D&D General The thread where I review a ton of Ravenloft modules

TiQuinn

Registered User
Speaking of reviews...

Bane of the Shadowborn (Dungeon #31) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Let’s hop back into our wayback machines and head to 1991 and Dungeon #31. The domain here is unspecified, other than “The Shadowborn estate” which is an island. It is intended for levels 6-9. Having access to the “Darklords” accessory is recommended, though not required, as the chief antagonist here is the Ebonbane, an evil intelligent sword.

The setup assumes the PCs are coming into Ravenloft, but they could just as easily be coming through the mists from some other domain. It’s assumed that one of the PCs is a descendant of Lady Shadowborn, whose home this was centuries ago. It starts with the chosen descendant PC having a nightmare about fighting a man in a manor with a black sword. The dream sequence is supposed to end with the PC losing, and then actually waking up (along with the rest of the party) in the mists. Then they find a one-way wall, which leads into the courtyard of the manor house. Would you believe I’m 5 pages into this module at this point? Yea, it’s wordy. Also, the dream sequence is completely unnecessary.

At the entrance to the manor, you are greeted by the ghost of Lady Shadowborn who introduces herself and tells the PCs that they have come here in her time of need. Then Ebonbane takes over and the message gets cut short, and a hideous version of the same face informs them that they will all die. It’s a nicely done scene. A rarity for what follows, unfortunately.

The rest of the manor house is an overly dramatic, overly boxed-text heavy dungeon crawl. In fact, I think half of this module is just boxed-text. There’s a lot of combat as well, and most of it is in the form of an unavoidable encounter just by stepping into the room variety. Like Horror’s Harvest, the author makes a point to indicate that certain spells like wish, limited wish, or anti-magic shell can stop Ebonbane from hurling knives at the party while they’re in the kitchen but seems to have forgotten that this is a module written for 6th-9th level character. So unnecessary.

There are about 25 rooms in the manor, and the PCs are tasked, through a vision with Lady Shadowbane, to retrieve four elemental keys. The keys are a vial of holy water, air from a sarcophagus in the crypt, dirt from a wine cellar, and then magical fire which the PCs are supposed to create themselves. The clue for this fourth one is given once they have acquired the first three. Anyone who attempts to open the final door without having all 4 keys must save or die, bursting into flames and ash as a result. Wow, ok. The clues to the first 3 keys are super vague, and I would expect a lot of parties to attempt to acquire fire from the angry fire in the kitchen (which tries to kill them). There’s absolutely no indication which “dirt” is the correct dirt. The air from the sarcophagus is interesting, though it’s not exactly on-brand for a former paladin in her estate. So, it seems reasonable that PCs will dismiss that as not being the correct “air” to acquire. There’s also a couple of red herrings (an earth weird, for example, or strong winds upstairs) that could also sufficiently throw them off the trail.

In the end, the PCs confront Ebonbane, use the keys to weaken him, and then presumably are successful in returning to their home plane after fighting the sword while floating through the mists. There’s a lot to like here, unfortunately there’s probably more to not like. The entire thing reads like a cheesy Goosebumps novel. It’s sufficiently vague and hard that I could see PCs getting very easily frustrated by the lack of sufficient clues. The four elemental key puzzle feels like it’s been ripped from every video game I’ve ever played, and thematically aren’t relevant here anyway. Ebonbane, for his part, is just an evil sword, but is described as being able to do whatever it wants within the domain. Why it cowers in the cellar the entire time is a little weird. For a sword described as being such a narcissist, greeting them at the door and killing them, only to retreat, if necessary, would make more sense.
Hmmm, sounds like maybe some good bones but yeah, that puzzle is pretty lame. Any group I’ve ever had would’ve been annoyed at the idea of specific samples of elements to retrieve if the clues were that vague. Also seems very straightforward dungeon-y but then I’m not sure what I’d really do with Ebonbane.
 

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Also not a fan of the domains as islands concept. On one level I get why they did it, but it also feels like, yet again, they gave up on the idea of making Ravenloft a cohesive setting. The only version that attempted it was the 3rd edition by Sword and Sorcery but I really disliked a lot of those books.

The island concept didn't really work for me either. I didn't have a problem with it in theory (it is a good way to do monster of the week) but I feel like the setting benefited greatly from having a core with connected domains. Also the island approach gave me the impression, at least on reading through it, that it lent itself more to encouraging the game being about contending with domain lords. I sometimes think that when they've tried to ground Ravenloft it dissipates a bit. When I think of all he horror settings I like they do share a trait of having something that takes them a bit out of reality. Even CoC feels kind of otherworldly because of the Cthulhu mythos. And my second favorite to Ravenloft was Torg's ORRORSH, which is itself a pretty trippy setting. I will say DoD did attempt to make Ravenloft a more cohesive setting too (a lot of the stuff in the Sword and Sorcery setting book was pick backing off of what DoD started). DoD formalized things like cultural ratings, made native characters easier, fleshed out religion in the setting and had long term campaigns rather than weekends in hell as the default assumption. But I agree a lot of those S&S books just didn't do it for me (I didn't mind the core book as much as the setting supplements which just felt less gothic and more goth to me).
 

