Masque of the Red Death
Authors: Jacquie Cassada, Claire Hoffman, Carla Hollar, Harold Johnson, Rucht Lilavivat, Nicky Rea, Andrew Scott and Peter Woodworth
Summary of content:
Stephen “ScS” Sutton
Since third edition D&D arrived, fans have eagerly awaited for a third edition of Masque of the Red Death. Many fans have created their own conversions, most notably the good folks who run the RPGA Living Death series. After so many years, White Wolf rewarded the loyal fans with this new version of Gothic Earth. Unfortunately, the book Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death suffers from many problems. This review might take a while, so I will sum it up here:
The Good: Artwork, Villain Section, Monster Section, and Lairs Section
In general, the editing work is poor. There are numerous inconsistencies throughout the book, the organization is often confusing, and certain points of information are completely absent. For example, the rules do not state how many bullets a navy pistol carries in its magazine (six, I guess?) or long it takes a mystic character to finish learning a sphere (yes, I mean sphere).
In many places, the writers of the individual chapters confuse style and game mechanic, bogging down the reader with needless preaching. This becomes very frustrating in the sections where the writer should be communicating the specific rules. The authors mar their creations with petty details that add nothing to the overall story of Gothic Earth. Readers will be probably be bored with the antics of Sargon the pre-Red Death Emperor, or the complete inventory of a proper ladies costume.
Fans of the original setting will discover that the new book often paraphrases the information of the first Masque setting. Archaic concepts like character kits and minor/major spheres make a return. The material makes many references to rules located in the DMG and the Ravenloft Players Handbook, and thus the use of this book depends on a well-stocked library.
Rather than rant on and on about every little problem, I would like to bring up the good parts of the book (many of which are at the very end of the book).
Firstly, I would like to comment on the artwork of the book. The illustrations are nothing short of excellent; nearly every single picture captures the style and themes of Masque of the Red Death. Each artwork is indeed worth a thousand words. Though the artists use a variety of different styles, they have designed each picture to capture the flavour of Victorian gothic horror. Let us give a standing ovation to Talon Duning, Jeff Holt, Marcio Fiorito, Brian LeBlanc, Jeremy McHugh, Claudio Poza and Beth Trott. While were at it, let us also give Richard Tomas a pat on the back for directing the art.
The villain section, Appendix I, will treat fans of the original Masque to a reunion with many of their old favourites. The Red death gets a quick overview while the chapter reiterates the old hierarchy of evil, from mites to dark lords. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and Professor Moriarty return bigger and badder than ever with third edition stats. New comers like Sarah Winchester, The Maestro, and the horrifying Madame La Laurie join the cast, and Imhotep finally makes an appearance as a very original creature.
Next,Appendix II features a stunning variety of monsters for dungeon masters. I fell in love with the concept of Masques, mini-templates added to classic D&D monsters to give them a Gothic Earth theme. Creepy creatures such as the foreigners, the Lost Boys and the Brutes will enflame the imagination. Indeed, special attention is due to the creature-creator for designing Brutes and Skulkers as both monsters and character races. Now that’s thinking ahead!
Appendix III introduces readers to the concepts of Lairs of Evil. Reworking Masque’s concept of “domains”, the chapter features a plethora of new rules to help create lethal lairs. Concepts like Levels of Wakefulness, Defences, Agents, Corruption and Trigger Events will have player characters at wits end.
Finally, Appendix IV, Adventures in Gothic Earth, is an excellent resource. This chapter features two adventure synopsise and a variety of adventure hooks.
Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death suffers from many serious problems. The book is in many ways a reprint of the original, yet it lacks the organization and completion of the first Masque of the Red Death. Worst of all, some important pieces of information are mysteriously absent. The quality of the book gets better towards the end, though the first chapters remain frustrating to read. I wanted very much to like this new version, but the book is just not up to the standards of professional quality.
Two gas lights out of five.
I implore the development team to develop errata documents post-haste.
