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Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: An In-Depth Review

The last few D&D books had a lot for DMs. Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft tops them all. Players will get a lot out of it, too, but VRGtR is a feast of useful, imagination-sparking material—and that's not entirely limited to those who like horror.
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The Demiplane of Dread known as Ravenloft is the star, of course, but VRGtR is more than just a setting book. While it highlights and refreshes domains from other editions and adds new ones, it takes a similar approach to Acquisitions Inc., Eberron: Rising from the Last War, and Explorer's Guide to Wildemount in that it includes a short adventure but otherwise explains how to make adventures and characters for the settings.

VRGtR has domains from older editions of Ravenloft, brand-new ones, and information on how to make your own. That's in addition to an abundance of material on creating horror adventures, different styles of horror, ensuring everyone has fun, pacing, and much more. The book also repeatedly reminds DMs to create adventures the players consider spooky fun, not miserable or disturbing.

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Return to Ravenloft​

If you're new to Ravenloft or only know what's in Curse of Strahd, Ravenloft began as a module of the same title in 1983 for first edition D&D. The Gothic adventure featured the villain and “first vampire” Strahd von Zarovich. It was an instant hit and has appeared in some fashion in every edition of D&D since. In 1990 Ravenloft became a full campaign setting in a boxed set for 2nd Edition. Ravenloft is part of the Demiplane of Dread and was first listed as part of the Ethereal Plane. Now that demiplane is associated with the Shadowfell.

While Strahd rules Barovia, his domain, which resembles a Hollywood horror version of Transylvania, over time additional Dread Domains were added with darklords ruling them that resembled classic monsters like Doctor Frankenstein, the Mummy, and more. Separating the domains from each other and other D&D settings are the Mists.

Keeping in mind that D&D has gained a lot of new players through 5th Edition, VRGtR opens with an overview of the Land of Mists in case it's your first trip to the setting, as well as the seven secrets of Ravenloft. The essential rules for the domains and darklords follow with an explanation how the Dark Powers trap unrepentantly evil darklords in the domains, because that's what they are—prisons for the most evil of beings. Notes from NPCs like Doctor Van Richten add insights.

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New, Creepy Character Options​

The Character Creation chapter starts with advice for players, including what they can do to help maintain the tone and tension that's part of the horror genre. VRGtR provides a lot of advice for DMs and players throughout the book and while the advice is geared toward the horror genre, much of it is just good advice in general.

The Gothic lineages previewed recently in Unearthed Arcana material appear here with a few changes. Lineages function similar to races and taking one will alter your character's core traits even though they'll still look(or mostly look) like a dwarf, human, dragonborn, orc., etc. The lineages are Dhampir (someone with aspects of a vampire without being a full vampire), Hexblood (those who have a fey or witchcraft lineage or who have made a deal with a hag), and Reborn (those who have died but still live through unnatural means).

The biggest change was geared toward keeping things simple—maintaining a single creature type per character as opposed to the dual creature type in the UA material. It's a smart decision because the dual creature type could lead to a level of complexity that 5th Edition has tried to avoid or minimize. So now Dhampir, Hexblood, and Reborn are all creature type humanoid instead of also being undead or fey.

As a nod to the concept of dual creature types, the Dhampir gained “deathless nature,” though it's a different version than the one the Reborn already had. For the Dhampir, it just means that they don't have to breathe, which opens up some interesting possibilities (hiding in a bag of holding? Creeping people out by visibly not breathing? Being sent to explore underwater?). A few other things have been tweaked or clarified, like specifying “piercing damage” in the description of a bite attack that allows a dhampir to regain hit points after using their bite to attack. Hexbloods lose fey resilience.

If your DM agrees, the Gothic lineages can transform an existing character. That's a juicy story option for a character who survives a vampire attack, dies, or is willing to bargain to get something they fiercely desire—inside Ravenloft or elsewhere. Objectively, the Gothic lineages look like they'll be fun to play. Subjectively, I like the Dhampir and Reborn better than Hexblood even though mechanically and in story terms all three are well done. The lineages are the just the start of material that could be used in non-Ravenloft games, DM permitting, of course.

Dark Gifts are the next character option, and they represent a benefit that comes with an insidious effect from the Dark Powers. The Dark Gift options are Soul Echoes (influence from a past life), Whispering Spirits (souls talk to you), Living Shadow (animated shadow), Mist Walker (you can navigate the mists—if luck is with you), Second Skin (you have an alternate form—good or evil), Symbiotic Being (your body isn't your own), Touch of Death, and Watchers (ethereal creatures follow you). The Second Skin is the most intriguing to me. It would allow a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hide option or perhaps your character was touched by celestial energy to be a beacon of hope in the dark.

