From the Creators: Unraveling Ravenloft

The co-creator of the classic Ravenloft module reveals how Curse of Strahd is taking vampire folklore back to its roots.


John Scott Clegg. Even the most ardent Dungeons & Dragons fan won’t know his name, yet he’s up there with the very best unsung heroes. If it wasn’t for Clegg, who ran a D&D game back in 1978, there would be no Count Strahd von Zarovich. Indirectly, this DM helped create one of the tabletop roleplaying game’s most enduring and popular characters.

“I was new to D&D back in 1978, when my wife first introduced me to the game,” says Ravenloft co-creator Tracy Hickman. “One of my first sessions was with a friend I had known in high school, John Scott Clegg.”

Hickman describes the session as the typical adventure people played in those days. The party set about exploring a hodgepodge of dungeon rooms connected by corridors, beating up the monsters they encountered as they amassed treasure and experience points. Suddenly they were face to face with random encounter number thirty-four: a vampire.

“Our party turned the corner and there he stood. I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing here?’ He seemed out of place with the other standard monsters we were encountering. I thought, ‘You’re lost. You’re in the wrong place. You need to have your own adventure, setting, and story.’ That’s pretty much where it all started.”

When Hickman returned home from that game, he told these thoughts to his wife Laura. The pair immediately began researching the mythology and folklore surrounding vampires, starting with a vague, black-and-white image of Bela Lugosi from 1931. Digging deeper, they found so much more.

The Vampire Diaries

“Laura and I have always worked well together and we did a lot of research into vampire lore and their foundations. I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula out loud to her. It was a lot of fun exploring the deeper themes of that book,” he remembers.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula
John Polidori's 1819 Novel

Their search took them to the first ‘modern’ literary version of this creature, John William Polidori’s 1819 novel The Vampyre. Polidori was Lord Byron’s personal physician, and when Byron suggested one evening that his guests each write a short ghost story, The Vampyre was Polidori’s contribution. He was in good company, as the same evening Mary Wollstonecraft (soon to be Mary Shelley) wrote a story that would later become Frankenstein.

What the Hickmans found was that the romantic vampire of the earliest years of the genre was not just a spouse beater but a spouse killer, the archetype of abuse in the worst kind of destructive codependency.

“Strahd came directly from the roots of vampire lore. The origins of the modern vampire spring from feminine cautionary tales warning women away from the ‘bluebeard’ archetype. It was essential to understand this in order to properly construct him,” Hickman says.

“But the vampire genre has taken a turn from its roots in recent years. The vampire we so often see today exemplifies the polar opposite of the original archetype: the lie that it’s okay to enter into a romance with an abusive monster, because if you love it enough, it will change.”

Playtesting

While work began on the module in the late 1970s, it wasn’t released until 1983. In the intervening years it became a Halloween staple in the Hickman household. Each year brought added refinements, including the random elements that saw weapons and even Strahd’s motivation decided by drawing cards.

“We played that game every Halloween and Laura and I wanted to keep the players guessing, even when they had played it with us before. So that became part of the design, Hickman says.

“Initially we were going to title the adventure Vampyr, as one of a series of games we called Nightventure, which Laura and I were self-publishing back in 1978. The castle was called Ravenloft, and when Halloween came around each year our friends asked us if we could play ‘that Ravenloft game’ again, so the better title won out.”

Little wonder it was so popular, given how much its storyline affected those experiencing it. Hickman remembers one campaign where Strahd’s tragic backstory was too much for one player: “When they found Strahd at last, distraught and prostrate over the tomb of Ireena Kolyana, this player could not bring himself to use the Sun Sword to slay the vampire. The others in the party had no such compunction, however, and fell on the creature with a vengeance.”

Once released, Ravenloft had a similar effect on many other players, who loved the rich gothic world it brought to D&D. On the 30th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeon magazine ranked Ravenloft as the second greatest D&D adventure of all time—behind Queen of the Spiders.

Hickman says he and his wife have always been “deeply honored and touched” by the reception of their adventure. The pair also worked on the original designs for Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill, although that module was later finished by others. That was the last time they collaborated on a project involving Strahd, until now…


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Curse of Strahd

“Laura and I are delighted to have been able to participate in this new and amazing incarnation of Ravenloft. We didn’t hesitate one moment, we were on board at once,” Hickman says. “I flew up to Wizards of the Coast and spent a week with Chris Perkins and his team. It was a wonderfully creative time filled with ideas and dark tales that Chris wove into Curse of Strahd.”

One of the objectives Hickman wanted to achieve was to bring vampire folklore back to its roots. “Vampires have strayed from their original role in cautionary tales, which warned women about monsters and thereby empowered them,” he says. “Strahd is a classic abusive monster who is, at his root, selfish. The tale is timeless and has nothing to do with some of the recent and harmful versions of glittering romance that vampires have appeared in.”

As Count Strahd von Zarovich makes his welcome return, it’s time to give credit where credit’s due. So thank you, John Scott Clegg, for your role in helping create such a well-rounded character. Without you there would be no Strahd, and Dragon+ salutes you!