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.


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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

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.
Look at it this way, if you started a Ravenloft campaign as a 1st level character chances of your PC having any knowledge outside of the Domain they are native to is probably pretty limited if they have any at all. In the grand scheme I wouldn't think its going to make much difference one way or the other. As a player Im sure most of us here are OK with DMs changing things to suit their campaigns I dont see how WotC changing this is much different. OTOH if this book was a re-hash of previous editions whole cloth someone would still cry foul.
 

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TheSword

Legend
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!
So the ability for non-darklords to freely travel unless stopped by a Darklord has been officially retconned. It was back in Curse of Strahd when we were told...
the majority of Barovians were just empty husks without souls, kept alive by Strahds will alone. They were creations of the domain and bound to it forever

There’s nothing about the campaign book that says heroes or
Other denizens with souls
can’t travel around freely. Having adventures in different realms while trying to escape/avoid/defeat a darklord or two.
 

Von Ether

Legend
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.

I feel your pain. I mostly end up running the games I’d rather be playing. You may have have a conversation with your GM and explain the benefits that you see in that version. Or make a deal and run a game that they would love play in.

OTH, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the current choice of isolated realms is a bad design choice , just one that run counter to your wishes.

You could also retcon a hybrid setting where some paths in the mist exist for smuggling, underground railroads, etc.

Of course there is a catch.
 


Faolyn

(she/her)
@Aaron L, while I know this won't help if someone else is running the game, just include Roads between the domains. But not just mundane roads; more like Mistways. As long as you stay on the Road, you will get from Point A in one domain to Point B in another domain. Most of the time.

Yes, I agree that this, or something like this, should have been in the book--along with the Morninglord, Hala, and the Lawgiver, all of whom should have had at least a couple of paragraphs.

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.
Neither can I. But monstrous lineages are pretty normal these days, and not many people want to have their monstrous PC get brought into Ravenloft only to be burned at the stake. It's not actually fun for anyone involved, after all. And I've read enough gaming horror stories to know that there would be some nasty DMs who would say "Oh no, I'm not singling you out for punishment; it's these NPCs who are doing it!"

I just solve it by making my Ravenloft humans-only (and human-adjacent: "fey-touched" half-elves and home-brew caliban, and I had recently decided on shifters and changelings as well, and now these three). If you want to someone from another world, that's OK as well.
 

Aaron L

Hero
I feel your pain. I mostly end up running the games I’d rather be playing. You may have have a conversation with your GM and explain the benefits that you see in that version. Or make a deal and run a game that they would love play in.
Man, I've been desperately wanting to play Call of Cthulhu - Delta Green since I first got the book in '98 but no one else would ever run it, so instead I've had to run it since then... and they all like my games so much that now none of them ever will run their own game because they all want to keep playing mine.

And I still can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing. :)
 

Aaron L

Hero
@Aaron L, while I know this won't help if someone else is running the game, just include Roads between the domains. But not just mundane roads; more like Mistways. As long as you stay on the Road, you will get from Point A in one domain to Point B in another domain. Most of the time.

Yes, I agree that this, or something like this, should have been in the book--along with the Morninglord, Hala, and the Lawgiver, all of whom should have had at least a couple of paragraphs.


Neither can I. But monstrous lineages are pretty normal these days, and not many people want to have their monstrous PC get brought into Ravenloft only to be burned at the stake. It's not actually fun for anyone involved, after all. And I've read enough gaming horror stories to know that there would be some nasty DMs who would say "Oh no, I'm not singling you out for punishment; it's these NPCs who are doing it!"

I just solve it by making my Ravenloft humans-only (and human-adjacent: "fey-touched" half-elves and home-brew caliban, and I had recently decided on shifters and changelings as well, and now these three). If you want to someone from another world, that's OK as well.

That's a very cool idea, and it is something they should have included. :)
 

In regard to Gaming Trend's pondering on "what other genres D&D could tackle next, like comedy adventures."