While they're “intended for starting characters” a DM and player could agree to add one later based on events that happened in the game. I really like this latter option, especially if used in non-Ravenloft adventures. Whether added later or part of initial character creation, players are recommended to work out the details with the DM. I also like the Dark Gifts because if they're handled properly, they can lead to some very character-driven scenarios.

VRGtR also provides two new subclass options, both of which previously appeared in Unearthed Arcana. Bards get the College of Spirits. These bards seek stories that contain power—legends, histories, etc.—and then use their power to tap into these capricious spirits. The book version pretty much matches the Unearthed Arcana version except for modifications to the table for Spirit Tales.

If you like creepy bards and play College of Whisper bards, the College of Spirit subclass will appeal to you. With items such as skulls as a spell focus option, you can have fun role-playing this one. The College of Spirits Bard is interesting and definitely adds a flavor appropriate for Ravenloft.

Personally, I find the other subclass, Warlock: Undead Pact, more engaging. In this case power comes through a bargain with a powerful undead creature like a demilich, dragolich, etc. Depending upon the level and ability you get temp hit points, the ability to resist damage, and even cause necrotic damage when you would normally hit zero hit points (in addition to going back up to 1 HP). Other than changing the name of the Mortal Husk ability to Necrotic Husk, this Warlock basically matches the UA version.

Backgrounds get some attention with options for Inheritor, Mist Wanderer, Spirit Medium, Trauma Survivor, plus Haunted One and Investigator. You also get tables for generating flaws, ideals, bonds and personality traits for horror adventures. The Gothic trinkets chart from CoS is reprinted and expanded. The original version had a d100 roll but each item had a span of two numbers for 50 items. The new version has a full 100 items.

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Creating a Darklord​

While VRGtR has classic, refreshed, and new Domains of Dread, before you get to that material, the book gives you a full chapter on how to create your own domains. Because each domain is a reflection of its master and prisoner, it starts with creating the darklord.

Darklords are different than other villains in that they are unrepentantly evil. Normal villains could be redeemed or misunderstood. While evil, normal villains could hesitate or even change. Darklords have undertaken their evil acts consciously and full intent. They may regret their current situation but not what they did to make it happen.

Additionally, if you decide to create a haunted house adventure, the questions for creating the part of the domain that replays the darklord's crime as punishment can be used to flesh out for any setting. Suggestions for ways to torment the darklord—remember, their domain is their prison so it can't be enjoyable—could also be repurposed, especially for hellish settings.

Then, to further distinguish the domains more, VRGtR provides a list of cultural questions to answer while creating the domain. Obviously, if you already have idea, you can go with that but these questions can still help you flesh out the setting. Further idea prompts about the mists and how they work in your domain, what can lead to the darklord's downfall. Charts to steer the darklord's connections to adventurers and their interactions fill out.

None of the darklords mentioned get stat blocks. Since Strahd had one in CoS it's a little odd, but it also shifts the focus away from head-to-head contact and more role-play. No stat blocks also means that a DM can scale a darklord as appropriate for a scenario. It prevents players who read VRGtR from thinking, oh, this one is just that CR. Not knowing contributes to character caution and fear.

One of the other things I love about VRGtR is that it's a great toolkit for horror adventures. While horror is addressed more thoroughly later, it starts in this chapter with an exploration of different types of horror. Body horror, cosmic horror, dark fantasy, folk horror, ghost stories and Gothic horror all get two full pages that explain what that type of horror is, plot and setting ideas, a list of monsters appropriate for this type of horror (from either the Monster Manual or VRGtR), torments, and ideas for villains. Four other types of horror—disaster horror, occult detective horror, psychological horror, and slasher horror, only get a half a page so they don't get the charts the other categories do, but they do get an excellent set of questions for creating adventures.

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Domains Old and New​

Then you get a hefty chapter on existing and new domains of dread, 17 of which range from two to eight pages and then another 22 just get a paragraph but the limited space is still packed with great ideas. For example, the domain Cyre 1313: The Mourning Rail is a haunted train. This traveling domain is fleeing an environmental catastrophe in Eberron, and its engine functions on necrotic energy as it carries passengers that don't realize they're dead.

Barovia, of course, gets one of the more robust descriptions to supplement and expand what was presented in CoS. Falkovnia is never-ending zombie horror—only Ravenloft zombies can still attack even when dismembered, making them especially terrifying.

