5E [CoS] Ecology and Economy of Ravenloft/Barovia

GlassJaw

Explorer
I've been doing some prep for CoS (I plan on running it after my group finishes LMoP). I've had the book for a while and have read much of it on and off over the past year or so.

Lately I've been looking more closely at quests hooks, NPC motivations, and the inner workings of the towns and villagers. One thing I've always been fascinated with but also rather perplexed by is how a region like Barovia "functions".

For one thing, it's a closed system (aside from the occasional adventurer getting pulled in). Typically, closed systems are manmade.

First, I would figure that currency would become fairly meaningless; the economy would become entirely a barter system. Since no new currency is being minted in Barovia, the amount of coin would be fixed. Everything would be focused on survival. Given how dangerous travel is, trade between towns would only occur if there were resources unique to each town that had value to another.

Also, the harsh environment and climate would make survival incredibly difficult (nevermind Strahd and all the things that go bump in the night). People can't simply get up and leave and travel to another place either. The population would be controlled because of the demand on resources and survival but I also wonder if the region would suffer from population decline. The mortality rate would be high and birth rate most likely would be low.

Now, all this assumes one is looking at the ecosystem logically. But that's sort of my takeaway from this exercise: nothing about Ravenloft/Barovia is logical. In fact, it seems better explained when viewed as a "simulation" (a la the Matrix, Westworld, Truman Show, etc.) with Strahd as the mastermind pulling all the strings.

I know modules are written such that the PCs are the "catalyst" for the action. But reading through CoS, it feels even more explicit. The scenes feel crafted, like the NPCs are on "pause", waiting for the PCs to wander into town. This probably isn't intentional per se but once you think of a Barovia as a closed system, it becomes really wild to consider. Like, what have all these NPCs been doing for decades and generations? Many have fairly intricate backstories and motivations, and in turn, requests of PCs for their services. But it feels like they are waiting for the PCs to arrive and help them.

So my thought while prepping CoS is treating Strahd as even more than the ruler of the domain. He runs the "simulation" and every once in a while, the powers that be allow him to bring in adventurers he finds interesting. Perhaps he is hoping that someone will break his curse, or maybe he does it for amusement since he is immortal. Might also be something to explore further in the Amber Temple. I know the Amber Temple has gotten mixed reactions because it somewhat "peeks behind the curtain" of the nature of Ravenloft. But what if that's the whole point of Barovia? What if the players discover the true nature of what's going on in when they explore the Temple?

Anyway, figured this was a fun thought exercise to share. Either way, I'm very excited to run CoS. I've been a huge fan of Ravenloft since the first boxed set (the Ravenloft module was slightly ahead of my time, although I've since acquired it) and CoS captures the feel of Raveloft perfectly.
 

Sir_Lancian

Villager
Great analogy in relation to the "simulation" approach. My thinking has taken a very similar direction and indeed one of my players actually remarked during one session as they arrived at the vineyard and Davian told them the last of the gems got taken three days ago, "Of course it did, that's when we arrived". I have done nothing but bolster their thinking that somehow their arrival and presence has been fundamentally tied to the heightened level of misery being inflicted upon the inhabitants of the valley - an idea that time doesn't function logically in Barovia and that the events they're experiencing are not taking place at present in the true sense of the word.

And, to continue your thinking, my take on the Abbot is that he knows this. He also knows that these events have occurred before and will occur again after Strahd is defeated. The best the PCs can hope for is to bring some respite to the evils of the land for a generation or two before the mists roll in again. The PCs haven't met him yet but when they do, I will play him as a version of the matrix "architect".
 

GlassJaw

Explorer
Great analogy in relation to the "simulation" approach. My thinking has taken a very similar direction and indeed one of my players actually remarked during one session as they arrived at the vineyard and Davian told them the last of the gems got taken three days ago, "Of course it did, that's when we arrived". I have done nothing but bolster their thinking that somehow their arrival and presence has been fundamentally tied to the heightened level of misery being inflicted upon the inhabitants of the valley - an idea that time doesn't function logically in Barovia and that the events they're experiencing are not taking place at present in the true sense of the word.
Great point about time. Taking it one step further, the passage of time would seem to be "normal" to the players (day/night cycle, etc.) but any type of history an NPC would would recall would be fabricated in a sense. In other words, time "begins" when the players arrive. An NPC would be reciting any past events as if from a script.

