Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Retrospective: Ravenloft: Realm of Terror

Normally, I like to restrict my retrospectives to products released prior to 1984 or thereabouts, both because I consider these years to be the Golden Age of the hobby (and Dungeons & Dragons in particular) and because that was the era of my "innocence" as a gamer, before I had any sense of what was really going on at the companies that made my favorite games. From time to time, though, I'll make exceptions and talk about materials produced after 1984 that were particularly noteworthy in some way or another, if not for the hobby as a whole, at least for me personally. One such exception is 1990's Ravenloft: Realm of Terror boxed set, written by Bruce Nesmith with Andria Hayday.

By 1990, I wasn't actually playing much D&D anymore. I'd largely moved on to other games, partially out of fatigue -- I'd been playing Dungeons & Dragons in one form or another for more than a decade -- and partially because I wasn't a huge fan of AD&D's second edition, released in 1989. The reasons for my dissatisfaction are many and varied and not particularly germane to this post. Suffice it to say that, while I did buy plenty of Second Edition books and supplements over the course of its existence, I rarely used them to play. Mostly, they were things I read instead of gaming, which is a pretty sad commentary on how I approached my supposed hobby during a lot of the 1990s.

In my defense, I can only say that I was not alone in this regard. Indeed, my personal experience suggests that a great many formerly active gamers largely became mere readers -- and avid ones at that -- of gaming material in the '90s, which may well explain the proliferation of different settings for AD&D throughout that decade. Ravenloft was one of those settings and, while I remain ambivalent about the adventure module that spawned it, I nevertheless saw enough potential in the setting that I happily bought the boxed treatment of it when I saw it. The boxed set consisted of a 144-page softcover book, four large maps, 24 cardstock sheets, and a transparent overlay to be used in conjunction with the maps, since, back in those days, TSR felt that including some means of determining distance on the maps themselves somehow detracted from their appearance. (No doubt I read too much into things, but I see such a style vs. substance decision as indicative of a lot about the 2e era).

Ravenloft: Realm of Terror was basically an attempt to create a Gothic literary setting/sourcebook for AD&D. It was precisely this that appealed enough to me that I bought it in the first place. I was -- and am -- a big fan of Gothic literature, or at least many of the themes and elements derived from it, many of which were present in D&D from its first publication. Consequently, the notion of explicitly playing up those elements and themes struck me as a worthy endeavor. And, for the most part, I think Realm of Terror did a decent job of doing just that, with rules modifications to classes, spells, and magic items, as well rules for curses, fortune telling, the seduction of evil, and more. There were also essays on Gothic literature and how best to use it as inspiration for adventures and campaigns.

In 1990, this was all rather heady stuff to me. Aside from superhero RPGs (and Call of Cthulhu), there wasn't a lot of straightforward emulation of literary sources in the hobby, at least not as I experienced it. Even then, it was often done in a rather hamfisted fashion, whereas Realm of Terror seemed to be a lot more "sophisticated" and "thoughtful" in its approach. If nothing else, it gave greater consideration to the difficulties of running a horror-based D&D campaign, something even the original Ravenloft module never quite managed to do in my opinion. It's also worth noting that Realm of Terror predates the upsurge of interest in horror RPGs that followed in the wake of Vampire: The Masquerade and its sequels and imitators, thus making it a trailblazing product in many ways.

That's not to say that, looking back, it fully succeeds in its goals. In my opinion, Realm of Terror suffers from two opposite sins. First, despite the rules modifications it presents, it's still fundamentally a D&D supplement and many aspects of D&D militate against the emulation of horror literature of any kind, let alone the emotionally charged horror of the Gothic type. Second, while I appreciate -- now more than ever -- the attention paid to the literary inspirations of the setting, I do think there's a bit too much emphasis placed on emulation, to the point where it subtly encouraged a kind of railroad-y playstyle that became to dominate later products in the line. Now, neither sin is insurmountable in my opinion and neither takes away from the genuinely groundbreaking nature of Realm of Terror, at least to my much younger self.