The Carnival is another revived version from the past. Like the Cyre 1313 domain, the Carnival is a traveling domain that can often cross the borders of other domains. Unlike the other darklords, who are some form of humanoid, the darklord of Carnival is Nepenthe, the holy avenger sword, created by the shadar-kai, that burns with hate for the guilty. Wielded by Isolde, who runs the Carnival, she protects the carnival folk as long as they follow the rules. Inevitably, though, the locals turn on them, forcing the Carnival to move again.

I really like the revised version of Har'Akir. Ruled by a mummy lord, the original version of Ankhtepot was inspired by the Boris Karloff classic mummy movie. The thing is that movie had a lot of style but not much of story. In this revised version, Ankhtepot is an arrogant, power hungry high priest who betrays his pharaoh and, ultimately, his gods.

The domain of Kalakeri is a blend of Gothic horror and dark fantasy inspired by folklore from India. Ramya Vasavadan is the darklord and tyrant, locked in an eternal battle of betrayal and war with her siblings. While Ramya has been reborn in the domain as a death knight, her brother Arijani, reborn as a rakshasa and her sister Reeva, reborn as an arcanolich. The three fight for the Sapphire Throne with the people of Kalakeri torn between Ramya's loyalists, Arijani and Reeva's fanatical rebels, and common folk just trying to get by.

Both old and new domains in VRGtR are imaginative and packed with ideas. Whether you use the plot seeds provided or use the descriptions of the domain to create your own, VRGtR gives you a lot to work with.

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Classic NPCs and Groups​

Along with the revived domains, other groups and NPCs are revisited and, in some cases, advanced beyond their last appearances. Keepers of the Feather began in Barovia as wereravens working against Strahd; as some heard calls for help and hope beyond the mists, some members moved to other domains. Depending upon where you encounter the term “Keepers of the Feather” they could be true to their Barovian roots or misunderstood thanks to flawed information. As with so much in VRGtR the DM has tools to spin whatever kind of story that would entertain their players.

In my review for Candlekeep Mysteries I mentioned that the adventure, Book of the Raven, provided a glimpse of the new direction WotC was taking with the Vistani. In VRGtR the Vistani are significantly revamped and yet recognizable from both earlier versions of Ravenloft and Gothic horror tropes. According to reports, WotC worked with Romani consultant to address and change stereotypes that persist in fiction and the original version of the Vistani.

Here, the Vistani are still travelers who can cross the mists that act as boundaries for the domains, though they take precautions when they do so. Instead of being “servants of Strahd” who trick people into crossing the mists to enter Barovia or being thieves and murderers, they make their living through trade, craftwork, and performance. Vistani wagons are the only access to outside supplies and news in the more remote parts of the domains.

In this version of the Vistani, while most are human, over time some Vistani bands have adopted people from other ancestries such as halflings, dwarves, orcs, etc., making them full members of the Vistani community. References to them being drunkards are gone. Instead they're magical travelers who know evil is real, fate is powerful and fickle, and time moves differently between domains. Individual Vistani can still be unsavory—Madame Eva is a frequent ally of Strahd. However, the Vistani can vary in personality and motivation as any other group. The changes are nicely done, maintaining a certain flavor without the racist stereotypes. The backstory of Ezmerelda d'Avenir, who now goes by “Ez”, also changes slightly. Instead of being Vistani, her manipulative family only pretended to be Vistani to prey upon travelers.

Other NPCs from earlier editions of Ravenloft also return and like the darklords, they don't get stat blocks so you can make them what you want. One of my rare disappointments in VRGtR is that among the many pages of DM advice they don't include guidance on how to balance well-known NPCs that the players might be eager to interact with while keeping the focus firmly on the player characters.

In addition to Ez, Rudolph Van Richten, whose name graces this book, and his ghost son Eramus are included along with Jandar Sunstar, the Weathermay-Foxglove twins, and others. The famous occult detective Alanik Ray and adventuring physician Arthur Sedgwick are an example of how they're updated. While pursuing a serial killer Alanik fell from a roof, paralyzing his legs. Since his intellect has always been his greatest weapon, he still solves mysteries from a custom wheelchair, aided by Sedgwick, who he married.

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Building Horror That's Fun​

Chapter 4 is a master class in creating horror adventures, setting the tone, and ensuring that your players enjoy themselves. It starts with an explanation of what makes an adventure horror and setting expectations. A list of questions enables the DM to determine the type of horror their players are interested in, what they don't want, and limits agreed upon in advance.

