Review for I6: Ravenloft
by PM Schramm
It’s that time of year again. A time where the roleplaying community at large is asking the singular question, “What horror oneshot game can I play with my table on Halloween night?” There are many good answers, but what about the original Halloween horror oneshot? I’m talking, of course, about I6: Ravenloft. Tracy and Laura Hickman’s yearly tradition; the first appearance of Count Strahd von Zarovich, the First Vampyr. The famous module that spawned an entire campaign setting seems to be the obvious answer to the posed question, but it’s often not mentioned or entirely forgotten. Why? Is it simply too old? Are there better alternatives these days? It was ranked as the 2nd greatest module of all time by Dragon Magazine in 2004, but the module was written decades ago. Perhaps it’s the price? For less than $5 for a PDF, one could assume that there’s not a lot here that’s worthwhile.
If any of the above assumptions were holding you back, dear reader, I’m pleased to say that you’re incorrect.
Look, Feel, and Space Utilization
Like most of the classic TSR modules, Ravenloft utilizes an outer cover with an interior printed booklet; however, this adventure actually has two outer covers. Both done in full color, the front of the first has an art piece depicting Count Strahd glaring down at his lands from a high perch within his castle and provides some information about the module: who wrote it, how many players it was designed for, and what their character’s levels should be. The rear is rather plain, but it does set the mood with some flavor text:
Under raging stormclouds, a lone figure stands silhouetted against the ancient walls of castle Ravenloft. Count Strahd von Zarovich stares down a sheer cliff at the village below. A cold, bitter wind spins dead leaves about him, billowing his cape in the darkness.
Lightning splits the clouds overhead, casting stark, white light across him. Strahd turns to the sky, revealing the angular muscles of his face and hands. He has a look of power - and of madness. His once-handsome face is contorted by a tragedy darker than the night itself.
Rumbling thunder pounds the castle spires. The wind’s howling increases as Strahd turns his gaze back to the village. Far below, yet not beyond his keen eyesight, a party of adventurers has just entered his domain. Strahd’s face forms a twisted smile as his dark plan unfolds. He knew they were coming, and he knows why they came, all according to his plan. He, the master of Ravenloft, will attend to them.
Another lightning flash rips through the darkness, its thunder echoing through the castle’s towers. But Strahd is gone. Only the howling of the wind - or perhaps a lone wolf - fills the midnight air. The master of Ravenloft is having guests for dinner. And you’re invited.
The front and rear of the second cover is a map of Barovia, the lands within which Strahd’s castle Ravenloft resides. Flipping to the interior of both covers shows an extremely intricate and detailed layout of the interior of said castle. There are 11 individual maps here, each indicative of a separate level of a monstrous dungeon. There are also two art pieces which add a bit more flavor, one of the interior of the fortified grounds, and one showing the truly massive scale of Ravenloft at 360 feet in height. If there’s a major complaint I have with Ravenloft these maps are it. The castle is complex; the maps are equally so. The authors’ intent was to make them simpler to read by stacking them on top of each other from the highest heights to the lowest crypts of the basement. Even with this aiding the referee, it’s still difficult to navigate your way through these maps, and there are even a few missing keys here and there, such as room K61, which should be on Map 11 but isn’t labeled. If the referee is watching their party walk through the castle, navigation should be a bit easier than reading the key and finding the rooms on the maps, but a modern eye taken to the castle interior to make it a little easier to work with would benefit this module.
The interior booklet is black and white on light paper. The front has a section that gives a little flavor to Barovia and its lands, along with a table of contents, credits, and printing information. The rear begins mid-sentence and has some statblocks. As the booklet is staple-bound, it does have a middle, which falls open to nothing of particular import. Every page is packed with material. Although it’s only 32 pages long, Ravenloft is extremely dense.
Looking inside the booklet, the referee immediately sees what’s important in running this module: Count Strahd von Zarovich. He is front and center as soon as one begins reading, and the introductory section sets the tone for this adventure. You see, Ravenloft is a bit gamier than other modules you may have played as it has a clearly defined victory scenario: “When the vampire, Strahd von Zarovich, is destroyed, the adventure is over. You must use every power available to the vampire to keep him (and the game) going.” This may be counter to most other adventures you’ve run in the past as it really is a referee versus the players situation and, frankly, it’s a breath of fresh air - for a oneshot. Normally you wouldn’t run a campaign like this as the players, referee included, all should be working together to build a shared world. For a game played in one night however, this is perfect. It’s the players’ job to kill Strahd; the referee has to do everything in their power,
while following the rules laid out in the module, to prevent this from happening. The referee is technically omnipotent, but it wouldn’t be any fun to cheat. The fun of Ravenloft is to try to kill the players while confining yourself within Strahd’s personality and mindset while simultaneously adhering to his goals and, since his objectives are not preset but rather assigned randomly, this makes the module a perfect one to rerun time and again. On Halloween night, for example.
