Sunday 10 July 2022

Oh no! The Map is Wrong!

We're back with Gelatinous Cube 19! Our prompt this week comes from the very lovely and talented Kyle Latino of Map Crow, who provides the inspiration for a wide-ranging discussion of cartographical errors, problems, and opportunities. 

How does a map structure and ground the world of an rpg, and what might happen if the map proves false? 

Our discussion references the excellent article The Anthropology of Cartography by Denis Wood (2012), highly recommended for a primer on the ways in which maps are always already fantasy documents.

Huge thanks to Stefan Surrat of Dragon Peak Publishing for letting us know our humble moonwater from episode 3 made it into his adventure Witches Don't Die. And finally a massive Gelatinous cheer for the Merry Mushmen and their forthcoming A Folklore Bestiary, we cannot wait to lay hands on it! 

Friday 22 April 2022

This Damsel is in Distress!

Gelatinous Cube episode 16 is up and we're talking Damsels in Distress. 

The Princess has been captured by a fire-breathing dragon! What's a girl to do in such a predicament? Rosie's had a bash at answering this question, creating a table of Princess Stress Responses to lend colour to her plight. 

Our discussion covers the problem of women as victims, combat as a point of crisis for monsters, and the value of thinking beyond fight or flight. 

Then it's over to the Gelatinous Cube, who has come up with a princess you definitely want to keep calm - you won't like her when she's angry.

Full encounters here!

Sunday 27 March 2022

Secret Jackalope 2022 - Phase Bosses

This month the OSR discord has played host to a festival of creativity called Secret Jackalope. Participants submit a prompt for a bit of game content they'd like to see made, and in turn they are assigned the prompt from the Jackalope pool to inspire their own scribbling.

This seemed like a great opportunity to try something new. I dutifully submitted my prompt, asking for six festivals to enliven an imaginary town or city, I look forward to seeing what I get back! Here is the prompt I was given, from Jojiro of the blog Dungeon Antology, who asked for:

"D&D monsters redesigned as phase bosses - hit them enough, they go Phase 1 to 2 to ... to whatever, w/ new abilities. Like JRPG/MMO bosses, but I don't literally want JRPG/MMO design, I want OSR design"

This was alarming because I am bad at monsters. I find stat blocks difficult to parse and harder to construct, I worry about making things that are stupidly lopsided in their challenge or maths, I'm convinced everything I make will be a monstrosity of design and a failure of a monster.

But many DMs love thinking about, statting, and running monsters. Reasoning that Jojiro was probably one of these, I had a proper look over his blog, which turned out to be a good move. 

Among the many excellent and thoughtful items you can find in Dungeon Antology is a link to Jojiro's Six Monster Bestiary. This document is a very simple set of 6 beasties whose natures and abilities cover the main bases of early D&D monster design. The theory is that you could take these stat blocks, reskin them as whatever monster you fancy, with any tweaks that seem appropriate, and end up with an adventure-load of fun beasts without the handwringing paralysis I express above.

This worked for me! The bosses described below draw greatly on the approach, format, and stats found in the Six Monster Bestiary. Using this framework I was able to stop fretting about making something correct and focus on making something dramatic. And I think it's in the potential for drama that the phase structure of the prompt really shines. In their different forms these bosses tell stories of their lives, their lairs, and their own peculiar malignity.

1. A Bandit Leader

The Lair
A bandit hideout in a ravine has become a mine after "a strange kind of gold" was found in the rocks. The bandit leader has begun ordering his men to kidnap travellers as well as robbing them, as he seeks more and more labour for his mine.

First Form - The Bandit Leader
A grubby man in studded armour, his sneer revealing pale gold teeth.
AC: 7 [12]
HD: 2d8 (9hp)
MOVE: 20'
Immunity: charm
Big sword (1 attack): 1d8

At 0HP move to Phase 2 - Golden Madness
The man screams through a full mouth as golden spines burst from his jaw and eyes. He drops his sword, still screaming, and lifts a rock from the floor.
AC: 6 [13]
HD: 5d8 (22hp)
MOVE: 20'
Immunity: Charm, poison, sleep.
Boulder Smash (3 attacks): 1d6/1d6/1d8

At 0HP - move to Phase 3 - The Mineral Pool
The gold retreats from the bandit. It reforms next to his corpse, a glowing puddle of golden slime that shivers invitingly.
AC: No hit roll required
HD: 3d8 (13hp)
MOVE: 10'
Immunity: Charm, poison, sleep.
Charm: Anyone who sees the liquid must save vs spells or stand mesmerised, allowing the liquid to escape through cracks in the rock. It will escape in this way unless it is killed within 2 turns.

