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D&D 5E Ravenloft: Building A Domain

NaturalZero

Adventurer
Ravenloft was the first setting I ever played in or ran.

I've been a long time fan of DnD since the early 90s but without a group I was a passive consumer of the brand/lore for a long time. In the summer of 2003 things finally came to fruition when I convinced a group of friends (with zero experience among them!) to huddle together around the coffee table and grab some dice. 3.5 had just been released and we all owned the core books but I was a DM who knew nothing about playing or running a TTRPG.

I had owned the original Black Box set of Ravenloft in 2e as well as a few of the splatbooks, so the misty essence of Ravenloft had lived in my head for a decade before I propped up my first DM screen. White Wolf had been putting out some 3.0 Ravenloft material when I started formulating my campaign and those pages, lavished with moody black-and-white art, provided a macabre refresher on the domains and history of the setting. One thing I realized as a game master right away though, was the idea of running/learning someone else's world, filled with detailed history, locations, NPCs, etc, seemed like more work than just making stuff up. I decided to create a domain instead of using one out-of-the-box.

18 years later and we're about to see the 5e reinvention of the setting. I'm thinking about building another dark domain based on a fog-filled analog of Victorian London. A sinister secret society grows like a cancer in the body politic, enacting occult rituals and sacrifices in the dark corners of the city. Lightless alleys, haunted sanitoriums, crowded cemeteries, effluvia filled sewers, and gothic cathedrals crawl with horrors both real and imagined, manifested by the forbidden rites enacted by this mystery cult. The PCs wage a war of shadows on an unknown enemy that stains the fabric of society. Who holds power? What is their aim?

It seems like the most obvious, trope-y gothic horror sort of setting but as far as I can remember there isn't really a version of archetypal urban horror in Ravenloft. I'm reading through the Red Box right now to jog my memory and see if there's not something super obvious that I'm missing.

My biggest world-building issue pops up when I look at existing domains, realizing both their size and populations. Most domains are small and their population are absolutely tiny compared to 19th century London. How would a city of millions eat? If it's an industrial center like London was, how does that economy even function in the context of the Core in Ravenloft? It's really going to bother me to be super hand-wavey about the world building aspect here but it seems hard to drop a big urban domain into the setting and have it make sense.
 

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Paridon/Zherisia is the obvious urban-London analog domain in Ravenloft, complete with Jack the Ripper rip-off. It was really only written up properly in modules though - Hour of the Knife in the 2e era, and Shadow of the Knife in 3e, which was never formally published but completed as some sort of community project and is available for free download on Fraternity of Shadows.

As we've discussed/argued extensively in this thread, Ravenloft demographics as written make no sense whatsoever. Seriously, just ignore the published numbers, they're utter dribble. Hell, Paridon's canonical population is only 11000, and that's just nonsensical in the context of a major 1800s-era city. You could very easily multiply all the published Ravenloft populations by 10 and the setting would be much more internally consistent.

I do agree that the Core was missing a major urban setting though, from a thematic point of view. Dementlieu was sometimes portrayed as a Paris-analog and played that role, though again, the population numbers are too low for it to make sense. But Mordent is crying out for a London-analog - I've often thought that both domains would have been improved if one of the various conjunctions or setting rearrangements deposited Paridon next to Mordent and fused the two into a single political entity, even if they remained distinct domains. Hell, put pre-DoD industrial hell Nosos in there too.
 




Faolyn

Hero
My biggest world-building issue pops up when I look at existing domains, realizing both their size and populations. Most domains are small and their population are absolutely tiny compared to 19th century London. How would a city of millions eat? If it's an industrial center like London was, how does that economy even function in the context of the Core in Ravenloft? It's really going to bother me to be super hand-wavey about the world building aspect here but it seems hard to drop a big urban domain into the setting and have it make sense.
Paridon/Zherisia is the obvious urban-London analog domain in Ravenloft, complete with Jack the Ripper rip-off. It was really only written up properly in modules though - Hour of the Knife in the 2e era, and Shadow of the Knife in 3e, which was never formally published but completed as some sort of community project and is available for free download on Fraternity of Shadows.
They also did their own Gazetteer for Zheresia, although I seem to recall it needed more editing.

