Ravenloft Gazetteer - Volume One
Authors: Andrew Cermak, John W. Mangrum, Chris Nichols, Andrew Wyatt, with Steve Miller
Report One: Barovia
The first Gazetteer is probably the best roleplaying product there is. Period. I am a great fan of details and this book comes too near to my view of an ideal supplement. This, in retrospect, applies to all of the Gazetteer series. I did like the in-character description with some ironic comments from the scholar himself, the somewhat player-friently writing style was amazingly readable, the right amount of sidebars, and the grouping of DM information. The cultures represented are not only consistent, they are modelled after real-world societies. The fact that only four realms are detailed give a total immersion effect. I know what being in Kartakass means, I know how it feels to be there. And I think that this feeling is more important than any rules information we might get. As an improvement, the pictures inside are finally in consistent style and quite pretty.
As a major blunder, I did not like the maps at all. When I want a close-up of an existing map, I take a magnifying-glass from my drawer. When one does such a perfect job in describing the realms then I expect the maps to be detailed with the same passionate carefulness, some smaller settlements and geographical features not mentioned in the book should at least make it to the map. I do hope the maps will get better since the Mordentish Cartographic society website is currently having better maps than the official book. I do expect improvement in the next Gazetteer.
I would recommend this book (and all other Gazetteers) to any DM running Ravenloft and give it a solid five drops since the map issue is the only flaw in this book.
I was happy to recently discover that my favorite AD&D campaign setting was resurrected and updated to 3rd edition. Luckily, I found this site and zeroed in on the Gazetteers as a good launching point. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about 3rd edition rules, so this review will be confined to the more aesthetic considerations of this series; i.e. what new additions and updates I find pleasing or not.
The framing fiction immediately draws the reader into this not-so-new campaign world and at the same time promises to give a very different. The character and dialogue of “S” is a delightful guilty pleasure and a very good antithesis to Dr. Van Richten’s work.
The first bit of good news is that it seems Azalin has returned to the Land of Mists. (I was never totally behind the whole “Necropolis” episode. I felt Death was a very poor substitute for everyone’s favorite lich.)
Appropriately enough, Barovia is the first domain to be reviewed. The Barovian occupation of the former lands of Gundarak was very well portrayed. I was not very familiar with this development, but the way it is being handled by Strahnd seems very much in character. It also gives a DM plenty of material to work with in creating new scenarios. It was nice to see several characters and groups carried over from the 2nd edition, including Lyssa Von Zarovich, The Keepers of the Black Feather, and Inajira. Another interesting bit of trivia was the inclusion of the scions of Forlorn’s druids that fled the evil of that neighboring domain.
In contrast to Barovia, Hazlan is a realm that I knew relatively little besides the fact of the ethnic divisions between the Mulan and Rashemi and Hazlik’s reversal of his ban on magic. The “false history” really added great details to this relatively new domain. The role of the Church of the Lawgiver was also greatly expanded upon since 2nd edition, where little, if any, information was presented on the various religions of the Core. The description of the “tables” was also highly useful, as I mistakenly thought they were actual tables and not prisons. (But, I guess, in way they are both.)
Forlorn holds a special place in my heart, since the campaign expansion Castles Forlorn is one of my old time favorites. I was pleased to see not much was changed. However, the information in this section didn’t seem as informative in view of the prior published material. Still, it was a concise guide to the most important aspects of the domain. My one gripe is that I don’t think Castle Fofarmax was a needed inclusion. One haunted castle is more than enough.
Kartakass is another realm that I know intimately thanks to the module Feast of Goblyns. The additions of the Invidian Occupation and the Ancestral Choir seem like a natural progression. The recap of Harkon Lukas’s role in the novels Heart of Midnight and Death of a Darklord were particularly useful, since I have not read either of those books.
The NPCs in the DM’s appendix were all well chosen as well as the creatures that were highlighted. The only quibble I have is with Madame Eva. She seems way too powerful and I would much prefer her to be a legendary historical figure rather than a living person for characters to interact with. The background information on Tara Kolyana was very interesting reading; there just had to be a new incarnation of Strahnd’s lost love floating around out there somewhere.
Overall, I give it 5 drops out of 5.
Typically the Domains of Ravenloft were always presented in the Core Rulebooks. This Information was always incomplete. But as the Campaign Setting grew, many adventures, Sourcebooks and articles in magazines, expanded this information greatly. However, if you wanted to have complete information about a given Domain, you were in for a lot of research. The 3rd Edition offered in this context, a new starting point for a better and more organized way to present each domain, hence the inclusion of the Gazetteers. The new books were intended to give complete coverage of each domain in the core, but they failed in this task. The authors, one for each domain, focused their efforts in adding much detail, and did a fantastic job at it. But for a book like this there is more to it than cultural descriptions and history, there is also complete information about secret societies, major NPC’s and locations. The readers are eager to know secrets, and they want to know them well.
