The Ferryman: An Introduction to Curse of Strahd

I recently started DMing Curse of Strahd, the 5th edition re-introduction to Ravenloft, based on the classic Castle Ravenloft module by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. To say I’m a huge Ravenloft fan is a slight understatement. The AD&D Ravenloft books were some of the few I have ever owned, I purchased nearly every 3.0 and 3.5 Ravenloft book that was produced and I ran 2 fairly long campaigns in the world.

Images used are owned by Wizards of the Coast: Buy Curse of Strahd from your local gaming store, buy WOTC products, and support their artists and writers. The written work in this piece is covered under the Open Gaming License, as I understand it.

5th Edition is cool, and I wrote about Advantage/Disadvantage a few weeks ago. That being said, I haven’t played or run many games yet. I actually purchased Curse of Strahd well before I knew I’d even run it. Heck, when it came out, I was in my last year of Grad School, and there was zero chance I was running or playing any role-playing game. It didn’t matter, I wanted to own a copy of this game. Ravenloft was my jam, man…

Well, last week I finally got the chance to introduce a few friends to Ravenloft and 5th Edition. I wanted to create a short introduction that was deeper than the “Mists Take You” option, but slightly less in-depth than some of the other opening options in the book.

 

What follows is an introduction to Curse of Strahd which I welcome you to incorporate into your own game if you’d like.

 

The Ferryman: An Introduction to Curse of Strahd

For 3-5 1st Level Characters

5th Edition D&D

 

Background

 

You are settled in for the night at the Wizard’s Wand, a tavern on the edges of Lake Galifar in Aundair, near what used to be the city of Arcanix. The mood in the tavern is muted, a few other patrons are sitting drinking their ale speaking rarely to one another. Since Arcanix disappeared, things have been looking more and more like war. No one has proven that the disappearance of Arcanix was performed by Brelish agents, but more and more hawks in the nation are pushing to attack SOMEONE for the event.

Six months ago, a great fog, much like the mists that surround the Mournland of former Cyre flowed off of Lake Galifar and surrounded Arcanix. That night it seemed to choke out the city, and when the sun rose the next day, the city had vanished with the misty fog.

 

The party has known one another for some time, either having done some minor adventuring with one another, or as children growing up in the area. You trust one another, and that trust is important. War is coming, and you need someone to trust when war is on the horizon. It has been a pleasantly warm summer.

 

Scene 1

 

As you drink your ale, the door to the tavern swings open. A man, dressed in thick winter cloak, boots, and hood strides in. As he does so, a thick fog accompanies him. The mists seem to creep toward the other patrons of the tavern, stopping short and then receding as if they were hands scraping the floor. There is not a drop of sweat on the man as he steps up to the bar, in fact, he looks frigid. He takes off a frost coated glove and slides an odd looking silver piece across to the innkeeper.

 

Any party member that looks out the window will see the streets are filled with fog, so thick they can no longer see to the other side of the street. Some of the mist curls around and for a moment, a spectral face will appear and loom toward the player character. A character with the ability to sense undead or see into the ethereal realm will see the streets filled with ghosts and skeletal spectres.

Not Yuri

If the players do not initiate contact with the strange man, he will turn to them and begin to stare. Eventually, he will stride toward them with purpose.

The man is Yuri Iljavanovich. Yuri speaks with a thick accent, clearly not from any of the Kingdoms of Khorvaire. He will ask the characters questions about their lives, what do they do for work, if they are looking for jobs, where they grew up. If a player is a Cyran refugee, he will pay particular attention to them. If the players turn his questions on to him, he will respond with the below.

 

“I am from a place called Barovia, which has been conquered by a demon. We are seeking those who would help us. You all had something, perhaps a look, about you that made me think you would be interested in helping. We are slowly being hobbled by the devil, and need some fresh blood who can fight against him. The devil keeps us from leaving Barovia, only a select few have been able to escape, and even then, not for long.”

 

Yuri will admit to being a Cleric of Ezra. “Ezra is our Guide of the Mists. She allows those of us who worship her to briefly escape the clutches of the Devil Strahd. With this lantern (which he’ll hold up and appears to be a normal gas lamp) we are able to use the Mists to travel to other places. The devil forces our return though, and we can only bring people in, we ourselves cannot escape, though of course, I would be able to return you here if you choose.”