In the S&S books, at least, they decided that Falkovnia was the breadbasket of the Core--which is probably the only reason why the other domains tolerated it.

I also recall some of the books saying that many people in Paridon were starving, simply because there was no arable land outside of the city and they couldn't import enough food, or grow enough within the city itself.

As we've discussed/argued extensively in this thread, Ravenloft demographics as written make no sense whatsoever. Seriously, just ignore the published numbers, they're utter dribble. Hell, Paridon's canonical population is only 11000, and that's just nonsensical in the context of a major 1800s-era city. You could very easily multiply all the published Ravenloft populations by 10 and the setting would be much more internally consistent.
I do just that. I have no idea why they have the population so low. Only Richemulot has the obviously-abandoned houses and stores to justify saying everyone else was eaten.

The only thing I can think of is that the Dark Powers can't make enough people (they don't have the processing power for it), which is why they sometimes grab entire towns.

Basically, I tend to multiply the population of the towns by about 5-10 or so, and the population of the countryside by 10-15, just so there's enough people working in the fields.

I do agree that the Core was missing a major urban setting though, from a thematic point of view.
Il Aluk--with it's population of 25,000--was the biggest city. Then it got turned into Necropolis, so...

Dementlieu was sometimes portrayed as a Paris-analog and played that role, though again, the population numbers are too low for it to make sense. But Mordent is crying out for a London-analog - I've often thought that both domains would have been improved if one of the various conjunctions or setting rearrangements deposited Paridon next to Mordent and fused the two into a single political entity, even if they remained distinct domains. Hell, put pre-DoD industrial hell Nosos in there too.
I think one of the "Quoth the Raven" ezines from the Fraternity created a domain with Paridon, Nosos, and Timor. I'd add Mordent and Staunton Bluffs as the countryside part of that domain.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
The urban poor of the Victorian Londons Eastend mainly survived on bread, gruel and broth (made from boiling up bones) supplemented with shellfish, sometimes watercress and occasionally vegetables. Not surprisingly Londoners tended to be shorter than others (average 5'1) and the children of the slums were undernourished, anaemic, rickety and lives very short.

I'd think that Paridon would be very similar unless
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
It seems like the most obvious, trope-y gothic horror sort of setting but as far as I can remember there isn't really a version of archetypal urban horror in Ravenloft. I'm reading through the Red Box right now to jog my memory and see if there's not something super obvious that I'm missing.
The Masque of the Red Death stuff might be right up your alley. It mostly takes the Ravenloft tropes and uses them in "historical" London circa 1890. The books might have relevant info.
My biggest world-building issue pops up when I look at existing domains, realizing both their size and populations. Most domains are small and their population are absolutely tiny compared to 19th century London. How would a city of millions eat?
London had a population of 5.567 million in 1891. Depending on the time and the technology, you'd need between 1/2 and 1 acre of land to feed one person for a year. So that's between 2.7835 million acres and 5.567 million acres of farmland, or between 4350 square miles and 8700 square miles. Probably on the lower end due to industrialization. The smaller end is a patch of land 66 miles by 66 miles; the larger end is a patch 94 miles by 94 miles. The map of the Valley of Barovia from Curse of Strahd covers about 17 miles wide by about 11 miles tall, or 187 square miles...or about 120,000 acres. So if every inch of it were farmland, you could feed between 120,000 and 240,000 people. To feed London, you'd need every inch of about 24 Barovias. The entire valley, not just the town. London worked because of trade, travel, and colonialism.

