Ravenloft Campaign Setting
Ravenloft Campaign Setting Capsule Review by Alan D. Kohler on 04/12/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
Arthaus leverages the D20 system well to bring gothic horror roleplaying to life, making this the best implementation of the Ravenloft setting yet.
Product: Ravenloft Campaign Setting
Author: Andrew Cermak, John W. Mangrum, and Andrew Wyatt
Company/Publisher: Arthaus / White Wolf
Line: Dungeons & Dragons 3e
Page count: 224
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Alan D. Kohler on 04/12/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Horror Gothic
Ravenloft Campaign Setting
Arthaus is the newest company under White Wolf's d20 publishing banner, Sword & Sorcery. Ravenloft marks their first d20 System product.
But wait, is not Ravenloft a Wizards of the Coast property? Well, indeed it is. Much like Kenzer & Company did in licensing the D&D moniker for their Kalamar setting and licensing the 1st edition AD&D rules for Hackmaster, Arthaus licensed the Ravenloft property from Wizards of the Coast.
And the book is in good hands, or so it would seem. Some people who do not know the inner workings of Arthaus may fear that under the auspices of White Wolf, Ravenloft might see some changes away from the setting that they know and love. Perhaps many of these fears would be allayed by the fact that most of the people working on Ravenloft are drawn from the Kargatane, the noteworthy producer of Ravenloft fan materials.
A First Look
Ravenloft is a 224-page hardbound book. The cover is a shiny black with the familiar "tome" look that so many d20 publishers are using these days. It bears the familiar old Ravenloft logo and a red oval on the front with a hazy image of a vampire within.
The interior is black and white. The pages are adorned with headers and footers that have a gothic flourish, and the margins have a grayscale parchment pattern. The pages beginning each chapter have a more detailed gothic motif graphic and a page of flavor text in a gothic style font. The interior artwork and cartography is very good. The layout and much of the artwork will seem familiar if you have some of the Sword & Sorcery Studio hardbound books.
The text density is fairly high, though the margins are fairly broad. The book is priced at $29.95, which is more expensive than other Sword & Sorcery hardbacks of this size (probably owing to licensing fees). Overall, this gives the book less content for your money than do these other hardbacks.
A Deeper Look
Notice: In describing the book, I shall not assume that the reader is necessarily familiar with past editions of the Ravenloft setting. Though some comparison will be made to prior editions, this is a stand alone setting that should be suitable for people who never played using the setting.
The Ravenloft campaign setting book for 3e Dungeons & Dragons is sorted into six chapters.
Chapter One: The World of Ravenloft
The chapter kicks off with some notes about the nature of the setting, including how it will be different from the previous incarnations of the setting and a guarded disclaimer that you should not expect this book to emulate White Wolf's brand of horror, as it exists in their own settings.
This section states that the setting will be the same gothic-horror inspired Ravenloft that you are used to, but will be more self-contained than you are used to if you played in the Ravenloft setting before. This should not be all that surprising: in addition to the fact that Wizards of the Coast has been moving to disentangle its settings from one another under 3rd edition, Arthaus only licensed Ravenloft, not all of the other settings that once touched on it. That being the case, you will not find such elements as Lord Soth, Vecna, or the Dark Sun derived realm of Kalidnay.
In my estimation, this is probably for the best. This version of Ravenloft seems less like a fragmented extension of other campaign settings and more like its own setting.
Next, the chapter dives into a short recounting of the evolution of gothic horror tales. This familiarizes the reader with the genre that the Ravenloft setting hopes to emulate and details some defining characteristic of such tales. This includes the gothic castles that give the genre its name, the villainous masters of such structures, and their twisted plights.
The chapter then describes the underlying traits that define Ravenloft, traits which help it to differ from the typical D&D style fantasy. For example:
The chapter includes a section on history. As with previous versions of Ravenloft, the vampire lord Strahd and his domain of Barovia are the keystones of the setting. Strahd's deeds attract the attention of the Dark Powers and Barovia becomes the original domain of Ravenloft. It is followed by other lands and other creatures who are drawn into the realm.
