In 1983, Tracy and Laura Hickman introduced gamers to the mist-shrouded duchy of Barovia and its ruler, Count Strahd Von Zarovich. Strahd ruled Barovia, but was also the land’s prisoner, cursed to a life eternal after killing his brother out of love for his brother’s wife. The Dungeons & Dragons adventure was named Ravenloft, and it went on to spawn sequels, rewrites, board games, and even its own campaign setting. The adventure is still acclaimed today by the Nerdist and the Escapist as one of the greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures of all time. And Wizards of the Coast is taking gamers back to Barovia.
On March 15th, Wizards will release Curse of Strahd, a D&D adventure which whisks players back to the crumbling parapets and night-shrieks of Strahd’s world. The supplement was written by Chris Perkins, the principal story designer over at Wizards of the Coast and a true D&D maestro, in consultation with the Hickmans.
The original Ravenloft is likely best known for Strahd, a villain with a story and motivation all his own, the replayability of the scenario due to random placement of needed items and characters (which happens in game via a tarot reading), and the ability of players to go anywhere and do anything in the land of Barovia.
How does the new product innovate on this excellence? Perkins said, “What we’ve done in Curse of Strahd is given you a bigger sandbox. The land of Barovia is more detailed than it has been previously, and there are more cool places to go and more cool people to meet, and a mechanism to guide you.”
The adventure provides significant character advancement along the way. “There is a starter adventure that goes from levels 1 to 3 in Barovia, and the heart of the adventure takes you as high as level 10,” Perkins stated. The adventure promises paths in for players in the Forgotten Realms or homebrew worlds looking to add some Gothic horror and garlic to their campaigns.
Of working on a reboot of such a legendary product, Perkins said, “I felt like I was returning to something I knew very, very well. I am well and truly familiar with Strahd and his castle. I was excited to do right by the product. I was excited to pick Tracy and Laura’s brains and I was excited to reintroduce Strahd to a new generation of gamers.”
And pick the Hickmans’ brains he did. This marks the first time the Hickmans have written for the Ravenloft line since 1986. Tracy Hickman was flown to Wizards HQ in Seattle to meet with designers. Perkins said of the experience, “The week we spent batting around ideas was one of the best weeks of my professional life. Easily. [The Hickmans] gave us crate loads of ideas, and so Curse of Strahd incorporates material from the original adventure and expands upon it. It shows you more of the vampire Strahd’s domains and the people who live there, and all kinds of crazy shenanigans.”
The idea for the 1983 scenario has its origins in the disco-fueled and Polaroid-hued 1970s, when gaming was so new getting proper dice could be a chore. Laura Hickman was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by a friend, and shortly thereafter she purchased her husband Tracy a copy of the game for his birthday.
Describing the inception of Ravenloft, Tracy Hickman said, “[It] sprung from an encounter in a friend’s dungeon. We were going through what was then a pretty typical dungeon. The random encounter table was extremely random, and I turned a corner, and there was a vampire. I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing here? Did you get lost?’ And the more I thought about it the more out of place this character was. Laura and I got to talking about it afterwards and decided a vampire needed its own setting.”
Laura Hickman said, “[The vampire] needed a reason. So I went away and wrote a background for Strahd.” His began life as a soldier for good, but eventually came to view his years spent fighting as a waste of his youth. He fell in love with a woman named Tatiyana, but his love was not requited. Tatiyana instead fell in love with Strahd’s younger brother, Sergei. Jealous, Strahd used magic in an attempt to restore his youth, but succeeded only in becoming undead. Strahd killed his younger brother, and the unhappy Tatiyana jumped from the battlements of Strahd’s castle.
The Hickmans are atwitter about the upcoming release of Curse of Strahd, as the mythology of Ravenloft is near to their hearts, and they do not feel that all the products birthed by their original 34 page adventure lived up to it. “The message behind Ravenloft is very important to us,” said Tracy.
“It’s a cautionary tale. As we both think all good vampire stories would be,” added Laura.
On the recent trends of women in horror fiction loving vampires and even becoming them, Tracy said, “We think that very deep female archetype message has gotten lost in recent years. Or at least terribly muddied [by] the idea that it’s okay to be with the monster.”
Laura said, “[Or] become like the monster to make it all work.”
The Hickmans believe the message that women can change the object of their affection if they love them enough is straight up dangerous. “All those ideas are at the heart of spousal abuse,” said Tracy.
Curse of Strahd also continues D&D‘s efforts to be as open and inclusive of all gamers as possible and having the world of D&D reflect the diversity of the gaming table. Perkins said, “In our stories… there are black people in Barovia. There are powerful women… Even Strahd’s tastes are more open-ended than they used to be. If you look at Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula himself is not beyond romancing a man. Strahd the vampire is attracted to charismatic, magnetic people. Period.”
The fact that this is the first foray of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons outside of the Forgotten Realms begs the question of why return to Ravenloft and why now? Perkins said, “With 5th edition, we laid the groundwork for future products. We say in the 5th edition D&D corebooks that D&D is a multiverse, a [cosmos] of many worlds, and you can get from one world to another or one campaign setting to another. Ravenloft was a chance for us to back it up. D&D is not only the Forgotten Realms.”
There will also be a new tarot deck to go with Curse of Strahd, which will be produced in association with Gale Force 9. Perkins said that the deck is “updated. [Artist] Chuck Lukacs designed the cards to capture the Gothic feel of the setting. He gave them a wood-carved quality and there is something sinister and eerie about that.”
Let us know what you think of the latest release for Dungeons & Dragons in the comments below!
Feature image courtesy Wizards of the Coast.
Special thanks to Sheila Tayebi, Micheal Ramps, and Chris Koterba.