Review – Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft (Dungeons & Dragons)

Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is, at its core, a campaign setting book. I love D&D setting books, and Ravenloft is the first time we’ve seen one of the classic old settings expounded on for 5E (sorry, Eberron, but I’m writing from the old folks home so you don’t count). Don’t get me wrong, I love the recent MTG-inspired setting books too, but it’s nice to see the classics.

But Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is a different sort of setting book. After all, Ravenloft is a different sort of setting. It isn’t a single place, but rather a series of domains that, while tenuously related, are all really their own demi-planes that don’t really interact (exactly how this works has changed over the decades, but I will spare you the history lesson on the ontology of Ravenloft). One can’t just ride a horse from Barovia to Lamordia. Each domain is really different from the others, but also generally pretty narrow. Barovia (home of Castle Ravenloft and Strahd and setting for the Curse of Strahd), of course, has seem a bit more development. But many of the other domains boil down to a single concept – Frankenstein-world, zombie apocalypse world, perpetual plague world, that sort of thing. You would probably have a hard time turning most of them into a full-length campaign. Rather, most of them are more like adventure seeds on a grand scale – the party arrives, experiences the flavor of horror on offer, and then departs for the next flavor (or dies, as the case may be).

So, like I said, a different sort of setting book. Indeed, once you get past the new character options (don’t worry, I will talk about the new character options below), Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft doesn’t launch into descriptions of the domains, but rather descriptions of different types of horror – body horror, cosmic horror, dark fantasy, folk horror, ghost stories, gothic horror, disaster horror, occult detective stories, psychological horror, and slasher horror. Each of them gets about a column of text description (most of them are two-page spreads, but the other three columns are just random tables/inspiration). Each of the domains is then labeled with what sort of horror it embodies. Barovia and it’s vampire lord, for example, are gothic horror. Presentations of the domains center around the type of horror story to be told, rather than presenting each domain as a more fully fleshed-out adventuring world. Note that this significantly recasts the presentation of some of the realms, as compared to prior editions.

Here’s a brief survey of the domains you’ll find in the pages of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft:

