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"What is hell? Hell is oneself, / Hell is alone, the other figures in it / Merely projections."
- – T.S. Elliot
Trapped in another world, each area of the world is its own little plane of existence, ruled by the baron! Vampires, ghouls, zombies, wights, undeads, witches, horrible gypsy curses, and no way out - DUN DUN DUUUUUN
Ravenloft is a campaign setting made of lofts and ravens... well, ok, it's a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting that replaces the shiny high fantasy heroism cliches with 19th century Gothic literature cliches. Ravenloft itself is a demiplane, divided into several domains, each ruled by a different "Darklord" and inspired by traditional horror tales. While "Castle Ravenloft" is the home of Strahd von Zarovich, this article will refer to the entire plane/setting as Ravenloft for convenience, though the Demiplane of Dread Ravenloft setting is pretty much the best, with the instanced versions usually revolving around Strahd.
Ravenloft began as a 1e D&D module officially titled I6: Ravenloft, created by the Hickmans fresh off the I3-4-5: Desert of Desolation series. Their reason for Ravenloft was that they believed that vampires had become trite, overused and mundane, so they sought to go back to classic Gothic Horror novels and Universal Horror films to make a "truly scary" vampire (it was 1983 when they published it). Module I6 was later followed by the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module I10: Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill, which was based on outlines that the Hickmans had written before leaving TSR and was officially credited to them; this introduced the rudiments of the later domain of Mordent and the future darklord Azalin the Lich.
Both modules were huge successes, which inspired TSR to build upon lore from the two modules and craft the entire Ravenloft campaign setting. In AD&D, the setting's nature as a patchwork of prisons was played up; the default assumption was that it would be for "Weekend in Hell" games (a term the setting coined), where players would be outlanders swept up in the mists and jerked around by the DM before managing to escape. Ravenloft was loaned out to White Wolf's Sword & Sorcery sub-company as part of 3rd edition, and Arthaus Publications drastically expanded the Ravenloft setting, making it into a more cohesive setting that functioned on its own, rather than being so cross-over defined; Ravenloft D20's assumption was that PCs should aim to be natives, and they toned down the grimdark to further facilitate that. Unfortunately, probably because of the fact it wasn't Wizards of the Coast who did the expanding, the D20 version of Ravenloft has been ignored by WoTC. It's not like they followed on from 2e-3.5 anyway in the 4e and 5e Ravenlofts. To note, the expedition to castle ravenloft module for 3.5 by WoTC is not canon (citation needed), and is simply a remake of the original adventure, the 2e demiplane of dread being the active plane of interest still rings true.
Ravenloft was reduced to just a few token mentions in the 4th edition, where Strahd appeared in the Open Grave splatbook and Domains of Dread were boiled back down to their "Weekend in Hell" idea as cursed realms within the Shadowfell, but received a royal treatment in 5e with the release of Curse of Strahd, an updated, rewritten release of the original I6 module. Or, this was the case until a new book was announced, see below.
Ironically, the Hickmans are notorious for hating the setting they ultimately created, in one part because of their notorious disdain for "crossovers" between D&D settings and for another because a different author for TSR wrote a very well-written novel - Knight of the Black Rose - in which Lord Soth of Dragonlance was made into a Darklord. Fans loved the idea, but in the end, he became the only Darklord ever to escape the Land of Mists when they first drew him back to Krynn, then killed him off so no one could have him.
The most important parts of Ravenloft are probably the contents on lich and vampire lore provided by professor Rudolph Van Richten, the now deceased monster hunter of the demiplane, Ricky dick is known for getting back-stabbed by Vistani and being maybe too generous with the information he supplied in his works, on account of nearly getting his heart carved out by one of his best friends because he thought it was a good idea to detail almost all of the lich ritual requirements. In 3.5, you will find some of the salient abilities he wrote for Liches in Monsters of Faerun updated. He also literally wrote the book on several other Gothic monsters, namely werebeasts, mummies, golems, fiends and witches - see Van Richten's Guide.
When horror themes started becoming popular again in the years around 2010, people remembered again that Ravenloft existed. Wizards of the Coast reintroduced the world to the mainstream D&D cosmology by saying that its domains lie within a mirror-plane of the Prime Material, making the aforementioned connection device canon. There were also a bunch of imitators in settings and games where you really wouldn't expect it.
So, yeah. If you like Wuthering Heights, Ethan Frome, or Castlevania, you'll love Ravenloft. Fun fact; the Japanese version of the original NES Castlevania's cover art was basically ripped straight from the first Ravenloft cover art.
What's Ravenloft Like?
The setting has been described (by Noah Antwiler) as "Hell, but not for you."
