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Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft Review Round-Up – What the Critics Say

Now that you've had time to read my review of Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, and the book officially arrived in game stores on May 18, it's time to take a look at what other RPG reviewers thought of this guide to horror.


VRG9.jpg

Terrifyingly Awesome...​

Games Radar not only ranked VRGtR one of the best D&D books ever, they also praise it for taking a fresh approach to the decades-old RPG. GR notes that the chapter on domains could have become repetitive quickly, but instead it's packed with creativity.

VRGtR transformed the reviewer at The Gamer from someone uninterested in horror into someone planning a horror masquerade adventure. While they praise VRGtR for its player options, they like the information for DMs even more. That ranges from the new mechanics that replace the old madness rules to advice for DMs on how to create compelling villains.

Bell of Lost Souls praises VRGtR for how it makes players think about their character's stories, not just in terms of backgrounds but also through the Gothic lineages, how they came about, and impacted the character. They also like all the tools DMs get plus an abundance of inspiration for games. They actually like the fact that Darklords don't have stats because if they do, players will always find a way to kill them. Overall, they deem VRGtR “indispensable” for DMs and as having great information for everyone, which makes it “a hearty recommendation.”

Polygon was more effusive calling it “the biggest, best D&D book of this generation” and that “it has the potential to supercharge the role-playing hobby like never before.” As you can tell from those two phrases, Polygon gushes over VRGtR praising everything from the new character options to safety tools to its overflowing creativity, and more. They compliment the book for being packed with useful information for players and DMs.

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...And Scary Good​

Tribality broke down VRGtR chapter by chapter listing the content, and then summed up the book as being both an outstanding setting book and horror toolkit. They especially like that the various player options, such as Dark Gifts and lineages mean that death isn't necessarily the end of a character, but rather the start of a new plot.

Gaming Trend also praised VRGtR, especially the parts that discourage stigmatizing marginalized groups to create horror. They also considered the information on how to create your own Domain of Dream and Darklord inspiring. For example, it got them thinking about the role of space in creating horror, and how the mists allow a DM to drop players into a Domain for a one-shot if they don't want to run a full campaign. GT deemed VRGtR “excellent” and then pondered what other genres D&D could tackle next, like comedy adventures.

Strange Assembly loves the fact that VRGtR revives a classic D&D setting, and especially focuses on the Domains of Dread. They like the flavor of the Gothic lineages but not that some abilities are only once a day, preferring always-on abilities. Still, that's a small complaint when SA praises everything else, especially the short adventure, The House of Lament. VRGtR is considered an excellent value and worth checking out if you like scary D&D.

Geeks of Doom doesn't buck the trend of round-up. They really enjoyed the adventure inspiration and DM advice but especially appreciate the player options. agrees They really like the flexibility that's encouraged – and the new version of the loup-garou.

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The Final Grade​

While none of these publications give out a letter grade, the superlatives VRGtR has earned makes it pretty easy to associate ratings to each review. Games Radar, The Gamer, Polygon, and Bell of Lost Souls are so effusive in their praise that they would obviously be A+. Gaming Trend, Tribality, Strange Assembly, and Geeks of Doom also praise VRGtR, though their language isn't quite as strong or they have a very minor critique. That would make their reviews at least an A. Adding in the A+ from my own review, and Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft grades this product by which all others will likely be judged in the future:

A+

 
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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels


imagineGod

Legend
Basically, if you have the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Ravenloft sets, or even the Sword and Sorcery 3rd Edition Ravenloft, this new 5th Edition Ravenloft has more than half the book still useful, which is more than many traditional splat books offer, because those get too bogged down into system specific games mechanics.

The lack of Star blocks for Darklords also makes the book more open for use by other older Ravenloft editions.
 
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Id say its not only a great Horror toolkit; its a great Adventure Design toolkit across any genre - indeed its a better guide than the DMG
I browsed the book and read some of the first chapter, so I agree it looks like a good toolkit. One could easily read a small portion, pick a domain and create a good game.

One of my players started playing in June 2018 with 5E. I've been hoping that he'll take over DMing for awhile. Lately hes been DMing for a small group of other people, sort of a test run for our larger group. I gave him my original copy of CoS after I picked up the CoS Revamped. I looked through it Tuesday, and after thatI bought him a copy of this book too. Those 2 book seem perfect for a new DM and someone could easily run a campaign for years and need nothing else except the PHB, DMG and MM.
 

