What Do I Know About Reviews? She Is The Ancient (DMs Guild Product)
Vampires! Okay, I got that out of my system now. One of the tropes that has emerged regarding the Curse of Strahd adventure has been “what if Strahd, but . . .,” with one of the most popular of these twists being Strahd as a woman. While this has been mentioned several times in the past, She is the Ancient is a Dungeon Masters Guild product that explores that idea with a bit more depth.
I picked up She is the Ancient myself, and I’m not working from a review copy. While I have not had the opportunity to use this material at the table, I have played Curse of Strahd as a player, and I am very familiar with Dungeons & Dragons 5e as both a player and a dungeon master.
This review is based on the PDF of this product, which is the only format available at the time of this review. The PDF is 157 pages long, including a title page, a table of contents, and a final credits page. The book has a two-column layout, with specifically divided pages for different topics. Much of the artwork involves character portraits to give characters a face, especially when they have been reworked for this adventure.
Unlike many supplemental products, the formatting doesn’t mimic the standard D&D trade dress. The art is full color, and there are many handouts that are created to look like in world items, but the discussions of changes to the adventure have a very clean, no-frills presentation. When I say no-frills, I also want to make sure to point out that the pages look very nicely laid out. It just doesn’t attempt to look like a standard D&D adventure.
What Is This?
Just in case you haven’t picked up on this, this is not a standalone adventure. This is a series of discussions on how to change Curse of Strahd to use the female version of Strahd to tell a different story. Many of the changes excise some of the worst aspects of abusive relationships, as well as extreme examples of things like child abuse and neglect. There are still plenty of horrible things going on, and villains are still extremely villainous, but not as emotionally manipulative or vile.
A few examples of changes include Strahd’s “brides,” which are now lovers of various genders that have their own quarters in the castle, rather than being relegated to a single area. Because the Vistani can travel through the mists, they are presented as being less affected by the dread of Barovia and other places they have traveled through, and in part, they attempt to being some degree of hope and happiness to those that have been trapped in a domain.
The relationship between Strahd and Ireena has been changed, and the reason that Strahd obsessed over her shifts over time. While it is still a romantic obsession now, it didn’t start that way in this narrative. Ismark is shifted to a more vulnerable younger brother.
Several of the “old witches” have been changed a bit in the story. They haven’t been removed, but some of the Vistani matriarchs have been turned into more supernatural, isolated figures. While many of the hags that appear in the adventure are still there, they are less likely to specifically target children (they will, but not just children).
There are also some fairly extensive changes to the Abbot in this adventure, shifting the crossbred monster species that exist in the adventure into villagers that have had medical experimentation performed on them. This twist is nicely connected to the Abbot having a connection to Dr. Mordenheim. There is also a nice addition to the overall importance of the Wizard of Wines that ties into the soulless nature of some of the people native to Barovia.
How Does it Do This?
There are several different ways that the product expresses the changes to the adventures. Locations have nice illustrations included that show what NPCs are connected to what locations, and to other NPCs in the narrative. Important NPCs are given full page write ups that include the following topics:
- At a Glance
- Appearance and Mannerisms
- NPC Connections
- Locations of Interest
In addition to the relationship maps and the NPC pages, there are also summaries of various factions in the adventure, exploring what they want and why and when they will take actions. The factions that get their own summaries in this product are:
- Dusk Elf
- Yester Hill & Druid Faction
- Werewolf Den & Faction
In addition to the adventure-based motivations and actions that the factions may take, the faction summaries will also touch on topics and portrayals that DMs may want to avoid when using these factions. For example, it specifically mentions the slur that is unfortunately associated with the Vistani.
I wanted to circle around to the NPC portrayals for a moment, because in addition to the specific information about the character and their place in the adventure, the appearance and mannerisms section often mentions vocal mannerisms and other personality traits to use to portray the character. I found this especially interesting because in many cases, the author mentions several times when they ran the adventure, and how these portrayals evolved.
Sunlight over Barovia
I really enjoy how this product breaks down the adventure and analyses the purpose of many of the things included in the adventure. I especially appreciate the location NPC maps, and the NPC breakdowns. This does a great job of addressing problems with the adventure and some of the tropes that might be included, but the analysis is also great for people running this adventure without making all of the suggested changes, due to the deep dive into the plot elements of the adventure.
Here Comes the Rain Again
There are a few places where it is suggested that names not be changed, and in many cases, that’s not a problem, but I’d argue that, for example, swapping Mordenkainen’s gender so that she is a woman might be distracting, because he’s a very well-known D&D element. I think you can swap out Strahd because people likely know you are playing Curse of Strahd with a twist. Personally, if you were going to swap out a famous, powerful wizard from outside of Ravenloft so that you have more representation of women, I would just swap out Tasha for Mordenkainen.
There is never a perfect way to arrange what is effectively a toolbox for dungeon masters to use, but by following the format of Curse of Strahd, you end up with the factions scattered by where they are introduced, when it may be useful to know about that faction from the beginning of the adventure. That said, Curse of Strahd has a format that WotC has used a lot of D&D 5e, which is to say there is a story at both ends, sandwiching what amounts to a sandbox presentation, which can get messy.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you are interested in putting a twist on Curse of Strahd, you won’t be disappointed with this purchase, but I would also argue that this is also a great product for understanding how the different elements of the adventure interact with one another. Even if you aren’t going to use all of the changes in the adventure, I think you can find various modular items to swap in or out of a game to make it stronger.