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, curses, and no way out - DUN DUN DUUUUUN
Ravenloft is a campaign setting made of lofts and ravens... well, ok, it's a D&D 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 lord 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 (sometimes called the "Demiplane of Dread") as Ravenloft for convenience.
The setting has been described as "Hell, but not for you." The lords mentioned above? They're the rulers of each land (most of them in fact as well as spirit), but also the prisoners. 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 borked. 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 for himself, who killed herself rather than submit to him), they will reach out with the Mists to claim that person, create a little pocket realm for them, and bind them to that realm as its darklord.
Darklords have power, but it's all ash in their mouths when the Dark Powers torment them by dangling what they could have had just out of their reach. Every generation, Strahd discovers a young woman who is the reincarnation of Tatyana, but he always ends up responsible for her death. 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. Vlad Drakov, a feared mercenary leader on Krynn, is surrounded by lands ruled by women and fops, 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.
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.
The first rule of Ravenloft is not to touch anything, ever. First off, detect good and detect evil don't work, pinging everything as "inconclusive," so you can't use those spells to check if anything is safe. Anything that could be considered an "evil deed" or using certain spells pings the Dark Powers' attention and calls for a "Powers check," a percentile roll against a number depending on 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 at first seems beneficial, but helps you commit more nefarious deeds, in turn provoking more Powers checks and pushing you farther down the path to becoming a darklord in your own right. 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. Standard operating procedure is for you to be cursed to be alone or separated from one specific loved one - a wife, a son, etc.
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.
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.
Fun fact: Only two prisoners have ever managed to escape from Ravenloft permanently: Vecna, in a set of modules that make both Matt Ward's oeuvre and Twilight look positively well-written, and Lord Soth, formerly of Dragonlance. Soth is the more interesting of the two in that 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, the Dark Powers release him from Ravenloft.
Ravenloft began as a 1e D&D module officially titled I6: Ravenloft, created by the Hickmans (creators of the Dragonlance modules and, ultimately, setting). Their reason for doing so 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). 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.
Ravenloft was reduced to just a few token mentions in the 4th edition, but received a royal treatment in 5e with the release of Curse of Strahd, an updated, rewritten release of the original I6 module.
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 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.
|Dungeons & Dragons Campaign Settings|
|Basic D&D:||Mystara (Blackmoor - Hollow World) - Pelinore|
|AD&D:||Birthright - Council of Wyrms - Dark Sun - Dragonlance |
Forgotten Realms (Al-Qadim - The Horde - Kara-Tur - Maztica)
Greyhawk - Mystara (Red Steel) - Planescape - Ravenloft - Spelljammer
|3rd/3.5 Edition:||Blackmoor - Dragonlance - Eberron - Forgotten Realms - Ghostwalk - Greyhawk - Ravenloft|
|4th Edition:||Blackmoor - Dark Sun - Eberron - Forgotten Realms - Nentir Vale|
|5th Edition:||Dragonlance - Eberron - Forgotten Realms - Greyhawk - Nentir Vale - Ravenloft|