If the players choose to accompany Yuri, have him instruct the players to put warmer clothing on, as Barovia is in the middle of a harsh winter. If the players choose not to follow Yuri, you may of course ensnare them with Mists when they leave the Wizard’s Wand, or not, the choice is yours.

 

Scene 2

 

When the players leave the tavern with Yuri, the mists seem to part only slightly from himself and the party. He turns the lantern on, and the fog recedes a few feet. If asked, Yuri will tell them the journey will take a minimum of three days in the mists. If pressed, Yuri will tell the party very little about Barovia, except that the Devil Strahd is a great beast that feasts and hunts his people. They have tried to fight him themselves, but have always failed.

 

The Mists wrap around the characters and they are quickly far away from Arcanix, Aundair, and even Eberron. The thick fog wraps around them, masking their journey, and they cannot even see if they are on a road, and it appears they are simply walking within dark clouds. Eventually, they will come to a clearing, after almost a day’s walk. Before them will be a few large boulders and a makeshift lean-to. A fire pit has been used recently, and the Mark of Ezra is painted on a boulder facing the party as they arrive.

 

Either before bedding down, or in the morning, run the first encounter.

 

Encounter 1

Though the mists are not quite as close as they were while you were walking, they are still close and it is hard to see far from your resting place. The fire isn’t really warm, but it gives you something to crowd around. Everything around you seems to devour your body heat, and you find yourselves shivering with little provocation. Sleep helps, but standing watch is a thankless job. Yuri ignores any request to join a watch rotation, he goes immediately to sleep.

 

As you gaze into the fog, you smell the thick scent of pine and then you hear an odd sound. Scrape, thump, scraaaapppeeee, thump, scrape, thump. The sound seems to both echo and be muted. It becomes louder, and stronger, and finally, the mists peel back farther. You can seen pines all around you, and 10 – 15 feet away, are 3 Skeletons. These skeletons are wrapped in the remains of Cyran armor, holding rusty swords and tattered shields. One skeleton has on a thick iron boot, which appears to be some form of prison gear.

 

Any magic used against the skeleton with the boot only causes half damage. The boot is immune to all magic, but it incredibly heavy and largely useless to the players. If hit with any spell that is force related, like lighting or eldritch blasts, the boot will glow with runes describing its use to restrain magic using prisoners. The skeletons laugh every other turn in which they are hit for damage. This laughter sounds like dried bones hitting against each other.

 

During the fight, Yuri will be praying in incomprehensible gibberish. He will not attack the skeletons. They will generally avoid him, unless one of the players intentionally pushes him into their path.

 

After this encounter, Yuri will finish praying and will ask if the characters wish to continue along their journey. If asked, he will say that he knows that there are many undead in the area wearing similar clothes to these skeletons, and he believes they are related to the a group of refugees that entered Barovia a few years ago. They call themselves Cyrans, and a few have integrated into the local population.

Scene 3

On the second day, have the party reach a river. Yuri seems shocked and concerned when you reach the river. You can see a rope has been cut that used to cross the raging river. There are no mists around the river area, which is odd, as the mists hang thick not 500 feet or so on either side of the river.

 

“There used to be a ferry here, it looks like someone cut the rope.” If pushed, he will suggest heading north, as there is the possibility of another way to ford the river in that direction. He will refuse to try and wade or ford the river without a rope and boat. If the party constructs a way across at this point, hold the next encounter until they reach the other side. If the party heads north, or south, run the following encounter there.

 

Encounter 2

Please take your time….

Whichever way the party chooses to go, they will hear the same horrid skeletal laughing from their last fight. This warning will allow them to attempt to sneak up on the enemies. They will crest a small hill, and then be able to see through the trees, that there are 3 figures crowded around one another, swaying, making an eerie creaking laugh. When the players get within sight of them, they will notice 3 zombies, wearing the same outfits as the skeletons, with similar weapons. If the players have not crossed the river, the zombies will be guarding a boat which is attached to another ferry line across the river.

 

Once the players have defeated the zombies, they will be able to commandeer their boat, or, if they found another way to cross the river, they will find a small pouch of silver coins. There are 7 pieces of silver in the pouch. This pouch will be in the boat, and can be found by attentive characters or by Yuri at the least opportune time. If Yuri finds the pouch, he will inadvertently scare the characters who will have to make a strength check to keep hold of the ferry rope.