And, to continue your thinking, my take on the Abbot is that he knows this. He also knows that these events have occurred before and will occur again after Strahd is defeated. The best the PCs can hope for is to bring some respite to the evils of the land for a generation or two before the mists roll in again. The PCs haven't met him yet but when they do, I will play him as a version of the matrix "architect".
Wow, I LOVE this. Great stuff. It would require some changes though as the Abbot is described as insane and believes what he is doing is necessary to free the land from its curse. I guess that's somewhat similar to what is described but if you want to provide details with regards to him being the "architect", it will require expanding on his motivation and how he will interact with the characters. I look forward to hearing what you come up with!
 

toucanbuzz

Explorer
Running it myself at the moment!

For one thing, it's a closed system (aside from the occasional adventurer getting pulled in). Typically, closed systems are manmade.
In a full-blown Ravenloft campaign, Dark Lords can open/close the borders at will. Generally they're left open so trade can occur, and the Vistani have had a long-standing deal to travel freely even when the borders of Barovia are closed. Barovia connects to other realms, so currency remains meaningful for trade. Barovia, in the current book, relies on its Wine.

Given how dangerous travel is, trade between towns would only occur if there were resources unique to each town that had value to another....
Travel during the day and on the roads is fairly safe, even in these times. However, the party has arrived at a special time when Strahd is a bit agitated over a girl. This isn't always the way things are. He normally runs a tight ship and keeps his Realm in line. In older editions, he had to. Other lords, from time to time, would march an army into other lands. Of course, given the Dark Powers, it's never going to actually work, but Strahd would need to defend his people. It's a love-hate relationship. There's far, far worse Dark Lords out there. Strahd generally keeps to his obsessions while other lords take a more personal hand in the lives of their citizens.

This probably isn't intentional per se but once you think of a Barovia as a closed system, it becomes really wild to consider. Like, what have all these NPCs been doing for decades and generations? Many have fairly intricate backstories and motivations, and in turn, requests of PCs for their services. But it feels like they are waiting for the PCs to arrive and help them.
It's just a special time, again thanks to Strahd stalking his prey. Normally he'd ensure any trade issues are solved, and that any monsters don't get too out of line or too powerful. Of course, the people don't seem to thank him given he's not exactly forgiving about collecting taxes and keeping order.

But of course, on the side, Strahd is bored. He's got eternity trapped with the dull, unimaginative peasants of Barovia whose greatest threat to him has been trying to skim taxes off on the side. Along comes some play-things. In literature, he did the same thing with Jander Sunstar, Lord Soth, and any others who crossed his path. The more powerful they were, the more he was drawn to them...until they stepped out of line and dared to challenge the make-up of his world.

I know the Amber Temple has gotten mixed reactions because it somewhat "peeks behind the curtain" of the nature of Ravenloft. But what if that's the whole point of Barovia? What if the players discover the true nature of what's going on in when they explore the Temple?
Good horror always leaves the imagination running, but having read ahead as I'm running this, I think it's something that helps make the entire "sucked into the fog" make more sense. Of course, I will tinker and foreshadow and I've always liked the original Ravenloft wherein Dark Deeds could lead to Dark Gifts, and eventually the Dark Powers would own you.
 

Ganymede81

Villager
I don't imagine Barovia as a functioning world. I instead imagine it as a sort of quasi-dream designed to torture Strahd over and over again. In this way, I see Barovia as being similar to Westworld, where most of the NPCs you meet are really just hosts designed to further this eternal torture with the aid of the PCs.

When I ran Curse of Strahd, I dropped a lot of hints about this cycle (Strand finds Tatyana's incarnation, loses her, takes his vengeance, and is slain by outsiders) repeating over and over again. Adventurers from prior cycles (or prior attempts to close a cycle) dotted the realm, such as Mordenkainen, Saint Markovia, and some other NPCs I added in. I also added in a way for them to permanently end the cycle (they had to uncover the truth behind the realm, find the identity of the Morninglord/Night Mother as the escaped vestige from the Amber Temple, find Strahd's reincarnated soul in the form of little Arabelle, Slay Strahd, then sacrifice Arabelle in Strahd's secret sepulchure under his crypt).
 

