Ravenloft and the Dark Secret of Context

So, the news broke a while back that the next big published campaign for 5E will be Curse of Strahd, a return to the Ravenloft campaign setting, so I thought it was a good time to dig out my old Ravenloft bits and see how they’ve held up over time.

In case you aren’t familiar with the history, Ravenloft‘s first incarnation was not as a campaign setting but as an adventure module for AD&D 1E penned by Tracy and Laura Hickman which pitted PCs against moody vampire Strahd von Zarovich, ruler of a foggy land called Barovia that could be dropped into any D&D setting. The module was notable for the way it randomised key plot elements like the location of crucial items and what Strahd’s current scheme is, and its spooky atmosphere made it a big hit, prompting sequels like House On Gryphon Hill and Feast of Goblyns.

The full-blown campaign setting, an attempt to find a common context for the otherwise disconnected adventure modules and provide a basis for more horror-themed gaming, came out in 1990 – hot on the heels of the release of the 2E core books. (Notably, this puts it a full year before the release and unpredictable runaway success of Vampire: the Masquerade kicked off the 1990s horror RPG boom, so Ravenloft was simultaneously ahead of the curve in seeing an under-served market and at the same time was the last major horror RPG release before White Wolf changed everyone’s ideas about what a horror game could be like.)

It makes a lot of sense for D&D to have a setting focused on ostentatious gothic horror in the Hammer mode, particularly since such material is an often-overlooked influence on the game – for instance, it’s easy to forget that the cleric class was originally conceived to depict a vampire hunter in the vein of Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Van Helsing, designed to counterbalance the runaway depredations of a vampire PC called Sir Fang in Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign. Whether or not Ravenloft succeeds in that is another story.

The Core Box

Ravenloft went through several core sets during the 2E era. There was the original Ravenloft: Realm of Terror box from 1990, then 1994 it was updated to take into account events in published adventures and to add a swathe of material from the Forbidden Lore box (and to also include the fortune-telling tarokka deck that had first appeared there) and rebranded as simply Ravenloft, and then later in 1997 there was a hardback core book entitled Domains of Dread.

These different releases reflect a subtle shift of emphasis over the course of 2E when it came to handling the setting. The 1990 Realm of Terror set tended to assume that player characters would start out in more ordinary campaign worlds and get caught up in the mists, and that Ravenloft campaigns would focus on their attempts to do some good there in the process of finding a way out. The 1997 Domains of Dread hardback offered far more support for playing characters born and bred in the setting, suggesting that by that point enough people were running campaigns with that premise that it was worth supporting. I own the 1994 boxed set (lacking the tarokka deck, sadly, so the publication of a new version of it by Gale Force 9 to support Curse of Strahd is rather a boon), and I consider it to be an extremely handy middle point between those two; it still mostly seems to assume that PCs are going to come from outside the setting, but provides sufficient detail that if you wanted to you could run an all-locals game.

Aside from the various accessories presented – the tarokka deck, two large poster maps, and a DM screen with Ravenloft-optimised information on it – the meat of the set is presented in two large booklets. The first of these is an introduction to the basic axioms of the setting, as well as presenting modifications to the standard AD&D 2E rules that apply there. Ravenloft has as its setting the Demiplane of Dread, a strange prison realm existing somewhere in the Border Ethereal, at least as of this boxed set. (Apparently, these days it’s considered to be contained in the Shadowfell, but I’m fine with that because the invention of the Shadowfell is perhaps one of the few 4E alterations to the default D&D cosmology that I actually like, and I was glad to see that it was retained when 5E brought back the Great Wheel.) The Demiplane of Dread is ruled by mysterious Dark Powers, who are so mysterious that the book explicitly tells us that nobody really knows who they are or has any useful information about them, which is a heavy-handed but effective way of saying “You aren’t meant to try to beat the Dark Powers”. (I have a deeply nerdy personal headcanon about the identity of the Dark Powers, which I will expound on in another post.)

One of the few things that you can say about the Dark Powers is that they are cross-planar collectors with a vivid sense of style; whenever an entity out there in one of the Prime Material Planes commits an act of evil so grandiose as to draw their attention, that individual is drawn into Ravenloft and becomes a darklord, the ruler of one of the various Domains that exist in the Demiplane. Each Domain is a land crafted to be its darklords place of simultaneous absolute mastery and endless punishment, for each of the darklords is under a curse that ensures that they will never truly get what they want, despite having the Domain itself at their beck and call. The darklords cannot leave their Domains, but have extensive influence over what goes on in there, to the point where you cannot leave a Domain if its lord does not want you to leave. (This identification between the ruler and the land may be a reflection of the first of the darklords, the vampire Strahd von Zarovich, for in his realm of Barovia the whole “blood is the land” thing was culturally a big deal.)

Not only darklords exist in Ravenloft; as well as those who are dragged into the Demiplane of Dread when their land becomes a Domain, sometimes the Mists of the plane reach out and pluck people into the Demiplane for unguessable reasons; sometimes parts of Domains or entire Domains end up popping up in lonely parts of Prime Material worlds, and anyone who blunders into there and doesn’t get out in time will be stuck when the Domain returns to the Demiplane.  Very occasionally, Domains have escaped the place altogether, usually as a result of a Conjunction between the Demiplane and the Prime Material. The boxed set presents Ravenloft as it exists in the wake of the Grand Conjunction, a major event which saw some Domains disappearing, more Domains being added, and the map of the campaign setting being thoroughly rearranged.

