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1st ed Ravenloft Realms Revisited

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  • 1st ed Ravenloft Realms Revisited

    Inspired by monteparnas 's recent review of 5th ed Ravenloft, I decided to dig out my older Ravenloft books and look at the original Domains. This is mostly just random musing and commentary to amuse myself and not any sort of review or anything. Most of my "D&D" style gaming the past dozen or so years has been via 1st ed Pathfinder, so that will tend to color how I look at some of these, and some of the thoughts I have about them. If anyone who enjoys 5th ed feels like chiming in and adding thoughts about things like classes and what not in various Domains, please feel free. But I request people please refrain from edition warring.

    Also, I rather like the concept of the core, with these various areas having the play against each other in a fashion, even if the Darklords themselves have little to no chance of actually doing anything to their neighbors. Honestly, it kind of feels like another aspect of Ravenloft being a prison. The "little people" can move around as they wish (at least as much as politics and culture allow), but the great lords are stuck in the same place forever. Likewise with several of the Clusters, although there are a few I have issues with.

    Sadly, I can't seem to find any of my 3rd ed books (barring the copy of the DM Guide I picked up last year from NobleKnightGames). But this edition's (and late 2nd ed) efforts to treat Ravenloft as a place characters might actually come from instead of just an oversized dungeon they wander into from another world is one of the reasons I like it a lot.

    Which brings me to my first musing. The true history of Ravenloft should be a pretty big secret, at least from the PCs. It's the sort of thing the Darklords - especially people like Strauhd and Azalin - should know, but few others. I'm of the opinion that the entire core should have a false history that everyone alive in the present day is aware of and generally believes. As should the people of the clusters (including possible dates of contact/trade with the Core via the two seas). Actually discovering the true history of Ravenloft should be the makings of a story of Cosmic Horror and madness, the sort of thing that might drive the PCs mad or at least have anyone they tell the story to think them insane. Even finding out about the Conjunction and its effects should be disturbing.

    And my second, lesser, musing is that over the years it has occurred to me that one could almost divide the Core into two parts. The western part, for the most part, tends to be very heavily influenced by classic Gothic ideas, as well as places and things from the 18th and early 19th century. Early science/natural philosophy, mesmerism, classic ghost stories, and the like. The eastern part, on the other hand, seems more build on Dark Fantasy, with its inclusion of wizards, fantasy races, and a general late medieval feel. (This isn't entirely ironclad in anyway. The southern areas are a bit odd in some places.) Which is something I think works in Ravenloft's favor, as it allows a DM to focus on which aspects they prefer, including certain genre tropes, how common things like dwarves or elves are, which classes are most common, and so forth.

    With that out of the way, on to the first Domain.

    ARAK (Realm of Terror pg 61)

    If there was an award for Most Pointless Domain, you'd have to work pretty hard to beat Arak. It barely gets half a page write up, and all it says is that nothing is there. No people, no settlements, no phones, no lights, no motor cars .... Just vague mentions of Drow lurking underground and abducting anyone who tries to spend the night. Arak does have a history, in which it was someone populated. It popped up on Bavaria's border and eventually Darkon was to the north, and finally Nova Vassa to the south. This made it a trade route and the mountains seemed a good prospect for mining. Then Keening came about, and its creation scourged Arak's surface of anything living. And that was it. The original Realm of Terror book gave no real info about the place, not even a hint about its Dark Lord. My guess is that they were planning some sort of adventure module about the alleged Drow living under the surface and what they were doing, but it never came about. Instead, when the Conjunction happened and the Shadow Rift opened up, it was eventually revealed that Arak's Darklord, Gwydion the Sorcerer-Fiend, had tried to escape his/its prison crafted by his Shadow Fey (not Drow) slaves who'd tricked him into letting them escape into the Mists of Ravenloft, and in the process dragged that entire domain into where Markovia and G'Henna used to be, creating the Shadow Rift. Arak's surface was still where it used to be, but just got absorbed into Darkon.

