English version

The new member of the cast and the extra-planar journey into Ravenloft

Fabio Ciaramaglia

Cover della guida a Ravenloft per la 5th Edition
Cover della guida a Ravenloft per la 5th Edition. Immagine utilizzata solo a fini divulgativi. © degli aventi diritti

The storyline Shadows of the Vampire carries our heroes, rather unexpectedly, into another dimension, or, to keep it technical, into the Demiplane of Dread, commonly known as Ravenloft. Before we deal with the narrative aspect it is necessary to have a short digression on it, even though we shall analyse it more deeply in other articles.

Ravenloft

The fundamental elements of Ravenloft setting were created in an adventure module with the same title for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition, in far 1983 -thus in 2023 Ravenloft is forty years old. At first it had to be just a stand-alone adventure module, but later they decided to continue and expand this gothic-horror setting and to address it to a mature audience. Only speaking of the days of TSR, modules, gazetteers, expansions and boxed sets were released (about seventy products), but also novels (about twenty) and two video games (Strahd’s Possession, 1994, and Stone Prophet, 1995).

To make this already rich history, in the days of the disbanding of TSR and the acquisition of its rights by Wizards of the Coast, the publisher Sword and Sorcery Studios (part of White Wolf) managed to obtain a split of the materials and acquired only the Ravenloft material, and they published and/or adapted it for the 3rd Edition, therefore adding some more twenty products (adventures, setting books and boxed sets). The coming back of Ravenloft with the whole of D&D belonging to Wizards of the Coast in 2006 was marked by a certain slowness in the publishing of new contents with just two adventure modules (one of them being a board game).

With the switch to the simplified 5th Edition two important and successful books were released, Curse of Strahd (2016) and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft (2021). In WotC period also some novels and two comics books were published (one of them being the one we are going to analyse here). We have to consider the forty years behind us and the about one hundred products related to this setting before a deeper analysis.

The root story of Ravenloft is, as it may be guessed, vaguely inspired to Bram Stoker’s Dracula but with a few important differences such as the fact that Strahd, the Count who rules unmatched in Barovia, is a wizard. His link with the Dark Powers begins when he bonds with them in order to obtain the heart of Tatyana, his brother Sergej’s betrothed. As a part of the deal, Strahd kills most of his own family, the Von Zarovich, but Tatyana, frightened by all this violence, tries to escape and commits suicide by jumping off the walls of Castle Ravenloft (and finally we understand the origin of the name of the setting). This is the moment in which Barovia is literally removed from its own place on Prime Material and moved to the Demiplane of Dread, our Strahd being its vampire ruler.

Differently from the other traditional Planes, the Demiplanes somehow cross obliquely the Planes, allowing anyway the “normal” extra-planar journeys but not in the usual way through powerful magics. The most common way to travel into them is via the Dark Powers themselves, a not completely intelligible metaphysic entity whose goal is to create an atmosphere of suffer and dismay where Evil can be self nurtured. Generally speaking, those who have accomplished some extreme evil act willingly following their own hubris are decent candidates to be turned into a Dark Lord, who are basically omnipotent in the Realm the Dark Powers have purposely designed for them. So, is this a reward for Evil? Definitely it is not: the Dark Lord is a prisoner within their Realm, they cannot go out from its border in any normal or magic way and they are consistently victims of moral retaliation which reminds them of their own unsatisfied hubris and of the reason why they attracted the Dark Powers.

Gods themselves can be victims of the Dark Powers, such as Vecna (yes, the same of the Stranger Things) and the Demiplane seems wholly forgotten by any form of known deity. As far as Strahd is concerned, he is prisoner and he is aware of this condition (as a matter of fact he periodically tries to escape the Dark Powers with the help of naïve adventurers), furthermore the moral retaliation he is forced to experience is related to Tatyana: in each generation a new reincarnation of the woman is born, she then becomes his main obsession, but every time he does not manage to win her heart.

