TSR went through a Renaissance of ideas in the early nineties as it unleashed a blitzkrieg of IP into comics, novels, and new worlds, something that SSI was keen to take advantage of when they had licensed AD&D into a series of highly popular CRPGs with their Gold Box series.
In addition to the wild success of their Forgotten Realms series, TSR pushed beyond Elminster’s medieval haunts. The post-apocalyptic setting of Dark Sun challenged players with a brutal, harsh world devastated by magic in 1991. Al-Qadim opened the door on PnP adventures set within the mythic world inspired by the Arabian Nights in 1992.
But it would be in 1990 that TSR would dabble with gothic horror with their Ravenloft setting. Though it was a different approach to horror-themed PnP gaming than, say, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu where insanity and death were often the fate of its investigators, Ravenloft proved rich with new ideas based on the aging AD&D rule set — not the least of which was the possibility for player characters to become dreaded lords.
The “spokesperson” for Ravenloft would be Strahd von Zarovich, a vampire lord tormented by the loss of the woman he loved and cursed to dwell within the Demiplane of Dread — a mysterious cosmic prison holding together different lands separated from each other by walls of imprisoning mist.
Ravenloft is the name of his castle, and the module from the early eighties that inspired the setting, and Strahd’s situation is typical of the powerful such as he in “Ravenloft.” As a “dark lord,” Strahd rules over his corner of the Demiplane of Dread isolated from other prisoners such as he, but all of them seek escape from the torments that the Demiplane visits upon them. For Strahd, it’s the memories of his lost love. The land of Barovia, over which he rules, has been dragged into this place by mysterious, unseen powers, and it is also where players end up in Strahd’s Possession.
Released in 1994 by SSI and designed by DreamForge Intertainment (formerly known as Event Horizon Software, the same developers behind Veil of Darkness which was also published by SSI), Strahd’s Possession takes place in the Ravenloft setting as a first-person CRPG with a four-person party using AD&D’s 2ed rules. It came out for PCs only on either 3.5″ disks or the fancy CD-ROM enhanced version.
The plot goes something like this: adventurers are seeking to recover a stolen relic for Lord Dhelt and pursue the thief. After a quick battle, strange mists rise up around them and sending them to what they later discover to be Barovia. They are soon invited to Lord Strahd von Zarovich’s castle, Ravenloft, where he greets them as guests of his land. But it soon becomes apparent that there is much more going on here than simple curiosity.
The first-person gaming movement was hugely popular by the time this game came out which took full advantage of the design approach. Players familiar with Origin’s Ultima Underworld or Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series at this point found themselves right at home, though not all of the mechanics were quite as good.
Players could roll up two characters at the very start with six races to pick from and a slew of attributes to repeatedly roll up for that perfect character. Combat was as simple as clicking on baddies onscreen, though some critics have noted that it’s strange that the game will force you to wait until a character is ready with their weapon to strike even if the next character in your party is ready to act, something that wasn’t quite a problem with Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder games.
The CD-ROM version had a number of enhancements — improved music, cinematics, an entire side quest involving an old paladin, additional NPCs, and digitized voices. Wandering villagers and atmospheric effects like rats and crows are also CD-ROM exclusives along with more unique art for particularly powerful monsters like revenants. But the basic gameplay between the two was identical.
AD&D was embraced throughout the game from the rules governing stats and class requirements to the statistics on the weapons, the Vancian magic system, and the AD&D flavored bestiary geared for gothic horror. The feel of Ravenloft’s horror-themed setting also came through in the soundtrack and the way that the game presented elements of its world from the villagers living in fear to the unseen terror waiting behind Strahd’s smiling face. DreamForge made the most out of the license and it wasn’t a bad take on terror.
Unfortunately, the game is also relegated to those strange mists that have engulfed many other titles, sending them away to the grey world of abandonware. You won’t find it on a traditional download service leaving only DOSbox as one of the ways to experience this first-hand.
The only things that made this game tough to like was the simplistic combat system and the rather flat story, though to those that had no idea what Ravenloft was, it wasn’t the best teacher on its intricacies — and why destroying Strahd isn’t necessarily the end of Barovia’s nightmare — nor was it “scary” in the sense of sending chills down your spine. But to gaming as a whole, it was that rare horror-themed CRPG that took interesting risks in a genre that can often be more focused on typical fantasy fare.