Aaron L

Hero
I very much like the book, with a few big caveats. For one thing, I greatly dislike how the Domains are now floating islands in the Mists with no physical connections nor roads between them for common people to travel from Domain to Domain. This eliminates far more story possibilities and play opportunities than it creates. No native travel or trade, no inter-Domain political intrigue, no more plotting of one Darklord over another. Each Domain is its own little world isolated from all the others, and it just makes the setting far more bland.

I saw no mention of The Morninglord anywhere, which is rooted in another great dislike I have, that Strahd is now supposed to be the very first vampire in existence. That is just stupid. Jander Sunstar was several centuries older than Strahd, both as an Elf and as a Vampire, and Strahd even used him as a tutor in vampiric abilities. But I suppose in order to retcon Strahd into being the First Vampire something that was never true before (when Strahd said that it was either an empty boast or it was related to his preeminence, not to his literal chronological existence.) Jander's story therefore apparently had to be retconned from existence, which also meant retconning away The Morninglord, which was a fascinatingly skewed Ravenloft-filtered splinter of Lathander. Again, it is just taking away fascinating elements from the setting and making it more bland.

I do like how they have dealt with Ezra. Ezra was one of the best additions to the Ravenloft setting from the late-2E Domains of Dread setting book.

I actually liked the Dhampyr and Hexspawn, not being actual races but rather things that characters can be altered into... although the Dhampyr does make far more sense as an actual race; Dhampyrs are actual real-world mythology, and it was something you were born as, not made into (as recently as the late 1800s there were still people in Eastern Europe claiming to be Dhampyrs and offering their services as Vampire Hunters.) But I will never be able to wrap my head around Dragonborn, or especially Teiflings, walking around free in the Land of the Mists. Ravenloft has always been 99% Human, frightened and xenophobic, and even Elves and Dwarves were considered frightening alien things; blatant Dragonpeople and Devilpeople showing up in a place like Barovia would be immediately hunted down with torches and pitchforks and burnt at the stake.

And before anyone says "the xenophobia was eliminated because xenophobia is bad and we are more enlightened about such things today" the xenophobia was always presented as being bad; this is a Horror setting (Vampires and Werewolves are also bad.) Xenophobia is a product of fear, which is heightened in the Land of the Mists, and frightened, clannish, xenophobic people are a long-established element of many types of Horror. When people are frightened they tend to clan up and stigmatize outsiders... it's unpleasant but it is a truth about humanity, and it would be especially prevalent among all the Ravenloft P-Zombies. Horror is about confronting awful things and the way fear affects people, and if try to whitewash out all the underlying social problems that arise as symptoms of the fear only to concentrate on the literal monsters then you eliminate most of the Horror, and instead you just end up with a fascile cartoon version of "Horror."
 

imagineGod

Legend
I very much like the book, with a few big caveats. For one thing, I greatly dislike how the Domains are now floating islands in the Mists with no physical connections nor roads between them for common people to travel from Domain to Domain. This eliminates far more story possibilities and play opportunities than it creates. No native travel or trade, no inter-Domain political intrigue, no more plotting of one Darklord over another. Each Domain is its own little world isolated from all the others, and it just makes the setting far more bland.

I saw no mention of The Morninglord anywhere, which is rooted in another great dislike I have, that Strahd is now supposed to be the very first vampire in existence. That is just stupid. Jander Sunstar was several centuries older than Strahd, both as an Elf and as a Vampire, and Strahd even used him as a tutor in vampiric abilities. But I suppose in order to retcon Strahd into being the First Vampire something that was never true before (when Strahd said that it was either an empty boast or it was related to his preeminence, not to his literal chronological existence.) Jander's story therefore apparently had to be retconned from existence, which also meant retconning away The Morninglord, which was a fascinatingly skewed Ravenloft-filtered splinter of Lathander. Again, it is just taking away fascinating elements from the setting and making it more bland.

I do like how they have dealt with Ezra. Ezra was one of the best additions to the Ravenloft setting from the late-2E Domains of Dread setting book.

I actually liked the Dhampyr and Hexspawn, not being actual races but rather things that characters can be altered into... although the Dhampyr does make far more sense as an actual race; Dhampyrs are actual real-world mythology, and it was something you were born as, not made into (as recently as the late 1800s there were still people in Eastern Europe claiming to be Dhampyrs and offering their services as Vampire Hunters.) But I will never be able to wrap my head around Dragonborn, or especially Teiflings, walking around free in the Land of the Mists. Ravenloft has always been 99% Human, frightened and xenophobic, and even Elves and Dwarves were considered frightening alien things; blatant Dragonpeople and Devilpeople showing up in a place like Barovia would be immediately hunted down with torches and pitchforks and burnt at the stake.

