The Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 008: Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession

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ArbitraryWater

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Edited By ArbitraryWater

Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession

Darkness falls, and you suddenly find yourself surrounded by a strange mist. You are no longer in the realm of popular, seminal RPGs, that much is certain.
Darkness falls, and you suddenly find yourself surrounded by a strange mist. You are no longer in the realm of popular, seminal RPGs, that much is certain.

Developer: Dreamforge Intertainment

Time Played: A little more than two hours

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5

Spookiosity: 3 out of 5

Would I play more? If I was compelled.

There are two things you should know when it comes to the 2nd edition era of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1989-2000): THAC0 and hella campaign settings. The former is the routine punch-line of RPG modernists everywhere, a shorthand for mechanical anachronism and weird backwards math (yet somehow still more streamlined than the literal “to hit” table that first edition trafficked in.) The latter is what eventually killed TSR, having split their user base between no less than half a dozen different campaign settings at one point. It’s something Wizards of the Coast has taken great pains to avoid, outside of their recent ventures into one-off setting books based on popular Magic the Gathering sets and also Critical Role.

DARK FORCES HATH STOLEN LORD DHELT'S AMULET. Gotta get it back.
DARK FORCES HATH STOLEN LORD DHELT'S AMULET. Gotta get it back.

TSR’s folly is my fortune, however, and their overabundance of weird settings offer a lot of fun, imaginative campaign fuel 20+ years removed from the fact (it also helps that they’re $10 PDFs instead of $50+ boxed sets.) One of these is Ravenloft, a gothic horror setting based around a famous first edition adventure of the same name; expanding the concept of a mist-shrouded land of gothic horror into multiple domains of dread. It’s not my favorite D&D setting, which is still probably Planescape, but there are definitely things to love about Ravenloft’s decidedly pulp approach to spooky draculas. Count Strahd von Zarovich and his domain of Barovia might be the enduring legacy of the adventure and the setting (Curse of Strahd is probably the best and most popular official 5e module, after all) but there’s a lot of fun camp to be had in a setting that’s nothing but the most ridiculously gloomy regions ruled by different evil-but-tortured dreadlords. This one is ruled by a werewolf! This one is ruled by a wolfwere! This one is ruled by Lord Soth from Dragonlance? Sure, why not? It’s basically a giant halloween store of a setting.

Do you like trying to manage four characters from first person at the same time? Well I have the game for you.
Do you like trying to manage four characters from first person at the same time? Well I have the game for you.

On the video game front, however, this era and campaign setting is also the source of the current oldest game on the wheel. There’s no beating around that Strahd’s Possession looks and feels like a game from 1994, a first person blobber stuck between tile-based, sprite-based worlds and free-roaming, fully polygonal ones. It’s running on the same engine as the Forgotten Realms-based Menzoberranzan, and had a sequel in the form of Stone Prophet (which takes place in the “pyramid mummy world” domain of Ravenloft). You don’t need to spend more than 10 minutes watching me stumble around, attempting to line-up the view window and mouse cursor so I can bash the enemies to death in a vague, real-time approximation of D&D combat, to get the idea that it maybe isn’t quite as intuitive as it wants to be. Inventory management is definitely one of those bugbears (the abstract concept, not the large hairy goblinoid of D&D fame) that a lot of older (and newer) RPGs struggle with. Alas, no amount of fun with paper dolls can save me from the slowly-brewing nightmare of being a hoarder with limited slots and no merchant to sell to. To its credit, none of what I’ve complained about here is truly impenetrable in the way a lot of other things I’ve run into are, so much as “mildly to moderately” inconvenient. There’s a solid automap system with plenty of room for taking notes, and I can't say that it's the worst thing I've encountered. Crazy that a game more than 25 years old might have some unintuitive UI, I know. (At this point I might just have to stream a little Might and Magic to show the audience what a well-aged RPG from the early 90s looks like)

NPC interactions!
NPC interactions!

However, there’s definitely some ambition and moxie in the way Strahd’s Possession conducts itself, such that I can’t write it off entirely. If it was boring and drab, that would be one thing, but there is enough here that I could see this being an enjoyable spooky romp if approached from the right angle (an angle I'm probably a little too young and impatient to find). As I mentioned before, the original I6 Ravenloft adventure is one of those iconic D&D classic modules, and it’s kind of impressive how much Strahd’s Possession manages to evoke the gloomy gothic atmosphere of Barovia despite looking like blurry pixelated mush a lot of the time. Between some genuinely solid MIDI music, well-written, setting appropriate prose, and an abundance of, uh, well-intentioned voice acting there are some legitimate production values behind it too. The progression of the game’s story seems fairly linear, but there also seemed to be a decent number of optional side ventures and puzzles along for the ride.

