That bit of delightfully (or dreadfully) purple prose is the introductory bit on the back cover of the Ravenloft: Realm of Terror boxed set, commonly referred to by fans as the “Black Box” and the product that launched the Ravenloft campaign setting.In the dead of night, as mists cloak the land, a traveler walks a country road. Footsteps echo behind him, in pace with his beating heart. Is it Death who follows? The man turns, and so turns the phantom. A flash of fang, a bloodcurdling howl, red eyes fueled by a passion from beyond the grave. The traveler discovers what others have learned before him: all roads lead to Ravenloft.
TSR apparently caught wind of the rising interest in horror and dark roleplaying in the late 80s and early 90s—and it should be remembered that Ravenloft: Realm of Terror was published in the summer of 1990. That’s a year before White Wolf released Vampire: The Masquerade.
The back of the box describes it as “a new realm of terror for AD&D adventures, rooted in the Gothic tradition. It is a demiplane of dread and desire, a world whose misty fingers can reach into any other campaign setting and draw unsuspecting heroes into its midst. Once it holds them in its icy embrace, it may never let them go . . . “
It’s certainly never let a lot of us fans go. It hasn’t been an unstoppable juggernaut like the Forgotten Realms, although it apparently was #2 in sales among the AD&D Worlds at points (it flirted with cancellation-level sales a few times, too, I’ve heard). Overall, it had a quite respectable ten-year run for TSR/WotC, followed by another four years as a licensed line at Arthaus (a subdivision of White Wolf). While it had its share of stinkers and issues, it produced a bunch of quality products, characters and adventures that are still well-remembered today.
So let’s brush aside the cobwebs and take a look at where it all began. (Word of warning: I can get long-winded at points, so feel free to call me on it or skip over points where I began to ramble. )
The box contains the core 144-page setting book “detailing a complete, terrifyng new campaign world, which was inspired by the classic TSR adventure “Ravenloft.” You’ll find new twists on magic and the AD&D rules, tips for adding fear to your games, plus a portrait of other 30 new lands and the powerful lords who rule them—from vampires, ghosts and werewolves to men who are even more monstrous.”
That book, of course, will be the primary text considered in this thread, but the Black Box contained a few other items as well. 24 cardstock sheets contained illustrations of locations and several key families in the setting, and I’ll be reviewing those after I’m done with the setting book. There are also four maps—one of the Core (the central continent of Ravenloft), one of several Islands of Terror (standalone domains), and two containing smaller maps of numerous cities of Ravenloft. However, I’m working from my ‘travelling copy’ of the Black Box, which only contains the two sheets of city maps. Fortunately, the sourcebook reproduces the Core and Island maps on pages within, so I’ll be able to provide some assessment of them, and if I miss anything, I should be able to expand on it later this summer when I have access to my main copy.
The last item in the box is a transparent overlay sheet for tracking distances.
Credits and Table of Contents
A brief nod to those who brought the Land of Mists to us: Bruce Nesmith is given credit for Game Design, with Andria Hayday credited with “Ghost” Writing and Additional Design. The cover art is, of course, by Clyde Caldwell, with the interior art almost entirely by Stephen Fabian, whose prolific contributions to the setting seem matched only by his distaste for it, judging from his website commentary. (While his work on the line is good, it’s far from his best—but given the sheer quantity demanded of him, and his apparent dislike or fatigue regarding the subject matter, I can’t really criticize.) Thomas Baxa illustrated the monsters, and Ken Frank did the family portraits on the cards. David C. Sutherland III, a name familiar from the dawn of D&D, was the cartography and architectural illustration supervisor and artist, and Roy Parker did the graphic design. The art team’s noteworthy for the fact that the Black Box tied with the Seattle Source Book for SHADOWRUN to win the Origins Award for Best Graphic Presentation of a Role-Playing Product.
Special Thanks are given to Sutherland “for his dogged pursuit of quality”, Bruce Heard for French lessons, Karen Boomgarden for proofreading, the Hickmans for the original Ravenloft adventure “and all other spirits whose haunting suggestions and helpful comments have left a mark upon these pages.”
A note on the ToC: Not only is it comprehensive, but there’s an extra hiding in it that’s easy to overlook but very helpful. All the domains have a pronunciation listed alongside their names; to the best of my knowledge, this information is not only not repeated in the full descriptions, but has never been reprinted elsewhere. Indeed, there are several odds and ends in this box that never see the light of day again after it’s superseded by the Red Box, Domains of Dread, the 3E Ravenloft Campaign Setting, and the nominally 3.5 Ravenloft Player’s Handbook in turn. I’ll be doing my best to highlight those as we make our journey into the Dread Realms.
”For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”—Pope, Alexander [sic]
Aside from that quote and a half-page illustration of what looks like a zombie masked ball, the Introduction has very little to distinguish it. The rest of it is really nothing more than a breakdown of the 16 chapters and the appendix of the book. The most amusing one is the description of Chapter XIV, Bloodlines: “Genealogies of eight Ravenloft families, proving that even monsters have mothers.”
Chapter I: From Gothic Roots . . .
“Dark, gloomy castles, desolate landscapes, black clouds racing across the moon—these are the trappings of the Gothic tradition.” That tradition is the subject of the first chapter of the Black Box, and it takes pains to try and establish Ravenloft as part of that tradition. It specifically identifies Ravenloft with the Late Gothic novel tradition. “Early Gothics were stories of mystery, fear, and desire—of heroines imprisoned in a fortress, their purity and sanity assaulted by the evil lord of the manor. Later novels, such as Dracula and Frankenstein, toss the heroine to the sidelines, and “evil” takes center stage. This is the classic horror in which Ravenloft has its roots.”
