Realm of Terror: The Black Box
Authors: Bruce Nesmith with Andria Hayday
Notes: In his timeline studies, JWM noted on the Kargatane site that "Realm of Terror started Ravenloft’s long-standing tradition of incoherence, a problem it’s still straining to escape today. To put it bluntly, Ravenloft just can’t keep it’s dates straight. The Bloodlines section highlights this problem- at first glance, these family trees are a wonderful tool for fleshing out your NPCs. But on a closer look, they contradict themselves, and they contradict information presented elsewhere in the book. Who’s Doomed tells us that Jacqueline Renier was a small child when her family entered Ravenloft, but according to her family tree she was born seven years after the creation of Richemulot. Eowin, Sean, and Ester Timothy were born to Cain and Elizabeth Timothy in 660. No problem, right? No problem at all, except the line above tells us that Cain and Elizabeth both died in 579"
The boxed that changed my life. Well, my life in D&D :). What a shock to see the coolest D&D adventure ever (I-6) turned into a setting. I remember reading it over and over since it was so original in this era of hack and slash …. The game mechanics (the fear, horror and power checks), the setting (decaying domains and their horrific darklords, and cool NPCs - Natalia Vhoriskova) were so new and cool, it got me into DMing in Ravenloft quickly.
The chapter on tailoring vampires according to their age was a revolution for the time and opened a whole universe for the DM. The horror tips (chapter XV) were so new and useful. The way it's written is excellent in content, effective, and those few pages have been the reference material for me for long, well until RL3e. This only is a reason worth hunting a copy of it in paper (or ESD). Unfortunately, not all Core Darklords are described (we need Gundar, especially since his domain disappeared!). The color maps are must have, IMHO, especially for the islands and the pre-GC Core. In short, IMHO, this book was much cooler then Domain of Dread.
David "Jester" Gibson
Aka the ‘Black Box’. This is the original Ravenloft Campaign Setting Boxed Set and the source of all that has sprung forth since. Not counting the original I6 adventure. Or the traditional Gothic novels and stories. Or the dark, which has been spooking crybabies since we first, crawled down from the trees. Apart from those this is the wellspring. Contained inside are the descriptions of the original Darklords and domains along with all the pertinent rules to run aRavenloft campaign.
First off, a quick description. The book opens with an excellent table of contents detailing the various chapters contained within. It stars with a quick recap of the inspirational material, a primer for gothic horror, describing the major themes of the setting. This seemed overly long for an introduction and some of it might have been better placed in the ‘Techniques of Terror’ chapter. Still, it is good for the players to know the feel of the world if they are to create adequate characters, not that there would be many native games played at this point… From there the ‘rules’ of the world are introduced, how people enter the land, what it is, and how domains are formed. Also included is a brief section on getting out of Ravenloft. A nice introduction but it contains quite a bit of information for the DM’s eyes-only. The setting has not quite established a player-friendly atmosphere, there are no DM boxes yet. The third chapter adjusts the character classes to fit the setting. Even here are a few references to Darklords and the like. This chapter also introduces the Powers Check, although the detailed chart of the chances of being notices has yet to be published. The later chapters describe fear and horror checks (but no madness), add some setting flavour to were and vampires, and introduce curses. The vampire section was original at the time improving vampires with age, a first for D&D. Other creatures such as liches and ghosts are not introduced until later. I was a little disappointed by the lack of rules of curses in this book; they are left quite vague.
The Vistani receive their own small chapter in this book, although they are left mysterious. A nice little introduction to everyone’s favorite gypsies. Despite the lack of details found here I enjoyed this chapter as it nicely captures the feeling of the Vistani. Following this chapter is rules and advice for telling the future, although this was done before the tarroka deck was published so common cards are used. It is a start. Then the book goes into altered magic and magical items before finally getting to the description of the Core on page 60. After that comes the description of the lands and a ‘Whose Doomed’ chapter that includes quite a few noble souls I would hesitate to call “doomed”. Although, being good, perhaps they are the most doomed of all. The book ends with the standard ‘Techniques of Terror’ and a quick listing of Adventure Ideas.
I bought the Red Box before this box so I noticed much was undetailed here, such as the missing information on curses, power checks and madness. There is so much that is added to the setting with the Forbidden Lore box. The reason I picked up what was originally an outdated copy of the setting I already owned was to learn about the domains that vanished, to find out what the Core was like before the Grand Conjunction. However, there is a disappointing lack of information in the book on most of these lands. No wonder these domains were so readily removed. So there is little to be learned about Dorvina, Arkandale and the rest. Some domains only received the briefest of paragraphs describing their lord, environ and the like. That is not to say there are no surprises here as this book is the only place to read up on Staunton Bluffs, Sanguinia, and Farelle.
