This supplement is a D20 update of an old 2nd Edition D&D era Ravenloft supplement from TSR that took its name and loose inspiration from the Edgar Allen Poe story, but moved the time period to the 1890's and incorporated many elements of gothic horror.
The D20 version has the typical trade dress and focus on horror elements of many of Sword & Sorcery Studios' Ravenloft offerings of the time (including some really difficult to read cursive fonts that I can't stand), but what makes this stand out is the setting - a late 1890's era setting called "Gothic Earth" which is very similar to our own earth with a similar history, but one that includes magic and also the encroachment of an evil entity called the Red Death. The Red Death, as detailed in the history at the front of the book, is actually responsible for many events in world history including the fall of Rome and several different wars throughout the centuries. Standing against the Red Death are a secretive group of small qabals that have learned of the Red Death's presence that work semi-independently from each other to try to fight its influence, all while trying to maintain their anonymity lest they be discovered by agents of the Red Death.
The book is oozing with Gothic atmosphere and does a good job of updating the technology level of a typical D&D fantasy game without adding an over-abundance of rules. Of the 290 page book, less than half is reserved for rules (with the majority of those rules being descriptions of the different kinds of character roles/classes).
There are the typical D20 stats here including a look at the different classes for the setting, which include variations on the typical D&D classes such as Charlatans, Occultists, Explorers/Scouts, Parons, Physicians, Mediums, Dandies, Journalists, Mechanics, and Performers. There is a real focus on "non-combat" type classes including scientists, intellectuals, and dandies in addition to the standard soldiers, shootists, and criminals. There's an overview of new skills and feats, which (even if you don't use them for the rules) do help to give a sense of the setting. Feats with names such as Ancient Knowledge Expert, Light Sleeper, Perfect Pitch, and Pugilism, really help to describe the types of characters that would live and adventure in this setting, even if you don't use their mechanics. That is, again, one of the main themes of my blog - you can find inspiration from a variety of different sources, regardless of the system involved. Don't avoid looking at something just because you don't like its system.
The real treat of this book for those interested in Victorian-age adventuring is a section toward the back called "A Practical Guide to the 19th Century" which, in about 22 pages, covers social classes, race relations, the role of women in Victorian society, clothing styles, health and fitness, burial customs and mourning, leisure time, inventions, literature and journalism, travel and exploration, secret societies, and codes and ciphers. Obviously you shouldn't go out and buy a 290 book to use only 22 pages, and you could find much of this information by doing online research. However, in this case, the authors have focused on those key elements that are likely to turn up in-game or could be capitalized on by enterprising players seeking to really immerse themselves in the setting.
Additionally, the rest of the book is quite good. The alternative history that incorporates the Red Death throughout major world events is an entertaining read and likely to spark many ideas for your campaigns, regardless of whether you plan to use the "Gothic Earth" setting and the Red Death as presented here. There's also a nicely detailed Atlas of Gothic Earth which covers all the major continents and describes the main cities therein, providing a history and a section on the "forbidden lore" of each city.
In the Appendices, you get a fun section on the Villains of Gothic Earth, including descriptions of Dracula, Imhotep, Frankenstein's Monster, Professor James Moriarty, and more. There are also details and explanations on various "monsters," which are grouped into categories such as "Creatures of the Weird" which includes Lost Boys and Hollow, and "Creatures of the Hunt" which includes Haunt Beasts and Shadow Hunters. Additionally appendices cover Lairs of Evil and tips for creating adventures in Gothic Earth (covering topics like sources for inspiration, techniques for creating terror, developing adventure ideas, etc.).
All told, this is a very focused, detailed book for creating Victoria-era horror adventures in an alternate earth (but one that is very close to our own). It makes a great resource for standard Victorian adventure games but obviously would be very appropriate for horror-type games as well.
Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death
- Format: 290 Hardback (also available as a PDF)
- Where to Buy: The print version if out-of-print but you can find used copies on Amazon.
- Price: I found a copy on Amazon for $47.69, which is a bit high. I'm sure with enough searching online at used book or game stores, you can find it cheaper. The official PDF version no longer seems to be for sale, but again, if you do an Internet search you can find it (I won't link to it here because none of them seem to be "legal").
- System: This was created for the 3.5 Version of D&D
- More Information: There's a Wikipedia page about the Masque of the Red Death setting here.
Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "Barrio Beats" by Michael Tello