This is basically a huge excuse for designers Andria Hayday and Bruce Nesmith to do some spring-cleaning, revising the map so it makes a bit more sense, junk some Domains which just weren’t working and adding in some new ones in their place. However, the very instability is an absolute boon for Dungeon Masters, since it effectively gives them carte blanche to come up with their own additions to the setting. Domains can geographically be of two types: there are domains of the Core, which form a sort of continent; you can walk between them in a predictable fashion, provided that the darklords and the Mists do not intervene, and after the Grand Conjunction it seems that most of the Domains of the Core are those who fit the general Central European vibe as established by Barovia, the archetypal blueprint of the setting. Then you have Islands of Terror – little pocket domains that bob about by themselves surrounded by the Mists, which you can travel to only by walking into the Mists and either getting lucky, or being subject to the right whim of the Dark Powers, or by getting a spot of help from the Vistani (of whom more later). The Islands of Terror seem to consist of those Domains which are culturally or aesthetically distinct enough that they would seem incongruous tacked onto the Core, or which are odd enough that they are better fodder for occasional visits rather than being persistently and reliably accessible.

The utility of this setup for customisation is obvious. Make a new Domain as an Island of Terror, and you can be sure that no matter how the map of the Core changes in future it won’t be invalidated. Or, if you think it’d work as a Core setting, just tack it on somewhere at the edge of the Core map – or redo the Core map and declare that in your iteration of the setting the Dark Powers have jumbled things up again. Especially ambitious Dungeon Masters could develop a whole second Core of their homebrewed creations if they wish. It will be interesting to see if Wizards open up Ravenloft for third-party contributions via the DM Guild scheme, because the setting seems to be perfectly calibrated to allow third-party additions to be cooked up and bolted on as desired.

Much of the first booklet is spent explaining how various spells, magic items, and psionic powers change in Ravenloft. The major changes are as follows:

  • Powers that would allow you to detect evil don’t work – paladins, for instance, can detect chaotic alignment instead. This is necessary for a setting where you can never quite tell who you can trust.
  • Powers which would allow clerics to chat with their gods don’t work – that would be a little too comforting.
  • Powers which would allow characters to hop to another plane don’t work – that would make escape too easy.
  • Powers that summon things from other planes work just fine. It’s just that the summoned entity won’t automatically get to go back home. It is noted that summoned creatures capable of understanding this plight are likely to be brick-shittingly furious with their summoner, and you can’t really blame ’em.

However, there are some interesting additional rules presented that are not mere alterations to existing rules. True to the gothic horror inspirations of the game, curses are a big thing in Ravenloft, and decent support is given so that even a humble peasant that the PCs have done a great wrong to could potentially lay a curse with their dying breath. Taking a leaf from Call of Cthulhu‘s book, rules for fear, horror, and madness checks are given, though the text notes that fear and horror checks can be dispensed with if the players are doing a good job of appropriately reacting to things – the idea, as the book notes, is that whilst it’s easy enough to say “What’s so scary about that?” when you are munching popcorn around a table with your buddies, it’s another thing entirely to face utter horror from your PC’s perspective, and some players less used to horror gaming may need a bit of system prompting if they aren’t immersed enough to react accordingly.

The madness rules are handy given the amount of spell effects and curses that could cause madness in the game, though their understanding of the specific conditions they talk about betrays a lack of research – they go for presenting schizophrenia as being a multiple personality disorder, for instance. You might, if you want to be charitable, assume that they are writing about the gothic horror presentation of madness as a literary motif, rather than mental health as a real-world phenomenon, but I would say that if you are going to do that you should really not use specific real-world mental health terminology that means a specific thing, and associate it with ideas which are not only incorrect but represent an incorrect understanding of the condition in question which is still rather widespread.

The really crucial system addition is the Dark Powers check, which is rolled when someone does something unsympathetic, particularly if it is done in a cold and calculating way – if failed, the check means that the Dark Powers have taken an image in the character and bestowed some change upon them which could have a mixture of beneficial and negative effects. Each time this happens, the character ends up one step closer to becoming a creature of evil (and thus losing PC status), or even becoming a new darklord.

It’s both suitable for a world mired as it is in the cultivation of evil and fitting for a campaign setting inspired by a Tracy and Laura Hickman adventure that Ravenloft pays as much attention to morality as it does. As those who have read their Dragonlance materials go, the Hickmans put a high priority on having a strong moral and ethical dimension in their game materials, and whilst there is room to consider whether you agree with their particular take this is usually beneficial to the product – after all, if you are going to play a game where Good and Evil have some objective cosmic existence to them but fail to settle on some consistent moral standard to give those axes meaning, it becomes hard to justify retaining the Good-Evil alignment axis at all.

