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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft Review

by Anna Podedworna

Curse of Strahd seems to have been the most popular adventure in 5e thus far, so it makes sense that the D&D people decided to create a new product linked to Strahd: Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft.

This review is going to contain spoilers. 

The Review

by Scott M. Fischer

Most of this article involves me digging through the book and looking for cool and interesting lore. I figure I'll just get the "review" part of this review out of the way right here at the top. 

What is in This Book? Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft is more of a setting book than anything else. It has a good chapter on player stuff (new subclasses, and very cool lineages). There is a large section on monsters, many of which are great. Most of the rest of the book describes the places located in Ravenloft, and advice on running horror adventures. 

The Maps: There are a lot of maps in this thing, by a number of different artists. I learned a new name: Francesca Baerald. This cartographer did absolutely tremendous work here, acheiving the seemingly impossible feat of standing out with work alongside Mike Schley and Jared Blando (the two premiere D&D mappers in recent years, in my opinion at least). 

Francesca poured in a ton of detail, including extremely intricate borders, text, and additional graphics, which is very much appreciated. Check out the map of Borca on page 77 or Falkovnia on page 101. I really appreciate the extra effort that went into these maps. They are both functional and inspiring to look at. 

These maps add value to the book, in my opinion. This thing wasn't slapped together - care and thoughtfulness was applied. 

The Art: The art in the book is good. Some pieces stand out. A fair amount of the artwork feels off somehow. I can't quite put my finger on it, but the style and tone of a lot of the pieces don't quite match the horror theme. I don't really like many of the full-page pieces. Also, we're still getting a lot of art that comes out too dark on the printed page. This article contains some of the art that looks so much better on your computer screen than it does in the book.

My favorite art in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: 

Ez by Nikki Dawes on page 4: I just love the style. It doesn't necessarily match up perfectly with your classic D&D painted stuff, but it looks so good that I don't care. I'd love to see a whole book full of work by this artist.

The Bagman by Stephen Oakley on page 7: This is the kind of gnarly, horror art I was expecting to see throughout the book. This is some heavy metal cover undead coming out of that bag. Love it.

Incarnations of Tatyana by Nikki Dawes: Again, I just love this artist. It's real, yet looks a bit like stained glass. The brighter colors look good on this paper. 

Ivana Boritsi by Irina Nordsol on page 78: I love the kind of sea-green background and the gothic dress. This woman looks like classic, gothic Ravenloft to me. 

Ivan Dilisnya by Shawn Wood on page 80: This is just great. Very freaky, very clear, I love the watercolor-type style. 

The Deceitful Fey by Olly Lawson on page 85: That's just beautiful. The colors! 

Gravedrinker by Robin Olausson on page 117: A giant monstrous worm covered in runes. So good.

Elise by Irina Nordsol on page 141: OK. This one is hurt by the darkening effect of the printed page, but the red/blue background is very striking and Elise looks iconic. This is a really cool image that helps the DM envision Elise and how she could be used. 

The Brain by Katerina Ladon on page 143: Freaky! So well-done! The picture is almost too real-looking despite being a fantasy creature. Fun, gross, perfect!

Jacqueline Renier by Nikki Dawes on page 152: I guess I'm a Nikki Dawes fan. Again, love the bright colors, love the expression on her face. Just tremendous. It's very clear, bright art in a book full of dark, sometimes muddy pictures. 

Vistani Wagon by Titus Lunter on page 177: Is this a companion piece to that image in Curse of Strahd where the sky is orange? This looks very similar. Love the sky, love the light coming from the windows. I can imagine the characters in that wagon, perhaps recuperating from some horrible battle. 

Skeletal Archer by Dawn Carlos on page 199: This is just really good. Lots of detail. The skull looks perfect. I love the thickness of the bow and the "worn" look of the gear. 

Survivor by Nikki Dawes on page 200: This is just badass. A bit of a nod to Ready or Not, maybe? 

The Bagman by Stephen Oakley on page 225: Horror! Freaky horror. Love the little circle eyes. This is right out of a scary movie. Showing this art to the group will be much more effective than trying to describe the creature. 

