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  • Too Much Horror Business - Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft Review

Too Much Horror Business - Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft Review

MB Updated May 25, 2021
 
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Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft
There Will Be Games

Too much horror busines.

Ravenloft is one of the crowning glories of Dungeons & Dragons. The first edition I6 module is one of the best TTRPG supplements ever written, a stunningly evocative adventure that takes a hard left from the standard Appendix N-influenced fantasy that was the defacto D&D setting back in 1983, veering into Gothic territory complete with all the Hammer trappings. Barovia is a land benighted by shrouds of mist, creepy creatures, forlorn castles, and of course an inimitable and tragic vampire – the great Count Strahd von Zarovich. Ravenloft was updated five years ago for 5E in the Curse of Strahd book and despite some culturally insensitive depictions of the Romany-influenced Vistani people, it was mostly a great refresh and a fine example of the best that the current edition has to offer. Now, Wizards is offering up another book to expand the Ravenloft concept and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft has emerged from the Domains of Dread.

Interestingly, it’s as much a DM’s guide for horror-based adventures as it is anything to do with Ravenloft proper. There is abundant guidance for playing with various types of horror, including a sort of guide to various genre mutations that explains differences between Cosmic Horror, Slasher Horror, Disaster Horror, Folk Horror, Body Horror, and so forth. There are numerous suggestions for maintaining a safe table, respecting boundaries, understanding the difference between scaring players and scaring characters, and managing expectations. These are important considerations when dealing with horror subject matter that can run the intensity gamut from Scooby-Doo to Cannibal Holocaust. Advisement is provided to help DMs work out how to create fear, suspense, and terror in their games and although a lot of it is likely familiar for the seasoned, it’s all a great baseline resource for creating horror-based games.

Central to many players’ interest will likely be a few new character options including the sure-to-be-popular Dhampir, horror backgrounds, a cool new Bard College (Spirits), and of course a new Warlock- an undead one. There are also some fun Dark Gifts, in case you need rules for a Symbiotic Being or a character that has a death touch.  All pretty much expected stuff, but then there is one piece that I found surprising. There’s a small suite of rules to create and run “Survivors”, more thinly fleshed-out characters with limited specs that are suitable for one-shots or for situations where, for example, players might find themselves playing other characters from a memory or in a nightmare.

I found this notable given D&D’s current emphasis on super-heroic, idealized selves with extensive backstories. And here is an official sanction for the DM to go for the jugular and kill off disposable PCs (with consent and within the parameters of established expectations, of course). To my mind, this is essential for the horror in any of the stories this book wants to tell- there simply must be a fear of death or else the practically unkillable 9th level Warlock winds up being a more monstrous threat than Strahd. Back in the B/X days, characters were more fragile and players tended to be less invested at a personal and emotional level in them, so even a simple dungeon crawl could feel dangerous and high stakes. Survivors return at least some of that to D&D, even if only in a marginal way that I suspect many players will ignore anyway.

As far as setting and fixed D&D story material goes, there is an absolute wealth of content here with a treasure trove of Domains of Dread described in a kind of gazetteer. These are all demiplanes, each imprisoning and tormenting one or more Darklords and each with a unique atmosphere, themes, or concepts for your party to explore. There’s a lot of inspirational material here, even if you don’t choose to use the proprietary lore. They cover a wide range of horror styles – one is a full-on zombie apocalypse, there is a Southeast Asian influenced Domain, another is focused on Frankensteinian mad science. Possibly my favorite is the haunted lightning rail train from Eberron. There’s also a mummy one, which is going to be the one I run for a summer campaign with my kids. If you have something else in mind, there are rules to make a bespoke Darklord and a Domain in which to imprison them.

There’s a small bestiary of new monsters and they are mostly pretty good but nowhere near as horrifying or weird as what you’ll find in something like Fire on the Velvet Horizon or any given Mork Borg book. NPCs, including several iconic Ravenloft characters from the setting’s long history, are described so longtime fans will love to see familiar faces like Jander Sunstar or the Weathermay-Foxgrove Twins. The Vistani return, but this time with the harmful and ugly stereotypes mostly expelled. It’s all very toolbox-y, with plenty of room left for the DM to work with in terms of weaving these raw materials together across these characters, Domains, Darklords, and genres.

