Ravenloft Lives Again
Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft (VRG) has finally been released and horror has returned to D&D.
One of the three settings we were promised in the state of the game update by Executive Producer Ray Winninger last year, VRG takes players through an exhaustive look into the mists of Ravenloft.
A common misconception about Ravenloft is that it's a world, like The Forgotten Realms, or Greyhawk. Ravenloft is comprised of a near infinite number of independent demi-planes called Domains of Dread. Each domain has its own darklord (like Strahd, in Barovia) and is surrounded by interminable mists. Little hope exists in the domains of dread for the dark powers manipulate all, and little falls beneath their notice.
This is the world that VGR revives! It's an exciting introduction and a really high quality book.
Should you buy it?
The short answer is yes, probably.
Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft is a very well-written book; but not only is it well-written, it's well-considered, too. Why? That's coming.
First, there are new character lineages and backgrounds in VGR that have a distinctly horror feel: the Dhampir, the Reborn, and the Hexblood. Each is unique and fits well in a Ravenloft game, but none would be out of place in your world, or home campaign.
If you've ever thought of adding horror elements to a game, VRG breaks down many different types of horror through which you can break down your players. It also has an exhaustive and detailed look at the independent Domains of Dread; in fact the domains are the largest portion of the book.
They are unique and compelling; you can use them, or elements of them, in your own games. If you don't like the published ones, there are rules on making an engaging domain yourself.
One element that VRG has done away with is the idea of madness or insanity. The mists have an effect on people's will, and the trope was that it would drive people "insane." 2021 is very different than 1983, when Ravenloft was first published, and we understand better the harmful effects of language. Particularly when there's already such a stigma attached to mental health.
Gone are insanity and madness, and replacing them are the ideas of "fear" and "stress" both of which are more appropriate for the setting, anyway. There are horror elements in Ravenloft and they don't drive you "crazy" they inspire in you a sense of panic, or fear. Not only is it more sensitive, but it's more thematic as well.
The D&D team put a lot of thought and consideration into making this a book without some of the harmful tropes that traditionally accompany the horror genre...and it shows.
As always the alternate art cover is beautiful and has so many easter eggs for the setting; it's a worthy addition to your collection.
The art is effortlessly creepy and does a wonderful job of instilling fear in the reader; you won't catch this author turning to page 197 for nobody...
If you don't like horror, you don't care about the elimination of harmful tropes or stereotypes, and you don't have any interest in playing a Dhampir, Hexblood, or Reborn, the book isn't for you.
Otherwise? Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft gets a full throated purchase recommendation.
Here's what's in it
The Dhampir, Reborn, and Hexblood lineages are similar to what you saw in their Unearthed Arcana versions, but are significantly cleaned up and streamlined for broad usage in D&D.
They are the first lineages to be stat independent. No longer does a "racial" character block have stat
information. Each lineage, as they're now called, has specific traits, but the stats appear at the front in a standard way, building on what was introduced in Tasha's with the customization of characters.
You character can be anything you want and you no longer need to sacrifice game optimization with roleplaying. Sure, you can have a sickly handsome dwarven bard? Why not!
VGR also revisits the dark gifts first introduced in Curse of Strahd because in the mists choices are difficult and all decisions have consequences. The new gifts are thematically appropriate and will provide an interesting twist to your games if you choose to include them.
The most engaging section, however, just might be the horror trinkets. It's a d100 table with trinkets that would be most appropriate in a horror themed game. A candle made from a severed hand? A shrunken Gremishak head that twitches when magic is cast nearby? Gross. But okay.
VGR's biggest section is by far its second chapter which includes a lot: rules on how to create your own dark lord, and their domain, different types of horror and what you can include in your games to be appropriate (and the tropes to avoid, such as seeing disability as monstrous), and detailed information on the existing Domains.
Some genres of horror may not be as familiar with such as body horror, cosmic horror, while others like psychological horror, and slasher, you'll likely be intimately familiar with.
The Domains are well-laid out and give you all the information you need at a glance to use them; who is the Dark Lord? what types of horror would be associated with this Domain? what are the major points of interest? and so on.
17 domains are given in-depth exploration in the book, with another two-dozen or so mentioned briefly. It is a lot of content you can use for your games, particularly if you're playing a Quantum Leap style Ravenloft adventure where your heroes jump from Domain to Domain trying to find their way home.
All told, Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft is one of the best D&D books released in the last two years. It provides excellent content for players, good resources for DMs, it's packaged beautifully, and its eliminating some harmful tropes of the past.
So there's no reason...at all...you should avoid stepping into the mist...*cue horrific laughter*
A review copy of Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft was provided in advance
Images copyright Wizards of the Coast and used with permission