1053 Ravenloft: Realm of Terror Box Set Review

Everyone knows that I6 Castle Ravenloft (a very well documented module) inspired a very financially successful line of products that is still being published to this day, be it in a very diluted form compared to what came before it, new players introduced to Strahd von Zarovich in later editions of the game have no idea just how short changed they have been.

Written by Bruce Nesmith and Andria Hayday; 1053 RAVENLOFT: Realm of Terror was first released in June of 1990. It not only expanded the realm of Count Strahd von Zarovich, it created a new style of play and a new way to look at an old product.

A quick search of this blog will reveal that I have done a lot of writing in regards to Ravenloft, most over-critical or grossly inaccurate; I wasn’t always too keen on doing real homework and did a lot of speculations. This blog has been a learning experience and you can see me grow as a DM and as a blogger through the passage of time.

To be clear, I am reviewing what we refer to as “The Black Box”, this is the original 1st printing that sold out very quickly, it was repackaged, redesigned, and republished as 1108 Ravenloft Campaign Setting, or “The Red Box” in 1994 which updated the timeline (a flaw), and included information from product 1079 Forbidden Lore Boxset supplement that had been released in 1992.

It is also worth saying, right from the start, that the Black Box is beyond rare. I am not even going to bother placing a value upon it, that is a collector’s item and because those that purchased this boxset fell in love with it, I don’t think that it is even possible to find a truly complete set. By 1995 this was already a rare item. It came with lots of stuff that really isn’t necessary to play the game, namely a stack of loose card-stock pages that had color pictures of building, castles, and people on one side and stats on the other, a few of these cards were cheat sheets to the rules system which is a heavily modified version of the 2e ruleset, as well as a fold-out castle. You don’t need any of this stuff to enjoy the product, all you need is the maps, there were four, but you can get away with just having a map of the core, and the 144 page booklet Realm of Terror. You can sometimes find this stuff loose on the web, but in this case, a PDF file is probably preferred to the physical copy as you can just print off what you need from it, and paste together your own maps.(Upon investigating my links, it appears that Drivethru RPG only offers a legal copy of the Red Box, which is a bummer, but serviceable).

What is most important is the book! So, let’s open it up and see what we find.

CHAPTER I: From Gothic Roots

Hands of Orlac (1924
Ravenloft has an identity crisis, the suits in charge of TSR didn’t have much faith in it, and it was too different. They figured that people would pull it out once or twice a year, have a one-shot adventure, and then return back to where they came from. That isn’t what happened, players of AD&D found Ravenloft to be something new and totally different and fresh! Ravenloft was moody, it was dark, and it showed us how to go about making a new system that isn’t just Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk with different names. Instead of playing high fantasy, this was gothic horror, and it was a big departure from what we players of AD&D had been doing up to that point.

This chapter quickly gets down to the business of telling you that this is not Dracula with swords and sandals; the land itself is alive, the npcs require special treatment, the laws of physics and magic don’t  always work here, this is different! It also included something that wasn’t different, but a throwback to 1st Edition, including a list of books that it suggests that you read to properly understand the mood and setting.

CHAPTER II: The Demiplane of Dread

The land itself is unusual; the entire world is unstable, and bizarre. Here you will find the original Timeline, and a definition as to what exactly is going on in this place. This chapter tells a story, it doesn’t tell you why this is happening, who caused this to happen, it just tells you that it is. At this stage of the game it did not support native PCs, all of the PCs had to begin play in their own worlds and were somehow drawn into the mists. This goes back to the belief that the system couldn’t stand on its own, but, for many of the people who bought it, they would rather do this for a while. It was a true campaign setting that suggested that you don’t have campaigns there; well, we did. Since the rules didn’t support this, much like what took place in the 70’s, where everybody was inventing their own house rules, Ravenloft users got to experience the same sense of fun and exploration as they tweaked things here and there so that they could game here full time. More on this later.

