I've spent the past three months pouring over Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft (VRGtR), going over its every little detail and piece of lore. I've loved every moment of it.
If you've followed me on Birch + Bat for any length of time, you likely know that Ravenloft as a campaign setting is important to me. Over the past five years, since Curse of Strahd's release back in 2016, I've played in and run more Ravenloft campaigns than any other. It's become my preferred setting for Dungeons & Dragons, and horror fantasy in general.
Its legacy of gothic horror adventures in the domains of dread, filled with tragic vampire lords, doomed romances, ghost stories, and more, is now only matched in popularity by its modern following. To me, Ravenloft represents the best that fantasy roleplaying games has to offer in terms of story and immersion, so Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft has a lot to live up to.
In general I tend to go into reviewing official D&D books with very few expectations and I'm almost always pleasantly surprised by how much I like them. With this book, I had LOTS of expectations.
I must say, this book must have been the result of a pact with the Dark Powers themselves, because this book is better than it has any right to be.
What's Inside the Book?
VRGtR follows the a similar format as Mythic Odyssey of Theros and Eberron: Rising From The Last War. It offers some new player options that double as a quick primer for the setting itself. Then it details the setting itself, as well as tools, adventures, and monsters for dungeon masters to use.
There are three new race options for player characters called 'ancestries'. These are characters that are descended in some fashion from vampires, hags, and undead respectively. The Dhampir, the Hexblood, and the Reborn fit right at home with the world of Ravenloft, and are also natural fits into other fantasy settings too.
There's new class options for the bard and warlock as well. The Bard college of spirits is a high point; a tortured character who tells the stories of the dead that haunt them, taking on their attributes in times of need. Their tools are less musical instruments and more divination tools like tarokka cards and spirit boards. It's a really interesting class mechanically, and it reads as one of the most flavorful and lore-filled class options available.
The next is the warlock pact of the undead. At last, you can have an undead darklord like Strahd Von Zarovich or Azalin Rex as your patron. Their new powers involve manifesting an undead aspect of your patron a number of times per day, which is really cool. It treats your patron almost like a possessor, granting you a fragment of their undead resistances and frightening visage.
The rest of the book details rules on how to create your own domain of dread and custom darklord, the tenants of different genres of horror and how they can be used in Ravenloft, as well as an extended collection of existing domains of dread. All the classics from 2nd edition return in some fashion, plus a handful of brand new ones.
The book wraps up with a collection of new horror themed monsters, as well as a starter adventure for 1st level characters. The tie-in adventure is a reinterpretation of The House of Lament from the 2e Ravenloft 'Darklords' sourcebook. This modern update is incredibly well put together, and makes for a perfect haunted house adventure to kick off a whole campaign set in the domains of dread.
Updating Decades of Horror
Unlike the previous D&D 5e setting books, VRGtR has to bring almost 35 years of published setting material to the table, condensing, updating, and contextualizing them for modern audiences. While horror tends to age better than other genres of fiction, a lot of Ravenloft was woefully out of step with how we think about race, gender, culture, and equality. Some of that was by design to be faithful to period gothic fiction, but I imagine much of it was unintentional and clumsily handled.
Almost all of the original domains from the 1994 'Red Box' Ravenloft set have been updated. A few of the iconic darklords like Strahd, Azalin Rex, and Anktepot remain unchanged. The rest have been reimagined in ways that pay homage to their gothic literature roots, but make their motivations and backstories less reliant on tropes and clichés.
On top of this many of them have been genderswapped, while others have been replaced by legacy characters who inherited the darklord's domain. I can honestly say that all of these new darklords are a tremendous improvement over their past iterations.
Very often darklords of other domains shared a similar backstory to Strahd's: they coveted and lusted after a forbidden woman, then murdered their way into having them. Failing that, they were often unapologetic rip off's of existing well known gothic characters like Victor Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and Jack the Ripper to name a few. Now, every darklord has a backstory, appearance, and motivation that is wholly unique from one another. It's much appreciated.
Glorious New Maps and Art
Much as I'm enamored with the playable content inside this book, my real joy comes from all the new maps and art contained within. Every domain, save for Barovia, has received a brand new full color map. All of these maps are incredibly detailed and are lovingly rendered. My favorites are the reimagined apocalyptical map of Darkon and the folklorish whimsy of the Tepest map.
The book is filled with an amazing collection of illustrations depicting Ravenloft characters and monsters both new and old. Iconic characters like Rudolph Van Richten and his ghostly son Erasmus, the Weathermay-Foxgrove twins, Alanik Ray, Jandur Sunstar, Larissa Snowmane, and many more are featured prominently.
Almost every darklord has new art, with many of their appearances having been updated. I gotta say, all of them are absolutely gorgeous. Despite all of them being monsters, they all have a bit of the 'sexy villain' vibe going for them and I love it. It's everything I could have wanted.
Ravenloft was a world I've been homebrewing content for since Curse of Strahd launched. I've been pulling inspiration from second edition sourcebooks, novels, and a variety of gothic horror sources. It's my all time favorite setting for D&D.
Now, with this book, almost all my needs to expand on the domains are met. I have a variety of flavorful player options for new players to choose from, and I have so much inspiration to run games again.
That's perhaps the best thing that can be said about Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft. It sparks the imagination, and it makes one excited to run D&D. If you're at all curious about this book, buy it!