[written by reviewer and author, Darren Pearce]
The Demiplane of Dread
A history of Ravenloft
If you’re an avid roleplayer or you love vampires and other strangeness, there’s a chance that you may know of the Demiplane of Dread, especially if you’ve played Dungeons and Dragons for a long time. It was the name given to that setting first published as an adventure in 1983 called I6: Ravenloft, written by Tracy and Laura Hickman for first edition AD&D. Ravenloft was an instant hit with the fans (including myself) and was eventually picked up for a campaign setting fondly known as the ‘Black Box’ in 1990, it had two later revisions, the ‘Red Box’ and later on as a hardback called: Domains of Dread.
1991 it won the Origins Award for best Graphic Presentation of a Roleplaying Game, Adventure, or Supplement of 1990. Not long after this Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR and for some misbegotten reason cancelled one of the more interesting RPG lines for D&D. There have been countless novels that were set in Ravenloft and each dealt with a ruler from the Demiplane of Dread, even characters from other settings could be found in Ravenloft, notables from Dragonlance such as the Knight of the Black Rose, Lord Soth for instance and the infamous Vecna all found their way to the demiplane.
Arthaus Games picked up the license briefly and through Sword and Sorcery (White Wolf’s imprint) it was reborn for 3.0 and 3.5 edition Dungeons and Dragons, the license reverted to Wizards of the Coast in 2005 and Sword and Sorcery were allowed to sell its back stock until at least 2006. White Wolf had to change a number of things and remove specific external setting characters, such as Soth and Vecna, changing the names of D&D specific gods to Ravenloft’s own.
It has had a turbulent past, including a brief appearance as a stand-alone hardcover remake of the first edition original, known as Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, updated for 3.5. Finally in 2008 Wizards of the Coast said that Ravenloft would make a return for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, not as a core setting but as part of the overall universe and cosmology of the line. The 4th Edition Manual of the Planes has established Ravenloft as part of the eerie plane known as the Shadowfell.
Ravenloft, a unique D&D setting
Ravenloft has always been a setting that I’ve been fond of since the early days; I was secretly hoping that, along with Dark Sun, they’d bring it back since it was quite unlike any of the previous D&D adventures or settings I’d ever encountered. For one adventures in Ravenloft were not only macabre but they were thrilling, it was beyond orcs and goblins, dragons and treasure hordes, it was dark fantasy horror and characters, plot and story actually mattered in the Demiplane of Dread.
It introduced many of my players to the concept of roleplaying as compared to roll-playing, where not every threat could be countered with a sword or stopped with a spell. In fact many of the Ravenloft creatures were stronger and more powerful than their hack-and-slash D&D counterparts. The Lords of Ravenloft were terrible to behold and Strahd Von Zarovich, the vampire was one of the most powerful, cunning and twisted NPC’s that the players could ever hope to meet.
Strahd was joined by Dragonlance’s own Lord Soth, and numerous other evil powers that lurked in the darkness of the setting. The Dark Powers, a group of unnamed beings of immense and terrible power kept such notables trapped in their own realms, giving them tiny shreds of hope that they might escape. Entry to Ravenloft could be through any of the established D&D settings pulling a group of characters from Spelljammer, or Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms and even Dark Sun (a notorious shattered sphere, with one link to Ravenloft) into the Demiplane of Dread via the Mists of Ravenloft.
The Mists were a great storytelling tool, they could spring up and instil fear into the hearts of even the most stalwart party that knew about Ravenloft in-character (and even out). Many a time a normal mist has been avoided entirely or caused a group of adventurers to run screaming from the woods, beating a hasty retreat and heading for higher ground. Those cocky adventurers who needed a lesson in manners would often be prime targets for the Mists, and those who had evil in the hearts were perfect candidates for Ravenloft.
Usually they’d be kidnapped by the swirling white fog, deposited somewhere like Barovia (the realm of Strahd) and given no prior warning where they were. The Mists were fickle like that and very quickly hot-headed hack-slashers would discover that they were in a domain where the rules had changed, where even the common skeleton was a force to be feared and the people were just as bad as the monsters they cowered from. Ravenloft was D&D’s answer to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and more, it had a bit of everything that could appeal to anyone who loved the classic monsters.
