[Let's Read] Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (the Black Box)

Armchair Gamer

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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.
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.

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. :) )

Box Contents

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.

Introduction

”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.
 

Starglyte

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Yay, the Black Box! Got to love the family portraits they included. Ravenloft was one of the few settings that managed to last pretty damn near the whole run of 2E. Good times.
 

Khyron

Pope Orion Orangutan Omnibenevolence Kosmos, Yes
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I look forward to reading this.

I wrote a review of this product. There's a link in my signature.
 

DestroyYouAlot

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Heh - pawing through my RL box, just now, it's funny how you can clearly tell which maps were originally done with hexes. (I.e., all the stuff from I6 + I10.)
 

DestroyYouAlot

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Also, DAMN - this is a deluxe box. 144-page book, 24 color cardstock sheets (locale maps and tables), 4 full-color poster maps on heavy stock and a hex overlay sheet. At 18USD, there's no way they made money on this boxed set. (If the rumor about TSR losing money on boxed sets has any truth to it, this is a prime example.)
 

Armchair Gamer

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Yay, the Black Box! Got to love the family portraits they included. Ravenloft was one of the few settings that managed to last pretty damn near the whole run of 2E. Good times.
Depending on how you reckon, Ravenloft was either the last or one of the three last non-Realms settings to get 2E material produced for it: Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium Vol. III saw publication in late Spring 2000, Ravenloft logo and all (and a good chunk of new material), and Ravenloft was one of the three settings covered in Die Vecna Die!.

It was also the first setting to get an 'official web site' chosen, and the first to be licensed out for 3E.

I strongly approve the current Let's Read trend.
I've been meaning to get to this for over a year, but a combination of the current trend and some spare time pushed me into doing it. I'm still a little worried about what will happen when we get to the Vistani, though . . .

Also, DAMN - this is a deluxe box. 144-page book, 24 color cardstock sheets (locale maps and tables), 4 full-color poster maps on heavy stock and a hex overlay sheet. At 18USD, there's no way they made money on this boxed set. (If the rumor about TSR losing money on boxed sets has any truth to it, this is a prime example.)
I wonder if that's part of the reason they replaced it with a new edition in 1994. The new edition wasn't much more economical, though--a 160-page and 128-page book, two poster maps, a glossy art poster, a DM's screen and a two-color deck of cards all for $30. :)


Chapter II: The Demiplane of Dread

This chapter lays out the basics of the RAVENLOFT setting proper—and in doing so, ties it explicitly to the original adventure I6 Ravenloft, and (to a lesser extent) its sequel, I10 Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill. The events that spawned the Demiplane of Dread are those of Strahd’s backstory from I6, which took place “many centuries past, in a world which is now forgotten.” The original module isn’t any more specific—the heroes start out in “another dull tavern in another dull town in some nameless province.”

However, unlike the assumptions of I6, once the Black Box arrives, Barovia isn’t even part of the Prime Material anymore. (Those who used the adventure in their campaigns aren’t left hanging, though; see “Conjunctions” below.) Instead, “as these words are recorded, Castle Ravenloft lies deep in the ethereal plane, in a demiplane of dread and desire.” It’s explicitly stated that “the realm has taken the name of the castle; “Ravenloft” has become synonymous with the entire demiplane. “Castle Ravenloft” now refers to the fortress itself.” This is a bit of nomenclature that will almost always be reserved for narrative voice; I can remember only one instance—the introduction to an article in DRAGON #174—where the demiplane is referred to as Ravenloft ‘in character’. By the end of the setting’s life, characters within it were usually describing it as “the world” or “the Land of Mists.”

The events that set this all in motion are described using text familiar from the aforementioned modules—the Tome of Strahd, the Count’s own account of his history and transition from life to unlife. The Black Box provides the first of several cases where it will blur the lines between ‘in world’ and ‘out of world’ narrative when it introduces the text of the Tome: “The daring thieves who obtained this information now walk the demiplane of Ravenloft as mindless undead. Do not let their efforts come to naught.”

