At long, long last, October is upon us, dear reader! The season of raking tree body parts off the lawn, seasonal flavors with more of a cult following than they deserve, and- of course- horror! And, of course, RPG players aren’t one to miss out of the terrifying fun, having spooky session options as long as a list of pumpkin spice dice options. Or remixes of Curse of Strahd.
Oh, speaking of– Ravenloft.
Yes, I’ve already covered the history of D&D’s wayward founders and an influential setting written by an eight-year-old prodigy. So it’s only natural that we take a long, scary dive in the most terrifying setting ever to grace many a pizza grease-coated table.
…Well, okay, outside of homebrew settings filled with edgelords and anime harems. This is…the RPG History of Ravenloft.
Your Vampires Suck (And Not In The Good Way)
The year is 1978. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first premiered on BBC radio. Two Eastern European guys held Charlie Chaplin’s corpse for ransom. And Utah resident Tracy Hickman was complaining to his wife, Laura.
Thankfully, not the depressing kind of complaining. Laura had introduced her husband to Dungeons and Dragons the year before, just in time for him to realize how much 1e bites. Specifically, from a narrative standpoint. Even more specifically, with vampires. Yet even more specifically, with a vampire that randomly appeared in a dungeon Tracy had crawled that night.
Dungeons and Dragons 1e mostly operated on random encounters, a fateful encounter putting a vampire in the same lair as oozes and goblins. Which struck Tracy as odd, seeing how vampires probably wouldn’t be caught dead with those monsters (let alone undead). He and Laura decided to write their own blood-sucking baddie with deep characterization. One that also shrugged mundane frivolity in favor of returning to the species’s terrifying roots.
This creation’s name? Strahd von Zarovich.
Not that they rushed their new creation right to the printers. In addition to playtesting the character every Halloween for the next five years, they had also planned on having Strahd be part of their own TTRPG system, dubbed Vampyr. But the name changed to Ravenloft, due to their fanatic players referring to is as “that Ravenloft game.”
Honestly, the effect Strahd had on these early players is more surprising the Robert Patterson’s post-Twilight career. For example, one such player was so affected by Strahd’s backstory that he refused to kill him, forcing his teammates to step in. (As was, Strahd’s backstory back then had him in a slightly more noble light and pursuing vampirism over his insecurity about his age.) Afterward, the player in question ruminated how he believed Strahd “deserved to die better than that.”
…After which Tracy pointed out that Stahd was still a jerk who murdered his brother just because he got friendzoned. Also condemning Ravenloft to be…well, Ravenloft.
Baby Needs A New Pair Of Shoes
So, why did Strahd end up in Dungeons and Dragons instead of Vampyr?
Actually, the Hickmans weren’t strangers to publishing D&D content by the time the count first got swiped left into darkness. In fact, they actually had their own self-publishing company, churning out two modules off their kitchen table. Things weren’t too bad, the Hickmans living the indie life any hipster would sacrifice even their most precious flannel shirts for…
So, yeah, the Hickmans were hurting for cash. To the point where they couldn’t even afford shoes for their kids.
Which, interestingly enough, changed their lives forever. Again, not in the depressing sort of way. After selling both their self-published Rahasia and Pharaoh modules to TSR Games for $500 each, TSR convinced them to move to the untamed wilderness of Wisconsin to properly work for them.
Which might have been one of TSR’s few good decisions that decade. For one thing, the Hickmans’ modules were lauded for their narrative weight and emphasis on in-story locations to explore. For second, the Hickmans spent the trip to Wisconsin working on another hit: Dragonlance.
An RPG History subject in itself, Dragonlance was almost immediately accepted by TSR, whose marketing department felt that Dungeons and Dragons didn’t have enough dragons. No, I’m not kidding.
Twelve scaly modules and a flood of merchandise later, the Hickmans slowly turned back to Ravenloft.
Pick A Card, Any Card
After five years of dragging playtesters through the mists, Module I6: Ravenloft finally made it to tables in 1983. And, actually, this module’s an interesting sight for someone who started out with Curse of Strahd.
