Ravenloft remains one of the greatest of Dungeons and Dragons settings. The original module written by Laura and Tracy Hickman was the first real stepping out of the game’s comfort zone and has made Barovia remained a popular campaign setting ever with Curse of Strahd being arguably the most popular 5th Edition product since unless we’re counting Critical Role’s Tal’Dorei as a whole.
Ravenloft wasn’t just limited to the domain of Strahd Von Zarovich, though. During Loraine Williams tenure as the head of TSR, she released many awesome settings with an entire campaign world created around evil villains called the Darklords. The Demiplane of Dread was a weird pocket dimension where individuals gained incredible supernatural powers at the cost of dreadful curses. It wasn’t the only setting to dabble in horror but it was the only one where the authors enjoyed going wild with the idea that good not only wouldn’t triumph against evil buit couldn’t.
The Ravenloft novels were never as popular as the Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms ones but had a distinct style and interesting opportunity for authors to experiment with fiction. As mentioned, they often starred truly heinous villains and our heroes were as often as not going to lose as triumph. Some future incredibly popular authors would write for Ravenloft with Laurell K. Hamilton’s Death of a Dark Lord or Tanya Huff’s Scholar of Decay. Ravenloft also seemed to have a lot less censorship than other TSR books as Tapestry of Dark Souls had a LGBT relationship front and center while To Sleep With Evil was a dark erotic romance.
Not all of these books made it to the list. I mean like, a lot. Shadowborn by Carrie Bebris or King of the Dead by Gene DeWeese aren’t even available on Amazon let alone any other stores so recommending either is pointless. I also feel like I may have overloaded on Christie Golden books but she definitely “gets” the setting. Anyway, if you want to experience Ravenloft as it was meant to be, these books are filled with fanatic examples of how to do it. Plus, while women fantasy writers have always played a big role in D&D fiction, they’re especially important in shaping the Demiplane of Dread.
Blurb: Terrified by his transformation into a vicious man-beast, a nobleman wages war against his greatest enemy: the darkness that lurks within himself
Sir Tristan Hiregaard is a nobleman in the dark land of Nova Vaasa. To all outward appearances, he is a kind lord who would never harm anyone. Yet, Sir Tristan has a sinister secret, one that even he does not understand . . .
At times, the nobleman transforms into a brutish creature named Malken, a man-beast who finds no act too base, just as long as it extends the killing grip of his vast criminal empire. No one is safe from Malken, and it seems that no one can break his stranglehold on Nova Vaasa—until Tristan himself takes on a quest to destroy his evil side.
Review: As mentioned, this list could probably be all of Christie Golden’s works and it wouldn’t be that bad. The Enemy Within is the story of Tristaan Hiregaard, the Dark Lord of Nova Vaasa. Tristaan is the Jekyll/Hyde analog of Ravenloft but a bit different because he’s under a magical curse rather than a mad scientist. The back and forth between Tristan and his crime boss alter ego, Malken adds an interesting, “What if Holmes and Moriarty were the same person?” bit of mystery to as our protagonist tries to figure out what the hell is going on.
Blurb: In a land where magic is feared, a young mage must betray her own nature by joining the fight against dark sorcery
There is a plague in the village of Cortton, a plague of the dead. Corpses walk the streets in search of the living. The villagers send for the mage-finder Jonathan Ambrose, for they believe evil magic is at work. They are right.
Jonathan soon discovers who is behind the destruction of the town: Harkon Lukas, a wolfwere who plans to escape the bounds of his realm. All he needs to enact his scheme is the aid of Jonathan’s adopted daughter—a young woman with a talent for magic in a land and family unforgiving of such abilities.
Jonathan believes he is in Cortton to save the villagers—to lay the dead to rest. But if the vile shapechanger Harkon escapes his curse and can travel the Dark Domains as he pleases, the slaughter has only just begun.
Review: Laurell K. Hamilton has a special place in my heart due to the fact that the Anita Blake books (and their forums) are how I met my wife. She’s also a major Dungeons and Dragons girl back before it was popular. Her book thus embraces the oddity of Ravenloft as a group of Krynn adventurers find themselves in the Demiplane of Dread and are tortured by its warping of clerical as well as arcane magic. It also doesn’t surprise me to see her use Harkon Lucas as he’s as close to a romantic antihero as you’ll find among Ravenlofts’ Dark Lords. The title is misleading, though, and I kind of wish we’d gotten the story of Duke Gundar.
Blurb: In the demiplane of mists, even the dead have their revenge . . .
Desperate to escape the terrors of Ravenloft, Marguerite came to Lord Donskoy’s castle full of hope for the future. Instead, she found herself betrothed to a mysterious purveyor of flesh whose secret past, like the dead, refused to stay buried.
