Continuing my blog series on campaign settings and why they should be updated to 4e, I'm writing about my favourite: Ravenloft. Ravenloft is my baby. It was the first campaign setting I purchased and the first that showed me that D&D could be more than just Lord of the Rings with more races and classes and magic.
I love Ravenloft and own almost every product produced for the line (I'm missing a few minis and a handful of adventures). I write for a Ravenloft fansite and – despite the legal grey area (WotC's Fan Site Licence is abysmal) – I've done some working on rules for updating the setting to 4e.
But is the setting a good fit for 4e and would it make a good published campaign setting?
What Sets It Apart?
First and foremost, Ravenloft is thematically different than other campaign settings. Dragonlance touched on the idea of themes, emphasising high fantasy, epic heroism, romance, tragedy, and the like. It was a classic-epic world, but that's a fairly broad and safe theme for a game like D&D. Ravenloft is thematically about gothic/fantasy horror. Initially just gothic horror, it was broadened to fantasy horror in the late 2nd Edition book Domains of Dread. The gothic tradition emphasises powerful villains that have strong characterizations, weaker heroes that are often everymen, dramatic locals, personal tragedy, strong emption, and atmosphere. Implied terror and growing suspense were the strengths of the genre and the setting. I've also found the setting works well with liberal theft from Grimm's Fairy Tales and Folk Tales. This creates a lovely horror trifecta: folk tales, gothic literature, and fantasy horror. Ravenloft even throws-in a little Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the Bluetspur Island of Terror.
Let's return to the standard assumptions of the D&D campaign.
The World Is a Fantastic Place. No. And yes. The demiplane of Ravenloft is very much a fantastic place defying logic and existing outside the natural world. In 4e it might have worked best as a plane between planes or a sealed-off astral dominion, but instead they slapped it into the Shadowfell. And yet, despite the world's magic, the common folk like a very plain, mundane life. Magic is unknown and feared but the subject of superstition.
The World Is Ancient. No; while there are ruins and places of ancient wonders, comparatively the world is new. It's actual age is less than a millennium old but it looks old, but nothing compared to the hundred thousand year-old ruins of Eberron or the Realms.
The World Is Mysterious. A big old yes. The forests are dark and impenetrable and filled with unknown horrors, people fear the night and lock themselves away for safety, and even the roads and commonly travelled areas offer no safety. Mystery and the unknown abound.
Monsters Are Everywhere. Yes. While the actual number of monsters might be low, and few people have seen them, they exist and are a continual threat.
Adventurers Are Exceptional. Yes. The common man of Ravenloft might never venture more than a day's travel from where they were born and would never face off against the night's minions, even in a group. I've always felt the xenophobia, lesser powers, greater threats, and higher chance of death make being a hero in Ravenloft more impressive. It's much more like Dark Sun in this regard as there isn't a long history or tradition of heroics and heroes.
The Civilized Races Band Together. No. Humanity is very much dominant in Ravenloft and other races take a lesser role. This shouldn't affect the choice of PCs, they'll just be one of the few non-humans.
Magic Is Not Everyday, but it Is Natural. No, magic is neither everyday nor seen as natural. With the "twisted folklord and faerie tale" vibe of Ravenloft this is to be expected, as the common folk fear magic users as people who made pacts with devils or know secrets that were not meant to be known.
Gods and Primordials Shaped the World. No. The Demiplane of Dread was made by the Dark Powers, who rank with the Lady of Pain in the power scale but are even more mysterious. They're DM deus ex machina.
Gods Are Distant. Yes. Much like Eberron again, the gods are presumed to exist but no one knows for sure.
What Sells the Books
Ravenloft hasn't really set itself up as a source of player material. While there is enough content for some Paragon Paths and maybe a race or two (such as caliban from the 3e Ravenloft Player's Guide), the setting has always been a DM's setting. It doesn't help that two possible races (Vistani and revenants) have already received DDI updates. However, Dark Sun has showed us WotC is willing to monkey with the 3-book format. Ravenloft would probably work best with a DM Guide, a monster book, and a small player's guide in place of the adventure. Alternatively, player content could be handled through Dragon. I don't want to give-up the adventure but it's a product I'd likely never use. Instead a small adventure could be included in one of the other books. This is not idea, as many people don't like having pages wasted on an adventure, especially in a book they have to carry to their game, forcing them to bring wasted pages to each play session. But WotC seems intent on doing this regardless, so expanding the throw-away delve into a micro adventure seems least offensive.
(Aside: I'm not a fan of tying magazine articles to topical books, mostly because WotC seems to use it as a place to release more-of-the-same content, which seems like content cut for space. BUT the exception is cross-audience articles. Dungeon articles after a player's book releases and Dragon articles after a DM book. Sadly, this isn't happening, one of the many failed possibilities of the magazines. )
What makes Ravenloft a worthwhile setting to produce is it's modular nature. You can have an entire campaign set in the Land of the Mists or a series of adventures or just a single game session. Fewer players and DMs are going to invest in a Forgotten Realms or Dark Sun book unless they actually want to play in that campaign. From its very beginning, Ravenloft was meant to be dropped into an existing campaign. This increases the audience and appeal of the setting.
A good campaign setting should appeal to both audiences. Early Ravenloft products tended to assumed PCs were outsiders from other worlds that would enter the land, kill the darklord, then escape. And the 4e domains tend to follow this adventure formula, also adding the "escape" option. The 3e Swords& Sorcerery licence line tended to assume native heroes with a personal stake in the world. There should be content for both and a balance between Weekends in Hell and long campaigns.
Poop or Get Off the Pot
The e-magazines have been releasing some small Ravenloft content, and we've seen references in existing books such as Manual of the Planes. Four domains have been featured in the magazines, with three being brand new and one being a great reimagining of a forgettable domain.
This is nice but it's a tease. I've commented before on this but feel it's relevant. WotC should just decide to release a Ravenloft book or decide to only support it online. James Wyatt has said he much prefers the e-releases and feel of Ravenloft. And that's fine as long as the digital releases are desired content, people and places the fans actually want. Teasing fans with the possibility but not actually following through is a dick move, especially if it's just to keep them subscribing to DDI. The first brand new domain was nice, and an interesting peak at the possibility. Three was tiring and just made me long for actual, familiar and big-name content.
That's Ravenloft and later (likely tomorrow), I'll wrap-up with an unusual choice.