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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


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Royalcrown28

Villager
There is no system either of us can come up with which will work for all people involved, at all times, in all situations. So you're right, it doesn't work for players who are not at all comfortable talking to the DM about things they'd rather not see in the game. But if a player is suffering from that level of anxiety I'm not sure an X-Card would be much help given that they're not used until after the player starts feeling uncomfortable.


For one moment I'm going to posit that you are correct, for some individuals D&D is an inherently dangerous activity necessitating safe words and safety tools. My priority isn't just the safety of the individual who might be triggered, but the safety and comfort of all involved. If this is the case, then it is absolutely vital that clear and open communication between all participants is established prior to play, that communication is encouraged during play, and the open dialogue continues post game.

Prior to the start of the game, boundaries need to be established so all participants understand what's off the table during game play. Boundaries protect not only the individual with anxiety issues but also other participants from the trauma of inadvertently causing harm to other players. You cannot have a safe game if you fail to establish boundaries before the game starts. If all participants cannot effectively communicate what is an isn't acceptable in the game then they should not engage in what is an inherently dangerous activity.

And I guess that's about all I have to say about the subject. While it s part of the Ravenloft book and fair game for discussion there are other things I'd rather talk about in relation to one of my favorite settings. I have no problem making reasonable accommodations for players where needed. I just think the X-Card is a terrible mechanism for it and I strongly dislike the idea that D&D is dangerous. Likely that stems from such arguments sounding so much like what we heard in the 80s.
I just want to point out. For something to be inheritant, it must be universal. The phrase: " for some people this thing is inherently X" makes no sense. Some people are inheritantly sensitive people that respond to things differently. You cannot impose an "inherent" characteristic onto something based on how a small subset of people responsd it. This is called projection.

Please don’t use politically charged language on this forum. Thanks.
 

The Lizard Wizard

Adventurer
Can I say that in just a short paragraph or two they outline Klorr as the domain of pretty much everything that has come to pass in Ravenloft already and spun off into the darkness forgotten, a fascinating notion.

Klorr was probably my favourite of the Domains with brief descriptions.
The write up for it was absolutely terrifying.

If I was to make one change to the book, I'd probably swap out the short 2 paragraph descriptions and maybe have given a page each to just 3 or 4 of the more interesting ones.
 


Cthulhugh

Explorer
I'll be giving this a wide berth for reasons outlined in The RPGPundit's latest video. Watch that then compare it to this review before you buy.
 





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