Domains of Dread
Authors: William W. Connors & Steve Miller
A very good book, but IMHO less powerful then the Black Box (because of the maps and also because of the feel of the book - the Black box was more horrific). But never mind my own nostalgic feelings, get DoD, it is excellent and many information in it are still not converted in 3rd edition as I write it.
The book introduces new "ranking" of dark lords - a cool concept IMHO, but there wasn't different powers or characteristics according to these titles so it remained semantic.
New cultural levels were more useful, with equivalent on our Earth time. Useful to visualise a domain's atmosphere. The domains saw the apparition of clusters, which is a good idea to regroup islands of similar or complementary themes. The domain description also got better and more cohesive in the domains interdependence - of which the status of ex-Gundarak (very cool). Darkon is gone, long live Necropolis! ;)
A new cluster is found in DoD: Burning Peaks, with Cavitius (Vecna as darklord) and Tovag (with Vecna's nemesis Kas). A little odd to have a powerful god like Vecna as the darklord of a small domain, IMHO, but many adventure hooks.
The Core now has the Nocturnal Sea - with Ship of Horror's Meredoth as darklord. Unfortunately, and following a tradition for Ravenloft, the maps in this book are quite bad (too dark and sketchy at best). The sections on checks (horror, fear, etc.) is well made and easy for DMs. The annex always puzzled me (and others too): many of its 60 pages are reprint from the TSR Players Handbook and we can ask why it was done that way (and that space could have been used for firearms rules!). In short - a must have. It smooth the edges of previous boxed sets. This book rocks!
David "Jester" Gibson
This large book was the first hardcover Campaign Setting for Ravenloft and a result of TSR’s phasing out of boxed sets in favour of straight books. This was a sad turning point as boxed sets were undeniably handy packaging able to hold all sorts of extras such as poster maps and even cards. Not to mention the extra room in the boxes made storing other softcover supplements far handier. I keep all my original VanRichten Guides together in the Red Box, but that is beside the point.
I have a fondness for Domains of Dread, it is an excellent step forward from the Black and Red Boxes. The cover is brilliant and minimalistic that just grabs you. It stood out from all other products on the shelf and just screams to be bought. The interior design however is lacking. Unlike previous settings and books there is no dark and emotive border so the stark white pages stand out, especially with the use of red as the alternate colour which sadly comes out as pink when used for shading. The black and white and grey earlier boxes where far more stylish. Pink just does not work. Likewise the formatting and style of the book is encyclopedic and bland factual with less emphasis on description and almost no flavour text, it is a straight and informative read. While this quickly tells you the nuts and bolts of the setting and is highly useful and informative it is also truly bland in comparison to other books. It is no different from reading the Core AD&D books.
The interior art is also striking at times. Unlike the recycled art from the Red Box the art here is *almost* entirely new with much being this lovely white charcoal and pencil style art that I find pleasing. And many of the new NPC portraits and very nicely done (they were also reprinted in Secrets of the Dread Realms so you can see them there). What are not nicely done are the maps which are easily the worst maps ever done of the Land of the Mists. They are dark to the point of unsuitability and the cities are large giant dots. It is almost impossible to tell the difference between rivers and roads and there are many annoying editing errors such as Mordentshire being labeled wrongly as Port-a-Lucine in one map! There is not even one giant map of the Core instead it is split into North, South and the Seas. That said the second map in the book (printed on page 10) while of little use as a game map, is my favorite map of the setting. Stylistic and not to scale it is a lovely little map that uses the mists at the edge of the Core also as the borders between Domains and was the first map I saw to fully capture the image of Ravenloft for me. I saw that map and ‘got it’ truly for the first time.
The first chapter is a very, if not overly, complete introduction to the Demiplane of Dread detailing such broad topics and entry and exits, Darklords, the Dark Powers, alteration of magic, history with a full timeline (very complete detailing both the events of novels AND adventures, but with a couple large errors), geography and culture levels. It is a mouthful of a chapter. The following chapter has a complete list of Domains of the Core along with their associated Darklords. Most of the Darklords are detailed but some of the smaller ones in the various seas only receive a mild mention. There is no separate NPC chapter, all the Darklords are simply placed alongside their respective lands. Much of the text here has been copied, sometimes word-for-word, from earlier settings so many lands, such as Verbrek, have not changed in the least. Nathan Timothy still has not received a curse. The Domains are also not listed alphabetically but based on region which is separated into Northern and Southern Core and then lists the lands from West to East. This makes finding specific lands troublesome at times. Two interesting additions found here are the small sections for “Native Player Characters” that give the modifications to players from that land such as changes to money, social ranking and sometimes even bonuses. This was a brilliant idea and is a good example of the focus on natives in the place of outlanders and the Core as a real land with politics and trade. These are thankfully added to the descriptions of most lands. Another addition is the small section on “Further Reading” that lists the lands appearances in past products such as adventures and novels. I miss these little blurbs as they were handy for research. The next chapter details Islands of Terror and the following introduces Clusters as well as describes several Pockets. The original idea for Domains of Dread was that it was to include every Domain ever published although this quickly became unfeasible. Two Clusters are not detailed (or even mapped) and many Islands (Sanguinia, Farelle and Staunton Bluffs as well as the pocket land of the Phantom lover spring to mind) are not even mentioned.
