Anne K. Brown started with TSR officially in 1989 (she had freelanced there before) and in 1991 she was given the task of writing Ship of Horror for the relatively new Ravenloft setting.

To read more about Anne’s career check out Part 2 of our interview here.

So, if you’ve been keeping up with Big Fish D&D, you know that we recently did a playthrough of the 1991 “Official Ravenloft Game Adventure” that was Ship of Horror. At one particular moment of the session (namely when we began the encounter with Meredoth the Necromancer) one of loudly proclaimed: “Who designed this?”

Well, one of the good things about running a moderately successful geek-centric website is that after the session, we tracked down the designer and asked her “What was the deal with Meredoth?”… among many other questions.

This is actually just Part 1 of the interview and deals pretty much exclusively with Ship of Horror. Come back next week for Part 2 where we asked Anne about game design, writing fiction and non-fiction and what it was like to work at TSR in the late 80’s right up until TSR’s purchase by Wizards of the Coast.

Please enjoy this glimpse into the creation of what has become somewhat of a cult classic module from D&D’s past.

How To Make a Ship of Horror

(Jon):  Just to let you know I’ve run it twice (and played it once!) and had a great time with all three groups.

(Keith): What was the starting point for Ship of Horror? Did you have any specific direction (ie: write a ghost ship story) or was it more wide open (ie: write a Ravenloft story)?

Anne: I’m glad you enjoyed it! Writing can be a very insecure business. Most writers finish a project and then have that moment of panic, wondering if it was any good.

At TSR, an entire year of product was plotted out about three years in advance. The catalog for any given year was actually finished before a lot of the product was even written. I was given Ship of Horror to write with really no direction other than the title.

I thought for quite a while about how to keep the players on the ship for a good amount of time. It didn’t make sense to simply deliver them to a destination and then have the ship sail off. I also wanted an authentic ship experience. Luckily, Milwaukee was visited by a tall ship, the HMS Rose, a few month prior to starting on Ship of Horror. My husband and I toured it, and that was the best source material I could have hoped for. It gave a great sense of the spaces on a ship, the construction, and what it feels like on board. Back then, there was no Google to jump into and find all the information you could possibly want.

(Jon): What was the inspiration for the Lebendtod?  They were some good weird spooky stuff that were never really replicated.

I had been thinking for quite a while about inventing a new type of undead. I felt that a new type hadn’t come along in a long time – vampires, mummies, zombies, and ghouls made up a pretty standard cast of undead. As the story was coming together and I was working out Meredoth and his relationship to the Graben family, the Lebendtod just sort of came together. The name is my own mashup that actually means “living dead” in German.

(J) I really liked the idea (tragically unused in my game) of the PCs drowning as the ship sinks and then waking up on Todstein. You stay long enough to find some tombs, and then ‘ole Captain Garven shows up. Looking back, what was your favorite scene in the module? 

A: Wow, that’s always a tough question. I reread the module before writing this (a few years have passed!). That in itself had me a little nervous—being older and hopefully wiser now, I worried that I wouldn’t be happy with it. It all held up pretty well, though! I saw some small modifications I would make (some of them editorial), but overall, I was relieved that everything seemed to work. So to pick some favorites—I really like the three ghosts on the ship that are the source of Garven’s curse. I feel that Ravenloft owes the players and DM a really spooky experience and a solid story. I also really like Vincenzia, the gypsy. She’s part red herring and part sage, and I think she’s a nice element of Ravenloft flavor.

One of the mantras in the TSR office was “never another ‘save the princess’ scenario.” I was aiming for something really different in this module—the cold setting is part of that. I hadn’t seen many adventures set in snow and ice conditions. I also thought a lot about Meredoth. Here’s a powerful wizard who has all the time in the world to experiment with magic, manipulate his environment, and be prepared to defend his realm. What could he cook up?

(J): Do you regret the surely thousands of characters killed by Level 20 Necromancer, Meredoth?  The countless nights ended in tears at the bottom of an ice slide for which there is no save?  How does the decision get made to insert a boss encounter that will, more often than not, get the best of a group of Level 8-10 characters?

A: Oh, please, tell me that’s not true! I feel terrible if that many characters died. I once played Diplomacy and hated it, and I’ve never played it again because I can’t stand beating up on other players.

I think I felt that players and DMs are clever enough, especially at levels 8 to 10, to overcome Meredoth’s tricks. They likely have magical items to help out, plus flight, levitation, and other resources. My first D&D character had a decanter of endless water that was put to all kinds of uses. As a low level wizard with only a few spells, she used it to distract enemies, slow their attacks, cause slippery footing, move objects, and other miscellaneous odd tasks, with some surprisingly good results. So I was hoping that the players in this adventure would have enough gear, spells, and magical items to survive and conquer Meredoth.

DMs, likewise, are generally pretty good about offering a clue or responding to player inventiveness so the adventure plays well. They know when to add a saving throw or allow a die roll for creativity. I think I was depending on the universe to make sure all elements came together for the adventure to play well.

Parting Thoughts from Anne regarding Ship of Horror:

I’m still very excited that my adventure had artwork by Stephen Fabian. We (the staff) loved his work and wished we could clone him to do more. He was selected as a primary artist for Ravenloft because he could capture mood so well and produced such high-quality work. I remember being really excited when the sketches and then the final art pieces came in—Stephen did an amazing job!(K:Seriously,the art in this module holds up incredibly).

Finally, I’ll share a quick story with you. I was hosting a panel at GenCon one year (in Milwaukee), probably around 1995 or 1996. The topic was how to run better villains. Someone in the room commented on a really spooky module he had played that took place on a ship and had a really tough villain (he couldn’t remember the name of it). I asked if it was set in Ravenloft and he said yes. I asked if it was Ship of Horror and he said yes! Best compliment ever.

I’m just very happy that people have enjoyed the adventure and that it is still being played. I also see that there are a lot of Ravenloft fans out there, and I’m very proud to have been a part of the world.

Footnote: Ship of Horror was nominated for an Origins Award in 1991. It lost to Horror on the Orient Express, which came as no surprise!

Once again, a million and one thank-yous to Anne for indulging a group of players enduring the Ship of Horror nearly three decades after it was published.

It is one of our favorite things as a group that the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is so versatile that with very little tweaking a Dungeon Master can import these older modules into their current games. For the record, we’ve “retrofitted” a few modules so far: The Terrible Trouble in Tragidore, The Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) and a very long time ago we took a strange (drunken) run at The Tomb of Horrors

Stay tuned next week where we talk to Anne about her career as an author and game designer!

All Images Copyright of Wizards of the Coast, Ship of Horror Cover Art by Clyde Caldwell Interior Art by Stephen Fabian

Keith does all sorts of things here on 9to5.cc, he works with the other founders on 9to5 (illustrated), co-hosts our two podcasts: The 9to5 Entertainment System and Go Plug Yourself and blogs here as The Perspicacious Geek.

Jon is a Master of Dungeons of the highest caliber. He podcasts with me over on 9to5 Entertainment Systemand occasionally blogs here in Jon’s Junk.

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