Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bards 2, The 2E Bard

                                              The rarely seen dual class nun-bard

The Second Edition AD&D Bard is my favorite class in the game.

Unlike the 1E bard, the 2E bard has rather lenient stat requirements.  You need a 15 CHA, 13 INT, and a 12 STR.  That's not unduly harsh (even for a straight 3d6 in order), and most DMs are more lenient than that.

As the description says, the bard is a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.  He fights decently, has a few thief skills, can cast a good selection of spells, and has his own unique bardic abilities. There's also a good selection of magical and mundane equipment that he can utilize. He's a character that can be useful in almost any situation.

While he isn't a tank, he is a fair combatant.  His THACO advances at half the rate of the warrior classes, which puts him near the middle of the pack, lagging just a bit behind the cleric.

The cleric has the advantage when it comes to taking damage, though.  He's got better hit dice (d8) and can wear any armor and use any shield.  The bard will usually lag behind in hit points and is limited to chain mail or less, and can't use a shield.

But the bard is capable of dishing out a lot more damage.  His ability to use any weapon means that he can use the best weapon for the situation, and he can use heavier weapons that do more damage.  His ability to use a bow allows him to provide much better fire-support than the cleric (who is limited to slings).

Even better, the bard can take advantage of some of the really awesome optional proficiencies listed in the Complete Fighter's Handbook.  In particular, two-weapon specialization gives the bard the ability to dual-wield like a ranger, which doubles his combat attacks.  The cleric can't do this (he gets an inferior weapon/shield combo instead).

The bard's thief abilities aren't amazing, but they are useful and flavorful.  He can pick pockets, hear noise, climb walls, and read languages.  Climb walls, in particular, is a very useful skill in a game based on exploration, and hear noise and read languages aren't bad, either.  Picking pockets may or may not be useful depending on the DM, but that's a whole different issue...

The bard's best (and most powerful ability) is the ability to use magic-user spells.  Magic is incredibly powerful in AD&D and spellcasting classes have a huge advantage over those classes who cannot cast spells. While the bard cannot access magic spells of 7th level or higher, I would argue that he is the second best spellcaster in the Player's Handbook (behind the mage/specialist wizard).

Sure, the cleric has more spells (some very powerful), but clerical magic is much more restrictive, and it lacks the utility and damage spells that make the magic user list so amazing and versatile.  The clerical spell list has nothing like a fireball or a lightning bolt, or even something as simple and versatile as Grease.

And while the bard may have less spells and a slower learning rate than a typical wizard, he casts spells at the same power as a wizard once he learns them.  A 7th level wizard and a 7th level bard both cast Fireball spells with 7 hit dice.

The bard also has some unique class abilities of his own.  He can shift reaction rolls, buff his allies, counter music/sound based attacks, and he's got a special Legend Lore ability that allows him to know about obscure things in the game.

Legend Lore is an under-appreciated ability, but it can be extremely useful if used correctly.  Information is power, and the bard has a built-in ability to know a little bit about almost everything.

The bard's high natural charisma and ability to shift reaction rolls make him a great diplomat (or instigator), and a good party leader.  If you want to loosen up the tongues of a tavernful of townsfolk, there's nobody better than the bard for this task.  Put on an entertaining show, sing a few classic drinking songs, and you'll be pulling in rumors in no time.

He's also a good bet for scamming or weaselling his way into places where he can cause mischief.  Sure, the paladin might have higher charisma, but he's much too scrupulous to take advantage of anybody.  The bard, on the other hand, is naturally a bit of a rascal.

And speaking of bards and paladins, I've got a little story for you...

Back in an old high school game, I played the bard in our group, along with a paladin named Kylinar, and a couple of other characters.  We were all 2nd level or so, and we were doing a dungeon crawl when we came across a skull sitting on the floor, with gemstones in the eye sockets.

Knowing damned well that the DM was an asshole, I yelled out "Don't touch it, it's a demilich!"

So Kylinar, the paladin, walked over to the skull to poke at it with his sword.  And just as I'd suspected, the skull flew up and started screaming, and it killed everybody in the room... except for Kylinar.