One of my queerest gaming eccentricities is that I own nearly all every Ravenloft-related product ever produced. I consider them some of the most inspirational gaming materials I own, even though I think most of them are deeply flawed either in content or presentation (or both). Yet, even the worst of them contain a spark of something I find compelling, from which I can derive good ideas for use in my own adventures and campaigns, which is, frankly, a rare and laudable thing. Nowadays, I find a similar spark in Jack Shear's superb Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog, as well as 164-page compilation of much of its contents available in softcover or hardcover through Even if you were never a Ravenloft fan as I was, the blog and the compilations are well worth your time and good examples of some of the best stuff the OSR is producing these days.


  1. Matthew James StanhamJuly 25, 2012 at 12:08 AM

    I was about 14 years old when we (a friend and I) bought this boxed set. At the time ITV1 was rerunning old Hammer Horrors at midnight, which created a perfect synergy for us. We did not play a lot of Ravenloft, but they are some of the most memorable sessions we played at that age (which is saying a lot, because we played like crazy). D&D meets Christopher Lee worked great, I remember that my biggest disappointment was the lack of detail for the individual realms in the boxed set.

  2. Funny thing, my gaming experience in the '80s was almost exactly the same. I pretty much stopped playing D&D by '85 or thereabouts and didn't game again until about '93. I skipped second edition D&D altogether, and didn't play any version of the game until 3.0, which I actually kind of liked even though it wasn't the old AD&D.

  3. Ravenloft is definitely one of the cornerstones of my 2e collection, and a setting I have used time and again. I too own almost all the material; at least the material pertaining the "1st edition" of the setting, where the setting was supposed to be used as an add-on to other settings. With later material and revised boxed sets, the idea that you could start a campaign in Ravenloft with local characters took hold and essentially destroyed the core premise of the setting. I used it to "send" my players from Greyhawk and Dragonlance, and I played the Hyskosa Prophecy campaign as a "cross-setting" affair across two "main" campaign, and with different character groups.

  4. Ravenloft was my 2nd Edition AD&D world.

    My experiences were similar (must be the age) and I spent a lot of time reading the material and not as much actually playing it.

    My own introduction to horror gaming had been earlier with Chill and CoC, but Ravenloft was the best of all worlds, at least to my 20 year old self.

    I don't have many of my books any more from then but every so often I like to venture back into the mists.

  5. I was surprised to see that the original Ravenloft module came far before V:tM and Interview with a Vampire came far before D&D. I put together a brief timeline at

  6. I still have this, packed away in the garage. Like many, I often bought RPG items just to read. But I could never get into this setting because of the concept of all these big bads ruling over a pocket plane. Like many products that came later, there is a tendency to take some iconic monster from D&D and make it into something more. Strahd becomes an evil force ruling a demi plane. Vecna becomes a god in 4E. I think if they would have cut the god like beings ruling demi planes concept, my younger self would have been more willing to give the rules a fair shake.

  7. Nicholas BergquistJuly 25, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    That really was one of the best 2nd edition campaign sets released. I had a different "timeline" on my gaming experience in the 80's and 90's, giving up AD&D 1st edition by around 1984 to play other games right up until I went to college in 1989, where my group convinced me to try AD&D 2nd edition after spending our first year playing lots of Runequest and Dragonquest. I was hooked...for me 2nd edition clarified and cleaned up everything that had turned me off of 1st, and I managed to play it weekly for the next decade. Ravenloft (along with Spelljammer)was my most visited "official" setting that I used regularly.

  8. I also bought this boxed set during a fallow period in my gaming career. Years later I did use it in a campaign though. One of the more successful series of linked adventures that I ran involved the mad ruler of a small barony who had discovered the existence of Ravenloft and was trying to get his realm "uplifted" to the demi-plane.

    I was also quite impressed by the early Ravenloft modules, such as Feast of Goblyns. Although I never used them in anything like their published form but instead strip mined them for locations/NPCs/adventure hooks.

  9. This was the setting friend ran when we were in high school. It's probably the last thing I played before stopping with D&D for ages and ages. At the time it felt quite different in tone than the sorts of fantasy games we'd normally run when playing D&D.

    I think the quality of the box sets TSR was putting out at the time was quite good. I was one of the gamers you speak of, who bought all sorts of Dark Sun books that I would read, but not play.

  10. "
    and a transparent overlay to be used in conjunction with the maps, since, back in those days, TSR felt that including some means of determining distance on the maps themselves somehow detracted from their appearance. (No doubt I read too much into things, but I see such a style vs. substance decision as indicative of a lot about the 2e era)."