The key to making Ravenloft a success is playing Strahd correctly. There’s an entire page devoted to him and, as the module suggests, “You must play Strahd in the same way the players play their characters.” He is of genius-level intellect, play him as a genius. Attack the players how and where it’s most advantageous. He knows when to withdraw and has the tools to escape nearly all dire situations. He also knows his castle, which is basically Strahd’s funhouse of doom, and he’s going to use it to maximum effectiveness. Normally, this would allow an easy killing of any party; however, that’s not necessarily Strahd’s goal. He lured the players to his domain for a specific purpose, detailed on the next set of pages. Here, in the Fortunes of Ravenloft section, some AC and To-Hit modifiers are randomly determined, along with the locations of several key items of import: the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind - an item that makes short work of any vampires, the hilt of the Sunsword - a magical sword that specializes in killing vampires, and the Tome of Strahd - a book written by Strahd himself that contains lore that can be used against him. In addition to these items, the location where Strahd can always be found is generated, along with, most importantly to the referee running the vampire, his goals. See, simply killing the players would be too easy for Strahd; to make the game fun for everyone adhering to the vampire’s goals is essential, and the best part of playing him. One of his objectives is impersonating a character by polymorphing one that’s isolated into his own likeness, polymorphing himself into their likeness, then convincing the party he’s found a way to escape the gates of Barovia. Other goals include interrogating the party one-by-one in the hopes one of them is carrying an item he needs to complete a ritual, winning the heart of his love Ireena Kolyana by charming the party into attacking her, or having the party find the Sunsword for him. If these motivations don’t seem interesting to you or you’ve played them before, swap them out, make them your own. Even as written, there’s plenty here to get inspired by.
Next, Ravenloft goes into the lands of Barovia with lots of flavor text, background information, and encounter tables, then proceeds into some planned encounters. It starts with a tavern scene used to set the mood and get the players moving, then dives into the various labeled sections on the Lands of Barovia map. Lots of lore is hidden throughout this area, much of which can guide the players to things that may aid them in their inevitable encounter with Strahd; however, if they dally for too long the vampire doesn’t sit idle - he and his minions harass the party to get them progressing along towards his castle. The rest of the module is the eponymous castle along with some appendices.
With the tools provided, running this module is a rather simple endeavor, but playing it as a oneshot will require some forethought, preparation, and buy-in from your players. Start by being goal-oriented. Tell the players the victory scenario - they win when they kill Strahd. Tell them that your job is to not let this happen and that you’ll not be pulling punches; you’ll be running Strahd to the best of your ability while still staying within the rules of the module. Remind them of the time requirement - this is to be played in one session. To set the mood, perhaps set a timer for midnight on Halloween morning; they lose if they don’t succeed before the bell tolls. Mention that the castle is a vast dungeon, it’ll be nearly impossible to clear everything, so they need to stick to trying to achieve their goals. Inform them they can run away from encounters if they need to, and that they should leverage their meta-knowledge of vampires: bringing clerics is a good idea, wooden stakes through the heart kills them, mirrors don’t show their reflection, etc. Mention that some of this knowledge may be true, but some may be old wives’ tales. Have the players think of this as a rogue-like, they can learn lore and map parts of the dungeon and, even if they don’t win, still enjoy the journey. There’s plenty of fun encounters to engage with, traps to foil, puzzles to solve, and endings to discover even if they don’t put an end to Strahd (of course, don’t reveal that the “good” ending requires Ireena to be in the party!). Finally, offer them an olive branch: any knowledge they gain and any materials they create they’re free to reuse when you run the module for them again - next Halloween!
It’s easy to see why Ravenloft is so highly regarded. It’s well produced, incredibly dense, and has an amazing dungeon for the players to explore. There are hidden things to find and a wealth of lore for the players to uncover. While not traditional in execution, there’s a lot of fun for a group of people to find within these 32 pages, and it’s a shame that more modules don’t emulate its oneshot format of players versus referee. My assumption is that this is a rare type of scenario because it’s difficult to pull off effectively. Ravenloft succeeds by turning it into a game, orchestrated by Strahd, and with the referee at the helm. With a few modern mapping and layout tweaks, this would be the perfect adventure.
Link to Module