Alexei "Igor the Henchman" Podgouzov
Before starting this review, let me state possible reasons of bias I might have towards this product. I was already in love with the Masque of the Red Death setting for years before this book was printed, so I can't really claim to be a totally impartial customer. Also, before I decided myself to go and buy this book, I've read some discouraging reviews of it, so it is easy for me to be pleasantly surprised by this book's merits. Its like going to a movie everyone told you would be a disappointment, and finding it wasn't so bad after all. I now think the negative reviews I've read were due to the reverse effect: when you expect a product to be a shining hit, its almost sure to come short of your expectations (hence why many Star Wars fans felt betrayed by the two last movies). That said, lets move closer to the point.
Masque of the Red Death setting takes place on an alternate version of our planet Earth in the last decade of the 19th century. It is a sort of "What If" setting that takes the horrors of the standard Ravenloft setting and transports them into the Victorian era of our history. Famous characters like Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper all coexist in this setting, and the forces of evil, subtly controlled by an extra-dimensional horror known only as the Red Death, strive to slowly bring about the fall of human civilization and its ideals.
Players assume the role of everyday folk, who, through discovering the existence of the forces of darkness and opposing them, get the chance to slightly tip the balance in the struggle through their actions. This is a perfect setting for DMs and players who aren't afraid to do some historical research and enjoy Victorian horror atmosphere. Playing Masque of the Red Death turns every history book in your local library into a potential game product, as any real world event can be turned into a horror adventure with but a little imagination. The downside of the product is that it is not a complete stand-alone. To use it, you must be familiar with the rules specific to the Ravenloft setting for D&D, as many of those are referenced (but not reproduced) in the book. This tends to limit the product's audience to people already familiar with the world of Ravenloft. I'll now discuss the contents of the book chapter by chapter.
Introduction: Nothing much to be said here. A few pages of explanation on what is the Gothic Earth setting and what its about. This section features an in-game document penned by Miriam Van Helsing (sister to the famous monster hunter Abraham Van Helsing from the Dracula novel).
Chapter One: A History of Gothic Earth deals with the world's history, as one might expect. This chapter tells about how the Red Death came to our world as well as what actions have been taken by its minions to increase its power, and by its enemies to oppose it, throughout the millennia that followed. This history section is more detailed than the history overview in the old MotRD boxed set, but is still heavily based on it. I was quite pleased with the touching upon of old African civilizations â€“ makes you realize history wasn't frozen before the Athenian times. The chapter ends in a list of the most significant political events that happened in the 1890s.
Chapter Two: Next Chapter, An Atlas of Gothic Earth, touches upon the cities of Alexandria, Cape Town, Atlanta, Boston, New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, Vancouver, Mexico City, Port-au-Prince, Buenos Aires, Lima, Bangkok, Calcutta, Constantinople, Saint Petersburg, Singapore, Brisbane, Christchurch, Bucharest, Dublin, London, Paris, Rome and Vienna, as they existed at the end of 19th century. This chapter is larger than its double from the old boxed set, but there's little here that isn't paraphrasing from there.
Chapter Three: Next comes one of the "crunchiest" pieces, the Character Creation chapter. I must say I was very impressed by how the book handles character classes, though I have to warn you it might not fit everybody's tastes. The book presents six "generic" classes, called Adept, Athlete, Intellectual, Mystic, Sleuth and Tradesman, and 17 "variant" classes, that take a generic class and tinker with it until you get a new archetype, albeit related to the generic class that gave it birth. For example, the Charlatan is a variant class of the Adept. Like the generic adept, the charlatan is a wielder of arcane energy, but unlike his more "bookish" generic counterpart, he is more of a stage-man. As such, he doesn't need books to prepare spells, gets bonus to sleight of hand and illusion spells and additional class skills. As counterbalance, he loses bonus metamagic feats, gets slightly less skill points and risks taking nonlethal damage when casting spells, to reflect a more "self-taught" background. The variant classes are Charlatan, Metaphysician and Occultist for the Adept, Soldier, Explorer/Scout and Shootist for the Athlete, Physician, Scholar/Scientist and Parson for the Intellectual, Medium, Shaman and Spiritualist for the Mystic, Criminal, Journalist and Dandy for the Sleuth and Performer and Mechanic for the Tradesman.
