(Be sure to read the counterpoint piece: The Worst Adventure of All Times)
When I do game design seminars—where I actually take time to listen to you talk about your game, give you advice, challenge your assumptions, etc.—there’s one question I ask that usually knocks people off their feet.
“Can characters die in your game?”
Usually, the answer I get—after a stunned silence—is, “Yes. Of course.”
I follow that up with, “Why?”
Standard answer: “Because if characters can’t die, there’s no real danger.”
That’s when I laugh. Because, like some other GMs out there, I know a deep, dark, nasty secret: I don’t need to kill your character. I can do things a thousand times worse than kill your character. I can hurt your character in ways you can’t imagine. And I can do it without ever engaging with your character sheet. So, when people tell me, “If my character can’t die, there’s no real danger,” I advise them to consult a few of the people who have played in my games.
As a case in point, I invoke the adventure module I believe is the best ever written in the history of Dungeons & Dragons. This one.
Ravenloft came around at an important time for me. Just two years after the Tomb of Horrors debacle, I found Ravenloft at the same store, in the same back corner. I took one look at the cover and I knew it had to be mine. I mean, I knew the guy on the cover was Dracula. Just look at him. It’s Dracula! And I loved Dracula, so I shelled out my ten bucks and took the module home.
All afternoon, I poured over the pages. And it showed me a way to run an adventure I had never considered before. I mean, I’d been doing it as a GM for years, but nobody actually gave me permission to do it.
The game told me to modify the adventure based on my group. Right there. In black and white.
Sure, adventures encouraged you to change the number of monsters, adjust hit points and abilities, but here was a published adventure telling me to change the plot based on my players’ roleplaying abilities. Not their character’s skills, but the players’ roleplaying abilities.
Yeah, it had this random thing to determine the location of the Sun Sword and other key plot elements, and that’s cool, but really, under the text, there were Tracy and Laura Hickman saying, “Go on… just do it. Change it. We do. All the time. You can do it, too.”
And reading through this adventure, something clicked in my brain. A rapid fever, rushing through my blood stream. An excitement I couldn’t explain. I was on the edge of an epiphany, except I didn’t know the word “epiphany” at the time, nor would I be able to tell you what was happening, but I can now. Because by the time I finished reading the adventure, I realized…
… I could make this stuff up as I go.
I didn’t need to decide where the Sun Sword was before the adventure started. I didn’t need to know who Tatyana was. I didn’t need to know anything. I could improvise based on how the players were going through the adventure. In fact, I realized deciding before hand was a mistake. I’d let them wander through the corridors, drop hints, and the player who was most interested in the Tatyana sub-plot got to be Tatyana.
I’d customize the adventure to my group.
Now, like I said, I’d been doing this to a small extent before, but after reading Ravenloft, I went full bore crazy with it. And all because the Hickmans gave me permission to do it. Right there, in the text, clear as black and white, they said, “Modify this as you will.”
I could change the plot. I could—
Wait a second. Wait a second. There’s…
There’s a plot. Like an actual plot. Not a chain of events linked together by the fact the players are in the same room at the same time, but a plot. With a beginning, a second act, a climax, falling action, and a conclusion. And my players are going to influence when these things happen, how they happen, who they happen to and the consequences.
My fourteen year old mind was blown. Blown to smithereens! as Bugs would put it. I’d… never seen anything like this before in an adventure. I mean, sure, there were things like the A-Series that had something resembling a plot, but it was really just a railroad your players jumped on and rode. Here… things could happen in any order. Castle Ravenloft wasn’t a dungeon, it was a sandbox, long before the term became used by game designers. The players could wander around, try different things, encounter stuff… but… but… aren’t other dungeons like that, too?
My little head was swimming. I couldn’t figure it out. There was a nuance here I was missing… what was it?
I’ll tell you what it is. It’s Strahd.
