Masque of the Red Death: Ravenloft Campaign Expansion
Authors: William W. Connors
Guide to Gothic Earth:
A 128 page booklet describing the campaign setting, character creation rules, rules for
Dungeon Master's Screen
Stephen "ScS" Sutton
It should come as now surprise to anyone that I am a huge fan of this product. The Masque of the Red Death setting is an inspiring work that is sure to spark the imagination of players and dungeon masters alike. I'd liken Masque of the Red Death to Ravenloft taken to the next step, going further from fantasy adventure and deeper into gothic horror role-playing.
The Guide to Gothic Earth is an excellent book, which provides enough information for a DM to run Masque as a campaign setting of its own. The setting is brilliantly described, evoking a frightening world that is strange and familiar at the same time. The sample villains described in the book and the appendix on running campaigns are sure to inspire a dungeon master to new heights in horror. The adventures included in the campaign setting will be extremely helpful to any dungeon master who needs some assistance in starting a Red Death campaign. The real gems in this box are the so-called fluff work; the background information and the setting. Even if you are playing a 3rd edition game, I suggest picking this set up.
If the Masque of the Red Death has a failing, its in the rules. The system of magic is altered to make Gothic Earth a low magic setting. Yet, the rules are so badly bent that playing a magic user is just foolish. The casting time of magic is increased by a factor of ten, making magic use so ridiculously slow that it is hard to imagine any use for it. Masque of the Red Death relies on the proficiency rules of AD&D, which are much less fluid than the skill point system of 3rd edition. Fortunately, these skills are easy to convert over and there are numerous netbooks available for free (see "The Living Death Players Handbook" or "The Great War Project").
Masque of the Red Death is a wonderful cult classic product and I recommend it to any fan of Ravenloft. If you're looking for a change of pace, this is the book for you! I give it Five out of Five!
David "Jester" Gibson
For those of you who haven’t heard of MotRD this is it in one sentence. It’s Ravenloft only with even less magic, weaker heroes and set in the ‘real’ world during the 1890s. That about sums it up. Except the world is called ‘The Gothic Earth’ and instead of the Dark Powers there is a single entity that is definitely and unarguably evil. This was a 2E boxed set that is being republished/revamped by S&S in December of 2004 and was featured in the RPGA with their Living Death Campaign. It is no longer just television and movies, even in Role Playing Games now there are no more new ideas! Back on topic, inside the MotRD Boxed Set was the main book and three (count em three!) adventures along with a reasonably useful DM screen and both a poster and a poster map.
Personally, after reading through the adventures and main book, I thought the product would have been better served if only one or two adventures were included and the remaining book(s) put to other use. It can be argued that more than one adventure was necessary to aid new or less skilled DMs in the designing of adventures suitable for the Gothic Earth; help craft adventures that would not just end up being dungeon crawls with revolvers and men in top hats. However, a single adventure and list of possible adventure threads and ideas would have proved far more useful to this.
As such, the setting, while very interesting, is simply underdeveloped with no listed NPCs and a few scant villains who are sparsely detailed. Hints of where in literature or history they were lifted from would have been of immense use for future reading and research. Additionally, of the 128 pages, only 18 are devoted to the land and world. While it is essentially a dark reflection of our world more thought should have been put into describing how it was a century earlier. There is no large timeline detailing events and history, which would have been useful and saved much wandering through libraries, especially for those people without ready access to large research resources. Likewise, much is made of the oft-mentioned Qabals in the book and they play an important role in its histories, but not a single one written about in detail. The only contemporary Qabal mentioned, save the old and presumably defunct ones in the history, is mentioned in one of the adventures. So, in short, the setting of MotRD is more a compendium of rules and very little world for the rules to be used in.
