The new book, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, is chocked full of wonderous ideas for a horror filled D&D adventure. The Magic Tavern is gearing up for a year of such adventures full of dark, horrific venues with demonic denizens and lots of great options to play. So, we welcome this book with open arms. Flipping through the domains of dread, I was drawn to a few; especially some of the smaller domains listed that, although the information is limited, the flavor is dark and deep and sends my imagination (and I hope yours too) reeling!
The nation of Cyre was the heart of the kingdom of Galifar on Eberron. The ‘Last War’ was in full swing; in fact, the enemy was ‘at the gate’, as it were. Then, without warning, it was all swept away. Stemming from an unknown origin, a blinding light and a mysterious fog engulfed the once grand city. What is left is the Mournlands; ruins and devastation.
The domain marked CYRE 1313 stems from this destruction. It is a smaller domain, as it exists within the confines of the last lighting rail out of the city just before destruction. Its departure was delayed to make room for a VIP of unknown stature who took up residence in the upper cars of the train. Little information is given past this besides the fact that the train is forever speeding away from the destruction of THE MOURNING.
Those on board have no idea that they are already victims of the disaster. They continue a continuous drama of trying to both make sense of what’s going on and fearing the horror they are already apart of. Everything else is left to the DM. Which is just how we like it.
SHADES OF SNOWPIERCER
2013s Snowpiercer was an innovative take on the global apocalypse genre. Instead of looking for a promised land or a safe secure location, both of those were supposedly already built for you. The premise of this dystopian scifi was that a world obsessed with stopping the growing danger of global warming decided to take it in their own hands and seed the clouds to cool off their world. As with most futuristic tampering, it did NOT go well. Instead of just ‘cooling off’, the Earth was plunged into a new Ice Age. Most of humanity perished in the days to come. But there was one shining spot of hope: the train Snowpiercer.
Like Noah’s preverbal Ark, the remains of humanity climbed aboard this supertrain and took off on a never-ending journey across the world now covered with ice and snow. Since the world was uninhabitable, mankind’s only hope existed inside this train on it’s nonstop journey into oblivion.
This movie (which is now a show on TNT) came to mind immediately. The last remains of a civilization trapped on a train that never arrives at its destination as it speeds just ahead of oblivion and extinction is almost a mirror of what Snowpiercer is. This would allow us to pull from a lot of the imagery and flavor from the story to use in our adventure on CYRE 1313. I suggest you watch it for yourselves DMs. Besides the deadly cold surrounding them, most everything else is totally beneficial in building either a one shot or a full on campaign in this setting.
The first thing that strikes me as so typical is the class structure and warfare that has emerged from the circumstances there. We see everything from abject poverty of the ‘shoe/foot’ of their ecosystem to the head of it all; the super upper class of the front cars and those that run the engine. It would be best for the most conflict to herd your players into the lowest caste cars of the train. Seemingly stuck in the backend of their society with the dregs of that culture, their deplorable conditions, diet on the edge of starvation and the abuse they suffer at the hands of the military leg of the ‘upper class’, your players would be more motivated to fight their way to the front of the train and find out what is going on.
The time between their arrival and their choice to rebel may be quick or, for a more detailed adventure, it may take a while. This way, you, as DM, can take time to introduce them to a good many NPCs both good and evil to build the flavor and feel of this setting, especially since the Domain built in Ravenloft is set only on the train. They may instigate the others to fight back or may simply join a building revolution led by a determined character much like the Chris Evan’s character, Curtis.
This linear adventure may seem a little like ‘railroading’ cause it is, quite literally, so give your characters a chance to fit in to this society and learn to love these people and feel for their conditions. You may even build in lapses of time where they seem to loose days even weeks seeming being built into the framework of what’s going on. Introduce them to the intermediaries; the soldiers and managers like Mason to give them an idea of the ideologies they are dealing with. How hard it is to bypass security is up to the DM.
Mason : “Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.”
Which brings us to the question, ‘Who exactly is at the head?’
THE LAST PASSENGER
This is the first question the DM must ask. As given in the new Ravenloft book, it simply stated that the evacuation into the last lightning rail our of CYRE was ‘delayed’ to allow the addition of an unknown VIP to the train. ‘Hundreds were forced from passenger cars’ to allow for the comfort and security of this mystery passenger. Obviously, whoever it was brought with them a powerful lot of clout. This type of action plays directly into adding the motifs and types you find in Snowpiercer.
AND, since we’re developing this as a Ravenloft domain, this question leads us into the problem of why is this a ‘Domain of Dread’ in the first place. Quoted directly from page 6 of the book, “These domains serve as prisons of Darklords, villainous beings trapped and tormented by the Dark Powers.” SO, it would stand to reason that whoever the ‘VIP’ was could have been responsible for this domain being created in the first place.
Queen Dannel is the first and foremost candidate. She was the last reigning regent of Cyre and was living during The Mourning. It would have made sense that she would be given preferential treatment. However, from all of my readings, she seemed more inspirational and charismatic; a true leader. She also may have cared for her people so putting so many in distress and abuse doesn’t really sound like her. BUT, maybe that wasn’t her doing. Possibly an intermediary like the above mentioned MASON abused their power and did horrific things without her knowledge.
