In my last post, I took a look at the troublingly racist depictions of the Vistani (who are crypto-Romani) and “mongrelfolk” in the iconic Ravenloft D&D adventure Curse of Strahd that was republished for D&D 5th Edition. Today, I’ll be looking at the other half of my analysis – which focuses on troubling things around gender, “edginess”, and depictions of mental illness.
(Before I get started, it is important to note that there is a content warning for discussion of violence against women and children, as well as ableist portrayals of mental illness.)
The one thing they got right: the core scenario and strahd’s entitlement issues
The heart of the Curse of Strahd scenario revolves around Strahd’s origins and the role that his “tragic love” for a woman named Tatyana played in his bargain with the Dark Powers that doomed Barovia and turned him into a vampire. Before Strahd’s transformation, he fell in love with Tatyana, but she loved his much younger brother Sergei. So Strahd did what any insanely jealous man would do, he murdered Sergei on their wedding day, drank Sergei’s blood, then chased after the grieving Tatyana until she threw herself to her death from the castle walls. (Like, literally chased her, not just “tried to romantically pursue her interest”.)
It was subsequent to this that Strahd was killed and rose again as a vampire, as a fulfilment of his bargain with the Dark Powers. This is also when Barovia became its own isolated demiplane of existence – in which all souls were trapped and could not move on to any sort of afterlife – which means that Tatyana’s soul was eventually reborn into a woman named Marina (who looked just like Tatyana). Strahd pursued Marina, but she was killed by another man. And now, in the “present day”, Tatyana’s soul has been reborn again into a woman named Ireena (who also looks just like Tatyana). Strahd, being the monster that he is, reasons that because Tatyana should have been his, Ireena actually belongs to him because he is entitled to her soul in any incarnation.
…which is fucked up, for obvious reasons.
And here’s the thing. It would have been easy for that to be incredibly problematic in presentation. But the scenario presents this motivation as one of the key features of Strahd’s monstrous inhumanity. Strahd’s obsession with Ireena and inability to let go of his “love” for Tatyana – who never wanted to be with him – are only ever presented as things that make him monstrous. In the scenario, Ireena is an NPC who can end up traveling with the party, and it is obvious from the beginning that if she is traveling with you, you are to help keep her free of Strahd’s influence. Which is great! It was great to see Strahd called out in the introduction as an abuser, and to see that consistently depicted in the scenario itself. Ireena represents a trope common to gothic literature that is cleverly subverted – she gets to be Mina Harker without being reduced to a human McGuffin.
Which is why the disastrous execution on the stuff that follows was so disappointing. And it also highlights why I’m being so hard on other things in the book, like the depictions of the Vistani and the mongrelfolk. There is a difference between critical examination or subversion of a harmful trope and mindless replication thereof. Strahd’s obsession with Ireena is the former, while everything else I talk about in this post (and the previous post) is the latter.
Problem #1: Strahd as vampire and his “brides” as spawn
The original Curse of Strahd module has been pretty influential on subsequent editions of D&D. For instance, in the 5E Monster Manual, the entries for “vampire” and “vampire spawn” are obviously inspired by Strahd and his “brides”. So rather than re-explain things I’ve written about previously, I’ll start by quoting myself:
- The man is depicted as an aspirational monster – a monster a PC might want to become, while the woman is crazy and clearly can’t be reasoned with – the sort of monster you don’t want to become
- The man is depicted as reasoned and intelligent while the woman is shown as bestial and insane (bitches be crazy, amirite?)
- “He’s talking to you, she’s stalking towards you. Also note the exaggerated hip/shoulder twist, is she doing a runway strut?”
- The man is a person. The woman is not.
- They reinforce social power dynamics; the man is a human-looking noble, the woman is a ragged, filthy-looking peasant
- The woman is “spawn”, and is depicted as clearly inferior to the “original”
- Given that the “spawn” is unreasoning and feral, the woman is clearly subject to the control of the master
- Which makes it pretty fucking gross how sexualized the woman is; if she is feral and unreasoning and subject to the whims of her “master”, the degree of sexualization also implies some pretty rapey stuff about how her “master” could use her for sex
- Especially because when you think about the process for becoming a vampire spawn in the first place, obvious rape metaphor is obvious
- And there’s definitely a subtext that this is what happens to women who have sex, because she couldn’t resist his sexual advances and now she is damaged goods
(Many thanks to Laura Hamilton, Paul Czege, Joanna Piancastelli, Andrew Medeiros, Mikael Andersson, Arlene Medder, Sean Nittner, Brianna Sheldon, Brand Robins, Steve Dempsey, John Stavropoulos, Josh T Jordan, and Chris Chinn for helping me [make this list].)
