Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/01/30/tabletop-review-ravenlo
So here we are again with another of the first electronic reprints from the Ravenloft campaign setting. First Children of the Night: Vampires and now The Created. These are some odd choices to be sure, as neither was very well received in their day. I’m surprised things like the core campaign setting or books like Darklord and adventures such as Ship of Horror or Book of Crypts didn’t go live first. Still, it’s better to have some Ravenloft stuff back in print rather than having to scrounge on Ebay for the books.
The Created was originally written in 1993 by Bruce Nesmith, who video game fans might know as part of the Fallout 3 and Skyrim teams. Before that though, he was penning pen and paper adventures for TSR. The Created is designed for a party between Levels 2 through 4, although you might want to err on the side of caution with the higher levels. It’s a very odd adventure to be sure as it really doesn’t fit the “Gothic Horror” motif that Ravenloft was meant to imbue. Instead it’s more of a B-Horror Movie for kids as The Created tells a darkly twisted version of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket not included.
The biggest problem with the adventure is that is completely does away with all the mystery and ambience of the Ravenloft setting. In the course of the adventure, players are there when the land is first drawn into the Dark Domain and then end up killing the Darklord and getting out of Ravenloft. First, killing a Darklord and escaping Ravenloft are both meant to be nigh impossible. Crafting an adventure when you do both, and at such low levels, feels like an affront to the system. It’s doubly odd because Nesmith was the one who laid out much of the cardinal rules for the setting back in the early 90s and then goes right ahead and designs an adventure where you break all of them. It’s very jarring and it’s one of the reasons diehard Ravenloft fans look at The Created with a bit of disdain.
Another reason is simply the plot of The Created does not work for the setting it is designed for. This is an adventure that requires a very specialized DM as it’s very hard to play this adventure dark and serious. Anyone I’ve ever talked to who has tried has mentioned it has been a spectacular failure – and that includes people who have written for this very setting or other horror games like Call of Cthulhu and All Flesh Must be Eaten. In fact, the only way I’ve ever heard of the adventure working is by pulling it out of Ravenloft completely and making it a campy horror-comedy. After all, the entire adventure has you dealing with murderous puppets that take over an entire village. This of course is a huge red flag for any Ravenloft adventure because, if it inspires snotty remarks or outright laughter instead of feelings like dread or foreboding, it’s a failure. Now the core concept of the adventure isn’t a terrible one. Look at horror movies like Puppet Master, Demonic Toys or Child’s Play. Both used the concept of evil living murderous children’s toys…but at the same time they were played for equal parts laughter AND Gore – neither of which is the mood nor theme Ravenloft is meant to invoke. Think of this as the equivalent of the Blood Brothers adventures Chaosium used to put out for Call of Cthulhu Again, the adventure CAN work; after all, Pupaphobia is a real condition. I’ve just never seen nor heard of it working the way it was meant to. This is one of those cases where it’s probably best left in the hands of its creator or when your gaming troupe is made up of people who thought Silence was scary rather than terrible.
NOW, with all these disclaimers about The Created out of the way, I can say that the adventure is a finally crafted one. It’s well laid out, the adventure progresses nicely, and it’s balanced in such a way that adventurers should have an uphill battle to face, but not face a TPK (Total Party Kill) at the hands of puppets. I will say that the core enemy you encounter, the Carrionette, is worth far more XP than you expect and teams with mages and/or druids should level up handily in this thing. I also want to praise the art. I’ve always liked Dave Simon’s artwork and it was a big part of the Ravenloft draw for me in my childhood. The interior artwork in this adventure is still top notch and worthy of praise. The cover art by Brom is equally awesome and is easily the creepiest piece of this whole adventure.
So what is The Created about besides insidious puppets? Well, not much. It’s the Pinocchio story except in this case the puppet his desire to be a real boy makes him a homicidal maniac with magical powers and an army of evil miniature wooden doom instead of embarking of a light hearted romp with some furries and into the belly of a whale. Indeed, Maligno (the core antagonist) has only one goal in mind –to murder all the adults in the village of Odiare and then live happily ever after with the children of the town. All the puppets love the kids and vice versa for some reason – yet someone no one thought of the fact that children do eventually grow up? I guess if the PCs fail you’d have a Children of the Corn with marionettes ending.
The PCs end up coming to town the night of a huge puppet show. It’s also the night Maligno puts his insidious plan in to acting, drawing the attention of the Dark Domain. From the moment the adults are taken out, the party will discover they are in a different plane of reality where the old rules need not necessarily apply and some new horrible ones have taken their place. Plus, there is a small army of puppets taking to beat them up and possess their bodies. I will say that the adventure IS designed for the players to fail at first so there is a section that, much like some JRPG video games, the players cannot win despite their best efforts. I’m never a fan when this form of storytelling rears its head in any sort of game, as it puts the players in a passive role rather than the active one is was meant to be. Still, I can let it slide here, because it leads to a truly weird situation that, as I have previously mentioned, has never failed to elicit laughter rather than horror in everyone I know that has ever played this adventure. At least it’s a memorable occurrence even if it wildly misses its intended goal. From there it’s up to players to…resolve the situation and then find some way to kill Malignio and escape the Dark Domain…or at least this particular piece of it. I will say that I enjoyed that the adventure focuses more on thinking and stealth than hack and slash combat. In this regard, The Created should challenge gamers that are more used to roll-playing than role-playing. If you’re looking for a dungeon crawl…this is pretty far from that.
So yes, the adventure is completely playable and it’s an interesting one to be sure. Sure it doesn’t work AT ALL as an actual Ravenloft branded product and it does deserve its negative reputation for being open of several adventures where you actually KILL a Darklord (always a big no-no), but if you take the adventure on its own, either played for camp value or in a vacuum, it’s still a serviceable product that a group of gamers can have fun with.
Is The Created one of the lesser Ravenloft adventures from the Second Edition era? Yes, there’s no doubting that. It takes a very specific DM AND gaming group to make evil puppets work in any form remotely close to scary. Still, if you can find that right mix or you just want a weird adventure to make your friends laugh with, The Created isn’t a bad choice. Just know if you’re looking at things in terms of the Ravenloft branding, The Created is towards the bottom of the barrel. Here’s hoping DNDClassics.com starts putting up the high quality pieces the Ravenloft campaign setting was known for though as right now, all we’re getting is middle of the road pieces.