One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as a DM came from my friend Mike, who told me, "Stop trying to be original." He was right, of course. Many of my stories were quite original, but all that meant was that they were garbage no one had ever been subjected to before.
When you're crafting an adventure, originality isn't required. For most of us, the games we run for our groups won't be published. They won't be recorded, or televised, or sold for profit. Your games don't go up on Rotten Tomatoes and aren't subject to a 'freshness rating.' The police aren't going to kick in your door and arrest you for copyright infringement.
Taking a familiar story and corrupting it is one of the greatest joys of running a Ravenloft game. (Of course, many familiar stories require no corruption whatsoever, just a change in set dressing!) For many people, children's stories carry some sacred memories, while at the same time reminding them of a time when the world was infinitely more wondrous and terrifying than it is now. For that reason, Disney stories are wonderfully fertile ground for adventures.
With that in mind, here's a sample of my favorite Disney stories to adapt into Ravenloft adventures.
1. The Little Mermaid
When you consider both the movie and the original story it's based on, the Little Mermaid is one of the darker and more tragic Disney films. The mermaid, entranced with a human noble, gambles her immortality that the prince will share his soul with her. The noble chooses another instead, and although the mermaid considers slaying the rival, she chooses to die rather than live at the cost of another's life.
I ran this adventure myself, with the PCs discovering the voiceless mermaid and dutifully escorted her to the noble's manor in time for his wedding. Although they interpreted and explained the situation to him, he cruelly rejected her. ("She hasn't a soul anyway, so what bother is it to me if she perishes?") Taking a page from the Disney film, I had the Sea Witch who enabled this whole situation present in disguise, attempting to rig the contest. Despite saving the attendants of the wedding from the witch, the PCs were unable to sway the prince and in the end were forced to decide whether one of them should marry the mermaid (and forever share their soul with her) or allow her to die.
If you'd prefer a darker twist, perhaps the soulless mermaid is not as kind as her original counterpart, and the PCs must protect the cad of a noble from the repercussions of his actions.
2. Beauty and the Beast
Seriously, have we checked to see if this movie was written by Laura and Tracy Hickman under a pseudonym? It has all the trappings of a Ravenloft module already. Isolated, massive, creepy castle? Check. Filled to the brim with servants that can double as guardians and protectors, and surrounded by vicious animal life? Check. Lorded over by a tragic figure cursed out of proportion to his crimes, born from his own hubris? Big ol' check. Innocent in danger, compelling a group of heroes to turn a lazy afternoon into a suicide pact? All systems go for fairy tale horror.
Welcome anywhere a big honking castle would be appropriate, this adventure can be adapted for Ravenloft with an exceptionally minimal amount of work. The boorish huntsman recruits the PCs to rescue his love, kidnapped by the lord of the castle. The adventure turns into a horrifying dungeon crawl, complete with servants-turned-furnishings that alternate between slavish loyalty and pleas to end their suffering. The monstrous lord of the castle is finally confronted, and you need only to decide the truth of the situation: is the lord's curse (no doubt laid by a Vistana) warranted? Is the huntsman the true hero of the tale, and the lord only feigning the role of supernatural victim? Or for a more modern twist, perhaps both of the men are villains, and the damsel in distress desperately wishes to be free from the attentions of both of them!
3. Hunchback of Notre Dame
One of the better offerings from Disney's 'let's completely rewrite history and/or classical literature into something child-friendly' period was Hunchback. The tale of an unethical gypsy pursued through a Renaissance-France style city by a lecherous priest and his deformed and abused ward, who vacillates between protecting her and creeping on her as bad as the priest is a story that fits pretty snugly into the Ravenloft canon. Although you could run such a story in Paridon if you wanted to, an appropriate cathedral already exists in Ste. Mere des Larmes of Port-a-Lucine, where there is conveniently a canonical ecumenical power struggle brewing as well! Either Armand Pineau or Leonie Callie are an appropriate replacement for Archdeacon Frollo, and your Esmerelda stand-in begs to be a half-Vistani. (You'll be best served by increasing the size of the cathedral a skosh and adding some non-canonical bells, but I'm reasonably certain John Mangrum won't kick in your door with a chainsaw for this affront to his creation.)
Where you go from there is limitless. While it's entirely possible the gypsy, the thieves' guild protecting the gypsy, the hunchback, the warden of the church, and the captain of the guard are all evil and selfish (certainly this would fit the backdrop of Dementlieu, given domains' tendency to resemble their darklord, as the PCs discover that even the heroes of the city are ultimately self absorbed and have no regard for others), you could have any one of the characters be the protagonist, as well. I ran this myself, and to tip the story on its ear, I reversed the moral message of the movie: Warden Armand was correct--the Vistani woman was a vile temptress attempting to seduce him and the guard captain, as well as lure out the evil in his adopted son's heart. Most of these stories feature a recurring trope where the world thinks they know who the good guy and the bad guy are, only to discover they were mistaken. If you have it turn out that they were correct occasionally, you can keep your players on their toes and keep the story fresh.