CHAPTER III: The Reshaping of Characters

This was a new concept which works well, by slightly altering how some classes work, and not telling the players about it, allowing them to find out for themselves, it allows the players to feel like they are learning a new game, without having to learn a new game.

This chapter also introduced Powers Checks, if the player violates any of the secret lists of actions, a 1d100 is rolled to see if the dark forces notice or not; it is a fun mechanic, but I think that 1d100 is a bit too small of a window, bad things happen when a player fails a powers check! And while it is fun for a one-shot campaign, for full-time enjoyment this needs to be altered. You want it in play, just not at the frequency suggested in this book. At least that has been my experience; the Powers Check is definitely wonky.

CHAPTER IV: Fear and Horror Checks

Another wonky mechanic that requires tinkering, but it is effective. If the player role-plays fear, or horror, this can usually be bypassed, unless the DM has a reason for using it. This is one of those Ravenloft mechanics that actually gives the DM permission to control a PC. It does have its place in the game, but it is a prime example of a rule in the wrong hands.

CHAPTER V: Werebeasts and Vampires

This chapter is one of those that changed how I played the game, though this chapter is dated, as it was written before the Ravenloft monster compendiums were published; the DM had to modify his own monsters to allow them to do what we want them to do. If you look in the MM under mummy, you’ll see Greater Mummy, this is a Ravenloft monster that was altered, it took a common monster and made him very difficult to handle, but it didn’t stop there, we were instructed to write a history for the mummy, a full-fledged back story that provided motivations for what he does. He isn’t a high-fantasy baddy, he should be almost pathetic in some way, he was wronged and if the story was written from his perspective, he’d be the hero . . . except he’s a killer.

It gave attention to lycanthropy and vampires to get us started.


Attention to detail: that is the lessons of Ravenloft. Avoiding all mention of mechanics and focus on storytelling. Curses are typically what takes a normal mummy found in the MC, and makes it the exceptional mummy found in the MM. It teaches you to fuss over the right details, players probably can’t handle the mummy in the MM, but they might be able to break the curse.  You can tell many different stories using curses, and since you are modifying monsters, this is an easy way to account for it. While in normal AD&D all vampires are the same, in Ravenloft, they are all different and unique because the curses placed upon them are different and unique.


In this book, gypsies are a new race and class, later publications would allow you to play a half-vistani (gypsy), this goes back to the one-shot premise, and gypsies were mysterious and powerful beings that moved our stories along, much like the Dungeon Master character in the 80’s cartoon. They could be evil, or they could be good, or neither. It suggested to use gypsies to talk to your players, as these people knew all of the mysteries of the world, and could be cryptic enough to point the players in a helpful direction (else betray them). We are delving into a world that supports DMPCs, this was a way out of doing that.

CHAPTER VIII: Telling the Future

Because it sounds like it is telling you to railroad the players (cause it is), just like the module that inspired the setting; they thought that this mechanic would help randomize things, or at least give the illusion of it. Telling the Future is hard, especially when a player attempts to do it, you don’t want to give away too much information, but you don’t want to give them nothing either. The Divination spells in the AD&D system are basically more fleshed out here, you don’t want any mechanics showing, and since we were told to use gypsies as story-tellers, this chapter can be helpful for quickly informing the players what their goals are.

Another example of: In the wrong hands. During full-time play, this will quickly turn into a cliché.

CHAPTER IX: Spells in Ravenloft

Many spells, and we are talking about major spells, don’t function as written in the PHB. During one-shot games, this can lead to the players feeling like they are playing a new system without having to learn a new system, but if you are playing full-time here, you are going to have to make some judgement calls. If you play this section to the letter, all the time, it won’t be fun, it will be frustrating.  Just allowing the priest to cast cure light wounds can be an issue, if the party is someplace safe to lick their wounds, I allow it, however if they are in our mummy’s tomb, in the heart of darkness itself, then I’ll stick to the modified version of the spells.
This game can either make or break you as a DM. The potential to really abuse PCs is there, it is in their face, and you want it to be or what’s the point? But you want them to have fun too.

