I’d heard of Ravenloft, and Strahd, years before I’d ever read one of the novels written in the setting or even read one of the setting books. I was already a huge World of Darkness gamer, so the idea of a horror Dungeons and Dragons game held a lot of appeal for me. I’d played D&D a little bit at that time, but I’d never really fallen in love with it the same way most gamers do. (I would eventually, but I resisted for quite a while) In the end, it was Ravenloft that helped to break me of my dislike of the fantasy role-playing game. I remember walking into a game store, in S. Portland, Maine where I lived at the time, and seeing this brand-new book on the shelf. It was wrapped in plastic under a sign that said Limited Edition.
I immediately bought it.
I don’t usually do that, usually I wait and I peruse a book for a good half-hour or more before I put money down for it. Even being a bit careless with money like I was at the time ( I was making good commission at the Radioshack), I still was surprised I bought this book without really knowing much about it except it was for D&D and that it was Ravenloft. That was enough for me. I knew the book would be mine and I didn’t want to miss out on an LE edition. My copy is 1052/3000.
I considered keeping it wrapped up and not reading it, but I threw that idea out of the window quickly. I wanted to read it, I wanted to see what the setting was all about, and I threw caution to the wind. I read the book cover to cover hundreds of times. This book was like a companion to me for years. Even before I got a chance to run a campaign, I read it regularly.
These are the three things that drew me deep into the bosom of Ravenloft, and one thing that kept me coming back:
1) The Mists:
The first mention of the dreaded mists is in the copy of Ravenloft I have is in the second paragraph, “Somewhere, lurking deep within those ethereal mists, a dark and nameless dimension is ruled by dark and nameless powers.” In the 3rd paragraph the Mists are suddenly capitalized, and I knew quickly that they were not simple mists, these were not banks of harmless fog that hung by the river bank. No, these were The Mists. Almost a creature or a god, or some force of their own. The Mists evoke the fear in most Stephen King movies, the unseen forces hiding just out of sight. The Mists carry travelers into the Realm of Dread, they trap the Dread Lords, and at the same time… they protect the Lords from the heroes that would seek to destroy them if they could. The Mists were a great tool as a Game Master of Ravenloft. They evoked the mood of the game, and the players would jump and shiver whenever I took more than a moment to mention them. They were the biggest, most pervasive, untouchable enemy of the games I ran in the world.
2) The Dark Powers:
These entities are mentioned in the same breath as The Mists. However, unlike the Mists they are never truly explained, enumerated, or even seen. The Mists pervade, but the Dark Powers lurk in the ur-Shadow behind the world. The Dark Powers lock the Dread Lords in place and at the same time they entice heroes into the world to face them. Is the Domain of Dread a prison for the Dread Lords… or is it a place set aside to torture good? Are the Dark Powers truly Dark… or are they beings of light offering hope in the darkest of darkness? Why did they expand the land beyond Castle Ravenloft? Why would they continue to extend tendrils into other planes and steal portions of those places? There are no secrets answered here or really, ever. Ravenloft holds many secrets for those that seek them.
3) The Lands Within the Mists:
The creatures that dwell within the Domain of Dread are horrendous, but often they are reflections of humanity. The land they live within is a series of reflections of our various forms of horror. From the Stone Age, to the high Victorian there are Dread Realms that reflect various forms of horror that have plagued humanity. The creatures that dwell within these lands can be genteel or savage. Even the most genteel hide an inner savagery and the most savage on the outside sometimes hid a powerful inner light. From Darkon to Dementlieu, from Barovia to Lamordia, all of the various lands within the book were alive with various chthonic evils. These were lands with gunpowder and swords, these were places with Vampires, and Werewolves, and various creatures of every sort. In the Ravenloft games I’ve run, I’ve never been afraid to have my players face every level of darkness that I could muster.
The 1 Thing that Keeps Me Coming Back
Hope. Ravenloft is a realm of darkness and horror. At the same time, as I’ve said above, there is a light within the darkness. There are always heroes that try and fight back against the darkness. There are fires, and songs, and joy hidden within the horrors. Hope keeps me coming back to the Dream Realms. Hope that the heroes will choose to continue to fight, hope that I can continue to tell stories that evoke a shiver and at the same time present a spotlight on the best of humanity. Hope is always best seen in the darkness, because in the light hope sits in harmony with other positive features. In the dark though, Hope shines forth as it is sometimes the only good that is left.
Hope is what I hope to see in my games, even at the darkest of hours, there is hope for joy to return for good to overcome evil. I’ve recently bought the new book, Curse of Strahd, you should too.
Come, the Domains of Dread are calling us, we must answer the call.
With 17 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook, is running both a Mage game and a Dark Ages: Vampire game at the moment, and is an advocate for inclusive gaming spaces. He's also a father and a recent graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.