The only way you could pull that off in Ravenloft is magic. Lots and lots of magic. Goodberry and create food & water. Despite what the text of create food & water says, according to the PHB on food and water, a person needs one pound of food and one gallon of water per day. So cf&w feeds 45 people for a day and waters 30 people for a day. Goodberry feeds up to ten creatures, regardless of size. So you'd be smart to feed bigger creatures goodberry and give the by the pound food to medium-sized creatures. But that's a 1st-level slot (goodberry) and a 3rd-level slot (cf&w).
If it's an industrial center like London was, how does that economy even function in the context of the Core in Ravenloft?
As long as the misty borders stay open, it could work just fine...as long as the mists didn't eat the travelers. Or the Vistani were the traveling merchants keeping things working. As long as they're guaranteed safe passage by the mists. And that would radically alter their nature in the setting. And wildly alter the setting itself.
It's really going to bother me to be super hand-wavey about the world building aspect here but it seems hard to drop a big urban domain into the setting and have it make sense.
Magic. Going underground, though I'm not sure how much cavern space you need to grow food. You could have magical sunlight. Something like a permanent daylight spell. You could have monsters and animals play a much larger role in food. Especially regenerating monsters like trolls. You could turn them into the primary source of meat.

Trolls are large in 5E, which is unhelpful, but they're listed as 9' tall in 2E. A 9' tall person with the low end of average BMI should weigh about 310 lbs. Depending on where you draw the line on what's edible, you could get as much as 80% of that weight in food. For the average troll that's 248 pounds of food. As long as you don't use acid or fire, it'll always grow back. The average troll has 84 hit points and regenerates 10 hp per round, or about 12% of itself every six seconds. Convert that to weight and it's 29.76 pounds every six second round of regeneration, or 4.96 pounds every second. There are 86,400 seconds in a day...so there are 428,544 pounds of troll meat in a day...

So you could feed London on 13 trolls a day.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I wouldn't worry about the population. The Dark Powers might be doing something akin to Dark City - the city itself is a fraud and the inhabitants are mere shadow puppets or simulacrum that go about a mockery of their daily life. Only a small part of the population is truly alive, and it these individuals that are the focus of the horror story, and against whom the Dark Lord moves against.

Overall, this domain gives me ideas for an anti-Vendetta/Sherlock Holmes From the Shadows sort of realm. It's a London-like setting, and as you mentioned, there is an undercurrent of corruption in the halls of power - a secret cabal known as the Sable Mole infects the ambivalent halls of power and conducts abhorrent rites and practices on the populace, simply because they have the power to do so. None outside the government know of the cabal's existance, and those within either are a part, do not believe or do not know it exists or are too frightened to move against it.

Secretly moving against them is The Revolutionary. A black-clad individual who wears a stark white sneering mask, favoring the night-clad streets of the city. The favored weapon of the Revolutionary is a pair of radiant dueling blades and is reputed to have the ability to appear and disappear into the shadows. The Revolutionary and his small band of agents are wanted for crimes across the city, but anyone delving into those "crimes" learns that the interference thwarts the criminal activities of the cabal in power. Yet, at the same time, many of The Revolutionary's acts results in the maiming or deaths of innocents lured into the machinations of the power cabals acts.

The truth is somewhat disconcerting. While it is true that the cabal in power consists of vampiric doppelganger lords and their werewolf bodyguards, it is The Revolutionary who is the true Dark Lord. It was the Revolutionary who started the sect and created the first doppleganger lord, but was ousted from power. Now, the Revolutionary strikes against the plots of its creation, but does not care about the innocents that are caught in the crossfire of their actions.
 
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Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
18 years later and we're about to see the 5e reinvention of the setting. I'm thinking about building another dark domain based on a fog-filled analog of Victorian London. A sinister secret society grows like a cancer in the body politic, enacting occult rituals and sacrifices in the dark corners of the city. Lightless alleys, haunted sanitoriums, crowded cemeteries, effluvia filled sewers, and gothic cathedrals crawl with horrors both real and imagined, manifested by the forbidden rites enacted by this mystery cult. The PCs wage a war of shadows on an unknown enemy that stains the fabric of society. Who holds power? What is their aim?

It seems like the most obvious, trope-y gothic horror sort of setting but as far as I can remember there isn't really a version of archetypal urban horror in Ravenloft. I'm reading through the Red Box right now to jog my memory and see if there's not something super obvious that I'm missing.