CHAPTER X: Magical Items in Ravenloft

These things must also confirm to the laws of Ravenloft, or at least to the laws of the Darklord. It also has some spooky and fun magical items that are native to this setting. Unlike the other D&D settings, magical items are rare here, just like we pay special attention to crafting our monsters, we must pay even closer attention to crafting magical items. What the players would refer to as their +2 Sword, must have a back story because if the Darklord found out about this thing, he’d destroy it. Somebody had to secret it away, and finding a weapon capable of harming a monster is a big deal. Attention to detail! This can and should apply to all games.

CHAPTER XI: Lands of the Core

This is it. This is the whole reason why you want this specific book. All of the lands of the core are here, in their original form, with all of their mistakes and errors for you to adjust as you see fit. There is political turmoil going on in this version of the setting, and I feel that it is more interesting to see where this goes at your table rather than it being dictated to you from a module or a TSR driven time-line.

Each land is quickly described with broad strokes to maximize its potential role in your game. It has a great templet that you can use to create your own domains, and gives you some guidelines to do just that. Want to try your hand at world building? Well here is the perfect environment to try it out!

CHAPTER XII: Islands of Terror

This is a demiplane, so you have stuff floating around out there, maybe it will connect to the core, and maybe it won’t. These are just smaller versions of Ravenloft that aren’t politically connected to those in the core. How one gets there, who knows? The Dark Lords in these places aren’t as powerful as those found in the core, so your chances of destroying them are much higher if that is what you want to do.

CHAPTER XIII: The Who’s Doomed of Ravenloft

This chapter helps you designed your own Darklords, or modify the existing darklords to fit your campaign, but it more than that as Ravenloft has its heroes as well. Crafting NPCs is a big deal here; every major character requires his own backstory, motivations, and personality to make him a full-fledged character. The character template is very useful here, even when gaming outside of Ravenloft, you can take these lessons to make your game stronger. There are a couple of characters found in this book that never reappear again, which was kind of a shame.

CHAPTER XIV: Bloodlines

How advanced are these NPCs? So advanced that some of them have a family tree in the core rule book! The idea behind Ravenloft is that it is a patchwork of many different worlds, and a few Darklords were so evil that they had doomed their entire bloodline. While they themselves are among the undead, their families live on for generations. Even just creating one of these things can lead to interesting scenarios.

CHAPTER XV: Techniques of Terror

The last chapter is the most inspirational, while some of the ideas are hokey and cheesy, some of them are not. Many of these ideas took the way we game into the direction that it is today. What Greyhawk did for Wilderness Exploration, Ravenloft does for adventure design. It is interesting to be able to really pinpoint something like this. The ideas were there, but ravenloft taught us that our adventures can be more polished, that we can get really creative with DMing and provide actual experiences or a form of art for our players to enjoy. It emphasized the importance of setting and pacing. It isn’t a perfect system, it requires you to filter it, to refine it further and make it playable, which is fun as hell! In some ways, Ravenloft challenged the DM a lot more than it ever challenged the players. If you have a weakness, this system will find it and expose it so you can work on it. It gives you all of the tools necessary for you to hang yourself, friend. It really does, but if you can master it, it makes it all worthwhile.

No other product that TSR ever produced has been such a huge inspiration for me. I cannot praise it enough! Now I will admit that your players are going to have to put up with you screwing up from time to time, but the investment is worth it. They’ll get a DM who can modify things on the fly, who isn’t afraid to break the rules when they should be broken, and knows when to follow the rules when they should be. While it appears that Ravenloft promotes railroading, it doesn’t. This aspect isn’t necessary, not if all of your ducks are all in a row. It teaches you the art of storytelling, and applying it in a way where the players are drawn in, they don’t HAVE to complete story goals, they are drawn in and they want to see were this goes. They want to understand what is going on. They want to live within a mythology, and that is what this turns into.