Death: At 0hp the shimmering ceases, and the slime pool falls still. If you take some of the substance to a magical authority they may be able to tell you more about it.
(don't ask me what)

2. A Lich

The Lair
The lich resides in a burned-out tower on a lonely hill. The furnishings are long destroyed, the floorboards rotted and treacherous.

First Form - The Decrepit Lich
A skeletal figure bedecked in bandages, robes, and a large, bejewelled headdress.
AC: 1 [18]
HD: 11d8 (38hp)
MOVE: 20'
Immunity: Mundane attacks, electrical and cold-based attacks, polymorph.
Terrifying touch (1 attack): 1d10+paralysis
Arcane spells: 11th level magic user favouring spells that freeze and chill.
Aura of fear: Any character who sees the lich must save vs spells or flee for 2d6 turns. Characters above 4th level are immune.

At 0 HP - move to phase 2 - The Lady of the Tower of Flame
The walls of the tower start to flicker with cold flames and you hear shouts as though from an angry mob; an invisible, angry presence which fills the room. The Lich doubles over in laughter at the sound, and when she stands she is no longer a skeleton, but a beautiful woman, her eyes shining with mad brilliance.
"PEASANTS! PHILISTINES!" she shrieks at you, raising a firey hand.

AC: 9 [10] - unarmoured
HP: 10d8 (25hp)
Arcane spells: 10th level magic user favouring fire.
Loot: The headdress worn by this boss is extremely fancy, with a huge ruby on the front worth 300gp.

3. Mycelian King

The Lair
The dim heart of a silent, empty, forest.

First Form - The Mushroom King
A 9 foot tall mushroom. Dark purple gills, and an extravagantly spotted cap, and glowing green eyes.
AC: 9 [10]
HD: 6d8 (27hp)
MOVE: 20'
Immunity: Charm, poison.
Clubbing hands (2 attacks): 1d8/1d8
Spores: 3 times per day the Mushroom can spray a spore cloud in a 10ft radius around itself. Any creature in this area must save vs poison or take 2d8 damage from the poison and be paralysed for one turn.

At 0 HP - move to Phase 2 - The Mushroom Court
The king explodes in a burst of spores and fog and green glowing mushrooms pop up in a ring around the party.
AC: 10 [9]
HD: 5d8 (22hp) - All the little mushrooms share the same hit pool, all will retreat into the ground together at 0 HP.
MOVE: The little mushrooms cannot move.
Immunity: Charm, poison, paralysis.
Spitting acid (4 attacks): A successful attack sticks to the target with a splash of acid that will inflict 1d6 damage over two turns.
Singing: The mind of one target is filled with the sound of many jubulant voices joined in song. Target must save vs spells or sleep until shaken awake.

At 0 HP - move to Phase 3 - The Mushroom Thralls
An ape and a bear crash through to the clearing. Their jaws are wide open in silent roars, their eyes shine with an identical green glow.

Green Ape:
AC: 6 [13]
HD: 4d8 (18hp)
MOVE: 40'
Immunity: Charm, poison.
Claws (2 attacks): 1d6
Bite (1 attack): 1d8

Green Bear:
AC: 6 [13 ]
HP: 11
MOVE: 40'
Immunity: Charm, poison.
Claws (2 attacks): 1d6
Bear hug: If a target is hit by both claws in the same round they are caught in a bear hug. Spores erupt from the bear's fur and the target must save vs poison or become paralysed for one round.

Loot: Mushrooms don't amass much in the way of loot I'm afraid, but perhaps another adventuring party has fallen to the monarch and left some items or interesting maps. 

That's it! Many thanks to Jojiro, and to all the Secret Jackalopes and Jackalope wranglers for a very festive time.

Thursday 17 March 2022

This Dungeon is Alive!

Gelatinous Cube is back in FULL EFFECT for a discussion of the pitfalls and potentials of living dungeons. Following a prompt from our lovely listener Jake Weaver, Adam leads us as we tour beastly bellies, disturb micro-ecologies, and welcome the grotesque.