That said, whilst Ravenloft offers example Powers check chances for various acts that are likely to be universally regarded as rotten, it gives a lot of leeway to individual Dungeon Masters to decide how to implement this in their home campaigns. In fact, in some points it explicitly states that there are some interpretations of the system that require a DM call. A major example is that of highly culturally-specific misdeeds – actions which would be considered morally reprehensible by the local culture but not necessarily seen as such by outsiders. You could decide that for an action to be considered truly evil, intent is everything, and that a powers check would not be needed of outsiders who break the taboo out of simple ignorance rather than a calculated and deliberate decision to spit in the face of the local culture. Or you could decide that ignorance is no defence, and require checks regardless of intent. The set leaves this call down to you.

This emphasis on the moral dimension of gothic horror is of paramount importance to the setting’s flavour. When the campaign setting came out in 1990, horror RPGs were comparatively thin on the ground – Call of Cthulhu was, as an explicitly Lovecraftian game of cosmic horrors in which human ideas of good and evil are mere societal conventions with no objective meaning or power in the grand scheme of things, whilst Chill was a bit too campy to worry much about morality as a major plot element. It can be a bit too easy to see Ravenloft as TSR trying to hop on the White Wolf bandwagon, but this is a view that doesn’t hold up when you consider the timeline: the original boxed set actually came out in 1990, a full year before Vampire: the Masquerade. Although something analagous to Vampire‘s Humanity system crops up in most World of Darkness games, Ravenloft really deserves credit for offering a mechanic that, rather than tracking adherence to one of the classic alignments, instead traces the descent of a character as they go further and further beyond the pale (or claw their way back to becoming a more sympathetic, redeemed figure, as appropriate).

At the same time, although they both wave the gothic flag, Ravenloft and World of Darkness have important differences in approach. The Humanity system in Vampire, and the more morality-focused versions of such trackers in other World of Darkness, conceives of morality as being essentially a personal and interior matter, affecting and affected by the exterior world only to the extent that any personality trait may shape a person’s behaviour towards others and perception of events. Conversely, in Ravenloft there is no such barrier; your moral standing has a direct effect on the world, and the world responds to outrageous acts. This finds its culmination in the way the Domains are reflections of their darklords, a motif which reaches back past the Gothic-informed horror fiction of the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein and ties into the ornate worldview of the original wave of gothic novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho.

In other words, Ravenloft and World of Darkness may both call themselves gothic, but they mean different things by that. World of Darkness is gothic in the sense of a modern subcultural aesthetic – it’s all fishnet shirts and eyeshadow and Fields of the Nephilim albums, and maybe a few books by Poppy Z. Brite for good measure. Conversely, Ravenloft is gothic in a far more purely literary sense. It certainly represents TSR at its most ambitious when it comes to presenting products with a strong aesthetic and atmosphere, and rather puts the lie to the idea that 1990s Dungeons & Dragons was some mass-produced McRPG. People who saw themselves as Serious Roleplayers back in the day has a tendency to look down on D&D – an attitude you can still find espoused here and there today – but this is at the cost of overlooking what genuine creativity was being brought to the table by the TSR team at their best.

The second booklet in the box consists mostly of an extensive setting guide, describing all the official Domains and their darklords. It also has a substantial chapter on the Vistani, a major feature of the setting and probably its most dated and problematic feature, at least in this iteration. The Vistani are a nomadic culture of people with a curious set of powers – they are adept at laying curses, they are skilled mediums and fortune-tellers, and perhaps most importantly of all they have a unique ability to manipulate the Mists – not to the extent of absolute control, but enough to make travel easier for them and those who can persuade them to lend their help. They are mysterious and deeply ambiguous figures; though adventurers can find them useful allies, some bands of Vistani cultivate relationships with some of the darklords, who find them to be useful sources of news of the world beyond their Domains.

They are also two-dimensional “spooky Roma” stereotypes, which is a huge problem. I’m not saying it’s wrong to include fantasy cultures inspired by Roma travellers in a game world; what I am saying is that basing those invented societies more on stereotypes about the cultures they are inspired by than on the actual facts is kind of reprehensible. That said, apparently during the 4E era the Vistani were tweaked somewhat – rather than being an ethnicity, they were more of a secret society, which you could join either by being born into their ranks or convincing them to let you in, and their mysterious powers were secrets taught to initiates rather than hereditary capabilities.

Still, aside from the Vistani I really like the vision of Ravenloft put forward in this set. Some of the domains and darklords will appeal more than others, but that’s precisely the strength of the setting – you can hype up the domains and darklords you enjoy and discard (or alter) those you aren’t keen on as you wish, and no great harm to the wider fabric of the gameworld results, and in terms of the system it’s a great adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons to a different style of fantasy. The mashup of D&D motifs and gothic horror creates an interesting fusion, reminiscent less of the dry worldbuilding that many 1980s campaign settings found themselves bogged down in whilst simultaneously having an actual, coherent purpose behind its abjuration of realism rather than simple gonzo randomness.

