Castles Forlorn, Module’s Smedman’s

Hailing from 1993, Castles Forlorn‘s original form was as a boxed set adventure supplement for Ravenloft. In fact, it was one of the last products of the game line’s earliest version – making reference not to the 1994 revised boxed set, but to the original Realm of Terror box from 1990 and the 1992 Forbidden Lore box which expanded it somewhat. The other products extensively referenced therein are the Monstrous Compendium volumes (generally the core ones and the Ravenloft appendices) and Van Richten’s Guide to Ghosts.

Indeed, to a certain extent the adventure is a worked example of how you apply the Guide to Ghosts, since the castle which gives the module its title is absolutely stuffed with ghosts given extra depth using techniques and ideas along the lines of that book’s suggestions. Wait, though, isn’t the title Castles Forlorn? Why, yes it is -for the castle at the heart of the broken realm of Forlorn is three in one, existing as it does in three time periods at the same time, so characters venturing therein may, through their experiences in those time periods, have a shot at unpicking the terrible story underlying the fall of the realm to the Dark Powers.

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What Music They Make!

Some recent discussions on the Discord channel had prompted me to take a second look at Ravenloft, and as luck would have it I had a chance to pick up Children of the Night: Vampires at a very reasonable price. This was the first of the Children of the Night series, conceived as a sort of companion to the popular Van Richten’s Guides.

Indeed, the credits include a dedication to the late Nigel Findley, who wrote the classic Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires, both setting the format for the rest of a series and providing a classic examination of how to take a generic monster manual entry and extrapolate an interesting villain for it. The Children of the Night supplements carry that idea forwards by providing sets of “worked examples”, if you will, of distinctive characters of the relevant type, fleshed out into fully-developed NPCs. In a nice touch, each NPC writeup also has a mini-adventure associated with it, providing an instant hook for getting the character in question involved in your campaign. Whilst optimised for Ravenloft, as with Van Richten’s Guides themselves it’s no big burden to adapt the material here to other campaign settings, which was an aspect of the Ravenloft support line which I always thought TSR didn’t make enough of.

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My Silly Dragonlance/Ravenloft Theory

As promised in my Dragonlance and Ravenloft articles, I’m going to get self-indulgent here and share my personal fanfictiony idea about the link between the two campaign settings.

A health warning applies: this theory combines the worst habit of Dragonlance fandom (hyping up how totes kewl Raistlin is) with a cardinal sin of Ravenloft fandom (making a specific assertion about the identity of the Dark Powers). Then again, these are both sins that those who write for those settings have committed in their own right – “Raistlin is kewl” was the basic premise of the second Dragonlance trilogy, and the Ravenloft authors did occasionally slip into presenting theories about the identity of the Dark Powers, though in the latter case they seem to have had the good taste to retcon that away.

It is also a headcanon which, if made true, would have no real effect on either setting, and there’s no real way anyone could find it out or do anything useful with the information.

Oh, and spoilers for the second Dragonlance trilogy will follow.
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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.

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