 

Scene 4

My favorite vampire meme

Night will fall, and players will be able to rest again at another similar way station to before. In the morning, Yuri will wake the party and push them to continue on. As they crest a high hill, they will see the valley of Barovia spread out before them. A dark shape takes flight from Castle Ravenloft in the distance, and a thunderstorm can be heard from far away.

 

“Welcome to Barovia, my friends. The Devil Strahd awaits you, I hope you do not make the same mistake I did, all those years ago. Go to the village below the mountain, it is a good place to begin your journey to hell”

 

The characters turn, and see Yuri become a spectral form before them, he smiles horrifically and lets out the same laugh which the zombies and skeletons made. Then, he vanishes.
From there, have your players follow the road into the village of Barovia.

Bluebeard’s Bride: An Interview with the Developers

I started role playing back in the mid 90’s when AD&D was struggling a little bit, but the World of Darkness was just hitting it’s boldest strides. It was an era where my local game store, in my relatively small hometown had 2 incredibly tall book displays just for role playing books. Shortly after I started role-playing D&D 3.0 came out and it felt like, just maybe, RPGs were going to be the next big thing.

Now, if you’re reading this blog there is a good chance you know how this story ends. The World of Darkness ended and was replaced by another, which didn’t totally end production, but slipped into a much more obscure status after White Wolf was sold off to CCP. D&D never went away, but the heady days of 3.5 definitely waned.

A lot of people talk about those years as role-playing’s golden era, and I have agreed with that assertion until very recently. We are seeing an unprecedented resurgence of our beloved hobby thanks in large part to the democratization of crowd funding.

Financial risks are now much easier to take, and as a result the past few years have seen the rise of new modes of thinking about role-playing, and the systems to back up those new modes of play. One such system is the Powered by the Apocalypse system, or PbtA for short, which focuses on a very different arc of character creation, and narrative play than the games of the 90’s. PbtA as well as many other modern systems put a much heavier emphasis on narrative flow and story driven action resolution as opposed to actually focusing on emulating combat dynamics through the dice system. Since PbtA has been released under the Creative Commons, it is available to independent developers, there are a wide variety of titles available that use the system.

Three such indie developers are currently running a Kickstarter for one of the most innovative uses of the PbtA system I have seen to date. Whitney “Strix” Beltran, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson are the developers of Bluebeard’s Bride, and as soon as I looked at their project and their background I realized I was looking at a very special development team. Their combined development experience covers video game writing, Scion, 7th Sea, Fate Worlds, Velvet Glove, and several other titles I don’t have the space to list here.

Their kickstarter describes Bluebeard’s Bride as an “investigatory horror” game focusing on the themes of feminine horror. Between the beauty of the work they have shared already on their campaign page, and the incredibly unique pitch I knew I wanted to know more about this game, so I contacted Magpie Games to see if they would be willing to share a little bit more about what they are creating with this project. Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson graciously agreed to share some of their thoughts below:

Bluebeard's Bride Main Kickstarter Art

-Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview. Could you give some background on where the idea for Bluebeard’s Bride came from and what drew each of you to the fairy tale the game is based on?

Sarah: Strix & I met at a Hacking for Women workshop at GenCon 2014 where Marissa was our coach. We’d never actually met before, but when we sat down to talk about what kind of game to make, Strix asked me if I liked fairy tales. 😀

MK: Like Sarah said, they had the idea to make a dark fairytale game and it was my job to jump in and help show how it could fit into the PBtA framework. So, I listened to their crazy cool concepts and showed them how they could represent them mechanically.

– On the Bluebeard’s Bride kickstarter page the game is described as an “investigatory horror roleplaying game”. Can you talk a little bit about what this means, and what drew you to this particular format?

Sarah: In the fairy tale, the Bride is encouraged to explore the house with that one forbidden room as a lure to violate boundaries. Having the players investigate each room, with that uncertainty of what they may find, is this really nice symmetry.

MK: The rooms of a haunted house provide a beautiful holding environment for a horror game. In a genre like this things can escalate quickly, but we wanted the game to reflect the fairy tale. And that fairy tale has an ending, so investigating whether or not Bluebeard loves you is a great way to keep the game fun and suspenseful without letting it run away from having an ending.

– The Kickstarter makes a mention of feminine horror, and in previous interviews you’ve invoked this theme in varying degrees of depth. What do you mean by feminine horror and how you explore it in the game?

Sarah: In this specific context, feminine horror revolves around the life experiences of women. So you’re playing as a woman, and some of the horrors you encounter in the house are more commonly associated with women: enduring pain in order to be beautiful, the aftermath of sexual violence, denial of actual lived experiences, just to name a few.

