Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill
Introduction by John D. Rateliff

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  • Could lightning strike twice?

    That was the question TSR asked in 1986. Three years earlier, Tracy and Laura Hickman’s I6 Ravenloft had set a new standard for roleplaying modules, with its stunning maps, moody ambiance, and card-based plot randomizer. The castle layout (drawn in three-dimensional style by Dave Sutherland) was so complex that it was easy to get lost in the castle’s endless stairs and corridors, just as in a classic horror movie or real-world nightmare. Despite employing a few gothic fiction clichés in the read-aloud boxed text, the story had style and showed that the entire realm of horror film and fiction was now fair game for DMs wanting to shake up complacent players. And a simple, effective way of determining the villain’s true goal from among several options and the locations of various items crucial to the plot meant that the story could be played again and again with very different results.

    So successful, in fact, was the original Ravenloft module that it went on to spawn an entire campaign setting of Ravenloft-style adventures, where the PCs were as sinners in the hands of an angry god (a.k.a. the "Dark Powers"). By changing the balance of power, Ravenloft became a place where the player characters no longer had the advantage over the monsters as in the standard AD&D game but very much the reverse. No wonder the original module not only fetched high prices at auctions but was revised for 2nd edition AD&D (unwisely hidden under the title RM4 House of Strahd) by one of TSR’s finest designers, Bruce Nesmith, creator with Andria Hayday of the Ravenloft campaign setting. Nor that another version (with the original name and designator now restored) was released in 1999 as part of TSR’s Silver Anniversary series. What is surprising is that the original sequel to this most famous of adventures, Ravenloft II: The House of Gryphon Hill, has remained out of print all these years. Never adapted to 2nd edition AD&D, never fully incorporated into the Ravenloft campaign setting, it has languished despite all the attention showered upon its elder sibling.

    Why this neglect? After all, it shared the magic of the Hickman name -- most of his other designs for TSR having been reprinted time and again (I3, I4, and I5 as I3-5, The Desert of Desolation; the original Dragonlance modules as Dragonlance Classics, Volumes I, II, and III; Rahasia first as RPGA minimodules [RPGA1 and RPGA2], then as B7, then again in B1-9 In Search of Adventure, etc.). It was a companion piece to one of the bestselling modules of all time, I6. And it had a natural home in one of the most successful of all TSR’s campaign worlds, the ongoing Ravenloft setting (which in its ten years spawned eight boxed sets, a hardcover, three MCs, and forty-seven adventures and sourcebooks, not counting compilations and twenty novels).

    The answer is probably twofold. First, the original adventure is a hard act to beat, and any follow-up was likely to be judged mercilessly. It’s amazing now, in these days of vampire-as-template, to look back and see how startling was Hickman’s combination of monster and character: Strahd von Zarovich was both a vampire AND a magic-user, with all the abilities of each. I10 had no such rabbit to pull out of its hat, no equivalent power-up for the monsters. Instead, it substituted cunning for strength. Drawing on such icons as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the 1980s version of The Thing, it played on the idea of people not really being who they appear, of not knowing who your friends really are. With the Apparatus, a monster’s personality could be placed in the body of an ordinary townsperson, while the villager might find herself with all the powers and vulnerabilities of, say, a vampire, with no idea what had happened.

    Also, I6 was a tightly-woven unified whole; I10, by contrast, consisted of several parts poorly integrated into the overall whole. Each is good by itself, but the pieces are less than cohesive. For example, Heather House, home of the Weathermays, is populated by an interesting cast of low-level characters (Virginia, Lord Weathermay, Mistress Ardent, the Alchemist), yet the basement is home to at least one vampire, six shadow mastiffs, and twenty Strahd zombies, with no explanation of why the powerful monsters refrain from destroying the hapless folk upstairs. And the nearby Mausoleum, only a stone’s throw away, contains spectres, wraiths, Strahd zombies, and Azalin the lich -- the first appearance (unless one counts the anonymous lich who put in a brief appearance in I6) of what would become a major character in the later campaign setting.

