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

As a "setting" book it's about on par with the others. lacks cohesion very rough around the edges. ERfLW being the only standout one that felt put together on all fronts.

As a source material for inspiration it's well worth having on hand if you like to run anything other than hack n slash megadungeons. Lots of good seeding material and the npc (monster) block are some of the best I've seen outside of homebrew.

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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.
I don't know how it compared at the time; however, it is #8* in the D&D category on Amazon and outselling every non-D&D book. So it seems to be selling ok.

*FYI, at #8 it is the highest selling D&D setting book on Amazon right now.



I don't know how it compared at the time; however, it is #8* in the D&D category on Amazon and outselling every non-D&D book. So it seems to be selling ok.

*FYI, at #8 it is the highest selling D&D setting book on Amazon right now.

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Eh, you have facts and sales figures, but I have nostalgia and a desire for this to fail so that the old days are seen as better. Let's call it a draw.

I never liked the Black Box Ravenloft. In particular I thought the idea of a "core" with trade and diplomacy undermined the horror concept, the setting up as darklords as a hitlist of boss fights made it more of a video game rather than a horror setting. If something has a stat block it means it's exists to be fought and killed. And there was simply too many repetitious domains, with an emphasis on quantity over quality.

So, speaking as a grognard, I felt VGR was a vast improvement.

I don't know how it compared at the time; however, it is #8* in the D&D category on Amazon and outselling every non-D&D book. So it seems to be selling ok.

*FYI, at #8 it is the highest selling D&D setting book on Amazon right now.

View attachment 271315
It's also $15.99, so it's entirely likely a lot of people are finally pulling the trigger on buying it because it's so cheap. I know if I was going to run CoS, I'd spend the extra $15 on this just in case there's something I could use.


My experience with Ravenloft
I’ve run the original I6 many times, as far back as at least 1989 and have also run I10, with one instance of running I6 & I10 concurrently.

I have all the 2E and most of the 3E Ravenloft products, and despite having read through them at one point or another, the only adventures I’ve attempted to run were Night of the Living Dead and Roots of Evil. After attempting to run Roots of Evil and the opening that kills the PCs went poorly in play, I became disillusioned with the official Ravenloft adventures and their propensity to kill/screw over the players at the start of the adventure. I read, but did not run other official Ravenloft adventures.

I was always bothered by the Victorian-age technology level of Ravenloft and the extreme human centric focus of the campaign, to the point it really seemed the authors wanted no magic or demihumans in the campaign at all - which was pretty apparent by the later release of The Mask of the Red Death campaign and books.

Likewise, I was never really enamored with the “core” lands configuration as I much preferred the “weekend in Hell” aspect of Ravenloft. Until the Domains of Dread supplement, the thought of running a full-blown campaign in Ravenloft from start to finish did not appeal to me.

When it came to Darklords, a lot of the way the stats were done did not appeal to me - for example, the 0th level Darklords or even the Reniers who were mere wererats of extremely low power. Back in the day, I had some issues creating adventures using these low-level/non-existant combat threats in a way they couldn’t be dealt with by means of direct combat and yet still be something PCs would fear - my players tended to solve things by violence, and setting up an encounter with these Darklords that wouldn’t end up with an anticlimactic death on the end of the first sword swing was something I struggled with for some time.

What probably made me most furious about older Ravenloft was the meta plot. The Grand Conjuction, the Grim Harvest - what these events did to change the campaign setting greatly upset me. I did not like having the rug yanked out from under me because I refused to play the modules and the constant map changes irked me.

I was very disappointed with Expedition to Castle Ravenloft in 3E, both due to the Delve format that put an encounter behind EVERY door and pushed the whole affair away from Gothic and towards Lovecraftian horror. It is my least favorite version of the Castle.

I see the VRGtR guide as both filled with good and bad. The advice for setting up the mood and play style I find to be helpful, and the discussion of the various forms of horror was enlightening to me. That section is the real value of the current book.

I’m not overly fond of the character options, but they aren’t repulsive. I could use them or lose them, and can easily ignore them if I choose. I am a bit unhappy in that they all seem to lean into “embrace the dark side” sort of options instead of having more “champions of light against the darkness” options.

The “sample” domains is probably the biggest area where the book falls down, though. Which is a shame, since this should be the heart of what the book is about.

Though, I actually liked some of the changes to the various domains, but really wish those changes - like Dementliu’s - were different domains instead of overwriting the old. The addition of train 1313 was really nice, and the change to Falkovia actually inspired me to run a Halloween game that I had a lot of fun with. Personally, I do like fracturing the core in a way that each domain is an island that can be connected (or thrown out) as the DM likes, and even more strongly enforces the “borders” and ability to isolate each domain of the old campaign set. Unlike the older version, the default is that borders being closed seems to be continuously “on” rather than “off” until the Darklords (or other forces) turn it on. To me, this further enhances the feeling of being “cut off” and isolated from easy escape, aid or otherwise evading events.

However, I was disappointed with some things, such as the visual changes to Anktepot, and the retelling of Lamordia simply fell flat for me. Once again, on other domains - such as Darkon - changing the realm up bothered me as I’d rather have not be forced to incorporate the metaplot from ages ago. I also wasn’t fond of the space given to the Carnival. While I know that existed back in 2E, it just felt like it was a big ad for Witchlight and could have been just a short paragraph better spent on detailing another domain instead.

Top it all off, several of the maps in VRGtR look horrible - Lamordia is the worst offender, but the lack of unifying appearance is jarring. To me, the Ravenloft maps should look more Victorian in style - clean, formal and uncluttered.

I’m fine without the stat blocks for the various Darklords, nor do I mind them referencing generic MM stat blocks. It keeps that information out of the hands of the players, and as a DM you can take and tweak the suggestions to better fit a given encounter with the PCs - we all know that Strahd isn’t a “typical” vampire and I doubt anyone would actually use the MM stat block of vampire for him unless they were in a pinch. And unless the PCs are going to directly confront and attempt to destroy the Darklord, do you really need their stat block? And in such a case there is going to be conflict, wouldn’t you have already prepared a custom stat block for such an encounter?

As for the adventure, I didn’t really pay much attention to it. Glancing over it looks like it could be fun, but I would have much rather had the space available to include more domains - especially new ones - or more monsters with which to terrorize my players.

Overall, I enjoy the book. I’ve already gotten use out of it and can certainly expect I’ll get much more use out of it in the future. I’m also lucky to have access to a lot of the old campaign materials, and it should be breeze to convert any of the old domains into 5E if I want to bring them in. I think WotC could have delved deeper into more domains, but in some ways I’m glad they didn’t as it probably would have just ruffled more feathers.

As an aside, I’m still up in the air whether to include the Nightmare Lands back into 5E; its Darklords were interesting visually, but the realm itself and their backgrounds were … cringe, to say the least.

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