And before anyone says "the xenophobia was eliminated because xenophobia is bad and we are more enlightened about such things today" the xenophobia was always presented as being bad; this is a Horror setting (Vampires and Werewolves are also bad.) Xenophobia is a product of fear, which is heightened in the Land of the Mists, and frightened, clannish, xenophobic people are a long-established element of many types of Horror. When people are frightened they tend to clan up and stigmatize outsiders... it's unpleasant but it is a truth about humanity, and it would be especially prevalent among all the Ravenloft P-Zombies. Horror is about confronting awful things and the way fear affects people, and if try to whitewash out all the underlying social problems that arise as symptoms of the fear only to concentrate on the literal monsters then you eliminate most of the Horror, and instead you just end up with a fascile cartoon version of "Horror."
Nobody stops you adding the things you love.

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft is literally the best toolbox that looks like a Campaign Setting because of the Van Richten and allies letters within, but still, this book is more a toolbox than anything.

Nobody stops you linking the domains. The roads and pathways are considered wrapped in most for those who want them separate , there is that, and for those wanting them linked, no problem, go ahead
 
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I very much like the book, with a few big caveats. For one thing, I greatly dislike how the Domains are now floating islands in the Mists with no physical connections nor roads between them for common people to travel from Domain to Domain. This eliminates far more story possibilities and play opportunities than it creates. No native travel or trade, no inter-Domain political intrigue, no more plotting of one Darklord over another. Each Domain is its own little world isolated from all the others, and it just makes the setting far more bland.
I thought the Vistani were the only people that could freely cross domain borders in previous editions? I think I'd make the domains separate doesnt means they cant drift next to one another and touch for a period of time as the DM needed . I kind of like the idea that the setting is fluid.
 


Istbor

Dances with Gnolls
I very much like the book, with a few big caveats. For one thing, I greatly dislike how the Domains are now floating islands in the Mists with no physical connections nor roads between them for common people to travel from Domain to Domain. This eliminates far more story possibilities and play opportunities than it creates. No native travel or trade, no inter-Domain political intrigue, no more plotting of one Darklord over another. Each Domain is its own little world isolated from all the others, and it just makes the setting far more bland.

I saw no mention of The Morninglord anywhere, which is rooted in another great dislike I have, that Strahd is now supposed to be the very first vampire in existence. That is just stupid. Jander Sunstar was several centuries older than Strahd, both as an Elf and as a Vampire, and Strahd even used him as a tutor in vampiric abilities. But I suppose in order to retcon Strahd into being the First Vampire something that was never true before (when Strahd said that it was either an empty boast or it was related to his preeminence, not to his literal chronological existence.) Jander's story therefore apparently had to be retconned from existence, which also meant retconning away The Morninglord, which was a fascinatingly skewed Ravenloft-filtered splinter of Lathander. Again, it is just taking away fascinating elements from the setting and making it more bland.

I do like how they have dealt with Ezra. Ezra was one of the best additions to the Ravenloft setting from the late-2E Domains of Dread setting book.

I actually liked the Dhampyr and Hexspawn, not being actual races but rather things that characters can be altered into... although the Dhampyr does make far more sense as an actual race; Dhampyrs are actual real-world mythology, and it was something you were born as, not made into (as recently as the late 1800s there were still people in Eastern Europe claiming to be Dhampyrs and offering their services as Vampire Hunters.) But I will never be able to wrap my head around Dragonborn, or especially Teiflings, walking around free in the Land of the Mists. Ravenloft has always been 99% Human, frightened and xenophobic, and even Elves and Dwarves were considered frightening alien things; blatant Dragonpeople and Devilpeople showing up in a place like Barovia would be immediately hunted down with torches and pitchforks and burnt at the stake.

And before anyone says "the xenophobia was eliminated because xenophobia is bad and we are more enlightened about such things today" the xenophobia was always presented as being bad; this is a Horror setting (Vampires and Werewolves are also bad.) Xenophobia is a product of fear, which is heightened in the Land of the Mists, and frightened, clannish, xenophobic people are a long-established element of many types of Horror. When people are frightened they tend to clan up and stigmatize outsiders... it's unpleasant but it is a truth about humanity, and it would be especially prevalent among all the Ravenloft P-Zombies. Horror is about confronting awful things and the way fear affects people, and if try to whitewash out all the underlying social problems that arise as symptoms of the fear only to concentrate on the literal monsters then you eliminate most of the Horror, and instead you just end up with a fascile cartoon version of "Horror."
I mean... you can still run Ravenloft as you'd like. (Barring any AL stuff as that is the only time I can think you'd HAVE to be true to whatever meta is going on).

