Thursday, October 29, 2015

Realm of Terror

This was the boxed set that kicked Ravenloft as a discrete setting off in earnest. I remember saving up some money from my summer job as a teenager to get my hands on his the week it came out. I also remember being both inspired and disappointed by the contents of the box. As I re-read it for this ”review,” I found I had much the same reaction.

The first chapter does an average job of introducing some of the broader themes of Gothic horror, but ultimately it feels like a section penned by someone who hasn’t really delved too far into scholarship on the Gothic or beyond the surface of Gothic literature in general. For example, this introductory chapter claims that Gothic horror relies on subtler terror in place of gore and shock, which is obviously not true when you encounter the Gothic’s many
ghoulish descriptions of corpses or the tortures perpetrated by the Inquisition. This may be an area in which I’m a bit snobbish, but I have a hard time taking the (woefully tiny) suggested reading list seriously when it recommends H. P. Lovecraft and not Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, or Matt‚hew Lewis–three of the most important authors in the Gothic mode. Also, this marks the first in a long succession of times where Edgar Allan Poe’s name is spelled wrong in a Ravenloft product. Overall, the sense I get from this chapter is that Ravenloft is more informed by Universal film adaptations of the Gothic than the literary source material. Nothing against the Universal films, of course, but they aren’t quite the same thing as the Gothic horror we’re promised.

The next chapter introduces some of the setting ideas that define Ravenloft as a unique world: each domain is formed around a ”Dark Lord” who is imprisoned in the very land they control, strange mists serve as explainable entry and exit points both into the setting and throughout the setting, and the land itself is prone to re-arrangement during times of ”conjunction.” Taken together, these elements cast Ravenloft in the unfortunate position of being
a place merely for ”weekend in hell” style adventures; that is, it doesn’t seem to be a setting in which native characters explore or protect the lands of their birth–instead, it’s a place that draws in characters from other, more robust, settings so that they might have a brief sojourn in a Gothic setting.

Chapter III initiates another aspect of the setting I could never really get onboard with: the nature of evil in Ravenloft changes how certain special abilities function in the setting. Paladins, for example, find most of their abilities altered (some might say ”nerfed”), while animal companions aren’t wholly to be trusted here. We might as well include the content of Chapter IX in this critique as well; that section of the book details the many ways that spells function differently in Ravenloft. While that adds a good deal of flavor, it’s also a tremendous pain in play because you need to look up what the spell does normally, then look it up again in the Ravenloft book to see if and how it is modified.

The next few chapters introduce further mechanical ideas that give the setting it’s own feel, but some work bett‚er than others. The idea of Fear and Horror checks is interesting, but it also relegates real fear to a dice roll–something I’ve sometimes found to be counterproductive in play. The next section gives more variation in strength, powers, and weakness to vampire and werecreature foes, which is a welcome addition. Curses are also given a fuller treatment, but their implementation still feels a bit sketchy and unsure. The Vistani, Ravenloft’s gypsies, are introduced, as is some general advice on how fortune telling might work in game terms.

Finally, on page 60 we start getting descriptions of the domains of the setting itself. Unfortunately, they’re uninspiring and vague–there’s very li‚ttle here in the descriptions of the various nations that screams SET AN ADVENTURE HERE RIGHT NOW! Further products in the Ravenloft all but admit that the conception of the setting as presented here is half-baked; later iterations of the setting would relegate some of the core lands to far-off islands (Bluetspur, G’henna, Markovia, the Nightmare Lands) while others were simply erased from existence for the crime of being terminally boring (Arak, Arkandale, Dorvinia, Gundarak).

The section about the various islands of Ravenloft suffers from the same problems. Many would be retconned out (Farelle, Sanguinia, Staunton Bluffs). Worse yet, taken with the previous chapter it’s clear that not much thought was put into crafting Ravenloft as a living, breathing, interconnected setting. Everything seems fundamentally cut-off from everything else; vital elements such as trade routes, alliances and enemies, and larger-scale political
intrigues are all missing here. Unfortunately, that’s a huge missed opportunity to make the setting feel like a place where the Gothic’s grander struggles could actually take place.

Basic things that tell us about a setting, such as religion, are entirely absent from the descriptions here. The next two sections perhaps explain why the lands of Ravenloft were left undeveloped, or at least where that effort was channeled instead. The following chapters detail the major NPCs in the setting, as well as illustrating their family trees. And therein lies the problem: Ravenloft was conceived as a setting made interesting by its NPCs instead of being created as an interesting place on its own merits. This problem really comes to the fore when you realize that the elaborate backstories given to each of the Dark Lords are unlikely to ever come to light during play. Giving the setting its own unique atmosphere through its various lands would have worked far bett‚er because the nature of adventuring in a setting means encountering what makes it stand out; loading the creativity into NPCs that the characters may not ever encounter simply leaves that vital detail sequestered in the GM’s hands.

The final sections–a chapter on how to do horror adventure and a sma‚ttering of new monsters–are decent. The advice is solid, and the monsters are on theme. However, they just aren’t enough to make up for how bland the setting feels in comparison to the White Wolf-esque effort that has gone into the setting’s villains.

It’s worth noting that the art throughout the book is done by Stephen Fabian and is, of course, uniformly excellent. Seriously, I’d buy it for the art alone.

Also included in the box are setting maps (nice, but oddly concerned with elevation over landscape), and a number of cardboard sheets that give isometric views of a location (forge‚ttable) or family portraits of major NPCs (which repeat information already given in the main book). The worst is the card that tells you which monsters are ”Ravenloft-approved” for the setting; I’ve said it before but if you can’t figure out how to make any given D&D monster Gothic and scary, you need to learn more words, son.

All in all, I still find Realm of Terror to be a frustrating and inspiring product. Taken as is, it really isn’t much of a setting–it just comes off feeling a bit flavorless in comparison to the vibrant source material, and looks like a rough draft of something that could have been spectacular if given more work. But oddly that’s what is inspiring about it. There are hints here of interesting things to be done with the setting, but they’re left as loose ends...loose ends that any DM could weave into something less mediocre than the raw material he’s bought. With a litt‚le vision, Ravenloft
could be revised and re-imagined into something that transcends the mundane, by-the-numbers presentation here. This version of Ravenloft is a setting ripe for you to put your own personal stamp on it because it's practically required.