Long ago, Donskoy had committed a heinous crime against the Vistani, Ravenloft’s enigmatic gypsies. He believed he had escaped their wrath, but the unloving can afford to be patient.
Now Donskoy’s marriage has invoked a dark curse, and Marguerite into a web of fear and passion spun by a gypsy with the power to reach out from beyond the grave.
Review: The only D&D novel that can probably be termed an “Erotic Thriller.” I’m not sure if that’s a selling point or not but it’s a Gothic romance plot that actually makes good use of the setting’s strangeness. A young woman is sold by her family to become a rich landlord’s wife. Said landlord is a Dark Lord of an Island of Terror made for the book and a suitably sinister villain. This is a lot spicier than typical Dungeons and Dragons fair and works well for a mature-rated book. Very little is explained but it doesn’t have to be. Our heroine isn’t a badass warrior or witch but just a normal person caught up in a horrifying place where her new husband is a cursed monster.
Blurb: In this thrilling tale of fear, a desperate scholar is driven by love into the darkest corners of the world.
When Aurek Nuiken travels to Richemulot to search for a spellbook that lies buried within the dark bowels of the undercity, little does he know the horrors that await. As two beautiful women vie for the interest of the enigmatic scholar and his handsome younger brother, a family of wererats and a double dose of sibling rivalry conspire to endanger not only Aurek but the object he holds most dear: his wife, who has been attacked and made prisoner by an evil mage.
Faced with his own personal torment and the all-too-real monsters of Ravenloft, the scholar is pushed to the edge of madness and a choice no man should ever have to make.
Review: Did you know wererats were sexy? The Richemulot domain is a big empty French city full of rats and dominated by a bunch of sexy French women who turn into said rodents. It’s an interesting choice for a book and I have the humorous theory that it was chosen over Borca (The Italian domain dominated by sexy Italian women) because Ivana Bortisi’s curse makes love scenes more difficult. Hint: Don’t kiss her on the lips. Sorry, old joke at my table from when I was 14. Anyway, a mage and his brother come to the city in search of a cure for the wizard’s cursed wife. Much wererat loving ensues alongside some old fashioned dungeon crawling. The ending is a delightfully gruesome one.
Blurb: A young man must destroy the Gathering Cloth—a web in which the darkest evils of Ravenloft are trapped—before he is doomed to eternal darkness
A creation of magic as old as Ravenloft itself, the tapestry possesses the power to attract and absorb the evil creatures that roam the Dark Domains. Only a reclusive order of monks, the Guardians, know of the tapestry’s might. It is their duty to use it wisely and to prevent the beings bound within the cloth from escaping.
Yet the number of Guardians is dwindling, their hold over the tapestry slipping with each passing year. Their only hope for containing the evil is Jonathan, a youth with strange magical powers. When the boy discovers his ties to the creatures of the cloth, however, he may become the guardians’ doom instead of their champion.
Review: The Domain of Tepest is the worst of realms for those of anarchist sentiment like myself because the main problem isn’t the Dark Lord but the people. Ignorant, superstitious, and eager to turn upon each other even before involving the supernatural. Here, the story is about a young man raised by monks who is trying to figure out a means to destroy a sin-eating tapestry that contains some of the worst the Demiplane has to offer. Along the way he falls in love, so does his mother (with a woman), and everything goes horribly-horribly wrong. I was back and forth on this book because it’s undoubtedly one of the better written horror novels in the series but, uh, a bit sexually assault-y. Nothing graphic but it plays a role in the story.
Blurb: On the fabled world of Krynn, Lord Soth finally learns that there is a price to pay for his long history of evil deeds, a price even an undead warrior might find horrifying.
Dark powers transport Soth to Barovia, and there the death knight must face the dread minions of Count Strahn Von Zarovich, the vampire lord of the nightmare land. But with only a captive Vistani woman and an untrustworthy ghost for allies, Lord Soth soon discovers that he may have to join forces with the powerful vampire if he is ever to escape the realm of terror.
Knight of the Black Rose is the second in an open-ended series of Gothic horror tales dealing with the masters and monsters of the Ravenloft dark fantasy setting.
Review: Lord Soth’s inclusion in Ravenloft was famously something Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman hated, which makes sense because it was taking a character that was an important part of their world’s history and putting him in a gameshow world where he was constantly poked by the Dark Powers. This book is a lot more action heavy than most Ravenloft novels but there’s something hilarious about Lord Soth acting like Darth Vader versus a bunch of hapless Rebels while speedrunning through Castle Ravenloft.
