Ah, Curse of Strahd. The campaign that launched video game expansions, literary adaptions, and music videos so catchy that they require brain surgery to get out of your mind. A string of words that would awaken any Dungeons and Dragons player buried beneath twelve layers of coma. (Right next to “Oh wow this monk subclass is actually pretty great.”)
A while back, I covered a project co-headed by Beth the Bard, a DM whose past work includes a genderbent Curse of Strand. An intriguing concept to me for certain. On one hand, I’m a feminist, so that sort of thing would definitely get my attention. On the other hand, the world needs more female villains.
But, on the other other hand, I had a burning questions. Why not just play the normal module, but just genderbend the characters as you go? How much does it change? What exactly does the advertised feminist spin look like here? Is this honestly worth the $20?
This was originally going to start as a mere review. But like all wicked endeavors, things got complicated. Nitpicks became issues that often pop up when writing female villains. The book’s good intentions took an ironic turn that, quite frankly, need to be talked about.
So reader, if you have the desire, take my hand and let’s plunge into She Is The Ancient.
Also, be decent in the comments section, people.
Entering the Mists
The introduction makes the module’s intentions clear. Beth’s not out to step onto toes, nor merely rewrite Curse of Strahd with flipped pronouns. (In fact, she even encourages to have the original module and Von Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft on hand.) Her main goal is removing women as plot devices/carnal devices for powerful men. Noble endeavor in my book, as I remember rolling my eyes at the original module using Tatyana/Ireena as such a plot device.
She follows this up with some critique about the original Strahd, denouncing him as “the epitome of abusive, male-dominated and toxic patriarchy.” Not an unfair diagnosis, and one actually fitting for a villain that the party needs to destroy.
And then we get to the meat– the genderbent Strahd herself.
Cliff notes version of the original Count Strahd von Zarovich, for those who need a refresher/means of comparison. He was a cold, power-hungry warlord that conquered the land he would rename “Barovia,” establishing himself as its ruler. His younger brother Sergei was a much nicer guy (due to his mother making it a point to not raise another Strahd) and engaged to a lovely woman named Tatyana. Strahd also developed the hots for Tatyana, but she was super put off by him. So, Strahd did the reasonable thing and murdered his brother on his wedding day, drank his blood to fulfill a dark pact, and chased Tatyana off a ledge to her death. Strahd became a vampire and Barovia became a dark realm that he refuses to leave, immune to any humanization that D&D players/fanfic try to project onto him.
He’s also is out to make Tatyana’s reincarnation- Ireena- his queen.
Which brings us to Countess Strahd. She was an equally ruthless conquerer who eventually made the same bid for dark immortality. But she was significantly more protective of this world’s Sergei, even going so far as to despise Tatyana for trying to snatch him away. When she got word that Sergei would leave the royal family upon marrying Tatyana, Strahd reacting by killing Sergei in a blind rage. Her attempts to revive him via vampire blood failing, things went bad real quick in Barovia and Tatyana died soon after. Strahd attempted to find her brother’s reincarnation, only finding Tatyana’s reincarnations every time. After centuries of killing Tatyana incarnates, Strahd fell in love with her and also decided to marry Ireena.
So, now that the stage it set, you might be asking– should I consider running this module?
When A Remake Isn’t A Remake
Actually, the answer is “yes.” As you’re going to find out in the next section, I have a few glaring issues with this module. But this module is one of the most well-written ones I’ve seen in the homebrewsphere.
It would actually be ideal to run with a group that already played the original Curse of Strahd, due to the fact that She Is The Ancient isn’t a remake, so much as a remix. Parts of the original are changed in ways to keep CoS veterans guessing. Dare I say, even improved. For example, and at risk of spoilers, the Death House. In the original, the house created illusions of children to lure your party in to its trap. But in this remix, the children are actually ghosts, which alone serves as a surprising reveal.
The sheer organization of She Is The Ancient is DM friendly, the possibility of queer relationships very welcome in my (biromantic asexual) eyes. And, of course, there’s the art, which is absolutely gorgeous.
In short, if you’re going to rework a beloved module, this is the way to do it.
….Unless your goal is to have a great antagonist.
When Feminist Intentions Become Un-Feminist
D&D players love Strahd as a villain. Not necessarily because of his sexist undertones (at least, one hopes), but because he scared players. And he scared players because he was an utter monster. He trapped Barovia in its current state with his sheer evilness, and refuses to free it/himself because of that same evilness. He sees everyone– even Ireena– as pawns, going after the party out of sadistic curiosity. Most terrifying of all– the man was completely immune to any sort of humanization. He can’t be reasoned with nor redeemed, and that intrigued us more.
Countess Strahd, on the other hand, doesn’t quite hit like her original counterpart. She comes off more as a tortured victim of life than a haunting force of darkness. She’s actually trapped in Barovia, unlike the original Strahd who remains there out of sheer selfishness. Her character bio has her acting on fits of emotion (stereotype sound familiar, ladies?), as opposed to original Strahd’s cold/calculating/unnerving behavior. She doesn’t even lord over her vampire spawn, treating them as equals and even fawning over them. (Which could work, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) She’s intimidating, but not scary.
I’m not saying copy/paste the original Strahd; you just don’t see too many villainesses who are monsters. Honestly, it’s a problem I think many people have with writing female villains. They’re afraid to make villainesses just as cruel and uncaring as their male counterparts because of their gender.
Which brings us to the problem I hate to bring up– I can’t say I consider this much more feminist than the original Curse of Strahd. Strahd’s gender switch seemingly resulted in her defanging. She’s more victimized than her male counterpart, having less agency than the original Strahd. And Ireena- the biggest living plot device in the original campaign- is still treated as such.
Ireena’s role in this perplexes me the most. Why not just have the focus be more on Strahd’s attempts to find/revive her brother, like in the intro’s original plot point? Why not replace her not-harem with a family of pseudo-siblings? I honestly found the idea of her trying to find her brother’s reincarnation and instead only finding Tatyana (much to her rage) pretty interesting. (The allure of unsympathetic villains aside, I’ll always be a sucker for interesting antagonists. Even in a Curse of Strahd remix.) The fact that we missed out on such an interesting antagonist and a storyline not dependent on a love interest hurts.
Yes, I’d recommend She Is The Ancient, but not as a feminist take on Curse of Strahd. It’s still immensely robust, especially if you’re a fan of the original that wants to mix it up a bit!