A Look Back at the History of Ravenloft


October has always been my favorite time of year. I simply love Autumn, the scent of Fall always reminds me of happy times, but it is Halloween which in my house, is like those crazy Christmas lovers. Around here in never really ever goes away. Our house is decorated for Halloween year round.

Nothing says Halloween more wonderfully, then a day excursion into the Domain of Dread, or the 2e fantasy setting better known as Ravenloft!

Ravenloft was first brought into being in a module which features a gothic Vampire Hunt! A mysterious dark and foreboding castle inhabited by a generic Dracula!

A sequel followed, however this Modules was one of the worst pieces of trash that TSR had ever put out. It lacked everything which the former had, but let’s not dwell on the failures of Ravenloft, but on its good side.

The first box set was released for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and it was packed full of goodness! A huge map which greatly expanded the Domain of Dread, revealing that the lead character which we know as Straud was just a bit part in this land.

The Boxset contained pictures of some of the buildings in the realm, family portraits of major NPCs and their families, and other cards which were designed to help the DM play a game within its misty borders quicker and more effectively.

It also came with a great booklet which described each of the different domains of the Core, as well as giving a few ideas about how to build your own Isles of Dread! And, much like the original Module which inspired this world, there was a lot of experimentation going on on the part of the writers. THIS was a highly unique product, which not only showed you a brand new realm in which to have adventures, but presented its own, very unique set of rules!

As a teaching tool, this was very different! It taught us how to really modify a world and make it completely unique. Now, not all of these changes were “good”, or useful, this product was originally intended for short, one shot adventures, however it must had just kept growing and growing into a full fledged world by the time that it was all done.

It had it’s own unique effects on spells. Some spells no longer functioned as written, and a player never really knew what would happen if he cast something. This spell list was secret, the players were not supposed to know what changes had taken place, but some of the spells changed were required to keep a party alive! Most horribly effected were the priests spells. In the Domain of Dread, the clerics lost contact with their gods, and it was a mystery of who or what was granting their spells, or why they would change the effects. Healing spells no longer functioned and did terrible things to those who expected to benefit from them. Again, this rule is intended for short one-shots, however with all of the cool domains in Ravenloft, many DM’s wished to run campaigns full-time within the dark borders.

Ravenloft also had a unique look at evil. Evil forces were the norm here, not the exception. For the first time, the forces of good were the minority, while the forces of Evil had the final say in anything. The players were over-whelmed, and if they strayed to the dark alignment, then their bodies would suffer as the forces of Ravenloft consumed them. Evil acts caught the attention of the mysterious forces which ran this place, forever known as “The Dark Forces”. If somebody’s actions caught the attentions of the Dark Forces, then they would be rewarded, yet at the same time cursed terribly. This was strange and a really clunky mechanic at first. Again, this rule was established to add some mystery to one-shot adventures. To me, it also effected how I see evil in the game. Adding a Satanic Master of Evil to the world, as well as overlaying a sense of morality to the environment.

One of the strangest rule changes was the “Fear Check”, of course it became one of the most misunderstood concepts of the game, and all of these rules truly appealed to DM’s who had the nasty habit of being mean to players. Crappy DM’s loved it! It gave them even more power to hold over players who may not have had the option of finding a better Dungeon Master. However, for fair and smart DMs, it gave us a ton of tools which we could incorporate into our games to really get in and challenge ourselves, and our players.

Now, the original Boxset was a thing of beauty. On it’s own, it was full of ideas for adventures centered around ideas instead of hack and slash. The setting was the star, and it catered to role-players, vs. guys sitting around a table rolling dice. Combat was secondary, when it did take place, the encounters were with more powerful monsters, but fewer of them. Instead of fighting an entire horde of orcs, you were pitted against a mastermind, and you had to solve a mystery to uncover your true enemies identity if you hope to win.

Of course this simple concept was destroyed instantly once it got itself in the hands of too many cooks in the kitchen. The very first module presented for the new, expanded Ravenloft was one of the greatest Hack & Slash adventures ever put out by TSR, titled Feast of Goblyns. A two-edged sword right from the get-go.

Feast was definitely NOT a short, one-shot adventure, but so big that it could take months of full-time play to complete it. The setting was wonderful, and the adventure ran well, however it forced the DM to let many of the secret spell effects to slide, as a healer was definitely required company! Later modules also required a healer on call, however in the core book, it crippled them. Not very good planning, and if we overlook this spell mechanic, then why not overlook others?