Adding to the atmosphere is the fortune-telling process presented, based off the tarokka deck provided – a riff on the tarot that is clearly inspired by actual divinatory practices even as it tosses in parent-reassuring disclaimers to the effect that it isn’t. Indeed, Ravenloft and its accessories are notable as a product line that skirted close to the line of TSR’s infamous Code of Ethics from the era – if not outright ignoring it. (For instance, many of the corrupt law enforcement forces in the game would seem to be a direct breach of point 3.) Then again, I tend to be of the opinion that whilst some settings would tend to follow the Code of Ethics more closely than others – it seems to fit the ethical outlook of Dragonlance, for instance – in other cases it was simply for show rather than something that was actually seriously followed. (Renaming the devils and demons baatezu and tanar’ri is the sort of move that could only fool the sort of ignorant controversy-peddler who didn’t actually read or pay attention to the products, and certainly makes the imagery surrounding them no less Satanic and badass than it already was; likewise, the Harmonium in Planescape seem to sail past point 3 too.)

And the whole thing where they claim to use “Your character” in marketing instead of “You” was utter nonsense.

The Inevitable Monstrous Compendium Appendices

2E-era TSR was big on churning out monster books, and Ravenloft eventually saw three such compilations come out for it. The first one, Creatures of Dread, is notable mainly for offering a wide variety of variations on similar themes – there’s a bunch of lycanthropes, a bunch of golems, and more vampire subtypes than you can shake a stick at (including vampire kender). There’s even vampyres, a vampiric monster type that is distinct from standard vampires, for those who want to draw on a different folkloric model for bloodsuckers.

The second appendix, Children of the Night, takes a slightly different approach – rather than presenting a brace of brand-new monster types, it is instead a collection of monstrous NPCs – many of whom were made monstrous by the Dark Powers reward-cursing them for their evil. Each NPC gets a writeup based on the standard Monstrous Compendium format, with the addition of a section on adventure ideas for scenarios with the NPC in question at centre stage. This is such a good idea that it is a shame that a section explicitly describing adventure or encounter ideas wasn’t a standard part of the 2E monster writeup format; many monster entries of the era could have been tightened up considerably if the designers had been forced to stop and ponder how the creature was supposed to be used in actual play. Even better, the focus was firmly on NPCs who were not actual darklords, but nonetheless could viably be the primary antagonist in a scenario, which was quite valuable in countering the idea that Ravenloft was all about the darklords.

Neatly, TSR reprinted the first two appendices in a single volume which is somewhat easier to find on the second-hand market than the original releases, and has the advantages of being a proper book instead of the folders of looseleaf pages early 2E Monstrous Compendium add-ons were sold as.

The third appendix – Creatures of Darkness – returns to the more traditional format of the first one. As usual, the monsters here are a bit of a mixed bag, but there’s a range of fun ideas involved here. A range of Animators (which possess inanimate objects and use them to do mischief) are provided, as is the deliciously nasty idea of Figurines – small golems made to look like valuable and potentially magical little statuettes that come to life to do their dirty work when you least expect it. There’s also a grab-bag of monsters that are pitched as being domain-specific, which can help fill out the range of encounters in a particular domain whilst being adaptable for use in other contexts with a bit of work, as well as creatures derived from other Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings. (For instance, there’s several varieties of undead drow, as well as defiler liches from the Dark Sun setting.)

Those who have access to an extensive collection of old Monstrous Compendium supplements – in physical form or PDF – may find the second and third appendices particularly useful for the way they both provide a list of monsters especially appropriate for Ravenloft scattered among the other appendices.

Whilst you could quite happily run an entire Ravenloft campaign just with the core D&D monsters, at the same time Ravenloft is a really good fit for the expanded monster entry format followed in 2E. Here providing extensive notes on monsters’ behaviour, habitat, ecology, and social interactions helps flesh them out to be more than merely an in-game obstacle. This is consistent with the idea of darklords having carefully explored backstories and motivations presented in the core set, and also jibes with the modus operandi of perhaps the Ravenloft line’s most important series of supplements: Van Richten’s Guides.

Van Richten’s Guides

Rudolph van Richten is basically the van Helsing of Ravenloft, a veteran hunter of supernatural critters who has penned a series of treatises on the various critters he has encountered. The Van Richten’s Guides series is a line of Ravenloft supplements that combine extensive in-character sections written by Rudolph himself, alongside separate sections discussing the game mechanics involved. (Though in early entries in the series occasional slip-ups occur; there’s one bit in Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires where van Richten blatantly refers to a “+3 bonus” like that’s an in-character concept.) Propelled into the life of a vampire hunter after his son was kidnapped by Vistani and handed over to a vampire, van Richten eventually became such an iconic NPC that a boxed set adventure – Bleak House: the Death of Rudolph van Richten – came out to cash in on the character’s popularity.

The first Guide, which set the blueprint for the rest, was Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires. This was penned by Nigel Findley, who died in 1995 at the heartbreakingly young age of 35 but in his short career proved to be a talented author of game supplements with a flair for providing thoughtful examinations of a particular topic and its application to tabletop RPGs – GURPS Illuminati, for instance, is perhaps the best not-quite-system-neutral discussion of developing and running conspiracy-themed RPG campaigns out there. Significantly, though the inclusion of an extensive “ecology” section on monsters was a distinctive feature of the 2E Monstrous Compendium series, the idea emerged substantially earlier in the pages of Dragon magazine and its The Ecology of… series, and Findley’s first publications in the RPG industry were articles in this series.

