A New Realm of Horror Adventures
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.
Ravenloft is 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...
What lurks beneath the covers of this box?
- A 144-page book detailing a complete, terrifying 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 over 30 new lands and the powerful lords who rule them - from vampires, ghosts, and werewolves to men who are even more monstrous.
- 4 big, full-color maps, detailing deadly domains and shadowy settlements.
- 24 full-color sheets, featuring haunted castles, horrid houses, and fiendish folk.
Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990), by Bruce Nesmith with Andria Hayday, is the first boxed set for the Ravenloft campaign setting. It was published in June 1990.
Origins (I): Continuing the AD&D 2e Worlds. When TSR produced Spelljammer (1989) shortly after the release of AD&D 2e (1989), it seemed like a wonderful one-off — a new campaign world to complement the classic settings of Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and the Forgotten Realms. But when Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990) followed, it suddenly became apparent that TSR was pushing hard on settings for their new edition — and that their appearance might just be a yearly event. In fact, yearly releases of new settings is exactly what happened, and it would cause TSR big problems down the line as setting piled atop setting. But, for now, Ravenloft was just the fifth major world for AD&D.
Like Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, and Spelljammer, Ravenloft began with a box. Fans call Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990) the "black box" to differentiate it from the red-boxed Ravenloft Campaign Setting (1994) that followed several years later. However, that boxed format was Ravenloft's only major similarity to the settings that came before it.
TSR's three AD&D 1e campaign worlds walked the line between high fantasy and sword & sorcery, but that was changing with the new 2e worlds. Spelljammer started the trend by moving into a very different genre: science fantasy. Ravenloft similarly focused on something new: gothic horror. The idea of new settings featuring new genres was one that would continue through most of TSR's campaign settings of the '90s.
Origins (II): Continuing the Ravenloft Line. Ravenloft was, of course, not the first appearance of gothic horror in AD&D. It all began with I6: "Ravenloft" (1983), an adventure by Tracy and Laura Hickman that introduced Count Strahd von Zarovich and his dark land of Barovia. A few years later the Hickmans returned with I10: "Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill" (1986), which revived Strahd in the village of Mordentshire.
Fast forward to the 2e era. I6: "Ravenloft" continued to be a very popular adventure, but at TSR adventures were out-of-favor and settings were in. So in 1989, Bruce Nesmith and Andria Hayday were asked to turn the Hickmans' popular module into a full world of adventure.
Nesmith and Hayday soon decided that Strahd's realm of Barovia wasn't really suited for a campaign. It didn't offer flexibility or variety. So, the creators opted instead to concentrate on the adventure's atmosphere. The result was a "demiplane of dread" that included many horrific lands, including the lands of Barovia and Mordent from the two "Ravenloft" modules. Strahd's backstory from the original "Ravenloft" was even incorporated into the story of how Ravenloft, the demiplane of dread, came to be.
Genres: Horrific Tidings. As D&D's take on horror roleplaying, Ravenloft had two major competitors in the field: the cosmic horror of Call of Cthulhu (1981) and the modern horror of Chill (1984). Ravenloft went another direction, focusing instead on gothic horror. The setting's list of suggested reading included five novels that framed the genre: Frankenstein (1818), Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), Dracula (1897), and The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
The choice of gothic horror was actually a daring one, as gothic horror was as out-of-favor in the general population as adventures were at TSR. It had been supplanted by the slasher horror of movies like Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). If the designers were trying to stake out their own ground for horror roleplaying, this was a great start.
Creating a horror variant of D&D is tougher than it sounds because D&D is generally non-horrific, thanks to its powerful PCs. Ravenloft did its best with a spooky setting and some changes to the core D&D rules, but it also put some of the responsibility for horror in the hands of the GMs by describing "Techniques of Terror" that they could use to create the horrific atmosphere at the heart of the setting.
A year after the release of Ravenloft, White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) appeared. It was a wildly successful horror roleplaying game that might even have outsold D&D during TSR's problems of 1997. Its popularity caused TSR management to request that Ravenloft move "toward a darker, more psychologically sinister outlook". The Ravenloft designers refused and the success of that decision would soon become obvious. The Ravenloft line ran for a decade and a half through three major editions. Ironically the Ravenloft publisher during its d20 days (2001-2005) was none other than White Wolf.