Watch where you step dear listener, it's extremely squelchy in the dungeon this week. 

Monday 21 February 2022

Marina Taken by the Mists: The Curse in Curse of Strahd

(Audio version at the bottom!) 


I came to the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons because I wanted to play Curse of Strahd. My previous experience of D&D had been with Old School systems based on early versions of the game, with scrappy aesthetics and hacked-together rules. In contrast, Curse of Strahd, with its blue and purple cover and its Gothic, bored-looking villain seemed so luxurious I couldn’t resist.

The adventure is an expansion of the much-loved Ravenloft module from 1983. It was published by Wizards of the Coast in 2016, with Chris Perkins leading the design. Running it for my friends has been a joy. Pre-written adventures give us something to lean on; the would-be dungeon master can draw support not only from the text, but from its existing fan base. This is especially true of Curse of Strahd, which has a wonderfully creative and generous community. My game wouldn’t have been nearly as thoughtful or as fun without the guidance freely provided by designers, artists, and writers such as Mandy Mod, Dragna Carta, and No Fun Allowed.

I offer this essay in the same spirit. If you are a Game Master who is running or who plans to run Curse of Strahd I hope this essay provides a coherent frame for thinking about about the villain on the cover and the plight of his Kingdom. And even if you’re not planning such an endeavour,  maybe you will find this to be an interesting exploration of some of the specific horrors lurking beneath the glossy cover of this hugely popular tabletop adventure. Here's the warning up front though; spoilers abound. Players should probably stay away. 

Welcome to Barovia

A curse is a problem that follows you around.

Tabletop role-playing games are not like novels, or films, or any other form of entertainment that finds you with its conclusion in place. Any prospective Game Master will be told early on that their job is to create problems. The solution will be up to the players. Curse of Strahd is a case in point; the module is named after its Big Problem, the snare that entraps its players from their very first session. But the nature of the problem is never fully detailed. What is the Curse of Strahd?

Here's how it might begin.

You and your friends are passing the evening at an inn. The lights are bright, the room is warm, the ale flows freely as does the conversation. Then a man enters. His footsteps echo through the sudden silence of the room. He walks up to your party, and hands you a letter.

It is addressed to you, to all of you, from a man named Kolyan Indirovich. Kolyan Indirovich is the leader of a village named Barovia which is located in a country of the same name. He begs your aid. His daughter, Irena, is dying, and his land is full of treasure. Save the one, and you can have the other. Never ones to turn down treasure you and your companions leave the firelit room for the chill of the road.

You don’t walk long before you find yourselves surrounded by mist. Thick and cold, it creeps through the trees and onto the road, spreading out behind you until you can’t see the way you’ve come. And then you’re at a gate; a vast gate set into cliffs, flanked by massive, headless statues. The gate is open. At this point you'd be wise to turn back. But the mist is like a wall behind you, and any time you step into it you grow distressed, and tired, and disoriented, and you’re turned around until you are back at that gate. So you walk through, and it shuts behind you. The road continues, through deep pine woods that swirl with that ever-present mist. Soon you smell something bad, in the trees.

The body of a man lies dead near the roadside, possibly surrounded by wolves that you will have to deal with before you can search him and find a letter. This letter, like the one you were handed in the inn, also claims to be written by a man named Kolyan Indirovich. But the tone, the message, and the handwriting of this letter are quite different. The author isn’t sending an invitation, he’s sending a warning. His daughter Irena is dying, he says, and there's no saving her, or any of the people of doomed Barovia. He begs the recipient of the letter to see that the gates to the kingdom are shut and barred and that Holy men encircle the land with symbols of faith so that the horror that has beset Barovia is contained. Do not come, he begs, leave us all to die.

This warning letter, you realise, must be genuine. The other was a forgery, a lure to bring you here. The matter of the letters is a wonderfully effective introduction this world, a sinking feeling rendered in pen and ink. Coming to Barovia was a mistake. But between the mists and the gate there is no going back. So you follow the road for cold, dark miles until you come to a miserable village; its shuttered, run down buildings and empty, pockmarked roads. Faces appear briefly at windows and then disappear. Everywhere the mist swirls and, carrying through it, the sound of weeping.

You have come to a broken, spiritless place. What on earth happened here?

