Dark Tales & Disturbing Legends
After having some time to digest the contents of Arthaus' latest Ravenloft, I feel confident enough to give it a fair review.
The book is set into five chapters (plus the obvious intro and DM appendix), each telling a campfire story. What follows the story is an explanation about the truth of the matter, as well as a discussion on how to incorporate it into your game.
What follows is actually a little more complex. Every author has a different style of writing, and the five different approaches to the project are quite obvious. Each chapter has quite a different feel to it, and some feel that they are sticking quite loosely to the formula.
Introduction: The introduction to the book explains the hold that the inspiration that Ravenloft takes from our imagination. From Dracula to Cat People to The Hook, Ravenloft seems to be at its best when adapting the frighteningly familiar tales we tell in the dark. It, of course, gives the outline that the rest of the book is to follow.
All "crunch" is kept in the DM Appendix, by the way.
Chapter One: To Inherit Eternity: The first chapter of DTDL was written by Harold Johnson. The story is a murder mystery at a dinner party/ auction, complete with cast of shady characters. It is by far the longest (the story toping out at 31 pages, the entire chapter being 47), but it has good reason. To Inherit Eternity first explains how to play the dinner party with your players (including options for changing key moments in the evening to keep players who read the adventure off their toes).
This chapter also serves the purposes of laying out the formula necessary to run a murder mystery of your own, as well as setting out everything you need to run a campaign based around the being known as Eternity. It lays out the quest for immortality, making suggestions for powers and events, but leaving it up to the DM. It also explains how to use the campaign or even the dinner party with characters from low to high levels.
If I had one problem, the dinner party itself feels like it would be difficult to introduce the characters into. With such a large cast and revelations that must occur at certain times, it would be a challenge for even the most experienced DM to run, and seems to involve a lot of railroading. After the party though, it opens up quite nicely.
Chapter Two: The Curse of Ashington Manor: Steve Miller's story involves murder, a curse reaching its peak, and a house which has suffered some tremendous tragedies. After the truth is explained, Mr. Miller gives the adventure itself. While the first chapter focused on a bar outline, this one is a meatier adventure, complete with map, site descriptions and an interesting use of the Tarokka deck. Of the adventure possibilities presented, I found this one to be my favourite, and can see it becoming a staple adventure of the setting, like Night of the Walking Dead or House of Strahd. It also introduces a new foe for the Vistani, but more on that later. While a DM might not run the adventure, it provides some excellent ideas for use with Sinkholes of Evil or Ethereal Resonance.
Chapter Three: The Brood of Blutkalte: Brett King's story of a family of killers is much more complicated than it first seems. What really shines in this chapter is the outline of serial killer adventures. This can be difficult to run, what with a four to one ratio for the average party, but King warns of common problems and how to avoid them. The particular serial killer involved in the story is quite unique, though it is possible to follow through the adventure and never have your player's learn the truth behind it. The adventure itself is a outline of important scenes and some clues to get them started.
Chapter Four: Noises in the Night: Ryan Naylor expands on an old Book of S_ article to bring this story of Bogeymen. Less an adventure than a how-to-guide, this chapter tells of the destruction of one family, and the truth of Bogeymen. How they are created, the rules they live by, and how they stalk their prey. Learning their stories can make you a target, but also can hold the keys to your salvation. And should the player's really want to, there are ways to change the nature of the bogeyman itself by changing the story. The chapter struck me as a bit of "Van Richten Lite", telling the DM how to best use these creatures and make them memorable.
I also loved the addition of the Dread Possibility (and the return of my favourite 2e artifact): the Tome of Terror.
Chapter Five: To Honor and Obey: Of all the stories, this one is the creepiest. Madness, murder, voodoo and incest, Steve Marmell's To Honor and Obey was something of a shock. While all of the stories deal with adult themes, this one, the shortest of them, held the most visceral twist of them all. And trust me, it isn't a pretty story to begin with. After the story, there are suggestions on how to get your player's involved, but more time is spent on how to use the story to introduce a family as antagonists. It also points out that one of the characters is perfectly set up for Darklordship and goes so far as to explain his desires and how his curse would manifest.
DM Appendix: The Appendix is broken by the chapters, holding the game material for each story.
Chapter 1: 4 artifacts, 14 Characters from the dinner party (the stats are left to the DM) the motives and basic powers of three Uber-powerful characters in the background, 3 monsters and one new cult.