My biggest world-building issue pops up when I look at existing domains, realizing both their size and populations. Most domains are small and their population are absolutely tiny compared to 19th century London. How would a city of millions eat? If it's an industrial center like London was, how does that economy even function in the context of the Core in Ravenloft? It's really going to bother me to be super hand-wavey about the world building aspect here but it seems hard to drop a big urban domain into the setting and have it make sense.
So, firstly I'd like to say that your chosen backdrop for a campaign is just -magnificent- and I love it to pieces and I want to play in it. Please post tons of lore and information about it as you go. I -beg- of you!

Secondly... Trade.

Plop this badboy at the intersection of Falkovnia, Dementlieu, Mordent, and Richemulot.

Kill the road from Mordentshire to Chateaufaux and instead make a road from Mordentshire to your place. Same with the link between Chateaufaux and Falkovnia, make them come through your place. Silvervas and Pont-a-museau? No road, there. It goes through Victorian London Horrorland, now.

Your town is now a Crossroads Realm that Falkovnia desperately needs to get it's bread-basket goods to three other important domains in exchange for weapons, armor, and soldiers to battle against the endless zombie horde that wipes them out every once in a while, but -somehow- never interrupts the monthly shipments of food through your town.

Which, of course, places Tariffs on everything that the different realms you're connected to mostly pay through food.
 

Remathilis

Legend
5e Ravenloft has coined the term "Nightmare logic" to explain things like lack of trade, economics, food access, technology and the overwhelming evidence of terrible things existing has not affected the population of commoners who live and dwell in these hellscapes. Basically, the Mists do a little bit of sedation and such to keep people doing what the Domain asks they do, and if a city like Paridon needs food to keep it's population alive, the Powers send carts of livestock and grain out from the Mists to be sold at markets and butchers who don't question where it came from or how it got there. They sell their meager stock to starving masses to earn what few coins they can to prolong thier miserable existence.

The PCs by virtue of being aware things are artificial can see the gaps in the supply chain or how things don't seem to add up, which further opens them to isolation and madness. They see the Matrix code and no one believes them.
 

NaturalZero

Adventurer
The Masque of the Red Death stuff might be right up your alley. It mostly takes the Ravenloft tropes and uses them in "historical" London circa 1890. The books might have relevant info.
I vaguely remember Masque of Red Death was a thing and planned to look it up. It was released after I had fallen out of following 2e but before I picked up the game with 3.5.
The only way you could pull that off in Ravenloft is magic. Lots and lots of magic.
In any other campaign, I'd have no problem coming up with a wild, fantastical magic solution to support the verisimilitude of the setting. I feel like the vibe of RL is pretty low magic, so this is a trick.
So you could feed London on 13 trolls a day.
Monster templates used to be a big deal and half-troll was on the list. Back in 3e, someone on the WotC forum brought up the idea of half-troll cattle that could be cut up into steaks and regenerated daily. Some sort of weird cattle that gets butchered -and re-butchered- every day could be pretty horrific and fit the setting. Add "slaughterhouse" to my list of horrific Victorian adventure sites.
I wouldn't worry about the population. The Dark Powers might be doing something akin to Dark City
The Dark City angle is a good one. In the previews, they called out Dark City, so I'm expecting we'll have at least one domain with that theme.
Your town is now a Crossroads Realm that Falkovnia desperately needs to get it's bread-basket goods to three other important domains in exchange for weapons, armor, and soldiers to battle against the endless zombie horde that wipes them out every once in a while, but -somehow- never interrupts the monthly shipments of food through your town.

