Monday, May 27, 2024

Deconstructed Ravenloft for Dinner - Mindstorm Guest Blog

This year, my friend Ty is taking his blog on tour, and I'm lucky enough to be honored with one of his highly-prized articles. I've said some pretty harsh things about Ravenloft in the past, so of course I was delighted to see Ty take that as a challenge. I think you'll agree, the results are top notch. Please enjoy this excellent guest post, and be sure to go check out Mindstorm afterwards if you aren't already following his work.


Deconstructed Ravenloft for Dinner

Since its inception, Ravenloft and the fearsome Strahd have captured the hearts and minds of tabletop gamers everywhere. From the first published edition—made for AD&D—all the way to the mass-marketed, bloated, and hyper-commercialized iteration for fifth edition, people have been delving into the lands beyond the mist and trying to fight the big daddy vampire.

What makes the adventure and setting so dang captivating? And, more importantly, can we break it down into its base components, inspect those components, replace them, and then force everything back together? Sometimes, the best way to play with legos is to smash your big sibling’s castle and then try to put it back together before they get home. Our version of Ravenloft is going to slap because it’s going to be personal, homemade, and filled with our own unique interests and idiosyncrasies.

Strap in. We’re hot-dropping into Barovia for the biggest heist imaginable. We’re taking the ideas.

The Components of Ravenloft

Dan over at Throne of Salt talks about creativity in a way that I love, respect, and wish I was smart enough to write. You cannot create something in a void—everything we make comes from synthesizing the experiences we’ve lived throughout our lives, the things we’ve resonated with, and the things we hated with a venomous passion (because, obviously, we could have done them better). Dan argues that creativity is broken into three parts: comprehension, deconstruction, and reconstruction.

To make our own bootleg-but-bumping Ravenloft we first need to deconstruct and understand it.  So let’s shove it into a malfunctioning nuclear reactor to break down its DNA and analyze each piece separately. I’ll also be assigning a “relevancy” rating to each piece, using a narrative geiger-counter, which measures across the very scientific scale of 1–3. This rating measures how important the component is to our newly constructed adventure. Oddly enough, the big sign on the side of this reactor reads: all this is subjective, and not objective, so don’t @ me. (But you should reply to this post in the comment section, since it’ll be Dwiz having to read and respond to them while I turn into 3d6 swarms of rats and abscond into the night, Strahd-style.)

Gothic Horror
Relevancy: 1/3

Ravenloft is a dreary place and Strahd is your typical vamp. Look at this guy: he’s a brooding loner, all-powerful with supernatural abilities, involuntarily celibate, and the utter master of his domain. Barovia is all thunderclouds, rain, and dark scary forests. 

“Wow, this is certainly a 3 on the relevancy meter,” you think! Wrong. I don’t think this as important as one might wager, and I think I can prove that later on when we start shoving the pieces back together.

A Powerful Supernatural Tyrant
Relevancy: 3/3

Strahd controls his domain from Castle Ravenloft, looking out over it from on high and terrorizing the people of Barovia—who in turn have to suck it up and take it with a smile, just hoping for some plucky adventurers to come around and punch him right in his handsome, smug face.

This is a fundamental part of the adventure and should be fundamental to our deconstruction. The geiger-counter is going off the charts. We must have a powerful figure and villain for the PCs to fight against.

Strahd is a vampire, which means that he’s impossibly fast… and strong. This is another important detail and we should hew closely to it. Our reconstruction doesn’t need to have vampires or werewolves or any of that fun stuff, but the villain needs to be souped-up in some way so that the PCs won’t win in the first fight against them.

A Hopeless Place
Relevancy: 2/3

Barovia sucks big time. The people have been under the rule of Strahd for so long that they don’t even bother fighting back. They cannot escape, so what’s the point? Unless there’s a spark, there can be no revolution, and the citizens are all one big wet blanket. Until the PCs arrive, of course. PCs could light an ocean on fire.

