[OSR D&D] Actual Play Report – Social Justice Warriors vs. Castle Ravenloft, Session 3

“I’m dead, aren’t I?”

“You’ve fallen a hundred and thirty feet. You tell me.”

So, when last we left off, Anura (Hark’s Paladin) and Svinish Ingmov (E’s Cleric/Thief) were parked in Strahd’s dining room and had flung abuse (and a chicken leg) at the “it’s all done with mirrors” Strahd, provoking his ire and pitching all things into stormy darkness. Unbeknownst to them, the spectre of the powerful evil cleric from the Chapel was still active, and would return after five hours to deliver its deadly screech at an inopportune moment.

They pressed on, huddled in the Continual Light from Svinish’s enchanted garlic clove, and Anura found the fake organ pipe that led into the passage around the outside wall. (Incidentally, the rather uninspiring “there is a secret door here” required a certain amount of dressing up – I would have preferred this to be more detailed since, again, if I’m lazy enough to run a module I’m lazy enough to not make up my own secret door mechanisms.)

Five Strahd Zombies awaited them in the tower floor at the far end; Anura successfully Turned them into hiding long enough for the party to proceed around the corner and fight a rearguard action. The zombies were overcome in a rather cramped combat where Anura took something of a beating and Ismar was guided to step in and finish things off. The Strahd zombies’ dismembered body parts were a nice touch, and much was made of severed hands, orphaned legs and slithering viscera; this really seemed to have some impact on E., who made eliminating these atrocities something of a priority in Svinish’s turns.

(At this level, combats feel like they take too long, with high HP totals being thwapped to and fro. Descriptive fatigue began to set in and after the fourth or so go, the turns were boiling down to “I roll to hit, I roll damage” in an effort to get this random encounter out of the way. Part of it, as E. noted in our after-action review, was the number of cramped corridor fights; one feels like the fights should be happening in places like Strahd’s dining room where there’s more scenery to play off. I don’t know if this is a weakness of my bad self as a DM, if I should be putting more interactables in corridors a la Diablo III where walls can be crashed down and dubious-quality floors broken in, but again, that feels like work that a module should be doing in and of itself… am I missing the point of modules entirely or something?)

The party ascended the staircase on the bottom right corner of the dining room and found themselves on the ramparts, breaking into Strahd’s cloakroom when they found the window thereto and making a big damn deal out of setting light to his cloaks and evening dress (presumably because they found him to be an insufferable poseur). When they proceeded through to Strahd’s boudoir they found Gertrude, snapped her out of her fairytale illusions with Svinish’s claim that “you think you’re the first? Eighteen other girls, babe, eighteen other girls” making her decide that she didn’t want to be in Bluebeard, and demanded that she lead them to the study, i.e. the room next door, i.e. the room where Strahd himself was lurking, invisible and aloft, alerted by the crashing of windows, the smell of smoke from his dressing room, and the noise of Svinish being oratorical.

This wasn’t the easiest thing for me to administer, since Strahd had Svinish Charmed and his stated objective was to capture Ireena, who was being kept safe in the middle of the party. In the end I had him drop onto the top of them as they entered the room proper, and abuse the surprise round and his superior vampire speed to yank her into the ‘Miss Havisham’ dining room next door, Hold Portal on the door and leave them giving chase the long way round, finding the steel door leading to the back stairs up to the next level Held by the time they got there.

Restraining Ismar for as long as they could, the players ransacked Strahd’s study and eventually found their way into the false treasury behind the fireplace. Svinish opened the chest and with a hiss of gas, the unfortunate and increasingly ineffective NPC Cleric Donavich passed out for the next four hours. The party left Gertrude to keep an eye on him and returned to the steel door (now un-Held).

The corridor beyond held another corridor fight with the two wraiths, and this is where I began to regret my “I’ll give you some extra levels since you’re only two characters” choice at the start of play. At the very least I should have stayed within the upper end of the module’s original threshold – two level sevens with a magic item each would have had a much less awkward/boring/player-frustrating fight here, with their Turns strong enough to pin the wraiths in their alcoves and the fight itself amounting to an exercise in punching fog, since there was so little to do in a cross-shaped otherwise-empty corridor. Ismar, who was in the lead and still only fourth level, lost all his levels in a single blow and perished, while Svinish lost a level in Thief from a hit during the first round before he had Shillelagh up and cast.