For anyone who might be unfamiliar with the Tome of Strahd, which has been reproduced in various forms in numerous products (all three iterations of I6, I10, every version of the Ravenloft campaign setting, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, and, IIRC, even the Practical Guide to Vampires), a brief summary: The crusading warrior Strahd von Zarovich claimed the land of Barovia for his own and summoned his relatives to join him, including his younger brother Sergei. Strahd falls in love with a Barovian girl, Tatyana, but she has eyes only for Sergei. Strahd believes that Tatyana rejected him because of his age and war-weariness, and his resentment leads him to make a “pact with Death,” which he seals by murdering his own brother. Tatyana, horrified by this, flees and leaps off the walls of Castle Ravenloft, falling through the mists, never to be seen again. The castle’s guards try to shoot their master turned monster, but by this point, Strahd has become a vampire.

All this, so far, is familiar from the original Tome as featured in I6. But with the dawn of the RAVENLOFT setting, it’s established that the repercussions go beyound Strahd. Somehow, he opens a door that draws his land of Barovia into “the Ravenloft demiplane,” with Strahd as the vampire lord.

Exactly how or why this happened is never answered—either in the Black Box, or the entire history of the Ravenloft line. Various possibilities are raised—“a curse on Barovia or the castle itself? The work of the dark power (or power) with whom Strahd made his pact? Or was it the rage and sorrow that followed, as Tatyana was lost and Strahd vented his torment by murdering all those within the castle walls?” Fans have debated this and related matters for over twenty years now, and I think all of us are quite happy with the fact that there is not and hopefully never will be an ‘official’ answer. (The one time we almost got an official answer—in the novel Lord of the Necropolis—it was both rejected by most of the fans and officially declared non-canon very quickly.)

The following section “The Growth of a Demiplane,” provides a bare-bones overview of the timeframe between Barovia’s entry into Ravenloft and the present day of the boxed set. At the start, Barovia was the only land there, and the only inhabitants were those who got drawn in with Strahd on that wedding day in 351. Eventually, though, other individuals start stepping out of the mists that surround Barovia. The one highlighted by name in this section is Azalin the lich—a figure introduced in I10, but there, it was strongly implied that he was a native of Mordentshire. However, in exchange for this tweak to his background, Azalin becomes one of the three most iconic figures on the setting alongside Strahd and Rudolph van Richten. Not a bad tradeoff, if you ask me.

The box also attributes to Azalin the first discovery of a fact that it says “many have learned since.” Ravenloft is alive, at least in the sense that it can sense and respond to the life within it, is capable of growth and change, and “would create new earth for those whose evil and desire was strong enough to capture its attention.” Azalin tests this out by walking into the Mists, and finds his own domain spreading before him. However, as lord, he can’t leave. Other inhabitants can pass freely between the domains, but the lords are shackled to the land Ravenloft creates for them. The box states that Azalin and Strahd “would never stand face to face again,” but that’s given the lie 3 years (real time) or 5 years (game time) later, when they get reunited for the climax of the Grand Conjunction. :)

This paragraph highlights one of the differences between earlier and later Ravenloft products—although ‘earlier’ in this case doesn’t go much past the first year and a half. Originally, the emphasis is placed on Ravenloft itself as a living, responding thing. Later material starts placing much more emphasis on the mysterious ‘dark powers’ that are believed to have created the land and govern what occurs within it. I’d have to review my gaming material more closely to pinpoint when the change occurs. In the novel line, it seems to have taken hold primarily between the first novel, Vampire of the Mists—which includes numerous references to the land as living and reacting—and the second, Knight of the Black Rose, where characters discuss the ‘dark powers’.

But Azalin was not the first new lord, nor was he the last. “At this writing, Ravenloft contains more than 30 domains. Each was created for one man, woman, or creature, or for an inseparable pair or trio.” Some of the lords are from other worlds, others are natives of the demiplane, but all of them both gain tremendous powers from the lands that are both their holding and their prison.

Following this, the box provides a timeline of events as recorded on the Barovian calendar, from 351 (the date of Barovia’s arrival in Ravenloft) and 735 (the starting point for campaigns). For the most part, this timeline is a listing for when domains appear in the Core—no island domains are listed, and even two core domains (Lamordia and the Nightmare Lands) are missing. That said, there are several other entries of interest:

--470: “The gypsy Madame Eva and Strahd forge an agreement.”
--528: “Powerful heroes assault Castle Ravenloft and perish.” This appears to be the ‘official’ date of the events of I6, although the text of that module places itself 400 to 500 years after Strahd became a vampire. There are some defensible reasons for this change, which I’ll discuss when we reach Strahd’s stats. In any case, like many playthroughs of I6, the ‘official’ version ends in a TPK. :)
--Azalin arrives in 542, just before the first new domain, Forlorn, in 547. I10 apparently occurs in 579—at least, that’s when Mordent becomes a domain, with Darkon following the same year. This means that Azalin spent 37 years working as Strahd’s tutor. No wonder he’s so cranky. :)
--Three other darklords are mentioned as entering Ravenloft at a time other than the appearance of their domains. Harkon Lukas spends three years in Barovia before settling down as lord of Kartakass; Vlad Drakov takes a year to become lord of Falkovnia. Lord Soth shows up in the same year as Sithicus takes shape, but it’s recorded as two events on the timeline.
--700, 704, 711, 722: “Drakov invades Darkon and is repelled.” This same entry reoccurs at four different points on the timeline. It’s not a mistake, either.
--Interestingly, most of the Core is only about a generation old when the setting launches. After a long dry spell postdating the appearance of Valachan in 625, there’s an influx of a dozen new domains between 682 (with Nova Vaasa) and 720 (Sithicus).

That leads nicely into our next section, “Defining the Demiplane”, which highlights that “the demiplane Ravenloft is not of this world or any other.” I’d certainly hope it’s not of this world. ;) But the point is well-taken: Ravenloft, as a character states in Vampire of the Mists, “changes the rules.” We’ll see how that applies to characters and magic later on, but it doesn’t even follow the natural laws of the prime in many respects. It’s not stable either in shape—it grows and shrinks over time—or in position, since it seems to float through the Ethereal Plane and reach into other worlds. Even the flow of time seems different: “For those who visit this realm, time passes with agonizing slowness, especially after sunset. Some who have escaped, after having watched the moon drag across Ravenloft’s heavens for a dozen months, claim that each year in Ravenloft equals nearly two in any other world.”

Next up is one of Ravenloft’s most recognizable elements: The Mists. They “appear to be a manifestation of the border ethereal” (and the book refers us to the 1E Manual of the Planes for details) that surrounds the demiplane at all times. They appear perfectly normal to all natural and magical senses, but can snatch charcters from the material plane in Ravenloft. “With time, they can surround an entire portion of land and consume it, too.” This is one of the only explicit references to the Mists taking time to create a domain that I’m aware of, although it’s hinted at elsewhere in the Black Box.

The Mists are “beyond the control of anyone, living or dead. But when a character has a great enough need or desire, Ravenloft may respond to him.” They don’t seem constrained by numbers—“sages speak of entire armies that have vanished in a fog, and it is conceivable that the Mists of Ravenloft have swallowed their ranks.” In any case, once you’ve entered the Mists, there is no escape—you will wind up in Ravenloft. It’s also unobservable: “Anyone who is close enough to witness the transport of another character becomes an accidental voyager himself.” Folks on the Prime Material are lucky enough to get a visible sign of what’s happening. In the Ethereal Plane, you can stumble into Ravenloft with no warning whatsoever. :D

The Mists can also arise anywhere within Ravenloft, not just in the Misty Border, and transport anyone anywhere the land likes. Those who enter the Misty Border can stay inside it deliberately, but it requires mental focus, and is a risky proposition—many wandering monsters hang out in it, waiting to pounce on travelers.

But the Mists aren’t the only way into Ravenloft: “Permanent Gates” are covered in the next section, which discusses several known gates from the other TSR worlds into (and only into) Ravenloft.
--2 can be found on Krynn, which is explicitly noted as “described in DRAGONLANCE products.” This kind of cross-selling is never mentioned in relation to Realms or Greyhawk elements, but it always shows up when the Black Box mentions something of Krynnish origin. Many fans and certain authors have complained about Ravenloft trying to ‘cash in’ on DL’s popularity, and while there’s truth to that, I have to wonder if TSR was also trying the converse by pushing a dying setting in their hot new product. In any case, one portal is found on Taladas, in a cave where the Steamwall Mountains meet Blackwater Glade. The second portal is on Ansalon, “somewhere in the wilderness near Xak Tsaroth.” (Now that’s an interesting possibility—send the Heroes of the Lance into Ravenloft during or just after DL1/the first half of DoAT. :D )
--1 portal is in the Realms, in the Greycloak hills on the western edge of Anauroch. Another is ‘sort of’ in the Realms—it’s attached to Kara-Tur, and is the one portal that’s not a traditional gateway or opening. Instead, there is a ‘small, nameless island . . . east of the main continent and south of Wa. On the morn following a new moon, a mist rolls in from the sea and gently laps at the island’s shore. Anyone standing in the surf is transported to Ravenloft.”
--And 2 portals can be found on Oerth. One’s near a summit in the Lortmil mountains; the other “is rumored to lie somewhere within the Ruins of Greyhawk.” Well, if Castle Greyhawk can host a hole to China . . . :)