Our adventure should have a place to bum around in before facing the big bad. The way Ravenloft handles this is by using Barovia—both the village and valley Strahd controls. While the theme of the village fits well with the oppression (storm clouds, gothic architecture, sad sacks, etc) we don’t necessarily need to keep that the same in our new-and-improved adventure. But we should focus on a few key things:
  • It should be difficult to get help from most (if not all) of the people here. 
  • The people are scared of the tyrant. Double-crossing might just be on the menu tonight.
  • Any spark of rebellion has been smoothed down like a river stone. 

The Crucible
Relevancy: 2/3

Once you enter Ravenloft, you’re stuck, baby. In the original module, the fog immediately wraps around your vital organs like one of those “where’s my hug” guys that plague the nation. If you leave Barovia, it begins to choke you from the inside out. A day later and it’s game over, man. Anyone can get in, nobody gets out. Once the game begins, you’re in the crucible, and it’s either win or die.

This is super solid design. We want to contain the landscape for our adventure, removing GM-death-inducing infinite expansiveness and instead hone it down into a sharp, exciting, detailed playspace. Also, calm down. Putting borders in isn’t railroading.

The Gimmick
Relevency: 1/3

We all know it. Get the card deck out, kids. Three draws determine where important artifacts are in the adventure, one card determines where Strahd himself is, and the last card determines Strahd’s actual goal.

This is pretty cool for a one-shot adventure, the way Ravenloft is intended. But in the fifth edition version of the game, you’re expected to be living in the world for a long time—multiple levels worth. When you stretch something out like that, the importance of where the items are matters less and less. In the end, you’re not really in some kind of big rush or countdown. You’re at the theme park, sampling all the rides. In the original version, played on Halloween,  you’d need to grab the gear and then rush Strahd, trying to get everything done in one night.

You could really play with this for your own adventure. Variables that change with each draw are fun, but you could introduce a bunch of other meta-games into the mix and see how they land. It’s not really important, but damn, it’s fun.

The Semi-Helpful Faction
Relevancy: 3/3

Madame Eva is the fortune-teller who has the honor of delivering The Gimmick to the PCs. It’s never quite clear on if she’s good or bad, which makes her the perfect NPC. And while she does hand the PCs the keys to Strahdy Boy’s destruction, she also serves him.

Put a faction playing both sides high up on the list. Factions are great, factions that exist on the grey spectrum between evil and good are even better.

The Big Dumb Bad Guys
Relevancy: 3/3

The wolves in the Svalich Woods, in the original module, are pretty much your standard big meat-head brutes. If you mess around too long in the woods, they’re going to show up like an out-of-bounds warning in a video game, pushing the players to stop playing and start vamp-hunting. And, the book declares proudly, Strahd shows up every single night with his wolves and bats to attack the PCs. He doesn’t even wanna kill them or suck their blood. He’s just there to fight a little bit and then high-tail it out of there. This guy is flexing on the group with his boys.

More factions is better. Giving the tyrant some fun hammers to smash the nail-headed PCs is great.

The Fortress
Relevancy: 3/3

The big gothic castle looms over the village, basically begging the PCs to run up and kick the doors in. “Where’s Strahd,” they’re shouting, “we’re here to beat his ass.” The castle is a pretty massive dungeon with a lot of confusing stairways. In an attempt to convince everyone that it’s not that confusing if you take a few minutes and just think about it, people have remade the map to make it easier to understand.

Our big bad tyrant isn’t just going to be sitting on the beach waiting for the characters to fight them. They’re going to need some kind of fortress to lord over their domain. The PCs need a location to siege so that they feel like they’re important and helping. And this location needs to be both something that's fun and interesting.

Relevancy: 1/3

Strahd is growing like a mold with each subsequent edition, his lore becoming a twisted path for the players to walk alongside. Except it’s raining and the path has been churned to mud, so it’s almost a given that everyone along for the ride is about to get bogged down. For the latest iteration, Curse of Strahd, the GM has to try and explain things like lost loves, betrayals, reincarnations, curses, and numerous other details I’m sure I’ve forgotten.

A little background, as a treat, is fine and tasty. But trying to parse a novella (or in some cases, full novels) worth of history for our big bad is going to be tough on players. 