MK: Feminine horror generally explores tropes and experiences commonly associated with a women and the fears that keep them up at night. In this game, we explore lack of character agency by limiting the options the Bride has when engaging her surroundings and reminding the Bride how society views her, which then undermines how she thinks of herself.

– I see varying emphasis in horror RPGs on navigating boundaries with players before you begin play. You mention safety in the FAQ on the Kickstarter page. How much time do you devote to this topic in the game text, and what game experiences from your own lives have shaped your views on negotiating narrative boundaries in gaming?

Sarah: I’ve gotten to the point where I give each individual player an X card. I want to make sure they use it! We talk about it in both the player chapters and GM chapters in the book, but people need to recognize that they’re playing a horror game.

As far as my own experiences go, I play a lot of games with strangers at conventions. This has given me a lot of time to evaluate how I personally feel when different things come up, and to watch other people try to navigate that for themselves. And while I’ve found my limits on some subjects, overall I’ve been impressed with the level of trust people give each other in games.

MK: For me, it is important to mention that while the game works at conventions with a table full of strangers, it really sings when you play with a group of friends who know and trust one another. I go through a lot more safety talk with a table of people I don’t know than I do with my home group.

The Bride with her Keys

– There was a lot of discussion around the first season of Jessica Jones about how the show dealt with some of the same themes Bluebeard’s Bride invokes, but specifically held back from showing graphic scenes related to the themes of sexual abuse and trauma on screen. In several reviews this restraint was called out and celebrated. In watching the playthrough videos on your kickstarter page, Bluebeard’s Bride dives into this subject matter much more directly. What do you think is the value, as well as the risk of tackling these themes with fewer filters?

Sarah: I loved Jessica Jones, and really appreciated how they handled that. I would say, though, that having these experiences show up more directly is a difference of medium. So if you and I are sitting at a table together, we’re able to talk through trauma in a very open, personal way that you can’t do with TV, and the X card is there to make sure you can feel comfortable doing that. You can stop a TV show if it goes too far for you, but in Bluebeard’s Bride you can press up against boundaries without going over and still finish the story.

MK: Kilgrave was an amazing representation of some of the themes we explore in the game. I agree with Sarah, that the medium and the audience is an important difference to keep in mind, but I think we are going down a similar analogous road to Jessica Jones. We rely on the horrors in the house to represent threats rather than BE the threats. Sure, in Bluebeard’s Bride the ghost might lash out and physically hurt you, but the WHY matters a whole lot more. After all, you cannot exit a room without discovering what happened, to who, and why.

The Kickstarter has obviously funded well beyond its goal and at this point has swept past several stretch goals. Have you talked about any future projects based on Bluebeard’s Bride or in a similar narrative vein given the positive response to this project?

Sarah: Horror is something that I love consuming, from movies to books to comics. I am really looking forward to working on our stretch goals, and so I’m sure this isn’t the last time horror or fairy tales will creep into my work.

MK: I am, and will always be, a fan of horror, so I see myself exploring that more in the future. We have also bitten off quite a bit for Bluebeard’s Bride with this kickstarter, so I am focused on making these rewards as amazing as possible before committing to any more awesome ideas, but I am excited to see what doors may have opened.

Bloody Key– I have to ask for a few game teasers. Could you each tell me what one thing from Bluebeard’s Bride you enjoyed developing the most and are most excited to see player reactions to?

Sarah: I love the Room Threats, and using the keys as inspiration for each room. I particularly love describing the details that make up each room when I’m GMing, from the way light catches the fall of fabric making up the curtains of an old bed, or the smell of leather and tobacco that permeates a study, or the way the colors from a stained glass window play against a wooden floor, and having moments of beauty that interact with the horror in memorable ways.

MK: I think the player moves sheet (Maiden, Ring, and Exit moves) have provided me with the most satisfaction in design. They are core to the rest of the game’s functionality and I have loved the challenge. The move Shiver from Fear has to be my favorite mechanic in play and I can’t wait to see players creeping out their friends with it. 🙂

Thank you all so much and good luck on finishing what looks like it’s going to be a very robust Bluebeard’s Bride game line. The kickstarter for Bluebeard’s Bride ends on November 20th. There are other interviews and several play through videos posted on the Bluebeard‘s Bride campaign page that I highly recommend checking out.

