Ravenloft Campaign Setting: The Red Box
Authors: Bruce Nesmith with Andria Hayday and William W. Connors
Domains and Denizens: a 128-page book describing the dark lands of the Core, the islands of terror, and many nefarious personages.
Notes: JWM noted on the Kargatane site that 'a minor error slipped into the Tarokka cards for this printing: the artwork on the 8 and 9 of Stars got switched'
David Wise, Kargat Chief at the time, said on the Kargatane site:
"Some have asked how the TSR Kargat decided which domains to eliminate from the Core after the Grand Conjunction. There were two main criteria. The first was purely ecological: We felt that the Core should be more consistent from a natural point of view. Thus, Bluetspur, with its sunless landscape, was too foreign to share space with the Core. Similarly, the formless Nightmare Lands needed their own place to be terrifying, and G'Henna was too barren to rest within the lush countryside around it. Markovia, inspired by the Island of Dr. Moreau, seemed to logically belong in the Sea of Sorrows, and its absence from the Core helped to create the very-cool Shadow Rift. In a related decision, the Kargat judged drow too foreign to the tone of the setting, as are dragons, so Arak became a part of the avaricious lord Azalin's domain (and the drow were discovered to actually be shadow elves and denizens of the new Shadow Rift).
Our second consideration was of the darklords themselves. Which ones were too much like others, or didn't seem quite evil enough to be a full-fledged darklord? Borca and Dorvinia were ruled by cousins whose biographies shared much in common, and it pleased the dark powers to see them at each other's throats, so their domains merged and left them to fight for ascendancy. Arkandale's lord, Nathan Timothy, seemed uninterested in power and lordship, so he was freed to navigate the rivers of any domain.
Meanwhile, several Islands of Terror were judged less exciting than the Kargat deemed worthy, so Farelle, Vechor, and Sanguinia were released from the Mists. In their place, Rokushima provided a new culture of terror, and Captain Pieter van Riese took to the Sea of Sorrows with his ghost ship."
David "Jester" Gibson
This week the Jester turns his gaze on the Ravenloft Campaign Setting, aka the Red Box. This boxed set came four years after the original following in the heels of several accessories, adventures and novels. In fact there were approximately 17 modules, nine or so novels not to mention the three large accessories that were either published before or shortly after this. Thus all this information had to be absorbed and taken into consideration to the setting along with the planned changes. Although almost a reprint it is remarkable that this single set featured the combined information from two other sets and added even more to that. It definitely surpassed the previous setting, which pales in comparison. In many ways this was the revamp of the setting, fixing all the errors that had cropped up over the years and the mistakes made from the Black Box. Hence the cleansing power of the Grand Conjunction, the Dark Power’s answer to deus ex machina. Which does make the intriguing image of a plot device making use of another entirely different plot device.
This boxed set holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first Ravenloft product I bought. Previously I had attempted to run a borrowed Touch of Death on the fly which was an experience best left forgotten. However, my curiosity over this setting and its "Mists" and "fear checks" prompted my to purchase this with some errant Christmas funds. I loved it. And have continued to buy new products since then without ever looking back. But how does it rate now?
Unlike the Black Box there are two books included in the set which probably doubles the content. The first tome, Realm of Terror, is the rules of the realm; all of the modifications from the previous campaign setting AND the Forbidden Lore box have crammed into this since volume. Less detail is added and much text has been truncated to make it all fit but the overall effect is positive. The first two chapters are the most interesting giving a quick introduction to the Dread Realms. After that much of the book is bland due to the necessary lack of flavour text or fluff. It is all rules hard and fast. Reshaping the characters in chapter two, fear and horror in three, powers checks in four, curses in five, spells in both six and seven with psionics and magic items capping off the modifications in chapters eight and nine. The curses were the most interesting part of these chapters as the rules were mixed with a couple samples and good examples. Likewise the magic items chapter included some old favorite cursed items with their fun back-stories. The book does not end there with the essential techniques in terror chapter following and ending with a quick rule summary of the Van Richten guides (or at least the first six). The art of the first book has been heavily lifted from previous books, there is very little that is new and for those that own the earlier books this is a disappointment. Stephen Fabian, whose work is synonymous with early Ravenloft, does his usual excellent job. I did not always appreciate his work but it has grown on me over the years.
