D&D 5E Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft - A Grognard Finally Reads It (Review)

Faolyn

(she/her)
Victor wasn't the Darklord in 2E. It was the flesh golem "Adam" who was the Darklord, who was a considerable opponent back then.

Every Darklord in the 2E book is given something interesting. Like Markov, a 0-level human, has more HP than a standard commoner, can shapechange, and heals when he does so.
Things like this make each of the villains seem unique compared to standard Monster Manual counterparts. When I read, "just use the spy entry in the MM" that instantly makes me think that the villain is no more creative than any other encounter with a bandit or nameless NPC.
They didn't include even a single example Darklord statblock for demonstrative purposes on how we should build our own. (Plenty of charts for creative writing prompts for our original Darklord backstories, however.)
Aaand way to ignore everything else I wrote. Or even the actual VGR, because the book doesn't say "use the spy entry." It says "has stats similar to the spy entry." As in, use this as the base power level, make her how you want. She doesn't have 15 HD and a greatsword. Also, Adam was barely a Darklord. He didn't even do anything evil beyond scare someone unintentionally, and he only wanted to be left alone. Even the Black Box says that the Dark Powers were more interested in Victor.

Also, Adam's stats were pretty dull in 2e as well. No special attacks, only special defense was that you needed a +1 weapon to hit him. He was just a combat monster. Even the basic 5e flesh golem is more interesting than he was.

So you want Viktra's? OK, cool. What is she? Are you going to make her a full-fledged artificer? Or will she not have any class abilities and just have special abilities you think are cool? I'm pretty sure that most people will have different ideas of what they want out of her.

And do we really need a sample Darklord statblock? Waaaay back when I bought the Black Box, probably in '92 or so, young me thought that Ivan Dilysnia was terrible for a villain because he was a 0th-level human. Even a 1st- or 2nd-level character could take him out in a heartbeat! While I realized that he'd have minions, he was still so physically weak that when anyone made it past his minions, or got him through assassination, he would still be super easy to kill.

I eventually realized three things: One, the Darklords are not for regular combat. They're set pieces; they're the reason the domain is the way that it is. Two, that they should be exactly as powerful as I need them to be to make them interesting, on the off-chance that I'm actually going to use them in a game (which I never have, so far, because there's far more interesting things to do in each domain). And Three, that what the Darklords are, in terms of their statblock, isn't as interesting as who they are and why they became Darklords (and to be honest, a lot of them had really boring reasons for becoming Darklords).
 

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Faolyn

(she/her)
Gundar was an older vampire and a bit more powerful, but not as smart and effective and not a spellcaster. Strahd had to work on dealing with his more powerful neighbor. "Duke Gundar, a vampire lord, rules Gundarak. He is older than Strahd but weaker in spirit."

I think you are thinking of Lyssa Von Zarovich, a descendant of the brother Strahd murdered who eventually became a vampire herself a century ago. In Thoughts of Darkness it is revealed she cheesed the interaction of rules on vampire aging categories and ghost aging attacks.

"Ironically, Lyssa shares some of Strahd's own fate: In order to better oppose him, she struck her own dark pact and murdered her fiance to honor it. In addition, Lyssa tormented her former lover's ghost by seducing his incorporeal spirit and laughing sadistically when he bemoaned his inability to kiss or hold her. In frustration, he attacked her repeatedly with his aging touch, thus aging her over 200 years in the course of a night, before she wholly obliterated him from existence. As a result, Lyssa has achieved Very Old status (300-399) in terms of her vampiric powers, even though she has been a vampire for only a century. Her gaming statistics reflect this artificial enhancement."

I hated that official rules exploit so much.
Honestly, I enjoyed it. It's dumb, yeah, and I wouldn't have it work again, but it's kind of amusing.
 

Aaand way to ignore everything else I wrote. Or even the actual VGR, because the book doesn't say "use the spy entry." It says "has stats similar to the spy entry." As in, use this as the base power level, make her how you want. She doesn't have 15 HD and a greatsword. Also, Adam was barely a Darklord. He didn't even do anything evil beyond scare someone unintentionally, and he only wanted to be left alone. Even the Black Box says that the Dark Powers were more interested in Victor.

Also, Adam's stats were pretty dull in 2e as well. No special attacks, only special defense was that you needed a +1 weapon to hit him. He was just a combat monster. Even the basic 5e flesh golem is more interesting than he was.