Though I admit this system is not as flexible as I would have liked, I can't really think of a character concept that wouldn't fit into one of those somehow (mostly thanks to the Generic Tradesman class, that accommodates a great many jobs and careers). Then come nine prestige classes: Antiquarian, Artifact Hunter, Exorcist, Forbidden Loremaster, Lycanthrope Hunter, Master Inventor, Qabalist, Spy and Undead Hunter. A list of skills and feats specific to the Masque of the Red Death setting follow. From what I've seen, they make sense, and some of the feats actually look quite good. Overall, I find this a very good chapter, with the exception of the inconsistencies of the Mystic Class (more on the flaws of that class below)
Chapter Four: Then we come upon the Money and Equipment chapter, which features a list of items specific to a Victorian setting. Unfortunately, the book doesn't repeat items already listed in the D&D Player's Handbook, although most of these should be considered antiquities in this setting, and as such, aren't likely to be affordable (nor very useful) for Gothic Earth heroes. The chapter features firearms, pricing for transportation and telegrams, as well as a broad choice of items ranging from the typewriter to the tomahawk, priced in American dollars of the time.
Chapter Five: This section explains how magic in the MotRD setting is different from standard D&D magic (and even that of the standard Ravenloft setting). Suffice to say magic has got far more hazardous, time consuming and risky to use. Since the Red Death has corrupted magic to its source, casting a spell, no matter how benign, requires the character to make a powers check or begin to slowly turn into a minion of the Red Death. In D&D, magic is part of the everyday adventuring trade. On Gothic Earth it is likely to be only used as a last resort, even by characters gifted with magic abilities. The chapter is complete with full spell lists for Adept and Mystic class (more on the flaws of Mystic spellcasting mechanics below). There's a brief discussion of magic items on Gothic Earth, but no new items.
Chapter Six: Next chapter is Combat. It is not as long as one might have expected, since it doesn't bother repeating information in the D&D Player's Handbook. It mainly touches the notions of firearms, explosives, undead-turning, and healing.
Chapter Seven: This chapter deals with Madness and Mystery. It discusses the use of Fear, Horror and Madness saves, curses and Powers Checks, but doesn't repeat the actual mechanics (these are in the Ravenloft Player's Handbook). Also discussed are the topics of Superstition, Omens and gypsies (including the Vistani).
Chapter Eight: The following chapter is another favorite of mine: A Practical Guide to 19th Century. This chapter explains the way of life in the 1890s, from fashions to social classes to technology to entertainment and so on and so on (it even explains the Language of Flowers). Also featured are lists of noteworthy events in the 1890s regarding literature, music and inventions. It also lists nine of Gothic Earth's secret "Qabals" (yes, the same as in the old Gothic Earth Gazetteer, plus a new one, called the Necessity's Children). Though it is impossible to completely convey a whole epoch in 20 pages, it does provide a global idea of the Victorian society and gives a small start for your own research.
Appendix I: the Villains of Gothic Earth is the jewel of this book. I found the villainous NPCs featured here are among the most well-thought NPC's I've seen in a gaming product. Simply put, whole campaigns can be made around every one of these villains. Dracula, Imhotep, Frankenstein's Monster, Professor James Moriarty, the Maestro, Madame Delphine LaLaurie and Sarah Winchester. A most macabre gallery to be sure, though most come from either pre-existing literature or real world history.
Appendix II: Monsters in the World, features new creatures and an innovative concept of "masques", that allow to tinker a standard D&D creature and make it usable in a Victorian horror story (and it actually works!) I won't go in too much detail on this one. Limited quantity of new monsters is compensated by excellent quality. Enough said.
Appendix III: Lairs of Evil I've actually found a little bland, so much that I started to skip forward a few lines at a time by the middle of the chapter. Basically, the chapter deals with the creation of horrifying locales to serve as lairs to the master villain in the adventure. Not that there's bad advice here, but nothing stellar either.