More than once the DM and players are reminded that the goal is creepy, spooky, thrilling fun. Including things that might mind someone of a phobia or a description that turns their stomach isn't fun. Some in the game industry will scoff at setting boundaries, but I've seen more than one group at my FLGS fall apart when a DM thought it would be “cool” to “shock” players with excessively grisly descriptions of physical torture or even alluding to bestiality with lycanthropes. If they like extreme scenarios, that's fine. The advice is solid: talking to your players, learning what interests them, and creating surprises within those themes and tones will keep your players happy and engaged.

VRGtR recommends the information on doing a Session Zero from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything. At the same time, VRGtR adds additional information and topics to discuss in the Session Zero for a horror game, including how to customize the sort of horror that will thrill your players and keep them coming back.

In addition to talking to your players before and while planning your game, touching base during play can also ensure that everyone has fun. This chapter also includes instructions on what the X-Card is and how to use it, written by its designer, John Stavropoulos. It's a very simple mechanic that can be added to any game.

The advice on running an adventure and keeping focus on the game is useful for almost any RPG and genre. It gives good advice on limiting distractions, using props and music without creating hazards, location and accessibility concerns and more. Limiting distractions when you're trying to build tension makes sense but some players concentrate better when they're hands are busy. Dim lights can set a mood but players need enough light to read their character sheets—and you want to avoid fire hazards. Those last points may seem obvious but more than one “atmospheric” game had practical problems.

DMs are also coached on how to pace horror, building trust, giving characters just enough hope to offset the fear and keep them going, and how to make the characters question what they're experiencing in a way that creates a nightmare reality that's fun. How much to explain and when to let the players' imaginations fill in the gaps is also explored.

VRGtR also gives good advice on how to describe monsters so they sound scary. Just saying, “you see a werewolf” isn't scary. Describing the sound of a low growl as an over-sized wolf stares at you with blood from a recent kill dripping from its sharp teeth” sets a mood and captures your players' imaginations in a way that will have them bragging about your game.

This chapter even addresses topics like how to subvert cliches, planning breaks, and checking in with your players. Whether you like horror or not, every DM should read this chapter. Regardless of your game or genre, the advice is that useful, if not downright essential.

The character creation chapter mentioned talking to your DM about including certain options, agreeing on backgrounds, etc. This chapter handles that topic from the DM's perspective, reminding them that players want agency over their character. You might think it's cool that your story involves your players taking on a Dark Gift or even being infected with full-fledged vampirism or lycanthropy but your players might not agree. Talking to your player about such an idea is always a better idea.

The rest of the chapter is a horror toolkit that spends a couple of pages on curses, how to rethink them, and make them more challenging. Haunted traps are another cool option. Neither mechanical nor magical, these traps are supernatural threats to trespassers.

There is also advice on how to create a mix of fear and tension. A Seeds of Fear table offers suggestions for things that could apply to characters or be incited during the game. The fear within the game creates a Stress Score that will adversely affect characters as it builds—unless they do something to relieve that stress. I like these mechanics much better than the madness mechanics in CoS, which were often awkward for players to act out or absurdly extreme in a way that negatively affected the tone of the game.

This Horror Toolkit chapter is packed with excellent material, and one of my favorites is at the end—survivors. Much like sidekicks in the D&D Essentials Kit, survivors are pre-made characters that are perfect for people who want to try D&D, are just dropping in for a single session in a longer campaign, etc. They get talents up through 3rd level and come in four varieties—apprentice, disciple, sneak, and squire. Anything that makes it easy for a curious newcomer to try an RPG is a good thing in my book.

The adventure “House of Lament” rounds out the chapter. This short adventure takes players up through 3rd level. I don't want to give too much away about the adventure but if you've ever read Poe's The Cask of Amontillado you'll have a clue as to the haunted history of Castle Laventz.

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Monsters of Ravenloft​

Before getting to stat blocks, Chapter 5 gives advice on how to make any monster more compelling and scary. It advises DMs to treat monsters as unique individuals and to consider the monsters' origin. Monster tactics, traits, and minions are all addressed. So is how to create unique nightmares.

This final chapter contains 32 stat blocks ranging in their CR from 1/8 to 21. Some, like the vampiric mind flayer, have appeared in prior incarnations of Ravenloft, some, like wereravens, had already made their 5th Edition debut in CoS, and others are new to the setting like Jiangshi, a type of undead inspired by Chinese folklore.

