Several months ago, I got an email from a reader – Daniel – who asked me if I would be willing to take a look at the republished Curse of Strahd for D&D 5th Edition, because he was concerned about how Curse of Strahd depicted the Vistani – who are a thinly veiled analog of the Romani people.
Daniel’s concerns were namely that:
- The Vistani were depicted according to current and historical negative stereotypes about the Roma people. They are shown as drunks and thieves, charlatans and cheats, and child stealers.
- The Vistani are depicted as having fortune-telling ability and can cast curses and the evil eye.
- With one exception, all of the Vistani characters in the book are either neutral or evil, while many (though certainly not all) of the non-Vistani villagers in the book are either good or lawful good. Furthermore, a large proportion of them have the keyword “bandit” as their creature type.
- As the Roma are one of the most abused and persecuted minorities in Europe, a perpetuation of such stereotypes might still be harmful.
Those all sounded like really compelling reasons to want to look at Curse of Strahd – especially since something that I have always felt very strongly about is the fact that mindless replication of harmful stereotypes is in itself harmful. Unfortunately, between one thing and another, I ended up flagging Daniel’s email as something to look into, and then didn’t get around to actually getting my hands on a copy until a few weeks ago.
Originally, I was just going to scan through for mentions of the Vistani. But things kept catching my eye and making me go, “really?” – to the point that I ended up reading through the book twice and taking notes. And. Man. It turns out that I had so much material it will have to be split into two posts. Because despite the fact that the foreword was actually quite encouraging in that it called out Strahd, and the historical person of Lord Byron – whom characters like Dracula and Strahd are heavily modeled on, are nothing more than serial abusers, Curse of Strahd is incredibly problematic when it comes to gender and mental illness. Additionally, its problems with racism go deeper than just the Vistani.
So! Since the Vistani and concern over racist tropes is what got me started looking into Curse of Strahd in the first place, I’ll handle that today and come back to gender and mental illness next time.
Before I go any further: an important note
It’s important to note that the Romani, or Roma, are often commonly referred to as “gypsies”. However, the term “gypsy” is an ethnic slur, and as such I have taken pains to use Romani or Roma when referring to real actual people – past or present, or Vistani – when referring to fictional characters in Curse of Strahd.
That said, there are a few places where I will reference supporting material that uses the term “gypsy”. This is for two reasons:
“gypsies” are a common literary trope in Gothic fiction (and British literature as a whole) and
It’s impossible to talk about the visual stereotyping of fictionalized Romani/Vistani characters without linking to material that uses the word “gypsy”, because the stereotypical “gypsy” costume is a fictional construct that doesn’t actually exist. Linking to resources that depict traditional dress of Roma people would be misleading, because traditional Roma dress does not look like the stereotypical “gypsy” costume. So I want to make very clear that I don’t in any way endorse the use of the word “gypsy”, or its commonly used derivative “gypped”. (Yes, saying you got “gypped” is racist.)
Problem the first: the Vistani
The first dodge that will inevitably be used to claim that the Vistani are not problematic is the fact that they’ve been renamed. However, this argument is cheap sophistry, because any person who reads through the material will recognize the Vistani as being Romani.
First, the descriptions of their clothing and the artwork in the book depict the Vistani in stereotypical “gypsy costume”:
And no, this piece isn’t an isolated example. Compare the Google Image search results for “gypsy” and for Vistani, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Everything about how the Vistani are depicted in artwork heavily references stereotypical depictions of “gypsies”. Further, if the authors of the book didn’t want the Vistani to be read as being Romani, they shouldn’t have used an actual Romani word to refer to the Vistani wagons. Vistani wagons are called vardos, which is the real life Roma word for traditional Romani wagons. Additionally, descriptions of the Vistani vardos adhere closely to the real-life Romani vardos.
