TSR, $10.95, ISBN 1-56076-349-3
Ah, Ravenloft. To those that are not aware, this setting is designed as a quarantine by the mysterious Dark Powers for the worst menaces in the multiverse. There are many, many problems with this setting, which will become apparent as more stuff from this setting gets reviewed here, but still, I will always harbor an irrational love for it, hag warts and all, because, you know, horror. The official description for Ravenloft is Gothic horror, but as TSR rope in more developers to expand on the Demiplane of Dread, it soon becomes apparent that their idea of Gothic horror is more like anything goes, as long as there are zombies, werewolves, vampires, and ghosts in there somehow. Frankly, it’s easier to consider this setting as just horror—no decent effort is made to make Ravenloft more than a weekend in Hell for unlucky adventurers until the 3rd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons comes along later after the publication of Islands of Terror.
For now, let’s take a look at this one. It introduces nine new domains (a fancy word for the countries in Ravenloft) and five new monsters, but who cares about monsters. This brings me to the first problem with Ravenloft: way too much focus is on the domain and its ruler, called the Darklord, so much so that the rest of the domain is basically, whatever, just find a way to kill the Darklord. the way the nine domains is presented here won’t change one bit the perception that to go to Ravenloft is to have a short diversion from becoming Elminster’s errand boy, a diversion to be done with and quickly forgotten.
First off, we have Nidala. Okay, I love the Darklord of Nidala, Elena Faith-Hold. She was a former paladin that was so carried away by her zeal that she rationalized that the end justifies the means. Hence, she conducted practically a mass genocide of non-believers of her religion until the Dark Powers practically kidnapped her unawares and deposited her to Ravenloft. Eventually, she found her own kingdom, Nidala, where she continues to believe that she is a righteous paladin. Nidala is a generic European feudal kingdom from all appearances, but its unique selling point is that the leader of the place is a murderous cray-cray. She even has her people butcher villagers and blame the killings on a fictitious dragon, at the same time holding herself up as the only person that can protect all from the dragon, all to continue holding on to power.
I like Elena because she’s one of the rare female Darklords that aren’t what they are because they got heartbroken or they went unhinged due to the pain of being too sexy. Even better, she is evil through her own agency—she does harbor some doubts about her righteousness, but she refuses to outright acknowledge that she has been a homicidal maniac all this time. She continues to be what she is, on her own volition, and I find that awesome in a twisted manner. There are some depths to her villainy that make her far more memorable than an average Darklord.
Incidentally, don’t remind me of that idiotic attempt by the Fraternity of Darkness to give her a fan-made assistant or something that is responsible for her antics. I don’t know why these guys can’t let a strong evil woman to be evil on her own. What, even a crazy psycho woman needs a male to make her that way? No, that is just fan-made rubbish. Elena is a bad-ass psycho that doesn’t need a male to mansplain her into evil, thank you.
Next is the Wildlands, which is basically an irrational hodge-podge of savannas, marshes, and more, filled with talking animals and ruled by the Darklord, the forty-foot King Crocodile. Now, I have an irrational fear of crocodiles, having been startled by one ages ago when I was a kid and was living by the river, and since then, I try not to wade into a river unless I scrutinize my surrounding first to make sure that there is no unwanted surprise in the nearby waters first. However, I have to roll up my eyes at this one, because the whole domain is designed to be a homicidal The Jungle Book, only this time with reptiles and tigers and what not instead of apes. Talking apes is somewhat believable as they have plenty of similarities to talking humanoids, but talking reptiles and insects? LOL.
Scaena is a tiny domain: a theater of terror ruled by a malevolent playwright that insists on actual murders to take place on stage. This one is a cheap-ass slasher horror adventure with a villain that has some magic and lots of insanity. In the hands of a good DM, there may be some thrills and terrors to be had, I guess, but this is definitely a one-trip wonder and nothing more. Oh, and the theater can randomly teleport to various places. Why not give the place legs too like it’s Baba Yaga’s hut, heh?
Next is I’Cath, a domain created for a truly evil Kara-Tur empress called Tsien Chiang. This is easily the worst entry in this splatbook because goodness, this woman is like the embodiment of every Feminazi trope. Without much ado, she is just truly evil. She hates men so much that she marries and murders them, finding them useful only to give her four daughters. She uses the bones of men to build roads and buildings, including her giant temple. I don’t know why the men in her neighborhood didn’t just flee or why she doesn’t run out of men to kill, but eventually, she is defeated and ends up in her own Ravenloft domain, where she continues to… sit around and wait for adventurers to stumble into I’Cath and kill her, I guess, because she doesn’t do anything in the meantime.