    This strikes me a bit of a wasted opportunity, especially for the somewhat Dark Fantasy influenced east. Darkon is already a place populated with a lot of the classic D&D fantasy ancestries, so Arak just seems like the perfect place for a Dwarven Domain. As I mentioned in the previous thread, Tolkien's works do provide a few ideas to riff on. The idea of Dwarven kings being consumed by greed from The Hobbit and the idea of once majestic Dwarven mine-kingdoms reduced to abandoned ghost towns in Lord of the Rings can both work well in Ravenloft, IMO. The idea of the proud king of a once great Dwarven kingdom consumed by greed until turning into a villainous tyrant, and perhaps even dying and becoming some form of undead, bringing his kingdom to ruin. Now it's stuck in Ravenloft, and the surviving Dwarven population are perfectly content to sell off what they dig up to the neighboring lands, and the Darklord is powerless to stop "his" treasures from being "stollen". The entire place could easily be haunted by various sorts of undead (which, again, playing on its closeness to Darkon probably makes a degree of sense), with the local Dwarven population being skilled at fighting them. (Pathfinder's Horror Adventures sourcebook includes some optional traits for Dwarves which fit well with this, not to mention some of the new classes in Occult Adventures and things like Oracles and Shaman.) This, at least to me personally, feels more interesting than an empty wasteland.

    Next, I'll be looking at Arkandale.



    What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly. That is the first law of nature.
    Voltaire, "Tolerance" (1764)

  • #2
    Can't disagree with your vision on Arak. If things were happening in the underground, then describe the underground, for whatever it was they planned to do with it. Foreshadowing future modules that way really didn't worked. There was just nothing to do with it but pass by, until they created the Shadow Rift. If you consider them the same domain, then it is better, but as described originally, nope.

    I do like the idea of adding a Dwarven Domain based on the Lonely Mountain and Khazad-Dûn, or even a cluster of sorts. Maybe an underground extension for the Core with an entrance somewhere in Bluetspur, just waiting to be found... or formed.


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    • #3
      I sort of figured the world of the Shadow Fey and Gwydion would've been an underground realm, with the Core having it's own equivalent to the Underdark, with various underground terror realms which connect into their own sort of Cluster with connections to the surface of the Core. I'm not exactly sure what they'd all be though.


      What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly. That is the first law of nature.
      Voltaire, "Tolerance" (1764)

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      • #4
        Arkendale (Realm of Terror page 63)

        And another sort of odd one. A thinly populated, heavily forested land along the river Musarde just south of the more "civilized" realms along the west of the Core. There's a trade in furs, mostly wolf and mustelid pelts, but most of the small rural populous are artisans who trade goods with the riverboat captain Nathan Timothy. (I'll pause her to note that this an odd choice for a name, as it doesn't really role off the tongue nor does it invoke anything. Maybe that was the point, I don't know.) Timothy's is the only boat that can reliably navigate the Musarde through Arkandale without suffering catastrophe, usually in the form of werewolf attacks. Obviously, the Captain is a werewolf and the Darklord of the Domain.

        And that's about it, really. I can see why Arkandale was selected for removal during the Conjunction and the second edition. Not a whole lot is going on here, and unless characters for some reason need to travel from the 18th century Gothic region along the west coast down to the weird realms of the far south, there's not much to draw them here. Plus, this is one of four "werewolf" ruled Domains in the original book, with a fifth showing up in the Darklords sourcebook soon after, so it is sort of redundant. And in all honesty, which is the least interesting: a wolf-were bard obsessed with people and gaining political power but stuck in a backwater where he can't amount to much, a werewolf cult leader who hates humanity but reverts to his weak human form anytime he tries to totally give in to his savage urges, or a werewolf who can't ever leave the river he lives on and seems generally OK with it?

        That's not to say that there isn't the potential for something interesting in here. I sort of suspect Nathan Timothy and his riverboat may have been partially inspired by George R. R. Martin's novel Fevre Dream, just subbing werewolves for vampires, but I've no way to ever confirm that. A river trip down the Musarde could be the basis for the sort of personal and societal horror of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (and its adaption, Apocalypse Now), but I think that would require certain tweaks to the Domain. Namely, a slightly larger human presence, including trading posts exploiting the natural resources, and more boats able to successfully navigate the river. (This sort of thing could also tie in to Nathan's son Alfred's obsessive hatred of humans if one wished.)
        From a Pathfinder perspective, such a realm would be a great place for certain types of Rangers and Hunters to hale from, as well as Shifters, Witches, Druids, and Slayers. The Skinwalker race/ancestry, specifically the Witchwolf heritage, would also fit in well here.