In other words, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Any reasonable person would recognize the people being referenced by the fictional Vistani as Romani. WHICH IS A PROBLEM, given that the Vistani in Curse of Strahd adhere closely to just about every negative stereotype ever used to persecute actual Romani people. Such as:
The Vistani are criminals who menace good honest society:
- Adventure hook – Mysterious Visitors, p19-20: “[the duchess] voices her concern about a band of wayward travelers camped outside the town’s walls. They seemed harmless at first, but Morwen has received reports that they have begun harassing townsfolk and other visitors as they come and go, demanding money and wine, and threatening to put hexes on anyone who doesn’t pay up“
- Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: “These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness … they are searching for graves to plunder or hunting small game.”
- Vallaki Lore – p96: “There’s a Vistani camp in the woods soutwest of the town. The Vistani there aren’t very friendly. Vistani aren’t welcome in Vallaki.”
- Lady Wachter’s Wish, p124: Lady Wachter has a letter delivered to the Vistani camp “that asks the Vistani to dispose of the characters once they have left town. The Vistani burn the letter after reading it, as per Lady Wachter’s request”.
- The keywords used for Vistani NPCs are almost universally villainous keywords. There is one mage, one group of commoners, the chaotic neutral fortune teller Madam Eva, and Ezmerelda D’Avenir – who is a chaotic good vampire hunter. Aside from those exceptions, all Vistani are either assassins, bandits, bandit captains, or thugs.
The Vistani are all drunks:
- Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: “These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness without much concern for their well-being, smoking pipes, drinking from wine skins, and telling ghost stories.”
- Tser Pool Encampment, p36: “Twelve Vistani … are standing and sitting around the fire, telling stories and guzzling wine. They are intoxicated and have disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.”
- Vistani Camp, p119: “Even at this distance, you can smell the odors of wine and horses that emanate from this central area.”
- Vistani Camp, p119: “the Vistani have exhausted their supply of wine and are eager to obtain more”
- Vistani Tent, p121: “Luvash is so drunk that he has disadvantage on his attack rolls and ability checks … in addition to Luvash … there are six intoxicated Vistani … lying unconscious in the tent.”
- Vistani Tent, p122: “Luvash is unhappy because his seven-year-old daughter, Arabelle, has vanished. She’s been gone for a little more than a day. Because everyone in the camp was drunk and Arrigal was away, no one remembers hearing or seeing anything strange.”
- Vistani Tent, p122: “he agrees to do business with them if they accomplish one of two tasks: either find his missing daughter, or procure six barrels of wine and bring them to the camp”
- Luvash’s Wagon, p122: “Luvash’s wagon is a mess inside. Empty wineskins, dirty clothes, and mangy furs are strewn about.”
- Wagon of Sleeping Vistani, p122: “Each of these wagons contains 1d4 intoxicated and unconscious Vistani”
What’s notable here is that the Vistani are such drunken degenerates, that a little girl went missing from their camp for AN ENTIRE DAY and nobody noticed because they were too drunk. And when you treat with her father, Luvash, you can gain his trust either by bringing back his daughter, or by bringing him SIX MORE BARRELS OF WINE. You know, because one is as good as the other to a no good drunken Vistani, right?
The Vistani are untrustworthy liars:
- Adventure hook – Plea for Help, p19: “The letter, which seems to have been written by the buromaster, was actually penned by Strahd. … The letter is bait to lure the adventurers to Barovia.”
- The Vistani lie about their allegiance to Strahd: page 19, page 27
- The Vistani lie about having potions that will allow characters to travel safely through the mists: page 19, page 27, page 122
The Vistani steal children
- Rudolph Van Richten’s son, Erasmus, was stolen from him by Vistani, who sold him to Strahd: page 230, page 238
(There’s only one instance of this in the text, but given that this is one of the most serious and pernicious stereotypes against modern Roma it’s worth calling out as a distinct stereotype.)
The Vistani are cheats, gamblers, and thieves:
- Strahd’s Vistani Servants, p27: “They readily tell adventurers that they have a potion that protects them from the deadly fog that surrounds Barovia. Although this is a lie, they attempt to sell their fake potion for as much money as they can get.”