Dullahan by Helder Almeida on page 232: Best art in the book? Look at that glow! 

Gallows Speaker by Scott Murphy on page 234: The blue! The blue works so well, giving the sense that this is a slightly insubstantial creature. A skeleton in robes is as horror as it gets.

Nechrichor by Stephen Oakley on page 238: My favorite piece of art in the whole book, easy. So evil! Love the gold plating, love the shadowy skeleton, this is just 100% modern Ravenloft. 

I should note that I love the cover art by Anna Podedworna. I really appreciate the use of named NPCs in D&D art, and while I've never been thrilled with the look of 5e Strahd, he looks very cool here. 

Things This Book Doesn't Have: Just to be clear. There are NO magic items in this book. For me that's a drawback, as magic items tend to be the easiest things to place in your current game. I think every new D&D book has at least one magic item that I immediately decide to put in my campaign the very next session.

Also. No poster map! I was wondering if we'd get a huge map that shows all of the domains in relation to each other, like in the 2e boxed set. Nope. Not really a big deal to me, but I'm mentioning it in case you're expecting a poster map.

Is This Book Good? It's hard to compare this book to others. I really liked Tasha's Cauldron of Everything. Is this book better or worse? I don't know. I guess it depends on how much you like Ravenloft. 

The majority of this book contains a setting. If you're going to use it, then obviously this book is of great value. But if you're looking for stuff to pull out and use in your home campaign, I'm not sure if this is a necessity. 

It does have some very cool player stuff. It also has some great monsters. You could definitely use the adventure in here easily - the heroes can be drawn into the mist from anywhere.

In my opinion, many of the domains are strong enough that they're worth placing in your campaign world in some form. Particularly Hazlan, the magic-ravaged realm ruled by wizards. Also, Falkovnia, the domain where armies of undead are specifically trying to kill the ruler of the realm. 

There are very few domains of dread that aren't worth using. I feel that most of them are very inspired and a lot of thought went into actually running them in a game. 

For me, this book is great partly because it takes the old Ravenloft stuff that I used as a kid, cleans it up, updates it, and presents it in an easy-to-digest format. 

This book is somehow both extremely dense yet easy to read because so much of it is full of charts containing brief concepts and ideas. You can read any domain section in no time at all. Very breezy.

So for me, personally, I really like this book a lot. I would say that even if you are not interested in running a Ravenloft campaign, this book still has a lot of good material that you can incorporate into your home game.

Ravenloft Background

by Clyde Caldwell

Now with that out of the way, I want to ramble a bit about Ravenloft in earlier editions. I'm writing this before going through the book. Ravenloft as we know it began in the heady days of 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

"Ravenloft" was a single adventure, released in the 80's. The 5th edition D&D adventure Curse of Strahd is basically a "remake" of that Ravenloft adventure, with a lot of added material and expanded surrounding lands.

The 1st edition Ravenloft adventure was so popular that it spawned a sequel (which was not so popular) and then, in 2nd edition, it became an entire campaign setting. Ravenloft: Realm of Terror was a boxed set that described horror-centric "domains of dread" that adventurers could get pulled into by the supernatural Mists of Ravenloft. Heroes would then have to figure out a way to escape, or (often) they'd just stay there and the campaign would become a Ravenloft campaign.

The setting was very popular, and spawned a ton of sourcebooks, adventures, and other products. I remember loving the Forbidden Lore boxed set, although now that I think about it, I can't remember what was actually in it other than a deck of cards.

There were a few books and adventures that really made an impact on my 2e campaigns. I am dying to see if they've been updated to 5e in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft. These old products include:

Ship of Horror: A Ravenloft adventure that partly takes place at sea. My group's shenanigans on the boat had long-lasting repercussions (a character ended up wearing a hat of stupidity).

Thoughts of Darkness: An adventure about vampire mind-flayers! My group bailed out after the very first encounter.

Book of Crypts: This horror anthology was incredibly handy, giving me piles of fun, shorter adventures. My friend Barry had made a homebrewed "klingon" D&D race, and I have fond memories of his shenanigans as we played through these scenarios. I also remember thinking that the "living wall" monster was really cool.