There followed some discussion over what to do with Ismar’s body, since nobody wanted him coming back as a vengeful undead wossname (good job too since Strahd had that Animate Dead burning a hole in his spell list), and eventually they shut him in the chest in the fake treasury, spending some time staring at the dead guy and the torches, certain that there was something they should be doing but not twigging what it needed to be. In the end they took both the torches and proceeded up the stairs beyond the steel door, where they encountered…

… Leif, the Count’s Accountant! Deploying all the oily charm and Charisma at their disposal, they convinced Leif to show them into the King’s Chamber, wherein were kept the Sunsword and the Holy Symbol of Ravenloft both. Anura’s cursed +1 sword of genericness fused with the Sunsword to create, well, a sword of Strahd-murdering, and Svinish claimed the Holy Symbol. (If the players hadn’t both been kinda pissed at D&D combat I’d have had a random encounter here for them to test out their new toys and pose them a major challenge, but that wraith fight seemed to have left a bad taste in their mouths. Perhaps that evil cleric spectre should have showed up again…)

There then followed some… confused… exploration. My notes on this part are a bit scanty, but I recall a lot of trawling through corridors, finding the deep deep shaft through which the ‘elevator’ trap operates, and E. trying to climb down it, botching the roll and technically sending Svinish to his doom.

(Here follows a lengthy discussion of good DMing practice ‘twixt myself and E., in which I explain that this sort of “you did something dumb and now you reroll and start over” play is meant to be part of the game’s charm. E. was not convinced, or perhaps not entirely clear on why this was a good thing – it wasn’t a death that served any particular dramatic or narrative purpose, and she’d done the stupid thing because she had no idea what else to do with this room, no dungeoneering experience to draw on. Now, building up that experience through repeated character deaths is again, part of the game, and I wonder if we shouldn’t have started out as lowbies and learned those lessons instead of engaging with this module that has a kind of narrative shape to it. At least one of the authors was implicated in Dragonlance, allegedly the true birth of story-gaming, and it’s true that Ravenloft feels at times like something that’s not meant to work as a deathtrap dungeon in the old school sense. You’re meant to get through it and uncover Strahd and once you’re in there it feels a bit contrived to just… have a new PC turn up out of nowhere. I know that’s how old school works, but Ravenloft is so concerned with Strahd and his motivations and its own attempts to be rooted in a literary genre that it fosters a different set of expectations and creates a clash between narrative and the pure game.

For the sake of getting through the module I allowed a backsie, which I still feel was in some way the Wrong decision, a compromise of my integrity – but then I’d fudged around Hark’s arbitrary ‘whoops you rolled less than 5% and now you fall through the drawbridge to your death’ death at the beginning too, which I suppose outs me as a storygamer Swine who has no business feeling guilty about ‘proper DM practice’ in the first place. I think the difference here is that a player did something dumb and I have, in the past, stated that ignorance and carelessness are the things that will get characters killed, so it does feel like a betrayal of my principles. I felt, though, that E. hadn’t engaged with those principles, that we didn’t have the sort of good faith and common understanding that that was how the game worked, and that putting her out of action with this rather self-contained module incomplete would effectively put her out of the game, and leave the implied Gothic novel narrative of Ravenloft with a poor sense of closure. I wonder if that couldn’t be avoided with having each player control more than one character, so that there can be casualties along the way without a player being left out – but the ladies expressed that they definitely didn’t want to do that, so it wasn’t an option.

This is rapidly turning into gamer angst of the sort that I’m trying to get over and give up and avoid. Let’s just admit that I’m a storygamer and that the reason for Orks is Orks and that all this “but was that Right?” is MUKKIN ABAHT and move on.)