- Vistani Tent, p122: “For a hefty price, he offers to sell the characters potions that allow safe passage through the deadly fog … The potions don’t work, of course.”
- Wagon of Gambling Vistani, p123: “the Vistani are playing a dice game for wine and favors, since they have no money”
- Tower, Fourth Floor, p171: “…a human Vistana named Yan. … Yan reveals that he was banished from his clan for stealing.”
The Vistani have mystical powers to lay curses, tell fortunes, and use the evil eye
- There are literal actual mechanics for cursing and the evil eye on page 28
- Madam Eva, the Vistani fortune teller, whose fortunes come true: page 21, page 37, page 44, page 233-234
And. You know. So what? Who cares? This is just a roleplaying game, right?
EXCEPT. 250,000 Roma people were executed during the Holocaust because of racist views about the Roma. Today, Neo-Nazis harass Roma people here in Canada, partly because Canada has been accepting larger numbers of Hungarian Roma refugees and asylum-seekers as anti-Roma persecution in Hungary continues to escalate. Also, French authorities removed a five-year old blonde girl from the care of her Romani caregivers – who were raising the girl with the permission of her Bulgarian birth mother – because she “didn’t look Roma”; despite proof that the girl hadn’t been abducted, she will NOT go back to her adoptive Romani parents.
When the stereotypes of Roma people as murderous criminals, child-stealers, no-good gamblers and drunks, and a general menace to good and honest society are the reason why European Romani face tremendous persecution and violence, mindlessly replicating those stereotypes is just gross and irresponsible.
Problem the second: Miscegenation!
(Miscegenation is an ugly term referring to “the mixing of the races” through breeding.)
In Chapter 8, which details the village of Krezk, one of the key locations is the Abbey of Saint Markovia – which has become an insane asylum for mongrelfolk – humanoid creatures with random animal features who are all incurably insane.
Which. Okay, we’ll skip over the grossness of “lock up the mentally ill and throw away the key” until next time and just focus on the mongrelfolk for now, starting with the name. Because “mongrel”? Is a racial slur meaning someone with a mixed-race background, with a pretty disgusting history:
“…in the ugly history of racism, “mongrel” has been used to demean couples of different ethnicities and children of mixed race.
This last sense of mongrel invokes another nasty word, miscegenation, which is a derogatory term for couples of mixed race who marry and have kids. In many states anti-miscegenation laws made it a crime for two people of different races to have a relationship or engage in intimate activities. The Supreme Court found these laws to be unconstitutional in 1967.” —source: blog.dictionary.com
You have a literal mixed race with random animal traits, which are referred to as deformities. Most mongrelfolk can’t speak Common, or they speak fragmented Common “mixed with various animal cries and nonsense”, and “aren’t sophisticated enough” to use the animal sounds they produce as communication. And where it gets extra gross, almost all children of a mixed mongrelfolk/human union will be mongrelfolk: “about one child in every hundred is born looking like its non-mongrelfolk parent”.
So why is all of that so terrible? Let’s break it down.
First: the mongrelfolk are inherently inferior subspecies of humanoid. Their nature as a mixed race adheres to the historical panic over miscegenation, which stems from the idea that the superior humans are those who are racially pure. (And, you know, white.) The fact that they are called “mongrels” is what ties the backstory of the mongrelfolk to deeply ugly historical anti-Black racism in the United States.
Second: The fact that mongrelfolk can’t speak Common intelligibly and lack sense enough to use the sounds they can make as communication with one another is mirrored by deeply racist anti-Black stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of Black people. These stereotypes were used to justify the existence of slavery in the United States (and elsewhere) prior to the Civil War. More important, these stereotypes still persist today. No less a personage than James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame, who stole Rosalind Franklin’s data and with it the Nobel prize she should have won for discovering the structure of DNA) said in 2007 that Africans are less intelligent than Westerners.