The Wedding

He was an outsider once, too. Strahd Von Zarovich, a merciless warlord whose armies tore through land after land and eventually conquered the pretty valley kingdom that he would name Barovia. Strahd wasn’t the first evil thing that made its home there. High up in the mountains of Barovia, Strahd learned, were the ruins of an old site of learning, the Amber Temple, which was filled with terrible magic. Strahd travelled to the Amber Temple and encountered the Dark Powers, ancient spirits that offered him a deal - he could be immortal, if he would bind himself to them. Strahd accepted the invitation.

And then he settled in to his new kingdom. He raised Castle Ravenloft on a towering spire of rock, and moved his family to live with him. He met the beautiful Tatyana, the daughter of one of the houses that ruled Barovia in the happier times before Strahd, and she became his obsession. Unsurprisingly, his ardour was not returned; Tatyana feared the warlord. Instead she fell in love with his brother, gentle Sergei. The two planned to marry.

The wedding did not go well. On the morning of the ceremony Strahd killed his brother and drank his blood. Then he chased Tatyana around Ravenloft, cornering the sobbing woman in a garden near the Chapel. In his in-game memoir, Strahd records what happened next:

Finally, in despair, she flung herself from the walls of Ravenloft, and I watched everything I ever wanted fall from my grasp forever.

It was a thousand feet through the mists. No trace of her was ever found.

The accumulated horror was too much for the guards of Ravenloft, who chased Strahd down and shot him full of crossbow bolts. But it was too late. When Strahd drank his brother’s blood the Dark Powers of the land snapped into place around him. The pact was sealed. Strahd did not die, but rose to kill the men who killed him, and countless more after.

Such is the birth of a vampire.

The events of that day transformed Barovia from a picturesque little Kingdom into something wretched. The mists thickened, and formed a border, and the land became a trap. Now nobody can pass into Barovia without Strahd’s say-so, and nobody can leave. At the start of the adventure Strahd has ruled for four hundred years but nobody in the rest of the world is counting. Barovia is a place outside of history, it’s as though the whole country was plucked from the world and dropped into an ocean of mist. And actually, that's exactly what's happened.

The Prison

The miserable condition of Barovia can be understood with reference to the wider cosmology of the Forgotten Realms, the fantasy setting in which most official Dungeons and Dragons adventures take place. The Dark Powers, those forces Strahd met at the Amber Temple, with whom he dealt for immortality, are the vestiges of ancient, evil gods. They exist for the sole purpose of torturing the wicked. Monstrous humans such as Strahd von Zarovich are tempted by the Dark Powers into forming pacts that will transform them from mere villains into “Darklords”. A Darklord rules a Domain of Dread, a territory that comprises their fief and their prison. The Domain of a particular Darklord reflects their own twisted psyche in some way and they cannot escape.

Others are trapped here too, in life and sometimes in death as well. Certain individuals in these domains, perhaps because of their importance to the Darklord and their story, keep on coming back, being reincarnated as a string of identical unfortunates. They will die and return, and die and return, their face a constant reminder to the Darklord of what has been lost.

Back to our adventurers in the village of Barovia, who have met a young woman named Irena Kolyana. Irena is the daughter of Kolyan Indirovich, whose letter was lost on the road, she is the girl you thought you were here to rescue. Her father was right to be worried, she is in terrible danger. For some reason Irena has drawn the eye of the monster who rules Barovia, who by now has everyone refers to as “The Devil Strahd.” She has been visited twice by the fiend already, and bears the wounds on her neck to prove it. She does not know why he is so fixated on her, and neither does her family, but you might have guessed by now. Irena is Tatyana come again.

She isn’t the first. Tatyana haunts Barovia, her face scattered here and there across the landscape. In Krezk, a mad Abbot attempts to cure Strahd’s longing by constructing a facsimile of his lost love out of corpses. In Vallaki a toymaker has made doll after doll with that same form. And here in Barovia village, in the shadow of Castle Ravenloft, Irena Kolyana bears an uncanny resemblance to the bride who plunged from its walls centuries ago. Our players won’t know about this likeness when they first meet Irena of course, they probably won’t even have heard of Tatyana yet, but eventually they will learn of the doomed bride, and clues scattered throughout the world should forge a connection between the two. And if they still don’t get it by the time they reach Castle Ravenloft there is a huge portrait of Tatyana in the study on the second floor to drive the point home; the women are identical.