Now it’s important to note that the depiction of the vampire spawn in Curse of Strahd is sliiightly better, but not much. The spawn in CoS aren’t depicted as being bestial as the example from the 5E Monster Manual. Instead, the female vampire spawn are all depicted as being very elegantly dressed and regal in bearing – if still monstrous in nature and completely subservient to Strahd. However, this is because they are all Strahd’s “brides”, whom he marries, turns into vampire spawn, and them locks them into crypts beneath his castle. So. That’s not great.
It’s also important to note that not all of the vampire spawn in Curse of Strahd are women – although the ultimate fates of those Strahd turns into vampire spawn seem to depend entirely on gender. Escher is a male vampire spawn created by Strahd who is free to roam about Strahd’s castle. The other male spawn named in the book is Doru; Doru ends up locked in a church basement, but it’s his father (a priest) who imprisons him, not Strahd – which, again, implies a degree of freedom to Doru’s movement that Strahd’s “brides” certainly did not enjoy.
Unfortunately, while Curse of Strahd portrays Strahd’s belief that Tatyana’s very soul belongs to him as being monstrous, the “brides” of Strahd are not depicted as centerpieces in Strahd’s depravity. They are relegated to one or two paragraphs provided for tragic color, and their transformation and confinement isn’t examined critically, which is unfortunate.
Problem #2: using murdered children to make the scenario grimdark and “edgy”
While it’s not ever said that Curse of Strahd is attempting to be “edgy”, the sheer number of murdered children in the book argues for at least a semi-conscious attempt to go for shock value – and that sucks. It sucks because fridging women and kids for the sake of cheap shock value is gross, and because things that are “edgy” or done for “shock value” are almost always done in ways that happen to reinforce the patriarchal status quo, as I recently had occasion to gripe on Twitter:
The other reason it sucks is because it’s just plain lazy writing. And it’s especially lazy writing when that same “shocker” is returned to over, and over, and over again – as it is in Curse of Strahd.
There are a number of children whose murders you can prevent:
- Arabelle (7) – the kidnapped Vistani daughter of Luvash, is murdered by Bluto – a drunk villager who believes that killing a Vistani will make him lucky – unless the party stops it. However, this is pretty hard to prevent as Arabelle is tossed into a lake while in a burlap sack – the text says that she can’t be seen while in the boat, and there is a DC Strength check of 15 to rescue her in time once she’s been thrown in – which will be pretty hard for most adventurers to pass if they’re wearing armor. If you fail, she’s dead.
- Morgantha, a night hag disguised as a witch, takes Lucian Jarov as payment for her dream pastries (more on that in a second) unless the party intervenes. The party can stop her, but unless the party kills her it says that she’ll just come back for him later.
- Morgantha and her two daughters, also night hags, have two captive children in cages that they are fattening up to eat – Freek (7) and Myrtle (5). You can free them, but once you do they’re effectively orphans, since it was their parents who sold them to the night hags in the first place.
- The Barovian werewolves have a number of children that they keep penned up, waiting for gruesome battles to the death – after which the “winner” is bitten. You can set them free or not.
There are also a number of children whose murders just happen as part of the background color of the setting:
- Kiril, the leader of the Barovian werewolves, has been making children fight these duels for a long time, and the “winners” are traumatized as a result (obviously). There is a child transformed this way named Kellen that is specifically mentioned.
- Rudolph Van Richten – the famous vampire hunter – has his son Erasmus stolen by Vistani and delivered to Strahd, who transforms Erasmus into a vampire spawn. Van Richten “saves” his son by murdering him. It’s not explicitly stated that Erasmus is a child when this happens, but it’s strongly implied.
- Morgantha and the night hags require “bones of the innocent” in order to make their dream pastries, and they require the bones of children who have souls. (Because of the whole “souls can’t go to the afterlife” thing, a lot of people in Barovia are born without souls because… reasons?) They test children by poking them with needles to see if they cry (children without souls don’t cry), then get their parents hooked on dream pastries to the point that they’re willing to sell their kids for more dream pastries. Morgantha and her daughters also eat the children before using their bones.