Third: the fact that 99% of babies born to mongrelfolk/human couples are mongrelfolk has a historical analog in the One Drop Rule, which held that only one Black ancestor, no matter how far back in your family tree, was required to make someone Black. This rule was made into law across the American South during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and was part of the DNA of Jim Crow Segregation laws. This by itself might not be so bad, but together with the previously mentioned mirrors to anti-Black racist stereotypes might just make the mongrelfolk the most racist thing I have ever seen in a roleplaying game. (It’s hard to say – I’ve been doing this for several years and there are a lot of examples to choose from.)
So. You know. Slow clap?
And that’s about enough for today.
Next time I’ll tackle CoS’s problems with gender, mental illness, and use of “edgy” tropes.
16 thoughts on “Curse of Strahd: correctly labels Strahd an abuser, yet troublingly racist”
I love taking these really old adventures (or even the updated versions) and turn them inside out and focus on these type of things. I ran a version of Ravenloft (during the D&D 3.5 era) where Barovia was more like WW2 era Eastern Europe and played up the xenophobia themes, in order to make the game more horrifying. It worked. Great post!
Out of curiosity, have you played the Ravenloft stuff that this adventure comes from? Interesting setting.
I went off on a rant a while back about the Varisians from Pathfinder, who are basically the Vistani with a different name and a slightly less horrific backdrop. (Slightly. Ustalav is basically Ravenloft.) I said pretty much the same stuff you said here, but I didn’t say it anywhere near as well. So right on. 🙂
I remember playing a PFS adventure that took us to Shokuro, where the Not Japanese villagers deferred completely to us (mostly) Avistanian hired swords. We then bossed them around in a resource-management minigame, where they unquestioningly obeyed us and we could each do the work of five of them even when harvesting rice in a farming village. Because obviously we know so much more about that than these people who’ve lived here their entire lives.
The “village in need of adventurers” trope becomes not just lazy but racist in this context, and the GM agreed when I pointed this out.
I agree that the Vistani are highly problematic, because cultural appropriation is not okay, especially when the designers have basically no narrative or game theme for the Vistani besides “gypsies”. They are Strahd’s servants, and he envies their way of life, and that’s really the only relationship they have to Strahd – their culture could arguably be Chinese or Native American without stretching the audiences’ sense of disbelief so much, and that’s what (to me) makes the gypsy narrative so insulting.
I would argue, though, that the mongrelfolk are a brilliant decision.
Isn’t one of the hallmarks of gothic horror taking existing tragedies and dramatizing them into something quite horrible?
Frankenstein’s monster forces us to confront how creation is a grotesque and ugly process, and how despite creation of life being sacred, how that same life seems monstrous to us. It is an allegory to genesis, but also warns us about the dangers of science in an exaggerated, absurd way. A literal reading of it seems to suggest that science is evil. Frankenstein’s monster is tragic, disgusting, and a murderer, and we as readers are forced to confront this ugly truth. There is no redemption for the monster, nor for the creator.
Vampires are a gothic corruption of sexual predators and abusive relationships taken to an extreme, simultaneously evoking our fascination with stalking and lust and also forcing us to confront how disgusting and horrifying it is. Vampires are tragic creatures, but killing them is not a tragedy, it is an absolute moral prerogative. There is again no chance for redemption.
Werewolves are about lies and loss of control, in the same way. They are the abusive father or husband or boss or co-worker taken to the extreme. Again, no chance for redemption.
In this sense, a gothic RPG should challenge us to think about mongrelfolk and the ramifications if we allowed racism to be something we treat as irredeemable. I think it absolutely fits Curse of Strahd that no matter what you attempt to do as a player, you realize that while in the real world you can learn the language of someone you treat in a racist manner (in light of current politics, perhaps we could all benefit to learn some Spanish and Arabic and actually speak to these people who we are demonizing), in Curse of Strahd you are not able to do so.
