Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (2e) – Sean’s Pick, 123016

One of the best things about D&D 5e is how easily you can use material from just about any other edition (and any OGL-driven source, for that matter) with just a little effort in your 5e games. When it comes to a classic like the first boxed set for Ravenloft, created by the legendary Bruce Nesmith with Andria Hayday, this makes for a true gem mine to delve for incredible story and adventure in one of the most famous settings ever.

A New Realm of Horror Adventures

In the dead of night, as mists cloak the land, a traveler walks a country road. Footsteps echo behind him, in pace with his beating heart. Is it Death who follows? The man turns, and so turns the phantom. A flash of fang, a bloodcurdling howl, red eyes fueled by a passion from beyond the grave. The traveler discovers what others have learned before him: all roads lead to Ravenloft.

Ravenloft is a new realm of terror for AD&D adventures,rooted in the Gothic tradition. It is a demiplane of dread and desire, a world whose misty fingers can reach into any other campaign setting and draw unsuspecting heroes into its midst. Once it holds them in its icy embrace, it may never let them go…

What lurks beneath the covers of this box?

  • A 144-page book detailing a complete, terrifying new campaign world, which was inspired by the classic TSR adventure “Ravenloft.” You’ll find new twists on magic and the AD&D rules, tips for adding fear to your games, plus a portrait of over 30 new lands and the powerful lords who rule them – from vampires, ghosts, and werewolves to men who are even more monstrous.
  • 4 big, full-color maps, detailing deadly domains and shadowy settlements.
  • 24 full-color sheets, featuring haunted castles, horrid houses, and fiendish folk.

Product History [EXCERPTS]

Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990), by Bruce Nesmith with Andria Hayday, is the first boxed set for the Ravenloft campaign setting. It was published in June 1990.

Origins (I): Continuing the AD&D 2e Worlds. When TSR produced Spelljammer (1989) shortly after the release of AD&D 2e (1989), it seemed like a wonderful one-off — a new campaign world to complement the classic settings of Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and the Forgotten Realms. But when Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990) followed, it suddenly became apparent that TSR was pushing hard on settings for their new edition — and that their appearance might just be a yearly event. In fact, yearly releases of new settings is exactly what happened, and it would cause TSR big problems down the line as setting piled atop setting. But, for now, Ravenloft was just the fifth major world for AD&D.

Like Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, and Spelljammer, Ravenloft began with a box. Fans call Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990) the “black box” to differentiate it from the red-boxed Ravenloft Campaign Setting (1994) that followed several years later. However, that boxed format was Ravenloft’s only major similarity to the settings that came before it.

TSR’s three AD&D 1e campaign worlds walked the line between high fantasy and sword & sorcery, but that was changing with the new 2e worlds. Spelljammer started the trend by moving into a very different genre: science fantasy. Ravenloft similarly focused on something new: gothic horror. The idea of new settings featuring new genres was one that would continue through most of TSR’s campaign settings of the ’90s.

Origins (II): Continuing the Ravenloft Line. Ravenloft was, of course, not the first appearance of gothic horror in AD&D. It all began with I6: “Ravenloft” (1983), an adventure by Tracy and Laura Hickman that introduced Count Strahd von Zarovich and his dark land of Barovia. A few years later the Hickmans returned with I10: “Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill” (1986), which revived Strahd in the village of Mordentshire.

Fast forward to the 2e era. I6: “Ravenloft” continued to be a very popular adventure, but at TSR adventures were out-of-favor and settings were in. So in 1989, Bruce Nesmith and Andria Hayday were asked to turn the Hickmans’ popular module into a full world of adventure.

Nesmith and Hayday soon decided that Strahd’s realm of Barovia wasn’t really suited for a campaign. It didn’t offer flexibility or variety. So, the creators opted instead to concentrate on the adventure’s atmosphere. The result was a “demiplane of dread” that included many horrific lands, including the lands of Barovia and Mordent from the two “Ravenloft” modules. Strahd’s backstory from the original “Ravenloft” was even incorporated into the story of how Ravenloft, the demiplane of dread, came to be.

Expanding D&D. Though Dragonlance required some minor changes to the D&D rules, particularly in its days without gods, Ravenloft was the first D&D setting that made major shifts to the D&D game — both through rules variations and through new rule systems. Many classes, spells, and magic items were revamped, either to create a feeling of horror or to account for the fact that Ravenloft was a demiplane.

Ravenloft also contained the game’s first major rules for psychological responses, with its fear checks and horror checks. This sort of “psychological saving throw” originated with Call of Cthulhu’s sanity checks and soon become de rigeur for the horror genre. Ravenloft would add one more check with the publication of Forbidden Lore (1992): the madness check.

As part of its focus on horror, Ravenloft also put more attention than ever on the idea of characters doing evil, outlining rules for what happened as characters started to slip over to the dark side. It was somewhat surprising given TSR’s general move away from controversial elements such as demons, devils, and assassins at the time. However, it wouldn’t be the last time that Ravenloft touched upon things that the rest of the D&D line wasn’t willing to.

Finally, Ravenloft also included rules for curses and for fortune-telling; both of these systems would be further expanded in Forbidden Lore as well.

About the Creators. Ravenloft was designed by Bruce Nesmith and developed by Andria Hayday. Nesmith had been writing for TSR since 1984, with much of his prior focus on Marvel Super Heroes. He would continue to work on the Ravenloft line through 1994. Hayday had also been working for TSR since the early ’80s (with a gap for her time at Pacesetter). As an editor and developer, she didn’t often receive top-line credit, but was nonetheless crucial to the creation of lines like Ravenloft and Al-Qadim (1992).

Sean Patrick Fannon
Writer & Game Designer: Shaintar, Star Wars, Savage Rifts, much more
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