At some point during the confused ramble through corridors, with player frustration mounting due to Ravenloft’s no-real-castle-is-like-this internal structure, the party elected to go down the set of stairs through which Strahd had escaped. Hark expressed no desire whatsoever to pass through the guardroom full of mould – “stuff’s going to jump out at us, probably skeletons, we’ll all get poisoned, let’s not” (at least one of us has a sense of old-school dungeon savvy). Instead, the party went on and startled Cyrus. By this stage the girls were sick of Ravenloft’s interior bullshit and I was sick of the schizoid module and the further disconnect between the players’ expectations and the provided material and so I did what I always do when I try to run anything By The Book and skipped to something dramatic. Cyrus was startled and fled up the servants’ staircase and ladder into the spires, the party followed, and there was a final confrontation at the top of the 230-foot shaft.

Strahd was there, attempting to put his ‘fluence in Ireena, who had her back to the drop. When she saw the players arrive, she took a dive into the shaft. (Note: for reasons of Making This Thing Interesting I’d made Ireena a Bard rather than a Fighter, which was a mistake and something I’d not do again. She cast Feather Fall on herself as she fell. Now, in another time and place I would have killed Ireena off and let the whole thing stand as a Pyrrhic victory, a no score draw as it were. Doing so would have underlined the futility of Strahd and his curse – no matter what he does his ‘bride’ always ends up plunging to her doom. I sort of regret not doing that but I think it would have been a wasted effort since the ladies were both sick to death of the module and of Strahd by that stage and we all wanted proper closure.)

This ended up as a weirdly bathetic climax, and yet with traces of the epic about it. Anura managed to lose the Sunsword on her first attack, a natural 1 sending it spiralling down the shaft. (I have no idea if that’s actually in the rules but we were already mishmashing OSRIC and 2e and fuck knows what else, and I’ve always had the ‘lowest natural roll is a fumble, highest natural roll is a cric’ house rule in play and I don’t intend to stop now. Von fails at Refereeing yet again.) Hark lost two levels to Strahd’s return attack, but Svinish’s Turn Undead triggered the Holy Symbol‘s sunlight power and pinned him in place long enough for a Call Lightning to mostly fry him and the Shillelagh to batter off his head while Anura rammed the stake-dagger from the first session into his heart, mercifully sparing us the obligation to do another session of catacomb crawling to find his tomb. Another lightning bolt took the roof off the Spires as the party descended to find Ireena alive and well, lowering the drawbridge to admit the mob of peasants roused in the second session. Sergei manifests, is reunited with ‘Ireena’, Ravenloft is reclaimed for the followers of the Raven Goddess and her last surviving cleric, and all is once again well.

Now. Despite this being a mixed bag of a long session which left my DM chops on questionable territory, neither of the ladies hate either my DMing or the game of D&D – they just want some better material next time. E. even has an interest in taking over the throne once we’ve done a few one-shots to give her an idea of what other rules systems and other, less schizoid games are like (see above point about Ravenloft kind of pulling against itself a lot of the time). The irony of it all is that what E. is interested in is the kind of political, discursive domain-level play which a) forms the Original Game’s ‘endgame’ and b) is my default setting as a World of Darkness GM, and following the clearance of Castle Ravenloft I can see how that form of play could easily unfold.

With Barovia freed from Count Strahd’s curse and the upper Spires of Ravenloft destroyed, the old monastery can be rededicated and serve as the centre of the PCs’ domain. There’s the small matter of the catacombs themselves left to be cleared, possibly by a group of lowbies so that some proper dungeoneering can be learned. Strahd’s banshee apprentice/lover Patrina could well make an appearance there. Helga, the other named vampire in the module, wasn’t encountered and would be interesting to deploy. There’s a lot that I could do to redeem the experience of Ravenloft, but I think we’re all a bit sick of it and want to move on, find or build something that’s more in tune with itself and with the expectations of these players.

For my part, I feel vaguely unsatisfied, but I’m determined not to brood over it. Posting and writing these reports has served as reflection, but it’s left me with no clear resolution. Rather than sit here being all autistic-persistent and fretting over the same dilemmas I’m turning the conclusion over to you, dear readers. What lessons do you think I should learn from this?