What I did find of interest was the maps, the only maps we have on the pre-Conjunction Core. They are an oddity as the colour is related to altitude and not environment, which makes them unusual to read. It is a little hard to see where forests are and there is no easy way to spot deserts or swamps. Bluetspur looks like a giant purple blob.
The NPCs are a mixed bag with the Darklords being mixed with heroes, villains, and miscellaneous. Some old classics pop up here such as Tara Kolyana, Gondegal, George Weathermay, Ratik Ubel, and Natalia Vhorishkova. I believe Natalia has not appeared in any other products save this one (not counting her brief one-line stats inVan Richten’s Arsenal). This section also marks the first appearance of Van Richten who is a 3rd level thief. He quickly gains a few levels before the Red Box comes out.
There is one thing this book has over all later Ravenloft campaign settings, the Bloodlines of several of the Core’s most infamous families. Family trees for such lineages as the Boritsi, Drakovs and the Von Zarovichs. These come complete with date-of-births, marriages and illicit affairs and several nice blanks for Dungeon Masters to fill in with new foes, friends or PCs. For a campaign heavily involving those families this would be very helpful.
There are also the cardstock sheets that include the family portraits of several famous families. On the back of these are some abbreviated stats. I was dissapointed to notice that these were reprints of entries already in the book. On the Boritsi/ Dilisnya sheet Ivan gets a brief detailing, while Ivana’s stats are not featured in either the book or the card. This seemed like a waste of space. The cards also feature famous houses and castles, which are of use. The Ravenloft Module Project including myself has found great use for one of these (as seen in our Secret Hideout forum. Shhh, it’s a secret, don’t tell).
Aside from some interesting family trees and the cardstock sheets there is very little in this box that has not been reprinted, updated and improved. And what little that has not been updated has such sparse detail it is almost not worth reading. This box simply has not aged well and has been replaced by superior products and an expansive library of accessories. Worthy only to collectors or those wishing to run a 2nd Edition game but who simply cannot find a copy of Domains of Dread or the Red Box. Even if a Dungeon Master is thinking of running a pre-conjunction game they would be better off just adapting the later information.
Current rating of two severed digits out of five. When published it would have been a solid four for originality!
Fernando Antonio Alvarez Torrico
Back in 1991, I got a copy of Dargon Magazine. There, in some hidden corner, I saw the release of Ravenloft, a world of Terror and Darkness. Three weeks later I had bought the Black Box. I had the impression that this box was going to be special, and it was.
The Box includes a 144 page book, detailing everything you needed to start creating your own Campaign of terror. The descriptions of the Lands, although very biref in some cases, presented you the core in all its vast glory. But, there was something more important there, the descriptions of beeings of pure evil, trapped in those domains, Darklords. Adventure hooks provided you with ideas on how to introduce your players to RL, and also they gave you the Bloodlines of some important families of the core. It was brillant! But there was more.
Under the Book, came also a handful of Cards, which showed you that Ravenloft wasn't only a text book filled with pictures, but also a living domain. And they inclueded also some art of the Original Ravenloft Adventure, and Ravenloft II:The house on Gryphon Hill. Excelent.And of course the four maps, showed you what was exactly what they were talking about. One map shows the old Core (no Shadow Rift), another shows the Islands of Terror (many of which disapeared). And two more maps, presented you The Core's major cities. This is also the only place were you will find an actual, well detailed map of the City of Il Aluk. Extraordinary.
The quality of the product is superior. The book has a great layout, that makes it very easy to read, and find information. You can find yourself, reading it from cover to cover in just a few hours. The art is a breaktrhough, simple, yet dark, it does a perfect job in setting you, the reader, into the mood of Ravenloft. The section of the Monster Compendium entries is also nice with T. Baxa ilustrating them. And the maps, well, the maps are just what you need, specially the ones of the cities. No complaint here.
More than Ten years, three editions of the rules, lots of adventures and accesories, and a revamped game system have made this beautiful box almost obsolete. However, it is impossible to compare it now with the existing products. Instead, try to look at it, as the Genesis of Ravenloft. All the rules you know by now (without the updates of course), are in this product, the vistani are there, and even George Weathermay is there, still as a young Ranger. This box gave us monstruosities such as Strahd Skeletons, Gremishkas and the Nosferatu Vampire. And above all, it gave us Ravenloft.
Rating: Five out of Five Webs of Illusion
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