Masque of the Red Death
Masque of the Red Death is a Victorian Gothic horror setting for use with the AD&D 2nd edition rules. It comes as a boxed set containing four books: the "A Guide to Gothic Earth" book (128 pages) by William W. Connors, and three short adventure books (32 pages each): "Red Jack" by Colin McComb, "Red Tide" by Shane Hensley, and "Red Death" by D. J. Heinrich. Also in the box is a poster with the cover painting by Robh Ruppel, a poster-sized map of the world circa 1890, and a Masque of the Red Death DM's screen.
A Guide to Gothic Earth
The premise behind the Gothic Earth setting is that an evil power from another dimension known only as the Red Death has been plaguing the earth for centuries and corrupting all magic. The "earth" of the Gothic Earth setting is a world much like our own circa 1890 except that magic works and supernatural creatures of many stripes (mostly horrific) lurk in the shadows (though their existence is not commonly known by the masses of humanity). The players take the roles of Victorian adventurers who battle the minions of the Red Death, whose sinister aim is nothing other than (gasp!) complete control of the planet.
The Red Death was invited to our fair planet accidentally during the reign of the pharaoh Djoser (c. 2700 BC) by his high priest Imhotep. Imhotep sought to protect the body and spirit of Djoser in the afterlife but his magic accidentally unleashed the Red Death upon the world instead. Ever since, any use of magic in the world, which was previously uncorrupted, now runs the risk of drawing the attention of the Red Death, which over time can corrupt a magic-using character, eventually making him a minion of the Red Death--even if the character's magic was originally used to thwart the minions of the Red Death itself!
William W. Connors starts "A Guide to Gothic Earth" with a description of the world's history in light of the activities of the Red Death, including, for example, how the famous wizard Merlin set up a bunch of cabals of wizards whose members were dedicated to fighting the Red Death, but most of which either lost members over time or became affiliated with the Red Death itself (its tendrils lurk everywhere--even Standard Oil, no doubt). Depending upon one's preferences, this history of Gothic Earth will either intrigue or annoy one. It annoyed me. The Red Death just feels like a gimmick; somehow, tracing all acts of evil around the world to one ueber-force seems to rob the setting of some of its interest or charm for me (others may see things differently). I would much have preferred there being several sources of evil, in competition with one another as well as with mankind, just because in real life there is seldom ever a single evil mastermind behind all our troubles. The Red Death gives a slightly comic-bookish feel to Gothic Earth for me, though it may appeal to the sensibilities of conspiracy theorists and the like. As far as I'm concerned, if there had to be a single mastermind behind all evil in Gothic Earth, I would just have assumed it should be Satan, insofar as he would fit in better with the whole Judeo-Christian / European occult setting in which the game is played (and yes, the game does focus primarily on Western cultures, though of course there is no reason why the game could not be extended into other cultural settings by an enterprising Dungeon Master).
The next section of the book is on character creation. Ability scores function much as in AD&D 2nd edition, though for some reason Connors sees fit to go through every aspect of ability scores and what they influence, writing other most headings a few generalities about Gothic Earth, followed by "this rule is the same as in the Player's Handbook" (or some such). Why not just mention the few rules which have changed? As it turns out, the space could have been better used giving rules for fear, horror, and madness checks, or for how the effects of spells are changed in Gothic Earth from standard AD&D (see below).
Gothic Earth characters are all human, because though other races like elves and dwarves exist, they are so rare they are best treated as monsters, and they hardly ever interact with humans. Because Masque of the Red Death is for the AD&D game, it must of course make use of character classes and levels, though these have been changed slightly to reflect the setting of Gothic Earth. There are four basic classes in Masque of the Red Death, corresponding to the four basic classes of AD&D: soldiers are good at combat, adepts can cast magic-user spells, mystics can cast cleric spells and turn undead, and tradesmen have many specialized skills--somewhat akin to thieves, though their skills may reflect those of many occupations, and need not be rogue-oriented.
In addition to these four classes, characters of each class may be members of certain "kits" associated with the class, which serve to further define their character and abilities. Members of the soldier class may be cavalrymen or sailors, for example, while tradesmen may take the detective, journalist, or physician kit (et al.).