This would be important because Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires is essentially a supplement-length expansion of the 2E concept of Monstrous Compendium entries, with considerations of such diverse topics as how vampires get more powerful as they age, what hunting strategies they use, instances where vampires try to blend into human society, the psychology of vampires, and so on. It’s essentially a toolkit for not just creating a bespoke vampire NPC with a distinctive set of powers that will surprise your players and keep them on their toes, but also for working out how that NPC operates and what they want – and, as such, extremely useful for adventure design.

Interestingly, whilst the title of the chapter about vampires slipping into human society is called “The Facade”, I don’t actually think that’s a Vampire: the Masquerade reference; the Guide to Vampires was published in 1991, when Vampire first came out, and given that it came more or less out of nowhere to become a monster hit I’m not sure whether Findley would have even heard of it when he was penning the book. There is an interesting parallel there, though, in a bit where Findley sails really close to the wind when it comes to the Code of Ethics by presenting a long section on what happens when characters of different classes go vampire, with a caveat tagged onto the end saying that of course you shouldn’t use this stuff to run a campaign where the PCs are all vampires – wink – that would be a really bad idea – wink – and deeply inappropriate.

The main draw of the book is, like I said, the way the material presented simultaneously allows you to craft a unique vampire to feature in your campaign, as well as presenting a series of useful considerations to take into account when working out how the vampire is going to behave and respond to things. It’s precisely this aspect that the other Guides make a point of emulating, giving a similar level of depth and variety to the creatures discussed. They also continued van Richten’s story of his own career, with new chapters in his life story being revealed in each successive release. The final volume in the series, Van Richten’s Guide to the Vistani, may be kind of offensive in conception and execution due to the generally racist conception of the Vistani at this point in the setting’s existence – frankly, I’ve not read it and don’t intend to – but I understand that van Richten at least partially gets over his distaste for the Vistani in that, so there’s even a little plot arc going, though not one so obtrusive as to get in the way of the meat. The other two Guides I have are Ghosts by William W. Connors – which provides a neat sliding scale of power levels for ghosts ranging from weak little things suitable for use as minor plot devices to awe-inspiring entities whose defeat could be the focus of an entire campaign – and Guide to the Lich by Eric W. Haddock, a nicely devious supplement notable for providing a neat set of spells and magic items especially suitable for use by liches.

The really good thing about these supplements is that, whilst they were presented in the context of Ravenloft, the idea of having monsters such as these as major adversaries in a campaign works perfectly well in most other D&D settings, and in a wide range of other fantasy RPGs to boot (especially given how many use a monster list that mostly riffs on the iconic D&D monsters). Thus, they represent perhaps the best sort of RPG supplement – a book which works great in its intended context, but can also be extensively mined for ideas outside of its immediate intended use to boot.

In fact, even once the series was discontinued the general model was followed to provide in-depth looks at other monsters; for instance, there was the beholder-focused I, Tyrant, which came out with more generic AD&D branding rather than Ravenloft-specific branding in a move presumably intended to encourage Dungeon Masters who weren’t into Ravenloft to take a look at the supplement. This was a smart move, because even if you don’t find Ravenloft itself to be your cup of tea the Van Richten’s Guides are still handy accessories if you want craft an adventure based around the appropriate variety of villain.

Masque of the Red Death

Having penned a number of significant Ravenloft supplements (including being in overall charge of the Monstrous Compendium appendices for the setting) William W. Connors went on to write the main sourcebook in this boxed set, which provides a radical reimagining of what a Ravenloft game can be like. Rather than the strange metaphysical realm of the Demiplane of Dread, Masque of the Red Death takes place in the setting of Gothic Earth.

Superficially identical to our own world in the late 19th Century, Gothic Earth has a hidden history known only to a few. At some point in the dim and distant past, the nefarious force known as the Red Death slipped into the world as the result of an Ancient Egyptian burial rite gone horribly wrong. This tainted the world’s magic, such that it became corrupted, and those who dare use it risk becoming pawns of the Red Death. As well as corrupting unlucky users of magic, the Red Death selects the most evil examples of humanity it can find and grooms them as its agents; facing off against the Red Death is an array of secret societies known as the qabals, descended from an order of wizards founded by Merlin, whose constant quest to drive out the Red Death is hampered by the tendency of magicians to go evil and corrupt the qabals from within. The late 19th Century is an absolutely crucial turning point in this twilight struggle, for the seers of the qabals have divined that the next century has the potential to be an era of unprecedented technical advancement, mass communication, and general prosperity or a nightmare of continent-wide warfare and genocide, depending on whether the qabals can derail the Red Death’s plans or not.

The main book in the boxed set is penned by Connors in a style suggesting that it is a very personal vision of his – lots of “I” statements rather than “we” when it comes to discussing design decisions. Unfortunately, to a large extent this vision amounts to a strange sort of quasi-fantasy heartbreaker published as a D&D supplement.

