More than a horror adventure, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft presents players and Dungeon Masters with the premise of horror in Dungeons and Dragons. It puts the players right in the mix of horror, suspense, and dread. Their decisions and paranoia all serve to feed the feel and atmosphere of their adventures. In 1983, the Ravenloft module introduced Strahd von Zarovich, the vampire tyrant, and the misty realm of Barovia for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, marking the first appearance of the Domains of Dread. Barovia returned in the 5th Edition Curse of Strahd module, an adaptation of the original adventure for AD&D. The Domains of Dread have long lingered on the periphery, referenced only in passing to hold with their mysterious and sinister natures, until Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft brings them front and center in all their horrific glory.
This campaign sourcebook is broken down into five main chapters. Each chapter tackles a topic regarding the Domains of Dread along with relevant information for running an adventure within one or more of the domains. While specific to the realms of Ravenloft, the information in the sourcebook is useful for Dungeon Masters looking to introduce horror into any adventure, not just those tied to the realms of Ravenloft.
As opposed to adding brand new racial options for players, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft has optional lineages as additions or customizations for character’s racial options. Choosing from the dhampir (daywalker vampire), the hexblood (born of a hag), and the reborn (self explanatory, was dead and now isn’t), each lineage has viable and usable abilities that are powerful but balanced. While these lineages are unusual, and would likely be out of place in most traditional fantasy settings, they don’t seek to punish or exemplify characters who take these lineages. The incorporation of the Ancestral Lineage trait is an amazing inclusion, allowing for a character’s other racial influences to shine through as each lineage is not necessarily a “race,” or the option to fully embrace their lineage. These lineages are thematically appropriate for the settings of Ravenloft, but are also viable within regular play with various levels of integration into other settings. Each lineage has a subtext providing suggestions for their place(s) within certain Domains of Dread, but introducing them into another setting might take a bit more creativity.
Dark Gifts are an opportunity to further delve into the influences that the Domains of Dread hold over the characters. They are written for beginning characters, though they could also be gained over the course of an adventure, at the Dungeon Master’s discretion. They offer a minor boon and a curse, as nothing given by the Dark Powers comes without a price. The proper use of Dark Gifts in an adventure is an opportunity for greater influence over the story in a tangible way, in both combat and storytelling. Beyond simple roleplay, there is a well of possibility in the different ways in which the potential Dark Gifts can impact and interact with players in positive and negative ways.
The two subclasses provided in the book are both surprisingly viable and thematic, with Wizards of the Coast walking that thin line extremely well. The College of Spirits Bard was not the expected choice, but completely makes sense within the scope of Ravenloft. Bards gather and retell stories and legends, ballads and fairy tales. Why wouldn’t some seek to directly manifest themselves into the influences of those legends and histories? Narratively similar is the Undead patron for the Warlock. This has been hinted at through its appearance in the Unearthed Arcana and other iterations of Undead or Undying patrons. The addition of a Warlock patron in a sourcebook that is founded on the horror genre only makes sense. The Undead is interesting, as the patron was likely mortal once, so there is the opportunity for a shared view on the pursuit of power, making for exceptional narrative and roleplay between a character and their patron.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft brings two new background options, which is small compared to a rulebook supplement, but I think is perfect for a campaign guide. That was the misstep of the backgrounds offered in books like Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, it attempted to do too much and cover too much ground with their options. The backgrounds and background features are offered as a supplement to those offered in the Player’s Handbook. There are five new General Background Features that can be used to replace those of another background, potentially modifying existing backgrounds to better fit the themes of the Domains of Dread. There are also tables provided for horror characteristics if players want additional choices for their character’s personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. Beyond that, there are the two complete backgrounds: the Haunted One (returning from Curse of Strahd), and the Investigator. The Haunted One background has been a favorite since its introduction, and fits beautifully with the theme of horror and adventurers seeking it out or being fatefully tied to it. The Investigator is another great option, and is one that maintains its viability whether in Ravenloft or another adventure setting or genre.
Creating Domains of Dread
As original creativity is the heart of Dungeons and Dragons, this section is focused on drawing inspiration for creating new and original Domains of Dread within the constraints of what D&D has to offer. There is a wealth of inspiration and accompanying rules for Darklords, highlighting the important things to know about them in order to properly create a domain around them and their corruption. Then, in creating the domain, the Dungeon Master must determine the ways in which the Darklord influences the land, as well as how the land itself torments the Darklord who is as much a prisoner as the players are. The section then expands to options and ideas for monsters, NPCs, locations, and ways in which the climax might be reached, along with its implications.
Within the large spread of horror, there are multiple different genres of horror, and understanding the differences can have a profound effect on both the feel of a campaign, or the nature of a Domain of Dread. The different genres explored in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft are varied across the different domains, each bringing a complex and unique feel with their individual methods of horror and adventure. Primary genres of horror, such as body horror, cosmic horror, dark fantasy, folk horror, ghost stories, and gothic horror, are listed with potential plot hooks, lists of monsters, and options for settings and villains. Other horror genres, such as disaster horror, occult detective stories, psychological horror, and slasher horror are explored lightly, but still provide more than enough inspiration for an adventure or horror setting.
Domains of Ravenloft
The heart of the campaign sourcebook is the Domains of Dread, and nearly half of the book is spent exploring various aspects and details about the different domains. Expanding on the rules explored in the previous section, the nature of the domains is further explored. The Mists are one of the most important parts of these domains, constraining and defining them, especially through the powers that influence and control the Mists. There are also rules and guidance for magic, metaphysics, death, extra planar travel, and everyday life for the people that reside within the domains. The tools for any Dungeon Master to control an official Domain of Dread or one of their own making are all provided with options for rules and inspiration.