If you've been disappointed by the werewolves and other lycanthropes in the Monster Manual, you'll like the loup garou. With a CR of 13, it's definitely a challenge. No simple Remove Curse spell will fix it either. Instead you have to kill the one that turned you and then maybe Remove Curse will work—if you make the save.

If you like the movie The Thing, the Lesser and Greater Star Spawn Emissaries will interest you. At CR 19 and 21, respectively, they're definitely creatures you could wrap not just a boss fight around but an entire campaign. The lesser form is designed for infiltration, has telepathy so they understand any language, and can take any shape. Both forms have legendary actions and legendary resistance. The greater form has a bile attack that can even produce Gibbering Mouthers.

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Is This Book for Me?​

When possible, I like to give readers a list of things that will help them decide if the book or product is right for them. In the case of VRGtR the only reason why it wouldn't be for you would be if you absolutely hate the horror genre and horror adventures. And yet...

VRGtR does such a good job with the DM's advice on making sure your players are enjoying themselves, designing games, making your game more engaging, and so much more that you still might want to consider it. While the advice is geared toward horror, the vast majority of it applies to any genre and setting tone, having the right pace, and creating appropriate tension in the characters is universal. The only difference is that if you really dislike horror, you might want to borrow your friend's copy or wait till the book is on sale.

If you're a horror fan, VRGtR is a no-brainer. Whatever your taste in horror, VRGtR has good advice on how to run it and create adventures for it. Even comedy gets a brief mention as a method to adjust pacing and lighten mood as a way to creating more impact in the heavier scenes that might follow it.

I also love books that spark my imagination. Even when I run a printed adventure, I like to change things up, mix in my own ideas, etc. VRGtR is so jam-packed with creativity, interesting ideas, and evocative settings that while reading it I periodically stopped to jot down an idea for the future.

My main complaint is an incredibly small one—an appendix that gave examples of the various types of horror cited in the media would have been a great touch for those not familiar the various types or wanting additional inspiration. Everything else are equally small quibbles, and they're extremely few in number.

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft is easily the best book for 5th Edition produced yet. Imaginative settings, terrifying monsters, a good adventure, character options that are fun to role-play, and outstanding advice for DMs—it's a winner hands down. My rating: A+
 

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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
If a train is stopped an investigation is carried out and the person who triggered it must explain why.

The X-Card as written deliberately gives cover for abuse. It is like allowing anyone to stop a train at any time for any reason without telling anyone why. Even the DM. That is not a workable law. It was written by someone who has probably never witnessed abuse that affects other people. Because if the world was run in such laws, rather than safety, we would face chaos.
I know he's no longer in the discussion, but whether someone has reservations about certain aspects of certain safety tools or not (and I think there are arguments to be made), equating their held-up game with a stopped train (and all that means for timetables and public safety) is an exercise in gross disproportionality. It's much more like my daughter having to leave the movie theater and me having to take her home because the loud sounds of the movie were starting to set off her misophonia and an anxiety attack that evening. It's inconvenient. It's disappointing because I wanted to see more of the movie. But it's not the end of the world and her safety will always more important than my enjoyment of that movie at that time and place.
 

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MGibster

Legend
So in reality, there may actually have been quite a bit of mental or emotional harm done purely by accident because of previously accepted societal norms--and that's ignoring those people who deliberately engage in cruelties while gaming.
I'm willing to concede that I might be mistaken and there have been many players mentally harmed by the contents of the games they've participated in. Do you know of any studies from the CDC, psychologist or organizations with an interest in mental health who have published literature on the subject of mental trauma inflicted during role playing games?
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I'm willing to concede that I might be mistaken and there have been many players mentally harmed by the contents of the games they've participated in. Do you know of any studies from the CDC, psychologist or organizations with an interest in mental health who have published literature on the subject of mental trauma inflicted during role playing games?
We’re not talking about trauma inflicted during roleplaying games. We’re talking about post-traumatic stress triggered by roleplaying games.
 

MGibster

Legend
We’re not talking about trauma inflicted during roleplaying games. We’re talking about post-traumatic stress triggered by roleplaying games.
I've been working under the assumption that triggering a panic attack was a form of trauma. But fine, are you aware of any studies that deal with PTSD and role playing games?
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I've been working under the assumption that triggering a panic attack was a form of trauma. But fine, are you aware of any studies that deal with PTSD and role playing games?
Not roleplaying games specifically. There’s plenty of literature on post-traumatic stress generally.
 