This is one you'll want to base almost exclusively on the movie; although the seminal fairy tale is a marvelous literary work in its own right, it has very little in common with the film (which inclines a bit more towards a Ravenloft campaign).
Although the notion of someone struggling with their personal demons only to eventually succumb entirely, driving away any loved ones who might be their salvation is indeed a very Ravenloft story (and gives the song 'Let it Go' a rather self-destructive alternate meaning), consider instead turning the clock forward, progressing the story as if it had proceeded in Ravenloft. The young princess is dead, slain by the negligent magic of her older sister the ice queen, who now rules from her glacial castle, her empathy and humanity dead along with her sibling. The foreign usurper rules the human population, venerated as a hero by the citizenry, who remain unaware of his sinister motives. Such a setting, devoid of any true goodness or hope, would make a wonderful island of terror, although you could always plop it into the Frozen Reaches if you wanted to limit the scope a bit.
(For bonus points, you could go with the headcanon some mouseketeers have constructed: Hans actually was a romantic, upstanding guy, and his villainous turn was only the result of brainwashing on the part of the trolls in an attempt to 'get the fiancee out of the way' in order to set up the romantic match they wanted.)
Running a game is about setting up emotional resonance, and running a Ravenloft game means that sometimes you're going to do that via tragedy, and the emotions you're going to play on will be sympathy, outrage, and horror. One of the best ways to stick a knife in your players' hearts and twist it is to put them in a situation where the culture based moral relativism pits them against a 'villain' who is justified in their beliefs and stances when viewed from a modern sensibility.
In a Ravenloft type setting, the heroine of Brave is already three steps down the path to Dark Lordship before the first act of the movie is done. (Refusing her duty to her clan for her own selfish whims, using witchcraft, and employing sorcery against her own mother, in case you're keeping score at home.) If you're a benevolent sort of DM, you can introduce your PCs during the course of the movie's plot, and give them the opportunity to compel the princess to submit to her obligations to her family after rescuing her mother from her dark transformation. If you're in a more malevolent mood, there's no reason you can't set it several years down the road, with a princess (now queen) ruling over a highland kingdom infested with all manner of dire animals that display a remarkably human level of cunning. (After all, if it worked to solve one problem, why not use it again to solve others?) Constantly fending off unwanted advances from a variety of loathsome suitors, the heirless, aging queen continues to refuse to compromise her independence, even as her extended teenage rebellion threatens to destroy her tiny kingdom.
6. Peter Pan
The Disney Peter Pan is a delightful film which bears a strong enough resemblance to the book that they are immediately recognizable as being the same core story. This is perfect, since Barrie's original book joins Beauty and the Beast in the category of 'throw a Ravenloft sticker on the side and nobody would ever notice.'
Let's see: a tiny pocket domain bordered by hazy mists, ruled over by a cruel, capricious being who forces his domain and its inhabitants to bend to his own malicious will? A murderous antagonist who represents the adulthood that stands in opposition to the child's perpetual youth? The relentless metaphor for mortality which pursues the adult, a steady reminder of their time ticking away? All of it and more cries out to be a Ravenloft domain. Perhaps the darkest turn is the truth at the end of Barrie's Peter Pan: even after returning to the real world the children are never the same, forever missing an innocent naïveté, this missing aspect of their life somehow sustaining Pan's own unholy existence, and are forever plagued by the omnipresent dread that some night in the future, Pan may return for their children...
A group could spend weeks or even months bouncing between the various factions of Neverland, trying to discern the truth behind the lies of who his allied with who, and who is the true villain (and darklord) of the setting, with each side pointing a finger at either the undying child or the well-manicured pirate captain. Of course, the most sinister possible truth is that the pirate and the child are the same person: forever cursed to play out the struggle between the desire to become an adult and embrace maturity and the impulse to cling to the wonder and cruelty of childhood.
These are hardly the only Disney movies you could turn into Ravenloft adventures, but they're certainly a great start. Remember, corrupting a childhood story is good for more than a cheap suckerpunch in the nostalgia (although it is good for that). It's also a good way to return your players to a childlike mindset: more open to change, with a clearer understanding of right and wrong, and a greater respect for stories, all of which brings your group closer to a frame of mind that will help you all get the most out of your gaming sessions.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal.
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