I'd have to review the Lamordia section again to comment on his specific status, but I tend to agree that Mordenheim was practically co-domain lord and the more interesting of the two characters for gaming purposes. With classic Ravenloft, the stat blocks, provided they aren't insanely broken or something, are not as important as the role they play. I never really saw the concept as being designed for the players to face off against them. For me that was just an occasional thing. In fact the times I used Mordenheim, it was always pure RP for the most part. Though I did have a party end up attacking him at some point (but his combat stats were not hugely important as he wasn't meant as a powerful physical threat or anything)
 

Aaand way to ignore everything else I wrote. Or even the actual VGR, because the book doesn't say "use the spy entry." It says "has stats similar to the spy entry." As in, use this as the base power level, make her how you want. She doesn't have 15 HD and a greatsword. Also, Adam was barely a Darklord. He didn't even do anything evil beyond scare someone unintentionally, and he only wanted to be left alone. Even the Black Box says that the Dark Powers were more interested in Victor.

Also, Adam's stats were pretty dull in 2e as well. No special attacks, only special defense was that you needed a +1 weapon to hit him. He was just a combat monster. Even the basic 5e flesh golem is more interesting than he was.

I would challenge this. I am not critiquing the new entries (haven't read them but I am sure they tried to make them interesting). But the Adam entry was pretty impressive, especially for that time. So I am not knocking the new entries but defending this classic one.

Just to go over some crucial differences between him and a normal Flesh Golem. Adam had an Intelligence of 16, versus a Flesh Golem's 2-4. He had a better THAC0 (9 versus 11). Impressively they really emphasized that he wasn't Borris Karloff's monster, he was visibly inspired by the original novel. That is why he was so intelligent, but also why he is described as nimble, having a 12 movement rather than a Flesh Golem's 8, and 80% hide in shadows and move silently. Like you point out he couldn't be hit by a weapon unless it was +1, and he had 25% magic resistance (and he regenerates when you cast non-damaging spells on him as he absorbs them). Finally he can use a weapon, which a normal flesh golem can't and this gives him a +8 to damage. That isn't even getting into the personality description. But this quick section from the combat portion of his entry I think gives an idea of the kind of thought that was put into it:

1672601749055.png


One thing people might not appreciate is how powerful the Boris Karloff monster image was at this time. Pretty much most people assumed Frankenstein's monster was stupid, slow, lumbering, etc. I hadn't read the book until I saw the Lamordia entry. And the Black box quoted this section of Frankenstein which was like a revelation to me, and is the thing that motivated me to go buy the book and read it right away:

1672602010225.png


That passage really impressed me as I had always pictured the monster as unintelligent with bolts in his neck. And Flesh Golems were basically the Boris Karloff monster. The Black Box did a great job of committing to making Adam more like the original monster and making that difference in the source material clear to GMs. So a party encountering Adam for the first time in the early 90s, whose only point of reference was the bolted necked flesh golem from the MM, would be genuinely taken by surprise. He is intelligent, uses good tactics, agile, stealthy and a very formidable opponent.

A number of the Dark Lords had things that made them harder to kill. Those varied though from Domain to Domain (which I think just reflected different levels of challenge they could present: permanently killing Harkon Lukas is pretty damn difficult for example).

I will say that the Guide to the Created, which remains my favorite Van Richten guide, ended up really expanding what was possible with Flesh Golems and Golems in general in Ravenloft. And it cleverly threaded the slasher film genre through them but in a way that didn't upset the gothic mood of Ravenloft. The Black Box was pretty much anti-slasher, and this was a pretty interest move by Teeuwynn Woodruff the writer, and very well done. I was someone who very much agreed with the black box approach but she made a convincing argument for this angle which convinced me and proved to be so wonderful in actual play. So I think it is fair to say had Adam been designed a few years later, after the Guide to the Created had some out, there may have been more nuances in his stat block. But overall I think his entry and Mordenheim's were two of the most effective (and I liked that they did not shy away from the source material, even saying that Victor Mordenheim was Ravenloft's Frankenstein directly in the text).
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I'm guessing that VRGtR didn't do too well either, just based on my seeing it put on a fire sale for 70% off 18 months after its release and seeing stacks and stacks of it unsold on game store shelves. And Ravenloft was one of their bestselling product lines during that era. And Curse of Strahd is one of the highest regarded 5e adventures.