MGibster

Legend
I'm constantly amazed how the notion of "respect other players boundaries" is somehow controversial.
I'm frequently amazed by the notion that anyone who dislikes the X-Card somehow has a problem with respecting boundaries. I've actually argued that boundaries need to be established at the beginning of the game not in the middle of it.

Not roleplaying games specifically. There’s plenty of literature on post-traumatic stress generally.

And does that literature suggest the use of safety words to be used by all participants in other social situations?
 

McGibster Here is a very simple article about anxiety triggers which you can read. 11 Anxiety Triggers and How to Identify and Manage Them

Here are 2 sections from the article that relate to things that can happen in rpgs.

10. Public events or performances​

Public speaking, talking in front of your boss, performing in a competition, or even just reading aloud is a common trigger of anxiety. If your job or hobbies require this, your doctor or therapist can work with you to learn ways to be more comfortable in these settings.

Also, positive reinforcements from friends and colleagues can help you feel more comfortable and confident.

11. Personal triggers​

These triggers may be difficult to identify, but a mental health specialist is trained to help you identify them. These may begin with a smell, a place, or even a song. Personal triggers remind you, either consciously or unconsciously, of a bad memory or traumatic event in your life. Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently experience anxiety triggers from environmental triggers.

Identifying personal triggers may take time, but it’s important so you can learn to overcome them.

so while I am unaware of any specific literature about triggers in rpgs, you can clearly see from the 2 listed items above that it is accepted mental health that the types of things that can come up in any rpg could certainly trigger a persons anxiety...
 

Remathilis

Legend
I'm frequently amazed by the notion that anyone who dislikes the X-Card somehow has a problem with respecting boundaries. I've actually argued that boundaries need to be established at the beginning of the game not in the middle of it.

Ideally, both. You should establish limits and preferences early, but it doesn't hurt to have some form of handbrake in case things do go off the rails. Their is a reason why concepts like "safe words" exist in OTHER forms of "adult roleplaying" as well a "lights on" protocols in various interactive attractions...
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
I'm frequently amazed by the notion that anyone who dislikes the X-Card somehow has a problem with respecting boundaries. I've actually argued that boundaries need to be established at the beginning of the game not in the middle of it.
You can't expect to perfectly cover any possible problem in a pre-game talk or between game talks. Session Zero only covers so much. Things come up in game. There needs to be a way to handle problems during play. And "too bad, deal with it" isn't really a helpful response.
 

MGibster

Legend
You can't expect to perfectly cover any possible problem in a pre-game talk or between game talks. Session Zero only covers so much. Things come up in game. There needs to be a way to handle problems during play. And "too bad, deal with it" isn't really a helpful response.
I'm not exactly demanding perfection here. It's been argued in this thread that it's unreasonable to expect someone to tell you during session zero what they don't want to see. My biggest problem with that is the X-Card isn't played until after a player is faced with something that causes them discomfort. If boundaries aren't established prior to starting game play then the game isn't safe.
 

Faolyn

Hero
I'm willing to concede that I might be mistaken and there have been many players mentally harmed by the contents of the games they've participated in. Do you know of any studies from the CDC, psychologist or organizations with an interest in mental health who have published literature on the subject of mental trauma inflicted during role playing games?
I don't read psychiatric journals for fun, so no. And does something have to inflict long-term psychological damage for it to matter? Does merely causing someone unnecessary temporary pain not count?

Anecdotally, I suggest looking at r/rpghorrorstories where, if those stories are to be believed, all sorts of unpleasantries has been inflicted on hapless players, sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately. And personally, I've both been subjected to and witnessed other people getting the "it's just a joke!" or "I say that to everyone!" bit.

But here's the thing: if a player says "please don't include X in the game," then there's a very good chance that if you choose to include X, you might end up causing that person harm. It might just be temporary harm, but considering that you're playing a game, there's no reason for even temporary pain to be inflicted if it can be avoided.

If a player taps the X card, do they need to explain why, exactly, they want to move away from whatever the topic is? No, as long as they say which topic they want to avoid so the others don't get confused and say "but we've talked about gnomes before with no problems."

Do you really need a study to tell you that?

I've actually argued that boundaries need to be established at the beginning of the game not in the middle of it.
And if that person didn't realize that boundary needed to be set at the beginning of the game? Or if it's a new problem that's upsetting them that didn't exist then?
 