The term “fantasy heartbreaker”, as originally coined by Ron Edwards, refers to a subset of the vast number of fantasy RPGs that made big claims about being a huge improvement over D&D whilst showing every sign of being designed by someone who seems to have read no RPG other than D&D. Such games used to be much more common on the market, and still pop up occasionally, but one of the gratifying results of the Open Gaming Licence has been to slam the brakes on that bandwagon – nowadays, if people want to publish their personal D&D house rules, they can just knock out an OGL supplement or put out a retroclone, and they don’t need to pretend they’re not basically following the D&D blueprint when they’re promoting their work. That said, realising that your game idea is essentially a D&D variant tends to require a bit of self-awareness, so a trickle of such publications continues to this day.

The thing which distinguishes a heartbreaker from junk is the presence of a really neat idea buried in there – an idea doomed to be overlooked by the wider gaming community because it’s buried under a mass of clueless D&D mimicry, and often isn’t even prominently hyped up in the game’s promotional material and back cover blurb. In a rare instance of me agreeing with Ron Edwards, he’s right on the money when he suggests that the games in question would be more interesting if they scrapped everything except their one clever rules feature and then rebuilt everything with an eye to putting that feature at front and centre.

Masque of the Red Death is not a fantasy heartbreaker in the traditional sense. For one thing, it’s a D&D supplement and doesn’t pretend not to be, and for another thing the most notable aspect of it is the setting rather than the rules. (Ron Edwards would probably argue that there is no distinction between setting and rules, but I consider that an example of how his idiosyncratic definitions of common terms make it hard to discuss games at all.) But at the same time, it shares a crucial common feature with many heartbreakers: it takes a neat idea and absolutely buries it in a quasi-D&D rules system that doesn’t really fit.

Of course, it is possible for D&D to be wrangled to fit very different settings – even when you set aside D20 Modern, Star Wars D20, Mutants & Masterminds and other by-products of the OGL, you have a range of early TSR games like Gamma World, Metamorphosis Alpha and Empire of the Petal Throne that are built around a D&D-derived framework – plus the Palladium Books house system is effectively a very houseruled riff on AD&D. I’m not saying that D&D can’t be adapted for supernatural adventures in the gaslight era – but I am saying that D&D is an absolutely terrible fit for the particular vision that Connors has for the Masque campaign setting.

It is quite evident that Connors recognises this. By far the largest portion of the main book in the boxed set is taken up with extensive details on how the D&D system is tweaked for the purposes of Masque: a bespoke set of classes (setting-appropriate reskins of the fighter, thief, mage, and cleric) and kits are provided, ability checks and weapon/nonweapon proficiencies are made mandatory to provide a rudimentary skill system, weapon specialisation and percentile-based thief skills are out due to being too flashy, and so on.

The problem with Connors’ approach is that he is so intent on clipping the wings of the most outrageous class abilities and shifting things over to use the proficiency system that he either doesn’t recognise the damage he is doing to some of the character classes or simply doesn’t care. For instance, the tradesman – the amazingly titled thief equivalent – doesn’t get percentile-based thief skills, but doesn’t really get enough extra nonweapon proficiencies compared to others to compensate for this, so you can happily make a fighter-equivalent who is perfectly competent at sneaking and opening locks and climbing and also has more hit points and is better in a fight.

It’s the mage-equivalents who really suffer, though, due to the sweeping changes to magic. Each spell requires a proficiency check to cast, with penalties of you don’t have a specialisation in its school, so you can’t be sure of being able to cast anything, and casting times are multiplied by ten, which effectively means that with a few exceptions the use of magic in combat is just not viable. In return, the mage equivalents get sweet fuck all – hit points are still based off D4s and everything. Although they can always contribute utility spells and nonweapon proficiency lore outside of combat, once physical danger actually manifests they are going to be absurdly vulnerable.

Another problem with the Masque rules is that they feel like a modification too far. Not only do you need the rules tweaks in this set plus the 2E core books to play, but you also still need to refer to the rules in the Ravenloft boxed set (or the Realms of Terror and Forbidden Lore boxes) for many issues. This takes the extent of cross-referencing a little too far for my tastes.

Some of the ways Masque tweaks the Ravenloft rules doesn’t sit right with me either; for instance, there’s rules for reversing the effect of failed Powers checks (which here represent the character being transformed and tempted by the Red Death) simply by casting the approriate spell, which seems to utterly defeat their purpose; they go from being a stark symbol of the character’s transgressions that require a sincere attempt at repentance and making amends to shift to an inconvenience no different from a disease.

The final major beef I have with these rules is the sheer page count dedicated to them, and I think this might damage the product’s utility even more than the brutal kneecapping of several classes does. Quite simply, so much page count is dedicated to these altered rules that the main booklet just plain doesn’t have enough space to really explore the setting, beyond a summarised history and a quick rundown of some significant locations. Absolutely fundamental topics simply don’t get properly developed. Perhaps the best example of these is the matter of the qabals, who are of crucial importance both to the backstory and the action of the game. Even if the PCs don’t include a single magic-using character (a likely outcome considering how every class other than the soldier is hamstrung), if they work against the Red Death for long enough – and as presented here fighting the Red Death and its minions is literally the only adventure premise on offer – they must surely fall in with the qabals, especially since if there is any hope of inflicting a final defeat on the Red Death it lies in the secret knowledge the qabals guard.