The class-based system is more awkward for Gothic Earth characters than it is for standard AD&D characters. For one thing, the personality and background differences between adepts and mystics do not seem adequate to support the differences in their abilities. They both seem to be similar types of students of the occult. The adept class includes the metaphysician and qabalist kits, for example, and the differences between them and the mystic's medium and spiritualist kits are pretty slim. It would have been better if priests had the abilities of mystics, and mystics were considered a type of adept, but as it stands players who wish to play priest characters must take the "parson" kit for the tradesman class, which does not grant them the ability to cast spells. Speaking of the tradesman class, one of the awkward things about it is that it contains kits ranging from stout, hardy laborers to bookish scholars and effeminate dandies, yet all share the same hit die and combat progression tables. Surely, a day laborer should have more hit points than a scholar? And, more generally speaking, the AD&D class system, with its regular increases in hit points and combat ability, may be very difficult to justify for some Gothic Earth characters, particularly ones that don't engage in much combat.
The next chapter is on proficiencies, which have been changed somewhat from AD&D 2nd edition. Thieving abilities have been made into standard proficiencies, as they should have been in AD&D 2nd edition to begin with (and as has finally happened in D&D 3rd edition). There are new weapon proficiencies to cover the firearms available in Gothic Earth. Strangely, weapon specialization is not available to soldiers, yet the nonweapon proficiency "marksmanship", which increases the character's damage and chance to hit with a single weapon type by +1 per slot spent, is (shouldn't characters at least be able to specialize in fencing or archery, for example?). Proficiencies are also very important to spellcasting characters, because they must make a proficiency check each time they cast a spell, modified by -1 per spell level. Adepts use the spellcraft proficiency to cast spells, while mystics use the new spiritcraft proficiency to cast spells. This limitations spell use actually seems to fit the Gothic Earth setting well, as it is less heroic than standard AD&D settings, and magic should be less reliable, more of a struggle.
In addition to new proficiencies covering Victorian-era skills such as artillery, physics, botany, savoir-faire, and medicine, a few proficiencies give the character quasi-magical abilities, such as psychometry, which enables him to detect the psychic impressions left behind by traumatic events, and mesmerism, which enables him to recover buried memories from the mind of a willing subject.
The chapter on money and equipment contains a price list of common items in terms of US dollars, and brief descriptions of Victorian-era equipment, including cameras, firearms, and explosives. Names of other national currencies besides dollars are given, but Connors recommends avoiding conversion rates between the currencies, instead just referring to dollar values by the names of different currencies when traveling abroad. This may be convenient, but it does seem to put a horrible strain on realism.
One issue which arises in the chapter on equipment is the relatively high damage rolls allowed to firearms; hitting once with an army pistol does 2d6+1 damage, for example, and can be fired up to 6 times in a single round (up to 3 times with penalties to hit). This seems like an awful lot of damage for a single bullet from a pistol, especially since the minimum result possible is 3 points damage (no flesh wound, that, on a 1st level adept). Furthermore, dice of damage for firearms are re-rolled and the new roll added to the original whenever the result is a "6" on a 6-sided die (this can continue as long as 6's are rolled). This latter rule nicely reflects the lethal damage of firearms, and their penetrating power is represented by rules governing the relative ineffectiveness of traditional AD&D-style armors against them. However, I am still uncomfortable with the base damage ranges allowed for many of the firearms, particularly considering that their damage potential is greatly increased by the re-roll 6's rule. Perhaps the army pistol should have been given a damage of 1d6+1, for example, while the repeating rifle, which is listed as doing 3d6+1, should have been given 2d6+1 instead. Mortality rates are high enough among low-level characters.
The next chapter, which is on magic, contains rules for spellcasting and for changing the standard effects of AD&D spells when they are cast in Gothic Earth. Spellcasting is more difficult, because magic rarer and more obscure than standard AD&D settings, and this is reflected by having to make a proficiency check to cast a spell, as well as longer casting times for all spells (spells that normally have an initiative modifier now take that many rounds to cast, spells which used to have a casting time in rounds now take that many turns to cast, and so forth).
It is in this chapter that the necessity of owning other Ravenloft products to play in Gothic Earth first becomes clear. Masque of the Red Death is touted as a Ravenloft "campaign expansion," and indeed some rules from the Ravenloft campaign setting are needed to play, namely the rules governing the effects of some spells, and the rules governing powers checks (basically, the chance a character has to attract the attention of nasties like the Red Death), and fear, horror, and madness checks (which are something like the AD&D equivalent of the Call of Cthulhu sanity rules). These rules should have been included in the Masque of the Red Death boxed set for two reasons: (1) ease of reference, and (2) by requiring the ownership of Ravenloft products in addition to the standard AD&D rulebooks, Masque of the Red Death could appeal to only a small portion of the RPG market. The discontinuation of the Gothic Earth product line seems to reinforce the validity of the latter point.
