Hey everyone, Slick Dungeon here. I don’t usually review D&D books on this site although I do post a lot of D&D content. I wanted to review Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft because I have not been this excited about a Dungeons & Dragons book in a long time. I’m going to give a brief review of the sections in the book and give you my overall opinion of it, as well as a tip or two on how you can use this book to amp up your own horror campaigns. I’ll likely do further posts on content in this book as well because it has given me a lot to think about so watch out for those.
(Note: this post contains affiliate links. If you purchase something through this post I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you)
Also, I know this is not the most recent book Wizards of the Coast has put out but I am not reviewing the most recent one because I don’t have it yet and Van Richten’s Guide fits a lot better with the month of October because, uh… Halloween of course!
So let’s get into it.
chapter 1: Character Creation
This chapter gives several new character options. There are lineages, subclass options and backgrounds. Some of these are going to be familiar with those who follow unearthed arcana. You can create a Dhampir which is basically a vampire who can walk in daylight (think Blade from Marvel for reference), a Hexblood, basically a character who has made a bad deal with a Hag and now has some cool powers but is in debt to the Hag, and a Reborn which is pretty much Frankenstein’s monster although that’s not the only way to play it.
While those lineages are cool, the stuff I really like in this chapter is the dark gifts and the backgrounds. They give several options that can allow your players to really lean into horror if they want to. If there is a horror character or trope you want to play, you can probably find it in one of these backgrounds. Dark gifts are serious powers you gain but at a cost, be it physical, mental, or spiritual.
In addition to all of that, this chapter gives us a Horror Trinket table with lots of horror related objects players could find or have. If I was running a Ravenloft campaign I would probably drop a lot of these trinkets in odd or unsettling places for my players to find.
Chapter 2: Creating Domains of Dread
This chapter is really cool. If you’ve ever played Curse of Strahd you know that Strahd Von Zarovitch is a vampire cursed to live in his own domain, subtly tortured by his own past, destined to see horrors of his own making come to pass over and over again. Well guess what? You can make your own dark lord! This can be anything from the most twisted soul you can imagine, say a barber who is out for revenge and likes to cut throats while singing, to something much less frightening but still fun like an old man who is trying to keep those meddling kids out of his amusement park. I love this idea. They walk you through how to create this dark lord of your own realm and then they tell you how to create the domain they are trapped in. There is great advice on how to tie this dark lord’s actions into the domain so it’s sort of their own personal version of Hell but everyone there just sort of endures it because they don’t know any different.
Another fantastic feature of this chapter is the overview and breakdown of different types of horror. They go over body horror, cosmic horror, dark fantasy, Ghost stories and a host of others. They even give some recommendations of what monsters from the Monster Manual work well within each genre.
Chapter 3: Domains of Ravenloft
Here is where the meat of the book can be found. This chapter gives a deep dive into Ravenloft as a whole and then gives a deep dive into several of the domains of dread.
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There are seventeen domains they fully flesh out and give several pages on. They start with Barovia and I will say if you are playing or have played Curse of Strahd this section is still worth a read because there are some great tips on ways to change it up and surprise your players. In addition to those seventeen domains they also give twenty-two domains the short treatment where it’s a paragraph or two but it leaves your imagination running wild.
My favorite one out of these shorter ones is the last train leaving from Eberron where a mysterious passenger shows up, holds the train up and demands to be let on and kicks a bunch of other passengers off so they can have their stuff loaded. No one on the train knows it but they did not make it away from the explosion and they’ve all been dead traveling with this person who caused their deaths. I really want to make a campaign out of that.
Out of all of these domains there was really only one or two where I didn’t quite get it and wasn’t that interested in running as a horror campaign. All the rest have huge potential for a great setting for part or all of a fantastic campaign.
The chapter also highlights some of the natives you can find wandering the mists of Ravenloft, including Van Richten himself, the Vistani, and some characters sure to be familiar with those who love older editions of the game.
chapter 4: Horror Adventures
This chapter is very helpful to Dungeon Masters because is gives some solid advice on making sure people can enjoy a horror campaign without suffering actual trauma. Safety is always a concern when running horror because while it’s fun to be scared in an imaginary way, it’s never good when someone’s actual trauma or phobias are triggered. They give some standard advice about safety tools such as having a session zero (which I think you should have no matter what kind of campaign you are running) and subtle ways players can signal the DM that a line they are not comfortable with is getting crossed. I think though, the main thing to take away, is you should always keep your lines of communication open and make sure people are having fun.
There is also some advice on ways to set the mood for horror. If you already watch a lot of horror or have played these types of campaigns you might not get as much use out of this advice as others would. Still, it’s got some good reminders about setting the mood but also making sure the game is accessible to all. There is also advice on how to talk to players after an intense session.
They go over the use of props and handouts as well but for that, it really depends on what your gaming groups like. A lot of groups love handouts but not every group does and it sort of depends on what kind of handout you are talking about in the first place. I know if I get a handout that’s supposed to be a handwritten note and it’s illegible, I would much rather someone had read me the text to begin with.
The end of the chapter has an adventure that can be used as a way to get a party entered into the mists of Ravenloft, after which you can have them land wherever you want. It’s a solid adventure that is balanced for four to six characters starting at level one who advance to level three by the end. I don’t want to give spoilers away here but you could definitely use some of the NPC’s found in here as a springboard to a larger adventure.
Technically there already is an adventure like this called Death House that pairs with Curse of Strahd so if you plan to go into Barovia, you may want to use that one instead.
Chapter 5: Monsters of Ravenloft
This chapter is exactly what it sounds like. There is a bestiary here with stat blocks and all that good crunchy rules stuff you need for a game. There are some new takes on old monsters which are interesting and sound fun. But there are some absolutely fantastic new monsters in here as well. Let me just say that the Bagman is going to haunt my players dreams without a doubt.
There are monsters that are terrifying and ones that are silly which is great. You could absolutely run an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style campaign but it could also just as easily be a Little Shop of Horrors campaign based around the plant creatures they give here.
There is also the ridiculous like Brain in a Jar perfect for lovers of old weird movies and definitely surprising to those who don’t watch them.
Dungeons & Dragons has a long history of horror campaigns. Some of the oldest modules out there have less to do with finding treasure and more to do with facing your character’s fears. In all those years there has never been a book as good at getting down into how to think about, create, and run horror campaigns as Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. While it’s not perfect and there are some sections which could have been a little more robust this book is absolutely worth the money. Even if you actually love running other RPG’s like Call of Cthulhu there is still some great advice in this book you could pluck out and use.
I’ve always loved playing horror campaigns, or at least campaigns with a few horrific elements here and there, but with this book I feel like I have been given a whole new arsenal and way to think about these campaigns. If you are a horror fan and a Dungeons & Dragons fan you should pick this book up.
Also, if you want to run campaigns more on the spooky but not scary side, you can definitely do that with this book. You may have to make adjustments based on how intense you want things to be but there is enough flexibility in the domains of dread that you can definitely do it.
In future posts I plan to break down and dive much deeper into the sections of this book and not only talk about them in general but also about how you could use this book with kids if you are running a game with younger players. I’ve got a few other ideas in mind as well but I’ll get into those in future posts.
For now I hope you liked my review and I’ll see you next time.