Granted, it’s a forty page dwarf compared to the goliath of book we all know and replay into oblivion. But it actually has some interesting narrative versatility when compared to the music video-inspiring module. For example, the usage of playing cards determining plot elements was a thing even back in the TSR days. However, one of those cards actually determined Strahd’s end goal, which isn’t automatically trying to win Ireena. These alternative motives include–
- Yes, going after Ireena. But in this one he actually tries to get one of the player characters to attack Ireena, only to “save” her himself and win her affection. (Also, there’s an alternative ending where she joins Sergei in the afterlife.)
- Destroy the sunsword. (This is a guess, but this might be where the aforementioned playtester hesitated to kill Strahd.)
- Create a magical object that summons an orb of darkness, allowing him to go anywhere during daylight.
- And, my favorite, commit identity theft with one of the player characters and escape Ravenloft as said player character. After getting the party to unwittingly kill their poor friend, of course.
This is a surprisingly stark contrast to Curse of Strahd’s– er- Strahd almost solely focusing on marrying Ireena. Outside of snacking on adventurers that he’s not genuinely serious about picking as a successor, that is.
Either way, this trip through the mists made enough waves to warrant a sequel– Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill. Which went into experimental territory from a narrative standpoint by proposing that the previous module was just a dream or something to that effect. A foreboding dream, considering that the party encounters a different Strahd. I won’t really get into it, because it’s also an interesting D&D romp that deserves a look at.
…And I want to get to the part where the Hickmans left TSR Games.
Von Richten’s Guide to Business BS
It’s 1986. US citizens formed a human chain across the country to raise money for starving people. The Phantom of the Opera debuted alongside Oprah and Mad Cow Disease. And the Hickmans were finishing their bout with TSR Games.
As was, they still pursued side projects, so they had something to fall back on outside of TSR projects. But, of course, there was the fact that TSR Games was being…well, TSR Games. Which at the time was going through some real GoT-styled stuff. Unfortunately, this also included neglecting the Hickmans’ work and even degrading them alongside Dragonlance co-writer Margaret Weis. (Which again, is another piece of RPG history in itself.) Ultimately, this lead to the Hickmans’ departure from TSR games while House on Gryphon Hill was in production.
But like its residential vampire lords, Ravenloft shuffled in defiance of the mere idea of mortality. Other characters such as vampire hunter Rudolph von Richten materialized from the mist. The setting grew to not only include Frankenstein-styled lands and evil carnivals, but also Edgar Allen Poe-inspired alternative history romps. Ravenloft invaded other mediums, its video game adaptions spreading from the pixels of 1994 to the high def of 2018. Novel adaptions were churned out by various horror authors (and whatever you would call Laurel K. Hamilton).
Oh, and WotC almost completely gave up the rights to Ravenloft in 2000. Specifically to White Wolf Publishing during the 3/3.5e era. Or even more specifically to White Wolf’s Sword and Sorcery Studios imprint. WotC wised up and snatched the rights back in 2005, though WWP/SSS maintained the right to sell Ravenloft stuff until June of the following year. Ravenloft didn’t really make any splashes of note in the meantime…
…Until the cursed year of 2016.
What A Wonderful Night For A Curse
Here we are, reader. The part of the story we all know about– Curse of Strahd.
Developed within WotC, CoS was helmed by a number of people. Jeremey Crawford, who (as we previously covered) fought to have more LGBT representation in D&D. Christopher Perkins, who got his dice-centric start all the way back in 1988 with Dragon #11. Mysterious Academy head Adam Lee and former WotC art team manager Richard Whitters.
And, of course, Laura and Tracy Hickman.
After decades away from the mists (outside of playing a Ravenloft campaign every Halloween), the Hickmans were called back to the lands that Strahd built. Perkins, wanting to capture the feel of the original, reached out to the duo to see if they’d be interested in providing their feedback.
Their response was to fly out to California to offer a torrent of new ideas that they always wanted to see put in their original module. The resulting project becoming the fan favorite it is today.
The rest, of course, is RPG history. An actually very pleasant piece of RPG history. The Hickmans created Ravenloft out of a desire to horrify and entertain, returning to such a love to give us a second staple of RPG horror. So, yeah, very happy ending…
…Until we get to Dragonlance. Which is, like, this whole f***ing thing, man.