• COMING SOON! -- Level Up: Advanced 5th Edition! Level up your 5E game! The standalone advanced 5E tabletop RPG adds depth and diversity to the game you love!
log in or register to remove this ad

 

D&D General Reading Ravenloft the setting

So the book announcement inspired me to do a bit of rereading of some of the old Ravenloft material. Heavily focusing on flavor, because that's what's relevant to the upcoming 5e implementation, and the 3e incarnation of the setting, because that's predominately what I own. And since all the cool kids are doing it, I figured I'd quasi-blog it here as i go along.

First off the rank is Gazetteer volume 1. This was the first of a planned series of 13 books, looking at all the domains from a first-person perspective, with a definite emphasis on everyday life in the setting rather than the Big Stuff of domain lords and the nature of the Dark Powers. These books were written by a group of fans dubbed the Kargatane, well known for their excellent 'Book of S...' netbooks, who were hired by White Wolf to write for the line when they acquired the rights from WotC under their Sword and Sorcery imprint.

Anyway, down to it.

Gazetteer 1 opens with a cross and testy explanatory note from our in-world narrator. In a rather crotchety tone, we are informed that our chronicler is a Darkonese scholar with an interest in the morbid (and is rather annoyed to be pulled away from an in-depth study of the undead of Necropolis for this task). But an 'invitation' by a patron our scholar accurately guesses to be Azalin (Azalin himself contributes the occasional marginal note in a very gothic font) is not easily refused. We are told the task is to do a survey of the current state of the Core, and report back, as Azalin has only just reappeared after the disaster of the Requiem, and has a lot of catching up to do. Our narrator, having an interest in the eldritch, seems to accept the existence of domain lords, and the closing of borders, and new lands appearing out of nowhere and other tropes of the setting that us omniscient readers know about, as not-yet-explained phenomena but nonetheless real enough. However, we're told that this knowledge is not particularly widespread - an interesting wrinkle for someone creating Ravenloft-native PCs to consider.

First domain off the rank is Barovia.

(The book is ordered by domains, and as national borders rarely cross domain lines this kinda works, even if by fiat)

A trend we see starting here that will continue through the line is overwhelming human majorities in the population. Here we have 98% human (plus 1% 'half-Vistani' which is a distinctly queasy aspect of 3e Ravenloft when looked at through modern eyes). How will this translate to 5e? I don't think 4e had a serious iteration of Ravenloft - where do dragonborn and tiefling PCs fit into a setting when even dwarves are seen as creepy inhumans? I half suspect we'll have a couple of new dragonborn- or tiefling-dominated domains to explain how they showed up, despite how badly-received that strategy was in 4e FR...

We then have some pages of geography. Summary - Barovia is a land of windswept forbidding peaks and dark wolf-haunted forests, with old stone roads and towers slowly crumbling. All very Dracula Movie Central Casting. Then we have a summary of Barovian history, basically war hero Strahd I, tragic attack of assassins at his brother's wedding killed the royal family, ruled by Strahd's descendents (all male only children, also called Strahd) ever since. Our narrator is not an idiot and calls this out for the clear cover story it is, but what's perhaps a bit more interesting is that we are referred to Van Richten's Guide to Vampires as well. Are Van Richten's Guides widely read throughout the Core (banned as seditious in Barovia, of course?)? What does that mean for traders dealing with Barovia, for instance?

In the history section we're also introduced to an array of ethnic tensions in Barovia, which are clearly being set up as a major source of tension for groups who don't immediately want to take on Strahd. There's small groups of refugees understandably fleeing Bluetspur and Forlorn, but the biggest group are the Gundarakites. Gundarak was a domain whose relatively uninteresting vampyre darklord was killed in a complicated series of events in the very early Ravenloft module Feast of Goblyns, but what's interesting is what happened after. No new Darklord arose, and the old one (mostly) stayed dead, but the land comprising the domain actually persisted beyond the existence of the domain or its lord, and ended up being split between Barovia and Invidia. There's a bit of discussion about how this happened temporally (Strahd sent troops to take over) but none about how/why the mystical domain/prison of Barovia expanded accordingly. Anyway, Gundarakites are pretty much a second class in Barovia, very culturally similar to Barovians, but enough difference in language, customs etc for there to be strife. There's oppression, and freedom fighters, and a Gundarakite revivalist movement worshipping an ancestral butcher-god, and so on.