It is only when they reveal that Tsien Chiang can turn into a giant tree that I go, oh, I get it. This is a rip-off of the evil female spirit in A Chinese Ghost Story. That explains the other nonsense in this domain, such as the sole good daughter that is constantly abused by the evil mom and her other sisters. Unfortunately, it seems like the designer of this domain just read the plot synopsis of the movie on Wikipedia and decided to go ham, because nothing good from that movie is translated here. Then again, there is nothing remotely good about I’Cath.
This domain is tedious, flat, and boring, consisting only of obstacles and monsters that adventurers must kill in order to reach Tsien Chiang and kill her too. The Darklord is a cartoon example of evil for the sake of evil, and frankly, the whole thing is pure rubbish.
Saragoss is a much better domain than I’Cath, but then again, falling face-down onto a huge pile of dung is better than I’Cath. This one is a nightmarish domain indeed: think of the Bermuda triangle, populated by shipwrecks, with survivors trying to survive while being predated by one another, sharks, sahuagins, and, of course, zombies. We can’t have Gothic horror without zombies, after all! This is not a bad place for a dystopian survival horror campaign, but the Darklord is a one-dimensional evil were-shark. Fortunately, he is nowhere as bad as Tsien Chiang, but come on, anything will be better than Tsien Chiang.
Timor, ah Timor. This is an interesting domain. Above the ground, we have a city akin to some Victorian-era London, but at night, creepy dangerous things emerge from the sewers to play. Meanwhile, doppelgangers—evil shapeshifter creatures—have started to kill the human leaders of Timor and take on their identities, starting a ritual of sacrificing foreigners to the city to the monsters down below to keep the natives safe. The Darklord is a fat, ugly sitting duck that is nonetheless still protected her army of bug monster kids, and is easily the least interesting aspect of this domain. Then again, who cares about her? This is a lovely playground to pit adventurers against intrigue as well as outright monsters that come out in the dark. I can imagine there are many opportunities here for all kinds of horror, be it Gothic, slasher, body horror, or Lovecraftian.
Pharazia is a generic Middle-Eastern city ruled by a sexy male angelic being by day… the same fellow that turns into a monstrous creature at night to terrorize the natives. There are some unintentional undertones here, notably with the angel being fair-skinned while the monster dark-skinned, and all in all, I suspect this domain won’t fly in a present day reboot of Ravenloft. There isn’t much of interest here either aside from the Darklord’s history. The adventurers show up, kill the Darklord, and Elminster beckons, the end. The whole thing makes for a far more interesting wiki entry than a setting for a tabletop session.
Staunton Bluffs is another domain that is 98% about the Darklord. This fellow is a ghost that can’t do anything other than to rage impotently against the natives, which makes the domain 98% pointless. The remaining 2% is basically a rehash of Mordent, a more established domain with a better Darklord. In other words, this domain is pointless so long as Mordent exists. Perhaps the folks come up with this silly domain to pad the pages of this splatbook?
Finally, we have the Greenpeace-not-welcome domain of Nosos. Ruled by a Darklord that hates nature and wants to see everything polluted and contaminated through uncontrolled industrialization and urbanization, this domain has… nothing else of interest. Really, this place is just a big garbage dump ruled by a pipsqueak that hates druids and trees because the druid guardians of his didn’t hug him enough when he was a kid. That and the whole industrial revolution gone wrong tone of this domain feels very out of place among the rest of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons setting as well as among the rest of the Ravenloft domains. Any DM wishing to use this domain will have to do a vast rework if the campaign were meant to be complementary to Faerun or Krynn, or go pure ham and set the weekend-in-Hell adventure in some space-age plane with a climax that sees a giant robot emerging from the trash heap to destroy everything, I guess.
All in all, most well-done domain will be Timor, with Saragoss a close second for its genuinely terrifying premise. Elena Faith-Hold is the best drawn Darklord, while Tsien Chiang needs to die in a conflagration of shame. There are some interesting ideas to be plumbed from Islands of Terror, but the whole thing is a very mixed bag. It’s a good thing that digital editions of this one are available for cheap at places like DriveThruRPG, because the cover price is a pretty steep waste of money for something as uneven as it is. Freaking I’Cath, sheesh. What were they smoking when they came up with that crap?