Hello darkness: exploring Dungeons & Dragons horror


Lead writer Chris Perkins tells us how the vampiric villains and delightful dread of Ravenloft and Curse of Strahd helped the roleplaying game’s adventures discover a dark side

Words by Sara Elsam

You stumble through the mists, lost inside a valley of eternal rain. In the distance, the vast crooked spectre of Ravenloft castle glowers. A mad, irredeemably murderous vampire prowls its corridors – and you can’t shake the feeling he’s watching you. Waiting. 

Welcome to Barovia, the location of fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign Curse of Strahd, released in 2016. Unlike classic insta-death bonanza module Tomb of Horrors from 1978, Curse of Strahd invokes a different sort of horror entirely. Influenced by all things Gothic, Barovia is packed full of dread and yearning. 

“It’s a beautiful gloom,” says Curse of Strahd designer and lead writer Chris Perkins. “Barovia strikes a balance between beauty and ghastliness. It’s a study of contrasts. It’s also very isolated; characters learn quickly that no-one can save them – they’re on their own.” 

 A far cry from other places in the Dungeons & Dragons world, Barovia has no tangible economy, and no welcoming party for the heroes. As you’d expect in a land where witches, wizards, flesh golems and psychotic angels run amok, the people have seen it all before.

The landscape features an eerie spectrum of horror locations: the swampy recesses of derelict town Berez, the malevolent trees and singing runes of Yester Hill, and the ruined splendour and crazed cultists of mini-dungeon murder factory the Death House.

“For me personally, I find Old Bonegrinder, the dilapidated windmill, terrifying – both the location and its sinister goings-on,” highlights Perkins. “It invokes certain fairytales that disturbed me as a child and stuck with me into adulthood.” 

At Barovia’s centre is its villain: Count Strahd von Zarovich, the ultimate big bad. Fuelled by powerful magic and fiendishly calculating, “that Devil” Strahd could murder the player characters at anytime. However, possessing a fatal hubris, he chooses to toy with them instead. Similar to the titular extra terrestrial of Alien, he can turn up at anytime, lashings of bloodshed in his wake. But like Gothic antihero Dracula, Strahd is not a happy boy.

“A good horror villain is fabulously evil and tormented,” comments Perkins. “In Gothic horror fiction, the villain’s torment is often self-inflicted; the villain becomes, ironically, a victim of their own monstrous nature and horrible acts.” 

Strahd’s appeal lies in his arrogance: “He can’t see who he truly is; as is the case with vampires, he looks in the mirror and sees nothing,” continues Perkins. “He is a malignant narcissist trapped by his malignant narcissism – forever alone, forever feared and unable to change. He must be destroyed because salvation is beyond him.”

Barovia is the mirror that reflects the true horror of its dark lord, according to Perkins, and everything in it is touched and corrupted by Strahd in some way. The world itself continuously reveals new horrors relating to the vampire, like a grim canvas of Strahd’s past.

Most characters in Curse of Strahd, NPCs and monsters alike, are grappling with something terrible. They’ve developed painful, and often dangerous, ways of surviving. Those that have not been driven mad are melancholy – resigned to their fate. 

“In horror fiction, the villain is framed as inhumanity personified, often serving as a cautionary tale: once you lose your humanity, you can never get it back,” Perkins says. “Other fantasy villains aren’t usually burdened with that kind of terrifying reality.” 

And what better trope for humanity stripped to nothing than vampires, creatures consumed by parasitic hunger?

 

Ghosts of the past

The origins of Curse of Strahd lie in ‘70s Provo, Utah. Couple Tracy Hickman and Laura Curtis – tired of mundane vampire tropes in Dungeons & Dragons – decided to create a genuinely frightening vampire-based adventure module. Back then, vampires sprung up somewhat unceremoniously as random encounters in dungeons, barring the starring role of the vampiric lizard ruler in Tomb of the Lizard King (1982). 

Hickman and Curtis’ Ravenloft was published by TSR in 1983 as a 32-page first edition adventure module. Eschewing the sword-and-sorcery traditions of the time, it was instead driven by the machinations of its dastardly villain, who would go on to become Dungeons & Dragons’ most prominent vampire – and the source of the scourge in its world. 

It went on to gain a sequel, and inspired a campaign setting of the same name in 1990. Part of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons collection, the Ravenloft series expanded the world of Barovia – which is but one of many ‘Domains of Dread’ scattered about the Forgotten Realms universe. The second-edition series included a number of its own bestiaries (like Van Richten’s Monster Hunter’s Compendium) and a trove of modules; one adventure even has lycanthropic sea wolves.  

Additionally, Ravenloft instalments featured ‘Terror Tips’ for the DM. These ranged from withholding secrets to taping plastic spiders to the underside of players’ chairs and shaking aforementioned chairs in simulation of an earthquake. 

The original designers of Ravenloft helped create Curse of Strahd, providing “30 years’ worth of ideas” during creation, says Perkins. For example, the Amber Temple in Curse of Strahd was inspired by a Russian palace mentioned by Hickman. Classic horror stories like The Island of Doctor Moreau also proved influential.

Needless to say, the tips in Curse of Strahd are more subtle. Like Ravenloft, they advise maintaining a horror atmosphere that is occasionally broken with light humour.

 

back into the dark

Curse of Strahd is a unique Dungeons & Dragons adventure, a dark, unsettling unicorn of a campaign. It’s also the only abashedly horror-themed long campaign. That said, there are horrifying elements at play in other adventure modules. Picture the seedy streets and undercover machinations of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, Apocalypse Now-style Underdark trip Out of the Abyss or adventuring through the Nine Hells in Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. Horror in essence, is a key component of much adult fantasy. 

 However, Dungeons & Dragons, as a game inherently about player empowerment, is not a natural fit for horror. As a genre, horror relies on disempowerment and vulnerability. Feelings of fear are invoked through a crushing of agency: things unseen and inescapable. It’s a mechanic that horror-focused titles like Call of Cthulhu and the diceless Dread structure themselves around. These are games where permadeath lurks around every corner.

 It’s hard to do this in the Dungeons & Dragons world, at least in its latest incarnation. Culturally, we’ve shifted from ‘total party knockout’ machines like Tomb of Horrors. Nowadays, player characters operate as godlike figures of super strength and magic. They shape the world around them. 

 Yet, Curse of Strahd proves that a mix of strong writing and ingenious DMing can create an effective horror tale. Suitable dread is built through an evocative world, and canny manipulation of the environment and players. Players learn quickly that rushing in swords a blazing leads to death – or something far worse. 

 Horror is about emotion, and Barovia itself is pure dread. A place where the sun no longer shines, and hollow-eyed villagers gather in protective circles, waiting for the wolves. A place perhaps, where we are forced to confront our own darkness.


This review originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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