The stubborn presence of a dead woman is a standard trope of Gothic fiction. Classic texts like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven feature dead love interests who will not quit the stage. This idea has become a standard trope of vampire fiction too. Although she does not appear in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, the repeating woman features in a made-for-tv adaptation of that book from 1974, and after that in the original Ravenloft module of 1983, and in Francis Ford Coppola’s beautiful 1992 feature film.

So it’s a well-established feature of the genre, but I find it hard to swallow in this case. Because really, it seems unfair to Irena, who has to suffer so much, to have her entire selfhood reduced to an echo. At a few points in Ravenloft, and in Curse of Strahd, there is the possibility that Tatyana will surface within Irena and float off happily into the mists with Sergei, our friend from Barovia village erased as though she were an unfortunate spin-off. I’m not the only one who struggles with this. In their own guides to the adventure various GM’s have offered suggestions of ways to make Irena more than a vessel for Tatyana’s soul, to give her her own fight and her own character.

I think it might help to shift our perspective slightly. Looked at mechanically, Irena is just another chorus of the same song, one of the sad souls fated to rise over and again in Barovia. But if we look beyond this, to what these women mean to Strahd, they give us a way of unpicking his curse.

The Women

Long before Irena Kolyana,” the book says, “There was a peasant from Berez named Marina.

Marina died a long time ago, and we know less about her than the others. From the sparse description of her encounters with Strahd I wonder if his desire for her was less one-sided than it was with Tatyana or Irena. We are told that Strahd "seduced her in the dead of night, and feasted on her blood.” When the local leaders caught wind of what was happening they murdered Marina to save her soul. In revenge Strahd used his powers over the geography of Barovia to swell the river that ran alongside Berez, drowning it.

Our party will probably travel to Berez around the middle part of their adventure. They will find it in the same condition as much of the rest of the world; abandoned, empty, full of monsters. It is a sad swamp, devoid of warmth or beauty apart from one peculiar thing. At the edge of this marshy ruin of a village stands a statue, its pale stone carved in the form of a woman holding a rose. And carved into the base of the statue, an epitaph:

Marina, Taken by the Mists.

This struck such a chord when I first read it. This monument was erected by Strahd, who spends nearly all of his time destroying places and people. But here he has raised a rather beautiful tribute. Not only that, but he's blamed the loss of Marina not on the flesh and blood men of Berez who killed her. Instead, he blames the mists. Here, I think, Strahd demonstrates an awareness of his predicament that we can learn from.

Where we seek to understand a story of unreachable women, we can look to the work of David Lynch, particularly Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. These films are renowned for being obscure and difficult. But while Lynch avoids explaining his work and it tends to resist any full explanation there is widespread consensus by now about their basic structure and the stories they tell.

At the heart of each story is a crime; our hero has done something dreadful to someone they love. In horror of their transgression they have built a fantasy around the event, like a pearl around a piece of grit, and we the viewers are watching this fantasy. One half of each film follows the protagonist through a glamourous world in which they are caught up in a mystery alongside a beautiful woman. In the other part of the film we see glimpses of the reality below, where the hero is wretched and the woman is dead. So the story we see is not just fiction in the way that most films are fiction. It is unreliable even on its own terms, a fantasy constructed on top of a sinister truth. Lynch returns to the idea in the most recent series of Twin Peaks, in which we are told: “We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream.” As I read the description of the Darklords and their Domains I was struck by how closely they echo this notion. As the writers of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft would have it, the world that springs up around a Darklord “is essentially a vast nightmare.”

Within this tangled dream, the women represent a return of the repressed, that tiny flicker of guilt that Strahd can never fully own, or ever fully escape. Time and again, the face of Tatyana floats to the surface of Barovia and time and again she falls back down, swallowed up in grey, taken by the mists.

And Tatyana isn’t the only one Strahd cannot see clearly. Throughout the text of the adventure, mirrors are described as objects of dread. Two great mirrors flank the organ in the dining room of Castle Ravenloft but these are the only ones left in place. Every other looking glass in the Castle has been removed and taken to area K11, the South Archer’s post. I can’t imagine many parties find themselves in this rather out of the way room but if they did they would see mirrors stacked in piles, leaning against the walls, some as tall as men and some small enough to slip into a pocket. At some point, the book tells us, Strahd had them all taken from their former locations and placed here.

