Having watched Netflix’s Castlevania series for probably the third time through, and as a way of “eating my own dog food” by applying my Dungeons and Dragons Hamato Islands setting to other environments, I started a recent thought-experiment: suppose I made a Japanese-style character, and suppose that character got transported to the classic gothic horror setting of Barovia in the Demiplanes of Dread. What would that look like?
Gothic horror, particularly the classic literature, arose from a specific time, culture and a place so it’s inevitably tied to certain religious trends, cultural assumptions, monsters, etc. Dropping a samurai from, say, the 16th century Warring States period, or a Buddhist monk from the late 12th century Heian period into a gothic setting just becomes a fish out of water story.
On the other hand, the Demiplanes of Dread setting of Dungeons and Dragons, including everyone’s favorite demiplane Barovia, are not just another place in world history. It’s literally a different plane of existence, and by its nature, it keeps pulling people through The Mists into the domain to be trapped and tormented by the vampire Dark Lord, Strahd von Zarovich. Strahd depends on a steady supply of incoming people because as a dark lord who’s been in power for many centuries, the native Barovians are broken spirits anyway. As long as he brings more people through the mists, he could care less where they’re from; he just needs fresh blood, both literally and figuratively.
So, going back to my idea, imagine some itinerant monk (cleric, Way of the Sage, in my setting) or a sohei warrior (probably a paladin, Oath of Vengeance) is traveling at night deep in the woods of some remote mountain path, the mists close around him, and before he or she knows it, the forests look different. The fauna is dark and unfamiliar to him or her. They stumble to the next village only to find that it looks totally unfamiliar. The homes are sagging and timbers are rotten, the colors are faded and bleached, and both the architecture and the people he or she sees look different. Worse, they probably wouldn’t speak the same language.1
Quite the culture shock, no?
But it goes further. The deities would be unfamiliar for example. Such a character would not know the Morninglord (Lathander in Barovia), but would bring their own deities instead. Because the Demiplanes of Dread are far removed from the good, heavenly realms, the adventure modules usually state that characters can’t communicate with their deities, but can still draw power from them. Since the Morninglord is the only non-evil deity in Barovia, would my cleric/sohei character try to find common ground, or would they hide their religion to avoid antagonizing the locals?
Folk customs, like garlic for vampires and holy water, would also differ. A character from another realm, such as medieval Japan, would use salt or chanting holy sutras to repel evil spirits. Would those work in Barovia?
Eventually, though, said cleric or sohei would encounter other people who stand out, people from disparate lands, continents, and cultures: maybe from the tropical lands of Chult, the Al-Qadim setting (based on fantasy Arabic culture), or from the wider Asian-inspired lands of Kara-tur.. But they’re all united by their common problem: they’ve been brought to the Demiplanes of Dread against their will, and Strahd2 is ultimately their problem. Thus, I imagine the final battle against Strahd would be a party composing of classic gothic figures like a priest of Lathander, a Simon Belmont like character, maybe a wizard or two, but also other diverse characters too from other lands. A kind of global super team.
Anyhow, all of this probably isn’t interesting to other players, but it was just a fun thought-experiment about the challenges of bringing D&D characters from one culture into another culture, especially in a hostile environment.
P.S. Title inspired by Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I hope Mr Twain is not rolling over in his grave. 😅
1 The idea of one “Common” language in D&D that all humanoids know might work for a single contintent, but once we start spanning different continents in the Forgotten Realms, the idea seems less and less plausible. For that reason, I made up “Kara-Tur Common” and “Faerun Common” to account for linguistic differences between continental settings, while still having a reasonably common lingua franca among locals.
2 Or, a different Dark Lord, of course. With the new D&D book Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, the other demiplanes are getting much needed attention and detail.