Ravenloft is one of the most popular D&D setting, which owes it popularity to the 1st Ed. AD&D module Ravenloft. Written by Tracy and Laura Hickman and published in 1983, Ravenloft was expanded and launched as a full-fledged campaign setting in 1990.
For a long time Ravenloft has been a favorite of mine. I’m a sucker for horror and especially gothic-horror, so this campaign setting is something I turn to on a regular basis. I like the bleakness, the horror and, of course, how the Dark Powers like to toy with the Dark Lords, creating a sense of an all-encompassing dread. But I also like how the PCs get a chance to be the light in the darkness, bringers of hope and heroes to the people of the Domains of Dread.
From Ravenloft to the Curse of Strahd
There’s no way writing about Ravenloft as a setting without mentioning Ravenloft the module. Written by Trace and Laura Hickman, I6: Ravenloft was published in 1983. The module’s story and the main villain was loosely based on Dracula by Bram Stoker. You have your Eastern-European village called Barovia, where a looming and foreboding castle casts its shadow over it. The lord of the castle, Strahd von Zarovich, is obviously evil and it becomes the PCs task to stop him, using artifacts and magical items linked to the vampire’s backstory. What more could you ask for?
I6: Ravenloft was well received and has been republished for almost all editions, in one way or another. When AD&D got updated to 2nd edition, Ravenloft was republished as House of Strahd. In D&D 3.5 WotC republished Ravenloft in Expedition to Castle Ravenloft and once again for 5th edition in Curse of Strahd. All of these follow the more or less the same narrative as the original module. WotC also released a board game called Castle Ravenloft, using their “Adventure system”, based on the module.
Both fans, TSR and WotC have been fascinated by Strahd and Ravenloft for years and no wonder, for the story is good. What made the original module even better, was the fact that it used the Tarokka deck, to decide where the artifacts were located. This made it easier and more fun to play the module over and over again.
Ravenloft, the Campaign Setting
Ravenloft was published in 1990. The boxed set introduced a setting that was set in the Demiplane of Dread, ruled over by the mysterious Dark Powers. There were a few domains in the demiplane, Barovia among them. Each domain was ruled by a dark lord, someone who had been evil and atrocious enough to deserve to be imprisoned and tortured by the Dark Powers.
The boxed set introduced a few changes to AD&D, most notably the Madness and Horror saving throws. Fear and insanity was an integral part of the setting. This change was perhaps in some part inspired by Call of Cthulhu RPG’s sanity point system. It resonated well with the setting and made it even easier for DMs to convey the horror of the demiplane.
The dark lords were both many and diverse. Some of them were known from other sources, e.g. Strahd, Lord Soth and Vecna, while other dark lords were only introduced in Ravenloft. Some of the dark lords seemed to recognize or feel that there were some other forces at play and toying with them, e.g. Strahd refers to a power called Death.
The Dark Powers
The Dark Powers of Ravenloft are simply a story tool, and little is known about them. They seem to be a malevolent force, outmatching and outclassing even the most powerful dark lords. The Powers have imprisoned the dark lords within their domains and given them supernatural powers to rule over these domains. Still, the Dark Powers seem to toy with the dark lords, forcing them to experience their failures over and over again.
Only two dark lords managed to escape their imprisonment in Ravenloft, Lord Soth was released back to Krynn since he showed no interest in playing the Dark Powers’ game. He refused to face his sins and willingly accepted his curse, and ignored his domain, Sithicus. The other dark lord to escape was the oearthian demi-god Vecna. Vecna, once a powerful necromancer, was imprisoned in Ravenloft, but managed to find his way to Sigil and came close to shaping the multi-verse as he would like it. The then-greater god plans were thwarted by a group of adventurers and Vecna was cast back to Oerth, as a lesser god, free from Ravenloft.
The Dark Powers serve as a plot device. It’s the Dark Powers that manipulate fate so that the dark lords constantly face their failures, yet never lose hope in attaining what ever caused their demise and imprisonment. Strahd, no matter how often Tatyana slips through his fingers, never loses hope in that one day he will be loved by her. The same can be said about the other dark lords.
TSR published material for Ravenloft until it was taken over by WotC. TSR published novels, source books, campaign expansions and modules for Ravenloft, just as the company did for almost all of the D&D settings. Ravenloft however was one of the most popular settings, along with Dark Sun and Forgotten Realms.
TSR even published a sub-setting, called The Masque of the Red Death and other tales, which takes place on Gothic Earth in the 19th century. It had the same special rules, e.g. power-checks, madness and horror saves etc. Many notable real-life figures or 19th century literary characters are included for the players to interact with, including Van Helsing, Jack the Ripper and Dorian Gray.
When D&D 3rd/3.5 edition was published, the publishing rights for Ravenloft was given to the published Sword and Sorcery, which was a subsidiary of White Wolf publishing. S&S published many great books for Ravenloft, most notably the Ravenloft Gazetteers, which I think are a must read for the Ravenloft enthusiast, along with the Van Richten guides. S&S however didn’t publish any modules for Ravenloft.
WotC holds the licence to Ravenloft once more and the campaign Curse of Strahd takes place in Ravenloft. So far, WotC has held their cards close and little is known about their plans for the setting.
The Grand Conjunction
The night of evil shall descend on the land.
When this hexad of signs is near at hand
In the house of Daegon the sorcerer born,
Though life, unlife, unliving shall scorn.
The lifeless child of stern mother found
Heralds a time, night of evil unbound.
Seventh time the son of suns doth rise
To send the knave to an eternity of cries.
The light of the sky shining over the dead
Shall gutter and fail, turning all to red.
Inajira will make his fortunes reverse
Dooming all to live with the dreaded curse.
The bodiless shall journey to the time before
Where happiness to hate creates land and lore.
TSR published numerous modules for Ravenloft, many of which are great and fun to play, e.g. Web of Illusions, The Created and Howls in the Night. Six of these modules had an overarching plot, which was called the Grand Conjunction. These six modules were: Night of the Walking Dead, Feast of Goblyns, Ship of Horrors, Touch of Death, Roots of Evil and From the Shadows.
Also known popularly as the Great Upheaval, the Grand Conjunction is perhaps the most famous and influential conjunction the Land of Mists has ever experienced. Foretold by the dukkar Hyskosa in his Hexad poem and triggered by the machinations of Azalin Rex, dark lord of the domain Darkon, the Grand Conjunction shook the Demiplane of Dread to its foundations.
For a brief time, the domains of Ravenloft were open, allowing dark lords and other evils to spill through into the Material Plane. However, Azalin proved to be his undoing, for his impatience caused his minions to fulfill the last two couplets of the Hyskosa’s Hexad. This caused the Conjunction to collapse and the domains to reform, drawing back in their former prisoners.
Some of the Grand Conjunction modules are really good, especially Night of the Walking Dead and Feast of Goblyns. It’s hard to play the modules as campaign, since the level requirements, if played in the same order as foretold in the Hexad, is not in lineal order.
Ravenloft lives a good life online today. The Fraternity of Shadows is a superb source of information about the demiplane. The website also publishes a magazine, Quoth the Raven, where you can find source material and even short modules. Though most of the material in FoS is for D&D 3.5, you can find updates for 4th edition there as well.