Dungeons & Dragons is experiencing an incredible resurgence in popularity, fueled not least by our desperate need for human interaction during these troubled times. The gigantic machine, Wizards of the Coast, has been around for years in the game’s 5th edition, releasing popular scripting campaigns that groups can record and play from start to finish. The next book, however, is very different.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft arrives May 18th and has the potential to recharge this RPG hobby like never before. This 256-page volume contains almost 40 different settings for complex campaigns on the subject of horror. It feels like you’re getting multiple prestige new Netflix series at once. In fact, it’s hard to overstate how dense Van Richten’s guide is really.
Somehow, project leader Wesley Schneider also managed to leverage a host of new character creation options, a selection of wise allies, 32 vicious new monsters, and the gentle guidance your group needs to safely run a tingling campaign of your own at the table . Van Richten’s guide is arguably the most feature-rich D&D book of this generation, and I can’t wait to see what fans do with it.
First a little background: the classic Ravenloft Adventure was first published in 1983. This sleek, 32-page adventure plays a charismatic vampire named Strahd von Zarovich. The module proved hugely popular, spawning a slew of horror-themed adventures loosely linked by a semi-sensitive fog and fantastic cosmology. Van Richten’s guide reinvents some of these settings and adds new ones along the way.
Each “Domain of Dread” is not presented as a fully featured campaign, but as the seed for a dark and great adventure. Strahd’s land of Barovia is here, of course, and his famous vampire roams the halls of his deadly castle. But there is also Bluetspur, a world of cosmic horror populated by the maliciously insane that will make your heroes question their own memories. There is the feudal land of Borca, which is littered with poison and intrigue and whose people are captured and tormented by not one but two diabolical villains. There is carnival, a domain that wanders through the mists itself, populated by ferocious performers and a mighty, living sword; the broken land of Darkon, whose central castle is frozen in the middle of the explosion, and its various rooms are desperately trying to put the whole thing back together in the air; There’s even a haunted train that has its own backdrop and rushes through them all.
My personal favorite is the land of Falkovnia, where the villain Vladeska Drakov wages an endless battle against an endless horde of zombies. Drakov’s ruthless efficiency and relentless perfectionism once made her a tyrant. Instead of retreating and saving the lives of citizens and soldiers alike, every day she rebuilds the barricades that keep death in check. The same walls hold them captive.
Any of the attitudes in this book could be the start of a long campaign. All they need is player created characters to make them work, and Van Richten’s guide has many new tools to help players find their way around.
Take the new lines of the book, which include the Vampiric Dhampir, the Mystic Hex Blood, and the Half-Undead Reborn. At first glance, lines work much like races, as templates that players can use to build characters. But they can also be applied to existing characters after they have been created, much like a punch card obscuring some sections of the page below. Some elements of your character will be revealed through this punch card, while others will be obscured by new skills. This leaves what was previously visible on the page as a background – distant memories that your character can only faintly remember.
Same goes for the dark gifts in Van Richten’s guide
Aside from those damn in-game consequences, there’s a lot talked about consent. Van Richten’s guide contains an entire chapter on the concept and brings concepts like that in full X-Card into modern D&D, including the creator John Stavropoulos among its authors. In its own way Van Richten’s guide has a mantra: horror RPG is about scaring the characters, not the players, and every precaution should be taken to ensure that this is the case consistently.
There’s a lot more to tell in this book, but I’d love to not mention that it also includes all of the tools groups need to build their own Domain of Dread – with their own terrifying villain – from scratch to recreate. Those who love to roll up new characters they’ll never play will enjoy scratching the same itch by rolling up their own domains. The book also includes a new adventure called House of Lament that takes characters from the first to the third level. It’s an excellent way to warm up a new game group – and new DMs – for the epic storytelling to come.
Be warned, however, that this time around, an element of a traditional D&D book is missing. None of the marquee villains listed in the book have a statistics block. Not even Strahd, whose statistics already exist in Curse of Strahdhad his copied in Van Richten’s guide. It is explained at the beginning of the book, the authors of which say that the villain of a domain doesn’t always have to be the big itch for a fight. After battling Strahd and other monsters of his kind many times in many game systems, I agree with Wizard’s bold design decision. There’s more to D&D than just combat, and this omission will help guide players into more sophisticated role-playing and world building, and relieve the tension of having to maximize their own stats and magical powers in order to win the day .
In the end, it’s the little touches that really make you feel Van Richten’s guide Special. I admire how the handwritten letters in the prologue form a single, cohesive narrative that the non-gamer characters – Ez D’Avenir, the Weathermay Foxgrove twins, Alanik Ray, and Arthur Sedgewick – carry through as a loving, found family of adventurers Time and space separated. I love how the pages of the book are printed to look like bleached bleached parchment. There’s even a spirit board in the appendices, a subject Ouija Board on which the players can carry out their own seances. The makers have shown the attention to detail and dedication to the craft that has evolved throughout the course of the 5th edition of D&D.
I just can’t say enough about it Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. On the heels of the essential Candlekeep MysteriesIt’s further proof that Wizards of the Coast are shooting at all cylinders.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft was reviewed with a final retail version of Wizards of the Coast. Vox Media maintains partner partnerships. These do not affect the editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions on products purchased through affiliate links. You can find You can find more information on Polygon’s ethical policy here.