From the Shadows: This adventure had the worst opening scene I've ever run. Even as a kid, I knew it would be a disaster and made adjustments. As written, the group encounters the Headless Horseman who proceeds to decapitate them all no matter what they do. Then, the characters awaken as severed heads in a lab.

Fun idea, but the railroad-y murder was too much of an outrage to my players. 

When Black Roses Bloom: This one is a forgotten gem. It's about the villain of Dragonlance, Lord Soth (!), who has been pulled into Ravenloft. 

Darklords: This supplement detailed new villains. It included Ebonbane, the evil sword that first appeared in one of the best adventures I've ever run - Bane of the Shadowborn, from Dungeon Magazine #31 (which I wrote about here).

Black & White Movies: The thing I liked least about the 2e Ravenloft content was that a lot of it drew inspiration from old black and white movies, which just didn't appeal to me. I remember in particular one domain of dread based on Frankenstein's monster - I think it featured a guy named Dr. Mordenheim and his 'monster', Adam. It was too on-the-nose and cliched for me. 

Many of the old domains of dread were rip-offs or re-skins of things I wasn't into to begin with. It was weird to me that there was this horror boom in the 80's with villains like Jason and Freddy Krueger, but we were hearkening back to the early days of cinema for some reason. Maybe this was done to avoid the ire of angry parents, which was a major concern at the time.

3rd Edition Ravenloft: In 3e, Ravenloft was farmed out to another company who made a number of supplements and hardcovers. Because it wasn't "official," I didn't really look into it. Late in 3rd edition, there was an official book: Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, a really fun adventure which sort of sets up Curse of Strahd. Now that I think about it, Expedition is basically a 3e Curse of Strahd.

4th Edition Ravenloft: Ravenloft received a few nods here and there through the short lifespan of 4e. Strahd was detailed in the great Open Grave supplement. There was a Strahd-based adventure, very much a Curse of Strahd prequel called Fair Barovia, which I wrote about extensively here.

There were five domains of dread detailed in Dungeon and Dragon Magazine, and one bonus domain:

  • Sunderheart (Dragon #368): A tiefling-centric realm where all children have "twinning deformities", ruled by Lady Dreygu, who transforms into "The Ghoul" at night. 
  • Graefmotte (Dragon #375): A domain ruled by a Lord who accidentally killed his son while trying to prevent him from going off to war. The son's ghost haunts the place and Lord Graef refuses to admit to the murder. 
  • Monadhan (Dragon #378): This domain is ruled by a dracolich named Arantor (who accidentally killed thousands of refugees during a war and then covered it up). Who else is here? Kas! Apparently he once had his own domain of dread called Tovag. Monadhan is featured in Betrayal at Monadhan, part of the 4e Scales of War adventure path which I ran way back when.  
  • The Endless Road (Dungeon #174): This is a revamp of the 2e version of the Headless Horseman. His domain is a road that seemingly goes on forever. 
  • Timbergorge (Dungeon #207): A cold valley (originally located in the Feywild) where werewolves battle the Darklord - a treant named Silvermaw, who has SILVER TEETH which obviously the werewolves are vulnerable to.
  • Histaven (Free RPG Day booklet): A settlement ruled by a Count, who the mysterious Rag Man hopes to overthrow.

There's a great "let's read" thread on rpg.net that goes over all of these articles.

OK! Now that we're all loaded up on what came before, let's dive into the new book and see what's in it.

Introduction

by Paul Scott Canavan

The Dark Powers: In the introductory section, we are told that "Sinister entities known as the Dark Powers manipulate the domains of dread and all who dwell within." I wonder if we'll get confirmation that the Dark Powers are indeed the vestiges trapped in amber in the Amber Temple from Curse of Strahd? I'm dying to know more about some of those vestiges.

Wait... page 8 gives us the answer! "Although some of their names whisper through sinister lore - Osybus, Shami-Amourae, and Tenebrous - domain inhabitants know almost nothing about the Dark Powers." So there you go! Tenebrous, aka dead Orcus, is a Dark Power.

Chapter 1: Character Creation

by Andrew Mar

This short chapter details 3 new types of character lineages you can make, some Dark Gifts (special powers/curses), 2 subclasses, and a bunch of character backgrounds, and a pile of trinkets.