The next chapter is on Secret Societies although many of the examples are far from secretive. This is an excellent chapter with much information in it yet to be reprinted. It gives rough information on secret societies as well as one example for each of the the nine alignments. The Keepers of the Black Feather, the Church of Ezra, the Vistani, the Fraternity of Shadows and the Unholy Order of the Grave have all been mentioned in the Ravenloft Gazetteers at one point or another. More often than not, the mention is a small sidebar. The Circle received a prestige class in Van Richten’s Arsenal but little was written on the organization itself. Both the Kargatane and the Green Hand are still scarce on details.
The following chapters introduce the revised and improved Fear, Horror and Madness systems as well as the entirely unchanged Power Checks system. The updated Fear/Horror system integrates madness nicely and makes suffering horrible long-lasting effects more the result of the situation and circumstances than bad die rolls. The Power Check system does take advantage of the (mostly cosmetic) addition of Darklord hierarchies (Demilord, Lord, Overlord, Darklord) but this does imply that all that separates the Lord of an Island from the Lord or a Core Domain is two evil deeds. The system is also tweaked to include the new stages of Innocent and Redeemed, subtle variations on simply Clean. Changes are also separated into Minor, Moderate and Major although these are less hierarchical and less progressive than the previous system of changes. It does introduce Terror Track but only a single example is given.
The next four chapters are the standard updates of Priestly and Wizardly magic along with Psionics and magic items with the ussual combination of altered spells and new additions (mostly reprints from earlier versions of the Campaign Setting). These chapters do give some quick information on other magical additions such as Faith magic and Quest spells along with Wild Mages and Elementalists. Nothing really extraordinary here. It is worth noting that the chapter on magical items does not contain any new or Ravenloft specific items, only altered ones. The final two chapters include the rules and advice for Curses that is just a rehash from earlier settings and the standard DM advice for running a game in Ravenloft and scaring players.
The book does not end there, however. In the place of the standard monster modifications is four Appendices reprinting a large amount of information from the AD&D Player’s Handbook, specifically the rules related to character creation. It has tables on the various abilities, the available races (introducing the Half-Vistani for the first time) and the character classes. At the end is a very small section on the nine alignments and proficiencies. The inclusion of the races was a good idea as this was the first time the demihumans of the Demiplane were detailed, specifically what they were like and how they varied from the standard demihuman races of the AD&D multiverse. Much of this has been changed with the update to Third Edition (most notably the Halflings who are no longer pudgy Hobbit rip-off and most notably the Gnomes). I tend to think of this as the Dragonlance-ing of D&D as the updated races seem to fit the races of that world. Also included are four new classes, the Avenger, Arcanist, Anchorite and Gypsy while the Bard, Druid and Paladin have been removed as possible native classes while the Psionicist is included as a possible core class. Most of the classes included have also been subtly altered with new or changed abilities such as the ranger’s newfound talent to cure lycanthropy. The Avenger and Anchorite have been updated as Prestige Classes as has a variant of the Arcanist. Of all the additions to the book the reprinting of so much material from the PHB has been one of the most frequently criticized. It certainly is a curious addition and could have easily been reduced and edited to a quarter of the size allowing for two or three more Domains to be included. Personally, despite this, I found the appendices more useful than not. As I already knew all the information and rules in the PHB it was one fewer book to have to carry with me as all the tables were included here.
Easily one of the best Campaign settings for the Ravenloft line marred only by its lack of atmosphere, poor maps and often-reprinted information. The lack of an NPC section or the details on any people other than the Darklords is also disappointing. Likewise this book, with the introduction of Culture Levels refers frequently to the use and manufacture of firearms but there are no rules or equipment lists for these weapons. But this is easily overlooked due to the new cohesiveness of the lands and focus on natives and campaigns more than simply Weekend in Hell adventures. A few Domains and Lords featured here that have not been 3Eed yet and the above mentioned secret societies but nothing truly remarkable here. This book was a step in the right direction for the setting even if it changed the official tone from Gothic Horror to Fantasy Horror.
Back in’97 this book would have gotten an impressive four and a half severed digits out of five! Now it only gets three out of five, and that is mostly for nostalgia.
I received Domains of Dread as late as 2000, shortly before the 3rd edition books came out, and long before I launched my stint as a Dungeon Master (around these times, I was in it for the literature). Convenient to say that it was Domains of Dread that broke me away from the Barovian shell and made me discover that there was a vast, diverse world of Ravenloft for me to plunder. Domains of Dread's formatting and style were exquisite, and the illustrations (especially of the darklords) gave life to a world that was eventually discontinued from the DnD line. There's still a lot of things in Domains of Dread I still miss in 3.5 ed, such as Nosos, Kalidnay, the House of Lament, the Nightmare Lands and Scaena, but suffice to say this is the greatest full 2nd ed campaign accessory Ravenloft has to offer.
Five out of five tiki heads.
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