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D&D's Culturally Sensitive Strahd Revamp Is Here, But It'll Cost You [Updated]

Strahd, from Curse of Strahd.
Strahd, from Curse of Strahd.
Illustration: Wizards of the Coast

Over the years, Wizards of the Coast has received justified criticism for its use of racist tropes in Dungeons & Dragons. One target of that concern was the Vistani people, part of the game’s Ravenloft setting, seen in modules such as the Curse of Strahd, a story about a Dracula-type villain which features the Vistani as a major supporting element.

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Updated: 7/28/2020, 3 p.m. ET: Wizards of the Coast has reached out to io9 to clarify just what has been updated in the re-release of Curse of Strahd, and how Dungeons & Dragons players will be able to access updated material without purchasing Revamped. According to Ray Winninger, the executive producer of Wizards’ D&D studio, only text in Strahd has received revisions to bring the module’s depiction of the Vistani more in line with Wizards of the Coast’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and none of the original artwork in the module or the included Tarroka Cards has been modified as part of this update.

For owners of the original release of Curse of Strahd, the updated materialalongside the rules errata previously released online—will be released for players to download for free on the D&D website in the future, and also be made available for free to players who purchased Strahd digitally in the D&D Beyond app. While Wizards cannot exchange physical copies of Strahd for the updated version released as part of Revamped, as previously noted in the D&D team’s statement on diversity and race in the game, future reprints of Strahd will included the updated material as well. The original story is as follows.

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The Vistani have a clear resemblance to the real-life Romani people, and much criticism was made of the way 2016's Curse of Strahd in particular reinforced stereotypes historically used to oppress and persecute them. That criticism led to Wizards of the Coast issuing official revisions to the material to try to answer some of the criticisms. And now, Curse of Strahd is getting a fancy box set. Nice? Well, there’s a bit more to it.

As previewed today by IGN, Curse of Strahd: Revamped Premium Edition is a collector’s edition of the module, collecting a revised version of the book along with a monster booklet, a Tarokka deck, a booklet to explain how to use the Tarokka deck in your adventure, some handouts for players, illustrated postcards, and a Dungeon Master’s screen.

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“We don’t do a tremendous number of box sets,” D&D’s principal narrative designer, Chris Perkins, told IGN. “And we don’t always have the luxury of time or money to really test ourselves... You’d think that we’re just taking something that exists, we’re putting it in a fancy package and ‘Whoop!’ it’s done, but actually so much thought and so many people were involved in the concepting and the packaging and the design, the cards, the DM screen, and everything. It was actually a very time consuming—but fun—process.”

Notably, this is the first time Curse of Strahd will have been republished since a number of amendments were made to the book, released to players as errata for the printed edition, that sought to undo some of the harmful stereotyping of the Vistani people, along with revising the book’s approach to a specific character’s disability to avoid ableist stereotypes. And while it’s good to have a full published version of the modified module, releasing it as a collector’s edition box set is an odd choice.

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For one thing, the revisions aren’t as extensive as perhaps they could be. While modifications do fix things like the stereotyping of the Vistani people as “uncivilized” and heavy drinkers, the module still gives the Vistani abilities to curse and hypnotize players or cast spells like Evil Eye, which, along with unrevised art that heavily conjures stereotyped imagery of the Romani, leans into tropes that suggest the Romani have mystical, dangerous powers, tropes that have been used in the past to target Romani for persecution.

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For another, it seems like a hefty ask, for players who might want an edition of their fun vampire module that isn’t culturally insensitive, to go out and buy a $99.99 collector’s edition. If, as Perkins told IGN, Wizards isn’t in the business of publishing collector’s editions on a regular basis, this seems like perhaps a poor choice of module for that purpose. Perkins addresses concerns over representation in the book, in the interview, saying, “Curse of Strahd [Revamped] specifically [addresses] pain points around the Vistani and around this disabled character, and there were small other issues to resolve as well.”

He continued, “We wanted to clean that up a bit and remove some stuff that the fans didn’t particularly like in terms of representation and how they were depicted—it’s that sort of very granular-but-important change. More like surgical changes to the adventure than some sort of grand sweeping change.”

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But stereotyping of the Romani people—erroneously and offensively labeled using an old slur term for the people—is a fixture of the gothic fiction the setting of Curse of Strahd uses as its stylistic basis. While Wizards of the Coast is clearly making strides, recently pledging to hire and publish more diversely, and specifically hiring a Romani consultant to work on some of its releases, it will likely take more than a handful of granular changes to fully expunge offensive undercurrents from the setting. And while there’s a real opportunity here to do better work—the aforementioned diversity pledge also mentioned future works that will feature the Vistani people and aim to complicate their depictions—starting that work with a fancy collector’s edition feels less like a promise to do better and more like a victory lap.

We’ve reached out to Wizards of the Coast for clarification and comment on the re-release of Curse of Strahd and Vistani representation, and we’ll update this post if we hear back. The Revamped Premium Edition of Curse of Strahd will be released on October 20th, 2020, according to Amazon.

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This post has been updated with additional comment from Wizards of the Coast.

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io9 Weekend Editor. Videogame writer at other places. Queer nerd girl.

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DISCUSSION

the module still gives the Vistani abilities to curse and hypnotize players or cast spells like Evil Eye, which, along with unrevised art that heavily conjures stereotyped imagery of the Romani, leans into tropes that suggest the Romani have mystical, dangerous powers, tropes that have been used in the past to target Romani for persecution

Are these depicted as innate abilities, or are they depicted as as sorcerous/wizardly abilities?

Because, I mean, this is DnD. Magic is kind of an essential component of the game. And DnD draws from the mystic traditions of many other cultures besides the Romani.

If there’s are magical spells that are unique to the fictional culture and the fictional culture is based on a real life culture, I think the main concern should be to avoid the appearance of malevolent origin (e.g. provide a balance of utilitarian/good spells in addition to “hostile” spells) rather than avoid the use of culturally-specific magical spells altogether.