Chapter 2: One powerful new artifact, three stated out NPC's, and the new Vehrteig. I feel that the Vehrteig (and the NPC that makes use of this race) is an excellent monster, and I'm already working on how to add them into my campaign. Anything that the Vistani fear that much has to get used.
Chapter 3: One monster, the unique Sebastian Blutkalte. I can't talk about him without giving the twist away. Suffice it to say, he adds some new abilities to a classic monster.
Chapter4: 6 bogeymen, each with a unique approach to their work. I would have loved to see the story for each one, but that could have been a book in itself.
Chapter 5: This includes 1 feat, two spells, and the Voodan core class. There is also a sidebar on how Voodan is not Vodoun, but a DnD version inspired by it. The Voodan is a caster with the ability to hand of spells to others, interact with the spirits around him, and become a mount for his Loa. He has a HUGE list of spells to cast from, but chooses two schools as primary school. Spells that are on the list but aren't in those schools, are memorized as being one slot higher. A well done and unique class.
The Technicals: Each artist captures the feeling of the chapters quite well. One of the best drawn books yet.
As for editing... I really want to tell you that it has improved... but I can't. It isn't horrible, but there are a few glaring errors, especially in the intro and first chapter. Nothing that ruins the book of the material, but... "just as happiness was within his grasp, the hunters camel, and he had to flee..." Just silly little things like that every once in a while. I don't know who needs to be taken to task about this, but I do know that the Editor is the same one from Masque of the Red Death and a number of other editing problems. He's done a better job in this one, but it still needed another read over.
Overall: I found Dark Tales & Disturbing Legends to be a great book, and one that would be an asset in any Ravenloft DM's library. The chapters are interesting and well written, and have enough material to run entire campaigns based on each one.
With the exception of the Voodan class, this book is meant for DM's. It is a guide on how to play in Ravenloft without resorting to dungeon crawling, and there is something here that any DM can find. Heck, if you like Ravenloft at all, the stories make for a good read.
There are a few editing errors, but with the minor exception of a quick stat in chapter two (the actual character is stated correctly in the appendix), the game information is fine. I feel that it is an excellent buy and a great source for ideas.
As a final comment, it is also a rather adult supplement. While not becoming overly descriptive or disgusting, the authors paint some very grim stories, involving murder, the torturous death of children, rape, and incest. The topics are dealt with in a very mature and adult manner which does not glorify or focus on the acts, and the villains generally get theirs in the end. Of course, being a horror based setting, it is doubtful that anyone playing it has not seen far worse in movies or on TV. If you're picking it up for a younger player, take a look at it, but older players shouldn't have a problem.
I give Dark Tales & Disturbing Legends 4.5 severed fingers. Excellent work, but the editing is lacking.
Part 1 - To Inherit Eternity
I have to admit I had to read a few parts twice as the whole thing is quite confusing with the long list of characters involved in this story.
It is incredibly intricate. The story of the diner is a good read, if too long in parts. However, I find it difficult to translate it in a D&D context:
Perhaps it would work by diminishing the number of NPC? Some of them are odd anyway: the Guardian and the Cult of Light seem odd and I don’t see them pursuing actively the goals they have.
Also, do we really need the Eternal, or just the old man dream of being immortal would be enough to motivate all these NPCs?
The themes around being eternal are interesting and would fit well in a Borca or Richemulot salon discussion.
The annexes relating to it are similarly strange. First, the magic items. I’ve never found a magical item so precisely tailored for only one situation or person (the heirloom), so it rings “railroading” to me.
Then the cast of characters with a short description for each (and amazing portraits by Talon) is well made, with the reserve I said on some of these NPC’s credibility. A few characters however are very good and gothic (like Hugo or the shy writer, for example).
After it, follows a strange monster that reminded me of Star Trek: the ambient – an alien gas creature able to make any spells and illusion to confuse you? The Darque and the Lost monsters however are better.
So this first part is quite puzzling for me… It's not bad, it just puzzles me as how to make it work.
Part 2 - The Curse of Ashington Manor
Wow! Quite a change of pace from the previous one. Now we're stuck in a curse of horrible events happening again every 17 years, i.e. the brutal murder of an innocent teen girl. 85 years ago, a vistani girl was brutally killed in order to provide entertainment for depraved nobles. She dies cursing the place and the killers. Now, every 17 years, something similar happens again.
