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.

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