Pictured: Green and Brown
Pictured: Green and Brown

It’s just a pity that any positive sentiment I had for the game evaporated around the time I ran into the first real dungeon and had to navigate a monochromatic cave of green and brown, solving some switch and teleporter puzzles only to run into a bone golem capable of paralyzing and murdering my entire party posthaste. I’m sure there’s a way around it, and there’s enough fun spooky atmosphere that I kind of want to see where the rest of the adventure goes. By that point, however, I’d run up to my 2 hour limit and figured I’d be better off just watching a LP on youtube than continuing to bash my head against it. I didn’t hate my time with it, so a B+ for effort, Strahd’s Possession. I think I might just end up reading through the sourcebook again for fun. I almost ended up running a homebrew Ravenloft adventure the last time I did a “vote for your favorite adventure pitch” with my group. Don’t worry though, the next game is Daggerfall, in case you thought I was free from janky mid-90s first-person RPGs.

Until then, remember that I appreciate you taking the time to read this, and that playing Final Fantasy XI in 2020 may be hazardous to your health. See ya. (Dragon Age retrospective soon? Dragon Age retrospective soon.)

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Games removed: Ravenloft, Realms of Arkania III, Lands of Lore III

Games Added: Sudeki (This might be the last one for a while)

The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (Daggerfall Unity)
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I bought some huge collection of Gold Box and various Gold Box-adjacent games from GOG years ago, which included the Ravenloft games; I've always meant to try them. For all the weirdness dubiousness I saw during your stream, I think I may still check this one out. That being said, I feel like looking at a FAQ on a regular basis would be required for me; from character creation, to what companions I should get, to what the hell you do about that Bone Golem.

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rorie

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#2 rorie  Staff

Oh man, I haven't thought about Ravenloft in a hot minute but I definitely remember buying some modules for it back in the day. I was never the biggest vampire fan but it always seemed like fun.

Now that D&D and Magic are crossing streams on settings I wonder if we'll ever return to some of these older D&D settings in Magic. But it seems like Magic is more pressing down on D&D than the other way around.

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#3  Edited By ArbitraryWater
@relkin said:

I bought some huge collection of Gold Box and various Gold Box-adjacent games from GOG years ago, which included the Ravenloft games; I've always meant to try them. For all the weirdness dubiousness I saw during your stream, I think I may still check this one out. That being said, I feel like looking at a FAQ on a regular basis would be required for me; from character creation, to what companions I should get, to what the hell you do about that Bone Golem.

I feel like a lot of these games at least benefit from skimming a guide, which is why the scant resources I found for Strahd's Possession stuck out a little more. I don't think I'll ever quite be able to play through a D&D game older than Baldur's Gate at this rate. I briefly thought about doing the Gold Box stuff, but even with trainers it just seems like a little too much for anyone under the age of 35.

@rorie said:

Oh man, I haven't thought about Ravenloft in a hot minute but I definitely remember buying some modules for it back in the day. I was never the biggest vampire fan but it always seemed like fun.

Now that D&D and Magic are crossing streams on settings I wonder if we'll ever return to some of these older D&D settings in Magic. But it seems like Magic is more pressing down on D&D than the other way around.

There was definitely a brief period like two years ago where I bought PDFs of a bunch of the old AD&D setting books on sale and read through them during class (it was my last semester and I didn't have any active tabletop groups, so I had a lot of free time). If they're going to bring back anything from that era, it'll probably be Dark Sun, but there's definitely a part of me that would love a greater acknowledgement of the planar, philosophical madness of Planescape.

I do wonder how long it took some of the folks at WotC to decide to do some "brand synergy" with their two biggest properties, and which side of the office buckled first. I've skimmed the Ravnica setting book, at least, and it seems like it has a lot of built-in potential for goofy tabletop adventures, even if it doesn't seem all that cohesive in the way something like a Forgotten Realms is.

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Genessee

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Ah, next up is VENGEANCE!!!

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ArbitraryWater

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@genessee said:

Ah, next up is VENGEANCE!!!

But can you handle that VENGEANCE at a much higher resolution and more stable game-state than was ever originally intended?

I fully admit that putting Daggerfall on the wheel was mostly just an excuse to mess around with Daggerfall Unity.

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ValorianEndymion

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I did play a bit of Strahd’s Possession and the first thing I remember is being killed by that wargs in the very start, since like you said, the whole "line up window and mouse" is very hard to do fast, so you take a lot of hits until you can do it, meaning that is really hard to react to stuff happening like the bone golem (also is hard to cast spell since the game won't pause).

However, reading the manual/hintbook surely the game had very interesting ideas, such as you need certain npcs at certain moments, even if the whole concept was slight fragile since it appear that you can easily break stuff and make unwinnable by mistake.

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