Frankly material of this sort is handled more effectively and efficiently in any number of other indie games.  But this is a 5E book, the Big Show.  The audience for this book is 50 million people, not 500 Kickstarter backers. Of course it does feel somewhat like D&D is playing catch-up to the small press scene with some of the material and content that might seem forward-thinking and innovative for a Hasbro-controlled IP, and of course it doesn’t come across as particularly maverick or exciting if you are out here running Witchburner with Best Left Buried or whatever. But it is also making these kinds of stories and concepts more accessible and approachable for a more mainstream audience that expects D&D to be about dungeons and dragons and not much more. So this is a good thing, expanding the horizons of the game for a broad audience. The indie books are there for those looking for the deeper, more nuanced, and more sophisticated dive.

What I’m left with above all in regard to Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is that it especially works as an inspirational tool and if I were less familiar with horror concepts and roleplaying ideas, I’d be especially impressed with the quality and quantity of information presented here. But it is not a new “adventure path” or Tomb of Annihilation-style storyline. There is a pretty decent short adventure included, but using this book most effectively is going to require some DM work whether it is for a one-shot, Secrets of Saltmarsh style haunted house romp or an expansive campaign involving multiple sites and encounters in one of the Domains of Dread.  So it’s not a great book for those who want it to be a sequel to Curse of Strahd. But with that said, this is a far better and more useful volume than WotC’s big, sprawling, over-written campaign books.

I’m also left with another thought. This format practically demands to be used to introduce a more science fiction-centered setting into 5E. And by that, of course, I mean Spelljammer.


Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
4.0
Dungeons & Dragons
An excellent horror sourcebook for the immensely popular game.
MB
Top 10 Reviewer 137 reviews
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

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Michael Barnes
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charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #323341 20 May 2021 11:39
I love seeing Ravenloft get some love. It was the setting we played mostly in AD&D and 3.0. I even used Ravenloft as a setting for a Burning Wheel campaign.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #323342 20 May 2021 12:01
The Survivors sound like a great idea; are they basically zero-level nobodies?

The idea of running horror in a setting where there's Wish and Meteor Swarm always sounded a little silly to me, but I'm not out to yuck anyone's yum. Does the book address horror with the typical 5e demigod PCs?
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #323347 20 May 2021 13:32
I loved the original Ravenloft adventure, aside from the deep crypts with all the cheesy puns. The maps were fantastic, and the monster selection strongly supported an atmosphere of gothic horror. It was a big hit with my gaming group.

The sequel, The House on Gryphon Hill, had some interesting ideas, but our group was heavily into GURPS by the time I got it. So I re-statted both Ravenloft adventures for GURPS and created variant character sheets for all the player characters. Their normal characters went through Ravenloft as a horror-themed fantasy adventure, but the variant characters went through Gryphon Hill as a victorian-style horror adventure with some fantasy elements. So for example, the player running a drow magic-user type in Ravenloft became an albino human alchemist in Gryphon Hill. And I left the players with intact memories carrying over both ways, leaving them guessing if one adventure was a dream, or if both adventures were happening concurrently in alternate realities.

The players struggled against the more realistic conventions of my Gryphon Hill setting. They liked the blunderbusses, but resented the lack of armor or magic spells. The fighter types looted some decorative suits of plate mail at one point, and both later suffered for it. One fell in a deep pit trap, and GURPS deals out extra damage if you fall while wearing metal armor. The other one drowned after getting knocked overboard in the harbor.

By the time TSR made Ravenloft a full 2E setting and started churning out more modules, the magic was gone. The superficial trappings were still present, but the published adventures railroaded players through shallow schemes with minimal payoff because the domain lords were unkillable. And as dysjunct mentioned, the horror setting didn't mesh well with the more powerful D&D spells. I skipped over the 3.0/3.5 Ravenloft, despite hearing good things about it.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323358 20 May 2021 19:39
Spelljammer is ALWAYS the answer! Still my favorite boxed set. Seeing the Ilithid Nautilus in Baldurs Gate 3 gives me high hopes. I want my Hammerhead!

I'm not really sure a DM needs "consent" to kill a player character and driving players against a wall where their characters have to say "no more, we are going home" is a very valid tactic in a horror game. Some of this stuff just makes it seem like DnD players are uber fragile porcine dolls that will shatter under any adversity. It seems odd to me that stuff like "Charm Person" and similar spells still exist in this environment but maybe I've not read the 5e versions very closely (that type of magic was never my bag).

