Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft–The darkest dive into horror in the 5th Edition yet

Review by C.J. Bunce

Wizards of the Coast and G4 are partnering for D&D Live 2021, a special two-day streaming event on July 16-17 and continuing with four all-new limited-run campaign series to premiere on G4 this Fall.  The two-day event will feature four games with star-studded casts playing with expert DMs, as well as hosted content featuring games, interviews, special product announcements, a Dungeon Master roundtable, and exclusive giveaways.  Watch the Wizards of the Coast website for more details.

A new sourcebook is heading your way next week:  The new Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition campaign sourcebook Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft may just be the D&D your mother warned you about.  Okay, not really, but it is the darkest exploration yet of horror in the world’s most popular roleplaying game.  But it’s not for younger kids, going beyond R.L. Stine horrors and skipping ahead from the dark corners of Stephen King to the gorier realms of Clive Barker… slasher realms and beyond… but only if your gaming group so chooses.  It’s all part of the mysteries of Ravenloft, mist-shrouded lands where infamous Darklords lurk among ageless vampires, zombie hordes, cosmic terrors, and bloodier things.  Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is still a place for heroes to succeed, but not without mucking their way through terrors on their journey.   It all arrives next week.  You can pre-order the standard library cover here from Wizards of the Coast at Amazon now, or order the alternate shimmering, soft-touch edition from your local game shop.

Ravenloft takes place in an alternate time-space “pocket” dimension, a collection of places bound by the Dark Powers.  For anyone familiar with previous Ravenloft editions, this campaign adds on more Domains of Dread.  This translates to dozens of new micro-settings with corresponding villains, expanding well beyond the Curse of Strahd, also set in Ravenloft.  New story hooks, character options, and campaign customization can be brought into other adventures.  Compared to past editions, it’s clear the writers attempted to eliminate cultural stereotypes of past monster backstories, as well as reduce more derivative elements to try to create something fresh.

Because of the nature of the horrors in this sourcebook, the creators behind this adventure take extra steps to ensure the Dungeon Master leads a game of fantasy fun, gaming where the “session zero” is probably more warranted than before.  Wizards of the Coast does an exceptional effort of breaking down horror into its sub-genres for game play, so each group can select what they want or don’t want.  Players have likely visited Dark Fantasy (like The Lord of the Rings’ Army of the Dead) before, Gothic Horror (think Dracula to Nosferatu to Crimson Peak), and Ghost Stories (so many types, from R.L. Stine to Washington Irving to Clive Barker).  Darker corners to pursue include Folk Horror (like TV’s Grimm), Cosmic Horror (could include elements like the Eldritch Terrors of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or incarnations like Ghostbusters’ Zuul).  The far edge of creepy includes body horror and slasher horror, and depending on the stories and levels of horror your group is willing to take on, there’s Psychological Horror, Disaster Horror, and a blend of fantasy, mystery and horror described as Occult Detective Stories.  Any or all of these components can form the backbone of play.

Character creation is some of the most layered in the 5th Edition, detailed and interesting, setting up all kinds of mysteries with strange origins, backgrounds, and quirks, ideals, bonds, and flaws.  A hundred horror trinkets could potentially keep players quite busy.  Curses, haunted traps, and seances can also be introduced into the story.  Monsters of horror in the book incorporate the more obvious (like zombies or Nosferatu) to the absolutely gruesome–the Bodytaker Plant looks like something out of Starship Troopers.  Vampiric Mind Flayers, Wereravens, and Unspeakable Horrors (oops, I spoke of them) will appeal to fans of this genre.

Maps are updated and detailed, and Dungeon Masters will find their own spirit board (aka Ouiji board) and planchette moving piece for the DM to reproduce and manipulate as part of the story.  DMs can also incorporate the Tarokka deck from Curse of StrahdThe sourcebook includes The House of Lament, an adventure for four to six first-level characters, who will advance to at least the third level by the conclusion (also requiring the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual).

Face your fears, but only if you dare.  Look for the standard cover for Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft available now for pre-order here at Amazon, or the alternate cover at game shops, both in hardcover editions and slated for release next week, Tuesday, May 18.

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