Needless to say, we were all pissed off.  The DM was generous though, and he allowed the paladin to raise our characters from the dead, even though this is normally not possible if you die in this manner.  I guess the DM was feeling guilty for putting us up against something so nasty, so he gave us a little wiggle room to come back.

The first thing my bard did when he woke up was to compose a new song called "Kylinar the Klutz".  The DM thought it was hysterical (as did the rest of us who were slain), and the guy playing the paladin learned a valuable lesson when the song proved to be popular and it kept popping up in taverns wherever we went. It took him a long time to live that down.

Which brings me to the best part of the bard class, and the one thing that keeps me coming back to it again and again.

The bard is FUN.

The druid may be out of his element when he's in  dungeon.  The wizard may be useless once he's out of spells.  The fighter may be standing around, picking his nose, when there's no fighting to be done.  But there's always something useful to do when you play a bard.

As the "Swiss Army Knife" of character classes, the bard gets to be in the middle of everything. And quite often he gets to dominate the game, particularly in role playing situations where he shines.  The fact that he's not the "best caster" or the "best fighter" de-emphasizes the tendecy to power-game, and encourages the player to be creative and wily.  And the fact that he's an singing, dancing, juggling, attention whore brings out the role-playing element of the game out like no other character class.

I can honestly say that playing a bard has helped make me a better DM.  It's helped me loosen up, and take more risks as a role player, and has allowed me to really dig in to the personalities of the characters I play.

I don't get a chance to play very often anymore (I usually DM because it's hard to find  anybody else playing AD&D), but whenever I do, it's the bard that I gravitate toward.  Did I mention that the 2E bard fits nicely into 1E?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Magic Items: The Wand of Wonder

Back in my high school days I had a bard character that I played in one of our campaigns.  The bard had a name, but for the life of me, I can't remember it.  He was always just called "The Bard" (due to a high mortality rate, we weren't all that concerned about character).

Anyhow, I cam across a Wand of Wonder in one of our treasure hauls, and I convinced the DM to allow me to influence the outcome by coming up with a rhyme for the effect that I wanted to happen, in lieu of using a normal command word.

For example, if I wanted to heal somebody I might use this:

Boon companions to the end,
use your power to heal my friend!

Then the DM would roll the dice, consult the table, apply some DM bullshit and either my buddy would be healed or the wand would do something weird, like cover my buddy with nacho cheese.

If I wanted to use it offensively, I might use a rhyme like this:

Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,
make the knight's armor turn to rust!

Hopefully, the knights armor would rust, but the wand might just as easily shoot him with 1d10 pickles.

The catch was that I could never use the same rhyme twice, so I had to be very clever about the effects I desired and the rhymes I used, and I had to think up something BEFORE I needed to use it.

Sometimes the effect would be different than what I wanted, but would accomplish something useful.  If I called for a lightning bolt to zap a pursuing enemy, I might get a spray of marbles that tripped up the bad guys.  If  I tried to turn somebody into a toad, they might turn into a giant flametoad that would start breathing fire all over the place, turning on friend and foe alike.

The best thing about it was that this was always a FUN and entertaining magic item to use.  I had to be creative in coming up with rhymes, and the DM had to be creative in coming up with silly or interesting things for the wand to do.

                                                 Wand of Wonder: Now Available in LEGO

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Some maps I made a few years ago...

Last month I wrote a blog entry that talked about a large cache of my old DM notes that I discovered while going through my storage unit.  I'd thought a lot of this tuff was lost forever so I was quite pleased to find not just my notes, but also a bunch of maps that I'd drawn over the years.

This particular map was one that I'd gone to a lot of effort to create, inspired by those lovely maps for the Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms settings.  This map is intended to represent a huge peninsula attached to a much larger continent (if you look near the upper right corner you can see where the map continues off the page).  

Click to expand maps

This map is not quite finished, I left a few areas blank so that I could fill them in later once I'd decided what I wanted to go there.  There's large blank chunk of land in the lower right corner that represents a part of the main continent, and something that could be a large island or peninsula.  There's also a small blank island in the upper right quadrant.  More on that later...

