The Nightmare Lands
Authors:Shane Lacy Hensley with Bill Slavicsek
Book One: The journal of Dr. Illhousen
Quite exciting boxed set IMHO. A totally new concept for D&D and very suitable for Ravenloft. The Black box said next to nothing useful on this place. People dreaming to entertain the deadly Nightmare Court ? How fun! That's horror! These bunch of maniacs creeps is quite interesting, especially the Ghost Dancer. Dr. Illhousen is also an interesting NPC, by the way.
The set of rules is on the complicated side, but IMHO DMs can simplify the rules by keeping only what they need. I like the switch from Strength and Dexterity to Intelligence and Wisdom (hey, it's in your mind!). The adventures are well made and illustrate well what could be a complicated setting without them.
Definitively a must-have! 5 on 5 for concept.
David "Jester" Gibson
This product was a long time coming. For those who do not know it details the Nightmare Lands, a mysterious domain that has been around since the days of the Black Box. And yet remained a mystery for half a decade with only the cursory references in the Campaign Settings and a brief handout in theMonstrous Compendium I detailing the Abber. This product goes all out in favour of this ‘new’ land not only offering several small adventures, a fairly detailed description of the land (some written in-character) but also includes a wack of new rules for dreams and nightmares.
The box is divided up into two poster maps and four books. The maps themselves are very nicely done although many of the dream spheres are not done to scale. Almost none in fact as they’re portrayed as large as some buildings in the City of Nod. Small complaint. The map is also unusual as it looks absolutely nothing like the previous maps of the Nightmare Lands seen in either the Red or Black Boxes. Given the Map in the Red Box was an all but useless psychedelic blotch this is not surprising but a reference as to the ‘original’ geography of the land pre-Grand Conjunction would have been nice. Was it the featureless landscape of the old maps? Perhaps was not a member of the Court yet so the Forest of Everchange simply did not exist. Again, a small complaint.
The first book, The Journal of Dr. Illhousen, is an in-character description of dreams, the Nightmare Land and the machinations of the Nightmare Court themselves. It is fairly well written although Doctor Illhousen lacks the background and personality of other Ravenloft narrators such as VanRichten. He definitely needs more fleshing out and I hope to see him again in future products. This book sets up the necessary background describing all facets of dreaming in dreamscapes and the Court. It even offers some great examples of the Court’s dreams although two are missing (Ghost Dancer and ). The text could simply not have been highlighted though as several dreams are mentioned. One oddity in this book is the inclusion of a map of the Clinic for the Mentally Distressed, which is odd as it is also included in Book Two. It could have easily not been put here freeing up an entire page for more background. Presumably, as this book was designed to be read by players, it was included for their sake but once again the map in Book Two could have been turned into a photocopy-able handout. Sadly this book does have its problems. As with the earlier Ravenloft books a far greater emphasis is placed on the darklords and their servants in the Domain than the domain itself. Much of this book is dedicated solely to the Nightmare Court and far, far less to the Nightmare Lands itself. Whole sections are devoted to each demilord, their dream preferences and their lairs while little is written about the landscape itself or the Abber inhabitants. In the entire book everything written on the Abber could be condensed into two whole pages.
The second book in the set, The Rules of Dreams and Nightmares, is the most useful. As its name suggest this book lays out all the official rules for adventuring in dreams. In fact, this book is useable in any Campaign even those outside the Mists. It ties in heavily with the established AD&D cosmology name-dropping the Ethereal and Prime Material Planes. The major flaw in this book is the dense amount of new unprecedented rules that are dropped into the reader’s lap. It is simply a lot to absorb and multiple readings are recommended before the rules are brought into play. There is also much new book keeping as statistics and powers may shift frequently over the course of a single dream adventure. My only problem is the overall lethality of dreams often placing survival on the hands of a single system shock role. Not for the weak and low in Constitution.
Two new point systems are introduced in this game. One, Inner Strength, is gained as a bonus from positive dreams and can be used in the waking world. These points are interesting but unnecessary just requiring more paperwork and maintenance of characters. Other bonuses, such as bonuses to attack roles, have already been covered earlier in the book. The other benefit of Inner Strength, boosting certain abilities dependant on classes, could easily have been moved over to the Mental Fortitude powers. Mental Fortitude is the backbone of dream powers as it fuels the powers and accumulated MF allows the dreamer freedom from being plagued by the Nightmare Court. This leads to the painful balance in Mental Fortitude. To survive dream powers might have to be used but this burns MF slowing the eventual release from the prison. That and unless massive powers are used against a dreamer it could take months to accumulate enough points to escape, let alone while fight back. Also the mathematics needed to figure out the needed MF to escape are needlessly complicated. One further complaint is that MF is gained by succeeding fear, horror and madness rolls made in dreams. This is problematic as fear and horror rolls are made only when the players are not role-playing the appropriate emotions so giving benefits to succeeding at the rolls penalises the people acting the part.
Moving on to the Dream Powers themselves, which are fairly well done encompassing much of the feelings of dreams from rapidly changing environs to being unkillable to the standard horror cliché of waking up in the dream. All very nice but hard to use in a game due to the unwieldy experience cost. For powers usable only in dreams with no waking benefit these powers are really only useful in a campaign heavily set in dreams or the Nightmare Lands. For single adventures, unless epic in length, dream powers will not come into play save as something used against the players. For all intended purposes the Dream Powers apply only to the Nightmare Court. The Dreamwalking ability is far more useful as it can be learned by anyone without xp cost.