MGibster

Legend
so while I am unaware of any specific literature about triggers in rpgs, you can clearly see from the 2 listed items above that it is accepted mental health that the types of things that can come up in any rpg could certainly trigger a persons anxiety...
I'm aware of this. When someone is suffering from an anxiety disorder you never know what might trigger a response. Walking down the street on a sunny day and taking in the scent of flowers or hearing thunder in the distant might trigger a response. I've heard it argued that RPGs are inherently dangerous for some people. I'd like to see evidence that this is the case. Peer reviewed evidence. I'm asking you the same thing I'd ask people in the 80s who told us role playing games were dangerous because of the potential psychological damage it can cause to participants. As far as I can tell, the X-Card is there to prevent a problem that doesn't exist. Players aren't being triggered and having panic attacks at gaming tables across the nation.
 

Faolyn

Hero
I'm aware of this. When someone is suffering from an anxiety disorder you never know what might trigger a response. Walking down the street on a sunny day and taking in the scent of flowers or hearing thunder in the distant might trigger a response. I've heard it argued that RPGs are inherently dangerous for some people. I'd like to see evidence that this is the case. Peer reviewed evidence. I'm asking you the same thing I'd ask people in the 80s who told us role playing games were dangerous because of the potential psychological damage it can cause to participants. As far as I can tell, the X-Card is there to prevent a problem that doesn't exist. Players aren't being triggered and having panic attacks at gaming tables across the nation.
Nobody has said that RPGs are "inherently dangerous." What we've said is that it's very possible to cause harm to a person accidentally by things that are often in used in RPGs, such as certain monsters like giant spiders, harm to children, rape or sex slavery, torture, demon possession, etc.
 

MGibster

Legend
Nobody has said that RPGs are "inherently dangerous." What we've said is that it's very possible to cause harm to a person accidentally by things that are often in used in RPGs, such as certain monsters like giant spiders, harm to children, rape or sex slavery, torture, demon possession, etc.
It's a long thread but other posters have said that RPGs are inherently dangerous for some people. And I think this is a good time for me to bow out of the discussion regarding X-Cards. I've said my peace and it appears as though we're just circling around repeating the same points and counterpoints. We are not going to see eye-to-eye on this.
 

Necrozius

Explorer
It's a long thread but other posters have said that RPGs are inherently dangerous for some people. And I think this is a good time for me to bow out of the discussion regarding X-Cards. I've said my peace and it appears as though we're just circling around repeating the same points and counterpoints. We are not going to see eye-to-eye on this.
There is something inherently risky about intense social interactions (especially 3-4 hour games) with complete strangers. Something that happens regularly in this hobby.

Anecdotally, my experiences with RPGs with strangers or new acquaintances have often led to thoroughly unpleasant situations. I’ve bowed out early from sessions at someone’s house, causing all kinds of backlash and verbal abuse. I’ve been at conventions where you were not allowed to leave mid-session for whatever reason or you were literally kicked out (so having to remain sitting at a table with socially incompatible or outright assholes).

This is why I only play with close friends, but I know that many people don’t have that luxury and are stuck with playing with strangers. Hence why I can understand why the X Card exists.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I'm not exactly demanding perfection here.
Except you are. You're putting 100% of the work on pre-game or between-session safety tools. If players want their boundaries respected, they must inform you beforehand what those boundaries are, or after a session after those boundaries have already been violated. Further, you're refusing to acknowledge that there is a need for during-session safety tools.
It's been argued in this thread that it's unreasonable to expect someone to tell you during session zero what they don't want to see.
No, it hasn't. What's been argued is that sometimes things will occur during a session that are problematic that the player did not foresee being a problem and that the player should not have to justify their trauma to the DM in the middle of the session with a table full of other players. Hence the need for during-session safety tools, such as the X-card.
My biggest problem with that is the X-Card isn't played until after a player is faced with something that causes them discomfort. If boundaries aren't established prior to starting game play then the game isn't safe.
See, that's what I'm saying. You're assuming a few things here. First, that safety tools are an either, or proposition. They're not. You can use lines & veils along with the X-card. Along with a rating system. Along with whatever else. Second, you're assuming that pre-game and between-session safety tools will be perfect and catch all issues. Third, you're refusing to acknowledge that accidents or problems can still happen during a session.

You use Session Zero to establish expectations. You use lines & veils to establish what's off limits and what should be kept in the background, to establish boundaries. But, even after doing that you can still have problems arise during a session, so you need during-session safety tools. These kinds of tools are for the things that fall through the cracks. It's literally impossible to perfectly catch everything with pre-game or between-session safety tools, but you still use them to account for as many known quantities as you can. The player who knows they don't want to have genocide in game, for example. During play there will still be unknown quantities that pop up. The player who didn't know that a description of a miscarriage was going to bother them, for example. Even if you have miscarriage on your lines and veils list, the player might not think it will be a problem until they get into the actual game and are faced with the actual description of the event. Dealing with those situations is what during-session safety tools, like the X-card, are for.