The map was sketched out on a large sheet of heavy paper with a pencil.  I went back over the pencil lines with a fine Rapidiograph technical pen.  The colored areas were done with marker pens (hence the stripey look).

The areas in light green represent light forest, the areas in dark green are heavy forest.  Light blue represents shallow water, and dark blue represents deeper waters (some river areas are also very deep).  The orangey areas are desert, and the grey areas are mountains (some of which have snow).  There are also some light green hills drawn in over the grassy areas, representing rolling hills.

This section of the map shows the upper left quadrant in greater detail.  The upper center section has an area of canyons and badlands (the area with the elevation lines).  The lower right section shows the large forested mountain area in the center of the continent, and the large sea that it wraps around.  There is another large sea or lake near the west coast, and below that is a forested peninsula.

This shows the lower left quadrant of the map.  There's a large forest to the south, with a river delta that flows through the woods and empties into the southern coast.  There's a ring of mountains with a blank center (not sure what I was going to put inside it) near the center of this map.  There's also an improbably desert surrounded by forest areas.  Oops!

Here's the lower right quadrant.  There's a volcano near the top/center of the map (note the smoke coming out of it), and a forest with a marshy coastline on the east coast of this landmass.  Toward the west, the two large inland seas are visible.  The white areas were left blank to be filled in later, but are supposed to be connected to the main continent that this peninsula is attached to.

This is the lower right quadrant, and you can see where it connects to the larger continent in northeast.  Most of the interesting features have already been mentioned, but there is a small mountain pass drawn through the mountain range in the center of the map.  I think that was originally supposed to be a dwarven outpost where they offloaded stuff from the bay and routed it through the pass.

A lot of work went into this map.  While I'm not terribly happy with it, I do think that it looks great.  This was intended to be a player map, something that they could touch and see, to help them visualize the game world.  I planned to use the transparent hex overlays that came in the TSR boxed sets to measure distances, but this map never ended up being used, and was stored away for almost 20 years.

If you want to try a map like this, make sure you have a lot of markers because it takes a lot of ink to fill in those large areas.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bards- part 1

                                                   How to find wandering monsters.

Bards have been a part of the D&D universe for a long time.  Originally appearing in the 1st edition of AD&D, they have been a part of the game ever since.  In each version of the game, the bard has been radically different, changing more across each edition than any other class.

The first edition bard is one of the strangest, most convoluted classes the game has ever had.

It's also the hardest class to qualify for, requiring a 15 in Str, Dex, Wis, Cha, a 12 INT, and a 10 CON.  I looked up the odds for rolling that on a strict 3d6 (in order), and somebody figured out that 20 characters in one million would qualify.  Of course, you've also got to factor in the chance of character death on the way to becoming a bard, and since he's got to get to 5th level in fighter and thief classes first, that's a distinct possibility.

Now, it's true that the 1E game strongly advised against the 3d6 method that had been the standard up to this point.  The PHB flat-out states that a character should have at least two 15+ scores to ensure his survival.  Even stranger, the PHB does not tell the player how to roll his ability scores at all, instead telling the player to ask the DM (who will consult the DMG) who will presumably select a method that offers higher than average scores.

Now, given some of the extremely generous character generation methods proposed in the DMG, this made it much more likely that you'd get a special character class.  but even then the bard could be hard to get.  Method 1, probably the most popular option, only got you a bard about 1.5 percent of the time (to put that into perspective, Method 1 can generate paladins about 24% of the time) .

Unfortunately, a lot of DMs stuck with the old 3d6 (in order) enshrined in OD&D and the Holmes D&D set, which made it virtually impossible to get a bard.  It didn't help that the PHB and DMG were released a year apart, and that no character generation methods were presented in the PHB.

No wonder the 1E bard languished in obscurity.

Which is kind of sad, because it's actually a pretty interesting class.  It starts with 5-7 levels as a fighter, followed by 5-8 levels as a thief.  After that, they can start training as a bard, using the special advancement table provided.

