A Proposal for a Gothic Setting, Based on Ravenloft
I've enjoyed Ravenloft more than any other A,D&D setting, and the 3rd Edition expansion gave it a lot more life. Despite that, a lot of the best themes seem under-used.
Ravenloft began when A,D&D was busy asking 'what else can we do as an RPG?', and someone said 'horror'. Specifically, 'Hammer Horror'. The monsters were 1D4 bats, the plots assumed foetid stupidity from the players (or at least PCs), and the big-bad-enemies all aped classic horror monsters.
Count Strahd is Count Dracula, Dr. Mordenheim is Dr Frankenstein, and so on, every one a moustache-twiddling bad-guy.
Location names hit every reader on the nose - 'G'henna', 'Dementlieu' (pronounced 'Day-mon-loo'), 'Ghastria', 'Lamordia', 'Mordent', 'the Sea of Sorrows', 'Necropolis', and half a dozen faintly Slavic names.
Despite so much crassness that 90's Goths would find it hard to stomach, it held a lot of new ideas.
- The mysterious 'mists' captured players, and took them away to Ravenloft for a 'weekend in Hell'.
- Each land kept a distinct theme.
- No more random encounters.
- All 'Detect Alignment' spells failed automatically.
- The ruler of each land became a ruler due to some twisted, evil act they had performed.
- PCs could not hope to defeat the all-powerful ruler of a land.
With this notion that rulers had an in-depth back-story, the lands could build personalities, as dark and mysterious powers crafted those lands to build an ironic dungeon for the big, bad-guy.
I loved the reboot. Each land gained a currency (in one land, a 'copper piece' was referred to as a 'chip', with a 'silver' as a 'bone', and gold as 'skulls'), standard exports (mostly normal stuff), and a technological level (some were medieval, other lands printed newspapers).
The lands gave additional magic as well - anyone (PCs included) could curse anyone at any time. The target number for the roll started around 25 (difficult to hit on a 20-sided die with no class bonuses), and gained bonuses for a few things:
- Justified curse: +4
- Female: +1
- Spellcaster: +1
- Rhyming: +2
- Irony: +4
- Curse proportionate to the crime: +2
It was something along those lines, meaning players would not be able to shoot curses off at every bartender who overcharged them, but if they murdered innocent people too often, one of the NPCs curses would surely land eventually.
This gave the entire setting a supremely Gothic atmosphere, without making magic cheap. Common people knew all about curses, but this made the setting feel less like high-fantasy, rather than more.
Anyone in Ravenloft who committed heinous acts could become corrupt, at which point they gain some curse which spoke to their inhumanity, and a power.
- Basic corruption might allow someone to enchant others, but random spiders could be seen crawling across them.
- More advanced corruption might make them uncomfortable in the daylight, but let them control shadows at night.
- The third level could entails wings or spell-like abilities, but would twist their face until they had to spend significant effort to disguise their own corruption.
- The fourth level meant complete inhumanity. The player would have to turn their character back onto the righteous path, and have the PC atone for their sins immediately, or risk becoming an NPC.
- The fifth and final level - 'Dark Lord' - meant the PC became an NPC Dark Lord, trapped forever in some hellish realm which mocked their previous decisions and personality.
The corruption levels suggested all manner of NPCs, but I obtained other D&D 3.5 Ravenloft books, and found no corrupt NPCs. The idea had so much potential!
What about a sliding scale between bandits, and monsters in the forest? Surely all that theft and extortion would leave a few scars on the soul. Or - if an NPC felt penitent - the party might help them atone for previous sins.
Then another notion occurred - Ravenloft already has monsters everywhere, springing up like Carnival ghosts. Where do they live? What do they eat? What if the werewolves and vampires and ghosts had once committed sins, and become transformed into something else due to their sins?
And when you fight monsters, be careful that you do not become a monster.
The party could become the penitent damned, repeatedly attempting to gather gold to atone for the murders they committed. They would continue to gain XP for killing, but anything insufficiently monstrous would also earn them a heavy curse. Villagers would fear them, but understand that 'adventurers' often had trouble eating anything but meat, or might howl late at night. Or if the villagers felt less understanding, might just try to drive them out of town, and the party would have a good notion of why the villagers did so.
It's not all worked out, but I think it extends the basic Ravenloft concepts well. The party might track werewolves and vampires by their crimes (vampirism for cold-blooded murders, werewolves as crimes of passion).
Maybe one day, if I ever get time to write another setting...