Sir_Lancian

Villager
Ganymede - Sacrifice Arabelle?? That's dark man, real dark. Hats off for pushing boundaries.

Glassjaw - I didn't man to suggest that the Abbot is "the architect" in the literal sense of the word. I meant that I'd want him to be aware of the machinations of the demiplane and have an appropriate exposition that will blow the PC's minds in the way the scene with the architect did in the film. Analogies to the Matrix, Westworld, Dream cycles and the like I think are all entirely relevant as insirations. So economies and ecologies become less relevant in contrived closed systems such as these, I'd suggest that realism can almost be hand waved to a certain degree. My players have asked, "How is it that Vallaki still has so many people, where does all the food come from if everything is dour and wilting and its so cold and wet? When does the wheat grow for bread? Where does any livestock graze with all these wolves in the country side? What do all the wolves eat?" I respond with a sly smirk, I pause and say "These are excellent questions gentlemen!" and leave it at that.

As a side thing, you're on the mark with your comment regarding the Abbot - in my story he isn't insane, he is "otherwise motivated". But that's a different discussion that doesn't really relate to your "ecology" topic.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I distinctly remember being a player when I was a teenager in a 2nd ed Ravenloft adventure where it was always winter. It had been "locked" like this in this realm (NOT Barovia) for decades.

The GM was really mad when I pointed out that this essentially meant there was no crops and nothing to eat. He said "people are hunting rabbits", to which I replied "but what are the rabbits eating? Nothing has grown for 20 years". I believe that the module was "Dark of the Moon" based on a quick google search.

Things in Ravenloft don't really seem to work right... they are there to punish and contains evil beings, like Azalin or Soth.
 

GlassJaw

Explorer
Great stuff everyone! This thread is proving to be very useful as I prep. Gives the campaign another dimension just under the surface.

I am quite familiar with 2ed Ravenloft and interestingly enough, I think I like 5E's take on it better, or at least the fact that no other domains are mentioned. That the players are alone and closed off from everything makes it way more creepy and foreboding.

And for further inspiration, you can look to one of my favorite Star Trek: TNG episodes of all time - The Royale. ;)
 

Ganymede81

Villager
Ganymede - Sacrifice Arabelle?? That's dark man, real dark. Hats off for pushing boundaries.
It's supposed to evoke the whole "would kill an innocent child if it meant you could save the souls of everyone trapped in Ravenloft?" Faustian bargain that is so prevalent in Ravenloft.

It is largely a moot point, though. My group saw the shattered amber sarcophagus, searched it for treasure, and walked away. They're on track to close the cycle by killing Strahd and leaving; the deeper mysteries of the land of Ravenloft will remain unknown to them.
 

Irda Ranger

Villager
It's not completely closed. The Vistani are able to come and go more or less at will, and also travel the roads between the towns. The villagers mostly live and die in their towns, but there is some contact and trade. Maybe less than an average medieval village, but not zero.

The are though the soulless and the ensouled, and the soulless are more or less simulacra. It's definitely fair to represent them as a simulation of village life.

I did have a few NPCs with institutinal memory (the ravens in particular) tell the PCs that adventurers came to Barovia from time to time to battle Strahd, and usually they died but sometimes Strahd died for a while and the adventurers were able to escape Barovia. But Strahd always came back.

I ran Saint Markovia as one of those old adventurers from the very earliest days of the curse. The cards revealed that the Tome of Strahd was at the Abbey, and I recast it as Saint Markovia's notes on what she learned about Strahd and committed to paper "in case her assault on Castle Ravenloft was a failure".

Another change I made was that the Abbot was a drow warlock using Mask of Many Faces, and the fallen angel (which I bumped up to planetar because the PCs were 11th level by then) was at the Amber Temple. The angel was the Angel of Death that Strahd initially struck his bargain with.
 

Mirtek

Explorer
In Ravenloft the answer truly is "a wizard did it", except that it's "the Dark Powers did it"

There is no functional ecology and there doesn't need to be one. The DP just reset certain thing from time to time.


The miller's boy is eaten by wolves, the village is in horror and mourns and one day the boy wakes up in the morning in his bed, has breakfast with his family and goes on with his daily routine as if nothing ever happened. Next week the smith's girl might get eaten by wolves and the village is in horror and mourns and .....

