Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/01/28/tabletop-review-ravenloft-children-of-the-night-vampires-advanced-dungeons-dragons-second-edition/
So this is a bit of an odd duck, considering Children of the Night: Vampires is roughly seventeen years old. Since January 22nd, though, Wizards of the Coast and DriveThruRPG have teamed up to bring us DNDClassics.com, a website where you can purchase long since out of print Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks, supplements, adventures and more – albeit in PDF format. Currently, there are eighty-eight products available for download, with more coming every month. I decided to start with Children of the Night: Vampires for four reasons. The first is that I have a soft spot for 2nd Edition AD&D. The second is that Ravenloft is my favorite campaign setting for D&D. The third is the inherent comedy whenever I write about vampires. The fourth is that, as far as Ravenloft products go, Children of the Night: Vampires is the most infamous and often subjected to a lot of scorn. Why is that, you might ask? Two words: Jander Sunstar.
Jander Sunstar is an elven vampire, and the protagonist of the very first Ravenloft novel, Vampire of the Mists, by Christie Golden. Jander is one of the most popular characters from the second edition D&D novels, forcing TSR and Ms. Golden to bring him back in three different prequels. Notice the word prequels. This is important, because Jander dies at the end of the novel. Don’t talk to me about spoilers – the book is over twenty years old. That’s like saying “Raistlin dons the black robes” is a spoiler. Anyway, this adventure collection brought Jander Sunstar back to life, via the dues ex machina of the Ravenloft Mists. That alone brought outrage from Ravenloft fans across the board. The icing on the cake, however, was that everything about the stat block was messed up. Not only did it not match the official stats released in the 1992 trading card set (which were, in and of themselves, subject for contentious debate), but what was presented as Jander Sunstar in no way shape or form matched the character from the novel. From a warrior who could stand toe to toe with the biggest Lord of Ravenloft and who even took on Tiamat herself… to a pale mockery that only had a single attack per round, a THAC0 of 1 and 68 Hit Points. That’s pretty bad for what was supposed to be what we would now call an Epic Level Fighter AND the oldest and arguably most powerful vampire in the Dark Domain.
Anyway, the whole Jander Sunstar section alone was ridiculed by fans and critics alike, and thus the entire book received a lot of scorn, even if much of the conversation revolved around whether the authors of Children of the Night had ever read Vampire of the Mists. I myself passed on the book back in 1996, as the bad publicity and the fact I was doing some writing for Vampire: The Masquerade and Call of Cthulhu at the time kept me too busy for D&D. Now, however, with the re-release of the book and the launch of DNDClassics.com, it was the perfect opportunity for me to pick up Children of the Night: Vampires and see if it really deserved the initial ire it brought about, or if it truly does deserve to be amongst the first Ravenloft titles for electronic distribution.
Children of the Night: Vampires contains thirteen different vampires, showcasing the wide variety of fanged undead Second Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had to offer. Along with each vampire was an accompanying adventure which highlighted the creature. The book does suggest not to play all of these adventures in a row, as any D&D party would get sick of vampire oriented adventures after a while. The adventures are also not presented in any sort of order. Indeed, some adventures that appear earlier in the book are meant to be sequels to adventures that appear later, which makes of an odd read. As well, adventures aren’t presented in any sort of level based order, meaning a high level adventure may occur in the book before a low or medium level adventure. This isn’t a big deal, but it’s worth keeping in mind as you read through the book. Finally, the book makes constant reference to other sourcebooks or supplements that are currently unavailable on DNDClassics.com. While none are necessary to run any of these adventures, owning or having read them (or even a 3rd/3.5 Edition version from Sword and Sorcery) will make understanding the ins and outs of both the adventure and the setting a LOT easier. Now, with all of that precursory information out of the way, let’s actually look at the contents of this adventure collection, shall we?
The book opens with Jander Sunstar and, admittedly, this section is truly as abominable as detractors have said for all these years. It really does seem like the authors were given a synopsis of the book and told to run with that. It’s bad. Let’s just leave it at that. The adventure “The Charnel House”, however, is a pretty fun one, putting the players in the middle of a subtle but deadly war between the elven vampire and a pack of vampyres (living humanoids that drink blood). It’s a fun adventure, and through it all, players who haven’t read Vampire of the Mists won’t know who to side with, although those that have will have to keep player knowledge separate from character knowledge. Sure, it’s silly that they brought the character back to undeath, but Jander was crazy popular in the 2e era, so it makes sense that TSR would try to make as much money off him as they could. So the bad news is the Jander Sunstar section does deserve its infamy, but the good news is this is as bad as the book gets, so everything gets positive from here on in.
The next vampire is Audun Beck, who is a Sea Vampire. I don’t even remember Sea Vampires as a possible variant, so I’m assuming it’s just made up for this book. Basicallym Beck lives underwater on a submerged vessel named the Illsongm along with his crew of sea zombies and jolly rogers during the day; by night, they rise as one to plunder and feed. The adventure, “The Rewards of Courage,” pits characters between Levels 5-9 against Beck and his crew after they sack a seaside town. Then it’s an attempt to hunt down the ghost ship and put it to rest. It’s an okay adventure. Sea-based Ravenloft adventures have never been very good, and Beck is a bit silly (giant vampire octopus form?), but a good DM can make this work.