Then we have culyural details. This is all flavour, aimed to help GMs make the place seem real. Eastern European peasant cliches ahoy, miserable serfdom, unfriendliness to strangers, cabbage dumplings and plum brandy (talked about as the quintessential Barovian drink, which makes the prominence of wine in CoS feel a bit odd...), superstition, prejudice against non-humans and hatred of magic (shades of Dark Sun here, be a wizard and risk getting burnt at the stake - which makes things awkward when you border on magic-heavy Hazlan and elf-heavy Sithicus). A bit on religion, the Morninglord being the main deity (in his 2e -ovel-related guise as a gold elf with blood on his face, heavily borrowing from FRs Lathander)

Then we have a tour, focused on major settlements. There's only a few major locations discussed, a bit about the local boyars (Strahd's governors), some local politics and plot hooks, our narrator's acerbic reviews of inns, etc. One thing that does really get my goat - the numbers don't add up. Barovia, which has a standing army, a serf economy, many noble houses, etc etc is listed as having a total population of only 27000, and there's several apparently bustling towns whose descriptions simply don't fit their demographics. Vallaki, for instance, is listed as the 'prosperous economic heartland' of Barovia, having a 'significant' population of fishermen, the realm's most renowned orchards and distilleries, clanging blacksmiths shops, multiple fish markets, multiple sages in residence, a burgomaster with an 'extensive family', a garrison, and a noteworthy number of bookshops specialising in arcana and eldritch topics. And its listed population is ... only 1547. They must all be VERY busy is all I'm going to say about that.

There's a few secret societies and plot hooks scattered about. The assassins that supposedly killed Strahd I way back. An interesting thief-assassin-mercenary who lost her head a while ago but is cursed to keep living, borrowing other heads from those she slays while she tries to recover her own.

What we DON'T have here is much about Strahd personally. He's obviously deeply embedded in the history of the place and he looms fearfully over all aspects of the politics, but he's not present in person, and our narrator doesn't even visit Castle Ravnloft. There's an appendix about Tatyana's current incarnation, who is actually middle aged now after leaving Barovia as a young girl when her parents heard a fortune teller's prediction that if she stayed she'd be dead by 20. I'm torn about this. The Strahd/Tatyana story is so classic that it'd be unfortunate to deny PCs a chance to get involved, but on the other hand this incarnation of Tatyana has real interest of her own, and Strahd confronting the idea that he missed the boat and that his eternal lost love is now middle-aged is an interesting wrinkle to the story. But it's a wrinkle best suited to those players who already know the basic Strahd story and want to play through a variation. It's very plainly targeted at long-time Ravenloft players and fans, as is a lot of the Kargatane's work. So I'm not sure how i feel about it, really. Giving the DM a variety of options to choose from might have been a better idea.

So, first domain down. My impression of the overview of Barovia here is that it's put first in the book as something like a default case, as probably the most familiar domain, and everything that follows will be at least partially defined by how it differs. There's real determination here to make the Core a functional world of its own with politics etc outside the whim of the darklords or the Mists - the emphasis on the friction between the Barovians and Gundarakites in really seems like part of an effort to make it more grounded rather than that Place All About The Vampire. But it does tend to take over the narrative a bit. Hmmm. And there's also the sheer size of the place - the various Castle Ravenloft modules (and computer games) that have spanned edition after edition of the game barely move beyond the immediate environs of Barovia village and the Castle itself, but here they're almost afterthoughts, isolated in the mountains somewhere while the real life (excuse pun) of Barovia happens in the much larger towns of Vallaki, Teufeldorf, Krezk etc.

Next up is Hazlan, which will be interesting as it's basically a Red Wizard of Thay ripped root and branch from Forgotten Realms and dropped into Ravenloft, which in the very second domain in the series is putting a big 'nope' to the idea that everything in the setting draws influence from classic horror, or even any horror at all...
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Oh, and as i read, I'll put my Heroforge obsession to use and make an image of an iconic PC from each domain I cover. The random class generator for Barovia gave me ... fighter, so here's this guy. Probably drafted into Strahd's milita, from peasant stock, the quilted brigandine he wears, in Strahd's colours of red and black, is the only uniform he owns. Everything underneath it is his regular farm clothing. Everything is a bit faded and shabby and crumbling, just like Barovia as its ruler spends his years squatting in his tower brooding over Tatyana.