Chapter three in the rules book shifts the focus away from new rules and describes, in game terms, the Terrain Between. Or as most people call it the Domain of the Nightmare Lands. This brief chapter offers a very short description complementing Doctor Illhousen’s equally short description. What is written here is well done and interesting although the land is rather fantastic and less atmospheric than some may like. Having a giant ring of floating glass spheres filled with dreams is interesting and fascinating but a rather silly mental image. Once again more space is devoted to the Nightmare Court than the land as they are their favourite powers are also described here. Much of the description of their strategies and favoured powers could and should have been moved to the monster booklet. As it is their dream powers are separated from their game stats and notes on their personality are often repeated as much as three times. The final chapter fully described Dr. Illhousen’s Clinic with two maps and a full key. Also included are some tentative hints as to what is to come.
The third book, Book of Nightmares, contains four quick adventures to introduce players to the Nightmare Lands and related places (such as Dr. Illhousen’s Clinic) while also introducing the famous faces generally giving the players the grand tour. The first two adventures are primarily introductive, hinting that there are more to dreams than meets the eye. It is dissapointing then at the end of the very first adventure the players are just handed a copy of The Journal of Dr. Illhousen (ie the first book in this set). This is especially odd since the second adventure starts saying that it is better if the players do not know they are playing a Nightmare Lands adventure. It would have made much more sense to swap the order of these two adventures or emphasise the passage of time or suggest separating them with other non-nightmare adventures. The adventures themselves are fairly linear and do assume the players are willing to help any stranger they come across. There are some lovely and frightening suggestions throughout the adventures and many of the scenes do capture the feeling nightmares and dreams. Also, the inclusion of Thorin and Beryl, frequently mentioned in the examples in Book Two, are a nice addition to the first adventure.
The final book is simply the Monstrous Supplement offering a half dozen new monsters plus details statistics on the Nightmare Court. It also includes a very brief description of Night Terrors in the Nightmare Man section. These deserved their own monster listing but have been denied. Many of these monsters have been updated to Third Edition and can be found in Denizens of Dread.
Nightmare Lands holds up surprisingly well after almost ten years. The new rules still work with some minor modifications (such as changing the saving throws). There is very little modification needed although it would benefit greatly from the new feats system and the updated Psionic classes. The new ideas and places are all good and the universality of the box, as it can be used just as easily in the Forgotten Realms as in Ravenloft is really a strong point. Plus the reach of the Court is impressive allowing Dungeon Master to bring in the Nightmare Lands into their long running campaign without having to move the players abruptly from their home Domains with some flimsy excuse. The box does have its problems, most of which have been mentioned and beaten like a deceased equine. Too much emphasis is placed on the Nightmare Court and too little on other adventures in the land or on the land itself. That and Ravenloft adventures and villains are meant to be more than statistics and evil plans but well-rounded characters with detail backgrounds. While the Nightmare Court is simply a group of mysterious figures who may or may not be individuals or facets of a deranged personality. This is certainly an interesting contradiction, but an acceptable one given the mysteries that are dreams.
Regardless, this product is still and essential buy for Ravenloft and for anyone even thinking of having an adventure based around a dreams or sending heroes to the Nightmare Lands. A very good product.
Four severed digits out of five!
Back in 1994, I got a copy of TSR Product Catalogue, just by chance. There I saw the cover of The Nightmare Lands Boxed Set for the first time, one of the best pieces of art in a Ravenloft product. This domain remained in the shadows of secrecy for most of the RL history; it wasn’t even touched in the Red Box (where, by the way, it became an island of terror), but not for long….
This excellent Box is full of nice surprises. And it accomplishes completely the one thing it was created for: It presents you The Nightmare Lands in all its glory.
The first Book is a players guide to the Nightmare Lands. It gives the players, and also DM’s, an overview of the Characters involved, dangers and places within the history. It is so well written that you imagine yourself by the Desk of Dr. Illhousen, when he is writing those lines, with the screams of the Insane in the corridors and a storm outside. There can be no better way to know TNL like this way.
Next is the book of rules. New rules to flesh out characters in Dreamscapes are given, which constitutes a whole new universe for players to discover. Some of them are complicated but you can skip them and use only what it fits in your campaign. After your players visit the Nightmare Lands they will pay attention to those Charisma, Wisdom and Intelligence Scores for sure! The inclusion of Mental fortitude, Inner Strength and Dream Powers also makes your adventures in Dreams that more exciting, and also gives you some open ideas for related adventures. Also in this book is described the Terrain Between: the actual Island of The Nightmare Lands, and The Clinic of Dr. Illhousen. This information complements the information given in the first book, with some new twists reserved only for the DM.
After you are done with the first two books, the third book helps you introduce the players to the Nightmare Lands with four short adventures. Because they are short, you have to work a little harder to play them, but after the hard work is done, the adventure plays really well, and it is worth the effort. Also you get to use both maps included in this box. Which, are really nicely done. The Grieving Cathedral and the Theatre Macabre are depicted in one, and the Island is depicted in the other. Both are top quality.
The last book is the Monstrous Compendium Appendix, with six new Monsters and Full Entries of the Nightmare Court and the Nightmare Man.
There are two things that make me love this product. The first one is the effort put by the authors in making the atmosphere of this product so real. I loved the entries of Dr. Illhousen’s Journal, where people describe their nightmares and how he, through these dreams, gets to know the nightmare court. Is actually fascinating, and makes you want to play the adventure right away. The second is the art. It is a departure from the typical art in previous RL products. It is Impressive, it relates completely with the story and is dark. A real work of art.
After this product, The Nightmare Lands is no longer a shadowy and strange domain. But it will remain so in your player’s dreams. As for the DM, next time you open this Box, let the Dream Weavers come out, and weave a dream you and your players surely will enjoy.
Rating: Five out of Five Dream Spawns
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