Vampire number three is Lyssa Von Zarovich, who debuted in this book but gained a modicum of popularity in the tail end of 2e and through Sword and Sorcery’s version of the campaign setting that they put out for 3/3.5 Edition. Lyssa is the grand-niece of Strahd, and although she considers herself a bitter enemy of the count, he finds her more of a foppish amusement. Lyssa’s adventure, “The Turning Day,” sees Lyssa’s celebration of her undeath-day anniversary being interrupted by not just the players, but the devil Strahd himself, along with a curse that will become synonymous with all incarnations of Lyssa from here on in. A great introduction to the character and a memorable adventure.
We’re four vampires in now with the introduction of Moosha. This is a desert vampire (another new variant) who feeds not on blood, but the hydration of his victims. Moosha is a horrible scarred monster, accompanied by a legion of Jackals. He’s a very unique undead, and with his background and domain, you could design an entire mini-campaign around him. Indeed, the writers seem especially fond of this idea, giving you a host of ideas to make this possible. The adventure, “The Wild Child,” is basically an introduction to the domain of Sebua, Moosha, and his primary victims. PCs can end up with a retainer here if the play their cards right, and can experience a pretty dramatic adventure. The adventure really does feel like a set-up for a longer term experience, which is just fine, and depending on how the PCs react, the DM might just have a powerful recurring antagonist to throw at them.
Our fifth vampire, Myxitizajal, is perhaps the lowlight of the book, issues with Jander notwithstanding. It’s definitely the stupidest concept in the book, along with the worst name. Basically Myxitizajal (oh my poor spell check) is a vampire Ixitxachitl, which is a race of intelligent, sentient manta rays. Yep. I’m all for fantasy races, but this is just lame. The adventure “The Ritual Repeats,” however, is pretty cool. It’s akin to what would happen if the Dark Powers that govern Ravenloft watched the movie Groundhog Day and decided to do their own spin on it. Can the PCs stop the daily slaughter of islanders at the hands of Myxitizajal, or will they become doomed to take part in the recurring events themselves?
Our sixth vampire, Lady Adeline, is an odd one. I say odd because she’s meant to be a Silvanesti from Krynn, but the writers of her bio don’t seem to have the faintest idea of how the race OR the Dragonlance campaign setting is meant to be. It’s just terribly done. Maybe the writers just can’t do elvish undead? That said, the rest of the character is pretty awesome. You have a vampire that is somewhat gorgon-esque (or in D&D terms, Medusa-esque) which makes for an interesting opponent, along with a shocking reveal once you see what she looks like under her veil. It also helps that Lady Adeline is an ally of Von Kharkov, who is one of the most under appreciated Darklords in Ravenloft. There’s a lot of storytelling potential here with this elven vampire. The adventure “Maze of Thorns,” unfortunately, isn’t a very good one. It has Lady Adeline luring people into a HEDGE MAZE OF DOOM. Right, I know. It’s a silly concept and who in Ravenloft would be silly enough to enter a mysterious maze next to a town of deformed people? It’s not something most players, and thus their characters, would fall for. Pass on the adventure, but a good DM can definitely make excellent use of the character.
Don Pablo is our seventh vampire, and no, he doesn’t have a chain of Mexican restaurants. Despite the bad choice of names for this man, he’s a very interesting antagonist. In fact, he’s not even a vampire. He’s a vorlog, a person who was in the midst of a change into a vampire when he was “saved” by someone killing the master vampire. So basically, he’s a human with an aversion to sunlight, budding fangs and a few vampire abilities, like enhanced strength and charm powers. The odd thing is that Don Pablo is listed as Chaotic Evil, but he is not even remotely portrayed as that in his bio or the accompanying adventure. Maybe True Neutral or Chaotic Neutral, but he’s not really evil as much as he is despondent and slightly mad. It’s an interesting idea for a character, although not one with a lot of replay value, if you know what I mean. Dan Pablo’s corresponding adventure, “The Victim,” is a really good one, perhaps the best in the book. It completely flip-flops who you think of as the monster, with a human being the actual bad guy in the adventure while the Chaotic Evil monster is actually the sympathetic victim. It’s a nice way to mix things up while staying true to the spirit of the Ravenloft setting.
Number eight in this collection is Alexi, who is a very weird but very well done vampire. First, he is Vistani, which really shakes things up. Second, he’s very young and impressionable. This means he is not evil and that if the PC’s do a good job, they can inspire the youth to be a force for good… or as much of a force for good that a vampire in Ravenloft can be. Third, he’s a big coward. Seriously. He’s an immortal undead with power beyond imagination, and he’d run away from a gully dwarf if it shook its fist at him. That’s a gold mine of roleplaying opportunities right there. The adventure that showcases Alexi is “To Conquer Fear,” and it’s meant to help the PCs see that not all vampires are evil. In it, Alexi is still firmly under the thumb of his cruel master, and it’s up to the adventuring party to free Alexi and, perhaps more importantly, make Alexi want to be like them rather than his evil sire.