1614776484141.png
 

Second domain is Hazlan.

We have some few commonalities with Barovia here, again it's a heavily human-dominated domain, 92% in this case, and the predominately halflings and gnomes that make up the rest only get a couple of sentences. And again, we have intre-human ethnic conflict a major theme, more on that later.

Hazlan is a weird domain thematically. It's ripped straight from Thay in the Forgotten Realms, and its relationship to Ravenloft-y gothic horror is ... questionable at best. As far as i know, Hazlan and Hazlik date right back to the Black Box and have been a continual feature of the setting ever since, but there's never been a major adventure or even significant metaplot point set here. It almost seems to hang around out of inertia rather than anything. Ravenloft grognards, am I missing something here? Has Hazlan been an integral part of anyone's Ravenloft games?

As such, the Gazetteer throws a lot of thematic ideas for Hazlan at the wall, hoping some will stick.

First is the idea of Hazlan as a magically-polluted contaminated waste tainted by (presumably) Hazlik's experiments - there's strange and unpleasant magic all over the place, the crops rot unwholesomely, aberrations like chuuls and krenshars are noted as being magical byproducts, and there's some atmospheric-sounding sites like the Black Spire and the Hill of the Hundred Paths covered.

Second is our ethnic tension. We have the pale-skinned Mulan who are a 10% minority but form a pampered overclass, and the dark-skinned 90% Rashemani who live as downtrodden serfs. This state of affairs is reinforced by the dominant religion of the Lawgiver, a reskin of FRs Bane, who is a LE deity of mailed-fits order, tyranny, strength etc.

Then we have the Darklord Hazlik, who is the overlord of the country by sheer arcane might, but who is destabilising the place by undermining various of its social structures. This, frankly, is a bit of a mess. Hazlik's background involves a doomed crush on another Mulan man (his wife's lover), who entrapped and then humiliated him, for which he exacted horrible revenge which had him packed off to Ravenloft. His big goal is to escape Ravnloft, return to Thay, commit magical genocide on all the Mulan across both worlds, and then live forever in the body of his female Rashemani apprentice. So yeah, som ... questionable ... stuff there. To this end he's recently released strictures on other people learning magic, and has founded magic schools with both Mulan and Rashemani students, so he can use them in his grand design, and this has up him at loggerheads with the Lawgiver's church.

I find my self questioning why Hazlan exists, frankly. It's a perfectly good D&D setting with some interesting things to do, but if it represents a horror archetype at all then it must be one I'm unfamiliar with. It's been around in Ravenloft for many, many editions and iterations, but as far as i can tell, it's never made much of an impact on the broader setting. There is a few lines talking about how graduate of Hazlik's new magic school are travelling abroad and finding employment as court wizards etc in a setting which is generally fairly light on areas which are mage-friendly, but this is a plot thread that never really gets followed up upon. Combined with the profoundly confused ethnic and gender/sexuality minefield that is Hazlik's backstory and the place's general social structure, this is a domain I would not be at all surprised to see vanish into the mists when the 5e book comes around.

The random class generator chose monk for Hazlan, so here's our iconic local PC. We have a caliban monk here, 3e Ravenloft's not-half-orc, which basically used half-orc stats to represent unfortunates born physically twisted due to exposure to curses or fell magic in the womb. Our hero was born in a Rashemani village too close to one of Hazlik's experimental sites, blind in one eye and with misshapen limbs and skin tending to unnatural colours. As quickly as was decent her horrified village packed her off to the mines, but she fortunately came under the wing of an old veteran mine slave who taught her unarmed combat techniques passed down from captive to captive...

1614933972288.png



Next up, Forlorn.
 
Last edited:


Per the official D&D Facebook page, Hazlan (or "Haslan") looks to be in. My guess is they saw an opportunity to fix old mistakes.
I hadn't seen that, interesting.