        Regarding Captain Timothy's boat, The Virago, is in the only description I can find of it, is supposed to be a "flat bottom scow or river schooner" with special rigging so that a single person can operate it. I honestly don't know enough about boats to have an informed opinion about this, but from the family portrait included in the original boxed set, I've never been able to not picture the thing as a 19th century Mississippi River paddle boat. Given the Captain's post-Conjunction status where he's still bound to the water (and his boat) but no longer to a single Domain, it feels like The Virago would make a good Pocket Domain, going from place to place with it's Captain as absolute lord and master (perhaps akin to Blackbeard in Pirates of the Caribbean 4). And which perhaps seems to change slightly to reflect the culture of whatever Domain or part of the Core he's in. Although, I think it would be more interesting if he had a small crew as addition people for the PCs to interact with if they decide to use it for passage. In addition, I feel like Timothy should be searching for something as he roams around the Core. The angry ghost of one of his wives, a missing child he didn't know about, or some other quest. Just something that makes him a little more than a wandering serial killer.

        Next, everyone's favorite, Barovia.


        What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly. That is the first law of nature.
        Voltaire, "Tolerance" (1764)

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        • #5
          Although the Virago could work as a Pocket Domain, better than Arkandale ever worked, I find it oddly satisfactory that Timothy managed to escape Dark Lordship through his lack of ambition and sheer contentment. While the domain didn't worked, the Lord is an interesting anomaly in the Demiplane's tapestry, one that can signify many things for researchers of the Mists.

          This is, for me, reason enough to keep the history of Arkandale as is.


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          • #6
            Oh, I'd leave the history the same. I just sort of wish Arkandale has been a little more populated, so as to provide a reason for PCs to actually go there, and that this population had been incorporated into Verbrek after the Conjunction.

            As for Nathan and the Virago, I suspect it would work just as well as some sort of unique dark artifact tied to its captain and his continuing curse.


            What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly. That is the first law of nature.
            Voltaire, "Tolerance" (1764)

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            • #7
              The most populous settlement I can remember from Arkandale was actually the Vhorishkova Family's house, but George razed it, so... yeah. And that was already after their absorption by Verbrek.


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              • #8
                Originally posted by monteparnas View Post
                The most populous settlement I can remember from Arkandale was actually the Vhorishkova Family's house, but George razed it, so... yeah. And that was already after their absorption by Verbrek.
                This is probably were not being able to find my 3rd edition books is going to hurt, as the Gazetteers went a long way to fleshing out the Core Domains and showing what was in them.


                What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly. That is the first law of nature.
                Voltaire, "Tolerance" (1764)

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by No One of Consequence View Post
                  This is probably were not being able to find my 3rd edition books is going to hurt, as the Gazetteers went a long way to fleshing out the Core Domains and showing what was in them.
                  It's not a big thing, it was literally a big house with a big family inside, all of them natural werewolves, and George Weathermay killed them all. Their backstory is that they're Natalia Vhorishkova's family, but unlike her they valued keeping a low profile, and the house had things like werewolves old enough to be toothless.

                  Natalia is 2nd edition stuff, I think her engagement with George is, too. The Vhorishkova slaughter was a way to demonstrate how bitter George became after Natalia's trickery and attack on Gennifer Weathermay-Foxgrove.


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                  • #10
                    Barovia (Realm of Terror page 63; Domains of Dread page 59)

                    Come to Barovia, Ravenloft's vacation paradise, with its famous castle, charming atmosphere, and exciting night life.

                    Seriously though, Barovia is the center of Ravenloft in more ways that one. It's the setting for the original adventure which started it all, and sits more or less at the middle of the Core, being a crossroads between the east and west. In a lot of ways, it is Ravenloft. I remember playing the original Ravenloft adventure back in high school (when we rode dinosaurs to school) as part of a Halloween thing at the local gaming store.