I like ordered lists, so it’s time to subject you to one. Here’s the components, from least relevant to most relevant:

1 Point of Relevancy (Least Important)
  • Loredumping
  • The gimmick
  • Gothic horror
2 Points of Relevancy
  • The crucible
  • A hopeless place
3 Points of Relevancy (Most Important)
  • A powerful supernatural tyrant
  • The semi-helpful faction
  • The big dumb bad guys
  • The fortress
From here, we can zero in on what’s important as we forge our very own strahd-type adventure. We’ll start from most relevant and work our way down, holding up each component like a piece of fruit and deciding if we want to put it in our fruit salad. 

Dwiz is waving at me from off-stage, telling me my time is up, so rather than drill down and construct a full strahd-type adventure on this blog, I’m going to provide some sparklists to use as a jumping off point. This structure is so strong that you’re probably having ideas that are going to outshine mine.

A Powerful Supernatural Tyrant
Who rules over this realm with complete authority?
  1. A “playful” demi-god
  2. An archwizard running a social experiment
  3. An unfathomable creature from a different universe or plane
  4. An automaton dedicated to order
  5. A sentient plant, desiring to spread and grow
  6. A fickle fey lord, embracing chaos
  7. A monstrous intelligent spider, weaving webs
  8. A fallen angel, seeking redemption from its god
  9. An old adventurer with artifacts of power, working for the greater good
  10. The exemplar version of a classic mythological monster

The Fortress
Where does the tyrant hold court?
  1. A walled, sprawling estate with a hedge maze
  2. A tower, impossibly high, stretching into the clouds
  3. A mind palace in the psyche of a wandering gigantic worm
  4. A temple built around a single elemental theme
  5. A massive golden tree, hollowed out and reinforced
  6. A moving contraption on eight legs that patrols the realm
  7. A maze of non-euclidean geometry
  8. A pit, deep into the earth with a network of tunnels
  9. A castle in the sky
  10. A twisting wood that comes alive

The Big Dumb Bad Guys
Who does the tyrant deploy against threats?
  1. Man-made constructs of steel and wire
  2. Monstrous abominations, stitched together from many different beasts
  3. A group of tough bravos, eager to show off and impress
  4. A hivemind of bugs, controlled by the tyrant through pheromones
  5. Citizen sleeper-agents, activated by the tyrant
  6. Fanatics, made feral by their unquestioned faith
  7. Normal folk, corrupted by the supernatural essence of the tyrant
  8. “Offshoots” of the tyrant in whatever way makes sense
  9. The natural wildlife, made hostile and in control by the tyrant
  10. A corrupted or mutated version of the semi-helpful faction

The Semi-Helpful Faction
Who is playing both sides of the conflict, aligning with the tyrant and their enemies?
  1. Guerilla freedom fighters
  2. Wizardless wizard apprentices
  3. Awakened animals
  4. Cultists of a cruel god
  5. Unshakeable holy warriors
  6. Traveling merchant spies
  7. Insatiable monsters
  8. An incorporeal force
  9. The minor lords who desire more but fear the tyrant
  10. Inter-planar travelers

The Crucible
What will keep the player characters in the realm until they win or die?
  1. A magical one-way barrier, like a big dome
  2. The realm is unconnected to reality and the surroundings are inhospitable to mortals
  3. An island surrounded by shipbreaking storms
  4. A mechanical construction of ever-shifting sections
  5. A desolation, with this realm being the only oasis
  6. The realm is a city under siege by overwhelming forces
  7. Unkillable monsters surround the realm, slaughtering any who leave
  8. An enchantment that turns people around when they try to leave
  9. The realm is at the center of a maze that can never be mapped
  10. The realm is part of the divine, leaving means tearing off your mortal coil