Blurb: Trapped on island and surrounded by undead creatures, a dancer must call upon unlikely allies in order to save her soul
Larissa Snowmane is a dancer aboard a magical riverboat. For years, the craft has traveled in Ravenloft, unopposed by the sinister beings that rule over the Dark Domains.
When the boat arrives at the zombie-plagued island of Souragne, however, the crew finds itself dancing to chilling music indeed. After discovering the captain’s sinister secret, Larissa must rely upon the creatures of the swamp—and her mastery of the magical Dance of the Dead—to save her own soul.
Review: I said Christie Golden was going to be on this list multiple times and I meant it. Dance of the Dead is easily my favorite “read for enjoyment” of the novels even if it’s one of the lesser known Demiplane domains in Souragne. Souragne is basically Louisiana with the strange fact that they never mention it having slavery at any point despite a bunch of crumbling plantations. Nevertheless, it’s the story of a beautiful white-haired dancer, a magical paddleboat, and bardic magic that can shake the Demiplane. It also made Anton Misroi go from being one of the lamest Dark Lords to being one of the best.
Blurb: Two young necromancers agree to assist Victor Mordenheim in his efforts to revive his dead wife, but the doctor’s previous creation is determined to stop their work
Review: Victor Mordenheim is sort of the odd man out in Ravenloft in that he’s one of the better written characters but is just Frankenstein and doesn’t really put his spin on the concept the way the other Dark Lords are. Which is probably why he was reimagined in 5E in a way that many fans weren’t happy with (and probably should have been his daughter). Nevertheless, this is one of the best book because of how cold, misanthropic, and yet strangely charming Victor is.
We also have a pair of petty necromancers that are actually worth rooting for. Sadly, this appears to be only available in paperback and expensively too. I almost left it off the list but it was my first Ravenloft novel and couldn’t bear to do so.
Blurb: Alone and torn by grief, a vampire accepts the hospitality of the local lord—only to question if he has placed his trust in the wrong person
Jander Sunstar is a gold elf, a native of magical Evermeet in the Forgotten Realms. He is also a five-hundred-year-old vampire.
Torn by rage and grief, Jander is transported into the nightmare realm of Ravenloft, where he gains the attention of the demiplane’s master, Count Strahd Von Zarovich. But can Jander trust this elegant fellow vampire once he discovers that his own quest for revenge is linked to the dark heritage of the count’s domain?
Vampire of the Mists is the first in an open-ended series of Gothic horror tales dealing with the masters and monsters of the Ravenloft dark fantasy setting.
Review: The original Ravenloft novel and still one of the best ones, Vampire of the Mists is not about Strahd but an elven vampire called Jander Sunstar. Once a mighty adventurer, he’s now basically Angel from Buffy and that’s never not going to be entertaining. Jander and Strahd have a fascinating friendship as the two people would genuinely hate each other under any other circumstances but are companions just because they’d otherwise be completely alone. Which is really the best way to write Louis and Lestat style relationships.
Blurb: Part of an open-ended series of gothic horror stories, this is another thrilling dark fantasy set in the Ravenloft universe of Dungeons & Dragons—where vampires and dark magic reign
War-hardened vampire Strahd von Zarovich will do anything to win the hand of the woman he loves—even if it comes at the cost of his brother’s life
Ever since a vampire slew his son, Dr. Rudolph Van Richten has waged a personal war against these monstrosities of night. Now he has discovered the Font of Knowledge—and the most powerful vampire of them all: Strahd.
The very heart of evil in Barovia, Strahd Von Zarovich has ruled his land with an iron fist for nearly four centuries. At first, he was a strict but fair human lord, demanding honesty and repaying treachery with death. He rose to power through war, his life comprised of armies and assassins, taxes and laws. But beneath the grim gray weight of these thousand duties, Strahd was growing old.
Then came Tatyana.
The nearly dead soul of Strahd was revived; his dusty heart began to beat again. Tatyana awoke something in him—the hope of the youth and happiness he had so willingly squandered. And she awoke in him desire; raised his spirit to empyrean heights so that when he fell, he fell like a meteor.
The Devil Strahd, his people call him now, an unnatural necromancer by all accounts. But few of the living know he is a vampire lord. Van Richten is one of those few.
Review: I, Strahd is the iconic Ravenloft novel for a reason. The story of Strahd von Zarovich has been told many times but all of them are still fascinating: the warlord who coveted his brother’s wife and youth that he’d spent in wartime. Instead, he gains the woman’s everlasting hatred and a curse he refuses to admit is one as he preys upon the surrounding countryside. Strahd deserves to be put down for good in whatever Raveloft campaign you do but proves as immortal in-game as well as out of it.