Picture from the ‘All that Glitters’ campaign wiki
In this instance, the despicable being between the Queen and her people may be why the whole train was taken by the mist. Maybe this go between, either a viceroy, prime minister or military leader is the actual creature that is here to be punished and disposing of them is the way to escape to constant running from the end.
SIDE NOTE: Queen Dannel ir’Wynarn, it was rumored, was looking for a way to protect Cyre from the coming collapse at the end of the Last War. Did she fund the end of Cyre herself? Is she remorseful? Does she know? Or MAYBE another culprit is to blame.
Possibly, the VIP is actually on of the high wizards of Cyre.
The city was a major center for artifice and magic in the area. And the Queen was rumored to be funding research in shoring up the defenses of the city against the invading hordes. Or maybe it was a weapon that was triggered at the time of The Mourning since it is fact that the enemy was breaching the boarders on the day of this apocalypse. Was the VIP the man who created the doomsday weapon? Were they responsible? Or did something go wrong? I mean, that seems obvious. But is the VIP wizard/artificer sorry or is he just saving his own skin?
Maybe the VIP is a military general or even the Secretary of War for the Queen. Is he simply fleeing the end? Or did he ‘pull the trigger’? Is he a ‘servant of the people’ who did ‘what no one else could do’?
Being a ‘force for order’ could explain the martial law needed for the oppressive rule. He may not BE the VIP but the middle management; keeping order to protect the last Queen of Cyre.
THINGS TAKE A TURN FOR THE WORSE
(A LOVECRAFTIAN SPIN)
This is, after all a Ravenloft DOMAIN OF DREAD, right? It wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibilities to realize that the ‘DARK LORD’ that is being imprisoned is either connected to or actually is a horrific being steeped in fear, dread and dreams.
One of the most unique, horrifying and truly Lovecrafian creations in Eberron are the Quori. They are quite literally the stuff of nightmares. They breached the barriers over forty thousand years ago between the Prime Material and these horrors homeplane of Dal Quor, the Region of Dreams. These creatures are truly the best candidate for antagonists on CYRE 1313.
These creatures have been attempting to get their claws into Eberron for a while. It isn’t beyond imagination that one was manipulating forces within CYRE at the time of THE MOURNING. Controlling someone in the power structure, like those listed above, this evil entity could have tapped into the fears of those fleeing destruction; creating a connection so powerful that the Dark Powers thought it worthy of caging in its own domain.
Possibly one of the nobles of the Quori, the Kalaraq, are to blame. These fiendish creations bring horrifying abilities like ripping the soul from individuals and controlling them like puppets. One of the Kalaraq could possibly be manipulating the whole train full of passengers or just a few to play out a drama for its amusement. Destroying this outsider would be the way out of this domain.
MORE THAN A TRAINRIDE?
Or maybe it’s more than a continuous train ride through nightmare landscapes fleeing the apocalypse that can’t be avoided. What if it’s more complicated that that?
You’re given many options since the short write up leaves a lot to the imagination. How you end up on the train is one of those options. Your party may be FROM Eberron and as they search the Mournlands, ends up finding an abandoned train station when the train arrives or appears. Before they know what’s going on, they are transported to that fateful day. The crowd over whelms them as they are forced onto the train and relive the fear and dread of those who ended up here.
You can, of course, adapt it to be set anywhere or just used as the domain it is. The players shouldn’t know the history really, but that’s up to you.
Maybe they were on another train and opened the wrong door; finding themselves flooded by the Mist and transported onto the CYRE 1313 itself.
Or take cues from movies like Groundhog day with Bill Murray or Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise. However they get onto the train, they find themselves in a constant loop. Living from beginning to horrifying end where they find there is no way to outrun destruction. They are flooded by the emotions of hopelessness and futility. Much like many Chthulu games, they would have to battle vast depression; always on the verge of loosing their sanity. But like Edge of Tomorrow, they will have to figure out how to end the loop and return to their reality. Obviously, this is all caught up in destroying the Dark Lord.
There are so many options available to you in the publications of D&D. Check out the Ravenloft adventure for players level 6 printed by DM’s Guild and authored by Anthony J. Turco. Nightmare on the Mournland Express mixes these elements well. The train motif with unique Eberron characters, magic and steampunk elements. It also includes a dreamscape manipulated by the aforementioned Quori. Add to this published NPCs and a map of the train and you have a framework to go on. What you do from there is all you.
There’s also a great piece in Dragon Magazine #375 about the Mournland express with maps and npcs to help you flesh out the adventure.
THE DREAD EXPRESS?
You, as DM, could use CYRE 1313 as an express across several domains on a mega adventure on a quest to eradicate several darklords or retrieve several artifacts across the dreadscape. Although the train is not meant to make stops, you could include this as an element to build several domains as a campaign. Or simply transition them through the domains as they pass from car to car. Every once in a while, they take a door into one of the many domains; always coming back involuntarily to the train. This will add to the frustration, but facilitate them to many adventures through some of the great settings listed in Van Richetn’s Guide to Ravenloft.
Well, there you have it. Tell us what you think in the comments. Also, how would you play it out? Who’s the ‘final passenger’? What sinister powers are at work here? How do the players escape this nightmare train? That’s up to you. Can’t wait to see what you do with it.
I, also, can’t wait to deep dive into some of these other dread domains. See you next time with another warped tale of dread!