Feast also started an idea which led into other modules. Those folks at TSR were always figuring out ways to make money with providing inferior products, which was stupid, because as far as Accessories go, Ravenloft had some of the best! The Van Richton Guides were superb, and could be used system neutrally to really flesh out monsters and make them do what you want them to do. Werewolves, Vampires, Ghosts, the series went on and on and featured some of the best writing to ever come out of the TSR sweatshops.

Also released for 1e was a second boxset which was both cool and full of crap. It came with some cool toys, a deck of Tarot Cards and a set of dice which a DM could either use to stack the deck or, if he had a huge set, could use them to dictate the adventures themselves.

The Tarot deck, I apologize, I am writing from memory alone, I can’t recall the exact name of the cards, featured some excellent art, each card having its own unique picture, something that not even most real Tarot Cards have! Even for Tarot Cards, this was a really unique product. I guess that they used them in an issue of Dragon Magazine to present a new cardgame that could be played with them (bah!)

Along with the toys for divination, it came with some little booklets, most of them junk, but a few were cool. Ideas on creating Curses, Straud’s Spellbook full of unique and never before seen spells which, honestly, were crap that only a vampire who wanted to impress people would use. Secret Societies of the realm, and some other book which included modified rules for running psionic characters, which worked excellently for lining birdcages as long as the cover was removed first.

RAVENLOFT 2E

Once the 2nd Edition books were released, Ravenloft really didn’t need to be edited to suit it. All of the changes which it made to the 1st edition rules were also easily compatable with the 2nd Edition, however this didn’t stop TSR from wanting to repackage it to make more money. The Redbox combined the two 1st edition boxes into one product. You didn’t get the divination dice, but you got the tarot cards. It also removed many of the cards, which made the original box set so cool, but hey, the product was usable!

It was during the Second Edition which much of the work that destroyed the setting took place. Now don’t get me wrong! This is where I personally walked into the hobby. I wouldn’t had started a 2e blog if I didn’t have a deep love and respect for the time period. I discovered the original box set just prior to the release of the red box. It was in the clearance isle and the owner of Dragonslair wanted to clear it out to make way and discounted it heavily. We gamers love our good deals don’t we!

My problem isn’t with the setting, but with the modules. They were horrible! A few were good, it destroyed my game with a problem that I couldn’t put my finger on for years. It gave me big and bad NPCs to play with, and instead of centering the game around the players, I wrote them for NPC’s. BAD BAD BAD!!!!

The original boxset, and the red box are perfect, stand alone products. They are much in the spirit of Greyhawk, were they present nothing but ideas to a DM. This is the world, and it is now in your hands to do with as you will. It had mysteries for the DM to solve, and tons of hints to inspire brand new games and themes. GOOD STUFF!

Many of the Accessories covered topics which just didn’t fit in well with other settings, but could be used to put Vampires that drained blood instead of levels in Dragonlance, Infect players with lycanthropy in Dark Sun, or add a Demon mastermind to Forgotten Realms. The point was that the accessories were about themes and inspired the reader to rethink different aspects of the monsters which they used regularly, and add a sense of class to them which the Monstrous Manual didn’t have the space nor the resources to add.

It also inspired 3 new Monstrous Compendiums, the first being the best, the second being nothing but even more NPCs to drop into your world, and the 3rd a bunch of high level and very dangerous monsters.

While the accessories were great, other forces were working against it. Modules revolved around either NPC’s or the greatest disaster to ever infect a setting. Again, all of the failures resulted from the original concept of Ravenloft, which was exploration and experimentation, however it didn’t go into directions which were all that entertaining. Again, only a few of them were One-Shot adventures. Most were outright abusive to players, the craziest ideas involved killing them fast and bringing them back. In The Children of Adam, the characters are slain and brought back as Flesh Golems. In the finally to the Grand Conjunction storyline which crushed the Domain of Dread forever, and took it away from the DM, the players were again killed quick and woke up as disembodied heads in the castle of the Demi-lich lord Azalin, where he sent you over and over into the past as you possessed people and witnessed the fall of Straud over and over again until you accomplished the goals set out by the lich in a scene that is a pure nightmare to DM.

Now the theory behind Ravenloft is brilliant. It is without borders, and it expands and grows and drifts in the Astral Plane. New lords are created, and those evil enough join the core, while minor Dark Lords drift in isles and clusters around the core. If a Dark Lord is destroyed, then either the land seeks a new Dark Lord within the domain, or ceases to exist.

