SHADES OF DARKNESS
s most role-players know, the gaming experience is by no means homogenous. There are literally hundreds of games representing every conceivable play style and setting, each with its share of devotees and detractors. A game with a broad scope and some flexibility has the potential for a great degree of variety within itself. Steve Jackson Games' G.U.R.P.S. is a monument to this phenomenon. Instead of focusing on the details of a new gameworld, SJG created a paper and dice role-playing system that could be used in any setting the GM imagined, from historical to sword-and-sorcery to science fiction.
Through its years as the godfather of RPG's, DUNGEONS & DRAGONS has sometimes prompted accusations of narrow vision. Critics claim that D&D is too preoccupied with pseudo-Tolkein fantasy worlds and that it shamelessly caters to the hack-n'-slash crowd of gaming. Certainly, D&D's quirky systems cannot compare to those of many modern games, which are either elegantly streamlined in the name of simplicity and drama, or staggeringly complex in the pursuit of real-world authenticity. Still, D&D proved that it could diversify successfully with campaign settings like SPELLJAMMER, DARK SUN, PLANESCAPE, and—yes—RAVENLOFT. They showed in varying degrees that a time-tested product like the D&D could provide a foundation for a wonderful variety of stories and settings.
Each gameworld carries certain moods and themes, and also certain expectations from players for a campaign in that setting. RAVENLOFT players, for instance, generally expect to be saving villages from the creatures of the night. This isn't a Bad Thing. Every setting requires assumptions and boundaries. Fiends, for instance, are treated very differently in a RAVENLOFT game than in a PLANESCAPE game. But this isn't to imply that every outing should be a cookie cutter clone of all the others. RAVENLOFT is particularly vulnerable to repeat performances of the same act. For instance, what might seem like a suite of adventures in a variety of domains against a variety of enemies may actually be the same trite monster hunt with scene and costume changes. Complicating the issue is that fact that most GM's have one style of adventure which they prefer to run or are particularly skilled at running. Thus, a campaign can become bogged down quickly when the natural restrictions of a gameworld and the artificial restrictions that a GM imposes both conspire to create a bland play style.
Entertainment as interactive as role-playing shouldn't have to be predictable and hackneyed, regardless of the creative skills of the players and GM. Giving your RAVENLOFT campaign some texture is actually quite easy. Just take a moment to really consider what kind of games you run. Do you tend to drop your players into victimized villages where they have to stay alive long enough to puzzle out what's going on? Or are the characters often drawn into a villain's carefully constructed web through temptation or moral duty? Perhaps the players frequently clean out the unholy residents of haunted houses and ominous castles? Even if your adventures tend to be similar in structure, this isn't necessarily bad; after all, you may be very talented at running that particular style! Nevertheless, changing styles occasionally can be invigorating for you and exciting for your players.
The following categories are meant to be a fast-and-loose guide to RAVENLOFT adventure styles. As most readers have probably already guessed, these categories aren't mutually exclusive.
The Monster Hunt: A creature or group of creatures is terrorizing the populace, and the heroes are the only ones who can hunt down the threat and destroy it. This is one of the classic RAVENLOFT adventure styles. It works well because monsters are more intimidating in RAVENLOFT than in traditional D&D settings. There is greater variety within each "monster species", monsters are more likely to be malicious, and the setting is overall more removed from high fantasy familiarity. Making the Monster Hunt anything more than a glorified foxhunt, however, requires some skill with mystery plotting. Good Monster Hunts should involve as much intrigue as a whodunnit, with trails of clues, conflicting witnesses, and red herrings. Of course, a satisfying Monster Hunt usually ends with a pitched pursuit and battle, which injects an action/adventure feel to the adventure.
The Dungeon Crawl: Anything can motivate a Dungeon Crawl, but curiosity works best. It can even be incorporated into a Monster Hunt or Ancient Mystery. The format is almost always the same, however. The characters move through various rooms of a structure, killing enemies and avoiding perils, until they confront some particularly nasty villain lurking at the heat of it all. The actual setting could be anything: a literal dungeon, crypt, castle, sewer, cave, haunted house, insane asylum, laboratory, whatever. RAVENLOFT's distinct style, however, demands that the Dungeon Crawl be realistic; monsters don't just lurk around waiting for parties to kill them. Running the Dungeon Crawl as a part of a richer plot line is challenging but very rewarding.
The Ancient Mystery: The Ancient Mystery harkens back to traditional gothic tales. Part of the beauty of these stories was the unfolding of a terrible history of which the central characters and the reader are unaware. In this adventure style, the characters are dropped into a confounding and convoluted situation resulting from a series of events that happened in the past. The Ancient Mystery can incorporate the Dungeon Crawl or the Crisis, but the overall thrust of the adventure revolves around the characters uncovering the realities of the past. Often, their success—or survival—utterly depends on the correct interpretation of evidence in determining historical events.
The Mastermind: A villain or group of villains manipulates the characters into doing something for them. The ways to make otherwise do-gooders accomplish a diabolical task are as multitude as character personalities. Playing off greed, power-lust, honor, morality, curiosity, or any other motivation is relatively easy, and everyone in the party need not have the same motives. Initially, this adventure may seem to be another type. The true challenge for the characters is uncovering the man behind the curtain, and then deciding how to proceed. And there's always the delicious risk of playing along and beating the villain at his own game.
The Crisis: The Crisis uses a direct method to prod the heroes into doing something. "That vampire has kidnapped my sister! We've got to get her back!" "If we don't find a way out of this tomb in twelve hours, we're dead men." You get the idea... The Crisis may feel contrived at first, but it will grow on DM's who can convincingly evoke the situation's desperation. It has the advantage of eliciting some of the best role-playing from players, and giving characters a chance to be truly heroic.
The Competition: This adventure involves the heroes trying to accomplish some mission while the villains attempt the same mission—or perhaps some diabolical variation thereof. "We've got to get to the tower and retrieve the artifact before the necromancer does!" Usually, the Competition isn't as imperative as the Crisis, but it can be equally—if not more—life-threatening. The Competition need not have a black-and-white resolution from the outset. The intelligence and ingenuity of the party can determine a great deal about how this adventure resolves itself.
The Dream Warriors: The heroes are deposited into some nightmarish or surreal landscape where they are at the whim of the villain and the GM. This may literally be some kind of nightmare or psychic realm, or perhaps just a situation where things are not what they seem or normal laws of reality do not apply. Often, the only true weapons the characters have are their will and their wits. This adventure style may in fact just be a flavor for another adventure. Any drastic change to the way the characters are allowed to act or use their abilities may be considered a Dream Warriors adventure.
All this is well and good, but keep in mind that less is sometimes more. A drop of innovation is better than a bucketful; if you keep a ridiculously high standard of innovation, you'll quickly exhaust yourself and your players. Furthermore, not everyone like the boat to be rocked. Players may enjoy the way your games are run, and a change of pace may be unwanted. Respect their opinions—after all, they're doing this for fun!—and poll them when you make any changes. Just remember this tripartite rule of thumb: no variety is passive and stale, a little is enriching and exciting, too much is jarring and frustrating.