Expanding D&D. Though Dragonlance required some minor changes to the D&D rules, particularly in its days without gods, Ravenloft was the first D&D setting that made major shifts to the D&D game — both through rules variations and through new rule systems. Many classes, spells, and magic items were revamped, either to create a feeling of horror or to account for the fact that Ravenloft was a demiplane.
Ravenloft also contained the game's first major rules for psychological responses, with its fear checks and horror checks. This sort of "psychological saving throw" originated with Call of Cthulhu's sanity checks and soon become de rigeur for the horror genre. Ravenloft would add one more check with the publication of Forbidden Lore (1992): the madness check.
As part of its focus on horror, Ravenloft also put more attention than ever on the idea of characters doing evil, outlining rules for what happened as characters started to slip over to the dark side. It was somewhat surprising given TSR's general move away from controversial elements such as demons, devils, and assassins at the time. However, it wouldn't be the last time that Ravenloft touched upon things that the rest of the D&D line wasn't willing to.
Finally, Ravenloft also included rules for curses and for fortune-telling; both of these systems would be further expanded in Forbidden Lore as well.
Exploring Ravenloft. Ravenloft introduces the Demiplane of Dread, a campaign setting that is shockingly small. Its "core" domain is just 180x220 miles, or about 40,000 square mile total — the size of Kentucky, the 37th largest of the United States. Despite its small size, Ravenloft's 40,000 square miles spn 26 different domains, including Barovia and Mordent. All of the core domains are overviewed in Ravenloft, as are eight "islands".
There's one quirk in the domain of Ravenloft as it appears in this premiere publication: it's described as a living realm that has a mind of its own. In the next few years, this idea would be replaced by hints about "Dark Powers" that had created the demiplane and still oversaw it.
Exploring the Multiverse. Like Spelljammer, Ravenloft provides a way to crossover all the existing TSR settings. Gates from the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Krynn, and the Oriental Adventures realm of Kara-Tur are all detailed in this book, while some of the domain lords are also crossovers from those settings. This crossover was never as important to Ravenloft as it was to Spelljammer and the later Planescape Campaign Setting (1994). Nonetheless, it represented another element of the setting.
Monsters of Note. The Hickmans' original "Ravenloft" adventure had been all about redefining the vampire. The Ravenloft line would continue that trend or reinvention, starting with a section detailing lycanthropes and vampires. Ravenloft also creates a few variants of classic D&D undead including a loup-garou werewolf, a nosferatu vampire, and the Strahd versions of skeletons and zombies — the last two carryovers from the previous "Ravenloft" adventures.
More widely, the domains of Ravenloft present many types of horror. Flesh golems and mad scientists pay respect to a few more of Ravenloft's sources, though readers would have to wait for RR1: "Darklords" (1991) for the appearance of a Hill-like house. Cultists, ghosts, liches, mesmerists, mind flayers, and vengeful vistani fill out other domains.
NPCs of Note. There are numerous notable characters in Ravenloft, including fourteen domain lords, though four are particularly important:
- Azalin is a lich and the ruler of the realm of Darokin. He'd previously appeared in I10: "House on Gryphon Hill" (1986). Though he was a newcomer, he was the most powerful lord of Ravenloft and so would be important to the future of the line.
- Lord Soth is a Krynnish death knight who first appeared in DL8: "Dragons of War" (1985) and had potentially been destroyed in a semi-canonical adventure in DL16: "World of Krynn" (1988). (Apparently not.)
- Strahd von Zarovich is the vampire who got it all started in I6: "Ravenloft" (1983) and I10: "Ravenloft II" (1986).
- Finally, Dr. Rudolph Van Richten isn't an evil lord, but instead a human who is probably based on Peter Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing. He would headline numerous supplements in the Ravenloft line.
About the Creators. Ravenloft was designed by Bruce Nesmith and developed by Andria Hayday. Nesmith had been writing for TSR since 1984, with much of his prior focus on Marvel Super Heroes. He would continue to work on the Ravenloft line through 1994. Hayday had also been working for TSR since the early '80s (with a gap for her time at Pacesetter). As an editor and developer, she didn't often receive top-line credit, but was nonetheless crucial to the creation of lines like Ravenloft and Al-Qadim (1992).
About the Product Historian
The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to firstname.lastname@example.org.