13 thoughts on “[OSR D&D] Actual Play Report – Social Justice Warriors vs. Castle Ravenloft, Session 3

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  1. Isn’t this 4? Did you skip out a session? With Donnovan, etc.?

    Also, idk–as you say, no REAL opportunity to validly introduce new people in a story sense, but also–if this were chess I’d always say take back a fumble, for the sake of pure gameplay? I just don’t see a real conflict between take-backsies and real-ass ludology–to my mind they even go together? Like you’re seriously committed to good play, not to the more amateur-hour question of ‘who’s winning’ . And sure that’s just different gaming cultures, but I do feel v attached to this philosophy like, as a pedagogic approach, and even w seasoned players, bc it makes the game about the best you can give rather than some bs fumbles, and divorces things a bit from dickmeasuring in competitive games (you’re here to play and grow as players, not just win), and it makes me question the imperatives of YOU MUST SUFFER CONSEQUENCES in gaming, which rest on–dodgy kill your darlings ideas?

    1. Shitbags, yes I did! I knew there was a session 3 in there somewhere but I didn’t seem to have any valid notes for it. So… that’s happened.

      The argument that a takeback which makes the game more fulfilling is basically OK is… basically OK, in and of itself. I think I feel guilty because I keep trying to drive for this Old School philosophy where player skill > alles, to see if there’s merit in it, and I’ve yet to actually reach that plane since everything I try to play or run either has a safety net in the form of the system itself or some other set of priorities intruding.

      It’s something of a moot point since I very seldom have things like the elevator trap just hanging around in my games anyway. Characters die but they generally die because their players have picked a fight with someone they shouldn’t have, or because their Tomb Rot has finally gotten the better of them or they’ve incurred the attention of an assassin as a consequence of decisions in play – not because there was a one in twenty chance that the bridge would just decide to fall apart underneath them. Your thing nags at me slightly more because it was a decision in play – a rather stupid and pointless one, and I guess there’s an element of referee’s integrity that says “dumb choices have to have negative outcomes or what’s the point of trying to be clever?”

      1. Well, but like–hm. The limits and abilities of characters are always fantastic in these, and sort of murky, so like–what IS an unsafe choice, given the skillset and the demands of the narrative? I basically thought, in this case, that we essentially had to make this room work or we would literally never find this guy–because narratively, that’d be the case. So if you HAVE to do it for narrative, there’s a layer of protection there, and also–there seemed to be 0 other options?

        1. Riiight… I think I’m with you now. Narratively speaking, there’s no reason for that to be encountered if it doesn’t serve the narrative goal – “find and defeat Strahd”. Ludically speaking, it’s possible for things to be encountered which don’t serve that narrative goal, and sometimes you can and should just walk away, explore somewhere else, and see if it all seems to join up later.

          We’ve had the conversation about the narrative scenario of Ravenloft (module) forcing your hand in a way, feeling like there’s some urgency that precludes rambling around exploring the place, but again, I can’t help but wonder if that’s narrative logic again, since ludically speaking, Strahd is or can be a version of the Quantum Ogre. You’re going to find him eventually but you have all the time in the world to find Strahd since taking your time about doing so prolongs the game experience and that’s the point of being there, not closing the narrative ASAP. Until you find him he has stuff to do at irregular game-time intervals and what he’s actually doing is up to DM discretion.

          In our case he might not have been about to sacrifice Ireena: that came up because of the group’s desire to achieve closure and exit within this session. He might have taken her to some other location in the castle and left her there while returning to deal with ze interlopers, leading you into another part of the territory where more dungeon crawling could occur. The module’s guidance for Strahd is “he’s supposed to be a genius – play him like one” – a lot of the weird architecture is there so that Strahd, who knows the place inside out, can move around it with relative freedom and make a nuisance of himself. It’s DETAILED to the extent that it is because the justice-mediation frameworks of Old School D&D (there’s a great series on Gaming As Women which talks about justice and care mediation in RPGs, I highly recommend it) demand a certain standard of rigour and fairness. Strahd moves through spaces and routes which are defined on the map and which do exist, he moves at a range of set rates – he’s bound by the game rules to the same extent that your characters are, he just has a greater range of options within those rules and the advantage of being on home turf. So a lot of the shit is there so that Strahd has to follow a set of restrictions and rules rather than being able to get away with whatever because plot, and because players who decide that they want to bash walls in to close off various tunnels or seal them off with garlic or whatever can do so and pin him down.

