I picked up WotC's Ravenloft campaign setting guide when it came out a few years ago and I was surprised by what was actually a pretty tight little campaign setting. Sure, it was missing the grandeur of the 2e TSR boxed set, but it was a nice little setting. A lot of the hallmarks of Ravenloft were there, but I realized that I was dissatisfied with something about it, I just didn't know what.
But why? What's gained? Why can't we just talk about Dracula and Frankenstein? They're public domain characters, so it's not a rights thing. Are we really dumb enough to think that players can't see through the transparent masking? Do we think that by simply changing some superficial details that players will pretend to be surprised by whatever predictable "turn" we throw their way? By deliberately shifting our cultural markers, we make what SHOULD BE an accessible Transylvania setting into <<squint>> Ravenloft. By changing those cultural markers and signifiers, the only thing that we accomplish is walling off our imaginary Transylvania from being accessed by people who don't have the same cultural markers. We make Transylvania less accessible by presenting a crappy version of it.
Try this: as a search term, the name "Dracula" gets 85,100 searches per month on Google. "Strahd" gets 9,400. Yes, Strahd gets a lot of searches, but ask any of those 85,100 Dracula searchers who Strahd is. Now ask any of the 9,400 who Dracula is. Chances are, far more of the Strahd crowd will know who Dracula is (my guess is all of them) than Dracula crowd who know who Strahd is (maybe 10% at best, just going off of search volume).
So why not just call him "Dracula?"
That thought opened a door for me.
Why Ravenloft? Why not Transylvania?
I spent a lot of time with that idea.
Since we're talking about Transylvania, which is a real place, why not make the game historical fiction? Sure, we're going to have supernatural and fantastical elements in it that belong in a Hammer Horror film, but we can have historical context, too. Turns out, you see, I'm a big fan of 19th century history, and the death of the Holy Roman Empire and birth of the Austrian (then ultimately the Austro-Hungarian empire) is a great time to set a game. Rewrite the Dark Lords of Ravenloft back into their original inspirations, but what about their "Dark Lord" nature? Where does that come from? Turns out that Romanian folklore has a pretty great answer for that.
Rules-wise, I tried on a lot of different hats. DCC's Transylvanian Adventures? Close, but too fiddly and with too many details to track. CAIRN? Closer, but I realized that I really want to break with the whole OSR/NSR aesthetic. I have a hard time seeing reality reflected in them, if only because I have no idea what a 7th-level cleric looks like in real life and why they (probably) would have more hit points than I do. A story game? Maybe, but I feel like it would need to be very bespoke to work. And then I realized that WARPLAND secretly works equally well as a narrative or a traditional game.
WARPLAND it is.