As already mentioned, references to other Wizards of the Coast properties are removed. In some cases, such as Vecna, all references are stricken. In the case of Lord Soth, his name is removed and he is only referred to as a "mysterious black knight" that once ruled, but his domain is still part of the setting.
The history presented is similar to that presented in the 2nd edition AD&D Domains of Dread book. It is somewhat streamlined from that book, with some of the less significant historical events omitted, and with a few modifications and recent events that advance the time line.
There are two rather significant alterations in the recent events. First, the famous crusader against evil, Rudolf Van Richten, considered to have died in Domains of Dread, is missing in Arthaus' book. Second, the lich king Azalin has returned in recent years.
Finally, the geography of Ravenloft is briefly discussed. The land is highly mutable in Ravenloft, with realms often disappearing and others coming into existence. There are collections of domains called clusters. The largest cluster is called the Core and contains more than thirty domains. Five smaller clusters exist with unifying themes: the desert Amber Wastes, the arctic Frozen Reaches, the Shadowlands, the Verdurous Lands, and the alien infested city of Zheristia. Finally, there are a number of singular domains isolated in the mists called islands of terror.
Owing to their relative isolation, the cultures of Ravenloft vary widely. The first chapter defines a number of cultural levels (CL) with which to classify the various cultures. The lowest is CL 0, which describes a savage area untouched by civilization. At the other extreme is CL 9, which describes a renaissance culture with innovations such as firearms and printing presses.
Chapter One concludes with a brief glossary of terms used in Ravenloft.
Chapter Two: Player Characters
Chapter Two describes adaptations used to fit the Dungeons & Dragons 3e character creation rules to Ravenloft. The first topic addressed is character races.
Each character race has a brief overview. This includes a discussion of their typical nature and traits, their homelands in Ravenloft, recommended feats, and a base outcast rating.
Outcast rating is a new mechanic introduced for Ravenloft, representing the trepidation and xenophobia inherent to the setting. Each race has its own outcast ratings, though some domains have their outcast ratings as well. When dealing with members of other races, a character subtracts the outcast rating from the results of Bluff, Diplomacy, Gather Information, and Perform checks. The outcast rating, however, is added to the result of Intimidate checks.
Most of the standard D&D PC races exist in Ravenloft. There are no orcs in Ravnloft, and thus no half-orcs; half-orc statistics, though, are used for a race called calibans. Calibans are humans that were exposed to the dark magic or unnaturally cursed while in the womb. The result is a misshapen, scorned brute.
A new PC race is introduced for the Ravenloft setting, the half-Vistani. Half-Vistani are the result of a union between a human and one of the Vistani, a race of gypsy-like humanoids with supernatural insight. Half-Vistani have a Wisdom bonus owing to this racial insight, but as half-breeds they lack the Charisma of the Vistani. Half-Vistani receive a bonus to Wilderness Lore checks. They receive other skill bonuses, and their favored class is based on the Vistani tribe from which their blood flows.
All of the standard character classes are used in Ravenloft. Some classes have modifications to their abilities. For the most part, these modifications describe how the abilities interact with attributes and special rules of the setting, though some have further modifications. For example, a paladin's detect evil ability cannot discern an evil alignment, but paladins can detect chaos, detect innocents (see Chapter 3), and detect the true nature of evil outsiders.
One significant change is that familiars and animal companions in Ravenloft use the dread companion template. Dread companions are always evil and are treated as magical beasts.
The chapter includes a number of revisions and special uses of existing skills in Ravenloft and introduces a new skill: Hypnosis. Hypnosis is a class skill for monks, sorcerers, and wizards. Hypnosis operates in a fashion similar to the hypnosis spell, except that the save is based on an opposed skill check, and you may not retry the skill on an unwilling target.