A Hopeless Place
Why don’t the people rebel against the tyrant?
  1. Mere thoughts of rebellion are logged by inquisitors
  2. This place is actually a “paradise”
  3. The populace is infatuated and in love with the tyrant
  4. Distrust and infighting are encouraged and rampant
  5. The populace has their memory locked and “forgets” each day
  6. Leeches, attached to the back of the neck, sap free will
  7. Shapeshifters hide among the populace and spy for the tyrant
  8. The populace believes the tyrant will elevate them if they behave
  9. Psychic storms rampage the mind
  10. The tyrant keeps hostages to ensure loyalty

The Gimmick
The more meta the better.
  1. The tool to destroy the tyrant is placed randomly in the adventure from a card draw
  2. The tyrant cycles through different vulnerabilities at a set interval (seasons, months, time of day, etc)
  3. At the end of each session, the game world resets, but the player characters retain memories
  4. The tyrant takes a different action each day based on a single yahtzee roll
  5. The amount of time the characters have to defeat the tyrant, and what each interval looks like, is governed by a set of cards.
  6. Defeating the tyrant requires collecting puzzle pieces and solving a literal puzzle
  7. The tyrant’s actions are meticulous and repetitive, able to be tracked and exploited
  8. The current “power level” of the brute and semi-helpful factions are randomized at regular intervals
  9. A game within the game must be mastered to beat the tyrant; think chess or poker or a board game
  10. The entire module is contained as a capsule game

You probably already have one of these in mind.
  1. You’ve got swords and you’ve got sorcery
  2. First, take a planet, then add ray-guns and swords
  3. You can always climb into the depths of real world history for “fun”
  4. The nineties were a great time for isolation horror
  5. Fiction, but science-style
  6. A good ol’ fashioned, rooting, tooting, gun-toting western
  7. High fantasy, with the quadratic wizards and magic item drip
  8. Punk! Just add cyber, steam, or mage
  9. What if you made it like a fairy tale or something
  10. Take a couple of apocalypses and post- them.

When the big-bad needs to monologue, what the heck should he talk about?
  1. The tyrant was betrayed in the past by their closest compatriot, who remains in the realm
  2. The tyrant once was a champion of good but fell to a corrupting influence
  3. The tyrant is trying to hold back a greater evil
  4. The nature of the tyrant is a curse that will pass to any who defeat them
  5. The tyrant has a family or intimate connection somewhere in the realm
  6. The tyrant is trying to suppress and hide a prophecy
  7. The power of the tyrant comes from a faustian deal
  8. The tyrant wishes to leave this realm but cannot
  9. This is actually the third iteration, spawn, or child of the tyrant
  10. Something much more sinister is pulling the strings of the tyrant


The strahd-type adventure framework is such a strong foundation to build on that I’m actually a bit surprised we haven’t seen it out there in the wild more. Hopefully, by me laying out the components of Ravenloft in this post, you’ll be inspired enough to cook up your own version. It might not have a sulking vampire, but it’ll have something even better—your own fingermarks on the clay and the ability to make just the type of adventure you want. 

If you want me to come back to the blog and do this for another module, sound off in the comments so I can feed my own ego and prove to Dwiz how cool I am. If you hated this (not just disagreed with—actually hated) just know that I’m only a silly little guy and you can’t be mad at me.


  1. Do I think Ravenloft or any of its subsequent re-releases are any good? Not really. But that doesn't mean we can't suck the blood out of them for our own nefarious purposes. Thank you for hosting this post, my friend!

  2. I'm pretty sure this was unintentional, but the fact that first sentence has the word "inception" and a few paragraphs later Ty uses the metaphor of an idea heist is a very funny coincidence.

  3. What other modules would you be inclined to do this for? Weird as it sounds, I think Ravenloft might be the most iconic D&D module. By a long, long, long way. MAYBE one of the Underdark ones is close?

    1. I think the most iconic ones overall are either Keep on the Borderlands or Tomb of Horrors. But the basic situation in Keep has already formed the template for all dungeoncrawl gaming, and Tomb doesn't have a particularly juicy situation to get tangled up in.

  4. Maybe we can try to play Manse of Bad Memories again this year, see what another crop of kids gets up to.

    Or maybe around Halloween I can run the original Ravenloft game for a group, I've run it many times and have very tender feelings for it.