The whole adventure hinges around Strahd. And if I didn’t make him as dark and deadly and dangerous as I could, the whole adventure would fall apart. It would be just another dungeon crawl.
“Yeah, we go in the castle, we find the sword, we figure out that one of us is the reincarnated girlfriend—yawn—and we kill the vampire.”
Strahd was the lynchpin. He gave everything happening context. The players had to discover Strahd. They had to know him. Otherwise, he was just another XP piñata, ready to be popped.
And that’s where the Hickmans really handed me a golden goose. I mean, this one is something I’ve been carrying with me forever. Ever since I sat down on that Saturday afternoon and read this adventure cover to cover. The key element to every adventure I ever wrote.
Killing the adventurers isn’t the worst thing I can do to them. Oh, no. I can make them Strahd.
The Price of Power
D&D is a game about power wish-fulfillment. You start off as a nobody, start working you way up to a local somebody with the eventual goal of becoming a Big Damn Hero. And along the way, you have to make choices. Some choices are minor: do I pick the +2 longsword or the +1 flametongue? Some choices have more significance: do I multi-class into wizard or cleric? And some choices… they have nothing at all to do with your character sheet.
What do I do about my brother seducing the woman I love?
(Don’t tell me, “John, alignment takes care of that!” Because you know and I know that alignment is bullshit. Yeah, you don’t want to say it out loud, but I’m saying it out loud. Alignment is bullshit. It gives you justification for killing people. “Are they evil? Great, we can kill them without moral consequences!” “Are they good? Well, we have to talk to them first.” That’s all alignment does: it tells you who can kill and who you have to talk to before you kill them. Come on… isn’t that why you have the detect evil spell? So you know whether or not you can kill the people you’re talking to? But that isn’t the point of this article. If you want to talk about it more—including my assertion that 90% of adventurers have the alignment “Chaotic Me,” we can do it at a con this year. I’ll be around.)
Strahd had power. He had lands and followers at his command. He had wealth. And, he thought he had found the love of his life. But… things didn’t work out the way he planned. He made a mistake—a horrible mistake—and now he’s cursed for the rest of his life. No, longer than that. Until someone kills him.
He can’t die of old age. Someone has to murder him.
Sounds like the perfect power for your typical player character doesn’t it? Immortality. Your wounds heal in moments, you’re immune to most magic, you have an entire kingdom under your control… everything most PCs want. And yet… the one thing Strahd ever wanted was Tatyana. The one thing he could never have.
Think of it this way… Strahd was a player character. A player character with a really brutal GM. A GM who gave him everything he ever wanted… except one thing. That one thing was the only thing the GM said, “You can’t have this.” And it drove Strahd mad.
At GM seminars, people ask me, “How do I keep my characters from getting too powerful?”
I always answer, “Don’t. Let them get as powerful as they want.” And then, I tell them about Strahd.
Invoking Thulsa Doom: “And that is strength, boy! That is power!”
Players think strength and power comes from the magic items they own, from the levels on their character sheets, from all those abilities they’ve pushed to 18 and beyond… oh, no. There’s a greater power than your character sheet, boy. The strength and power of desire. Of keeping that one thing away from a player… and watching him betray everything and everyone close to him to get it.
The Hickmans taught me this. They taught it to me through Strahd.
As my players wandered through Castle Ravenloft, learning his story, I put them in the roles of the past. Had them play out the tragic love triangle. I didn’t tell them about Strahd’s story, I showed it to them by having them live the story through flashbacks. And once they realized who Strahd was and how he was once like them…
… killing Strahd became a lot more difficult.
The best villains are ones we understand. The ones we see within ourselves.
Doctor Doom isn’t a villain. He’s trying to save his mother from Hell. And he’ll do anything to do it. Pay any price.
Magneto isn’t a villain. He’s trying to protect mutants from the horrors he saw in WWII Germany.
Cardinal Richelieu isn’t a villain. He’s trying to protect the young king and France from schemes and plots both foreign and abroad.