Lineages: "Lineages are races that characters might gain through remarkable events."

Dhampir: A vampire, basically. You can bite people to do damage and heal yourself (if you're missing half your HP or more). 

Hexblood: A magic being, often raised or created by hags. You have a telepathic token that you can scry with. You can also cast disguise self and hex once per day. I love the hag lore in D&D.

Reborn: "Individuals who have died yet, somehow, still live.

Dark Gifts: Characters can be tempted by the Dark Powers, given special boons that also have a drawback. The first one seems very harsh - you gain two proficiencies and one language, but every time you roll a 1 on a d20 something horrible happens (you're charmed by a creature you can see, or you are incapacitated, etc.).

I wish I had these rules in my Dungeon Academy campaign. One of the heroes, Seraphine, actually became a Darklord for a short time.

Living Shadow: Wow. Now we're talking. "Your shadow occasionally moves out of sync with you." You roll on the shadow quirks table.. some of these are hilarious. "When I'm distracted, my shadow panics and tries to get other people's attention, as if it's desperate to escape me."

The shadow can be used like a mage hand spell and it can increase your reach for melee attacks. When you roll a 1 on a d20, "your shadow exerts a will of its own." Amazing. Love this one!

Mist Walker: You can pass through the Mists to escape a domain, but if you remain in one area for too long, the Mists can "drain your life force" (you start gaining levels of exhaustion after 1-4 weeks of being in the same place). 

Second Skin: You can take on a second form, which might be a slime creature or an angelic form (!). The drawback involves a certain trigger, such as the sound of ringing temple bells, which can force you to shift forms involuntarily. These are all great. 

Symbiotic Being: These just keep getting better! This could be a tiny humanoid attached to your body or a living tattoo. Amazing. The symbiote has its own agenda and can force you to do things if you fail a save. This is a recipe for a legendary character.

Death Touch: You can do damage via touch! 1d10 necrotic damage if you hit. "The deathly power within you is beyond your control, afflicting any who touch your bare skin." This is stellar. I am loving these dark gifts so much. You can make such a cool, tortured hero with this gimmick, a Raistlin-type character. 

Watchers: "Something is always watching you and draws ethereal spirits... that follow you and gather in your general vicinity." Could be bats, ghost orbs, shadows, or "otherworldly voyeurs." You can use them to aid in Perception checks, you are immune to blindness, but when other people notice the watchers you have disadvantage on certain checks. Love this one, too.

Subclass Options: We get two of them. 

Bard: College of Spirits: You can commune with spirits, who let you cast guidance, let you use certain tools, and use bardic inspiration for different effects - deal force damage, grant temporary HP, etc. Once you hit level 6, you can conduct a ritual to "...learn one spell of your choice from any class" (must be divination or necromancy). 

Warlock: The Undead: You make a pact with an undead entity, probably a lich. At 6th level you no longer need to eat/sleep breathe, at 10th level "...when you would be reduced to 0 hit points, you can use your reaction to drop to 1 hit point instead...

These subclasses are OK. 

Backgrounds: We get some quick new backgrounds, along with lists of ideals, bonds, and flaws. 

  • Favorite Bond: "I'm desperately seeking a cure to an affliction or a curse, either for someone close to me or for myself."
  • Favorite Flaw: "I'm convinced something is after me, appearing in mirrors, dreams, and places where no one could."

Haunted One: I think this background is from Curse of Strahd. 

Investigator: Now you can be like Van Richten! There's a list of possible first cases. My favorite: "You helped a spirit find peace by finding its missing corpse. Ever since, other spectral clients have sought you out to help them find rest."

Favorite Trinkets: We get a list of 100 new trinkets. Here are my favorites:

  • "A lock that opens when blood is dripped into its keyhole."
  • "A black executioner's hood."
  • "A candle made from a severed hand."
  • "A straightjacket covered in charcoal runes."

Chapter 2: Creating Domains of Dread

by Irina Nordsol

We start off with advice and rules on creating Darklords and domains. The part I find most interesting is the idea that a Darklord can't really die! Defeating them might involve exploiting a weakness, but in the end, the Dark Powers can bring them back. 