I'm curious when the eastern European setting origin of Ravenloft will be considered cultural appropriation since it was LOADED with stereotypes derived from Stokers British POV, the gypsy was only first amongst equals. Is it really any better than DnDs forays into "asia", the new world, or the like? Best to stick with all fantasy IMHO.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #323359 20 May 2021 21:22
Safety and consent are absolutely imperative in a game where players may be emotionally and personally invested in their character. There are matters of identity in play for lots of folks and there is nothing “fragile” about them. If a character is going to be at risk, this needs to be communicated, expectations should be calibrated, and the player should be OK with it. Only an entitled, selfish, clueless and cruel DM would push players beyond their comfort levels for an in game effect. And assholes like that have no place at the table.

Witness what happened a couple of years ago when a DM at a convention had a table full of players captured and gang raped- including younger players. And without advance content warnings and consent from the players. This fucking edgelord probably thought he was being transgressive and daring, really he was just being an immature lump of shit poisoning a game for folks who sat down to have a good time. If I were at that table I might have broke his fucking jaw.

I know things like the X card and safety discussions are viewed negatively by a lot of old school players but they can fuck off. Sick of white boys pining for the way things used to be back when they didn’t have to answer for their sexism, racism, homophobia, and general lack of compassion. If my game is going to feature violent or potentially upsetting material then I want everyone to feel OK with that and also communicate with me as to where the boundaries are.

The Vistani issue is definitely a thing- they’ve done a fairly good job of redressing the bad stuff and casting them in a different tone. They are much less the cartoonish, malicious “gypsies” they were in every edition of Ravenloft up to Curse of Strahd.

Jason your comments about the D&D elements existing in a horror setting are something I think Ravenloft has always struggled with...how scary is a v-v-v-vampire when you are a devil man that can essentially nuke it from orbit. This is one of the areas where those Survivor characters will come into play- they are specifically low power and vulnerable.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #323361 20 May 2021 22:03
Edgy DM's are the fucking worst. Rule #1 of DMing and Playing is make sure everyone has a good time. I think it's that social contract thing people are always going on about.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323362 20 May 2021 22:33
I mean, you can just get up and walk away.

Just saying.

But for a legit horror experience the PLAYER needs to feel some degree of loss of control. If it is all projected through the character and the player is chill and comfy then it isn't a horror experience, it just becomes heroic trappings 'cause that nasty stereotypic vamp muppet just requires X and Y items to defeat like any other big bad. If you are gonna sit down for a horror game you gotta put on the big person pants because your boundary is not going to be the same as the other players and you all have to get through it together.

But I agree with you on the sex stuff. None of that shit really has a place in public games IMHO and quite frankly I don't think I've EVER had a really successful or fun romantic, sexy, or even lusty RPG encounter. Maybe elementary school flirtation with some NPC or whatnot to get a discount on some dungeon swag. It's just....eww.

But DnD is always gonna be a nerf-coated version of RPGs, it's too big to be really risky with its mechanics, themes, or play style. That's fine, plenty of freaky fish in the deep abyssal end of the pool.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #323367 21 May 2021 08:33

jason10mm wrote: I mean, you can just get up and walk away.

Just saying.


Yeah, there's a lot of social pressure not to do that. You can talk extremes, but as often as not it's the kind of passive BS that just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Your character is in a place where you're looking at the DM and thinking to yourself "I gotta be strapped to this guy for the next two hours." Even pushing back (i.e., renegotiating the parameters) midway through the evening can be a mess.

As in most things, communication is key. There is a LOT of potentially hazardous ground, violence, sex, substances, religion, race, gender . . . and something else you're not aware of when you sit down to DM, even with people you've known for years. In the horror genre in particular set up your scenario in advance and talk through the parameters. Your players are likely ok with some level of discomfort, you just need to figure out where that line is.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323368 21 May 2021 10:09
I dunno, I guess my perspective is the opposite. In these types of games the DM might ask for specific DOs (like a couple things the player finds scary/creepy so the DM can exploit that, or some character hooks the player would like to see worked in if possible) but never really any DON'Ts because those used to be pretty self evident before folks started using RPGs as therapy, or at least getting so attached to a sheet of paper that it became a reflection of themselves and they require constant affirmation that their choices as a player reflect well on their choices as a human.

