Classic Adventures for the Modern Table – Part 2September 28, 2018 Off By TK
Welcome back, Adventurers! When you visited last week, we discussed the identifying traits of railroading in classic adventures that punishes player agency. This week, we’ll take a look at the more social aspect of classic adventures, specifically the recurring portrayal of marginalized peoples as victims or villains. Many examples will be derived from the Ravenloft setting, however the techniques to subvert these tropes can be applied to any classic adventure.
So, without further ado, let’s get to it!
What’s a Girl Like You Doing in a Campaign Like This?
Quick Note: Classic Adventures don’t often feature trans or non-binary characters, but you are free to assume that this section applies equally to them, in spite of female-coded language.
The sun sinks behind the looming hills, sending long shadows slinking across a landscape awash with blood red light as the creature’s talons close around the pale, slender neck of—was her name Anna? Clara? Josephine? Ireena? Patrina? Jane?–and the party’s reaction is lackluster at best. Where did you go wrong? The monster is appropriately threatening, having slaughtered many young, beautiful virgins with interchangeable names and faces. The setting is certainly grim, swallowing every unaccompanied maiden up under the light of a swollen yellow moon. And the damsel in distress is…there.
I think we’ve located your problem here. Classic adventures tend to suffer from an incredibly unfortunate trope, one that requires she be a faceless item for the party to attain, protect, or discard in order to move the plot along. Her consent is neither necessary nor desired and her own plan for her life is often little more than a footnote in the index to add some flavor. Sometimes she comes with the assurance that she is no helpless child to be tossed from scene to scene for the characters to rescue, but the outcome is typically the same and—too often—results in her tragic demise. This death, used in the moment to expand character development, will soon become a bland memory when the party rushes off to rescue the next flavor of damsel in next week’s session.
Make the women in your classic adventures memorable by erasing their victimhood and giving them just as much agency as your villains. Who are they? What goals do they have and how did they make themselves a target for destruction? Why should the players care if they live or die? Spend a little extra time fleshing out the identities of these female NPCs and you’ll see your players begin to genuinely care about them, may even try to keep them alive this time.
Badness in the Blood
Your players have found themselves in a strange land with strange ways…human sacrifice, kidnappings of virtuous, pale-skinned beauties, and decadent harems filled with dusky seductresses and sweet smelling incense. Painted eyes wave behind intricately folded fans, perfumed fingers trail the mirrored surfaces of ponds, raucous music echoes from the dimly lit caravans, and the fruity wines run like waterfalls in jeweled goblets. This is the faraway land of…well, let’s be honest, this could be any foreign land that isn’t your typical medieval Euro-centric fantasy setting, and that can be a problem.
Classic adventures are filled with exotic locales and races that are often short-sighted in translation. The cultures are treated as monoliths, with only one language, fashion, and religion that closely mimic modern Earth countries that our Westernized gaze considered fantastic by virtue of not defaulting to English. Many times, these cultures are presented as twisted or evil (and reinforce racist stereotypes of real people of color), working in mysterious ways and seeking only to confound, mislead, or murder party members. If they are lucky, players will meet a companion whose views run counter-culture to their homeland, One of the Good Ones, who has turned their back on their race in favor of the adventuring party of foreign saviors.
How can you avoid regurgitating casual racism sometimes present in classic adventures? Treating the members of these races as individuals instead of unthinking automatons set on rails to distract or harass the party is a good start. Recognizing racially-charged tropes and wording—such as the Vistani (in classics referred to by the g*psy slur) of Ravenloft being perpetually cast as drunks, cheats, thieves, and kidnappers or the tribal, jungle-dwelling Chultans of the Jungles of Chult and Tomb of Annihilation equipped with spears and clubs—and subverting them will go a long way toward rehabilitating these tired tendencies.
Men Not Monsters
Has your villain filled his armies with “grotesque” soldiers? Are you keeping players awake with the fear of the monstrous masses that lurk outside of their doorways, deformed “caliban” that are universally scorned and despised by the tragically beautiful village? Is madness a common threat, ranging from harmless quirks (like speaking to inanimate objects when it is most humorous) to bloody bouts of merciless, murderous rages? Are disabilities and illness peppered among the population only to heighten an NPC’s sense of helplessness?
Let’s tread carefully here, Adventurers. Physical disabilities and mental illnesses are not to be treated as shallow window dressing for your adventure. There is the very real possibility that you know people who struggle with disabilities and illness every day and they could very well be sitting at your table. Talk with your players and discern whether casting characters whose villainy is defined only by their deformities (such as the infamous Caliban of 3rd Edition Ravenloft) makes them uncomfortable. Think about how deaf or blind NPCs would survive and thrive in such a harsh environment, whether an amputation or prosthetic attachments would slow down a tough-as-nails adventurers. Finally, speak with disabled advocates in the community. Get their input, especially if you’ll be making the new story available to the public through streaming and podcasting. In order for representation to be positive, it must be approved by the people it claims to help.
That’s all for this week, Adventurers! Tune in next week for the first part of a series on maintaining the atmosphere in horror campaigns.
About The Author
TK is a speculative fiction writer and part-time eldritch horror. They can be found as a cast member of The Demonplague, Unearthly Twilights, The Land Between Two Rivers, and Hell’s Belles on the Don’t Split the Podcast, WebDM, and Dungeons & Dragons networks, respectively. Their gothic and cosmic horror stories can be found at tkjwrites.com and very soon in print in a collaborative set of short stories and comics with artist Kayla Cline. TK themself can be found on Twitter @tkjoinsthefray.