This experiment is a success, in my oh so humble opinion. There are areas where you can have straight, balls out Dungeons and Dragons sessions, and there are areas where that are highly specialized to achieve a specific flavor of a game. I literally took different worlds and pieced them together in a way that was a Dungeon Masters dream to work with. A countries neighbors are not just a different language, or culture, but of a different time-period and level of advancement as well. BRILLIANT! How does this effect trade? How does this effect later races from interbreeding? How do higher societies treat neighbors who are so technically different from themselves? It invited wars, the Dark Lords bickered with one another, the people themselves were incredible, and it was fun to figure out how a society like this would function, but the beautiful thing was that the Ravenloft Setting Handbook let you answer these questions and more on your own!

Enter the Nightmare of published adventures purposely altering the map itself, giving the Dark Lords even more power and making them not just Super-NPCs which break games, but also making them indispensable. It also killed Super-NPC’s which maybe you liked, and wanted to explore more?

It gave you so much information that it made the Death of Straud sound like so much fun that it just screamed to be written, however at the same time, it forbid it from ever happening.

You’ve got the grand conjunction which resulted in the destruction of half of the core, a prophesy which started fulfilling itself right from the get-go with Feast of Goblyns, and is present in all of the great Ravenloft Modules, but it goes some place that takes all of the cards away from the DM, and places the winning hands firmly in the grip of TSR. What destroyed Dragonlance began having the same effect on Ravenloft, what with all of the Novels hitting the shelves, and Modules that did nothing but break campaigns.

To me, a module should be able to be laid over the top of what you are doing, to give the DM a break from writing his own material, and the Ravenloft modules made this impossible. They dictated and required too much from the DM. It shatters all plans, and requires so many specific things just to run properly. Many were written badly, or didn’t even bother to disguise the fact that it was a railroad job from hell. They also were hard to run, not only did you have a separate spell list from any other campaign setting, but you also had the weird ideas that might look good on paper, but in the end required much more paperwork on the DM’s part then if he had just written his own material, which in hindsight, I should have!

I think that for ever good idea that Ravenloft had, the horde of cooks in the kitchen present three bad ones, and fans were no better really. Or at least that is what the bigwigs of TSR would have you believe. Folks debated about what is Gothic terror, and if you don’t run it this way then you are doing it wrong and might as well just be running a normal campaign! I suppose that all settings featured a few noisy, obnoxious, pig-headed, elitist fans, after all, tis the nature of the hobby, right? The domain of Darkon, the largest and coolest Domain was wiped out, an experiment which not only killed everybody in the domain, including the PCs, but allowed the PCs to create and come back as forms of Undead Monsters! PC Vampires? Really? Now on the serface, you might be saying COOL! But at the table, and in play, there is a reason why Monsters aren’t Player Characters, once you are identified as such, the amount of games which you can now play are severely limited. How do you challenge a Vampire? Maybe it would make for a fun 1 shot, but again, they put out an entire box set on the subject which destroyed a damned cool lord that many true fans of the setting really didn’t want to lose. It also took all of his history and personality and replaced it with an empty Grim Reaper character with no personality what so ever. Now that might confuse folks who have never played the game. They’re probably saying GOOD! But the Demi-Lich could really inspire more stories then even Straud could! He was an interesting character and an example of just how far you can go with something as basic as a Lich.

ENTER THE GOTHIC EARTH

Getting away from the problems of Core Ravenloft before I suffer total brain failure and fall off my stack of soap boxes, a new experimental project was released, one that was largely ignored at the time but in recent years has become almost a cult hit with players.

This Box Set was WAY before it’s time. It was originally hated because it was so different. What it essentially did was take the rulebook and totally threw it out the window. All of the D&D classes were reworked and redefined, even the list of supplies and mechanics for combat were rewritten to cater to factor in guns.

Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death placed players in the world of Count Dracula, Dr. Jeckle & Mr. Hyde, and Sherlock Holmes, just to name a few. It was a brilliant mix of fiction and history and unlike the core rules of Ravenloft, this setting was kept untouched. A few magnificent Accessories were published to help flesh out the time period, but other then that the box set stands alone. It contained a world map, and a poster with calanders dating from 1890-1899. It contained the Rule book which is complete enough to get a game up and running in an hour or two, and 3 short modules that you can either run or easily modify to fit your personal needs. While it was taunted at the time as ANTI-D&D, today, this is a refreshing and unique kind of game which is honestly ripe with unique possibilities and fresh enough to keep even the most die-hard player guessing and having fun in a totally new way.