To reject the X-card because it is used after a player has a problem is to assume that pre-game or between-session safety tools can perfectly catch every problem. They literally can't. So you have to have something in place for during-session problems. By definition, those can only be use after a player has an issue. The alternative is to ignore that player's problem and trauma during the session, likely continuing along the same track and making that problem and trauma worse. Putting off dealing with that until between sessions is still dealing with it after a player has a problem. You're just putting the flow of the game over the additional problem and trauma that could have been avoided by pausing when the problem came up during the session.
 
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I'm aware of this. When someone is suffering from an anxiety disorder you never know what might trigger a response. Walking down the street on a sunny day and taking in the scent of flowers or hearing thunder in the distant might trigger a response. I've heard it argued that RPGs are inherently dangerous for some people. I'd like to see evidence that this is the case. Peer reviewed evidence. I'm asking you the same thing I'd ask people in the 80s who told us role playing games were dangerous because of the potential psychological damage it can cause to participants. As far as I can tell, the X-Card is there to prevent a problem that doesn't exist. Players aren't being triggered and having panic attacks at gaming tables across the nation.
From this web site: Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA
  • Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.
so you’re saying
1. none of these 40M Americans are playing rpgs...
2. or if they are none of them have had a panic attack while playing...

and I can say with 100% confidence that at lease 1 person with medically treated anxiety plays rpgs. Me. And do you know what, I don’t really generally speak of it with casual acquaintances or total strangers. My gaming group with whom I’ve been good friends with, and playing with since 1980 don‘t know about it.

all that people are asking is for gamers to say here’s an option for people...

I just don’t get what’s so hard about that...
 

Except you are. You're putting 100% of the work on pre-game or between-session safety tools. If players want their boundaries respected, they must inform you beforehand what those boundaries are, or after a session after those boundaries have already been violated. Further, you're refusing to acknowledge that there is a need for during-session safety tools.

No, it hasn't. What's been argued is that sometimes things will occur during a session that are problematic that the player did not foresee being a problem and that the player should not have to justify their trauma to the DM in the middle of the session with a table full of other players. Hence the need for during-session safety tools, such as the X-card.

See, that's what I'm saying. You're assuming a few things here. First, that safety tools are an either, or proposition. They're not. You can use lines & veils along with the X-card. Along with a rating system. Along with whatever else. Second, you're assuming that pre-game and between-session safety tools will be perfect and catch all issues. Third, you're refusing to acknowledge that accidents or problems can still happen during a session.

You use Session Zero to establish expectations. You use lines & veils to establish what's off limits and what should be kept in the background, to establish boundaries. But, even after doing that you can still have problems arise during a session, so you need during-session safety tools. These kinds of tools are for the things that fall through the cracks. It's literally impossible to perfectly catch everything with pre-game or between-session safety tools, but you still use them to account for as many known quantities as you can. The player who knows they don't want to have genocide in game, for example. During play there will still be unknown quantities that pop up. The player who didn't know that a description of a miscarriage was going to bother them, for example. Even if you have miscarriage on your lines and veils list, the player might not think it will be a problem until they get into the actual game and are faced with the actual description of the event. Dealing with those situations is what during-session safety tools, like the X-card, are for.

To reject the X-card because it is used after a player has a problem is to assume that pre-game or between-session safety tools can perfectly catch every problem. They literally can't. So you have to have something in place for during-session problems. By definition, those can only be use after a player has an issue. The alternative is to ignore that player's problem and trauma during the session, likely continuing along the same track and making that problem and trauma worse. Putting off dealing with that until between sessions is still dealing with it after a player has a problem. You're just putting the flow of the game over the additional problem and trauma that could have been avoided by pausing when the problem came up during the session.
I don't think he is. The x-card shuts down discussion. It mentions lines & veils, but everywhere I've seen those they too are seriously flawed in egregious ways that invite misundertandings by not clearly defining what kinds of things to consider & factor into selections on veils while lines are just a discretion shot calling itself a hard limit. Discretion shots and hard limits are so different that the misuse resulting omission of an actual hard limit again invites misunderstandings that lead to problems

Discussion(both before starting & sometimes while playing) in addition to well developed tools are both important but the flaws in the x-card/lines & veils are so serious they prevent discussion & avoid being "well developed" in favor of just being "well known"
 

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