Appendix IV: Finally comes the fourth and final appendix, Adventures in Gothic Earth. It deals with creating adventures in the Gothic Earth setting and instilling a sense of fear into the players during the game. As can be expected, little of this information is new, but it is still generally good. The section (and the book) ends with a list of adventure ideas for a Gothic Earth campaign.
Now lets sum up all the good I've got to say about this product: first of all, great job on layout and art in this book. I'm doubly pleased to say this because I've found many recent Ravenloft books lacking in this respect. Its good to see the designers understand that 50% of interest in a horror RPG book is the atmosphere, and saw to it that the book has lots of it. Victorian-style fonts and chapter introduction pages look great, as does the art. The latter is superior to what I've grown accustomed to see in Ravenloft products and I've found it conveys the feel of the setting marvelously well. And when the book is filled with great material and ideas, there's really very little I can find to complain about.
Unfortunately, there are things to complain about, despite all that I have said earlier. Inconvenience number one: No world map included. While I'm less bothered by this than some, since I still have the old map from the original MotRD boxed set, new DMs will have to do their own research for something as elementary as political borders, city locations and railways. In my opinion, a map definitely should have been included. Alas, it wasn't. There are also some problems with editing at times, which I think have bothered me less than some other readers whose reviews I've read. A missing dot here, an inelegant typo there, it sometimes detracts from reading. A better editing job would have caught many of these irksome errors. As I said, this has bothered me less than it could bother some (I've heard of a passage somewhere in the book mixing Mystic Domains with the Spheres of 2nd edition, but if its there, I haven't managed to find it). And, finally, the single greatest flaw of all, the Mystic class. Three chapters in this book deal with Mystics (Character Creation, Magic and Villains), and unfortunately every on of the three seems to have its own interpretation on how Mystic spellcasting is supposed to work.
This is that much more of a shame that the problem would have been avoided had the writers perhaps cooperated better when writing the book. In the end, though, the rules on the Mystic's spells are unfortunately incomplete and often confusing. Giving the matter much thought, I've managed to piece together the following "definitive" system that reconciles most of the three chapters and saves you from having to alter the character stats in the Villains appendix:
The rest of it should be pretty clear.
Final verdict: a solid 4 out of 5. I would have given it a full 5 had it included a map and clear rules for mystics. At any rate, these flaws should not stop you from buying this book if you're interested in the Gothic Earth setting. This book is a major improvement from the original boxed set of bygone 2nd edition days, much like Domains of Dread was a great (though not perfect) improvement upon the original Ravenloft Black Box. Highly recommended.
David "Jester" Gibson
For those not ‘in the know’ this product is a 3.5 hardcover update of an older boxed set originally published back in 1994. Both the hardcover and boxed set are campaign expansions of the Ravenloft campaign setting, but instead move much of the feel to another place and time. They are not –technically- separate campaign settings, although they could easily have been treated as such. There is almost no overlap between the two worlds save for a handful of rules and the general theme.
Packaging this separately with all the necessary rules to play would have made more sense from a marketing and sales perspective. Those Ravenloft fans likely to buy the book would pick it up regardless if the ‘loft logo was printed large and prominent on the book or tucked away somewhere on the bottom. Only loosely tying the book to Ravenloft might attract other gamers to the book and by extension Ravenloft. Masque: the gateway game. But instead this is only an expansion and two or three other products are required to play this.
The book starts with an introductory letter from Mirian Van Helsing written for the sake of her brother. Her brother, whom she calls “Van Helsing” in place of his first name, indicates they must have been very close. This opens the very brief introduction that explains the very basics of the world, required books and what follows in the chapters to come. Following this is the first real chapter that details the full history of the world. Much of this is a rehashing, if not direct paraphrasing, of the text from the original boxed set. It is a good summary of relevant world history and offers enough useful examples of how the Red Death is used. Quick guide on combining actual historical events and the supposed supernatural subtext for real occurrences. This chapter closes with a quick description of a few key themes of the 1890s and a brief timeline of the next decade’s headlining news. Not much that is original here; most of this chapter seems cribbed from the decade-old earlier edition. Not that much needed to be changed. It worked then and it works now.