The main booklet does not provide a single description of a presently-active qabal.

It doesn’t even provide a list of major qabals. The qabals are mentioned in passing and their ancient origins are detailed, but there’s absolutely no serious exploration of the concept.

This is an infuriating omission, and I’m genuinely not sure whether this an intentional passing-over of essential material to pump customers for supplement money (I note that the Gothic Earth Gazetteer supplement included nine qabal writeups) or simply a matter of Connors simply not having time before the deadline to properly develop the setting to a sufficient extent. Even a single example of a qabal would have been useful, so that Dungeon Masters could see how a qabal might be structured, what it might get up to, what measures it might take against corruption by the Red Death and so on, but we don’t even get that.

That’s not the only setting element which seems to lack depth, mind. It’s interesting to me that, whilst many NPCs in Ravenloft are blatant riffs on characters from classic stories, the setting material provided does a good job of adding a bit of meat to them and making them feel like they make a strange sort of sense crammed in together in the same Demiplane. Conversely, the major adversaries presented in Masque are the actual characters from old horror literature, but feel somehow diminished by being shoehorned into this particular setting. Crossovers are tricky beasts in any medium, because often a character who makes sense in one context will feel radically out of place in a different context. Aquaman feels like he’s filling out the numbers in the Justice League, but at least he feels like someone who belongs in a four-colour superhero universe, whereas the characters of classic literature are often the products of very distinctive worldviews and philosophies to such an extent that to imagine them meeting is nonsensical – this is why I don’t dig any of the incarnations of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula stuff, or Philip Jose Farmer’s solipsistic Wold Newton nonsense.

Perhaps part of the issue here is that whilst the original setting’s NPCs are knockoffs of the originals, the very fact that they are knockoffs means that they are distinct from the originals and can somewhat shed the burden of their original context and be recontextualised by their presence in Ravenloft, whereas in Masque these characters are meant to be the original characters themselves, but by monkeying around with their backstories and motivations they end up in the uncanny valley where they aren’t quite enough like their original depictions to satisfy purists and are too close to them to feel like exciting reimaginings of the basic concept.

Any campaign setting guide for D&D must accomplish three tasks: introduce any rule variants unique to the setting, provide enough setting detail to generate buy-in and make Dungeon Masters feel confident that they understand the general tone and atmosphere and internal logic of the setting, and give some idea of what sort of adventures can be had in that setting. Despite not providing any sample adventures, the Ravenloft box pulls off all three admirably. Although Masque fails at the first two tasks (in that the rules variants are broken and the setting isn’t described enough to be useful), it does include three adventures – Red Jack, Red Tide, and Red Death, providing examples of a low-, mid- and high-level adventure respectively. Perhaps these will succeed where the main booklet fails?

Eh, not really. They all feel a bit thin and rushed to me, and notably they were all written by different designers and none by Connors, so it feels like we’re watching these other designers fumbling around to try and work out what to do with Connors’ weird little setting which is badly underdeveloped as it is and was probably even harder to get a handle on at the earlier stages of design.

The first adventure, Red Jack, gives the setting’s take on Jack the Ripper, with a spate of killings in Boston raising the dreadful possibility that the terror of Whitechapel has moved across the Atlantic. I am going to spoil this one right now, because it’s the only way to complain about my major beef with it: the adventure decides to make Jack the Ripper the ghost of some doctor’s dead wife who got stab-crazy with jealousy due to his work providing charitable medical assistance to prostitutes. On the one hand, it’s a novel theory, but on the other hand do we really need yet another “ooh, women are so jealous!” story. The concluding description is even pitched in such a way as to encourage participants to feel some form of sympathy for the killer after she is vanquished, and maybe I lack a sense of humour about such things but when the character in question is literally Jack the Ripper I kind of think the ship has well and truly sailed on any sort of convincing moment of redemption.

Red Tide is a bit dull all round, resembling the sort of monster hunt that the setting adamantly doesn’t lend itself to. It involves Dracula behaving like an obliging videogame boss rather than the master manipulator we are told in the game materials he is supposed to be.

Red Death gets at least some points for sheer audacity, but it loses those points plus interest with its clunkingly reductive approach. For this adventure is nothing less than a bid to turn Poe’s original Masque of the Red Death into a horror exploration adventure, in which the party must explore Prospero’s palace and break the curse of the Red Death over those in attendance before Darkness and Decay and the Red Death hold illimitable domain over all. The adventure itself acknowledges that it is taking great liberties with the backstory, setting, and time period of the tale to make it fit, but that isn’t really the problem I have – the problem is more that it is taking the stuff of poetry, allegory, and dream, and cramming it into what amounts to little more than a spooky dungeon crawl.