Shadows of the Vampire: Una delle didascalie sinteticamente esplicative
Shadows of the Vampire: Una delle didascalie sinteticamente esplicative. © degli aventi diritti

However there is not just Barovia here. In time new Dark Lords have been born in the Demiplane and each of their Realms is modelled after a classic book of gothic literature (such as Frankenstein and Lamordia) or after a particularly discomforting historical period (such as the Italian Renaissance and Borca and the Stalinist Totalitarianism in Darkon). The Dark Powers play sadistically with the Dark Lords, creating customised Realms for them and designing elaborate moral retaliations for them in order to fuel the Evil around them and thus to nurture the torturers. While it may happen that the occasional unlucky adventurer from Faerûn stumbles in this Demiplane, una of the unanswered questions of the setting is about who the inhabitants of Ravenloft really are, either some artificial construct of the Dark Powers or some more soul punished for past sins.

Fact stays that the vexed population of the Demiplane, and of Barovia specifically, is rather xenophobic and so hostile against anything which is new and/or different. A total separate case is that of Vistani (led by Madame Eva), a demihuman people inspired to the gypsies, who actually can travel freely through all the lands of the Demiplane (but not escaping it) and who seem to know more about the Dark Powers, this secret intel pulling and pushing to them several Dark Lords for an alliance (Strahd) or utter hostility (Vlad Drakov in his Nazis-inspired Falkovnia).

With a strong background of manuals which are nicely written and in a narrative way, normally from the point of view of some explorer/scholar of the Demiplane or of the Dark Powers (such as the character of Rudolph Van Richten), rich in quotations and references to literature and history, and with metaphysical interpretations which can be rather free, Ravenloft is clearly not targeted to the casual audience of role-playing games, but to more mature people, so we could say it is a sort of Vertigo for D&D. Yet, as we said, with the simplifying design which started with the 4th Edition and then completed with the 5th, the potentials of this setting have been reducing with the latest two manuals, though there are people who claim that, in the future D&D edition, there will be a sort of merging of all past materials: we shall see if and when this actually may happen. Going back to the comics Shadows of the Vampire, the main setting reference is the simplified one of the 5th Edition, nevertheless we have to admit that Jim Zub has tried to add some more background colour here and there.

Shadows of the Vampire

Una delle copertine di Shadows of the Vampire

The story begins some time after the events of Legends of Baldur’s Gate, with the group of adventurers which is busy with their first mercenary activities in the city, and they are hired to fix a problem in the temple of Kelemvor. Although the cleric Nerys had tried to persuade her mentor Alby that she could have fixed the issue by her own, some trespassing had been ongoing for several days anyway. Alby explains that he hired the mercenaries and not the Flaming Fist because there was some economic arguments with them, so he offers them a full funeral service and burial for when the time comes.

Kelemvor is, as a matter of fact, the god who protects the rightful death, and who tries to delay its moment by healing diseases, and is sworn enemy of the undead, considered as an aberration to the natural course of things. Once ready for the patrolling with Nerys, our heroes find out who the trespassers are: a couple of werewolves, Dron and Utna, led by the warlock Sangin are after a specific magical object stored with the temple treasure.

Delina’s spells, Minsc’s fury, Krydle’ astute movements and Shandie’s arrows are at first enough to stop the villains, however they manage to kidnap Nerys, to flee somewhere else and force the cleric to detect the magical object they are after: it is a locket which, as we find out later, belonged to Strahd’s Tatyana. The heroes catch up with them and resume the fight, but right then they are warped in some mists and they are all teleported in the world of Ravenloft. Once there, Sangin, Dron and Utna, aware of their failure, flee to their lairs, leaving our protagonists in this middle of nowhere.

In theory, Tatyana’s locket should have the power of teleporting people outside the Demiplane, and Strahd himself is interested in it not just for romantic reasons, but because he wants to research its magic in order to escape the Dark Powers for good. Meanwhile the protagonists begin to get acquainted the creepiness of this dimension, fightings some ghouls, saving a Barovian man and receiving in change just the hostility of his family, and Minsc has a meeting with Madame Eva, the leader of the Vistani, who provides him a Tarokka reading.