The first rule of Ravenloft is not to touch anything, ever. Assume everything is cursed unless you saw someone pick it up and put it down without becoming a zombie, and even then that's no guarantee. Second, alignment-detecting magic can only say if something is lawful or chaotic, so you can't use those spells to check if anything is safe. Third, beware of curses, as they're especially powerful and anyone can place them if they're angry enough and get the Dark Powers' notice when they speak the curse. Any deed that could be considered "evil," like unprovoked assault, murder (especially of family), oath-breaking, or using specific naughty spells (usually necromantic) pings the Dark Powers' attention and calls for a "Powers check," a percentile roll against a number determined by the act committed and the victim. Roll above the number and you're safe (for now). Roll below and the Dark Powers like what they see, "gifting" you with something that seems beneficial, but pushes you to commit more nefarious deeds, which prompt further Powers checks. Soon, the Dark Powers' gifts come with obvious curses and debilitating drawbacks that end in either your death, transformation into something inhuman, or "ascension" to the rank of Darklord.
Basically, every evil deed is punished by karma. This means that it's entirely possible to lie, cheat, and steal your way into power, only to find yourself ironically cursed in a way that you can never have what you wanted that power for in the first place. Standard operating procedure is for you to be cursed to be alone or separated from one specific loved one - a wife, a son, etc. This is something detrimental in D&D, where the likes of good, evil, law, and chaos are tangible cosmic forces, case in point: outsiders who have good or evil as a subtype come into the place with "reality wrinkles," regions centered on themselves that have their own laws of reality, effectively their own portable domains that overwrite the local area.
Also, you can't leave unless the Dark Powers let you. There are rumors of other ways out, but they are always unclear and extremely dangerous to attempt. Attempting to use plane shift or other dimensional magic never get you out of Ravenloft; each domain is treated like its own plane, so you'll likely end up in a different domain instead. 3.5 allows to get in and out via OP1's World Serpent Inn, which shows up in the Demiplane of Dread at certain set intervals. The WSI fistula pisses the Dark Powers off to no end to the point they immediately threaten and scare anyone away from the door that leads to the inn as and when it appears in their domains. This whole "You can't get out unless we let you" schtick gave birth to so called Weekend in Hell adventures, where the players act like the unwitting pawns of the Dark Powers to torment a Darklord and are magnanimously granted a ticket out if they succeed without being corrupted themselves.
At the hands of a bad DM, 3.5's security-breach allows spells and powers unique to the plane to seep elsewhere, like into the Forgotten Realms. One of the prime reasons that make the Demiplane of Dread so dangerous is that it's home to spells so broken and dangerous that if they became planes-wide knowledge, everything could get screwed in a mere matter of days. A good example of this would be Strahd's unkillable zombies in the hands of a Dread Necromancer with the right feats, resulting in zombies that never die, endlessly heal if limbs are severed, only to turn into more undead that also explode and heal other undead in an endless cycle. But the seepage problem wasn't a new one; it's long been known to any worldbuilder, since Pizarro first stepped into Peru. DMs with three neurons to rub together can rule that the spell or ability in question simply ceases to function anywhere outside its domain of origin - so restraining Strahd's super-groovy zombies, in our example, to Strahd's prison.
Incidentally, as a result of the "no one can leave" thing, using conjuration magic is an extremely bad idea, as most summoned entities will be quite upset when they realize they can't go back home when the spell expires - and they will usually take their anger out on the conjurer with lethal results.
Fun fact: Only three prisoners have ever managed to escape from Ravenloft permanently. One is Vecna, of interest because the PCs can track his career in a series of adventure modules, culminating in that more-Planescape-than-actual-Ravenloft module Die, Vecna, Die!. Another was Lord Soth, formerly of Dragonlance. One more was Jander Sunstar, but he eventually killed himself out of guilt. Soth's case is the most interesting: he escapes by not giving a crap. To explain: Soth eventually accepts that he deserves to be tormented by the Dark Powers and admits his failures. He refuses to rise to anything they present him with, be it despair or hope; eventually, realizing that it's pointless to keep him around since he won't respond to anything they do and that he's reached a state resembling repentance the Dark Powers release him from Ravenloft after manipulating events so his downfall would be re-enacting in a way that he could no longer numb himself to the evil of his actions by living in the past. One final thing worth mentioning on the subject of things leaving Ravenloft is the Red Death of Masque of the Red Death. An early preview and a developer state it was a Dark Power banished by the others for some violation of their code of conduct.
The Darklords' Dark Secret
Those Dark Lords we keep mentioning above? They're the rulers of each land (most of them in fact as well as in spirit), but also prisoners of them as well. The entire plane is composed entirely of innumerable prisons, each one for something that really deserves it, and is caught in some kind of ironic hell as a result. The DM could connect this plane into your regular adventure just by saying, "thick mists rise up around you," and this meant you were royally fucked. The Dark Powers that control Ravenloft can steal people, places, and objects from other planes and trap them within the Demiplane of Dread. If somebody somewhere in the planes commits a particularly heinous crime (for example, Strahd von Zarovich, the first Darklord, became a vampire and murdered his brother to take his fiancee Tatyana for himself, who committed suicide rather than submit to him), they will reach out with the Mists to claim that person, create a little pocket realm for them, using a copy of their current surroundings, brand new scenery, or even just abduct the surroundings as well. In any case, the person is bound to that new realm as its Darklord.