This setting is only as strong as the DM wielding it. If you are uncomfortable with adjusting mechanics yourself, or just get overwhelmed with the idea, find a hard-copy of 2174 Domains of Dread, it contains much of the modifications that we applied to the setting over the years, including creating PC’s that are native to the setting, which is a good deal. I’ve been overly critical of the DoD through the years, and it had nothing to do with the mechanics of it, it was the timeline.

Ravenloft: Realm of Terror, as primitive as it is, will always get an A+ out of me. Next time your players say, “Man, it’s trolls again.” Or “Not another Dragon, please!” it is time to download this PDF, gather up the mists, and try something different for a change. Who knows, you might just decide to stay!


David Fisher said...

I still have my black box and red box sets. Great review.

The Dale Wardens said...

Just picked up a used copy of this last month for $15.00. It's in pretty decent shape. I actually have not cracked it to read yet...but now I'm interested. :)

David S.

RipperX said...

I must have terrible luck, whenever I check on the currant prices for the black box they are all very high. Sentimentality also plays a factor for me as well, I suppose. Perhaps if I was actually in the market to buy the product I could hunt down some deals.

Brooser Bear said...

I think that there is a similarity between the Ravenloft and the Planescape boxed set. In both, the setting moved to a non-linear setting. I think that TSR was trying to adapt modern story-telling techniques to gameplay, a trend introduced with Tracy Hickman's modules, which involved an overarching plot. This development started with the chapter on adventure design in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide and ended, when WOTC released the 3rd Edition of the game.

RipperX said...

I fear that you are correct about this style being retired, Brooser. I have always enjoyed a good element of mystery and playing a thinking man's game. I had a conversation a modern DM who refereed to my style of play as "a perfectionist" and gave tips on how to deal with my style at the table, implying that it is a bad thing. He believed that when I played I was always trying to make the game about me, which is short-sighted and instantly inflamed me.

As a DM, our pace is much slower than a modern game. I know this to be true because I converted one of D&D's current products over to 2e and was quickly outpace by other tables who had started it at the same time.

I added role-playing elements, and played up the mystery of the thing; and my players still didn't enjoy it because it wasn't challenging enough. There just wasn't enough mystery to work with, everything was just too obvious. There was no immersion, which is a big deal to us. I guess that I'd rather do my own writing anyway.

Perhaps that is what keeps the younger people at the table coming back? They say that they really enjoy the depth of the games that we play. I think that D&D did get rid of this aspect of the game. Now it is about level. I read that some DM who plays 5e had already gotten his players to 20th level. That is crazy! I've been playing the game for decades and haven't achieved that. That isn't even our goal! Apparently there is more to AD&D than I was previously aware of.

Brooser Bear said...

I got into writing before I got into D&D. There is a separate niche market of books about writing for wannabe authors. Most of it is drivel or common sensical notions of outlining and revision, but a few have true magic in them. There is also a related fields of literary theory. Higher quality of ideas but you have to figure out a way to make it practical. And then you have to take another step to make it useful for your D&D game. A few books in the Literary field have magic in them as well, and their stuff is much headier.

Role playing games are story-telling games whatever else we do to modulate the outcomes with rules, realism, and player participation. When WOTC bought out the TSR franchise, they went for sales, which meant selling primarily to players, make DM's dependent on publishes adventures, and expand the target audience from grizzled adult wargamers to pre-pubescent teens, who play diablo and read comic books.

I would expand the Appendix with a DMs Only supplement. It would include such books as Aristotle's Poetica, Mark Twain's How to Tell a Story, and then for magical theory, try Umberto Eco's Six Walks in the Fictional Forest, and (my favorite) M.M. Bakhtin's Dialogic Imagination. Figure out the Japanese emotional spectrum of Sabe (beauty of nature -trees, flowers, garden), Wabe (beauty of the tools and gear one worls with), Aware (Nostalgia for the lost), and Jughen (Mystery of the Sunset, the forest, the darkness). Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture might have a clue in the stories he shares. It[s one of those things - you may find a pearl of the DMing wisdom, or you might not, but you got to go beyond the offerings of the gaming industry.

RipperX said...