                    To start with, it's noticeable that in the original boxed set, Barovia is a lot more detailed than the preceding two Domains (and a number of the ones that follow it). We get a lot more details on the two main population centers, and on what the people look like, dress, etc. Obviously, a lot of this is because it was the setting for a preexisting adventure module and so had part of that already done. Barovia is, very blatantly, the lands of Count Dracula (both from Stoker's original novel and the various film versions) with most of the serial numbers filed off. The terrain, populous, and atmosphere all derive from Johnathan Harker's journey into the Transylvanian frontier (what would've been the border region of the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary near a much smaller 19th century Romania). About the only major difference is Castle Ravenloft being right next to the village of Barovia instead of away from any mortal settlement as Castle Dracula was. (Though this may be changed in one of the later films; It's been a while since I've seen any of the 60s or 70s Dracula films.)

                    One of the weird bits here is the Choking Fog which surrounds the village of Bavaria. This was originally meant as a McGuffin to prevent PCs from being able to leave, and this entire thing became a key part of all of Ravenloft's Domains, including being expanded to something Strahd could do to the whole of Barovia and not just the village of that name. I admit I've always had slightly mixed feelings about this. What works as part of an adventure in which the village and castle are all essentially an elaborate dungeon that the PCs need to clear before being able to leave doesn't necessarily work all that great for an entire setting in which PCs will be traveling around from place to place in a wider campaign. While there is a lot to be said for a one shot adventure being better than an ongoing campaign for traditional horror, I've always felt you get more attached to a character you play for a long period of time and are more concerned about what happens to them. There's also the fact that some of the methods of sealing the borders are not very Gothic or scary. Literal walls of stone or legions of undead have always struck me as much less atmospheric and creepy than just thick mists or their equivalent one gets lost in and keeps finding their way back to were they started.
                    In the specific case of the village of Bavaria, it does make a degree of sense, as it explains why anyone would stay in a place in the shadow of a vampire Castle. In this case, they don't have a choice, and are essentially a larder for Strahd and his immediate minions. And it is in some ways a puzzle that the PCs can figure out to escape from it. Which brings me to the next bit.

                    The "Gypsies" (as they were in the original version) or Vistani (as they became later) are ... well, they're there. The section on them in Realm of Terror is pretty cringe, even by the standards of 20 years ago, and I've never really been sure that making them a totally non-human race (one which PCs can't play, only half-Vistani) who even got their own Van Richten's Guide was all that much of an improvement. But they do have a way around the Choking Fog, which allows them a total monopoly on transportation, trade, and information in and out of the village. (I admit I kind of prefer Seth Skorkowsky's idea of using special lanterns or candles instead of potions and the fog just getting one lost instead of causing damage.)

                    Strahd - excuse me, The Devil Strahd [spit] - is Ravenloft's signature villain, and very blatantly based on the cinematic version of Dracula. I think I do kind of like the efforts from 5th edition to make him look a little more Dark Fantasy than Technocolor Gothic, but I sometimes feel their images of him look like he's a little too young or bemused. That may just be me. I admit to never having read any of the Ravenloft tie in novels, but just from personal experience and what I know about obsessive stalker types, I suspect Strahd's obsession with Tatyana is less anything to do with love and more about possessing something he thinks should be his and his alone.

                    From a Pathfinder player character perspective, Barovia is clearly a decent homeland for Rogues, Rangers, Hunters, Slayers, Witches, Bards, Investigators, Inquisitors, and other sorts who would seem at home in a Dracula film. Being one of the main "vampire" domains, it seems like a likely origin point for Dampyr characters as well.

                    Besides a lot of the classic Gothic and vampire tropes, Barovia seems ripe for certain Folk Horror bits.

                    That's it for the moment. Next will be Bluetspur.


