Bleak House - The Death of Rudolph van Richten
Authors: William W. Connors and Steve Miller
Summary of Content:
Book One: Sea of Madness
David "Jester" Gibson
This boxed set brought about the end of an Era for Ravenloft. Firstly this was one of the final Boxed Sets produced for the line followed only by the Requiem: the Grim Harvest box; but more importantly this mega-adventure featured the death of the iconic Rudolph Van Richten. After seventy-nine years of life, eight published books and more brushes with the reaper than an Evil Knievel stunt at a Blue Oyster Cult concert, the good Doctor finally faces a battle he could not win. It is sad to see such an interesting character die, especially one so different from the typical Dungeons and Dragons champion. He used brains and tactics in place of brawn and brute force and he was not an attractive youthful individual but instead a balding elderly man.
For those expecting a grand tour of the Dread Realms or an epic battle against the forces of darkness this box may prove a disappointment. The good doctor does not face-off against overwhelming odds in a battle that claims the lives of multiple darklords and leaves a profound change upon the Demiplane. There are no cities destroyed or lands renamed in this box nor does dozens of lives hang in the balance. Instead all that is at stake is the good doctor’s sanity and his own soul, the only lives at risk are his own and the player’s. Neither does the box feature Van Richten as a force of nature or even as the heroic scholar most know him as. In an ironic twist the herbalist spends much of the adventures as the lunatic so many assume him to be. It is sad and in a way disappointing to see Van Richten in such a state but it does make for a sense of drama and adds importance to many of the events in the final quarter. It is also necessary to prevent the skilled and intelligent figure from dominating the adventure and all but dictating the player’s actions.
The box is split into three books along with a poster map that features the Bleak House of the title and the surrounding grounds. All the other maps for the set, both buildings and other domains, are found in Book Three. The poster map is pleasant too look at but instead of being strictly a map to the rooms it also has such features as doors, tables, chairs and other furniture and fixings, not all of which appear to be at scale. And many of the features are not included in every room, for example shelves are in the index but only appear once on the map and not in the library. Likewise furnishings that only appear once, such as a dollhouse, rate an appearance on the map. This gives the impression the map shows what the rooms look like from above but makes the rooms appear barren and devoid of most other furnishings, not to mention dreary and uncarpeted. The doors and furniture are also Spartan and simplistic with an almost medieval feel that clashes with the environment of the house as a more classical or renaissance manor than a 13th century monastic fortress. This gives the rooms a contradictory feel between realism and representation. Plus the angle and the design make it awkward to examine the fine details on window and door positioning or the borders of rooms. As a result the simplistic blueprints included at the end of Book Two become very useful. Their inclusion, while otherwise seen as extraneous due to the poster map, are excellent and welcome additions.
The first book, Seas of Madness, has a warning at the very beginning that tells Dungeon Masters how challenging this adventure is to run, and I agree wholeheartedly with these statements. This adventure would be a nightmare without a good, mature and experience role-playing group in addition to the requisite buckets of luck. It features many of the elements that drive players to intense frustration such as imprisonment, torture, repeated failure, enemies that seem to be one step ahead of you (to the point of suspecting the DM of cheating) and madness. While the book reminds that Fear and Horror checks are only to be used in the event such emotions are not role-played, Madness checks, on the other hand, have no such restriction. Insanity essentially takes part of the character away from the player and should only be used sparsely and with caution. This whole adventure heaps on the madness checks and chances for inanities as if they were Halloween candies. Plus the adventure all but forces the players into the sanatorium and these inflicts horrible acts upon them. I would object more if not for the minor-epic scope of the tale and the requirement that Van Richten be mentally weakened.