Unfortunately, beyond the common rules used by both settings and the fact that both deal with Gothic horror (albeit of different stripes), there is little in common between Gothic Earth and the Ravenloft setting. Characters cannot even travel from Gothic Earth to other dimensions like Ravenloft, on account of the magical disaster caused by Imhotep, as explained in the chapter on magic. This means that while Ravenloft characters might be able to travel to Gothic Earth, they can never travel back out again. This seems especially foolish, as the possibilities for cross-setting Gothic Earth/Ravenloft adventuring (imagine the Mists of Ravenloft enveloping an unsuspecting character taking a late-night stroll across London Bridge. . .) are thereby greatly diminished. The only other connection which Ravenloft shares with Gothic Earth, besides the logo, is the mysterious type of gypsy known as the Vistani, which are briefly described on the last page of the Guide to Gothic Earth. If one wants information on them, one needs to buy a Ravenloft sourcebook, however.
The chapter on combat contains rules for using firearms, which is quite a tricky business considering that an AD&D round lasts 1 minute long, and it only takes a few seconds in real life to empty a revolver's chambers. To account for this difficulty, the round is divided into two parts; characters with firearms make half their attacks during the first part, in order of initiative, and half their attacks in the second part, in the same order. A character may also take such options as aimed fire and panic fire which alter the number of attacks he has per round with a firearm but also affect his chance to hit. Rules are also given for resolving damage and other effects of dynamite, kegs of gunpowder, and nitroglycerin.
The next chapter is "An Atlas of Gothic Earth" which gives an overview of many of the major as well as the more mysterious locations if the world, from London, England to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. There is some good historical background here, as well as some nice adventure ideas, though there is at least one mistake: for some reason, Boston Public Latin School and Harvard University are described as "the first formal schools established in the Americas," even though Connors accurately states elsewhere that both Mexico City and Lima, Peru had universities nearly a century earlier. Nevertheless, the descriptions in this chapter help give the reader a feel for Gothic Earth, its major players and major mysteries, and provide overviews of possible locales for a Gothic Earth campaign.
Following this chapter is an appendix detailing the abilities of the various character kits, an appendix giving stats and background for various "Villains of Gothic Earth" (including Frankenstein's Monster, Professor James Moriarty, and Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Dracula), most of whom are powerful AD&D monsters of one sort or another (Frankenstein's monster, for example, is a flesh golem). The third and final appendix is a brief guide for Dungeon Masters setting up a campaign in Gothic Earth, with descriptions of likely adventure themes (e.g. mad scientist) and the effects on play of such technologies as the telegraph, railroads, and photography. The complete rules for fear, horror, and madness checks should have been in this section, but instead all we get are a few generalities which are not sufficient to play with, but are more than someone who already owns the rules in another sourcebook needs to know.
The Adventure Booklets
These are three decent, if not exceptional, adventures, each written for a different level of characters. "Red Jack" is intended for low-level (1-3) characters, and takes place in Boston. The characters are interested in the occult (Cthulhu-style investigators, which is probably the type of character for which the Gothic Earth setting was intended) who investigate a series of murders bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Jack the Ripper murders which happened in London not too long ago. (I will say nothing further about the plot, on the off-chance that a future player of the adventure should read this review.) In the center of the booklet is a two-page map of street map of Boston, which would be much more useful if more streets and locations were named. Also included in "Red Jack" is a brief but helpful description of Boston's highlights.
"Red Tide" is written for 5th-6th level characters and involves the investigation of a strange shipwreck in San Francisco Bay. The characters are hired by insurance salesman Johnathan Meeker to help determine if his firm is responsible for covering the loss, and eventually they discover more than they expected, etc. If I am not mistaken, the names of the non-player characters in this adventure are more corny than usual: the insurance salesman Johnathan Meeker (guess what, he's meek), the mysterious man in black Mortimer Tombs (I'm not making this up), the very pretty woman named Mirabella, and another name which I will not reveal but whose meaning is a major clue to what's going on. The writing seems good apart from the names, but I am not exactly a connoisseur of fine adventures (probably because I'm such a poor writer of them myself), so caveat emptor.
