It's always a fun time for us when Wizards Of The Coast cracks open the tomes to some of Dungeons & Dragons' darker aspects. We had a lot of fun when the company tackled more of the dangerous magical elements of their world earlier this year with the release of Candlekeep Mysteries. Which in our opinion, has helped widen the door a bit for more insane journeys that players can take that have pre-written content behind them. Because while the D&D team encourages creativity (even if it leads to a TPK), they tend to be a little more conservative on paper with sending people to their doom. That's loosened up in the past couple of years, especially with terrifying additions like Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus and Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. But now we're headed into much more bewitching and darker territory as we dip into their latest sourcebook, Van Richten's Guide To Ravenloft.
Now to be very clear at the start, this is indeed a sourcebook. It is not a continuation of the events that took place in the 5E adventure book Curse of Strahd. In fact, if you've never played that adventure book, this one pretty much acts as if it didn't exist in the first place. You know, just to keep things spoiler-free in case you wish to explore it later. The focus of this book is on the Domains of Dread and the vast and mysterious expanses of the Shadowfell, along with all the creatures, wonders, terrors, and adventures you can have. While the book sits at a healthy 256 pages, it's only divided into five chapters as this is far more resource than a contextual story. We'll be keeping a good chunk of it spoiler-free, but be aware, we're going to be talking about the contents inside. So if you don't want to read the crux of what's inside, feel free to scroll to the end.
The first chapter of this book gives you some new options for character creation that will give those who have a passion for the gothic to squeal with delight. While a lot of the book makes reference to setting and tone within the Dungeon Master's Guide, there's a good amount of information here for players wishing to create "Horror Heroes". And it is referred to as such because there is a sharp difference in storytelling both from the DM and the player when heading down this route. Granted, Dungeons & Dragons is a game that can be played almost any way you wish, however, if you're headed down the horror route, you are encouraged to take things a little more seriously than you would a regular game. Less comedy, more priorites, adding more horror and unpredictability into the mix while setting boundaries of what goes too far for some.
A few of the major additions to the character creation include the new option to make your character a Dhampir. This essentially gives you some aspects of a vampire while still retaining your mortality, but you're still cursed with the fact that you need to feed on blood. Like any character addition, it's a give and take. So if you give a human character this, you get attributes like extra speed and darkvision, but you're constantly tempted to feed on something. There are two new subclass options for you to mix it up with in the form of the College Of Spirits for the Bard, while the Warlock class now gets to experiment with The Undead. There are also new Hexblood traits that will open new magical doors for some, including the ability to become a Hag, and Reborn abilities that make it so the death isn't really the end. In essence, there are some really messed up options out there now, if you're willing to explore them…
Chapter Two focuses more on the DM's choices for the story as they focus on the Domains Of Dread. Not every horror story is the same, and there are different levels you can take things to when playing between the world of the living and the dead. This chapter is more or less a guide to you figuring out what kind of tale you want to tell. What works best for you as a storyteller and the players you're with. How comfortable are they with you and you with them, and how far down the darkened rabbit hole do you wish to go. There are guides in this chapter for all sorts of stories, with featured focuses on body horror, cosmic horror, dark fantasy, folk horror, ghost stories, and gothic horror. This will help you build the world you wish to create and the limits you will set for what lies within it.
The third chapter of this book is the biggest but is also one of the most divided as it focuses on the Domains of Ravenloft. The fun part of Ravenloft is that it isn't squarely focused on the castle it takes its name from. Like any region or pocket dimension, there are outlined areas and territories that make out the world around it. This is essentially an updated guide to everything that is around the area, including all of the main cities, towns, benchmark areas, and backwater hollows that make up the region. There is some new material mixed in with some classic Dungeons & Dragons lore. Not to mention information on all of the Darklords who inhabit these areas. It even includes a section on Barovia and Strahd von Zarovich himself, so you won't need to go darting off to find info from another book to make an adventure surrounding the Count if you so desire.
It is from here that you can craft your own adventure as every section gives you the lay of the land for any number of areas you may wish to use for a story. Some of them even customized to a type of horror so that, let's say you wanna go for a good old-fashioned ghost story, you have the ability to pick one from the list and get everything you'll need. It's not going to tell a story for you, but it will give you a map of the region, key players, places to visit, curses and problems in the region, and possible scenarios from which you can build on. Even giving you a randomization table in case you need some ideas or want to make things random for your party. There are even smaller sections in this chapter, like The Rider's Bridge or the Sea of Sorrows, in case you want to throw something minor into the mix to add a little flair or a side mission for some fun or something different.
In case you do need a launching point, the book has some help for you. Chapter Four focuses on preparing to make a horror adventure by giving you some tools to work with. These include a guide to prepare for and running horror games, a Tarokka Deck and Spirit Board (in the back of the book), and a toolkit to making whatever you may need for curses, traps, inciting fear, and creating survivors. And just in case that isn't enough, the Dungeons & Dragons team put together one adventure to kick off with called The House Of Lament that has a seance included in it. We're not going to spoil anything for you, you'll just have to go read it for yourself if you want to see what kind of ideas the team had if they were making purely horror stories.
Chapter Five is probably one of the best Monsters catalogs you'll see in Dungeons & Dragons, as this thing gives you the run-of-the-mill of every kind of evil creature writers have come up with for the game over the decades rolled into a rogues gallery. There's some truly twisted stuff in here and just mentioning them by name here doesn't do them justice. But to give you an example of what you have to work with, here's a sampling of monsters from this section: Brain In A Jar, Death's Head, Gallow's Speaker, Necrichor, Relentless Slasher, Star Spawn Emissary, Strigoi, Swarm Of Maggots, Unspeakable Horror, Vampiric Mine Flayer, Swarm of Zombie Limbs, and Zombie Clot. Have fun meeting all of them.
Overall, this is one of the best sourcebooks that Dungeons & Dragons has ever put together. Probably one of the best in the entire 5E collection. But then again, we're suckers for horror and scaring the living hell out of players, so we might be a tad biased. Van Richten's Guide To Ravenloft is the literal stuff of nightmares when it comes to tabletop RPGs. We're not going to say it's the end-all-be-all of horror, we know there are games out there that excel at this genre and would probably call this tame. But when it comes to D&D, which has really been striving to reach out to players across the spectrum the past few years, this is territory that some people just won't touch.
And that's perfectly fine, it's not for everyone, but it does an amazing job of fleshing out a realm of horror for those who are seeking it within the boundaries of Dungeons & Dragons. We highly recommend it if you're looking to get a game going and would like to have it peak sometime in the Fall. Even if you don't use it specifically for a horror adventure, there's some great stuff in here for side adventures and quests in case you feel like visiting Ravenloft along the way.