanity in any of the Storyteller RPGs from White Wolf
I think this is why, toward the end of the AD&D 2e era, game designers tried to make Ravenloft the “home plane” for character parties with the Domains of Dread sourcebook.
Domains of Dread is a good sourcebook, better, in my opinion, than what came after in the 3rd Edition Era.
Yet too long Ravenloft has been treated like a side-quest. A brief diversion from the regular campaign. And it looks like The Curse of Strahd is doing something similar even though its set up to be a campaign, more or less.
So the designers have resorted to the gross-out, the brief shock value, the old stereotypes, the body count, the violence toward women and children. Which can work, to a certain extent, before it becomes blasé.
Something horrible which becomes familiar is no longer horrifying.