What might have been a better product? Maybe something like a Tales of the Yawning Portal or Ghosts of Saltmarsh adventure compilation updating those Ravenloft adventures to 5e - for the fans of Curse of Strahd who want more horror-themed games?.
yeah I think an adventure compilation with the House on Gryphon Hill and the Grim Harvest trilogy would have been a better introduction, the add a supplement after that (like Requiem but not that)
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
But overall I think his entry and Mordenheim's were two of the most effective (and I liked that they did not shy away from the source material, even saying that Victor Mordenheim was Ravenloft's Frankenstein directly in the text).
Don't forget the extra tidbit, introduced in Forbidden Lore (affiliate link), that Adam is himself capable of crafting flesh golems. But unlike Dr. Mordenheim, these are basic run-of-the-mill flesh golems, with no emotions and little sense of self, which invariably drives Adam to rage and either cast them out or destroy them. An excellent tidbit which makes Adam into (even more of) a dark mirror of his creator.
 

Voadam

Legend
yeah I think an adventure compilation with the House on Gryphon Hill and the Grim Harvest trilogy would have been a better introduction, the add a supplement after that (like Requiem but not that)
An adventure compilation of a lot of 2e module conversions could be great but I would not include the Grim Harvest.

Death Unchained, the first of the trilogy started it off terribly in tone. It went from having the default Ravenloft base be lower magic with a focus on investigating and foiling villains and gothic monsters to a high magic standard D&D. It took the one non-supernatural domain where the fighter darklord relied upon his evil highly skilled fighter based military and facist government to show human evil and turned it into a universally alchemically boosted and corrupted military with a complete supernaturally coercive aspect to the evil minions.

The soldiers went from being an army of third level fighters working for an evil historical nonmagical Dracula the impaler type military leader, to being cursed with evil upon joining the army in a process that requires grinding up incredibly powerful magic items presumably on a mass scale as this is the biggest military armed force in Ravenloft.

"They are recruited through an unusual method; upon conscription into the army, each is forced to drink a foul brew, the recipe for which is known only to Vlad Drakov (it is rumored to contain the gritty powder of a ground-up talisman of ultimate evil and swamp water from the lair of a will o' wisp). The unwilling imbiber must make a successful saving throw vs. spell or be driven mad. This insanity manifests itself as a switch to an evil alignment and an intense pleasure that is gained by witnessing a slow and painful death. The drink also provides a limited magical resistance"

I know, it is only rumored to use ground up ultimate evil. Still.

I was not a fan. :)

Night of the Walking Dead was fantastic.

Touch of Death was atmospheric and a lot of fun.

Howls in the Night was amazingly good.

Those would be my recommendations for a 5e conversion.
 

Don't forget the extra tidbit, introduced in Forbidden Lore (affiliate link), that Adam is himself capable of crafting flesh golems. But unlike Dr. Mordenheim, these are basic run-of-the-mill flesh golems, with no emotions and little sense of self, which invariably drives Adam to rage and either cast them out or destroy them. An excellent tidbit which makes Adam into (even more of) a dark mirror of his creator.

Lol. In my campaigns these days, I don't add anything past Feast of Goblyns. But that one in particular I was always on the fence with. I think in terms of gameability it does add something (you can easily make adventures around that) but I like it better with Adam having to go through Mordenheim for that kind of thing (like in his backstory and in the original Frankenstein novel).

Forbidden Lore was a good boxed set though. I remember really liking the Tarokka Deck and the Dice.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
.

Howls in the Night was amazingly good.

Those would be my recommendations for a 5e conversion.

Yeah Howls in the Night is my favourite and I’ve used it in non-Ravenloft games. Indeed Mordent with its ghost haunted moors is my favourite domain

In truth I suggested Grim Harvest because it’s a related series of adventures, not because they are the best.
Many in the Hexad adventures were better but unrelated adventures except for the prophecy as plot contrivance
 
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What exemplifies the general lack of attention and care in the book are the map scales.
There is very much nothing new there, so I can't really buy that as a "lack of care and attention". I've being going "What the actual..." to D&D and RPG products re: scales since I started in 1989. Even in products regarded as excellent, scales are often hilariously off in either direction.
 

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