Chapter two sets up the world giving a brief description of the goings on occurring on each of the continents along with a few related cities. Each city is given a description and history as well as a paragraph or two of Forbidden Lore to serve as adventure hooks or examples of how the world works. Like the original, much of the action apparently takes place in the cities instead of rural countrysides. The chapter itself is well written and does a good job summarising so much history and covering such a dry topic. The Forbidden Lore often stands out and the much effort was spent matching the feel of the various cities and adapting existing legends. The only flaw is there is simply not enough pages to do justice to such sprawling cities as London and Paris, thousands of years of history, events in the various lands across the globe and touch on every nation. Only the major places get any coverage.
The third chapter shifts into the crunchy with character creation rules. This is where the flaws of the book are exposed. The primary flaw is poor editing with many rules being badly explained, if they are explained at all. Shifting away from the four classes and multitude of kits that dominated the original this includes six ‘core’ classes and related variants that can be used for almost any conceivable role. Some of the variant classes seem mildly redundant (is not a shootist just an athlete with firearm feats in place of sword or bow or cricket bat?) Much of the differences between the ‘core’ classes and variants are merely the selection of feats and skills. For example, the chart of Athlete progression is almost identical to that of the Soldier and the two classes could easily have been merged. This is hardly isolated. All the Mystic classes have the exact same progression of spells per day and yet the same chart is reprinted four times! Likewise three of the four Adept classes also have the same progression. It seems that because some of the classes deserved variants all classes had to have variants. This is several pages of blatant wasted space. Likewise, since every variant class has the exact same progression of saves and Base Attack Bonuses why reprint these? The variants are not slight customisations but actual classes in and of themselves. A far more efficient system would have been only altering the class skills and bonus abilities and having identical progression for everything else. This would have freed up almost twelve whole pages! Instead we are treated to what is essentially a massive chapter on twenty-three classes.
Following this are the Prestige Classes. There are some nice classes here that would be very useful in fleshing out higher level characters, the writers did an excellent job of making almost any conceivable character possible (as long as they fit the setting). But there is some poor editing here as well. The Lycanthrope Hunter is essentially the same class as the Undead Hunter with the L-word replacing the U-word. It would have been far, far easier to have a Hunter class and let the player chose from a list of targets. This would have allowed such variants as the Hag /Arcane-caster Hunter or Fey Hunter.
The third chapter continues with a large list of skills. I would like to have seen more distinction made to the educated versus self-taught, especially with the differences between social classes at this time. It would have been nice to see some skills reserved for the upper crust and refined and some skills that only the seedy could excel in. Or it would also have been nice to see some feats reflecting these differences, but there is not. Other than this complaint the skills are nicely compact with good use of the umbrella skills of Knowledge, Profession and Craft. The feats themselves are nothing special with a handful of period appropriate new feats. There are some odd exceptions such as feats that could speed up magic or alternate firearm proficiencies. The decision to limit shields only to soldiers seems strange, as the point of armour and weapon feats was to allow any character to use any item if they so chose but at the cost of potentially weakening class abilities.
Chapter four is reserved for money and equipment offering descriptions and prices of the new items of the era. Some discussion is also given to currency and the availability of equipment. Interestingly half the information on weapons (i.e. their damage and range) has been moved from this chapter to the one on combat. Also many weapons such as tomahawks and woodcutting axes are given no combat information and must be converted from the similar items in the Player’s Handbook. There is a fairly extensive list of new items and Victorian odd-and-ends, some strikingly odd. They include such things as opera glasses but neglect such items as walking sticks Many items also seem ridiculously under-priced.