While that might seem like a tall order, it actually takes less XP to get to 5th level as a fighter, thief, and bard than it does to get to 7th level as a single-classed fighter.

Unfortunately, the bard's fighter class doesn't really contribute much to the his skills, since the fighter doesn't really have any class-based skills of his own.  Only his d10 hit dice and THACO are retained, and the bard's THACO never improves afterward.  At low levels, this means that the bard is pretty badass compared to clerics, thieves, and magic users, but all of them will eventually overtake him.

A bard with maxed-out fighter levels (level 7) will be equal to or worse than level 10 clerics, and level 13 thieves and assassins.  Sadly, by level 16, wizards will actually hit more often than the bard does.  If he didn't max out his warrior levels he'll be even worse (and he'll have less potential HP too).

The thief's skills all carry over to the bard, however.  Effectively, this leaves the bard with all of the percentage-based skills, thieves cant, and backstab.

The bard's class abilities are based on a modified version of the druid (with weaker spellcasting), and the bard's own unique abilities.  He still gets all of the druid's goodies (including the ability to shapechange into animals), but he doesn't have to fight druids to advance, since he's technically a bard, not a druid.

The end result is a mediocre combatant with good hit points, with thief skills, druid skills, limited druid magic, and special bard abilities.  This is a very versatile character, but it's really not overpowered, since he's not allowed to use any of the higher level capabilities of his component classes.

Nonetheless, I think this is a good example of the worst excesses of the first edition.  It's unnecessarily complex (I'd hate to see that character sheet), hard to qualify for, and the individual parts really don't go very well together (fighter/thief/druid/bard?).  The whole thing feels rough and experimental, like a beta version that was never supposed to be released to the general public.

There's also this:  The PHB states that the bard must always have stringed instrument.  Fair enough.  But it never tells us why that is, or what would happen if his stringed instrument is lost or destroyed and he cannot find a replacement.  Given the delicate nature of stringed instruments, and the rigors of adventuring, it's bound to come up sooner or later.

Given the wonkiness of the 1E bard, it's no surprise that they were rarely used.  Sadly, it wasn't until the 2nd edition of AD&D that the bard really hit its stride.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure 31: Vampire Express

While many books in the Choose Your Own Adventure series utilised horror elements, only a few of the books were explicitly horror-themed.

Vampire Express is one of the more obvious horror entries, but it's also one of my favorite books in the series. The atmosphere, artwork, and plot are well executed, and there are a lot of memorable moments, no matter which path you take.

The book begins with you taking a train into the Carpathian mountains (an area with historic connections to vampires) to meet your uncle, the world's most knowledgeable expert on vampires.  He's planning an expedition that will scientifically prove that vampires actually exist.

The book never bothers to explain what your parents think of sending their kid on a potentially lethal mission like this, but that's par for the course in the CYOA universe.  The artwork depicts a kid that looks maybe 15 or so, so it's reasonable to speculate on the fitness of the parents.

But I digress...

Your uncle has gathered together a group of people to help him on his adventure.  Nina (who is conveniently about your age) is your partner throughout most of the book.  She is accompanying her elderly aunt who has a magic painting and necklace that are thought to be connected to vampires in some way.

The plot kicks off when Nina's aunt goes missing with the pendant. From that point, you've got to find her, keep the painting and necklace safe, and hopefully find a way to kill the vampires.

On your journey you might also encounter Phaino (a flamboyant magician), Professor Hartz, (a skeptic), or friendly gypsies. They're all associates of your uncle, but they're not accessible on every readthrough.

Count Zoltan and his wife Carmilla serve as the primary antagonists, and they're a creepily effective pair.  There are a lot of creatively grisly ways they can kill you, so they come off as credible opponents, especially for a book aimed at kids. 

As far as the adventure paths go, this book avoids any boring paths while still allowing the reader to experience different approaches to solving the problems.  Professor Hartz's path reads more like a mystery, Phaino prefers to try to trap the vampires, while the gypsies employ magic.