“Conjunctions” describes something that’s very intriguing, but underused in official Ravenloft products: the replacement of land in other worlds with domains from Ravenloft. This allows free transit between the ‘imported’ realm and the material plane, even possibly for lords—although “as of this writing, no lord has taken this step.” I strongly suspect that one of the reasons for this section was to allow campaigns that had placed I6 on the map to integrate that fact with the new setting.

In any case, conjunctions are rare, temporary, and unpredictable, despite the efforts of Ravenloft’s lords to learn how to force them. One such effort will provide Ravenloft’s first piece of metaplot, and it will wind up backfiring on its instigator.

After laying out the more basic rules, we turn to a description of “The Domains of Ravenloft,” which “are like small countries with distinct political borders. Each domain reflects the personality of the lord who prompted its creation.” Of the 34 domains described, 26 are clumped together around Barovia in the central landmass referred to as “the Core”, while 8 float independently as “Islands of Terror”. “Because Ravenloft is ever-changing, these islands may eventually drift together to become one, or simply may sink back into the Mists and vanish.”

If you’ve followed Ravenloft’s history, you’ll know that this fact has been demonstrated in numerous ways over its published lifespan. We’ve seen domains disappear, move around in the Core, calve off from the Core to become islands, attach themselves to the Core after being islands, and even seen island domains with similar themes and history combine into ‘clusters’.

This section ends with a paragraph that, like the Landscape section in Chapter I, should (IMO) be required reading for anyone interested in Ravenloft, since it seems to be often overlooked:

The lord of each domain is evil, but many people are kind and good at heart. Unfortunately, most are too guarded or afraid to show this side to a stranger. Others are too ignorant or numb to combat the evil around them. Yet in the midst of this darkness, small bastions of goodness take hold. To survive, they must stay in the shadows and choose their actions carefully.
“Forming New Lands” discusses how these lands come to be in the first place. The land may respond to an evil character of great power or emotion by creating a new piece of land out of the Mists. “Whole cities may appear, ancient and crumbling, as if they had existed for thousands of years.” Note that it is not stated that the people appear with them, although many players have assumed that’s the case. There are some bits later on in the Black Box that suggest the natives are either taken from the Prime or refugees from other domains, rather than created whole cloth by the Mists.

Lords gain new powers from their domains, but since “each domain reflects the personality and past offenses of its lord[,] it constantly reminds him of everything he was and is.” And since every lord is trapped within his domain, there is no escape from this torment.

It should be noted that personality and will, more than “raw physical power”, determine the creation and size of domains. Small and petty minds tend to create small and tenuous domains. The only universal constants are that every lord in Ravenloft is evil, and that “only a powerful character with great emotion or strength of will can arouse the land and make it grow. Lords are passionate creatures driven by remorse, a lust for power, or an insatiable need for vengeance.”

“War and Destruction” discusses the other half of the equation—what happens when a lord dies? (The text notes this to be difficult, but not impossible.) Usually, it passes to the most dominant evil personality, which has allowed some domains to pass down family lines, or led to them being taken over by usurpers. Lacking a proper candidate, the domain may dissolve into the Misty Border or merge with neighboring domains.

But the only way to change or destroy a domain is to destroy or defeat its lord, making open warfare typically a losing proposition—although some try it anyway out of sheer bloody-mindedness or thirst for vengeance, “to gain indirect control over greater territory, or just to cause trouble and misery.” But the power of the lords, both personally and over their domains, makes such efforts unlikely to succeed. More common are conspiracies and shadow wars waged by non-lords in hopes of seizing power on their own.

The last section of this chapter, appropriately enough, is “Leaving Ravenloft”—what everyone seems to want to do, and very few can. A few specific magical items can do it, as can Greater Powers, although their intervention can never be counted on. The most likely route is to find or trigger a portal. Parts of this section seem almost left over from an earlier draft—it’s more specific (all portals are, apparently, “shining, hollow shapes”) and more ‘D&Dish’, with random portal duration (2d6 rounds) and what looks like it was a random table of Common Portal Triggers. The latter is a numbered list of 10 items, with number 10 listed as “DM’s choice.” While it doesn’t say ‘roll 1d10’ or anything—and the text later on says that “when you are designing adventures, the triggr for a portal should fit your story”—the numbering and the DM’s Choice entry feel like a slightly obfuscated random table to me. This section concludes with a nasty little trick for adventure design: “A standard ploy is to design two portals for an adventure. The characters open the first by accident or coincidence, and watch in horror as the gateway closes before they can use it. Then they must find the second means of escape.”