It implies a horror of reflection that extends outside Strahd's castle to the rest of his domain. The still water of Lake Zarovich is described as a “monstrous mirror”. The black pools that scar the Svalich road are “dark mirrors” bordered by looming trees. The Burgomaster’s mansion in Vallaki hides a mirror that can be used to summon a shadowy assassin, and deep in the ruins of the Amber Temple is a polished wall that reflects images of the players that wave their arms and scream.

Absent reflections are another classic feature of vampire stories, but here we see the idea taken further. Mirrors are not only redundant to Strahd, their overwhelming malevolence in the kingdom that is an extension of his psyche suggests that he finds them disturbing. The fearful nature of these mirrors fits in the wider geography of Barovia, a land of repression and guilt. They suggest the panic of a man who has completely lost sight of his humanity, a monster wearing the clothes of a gentleman.

The Mist

So that’s what the women are doing here, and the specific nature of the torture they represent. If Strahd manages to capture Irena, as he is trying to do, he plans to marry her, turn her into a vampire, and then lock her up in the crypts below Ravenloft. She will be repressed, quite literally, within in the vast substratum of his castle. Another fearful reminder neatly stowed away, only to pop up again in a generation or two. But, if you recall, I didn’t want to make Irena a simple rerun, reducible to the girl who came before, and the ones who will come after. To address this, I would like to pour in more mist. Perhaps Irena is Tatyana, Strahd certainly claims that she is. But perhaps she is not.

Let me be clear, I think there is great intrigue and dramatic potential in keeping the straightforward reincarnation mechanic of the adventure as written; where Irena is the haunted echo of Tatyana, and the perfect likeness of the two is a thrilling twist. I also think you could take another interesting route by simply removing the idea of any spiritual connection between the women altogether, portraying Strahd not as a pining romantic but a dangerous maniac ruling a kingdom where anyone’s daughter could be next.

But I love the uncertain middle ground, where nobody really knows the fate of Tatyana’s soul, or where she landed when she fell through the mists, or even what she looked like. Because really, how can we say that those straw-stuffed dolls in Vallaki, or a statue carved out of stone, looks exactly like anyone? How could the corpse bride at Krezk be stitched together out of parts of dead bodies that are not Irena, or Tatyana for that matter, and nevertheless be their double? Instead, when my players find these oddities, I say the face reminds you of someone, there is a resemblance, she looks a bit like Irena.

There’s only one place where we have to completely refashion the text to make this work - that painting in Castle Ravenloft. I’ve known how I was going to play this, from before my group even started our adventure. The basic idea was given to me by my nephew Theo, during a long conversation we had over pizza as I was preparing to run Curse of Strahd, and we’ve just got to it in my game.

My party were in Castle Ravenloft for the first time, on an invitation from Strahd. The beast had asked them to dinner, and given them a long enough leash that they could explore a little. When they came to that study on the second floor they didn’t find that portrait of Tatyana that's in the adventure as written. Instead, they found the vampire Escher, Strahd’s lover and artist-in-residence, who was listlessly drawing at an eisel, a pile of discarded canvases behind him. He was working on an image of a woman. The picture lacked detail. Though the hair and chin and mouth were fairly established, the nose was a vague gesture, and the eyes had not even been started. Between glasses of port mixed with blood, Escher explained gloomily that he had been ordered to abandon the composition and begin again many times. “My Lord bids me capture the likeness of a woman,” he said, “Between you and me, I’m not sure he recalls the original.

In my game, there are no paintings of Tatyana. Strahd is the only current resident of Barovia who knew her, and he can barely remember her face. So maybe her soul is being endlessly recycled, returning every generation or two in order to torment the Vampire lord, or maybe Strahd is just an mad man who, once in a while, fixates on some young beauty and destroys her life. Even Strahd doesn't know which is true; no wonder he is afraid to look at himself.

This, I think, is a fitting torment. By refusing to offer a final word on the nature of Irena and the girls who came before her, we bewilder the monster. Even if Strahd has Irena married and vampired and safely buried beneath Castle Ravenloft he doesn’t really have her, does he?

Does he?

Don’t ask me. Game Masters don’t write solutions.

Some Solutions

This is my understanding of the curse in Curse of Strahd. By way of a conclusion let's consider how it might end.