You can try and try to learn how to speak to the mongrelfolk, and they will not prove to be equal to you. They will not be able to speak to you intelligibly. They will not be able to do anything that you might want them to, whether you approach them as a critical race theorist or as a white savior stereotype or as someone liberating them from Strahd or what have you. You will fail. I love that even if they are freed, all they will do is steal food. They kill nobody – they aren’t unnecessarily violent once given freedom, but nonetheless they are monstrous. It’s a beautifully written tragedy, considering the writers have no idea what the players will do – it is a tragedy because there is no winning scenario.
And, if you look into who made them this way, the freakin’ Abbot who (spoilers) is a freakin’ Deva did it, and he thinks he is still righteous! He still sees himself as Lawful Good!
It’s a horrible horrible corruption of our normal expectations and hopes about race, and that’s what makes it work so well in my honest opinion.
It seems that though it’s possible to reinterpret the whole thing as /critical/ of the real societal problems that are embedded in the scenario, unless the authors actually do some prodding/pushing to get the players to think about it in that way, then we’re just back to mindlessly replicating stereotypes.
A person who really wants to can always do some mental gymnastics to justify bland fictional racism as a parody or critical of real racism, but most readers won’t do that. I’m not saying everything should be hit-you-over-the-head-with-it moralizing, but you should lead the readers a little bit in the direction of critical analysis if that’s what you’re going for.
I agree with your points, and that is why I think the Vistani are problematic. They purely seem to exist to fulfill the neutral NPCs, and yet they employ many needless stereotypes that are harmful in real life.
I do think the mongrelfolk are an examination rather than a blind faux past though. You can see it in their monstrous forms, in how the book explicitly states that their language is nonexistent, and in the fact that they used to be normal folk transformed by an angel. There is clearly an examination of the theme of tragedy here, and I think it fits nicely into the gothic aesthetic. I’m not sure that all the parallels are valid when it comes to African American people, since these folk were cursed, and cursed by a being that is supposedly lawful good. That to me feels quite far from a stereotype and reminds me of Frankenstein more than, say, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry or To Kill a Mockingbird.
In 2nd edition D&D mongrelmen are a type of creature, that’s what I first thought of. They have communities and such. The main article was very interesting and informative though.
[Comment removed: derailing]
I love Ravenloft, but thinking idly about the Vistani had made me hesitant to revisit the setting. I had hoped that the current edition might do something different with them. They could have been a genuine parallel to Romani people, a culture full of nuanced individuals who might be accused of thievery, kidnapping, and curses, but are actually just the victims of a society that marginalizes them. Or they could have made them a legitimate fantasy culture, taking them further away from their “gypsy” roots to become something unique that could serve their classic gothic fiction role even better. It’s disappointing that they were lazy and kept on the same old way, but I suppose it’s not surprising. Thanks for your analysis. I look forward to part 2!
Yeah, reading this article helped me to examine the Vistani more critically, and I definitely think that i’ll be replacing them if/when I run the module, either to be more faithful, or if I don’t do enough research, just rewriting them as a non-Romani population.
Great write up; looking forward to part 2. I’ve played Ravenloft multiple times over multiple editions and am very familiar with the subject. I think the authors of the 5th edition version did the same sort of things you mentioned in your critiques of their main books: they were at least sensitive enough (to realize the word “gypsy” was bad) but they still did not understand that the entire situation was problematic (all the Vistani are “gypsy” stereotypes). It’s like: ok, we know we need more women in the PHB – but not the MM. We need more women looking heroic: but still forgot about boobplate. While they get some credit for trying (and many of their peers are not trying), it’s frustrating because their efforts still fall extremely short, and you really want them to do better.
