Friday, February 15, 2013

RPG Stuff: Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

(In all honesty, I'm only expecting a handful of the people who ever read my blog to understand half of the stuff I'm about to talk about, never mind actually care about it, but it's something that I thought might be interesting to talk about and it's something that interests me. So take it with a grain of salt, I guess, and feel free to speak up if you have any comments.)

A few years ago (it was during high school, so it was probably something like '06 or '07), I ran a D&D campaign called Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. It was a premade adventure printed by Wizards of the Coast that served as a throwback of sorts to the classic Ravenloft campaign setting originally published for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in 1990 (though the original adventure was actually published way back in 1983, but that's neither here nor there). It was a well-polished adventure and was the first premade that caught my eye.

Expedition to Castle Ravenloft was designed for use with D&D 3rd Edition, the system that my group at the time used, and was absolutely stuffed full of awesome little nods to classic horror tropes, including Frankenstein-type monsters, werewolves, Lovecraftian horror and, of course, the main villain Count Strahd von Zarovich, a wonderful homage to Dracula. The adventure brought the characters to a town in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, then thrust them into a web of intrigue and horror as they tried to unravel Count Strahd's plots and return the land of Barovia to a peaceful state.

The 3.5 remake did a good job remaining true to the original material from '83; all the same villains were present, the locales were mostly the same, and the constant feeling of dread permeated the entire campaign setting. As in the original, the remake even allowed certain plot points to be randomized: Count Strahd's ultimate goal, for instance, was determined by rolling a d6 and comparing it to a chart; the placement of powerful artifacts necessary to defeat Strahd was randomized by a tarot card reading done for the characters by an NPC; and other little options were given to the GM to place wherever they saw fit. All in all, it was a very well-written adventure and I was excited to run it.

As the first adventure I ever ran for other people, however, there were some hurdles along the way. Being a GM for the first time was certainly a learning experience and, though I look back fondly on the Ravenloft campaign, there are still things I could have done better. Here are some bullet-point notes on each of the failings of the campaign, condensed down as much as possible:

  • Though I invited five people to be part of the group, I killed two characters during the second session simply because they couldn't be present. Now, admittedly, one of the characters hadn't been present since the beginning of the adventure, and the characters died valiantly during a combat that very nearly turned into a TPK (total party kill, for those not versed in RPG lexicon), but it was a bad call. At most, I should have had the characters taken out of commission for the session and had them dragged back to town. Jesse and Scott: I am sorry I killed your characters. The game would have been so different with you there and I apologize for frustrating you enough to drop out.
  • When starting the campaign, I told all players to create their own characters but that I was going to write each of their backstories. It was a good way to give some extra motivations to the characters, and to draw lines in the sand about who they trusted and who they didn't. What I didn't count on was each player min-maxing their characters (making them as powerful as possible) to the point of breaking the adventure. Marvin the cleric was designed to destroy all undead ever, Jack the ranger was a werewolf-killing machine, and Usopp the gnome wizard was a powerful spellcaster that pulled spells from the depths of the Spell Compendium. It got so bad that, at one point, Marvin nearly outright destroyed Strahd in a single blast. I had to intercede with some GM deus ex machina to save the major villain but, had I run things by the book, the entire campaign would have finished in session two. Note to all GMs: Take an active part in your players' character generation; it's the only way to ensure that broken characters don't enter your campaign and nearly ruin everything.
  • In short: I did not create a foreboding enough environment of horror. Though I tried to do a good job establishing the dread permeating the entire setting and subjected the party to some very weird and creepy stuff, the entire time there was no fear that the characters might die (except during the almost-TPK mentioned above). Ravenloft is supposed to be a taxing experience, one that breaks the players down with the intent of building them back up and, ultimately, defeating the evil villain. Instead, there was little doubt the characters would ever emerge victorious from a combat, and there were no consequences for any of their actions. (I recently discovered some transcripts of another group running the same adventure, and the GM does a much better job instilling a sense of fear and dread amongst his players; you should really check it out.)
All that being said, there were some inadvertent "failures" that turned into hilarious vignettes of awesomeness. For instance: when exploring a cave, a slide trap was activated, sending any characters above sliding to the base of the nearby waterfall. Instead of a gentle slide into a waterfall, however, I instead had the slide exit out of the side of a cliff and sent any people who went down hurtling through the air (simply because I didn't read the entry properly). As the enemy they were fighting at the time had also jumped down the slide, we suddenly had an entire combat scenario that happened while flying through the air above a lake (that was several times larger than the book described). It was an entertaining fight, with recoil from crossbows sending people on different trajectories and so forth, and became a staple story shared between the players involved for months to follow.

Despite all of the failings, whether truly disappointing or simply hilarious, it was a learning experience for a novice GM and remains, to this day, one of the most memorable experiences I have with D&D. It is for this reason, and because of the way the campaign ended, that I have ultimately decided to revisit Barovia in a new campaign I am designing. I will go into detail regarding my decisions in the next entry but, for the time being, let me assure you that the adventure ended in such a way that I would be remiss not to return to Castle Ravenloft and finish the story.

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