I have been perusing some of the 2e Ravenloft sourcebooks – not many, for life is too short to wade through all the grist ever flung to the TSR mill. I feel they are of little use to me. From the two major examples I (or anyone with three brain cells) could derive the principle of the darklord and from there on what matters is the process by which the gothic villain is translated into D&D terms, a process which should be demonstrated through a walkthrough wrapped up with a “now you try”. Instead there is product, product, product; canon facts for people who never make anything up and whose first thought on being invited to a campaign is “what sourcebooks should I read?” Most of it is workmanlike to say the least.
In dismay I have turned my back on all this and taken the essence of Ravenloft: a pocket hell for Gothic villains, in which they have everything except that which they truly desire and are well aware that their dark gods laugh at every sip they take from the poison chalice of their victory. Strahd will never possess Tatyana. Avelin has eternity to study arcane lore that is now meaningless to him. Lejandro (don’t ask: I made him up) holds a principality within his iron grip but the peers over whom he’d wish to lord it can no longer perceive his presence or his mastery. Stat up some domain level NPC/monsters who’ve done some terrible things and who have an ironic curse which also becomes a tactical weakness.
At the heart of it all, of old Module I6, the titular Castle Ravenloft. You’ll recall this was partly cleansed by witch hunters from the Church of St. Thoggua and its ludicrous upper architecture presumably made good and sane again. Now the Castle is a Citadel, the seat of the Consort of the Raven Queen (apparently 4th edition D&D has one too, although I maintain I made her up all by myself), though the depths remain sealed, guarded and untouched. Consequently, something passing for Strahd remains confined within them and there is at least one dungeon of the old school available for when the time comes. Slavish adherence to the original is uncalled for but the call back to previous adventurers now lost in legend is irresistible.
I’m using Lamentations of the Flame Princess because it has the right old-school feel, is calibrated for the Renaissance period (more firearms, less sword and board), and is a uniformly “high numbers are good” system, a necessary evil when dealing with players for whom consistency is desirable and complexity is not. Situations may be complex and decisions demanding, but rules must be accessible. I aim for something more Ann Radcliffe than Anne Rice, if you’ll forgive me: something tinged with the terror-gothic rather than the horror-gothic that inspired Hammer movies and trickled down into Ravenloft as we know it.
The result is something very much like fun. A Ravenloft developed away from Module I6 as though almost nothing after module I6 existed. I said this could happen at the end of my run through the original module and now it is.