Chapter five discusses magic and its alterations bringing up Power Checks and the limits of magic on Gothic Earth. This system has been very nicely updated from the original managing to keep both the danger and risk of magic while offering some chances of hope. Magic here is very corrupting and has some terrifying elements of danger involved. Magic is very slow to cast in the Gothic Earth. Very, very slow. While I can understand the reasons and ritual having to spend four rounds doing nothing to cast a third level spell all but eliminates the use of magic in combat. There is the distinct possibility that each time a character starts to cast a spell the situation will change and it will no longer be necessary. It would be nice to at least see optional rules for casting in haste, such as an increased risk of failure or additional corruption. A feat to this effect would have been a smart move. This chapter also gives some good information on the role of magic items in a campaign and the extended rules for learning arcane spells. While the rules for leaning new Adept spells are appropriate and well done the rules for acquiring new Mystic spells are missing from the book! They are nowhere to be found! Sloppy to say the least.
As mentioned earlier the topic of chapter six is combat. This is a brief chapter primarily devoted to explaining explosives and guns as well as some brief advice on how to recover from injury and madness. A very brief chapter to say the least. Madness and mystery follows next in a chapter devoted to the modified fear and horror rules plus additional madness information. The rules for curses, omens and the Vistani are also included. I did not see a solid reason why chapters six and seven were not combined; both were very small. One thing of note is the new Superstition rules, a small section but a very nice addition to the game. It is an excellent idea and one easily stolen for the main Ravenloft setting.
Chapter eight is one of my favourite additions to the book and includes something I found sorely lacking in the original boxed set. World and societal information! Included is a brief summary of Western society (with a heavy English/US slant) including such topics as class, fashion, customs, lifestyle, technology, music, literature, transportation and more. The only problem with this chapter is that it simply is not long enough. A guide to the world and what it was like is invaluable for quickly running an adventure or setting a story on the Gothic Earth without having to pour through books in the library.
The book then shifts onto Appendices. Why these are called Appendices when they could just as easily be called chapters is a throwback to the original boxed set and not really necessary. The information contained here is supposedly for Dungeon Master eyes only. The first Appendix describes villains such as the Red Death, to the best it can be described, as well as several of its many agents. The superficial rankings of the Red Deaths agents are carried over from the boxed set. There is so little need to force the heroes’ villains into the categories of demilord or lord. Again these are just labels and have no real game effect. It is also hard to imagine an appropriate monster that could possibly be an overlord. If Dracula, the first and oldest vampire in the world is not an overlord who is? Seven fiendish NPCs follow: three from literature, three from history and a couple extras just for kicks. The character or Moriarty returns and sadly he is exactly as he was in the original boxed set. It is nice they followed continuity but this was unnecessary the first time and is even more redundant now with the more accommodating class structure of Third Edition. Not every evil being needs be a monster, and making a human one inhuman detracts from the evil man can do quite nicely on his own. For a setting that emphasises human corruption and the descent into evil this is particularly inappropriate. It does make Sherlock all the more impressive and at the very least they removed the line of Moriarty growing tired of Holmes.
Appendix II introduces eight new monsters. Some of these just scream to be used and are nicely horrifying and others… not so much. Introduced here is the concept of ‘masques’, a simply brilliant idea that allows many monsters that might not typically fit into the Gothic Earth to be added. An excellent addition, but I wished they had not used a chimera in one of the examples. Bugbears and ogres I can understand but some beasts are simply far too unbelievable and fantastic.
Appendix III gives the rules for Lairs in the Gothic Earth, updated sinkholes of evil that make-up for villains not having domains or as many special powers as typical darklords. There are some nice ideas here but the overall concept of every powerful villain having a quasi-sentient lair with the same cookie-cutter attributes (Life’s Blood, Heart of Darkness and Soul of Light) just seems limiting and forced. It is simply too structured and formulaic. There is following tradition and honouring it and then there is conforming and being restricted. The example of a lair though is quite good although having the ‘big bad’ monstrous seems unnecessary for such an environment when a living flesh and blood creature would be more appropriate.
Finally, Appendix IV gives advice on crafting adventures along with some very nice examples. There are quite a few good ideas here. Some of the hooks seem a tad fantastic, especially for the Gothic Earth, but most are just perfect and fitting.
The book has a different look from the standard Ravenloft line. The font of the titles and sections is a cursive script that, while fitting and lovely, is hard to read at times and is noticeably smaller than the standard. In some places it seems smaller even than the body text. The art and game-information boxes also have a different feel with many of the illustrations having a different feel. This is all very nice. The headers at the top of the pages and chapter descriptions tucked in the corners are also an excellent change.
