Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Flesh Golem in Ravenloft

Remember when I said that Dungeons and Dragons, by which I mean the staff at TSR, is not particularly good at originality but is great at taking something you know and working it into the game?
It's HERE.
Well in 1990 TSR took a well received first edition module called Ravenloft (1983, written by the creators of Dragonlance) an adventure where the PCs fight an ersatz Dracula named Strahd von Zarovich, and spun that into an entire campaign setting based extremely loosely on the idea of Gothic Horror in AD&D.  It was not particularly successful at achieving Gothic Horror since the ability to throw fireballs and swing +5 swords of instant death do not lend themselves to the atmosphere of horror, but it was quite popular all the same.

One of the hallmarks of Ravenloft was that the team over at TSR mined as much Gothic Horror literature, including the likes of Poe, Stoker, & Shelley, and films sources as they could to create their setting.  The setting being a big old Ruritania-esque Universal/Hammer films like Ersatz Transylvania, with other locations shoehorned in and running the technological gamut from prehistoric to Victorian.  Ravenloft has its own Dracula in Strahd von Zarovich, a few mummies, a plethora of werewolves, it's own Dr. Moreau and so on.  It also has its own Frankenstein and his creation in the form of Dr. Victor Mordenheim and Adam.
Christopher Lee and Alice Cooper at your service.

Adam is a flesh golem, but quite unlike the fellows we saw last time, this is a true Frankenstein "homage" (he wrote ironically).  Adam is intelligent, vindictive and quite evil, as well as being strong and near indestructible.  Unlike the standard golem, Adam is not really a shell for housing an elemental, which a wizard in the regular game can bind into a golem as a matter of course, but a unique creation.
Vic learns that when making a monster, you should probably make something you have a hope of beating just in case shit like this happens.

This gave rise to the Ravenloft Flesh Golem.  Of course it did.

One key feature of Ravenloft lore, certainly one of my favorites, is the resident Van Helsing, Dr. Rudolph Van Richten.  Van Richten wrote several sourcebooks for TSR starting with Van Richten's Guide to Vampires, and continuing through other monsters.  Golems are covered in his Guide to the Created.  In those pages players and DMs get far more information on the monsters than one would expect they would ever need.  The golems of Ravenloft (not just flesh golems, they have doll golems, scarecrow golems, bone's a big list) are not simple statues containing an elemental.  These are all twisted forms of life that begin childlike and then eventually grow into evil and vindictive monsters no matter how nicely you treat them.  It would seem the staff at TSR had missed much of the actual point of Shelley's novel, but they sure got the trappings down.
How is that thing not conducting electricity into everybody holding it down?
The guide to the created lists all manner of ways to create golems, but the art is definitely selling the Frankenstein angle all the way.

The story with Adam and Mordenheim is not totally Frankenstein, however.  In this version Mordenheim seeks to return his wife to life, he cannot successfully recreate life after his initial success, and Adam is linked to him so that neither can die if the other one is still alive.  Basically.
The initial art and descriptions of Mordenheim's monster are very much Shelley's descriptions of Frankenstein's own creation, each part perfect but the whole a monstrous being.  Later art would give in a bit to the film Frankensteins as we see below.  Personally I think that was a bad choice, as Adam's very novel-like look made him a solid homage to the Gothic Horror source material, and not just a prop.
Where is the tip of your nose?  Seriously, you look like Michael Jackson, and I think your head has gone a bit flat.
Despite the fact that golems can be made of anything, the Flesh Golem, and thus the Frankenstein angle, is definitely the star attraction in the Ravenloft milieu.
Frankie has just kicked that fighter's ass.  I don't know what the girls thinks she is going to do, but the old fellow has the right idea.  Tear ass.
Obviously, or perhaps not obviously, flesh golems are not players characters.  So the Guide to the Created included a small section on making PCs into FGs.  Of course it did.
Didn't I say that D&D does not lend itself well to Gothic Horror?  If you stat it, they will kill it.  Everybody knows that.
Which is probably why a spin off of Ravenloft was produced in 1994, entitled Masque of the Red Death, and was set in an alternate version of Victorian Earth called Gothic Earth, because gamers often need it right on the nose to get it.

And yes they have the actual Frankenstein's Monster:

And yes, he is a Flesh Golem.  But that's the enduring legacy of Mary Shelley's one great literary creation.  We call it by the creator's name.  We love the big guy.  This was her magnum opus; she dined out on this all the time.  One hit wonder, but what a hit!

And that's all I have to say on that.

Raise the pumpkin to the roof, the storm is at its most furious!  Live!  Keep it lit.


  1. I played a few games in Ravenloft. I didn't enjoy it much. Horror, Gothic or other, simply does not work with medieval fantasy settings. When the supernatural is... natural, why be scared of ghosts, vampires, zombies and what have you? We used some of their monsters in our own original made up campaign, including some golems if I remember well. But the horror RPG we truly enjoyed was Call of Cthulhu.

    1. I completely agree with you about horror not working in fantasy gaming for that very reason. I never cared for Call of Cthulhu, however.

    2. Because you never had me as GM.

  2. Heh heh, you already know that I didn't get into Ravenloft as much as you and our DM used to. I think I'd be willing to give such a setting another try now that I'm older. I also wonder if it wouldn't have been better if we'd played characters who were actually born and raised in the setting, instead of forcing our regular D&D characters into a setting where they didn't belong. I suppose D&D's point was to shock characters with a setting where they didn't belong. I know not. The one attempt I remember at a CoC game went way off the deep end. It seems to me that if you have any chance of beating what is supposed to be inexorable and unstoppable, there's not much point to it. But some people seem to like it. To each his own.