Out of the Mists…

A long, long time ago I ran a campaign in the Dungeons and Dragons setting, Ravenloft. For those of you who have never heard of it, it’s a gothic horror themed campaign setting–werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and creepier things, all stuck together in one of the most depressing worlds in existence. It was in that campaign, run between 1992 and 1995-ish, that I really cut my teeth on how to make RPGs scary (for more info on how I did/do this, see here).

I never felt, however, that I really got the most out of the campaign setting. For one thing, the high-medieval fantasy tropes of D&D don’t fit very well into a gothic horror setting. I had druids and dwarves and paladins running around stabbing things with long swords or casting ‘Cure Light Wounds’ and it kinda tanked the mood. For another, I wasn’t quite as talented a GM then as I feel I am now (well, to be honest, I wasn’t very talented at a whole lot of things–I was 14). I read a lot of the fluff text and adventure ideas and I couldn’t quite see how to make them work, and a lot of this was because I still felt the urge to make pen-and-paper RPGs work more like video games, which is a bad idea (and part of the reason I dislike 4th Edition D&D).

Some of the things I did (and do) like, however, is the structure of the world, its rules of operation, and the dramatic potential contained therein. For one thing, I LOVE the idea of the Mists. The Mists, you see, are the faceless, inhuman power that shapes Ravenloft–you wander into them, lose your way, and find yourself in some new, terrible place. They suck people in from other planes of existence, trapping them within Ravenloft with no hope of escape. These travelers are forced to wander the dark roads of the Realm of Terror, saving others and themselves from evil or, even more likely, slowly succumbing to evil themselves. It’s a kind of Quantum Leap, but in reverse. Maybe, someday, they earn their ticket home. More likely they, like Sam Beckett, remain in Ravenloft forever.

My favorite character in this campaign was Jim Bob–played by my friend Ryan–who was a Confederate soldier from the American Civil War who got sucked into Ravenloft right off a misty battlefield in Virginia. He added just the right kind of flavor to the campaign, and the drama surrounding the use of his rifled musket was absolute gold (can he load the silver shot into the muzzle before the werewolf finds him? Can he? Oh god, it’s getting CLOSER!).

I’m considering, as of this moment, running a new Ravenloft campaign. As is my wont, however, I’m not going to take it as-is–it’s getting a face lift. For one thing, in tribute to Jim Bob, I’m going to let players bring in characters from any world, any time, any place. Furthermore, the reason the Mists have sucked in these characters is because they have darkness in their soul–the Mists want them. It becomes the players’ objective to see if either (a) they can tame or purge that darkness and, therefore, earn their escape from Ravenloft or (b) succumb to their darkness, embrace it, and become one of the Dark Lords of the Realm of Terror. This is a horror RPG, but with characters with agency (not Call of Cthulhu, with its pathetic weaklings doomed to death and destruction).

The problem, however, becomes selecting the system best suited to running such a game. I’d like something that focuses on internal character development (like Burning Wheel, Riddle of Steel, etc.), but also maintains relatively simple gameplay (in accordance with the rules of horror RPGs). I was thinking of, perhaps, adapting Hunter: The Reckoning, but I don’t remember the World of Darkness system well enough to say whether it’s a good fit or not. I don’t mind writing in additional mechanics, if need be, but I don’t have the time to write up a whole new rule system. Anybody have any suggestions for me?

Anybody want to play?

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on January 20, 2012, in Gaming and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. As always, I’m totally interested in playing. 🙂

    I played a Werewolf: the Apocalypse game not too long ago and it was pretty good. We did notice a problem of the part where 1’s take away 9’s in your dice pool can get out of control, though. Some adjustment to that rule would be needed to keep having more dice a positive, which the system is otherwise built to support.

    Cinematic Unisystem, the one used in Buffy, is also a very simple system dice-wise, and has a lot of qualities & drawbacks that can be as important or unimportant to the story as one likes. The system is built to support it, so long as the GM and players are doing so.

    • Would you mind if I borrowed the Unisystem Rules sometime, just to look them over? I remember the Buffy system was okay, though I wasn’t in love with it.

      I might buy myself one of the World of Darkness games, just to have it. I remember thinking Wraith, Hunter, and Changeling were all pretty cool.

