Table of Contents:
A Worthwhile Horror Classic or Cash Grab Sequel?
“The Curse of Strahd” was one of the first setting books/adventure paths set in 5th edition D&D and we once again return to Ravenloft and the Domains of Dread in this new 5e supplement. Is this new offering a simple rehash, or something new altogether? Steel yourself against the darkest terrors and your deepest fears as we go through everything you need to know in this Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft Review.
What’s in the Book?
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is 256 pages long which is dead on exactly how long the previous Curse of Strahd was and seems to be their sweet spot for these expansions. It’s currently selling for about $29.99 everywhere I could find it in both its printed and digital forms. We get a wide collection of content including:
- Rules for “Dark Gifts”
- 3 New Player Character “Lineages”
- 2 New Subclasses
- 1 Actually New Background, and 5 New “Alternate Background Features”
- 17 Mini-Settings Called “Domains of Dread”
- 22 More Mini-Settings with Fewer Details
- Curse Rules
- Fear and Stress Mechanics
- Haunted Traps
- Simplified PCs called “Survivors”
- A 1st-3rd Level Adventure Path Called “The House of Lament”
- 32 New Monsters/NPCs
As a way to make your campaign a bit creepier, we get a set of “dark gifts” to give players as part of their character creation or as plot developments later on. All of them grant some small but significant power but at a spooky themed cost, often triggered when you roll a natural 1. I’m quite fond of this and it seems like an excellent way to mechanically show your characters are haunted/cursed/generally spooky.
3 New Player Lineages
Not exactly races, we’re on the new “Lineages” concept that we picked up in Tasha’s. It works well here, as now any “race” can become a dhampir or rise from the grave and it’ll still feel mechanically smooth. We get dhampirs which are essentially half-vampires, hexbloods which are essentially like hag children or are otherwise saturated in fey magic, and the reborn which are playable undead.
2 New Subclasses
We get the college of spirits subclass for bards and the undead subclass for warlocks. If you’ve been playing with unearthed arcana content these should be familiar to you as they’ve been kicking around for a while but with this book, they’re finally official. I didn’t see any noticeable changes between the UA version and the finalized version, but it’s nice to get them out of UA limbo.
New Background and “Background Features”
We got two “backgrounds” in this book but only the investigator is a properly new background considering we got the haunted one all the way back in the original Curse of Strahd. We also got 5 “background features” that can replace the feature normally gained by any of the other backgrounds. Most of these provide benefits specific to Ravenloft and will make traversing the mists and the various domains of dread a lot easier (more on that in a bit).
17 Domains of Dread
This section takes up the vast majority of the book and is the real heart of the product. Ravenloft isn’t a single plane or setting, rather it’s a basically infinite collection of smaller settings all themed around different horror scenarios and genres they call “domains of dread”. We get some extensive rules on how these domains function, how players might pass between them or get sucked into one in the first place, and how adventuring within them differs from a normal campaign.
The domains of dread are both the strength and the weakness of the book, as you get a TON of inspirational material, but there’s very little meat on any individual setting.
Barovia (the setting of the Curse of Strahd) is a great example of this problem. Barovia is just one of the domains of dread in this book, and it’s pretty plain to see how little content is here for Barovia compared to the original Curse of Strahd. Here we get only the broadest strokes of the setting, a few suggestions on how adventures could be run within it, and some single paragraph explanations of its most important features. We’re talking a few pages worth of content versus an entire book’s worth of content.
Each domain of dread is a loose framework of a setting. There’s a good bit that could inspire you to create your own adventure set there, but you don’t have nearly enough to just drop in your players and see what happens. You’ll need to be generating all the content yourself.
22 “Other” Domains of Dread
If the other domains of dread are thin frameworks, these “other” domains are just the footnotes. Some of them are incredibly interesting locales that really did spark my imagination for future games, but it’s just inspirational material. Most of these are only a few paragraphs long detailing the domain’s absolute most prominent features.
If you’ve ever wanted to use a curse as a plot device only to have the party spellcasters instantly solve it, this section is for you. Not terribly deep but it’s enough to get the job done, these curse rules are for DM imposed plot relevant curses designed to stick around for a while until solved through roleplay and quests. Of all the new features introduced in this book I think this is the well I’m going to come back to most often.