I must admit, before I go on, that my hopes for the Gazetteer line were very high. I expected something different. Similar products had done a great job presenting domains, the Planes of… Series for the Planescape Setting or the Domain Sourcebooks for the Birthright Campaign are good examples. The final product I got was, well, totally different.
This first Gazetteer (Gaz.1) presents the Domains of Barovia, Forlorn, Hazlan and Kartakass. My first surprise as I started reading the book, came when I found out that the Gaz1 is a diary/travelogue of a character named S (we find out later that she is a woman) hired by some mysterious character to do a research on the realm. The mystery does not last long and soon we find out that the patron is none other than Azalin. Our hero reluctantly accepts the assignment. This could have been a very good Idea, in the same tradition as 2nd Ed. AD&D Volo’s Guides Series. But what started as nice idea quickly dissolves into confusion. Why show us the domains through the eyes of a single person? We soon get the notion that not all the information about the domains will be included (as is the case of Castle Ravenloft to name one example) simply because our hero wasn’t able to visit the place. How convenient.
The format of Gaz1 is pretty straightforward. Each domain is given an overall review, a geography entry, population and history chapters and also languages, magic and religion entries, as well as some other pertinent data, as player characters native to each domain, and even the typical flower of the land. The information is actually impressive, going to maximal detail in some cases to describe history, landscapes and populace (which is the case of Barovia, with an extensive chapter on costumes, traditions, etc). The authors offer a lot of material to work with, considering they had a lot of material to collect. They also expanded the existing information to give more form and life to each domain. A lot of work has been put to describe everything about land. This is the books best quality and its major flaw. It doesn’t add much to your campaign, and it focuses on things that only require a short description (Fauna and flora for example). You will be missing major NPC’s and important places, which are only mentioned and not detailed.
Barovia receives the most attention with an impressive 51 pages of coverage. A handful of information for sure, but nothing especially new. You surely will miss maps from Castle Ravenloft or from the Village of Barovia. Descriptions of major NPC’s are limited to three, although S talks about many more.
After reading Barovia, the domain of Hazlan receives a mere 19 pages coverage, paling in comparison to Barovia. Why this distinctions? Not much detail is given and only important aspects of the domain are included. You have to work harder for this domain. Like Hazlan, Forlorn also takes a brief chapter of the book. The Boxed Set Castles Forlorn information included within. The last domain is Kartakass, which in my opinion is the best-described domain. No adventure before 3rd Edition gave complete information about it, and the work done in Gaz1 is good.
Dread possibilities are introduced in small sidebars; constituting adventure hooks inside the domain. However the information is in many cases vague and unclear, never delivering enough information to be useful to your campaign and giving you the main idea just to keep you wondering. Each domain also has its share of secret societies, often described poorly. The major characters descriptions not included.
At the end of the book we get the Appendix, which contains new magical items, new magic, a new prestige class, new monsters including a lycanthrope that is literally a “fox”, and descriptions of major NPC’s, namely Darklords. Some things don’t quite fit, though. For example, Strahd is a mere 4th Level Fighter. Was he the most powerful General in Barovia at 4th Level?
All in all, it is correct to say that this first gazetteer is a chest filled with a lot of information about the domains. For new players and DM’s it is enough to begin their own campaigns. Still, the book leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth. Why? Well, it leaves too many questions unanswered, and nothing you read is for certain. They are only rumors, legends that we have to take them for true. In other cases, no information is given at all. Why our hero has so much knowledge of the Fabric of Ravenloft is beyond my comprehension. She even knows about the Darklords, and calls them Dread Lords (!!). She discovered the secret societies of each realm, which should be really difficult to locate, because they are, hmmm, secret. To make matters worse she also knows their leaders and nature of them (vampires, cursed ones, etc). One thing that struck me as odd was the fact that she already knows that Strahd is a Vampire. How? No one knows. The fact that she is a messenger from Azalin and that no Darklord senses her presence of this spy is also odd. Does she know as much as a DM? Well yes, and maybe more, and she doesn’t tell everything. If knowledge is power, she must be Ravenloft’s most powerful character.
As for the book it is of fair quality. Like other books of this line, the cover is not exciting at all. The inside art is very good in this tome. Talon Dunning and Brian LeBlanc present excellent pieces that enhance the mood of the book. It is a pity that the editors do not present them in a better way. The maps inside are, for lack of a better word, infamous. If you use a magnifying glass to view the maps given in the Core rulebook it will be the same as if you look at the maps given here, and you won’t have to pay for it.
To the new DM’s/players, this book is a fair addition to their collections. It contains a lot of information and background to spark countless campaigns, but does not answer basic questions about the domain, its secrets, its Darklords, and leaves a lot of loose ends. Even so it contains everything it promises and perhaps even more. But as with most things in life, quantity does not equal quality, and in the case of Gaz1, this is truer than ever.
3 out of 5 Strahd Zombies
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