What is it?
A boxed set containing: four full color maps, one clear plastic hex overlay, 24 cards with color art on one side and black and white text on the reverse, and a book. The book is a soft cover with a color illustration on the front cover and a black, white, and red interior. It weighs in at 144 pages length with the last seven pages being Monstrous Compendium-style monster stats pages.
Most of this review will concentrate on the book. The cards and such are nifty and nicely done, but the meat of this product is the book.
The book starts with an overview of gothic horror as a genre, including a suggested reading list. White Wolf did this fairly routinely in their original World of Darkness line, especially Mage: the Ascension, but this is somewhat out of character for TSR of this era. Recommendations include Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau but misses The Castle of Otranto and The Monk.
The next section is a broad overview of the Demiplane of Dread, another name for the Ravenloft setting. Includes the Tome of Strahd, an excerpt from the setting's premiere vampire's journal. Also a timeline and suggested means for getting into Ravenloft and hints of possibilities for getting back out again.
Following this is a chapter on how characters change in the Ravenloft setting. It is not a friendly environment. Paladins can't detect evil in Ravenloft. A Domain Lord's control over the local wildlife is stronger than a ranger's influence on his animal buddies. Turning undead is harder. Demi-humans face xenophobia from natives of the Demiplane of Dread.
And then there's the Powers Check. Evil acts may attract the baleful attentions of the Demiplane. This takes the form of a simultaneous blessing and curse, like a minor spell-like ability accompanied by a disfiguring physical change. Enough failed Powers Checks can turn a character into an NPC under the DM's control, possibly even the lord of a new domain.
Up next are Fear and Horror Checks. Fear for your life against long odds may make you drop your weapon and run away: that's a fear check. Seeing something disturbing can have a long-term effect on your mental health: that's a horror check.
Not too surprisingly, this horror-oriented setting has something to say about vampires and werewolves. Werewolves and other lycanthropes have a higher chance of transmitting their disease in Ravenloft: 2% per point of damage inflicted, rather than the standard 1%. Suggestions for changing weaknesses to things other than the standard silver and magic weapons are also made. Vampires in Ravenloft get stronger with age, gradually losing weaknesses. Suggestions are also given for customizing a vampire's powers and weaknesses.
Curses are the subject of the next chapter. Curses can be created by the power of the Demiplane itself without the need for a spell to be cast: possibly in response to an evil action or as a response to someone's desire for revenge. Curses are powerful, yet limited.
The next chapter is on gypsies. The Vistani are a group of gypsy-like people native to Ravenloft. Vistani can lay curses, divine the future, create potions, and travel freely.
The next section is on fortune telling. Suggestions are given on how to use it without railroading the players. Also a broad overview of some fortune telling methods is given.
The next two chapters are spells and magical items. Alignment detection doesn't work. Creature summoning and dismissal work differently, in general, the summonig goes fine, but whatever is summoned gets stuck in Ravenloft and isn't happy about it. Undead are easy to create and hard to control. Some spells and items require a Powers Check to use. Three new spells and about seven new magic items are presented.
Following this are Lands of the Core and Islands of Terror. These cover the geography of the setting. The Core is the Demiplane's main continent and then there are various islands floating around off of it.
Who's Doomed of Ravenloft is the next chapter. This contains bios and stats for a number of prominent NPCs. Mostly Domain Lords and other villains, but a few good guys too. One I didn't remember from previous readings is Gondegal, a Chaotic Neutral warrior. Others are like old friends, like Strahd, Ravenloft's first Domain Lord and sort of the iconic character for the setting. Or Rudolph Van Richten, the fearless monster hunter and author of numerous guides to hunting the nastiest of beasties. And Victor Mordenheim, Ravenloft's answer to Dr. Frankenstein and his twisted creation, Adam.
The next chapter is a few pages of family trees for the setting's prominent NPC families.
After that is Techniques of Terror. These are tips for the Ravenloft DM or really and horror game. Suggestions include: isolation, loss of control, and body horror.
Adventure ideas are the last thing in the book before the monster pages. This presents ten very short adventure seeds for an ambitious DM to flesh out himself.
And closing out the book are seven monsters. The geist is barely a monster; it might cause a Fear or Horror check. The Gremishka is a gremlin variant. Loup-Graou are a werewolf variant. Odem are a species of possessing undead. Strahd Skeletons are Strahd's beefed up skeleton soldiers. Strahd Zombies are Strahd's beefed up zombies; they lose their heads and arms easily but the severed parts keep fighting on their own. The Nosferatu is a vampire variant.
What about the cards? Three have a nice full color picture of Strahd on one side and reproduce charts from the rulebook on the other or similar information, like a list of monsters most appropriate to Ravenloft. Five have a family portrait of one of Ravenloft's important NPC families on one side and stats for an NPC from that family on the other. The remaining sixteen are pictures of and information about various Domain Lords's homes and fortifications and other important buildings.
What's Good About It? Techniques of Terror was a good idea. Other horror games could use GM advice this good. Strahd is another good point. It helps to be able to put a face on a setting, like Elminster for the Realms or the Companions for Dragonlance and Strahd certainly does that for Ravenloft.
What's Not So Good About It? Most of the following isn't really bad, so much as things that feel too thin or that don't seem incredibly useful: The Bloodlines Chapter, the Fortune telling chapter, the Gypsies chapter.
I'm not sure what purpose the Bloodlines chapter serves. Maybe a DM could tease a few adventure hooks out of it, but it would take some real work.
Fortune telling is such a big concept that it needs its own book or to be ignored entirely.
The gypsies chapter was thin. It feels like a warm-up to tease us a little before Van Richten's Guide to Gypsies or the half-Vistani race in the Domains of Dread book.
I would gladly have traded all three of these chapters for a full-developed adventure, even one as short as three pages.
What The... Moments? Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau showing up on the recommended reading list. Hill House is twentieth century. Dr. Moreau is an early SF classic, but not exactly a gothic. Moreau was probably included because of Ravenloft's knock-off character Frantisek Markov.
Who Should Get It? Dedicated AD&D 2nd Edition DMs who have a thing for vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. Fans of gothic horror. GMs for any horror-game looking for good staging tips. As far as I can tell, the Domains of Dread hardback reprints almost all the good bits from the book, so unless you really want the cards or maps, owners of Domains can skip this.