- The optional level 1-3 module at the end of the book – Death House – has two child NPCs named Rose and Thorn, who plead with the party to destroy the monster that lives in their basement. Only it turns out that Rose and Thorn are actually ghosts! Their parents were evil cultists who locked them in the attic and “forgot about them”, so they starved to death. The adventurers find their skeletons still in the attic of the house – despite the fact that Rose and Thorn also have crypts in the family cemetery. (Which is sort of baffling, but whatever.)
And. You know. I’m not saying that no one should ever write content about the death of children. It happens, and it’s hard and traumatic and awful. But trivializing it to the point of “murdered children in indeterminate numbers as setting wallpaper” in multiple instances is just really gross.
Problem #3: so. many. murdered. women.
I’m not going to go into why fridging female characters sucks. That’s pretty 101-level territory, not to mention that I couldn’t ever do a better job of explaining it than Anita Sarkeesian already has. So we’re going to take that as a given and proceed from there.
There are seriously so many women who meet violent ends at the hands of men that it’s a little bit sickening:
- Tatyana, the object of Strahd’s desire and the reason he murdered his brother. Technically she kills herself, but only because Strahd won’t stop pursuing her – and one has to question what he was going to do with her once he caught her. The implications of that smell pretty rapey to me.
- Varushka, a maid in Castle Ravenloft, took her own life after Strahd began feeding on her because she didn’t want to be made into a vampire spawn. Again, I’m pinning responsibility on Strahd, since he forced himself on her. And again, the situation is pretty rapey.
- Marya is a woman who is murdered by a noble named Endorovich by accident; bitter that she had chosen another man over him, he tried to poison her lover and poisoned her instead. Endorovich gets a crypt in Castle Ravenloft, but it’s not said what became of Marya’s remains.
- Petrina Velinkova was a dusk elf wizard who wanted to marry Strahd so that she could increase her own power. Her people got wind of her plans and her brother and the rest of the dusk elves murdered her to keep her from being corrupted by Strahd.
- In response to Petrina’s murder, Strahd subsequently murders all of the female dusk elves in Barovia so that they can’t reproduce and will eventually die out. Because, you know, genocide is totes okay, as is reducing women to their reproductive capacity. (uggghhh)
- Marina – the second incarnation of Tatyana – is seduced by Strahd, then murdered by her family to keep her from being turned into a vampire spawn.
- The nursemaid in Death House (who is never named) was having an affair with the murderous, child-neglecting master of the house when she got pregnant with his child. Despite that he cared so little for his own children that he let them starve to death in the attic and never retrieved the bodies, he was so incensed when she miscarried his child that he and the rest of the cult all stabbed her to death.
- Lastly, the Abbot at the Monastery of Saint Markovia is a corrupted deva who has embarked on making a flesh golem bride for Strahd, whom he names Vasilka and is giving comportment lessons when the adventurers encounter her. Elsewhere in the abbey, you can find a collection of dismembered female body parts – discards from the process of making Vasilka. It’s not explicitly stated that women were murdered for the pieces, but it’s strongly implied.
Jesus. That is a lot of murdered women, and all of them murdered by men because of male entitlement. Especially distressing are the women murdered by loved ones because of being “contaminated” by Strahd – Petrina, Varushka, and Marina. Because the obvious rape metaphor of Strahd feeding on lovely young women is obvious, the implication is that once a woman has been raped, sorry, “corrupted” by Strahd, she is damaged goods and is of no further use to anyone. And that is some seriously damaging victim-blamey shit.
Problem #4: depictions of “madness” and what happens to people labeled as crazy
Lastly, we have the issue of how madness is depicted and what happens to people labeled as crazy. Largely, people who are “mad” are locked up for the protection of others, and are never let loose again. The Monastery of Saint Markovia is now home to hundreds of mongrelfolk, all of whom are said to be mad. They have been imprisoned in the Monastery in order to “contain their madness”, and the conditions that they are kept in are horrifying.
The descriptions of the rooms read straight out of the worst stereotypes of the Bedlam mental hospital. Worse, in the courtyard there are nine sheds, and in each there is a “howling or mewling” mongrelfolk who is chained in filthy conditions. And the mongrelfolk are not fed on a regular schedule, which leads to a perpetual state of panic over food and starvation.
