Ravenloft: The Awakening (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast (Originally TSR)
Cost: $4.99 (Originally $9.95 for print version)
Page Count: 69
Release Date: 10/27/2014 (Originally 1994)
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com
What better way to say Happy Halloween here at Diehard GameFAN than do review an adventure for what is arguably the best horror-fantasy setting of all time – Ravenloft? Earlier this week Wizards of the Coast released a digital copy of The Awakening on DriveThruRPG and DNDClassics.com. I remember playing/running this adventure back in high school and having a ball with it, so I’m glad to see it being available to the general public once again. Sure the average gamer is preoccupied with FIFTH Edition D&D and 2e AD&D is more of a fond memory (unless you exclusively retrogame), but Second Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons has always been my favorite edition, so I’m glad to see WotC is still supporting it through digital re-releases.
For me The Awakening really represents how creative and user-friendly adventures were back in the mid 90s. Nowadays a lot of fantasy adventures are little more than dungeon crawls save for those put out by Troll Lord Games and LotFP, so I do feel that even if you don’t play RavenloftThe Awakening is well worth picking up just to see how an adventure is done right.
First, let’s talk the size of this adventure. You get 69 pages for only $5. A lot of published adventures from the modern era of game run under thirty pages and cost more than that, so this is a great deal. Besides the adventure itself, you get an Introduction and quick overview of Nova Vassa – the country The Awakening takes place in. The Nova Vassa section is pretty detailed and allows someone to run the adventure without owning the Ravenloft boxed set or Domains of Dread core rulebook that eventually replaced it. You also get a ton of maps, three new monsters, a set of stats for the Darklord of Nova Vassa (even though you probably don’t need them) and a huge section on the core antagonist that details her background, personality, fighting style and more. There’s more back story given to this one shot villain than most adventures these days give to their entire cadre of cannon fodder. Finally, the adventure is long enough that it could easily be turned into a mini-campaign. The core antagonist is a recurring one (in a very unique way to boot) and so it would take little work for a DM to pad this out to run through multiple sessions. The Awakening is an extremely well-written, detailed and flexible piece and re-reading this after so many years really made me miss when the average adventure were given this high of a page count and writers could really go all out.
Of course, it’s not perfect. The Awakening constantly makes references to other releases that the author feels you should read (or preferably own) to truly let the adventure reach its maximum potential. Granted they help, but you certainly don’t need any of the mentioned books to actually play The Awakening. So while everything from Van Richten’s Guide to the Ancient Dead, the Tome of Magic and Legends and Lore are mentioned and encouraged to be used in conjunction with The Awakening, it’s not like, say, some Pathfinder adventures, where close to a dozen books are not only referenced but you actually DO need them to get some bit of mechanic or stat block to play the adventure. Bleck.
One of the things that really makes The Awakening fun is how it turns several fantasy tropes on its head. Here the core bad guy is a corrupted undead priest of Bast – an Egyptian goddess that is usually good aligned and known to help humanity out. Heck, even in Call of Cthulhu, Bast is a friendly otherworldly being. Most players familiar with Bast won’t see this twist coming. Even better, guess who is the god that willingly helps the PCs out? SET! That’s right the Egyptian god of darkness and the antediluvian of my favorite Vampire: the Masquerade clan. Because Set is usually portrayed in fantasy games as a god of evil (rather than darkness), he’s perhaps the last one you would expect to help out good-aligned PCs, especially in Ravenloft of all place. So this is another curveball thrown to the PCs. Another nifty aspect of the adventure is that only a small part of it is a dungeon crawl. Back in the days of Basic D&D and even 1e AD&D, a lot of adventures were pretty much dungeon crawl with the monsters or setting acting as mere window dressing. With 2e, people really started getting creative. Sure there would be a dungeon but it would be the climax of the adventure or merely a small part of an overall story. This was especially true with Ravenloft or Planescape where there wasn’t any real way to put a megadungeon in that would make sense. Here about half of the adventure is wandering around Nova Vassa setting up the reason and purpose for entering a large Egyptian style tomb. The good news is for those that like dungeon crawls, the dungeon in The Awakening is a very big diverse one, with rooms of different shapes and sizes…but also traps, pits, threats and monsters to boot. Sure there is a common theme of cats and Egyptian motif, but trust me, the entire adventure is a pretty unique experience that will stick with you long after you have completed it.
The best part of the adventure comes with the recurring main villain. When you first encounter her, she goes down pretty easily. Then she comes back. Each time the PCs strike her down, she arises with even more power, guile and intelligence. Only through putting the pieces of a great puzzle together will you discover the source of the villain’s ability to return from the dead so easily. Of course, since this is Ravenloft, even when you win the battle, darkness still wins. After all, the PCs HAVE to ally with Set to take down the big bad of this piece and that can’t possibly be a good thing, ESPECIALLY in a place that requires Powers Checks, right? Once the adventure is done, you are given ways to extend the adventure via the remaining plot threads, which makes this adventure an even more fantastic deal than it was already. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Whether you want to use The Awakening as a one-time stop in the Domain of Dread, or you want to use it to start a full blown Ravenloft campaign, the adventure is a wonderful piece that highlights how creative adventure writers were really getting in the mid-90s. It’s a fine showcase of how to blend horror and high fantasy into a memorable adventure and the price tag for such a high page count (especially for something long out of print) makes this an adventure I can recommend both easily and quite highly.