"Red Death" is for character of levels 7-9, and it is based on the Edgar Allan Poe story which gives the Masque of the Red Death setting its name. The characters are invited to a masquerade ball held by Prince Prospero; the masque is being held in honor of the 50th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's death, and is meant to reenact the masque described in his famous story. The adventure is definitely interesting, but has two significant flaws. The first is that Prince Prospero is supposed to be from Transylvania, but few of the main characters have Transylvanian-sounding names, and there is little else to indicate that the adventure should take place in Transylvania (other than that region's reputation for horror). The languages spoken in Transylvania are Vlach (Romanian), Magyar (Hungarian), and some German, but these are the names of the major NPC's: Prospero (his name should be in Magyar, as he's a noble), the lord of Wyldecote (which sounds like an English manor, not a Transylvanian one); his footman Antonio; his butler Edgerton; and others. There are a couple characters with German names, but they are the exception. Relating to this problem is another egregious error: the adventure is described as taking place in Romania, but at this time in history Transylvania was part of Austria-Hungary, not Romania. (Similar confusion as to the status of Transylvania in the Victorian era may be seen in the "A Guide to Transylvania" supplement for Masque of the Red Death, which is well-written, but which contains maps showing modern Romania [instead of Romania in the late 19th century, which included Wallachia and Moldava, but not Transylvania, which was still part of Hungary] and Yugoslavia, a country which did not even exist in the Victorian era. Sigh.)
The other significant flaw is that the structure of the adventure seems a little heavy-handed. Without giving too much away, Prince Prospero and the PC's are forced to operate under constraints which are necessary for the adventure to work properly, but which seem very arbitrary given the setting.
Posters, Screen, and Pics
The color poster of Robh Ruppel's cover painting is unfortunately not very inspiring. It is not very detailed so it shows up much better as the cover for the "A Guide to Gothic Earth" book and the cover of the boxed set. The painting shows a Victorian adventurer near the front of a steam engine aiming his pistol at a figure who has just removed a human-like mask from his face to reveal a skull where his head should be. The painting does a nice job of setting the mood, but I was never tempted to hang the poster up on my wall. Not even close.
The poster-sized color map of the world is nice but is marred by a lack of detail. The map is surrounded by reproductions of Victorian era illustrations, which are quite attractive in their own way, but which probably should have been forgone in favor of more room for detail on the map.
The DM's screen has 3 panels, each of which has on one side an illustration taken from the covers of the 3 adventure booklets, and on the other side tables for weapons, turning undead, item saving throws, character saving throws, powers checks, explosives, etc. The illustrations by Steven Fabian (who also illustrated the Ravenloft campaign setting) are nice and ghoulish and do a good job of setting the mood.
The black and white interior illustrations to "A Guide to Gothic Earth" and the 3 adventure booklets are by Ned Dameron. Some of them are very good (such as the two-page illustration of Prospero Hall in the center of the "Red Death" adventure booklet), but most are only adequate. They seem to lack sufficient detail and character. It would have been better to use Victorian-era drawings like the ones used around the color map, or else to use modern drawings done in the meticulous style of Victorian-era lithographs. Dameron's drawings are just a little too loose and sloppy to do the job. He does come close, however.
Masque of the Red Death was a good idea but suffers from some problems of execution. The idea is promising because rarely has the AD&D game been extended into a post-medieval setting (the other notable exception having been the "A Mighty Fortress" campaign sourcebook, which covered the Elizabethan era), and Masque of the Red Death makes it look as if the idea could work, if done correctly. AD&D's rich supply of monsters and magic could flesh out the fantasy and horror elements of a Victorian setting; imagine a Victorian Unseelie Court ruled by Lolth, for example, or a band of tinker gnomes hiding out in the Swiss Alps. In fact, one of Masque of the Red Death's limitations is that is dwells only on the horror theme, and not on fantasy, even though AD&D might be an even better vehicle for a Victorian fantasy setting like Castle Falkenstein than a horror setting like Cthulhu by Gaslight. The flaws in Masque of the Red Death's execution are partially rules-based, including the absence of some necessary rules (found only in other Ravenloft products), the somewhat awkward class-based system, the inappropriateness of minute-long rounds when characters are using firearms (D&D 3rd edition's 6-second rounds would work better), and the high damage rates of firearms.
The setting-based flaws of Masque of the Red Death are perhaps largely a matter of taste, because some gamers might not mind the idea that a single arch-villain is behind each and every adventure, and that all magic has been corrupted and attracts the attention of this sinister being. However, despite these problems, I still have a high opinion of Masque of the Red Death, as much for what it suggests, as for what it is able to accomplish. Even if one does not use the setting as it stands, it can provide many ideas for how to create a D&D Victorian campaign, and for that alone it may be worth your while.Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 3 (Average)