D&D’s Culturally Sensitive Strahd Revamp Is Here, But It will Cost You

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

The Vristani 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.

“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.

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 $US99.99 ($140) 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.”

But stereotyping of the Romani people — erroneously and offensively labelled 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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Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.