Ajit George: The Beautiful Challenge of Bringing India to D&D’s Ravenloft

Writing for Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft was one of the most exhilarating and daunting game writing experiences of my life. I am the first writer of Indian origin to write Indian-inspired material for Dungeons & Dragons. I felt a huge pressure to get it right. Of course, there is no way to capture a country so large, old, and diverse. My solution was to narrow my focus and create something compelling that wasn’t a one-for-one analog of India but took inspiration from a wide range of source material.

The other big challenge was creating an atmosphere of horror. Ravenloft is D&D’s iconic horror setting, and I was tasked to write two new pieces for it. Yet, I was worried about depicting India or Indians poorly. I was very aware of the terrible and racist pop culture entries about India and horror, the most obvious being Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. All too often, that’s what people think of when they think of India and horror, and I wasn’t eager to add to those terrible representations.

My solution was to avoid creating cliched non-player characters (NPCs) that served chilled monkey brains for dinner or ripped out hearts while screaming “Kali Ma”. While the three key NPCs of Kalakeri (Ramya, Reeva and Arijani) are genuinely monstrous, I decided to focus the real horror through the customs of the land that were open to interpretation for good or ill. I had originally planned to design a system that governed these customs.

Due to space limitations, Wes Schneider (the project lead for Van Richten’s Guide) and I mutually agreed to use the existing renown system from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It shortened the piece and allowed the players to interact easily with the two main factions vying for the Sapphire Throne. I am proud of how renown turned out in the book, and here is some context behind what shaped renown—the Favor system.

Favor was inspired by many elements of Indian culture, but the primary ones were the boons depicted in Hindu mythology and the caste system.

Boons always fascinated me. They act as a sort of ruleset that even the gods must obey—once given, the universe bends to them. The great rakshasa king Ravana won boons from the god Brahma (or one of the other gods depending on the telling) for doing penance. These boons make Ravana invulnerable to all the dangers of the world including the gods themselves, leaving only humans as his weakness. This sets the Ramayana in motion as the god Vishnu reincarnates himself as the mortal Rama to defeat Ravana. I found this incredibly intriguing—that the gods could give Ravana such power, even power that would cause them enormous difficulty, because of Ravana’s observation of proper ritual and penance. Indian literature and mythology is littered with examples of kings, heroes, sages, demons and gods changing the course of history through a boon or a curse.

The caste system has been baked into Indian society for centuries. In my work in India, I’ve seen firsthand how those of marginalized and “low caste” show deference for those from more privileged castes. This has translated to an informal system where the poor and marginalized are often forced to be exceedingly obsequious to the wealthy and powerful with hopes of patronage or reward.

Now that some time has passed, I’ve had an opportunity to put together some flavor text for those of you who are interested in engaging more deeply in the cultural elements of Kalakeri:

The ancient custom of Favor has been part of Kalakeri for centuries. It describes the expected proper conduct of all individuals in society. Originally detailed in a series of ancient religious and philosophical texts that helped shape Kalakeri, it has been attributed to seminal moments in the lives of various legendary monarchs and heroes throughout the centuries. The founding of the Vasavadan Dynasty is tied to the Favor won by Vihaan from the great dragon Sarthak. At the same time, many say that the ill fate of Kalakeri is a curse from the goddess Ghoravara, because of the unfavorable deeds of the Vasavadan scions.

Favor permeates every level of society, and it governs routine interactions. Good hospitality is expected by all denizens of Kalakeri and earns modest Favor. Favor is most impactful when gained with those of higher station. In the original religious texts, it is described as a way for even the lowliest to petition the powerful. One of Kalakeri’s most important foundational stories is about a beggar who completed many great deeds to gain Favor with the maharana to save the life of her son.

The higher the station, the more formalized the process of building Favor and the more critical the stakes. A hero of Kalakeri may undertake challenging quests to accumulate great Favor with the maharani. In some cases, the individual will know what will help them gain Favor with the person in advance. Alternately, they may directly ask in an audience, “Maharani Ramya, I wish to curry Favor with you. What would you have me do?”

While Favor is powerful, it won’t make NPCs take completely irrational actions. An NPC won’t commit suicide at the whim of a Favor. But it’s possible to have a lieutenant betray Ramya because of Favor. Favor is strong enough to make individuals do things they would otherwise not do, and this applies to all, good or evil, who are raised in Kalakeri.

Among Kalakeri’s most prized literature are the tragedies of mighty heroes and nobles undone by Favor. Favor with Ramya enabled Reeva to ask her sister to meet with Arijani, which led to Ramya’s death. Equally, there are stories about heroes and villains cunning enough to obey the letter of the Favor asked, but not the spirit. Kalakeri’s epic tales of love, loss and triumph have Favor at their core.

The renown system in the VanRichten’s Guide to Ravenloft does a great job in setting up complex political machinations, one well suited for grand campaigns of dark fantasy. You can deepen that mechanic with more cultural context from the Favor system or personalize it so it revolves around individuals rather than factions.

Because of the power of the three main antagonists, a campaign set in the dread domain isn’t likely to start off with the player characters facing off against Ramya, Reeva, or Arijani—it’s going to be too hard to do so. And even if they are successful in defeating one of them, is Kalakeri really any better off?

But players might mitigate the evil of the three if only they can accumulate enough Favor with them to force them into new courses of action, or to blunt some evil they are perpetrating. Of course, to gain Favor with such ruthless antagonists, what might they ask of the players? To accumulate more and more Favor, the players will have to become intimately tied to these NPCs and drawn ever deeper into their internecine struggles.

Perhaps even more intriguing, and horrifying, is that the PCs are encouraged to play the middle with this monstrous royalty. Surviving the court of Kalakeri is like juggling knives; you don’t want to just gain Favor with one faction, because you need to ensure it does not get too powerful. Inevitably you will betray it to gain Favor with another faction. The domain is unlikely to improve, but you’re hoping it does not get worse. Both sides will hate you and love you as you play the game of winning and losing Favor, betraying, and supporting each side. You are continually torn between the powerful orbits of Ramya, Arijani and Reeva, winning and losing Favor in this nightmare land.

And if you want to take it to the next level, Favor can be applied to any NPC in Kalakeri. Flesh out the rebel NPCs, or lieutenants to the three main antagonists—all of that’s possible.

The horror of Kalakeri is both personal and social. Who will the player characters suborn themselves to? What crimes will they be complicit in? And what will they lose in the process? This domain offers so much to explore.

If you’ve enjoyed the groundwork laid by Kalakeri, but want fully developed adventures set in the domain, check out Unearthed Aventures: Kalakeri by the Panic Not! D&D community based in India. They’ve done a splendid job taking the seeds I’ve laid out and creating something special.

* ed note: we tried sourcing the artist names to these pieces but could not find them, if you are aware of who the artists are to these pieces, please drop them in the comments below, thanks!

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Ajit George is the Director of Operations for the international non-profit the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, a leading non-profit in the field of education, and poverty alleviation. He is featured in the original Netflix Documentary Series, Daughters of Destiny. In the field of games, he has written for a variety of indie companies including Bully Pulpit, Thorny Games, and Monte Cook Games, and is a diversity consultant, speaker, and activist. He has most recently written for D&D’s Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.

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