Which, of course, places Tariffs on everything that the different realms you're connected to mostly pay through food.
Hmm. Not-London is the big industrial supplier of the war effort in Falkovnia maybe?
5e Ravenloft has coined the term "Nightmare logic" to explain things like lack of trade, economics, food access, technology and the overwhelming evidence of terrible things existing has not affected the population of commoners who live and dwell in these hellscapes. Basically, the Mists do a little bit of sedation and such to keep people doing what the Domain asks they do, and if a city like Paridon needs food to keep it's population alive, the Powers send carts of livestock and grain out from the Mists to be sold at markets and butchers who don't question where it came from or how it got there. They sell their meager stock to starving masses to earn what few coins they can to prolong thier miserable existence.

The PCs by virtue of being aware things are artificial can see the gaps in the supply chain or how things don't seem to add up, which further opens them to isolation and madness. They see the Matrix code and no one believes them.
I think the idea that the dark powers need the population to persist as part of the domain's curse is pretty fair, thematically. The social network of an urban environment is the essence of the realm's nature and so the powers need the population to subsist for the dark lord's prison to exist intact.

Alternatively, I'm now thinking of a "breadbasket" domain where they produce tons of food, but no one who lives there can eat it themselves. They export a lot but barely subsist because everything rots if left within the borders.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
Hmm. Not-London is the big industrial supplier of the war effort in Falkovnia maybe?
Would absolutely work. Though I'll be honest. Now that @Remathilis has mentioned it, the Nightmare Logic thing is just -so- good for your problem. Yeah, it's a little bit handwavy, but it also allows for something else that has occurred to me.

The big city is the entire zone, right? Mist just beyond the wall, though maybe on clear days more of the countryside can be seen? Spread it out just a -little- bit more, so that you can see, on a clear day, about a mile and a half, two miles out. See little farms and idyllic life from the walls of the City.

But. No one is ever allowed to leave Paridon.

There's always some reason for the gates to close just before you reach them. There's always some curfew or problem that makes sure the wall is well manned and you'll be spotted and stopped if you try to slip out. There's always a grate on the sewer that stops you from getting past the end of the tunnel and into freedom from the city.

Even at night, you can see the villagers celebrating their mundane little lives from the walls. See festivals and hope and joy and love. All of which make Paridon that much darker by comparison.

There's no -way- that farmland could support Paridon, and those happy villagers never approach the city. But wagons loaded with food and materials come in, filthy and bedraggled, from -somewhere- else. The Nightmare Logic makes everything in the city terrible, and everything outside of it perfect and nonsensical, to torture the residents.

"Someday I'll pay off my indentures and get outta this city... find a pretty wife. Have a lovely farm beyond the wall..." a common refrain heard in every taproom across Paridon, but no one has ever succeeded.
 

Ravenloft was the first setting I ever played in or ran.

I've been a long time fan of DnD since the early 90s but without a group I was a passive consumer of the brand/lore for a long time. In the summer of 2003 things finally came to fruition when I convinced a group of friends (with zero experience among them!) to huddle together around the coffee table and grab some dice. 3.5 had just been released and we all owned the core books but I was a DM who knew nothing about playing or running a TTRPG.

I had owned the original Black Box set of Ravenloft in 2e as well as a few of the splatbooks, so the misty essence of Ravenloft had lived in my head for a decade before I propped up my first DM screen. White Wolf had been putting out some 3.0 Ravenloft material when I started formulating my campaign and those pages, lavished with moody black-and-white art, provided a macabre refresher on the domains and history of the setting. One thing I realized as a game master right away though, was the idea of running/learning someone else's world, filled with detailed history, locations, NPCs, etc, seemed like more work than just making stuff up. I decided to create a domain instead of using one out-of-the-box.

18 years later and we're about to see the 5e reinvention of the setting. I'm thinking about building another dark domain based on a fog-filled analog of Victorian London. A sinister secret society grows like a cancer in the body politic, enacting occult rituals and sacrifices in the dark corners of the city. Lightless alleys, haunted sanitoriums, crowded cemeteries, effluvia filled sewers, and gothic cathedrals crawl with horrors both real and imagined, manifested by the forbidden rites enacted by this mystery cult. The PCs wage a war of shadows on an unknown enemy that stains the fabric of society. Who holds power? What is their aim?