Personally, the isolated domains is always how I pictured and ran Ravenloft. When I first discovered that lore that people could just travel between them, I was like... "Well that's dumb, aren't these eternal prisons or torment?". I won't hate on anyone that prefers it that way, but I find that isolation as pretty terrifying.
 


Aaron L

Hero
I thought the Vistani were the only people that could freely cross domain borders in previous editions? I think I'd make the domains separate doesnt means they cant drift next to one another and touch for a period of time as the DM needed . I kind of like the idea that the setting is fluid.
Nope; the Darklords couldn't leave their Domains, but the Land of the Mists was mostly one big landmass, with roads and trade and everything, and the common people could freely move from one Domain to another. There were a few "Islands of Terror" that were small isolated Domains buried deep in the Mists, but anyone could take the road from Kartakass to Barovia to Mordent to Dementlieu to Darkon. Unless the Darklord sealed his Domain, which they were able to do at will and then no one could cross; each had a different sealing effect (Barovia was surrounded with choking Mist, Darkon was surrounded with a towering wall of zombies, etc.) But normally there was plenty of travel and political interaction between Darklords, with emissaries and ambassadors sent back and fourth between them seeking favors, and in fact several of the Darklord's punishments actually depended on their proximity to other Domains and their ability to interact with other Darklords.

For example, Vlad Drakov was originally a mercenary leader from Taladas who craved respect and fear as a conqueror and recognition as a legitimate ruler more than anything... so the Dark Powers placed his Domain of Falcovnia right smack dab next to Darkon. Every time Drakov sent armies into Darkon to try to invade they were simply killed with a gesture by its ruler, the archmage Lich Azalin Rex, turned into an army of zombies, and sent right back into Falcovnia, making Drakov look like an insignificant fool and letting him understand that he would never earn any respect nor fear from Azalin.

The Vistani were the only ones who could travel through and navigate The Mists, and if anyone else tried they would just end up coming out in a random location... if they ever came out again at all, that is.
 


Nope; the Darklords couldn't leave their Domains, but the Land of the Mists was mostly one big landmass, with roads and trade and everything, and the common people could freely move from one Domain to another. There were a few "Islands of Terror" that were small isolated Domains buried deep in the Mists, but anyone could take the road from Kartakass to Barovia to Mordent to Dementlieu to Darkon. Unless the Darklord sealed his Domain, which they were able to do at will and then no one could cross; each had a different sealing effect (Barovia was surrounded with choking Mist, Darkon was surrounded with a towering wall of zombies, etc.) But normally there was plenty of travel and political interaction between Darklords, with emissaries and ambassadors sent back and fourth between them seeking favors, and in fact several of the Darklord's punishments actually depended on their proximity to other Domains and their ability to interact with other Darklords.

For example, Vlad Drakov was originally a mercenary leader from Taladas who craved respect and fear as a conqueror and recognition as a legitimate ruler more than anything... so the Dark Powers placed his Domain of Falcovnia right smack dab next to Darkon. Every time Drakov sent armies into Darkon to try to invade they were simply killed with a gesture by its ruler, the archmage Lich Azalin Rex, turned into an army of zombies, and sent right back into Falcovnia, making Drakov look like an insignificant fool and letting him understand that he would never earn any respect nor fear from Azalin.

The Vistani were the only ones who could travel through and navigate The Mists, and if anyone else tried they would just end up coming out in a random location... if they ever came out again at all, that is.
I see what youre saying now, youre right.
 

Aaron L

Hero
Personally, the isolated domains is always how I pictured and ran Ravenloft. When I first discovered that lore that people could just travel between them, I was like... "Well that's dumb, aren't these eternal prisons or torment?". I won't hate on anyone that prefers it that way, but I find that isolation as pretty terrifying.

The Domains are prisons crafted by the Dark Powers for the Darklords, yes, but the common people are just pawns to enact their torment. And the Darklords knowing that those "meaningless pawns" were freely able to travel between the Domains while the Darklords themselves were not was just one more way of tormenting them.

Besides, playing an actual Ravenloft campaign that was entirely restricted to a single Domain would seem to be extremely and needlessly... restricted. It would just serve to make things more bland, like being restricted to a single city on Oerth or Toril. It's the difference between being able to use Ravenloft as an actual setting for a campaign vs just a bunch of individual locations for isolated adventures, which is something that I find to be very boring and that greatly detracts from the original setting.