    The reason for these disconnects is simple: I6 Ravenloft was the unified work of the Hickmans, while a close reading of the credits for I10 reveals that it was a joint effort of no less than six authors (a lot for only 48 pages). In fact, The House on Gryphon Hill was the final project Hickman worked on before he left TSR to pursue a career as a freelance novelist in the wake of the success of the Hickman-Weis Dragonlance novels, and he didn’t manage to finish it before he left. Hence, although Tracy and Laura Hickman are credited for their outline and having come up with the overall plot for the adventure, most of the actual writing was done by a hastily assembled crack team of TSR designers in order to meet the rapidly approaching release date: David Cook (better known as "Zeb," and later as the lead designer of 2nd edition AD&D and creator of the Planescape campaign setting), Jeff Grubb (creator of Spelljammer, Al-Qadim, and the Marvel Super Heroes RPG), Harold Johnson (author of the Slave Lords series [A1-4] and behind-the-scenes contributor to many other projects), and Douglas Niles (creator of Top Secret: S.I. and, like Jeff and Harold, part of the original Dragonlance design team alongside Hickman himself). The work was divvied up among the four authors, each of whom took a section.

    Considering the speed at which the work was done, and the lack of time for the various authors to co-ordinate with what the others were doing, it holds up remarkably well. Think of it not as a single unified work but as several minimodules sharing a common theme: the pairing of opposites, symbolized by the two Strahds, one good ("The Alchemist") and one evil ("The Creature"). The possibility of switching personalities via the Apparatus offers great potential for roleplaying to a devious DM, and the setting of haunted moors and brooding seaside hills works well to capture a very different mood from the original’s Barovia, but still sinister in the extreme. Also interesting are the Mesmerist and his madhouse, the most atmospheric touch in the adventure and I10’s attempt to recapture the randomizer of the gypsy reading from I6 (this was a favorite mechanic of Hickman’s, who also worked similar elements into the Desert of Desolation series, some of his Dragonlance modules (see DL 8 and DL 13), and even a Gangbusters adventure (GB5 Death in Spades). Best of all is the way the delirium attacks can be used to cast doubt upon every revelation and discovery -- if the DM wants, the events of I6 be replayed in whole or in part as delirium episodes, with the two stories running parallel to each other in all sorts of interesting ways.

    In conclusion, while a lesser sibling than its older brother, I10 is still classic horror roleplaying -- especially the doomed Weathermay family and their retainers, the Mesmerist and Azalin (combining the two characters gets interesting results), the sinister abandoned titular manor on Gryphon Hill, and the disorienting dreamlike delirium attacks. Don’t try this one with an inexperienced group, but experienced gamers devoted to roleplaying can find it extremely challenging and rewarding, particularly if they’re fans of classic horror. Think Byron/Shelley rather than Stoker/Lugosi and devote as much time as possible to roleplaying the many NPCs, from the hapless to the sinister to the wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    A final few notes: Some misprints would have been corrected had this adventure ever been re-released but a casual reader should beware them. On page 29, the notes at the top of the right-hand column ("Beneath third hearth stone" and so forth) belong under the entry for 43a. The vampire in entry 43J was once a handsome young seaman (not "handome"). If you’re the read-boxed-text-aloud type, beware entry 46G: only the first paragraph should actually be boxed, while the next two paragraphs are meant for the DM alone. On page 44, the final line under Count Strahd the Alchemist should read "for the life of him cannot remember why, save that it fills him with dread." And finally, Mistress Ardent, one of the most interesting characters, was "found as a baby on the steps of Heather House, abandoned by individuals unknown" and has a Charisma of 18, not "8" (she’s described as "a stunning young lady, second in beauty only to her close friend Virginia," who has Charisma 17 herself.

    Enjoy!





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