Next: Chapter III, The Reshaping of Characters, or “What to Expect When You’ve Been Abducted by the Mists . . . “
 
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Leonaru

Taxidermic Owlbear
Validated User
I never really like the mist as a border patrol. The domains of Ravenloft should have normal borders and only the power of domain lord should weaken exponentially near the border.
 

Armchair Gamer

New member
I never really like the mist as a border patrol. The domains of Ravenloft should have normal borders and only the power of domain lord should weaken exponentially near the border.
Most of the Core domains in the Black Box don't have the Misty border, actually, and those that do tend to be a bit more outre'. In the west, the Sea of Sorrows serves as the continent's border, and most of the eastern border is covered by the bizarre Nightmare Lands. Darkon stretches across the north, but that's the most D&Dish and fantastical of the Core realms. Bluetspur's down in the southeast corner. On the southern border, Valachan and Kartakass are fairly normal on the surface, but they're largely the exceptions. Sithicus also backs up against the Mists between those two, but again, that's the kind of domain where it doesn't feel so out of place.

Now, if anyone's still reading this . . . :)

Chapter III: The Reshaping of Characters

Ravenloft has an open door policy when it comes to characters—any race, class or alignment is welcome. But that doesn’t mean that things work the same inside as they do in the default AD&D rules.

Class is the first item up for consideration, broken down by the four 2nd Edition class groups—warriors, wizards, priests and rogues. Most of the text is devoted to warriors—specifically, paladins and rangers. Fighters suffer no special handicaps.

Paladins suffer the most changes to class abilities in Ravenloft. Detect evil becomes ‘detect chaos’, and allows a saving throw. The immunity to disease and cure disease abilities are specifically called out as not applying to magical afflictions like mummy rot, lycanthropy, or diseases caused by spells—although my copy of the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook says the same thing, with the exception of the ‘caused by spells’ bit. This may be errata rather than an actual change imposed by Ravenloft.

The paladin’s protective aura still works as it does in 2nd Edition, but it’s discernible by evil creatures even if they’re not inside it, and “all other things being equal, they will choose to attack someone other than the paladin in combat.” Looking back now, I wonder how badly that chafed paladin PCs who were used to playing the defender role.

Perhaps worst of all, “the paladin’s glaring aura disturbs the fabric of the land itself”—meaning that any lord can locate a paladin inside his domain to within a mile. Drawing a holy sword only makes the paladin more ‘irritating’, allowing the lord to pinpoint the paladin’s location within 100 yards.

And, of course, turning undead comes with its own changes, but that’s for the Priest section . . .

Rangers suffer only one major change—their animal empathy abilities don’t work if the laws of the domain say otherwise. (A parenthetical aside here establishes that “the laws of any domain always take precedence over an individual PC’s powers.”) Some domains apparently make animals untrainable, while in others, the lord controls some or all animals—Harkon Lukas can control any animal in Kartakass, and Strahd controls all wolves in Barovia, for example. The ranger only finds this out when he attempts to use it, and the lord apparently can order the animals to play along. And this control extends even to animal followers so long as they’re in such a domain. It doesn’t usually produce a direct confrontation unless the lord specifically compels it, though—“unless the rules state otherwise, however, the animal won’t lose all memory of its loyalty to the ranger. It won’t attack the ranger or his friends. Instead, the animal is likely to flee to resolve the conflicting instructions. Such an animal never strays far from the group. Both drawn to and repelled from his former master, the creature nervously shadows the group’s every move.” When the ranger leaves the domain, the followers will go with him if they’re still alive and haven’t been ordered not to. Once outside a domain where these rules are in play, the followers revert to normal behavior.

Wizards start with an exception to the exceptions. Familiars are immune to the kind of control that can afflict a ranger’s followers, due to the tight bond between familiar and wizard. Thus, all a wizard has to worry about—as a wizard—is that magic doesn’t always work right in Ravenloft, which will be discussed later.