Once again the concept is good and the setting is good, while this time it is paired with more setting information and the newer and improved rule systems. At first it seems perfect, fixing so many of the problems and rough patches of the original. Then the problems come in. The few rules are often not fully explained or even missing outright. There is still not complete firearm rules for 3E or rules on how they work against armour. Many of the new items of only given the briefest or description and no associated game information. Far too much of the book is fluff description and not nearly enough crunchy game rules. A cursory glance at the original boxed sect and accessories along with an encyclopaedia could have provided much of the same information, what was needed from this book were the rules. Also the constant references to see the Ravenloft Player’s Handbook and Ravenloft Dungeon Master’s Guide grow tiresome quickly.
Again the product has great potential and is a very fun setting. The world is good and many of the problems of the original were fixed. Although this product has the opposite problem and simply does not give enough or the rules to play the game. The most glaring and oft mentioned omission is the Mystic’s lack of how to learn domains.
Three severed digits out of five. With a reprint and a full errata this would be knocked up to four.
Coan “Coan” Harvey
First off and right off the bat as it were: I have never owned nor ever read the original Masque of the Red Death: Gothic Earth. As such this review will no doubt appeal more to those who are wondering just what Masque of the Red Death is and if they should give it a go. Be advised this is an opinion and your views may differ from my own. All in all, I loved this book. From start to finish every chapter had a purpose and that purpose was fulfilled. Please note however that the 3rd or 3.5 Edition of the Players Handbook, DM’s Guide and Ravenloft Players handbook is needed (you wouldn’t go wrong with the Ravenloft DM’s Guide either).
Chapter One: History. The book covers a fair amount of important historical eras within a short space, this works well as it prevents tedium setting in while highlighting areas that you may wish to research. It is also interesting to read how the enigmatic Red Death perverts history and has a hand in some of the greatest travesties of humanity while also getting the feeling that man isn’t having their hand necessarily ‘forced’. Slavery, genocide, wars etc were initiated by people –the Red Death simply helps with a nudge or two. The list of major political events is also excellent and helps to give an idea on how the world is changing of the years.
Chapter Two: An Atlas. My major gripe here is that the book lacks a map with names and territories listed for the 1890’s. Of course continents change little but countries and empires do between 1890 and today –the Ottoman Empire being a prime example of this. Overall this chapter highlights a brief description, history (covering the initial foundation of the city to 1890) and Forbidden Lore of certain towns within countries. The Lore gives a deeper look beneath the apparent façade of natural life and helps to give a DM ideas on possible adventures, and the player thoughts on what encounter showed him the real world is full of nightmares of the flesh (and sometimes not even that).
Chapter Three: Character Generation. With 23 character classes, 9 prestige classes, new skills and feats, this chapters weighs in at a hefty 68 pages. Generally I found this chapter excellent as you can’t really play a Cleric or Ranger at the turn of the 19th Century, let alone a halfling. This is a human world and each player is going to have their own particular thoughts on their own particular character. Thankfully these classes can cover just about any kind of character. But please recall that in Gothic Earth, the fantasy has been taken out and replaced with terror. Ordinary people battling the night are what is called for with skills taking a front row seat ahead of class abilities. For example while some classes can have the Evasion ability no one has the Improved Evasion ability. Dodging explosions completely is for the movies not for a terror filled adventure. High skills per level (the Dandy has 10!) and bonus Skill Focus feats are also common.
There are problems with the Mystic class but I didn’t really a major problem with it. Errata can be found at the Fraternity of Shadows forums (and at the parlor soon I hope). The new skills are jolly good with specialization in Knowledge and Forbidden Lore allowing the DC of checks to be lowered. For example if you had Knowledge (Ancient History (Egypt)) you would be exceptionally good at knowing about all the great dynasties. You also have brand new skills like Prognostication and First Aid. The new feats are also good with some fine ideas like Feign Death and Mimicry Voice. As it is there are 17 or more new feats (depending on how you classify the changes to old feats through firearm intervention).
