Just in time for Halloween, I’d like to take time to reminisce about the creepiest, spookiest, downright scariest role-playing game I ever played. Now, since this is my premiere piece for the Word of the Nerd, I’d like to share with you gentle readers some of my gaming background. I grew up in the absolute heyday of gaming, where TSR could do no wrong and continuously belted out one fantastic boxed set after another, from the red box beginner’s Dungeons and Dragons to Star Frontiers to Dragonlance when they first came out. As I got older, my gaming tastes evolved, and I started finding myself playing more horror games like Call of Cthulhu and All Flesh Must be Eaten. The one game I played that introduced horror into RPG’s, and did it better than any I remember was this one…
Ravenloft, first published in 1983 by Tracy and Laura Hickman through TSR, was and arguably still is one of the best examples of gothic horror in role-playing. Its central antagonist, Count Strahd von Zarovich, is a perfect iconoclast for the game—a tortured soul who not only commits foul deeds, but enjoys it. I always felt Strahd was the best movie and TV versions of Dracula transformed into a D&D character. He had the vile prince of darkness that was Christopher Lee, the passion (and dare I say, sexiness) of Frank Langella’s vamp, and the cold, calculating logic of Jonathan Frid.
In his pursuit of his long lost love, Strahd harangued the players, placing his legions of the damned against the players like a champion chess master, striking from the shadows in terrifying moves, always shrinking back to the darkness when the tide turned against him to fight another time. In addition to being a master strategist, Strahd was a heckuva boss, his fighter/magic-user skills backing up his vampire powers in the best of ways. He could go toe-to-toe with the Paladin via bastard swords, trap the magic-user in Evard’s black tentacles, and feed the rogue to his zombie minions all in the same turn without breaking a sweat. I still remember slogging through the dungeons of Castle Ravenloft, hip deep in murky water, to be silently—and oh so creepily—be surrounded by dozens of skeletal warriors coming out of the water to seal my doom.
For those of you who never tried it, pick up the original module on Ebay, or even the boxed set for 2nd Edition. Pop open that cardboard and get ready to take your players to the haunted land of Barovia, home of the greatest of all gaming vampires…Strahd!