It seems like the most obvious, trope-y gothic horror sort of setting but as far as I can remember there isn't really a version of archetypal urban horror in Ravenloft. I'm reading through the Red Box right now to jog my memory and see if there's not something super obvious that I'm missing.

My biggest world-building issue pops up when I look at existing domains, realizing both their size and populations. Most domains are small and their population are absolutely tiny compared to 19th century London. How would a city of millions eat? If it's an industrial center like London was, how does that economy even function in the context of the Core in Ravenloft? It's really going to bother me to be super hand-wavey about the world building aspect here but it seems hard to drop a big urban domain into the setting and have it make sense.

Rats. Lots and lots of rats. Lol

Actually I live in a rat infested city and this might add to the horror (we tend to be dismissive of rats as scenery. But if you've ever had a rat in your house, and you've also had mice, you realize these are two very different creatures in terms of the threats they can pose to a person. It might also be good for emphasizing the misery of such a giant city in Ravenloft. For example maybe there is limited supply of more delicious and traditional sources of meat and grain, that the upper crust of society has access to, but the lower levels of society may get used to rat for dinner (think the rat burger from Demolition Man, versus Taco Bell for the above ground people).

I think if it is important to you, you should run it as a thought exercise and try to think what potential sources of food there could be for a such a place. I think the challenge is making it not come off as 'video-gamey', by which I mean some artificial conceit that is obviously there by the hand of the designer. Personally I like rats. Especially because that leads naturally into lots of adventure ideas: if people live on rats, they probably don't wait for random rats to get caught in traps, there are likely people who gain wealth by assembling crews to go into the sewers and farm rats (and there is the mystery of course of why rats are so numerous that this doesn't deplete the supply). And on tops of regular rats for feasting, there may be vengeful rat-were or were-rats who pose a threat to such expeditions. You might also try to search historical examples of large cities in places where food supply was an issue. I can't think of any off the top of my head, but they must have existed. I was a history major and I can't tell you the number of times I have been told in a forum: a place like you are describing can't exist because they need resource X, and it would be too limited here, only to find numerous exceptions when I researched it because humans have a way of making things work and getting ingenious when there are pressures like that on them (think for example of cities existing in places where water is not as plentiful).
 



NaturalZero

Adventurer
But. No one is ever allowed to leave Paridon.

There's always some reason for the gates to close just before you reach them. There's always some curfew or problem that makes sure the wall is well manned and you'll be spotted and stopped if you try to slip out. There's always a grate on the sewer that stops you from getting past the end of the tunnel and into freedom from the city.
This works well for people born there who are cursed to remain and certainly works as the particular mechanism by which the lord closes the borders. I'm on the fence as to whether I'd want to trap the party in the city for the whole campaign though, since I like the idea of going off into the dark woods to collect maguffins - It isn't just a wooden stake that does the trick, it's a specific type of oak like the one on which the vampire was hanged and it's a perfume made from a special orchid that only blooms during a full moon that the lychanthropes are allergic to, outing them in public. That sort of stuff.

Rats. Lots and lots of rats. Lol
This is totally the domain of Richemulot, straight out of the book, and it's a good idea. I mentioned in another thread that I'd just played A Plague Tale and Richemulot is perfect for an adaptation. Essentially, every area of darkness is a deadly swarm of rats after sunset.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
This works well for people born there who are cursed to remain and certainly works as the particular mechanism by which the lord closes the borders. I'm on the fence as to whether I'd want to trap the party in the city for the whole campaign though, since I like the idea of going off into the dark woods to collect maguffins

London is famous for its Pea Souper Fog and really thats all thats needed for a DarkLord to close the borders - London has suffered from poor air quality from the 13th Century due to burning of cheap coal and the London Pea Souper also acquired the name “Killer Fog” because it was thick with particles of soot and sulfur dioxide (and was often yellowish).
Make the Dark Lord an Industrialist/Ghetto Landlord and make the posionous Fog a sentient minion that oozes through the streets and suffocates anyone who tries to penetrate through it, but allows passage in those few times that it lifts.
 
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