As one of the few Dungeons & Dragons players who has never run Curse of Strahd, I wasn’t really excited about Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. The book’s announcement made me happy for those who do love horror, but I prefer the steampunk grit of Eberron and whimsy of Theros. I also wasn’t sure how the slow burn nature or general mystery of horror could work within the combat-oriented rules of D&D 5E. So it’s much to my surprise to say that I really want to run a horror campaign now.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft serves largely as a Dungeon Master’s introduction to D&D’s nightmare settings. Called the Domains of Dread, each is ruled over by a villainous Darklord and are separated from the usual sword-and-sorcery realms by an ever-present mist. Adventurers who enter the mist are completely at the mercy of the Dark Powers, giving the DM free reign to subject players to any domain’s subgenre of horror. With consent, of course, as Van Richten’s reminds the reader of the difference between fun thrills and using someone’s phobias to torture them.
On the player side of things, rules are given for creating a character that belongs to a horror “lineage.” Yes, lineage appears to be the new word for race as D&D continues to address its problematic elements. So now you can be undead, vampire spawn, or a hag’s child. They all have some pretty powerful abilities and continue the new status quo of not assigning set Ability Scores in the interest of player choice.
Also on tap are two very flavorful subclasses – a spirit-channeling bard and a warlock that serves an undead master. Rounding out player options are new backgrounds and “Dark Gifts” that grant special spells and abilities in exchange for some kind of tragic kickback. It sounds like a lot, and the tradeoff element of Dark Gifts makes for great roleplay, but content-wise, it’s probably a little less than what was seen in previous setting books. I personally found nothing as jaw-dropping as the artificer class or Theros’ satyr. Every book doesn’t need to drop a game-changer, though, and I think the Dark Gifts are cool enough.
The bulk of Van Richten’s pages are dedicated to the Domains of Dread. Chapter three, in particular, covers almost half the book with breakdowns of each domain. This is where the true magic of Van Richten’s lies, and what inspired me the most. Each section starts with a simple summation of a domain, showing the same love for DMs that went into Rime of the Frostmaiden. With that alone, you know what sort of horror the domain is best for, such as body horror, political intrigue, or post-apocalypse. If you dig deeper, you get a lot of juicy ideas for entire storylines and how to think like one of the evil Darklords.
That second part is huge, because the Darklords are not standard D&D bosses. Rather than use them as a big bag of HP at the end of a trap-filled dungeon, you’re encouraged to play them like a movie villain. One hides behind facades, issuing orders and taunts through letters that always appear by invisible means. On the other side is an aged noble with no special powers other than sending weird letters. The party could kill him easily, but do they want to? The Darklord might actually prove helpful if their larger schemes align with the players’ goals, and the replacement Darklord might be worse. Other Darklords are powerful baddies, but can only be killed through specific means. I love this approach because it channels the fun of horror – the main characters have to get creative rather than pulling out their biggest weapon and calling it a day.
The descriptions of the domains supports this by suggesting game mechanics that encourage more thoughtful types of play. One domain sees players placed in the middle of warring militaristic factions. A renown system is introduced to help players navigate their relationship with the factions and provides a decent (if simple) guide to political campaigns. If chaos is more your speed, there’s a domain where every spell cast comes with a potentially dangerous side effect. Another domain introduces the ghastly belle of a masquerade ball. Rules are given for mingling at her party, and sticking out may invite the hostess to unmask – and no one wants that.
The book also pulls back to play with more general horror ideas. For those familiar with Call of Cthulhu, Van Richten’s takes a swing at something similar to the sanity meter. There are two options, actually, one that goes more into roleplay and another that actually imposes dice roll penalties the more worried the player character gets. The tool I’m most excited to experiment with is Survivors. These pre-made characters have low-level stats, even lower than level one player characters, and are meant to represent the average person thrown into a horror situation. They can even level up and get special abilities… if they make it through. It’s a neat system that looks great for throwing together a horror one-shot.
This suite of options speaks to me on a creative level, and before I knew it I was visualizing what my horror campaign would look like. I’ve already got two games running that don’t fit with horror at all, and no time for a third, but the mists beckon me. Van Richten’s just adds so many fun new ideas that it sucks you in even if the horror theme isn’t your thing. Between a sinister traveling carnival, murder mystery ghost train, Dishonored-style plague city, dream labyrinth, and zombie apocalypse, it feels like there really is something for everyone.
I also have to commend the continued efforts towards accessibility and inclusivity. Horror tropes go back decades, and many don’t hold up so well. The writers of Van Richten’s were fully aware of this, and included multiple warnings on how to sidestep more harmful depictions. The line between character fear and player fear is brought up, as is the topic of physical deformity. Domains based on various cultures were also given a rework with the help of consultants. Overall there just seems to be a lot of care put into Van Richten’s to ensure that everyone can have fun with horror D&D.
That apparently includes me, someone who would much rather play in other genres. Even if I never get to put on the horror masquerade that I’m currently envisioning, I will definitely be borrowing some elements from Van Richten’s for my homebrew. One new monster with mythic actions calls to me in particular. I may not be a big horror fan, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy inflicting horrible things on my players.
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