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school. He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since. He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/. He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit. During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

A CASE FOR QUEER CHILDHOOD HORROR IN THE WORLD OF DARKNESS

Changeling

Tell me if you’ve heard these before. “I liked Changeling the Lost so much more than Changeling the Dreaming because they got rid of all the childhood garbage.”  “When I read Changeling the Dreaming, I turned and ran and never looked back.” “Changeling’s a fine game I guess, but it doesn’t belong in the World of Darkness.”

I have seen or heard every statement above when WoD players talk about Changeling the Dreaming.  I am a long time fan of Changeling, and specifically I am a long time fan of the horror themes inherent to the game.  In truth it can be the darkest setting in the line, but the themes are difficult to approach for a variety of reasons.  Some of those reasons are tied to how the game was developed, but some of the problems have to do with the perspective players bring to the game.

Changeling the Dreaming fundamentally speaks to a distinctly queer experience.  No, I do not think Changeling is exclusively queer, but I think the horror of the game is particularly resonant with the lived experience of queer gamers.  I do not know if this was intentional on the part of the developers, but I want to take some time to really dive into the horrors of Changeling through my experiences as a gay man, and how I feel these experiences show up in Changeling.

There are a handful of moments in my life that I think about when I think about Changeling.  When I was in 7th grade I was at the counter of a small kitch store with my mother in front of a cashier than I am now quite certain was a gay man.  A box of rainbow rings sitting next to the register caught my eye so I picked one up and asked what it was.  The cashier told me they were gay pride rings and I dropped them like my hands were on fire.  I don’t know how the cashier responded (I can’t imagine well), but my mother awkwardly tried to tell me I shouldn’t react that way, while at the same time obviously not wanting to be angry because she wanted to cultivate empathy in me, not shame.  As much as her reaction was the right one, she didn’t understand why I dropped them.  She hadn’t spent years on the playground with me, and she didn’t understand the fear of the slurs being true that only really exists when they are.  Until I finally started dating guys I never thought about that moment, but it lingered in high resolution in my mind.  Now it defines how I understand gay men before they accept who they are.

 

I had that dream again.  The one where I tower over all the bullies on the playground.  I’m also blue, with horns and . . . it’s a weird dream.  I didn’t have it while I was asleep though.  I had it on the playground.  Steve was getting it again for taking all the toys apart and trying to make them better.  Chuck was leading the chant, and it was the same insults the kids always used.  Geek, Dweeb, Tinkling Tinker, Queer.  My vision went red, my skin went blue and I swung.  I was huge.  I towered over them.  They couldn’t possibly win. . . Except they did.

 

Steve and I both ended up in the dirt, filthy and bruised.  I got up first and tried to help him up but he smacked my hand and started screaming at me.  Why did I stick my nose in his business? They would have been happy to just scare him if he’d played along, and then I butted in.  His cheeks were red with tears and rage.  For a moment I saw two red spirals twirl out of the flush on his face.  I cringed back and closed my eyes, trying not to listen to him screaming.  I don’t want to be this anymore.  I don’t want to care about him.  I hate myself.

Victor

When I was in high school I fell for my first boy.  I mean, I’d crushed a few times before that, but I always found a way to convince myself it was something else.  I can’t say we “dated” or that he was “my boyfriend”.  His parents were Pentecostal.  That was just never going to happen.  Not in any way that normal people get to have boyfriends or girlfriends.  We fooled around though.  Did the sort of things 16 year old kids do with each other that their parents like to pretend “kids” that age don’t do.  I loved him as much as a 16 year old is capable of coherent love.  It was messy though.  His relationship with his adolescent sexuality was complicated and capricious, and as hard as it was for me to accept liking boys because of the children I’d grown up around my entire life, I knew I could never understand what getting that from my family was like, so I was ok with it.

Then his parents found out.  Not about us specifically, but that he liked boys.  I wish I had learned about conversion therapy in a book or from the news in college like most people.  I learned about it from our mutual friends when I found out why he wasn’t living at home any more.  I am forever grateful his parents never knew we had messed around, because when he finally got home after months “at camp” I was able to see him.  We joked about his stories.  Made fun of the idea of all the boys at this camp being forced to bathe together. They wanted to stop him from being gay right?  Clearly they were morons.  We didn’t joke about the majority of what happened though, because he didn’t talk about it.  He wasn’t quite the same as before.  It wasn’t until years later that I really wrapped my mind around what that “not quite the same” really meant.