The second book is Domains and Denizens, which, of course, details the lands and the lords. It opens with a brief description of the land as well as some of the nuances of the game. Such as the replacement of random encounters with incidental encounters, because no encounter should be random in Ravenloft. Instead encounters that can be used enhance the mood are included along with a random chance they are encountered. Why they did this instead of just listing common animals and possible encounters just seems strange. Most of the Domains benefited from this republishing as they ended up with far more text devoted to them than in the Black Box. Those that were featured in Darklords make do with less, but still far more than in the aforementioned box. Included with the Domain entries are listings of other products that land has been featured in such as the Monster Compendium or one of the novels. This is handy for cross-referencing and was a smart addition. Following the Domains of the Core are the Islands of Terror including two new additions and several ex-members of the Core. Many, many Islands were left out of this book including almost all of those introduced in the Islands of Terror product. Following that chapter is the Who’s Doomed that describes all the Darklords of each and every Domain in the book. Some in more detail than others but the fact that no land is ignored entirely is nice. There are only two non-Darklords in this book, Nathan Timothy and the famous Rudolph Van. The previously introduced heroes and minor foes of the Black Box and the Monster Compendium vol2 are left out entirely.
The final chapter in this book deals entirely with the Vistani. The gypsies are treated with more and expanded detail than they have received in any previous book. In fact this is probably the single most complete description of the Vistani until the Van Richten Guide on them is published. It also includes how to use the Tarokka deck and fortune telling in general.
Also included in this boxed set was a Dungeon Master Screen that featured a simply, yet highly effective cover image and is still one of my favorite DM screens. It is a brilliant example of minimalism, most screens tend to be overly colorful and distracting. A poster was also included that featured a very nice Strahd and the same picture that graced the cover of the box as well as a reprint of the original Tarokka deck (with a minor misprint). Finally two large maps were included that featured a CGI-style version of the Core and the Islands. These maps are very useful for telling location and scale but lack detail and have many strange elements. The mountains seem to be less or a range and more of a few isolated peaks. It almost looks like there are only five mountains in the entirety of the Core. Furthermore the colouring of most of the domains blends the forests blends imperceptibly with the grasslands so that it appears as if only Nova Vassa has plains. The edges of Domains drop away into endless cliffs that give a false impression of the Misty Border. It effectively shows the unique nature of the demiplane at the cost of atmosphere and mental imagery. This continues the trend of the Ravenloft line being cursed with hideous insurable maps.
For anyone who has a later Campaign Setting there is little of use in this boxed set save the old (misprinted) Tarokka and the Vistani information. For those desiring either the new far, far superior Tarokka (or the Forbidden Lore box which also comes with dikesha dice) or Van Richten’s Guide to the Vistani should be purchased. It is also the sole source for Second Edition information on Rokushima Taiyoo although it was included with the Ravenloft Player’s Handbook, but no game information on this land has been converted to Third Edition yet. There are also a number of conflicting entries in this book. The background on Tristen Hiregaard contradicts not one, but two (!) previously published sources (The Ravenloft Monster Compendium vol2 and the novel The Enemy Within). Both have been declared non-canon over the Red Box’s entry. And while the lands all receive a description some receive far less than others, often just a bare-bones description. Hazlan, for example, receives less than a page of description. As was common then the Darklords receive the attention while the background and land gets forgotten. Regular complaint so at this point it is hardly notable. Also many of the Darklords still lack appropriate curses at this point and some are lacking detailed backgrounds. For a setting that emphasizes the personality of the villains and their past they could have spared a couple extra pages to give Timothy life. They could have easily removed a few of the full-page illustrations and replaced them with the smaller portraits.
Like most of the old products this appeals only to collectors and completists and for those with access to the previous setting and accessories there is little new. At the time of publication however this was an excellent product and a good introduction to the Mists that was not surpassed until Domains of Dread was published. It was invaluable for drawing new players into the Mists. It took a well received setting and handily improved on it.
Three severed digits out of five for doing such a good job of such a challenging update. Not as original as the Realm of Terror but far more useful.