My favorite path is the one with your uncle, however.  That one features the party being chased by wolves while trying to find their way through a snowy forest.  And then one of your party is lost in the chase when a heavy fog rolls in... 

This sets up a memorable confrontation at the vampire's castle that leads to some of the best endings in the book (which include some particularly nasty deaths).

The interior artwork by Doug Jaimeson also helps add to the atmosphere (Paul Granger did the cover). While the art is occasionally too dark and sketchy for it's own good, there area lot of great pieces that really capture the mood beautifully.  The most horrifying is probably the one that shows you being swarmed by poisonous spiders while trying to climb the castle walls.

Needless to say, it doesn't go well for you...

Which brings me to the subject of endings.

The earlier books sometimes suffered from having too many endings and not enough story in between, but this book hits the sweet spot at 21 endings which is just about optimal. There are a lot of ways to win, and there are a lot of really horrible things that can happen to you, but on the whole, I feel that this book has some of the best ones in the series.

The necklace and painting figure prominently in most of the stories, and using them effectively is important in defeating the vampires. While the painting can kill the vampires, the necklace protects them from it. Needless to say, the vampires want both items and you've got to keep them from getting them.

While it's possible to defeat the vampires in many different ways, there's only one way to do it without the painting (by using fire).  The traditional methods of beheading and pounding a stake through the heart are not mentioned, perhaps because they were considered too violent for a kids series.  Then again, given the horrible things that happen to the reader in the average CYOA book, it seems a little hypocritical to worry about cruelty to vampires.

Of course, in a book like this, the bad endings are as just as fun as the good endings (and often much more fun!).  In addition to the spider ending posted above, you can be turned into a vampire, crushed in a trap in the vampires castle, drive the train off of a cliff, or abandoned in a village full of hungry zombies. 

There are also a couple of mediocre endings where you survive, but fail to defeat the vampires, and even one where you wake up and it was all a dream (lame).  There are even two gonzo endings that end up with you teleported out of the adventure (in one case to an alien slave planet).

As a gamebook, some might be annoyed by the fact that there is no way to achieve the goal set out in the first page; to scientifically prove that vampires exist. Although one ending implies that such proof might be found, it never gives it to you outright.  

One could also fault it for having too many was to succeed, but I've always viewed the CYOA books as as a story series rather than a game, so that's a minor niggle.  The goal is to have some good spooky fun, and this book does that well.

One of the things I like most about this book is how consistent the plot elements are.  While a lot of CYOA book have plots that change radically depending on which choices you make, the plot in Vampire Express builds up additional layers on each readthrough.

For example, when Professor Hartz tells you that Phaino is useless, it actually turns out to be true.  While Phaino is friendly, he's also dangerously incompetent. If you do actually succeed, it won't be because he did anything useful. 

All of this serves to give Vampire Express a much richer reading experience than the typical CYOA book.  Because the story is better than average, and because of the dark nature of the story, it feels a lot more "adult" than most entries in the series.  While kids should eat this up, adults that didn't grow up with CYOA books may find it a bit thin and unsatisfying without the nostalgia factor to cushion their expectations.

On the other hand, I know a lot of parents that enjoy these as much as their kids do, so your mileage may vary.

Personally, I still get a kick out of it, and I find a lot of inspiration in it as a DM.  This book really gets my creative juices flowing and I have borrowed a lot of great ideas from it.  It could even be modified for use as an actual module for Call of Cthulhu or the Masque of the Red Death setting for Ravenloft.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure!

If you grew up in the 80s or early 90s, chances are you are familiar with the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. They were incredibly popular when I was a kid, much like the Goosbumps books were for a later generation.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the CYOA books, I'll give you the basic idea:

Each book contains a story in which the reader is the main character.  You might be a detective, a spy, an astronaut, or just a plain kid, but the action is always related to you as if you were actually there. Throughout the narrative, you will be asked to make choices, and the choices you make actually change outcome of the story.

Lets say your character is a parapsychologist exploring a haunted house.  The book might give you an opportunity to explore the basement (which is filled with zombies), the parlor (haunted by the ghost of a kindly little old lady), or the attic (where an evil sorcerer lives).