  2. Yeah, no problem. 🙂 It’s also easily adaptable if you want to add/remove stuff, too.

    I also recently came into possession of a WoD rulebook, too, if you’d like to borrow that to refresh yourself on the rules.

  3. Another potential game system (which I myself have not really looked at in depth, but which seems to have a great pedigree based upon awards) is the Dresden Files RPG, based upon the FATE System. Dresden won Best New Game and Best New Game at the 2011 ENnies. Obviously, Dresden is based upon modern urban gothic fantasy rather than traditional medieval gothic fantasy… but their rulebooks are split up into Volume One with all the rules of the system, and Volume Two, the game world. So you could just skip Two if you were going to set it in Ravenloft. The game seems to be pretty heavy on the gothic stuff, so it might work out.

    You could also download the generic Fate 3.0 rules from faterpg.com, which strip out all the Dresden IP. The Basics, Character Creation, Aspects, Stunts and Advancement. This way you could get a sense of the game chasis and whether it would work for what you want (before looking for a copy of Dresden to flip through to see if it adds anything to what you want/need.

    Perich might have a better idea about the system, since he seems to keep up on the free game systems that are out there.

    • Cool idea, Fish–thanks! I’ll check it out.

      • LOL, another system I have the books for! And would be happy to loan you 🙂 (Beware possible spoilers for the books, however, up to…White Night, I think? The Rules Book is much lighter on these; the Game World book I would not recommend you look at unless you’ve read that far in the series.)

        While the FATE system itself seems to be fairly simple, the magic system in Dresden is…kind of mind-boggling. It’s complicated and multi-faceted and a lot of work went into it, all appropriate and even good things…except for that first one. I was in a short-lived Dresden game and we just couldn’t get a grasp on the magic.

        That part aside! Yes, it does seem simple and character-focused.

    • That should be ‘Best New Game’ and ‘Best Game’. They didn’t actually win the same award twice.

    • Checked out FATE–looks like it will fit. It actually looks like a really fun system. I will, of course, need to tweak a bit, but I like it!

      • If you decide to run with it… let me know if you think you might want to pick up official FUDGE dice for it, cause I’d be happy to go in with you if you get one of the 20-die multipacks. Having a set of FUDGE dice is probably not a bad idea.

  4. L5R First Ed – for EVERYTHING.

    • That’s Wick, right? The Roll-and-Keep system? I’ve run two campaigns (one in my own setting) using that basic set-up (though with the 7th Sea derivative), but I’ve tired of it. Besides, it’s overly dramatic for Ravenloft. This isn’t a swinging-from-the-chandeliers, use-your-ninja-powers type game.

  5. Sorry the post-necromancy, but I’m currently looking at starting a Ravenloft/Dresden Files RPG game (coincidentally where the PCs can come from any game/fiction world ever), and I was wondering how it worked out if anyone’s actually done it. Any tips or advice would be appreciated.

    • I’m in the middle of running the indicated campaign right now. So far it’s running really well; the FATE system is a nice one for mood building and character-centered conflicts. It’s not a combat game (really), but more of a mystery/horror game, and for that FATE works well.

      We’ve got a 1980s private eye, a 1940s British Lady Doctor, a 14th Century Italian Poet, an Alandarian Mercenary (my own fantasy setting), and a fantasy wizard from another setting of mine. We’ve only run two sessions, but it’s been great fun. My only concrete advice is to pay very close attention to what aspects are in play–they’re super important and can either make or break a scene.

      • Awesome. Thanks for replying. I’ve played Dresden RPG in a previous game, and it worked out so well, encouraging far more RP than combat, which is why I was considering it for Ravenloft. Figured it would translate well to a setting that relies more on setup and atmosphere than fighting with baddies and getting cool stuff.

        I’m looking at having an Oliver-twist-style scamp, a Victorian-era detective, a Were-raven from Victorian-era England, a Dresden Warden, and Mistborn-style Allomancer. It’ll be interesting for sure.

        Thanks for the tips on the Aspects – the game is going to be a play-by-post game on my private message board, so I should have plenty of time and opportunity to make the Aspects really matter.

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