  • Bluetspur (cosmic horror): A fairly concrete sort of cosmic horror, as Bluetspur has a lot of illithids, with the domain centered around a dying god-brain. Hallmarks: alien abductions, otherworldly landscapes, untrustworthy memories, monstrous experimentation.
  • Borca (gothic and psychological horror): Borca is essentially a horror version of Renaissance Italy (I presume that “Borca” is a riff on “Borgia”). Hallmarks: political intrigue, poison, revenge
  • The Carnival (body horror and dark fantasy): The Carnival is a distinctive domain in that it wanders around visiting other domains. Trouble always follows the carnival, forcing it to leave (or getting the locals to force it to leave) as the longer it stays in one place the more its magic affects the surroundings. Hallmarks: entertainment, fey bargains, misfits, wandering exiles.
  • Darkon (dark fantasy and disaster horror): Darkon is dying. Magic has failed and the Mists that usually stand between different domains are consuming Darkon. The most iconic image of Darkon is the (former) ruler’s castle, which is frozen in mid-explosion, the castle’s magic perpetually waging a losing battle to reconstruct itself. An adventure in Darkon is likely to focus on figuring out why Darkon is failing and whether it can be stopped. Hallmarks: Fractured realm, magical ruins, ongoing supernatural catastrophe.
  • Dementlieu (dark fantasy and psychological horror): Welcome to France in the age of enlightenment, except everyone is even more desperately trying to appear richer and of higher social station than they really are (up to and including the darklord of the domain, who insists that she’s both alive and a duchess, rather than an undead peasant). Not only must everyone lie, but being caught in your lie can be tantamount to a death sentence. Hallmarks: Masquerades, decadent aristocracy, social decay, illusions, imposter syndrome.
  • Falkovia (disaster horror): It’s a zombie apocalypse siege. Every month a new zombie horde emerges from the Mists. Every month they are beaten back, but every month the citizens lose a little bit more. Also it’s a totalitarian military dictatorship. Hallmarks: Dwindling resources, fickle hero worship, impending disaster, suspicion, totalitarianism, zombies.
  • Har’Akir (dark fantasy): Ancient Egypt. Hallmarks: ancient tombs, desert perils, lost gods, mummies.
  • Hazlan (dark fantasy and disaster horror): Another domain, another slow-moving magical consumption, with the magical problems serving as a metaphor for industrial waste pollution (there’s even a river that catches on fire). This time it’s combined with the omnipresent spying of a darklord and a caste system that places non-spellcasters under the boots of their spellcasting “betters.” Hallmarks: amoral spellcasters, magic-ravaged environment, magical experiments, wild magic.
  • I’Cath (body horror and cosmic horror): This Asian-inspired city-domain puts presents a domain whose inhabitants are always asleep and still always laboring tirelessly to build the perfect city for their rules. Hordes of undead reconstruct the actual city as well. Said ruler spends each day revising her demands for what she considers the perfect city, ensuring that the citizens labors are eternal. Hallmarks: Endlessly changing labyrinth, deadly jiangshi, inescapable dreamworld.
  • Kalakeri (gothic horror and dark fantasy): An Indian-inspired domain featuring perpetual, brutal civil war. Hallmarks: monstrous leaders, family intrigue, war-torn nation.
  • Kartakass (dark fantasy and gothic horror): Everyone’s a performer, including the darklord, who is both a hack who will steal your music and also a werewolf. Hallmarks: Hidden identities, dangerous performances, werewolves.
  • Lamordia (body horror and gothic horror): Frankenstein über alles. Expect lots of golems and other experimental creations in this steam-powered frozen wasteland. The Frankenstein tale is twisted because this time the Frankenstein stand-in (Viktra Mordenheim) was trying to create a new body for the woman she loved (so a more accurately titled Bride of Frakenstein), but said love was horrified and fled into the icy night. Hallmarks: amoral science, bizarre constructs, frigid wilderness, mutagenic radiation.
  • Mordent (ghost stories): D&D history buffs will recognize Mordent as the location of the second Ravenloft adventure (Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill). Everyone who dies in Mordent becomes a spirit in service to the domain’s darklord. Hallmarks: ancestral curses, haunted mansions, mist-shrouded moors, vengeful spirits.
  • Richemulot (disaster horror and gothic horror): This domain is primarily about the the plague. It comes, it goes, and then it always comes again. It happens to be generated by a wererat darklord who uses outbreaks of the plague to maintain control and impose lockdowns, but mostly it’s about the plague. Hallmarks: contagian, crumbling infrastructure, martial law, rats and vermin, wererats.
  • Tepest (folk horror): I’m guessing this one followed a harrowing watching of Midsommar, because it’s mostly defined by a small town ritual that gets very ugly. Hallmarks: Fey bargains, nature worship, rural festivals, secret sacrifices.
  • Valachan (gothic horror and slasher horror): An adventure is Valachan is essentially trying to get back out of Valachan alive. The darklord likes to hunt, and so does almost everything else in this jungle domain. On the bright side, she likes to toy with her food, so there’s an excuse to make things close instead of just wiping out the party. Hallmarks: diabolical traps, hostile wilderness, survival games.

There are an additional 22 domains, if you count the ones with quarter-page blurbs. Again, the main thing about almost all of the domains is that they’re not so much a fully fleshed out nation to adventure in, but rather a theme evoking a particular sort of horror to expose the players/character to.

Speaking of exposing the players to things, note that, as a horror setting, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft contains more extensive discussions of player comfort and consent than prior D&D books (there’s even a discussion of the X-Card). That is welcome, although I note that the book itself is fairly tame. Sure, there are a lot of sections labeled “body horror,” but nothing resembling Saw or The Human Centipede. In addition to player safety sort of advice, there’s also advice on setting (and subverting) expectations based on the type of horror genre being deployed, using atmosphere and pacing, curses, and using tarokka decks and spirit boards

