Ending the long hiatus to talk about Kalakeri. Kalakeri is a Domain of Dread of the 2021 Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft book. It was created by Ajit George and is an update or a spiritual successor to the 2e domain of Sri Raji. I am just finishing one campaign arc set in Kalakeri and I’m about to do another one in a different game.
The very quick summary of “What Is Kalakeri’s Deal?” Kalakeri is inspired by Indian history and Hindu scriptures. It is a tropical setting, there are a lot of waterways in dense jungle reminiscent of southern Indian, and it is beset by civil war. There are really three Darklords, our main one is the Rightful Queen of the Vasavadan dynasty (King/Queen titles are called Maharana/Maharani in this setting). The Rightful Queen is Ramya. But oh no, she is challenged for the throne by her brother, Arijani. Arijani is aided by their sister Reeva. And so the three Vasavadan siblings fight, loyalists versus rebels. As Varys the Spider says to Ned Stark, “why is it always the innocents who suffer most when you high lords play your game of thrones?”
Let’s get this out of the way first, to a DM writing in 2023 this plot is very similar to HBO’s House of Dragon which was created from George RR Martin’s works, the 2014 World of Ice & Fire and its more specific distillation in 2021, Fire & Blood Volume 1. All these works explore the Targaryen civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons in their universe. It can be hard to write an adventure set in Kalakeri without contemplating those texts.
I found Kalakeri through a different medium. For my Heroes of Baldur’s Gate game, one PC explained their subclass’s strange powers as being tied to their mother. Their backstory was that their mother had fled someplace with them while pregnant, their mother had strange powers too, they never talked about the place they came from.
When I heard that backstory my thoughts immediately went to the videogame Far Cry 4. Far Cry 4 is set in a fictional nation among the Himalayan mountains. The story is very similar to this PC’s backstory, their mother flees a civil war, she had ties to the rebellion and evil government. In the videogame the main character goes back to this land to scatter his mother’s ashes and gets swept up in the war and becomes a heroic rebel figure.
I kept the broad strokes of this story. I kept the PC’s connection to Kalakeri, but framed Kalakeri as this place of great power. Van Richten’s Guide doesn’t go into any detail about Kalakeri’s gods. Because the PC was very fire themed I made this version of Kalakeri very tied to the Primordials and the four elements. A lot of D&D settings have this greek themed creation myth of Titans or Primordials, the gods of Air, Earth, Water and Fire. In this game, Kalakeri is almost this reservation or last vestige where worship of the primordials continued instead of the standard Faerun pantheon and whoever sits the throne in Kalakeri has access to this immense divine power. I kind of frame it as, whoever sits the throne can ask a boon of Ao, the Overgod. The Throne becomes this ark of the covenant to petition for divine favor.
This gets away a bit from Kalakeri as a horror setting in a Ravenloft book. To be sure, Kalakeri is a different brand of horror than Barovia’s vampiric Gothic Horror or Lamordia’s Frankenstein inspired Body Horror. The blog “The Lawful Good Rogue” in their review of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, called Kalakeri “Partisan Horror.” It’s political horror. The author used the imagery of “a military junta or the Stalinist purges.” It’s the horror of living amidst instability. Of never being safe or having no control over your own life or being able to ensure the safety of your loved ones. It’s a place where the social contract between people and government, “protect me and I will obey your laws,” is no longer in effect. Both Ramya and Arijani demand the service of the people to fight their war. To stay out of it is to be marked an enemy, to choose one over the other is to be marked an enemy or expendable. And then the political winds change and whatever safety you thought you were buying by taking a side evaporates.
That’s pretty intense and hard to demonstrate in a gaming context. In a place where there is no hope of victory, what is there for PCs to do? I haven’t quite licked that yet. To be sure, it is great to get outside of the The Standard European Medieval Fantasy land and explore a non-western fantasy setting. As with all things Ravenloft I’m comparing Kalakeri to Barovia, at least as presented in Curse of Strahd. For that we have to look at the intent of the Darklords. Strahd Von Zarovich is a Vampire Lord. Which is to say, he’s a CR 11 monster, your party gets up to about level 10 and recovers magics items that brings down his difficulty considerably. A lot of DMs have customized Strahd builds to make him far more challenging. I myself wound up using a CR 17 build I found online and the final battle was tough but the party was always in control. It was the perfect kind of boss fight that the party had to use their resources to their full potential.
My point is that the intent of Strahd is to be a mid level boss on the party’s level if there’s a confrontation. In Kalakeri the Darklords are a Death Knight, a Rakshasa, and an Arcanaloth. These are high level monsters. The players are meant to interact with them, try to curry their favor, but they’re meant to be kind of unbeatable. The intent is for you to talk them. There’s a cynical part of me that says you’re not supposed to fight them because D&D doesn’t plan for you to get to high levels but let’s set aside. The Vasavadan siblings are meant to be imminent, almost adventuring patrons drawing the party into their conflict until the dark powers turn the tables on whoever is winning the war.
I think thinking of the Vasavadans as patrons is the best way to plan a campaign or story arc in Kalakeri. They are asking for PCs help but they are fundamentally bad people who will eventually ask you to do bad things. The only way to live is to fight but to win is to be a monster. War Never Changes.