In my D&D Genre Books webpage, I lay out what a D&D Comedy sourcebook could look like. I'd suggest that WotC base the book on Garweeze Wurld of Aldrazar (since it was specifically licensed by WotC to serve as the "joke" version of the D&D Multiverse), including GreyHack, HackJammer, HackWurld of Mystaros, Robinloft, and the Fading Realms. Though there are other comedy-themed locales in various other D&D worlds, such as the Whamite Isles in the Forgotten Realms.

And also the Un-Set of Magic: The Gathering planes:
 
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Remathilis

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.

Part of the issue here was that Ravenloft always was at war with itself because the Weekend in Horror was the initial design intent. For most of 2e (up to Domains of Dread), the interplay between domains as minimal and superficial; there was no large scale faiths, no common languages, no stats for population, trade or the like. There wasn't even a sea until the Grand Conjunction. Sure, Barovia touched borders with Invidia, but that barely influenced anything between the domains until Gabrielle killed one of Strahd's Vistani servants. Even then, it's not like Strahd could march an army to punish her. For most domains, their neighbors mattered little and in some cases interconnection hindered Domain design (Valachan was a temperate forest filled with panthers... Ok.)

You can still have intrigue and interplay though. I don't think people have paid enough attention to Mist Talismans. They allow fairly reliable inter-domain travel. PCs and Mist Wanderers can use them, why not servants of a dark lord engaging in espionage? All your losing is some mundane trade, which the Vistani can now corner the market on.

Finally, the end of the core means Domains aren't set in some hierarchy of importance where a domain like Har'Akir is ignored for not being a Core domain by Keening gets a Gazetteer detailing it despite being nothing but a mountain, a banshee and a town of skeletons.

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.

The Morninglord is mentioned in Curse of Strahd. It would be very easy to assume Jandar reawoke interest in an old Barovian faith.

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.

Agreed. Wish Hala also made it.

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."

This comes back to a major issue I've had with Ravenloft since time out of mind: it forgot it was a D&D setting in it's rush to mimic precisely the source material it was apeing. Old Ravenloft punished demihumans and spellcasters needlessly because there are no elf wizards in Frankenstein and no other reason. It often meant that the only PCs that could enter towns were the ones that could pass as humans and didn't obviously look like they used arcane magic (witchcraft!) Worshipped foreign gods (blasphemy!) Or were going to rob the joint (thieves!). In the era of play what you want, there was no way they could justify torches and pitchforks for elves and wizards or keep half a team hiding on the outskirts of town unable to engage in urban adventures or even buy rations and a warm bed. Many domains are still very human filled, but the "burn the elf" part is gone and good riddance![/QUOTE]
 


Marandahir

Crown-Forester (he/him)
Read also the Carnival domain description in the book. It's a travelling domain of dread that moves between domains and even between planes (can cross over to the Feywild from the demiplanes of dread within the Shadowfell).

The carnival also specifically states that the Dark Powers do not allow Dark Lords to escape their domains by entering the carnival. If the carnival comes to their domain, they can enter but once it leaves they'll be left in an empty location where the carnival had set up, unable to travel with it. If they had gotten into the carnivals carriage and tried to ride away they'd find the carriage vanish around them.

The road etc can still exist. Remember that 4e created a whole domain of this function - The Endless Road. But the domains are not just in a singular space, travelling through the mists can distort space and time, just like any travel in the Shadowfell could (hence why one could use a spell to access the shadowfell to fast travel through the material plane).
 



Remathilis

Legend
Read also the Carnival domain description in the book. It's a travelling domain of dread that moves between domains and even between planes (can cross over to the Feywild from the demiplanes of dread within the Shadowfell).

The carnival also specifically states that the Dark Powers do not allow Dark Lords to escape their domains by entering the carnival. If the carnival comes to their domain, they can enter but once it leaves they'll be left in an empty location where the carnival had set up, unable to travel with it. If they had gotten into the carnivals carriage and tried to ride away they'd find the carriage vanish around them.