The path of the players will probably lead them, sooner or later, to a climactic battle at Castle Ravenloft where Strahd will hopefully be killed. But in the adventure as written, it’s not enough to stop him. “Strahd’s destruction is temporary," the book says, "for his curse can’t so easily be ended. The ancient Dark Powers with which Strahd forged his pact cause the vampire to re-form […] When Strahd is reborn, the mists surround the land of Barovia once more, and the Barovians’ hope turns to horrible despair."

There’s that sinking feeling again, it’s not over.

But I think curses are made to be broken, so here are a few ways we could try.

Firstly, let’s find Tatyana. The real Tatyana, who fell into the terrible chasm beneath Castle Ravenloft. Presumably her bones are still down there, waiting to be discovered. Maybe the place where she landed has grown beautiful. Some unconscious impulse of Strahd's imagination might have created a little grotto of colourful lichen and mushrooms down in that ravine. Perhaps there is even a beam of sunlight. It would be quite a feat to get to it. But if you could, and if you could get Strahd down there too maybe this would bring about some kind of crisis in his deathless dream. Actually seeing the remains of Tatyana may shock Strahd into some kind of awareness. If a dead heart can change, maybe this would do the job.

If that all seems a bit soppy, how about those Dark Powers? They're the ones holding Strahd in nightmare stasis, could you convince them to choose someone else instead? I’m sure there’s at least one character in the party with a hint of the night about them. Get them to the Amber Temple, and make the offer explicit; The Dark Powers can make them the ruler of this land if they're willing to do something dreadful. They will ask the character to kill an innocent, and drink their blood. After the deed is done the party would still have to kill Strahd, but his defeat would be final. We could then pick up the action for one more scene, as our new player-tyrant comes to their throne, and the beleaguered people of Barovia turn out to meet their new ruler. As the Darklord is crowned they look out across their gathered subjects and notice a face that shouldn't be there, some guard or noble or peasant who looks just like the innocent NPC they killed.

Either of the options would be a fun way to make the curse the central problem of the module. But for most of us, Strahd is the star of the show. I think our initial instincts here are sound, let's try to kill the fucker.

In 1983’s Ravenloft the authors describe the dead Strahd as “destroyed forever” and this is the way I'm running it. It's less gloomy and less Gothic, but it feels fitting, perhaps even to Strahd himself. Remember how it all began. At the beginning of this story, our players were given a letter that claimed to be from Kolyan Indirovich, but was really from Strahd. I didn't really think anything of this detail but it might have struck more observant souls as odd. In their review of Ravenloft the hosts of the Fear of a Black Dragon podcast raise the excellent question; why? Why would Strahd send a letter at all? At the start of the adventure Strahd's goal, his one desire, is to capture Irena Kolyana and turn her into a vampire, and he’s well on his way. Why invite a pack of meddlesome adventurers into his land, and direct them to the door of his obsession?

We can finesse the motivation behind the letter in a thousand ways or leave it a mystery. But since I've spent 4000 words psychoanalysing Strahd von Zarovich, I might as well suggest a psychological explanation. Because it's really not so strange to think that this devil might seek his own annihilation.

The Curse of Strahd works both ways. The vampire afflicts Barovia, and Barovia afflicts the vampire.

Kill him and have done with it.

Friday 4 February 2022

The Spirits are Restless!

WoooOOOooo we're back... 

It's ghost stories for Candlemass this week on Gelatinous Cube, as we tackle Rosie's séance encounter The Spirits are Restless! 

We discuss Pre-Raphaelite ghosts and the artists who loved them, the magic of props and lighting, and a disaster at Castle Ravenloft. 

Rosie's séance is drawn with extensive reference to Barrie Bullen's lovely article about Victorian Seances, and lots of the mechanics and special effects have been nicked from the much better and more detailed ritual in Keith Herber's Edge of Darkness module for Call of Cthulhu.

Then it's over to the Gelatinous Cube, who has created eight distinct and highly inconvenient ghost quests. 

Full encounters here!

Rosie is in Knock!

 Some news!

A new issue of Knock! is launching on Kickstarter, and I've managed to sneak into it. 

My article is titled Grotesque Worldbuilding and you'll find it nestled happily in amongst a babbling trove of RPG musings by a host of fantastic creators. You can check it out here.

I am absolutely thrilled. Huge thanks to the very lovely Merry Mushmen for taking a chance on a rookie.

Oh no! The Map is Wrong!

We're back with Gelatinous Cube 19! Our prompt this week comes from the very lovely and talented Kyle Latino of Map Crow , who provides ...