Old soldiers never die...
For more than three decades, Dr. Rudolph van Richten stood against the forces of darkness, and hunted their servants in the far corners of the land of Mists. Now he had thought his long battle over, had thought he could spend his declining years in quiet enjoyment with old friends.
But for some, a tragic end is inevitable.
Dark forces have been gathering in the Mists. Their objective is to see Ravenloft's foremost expert on the supernatural destroyed, shattered in spirit as well as in body. From the crumbling edifice of Van Richten's childhood home, an enemy long thought vanquished spins a web of powerful evils and lost souls, drawing Van Richten to his doom. And then a group of heroes gets trapped in the web as well. . . .
Witness the final stand of Rudolph van Richten!
Inside this box is a grand-scale Ravenloft adventure that pushes heroes to the brink of madness, and draws them into the terrifying scheme to annihilate Rudolph van Richten.
The set contains:
- Sea of Madness, a 96-page book detailing the island of Dominia and relating the events that start the cycle of doom.
- Homecoming, a 64-page book describing the Van Richten family estate and the large haunted mansion known as Bleak House. Suitable for use with the Bleak House campaign or the Masque of the Red Death setting, this adventure is designed so that it can be played several times, and no two experiences will be the same.
- Heroes, Monsters, and Settings, a 32-page book containing game statistics for some of Ravenloft's best known, yet never detailed, villains; a new type of vampire; information on Martira Bay in Darkon; and maps intended for use with the Bleak House campaign.
- A color map revealing the layout and secrets of the Bleak House itself.
Bleak House: The Death of Rudolph van Richten (1996), by William W. Connors and Dave Gross, is a boxed adventure for Ravenloft. It was published in March 1996.
About the Title. Bleak House (1852-1853) is also the name of one of Charles Dicken's major novels. The real house now named Bleak House, in Broadstairs, Kent, was frequently visited by Dickens, but there's no indication it was the basis of the novelistic Bleak House, which is located in St Albans, Hertfordshire.
Origins (I): Continuing the Ravenloft Line. As the Ravenloft line shambled to the end of its second incarnation, it consisted of adventures, boxed sets, and Van Richten Guides for various monsters. Bleak House manages to combine all of those elements, making it a capstone of the line.
The only other new material that followed before TSR ended support for the Ravenloft Campaign Setting (1994) was a three-part finale adventure.
Origins (II): An Adventurous Capstone. Bleak House reads like a capstone not just because it combines Van Richten from the Guides with an adventure published as a boxed set, but also because it incorporates foes and backstory from many previous adventures and supplements. The Van Richten Guides get the best attention, with many of the characters and events mentioned in those books being made physical here, but Bleak House also reaches back as far as RA1: "Feast of Goblyns" (1990), the first adventure for the original Ravenloft line, to bring back a villain.
Origins (III): Another Ravenloft. Bleak House also reads like it was a purposeful attempt to recreate the successful origins of the line in I6: "Ravenloft" (1983). The two bookends of Bleak House each offer a large sandbox environment to explore, complete with extensive backgrounds, architectural maps, and powerful villains. There's even a fortune reading to determine results, just like in the original.
Genre Tropes: Gothic Horror. The genre tropes of gothic horror are sprinkled liberally into this adventure, which includes imprisonment in an asylum and an extended visit to a haunted house.
Metaplotting Along. As the title promises, Bleak House brings about the end of Rudolph van Richten, a constant presence in the Ravenloft line since the release of the original Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990).
Adventure Tropes: Imprisoned! Many of the Ravenloft adventures begin with the characters imprisoned (or killed!) in some way. Bleak House offers perhaps the most artful use of this trope. There's no battle that must be lost; instead, the characters literally walk into their prisons, of their own free will.
Adventure Tropes: The Inevitable Fortunes. One of the most interesting elements of the Hickmans' original "Ravenloft" (1983) adventure was its use of "fortunes" to determine where certain objects were in the adventure and how the finale would be run. Tracy Hickman later repeated the trope in his Dragonlance adventures, while it shows up again here, using the Tarokka deck that had become popular in the Ravenloft line.
Adventure Tropes: The Sandboxes & Delves. Though Bleak House contains extensive background and story, it's in large part not the sort of event-driven adventure found across most of the D&D line in the '90s. Instead, it creates well-storied environments that players can adventure in. There's a plain tower delve in the middle, but the investigations of an asylum at the start and a haunted house at the end are much more like the sandboxed adventure of the original "Ravenloft".
Adventure Tropes: You and Him Fight. The only place that Bleak House falls to the heavy-handed storytelling of the '90s is in its scripted finales, some of which descend into players watching NPCs fight.
Exploring Ravenloft. Bleak House offers a visit to a few different Ravenloft domains. It starts in Dominia and includes a nice map of the domain as well as some other info expanding on the initial details in the Ravenloft Campaign Setting. It also briefly visits Darkon, previously the setting of RQ3: "From the Shadows" (1992). Here, the details on the city of Mantira Bay are quite extensive.
The adventure ends in the Van Richten estate which may be a free-floating (previously unknown) realm, or which could even be located on the Gothic Earth described in Masque of the Red Death and Other Tales (1994) — though if this was an attempt to popularize Ravenloft's twin line, it was a bit late, as the world of the Gothic Earth would also come to a close in late 1996.
NPCs of Note. The most obvious and important NPC of Bleak House is Van Richten, who was introduced in Ravenloft: Realm of Terror and who narrated all the Van Richten Guides (1991-1995) — a line that came to an end at TSR with "Van Richten's Guide to the Vistani" (1995). As the title of Bleak House promises, Van Richten dies, though the exact circumstances (and results) are left to the whims of the Tarokka deck.
The major villains of Bleak House are all drawn from past supplements as well.
- Dacloud Heinfroth (or Dr. Dominiani is the repeat villain from RA1: "Feast of Goblyns" (1990). Following the Grand Conjunction in Ravenloft Campaign Setting he became the lord of Dominia, an island of terror, which is the role he takes herein.
- Baron Metus is Van Richten's oldest nemeses, long ago slain by the vampire hunter, but returned here. He was mentioned as far back as RR3: "Van Richten's Guide to Vampires" (1991).
- The Gentleman Caller was a more recent addition to the Ravenloft lore, first appearing as a background figure in The Evil Eye (1995). Editor Steve Miller ensured that he continued to appear in mysterious roles over the years, and that's how he's used here, as the annoying fellow who resurrects Metus.
- Radanavich was the most recent entrant to Ravenloft lore, having appeared as an architect of Van Richten's woes in "Van Richten's Guide to the Vistani" (1995). Her history there nicely dovetails with this final Van Richten adventure.
All in all, the use of so many past NPCs shows not just that Bleak House was a purposeful capstone to the second Ravenloft line, but also that the line had a carefully designed and intricate backstory, unlike almost any other D&D setting.
Monsters of Note. The cerebral vampires make their debut and only notable appearance here. However if there's a monster who really gets a spotlight in Bleak House, it's probably the ghosts. The eponymous house of the adventure is filled with spirits, ever repeating their death days, creating a nicely thematic look at ghosts that makes them more than just monsters.
About the Creators. By 1996, Connors was a core member of the Ravenloft team, one of the Kargat who controlled its destiny. Gross was a TSR editor and author, though he has written far more novels than RPG supplements.
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.