          I wonder, actually, if the Castle Ravenloft board game doesn’t do a better job of this kind of play, since it’s much less schizoid/conflicted between narrative and ludism in the way that the RPG module is. It’s weird that what’s normally a fusion of Good Things ends up working to the detriment of both in the case of Ravenloft (the module) and I’m trying to work out how that happens.

  2. Things you could learn:

    1) the Castle Ravenloft board game is an entertaining experience not worth it’s cover price even if you are prepared to dive into 4e once more. Kickass dracolich figurine though.
    2) Percentage based death traps are okay if you give some sort of indication of possible danger and there is an alternative path. If this is not the case, there should be a way to mitigate the danger.
    3) Even old school dnd modules are often built to accomodate the ole’ fighter/thief/cleric/wizard combo with additional fighters added to colour. Even with multi-classing and some extra levels, 2 pcs will be hard pressed, especially if they encounter monsters with some sort of debilitating attack(i.e every DnD monster that is not an orc).
    4) Take baksies in favour of the plot break immersion and pose a problem since you as a GM should appear neutral. If you save people from certain death you are basically obligated to save them again should such a situation occur once more or risk appearing like a callous dickhead. But you could always employ a modified ‘3 deaths and you are out’ rule recommended for Epic 3rd edition dnd, where the player is allowed to fail 3 saving throws that would otherwise cause instant death. This way you can increase the survivability of your players without making the appearance to actively rule in favour of them(the greatest blasphemy in OSR christendom).
    5) Narrative and ludite(means game-ey?) approaches need not be mutually exclusive and can (and indeed, must) be seemlessly interwoven by some seat of the pants GMing and a generous application of behind the screen smoke-and-mirror work. But i will take your word for Castle Ravenloft’s schizophrenic nature.
    6) Sometimes the end result is a TPK. Learn to enjoy the scent of ashes. The possibility of defeat makes victory all the sweeter. All love what they destroy etc.

    Best,
    Prince.

    1. Apropos of nothing: I still owe you a finished readthrough of your stuff. Busy this weekend, but I’ll get around to it once some work’s out of the way.

      1) Right, so one to play if someone else has been foolish enough to purchase but not worth acquiring for oneself?

      2) I think the bridge thing (5% or you fall to your doom) was partly an issue of player skill; the idea of telegraphing things from the provided description might not have been second nature yet. See point about “next time fuck it I’m starting them as lowbies and they can learn that hard way”, or possibly “next time I’m just running something storygamey because fuck this trying-to-second-guess-myself stuff”.

      3) Funnily enough the only things that really pressed them were Strahd’s spells. The fights weren’t difficult, just… tedious.

      4) I like that “three lives” rule, it’s very reminiscent of the WFRP-esque Fate Points YDIS mentions below.

      5) You don’t need to lecture me on basic narratology/ludology fusion. Ravenloft posed an unexpected challenge to a skill set that I thought I had down pat is all. Also, I’m not saying they’re mutually exclusive; that’d be a false binary and you know how I hate those. They’re poles at either end of a spectrum. And yes, ludic means game, from the Latin ‘ludere’ and all that.

      6) I love a TPK when it doesn’t occur to dumb shit in the ‘first contact’ session. Erin and I have had a long chat about risk aversion and her drive toward perfect play, which she sees as being in tension with the roleplaying experience – part of the dumb shit with the hundred foot drop is that she thinks narratively and from that point of view the perfect play is “this wouldn’t be here at this time if we weren’t supposed to interact with it and in so doing advance the narrative”. Teething troubles? Maybe that’s all any of this is and I’ve wasted a few thousand words to ‘discover’ something glaringly obvious. I’ll blame autism.