Now, somehow, I’ve gotten this far in a review without mentioning character creation options, so let’s rectify that situation. We’ve got three new “lineages,” which are conceptually like templates but mechanically are mostly races – the dhampir, the hexblood (hag-influenced), and the reborn (Frankenstein’s monster or some other unusual sort of resurrection). All can be taken at character creation or can be applied to a character later on. The character can just be the lineage, or can pick a base race – so elf dhampir, human hexblood, dragonborn reborn, that sort of thing. If the character picks a base race, they keep the skill proficiencies and any non-walking movement speeds, but that’s it. Otherwise, they get two skill proficiencies of choice, along with a full suite of lineage traits. They all get to choose which attributes get the +2/+1 boost. Dhampirs have darkvision, don’t need to breathe, have a climb speed (and can climb on walls and ceilings), and gain a bite attack that can heal a (very) little damage. I like vision and movement and always-on options like getting to ignore poison gas, so this is an attractive set of abilities to me. Hexbloods have darkvision, can cast disguise self or hex, and can give another creature an ‘eerie token’ to telepathically communicate or use with remote viewing. I’m less interested in that set of abilities – I just like always-on abilities more than the once-per-day options. Reborn gain a stack of modifications that puts the dhampir’s “I don’t need to breathe” to shame – resistance to poison, better saves against poison and disease, don’t need to eat, don’t need to sleep, don’t need to breathe, and advantage on death saving throws. Plus, a few times a day, they can add 1d6 to a skill roll (choosing to use the ability after seeing the d20 roll).

There are new subclass options for the bard (College of Spirits) and warlock (the undead). The College of Spirits makes guidance a little better, gives extra damage/healing, and can use up bardic inspiration for random rolls on the “Spirit Tales” table (some bonus to the party or another character). The Undead warlock gains reborn/undead-like abilities like not needing to eat/breathe. But a lot of their abilities focus around being in their Form of Dread. At the start, this grants temporary hit points, the ability to scare enemies, and immunity to fear. But additional powers are added on, like extra necrotic damage. The Undead can also explode when dropped to zero HP (said explosion conveniently not hitting any other party members). There are new background features that can replace the features of existing backgrounds and two new backgrounds (haunted one, investigator). Finally, there are Dark Gifts, which can be handed out at character creation or acquired during play – the character gains some boost, but then bad things happen whenever they roll a ‘1.’ For example, the Gathered Whispers gift grants the message cantrip and some extra AC, but whenever you roll a 1 the cacophony might deafen you or inflict disadvantage.

There’s a final potpourri of mechanical stuff further in the back of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. There’s a stress/fear system, but it’s very basic; this isn’t an effort to create a Cthulhu-Mythos-style sanity system. Haunted traps provide a few new options for the DM’s arsenal with a bit of a rules tweak because thieves’ tools aren’t great against ghosts. There are also around 30 new bestiary entries (including subentries). There are bodytaker plants if you want to make pod people, brains in jars, the D&D version of creepy dolls come to life, headless horsemen, star spawn, swarms, and – of course – a bunch of undead.

But the best thing tucked in the back is The House of Lament, which is a really good haunted mansion story for characters of levels 1-2. The characters must explore the mansion, commune with the dead, figure out what’s going on, and then determine how to resolve it. It has some great flavor, and more than one way for the DM to spin it.

Overall, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft provides a lot of value to the DM looking for horror inspiration. (Following on the heels of Candlekeep Mysteries, it also makes one wonder if there will be an Innistrad setting book to match up with the MTG releases later this year.) But that value does require effort. Each domain is as much an adventure seed as it is a setting, and adventure seeds require work to turn into actual adventures. That’s true of any adventure seed or setting, of course, but Ravenloft largely deprives the DM of the ability to fall back on tried-and-true D&D tropes, instead requiring the DM to stretch into different storytelling space. Of course, there is the excellent House of Lament, which is definitely ready to be played out of the box. Seriously, it’s good, check it out. The new character options have real appeal, especially since the lineages can be combined with existing concepts. Definitely worth checking out for those interested in the scary side of D&D.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy. Strange Assembly may earn commissions from affiliate links in this article.

 

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