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

Kurotowa

Legend
Does it still hurt people if it's at your own table, and no one there is offended by it?
I mean, there's less immediate harm, but it's still not a good idea you know? Indulging in racism/sexism/ableism/whatever just because your table is all healthy bodied white men who can laugh at it is a good way to both poison your own attitudes and ensure that your table is never going to be welcoming to anyone who doesn't fit that mold. Because believe me, once people get used to cutting loose with those things, they're not going to want to put them away when someone new shows up.

"Do no harm" is the bare minimum to be expected, not the target goal to aim for.
 

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Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
You can unintentionally and unknowingly harm yourself. You can harm your ability to be objective about those topics if you're having fun because of the offensive content you're using (not in spite of, that's a different matter, but because of it). Consuming and participating in offensive content can desensitize you to it, which can (and does) end up harming people. If your fun is based off of someone else's harm, that is objectively badwrongfun, even if you didn't intend it, and even if you didn't know you were doing it. See my linked thread for more specific examples (most specifically the racial stereotypes and derogatory terms examples, and the sexism example).

It applies to D&D, it applies to blackface, and it applies to other examples.

Also, something doesn't have to offend someone in order to be offensive. A group of racist white people won't be offended by the use of the n-word or blackface, but that doesn't mean that the use of it isn't offensive and isn't harmful. It's the perpetuation of it that is harmful, not the presence of someone who is being offended by it.
What I'm saying is, xenophobia, fear of the other, is a historically accurate reaction to certain circumstances, including many of the statuses quo in the domains. If you're not depicting it as right, but rather an unfortunate cultural reality that should be fought against, and its existence doesn't specifically offend those you're playing with, is it still unacceptable to include it? The issue of slavery's depiction in RPGs raises the same issue. It's a kind of evil, more real than vampires and werewolves. As long as it is seen as evil, why can't it be in the game?
 

Kurotowa

Legend
What I'm saying is, xenophobia, fear of the other, is a historically accurate reaction to certain circumstances, including many of the statuses quo in the domains. If you're not depicting it as right, but rather an unfortunate cultural reality that should be fought against, and its existence doesn't specifically offend those you're playing with, is it still unacceptable to include it? The issue of slavery's depiction in RPGs raises the same issue. It's a kind of evil, more real than vampires and werewolves. As long as it is seen as evil, why can't it be in the game?
That's not what's at issue here. The trouble isn't the existence of xenophobia, but the product of it in the form of highly prejudiced and denigrating beliefs of yesteryear that became foundational tropes of some genres because they were commonly held at the time of the genre's inception.

Tackling xenophobia isn't the same as being xenophobic. Confronting racism isn't the same as being racist. What's being asked is that you put a little through into, for example, the elements of Dracula that were about "dirty dark skinned foreigners coming here to steal our women!" and adjusting your vampire stories to not recycle those parts. Which is not the same as saying "No More Vampires", just that you should use a little self awareness and reflection.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
What I'm saying is, xenophobia, fear of the other, is a historically accurate reaction to certain circumstances, including many of the statuses quo in the domains.
That's something to clear at a session 0 and using safety tools. Including Xenophobia in a campaign is not inherently harmful, but it can be to certain players and can be depending on how you implement it. Most of people in Khorvaire are Xenophobic against Warforged in Eberron, but it doesn't draw obvious parallels between the real world and that example, makes it absolutely clear that the xenophobia is bad, and tells DMs to include as much or as little of the xenophobia as they want in their campaigns.
If you're not depicting it as right, but rather an unfortunate cultural reality that should be fought against, and its existence doesn't specifically offend those you're playing with, is it still unacceptable to include it?
Depicting it as "unfortunate cultural reality" can be problematic, especially when that's the default. One could easily see parallels between that and the real life excuses used to try and justify racism. However, I'm not saying that is always going to be harmful, and I'm not saying it's bad to include that in your campaign. Again, clear this at your table with a Session 0, and most of these possible issues will not be issues. I gave an example above on how to handle xenophobia better than "that's just how the world works, sorry 🤷‍♂️ ".
The issue of slavery's depiction in RPGs raises the same issue. It's a kind of evil, more real than vampires and werewolves. As long as it is seen as evil, why can't it be in the game?
Again, another thing to bring up at Session 0 and handle with safety tools. Most of the time it won't be a problem if your players don't have any sensitivity with stuff like this, especially if you handle it with care. A common issue I've had with slavery in D&D is that a ton of the time it comes across as blaming the victim, such as the Duergar's capture by the Mind Flayers, and similar examples. I can imagine others would have similar issues with stuff like that.

The first and most important step is to try to avoid harm and make it clear that you're doing that to your players. People are much more sympathetic towards that attitude than the "It's not harming you if you're not at my table, so get over it!" attitude that I've seen dozens too many times (I'm not saying you're doing that, but your argument certainly sounds like it's trying to support that stance).
 

They're not wrong. Fun can only be wrong if it hurts another person. If outdated tropes are outdated because they're offensive, they're completely correct.
Hmm, well I guess I see your point. Kind of seemed like they were just taking a jab at old Ravenloft or classic horror stories. Like if why not say offensive tropes instead of outdated? I mean, Ravenloft is full of outdated tropes but many of those are not offensive. And yes, some of the points in that section do directly talk about avoiding stereotypes and cliche accents. But the first bullet point:

Avoid drawing inspiration from stock characters in fiction or film.

