Friday, October 24, 2014

Historical Oddities for Ravenloft

I've long maintained that there is a lot to be found in real-world history to inspire fantasy gaming. Ravenloft already takes a great deal of inspiration from the morbid and macabre annals of history; we've got historical intrigue and wrongdoing to thank for the setting's Faux Borgias and Not-the-Ripper, after all. Below are a number of historical items drawn from the morbid annals that you could easily find a place for in a Ravenloft adventure:

St. Osyth Witches

God as Devil

The Twa Sisters

The White Witch of Rose Hall

Walpurgis Night

Balthasar Bekker

Dancing Plague of 1518

Maria Monk

Angels of Mons

Servant Girl Annihilator

Delphine Lalaurie

Darya Saltykova

List of Unusual Deaths

Hand of Glory

Rat King

Loathly Lady


Astor Place Riot

John Murray Spear

List of Occultists

John Henry Anderson

John Darrell

Richard Dugdale

Ines de Castro

Chung Ling Soo

Rat Torture

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Religion in Ravenloft: Takhisis and the Wolf God

Takhisis, also known as Tiamat, is a five-headed dragon goddess worshiped by the elves of Sithicus. Her constellation, which shines in the night sky only over that nation, is an avatar to be placated rather than adored; as the Mother of Evil, Sithicans pray to her to spare them from the misery she threatens to bring. Only the most depraved curry her favor as She of Many Faces, the Corrupter, the Dark Queen, the Queen of Many Colors and None, or the Dark Warrior.

Commentary: I'm not sure how it plays out in Dragonlance, but in my head the cult of Takhisis should be a decadence-based religion. Intoxication as a rite, pleasure as an offering, dissolution as a virtue, etc. The sane worship her as a way to appease her and avoid her wrath; the mad give themselves over to vice and excess--bliss in the spiritualized darkness.

* * *

The Wolf God is the ravenous god of barbarians and lycanthropes. The Wolf God's rites are blood-soaked, carnal, and sacrificial. Holy symbol: a wolf's head.

Commentary: The bestial Khorne to Takhisis's Slaanesh, but now with way more werewolves.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Psychosexual Ravenloft: Heart of Midnight III

The formation of an identity is a progressive process. “Know thyself' was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, 'Be thyself' shall be written," wrote Oscar Wilde--an author who certainly knew the difference between knowing one's self (theoretical self-knowledge), and being one's self (the praxis of that self-knowledge). In the bildungsroman that emerges from Heart of Midnight's clumsy gothicism, the shift from self-knowledge to self-actualization is encoded in terms that equate Casimir's wolfish desires with a kind of errant queer sexuality. His friend Thoris, for example, questions how Casimir can be in a relationship with a woman when he knows, deep down, that he is a "werewolf"; "How dare you kiss her, knowing what you are?" he asks with barely-disguised venom (157).

Thoris attempts to help Casimir with his "problem" in a very misguided way. In a scene that reads uncomfortably like gay conversion therapy in D&D drag, Casimir is taken to a cleric to have his wolfish nature exorcised in a religious rite. Of course, Casimir's "problem" is more nature than nuture and cannot be dispelled so easily; the cure fails, and Casimir kills the priest. Harkon Lukas offers Casimir another way out of this tangle of hidden desire and public censure: self-acceptance. "Your salvation has always come from the beast within you," Lukas posits, "When you deny the beast, you are nothing. Only be embracing it do you live!" (206). If the world deems to you to be a "beast" because of who you are, then a beast you must be. Lukas's message is one of radical acceptance; Casimir's choice, then, is between giving free reign to the impulses he has denied and attempted to abjure, or "living a lie" as Lukas terms it (207).

(As an aside, it turns out that Casimir isn't a werewolf after all--he's actually a wolfwere. While the distinction is academic to all but those concerned with D&D monster stats, we might read something into this as well--the wolfwere as a queering of the overly masculinized figure of the werewolf. More beast than man, the idea of the wolfwere also fits certain homophobic renderings of male homosexuality as animalistic, bestial, and a set of behaviors unchecked by a proper sense of one's humanity.)

To usher Casimir into a place of self-acceptance, Lukas takes him to a "temple for children of the night," which we might read as a coded stand-in for cruising spot, bathhouse, or gay club (253). It is here that Casimir experiences his euphoric coming out moment: "For the first time in his life, he felt true release. For the first moment in twenty years, he knew what and who he was. The pangs of conscience were gone. The chorus of remembered screams had been silenced forever. A wild howl of joy erupted from his lungs" (255). Holla atcha boi!

(Also, note that while Casimir believed Zhone Clieous to be his father and killed him previously in accord with the dictates of an unmastered Oedipal complex, he later discovers that Harkon Lukas is his real father...which promptly turns into another Oedipal confrontation that pits son against father in a blood-soaked, phallic contest.)