Darklords have power, yes, but it's all ash in their mouths. The Dark Powers torment them by continuously dangling what their heart wishes for the most and they could have had just out of their reach. For instance: every generation, Strahd discovers a young woman who he believes is the reincarnation of Tatyana, but he always ends up responsible for her death. Azalin Rex, a powerful lich, is rendered incapable of learning new spells, utterly defeating the purpose of his undead transformation. One of Victor Mordenheim's creations nearly killed his wife, whom he cannot save from the brink of death, instead using an array of complicated machinery to keep her just barely alive, yet in constant agony while he continually fails to resuscitate her; his creation Adam on the other hand seeks acceptance from the world but the very land rejects him. Vlad Drakov, once a feared mercenary leader on Krynn, is surrounded by lands ruled by women and fops rather than the great military leaders he seeks the respect of, while the only real enemy he can see continually defeats him on the field of battle and he doesn't know that he can't even set foot on that soil if he should conquer it. Etc, etc...
The Darklords can also close the borders of their realms through some thematic means, preventing anyone from entering or leaving their domain; for example, Strahd can raise a choking fog along his borders, the same one that surrounds the village of Barovia, through which only creatures that do not breathe or have a special antidote can pass safely. If used right, this ability can increase the tension and raise the stakes for the game; used poorly, it smacks of railroading.
As a Dungeons & Dragons setting, most of the classic neo-Tolkien races are playable options in a Ravenloft campaign. Human, Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling and Half-Elf are all present and accounted for. But, its "Gothic Horror" slant does lead to a few tweaks, particularly in 3rd edition.
Firstly, this is the setting that introduced the concept of Outsider Rating, which is literally a stat to govern how much you spook the ignorant peasant-folk; this idea began in 2nd edition, but it was codified in 3rd edition.
Secondly, the setting gave us the Half-Vistani, one of the most pointless races ever.
Finally, in 3rd edition, the half-orc was removed under the explanation that the orc itself did not fit a Gothic setting. Instead, its place was taken by the Caliban; cursed, deformed, wretched mutants. Okay, they were literally just cosmetic reskins over the half-orc's statblock (which was widely considered the shittiest in 3rd edition) and it took a fan to actually explore their full potential in Quoth the Raven, but hey, at least you gotta give White Wolf credit for trying!
Despite the fact that the setting was literally made by a horny vampire lusting for a human woman, dhampirs have never appeared as a PC race in Ravenloft. This may not be as big of a mistake as some of the ones made in Planescape, and certainly doesn't compare to the existence of Kender and Tinker Gnomes (but then, what can?), but it shows how badly TSR could fuck up when it came to making an interesting setting.
Religion in the Demiplane of Dread is a strange thing indeed. While there are many religions present, the Demi-Plane of Dread seems to have been specifically isolated from any kind of divine intervention beyond the absolute minimum needed for faith to exist. Nobody's entirely sure how clerics get their spells in light of this, but some believe they are granted by the Dark Powers themselves, who choose to impersonate the gods for reasons nobody can fathom.
Established faiths of the Demiplane include:
- Akari Pantheon (Egyptian)
- Forlorn Pantheon (Celtic)
- Rajian Pantheon (Hindu)
Do you think that Ravenloft doesn't double down on its Historical Fantasy roots hard enough? Do you think spellcasters need even more nerfing? Are you just so masochistic that you think Ravenloft is too soft? Then TSR has you covered with Masque of the Red Death, a full-fledged Gothic Horror Historical Fantasy setting using the D&D crunch that manages to twist and contort its rules into something almost as punishing and depowering as Call of Cthulhu.
5th Edition Revival
Ravenloft was the first setting other than the Forgotten Realms to get some official attention paid to it with the adventure module Curse of Strahd, a reimagining of the original I6: Castle Ravenloft module that we get every single edition.
The setting is receiving a major overhaul to remove or revise elements that were unpopular with fans or are now considered problematic due to changing values. Or, at least according to Twitter and their sect of the fandom. Various changes such as lazy gender swaps, thematic heavy rewrites (such as Falkovnia, Dementlieu, and Valachan), toning down of horror (with comparisons to Scooby-Doo), turning the Core setting into isolated Islands of Terror and erasure of greater setting conflict has resulted in much ire from the fanbase. But, given the treatment of Jander Sunstar in the Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus module, many fans aren't surprised by the disregard for the Demiplane's lore. As such, for long time fans of the setting who don't feel Wizards of the Coast are improving things, it's an easy cause of rage and skub. In all fairness, much of this hatred started with the 4th Edition reboot of Ravenloft, to make it more inline with the new plane of the Shadowfell. It's safe to say that this ire isn't new, but this is just a new scratch on an old wound.
That said, the new lore also provides a choice between more combat-heavy and more roleplay-heavy Domains of Dread in Ravenloft, allowing the DM to pick and choose to suit the group they're running. And many of the new ideas and concepts for Darklords aren't bad, per se, though they didn't necessarily have to totally replace the things they're replacing and/or named the same as while being largely unrecognizable.
|The Cosmology of Planescape|
|Inner Planes||Ethereal Plane||Prime Material||Astral Plane||Outer Planes|
|Elemental Planes||Energy Planes||Demiplane of Dread||Plane of Shadow||Plane of Mirrors|
|World Serpent Inn||Tu'narath||Sigil||Demiplanes||Ordial Plane?|