I really strive not to over write. I am a writer, that isn't what I do when I'm gaming. I don't read box text, I describe only as much as I have to so that the players can see the room in their minds. I also describe only what they see, which can be horribly inaccurate. If a DM can't lie to his players, I feel sorry for them!

As far a reading goes, I prefer fiction. I find inspiration all around me, but I'm also creative enough to make something out of nothing. When one makes a map of a city, one walks its streets, learns in politics, just sitting down with a notepad and a really good template is a lot of fun for me. Yes, it takes work, and yes hours can fly by while I'm working, but to me, that is what makes this game so much fun.

Brooser Bear said...

Ripper, you are missing the point here. Writing a D&D adventure is the same as writing a story, except that you present it through maps, keys, whatever annotations you make, and what and how you narrate to players as a DM, and everything else that you and players do while running the adventure. The Complete Book of Villains supplement is based on dramaturgy (theater stage theory) and LIFTS a decent amount from Aristotle's Poetica. What and how you say as a DM to run your game and keep players involved is covered by the narrative theory in literature, WOTC presents it at a Pre-K level in their for DM's only section, and Mark Twain offers better useful advice. The last writings of the 1st Edition of D&D tried adopting the concepts of literary theory to developing better adventures, before TSR broke away from training DMs how to develop adventures. The Ravenloft and Planescape writers tried introducing non-linear storytelling via hardwiring setting (pocket dimensions in Ravenloft, City of Doors in Planescape, again something discussed in senior level and graduate level Lit classes.

RipperX said...

I get you. Module addiction has always been a problem with both TSR and WotC. It tries to convince the purchaser that it is worth it. Now, granted, you do need a good variety of them to get you started, and I am with you, the early modules were the most helpful. Those contain the most rudimentary elements that allow the game to function at its finest, but at some point it still lays at the feet of the user. There is always that decision that must be made when a module refers you to some product that you don't own, and you must decide, "Should I buy it, or just make it up ourselves." Those who chose to make it up evolve, while those who throw money at it continue on completely unaware of what just happened.

At some point, the module will end. Again, it requires the same decision, but at some point the user is going to have to throw the towel and leave the safety of his modules. A good product will have adventure seeds, and from what I've seen, WotC does have them, but the deal is players have to allow a DM to improve. THAT rule has always been active, regardless of rule-sets. Can anybody do it? WotC says yes, and I like that answer. I don't know if it is true, but I like the answer.

I don't think that Aristotle can help, not as much as your players can. As far as original writing is concerned, it is the players who have to put up with you that is your target audience, and you've got to be humble enough to listen to their criticisms.

I totally feel you on what you are saying though, Ravenloft and Planescape allowed you to be creative in a very safe environment. Would WotC give us this gift? No. I don't think that they would, but I also don't think that their audience has ever really wanted it. I gave my Planescape box away, it was beyond me at the time, and I knew it. I was confused and I hadn't yet made the chose to write my own material, I saw nothing but a huge money grab, but it wasn't. Not at all.

Brooser Bear said...

Aristotle's Poetica deals primarily with NPC's. It's a deep text that has a lot of psychology in it. He shows you how to make your players (literally) fall in love with your NPC's, how to horrify players and put them on edge through your NPC's that players will interact with. He shows you how to make your villains truly vile as far as your players go, and how to genuinely break players hearts in the real world through the actions of your evil NPC's in game. Amazing phenomenon! This book offers a lot to a DM who has a rudimentary understanding of his or her players.

WOTC sells a different game.

I never used modules, when I was young, and today, modules are a time saving crutch for me. I thoroughly gut them and incorporate them into my setting.

RipperX said...

I think that what we do, despite our different approaches, which is good, is take creative control over the stuff that we have. We both view corporate products as highjackers. The funny thing about modules is that sometimes it feels like I'm doing more work using them than just doing my own thing.

Brooser Bear said...

Of course, when dealing with commercially published modules, we have the added legwork of making the module's narrative fit our own and making it fit into our setting.

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