The tale of the vampire Strahd Von Zarovich, the doomed Count of Barovia, who constantly seeks to win back his love and fails at every turn, yet keeps on trying, is just one of the many character driven stories that the adventurer can become embroiled in. Strahd is one of the first D&D villains to ever be given such an emotional depth and backstory, making him beyond a simple vampire and into something that is to be respected, feared and pitied. It’s hard not to like Strahd since he forms a perfect allegory along with Vlad Drakov, another vampire and the ruler of Falkovnia, to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and becomes more than just another monster, he becomes a sympathetic figure driven by needs beyond that to murder and destroy.
Yet with every defeat and crushing failure, Strahd continues to try and win back his love, Vlad continues to wage war where his campaigns are doomed to failure because the Dark Powers are wily, they dangle the carrot of a new hope all the time, twisting the fate of their victims into a new skein and arranging a failure that cannot be attributed to them. Player characters may be the unwitting pawns in the Dark Powers schemes and they can be tricked into aiding the Dark Powers to stymie the Lords of Ravenloft. Of course if they do so willingly, then that brings its own dark reward.
The Dark Powers are always looking for new pawns; new Lords of Ravenloft and they reward evil with power. Power that draws upon the very Mists and Demiplane of Dread, power that is seductive and palpable, appealing to the selfish and evil characters in a group. Once they’re caught in the web of the Dark Powers deceit they find it very hard to escape and slowly they’re permanently attached to Ravenloft itself, given their own domain and set up as a minor Lord of Ravenloft.
Now the Dark Powers have a new toy. This was a great way to deal with the overtly evil PC’s in a group too, those who delighted in backstabbing their friends and those who would be evil enough to thwart Strahd’s desire to bring back his lost love, stop Lord Soth from trying to escape Ravenloft or aid Vecna in trying to destroy the Dark Powers themselves. Suddenly the dreams of a realm to rule over are presented directly to the avaricious player and they jump in with both feet first, splashing the waters of corruption.
Now though, they’re slowly drowning as their realm takes shape. They may have a castle and servants, they may even have traded the souls of their comrades in arms for this chance – but what they really have made is a prison from which there is always the hope, but never the reality of escape. The Dark Powers have always room for one more…and soon they’ll pit them against the other Lords of Ravenloft, sitting back as the likes of Lord Soth and the new Lord are brought into conflict.
Ravenloft was unique in that it was the first D&D setting to measure your character’s morality, it was possible as detailed above, to become so evil and corrupt that the realm trapped you there and made you part of it. There have been alignments and various methods to track your characters morality but until Ravenloft D&D never had a risk/reward system that meant your characters in-game actions actually counted for something. Ravenloft games turned from mindless monster hunting to political intrigue and adventure as even the most stalwart Paladin found their powers would do little but irritate the most basic of monsters.
It turned into survival horror and it was possible to truly play a role in that setting, no orcs, no dragons, no dungeons and treasure hordes, Ravenloft required a very different and mature mindset to get the best out of. It was one setting where reading all the nuances was extremely important and without understanding the various changes from core D&D, much of the tone and feel of the setting could be lost.
For instance, magic, magic functioned differently in the Demiplane of Dread, some spells designed to banish and punish evil creatures, Paladin’s divine powers and the like were attenuated or removed. The rules were very clear on what worked and what didn’t, stripping the Holy Warrior of their potent arsenal and forcing them to rely on other means to deal with the many threats of the setting. When all of the features of Ravenloft were combined it could be considered one of the best published D&D settings since the year dot, bringing to life the dark gothic horror of many of the established classics, with a bit of a twist.
It won that Origins Award for a reason and it was well deserved, and as I said … a tiny little shred of me still hopes we’d see a fully re-released Ravenloft for 4E D&D in a few years time. But for all I know I could be writing this blog in my own little corner of the Demiplane of Dread, whilst the Dark Powers at WotC sit and cackle gleefully, taunting me with shreds of information, giving me a new hope that rather than leave the Demiplane of Dread, I might one day set foot there again and haunt the shadows with a new group of players.
That’s how the Dark Powers like it, and that’s how I like it.
Until next time, watch out for the mist…
You never know where it might take you…