One of the things that really bothered me about the mongrelfolk was that there were several children in with the rest. There’s no “good” ending for them, as someone else said: and the only person keeping them in check is insane and evil. Which means there’s an extremely high likelihood of the PCs ending up needing to kill all the mongrelfolk, for one reason or another, and there are children mongrelfolk as well. It’s extremely challenging, which could be good from a “whoa this is so fucked up it challenges me intellectually” sort of way, but it’s more likely to be one of the many masses of “who this is so fucked up for really no goddamn reason and this isn’t really doing anything but making the world worse for imagining this scenario” sort of way.
[…] full of problematic racism, sexism, the treatment of mental illness, and the murder of children. (Post 1, and Post […]
I think there isn’t really a problem here. Yes Strahd is a serial abuser. No shit! He is a brooding vampire who is trapped in a mist covered hell who is constantly being taunted by different reincarnations of a woman he was so obsessed with that he m u r d e r e d his brother when the woman fell in love with him! On to the Vistani. I see your point, but i don’t agree with it. While most people of Romani descent are normal, non-swindling, productive members of society, the gypsy culture is based on swindling non-gypsies. This setting is gothic horror it is supposed to show the worst in people. And while most Vistani are neutral or evil they are far from the only evil NPC characters. There is a woman in Valaki that literally runs a devilish cult and is in kahoots with Strahd. Yes there is a dichotomy between Vistani and non-Vistani but evil is evil and many other NPCs who are non-Vistani are, in fact, quite evil. On the flip side the module demonstrates that a hero can be a hero no matter where they are decended from through the Vistani vampire hunter Esmerelda D’Avenir. In my opinion this article analyzes a problem that isnt pertinent in any way and should be understood that gothic horror means the worst is the worst. Its not racist. Just good writing.
Edit: On Mongrelfolk, i feel you’re drawing more conclusions than are necessary. Mongrelfolk are meant soley to give players a scope of how corrupted the landscape of Barovia is. It shows that the setting is so bad that an angel was corrupted to the point of playing god with the people of Barovia. Mongrelfolk are less sophisticated because The Abbot quite literally spliced them with animals. I would understand your concern if the Mongrelfolk were being treated as sub-human if they were fully functioning humanoids but, yo be blunt, they aren’t. They are an insane angel’s failed science experiment that is meant to be used as a plot device to pull on the players heart strings.
My problem with the Abbot and mongrelfolk arc was…why did making people into mongrelfolk lead to evil? First, the people the Abbot cured *specifically asked* for the change in line with their own personal ideals. Second, this was after he tried to “cure” their “imperfections;” the Belviews had different ideals, and the Abbot *respected* them. But then Strahd gives the Abbot “forbidden lore” (which can’t be found by the PCs, alas) that enables the grafting to be non-fatal (so evil)…and *this* is what causes the Abbot to run Bedlam and stitch together a Stepford wife? I don’t see the logic.
What I *did* see was yet another gothic horror trope used without asking if it’d be a good idea: bad breeding. You can see elements of this in Lovecraft; good old-fashioned New England racism, where poverty among whites was considered due to some inherent familial taint. The inbreeding among the Belviews, along with unspecified birth defects and vaguely defined insanity, strongly points to this. The insanity in particular, as it’s so strongly tied to and exacerbated by their body modifications.
Everywhere else, mongrelfolkfolk are depicted much more positively, at worst being pitiful and in need of assistance. My stand-out example is in Pathfinder’s Wrath of the Righteous, where a hidden village of mongrel folk are the chaos-warped descendants of heroes. The NPC pic looks pretty handsome, stitched-together look notwithstanding, and they later act as part of your team when taking a fortified museum from demons.
Here, we’re supposed to believe that mongrelfolk and the Abbot are too tainted to be reasoned with. When an angel protecting those persecuted for their looks and lifestyle would be a better morality play.
Hickman needs to look at his *own* flaws before he engages in any more moral grandstanding.
(Okay, that last sentence was petty, but I’m a Pathfinder fan and still bitter about that “terrorist attack” rant. Someone send him a copy of Bestiary 6; I bet he’ll be most offended by p.110-111.)
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