The road etc can still exist. Remember that 4e created a whole domain of this function - The Endless Road. But the domains are not just in a singular space, travelling through the mists can distort space and time, just like any travel in the Shadowfell could (hence why one could use a spell to access the shadowfell to fast travel through the material plane).
The Mourning Rail and the Horseman's Bridge both serve similar functions.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I bet the change to domains being isolated from each other was done so that WotC wouldn't have any need to print a big fold-out map of the entire Domains of Dread.
The Domains were originally isolated from each other with the Core being thought up later by those wanting to play native PCs, I like modular approach to things, it fits the whole design of the book and tool kit and it means I get to choose which domains I can use - full disclosure I dont play in Ravenloft instead I take Ravenloft domains and use them in my own prime world,

After reading the Create a Domain Chapter, my mind immediately switched to analysing other adventures to see how they fit as Domains, Rime of the Frostmaiden is an obvious fit, Saltmarsh with a Undead Pirate Darklord works


This comes back to a major issue I've had with Ravenloft since time out of mind: it forgot it was a D&D setting in it's rush to mimic precisely the source material it was apeing. Old Ravenloft punished demihumans and spellcasters needlessly because there are no elf wizards in Frankenstein and no other reason. It often meant that the only PCs that could enter towns were the ones that could pass as humans and didn't obviously look like they used arcane magic (witchcraft!) Worshipped foreign gods (blasphemy!) Or were going to rob the joint (thieves!). In the era of play what you want, there was no way they could justify torches and pitchforks for elves and wizards or keep half a team hiding on the outskirts of town unable to engage in urban adventures or even buy rations and a warm bed. Many domains are still very human filled, but the "burn the elf" part is gone and good riddance!

Ive got no problem with in game xenophobia and already have games were NPCs refuse to let Dragonfolk, Orcs or Pixies enter town unless they are performers in the carnival;

For Ravenloft I could see Tieflings passing for Hexbloods and Orcs as calibans/Mongrelfolk but yeah Dragons are going to be hard to justify
 

Urriak Uruk

Gaming is fun, and fun is for everyone
Have any of the reviewers listed here ever given a negative review to a 5E hardcover? Honest question.

@brimmels has done review roundups before, and gave Candlekeep Mysteries and average rating of an A+, but gave Tasha's an average review of only B.

 

Remathilis

Legend
Ive got no problem with in game xenophobia and already have games were NPCs refuse to let Dragonfolk, Orcs or Pixies enter town unless they are performers in the carnival;

For Ravenloft I could see Tieflings passing for Hexbloods and Orcs as calibans/Mongrelfolk but yeah Dragons are going to be hard to justify

A DM can, of course, change that as they want. But I'm very happy that WotC hasn't dictated such restrictions in a setting that can pull anyone from the multiverse into it. I'm content though that dwarves, elves and wizards can focus on the plot and not constantly hiding from the very people they are supposed to "help".
 

The xenophobia and social restrictions based on PC race are just a 2nd ed holdover to times when there were very few options. in 5th ed, there are literally dozens in official material. I'm happy to see this relic phased out. Better to have it be an aspect of the horror of a specific domain, to make it special, that a pervasive limitation to the setting as a whole.
 


Having read through most of the new Ravenloft, it does seem pretty clear that it is the best 5E book so far, on quite a number of levels. Even the way it is arranged and the general reading flow is better than most, and the contents and DM advice are particularly distinctly superior. There's nothing it it that made me yawn or flip forward, and not a Ravenloft obsessive. Combine that with more and better art than most (esp. if we note Theros was mostly cribbing art from MtG, which is cool but...), and it honestly looks like 5E is in a kind of "vertical climb" in terms of quality.

What's also interesting to me is that this isn't a bunch of highly-experienced super-veteran designers or something, this is a diverse crew of mostly-younger designers, so pretty much new to designing for D&D (AFAICT), and the guy in charge is younger than me (40!), but they've managed to put out a book that is pretty much unquestionably better put-together than a lot of stuff that had vets on it. This should certainly put paid to any notions that going younger or more diverse might in some way reduce quality. The direct contrary appears (unsurprisingly to me) to have happened.
 

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