Tuesday, March 5, 2013

WIR: Van Richten's Guide to Fiends I



Van Richten's Guide to Fiends is written as the thoughts of Ravenloft's famous monster hunter, Rudolph Van Richten, with additional gray text that represents game mechanics related to Van Richten's observations and hypotheses concerning “fiends” (a catch-all category for demons, devils, daemons, etc.). Van Richten's musings begin with him receiving a number of esoteric tomes as a bequest from a departed friend. Among these books are a sixteen volume set called The Madrigorian. Though these texts are said to amount to two piles that stand at chest-height, Van Richten manages to digest them over the course of nine days. (I'm guessing the author of this supplement has never had to actually engage in that magnitude of scholarship. Van Richten's fellow academic, Ottelie Farringer, manages the feat in only six!) Though initially dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic family, it is discovered that The Madrigorian is actually the record kept by a fiend who possessed many members of the same familial line.

The supplement offers a number of interesting theories that could come up in-game to explain the existence of fiends. One theory is that fiends are a stage in the development of the lich. Once such a being leaves behind the last of their physical remnants as s demilich behind, perhaps their unholy spirit is reborn as a fiend. Another theory holds that fiends are created through the accumulation from the malignancy of human actions within Ravenloft. (This is probably where I got the idea to make dragons in the World Between manifestations of the seven deadly sins.)

It is also suggested that instead of summoning fiends from afar, magical conjurations actually will fiends into being. Of course, it is also suggested that fiends are an influence from another plane of existence that is beckoned into Ravenloft through the horrific sins of the demi-plane's residents. This last theory is particularly well-fleshed out with game mechanics; offered within the supplement is a system through which a character can be slowly taken over (both physically and psychologically) by a variety of fiends. There is great potential for both body horror themes and the conventions of possession and exorcism to enter the game here. The mechanics are similar to those of Ravenloft's usual Dark Powers checks, but instead of turning into a monster the character is sent to a hellscape and replaced with a fiendish power who is now trapped in the demi-plane.

Unfortunately, this early section of the supplement also evidences its biggest problem—and one of the biggest problems with TSR's mindset during its contemporary era. While it's clear that fiends in Ravenloft should be unique, singular beings of immense terror, the text bends over backwards fitting that idea into the already extant framework of demons, devils, etc. (in their sanitized 2nd edition forms). The usual demonic and diabolic types seem a poor fit for what the supplement is trying to achieve, but it's shoe-horned in anyway because all of D&D's settings are supposed to share the same common conceits. The Blood War, in particular, feels especially like a square peg being forced into a round hole in this context.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting. I like these supplements that deal with "in world" explanations for things--particularly when they give alternate/competing explanations. It's more realistic that the sort of cut and dried stuff of Monster Manuals.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The old Van Richten Guides all have some interesting setting ideas (never read any of the post 2e ones). There is still this unfortunate juxtaposition between the cool ideas and fitting them into the Official D&D Assumptions, but any DM worth their salt knows when to ignore what TSR, Gary, WotC, the OSR, etc. has to say.

      Delete
  2. On the subject of Ravenloft, could you point me towards the maps you found that show how the realms are laid out relative to one another?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Here's a big colorful fan-made one: http://www.fraternityofshadows.com/PortraitHall/JesterMaps/New-Core---Jester-revised---misty-borders.png

      Delete
  3. Van Richten's guides are some of the only 2e material I've ever really enjoyed, and they're easily some of the best supplements for D&D I think I've ever read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed. They have a lot of inspiration and mechanics to work with.

      Delete