Over the weekend, I participated in a Savage Worlds one shot meant to give a friend a critical look at the game system, since that’s what he’s all about. You can, and should, start reading System Sans Setting. Of the players at the table, I think I knew most about the Ravenloft setting, having played a whopping three games over the course of two editions and entirely different game engines. This marked my fourth foray into the world, and it continues to be a setting that ends with me saying, “Why aren’t I playing this all the time?” Ravenloft is easily my second favorite setting that has been released for DnD products, with Planescape handily taking the top slot. Now, I worked at a megastore that carried books, movies, music and computer products during the last few years of second edition. Due to the simply ridiculous discount I was able to obtain on books, I bought a LOT of Campaign Setting Box sets. I also bought a lot of the Second Edition based DnD novels, since I could get them for a dollar and bad fantasy fiction is hard to pass up as a teenager. These boxed sets were stuffed with delicious maps, succulent lore, and incredible art. These type of boxed sets were amazing, but I can only assume they represented far too much investment for too little return and they were subsequently phased out in Third Edition. Sure, setting books of the DM and Player variety remained, though this wasn’t nearly the same and I didn’t like the Third Edition art sensibilities at all. Not to mention the pathetic attempts to recreate the Planescape setting piecemeal without really covering the absurdity and awe that it truly deserved. The other settings, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and all of their subsets, Dark Sun, Birthright and so on, weren’t bad. I think that the second editions of these settings were some of the strongest iterations produced, due largely to their copious amount of setting text. However, the two that stuck with me as things that I would want to play in or see a full update of were consistently Planescape and Ravenloft. I did a lot of work on my own and updated Planescape to a fairly detailed level for Fourth Edition play, and ran it as a crime solving game to fairly good review. I don’t think I could run a good Ravenloft game, but I would love to play in one. Anyway, the point is, these two settings have an awful lot in common at the base level.
Both settings are creative gold mines for DMs. Either of these settings can give you more possible styles and stories for a game than you could ever conceivably run. While it could be argued that different continents and cities in the more mundane settings do this same thing, the underlying core of the game world limits the sheer level of gonzo that the setting can conceivably obtain. The gonzo level is pretty high in some of the settings like Forgotten Realms, but that completely pales next to some of the things that occur in Planescape and Ravenloft. Sure, you might be the secret aspect of a god in Forgotten Realms, but you might be riding a magical boat made entirely of flames as you track the bones of the original god of beasts through the Happy Hunting Grounds, having to fight those same gods of Forgotten Realm off in order to be the first to ace the silver stag in order to set the free the drop of blood from the god that created it. Conversely, you could have a political thriller campaign set entirely in Sigil based entirely around the different factions. I am not saying that other settings don’t allow for this, but just that while the road charted by the other campaigns has highs and lows, Planescape is flying a time traveling Delorean. Where it’s going, we don’t need roads.
Ravenloft is a slightly scaled back version of Planescape in many ways. While all it offers you are horror options, man does it offer you some options! You have a variety of traditional gothic horror analogues, your Draculas, Dr. Frankensteins, the Headless Horseman, Frankenstein’s Monsters, Wolfmans, and Dr. Jekyls/Mr. Hydes. You also then have mummies, Batman villains (Seriously, Puncheron), dudes from Sandman, lich kings, Lovecraftian nightmares, evil guys from other settings such as Dragonlance and Darksun, Arthurian legend turned evil, a bevy of courtiers turned into creatures that reflect their inner nature, and, of course, giant fucking crocodiles that are super smart. There is an awful lot of repetition in the Dark Lords, but what do you expect? Ninety Dark Lords is an awful lot of Dark Lords, after all. Each little domain of a Dark Lord could conceivably work entirely different than the domain just over the misty borders, much like in Planescape. Spells might not work at all, magic might be completely changed, and the rules of physics might be turned on their heads. While not quite as much gonzo as Planescape, the “horror sandbox” that it presented was vast and colorful. One of the domains might have the heroes trying to stop the Wendigo or a close group of shaman who are maintaining the illusion of a single Dark Lord aspect, while the next one over might have people fighting the legends of ancient Egypt and worrying about legions of undead controlled by the mummy pharaoh. This diversity lends itself to quite an interesting set of parameters in which the game can take place. Not to mention that defeating a Dark Lord is something that players could conceivably do, but something else horrible would take its place. It doesn’t make the world better in any meaningful way, and might be detrimental. That is, unless you didn’t want it to occur that way, and players could free a Domain, but it is unclear what would happen then…even better!
This sort of vast re-usability is what makes these two settings so compelling. They provided strong rules and thematic guidelines in running the sort of campaign you wanted with the information provided. You just don’t get this sort of information and flavor any more out of the splat books that were subsequently released. They are completely serviceable, but they just don’t have the same detail and scale that the boxed sets of yore used to produce, particularly Ravenloft and Planescape. I don’t think we will ever see a return to this type of material, as the trend is obviously in the other direction, and that’s a shame. When asked what I think the best thing about old editions of DnD are, I don’t think about the rules or the classes or any other sort of game mechanics. I think about the old box sets and Planescape and Ravenloft. This, more than anything else, defines old DnD to me. The art, the names, the stories and the lore that were kept in those boxes. While I know they won’t ever return to this method of expansion, a guy can dream.