There are very few adventures that are better thought of than Ravenloft. The adventure, written in 1983 by Tracy and Laura Hickman, was popular enough to inspire an entire campaign setting and brought the trappings of Gothic Horror to Dungeons & Dragons. However, it isn’t entirely smooth sailing. The Hickmans were being pioneers with this form of storytelling and so there are techniques of storytelling here that I can only describe as clunky. The bulk of the adventure is set in Castle Ravenloft, where the Hickmans have a number of nasty creatures and wondrous treasures waiting to you. It’s just another dungeon, isn’t it?
The fact is that it is and it isn’t. The success of Ravenloft relies on it not being too dissimilar to a regular D&D adventure. If you stripped out all the descriptive text, what remained wouldn’t be that special. However, it is the evocation of the genre that succeeds more than the actual implementation. Ravenloft doesn’t run like a gothic horror story, largely due to the fact that the capabilities of the player characters far outstrip anyone in a gothic horror tale, but because the setting feels like gothic horror, it engages the players in a different manner.
Ravenloft begins with the characters being tricked into entering Barovia, a land under the rule of a cruel vampire, Strahd. Once there, the magic of the land makes it impossible to escape, and so the characters will be forced to deal with Strahd and his plans before they can return home. Unfortunately, the vampire is likely to be hunting them!
Ravenloft has a few curious tricks of design. The location of key items and Strahd’s goals are randomly picked at the start of the game (normally using a deck of cards, though dice can be used in a pinch). This is odd. Why include it? The adventure suggests its so the story is different when you play the adventure again.
As with Pharaoh, the adventure runs into trouble with the wilderness. Ravenloft works best if the adventurers encounter the gypsies and have their fortune told (and thus get to discover what is going on), but it is entirely possible for this encounter to be missed altogether. It’s the Sunken City of Pazar all over again! It wouldn’t be long before TSR “solved” this problem with the adventure railroading in the Dragonlance series, but the structure of these early adventures still allowed problems like this to arise. In fact, that the Hickmans placed the gypsies where they did is bizarre: there is one road for most of the map, except where it splits and allows the group to bypass the gypsy encampment. Huh?
The small town living under the vampire’s rule is briefly described and doesn’t really make that much sense. All of the shops are permanently closed, except for the tavern and the local trader. This is despite the villagers having ‘been terrorized for centuries by “the devil” Strahd’. One would expect that it wouldn’t even have shops any more – the buildings either destroyed or repurposed for occupancy – or the villagers had come to some new arrangement. It’s not like Strahd has just descended from the hills – he’s been there for a very long time. The trader sells things at massively inflated prices, but to who? Don’t think too much about this. It gives the impression of a village living under the scourge, and that might be enough. The good points here are the NPCs, which while not exhaustively described, allow the material to move past “find the vampire in his lair.”
As for the dungeon itself, one doesn’t really expect a Hickman dungeon to make perfect sense. What it does have are a number of very entertaining encounters: tricks, traps and monsters. And, as mentioned above, the dungeon is full of evocative text. This isn’t just another dungeon.
The spiralling staircase finally ends at a 5-foot-wide walkway that circles the shaft. In the center of the tower’s highest floor, a 15-foot-diameter hole drops into the cold heart of Ravenloft itself. Cold air rushes up from the shaft sending a chill through your every bone. Archers’ slits line the walls. Aging beams support a steep roof. One beam and part of the roof have fallen away, leaving a gaping hole to the sky.
With passages like that, it’s no wonder that Tracy Hickman later became an incredibly popular author!
It’s worth noting that Castle Ravenloft actually has relatively few encounters, especially for the amount of text lavished on its description. It’s much more of an evocative setting than a place of a lot of encounters with which to challenge the players. The true heart of the storytelling lies with Strahd and his aims, and the adventure relies heavily on the Dungeon Master to properly bring it to life.
The maps and artwork in the adventure are superlative. The illustrator is Clyde Caldwell, and his evocative artwork is of the highest quality – Dungeons & Dragons would rarely have a work this well-illustrated. The maps are done in a style occasionally referred to as isomorphic: done at an angle, with the higher levels showing their relationship to the lower levels. It is an excellent technique for what otherwise could have been a quite confusing map of the castle, as it has many levels.
The adventure does provide an optional ending, as in each of the Desert of Desolation series, although there is a fair chance that it would not be usable by a group. It makes a few assumptions about the goals of Strahd that may not actually ring true in the end. In any case, it does provide some idea to the Dungeon Master of how the adventure could end!
When you come down to it, I much prefer Pharoah, as the setting and adventure work much better with the assumptions of Dungeons & Dragons play. However, there’s little doubt that Ravenloft has worked very well for many people over the years. The design flaws it does have will be avoided by most experienced DMs (simply having Madame Eva encounter the players on the road and telling their fortune there would make a major improvement to the tale). What Ravenloft does well is focus on the villain: he becomes more than someone the players just meet and slaughter. In doing so, Ravenloft opened up a new way of telling stories in Dungeons & Dragons. It is just very difficult to pull off well!