The Limited Guide to Ravenloft

Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. For older gamers in the D&D world, literal music to the ears, and exciting new info for younger gamers primed by Curse of Strahd, right? Well, this review missed its spooky season planned release, but that’s no reason to not dive into Wizards’ latest campaign setting now!

Background

Ravenloft first came on the scene way back in 1983 as a standalone adventure module and developed into a full-fledged campaign setting in 2e AD&D. Between the two editions, it developed a strong following, and had over 70 modules, sourcebooks, and expansions in addition to a line of novels. After the Wizards take over, they licenced the overwhelming bulk of development and writing out to White Wolf under their Sword & Sorcery 3e OGL imprint. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is the second book based in the setting released for 5e D&D by Wizards, the first being Curse of Strahd, a seasonal campaign book. The name of the book comes from the 2e AD&D era series of sourcebooks for the setting, which were written from the perspective of Van Richten, a famous monster hunter and investigator.

Description

Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft (VRGR) is the official 5e D&D relaunch of the classic setting. VRGR includes material and inspiration from the original TSR run, and the White Wolf Swords & Sorcery imprint licencing era. It includes 39 Domains of Dread, three player character lineages, and 32 new monsters in its bestiary. As a setting, it was touted by Wizards as being emblematic of the company’s renewed dedication to diversity and inclusion.

The Good

The art is more than descent, and the Vistani got a much-needed update. Most importantly, in my opinion, is that the slanderous treatment of Jander Sunstar (a notable tragic hero both in Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft) in Descent into Avernus was explained and rectified. On a more serious note, the best parts of this book are the character creation section, creating domains of dread section, and the horror adventures section.

In the character creation section, we see the rollout of the new lineage system with the Dhampir, Hexblood, and Reborn presented as quasi-templates that you can select. It’s also got the great Dark Gifts and Dark Bargains lists, which can be applied in and out of Ravenloft. I’d hoped to see some other lineages make an appearance too, but no luck there.

Creating Domains of dread is great. There are succinct write ups about some different types of horror, and a great description of how to build a Domain of Dread. Overall, solid stuff and a good way to kick-off the book. The only hair I’ll split here is that the “Disaster Horror” genre is way too broad, and its application later is telling of this issue.

The horror adventures section is a must read prior to running horror, or any game for that matter. It’s a literal how to of how to run a good game and deal with content in ways that can allow for horror gaming, but don’t leave your tablemates not wanting to come back. If they were to reprint this part of this section in every book they published from here on out, I would literally not complain.

The Bad

The book is extremely human-centric and with a handful of exceptions, coded as mid-18th to mid-19th century in terms of art. It’s not really “fantasy” in a lot of instances, and the vibe verges closer into being steampunk-horror, a genre not well supported by conventional D&D. The mechanics of the world aren’t well explained either, with implications that there’s trade and movement between Domains of Dread, but each Domain is largely treated as an island.

Human-centric is an understatement, really. Ravenloft has always struggled with its D&D fantasy component, and this book is no different. There’s no fallen Elf or Dwarf realms, no Dragonborn, it’s dull compared to even a PHB standard world. I think it’s a lost opportunity, especially given the new lore origins for the Raven Queen, Shadar-kai, Lolth, and Drow from back in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. There are also some bad missed beats, like not including Shifters in the at least the Lycanthrope heavy Kartakass, or Kenku anywhere.

Coding is rough in this book. D&D thrives in its pseudo-Middle Ages genre. Ravenloft is, as said, with few exceptions, a much later game in terms of coding via art. It’s definitely in that mid-18th to mid-19th century area, and that zone is not well supported no matter how many times you point to the DMG and say “But there’s muskets there!”. There needed to be a more fleshed out arms and equipment section, maybe some new toolkits, and that kind of stuff. Definitely more subclasses to bring more classes into better line with how Ravenloft is to allow for more from Ravenloft feeling characters as opposed to ones who are from a Domain but have power sets and abilities that do not match the vibe.

On a broad scale, the world is broken in a lot of ways. Trade and travel are inferred, but it’s not well explained and the Domains of Dread very much feel like literal islands. This is one of those things that you can’t have both ways without headaches. Previous editions had better (marginally, but still better) integration between realms, and this is something I think that this book is missing. I think that a big part of this can be chalked up to how it was written, but it’s still a stumbling block.

The Ugly

This is rough, so let’s go.