Priests don’t get off so easily. “Turning undead is a priest’s most prized ability. It also is one of the most offensive to Ravenloft’s dark powers.” The Turning Undead table gets revised for Ravenloft games, with two major changes. The first is that the table’s recalibrated so that all undead are a step ‘higher’ than on the standard table—a 1st-level cleric will turn skeletons on a 13 instead of a 10, for example, and the same pattern continues throughout the table. The second change is that the automatic ‘T’ and ‘D’ results are replaced by 1s, although spots that would have been a ‘D’ have a footnote that “the undead creature is destroyed if it cannot flee at its current maximum rate or escape the priest’s line of sight.”

Why remove the automatic success results if you’re just going to replace them with 1s? Because the table represents turning attempts under optimal conditions in Ravenloft—and in Ravenloft, conditions are rarely optimal. “Sinkholes of evil”, or sites where the forces of darkness are stronger than the norm, can impose a -1 to -4 penalty, and the present of a lord within 300 feet of his minions imposes a further -2 penalty. There’s already precedent for this in I10, which imposed penalties to turning attempts based on the time of day, the location and the presence of “the Creature” (the evil vampiric Strahd von Zarovich we all know and love. I10 is . . . complicated.)

In addition, just like wizards, spells don’t always work reliably for priests. The Black Box attributes this to the fact that “in Ravenloft the lines of communication between priests and deities are somewhat flawed.” The same changes apply to any powers granted to speciality priests; if the power doesn’t mimic a spell documented in the book, the DM has to make the determination about how the power changes.

Finally, there’s an optional rule that Lawful Good priests may trigger the same ‘alarm’ as paladins in a domain.

When it comes to rogues, thieves suffer no alterations, and bards have to spend a year in Ravenloft before their “know a little bit about everything” ability can be used in the Demiplane of Dread, as well as being subject to the spell changes.

With classes covered, we come to races. Ravenloft is a very humanocentric setting, and “nonhuman characters usually attract attention. In an extreme case, they may spur a lynch mob to action.” The rules for this are fairly straightforward—initial reactions on the Encounter Table are always adjusted one step downward when a nonhuman is part of the group, making “friendly” results impossible to achieve. If you use Charisma as a baseline, consider it 3 points lower for a nonhuman unless the domain is specifically welcoming to nonhumans.

This only applies to initial reactions, though; if a nonhuman “makes exceptional efforts to prove his loyalty and harmlessness,” he can overcome this xenophobia. Don’t try to do it with flashy displays of power, though; those have a base 50% chance of provoking a fear response. (This is one of many reasons that The Great and Powerful TRIXIE would not do well in the Land of Mists.) In addition, most of the time nonhumans can pass themselves off as humans with a simple disguise, since no one really expects to see a nonhuman anyway. Start arousing suspicion, though, and they might start looking more closely.

There’s a final note on elves: that 90% sleep and charm resistance that they’re so fond of doesn’t work quite so well against the lords of Ravenloft—on average, it should be cut to 50%. There’s no note on how to modify half-elven resistance, though; I’d personally cut it to 10 or 15%.

The longest section of this chapter details the changes that evil characters might have to deal with in Ravenloft. “Ironically, evil PCs face the greatest danger in Ravenloft. As DM, you must observe each PC carefully. If his actions are completely and consistently evil, his personality void of redeeming features, then the land will respond.” This introduces the first of Ravenloft’s major new subsystems, the Powers check.

Ravenloft responds to evil. It even appears to nurture it, because when that evil is strong, the land can trap it forever. This could happen to a player character. The AD&D game is designed for heroes, but despite the best intentions of the DM and all guidelines to the contrary, some people insist on playing the opposite. These players, if not careful, may find their characters gradually wrested from their control.
I can already hear the grinding of teeth and the spinning in graves from certain quarters over that paragraph. :) This was the ethos of the AD&D game in the 2nd Edition era, and to be honest, murderhobos, ne’er-do-wells and mercenaries don’t really fit the Gothic genre or the Ravenloft setting specifically—the genre places too high an emphasis on moral law and poetic justice, and the setting’s generally too dangerous to encourage adventuring if all that’s motivating you is a hunger for filthy lucre. :)

Powers checks are made whenever a PC commits a deliberate and truly evil act for the sake of the act or for selfish gain beyond simple well-being or safety. The example given is that “Heinrich the PC is trapped in a village jail, awaiting torture or worse. Heinrich tries to escape. While doing so, it appears that he may have to kill one of the jailors to succeed, so he does. That’s not admirable. And it may even cost the character a few experience points for “story.” But it’s too gray to excite the powers of Ravenloft. However, if Heinrich deliberately tortures the jailor—even for information—that’s intentionally dark. The DM might decide that a Ravenloft powers check is necessary.”