It occurs to me that Hazlan is actually a domain that could benefit from the breakup of the Core into islands in the Mist. It just shares so little with its neigbouring domains, culturally, thematically, or anything.

Still not sure what purpose it serves or what model of horror it's mean to evoke. Fallout-style wastelands with twisted mutants etc maybe, except from noxious magical byproducts rather than radiation?
 


Voadam

Legend
I think Hazlan was built up from the Darklord angle rather than the domain niche. Pulling in bad guys from across TSR multiverse the Red Wizards fit that as a bad guy icon for the Forgotten Realms. It could have been a magic is OK here domain where lots of bad magic research happens, but I vaguely remember him limiting all magic practice to him and some select apprentices.
 

What we DON'T have here is much about Strahd personally. He's obviously deeply embedded in the history of the place and he looms fearfully over all aspects of the politics, but he's not present in person, and our narrator doesn't even visit Castle Ravnloft. There's an appendix about Tatyana's current incarnation, who is actually middle aged now after leaving Barovia as a young girl when her parents heard a fortune teller's prediction that if she stayed she'd be dead by 20. I'm torn about this. The Strahd/Tatyana story is so classic that it'd be unfortunate to deny PCs a chance to get involved, but on the other hand this incarnation of Tatyana has real interest of her own, and Strahd confronting the idea that he missed the boat and that his eternal lost love is now middle-aged is an interesting wrinkle to the story. But it's a wrinkle best suited to those players who already know the basic Strahd story and want to play through a variation. It's very plainly targeted at long-time Ravenloft players and fans, as is a lot of the Kargatane's work. So I'm not sure how i feel about it, really. Giving the DM a variety of options to choose from might have been a better idea.
That sort of an empty void somehow well defined by the shape of the ripples it makes in the world can be very effective for horror & tension in story telling. Doesn't really matter what it is your describing like that, but it instantly becomes scary knowing that the bushes shook & ravens scattered because of something rustling in the leaves. Alice making that perception check to see two small beady eyes close to the ground glowing back red in the torchlight doesn't help any more than Bob's failed check seeing two short arms sticking up like a small creature trying to look bigger doesn't help any more than chuck noticing those same arms flapping with the momentum of this creature when it was darting through the trees in a winding zig zag that seemingly defies the laws of physics for the dark shape to not topple over & skid across the rotting wet leaf carpet of the forest. Of course it's not quite the same when that "something" in the brush is a feral rabbit.
 

Voadam

Legend
I am looking forward to this thread. I had and ran a lot of 2e and got some of the 3e line but only got the fifth of the gazetteers.

I forget, was the whole gazetteer line 3.5 or did it switch from 3.0 part way through?
 
Last edited:

Hazlan is perfect to create anti-necromancy magic and mutant creatures to be used against the undeads, for example half-golems and dread elementals (grave, blood, pyre and mist). This is the right place to play a game of "plants vs zombies". If some place in the demiplane magic is used to try the creation of the "perfect soldier", the dragonborns, this is the one you are looking for.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
What we DON'T have here is much about Strahd personally. He's obviously deeply embedded in the history of the place and he looms fearfully over all aspects of the politics, but he's not present in person, and our narrator doesn't even visit Castle Ravnloft. There's an appendix about Tatyana's current incarnation, who is actually middle aged now after leaving Barovia as a young girl when her parents heard a fortune teller's prediction that if she stayed she'd be dead by 20. I'm torn about this. The Strahd/Tatyana story is so classic that it'd be unfortunate to deny PCs a chance to get involved, but on the other hand this incarnation of Tatyana has real interest of her own, and Strahd confronting the idea that he missed the boat and that his eternal lost love is now middle-aged is an interesting wrinkle to the story. But it's a wrinkle best suited to those players who already know the basic Strahd story and want to play through a variation. It's very plainly targeted at long-time Ravenloft players and fans, as is a lot of the Kargatane's work. So I'm not sure how i feel about it, really. Giving the DM a variety of options to choose from might have been a better idea.
What I find fairly ironic about this is that it works best with the type of campaign that I suspect is also the rarest kind: the multi-generational campaign (the only example of this that comes to mind isn't for D&D at all, that being Chaosium's Great Pendragon Campaign).