Shadows of the Vampire: Strahd si presenta. i
Shadows of the Vampire: Strahd si presenta. immagini utilizzate solo a fini divulgativi. © degli aventi diritti

The most important event which happens is for Delina and Krydle who have to face very directly the sadistic and manipulative whims of the Dark Powers, which try to lure them with guilt in order to make them act in an evil way. Both have visions of their past: Delina meets her twin brother Deniak who blames her to have killed him, while Krydle meets his mother who blames him to have caused her death through his criminal actions. Delina reacts by trying to strangle Denial, Krydle lets his mother strangle him, but what is really happening is that the unaware Delina is trying to kill Krydle himself. Only the stepping in of Shandie and then of Nerys prevents this to really happen.

The group decides to explore this lands to better understand how to escape and Delina finds out that the locket protects her from the powers of the mists, so she suggests it may be a key for their coming back to Faerûn. Meanwhile Strahd has discovered the betrayal of Sangin and his werewolves, so he pays them back (by turning the warlock into a vampire and having Dron slain) and then he begins looking for the locket. This leads to a confrontation with the protagonists which is basically unfair since Strahd is completely invulnerable to their attacks, be them with weapons or spells -and most importantly, Nerys finds out that even her god cannot help her in the Demiplane. Luckily, in the total dismay of the situation, Delina’s wild magics manages to activate the power of the locket and the five characters finally escape Ravenloft. They are however in the middle of another nowhere and under a snow storm, wounded in the bodies and in the soul: they do not know it yet, but they have reached the Spine of the World (another of the important places of D&D), where the next storyline takes place.

This apparently simple story has some important narrative inputs, especially for the characters’ development. To start with we understand that Delina feels only partially guilty for the death of her twin brother, but she has already hit the point where she understands there was no other choice than killing him. Some details of Krydle’s past are disclosed too, mostly about the death of his mother, and we understand that part of his loathing towards his father Coran is maybe because he is considered partially co-guilty of that.

Minsc and Shandie are not too developed and their main role is that to offer a comic relief, like the jokes during the fights or the funny comments to the situations they are facing. We get a first glance to Nerys, who seem hardened and true to her role of cleric of Kelevmor, however she shows also some emotional weakness which is going to be deepened in the next stories -during the fights against the werewolves the girl has been bitten and is being affected by lycanthropy. Basically a consistent group of adventurers is being created with interesting backgrounds and bond by a deep friendship.

Shadows of the Vampire: Una delle esterne in un villaggio baroviano
Shadows of the Vampire: Una delle esterne in un villaggio baroviano. immagini utilizzate solo a fini divulgativi. © degli aventi diritti

So Jim Zub keeps on with this saga showing also his deep lore of the setting. Though only the central part of this storyline is set in Ravenloft proper and despite this setting has a long and complex background, Zub manages to grasp the mood of it in a few pages with captions and the dialogues with the Barovians -the desperation, the xenophobia, and the overwhelmingly seducing and evil touch of the Dark Powers. Even the appearance of Strahd, in really a few pages, makes us understand the insight of this character, extremely aware of his own omnipotence in Barovia and his personal obsession in finding Tatyana and an escape from the Demiplane.

Moreover, we remind that this comics is cross-media linked to the manual Curse of Strahd which had been released just a couple of months before. With Dunbar involved just in the cover art, these stories are drawn by Nelson Daniel (pencils) and Glauber Matos (inks) who are just as good. The scenes of the pointless fight of the heroes against Strahd are spectacular as the outdoor Barovian landscapes filled with mists and shades of grey which are there to communicate a sense of anxiety and agoraphobia/claustrophobia. We are not forgetting the nice visual representation of the classic spells of D&D like the magic missile or the mirror images, as the references to some game mechanics (sneak attack and turning undead, for instance).

In the next article we keep on with the journey of our heroes in the Spine of the World with the storyline Frost Giant’s Fury.