The ninth vampire in Children of the Night: Vampires is up there with the undead manta ray as the stupidest in the book. Jack Bequick is a vampire clown. Yes, you read that right. Even worse, he’s a permanently invisible evil clown that can only be seen, and thus drink blood, when his victim is afraid of him (perhaps he should be incorporeal but the book repeatedly uses invisible so…). It’s just a really terrible concept all around, and I have to wonder if there was a bet going on between the writers as to who could make the worst vampire. Unlike ol’ Myxitizajal, who at least has a quality adventure to go with him, “Jack’s House of Horrors” should only be run by a DM who wants his players to hate him. It’s an EEEEEVIL FUNHOUSE complete with mimes and goblins. Ick. Stay away. Stay far, far away.
Number ten brings us into the home stretch. Lady Heather Shadowbrooke is one of my favorites in this collection. She’s a vampire druid who can only feed on animals and trees. She drains sap instead of blood in that case, you see. Now you’re probably thinking, “Wow. That’s pretty easy compared to how other vampires have it.” Remember though, she’s a Druid with a capital D, so animals and plants mean more to her than humanoids. Plus, her bite instantly kills. Still, she tries to be the best druid she can be, even though she’s gone completely crazy and has a were-warthog and a blood sucking shambling mound for allies. Her adventure “The Missing Druids” has you looking for, well… you can probably guess from the name. In it, Heather allies herself with your party to help out. She makes for an interesting ally, but unfortunately, you find out that she is what happened to the druids, and conflict inevitably ensues. The end result is doing battle with a tragic but insane antagonist that may or may not become a recurring enemy if the DM handles things appropriately.
Ezra is the eleventh vampire, and he’s the closest to your stereotypical vampire. At least for D&D that is. He runs a Thieves’ Guild, which makes sense due to vampiric powers like Spider Climb. The adventure that revolves around Ezra, “Guild of Thieves” is also your run of the mill dungeon crawl for characters between Levels 7 and 10. However, there’s a catch, as it leads into the next vampire and his adventure, which can, if the DM is kind, provide a way out of The Dark Domain and back to wherever they came from… or someplace else. Who knows? Adventurers can try to infiltrate the Thieves’ Guild, or go for an all out assault. This whole section is standard fare, but sometimes that’s a good thing.
Mulger D’Ajust is the penultimate vampire, and get this – he’s a dwarf. Even weirder, he’s a dwarven sage with a penchant for all things magical. This was pretty outside the box for Second Edition AD&D, where Dwarves could only be Fighters, Thieves or Clerics. He’s also a dwarf that used magic to break free from Azalin’s control, which is pretty damn impressive. As you can imagine, Mulger is a pretty bad ass vampire… even if his stats don’t support his bio. Still, he’s a great concept and one that could make for an interesting recurring character for the PCs, perhaps even an uncomfortable ally. The adventure, “The Way Out,” gives players a chance to escape Ravenloft. Unfortunately, the gateway is in a mine controlled by Mulger and his crew, who are currently doing some excavation work in there. You can imagine what happens next. This is another mid-level dungeon crawl, and one with a potentially huge rewards – perhaps too big for a throw away encounter like this. As such, you may want to do some building up for it. Unless, of course, your PCs are just sick of the Dark Domain. Then this doesn’t need to be a culmination.
Unfortunately, the last vampire in the book joins our manta ray and invisible clown in the triad of terrible ideas. Marla is a Penanggalan, which is meant to be a female vampire whose head can detach and become a flying four foot long snake with a human head. Yes, it’s as stupid as it sounds, and this is one of those times where something that is supposed to be horrific in a high fantasy setting will instead inspire laughter. It’s just a bad all-around idea. Marla’s adventure, “Love Lies Dying” is an uninteresting affair where a pair of lovers are eloping and, together with the PCs, spend the night in a creepy monastery where the quasi-vampire tries to pick them off one by one. So the book ends as badly as it begins, but at least the middle is quite nice.
As we look back, we see I enjoyed eight of the thirteen vampires and nine of the thirteen adventures. That’s a quality rate of 65%. That means roughly two-third of the book is good, which is far better than one would have expected, considering the infamous reputation this title has. What this shows me is that one huge mistake was enough to overshadow the good bits of this book, at least in the eyes of Second Edition Ravenloft fans. In my opinion, even though the Jander Sunstar issue does live up to its infamy, the good in the book outweighs the bad. The PDF is a bit pricey (ten dollars compared to the fifteen dollar price tag the book had when it was in print), but it’s still one old school Ravenloft fans might want to pick up and see what they missed all those years ago. Who knows? They might actually come to appreciate what’s here.