The Realm of Terror boxed set, which is earliest incarnation of the Ravenloft campaign, begins (if I recall correctly) in 735 of the Barovian Calendar. The Grand Conjunction takes place in 740, with the Revised Campaign Setting set shortly after its conclusion. Domains of Dread kicks things forward a full ten years, to 750. And Ravenloft Third Edition moves up to 755, with the Gazetteers beginning early in 756 (see page 4 of Gazetteer II).

Now, it's not unusual for D&D campaign worlds to advance in time between campaign releases. Even notwithstanding the timeskip after the Spellplague, quite a bit of time passed between the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting and the Third Edition Campaign Setting, for instance. But insofar as Ravenloft's interwoven metaplot(s) go, there's some interesting possibilities raised if you play with the passage of time, since twenty years is enough time for a new generation of characters to come of age if/when your PCs retire.

It's entirely possible that you could have PCs who start out in 735 and are still kicking in 755, of course. But given how many ways there are to lose PCs - not just death; they might suffer under a debilitating curse that they can't remove, fail madness checks and go semi-permanently insane, or even fail powers checks and become monsters themselves - I think the idea of playing a multi-generational campaign arc could be compelling. RM4 House of Strahd is the "official" adaptation of the original I6 Ravenloft, for example. While you'd need to ignore its placement in the timeline, you could have the "first generation" of PCs go through the events of the Grand Conjunction, then decide to confront Strahd afterwards and be defeated or mostly wiped out, leaving what they learn about Sergei and Tatyana to their offspring, who are coming of age by the time 755 rolls around.

Really, there's a lot you can do with that; especially if the older generation get lost one by one in notable modules (e.g. one of them is stuck in Il Aluk after the events of the Grim Harvest. Another is lost trying to save Rudeolph van Richten at Bleak House, etc.). It's almost lends itself to using the "character tree" option from the Dark Sun Campaign Setting.

It's be hard to set up, but could be extremely rewarding if done right. (Bonus points if you can fold in ideas from Legacy of the Blood: Great Families of the Core, which give ways to make PCs related to various darklord family lines.)

Please note my use of affiliate links in this post.
 
Last edited:

I forget, was the whole gazetteer line 3.5 or did it switch from 3.0 part way through?
I believe it was 3.5, but memory escapes me to be honest. They're much, much more setting material than game mechanics though. A few monster stat blocks, NPCs (including Darklords) and the odd prestige class in an appendix in the back of the book. The real meat is system-neutral.
 

That's the other odd thing I meant to raise about Hazlan - other than imprisoning Hazlik in Ravenloft, it doesn't really seem to be doing anything particularly personal to him, curse wise. Strahd is continually taunted with Tatyana's reincarnations, Azalin can't learn new magic, Soth is marooned in his keep which is a slightly wrong duplicate of Dargaard Keep back on Krynn and is surrounded by banshees who taunt him every night with slightly wrong tales of his own depravity - but Hazlik is just kinda ... there.

He doesn't even seem to be too tormented. Stuck and annoyed about it, sure, but that's about it. The acts that got him banished to Ravenloft probably weren't the worst things he'd even done to that point (if his Ravenloft career of live human magical mutation experiments are any guide...), and he doesn't seem to think about them very much, and neither do the Dark Powers apparently.
 

That's the other odd thing I meant to raise about Hazlan - other than imprisoning Hazlik in Ravenloft, it doesn't really seem to be doing anything particularly personal to him, curse wise. Strahd is continually taunted with Tatyana's reincarnations, Azalin can't learn new magic, Soth is marooned in his keep which is a slightly wrong duplicate of Dargaard Keep back on Krynn and is surrounded by banshees who taunt him every night with slightly wrong tales of his own depravity - but Hazlik is just kinda ... there.

He doesn't even seem to be too tormented. Stuck and annoyed about it, sure, but that's about it. The acts that got him banished to Ravenloft probably weren't the worst things he'd even done to that point (if his Ravenloft career of live human magical mutation experiments are any guide...), and he doesn't seem to think about them very much, and neither do the Dark Powers apparently.