What's cool is that the players hears of it only days before it happens again (ah, fate!), but the way the event runs is quite interesting. In a Castle Forlorn way, the manor areas shift between all fifth time frames, i.e. now, when it started, and the three times in the past when similar events were re-enacted.
A very good adventure where they have to end the curse and lay the vistani ghost to rest. Indeed, this has potential to become a well known adventure for the setting.
The appendix presents a new type of monster, the Vehrteig, a creature delighting in depravity and violence in others. It is of course helping setting the right mood for this kind of event. Strangely, Maekon reminded me of the one-eyed assassin in Kill Bill, i.e. a slightly boyish but still attractive, very dangerous woman, under sophisticated guise. Or perhaps it is the (great) illustrations of Mr Pozas that led me this way? That is how I would play her.
The only thing perhaps I'm not sure is needed is the special tarokka deck description i.e. with seminal events like the one described, the part played by the deck is perhaps overdoing it, the adventure can happen without it.
Short and dense text, very well made, bravo.
Added afterward: Ashington Manor - I DMed it. It was easy to insert in my campaign, as the heroes were traveling from Karina to Levkarest and the hamlet was somewhere along the way. I used the Miko hook (the merchant's daughter). My players loved it. They liked the past history of the house, the way the scenario is made, the mysteries in it and the cool time shifts.
Funnily, when they saved Miko from the bandits, they were sure their quest was done, till they found the wall of mists and the apparition of Rozaleen in the main hall...
Confirmed by Steve: I have found an inconsistency in the scenario: Maekon is playing the tarokka deck and all 4 cards are always drawn by her (darklord, beats, temptress and innocent).
Well, the innocent card was stuffed in Rozaleen's mouth, and she was buried with it. So... Maekon could not play the first four cards, including the Innocent card. So there is an error in the scenario and the drawings.
Possible solutions from me:
1) Remove the Innocent card from Rozaleen's body
2) Remove the incomplete tarokka deck from Maekon and place it elsewhere for the heroes to find.
Part 3 - the Brood of Blutkalte
OK, prepare yourself for the weird and the unexpected. This part is about a villain, the ghost of a disturbed multi-personality child, killing people while using either his mother, father or grand-father personality. Two other personalities are part of this rooster: himself (as a young boy) and a wicked minstrel. So far, OK.
What’s weird is that the child was a doppelganger (don’t ask why, read it!), so now you have a doppelghost. Are you comfortably seated? What this ghost can do is possess a body and use his shape-changing ability to make this possessed body assume the guise of his family members. Far fetched? Sure! Interesting? You bet!
Really, it is weird and far-fetched, but it makes a great unique villain. You have this family of amplified killers (as seen by the boy’s eyes), under the guise of healers, looking for preys to heal / kill. And this minstrel wandering and spreading the word about the Blukalte family. I can see a good recurring villain for any campaign.
The other abilities of this unique creature are creepy and one is ultimately cool for Ravenloft: Grave Summoning (he summons you to walk to the cemetery, where a coffin hides near the freshly made grave sign with your name. You enter in the coffin and “wake up” from this trance when you hear dirt being poured over the coffin … (Other Kill Bill visions for me here, sorry)).
Well done, good one.
Part 4 - the Bogeyman (Noises in the night)
Exquisite rendering of the child scare monsters. Very well done and easy to insert. Mechanics is all needed, nothing missing or superfluous.
My daughter is 12 and loves vampires and ghost stories but this scared her (we made jokes with the snip snip noise, but it reached her in a way horror stories never had before: she needed a lighted bed lamp at night since!)... I think the greatest horrors can be seen through a child's eyes and that is the great thing about bogeymen.
Part 5 - To Honor and Obey.
Great story of mischief and treason. It is very emotional and intimate, and full of twists. Short and well done. The flavor of Souragne is very well used in it.
This said, the motivations of the protagonists are very well hidden inside themselves and using this story as it happens is tough, as none knows really what is happening and what plans they have. Unless they side with one of the protagonist?
The same for the story after the events happened: it is so hidden it's somewhat strange that there are rumours of it at all. People could rumour about something strange, but no details of what really happened.
But if you manage to make believable the fact that the story is rumoured, or interest your players in that case in any other way, it is a great backstory.
The appendix on Loas is easy to implement in a game, for a good voodan caster or a dark one.
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