The rules themselves are worth noting as they vary distinctly from the standard 2E AD&D. The traditional classes have changed and are far weaker than their standard counterparts. There are only four classes now and each fills a broad role that is further defined by kits. It reminded me heavily of the Saga rules for the Dragonlance 5th Age game, which were apparently adapted for use in MotRD in a Dragon article. There is also a greater emphasis is placed on the proficiency system. However, given the wide range of knowledge and greater education available to individuals in the 1890s I was disappointed to find nothing reflecting this in the rules. The characters simply received the same number of proficiencies as in the standard rules regardless if they were an upper-class officer & gentleman or a commoner ruffian grunt. Both are soldiers (the equivalent of fighters) and may be as roughly intelligent, but one would have had an education. But that is merely my opinion. The other addition the book makes to the rules is the incorporation of firearms such as the revolver, shotgun and rifle. The rules for these are nicely done and give firearms some ease of use, versatility and make them highly deadly. Armour is useless against firearms at close range, as it should be. Something that has still not been reflected in the 3E gunplay rules. As mentioned earlier this is a Ravenloft Campaign Expansion, so not all of the rules required for running a MotRD game are included, such as fear and horror check and Power Checks. For these a Ravenloft setting box or book are required. But I cannot imagine one not being at hand for someone who purchased this.
There are three adventures included and while I have not had an opportunity to run them through some game-play I will still attempt to review them. They are for three different sets of levels sets. There is the low level Red Jack that fuses Ravenloft with that episode of Star Trek with the bodiless killing entity. You know the one where Scotty is accused of being a misogynist. The second, Red Tide involves Dracula in San Francisco and the final adventure is Red Death and brings the title-inspiring Poe tale to the Gothic Earth.
I enjoyed Red Jack despite being best summed up with a ST: TOS reference. It does what a good published module should do, give a greater description of the setting and add greater detail to some part of the world. In this case Boston which is treated to a rough map and listing of important sites. Very nice. The NPCs have secrets not tied directly to the plot allowing them to be used later and there are couple other story threads slipped in. Useful even if not played.
Red Tide is unfortunately far worse. I did not like this adventure at all. It seemed silly with odd plot elements. Not at all befitting the lord of vampires. The new NPC of Mortimer Toombs is given no detail at all and is just purposelessly evil. The stowaway Casper is a blatant rip-off of Renfield from the original Stoker novel. Inspiration is one thing and tribute is another, but this smacked of un-originality or an uninspired reference. The wererat encounter was a useless monster fight that could easily have been replaced by a gang of thugs and broken the ‘realism’ less. And most importantly why Dracula would think it a good idea to let his brood rest in a breached ship is beyond me. Immersion in running water kills vampires! One good wave knocking the ship over and they’re toast. And the final battle just seems silly. Why on God’s green (and gothic) Earth would Dracula reveal himself?! Disappointing.
Thankfully, Red Death is far better. It is not as good as Red Jack however, but still acts as a nice guide to detailing Victorian manner houses. While the large mansion is not described in full detail there is a complete map with glossary key so each room does have a purpose. And it acts as a quick house for any DM that needs quick access to the map of a home. This adventure is a quick retelling of the Poe tale and acknowledges its source material and even has a short summery of the poem. Its nice to see a module writer just plainly say what they are ripping off… er gaining inspiration from. Also nicely done is the amount of flexibility provided for monkeying despite the plot being a succession of rooms. There is no single solution, the PCs are allowed to run free. Although why any of them would bring a dozen or more sticks of dynamite to a fancy dress masque is beyond me.
In parting the Masque of the Red Death boxed set was an odd combination of intriguing and disappointing. I love the concept and idea. The overall villain is nice and the short history of world events is imaginative and engrossing. But the product felt lacking and undetailed. I would not have wanted to run a game in the world with just this set. True, it is more of a Campaign Expansion than a separate setting, but the world is just so barrenly detailed. The future products (Gothic Earth Gazetteer and Guide to Transylvania) seem all but required just to play. That or a very large set of encyclopedias and/or vast knowledge of the 1890s. It seems less daunting now with the ready access of the internet but at the time writing adventures could have proved migraine inducing. Writing a college paper but requiring all the detail and flexibility required to accommodate the rowdiness and unpredictability of a pack of gamers. For someone who is not obsessed with Ravenloft or playing with 2E rules I cannot recommend this product, the bulk of it is simply revised rules for an outdated system and what little fluff and detail seems underwhelming.
But the setting cries out for 3E! Begs for it like a grubby orphan child with impossibly large eyes. Many of the changes to the proficiencies are in the 3E skill system and the feats system would be incorporated smoothly. The NPC classes would facilitate the handicapping of the players. I look forward to seeing this product revamped.
Three severed digits out of five
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