Move over Elminster, go sit on a pike Raistlin, The Lady of Pain is a wuss, bring on the coolest character's in the Ad&d Multiverse , Count Strahd von Zarovich, Azalin, Anton Misroi (my personal favorite.) and the rest of the Darklords. As you can tell I love Ravenloft, it is my all time #1 favourite campaign setting from TSR. I have played pretty much every other campaign world, and though each one has its own charm, Ravenloft, beats them all out in my book. Well your not here to listen to me babble on about how much I love this setting Its time to get on with the review.
The red campaign setting box while not my first exposure to Ad&d or Ravenloft itself ( I had read two of the Ravenloft novels previously.) however it was the first time I had read any rulebooks on how to run the setting so I have a special place in my hear for it. (Just like so many people have nostalgic memories of the first two boxed sets)
The first thing I liked about this version of the Ravenloft Campaign book is the Art, those black and white pictures that sort of looked like stained glass windows gave me the absolute chills and have given me many a nightmare. The maps were extremely helpful and my friend had them plastered to his wall in minutes of opening the box. The Tarroka deck was not only fun and useful for adventures you could also do readings real life for your friends who had no idea what Ravenloft or roleplaying was just for fun. The screen was very useful and contained all the information that one needed. And the two books that were in the set in my opinion were very well written, I remember reading these for the first time and waves of a weird creepy joy just passing over me. Lastly the fact that Rudolph van Richten was detailed and still alive in this version of the setting gives it help in making it my favourite.
I have only a few problems with this version of the setting #1 The native character situation which was fixed in Domains of Dread. #2 Some of the domains and domain lords in this version of the setting were given only a brief look at and then were quickly moved over in favour of leaving more room for the more popular lords. Otherwise this version of the setting was great and definitely I would buy it if I could find a copy of it still.
I look at my Ravenloft book collection and the first thing that catches my eye is the Ravenloft Campaign Setting, The Red Box. A nice combination of quality, information and price. This was the first attempt to create a complete world out of the Realm of Terror. And although not so successful in this task, it gave new and old players something to smile about.
The information given in both books inclueded in this box, is not entirely new. Instead, the authors took what was done in Realm of Terror and Forbidden Lore, updated it, and added some new information. So this box adds nothing else to the game?, you might ask. Of course it does. It adds one of the most important events in Ravenloft History: The Grand Conjunction.
The Realm of Terror book, is the best of the two inclueded in this box. Rules for fear, horror and madness are given, psionics are inclueded, curses and even magical items are there. Here you have a book only for the DM and its a treasure in itself.
The second book, Domains and Denizens is just inconplete. Before the red Box, there were two other books that added more information to the Black Box: Darklords and Islands of Terror. Well, the information of these two books, is not inclueded in here, or only some small parts of it (Von Kharkov for example). The section of Who's Doomed in Ravenloft is still one of my favorites, specially because in this edition you can see that Van Richten has become a skillful Thief. and new art for this section is fantastic.However, there are no new characters in this box, but that's OK. The sense of continuity that this product gives to the RL campaign is amazing.
The two maps inclueded are really nice. They have a 3D sense to them. I specially like the one of Paridon. But this maps are not as detailed as they should be so, even though they look nice, they do not give much information. Just another set of maps with the Ravenloft Map Curse.
The DM Screen is perfect. It has all the tables you need for DMing and the front art is simple but brillant, a must for every DM in Ravenloft. The Tarokka deck inclueded is beautiful and remains a great tool for enhancing the mood of RL. In addition there is also a nice poster inclueded.
As always, the quality of the product is superior. The Box itself looks really nice, and the size of it, is perfect for carrying all books inclueded plus,your adventure, Player character sheets, pencils, and even the RL Monster Compendium. What else can you ask? The Books inside are not the best I've seen, but the interior art and the layout (including the always useful index), continue to impress me.
All in all, this Box is worth its price tag. You will find not much new infromation about RL. But for the lack of new information you get in return, game tools you need to play Ravenloft. And that I think, it is what a good Porduct is, not only information but also other things to look forward to. If you can find a copy of this box, buy it, and after a while you will find that it also catches your eye.
Rating: Four out of Five Evil Eyes
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