Curse of Strahd: correctly labels Strahd an abuser, yet troublingly racist

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The Vistani are depicted as having fortune-telling ability and can cast curses and the evil eye.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)

End note.

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”:

vistani

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.

dca9mongrelfolk

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.