The choice to not give the Dark Lords actual stat blocks, instead referring to a MM entry or VRGR bestiary entry and making mechanically semi-supported comments about how they’re not like a normal XYZ was a poor choice. Not only is it downloading the work onto the DM at home, but it’s also taking tools out of the tool box. One of the great things about extra powers and full stat blocks is that they can be pillages for ideas or reskinned, even if you aren’t using it in its original context. You can’t do that here because there’s nothing to pillage.

The Dark Lords themselves are a mixed bag. Some are strong contenders and you can definitely see why the mists took them, others are less so. A lot less so. I have a whole thread on it from the other night on Twitter. And hand in hand with that, some of the domains are so barebones that there’s not a lot to inspire there, while others desperately needed more space because the cultural anchors they use aren’t common ones. The level of inconsistency here was rough and all over the place, and this was just in the 17 Domains of Dread that got detailed write ups. Also the “Disaster Horror” concept is just too broad, and has way too much lifting to do for different genres.

Of 39 Domains of Dread, only 17 got detailed write ups. The rest are short form entries that are heavily dependent on the DM having time, energy, and skill to develop something from, or the cash to buy the old books to get lore and ideas from those, or both. Some should have had detailed entries, like Cyre 131 The Mourning Rail (a ghost lightning rail train from Eberron), and the Sea of Sorrows needs its own supplement. I think what Wizards thinks is going to happen is that DM’s everywhere will read these snippets and start creating like people possessed, as opposed to what I think will happen, that they’ll see it, think “damn, that’s cool” and then not really come back to it because it’s a lot of heavy lifting and time constraints are a very real thing.

The use of horror is the last thing in the Ugly section. It’s not well executed through the book and there’s a lot of times when things are less horror and more just a normal D&D-isms taken to a logical extreme. It’s the trappings of horror, not horror itself, and this is a problem that 5e D&D has exacerbated. When Ravenloft first dropped and during its TSR era, player characters were squishier. Things were more limited, and the assumptions of players doing resource management (HP, spells, equipment, ammo), combined with less skilled characters, and the deadlier nature of 1e and 2e AD&D managed to patch over things. 5e D&D is a game that struggles with achieving real horror because those are all more or less gone now. So some areas, like Bluetspur? Yes, they retain that horror edge. But a lot of the others? Horror lite at best. Creepy? Sure. Horror? Not so much.

Wizards’ Creative Directions

This book is a solid warning shot about what to expect in terms of world building from Wizards in the future, and it’s a grim scenario. D&D has always had a lore issue, one that I think stems more from poor management and planning for lore than the lore itself, and VRGR is their solution. It looks like a lot, but there’s not a lot of substance to it and it places the bulk of world building onto the DM at home or the creative writing and selling in the DM Guild. The result is that there’s just not a lot to work with, and in all honesty, I think it’s a poor omen for their announced new campaign setting.

It’s also disappointing on the diversity front, but not for the content in the book. Tying into the above point, Wizards is still enjoying sales of TSR era (and in this case, White Wolf era too) expansions and sourcebooks. Even with the changes in VRGR, the old lore can still be applied in many cases to fill in blanks and build up missing ecosystems of monsters and so on, while new areas like Kalakeri have nothing but the core entry and some DM Guild material, and no effort by Wizards to expand on them, highlight them, or lend the official support they need to get up to speed and compete. It’s least effort possible to get a check in the box diversity, and that’s not how you can drive diversity in the face of a near overwhelming status quo.

Final Thoughts

VRGR is a decent book overall, but it’s not a “campaign setting” level book. The world building details its missing makes even the parts that got detailed write ups come off as hollow. As a book to have one-shots, short adventures, or a multi-session adventure/mini-campaign? It can do that. As a book to get access to lineages, monsters, and some great game running advice? Absolutely. But if you’re looking for a serious springboard into adventuring exclusively in Ravenloft, this book does not achieve the goal. Throughout the whole book, I got the vibe that there needed to be more space for the writers to create in, and I think that VRGR may have been better executed as a pair of books, Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage style, than being crammed into a single book. Like, Van Richen’s Guide to Ravenloft, and then a Savra Sunstar’s Requiem of Ravenloft or something.

Overall, this book is a 3/5 to me. Its few hits on target just can’t overcome the numerous missed beats.

Image is owned by Wizards of the Coast, used here for Review Purposes.