In my experience, creating a Darklord is difficult. Seems like the best way to do it is to take a popular NPC/villain from a campaign and have them get sucked into/be reborn in Ravenloft. I think that straight resurrecting a big bad guy that your group already defeated might feel cheap, but by having them reborn as a Darklord, now tormented and flawed, it might be really cool and fresh for your players.  

Genres of Horror: Whoa, wasn't expecting this! We get a list of different types of horror and villains/settings/plots you can use. The first one is "body horror", which immediately makes me think of old, gross David Cronenberg effects like in The Fly.

Body Horror: We are given a list of monsters appropriate for this genre, and included is the chain devil (a nod to Hellraiser, I assume).

Some of the villain ideas are great. "A monarch who feeds their cannibal children, no matter the cost."

Cosmic Horror: Favorite plot: "Help a parent recover a child who's gone missing in the impossibly vast space underneath their bed."

Dark Fantasy: Favorite villain: "A god who killed all their peers and now rules the mortal realm.

Folk Horror: What is this? It's about traditions and beliefs. Like The Ritual. Favorite setting: "A telepathic collective that townsfolk join by ingesting a rare fungus.

Ghost Stories: Lots of murder-solving in this one. Favorite torment: "All spirits obey a Darklord who can't touch anyone without stealing their soul."

Gothic Horror: Favorite villain: "Someone who loves a monstrous creature and does anything to keep it fed and safe."

Chapter 3: Domains of Ravenloft

by Katerina Ladon

This chapter takes up most of the book. It details piles and piles of domains of dread. I am really curious to see what old ones have been updated. Very interested to see if new ones have been created, too. I bet there's going to be all sorts of fun nuggets in here.

The Mists: We get rules for wandering the mists. The Dark Powers can manipulate the Mists, allowing them to open or close borders to a certain domain. If the borders are closed, the Mists look menacing and start dealing out exhaustion left and right until you back off or die. 

If the borders are open, you wander for d6 hours and then roll on a chart. It is very difficult... nearly impossible... to emerge from the Mists onto a world on the Material Plane.

Mist Talisman: These are non-magical objects linked to a specific domain. You can walk into the Mist, use the talisman to focus on that domain, and travel there. 

Prison of Souls: If you die in Ravenloft, your spirit is probably trapped in Ravenloft forever, even if you are raised from the dead. 

Ezra, God of the Mists: Denizens of many domains worship this entity. "Whether she's a manifestation of the Dark Powers, an aspect of the Plane of Shadow's mysterious Raven Queen, or something else entirely is for you to decide."

I think it would be cool if the people of Ravenloft worshiped the Raven Queen, and the Dark Powers were her enemies. I mean, the vestiges are basically cheating death, right?

Domains: Now we get to the main stuff. Pages 66 to 183 cover this chapter! I am dying to see what's in here. We start off with the big one...

Barovia: A lot of this looks the same as in Curse of Strahd. There is a mention in the Vallaki section of "priests of Osybus" which seems new. 

The Amber Temple is described as "...a nexus of secrets underpinning the nature of the Domains of Dread." Then it says: "The priests of Osybus (detailed in the "Other Groups" section later in this chapter) have particular interest in this site."

Want to skip ahead to read about Osybus? Let's do it. Page 178. "These cultists channel the might of the Dark Powers and steal souls to gain the ability to transcend death." They are working to try to free Strahd from Ravenloft! 

We get charts full of ideas/hooks on a number of subjects. In a list of 8 Barovian adventure ideas, there's this: "Priests of Osybus (see chapter 5) have gained a following in Vallaki. They consider Strahd a demi-god of their faith and drain the blood of nonbelievers in their name."

There's a big section on creating an incarnation of Tatyana (Strahd's would-be bride). Love this. 

Bluetspur: It's here! The vampiric mind flayer place! My group wanted absolutely nothing to do with this realm. The Darklord of this domain: The God-Brain of Bluetspur. This section is too short! We get an overview of the realm and the basic story, but I'd have liked some detailed locales. 