Just seems a bit judgmental to me...
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
That's something to clear at a session 0 and using safety tools. Including Xenophobia in a campaign is not inherently harmful, but it can be to certain players and can be depending on how you implement it. Most of people in Khorvaire are Xenophobic against Warforged in Eberron, but it doesn't draw obvious parallels between the real world and that example, makes it absolutely clear that the xenophobia is bad, and tells DMs to include as much or as little of the xenophobia as they want in their campaigns.

Depicting it as "unfortunate cultural reality" can be problematic, especially when that's the default. One could easily see parallels between that and the real life excuses used to try and justify racism. However, I'm not saying that is always going to be harmful, and I'm not saying it's bad to include that in your campaign. Again, clear this at your table with a Session 0, and most of these possible issues will not be issues. I gave an example above on how to handle xenophobia better than "that's just how the world works, sorry 🤷‍♂️ ".

Again, another thing to bring up at Session 0 and handle with safety tools. Most of the time it won't be a problem if your players don't have any sensitivity with stuff like this, especially if you handle it with care. A common issue I've had with slavery in D&D is that a ton of the time it comes across as blaming the victim, such as the Duergar's capture by the Mind Flayers, and similar examples. I can imagine others would have similar issues with stuff like that.

The first and most important step is to try to avoid harm and make it clear that you're doing that to your players. People are much more sympathetic towards that attitude than the "It's not harming you if you're not at my table, so get over it!" attitude that I've seen dozens too many times (I'm not saying you're doing that, but your argument certainly sounds like it's trying to support that stance).
Fair enough. I apologize for the way my complaint was worded. I just don't want certain subjects to be removed entirely from gaming, regardless of how carefully they could be handled, and when the official material ignores those subjects and/or pretends they don't exist, I worry they are implicitly saying these issues should never be addressed at all. Like you, I believe that these things can be included if you're respectful of real world implications, and your players' feelings.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
Hmm, well I guess I see your point. Kind of seemed like they were just taking a jab at old Ravenloft or classic horror stories.
I don't know why they would be taking a jab at either of those things. New Ravenloft and Curse of Strahd (the most popular 5e adventure) wouldn't have existed without Old Ravenloft. WotC has also made it clear that they love classic horror stories, they mentioned it several times in interviews about Rime of the Frostmaiden that the writers of the adventure watched a ton of classic horror movies to draw inspiration from them. (Which, I know seems hypocritical due to that warning they provided, but I read that as more a warning to avoid ripping off characters instead of just drawing inspiration from them. Being inspired by It to have a creepy clown monster is completely different from making your villain be a complete rip-off of Pennywise.)
Like if why not say offensive tropes instead of outdated? I mean, Ravenloft is full of outdated tropes but many of those are not offensive.
I'm not speaking for WotC, but I would imagine that it's because "outdated" is often a more bleached term than "offensive". It's a way to say, "certain outdated tropes may be problematic" instead of "the people who made this were bigots". It's politer and more respectful, while also getting their guidance across that most outdated tropes are better left undisturbed in their dusty graves.

A ton of outdated tropes are offensive, and the rest of the bunch are mostly clichés that have been overdone. They're trying to recommend how to run unique and fun horror adventures, which is difficult when you're using clichés, and it's completely counteracted if you genuinely offend someone.
And yes, some of the points in that section do directly talk about avoiding stereotypes and cliche accents. But the first bullet point:

Just seems a bit judgmental to me...
It could be judgmental, but as none of us have the ability to speak for WotC, we probably won't know what they were specifically meaning in that case. It could have been "Strahd is/was just a boring copy of Dracula in D&D, make him and your characters more interesting", or it could have been something "horror tropes are typically one-and-done. Once people experience a horror trope, they typically know what's coming if something similar to it happens another time, which completely negates the fear of the unknown factor of horror. Avoid these tropes because horror doesn't work if you know what's going to happen". I'm guessing they were thinking more of the latter than the former, but both are fairly valid interpretations of that reading.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
Fair enough. I apologize for the way my complaint was worded.
(y)
I just don't want certain subjects to be removed entirely from gaming, regardless of how carefully they could be handled, and when the official material ignores those subjects and/or pretends they don't exist, I worry they are implicitly saying these issues should never be addressed at all.
And I agree. However, it does need to be acknowledged that some topics are inherently touchy, and need to be handled with care. See my post above about how to handle slavery and xenophobia in D&D campaigns/settings in less potentially problematic ways for an idea of how they can be scaled back/addressed more sensitively without being completely removed. I don't think anyone is saying "Slavery/Xenophobia can never be included in D&D, and you're a bad person/having badwrongfun if you do include it", but are instead saying "these are sensitive topics and should be treated with more care than they have been in the past". That's certainly what I'm trying to say and get across, and it's what others I agree with have been saying, too, on topics similar to this.
Like you, I believe that these things can be included if you're respectful of real world implications, and your players' feelings.
Full agreement here. That's the goal.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
(y)

And I agree. However, it does need to be acknowledged that some topics are inherently touchy, and need to be handled with care. See my post above about how to handle slavery and xenophobia in D&D campaigns/settings in less potentially problematic ways for an idea of how they can be scaled back/addressed more sensitively without being completely removed. I don't think anyone is saying "Slavery/Xenophobia can never be included in D&D, and you're a bad person/having badwrongfun if you do include it", but are instead saying "these are sensitive topics and should be treated with more care than they have been in the past". That's certainly what I'm trying to say and get across, and it's what others I agree with have been saying, too, on topics similar to this.

Full agreement here. That's the goal.
I do think that's what we should be saying. I just don't know if that's what WotC is trying to say. Their work recently seems very, very concerned about addressing their critics, and I'm not certain that should be their highest priority.
 


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