In the Featured Domains subsection, seventeen individual Domains of Dread are explored in detail. Each domain is examined through their overview, noteworthy features, settlements and sites, details about the Darklord, notes about adventures, and the particular focus of each domain. From the terror of Strahd von Zarovich’s tyrannical rule over Barovia; the nightmarish feel of the Carnival; to Darkon, the Domain on the Brink of Destruction and former prison to the lich Azalin Rex, the domains offer terror and horror in ways players cannot begin to fathom.
Beyond the Featured Domains, there are multiple other domains explored, the remainder of a total of 39 different Domains of Dread contained with the campaign sourcebook. Features of these domains are highlighted such as themes or hallmarks, as well as their specific Darklord, though the depth of information is less than that of the Featured Domains. Despite being less expanded upon, the other domains are fully customizable to create memorable and compelling adventures and encounters.
Within any terrible setting, there always has to be the opportunity for aid, and Ravenloft is no different. The Travelers of the Mists and Mist Wanderers (yes, there is a difference and yes, it matters) are there to occasionally provide information and assistance to the players; sharing news, rumors, and requests for help; key information about artifacts known as Mist talismans; or offering guidance or serving as traveling companions. Dungeon Masters can choose from the Keepers of the Feathers and the Vistani, to notable characters such as the famous scholar and monster hunter Rudolph van Richten and his son Erasmus, Ez d’Avenir the monster hunter, Jander Sunstar the secret adventurer of the Mists, and many more.
When preparing and running horror adventures, there are things to keep in mind beyond just running an adventure. This applies to running a published adventure module or creating one of your own. Horror is particular, with layers and the potential for a lot of variation, but should be approached carefully and intentionally. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft brings both guidelines and suggestions for Dungeon Masters to remain true to the theme of horror while at the same time being aware of your players, giving them the experience they are looking for without crossing boundaries. Horror games are meant to be scary and unnerving, but there should always be an awareness of what is too far, whether for the players or the Dungeon Master.
The addition of the House of Lament short adventure as a test, primer, or introduction to the Domains of Dread and the horror theme was a great choice by Wizards of the Coast. It provides concrete examples of horror as well as the mechanics to foster fear, providing the chance for a group of four to six players starting at 1st level to advance to 3rd level by its conclusion. By that point, everyone at the table should have a grasp on where they stand regarding horror in Dungeons and Dragons through this introduction.
Monsters of Ravenloft
I was surprised by the number of monsters included in this book, especially considering it is a campaign sourcebook and not a supplement. The choices they made in the monsters to provide show the benefits of providing additional, unique creatures and monsters for a particular setting. The monsters here cover a range of challenge ratings and genres of horror, fitting into different play styles and methods of using monsters to build horror, suspense, and dread. The different options to reference are broad enough to utilize in conjunction with just the Monster Manual (and certainly with other supplements) to populate horror settings, not just the Domains of Dread. The tables contained in the previous sections that suggest certain monsters and creatures for different Domains of Dread or horror genres are prime examples, referencing monsters in this book and from the Monster Manual. Many are terrifying in the ways that they resist death, whether through rejuvenation or regeneration, the many unique abilities will keep players on their toes as they must overcome these traits to truly defeat their foes. Even incorporating mythic actions for monsters like the Dullahan all serve to make monsters feel more ominous and powerful, creating a dynamic feel to combat and the adventure as a whole.
Wizards of the Coast have created a wonderful campaign sourcebook and I love everything they included, and my only complaints are from what they chose to exclude. Primary among the aspects I thought were missing is an expansion on the relationship between the Domains of Dread and the Shadowfell and the Raven Queen. With only the barest reference to either, the most information we get is the location of the Plane of Shadow, also known as the Shadowfell, and the Domains of Dread being demi planes accessible through portals in the Shadowfell. There is a wealth of lore that has been neglected regarding the topic for 5th Edition, and could have been implemented really well with this book. The sections that establish the concrete rules of the domains could have been the connection that went beyond the limited information regarding the Raven Queen and the Shadowfell explored in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. The ambiguity serves to maintain the unreachable and mysterious nature of the Raven Queen and her domain, and all we can really do is infer based on its omission from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.
I also think the opportunity to adjust certain racial options for characters could have been reworked with the introduction of the lineages in this book. Until the introduction of the dhampir in this book, vampires as a character option were only referenced in a subtext in the Monster Manual, and then as an affliction upon characters with several drawbacks to balance their power. Werewolves are one of many pillars of horror, and yet lycanthropy was not given the same viability as either a lineage or racial option for player characters, again only given a passing reference in a subtext in the Monsters of Ravenloft chapter. Another option would have been to rework the nature of curses, incorporating a section with rules and options for characters infected with vampirism or lycanthropy, as well as a subset for characters born with these traits, such as the dhampir being born of a vampire parents or contracted through a bargain. Overall, I really like this book and it stands as one of the better campaign sourcebooks for 5th Edition. There is a beautiful balance of the player options, from the viable backgrounds, balanced lineage options, and both of the subclasses are viable and thematic. The lore provided for the Domains of Dread makes them accessible, usable, and customizable. The section relegated to creating original domains is particularly useful for creative Dungeon Masters, as well as providing more insight into how the domains work. The monsters in this book are a bonus, providing expanded options for Domains of Dread and horror adventures or campaigns. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is a phenomenal addition to the library of 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, and is an exemplary template for offering more campaign guides beyond those of other settings, expanding to those beyond the standard Material Plane.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is published by Wizards of the Coast.
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