Borca: A realm of feuding nobles. This domain has two Darklords who rarely meet. I really like Ivan Dilisnya and his clockwork pram. Very, very cool-looking villain! I feel like, even with the info provided, I'd have a hard time making a fun adventure here. This is a more "social" realm, not your typical D&D locale.

The Carnival: This is a domain that actually travels. I've never been into carnivals in D&D, but there's very cool ideas here. There's a guy whose worst impulses grow into creatures that he keeps in bottles and puts on display. That's so weird and deep, I love it. 

Darkon: Hey! This has Castle Avernus from From the Shadows. That place was loaded with magic items. This domain was once the home of the lich Azalin, who I remember being a very big deal in 2e Ravenloft. I'm constantly surprised he hasn't been mentioned more in future editions. 

It looks like Azalin actually escaped his own domain and now the place has changed. Now, the realm is slowly crumbling. Anyone who dies rises up the next night as a mindless zombie. 

Castle Avernus blew up, but the pieces of it are hovering in the air and slowly re-forming. Sections of it are still intact. Don't want to spoil too much, but there's a ton of cool details here. 

Three people are battling for control of the realm. One of them is related to Baron Metus, the vampire that killed van Richten's son. 

Dementlieu: This realm is all about masquerade balls. The Darklord has a whole thing about exposing liars, and even has actual flavor text when unmasking an intruder. I still maintain that players always love balls/parties in D&D. It just always works. I don't know why. 

Falkovnia: This is a war-torn land where armies of undead are coming after the Darklord. All of the undead are soldiers who died under the Darklord's watch. Awesome, right? This is a perfect domain of dread, in my opinion.

Har'Akir: The Mummy! Mummies are a little under-utilized in D&D. This place has "a vast dungeon underworld that connects every tomb and monument..."

Hazlan: I LOVE the map to Hazlan. The colors! Amazing. This is a realm ruled by wizards who use the entire place to conduct magical experiments. There's a forest where everything has been turned to stone, a wasteland where meteors and otherworldly creatures fall from the sky, all sorts of stuff. I really like this place, maybe my favorite one so far. It even has its own wild magic table.

I'Cath: This is a city whose populace sleeps forever. The city layout changes every night, making escape nearly impossible. 

Kalakeri: Two factions vie for control. The Darklord is a death knight and there's a tower that grows taller every night.

Kartakass: A collection of settlements inhabited by performers. This is basically a Bards & Werewolves setting. I believe this is the locale of the very first 2e Ravenloft setting adventure Feast of Goblyns

Lamordia: Heyy this is the Frankenstein domain! In 2e, the Darklord here was "Victor Mordenheim" and his creation - Adam. Now the Darklord is a woman named Viktra Mordenheim. If you read my Guide to the Brain in a Jar, you know that the original Victor Mordenheim also created "The Living Brain." Viktra can swap people's brains. Her "monster" is a woman named Elise. This domain is really cool - they took all the old stories and brought them forward.

Mordent: This domain originally appeared in the 1st edition Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill adventure, which I wrote a lot about here. In that one, there were two Strahds running around, along with Azalin the lich and all sorts of other stuff. 

Reading this 5e version, we see that this is where van Richten's herbalist shop is located. The Darklord is a ghost who lives in the House on Gryphon Hill, who commands a horde of undead. He is trying to use the Apparatus (the huge device from the 1e adventure that Strahd hoped would help him escape from Ravenloft) to escape his torment, but it always has some disastrous malfunction.

I really enjoy how they've embraced the old stuff and cleaned it up. Some of these concepts didn't really work well in older editions, but instead of discarding them, the designers have repaired them and made them fun and functional. 

Richemulot: This is wererat central. The Darklord is a wererat. The city has swarms of rats wandering the streets like packs of dogs. And there's a "gnawing plague" that is spread by the rats. Most of this section details how the plague can become an epidemic with the dead littering the streets.

Tepest: The Darklord of this realm is a green hag who trapped her two sisters in a magic cauldron. The people of this domain revere the hag and offer her tributes. 

Valachan: A jungle teeming with displacer beasts. The current Darklord is a weretiger named Chakuna. 