Chapter Four: Money and Equipment. A solid chapter with the all the new gadgets of the ‘modern age’ being introduced. Typewriters and bowlers hats abound as well the cost of the new forms of transportation like Railways and Riverboats. The prices to send words by national or international telegram are also included. Oh and if you were wondering about buying a repeating Carbine or maybe even a sawed-off shotgun? Now you can. Bonus marks for saying it is hard to buy handcuffs if you are not a policeman or detective but can get them from certain places of ill-repute.
Chapter Five: Magic. Highly different to the typical D&D Magic, the use of the arcane or mystical powers can result in a variety of problems. Madness, corruption and such can drag the unwary down. I like this chapter as it really sets the setting apart and shows how dangerous the occult can be. There are also 3 new spells (I’d wouldn’t mind seeing some more in a later product) and a discussion on why magical items are so rare on Gothic Earth as well as why they should be treasured and perhaps feared by those who wield them.
Chapter Six: Combat. Listing the stats of rifles (which are highly deadly), handguns and different forms of explosives this chapter also has some mention on the different forms of healing available to the characters after the battle. Hospitals and Mental Health Facilities are now available as magic potions are replaced by the needle and thread of a surgeon.
Chapter Seven: Madness. This adjusts and expands the rules for madness, horror and fear saves (originally presented in the Ravenloft Players Handbook). There are two more minor madness effects added and it is clear that in a world of science and reason, battling the night wears on the mind heavily.
Chapter Eight: A Practical Guide to the 19th Century. One of my favourite chapters this really is what its name implies. Now you too can learn the importance of clothing, burial customs, famous plays and novels of the time as well as the secret Qabals (Cabals) that plot for power within their secret societies. Bonus marks for showing the sheer idiocy of some chauvinist men of the time ‘bicycling can provide an unhealthy stimulation to a woman and ruin her marriage prospects’. Excellent chapter and a wealth of information for DMs and players alike.
Appendices: Villians (I), Monsters (II), Lairs of Evil (III), Adventure building (IV). Most of the appendices are strong and full of useful information. I would say the weakest of these is the Lairs of Evil. I found it bland and not as useful to me. However if you’re a fan of houses and land coming to a state of almost living thanks to evil, you’ll probably love it (especially if you like Sinkholes –explained in the Ravenloft Dungeon Masters Guide).
I was also surprised to find that the more human villains of Gothic Earth were the most interesting to me. Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster are fine but to me they lack the subtlety that overlays the evil beneath. Professor Moriarty was to be my favourite but he doesn’t even have any skill ranks in Knowledge (Science (Mathematics)). I have heard this is an updated version of the original Moriarty from the boxed set but they could have redone him in my opinion. As such he is tied for me with “The Maestro” a rather ingenious killer. Other villains are included and I look forward to seeing more (and perhaps one or two ‘good guy’ write ups) in future products.
The Monster section is just terrific, with my favourite being ‘The Foreigners’ a decidedly creepy race. The new ‘Masque’ abilities are needed so to give DMs ways of getting monsters into the world without random encounters. Thankfully they are well done and can make a typical goblin into an adversary worthy of a whole adventure if wanted.
The Adventures in Gothic Earth section is needed for any beginner to the setting and covers why Masque of the Red Death is so different and how to get the most out of adventuring in it. Tools for the DM (a summary for those who wont have the Ravenloft DM Guide) and even a guide to creating adventure through a step structure. It ends it off with two adventure summaries a DM can use (roughly 2-3 pages each in length) and a host of adventure hooks that cover all sorts of adventure styles.
All in all, this book is A grade. Editing could have put it up to A+ but for the newcomer this campaign setting ‘expansion’ is a setting onto itself. The book is easy to read and generally easy to understand while conveying a lot of information to make Gothic Earth a setting of grand designs and history.
Recommendation: For anyone who wants to up the ante for their role playing and get to a new level of adventuring.
I give it 4 out of 5 and look forward to ‘Masque of the Jade Dragon’.
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