The adventure in this book is fairly limited and is instead split into two sections. The first takes place on the island of Dominia although the full description of events there are left vague. The introduction and set-up is provided along with many adventure hooks and possible plots but after that Dungeon Masters must either employ their own ideas or allow the players to simply direct the flow of events. This is both a blessing and a curse as it requires more work on the part of the DM. However, it also allows him to tailor the stay to suit the players allowing for more failed escape attempts, role-playing, torture and the like if the party can handle it or allowing it to all end quickly if they can not. Given the aforementioned difficulty this was good planning on the part of the writers. There are some rough patches in this part of the adventure. If the players encounter the good doctor Van Richten on their own they find him suspicious to the point of paranoia and he suspects the heroes. However, if he confronts them (somehow escaping from his cell) he will aid in their escape despite quite possibly their being strangers and having no reason to trust each other. In this event Rudolph Van is simply a plot device to save trapped PCs as well as force the meeting. Also, the map-key to the sanatorium does place a lot of magic in the building with multiple crystal balls, almost every door magically sealed and numerous other spell-like effects and enchantments. Reading the description almost makes the building seem overly enchanted and mystical, but almost no parties will encounter ever one of these ensorcelled zones so this balances out. Despite this the numerous enchantments make the building seem more at home in someplace such as Grayhawk or the Forgotten Realms. It is a good thing it was "a gift from the dark powers" or the fans of low magic would be up in arms.
The second half of Book One is devoted to Martira Bay in Darkon and the investigation of their Dominian captor’s partner(s). A much more simple adventure it is essentially a short dungeon crawl where the players navigate and explore their foe’s tower and confront him. The plot here is strict and makes many assumptions to what the players would do. The first part of the Martira Bay section is far more open giving multiple options and scenarios based on the player’s actions and their escape. This is nicely done although it consumes a large amount of the page-count making assumptions that will simply be bypassed by those surprising and infuriating players.
This book, along with the accompanying information on Book Three, provides an excellent tour of the domain of Dominia. The buildings and the surroundings are heavily detailed with a full map and key of the sanatorium. Numerous experiments and treatments are included and great emphasis is placed on the atmosphere and feel of the land. It truly is a frightening and creepy land. Anyone planning on using Dominia should consult this book. It simply is the best resource on the land available. I doubt even the Gazetteers will cover the land and treatments as completely as this. Likewise the extra information on Martira Bay, including several bonus plot hooks and side-quests, is quite useful. Both make the product usable for even those uninterested in running the main plot. While not as much information as Dominia, the city is treated to a full map and small description of city sections.
Book Two breaks away from the madness and escape driven first half of the mega-adventure. In fact, Book Two: Homecoming, is essentially a separate adventure in itself. It could easily be run separately from the introduction piece in Book One. There is even some brief advice given on adapting this adventure for Masque of the Red Death although this is only a few paragraphs. For the most part this book describes the small Island of Terror known as the Bleak House, also know as Richetn Haus, the ancestoral home of Rudolph Van. The majority of the book is dedicated to the map-key and describing the poster map in detail. The rest of the book describes the major NPCs and the events of each night until the big climactic confrontation.
An interesting idea in this adventure, based on one found in the original Ravenloft adventure, is using cards as a random element altering events in the story. Normal playing cards can be used but it is primarily set up for a tarokka deck. There is even a reading of these card with descriptions for the players. The cards, either their number or suit, also dictate whom and what occurs in each room of the house. This adds some limited replay value to the adventure but does make a lot of extra work for the DM. Luckily the inside covers provide charts to keep track of who was found where and what occurred in each room. The biggest effect these cards have is determining which item/artifact the party can find and the location of the final battle. In addition to each artifact having a different and important effect of the good doctor each affects the outcome of the story. Each ending is different and the canon ending to the adventure has not been revealed, but all end with Van Richten dying or being trapped in the Bleak House. One way or another his story ends in that building.
My main complaint in the story is the lack of comparative dates. We know that the tragic events that befell the staff at Richten Haus happened when the family was away on a vacation and that it occurred when Rudolph was a much younger (and quite possibly a child!). However, we are not told what year this occurred nor how old Rudolph was at the time. This seems frustrating and unnecessary. It is also not clear how much time has passed since the tragic night and while we know there have been many stewards after Josef but we are not told the names of any. Likewise the reactions of Van Richten to the servants and his knowledge of what occurred is not given. Van Richten’s silence is somewhat explained away as the result of the tortures he underwent, but this assumes only a scant few days have passed since the first adventure and there have been few, if any, side adventures that would allow the good doctor time to recover. It is an understandable omission though, as it is certainly more terrifying for the players to slowly realise there is something odd with the staff and the house, especially after the first night, and the shock would be deflated by Van Richten simply giving away the mystery.