THE RETURN TO THE DOMAIN OF DREAD: Death Rattle

Just before the thing wrapped up, the last great Ravenloft book was released. It was a hard-bound titled “Domains of Dread”. This book was a godsend! While it updated the map, the map itself wasn’t published with the book. It was made to replace the boxsets but it failed at this job, the map was unreadable due to it being printed way to dark, and on such a small scale that you really couldn’t do much with it. What changes were made were improvements! The modified spell list was finally altered to one which was more expectable, and would actually function as is. It also added mechanics for Dark Powers checks, as well as improved the mechanics of Fear Checks and Madness Checks in a way which was much clearer then the original incarnation.

It updated all of the Dark Lords, and finally offered pictures and stats for ones that didn’t get much attention before. Besides the map, it made the setting better, and stronger then before, but it also allowed the DM to do something that he’s never been officially allowed to do before, CREATE PC’S WHICH WERE NATIVE TO THE SETTING! Awesome! Why, this almost makes the loss of Darkon forgivable . . . almost, but not quite.

3E, THE COFFIN NAILS

3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons did not interest me. It was too different, and I never was willing to go there. The Setting of Ravenloft did make the jump to the 3rd edition, however it was never as glorious or as rich as the original 1e box set. It was reduced to a few overpriced pamphlets which gutted the world to cater to the new mechanics.

Overall, Ravenloft as a setting had a good run. It had its ups and its downs. It had its triumphs and its faults, but after all of these years, most of the folks who had the fortune of playing with the system have fond memories of it, I know that I do! For better or for worse, it taught me how to DM, and it has given me a style which I and my players seem to really enjoy. I did have to find its faults to identify my own failings, and attempt to eliminate them . . . well, as I can identify them; but overall I feel that Ravenloft has left me stronger then what I normally would had been had I only played standard AD&D.

5 comments:

Hamlet said...

Yes, most of the 2e Ravenloft modules were terrifyingly bad and filled with garbage. Most of all, they seemed like an excuse for the writers to play with their favorite pet NPC's and the players were there to witness rather than engage.

However, I will say that there was at least one module out of those days that is singularly awesome. Castles Forlorn. Yes, it focuses heavily on a core NPC personality, but it's open and wide enough that, from the point of view of a player, it feels completely free.

We've been pushing through it for over a year of real time now and have cursed and praised it at every turn.

Ripper X said...

Castle Forlorn, now I never got that one. I did find a copy of the Bleak House, which looks like hella fun to play through, and I do have plans to alter it to Gothic Earth for a game I'm running. We'll see how it goes.

I have heard high praise for Forlorn, but I think that my favorite Ravenloft mod has to be Night of the Walking Dead. It is short enough for just a night or two, written with 1st level characters in mind, and really, REALLY became the templet which I judge my own work against.

Anonymous said...

The boxed set was for 2E. There was never a 1E boxed set.

Hamlet said...

Never played walking dead, so I can't comment. Even though I own Bleak House, I can't say too many good things about it since I do not like inserting vanRichten into adventures at all, especially when the adventures become about him. If anything, he was the worst symptom of "Elminster Syndrome" in Ravenloft. I just picked up a book with a series of short modules in it ("Chilling Tales" I think it was called) which is essentially over 100 pages devoted to van Richten and treating the players as an audience rather than active members. It seems to have ruined what otherwise would have been a couple of rather decent adventures.

Castles Forlorn, for what it's worth, does have its share of big time NPC's, but from my perspective at least as a player, it seems that the central issue of the module is about the mystery of what the place is, why it is the way it is, what's happened there, and how to "repair" it. It is, essentially, a setup and then the question is thrown to the players "what do you do?" That's what makes it good from my point of view. Even though there's a lot of story going on, it seems to have all happened in the past and the key is not witnessing it unfold before your eyes, but in using it as a tool to deal with the place.

Ripper X said...

Bleak House forces the player to Role-Play, I like this. It also goes into a direction which I've never seen another product go to, INSANITY! And being forced to play through it.

It has always been an inside joke, characters afraid of something silly, like water. They overreact and start yelling but somehow always manage to cross the river.

A lot went into Bleak House, and though it is about an NPC, the story is still PC driven. Their goal is to save the NPC, which is very very hard to accomplish, thus much of the story involves what will happen if the PC's fail.

My players are primarily horror geeks, and while nobody really cares about Van Richtan, folks will be intrigued by Van Helsing.

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