Fear and Stress Mechanics
We get a new system for tracking a character’s phobias, fears, and current stress as a way to further push your 5e game into a horror experience. While I like the idea in principle, I wasn’t a fan of the implementation. It at once felt too deep to add casually but too shallow to be really relevant. The whole mechanic ends up at least for me as an annoyance rather than something to enhance my games with. Some DMs may find it useful, but it’s not a system I plan on using in my own adventures.
Not that dissimilar from existing traps, we get mechanics for particularly spooky and spiritually trapped objects that put your cleric into the role of trap-disarming instead of the rogue. Detected with cold breath or other typical horror movie tropes, these traps can be disarmed by casting remove curse or a use of a channel divinity from one of the divine classes. I rather like this idea, as it grants some added utility to an underused feature and plays around with the class roles a bit as they delve into your haunted dungeon. We only get 4 examples though, so it’s really just a tool to make your own rather than a whole toolkit of premade traps.
Survivors are, in essence, a way to do pickup horror campaigns. We get 4 simple character stat blocks (apprentice, sneak, disciple, and squire) that are designed to represent adept but essentially normal people. These are the “survivors” of whatever horror is taking place that your players can just pick up and play and it even offers a simplified advancement track from 1st-3rd level for slightly longer pickup games. Firstly, I think these are a smart inclusion that I may be using for my own pickup games in the future, but secondly, I think it reveals a lot of what this book is actually meant to do. It lets you play 5e as a horror game.
The House of Lament
This quick 1st-3rd level adventure has a classical haunted house setup and is designed to show off all the new mechanics found within the book. It has a good flow, and I especially appreciate the use of the fantasy version of a Ouija board for some ghost summoning shenanigans. It has a lot of good roleplay moments and some genuinely frightening stuff and I might just roll this out next Halloween for my own playgroup as a special spooky one-off.
32 New Monsters
Just as you’d expect this is mostly horror trope themed, but it really checks off some much-needed boxes. We get a giant pod-person plant, some incredible specialized zombies, and carrionettes (evil dolls) which are a personal favorite. I know I’ll be using a lot of these monsters in the near future and I guarantee you’ll find some good uses for them as well.
What’s Good About the Book?
The dhampir, reborn, and hexblood lineages will be enough for a lot of players to pick this book up all on their own. Combined with the dark gift options, this book really does a lot of work towards fleshing out any characters who fall on the “spooky side” of things. As a DM, Ravenloft as a concept provides a huge amount of freedom and the details of each domain of dread provide a ton of inspirational material. The monsters are excellent and fill niches sorely missing otherwise. Overall, the players get a few new character creation toys to play with, and the DM gets real easy access to create horror themed adventures.
What’s Bad About the Book?
An adventure path provides enough to direct an entire campaign’s narrative but not so much information of the surrounding lands if the players decide to go off the rails. A setting book provides a sandbox for your players to explore without rails but expects you to construct your own narrative within it. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft does neither of these things. Instead, we get a brief overview of a wide number of loosely connected domains of dread, but not enough to run any one of them as a real sandbox. You could potentially run a game through multiple domains as one big “Ravenloft setting” but doing so will require the DM to create WAY more of their own content than you’d normally expect from a setting book.
So, if this isn’t an adventure path, and it’s not a setting book, what is it?
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft seems to have been designed with the overarching goal of giving DMs the tools needed to create horror-themed games of 5e D&D. I feel like this was solving a problem that didn’t exist as I’ve played in and DM’d a ton of successfully horrific games already. It did make it far easier to run those as pick-up games though, mainly due to the introduction of “survivors”.
What are we left with then? We have a lot of mini settings that act more as inspirational material than actual settings, and you could just read a wiki article on these places if all you’re looking for is campaign inspiration. What we get besides that are some good monsters, DM tools, and a few greatly desired character creation options. I expect the spooky lineages will be enough to secure a purchase for a lot of players, but I can’t help but be a little disappointed with the domains of dread in general. I’ve definitely been inspired to create my own domains, but other than a base framework creating one won’t be all that different from just creating an adventure from scratch. Pick this up if you’re absolutely itching for some new spooky mechanics and character creation options or want to run some horror themed one-shot adventures. Just don’t expect to be able to run a complete Ravenloft sandbox style adventure like you could with earlier setting books.
Final Score: 6 out of 10
Last updated: January 27, 2019
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