Book Two also owes a great debt to the writers of the various Van Richten Guides (who are thanked in the credits) as it features many companions of the good doctor from their pages. It is interesting to see all these characters collected and does fit in nicely with the plot of the adventure and the events revealed in the Guide to the Vistani. It also ties in thematically with the adventure, wrapping up the doctor’s affairs and adding a nice sense of continuity and closure. Amends can be made for the past and forgiveness granted.
This is a mixed adventure that is fascinating and horrifying but also complicated and at times difficult to play. But it is a worthy end to the career of Rudolph Van with some excellent nods to past products and very interesting moments. The maps, or rather the keys, are well done with some excellent arrangements and descriptions. The map and details of the manor itself can serve in many games and the details on Dominia are second to none. The limited number of monsters and spells also make this easily adaptable although most of the NPCs would require a lot of work. That and cerebral vampires have not yet been updated to Third Edition.
Three and a half severed digits out of five regardless of edition. Overall it is a good solid adventure albeit one that requires some extra work and preparation. For any DM up to the task it is recommended.
Summary: The PCs are taken prisoner by Cerebral Vampires on a ship to Domina and become patients of the insane Doctor Dark Lord of said realm. There, they find Doctor Ruldolf Van Ritchen whose gone quite insane. Leading him back to civilization, they uncover a far reaching plot involving a resurrected Baron Metus and a insane Vistani Ghost that culminates at Rudolf Van Ritchen's childhood home.
Bleak House, the Death of Rudolph Van Ritchen, almost reads better than it's played. It's the second best adventure in the Ravenloft line and one that I've used on several occasions. It even gets around the problem of "What do I do about a NPC whose a dynamic leader and hero?" by driving poor Doctor Van Ritchen insane. Honestly, because he'd been a hero for most of my games, it was rather tragic honestly for the PCs to find him in the state they did (I hid the name of the module as well as the material before the adventure).
I will confess that I didn't particularly care for the death of Rudolf in this particular scenario for the terms of necessity. Rudolf's "retirement" had always rung false for me, even in the Guidebook to the Vistani and I believed that he would always continue the fight until the bitter end. The time of Unparalleled Darkness was also one that was extremely annoying for me because it was too incredibly far off to likely ever be detailed with the way gamelines were. I would have preferred Gennifer and Laurie to take the mantle more directly.
Part 1: The Island of Dominia gets a good write-up and I will tell you this piece is the best of the one's I've run because not only is the horror done by alien weirdness but it's also done in a Gothic manner. I've used this asylum on Eberron, Cthulhu Earth, and several other locations. There's just something wonderful about a Doctor who doesn't make you sane but makes you more crazy. I think, though, that it would have been better to mention that the Doctor was a scientiffic genius (twisted as he might be) than just saying all of it was a gift of the Dark Powers.
Part 2: A fairly straight forward Vampire Hunt. Baron Metus is a character that's fascinating in many respects because he's basically "only" a mature vampire but his scheme with the psionic poles, the abundance power of his lair, and even something like Time Stop make him a lot more powerful than the players expect. It was nice to see that Doctor Van Ritchen's 'first kill' wasn't some all powerful demigod like Strahd figure though but a fairly typical vampire honestly. There were some complaints about amputation giving awesome psionic abilities but I did the "hand wave" answer of saying that Doctor D built a machine to enhance his powers (he was clearly capable of such)
Part 3: Bleak House itself was an adventure that is the most Gothic ever done in Ravenloft with the whole "High Spirits" aspect of repeating the actions on the day that they died being done exceptionally well plus the gradual decay of the environment around the Pcs. It was suitably iconic that Doctor Van Ritchen, if he had to die, died slaying a Darklord of Ravenloft (abet one of an island of terror).
Some general complaints. Claudia and the Dwarf (whom I sadly have since forgotten the name of) were both characters who made a number of appearances of in Van Ritchen's texts so that their backgrounds don't fit. Claudia, in fact was a recurring NPC that the players developed an overwhelming hatred for the vampiress Merilee for thanks to her murdering her (she was also a love interest). Claudia's causal dismissal is something that I didn't much care for and I had her in the role of the "good ghost."
If I had one complaint against the module, it would probably be that Madame Darklord is not particularly tragic at all and unsuited as a Darklord. She pretty much reinforces the stereotype that Vistani ARE lying, murderous, scum.
Nevertheless, it's not enough to lower the game's score and 5 out of 5 blood drops.
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