Further readings

Jim Zub (story), Nelson Daniel e Glauber Matos (art), Max Dunbar (cover art), Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows of the Vampire, 1-5, May 2016-October 2016, IDW. The stories have been collected by IDW in a paperback with the same title in December 2016 and later in another bigger paperback Days of Endless Adventures (March 2020), with the previous and next storylines.

A.A.V.V., Curse of Strahd, March 2016, Wizards of the Coast

A.A.V.V., Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, May 2021, Wizards of the Coast.

For further information on Ravenloft we suggest https://www.fraternityofshadows.com/ which has really almost everything to have an insight on this setting. In the section “Setting and Lore Discussion” of the forum of “Prisoners of the Mists” further material is available, you can check it out here: https://www.nwnravenloft.com/forum/index.php?board=9.0

end of article 12

Biography

FABIO CIARAMAGLIA

With an M.A. degree in English Literature, with a dissertation on Shakespeare and comics (2000) and a Ph.D. with a dissertation on Shakespeare and Italian TV (2004), I have always tried to deal with the complex relationship between literature and other media.

I have written for comics magazines, such as Fumo di China and Fumettomania (in its previous printed version), but also translated into Italian a couple of American comics for the publisher Magic Press and some poems. Meanwhile I have begun teaching English language at High School, at first in Rome and then, after 2015, in Trieste.

I have never lost the nerdy attitude even as a teacher, but since 2006 videogames have attracted me more and in some of them, maybe for a personal inclination, I have found several elements which are worth of being analysed, though before this year I had never dared approaching more seriously.


NOTE EXTRA

Elenco articoli dello speciale Dungeons&Dragons 50th Anniversary:

3 febbraio 2024

27 gennaio 2024

https://www.fumettomaniafactory.net/dungeonsdragons-50th-anniversary-la-trama-principale-di-baldurs-gate-ii-e-alcuni-cenni-sui-companion

6 gennaio 2024

https://www.fumettomaniafactory.net/dungeonsdragons-50th-anniversary-la-trama-principale-di-baldurs-gate-e-del-dlc-siege-of-dragonspear/

22 dicembre 2023

https://www.fumettomaniafactory.net/dungeonsdragons-introduzione-ai-principali-elementi-narrativi-alla-base-dei-primi-due-baldurs-gate

5 dicembre 2023

https://www.fumettomaniafactory.net/dungeonsdragons-50th-anniversary-il-viaggio-venticiquennale-di-baldurs-gate/

18 novembre 2023

https://www.fumettomaniafactory.net/dungeonsdragons-50th-anniversary-tutte-le-strade-passano-da-baldurs-gate/

9 ottobre 2023

4 agosto 2023

https://www.fumettomaniafactory.net/la-genesi-del-gruppo-dei-ladri-donore-anteprima-dungeons-dragons-4a-puntata/

7 luglio 2023

https://www.fumettomaniafactory.net/dungeons-dragons-50th-anniversary-il-passato-di-doric-in-the-druids-call/

23 maggio 2023

https://www.fumettomaniafactory.net/dungeons-dragon-introduzione-ai-personaggi-principali-del-film-honor-among-thieves-the-feast-of-the-moon/

ed il 26 marzo 2023


Dal 30 dicembre 2022 stiamo pubblicando un interessantissimo approfondimento di fabio dedicato a

Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider, dai videogiochi ad altri media (fumetti, cartoni, film)

ecco l’articolo più recente, del 10 maggio

https://www.fumettomaniafactory.net/tomb-rider-approccio-al-ciclo-conclusivo-di-dan-jurgens/

ed il link della Prima puntata del 30 dicembre 2022


Infine, nel 2022, Fabio ha pubblicato il lungo ed interessantissimo approfondimento dedicato a “DRAGON AGE dal videogame ai fumetti!“.

Sotto riportiamo l’ultimo articolo (il 27°) pubblicato da Fabio del 28 dicembre 2022

ed ecco la PAGINA DEL SITO DEDICATA A FUMETTI E VIDEOGIOCHI

https://www.fumettomaniafactory.net/video-giochi-e-fumetti/

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