Or we just buried our trauma deeper back in the day :p
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #323375 21 May 2021 12:25

jason10mm wrote: I dunno, I guess my perspective is the opposite. In these types of games the DM might ask for specific DOs (like a couple things the player finds scary/creepy so the DM can exploit that, or some character hooks the player would like to see worked in if possible) but never really any DON'Ts because those used to be pretty self evident before folks started using RPGs as therapy, or at least getting so attached to a sheet of paper that it became a reflection of themselves and they require constant affirmation that their choices as a player reflect well on their choices as a human.

Or we just buried our trauma deeper back in the day :p


No, I've been playing since 1975 and it's been around since then. Some people just don't want to game some parts of life, and as a DM it's easy to damage a player's view of their character without realizing it.

I'm not talking PTSD-level trauma. But as a DM you control an awful lot, and can fundamentally change a character, at least in the player's mind, without realizing you're doing it. Things like "Don't make my player drink alcohol" are things that have tripped my up as a DM. Gambling, religion, a couple others have stopped game night and really been downers for my players.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #323376 21 May 2021 13:32
A DM should not lose sight of the fact that the primary purpose of role-playing is to have fun. A good DM should get to know the prospective players well enough to know what sort of fun they are seeking in the game, to make sure that there aren't incompatible players in the group and that the intended campaign will address their interests. For example, a power-gaming munchkin would probably get frustrated playing in a normal Call of Cthulhu campaign, where it's often better to run than fight.

I'm usually good at reading a room, but I got in over my head when I first moved back to the Twin Cities and ran a GURPS Fantasy campaign for 11 people that I barely knew. Within six months, we were down to 8 players, partly due to conflict amongst the players themselves. But I feel responsible for one female player quitting. She was running a swashbuckler sort of hero, and her character got disarmed and subsequently grappled by an orc fighter during one big fight scene in the Orcslayer adventure. I sort of picked up on her distaste for the way the fight was going, and on later reflection, realized that she would have been happier with a more traditional combat. In the moment, I was thinking that the significantly stronger and heavier orc would instinctively seek to exploit his weight advantage. I did not think take a second to think that it could be offensive or even triggering for a female player.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #323377 21 May 2021 14:05
This past Autumn was the first time I ever received a “consent” form from a DM. I guess it is a standard form that DMs have started using since the gang-rape debacle. It starts out getting pretty run of the mill info about your character and the type of game you are hoping to play. Then I got to the second page with was a list of things that you could check off if you consent or object to them possibly being included in the game.

It started out pretty tame - things that you could imagine happening in a typical hack n slash RPG that might bother someone or someone might have a trauma or phobia about, like consuming alcohol, drowning, trapped in a burning room, buried alive, losing an eye... But, by about half way through I was like “WTF!?!” I was floored that there might be DMs out there to whom it would even occur to have these things in a game. I finally just messaged the DM and told her that I was unable to even finish reading the list, because it was way too disturbing. She was like, yeah, don’t worry, the list gets pretty sick.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323378 21 May 2021 14:50

Sagrilarus wrote: No, I've been playing since 1975 and it's been around since then. Some people just don't want to game some parts of life, and as a DM it's easy to damage a player's view of their character without realizing it.

I'm not talking PTSD-level trauma. But as a DM you control an awful lot, and can fundamentally change a character, at least in the player's mind, without realizing you're doing it. Things like "Don't make my player drink alcohol" are things that have tripped my up as a DM. Gambling, religion, a couple others have stopped game night and really been downers for my players.


Again, I'm not sure how a DM can "force" my character to take a drink, only present it as a choice and some idea of what the consequences of refusing are. Then, if for some reason my character on a sheet of paper shared my player aversion to drinking, the negative consequences would play out. But yeah, I get the drift of verboten topics, it's just presenting them in a list like the above seems kinda odd, forced, and eyebrow raising. I'm usually witnessing deviant behavior from PLAYERS (via their characters), not from the DM.

I mean, if I were in a game and somehow my character got faced with a choice of killing my characters kids or raping the characters father and there was no alternate solution and I just didn't punch out right there, A. that's just bad DMing from the get go (there should ALWAYS be a third option) and B. my imaginary kids are gonna have awkward imaginary family get togethers from here on out at our imaginary stronghold (key word being imaginary).