  3. Can’t you solve a lot of problems if you introduce Fate Points to the mix? They seem to me a requirement if you’re going to infect D&D determinism with story game silliness, and they transform DM cheating into PC resource management, which alleviates guilt.

    1. I hadn’t thought about Fate Points as a transference of responsibility and reframing in that way before, but I like it and will introduce them to everything as a spiritual cleanser and indulgence. Maybe YOU’RE the new Pope of the OSR.

      In my defence I was striving for (and failing to achieve) a determinist game which I thought would Ravenloft would do a better job of facilitating/enabling than it did.

  4. 1) You got it in one.
    2) Consider the reverse. What would an OSR-sensibilities VtM look like? I guess the tomb of that vampire elder in the Succubus Club came sort of close to a 20th century tomb of horrors. And there would be a sandbox. And random starting dots.
    3) Keeping a fight interesting if all you have is a hallway, basic attacks and 60 hit points each can be a little tricky. I find putting on some suspenseful music helps keep everyone focused and fast-paced. I also rein in my descriptions after the 4th turn or so. Even vivid description can only take you so far if you are essentially describing you hit him with a mace five times.
    4) YDIS is right. Fate points or action points(3.5) work even better by actually increasing player agency/resource management.
    5) Excellent. I recall knowing that ludus means game.
    6) That thing you described makes it clearer to me how narrativism and game-ism(*shudder*) can at times be at odds. Then again, is perfect play even a thing in a narrative game? I guess you can still bypass obstacles in original/optimally efficient ways even if those obstacles have a definite purpose in the narrative.

    As for the readthrough no rush mate. Take your time.

    Best,
    Prince.

    1. An OSR-sensibilities Vampire would be hacked to the point where I no longer recognise it as Vampire… which is, I guess, the point you’re trying to prove? I suppose it’s time for me to squeal my last and join my Swinish brethren…

      I’m glad that it’s not just me who peters out after round four or thereabouts. I always feel that long fights end up being like a Star Wars prequel; even the most visually interesting twenty-minute action sequence ultimately takes everyone involved past the threshold and beyond. Music in play is just another damn thing for me to keep track of and to be honest I’ve never seen the appeal. I’m not Murray Gold.

      I think you should ask Erin about the ‘perfect play’ thing since she’s in a better position to define exactly what she means by that.

  5. Really easy to forget how deadly classic D&D stuff is–especially undead opponents. Inexperienced players vs. energy-draining undead is rough. A vampire is an extremely powerful opponent. Throw in some death traps, and there you go. On some level, the problems might be as simple as a module that was too hard for your players (but formally too easy for their over-inflated characters).

    To be honest, the original Castle Ravenloft was never my favorite. A bit too much a hybrid for my tastes–overdeveloped in the areas I like to develop myself, underdeveloped in the areas I don’t mind having fleshed out for me. Can easily imagine it wasn’t to everyone’s taste. But, as a rule, you have to flesh out the older modules quite a lot, even that one–and that means bending them to what you like. Grab hold of the really interesting stuff and shuffle everything else around till it’s fun.

    Anyhow, if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a DM, it’s you get nothing but pain trying to force a kind of game that nobody there wants to play. Then you can get lost in second-guessing whether you’re doing it “right”–and what the fuck does that even mean? Sounds like you adjusted, got through.

    1. I don’t know about ‘too hard’, more ‘not really in line with anyone’s expectations and prior experience’. The problems we ran into felt like they were more down to culture clash than anything, and part of the haste with which we moved to conclude was a weariness of the layout, the tone, the boxed text (like the sadist I am I insisted on using the material provided, and it’s Poor), Strahd’s Coppola posing…

      I know how I’d do it again and it isn’t as the above-ground dungeon crawl that it seems to represent itself as being. It isn’t, to be honest, as anything resembling what people seem to mean by Old School D&D.

      Yeah. Adjust expectations, get through, play some palate-cleansing WFRP next week. We’re doing taster sessions of a bunch of different RPGs and spending March swinging back through systems I know and can run competently or better, which’ll be nice.

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