A number of new and interesting feats are introduced in Ravenloft. Most of these feats are appropriate to situations that are common in the setting or involve rules used in the setting. For example:
New deities are described for cleric characters. Along with these new faiths come two new domains. The Mists domain, available to followers of Ezra, includes a number of fog- and mist-related domain spells, and the domain ability to call upon protection from the mists. The Repose domain has a number of domain spells targeted at combating undead, and a domain ability to prevent dead creatures from being reanimated as undead.
There is a brief section describing new equipment for the Ravenloft setting. The major part of this section involves gunpowder weapons, available in realms with a high culture level.
Finally, the chapter concludes with a short list of questions for players to ponder when making their characters. This acts as a guide to fleshing out the personality, goals, and motives of the character.
Chapter Three: The Ways of the World
The third chapter is mostly new rules for use in the Ravenloft setting. These rules are primarily to support the horror nature of the setting. Most of these rules are merely updates of rules that existed in prior versions of the setting.
First is fear, horror, and madness checks. These mechanics attempt to bring forth the jarring effects of horrifying entities and situations upon the fragile psyches of the PCs. Fear checks are exercised when a character is exposed to sudden and/or great danger - or the appearance thereof. Horror checks are called for when the characters witness gut wrenching events of great cruelty or other revolting revelations. Madness checks are called for in instances where the character's mind is touched by an alien entity, is the victim of deliberate attempts to shatter his psyche, or other extreme events that cause his grip on reality to crumble.
All three of these checks are treated as Willpower saves. Different DCs and modifiers apply to each, however, and the effects differ for each. Rules are presented describing what the character's reaction should be, and means of recovering from such effects are presented.
The second major staple of the Ravenloft setting is curses. In a typical D&D game, curses are wrought by some sort of magic. While this is one method from which curses can arise in Ravenloft, there are other means as well. A creature that is wronged can pronounce a curse against a transgressor, a curse that the very nature of Ravenloft brings to pass. Or a creature may invite destruction on itself by succumbing to its own lusts and temptations.
Though examples are provided for the nature of the curse and sample mechanics are given for curses, the section is primarily a DM guideline. Drama is considered the driving factor, and the chapter provides examples on how to handle the curse to achieve a more interesting story.
The next mechanic that is central to the nature of the setting is the Powers Check. Powers Checks are made whenever a character performs an evil or despicable act that draws the attention of the Dark Powers. By succumbing to temptations, a character slowly becomes more and more corrupt, and may soon become a loathsome being of great evil. This is represented mechanically by requiring a percentile roll called a dark powers check whenever the character resorts to an act regarded as evil. If this roll fails, the character takes a step down the path of corruption.
Mechanically, the path of corruption is considered to have seven steps, starting with innocence. At each step, the character gains a dark gift and a curse that marks her as tainted. The nature of these gifts and curses is ultimately up to the DM, but examples are given. Should the character proceed to the final step, she becomes a darklord. The character is granted a domain of her own, which becomes her eternal prison.
There is the possibility that a character can redeem herself and remove steps of corruption, but this is often difficult. It is even possible that a darklord can be redeemed, but according to the book, no darklord ever has.
All PCs have the option to start out as innocents. Innocents are humanoid characters of good alignment who have never prompted a powers check. Innocence has advantages and drawbacks. Innocents receive a divine bonus to all saving throws, but they receive a penalty to Sense Motive and Horror checks and can be turned by evil clerics. Once a character fails to meet any of these requirements (i.e., by prompting a powers check), she forever loses the status (including benefits and drawbacks) of innocence.
The final section is an enumeration of how common magic items and spells of the D&D game act in Ravenloft. For the most part, this is merely an enumeration of how these items interact with the other rules described for Ravenloft. For example, it points out which spells cause powers checks, denotes how spells affecting undead are diminished, and amplifies the inability of certain spells to detect an evil alignment or transverse closed domain boundaries.
Chapter Four: The Dread Realms
Chapter Four describes the various lands that make up Ravenloft. An enumeration of these domains is beyond the scope of this review. Each domain is defined in terms of cultural levels that exist within its boundaries, its landscape, the major settlements, a breakdown of the population of domain, including the race and nature of the inhabitants, the law, trade and diplomacy, and recommendation for the classes, skills, and feats common for characters from the domain.