http://www.lydiaburris.com/

(http://www.lydiaburris.com/)

 

I sit in my dorm room thinking about Steve and Chuck.  It’s been a long time since I traded blows with Chuck on the playground, but for whatever reason here I am thinking about it.  I know now I wasn’t just dreaming that day.  I can be tall now, huge beyond measure, and Steve isn’t just some kid who’s good at putting things together.  I’m a Troll, Steve’s a Knocker, and laughably enough Chuck’s a Redcap.  He doesn’t smell out other Changelings to torment anymore.  Now he eats the fear of the assholes who made him afraid enough of his blood soaked dreams to turn on his own.  I shouldn’t relish the nightmares he dredges up in those wastes of skin.  I’m a seelie Troll.  I’m honorable, respectable.  Not every Autumn Fae gets a happy ending though and I can’t help but think he’s due a little payback.

 

Every other Troll in the court might shove their unseelie legacy down when it comes knocking, but I understand what that simmering hatred that locked me away from my chrysalis does to a person, and I understand what it drove Chuck to do.  So when he feeds, he’s feeding for every Changeling he smacked around as a kid, and I savor his feasts almost as much as he does.  It’s just one of those truths about being a fae in this world you don’t admit in polite seelie company.

 

My phone chimes.  It’s Steve.  He’s back from his break with his family.  I can’t wait to tell him what happened in court while he was gone.  It was an epic summer.  He’s living off campus now, and I thought it was going to be awesome.  I’m standing on his stoop waiting for him to answer the door and I can tell something’s wrong.  When the door opens I see what it is.  His face . . . the spirals on his cheeks that glow a deep candy cane crimson when he works are grey and dull.  His seeming is there . . . kind of, but I wish it wasn’t.  The mists are kinder than whatever I’m looking at.  He’s happy to see me, but everything is wrong, and I don’t understand what’s happening.  We go downstairs into his workshop and it’s immaculate.  No knocker has an immaculate workshop.  He’s building something and he sits down to start working on it again as if I’m not even there.  I watch him counting holes and rows on a prototype circuit board over and over again.  He’s counting exactly 3 times before putting his circuits in and I uncomfortably lean over him and joke, “whatever happened to the kid who always knows where to put the wire?”

 

He looks up at me and smiles, “Yeah, I was a pretty sloppy kid wasn’t I?  But after the work I did for my dad this summer I know that if it isn’t perfect it isn’t worth making . . . right?”  

 

Changeling’s themes aren’t only queer, but the horrors come into deeper, more vibrant contrast when you are.  The Nephandi of Changeling wear psychologists outfits and tell you you’re wrong, and the hardest part is the people telling you to listen to them aren’t motivated by some Wyrm tainted Bane curled up deep in their gut.  The people telling you to listen to them are your parents, and girlfriends, and family.  They are telling you to listen because they are afraid of you.  They are afraid for you, and most painfully they love you.  So they can’t just sit by and not do something.  In the worst situations they are just like you.  They are victims of the world around them and that’s the very thing that makes them so dangerous.  Most people don’t understand that experience.  It’s easy to see childhood silliness in Changeling if you don’t look too deeply, or if you’ve never taken a knife to your own ability to love because you’re more afraid of what the people in your life might think than the loneliness that haunts you.

I’m a gay man, and the words above are about my experience, but I will say I’ve seen these themes even more starkly and painfully when I hear my trans friends speak about their lives.  This rabbit hole is so much deeper than I can ever pretend to illuminate and for that I am uncomfortably grateful.

If you’ve ever found yourself saying Changeling doesn’t belong in the World of Darkness, or that it’s full of silly childhood themes, take a second and think about it a little more carefully.  I don’t ask that you dive in and drag the horror out of the game.  It’s a game after all, and no one should tell you what should or shouldn’t speak to you. Instead of saying the game doesn’t belong in the World of Darkness though, I just ask that you take a second to be appreciate why you weren’t able to see that horror and be grateful it doesn’t belong at your table.

 

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school.  He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since.  He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/.  He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit.  During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT HORROR IN MAGE: THE ASCENSION

Article Originally appeared here: High Level Games

 

Horror

 

Games set in the World of Darkness were all designed as horror games. Mage though, Mage is a game that doesn’t immediately set off the horror music in your mind. Mage instead reads like a game of hope, of a search for Nirvana. Like the rest of the WoD though, Mage is a game embedded with horror elements. Sure, it’s a different kind of horror than the personal horror of Vampire: The Masquerade or the ecological and rage filled horror of Werewolf: The Apocalypse, but the horror is still a core concept within the game. Horror in Mage is often about the questions left unanswered. In a search for enlightenment, the secrets one cannot find answers to are some of the most horrifying elements.

