by Dex Tefler
The Demiplane of Dread, or Ravenloft, is one of the most unique Dungeons and Dragons lines. Billed as a Gothic Horror roleplaying setting, Ravenloft is one of the few AD&D settings which focuses more on atmospheric roleplaying and less tangible rewards and goals for a gaming party. Often sheer survival outstrips treasure or glory as the best outcome from an adventure. The first glimpse of Ravenloft was a standalone module published in 1983 which introduced Lord Strahd Von Zarovich, master of Castle Ravenloft, after which the module was named. Written by acclaimed fantasy authors Tracy and Laura Hickman, it was one of the most praised modules for
a number of years, spawning a sequel prior to the release of the full setting in 1990.
Ravenloft’s release established it as a fully realized gameworld, designed to compete with the rising popularity of other horror based systems like Call of Cthulhu or White Wolf’s World of Darkness. The timing proved fortuitous, as it coincided with Hollywood’s renewed interest in gothic horror like the release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Ravenloft also drew a surprising high caliber of existing and up and coming dark fantasy writers for the 24 official novels, sporting such names as Tanya Huff, Laurell K. Hamilton, Christie Golden and P. N. Elrod. Ravenloft was also the setting for three popular first person video games in the mid-nineties which won modest acclaim.
"My tormenters will never let me free. I know that now. But when I understand this mystery, I will teach my tormentors that they are not the masters of my fate."
The setting for Ravenloft is known as ‘The Demiplane of Dread’; a bizarre collection of lands surrounded by voluminous mists, occasionally dotted by ‘islands’ in the mists. The lands are wildly different in climate, nature and denizens, with only a few commonalities like the great Musarde River providing any consistency. The chaotic nature of the realm is based on the whims of the Dark Powers; a formless and mysterious force which created the demiplane. Acting through the mists themselves, the Dark Powers are capable of stealing people, lands and whole populations from
other realms and recreating them in Ravenloft. Each of the realms has a Dark Lord, usually a supernatural creature of great power, who is the ultimate power in their land. However, the realms are also prisons, which trap the Dark Lord in their borders and torment them with their greatest desires being held just slightly but constantly beyond their grasp.
The duality of the gameworld is one of the most intriguing aspects of Ravenloft. Are the Dark Powers actually a sort of judgement from the light or is it that tormenting evil is more satisfying than good? DMs are encouraged to approach the motives from different angles, which means that the slant of each game is always slightly different. The game features a clan of Gypsy analogues called the Vistani, who are the only people who can safely navigate the mists at the borders of the realm and see the future through their Tarroka decks.
The realms are a combination of reflections of lands from other D&D settings and original ones based on major works in gothic horror. Several major villains from other settings appear as Dark Lords in the original setting, such as Lord Soth from Dragonlance and Vecna from Greyhawk. Others include analogous figures like Dr. Mordenheim and his monster Adam, Lord Wilfred Godefry the ghost, Anhktepot the mummy and Azalin the Lich King.
"Evil natures are never without good teachers."
- Publilius Syrus
The original release of Ravenloft was a boxed set called ‘the black box’ which outlined the lands, the lords and the modifications to magic, spells and classes which were caused by the Dark Powers. A large number of modules were developed for the setting, usually to show off the unique evil and curse in each realm and their master. However, through the books and the modules, a larger story came into focus regarding Azalin and Strahd at its core. Azalin originally was pulled into the mists with his transformation into a lich and he ended up serving Strahd for several years
as the vampire sought to break the hold of the Dark Powers over him. Eventually, Azalin would leave Strahd’s land of Barovia and stepped into the mists as the new land of Darkon was made for him. For decades, the Lich continued his research until he was able to force a prophesied event – The Grand Conjunction – which freed the Dark Lords from their lands temporarily and wrecked havoc on the realm. Many lands disappeared or were absorbed into other lands, and several Dark Lords were killed or replaced.
In 1994, TSR released the second version of Ravenloft called ‘the red box’ which updated the realm with all the changes. The setting was further supported by a series of guides written by the factious Doctor Von Richten (Ravenloft’s own Van Helsing) who detailed creatures of darkness, the Vistani and other denizens of the night. A second attempt by Azalin to escape in 1997 resulted in a third wave of small changes, called ‘The Grim Harvest’, mostly used to update various personalities and schemes and to introduce a new range of villains and adventure
In 2000, WotC licensed Ravenloft to Arthaus Games and published under White Wolf’s Sword and Sorcery imprint. The new incarnation lost the lands and Dark Lords with ties to other D&D settings and overhauled the rules to reflect the d20 gaming system. While several books were published to support the line, it sold poorly and WW allowed the rights to revert to WotC. Since then, while numerous announcements have been made regarding a new release for Ravenloft materials and novels, so far no additional materials have been published.
"I see I underestimated you, Strahd. It is a common mistake."
As mentioned, Ravenloft is far more devoted to an atmospheric game experience than other D&D settings. The players are almost always outmatched by their opponents and find themselves used as pawns in larger games of intrigue played against other Dark Lords. It relies on misdirection, unknown threats and the constant feeling of dread, which can pose a challenge to inexperienced DMs. Another aspect of the setting is that the players are always under the constant threat of being corrupted by the Dark Powers themselves. Many standard spells are altered or increase the risk of being twisted and causing permanent damage. Paladins, Druids and Clerics are especially vulnerable to corruption, as their links to their gods are muted and good aligned characters find themselves more at risk from random attacks. Much like Call of
Cthulhu, the longer a character plays in Ravenloft, the more likely they will eventually fall to evil or madness.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is setting long running campaigns in Ravenloft, as the actions of the heroes will time and time again fail to do much to change the evil nature of the realm. They must content themselves with smaller victories and helping individuals and tiny groups as opposed to whole towns or cities. Magic items are rare compared to other settings and can come with substantial negatives.
Despite those challenges, Ravenloft offers one of the most varied settings for players. Several realms offer the chance to set adventures in the industrial age, with gunpower weapons and steam engines. There are realms of humid swamps and jungles, frigid lands locked in ice and ominous mountain ranges. The realm of Paridon is a massive industrial city which sets atop miles of dangerous sewers. So players can play a range of types, from traditional D&D groups of fighters, mages and clerics to more nuanced teams of monster hunters, investigators and inventors. The less traditional DMs find numerous opportunities to mix different elements together in the game, using the atmosphere of dread to both challenge and entertain their players.