The worst part of all of this is that there is never any serious discussion given to what would happen if you were to free the mongrelfolk from their tormenters. The text says in multiple places that the mongrelfolk are irredeemably mad, and just sort of takes it as given that of course you’d just leave them there. I mean, they describe it as “a madhouse overrun by wickedness”, so even though the only wickedness described is the Abbot’s, I mean, just lock them up and throw away the key, right? Even outside of the Monastery, there is a theme of “person goes mad so they are locked up” running through the book, which – as someone who has been told that I should be involuntarily committed for daring to have opinions while mentally ill on the internet is just seriously offensive.
Additionally, nowhere does it ever detail what happens if you let them go free, but it does detail what will happen if you attempt to take toys or other obvious objects of comfort from certain NPCs. Which. Come on. Jesus.
There’s also a serious issue with who the label of “mad” gets applied to, at least for human NPCs, and what happens to them – because it is very gendered and not okay:
- The Abbot – a deva who has been twisted by Strahd and the Dark Powers into twisted and depraved actions – isn’t “mad”. He’s been “corrupted”. You know, despite thinking it would be a totes great idea to make a flesh golem bride for an evil vampire wizard and then give it comportment lessons, because what’s most important in that situation is proper feminine behavior.
- Stella Wachter, the daughter of Lady Wachter, goes “mad” after Victor Vallakovich – whom Lady Wachter wanted Stella to marry – was mean to her: ” In fact, he spoke such unkind words to Stella that she went mad, and Fiona had to lock her daughter away” (page 110). Which. …really? She’s so fragile that a boy being mean to her is enough to make her go “mad”? So of course, because she’s a woman and FEMALE MADNESS IS A THREAT TO EVERYONE, she gets locked up, obvs. Never mind the fact that her “madness” is that she thinks she’s a “kitty” – BETTER LOCK THAT BITCH UP SO SHE DOESN’T SHED ON SOMEONE.
- Victor Vallakovich, on the other hand… When he’s not being so mean to young heiresses that he breaks their hold on reality and makes them think they’re felines, has been teaching himself magic from an old spellbook. Currently, he’s trying to build a teleportation circle that will allow him to leave Barovia, but so far he’s just screwed it up – as he discovered when he tested it on some servants. He’s disintegrated two servants already, but, you know, DISINTEGRATING PEOPLE and not showing any remorse isn’t at all crazy so let’s just not say anything and let him roam around free. What could possibly go wrong?
- You know who else isn’t crazy? Baron Vallakovich, who has decided that being happy is the key to getting rid of Strahd and has been throwing mandatory festivals every week for the past several years. He’s started locking up malcontents, or even people who just aren’t happy enough, but that’s totes normal behavior right? Not at all insane, nope.
So when men are crazy, no one calls them crazy – they’re just allowed to roam free and do whatever. Chop up women for flesh golem parts, disintegrate servants, imprison people for not being happy. Whatever! It’s all good. But women who go crazy? Even inoffensively crazy in ways that don’t harm themselves or others? Well shit, LOCK THAT BITCH UP.
…and, look. Calling women crazy has been the number one way of dismissing women for millennia. It’s literally where the word hysteria comes from, because the ancient Greeks believed that the sheer act of having a uterus is enough to make you crazy, and that crazy belief has pretty much stuck with us for a couple thousand years. (And yes, not all woman have uteruses – I’m simply referencing the origin of the stereotype here.) So all of this is a nice little gender cherry on an ableist shit sundae.
Am I saying no one should play Curse of Strahd? No.
One of the things that got me to look into this again was the fact that a friend asked me about how feasible it would be to adapt CoS so that it didn’t have all the horrifying anti-Roma bits. And for all that I think there’s a lot of replication of terrible stereotypes, a modicum of preparation by a reasonably skilled GM would be sufficient to overcome this book’s shortcomings.
What would happen if the PCs decided to free the mongrelfolk from captivity? How could you encourage the party to act humanely in that situation?
What would happen if you switched the gender of certain characters to subvert particularly awful tropes? What if Strahd’s spawn were equally men and women, and you made it more about him needing to derive nourishment from ensouled people than just an obvious rape metaphor with Strahd dominating a large number of pretty young women?
How could you change the Vistani to make them not offensive crypto-Romani caricatures? Could you remove them altogether?
A savvy GM could map out the bits of the module they want to use, then modify appropriately to preserve the flavor of the setting – which is very evocative! – while still delivering a story not rife with unsettlingly problematic stereotypes.