Thursday, October 22, 2015

Halloween Setting Spotlight -- Ravenloft's Wildlands

Who says animal fantasy can’t be dark and gloomy with the best of them?

Islands Of Terror, the old AD&D 2nd supplement for the Ravenloft campaign setting, contained a fascinating domain called the Wildlands, which was populated entirely by talking animals, and ruled by a crocodile darklord.

The main problem with the domain is that it provided few Gothic horror role-playing opportunities for standard longpaw characters, and seemed designed to serve mostly as a meat-grinder where every creature you meet is out to kill you.

But the Wildlands can make an excellent Gothic horror-fantasy setting for animal player characters, whether native to the domain, or drawn in by the Mists.

The darklord -- Death Bringer, King Crocodile -- is actually pretty good, as throw-away one-shot villains go.  His backstory is a classic tale of greed and power-lust:  the other animals of the wilderness realm from which the Wildlands was formed made a pact with the Crocodile.  He vowed to slay all the "hairless apes" in the land, if each of the animals there would give him some of their power.  This, they did eagerly... and of course, when the slaughter was done, Crocodile refused to return the borrowed powers. Instead, he began hunting the other beasts. He was now the greatest animal in the realm, but his hubris and ambition doomed him to be claimed by the Mists.  Though not before a python prophesied that Death Bringer would die either by the hand of a "hairless ape," or from something he felt was beneath his notice.

Death Bringer can be greatly fleshed-out using Great & Small's spandrels system.  I'd start him as a standard crocodile Warrior (I'll post game stats for crocs in the next couple of days), then advance him by granting him a signature Species Trait from each of the animal types listed in his back story.  Say, Nine Lives from the lions, an increased SZ from the elephants, Brachiation from the monkeys, Scent from the apes, and so forth.  This makes him a much more versatile villain, something more like the monster from The Relic in terms of his capabilities, rather than just being the "smarty pants giant croc" he was in the original supplement. 

The land itself is full of potential adventure seeds, too, including:
  • An elephant graveyard where elephant skeletons and ghosts walk at night, and the bones of the dead are rumored to turn into silver and gold
  • A war for supremacy between lions and tigers (who weren't originally part of the land, but were apparently brought in by Ravenloft's Dark Powers for... reasons) that is consuming the savannah
  • Colonies of gorillas who relish combat (especially with "hairless apes"), and try to enslave chimpanzees and monkeys
  • A whole society of young crocodiles scheming to replace Death Bringer, the King Crocodile who serves as darklord of the realm
  • The python's prophecy, and a total absence of snakes in the land (imagine the repercussions if a snake -- say, a snake player character -- arrived from beyond the Mists)
As a whole, the Wildlands exudes a "dark Africa" feel, a sort of Lion-King-gone-sideways ambiance where longpaws would come to dread an encounter with even the lowly monkeys.

But the Gothic horror elements -- especially the sense of foreboding, of isolation, of being trapped in a doomed realm, of looming curses and twisted fates -- can be ramped up even better with animal PCs.  Longpaws would be walking targets everywhere they went, and Death Bringer's agents would inform their master of the presence of any humans in the realm long before those humans became aware of their ultimate enemy's nature.

Animals, however, would have more freedom to roam, to interact with NPCs, to pursue side-quests unrelated to the Crocodile metaplot.  Their time in the Wildlands wouldn't (necessarily) turn into a gauntlet-running race against the clock, as it probably would with longpaws in the mix.

African animals would be most appropriate to the setting, of course, but any species -- especially prey species -- would find the place terrifying and alienating in all the classic Gothic horror ways that Ravenloft sought to evoke with longpaw characters. 

So, if you're in the mood for some old-school fantasy horror this Halloween, I challenge you to put away I6 for a while, and treat your players to a session or two of Great & Small set in the Wildlands.  You could adapt any of the short adventures from Ravenloft supplements like the Book of Crypts or Chilling Tales -- plot and all -- simply by replacing the human NPCs with animal ones.

In fact, I might try this myself...

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