Each choice you make leads to a different outcome, and there are usually about 20 possible endings for each book.  Some endings allow you to achieve one or more goals.  Some endings leave you disappointed, but lucky to be alive.  Some endings have you eaten to death by hungry, basment-dwelling zombies.

If this sounds an awful lot like a role playing game, that's because it IS an awful lot like a role playing game. In particular because the second person point of view resembles that of a traditional pencil and paper RPG, with the author acting as the DM.

TSR even made a series of official D&D-themed adventures in the same format.  In more recent years, the term gamebook has been coined to describe books of this type, reflecting a shift in the perception of the readers where they have gone from being viewed as literature to being thought of as a type of solo RPG.

The most successful line of these gamebooks was the Choose your Own Adventure series. And it was always my personal favorite as well.

I remember seeing Deadwood City around a friends house, and being kind of baffled by the concept.  The cover said that you could "choose from over 20 exciting endings" or somesuch, but the artwork was wonky and the idea seemed a little silly to me.  Plus, I didn't really like cowboys when I was a kid.  I was all about monsters, and aliens, and robots.

When I stumbled across The Cave of Time, however, I was much more intrigued. 

I was probably about 8 when I discovered this book sitting on my couch (where my brother had carelessly left it), and I instantly recognized the CYOA brand. But this time it wasn't cowboys... it was time travel.  And the cover was just awesome.  The illustration featured a creepy guy in armor, a kid riding a horse past a castle, a Chinese guy with a spear, a dinosaur, and a dragon.  I had to read this book!

And it changed my life forever.

This was the book that taught me how much fun reading could be.  Up to this point, the stories we read in school were pretty damned boring. I suppose they were dumbed down to make them easier to read, but it ended up making them boring, too.

But the CYOA books were different.  They were surprisingly adult.  Almost every book contains gratuitous violence, grisly deaths, and horror elements.  These books were so much cooler than the politically correct drivel that the schools were giving us, because they weren't afraid to be dark or scary or deal with more adult themes.

I soon began reading every CYOA book that I could get my grubby little paws on, and then the Narnia books.  When those ran out, I started on my mom's Stephen King books.  According to the tests at school, I was reading at a college level in elementary school. In fact, a lot of stuff I read in elementary school showed up again in my high school and college classes.

But during my elementary school years, the CYOA books were my favorite series.  I kept coming back, time and time again, because I could get a different story every time I read through the books.

I remember bringing a stack of 20 CYOA books to church and reading them throughout the long sermons, to keep myself entertained.  The adults were always a little surprised to see a little kid lugging a big stack of books around, so I'd always have to explain the concept (and a lot of them never quite got it).

By the time I got to Jr High school, I'd read my set of books hundreds of times. So when I was finally introduced to the D&D game, I recognised a lot of the same principles shared between the CYOA books and the concept of a role playing game.

As a DM, I frequently borrowed plot hooks, or interesting story elements from the CYOA books to use in my own campaigns.  And after awhile, I finally just sat down, plotted out flowcharts for each book, and started raiding my favorite books wholesale for anything of value.  I ended up with a an elaborate mess of notes that was eventually stored away and forgotten.

So when I discovered all my old gaming notes a few days ago, these notes were one of the things I was surprised to find.  They were filed alongside the rest of my insprational notes, but unfortunately, I couldn't make much sense of the notes because I didn't remember all of the little details those notes referred to.  Even worse, I didn't note down which notes corresponded to which books.

And just in case that wasn't enough, it was jumbled in with notes from movies, TV shows, modules, Dungeon magazine adventures, and all sorts of other ideas I'd accumulated over the years.  There are pages and pages of notes.  Tons of them.  It's a horrifying mess, and I'm trying to reconstruct my notes like an archaeologist by analyzing and sorting everything into a coherent whole.

So I've dug out my old Choose Your Own Adventure books, in hopes that I can separate and isolate those notes from the rest.  As part of that effort, I'll be doing the occasional CYOA book review.