If I had a player that went all in on the "orcs represent POCs" mindset and objected to being put into situations where the party had an option to casually kill them and take their stuff, then as a DM I should be construing that EXACT scenario so the player, thorough their character, can step in, intervene, convince the rest of the party to change their murderhobo ways, and then promptly be backstabbed by those same orcs because, hey, they were just evil cannon fodder after all (though in actuality it would probably earn some extra XP for good role playing, that orc tribe helps out down the road, and I've been through this very thing).

My point being that safe spaces, consent documents, and trigger warnings ought to be redundant, or at least unnecessary, because the culture of the game itself should serve as fair warning about these things or be a barrier to them occurring. Kinda like how a game of co-ed touch football doesn't really need a long speech about no grab-assing before play, just because it is a game doesn't mean the rules of polite society suddenly disappear. But I suppose in an era where online parties of relative strangers are committing to a long form shared experience and societal social boundaries are largely fluid this kind of formal process is required, however awkward it may be.

"I checked yes to tentacle rape but drew the line at necrobeastiality, anyone else excited for the possibility of body horror genital mutilation?"
blatz's Avatar
blatz replied the topic: #323379 21 May 2021 16:05
I don't know. Maybe I've been playing RPG's wrong all these years but I just don't really get a lot of this. I've never treated a character I've run like it was "me." I've always envisioned them as video game characters under my control where half the fun is seeing what kind of crazy shit happens to this guy. At WORST, my reaction might be "Oh man that sucks, I kind of liked him. It's a shame I rolled that 1 and fell off the wall into the poison oil."

Obviously springing rape and other shit like that on people is not okay at all but if there's no risk of dying a terrible death, what's the point? I thought we were investigating subterranean hellholes here.

Maybe the modern, group storytelling thing is just not for me. I want to feel like I'm playing a game where my careful play and smart decisions are what carries the day. I have almost no interest in playing fantasy tea party where whole sessions might be spent talking to shopkeepers. Or using RPG's as a vehicle for "meaningful" discourse on serious topics.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #323380 21 May 2021 17:15

blatz wrote: I don't know. Maybe I've been playing RPG's wrong all these years but I just don't really get a lot of this. I've never treated a character I've run like it was "me." I've always envisioned them as video game characters under my control where half the fun is seeing what kind of crazy shit happens to this guy. At WORST, my reaction might be "Oh man that sucks, I kind of liked him. It's a shame I rolled that 1 and fell off the wall into the poison oil."


On two separate occasions, I ran an adventure where players were playing versions of themselves. One was a homebrew Villains & Vigilantes adventure that I ran for my high school gaming group, and players ran randomly-generated superhero versions of themselves. The big surprise was that I brought in a non-gamer friend to play the villain, and had him hide in a room adjacent to the gaming area until the heroes encountered his character. The second time was when I ran GURPS Horror adventure called Flight 13, giving players the opportunity to translate themselves into 100 point GURPS characters, which in hindsight was an excessive number of points to represent normal college students.

Both sessions were fun, but we had to cut short Flight 13 when a player character got killed. It was on a critical miss, IIRC, so I couldn't fudge the roll behind the screen. The player wasn't especially distraught, but it sort of ruined the premise for him. That was the first time that I realized that I might need to handle players with a little sensitivity, because there were a couple of other players at the table who might have handled it worse.

When I played Amber Diceless, I noticed that players tended to create superhuman versions of themselves. Fortunately, the diceless rpg tends to leave the GM with direct control over the lethality of the game.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323382 21 May 2021 19:55
I know of one game where you are explicitly playing yourself. Timeliness, from BTRC (I think, it's been years...). The conceit is that you and your player buddies are gathered around a gaming table when a mysterious figure warps in and drops a very dense polyhedron onto the table and everything within 10 feet of it is warped into the past.

So you play as "you" and all you have to start is what is around you at that moment (which led to lots of discussions of which specific house we should play at and very close to a particular cabinet indeed :p

That's a concept that could lead to some pretty dicey player choices since actual history is full of the worst experiences. Just imagine how long a typical modern game group is gonna last in 1st century Gaul for example before they end up as slaves to some barbarian tribe.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #323388 22 May 2021 11:44
The not including alcohol consumption in the narrative is mostly about being sensitive and inclusive to recovering alcoholics. Like, maybe move all the bits that typically happen in a tavern with much drinking of ale, to another location.