Other Domains of Dread: Over the course of a few pages, we are presented with many more domains of dread. There's one from Eberron, Markovia (based on the Island of Dr. Moreau, I think), the Sea of Sorrows! (from Ship of Horror), and... well look at this. The Shadowlands, home to the Darklord Ebonbane! It's only a paragraph. Here it is:

  • Darklord: Ebonbane
  • Hallmarks: Falls from grace, heroic sacrifice

"Within this forested land of peasants and heroes dwells an order of questing knights known as the Circle. These knights seek to vanquish evil, following the example of their founder, the paladin Kateri Shadowborn. Even long generations after Kateri's death, members of the Shadowborn family still number among the Circle, their heroics known across the Shadowlands and in other domains. Yet despite their victories, the foes and failures of these knights are ever drawn back to the Shadowlands, filling it with vengeful souls and monsters. These include villains such as the necromancer Morgoroth; the fallen paladin Elena Faith-hold; and Ebonbane, Kateri Shadowborn's accursed sword."

In my campaign, Ebonbane became the main villain of my entire setting and one of my players made a character who was a member of the Shadowborn family. 

Tovag: Wow, here's another big one. Tovag is home to Kas. "Notorious across the planes, the vampire Kas was once the champion of the lich Vecna. Wielding the artifact that bears his name, he betrayed his master and the resulting battle supposedly destroyed them both." Kas builds armies here, then sends them into the Mists to destroy Vecna. Unfortunately for him, the armies never make it out of the Mists.

Travelers in the Mists: This section details NPCs and organizations that might be allies with the heroes.

Keepers of the Feather: The wereravens from Curse of Strahd.

Vistani: Includes notes on making Vistani characters. 

Mist Wanderers: We are given extensive descriptions of many NPCs. One that sticks out is Erasmus van Richten, Rudolph's ghost son. 

Ezmerelda "Ez" d'Avenir, from Curse of Strahd, is here as well. She has split off from van Richten, not wanting to become obsessed like van Richten has.  

Chapter 4: Horror Adventures

by Trystan Falcone

We go over session zero stuff - checking to see what your players are and aren't OK with. Pacing, setting the mood, all that stuff. 

I think the only horror adventure I ever played that really felt scary was when we played a game in high school called Beyond the Supernatural (our characters were high school kids who stumbled onto supernatural elements in town), by candlelight. 

It was awesome, scary and fun... until my min/maxing friend had his character somehow obtain a shotgun, track down the school bullies, and completely ruin the tension.

Horror Toolkit: We go over curses and effects of fear. As far as fear mechanics go, basically your character has a trigger such as "I can't stand heights." Then, when that comes up in the game, they must make a DC 15 WIS save or become frightened until the end of their next turn. 

We also get a few haunted traps, and some new NPC sidekick "survivor" types. There's 4:

  • Apprentice: Can cast burning hands and fire bolt.
  • Disciple: Can cast sacred flame.
  • Sneak: Can disengage.
  • Squire: Can use a shield to shove as a bonus action.

The House of Lament: Wow.. we get a whole 19-page adventure in here. This scenario takes characters from level 1 to level 3. It's a haunted house that acts as both a domain of dread and a Darklord. 

You're given a ton of options as far as what NPCs are in the house and which spirit the group will be dealing with. Rudolph van Richten is an option as far as investigators go. 

Basically, the group will have to survive in the house and periodically do a seance to learn how to help the spirit trapped in the house. 

I guess I shouldn't spoil too much, but the ending is very, very cool. 

Chapter 5: Monsters of Ravenloft

by Stephen Oakley
Always a highlight of these books is the new monsters. Let's go over some of them and see what weird new things we can throw at our players.

Bodytaker Plant: It can create duplicates of people. It's basically an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers style monster. I really like the art of this thing. 

Boneless: "Undead remains devoid of skeletons." They can crush you with their embrace. 

Carrion Stalker: A disgusting tiny creature that bursts out of corpses to attack you.

Carrionette: Murder puppets. They can swap consciousness with creatures that are struck with their needles! Crazy. I think these are from an old 2e adventure called The Created.

Death's Head: Disembodied heads that fly around and bite you. There are different bite effects, including a bite that turns you to stone. These grow on death's head trees, which sounds really awesome.

