Pitfalls & Triumphs of the Realm of Terror

Our friend and scholar, James Maliszewski from Grognardia (a slightly popular blog, maybe you’ve heard of it?) reviewed a module that runs deep for me, the original Ravenloft Module put out in 1983.

I had originally tried to post a comment on his blog, but evil Internet fairies ate it, which I suppose is for the best, as I do have a lot to say, and I really shouldn’t be wasting his bandwidth with my drivel.

I purchased this Module years after it was released. I haven’t ever ran the story that came with it, but I bought the thing for its map of Strahd’s castle. This amazingly popular module spawned it’s own setting, also named Ravenloft. It is this setting which I cut my DMing teeth upon. I must admit that I really don’t “get” fantasy. I mean, I read it from time to time, but never anything new. I value my time to much to read anything that can’t be told in a book or two. I don’t understand fantasy, but I do have a firm grasp upon Gothic horror. This is my favorite genre! And to be able to run a Dungeons and Dragons campaign in a setting such as this . . . Well it was a natural fit for me.

Ravenloft was an experiment. In some ways it was a huge success, and in many ways it failed utterly. The basis behind the setting was an interesting one. The greatest evil beings of all time were drawn into the mist, an astral world which was a prison, or perhaps it was a weapon of mass destruction? Nobody really knows, THAT was left up to the DM to figure out.

Strahd became just one of the Dark Lords of this realm. He controlled the land, and all within it, as did the other Dark Lords, whom were all blessed with land however suffering some curse that was debilitating to them. Time was ignored, as were seasons; The realm of Adam (read Frankenstein) was based during a time of electricity in a very German world, while G’Henna run by a knock off of Mr Hyde was Midevil and perpetually Summer.

This was brilliant! Complete with all of the 2nd Edition fluff that one would expect, a DM could have a field day with this kind of atmosphere! It originally got expanded in a box set that was one of the greatest boxes of all time. Realm of Terror (1990): It was chock full of nothing but fluff and atmosphere. It gave a creative DM enough fodder to keep a table happy for many many years.

If they would had stopped there, I doubt that we would be having this conversation. Modules were written, that were absolutely terrible. A great world changing catastrophe which they called, “The Grand Conjunction”. Much like the plot of the original Ravenloft Module, the players could not stop this from happening in any way.

The Box Set went from, Giving a DM just enough information to fuel his imagination, to coming out with these monstrosities that were so big and powerful that if you wanted to play the Cannon world, then you were stuck dealing with. Game masters became too afraid to use the adventure hooks supplied in the box set, because once they did run a game of their own creation, TSR would put out a map and module set that completely destroyed what you did.

THIS ISN’T ROLE-PLAYING!!!! There were no choices to be made, DM’s had to buy these products or else they simply weren’t running Cannon. This was the greatest failure of Ravenloft. Like Forgotten Realms before it, Ravenloft simply got to big and could make too much money, and pretty soon, that was all it was good for, making money.

The Grand Conjunction literally tore the map apart. Dark Lords died, different lands joined the Core, while others floated off into the Sea of Sorrow. This world takes place on the Astral Plane, this kind of stuff can happen, but it did it in such a way that it did ruin it. Players couldn’t effect this, it happened on its own and they were just in for the ride.

Probably the best book to come out for the setting was Domains of Dread, it was probably the last Ravenloft sourcebook to come out for 2e. It was awesome, but it too had its failures, the maps were unreadable, but other then that, it was a great book! Which was needed since TSR tore the heck out of it.

Now Ravenloft is not without it’s triumphs! It is a world that is not level appropriate. Players knew that the deck was stacked, and that it wasn’t stacked in their favor. They were the minority, they had to fight against incredible odds, survival was never guaranteed. Magical items were not handed out like candy in a chocolate store, but death was! This led to some truly heroic deeds. If Ravenloft has one lesson, it teaches players how to be a hero. Good vs. Evil in a realm completely dominated by evil. If a player fails, or resorts to an evil act himself, then he runs the risk of being taken by the realm. THAT is cool, and is still a theme in all of my games.

Ravenloft also taught DM’s how to make truly living and breathing NPCs. In the hands of a talented game master, these NPC’s are tools to better convey a story, a bridge between the DM and his players. Unfortunately, these NPC’s still don’t help cover up bad behavior on the part of weak Dungeon Masters. Were the NPCs abused? You betcha, but weak Dungeon Masters abuse everything that they have at their disposal, so we really can’t judge Ravenloft for that.

If I could do it over again, as I’m never going to go back into the realms of Ravenloft, I wish that I had the knowledge that I have now.

  1. Screw Cannon! It is just a marketing ploy. Players don’t read up on settings, and you can do just as good, if not better then any company when drawing up dungeons.
  2. Don’t WRITE UP dungeons. Material should be written up for sittings, not settings. Isn’t that clever? Yeah, I hate it too, but it makes sense. I put so much work on writing modules that I never used. It was fun, but a total waste of my time.
  3. And finally, Scenarios are meant to be interactive. I used those Ravenloft modules as a basis for writing my own adventures, and that was a huge mistake that I repeated over and over until I identified the problem.

Not bad for something that I really enjoyed when I should had been going to collage!


Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I kept thinking "Screw Canon" when I was reading your comments up to your bullet points. In this, I agree with JM - the emphasis on plot/setting as something published and therefore being the One True Way is a direction that TSR took with Dragonlance (and with most of their settings), but it's an easy way to publish books.

People want things simple, so accepting Canonical references as the One True Way is a natural thing to do. I warn my players that if I'm going to use a setting or campaign, I can/will vary off from it, sometimes in great degrees, so they might not want to play if all they want is a re-creation of the canonical version.

It's almost like playing Alternative History with a fantasy/scifi story.

I wonder why you wouldn't go back to Ravenloft and "screw Canon" and remake it in your own image, if you really liked it so much?

RipperX said...

Why not play Ravenloft ever again? Well, I can't say that I'll NEVER set an adventure there ever again, but at this time I'm tired of it. I played that campaign setting for to many years and I just want to create my own unique setting. A goal that I believe that I share with lots of DMs out there. At this point I feel confident that I can finally get the job done.

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