By the way, the hidden identity of those mysterious Dark Powers? The Dark Powers are US, the writers, DMs, and players who torment these poor doomed souls for our own amusement!
 

Istbor

Dances with Gnolls
The Domains are prisons crafted by the Dark Powers for the Darklords, yes, but the common people are just pawns to enact their torment. And the Darklords knowing that those "meaningless pawns" were freely able to travel between the Domains while the Darklords themselves were not was just one more way of tormenting them.

Besides, playing an actual Ravenloft campaign that was entirely restricted to a single Domain would seem to be extremely and needlessly... restricted. It would just serve to make things more bland, like being restricted to a single city on Oerth or Toril. It's the difference between being able to use Ravenloft as an actual setting for a campaign vs just a bunch of individual locations for isolated adventures, which is something that I find to be very boring and that greatly detracts from the original setting.

By the way, the hidden identity of those mysterious Dark Powers? The Dark Powers are US, the writers, DMs, and players who torment these poor doomed souls for our own amusement!
I guess that is a to each their own type of thing then. I don't at all mind playing in a campaign or adventure that is intended to be wholly in one city/fief/country/domain. If I bought into that premise, then yeah.

But again, run it how you feel. And if you are offered a game that doesn't play that way, and you find you won't get enjoyment out of playing it as such, then don't play in it. I learned long ago, that not playing in an adventure you don't like the premise of is far better than playing it.
 

Aaron L

Hero
I see what youre saying now, youre right.
Now don't get me wrong, I do very much like the book, overall. :) I just have a few big problems with it, in that it seems they intentionally decided to change Ravenloft into a bunch of isolated pockets only good for running individual adventures rather than the actual total setting it used to be in which you could run full campaigns, which to me only reduces its overall utility and eliminates a great deal of what made it interesting. And I just can't understand why they would decide to make a change like that, as it destroys many more possibilities than it creates.
 

Now don't get me wrong, I do very much like the book, overall. :) I just have a few big problems with it, in that it seems they intentionally decided to change Ravenloft into a bunch of isolated pockets only good for running individual adventures rather than the actual total setting it used to be in which you could run full campaigns, which to me only reduces its overall utility and eliminates a great deal of what made it interesting. And I just can't understand why they would decide to make a change like that, as it destroys many more possibilities than it creates.
You can place an entire campaign in every single domain they describe. And travelling is not impossible.
I defend the isolation choice because I find it way more realistic in comparison to the previous theme park continent. And more, isolation and segregation are great booster for horror.
 

Aaron L

Hero
But again, run it how you feel. And if you are offered a game that doesn't play that way, and you find you won't get enjoyment out of playing it as such, then don't play in it. I learned long ago, that not playing in an adventure you don't like the premise of is far better than playing it.
But you see, that's my problem and why it makes me upset. "Like it or lump it" is hardly a great choice.

If I want to play a Ravenloft campaign (which I very much do) but the DM will only use this new retconned setting, then the changes made by the new designers have basically taken Ravenloft away from me. But they didn't need to make these changes because they only detract, without adding anything. For those people who are fine with playing an entire campaign in an individual city, they would have lost nothing if Ravenloft had remained a fully interconnected campaign setting because they could always just choose to stay in a single Domain. But for those of us who would like to have full access to the entire old Ravenloft setting they have eliminated that possibility while adding nothing.

It was just a very poor choice by the designers, and it upsets me. I do like the book, but this major choice greatly saddens me.
 

Aaron L

Hero
You can place an entire campaign in every single domain they describe. And travelling is not impossible.
Isolated locations floating in Ethereal Mist is more "realistic?" :/ I don't think "realism" is ever going to be something that matters much in Ravenloft. There were plenty of ways that the classic setting created isolation between Domains, but the new forcing of all of the Domains to be permanently isolated without any alternative only removes possibilities without adding anything in return.

Traveling to other Domains by haphazardly wandering into the Mists and hoping you come out where you want is hardly the same as being able to take the road from Barovia to Darkon. Playing an entire campaign in Cormyr is entirely possible, but to make traveling to Waterdeep basically a dangerous matter of random chance would be a laughably restrictive bad idea. And all inter-Domain political intrigue is gone, inter-Domain trade is gone as the common people are said to never try to leave their home Domains now, intrigue between Darklords is now gone... for no good reason and with nothing in return for all these losses.

I understand that a DM can decide to handwave things and change it, but you only get to make that decision if you are the DM. If I want to play I do not get to make those decisions, the new book has just taken all of those possibilities away from me.
 
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