Now, complaints about how D&D can sometimes get kind of reductive in the approach are as old as the game itself; there’s a fun anecdote related in Kent David Kelly’s Hawk & Moor about M.A.R. Barker, designer of Empire of the Petal Throne, stumbling across an early D&D game on the campus where he worked and finding it kind of risible that the PCs had been able to fight and overpower an angel, since he felt that such an entity shouldn’t really be reducible to game statistics. Perhaps it’s those rich fumes of pretentiousness that infuse roleplaying products of the 1990s going to my head, but I genuinely think that Ravenloft itself actually goes some way towards reversing this; after all, darklords might still have abilities delineated by game mechanics, as is appropriate for powerful but still fallible entities, but the dark powers themselves are beyond such measurement, and furthermore the otherworldly cosmology of the game and its emphasis on atmosphere and tone lends itself to a somewhat dreamlike quality.

Perhaps the basic problem of Masque is that it undoes this good work by succumbing to the reductive instincts that the original setting so successfully resisted. In reducing the Dark Powers to the Red Death, a singular entity with a defined agenda and identity, Connors takes away the abstract concept of evil and replaces it with a supervillain. In press-ganging villains from a range of different Victorian novels into the service of the Red Death, Connors robs them of their original context and wrecks the original point of their stories. By taking away the exceptional capabilities of PCs in the interests of realism – the fighters lose their weapon specialisation, the spellcasters lose much of their magic, the thieves lose their percentile skills – Connors shuts the door on the possibility of including over-the-top heroism as a counterpoint to over-the-top evil. Ironically, Connors has ended up slavishly copying from classic literature but ended up producing something which fails to recapture its spirit, whilst the looser interpretation in Ravenloft itself actually produced something which felt tonally appropriate to the first-wave Gothic literature that influenced the material both it and Masque riff on.

In short, if you want to mash up gothic horror and D&D, mash up gothic horror and D&D – don’t break D&D so severely that it no longer feels like D&D.

A Useful Side-Dish: The Complete Book of Villains

This wasn’t a Ravenloft supplement – it was part of the DMGR series of Dungeon Master’s reference material – but I think it’s especially worth looking at for anyone intending to run a Ravenloft game, since it’s a book-length meditation on the design of villainous NPCs. Author Kirk Botula discusses developing antagonists’ personalities, their underlings, villainous organisations they can be a part of, and so on and so forth, as well as providing some more general points on adventure structure that make the book equally useful for story-focused sorts who want to use a villain as the “big bad” for a campaign and for more setting-oriented “come visit my world” sorts who want to craft a powerful evil character to be a potent threat in their sandbox.

Naturally, this is handy stuff if you want to come up with your own Ravenloft darklords or other significant NPCs for the setting, and Botula shares with the better Ravenloft writers a broad appreciation of his subject matter beyond the context of the D&D game; whilst he sometimes cites ideas from Ravenloft as worthy of note, he also illustrates his points with examples drawn from a wide range of media, not limiting himself to fantasy fiction either. Between that and the almost entirely system-free approach to the book, I tend to think of it as existing in the same category as Nightmares of Mine from the Rolemaster line or GURPS Illuminati: a supplement that, though turfed out for one particular game line, is of such wide applicability that more or less any referee working with the subject matter in question (or, for that matter, a great many people working in a great many other creative fields where this sort of thing may be relevant) can find some utility in it.

Context Above All Things

Although the campaign setting itself wasn’t penned by Tracy and Laura Hickman, its emphasis on presenting NPCs with strong backstories and personalities which shape both their behaviour and their realm is entirely in keeping with the philosophy that yielded the original Ravenloft module.

The story goes that back in the 1970s, Tracy Hickman was playing in a D&D game run as a more or less standard dungeon crawl, when the party abruptly had a random encounter with a vampire. This bugged Tracy, because this vampire just happened to be there without any supporting context: it didn’t have any background to explain why it was hanging out in the dungeon in the first place, and no thought seemed to have been given to how it fed or what its ambitions and desires were beyond attacking random adventurers. Ravenloft began when, after Tracy griped about it to Laura, the Hickmans decided to write an adventure intended to provide a strong context for its villain.

I am going to make a case that context was, in fact, the defining feature of AD&D 2E, and that all sorts of aspects of it – the major supplements, the style of monster manual, and the way campaigns were presented – make much more sense if you see it as TSR deciding that their primary job was not to provide rules, or even stories, but contextual information.

But that’s such a big topic it really needs an article of its own, otherwise this conclusion could stretch for almost as long as the whole review has. Stay tuned, gang, I will have my thoughts on context in a bit.

10 thoughts on “Ravenloft and the Dark Secret of Context

  1. Pingback: The Supremacy of Context « Refereeing and Reflection

  2. Pingback: My Silly Dragonlance/Ravenloft Theory « Refereeing and Reflection

  3. Pingback: Monster: the Monstering – Refereeing and Reflection

  4. Pingback: What Music They Make! – Refereeing and Reflection

  5. Pingback: Castles Forlorn, Module’s Smedman’s – Refereeing and Reflection

  6. Pingback: GOGathon: Sierra’s 1993 Stockpile – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  7. Pingback: Rising From the Grave – Refereeing and Reflection

  8. Pingback: Call of the Cults – Refereeing and Reflection

  9. Pingback: A Draconic Autopsy – Refereeing and Reflection

  10. Pingback: The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 11) – Refereeing and Reflection

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.