There's no question as to what all the predators in the woods eat and how the villagers are supposed to sustain their population with all these untimely deaths. It is a simulation and the DP keep working.
 

Pauper

Villager
In Ravenloft the answer truly is "a wizard did it", except that it's "the Dark Powers did it".
Note that this answer works great if you want the underlying reality to reflect the AD&D/D&D 3E Ravenloft campaign setting lore.

However, there have been persistent rumors that the Hickmans were never fond of the Ravenloft campaign setting. Chris Perkins, in designing Curse of Strahd, has changed enough of the details of the setting (for the purpose of creating a "blood-stained love letter to the Hickmans", in his words) so that the foundational lore of the Ravenloft setting doesn't really apply -- Perkins defines the Dark Powers, for example, as just as much prisoners of Barovia as Strahd himself.

There are lots of ways to use the lore of the campaign setting to justify the current state of Barovia -- you've done so yourself. I'm just not sure how much of that lore remains applicable to the version of Barovia presented in Curse of Strahd.

The Barovia of Curse of Strahd is not a world that exists outside of the story presented in the adventure. In this, Curse of Strahd is not that different from the other hardcover 5E adventures, which are far more interested in presenting their locations as suitable for a specific adventure story than they are in presenting them as functioning, vibrant worlds where many different adventures can take place.

--
Pauper
 

Pauper

Villager
Lately I've been looking more closely at quests hooks, NPC motivations, and the inner workings of the towns and villagers. One thing I've always been fascinated with but also rather perplexed by is how a region like Barovia "functions".
Sounds like what you want is the old 3.5-era sourcebook Ravenloft Gazetteer Volume I, published by Swords & Sorcery Studios. (I'd link to the DM's Guild, but the Ravenloft Gazetteers don't appear to be on the DMs Guild yet.)

There are specific sections on the flora and fauna of Barovia, the people, the society, etc. A lot of the stuff you seem to want to have more information on. Unfortunately, as I noted with the changes from 3.5E to 5E Barovia, not all of this information is necessarily usable 'as written', but much of the geographical, cultural, and environment info should at least be salvageable if not usable out-of-the-book. (Not to mention that it gives you a peek into the kinds of stories that are possible if you treat environments as locations where adventures can occur rather than places designed to tell a specific adventure story.)

--
Pauper
 
Great analogy in relation to the "simulation" approach. My thinking has taken a very similar direction and indeed one of my players actually remarked during one session as they arrived at the vineyard and Davian told them the last of the gems got taken three days ago, "Of course it did, that's when we arrived". I have done nothing but bolster their thinking that somehow their arrival and presence has been fundamentally tied to the heightened level of misery being inflicted upon the inhabitants of the valley - an idea that time doesn't function logically in Barovia and that the events they're experiencing are not taking place at present in the true sense of the word.

And, to continue your thinking, my take on the Abbot is that he knows this. He also knows that these events have occurred before and will occur again after Strahd is defeated. The best the PCs can hope for is to bring some respite to the evils of the land for a generation or two before the mists roll in again. The PCs haven't met him yet but when they do, I will play him as a version of the matrix "architect".
Just finished rewatching the entire Matrix trilogy...love this idea!
 

epithet

Explorer
Remember the movie Excalibur? "You and the land are one, my king." Strahd says "I am the ancient, I am the land."

Strahd and Barovia are linked, and so for Barovia, like for Strahd, blood is life. That's why adventurers are drawn in through the mists... not just because Strahd is bored, but because Barovia hungers. When Strahd lies dormant for decades, it falls upon the coven of witches and the druids of Yester Hill to make sacrifices of blood and souls to ensure the crops grow and the harvest is adequate, otherwise the land withers. When Strahd feeds, the land blossoms. Every man, woman, and child in Barovia is sustained by carnage. Only the Wizard of Wines vineyard, with the magic thingies, produced a harvest untainted by the essence of death, which is why the wine is the sole source of joy for so many Barovians--it is life (like blood) untainted by death.

Dispense with the notion that crops cannot grow. The trees grow just fine, after all. Barovia's bounty will nourish the body well enough, but leaves the soul wanting.
 

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