                    What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly. That is the first law of nature.
                    Voltaire, "Tolerance" (1764)

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                    • #11
                      To me Strahd's obsession with Tatyana had little to do with Tatyana and everything to do with Sergie, Strahd's younger brother.
                      Some of this comes from the novelization but Strahd's background is that he spent his teen years and early adulthood fighting a vicious war, one that he won and now he has settled down to claim his just rewards.
                      Then comes Sergie, the shinning youth who has never known war and its horrors. He is young, he is innocent, and the people love him in a way they would never feel for Strahd.
                      In short, he represents all of the things stolen from Strahd by the war and now, all without meaning to, Sergie is even being gifted the adoration and respect that should have been Strahd's due.
                      Then comes Tatyana, young vibrant and beautiful. In the novel it points out that she refers to the middle aged, graying Strahd as "Elder", a word that to Strahd's ear sounds like 'death', the title of an old man whose good years are behind him with only a slow descent into the grave to look forward to.
                      This is where Strahd's obsession with immortality came from, the need to reclaim everything denied him by war, all of the things that were given so easily to Sergie. All nicely embodied in Tatyana.
                      Strahd didn't just murder Sergie, he was trying to become Sergie.

                      As a small addition, I always felt that depicting the Dark Lords as prisoners of the Mists was rather lame, I much preferred treating them as prisoners of their own obsessions. Strahd for example could leave Barovia any time he wanted to, but he knows that Tatyana will be reborn there and if he leaves, he might miss his chance to win her.
                      Last edited by 2ptTakrill; 01-03-2022, 06:47 PM.

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                      • #12
                        I never read any of the tie in novels, but your explanation would make sense.

                        I think one of Ravenloft's recurring problems over the years is that it was never entirely clear just why it exists and what the purpose of it is, presumably even in any sort of writers' bible, so certain aspects seem to be all over the place.


                        What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly. That is the first law of nature.
                        Voltaire, "Tolerance" (1764)

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                        • #13
                          If I recall they sort of got into this in 2nd edition. I think there's a mention of it in Die Vecna Die! (which involves Vecna escaping from the Demiplane of Dread) where Ravenloft was created by ancient horrible beings ("The Dark Powers") sealed away in the depths of the Negative Energy Plane. They basically were using Demiplane of Dread as a stepping stone to get back to the Prime Material Plane. They'd pull in little pieces here and there and eventually it would get so expansive that they'd be able to enter the Demiplane and then from there cross over to the Prime Material Plane. But these beings hated each other as much as anything else, and so were often working at cross purposes. This never really got explored any deeper. In one of the novels Azalin's attempt to escape the Demiplane of Dread very nearly ended up allowing those things to escape their prison and travel to the Prime along with him, and once he realized the truth he ended shattering his own soul and existence rather than allow that happen.

                          I don't believe the subject was ever explored in any of the later editions or anywhere else, and honestly it's probably for the best. I think Ravenloft works better if it's questionable as to whether The Dark Powers even exist and what the purpose of everything is. Sometimes a mystery without a clear answer is more interesting.

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                          • #14
                            It would 've been interesting IMO if the 3rd ed Ravenloft DM Guide (or some sort of theoretical Guide to the Mists book) had included several options for a potential answer and then went into details about what each one would mean for the setting, especially in long campaigns.


                            What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly. That is the first law of nature.
                            Voltaire, "Tolerance" (1764)

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                            • #15
                              I personally prefer Strahd as Technicolor Gothic. Not only because I like Gothic aesthetics more than Dark Fantasy, but on his case in particular it tells much more about the character. Many others could be more Dark Fantasy, but Strahd is stoic and reclusive, and in some sense the very anchor of the Demiplane and its monsters, their ultimate archetype. He defines the Dark Lord, the Vampire and Obsession.

                              His obsession for Tatyana definitely has little to do with her. So much so that it won't fade no matter what form or personality she takes as she reincarnates. Her only constant trait is that very spark of vitality that Strahd wants so dearly and was taken from him by the war.

                              The Dark Lords being prisoners of the Domains do not annoy me, for two reasons. First, because for some of them that's a focal aspect of them and is really well implemented. But beyond that, because they're already actually prisoners of their obsessions more than the Mists. It is their obsessions what keep them in the cycles of error and self-sabotage that keep them as Darklords, and many wouldn't even try to escape anyway, so much so that some straight up don't know they are prisoners, they simply never tried.

                              But I like the idea of exploring distinct possibilities for what the Dark Powers might be. While the setting needs the lack of a canonical answer, it really raises the question about what makes those forces so dedicated to guiding the arbitrary laws of this reality.


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