His torment is basically nightmares of his humiliation. A few domain lords had punishments like this (where they were forced to suffer in some way each night). This was one of the domains that never really grabbed me as much as the others. His punishment is a bit fitting because of his past humiliation and because when he first came to Ravenloft he wandered around the Nightmare Lands for some time before the mists revealed a domain for him.
 

That's the other odd thing I meant to raise about Hazlan - other than imprisoning Hazlik in Ravenloft, it doesn't really seem to be doing anything particularly personal to him, curse wise. Strahd is continually taunted with Tatyana's reincarnations, Azalin can't learn new magic, Soth is marooned in his keep which is a slightly wrong duplicate of Dargaard Keep back on Krynn and is surrounded by banshees who taunt him every night with slightly wrong tales of his own depravity - but Hazlik is just kinda ... there.

He doesn't even seem to be too tormented. Stuck and annoyed about it, sure, but that's about it. The acts that got him banished to Ravenloft probably weren't the worst things he'd even done to that point (if his Ravenloft career of live human magical mutation experiments are any guide...), and he doesn't seem to think about them very much, and neither do the Dark Powers apparently.
Check the last couple paragraphs here. I bet that hazlik is almost certainly one of the darklords getting a makeover though as it's pretty deep into "you printed... what?!?!?!?!?!?!" territory between the tattoos outing the closeted homosexual trans character who wants to snatch a woman's body. From the sounds of it hazlik's own body is his prison.
 

Check the last couple paragraphs here. I bet that hazlik is almost certainly one of the darklords getting a makeover though as it's pretty deep into "you printed... what?!?!?!?!?!?!" territory between the tattoos outing the closeted homosexual trans character who wants to snatch a woman's body. From the sounds of it hazlik's own body is his prison.

What passages are we looking for. Keep in mind the original entries for these characters and domains were much more sparse than what came in the d20 version of ravenloft ( I always felt the d20 stuff went into way too much detail and made choices that I just didn't really think were that great). But in the original boxed set, he is just a red wizard of thay who had his head shaved and tattooed because he made enemies (and in the culture, only women tattooed their heads). Ravenloft embraced him because of his desire for revenge. I suppose his function in the setting is his hatred of wizards (which provides a lot in the way of conflict if any PC wizards should wander into the domain)
 


What passages are we looking for. Keep in mind the original entries for these characters and domains were much more sparse than what came in the d20 version of ravenloft ( I always felt the d20 stuff went into way too much detail and made choices that I just didn't really think were that great). But in the original boxed set, he is just a red wizard of thay who had his head shaved and tattooed because he made enemies (and in the culture, only women tattooed their heads). Ravenloft embraced him because of his desire for revenge. I suppose his function in the setting is his hatred of wizards (which provides a lot in the way of conflict if any PC wizards should wander into the domain)
Looks like a TSR era card, domains of dread, 3e RCS, gazetteer I & V, a module, a short story, & maybe others in all of those sources, that's why I linked to mistipedia to save the effort of tracking down all the individual parts. Rising did a nice job of giving a feel for things that previously needed a lot of source splicing & "oh wow these are connected" inferences for eberron so I imagine that this new ravenloft book will do similar given how popular that route was with rising.
 

Looks like a TSR era card, domains of dread, 3e RCS, gazetteer I & V, a module, a short story, & maybe others in all of those sources, that's why I linked to mistipedia to save the effort of tracking down all the individual parts. Rising did a nice job of giving a feel for things that previously needed a lot of source splicing & "oh wow these are connected" inferences for eberron so I imagine that this new ravenloft book will do similar given how popular that route was with rising.

My point is just the original entry is very light on specifics. For example we know he made enemies in the original RoT entry, we don't know with who (and there is no mention of a love interest for example). This is actually one of my gripes with Mistepdia, it merges all that different content, but I tend to see the 3E/d20 Ravenloft material as very non-canonical
 

I don't believe that's right. Maligor, Thay's Zulkir of Alteration (from the novel Red Magic) voluntarily adopted a tattoo of Myrkul's holy symbol on his shaven head.

I don't know anything about Forgotten Realms, I am just going by the black box entry on Hazlik (there may be more nuance in the FR material---or it could have been developed further):

1614990244008.png
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top