And Strahd isn’t a villain. He was betrayed by his brother and the woman he loved. They lied to him. Deceived him. And he loved them so much…
Strahd is King Arthur gone bad. Super bad. Like poison apple bad. He’s Arthur, she’s Gwenevere and he’s Lancelot and there you go. And that’s what makes him such a fantastic villain. He has understandable flaws, he has admirable strengths and he made a mistake that any of us could have made. And now, he’s paying the price.
The reason good horror movies work and we laugh at the bad ones is sympathy. In Alien—the greatest horror movie ever made—the protagonists have no idea what they’re up against and neither do we. They come up with a plan and we say to ourselves, “That sounds like a good plan. Yeah, let’s do that.” Then, someone gets killed and we’re sitting in the audience going, “That could have been me.”
We laugh at bad horror movies because the people are dumb. Dead Teenager Movies. We aren’t scared. We are the serial killer. We’re amused watching these people die because they deserve to die.
Yeah… I can’t watch those movies, either.
Back to the point… when we recognize the villain is us, that’s the true horror moment. You could be Strahd. I could be Strahd. And putting in flashbacks so you’re walking around in his shoes is the most brilliant way imaginable to show the players the truth.
You want power? You want wealth? You want a kingdom of your own? Great. You can have it. And when you claim everything you want with bloody hands… there’s a price you have to pay.
Here’s Strahd. Here’s the price. Are you willing to pay it?
The first time I met Tracy Hickman, it was at an after party for the Origins Awards. I had just won for Legend of the Five Rings RPG and I was flying pretty high. Someone pointed Tracy out to me. I wanted to win points. So, approached him, I shook his hand and said, “I really loved THAC0.”
He laughed, recognizing my ploy—Tracy is a clever man—and we talked very briefly. I also told him, “You made me a better GM.”
He said, “I’m glad you liked Dragonlance.”
I told him, “No,” then I corrected myself. “I mean, yes. I liked Dragonlance. But Ravenloft. Holy crap, man. That was amazing.”
He said something polite and we talked for a little longer, then he went away and I spent the rest of the night trying to get over meeting Tracy Hickman.
Years later, I’ve shown up twice at his Killer Breakfasts. They’re a riot. You should check them out. I tried to pull a trick. It stumped him for a moment. Just a moment.
See, I had a plan. I wanted to throw a spanner in the works. I’m a Discordian, I can’t help it. So, when it came time for my turn in the Breakfast, I announced, “I cast a spell that directs all damage and danger to me, making all other players invulnerable to damage for this many rounds…”
I rolled the d6. The only part of my plan that could screw with me. Dice never liked me, but for some reason, I rolled a 6.
“SIX ROUNDS!” I announced. “FOR SIX ROUNDS, YOU—TRACY HICKMAN—CANNOT KILL ANY CHARACTERS!”
I also made sure I was at the end of the line so my “spell” would have the maximum effect.
The crowd cheered, thinking someone had thwarted the Mighty Tracy Hickman at his own Killer Breakfast. I tore up my character sheet. “I DIE HAPPILY, KNOWING I HAVE DEFEATED THE GREAT HICKMAN!”
And for a moment… for a brief moment… Tracy was stumped. I left the stage, getting a few high fives. I was on top of the world.
And then, the Great Tracy Hickman smiled. “I can’t kill any characters…” he said. So, he handed the GM staff over to Laura. “Can you run the game, honey?” he asked.
She smiled and took over. “Of course,” she said. And preceded to kill everyone on stage.
I succeeded in thwarting the Hickmans for a moment. Just a moment. And that’s victory enough for me. But the fact of the matter is, Tracy and Laura are amazing GMs. Because they can think on their feet… they can improvise… and they understand what makes a great story.
That’s why Ravenloft is The Greatest Adventure of All Times. Because in that text, they showed me… no… they gave me permission to follow in their footsteps.
And those are damn big footsteps to fill.