  • Control – The Technocracy might come to mind at first; the technological organization that believes it has to control ‘sleepers’ so that it can bring the world to ascension. This sort of control boils down in the books to long detailed and scary descriptions of mind wiping and personality manipulation. On top of that, Control is an actual ‘thing’ within the Technocracy helping to lead the world to… somewhere. Control is not only the purview of the Enlightened Citizen though. Concepts of control seep through Mage in subtle ways. The Order of Hermes believes that they control the forces of the universe. They believe that they should be the ones to herd humanity into growth and enlightenment and that they will eventually find the formula to bring the world back to the height of their power, the Dark Ages. Every Mage struggles to control the world around them, to show how their version of reality is true. Control and the lack of control permeate the WoD for Mages, and stories done well around control or a lack of control can be deeply terrifying.

 

  • Paradigm and Consensus – The world is what we make it and for a Mage the world can literally be what they imagine. Or, it would be if consensus reality didn’t hate those who try to change the foundations of that reality. The Mage has to have a paradigm, a worldview that their magic is crafted around and through. This worldview can include everything from a hacker’s excitement over the connections we make through the internet, or the ceremonial magician that believes blood, symbols engraved on the floor, and incense can help them make connections with Hell. For the first group, they may think they are making connections with other people, but what if they are simply making an opening for monsters that inhabit the digital web? What happens when a Mage sends himself physically or in astral form into the web? Can a computer virus kill them? Do trolls cause them physical pain with their attacks? What does the Mage believe? Do they think they can be killed via the internet? We’ve all heard stories about people addicted to games that die of heart attacks at their computer… that explains why he died perhaps… and it fits our consensus of reality much better than the fact he caught a virus meant to harvest data and is now harvesting something else.

 

  • Paradox – This ties into the last point. Paradox is consensus reality slapping a Mage for thinking they can remake the universe in their image. Paradox can appear as a shift in luck for the Mage; the things they once did with ease no become more and more difficult. Paradox can appear as a literal hobgoblin to destroy the mage. Paradox is the boogeyman for even the most static of Technomancers. Paradox is the universe pushing back; it is the power of the sleepers en masse. Does that mean the sleepers are truly asleep? Maybe they are tapping into a more universal avatar, a connection to the universal awakened entity? A good storyteller knows how to encourage her players to get their Mages to bend reality, and slowly reminds them that they are not as powerful as they think… maybe they aren’t the ones in control of the universe… oh there is that control thing again…

 

  • The Universe has Secrets – Whether it is the Deep Umbra or deep in the ocean, the universe has secrets that it is trying to hide. Reality hides deeper evils than we might ever know, but the Mage is seeking ascension, so they tend to trip right over the tentacles curling around the world as we know it. Do the Nephandi truly control the Technocracy from the inside? Are the Euthanatoi actually empowering the Abyss with their interest in Entropy? What about Ether, does it exist? What is it, if it does? The Universe has secrets and it is trying to hide them but they slip out into reality and even the most dedicated of Void Engineer crews might not be successful at destroying every deviant that pops up. A good storyteller never reveals all the things hiding in the shadows of the World of Darkness, and in Mage that can be hard. Mages are seekers of truth and may run headfirst into the darkness. That drive offers a perfect opportunity to show them a tiny glimpse of the creatures hiding in the dark.

 

  • Magic is dying – For the traditions; they believe the lifeblood of the universe is being drained away by stasis. Magic no longer powers the world in the way it once did. For the Technocracy, the world isn’t being locked into stasis; it is instead being ordered and brought to a greater state of enlightenment. Who is right? Is the very essence of dynamic reality being funneled into a state of greater good, or is it being destroyed by forces that seek to bring a halt to everything? Or even, is the world being slowly deconstructed from the inside out by forces of entropy and the Abyss? An Akashic performs their katas every day for years, and one day, it fails. Her actions no longer change the world in the way they always have. Do they seek a new way of doing things? Or, do they feel the creep of fear from their lack of ability to do what they have always done? Maybe magic is dying, but what is taking its place? Maybe if magic isn’t dying, it is instead the hope of the mage that is dying or already dead.