Dullahans: Undead humanoids who were decapitating and now roam about seeking their heads. 

Gallows Speaker: An undead that forms at sites of mass death, a sort of manifestation of the combined suffering. Great art on this one! 

Gremishka: Evil little cat/rats created by magic gone awry. When spells are cast around them, you roll on their allergy chart - they might heal, do force damage to enemies, or explode. Awesome stat block! Swarms can actually redirect spells cast near them.

Jiangshi: Undead that come out at night to consume life energy. If it does so, it damages the victim, heals itself, doubles its speed, and gains the ability to fly!

Necrichor: Probably my favorite piece of art in the whole book is of this creature, a vial of red liquid. It is a being of living blood, with the ability to be a "blood puppeteer" - controlling another humanoid's body. "A necrichor is a being of living blood, formed from the ichor of evil gods or the sludge in crypts of failed liches."

Nosferatu: Vampires "without grace." These things vomit blood in a 15-foot cone. 

Priests of Osybus: Aha, let's see what these people are all about. Through magic tattoos, they steal souls to power their magic and to become undead. Osybus was a mortal who invented the practice, and then actually tapped into the energy of the Dark Powers to become a lich.

After a whole series of betrayals, Osybus became a Dark Power and the priests are trying to free Strahd from Barovia. The priests actually hate Osybus now.  

Star Spawn: I feel like the star spawn are due for a special adventure or something. They seem to appear in quite a few books. I personally don't really "get" them, but it feels like someone at wizards of the coast is really into them and has a story to tell. 

The two types in this book are very powerful. They shoot psychic orbs and can change shape into small or medium creatures. "Heralded by ominous astrological events, these ravenous invaders make worlds ready for unimaginable masters..."

Ulmist Inquisitor: These people harness psionic powers and use them to eradicate evil. "Today the inquisition rules the city of Malitain, a vast city state to the north of Barovia's original site, and the inquisition sends its members throughout the multiverse..."

You can do a lot with these inquisitors and the priests of Osybus. While I don't like it when there are a million factions to keep track of, this book introduces just a few, and they're unique enough that it's easy to remember who does what.

Zombies: New zombie types! 

  • Swarm of Zombie Limbs: This is a medium-sized thing made of grasping limbs. Handy!
  • Zombie Clot: A huge-sized undead that can fling a detached clump of corpses at a creature it can see within 30 feet of it. If a creature is hit, it is entombed in the dead flesh! Gross.
  • Zombie Plague Spreader: This stiff can release toxic gas once per day that does poison damage. It also has a "viral aura."

Thanks for reading!

11 comments:

Alris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alris said...

star spawn are a clear nod at a more lovecraftian cosmic horror but they aren't going to directly addd lovecraft stuff cause it doesn't play well with the established D&D cosmology as well as the fact paizo already did it in pathfinder

Hexmage said...

As far as I'm aware the star spawn originated in Fourth Edition. Whereas in Fifth Edition the Lovecraftian warlock pact is called the Great Old One, in Fourth Edition it was known as the Star Pact as various stars were extensions of entities from the Far Realm ("when the stars are right" reference, I assume). The third and final Monster Manual for Fourth Edition had several star spawn devoted to specifically named Star Pact patrons, such as the Heralds of Hadar, the Maws of Acamar, and the Emissaries of Caiphon.

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David Wharton said...

Great run through. I'm quite a big Ravenloft fan and love the third edition version that went in depth among the domains.

A couple of things I noticed that you may have missed. In Dementlieu one of the suggested plot lines is about a man in an asylum who claims to have been the realms previous Darklord, who has a strange power over people's minds. That's Dominic D'Honaire who was the previous ruler of the realm and doppelganger for Shakespeare.

Firan Zal'honan is Azalin. His hatred for Strahd, fear of Darkon, the lost dragon skull amulet (Azalin's phylactery was a massive gold Dragon skull) and most tellingly of all his name (Firan Zal'honan was Azalin's birth name on his home world). All these bits of evidence lead me to conclude that Firan is Darkon's escaped Darklord, who has found freedom from his realm but not yet the Plane of Shadow.

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