Chapter Five: Horrors of the Night
One of the defining features of Ravenloft is its focus on the classical creatures of horror such as undead and lycanthropes. Yet this is not a mere assortment of monsters as you would expect in other campaign settings. Most of the creatures described in this chapter can be found in the 3e D&D Monster Manual. New rules are introduced for running these creatures, however. Basically, the chapter is a recasting of the fascinating Van Richten's Guides in D&D 3e rules.
Existing creatures that are expanded upon in this chapter are vampires, ghosts, liches, lycanthropes, constructs, mummies (called "ancient dead" here), fiends, and hags. In addition, the gypsy-like race known as the Vistani are introduced.
Existing creatures have new rules regarding their abilities and limitations. Some creatures are granted greater power based on their age or other factors, and most sections provide salient abilities that can be used to make each specimen that the PCs encounter unique.
A few new templates are introduced to define better the nature of these creatures in Ravenloft. For example, the ancient dead template and hag template are provided for use in creating these creatures instead of the descriptions in the Monster Manual, and the dread golem template is provided to adapt constructs in other products to the setting.
The Vistani are defined much as a PC race, with racial traits, but they are not recommended for use as PCs. Vistani receive a number of supernatural abilities such as their legendary curses and an insight that allows them to navigate the mists better than other races and divine the fates of others through fortune telling.
The Vistani are divided into three tasques, each tasque further divided into tribes. Each tasque has different outlooks, concerns, and powers. Each tribe also has unique strengths.
Chapter Six: The Ravenloft Campaign
The brief final chapter is a how-to for running a game in the Ravenloft setting. This includes techniques for running a gothic horror campaign, such as trapping the PCs in unfamiliar circumstances, masking the true nature of the horror they face, creating a feeling of isolation, and exercising restraint in introducing horror elements. Themes of a gothic story are covered that the DM can integrate into the game, such as the roles of good and evil in such a game, and how reward and punishment are meted out to the heroes and villains of the story.
Some attention is paid to how elements of the game such as combat and magic should differ from the standard campaign. Horrifying entities that one must grapple with exist in abundance in Ravenloft, but the chapter suggests that the method of using pure brawn should be ineffective against most foes in Ravenloft. Instead, heroes should strive to understand their foes and lay bare their history and motivation before the key to their undoing can be found.
Other elements are mentioned, such as the behavior of villains and heroes. In my opinion, most of these elements are not alien in a well run standard fantasy campaign. It does, though, serve as a fairly good reminder of the types of elements that you cannot afford to miss in a horror campaign.
The chapter concludes with a short list of movies and books that can serve as inspiration for the intrepid DM who is considering running a game in the setting.
Normally I make little mention of a book's index, save to mention whether or not it has one. Ravenloft has an index, but it is rather anemic. It is rendered in widely spaced columns and has relatively few entries, and most terms that fall under other headings (like classes and races) are only listed under those headings.
Overall, I was fairly impressed with this version of the setting. It does a good job of leveraging the d20 System to handle its unique setting rules. For example, the fear, horror, and madness checks seem much less tacked on than did the mechanics for the prior editions of D&D, and the template technique and the use of explicit abilities and special qualities makes the creature rules seem much cleaner and less confusing. Basically, this book is the best of the Ravenloft setting books - Domains of Dread and the various Van Richten's Guides - with a few tweaks, recast into 3e D&D rules.
One notable omission from the Ravenloft campaign setting for 3e that was in Domains of Dread is details of the Darklords, which will appear in an upcoming product. I am not so sure that this is a major problem as it may seem to some. First off, Darklords are far from the only threatening villains that the PCs may face in the setting, and a steady diet of them would dilute their special nature. Further, it makes this book more acceptable for use by players, as it keeps the more sensitive secrets of the campaign setting out of their hands.
-Alan D. Kohler