As an old-school gamer, I think these are an under-appreciated part of the old-school gamer culture, and I'd love to introduce them to a new generation, or encourage the folks that have them to dig them out again and see what all the fuss was about.  It wouldn't hurt to share them with your kids, either...

Friday, November 2, 2012


Yeah, I know it's slightly after Halloween, but I'm still in the mood for spooky things so I'm gonna post about AD&Ds classic horror setting anyway.

The original Ravenloft module was one of the first modules that I had as a DM.  A buddy of mine had loaned me the old basic D&D "Red Box" set and a bunch of mismatched modules to go with it (Ravenloft, Bane of Lewellyn, Forest Oracle, Lost Tomb of Martec, Under Illefarn, The Final Enemy) so that I could learn the game on my own.

Since I only had the Basic D&D set I was kind of frustrated that all of these were AD&D modules, but I studied them all, nonetheless.  Ravenloft was the stand-out module of the group, due to it's strong storyline and compelling villain.  And it remains a favorite of mine (despite its many flaws) all these years later.

While I eventually had to give Ravenloft back to my buddy, I had an opportunity to go back there when TSR released the Ravenloft boxed set as the first part of its offical campaign setting.  And man, that set was cool!

The two books contained a ton of info on the setting and it's Dark Lords, but it also had a ton of cool accessories... maps, a set of large, cardstock sheets detailing the prominent lords and families, cardstock sheets on some of the more impressive castles, and even a cool transparent hex-overlay that gave you all the usefulness of a hex map, without having to ugly up the map with hexes of it's own. I appreciate that kind of detail.

On the other hand, even from the beginning, I realised that Ravenloft required a higher than normal skill in Dungeon Mastering to make it work.  Horror as a mood is difficult to sustain over long periods, and this required a lot more attention to detail when constructing adventures to keep that suspense building.

It also required a lot more effort on the part of the players to stay alive.  The monsters are more dangerous, the players abilities are more restricted, and the players' morality is under MUCH more scrutiny.  Ravenloft will eat n00bs alive.

Since I was a novice DM at the time, I set my Ravenloft gear aside until I felt I was a good enough DM to do it justice, but I kept adding to it over the years, and I'd occasionally write out scenarios and think about what I might do down the road.

Someone (I think it was James Maliszewski in his Grognardia blog), posted about how it was common in 2E for people to read the modules rather than play them, and I think he's got a valid point, given my own experiences.

Ravenloft, to me, is the epitome of a game setting that functions better as reading material than gaming material, because it's pretty much a clusterfuck as written.

It has been the most railroad-heavy setting in the game since the first module, and this is exacerbated in the setting by allowing all domains to be sealed off until the PCs confront and defeat the "puzzle boss" that rules the domain. 

The fact that the game is oriented toward higher-level gaming also makes it difficult to get 1st level characters to survive long enough to make it possible to survive those high-level encounters. 

It takes a DM with a light touch to keep players alive, while simultaneously requiring a heavy-handed touch when it comes to character morality and the story railroad.

And then there's the issue of the tone of the setting, which is much more modern than the late medieval/early renaissance vibe of the traditional game.  Which makes sense for a setting that is based largely on 19th century literature like Frankenstein and Dracula, and the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe.  But that anachronism can be jarring when worlds collide as they do in Ravenloft.

When I think back to the modules that are nearest and dearest to my Dungeon Mastering heart, it's the simplistic 1E stuff that I keep going back to again and again.  Village of Hommlet, Keep on the Borderlands, and Under Illefarn are my holy trinity of inspirational modules, while much of the high concept 2E modules sit on my shelves collecting dust.

And Ravenloft is the one that bugs me the most. There's so much potential there for awesomeness, but it's smothered under a layer of badly conceived game mechanics, and poorly written modules.

This is not to say that I dislike Ravenloft.  There's a lot of good stuff to work with there.  But I've long since lost any illusions I ever had about it being a good game setting.  Nowadays I prefer to use it as a source of insiration and ideas, instead of trying to use it as intended.