The book distinguishes the fear and horror of the Gothic from that produced by the “shock and gory detail” of ‘modern’ horror. “Gothic horror relies on subtler techniques. It teases and taunts its victims unrelentingly, with terrors shrouded in mist. By the time their true nature is clear, death by an ordinary knife would seem a relief.”
Indeed, Ravenloft’s understanding of the Gothic approaches the Lovecraftian at points. Slasher films (per the description of the book) rely on the question of ‘when’ the horrific events will happen, rather than ‘what’. “When the story ends, the world will again be mundane, if only you can avoid the maniac in the closet with the cleaver.” By contrast, in Gothic horror, the ‘what’ is “something sinister and unknown. . . . A dark mystery underlies the horrors, and—despite all warnings to the contrary—the characters are compelled to unravel it. These “innocents” are trapped in a whirlpool of conflicting emotion—driven by a desire to experience the awful truths they sense are real, and dreading it all the while. With each step, they discover that the world is larger and more twisted than they once supposed, and that man is necessarily small, helpless, and naïve.”
The rest of the Gothic tradition doesn’t fit in well with Lovecraft’s universe, but I’d say that the paragraph quoted above could be dropped into a Call of Cthulhu rulebook with hardly any seams showing.
The rest of Chapter I highlights the key components of Gothic horror (again, according to Ravenloft). “Dark Plots and Antiheroes” explains how “traditional Gothic plots involve strange birthmarks, family curses, and bastard children whose origins are at best uncertain.” Disfigurement, mysteries, and ancient, often concealed crimes drive the situation, and these come to their fore in the plots “driven by the antiheroes themselves—dark, evil figures whose passions are no longer human. In fact, they are not human. Yet some part of them always remains so, and therein lies the horror.” One of the recurring themes throughout Ravenloft’s history is to make the villains three-dimensional, recognizably human personalities, representatives of human failings and sins, which means that “they are terrifying in a way that Godzilla”—or Cthulhu—“could never be.” They’re also typically miserable: “These superhuman villains are the source of melancholia or brooding evil which pervades most Gothic horror.”
Well, at least they don’t use the word angst . . . But one of the defining features of every darklord in Ravenloft is that they are denied what they truly desire, even if they seem to get what they want. We’ll explore that theme in more depth, of course, in Chapter XIII.
The “Landscape” section describes Ravenloft as “a world of startingly beautiful, seductive settings that have at once an allure and a cold, lonely edge.” I’m not as well-versed in the Romantic movement as a Ravenloft fan should be, but it sounds like the concept of the Sublime is just beneath the surface here. In any case, “by day, the settings are breathtaking . . . When night falls, she cloaks the world in impenetrable darkness. A chill rises from the soil and contaminates in the air. Suddenly, “breathtaking” beauty has new meaning.”
This dichotomy is why I’ve always been dissatisfied with the idea that Ravenloft can be dropped into 4E’s Shadowfell with no loss to the former. The Shadowfell is unrelentingly gloomy; Ravenloft shouldn’t be that way—at least, not in daylight. But I think this may also be a thematic element that got lost along the way, or at least in the popular reception of the setting.
“Setting,” meanwhile, is the next element considered, for within the landscapes described above “lie the trappings of the Gothic scene—castle, keep, mansion or tower.” The locales tend to be huge, ancient, almost animate (or in some cases literally animate) and approaching supernatural extremes—the setting is “a place where cosmic forces have entered the earthly realm to feed on the innocence of men.” Thus, places touched by Heaven or Hell—“the dungeon and the tower, the chapel or the crypt.”—are also part of the Gothic setting. This section sums up the “consummate Gothic setting” with a lengthy quote from Poe’s “House of Usher” [sic].
“Powers of Nature” points out that nature in Gothic horror is just as potent as in the real world or other settings, but instead of being indifferent and uncaring, “she seeks to erode [man’s] will . . . [and] seems firmly allied with evil”—making the victim all the more helpless. “Sensuality and Seduction” states that “victim and villain alike are keenly aware of touch, taste, sound and smell” and in many cases and by many means, “somehow, some way, the victim is drawn toward a situation he ordinarly would—or should—resist.”
The last major section, “Dream a Little Dream”, describes the insidious and all-pervading nature of evil in Gothic horror. “Darkness slips into Ravenloft the way a dream creeps into the sleeper’s mind. She comes slowly, softly, nad there is no haunting her approach. As in a dream, the lines between what is real and false begin to blur. And the dreamer is no longer fully in control.” The results of this uncertainty can be a paranoid fear that makes the Gothic experience into “a tour of the dark primitive corners of the mind” or a disregard for ‘imagination’ that leads the victim to walk into the danger of his own free will.
This chapter closes with a list of Suggested Reading. Five novels are contained on the list: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, and The Haunting of Hill House. Four of these archetypes have analogues in later chapters; the Hill House expy—the House of Lament—will have to wait for RR1 Darklords.
The recommended short stories include the works of Poe, Algernon Blackwood, and Lovecraft, along with “Carmilla” and “Green Tea” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Polidori’s “The Vampire” (and “Fragment of a Novel” by George Byron [sic]), and Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest.” Unfortunately, this list of genre classics won’t show up again for another decade, when the Kargatane decide to include a more extensive bibliography in the third edition campaign setting.
Next time, we begin our exploration of the Demiplane of Dread.