The mechanics are pretty straightforward—a simple percentage roll, usually only failing on 100, although especially heinous acts can raise the change to 5 or even 10%. Later editions of Ravenloft will provide more detailed rankings based on the severity of the act and the quality of the victim, but the underlying mechanism remains constant throughout every version of the setting.

The failure of the check moves the PC down a six-stage path of corruption, ending in lordship ove a domain and automatic NPC status. In the same way, all the stages leading up to that provide both rewards and punishments. The rewards only work in Ravenloft; the punishments linger even if the criminal escapes, “though they may diminish with time and good deeds.”

Stage One, The Enticement, involves a minor reward--+1 to an ability score or saving throw, full sight in normal darkness, small claws or fangs, etc.. The punishment is something similarly minor, usually an odd but concealable change in appearance—miscolored or glowing eyes, six-fingered or coal-black hands, a wicked smile—or an odious daily habit, such as eating bones or raw meat once a day.

Stage Two, The Invitation , kicks things up a notch. Most of the rewards are either more powerful versions of the Stage One rewards or the ability to use a 1st or 2nd-level spell once a day. The punishments are almost impossible to conceal at this point—hunchback, an animal’s face or feet, hollow eye sockets (these don’t impair vision), blindness in daylight, and so forth.

Stage Three, The Touch of Darkness—ah, now we’re getting serious. The gift’s usually a spell-like ability of 2nd or 3rd level usable three times a day, and it comes with a corresponding physical change. “For example, a character who suddenly can warp wood may do so with dark brown hands and black, curving nails. A character who drinks blood may have fangs and red eyes while his Strength is increased. And someone who acquires a monstrous compendium may begin to resemble that creature a bit. (Don’t masters and pets often look alike?)”

The changes at this stage start affecting PC behavior as well. “Whenever someone thwarts the character in even the slightest way, he must make a saving throw vs. spells. If he fails, he vents his anger on the weakest person in range for one round.” The example given is when a barmaid tells a character at this stage that she can’t serve him another drink. “She has thwarted his desires. He fails his save.”—and as a result, he slaps her in a fit of rage. It’s not the most serious loss of control—that comes in at Stage Four :)—but I think it might serve as an effective wake-up call, which is part of what powers checks are about.

Stage Four The Embrace, starts granting the kinds of abilities associated with major monster types, or similarly potent stuff—at-will flight, immunity to normal weapons, level-draining touch, or the ability to raise the dead once a day. Not only does the punishment involve a physical change, but the victim’s dark side becomes more active. “When faced with an item of power or beauty, the character must make a saving throw vs. spells to resist stealing it. (The desire to win a charismatic person’s devotion may be equally compelling.)” ‘Devotion’? I’m not sure that’s quite the right word here . . .

In any case, a failed save turns the victim into a obsessed maniac for 2d6 rounds, during which he’ll stoop to any means to achieve his goal, and if thwarted, must make another save to avoid lashing out at the nearest and weakest target.

Stage Five, Creature of Ravenloft is when the mechanical details nearly drop out. I suspect that part of this is because if a character reaches this point, it’s probably either a case of wanting to pursue a corruption plot or being so hell-bent on malfeasance that the mechanics don’t make much difference. Or maybe it’s just that the result here is so straightforward.

“With each prior response, Ravenloft has granted the character more of what he seems to desire—namely, power. Ravenloft also have changed his outer appearance, so that it reflects his inner darkness. At Stage Five, Ravenloft’s mysterious powers complete the next logical step: the character becomes a creature of Ravenloft.” This can be either a physical change to a vampire, werebeast or the like, or a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality split. If the latter, the dark side takes control for 2d6 days at a time.

Stage Six, Lord of a Domain, takes us to the aforementioned end point. “The next time the character steps into the Mists, the land reacts and creates a tiny domain for him”—usually just a dwelling and grounds. This, of course, involves a major power boost, a severe curse, imprisonment in the domain and automatic transfer to NPC status.

Next, Chapter IV: Fear and Horror Checks, or “How to handle things when the player says that his PC will wade through the pile of writhing zombie arms.” (Their example, not mine.)”
 
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