Of course, since this is a Ravenloft novel nothing will end particularly well. Casimir's moment of self-realization is a fine thing, but it still has to contend with an outside world that is hostile to Casimir's identity. Thoris provides the chorus of widespread homophobic panic, defining the scope of different orientation as horror at the possibility of a monstrous horde: "How many werewolves are there, Casimir? How many? I thought you and Zhone Clieous were freaks. But now it's Harkon Lukas, too...and how many more?" (282). For this set of characters, the ending devolves into a bloodbath--ultimately ambivalent, Heart of Midnight shows us the value of self-acceptance and a world in which it will always be destroyed in fear. You might find self-acceptance, but the world won't listen.

I'm kinda proud that I've survived four of these novels.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ravenloft Orgs III: Ildi'Thaan, Kargatane, Keepers of the Black Feather

The Ildi'Thaan are a cabal of warlocks who have made pacts with the Great Old Ones. All members of the Ildi'Thaan cult suffer from horrific nightmares; it is through these dreams that the Great Old Ones communicate with them. Their goal is to acquire a series of mysterious grimoires known as the 13 Tales of Thaan so that they might before a grand summoning of their otherworldly masters.

Commentary: The original version of the Ildi'Thaan are psionic-wanna-bes. Since the Great Old Ones are part of the core 5e setting assumptions, I thought they would work being blended in here.

The Kargatane are mortals who seek the gift of eternal life through vampirism. They serve a group of vampires known as the Kargat, and further their masters' agendas during the daylit hours. The Kargatane are blood-bound to their vampiric lieges. When the Kargatane meet, their rituals involve the drinking of blood in hellish imitation of their masters.

Commentary: From what I remember of Vampire: The Masquerade, there were "ghouls" who had tasted vampiric blood and become the thralls of the undead. I'd bring in more of that modern "blood-slavery" idea here. I'd play them like a thugee cult in service to the vampire Kazandra instead of Kali.

The Keepers of the Black Feather are a revolutionary society of vampire hunters whose goal is to overthrow and destroy Strahd von Zarovich. Each member of the Keepers has a specialized task: some are scholars who research the weaknesses of the undead, some are common folk who gather rumor and intelligence, and others are trained to combat the scourge of the living. A fact unknown to most members of this secret organization is that the leadership are all kenku.

Commentary: Of course Ravenloft needs a guild of vampire hunters. In the original presentation they're headed by wereravens or ravenkin or whatever, but I'm using kenku solely because I kinda love kenku.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pietra Donna Sangino Captures More than a 'Likeness'

Pietra Donna Sangino is currently one of the most popular painters in the Iron Pricipalities. She is much sought after by nobles and rich merchants because having one's portrait painted by the artist and being seen as one of her patrons is guaranteed to be worth its cost when balanced against the social capital to be gained. One of Pietra's current projects is a massive set of paintings upon the ceiling of a chapel devoted to the Lady of the White Way in Rhema.

It is much-remarked upon that Pietra's rise to fame was meteoric; she appeared out of nowhere and now is the name on every aesthete's lips. Some have noted that many of the incidental figures in her paintings resemble the persons of her artistic rivals; the very artists she has eclipsed seem to be strangely referenced in her works.

The truth of the matter is that Pietra's art carries a dark secret. Although she is a talented artist, the secret to her success lies in her mastery of an occult formula she uses when painting: when she paints a person known to her, she doesn't just capture their likeness--she also captures a bit of their soul and binds it to her portraiture. In this way she has siphoned the souls of her contemporary artists and paved the way for her own success, as well as insuring her own popularity by ensnaring the spirits of her patrons.

Want to use this in Ravenloft? Change the Iron Principalities to Borca, Rhema to Vor Ziyden, and the Lady to Ezra.

(This post was a joint effort by Katie and myself.)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Religion in Ravenloft: Ezra, Hala, The Morninglord

Ezra is worshiped throughout the Core, but is especially prominent in Borca, Dementlieu, and the populated areas of Necropolis. Ezra is a goddess known as Our Guardian of the Mists; she is said to protect her followers from the world's insidious evil. Holy symbol: sword superimposed over a shield.

Commentary: Ezra is a goddess of protection, and given the areas in which she is most prominently worshiped she has a Catholic flavor in my mind. Since she's also associated with the mists, I'm going with a mix of Mother Mary and mystery religions.

* * *

Hala is worshiped in secret, mostly in isolated rural areas. Hala is a witch-goddess and her rites are decidedly pagan. Holy symbol: ouroborus of thirteen serpents devouring each other's tails.

Commentary: Hala's witch cult is cool because the "clergy" can be a mix of druids, nature-based clerics, green knights (paladins), and warlocks with fey pacts. I see them as ranging the gamut from kindly pacifistic pagans to omg-I'm-burning-in-a-wicker-man style pagans.

* * *

The Morninglord is worshiped throughout the Core, particularly in Barovia. The Morninglord is the god of survival and new dawns; his faithful believe that each new day is a gift against the darkness of the world. Holy symbol: a gold disc.

Commentary: The Morninglord is definitely a god of the desperate, a kind of last hope against the swallowing darkness. Fatalistic, stoic, etc.