    Forgive me, but I must role my eyes at this.

    I really liked the transparencies in my Forgotten Realms box set as it kind of feels like getting the best of both worlds.

  11. "
    One of my queerest gaming eccentricities is that I own nearly all everyRavenloft-related product ever produced."

    i agree with this 100%. i dont have ALL of it, but its definitely my favorite setting among 2nd Edition. in fact, i bought Masque of the Red Death last year at Gencon for under 20$ still shrink wrapped. making 19th century horror city campaigns where you live = epic. bring out the Lovecraftian vibes. reverse engineer newspaper images from your cities paper archive with weird stories as handouts, etc...

  12. Ravenloft was my holy grail in the late 90's/early 2000. I was never able to track down a copy of the box set for a reasonable price.

    Just the idea, however, of a gothic horror setting was enough to inspire me to run several adventures in the same vein.

    One of my players did however find a copy of the "Book of Crypts" a Ravenloft adventure supplement (that includes not a single crypt).

  13. While I liked the original Raveloft Boxed set, I have to say that I enjoyed the Masque of the Red Death stuff much more.

    The 90s were a time when my "home based" RPGs were non-D&D. Things like Champions, DC Heroes (still my favorite game), and Feng Shui took up a lot of my gaming time -- as did Warhammer. That doesn't mean I didn't play any D&D though, as this was also the period when I began playing with an RPGA group. I had a great deal of fun playing in an organized D&D group in addition to my home games.

  14. Masque of the Red Death is an evocative setting, and I too prefer it to Ravenloft proper. That said, by placing it in the real world and in an almost-modern era, the problem of it being Too D&D that James mentions is exacerbated.

  15. Very good post. i have the same two impressions laid out in text. It's one of my most beloved campaigns in D&D, but a difficult one to DM.

  16. I found, and still find, the Ravenloft boxed set is tremendously evocative. As you say, the presentation of the setting is very thoughtful, and the fact that it had its own 'suggested reading' list — an Appendix N of its own — was great. More than that, though, the look of the rulebook, the art and layout, and even typography, really helped set a tone. Just a nice package all around.

  17. D&Ds default setting is already very horror-inspired (clerics and the undead), and no one finds playing it frightening (as opposed to the people in the 80s who were frightened by what they imagined it was like).

    Maybe this is why games like Vampire have a reputation for being all about the emotional drama: they could reproduce that part of gothic horror, but not the actual horror.

  18. Ravenloft has the special distinction of being the setting for the first AD&D 2E game I ever played. Years later, I ran a 4 year long Play by Post game in the setting-- with the DM from that first campaign as one of the players! Good times.

  19. The old DC Heroes RPG's system of using APs to measure everything under the sun, and making all those tables interact in a uniform way, was one of the most brilliant things I've ever seen. Mutants & Masterminds 3 borrowed the entire system wholesale, which I thought was fantastic.

  20. Don't know, I never really fell for the boxed set even though I enjoyed I6 and I10 a lot. I simply found a setting based all on horror clichés just too much of a good thing. In my opinion such elements work best when used sparingly in conjunction with other elements to contrast them to. Also, the somewhat mysterious nature of Barovia from the original module vanished with the boxed set. At least that's how I felt it. What I did enjoy tremendously was the fantastic interior artwork by Stephen Fabian. I just couldn't get enough of his style. Beautiful.

  21. I think I bought - and still have - every 2E Ravenloft product; it took me about 5 years to track down RM4: House of Strahd for some reason.
    I tried picking up the 3E products as well, but they were just harder to find at the time, so I still have gaps there.
    It was probably my favourite 2E campaign line. I never actually ran a campaign in Ravenloft - I tended to run homebrew, and one player wouldn't play in any campaign with undead - but I was inspired by a lot of the ideas, monsters, and adventures.

  22. the hardback Domains of Dread (for me) was the best written rpg book ever. No exceptions. And I was also a big planescape fan.

  23. Just a couple personal notes. I haven't read all the others yet.
    I have also collected nearly all the Ravenloft stuff, except the more recent D20 products. There are a lot of great ideas there.
    I've been collecting and reading RPGs for a couple decades now. I go through phases, years, where I don't play, just read the stuff.
    I am trying to remedy that now with Google+ and eventuallt hope to run some games myself.