TiQuinn

Registered User
The island concept didn't really work for me either. I didn't have a problem with it in theory (it is a good way to do monster of the week) but I feel like the setting benefited greatly from having a core with connected domains. Also the island approach gave me the impression, at least on reading through it, that it lent itself more to encouraging the game being about contending with domain lords. I sometimes think that when they've tried to ground Ravenloft it dissipates a bit. When I think of all he horror settings I like they do share a trait of having something that takes them a bit out of reality. Even CoC feels kind of otherworldly because of the Cthulhu mythos. And my second favorite to Ravenloft was Torg's ORRORSH, which is itself a pretty trippy setting. I will say DoD did attempt to make Ravenloft a more cohesive setting too (a lot of the stuff in the Sword and Sorcery setting book was pick backing off of what DoD started). DoD formalized things like cultural ratings, made native characters easier, fleshed out religion in the setting and had long term campaigns rather than weekends in hell as the default assumption. But I agree a lot of those S&S books just didn't do it for me (I didn't mind the core book as much as the setting supplements which just felt less gothic and more goth to me).
Ultimately, it was reading some of the campaign stories on the old Secrets of the Kargatane website that I think gave me the best view into what a consistent setting campaign could be.

My view on horror is that it functions because it’s a counterpoint to the real world. It has to have a normal anchoring point to contrast with in order for the horror to have impact. At the Mountains of Madness works because it starts as a scientific exploration of Antarctica before pivoting into the Mythos and then going somewhere otherworldly. Ravenloft, for me, works better when the people who live there think they are in a normal, functioning world, only to find it’s twisted and wrong. This is why Masque of the Red Death always clicked for me better than core Ravenloft did, too. So yeah, I’d prefer a central core with some really weird stuff that one couldn’t explain rationally - like why there’s a big gaping pit called the Shadow Rift in the center of the map, or why ships that sail too far west drift off into the mist and are seldom heard from again — better to sail north to south.
 


der_kluge

Adventurer
The island concept didn't really work for me either. I didn't have a problem with it in theory (it is a good way to do monster of the week) but I feel like the setting benefited greatly from having a core with connected domains. Also the island approach gave me the impression, at least on reading through it, that it lent itself more to encouraging the game being about contending with domain lords. I sometimes think that when they've tried to ground Ravenloft it dissipates a bit. When I think of all he horror settings I like they do share a trait of having something that takes them a bit out of reality. Even CoC feels kind of otherworldly because of the Cthulhu mythos. And my second favorite to Ravenloft was Torg's ORRORSH, which is itself a pretty trippy setting. I will say DoD did attempt to make Ravenloft a more cohesive setting too (a lot of the stuff in the Sword and Sorcery setting book was pick backing off of what DoD started). DoD formalized things like cultural ratings, made native characters easier, fleshed out religion in the setting and had long term campaigns rather than weekends in hell as the default assumption. But I agree a lot of those S&S books just didn't do it for me (I didn't mind the core book as much as the setting supplements which just felt less gothic and more goth to me).
It seems to me that the domain lord concept is, IMHO, the weakest concept in Ravenloft. Yes, it works for Strahd, but I find it to be overly restrictive and problematic. It's quite anti-climactic if any domain lord can never be defeated. That's not to say that beings such as these shouldn't exist, but it's often left to the imaginations of the GM to determine what, if anything, happens to the domain if the lord is defeated. I know it's part of the shtick that the lords are often tortured subjects as well, though I'm not sure that really adds anything to the setting, really.

Of the modules I'm planning on running, I don't know that I'm really going to lean into that concept at all, really. It seems burdensome and unnecessary to me.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Like Horror’s Harvest, the author makes a point to indicate that certain spells like wish, limited wish, or anti-magic shell can stop Ebonbane from hurling knives at the party while they’re in the kitchen but seems to have forgotten that this is a module written for 6th-9th level character. So unnecessary.
I disagree about it being unnecessary. Characters of the correct level might still have magic items such as a luckblade or a ring of three wishes, since 2E was before the days of item levels or pricing guidelines. As far as I remember gaming back then, that's not an unreasonable possibility, and the author of this module offering a guideline for it is something I appreciate.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Also not a fan of the domains as islands concept. On one level I get why they did it, but it also feels like, yet again, they gave up on the idea of making Ravenloft a cohesive setting. The only version that attempted it was the 3rd edition by Sword and Sorcery but I really disliked a lot of those books.
I seem to recall that AD&D 2E's Domains of Dread was pretty cohesive.
 

TiQuinn

Registered User
Cohesiveness runs contrary to the nature of Ravenloft. Nightmares are not cohesive.
You’re also not in control of nightmares either which led to a lot of the aforementioned problems with 2e modules. If I want to turn it into a Nightmare Land…I’ll run the Nightmare Lands expansion. 😊

Speaking of which, that’s one I never ran. Did anyone ever play Nightmare Lands? If so, how was it?
 


TiQuinn

Registered User
It seems to me that the domain lord concept is, IMHO, the weakest concept in Ravenloft. Yes, it works for Strahd, but I find it to be overly restrictive and problematic. It's quite anti-climactic if any domain lord can never be defeated. That's not to say that beings such as these shouldn't exist, but it's often left to the imaginations of the GM to determine what, if anything, happens to the domain if the lord is defeated. I know it's part of the shtick that the lords are often tortured subjects as well, though I'm not sure that really adds anything to the setting, really.

Of the modules I'm planning on running, I don't know that I'm really going to lean into that concept at all, really. It seems burdensome and unnecessary to me.
I agree in some respects. I think there needs to be room for minor darklords or villains who don’t merit their own domains, or I’d prefer domains within domains. For example, Maligno and Odiare. I would never make Odiare an island in the mists. I would just make it a town that exists in some place like Borca (which I envisioned as being based on Renaissance Italy anyways.)
 

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