Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Thoughts on What We Know About Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft

Ravenloft, my favorite "official" setting for Dungeons & Dragons, is getting a new lease on unlife with the upcoming Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft book. We don't know the full details of what will be in there, but I wanted to give my impressions of what we've learned so far from this article on Gizmodo. I'll also be including information divulged in this Youtube video by Todd Kenreck. One of the first things that struck me is that they are pushing the idea that this new Ravenloft will be about more than just gothic horror:

“Just like how the original Ravenloft adventure was spread out into an entire campaign setting back in the ‘90s, we’re doing very much the same thing [in Van Richten’s],” Wes Schneider, a Senior Game Designer on Wizards of the Coast’s D&D team and one of the key architects behind the new book, told press in a recent briefing. “We’re starting with the core of Curse of Strahd and then expanding out from there into other domains of dread—and beyond just gothic horror. So, we’ll also be seeing cosmic horror, ghost horror stories, dark fantasy, psychological horror—all these different things depending on what your favorite flavor of nightmare might be.”

As much as gothic horror has always been the main draw of Ravenloft for me personally, I think this is likely a good direction to go in. In fact, I've put forth the idea each domain could be specialized on a specific flavor of horror before on this very blog. For example, I've posited that Bluetspur would be more interesting as a Lovecraftian New England analog than as a barren wasteland that is nearly impossible to traverse; in my vision, you'd get to keep the mind flayers at the heart of the domain, but also make it part of an actual setting rather than the occasion for a single adventure. Perhaps Bluetspur will be the domain they have developed with "cosmic horror" in mind?

Infamous vampire hunter Dr. Rudolph Van Richten may be the titular star of the new book, but Van Richten’s Guide will give players information on a bevy of characters to populate each of the over 30 domains of dread that are detailed in the book, both potential allies on excursions and existential foes—like the Darklords that rule each land in Ravenloft. “Ravenloft has always been so much about the characters, the stories that are really the roots of the various domains of dread,” Schneider explained. “One of the most significant ways of seeing that is that every one of these different domains—just like how Barovia has Strahd — all of the others also have their own Darklord. So, there are these supervillains that are really not just the core motivator behind the plots of domains, but also a prisoner of those places.

One thing I'm a little leery of is continuing Ravenloft's legacy of leaning too hard on its NPCs, particularly the Darklords, to define the setting rather than focusing on locations that are useful for creating your own adventures and characters who are more grounded than the setting's big villains. Thirty domains is also quite a lot; I would imagine that means that none of them will get compendious write-ups, which is fine by me; Ravenloft has never been a setting that benefited from exploring minutiae. 

That means there are Ravenloft domains old and new that are getting twists and spins to present them as different sub-categories of the horror genre. Want a creepy dark fairytale realm to set a ghoulish masquerade in? Take your party to the realm of Dementlieu. Want political machinations as dark powers vie for control of the land in a never-ending war of dread? There’s Kalakeri, a new realm inspired by Indian folklore. Many of the realms already familiar to readers will be represented with new twists to take on a vibe of their own. The forested land of Valachan, for example, is now essentially D&D’s take on The Dangerous Game, as the Darklord hunts your party down for sport. Lamordia is now the realm of Dr. Viktra Mordenheim—presumably of relationship to Ravenloft’s Victor Mordenheim—a mad scientist dedicated to her craft of creating monstrous new flesh golems in an icy twist on Frankenstein.

Now this is interesting stuff if you're a long-time fan of Ravenloft. It is clear that they are changing up the familiar domains and taking them in new directions. I suspect this will upset some hardcore fans who do not want the setting to change, but I'm of a different mind--I think Ravenloft really does need a facelift at this point. 

It's interesting to see a mix of familiar domains next to new ideas. It sounds like Dementlieu will remain an advanced, but decadent, culture of intrigue, but now with an added focus on ghouls and fairytales. Valachan remains a realm of primeval forests, but with a specific flavor of horror--the horror of being hunted. In Todd Kenrick's Youtube video it's also stated that Valachan has a new Darklord, and that this Darklord uses displacer beasts to hunt men and women in the jungles of his domain. This pleases me. Valachan's original Darklord, Baron Urik von Kharkov, has an insanely convoluted and fairly useless backstory--and frankly it's also a backstory that carries with it some unfortunate baggage. I'm also excited by the prospect of this version of Ravenloft incorporating more D&Disms into its mix; Valachan as "The Most Dangerous Game" plus displacer beasts is an idea to conjure with.

I'm also curious about how some of the newer elements will be handled. Is Viktra Mordenheim more than a gender-swap of Victor Mordenhein? I look forward to seeing what novel tragedy she brings to the table. Also, Ravenloft already had an Indian subcontinent analog, which makes me wonder how Kalakeri is different and unique. (I mean, aside from the assumption that it doesn't use actual Hindu gods and some other potentially offensive stereotypes.)

Edited to add Polygon's article put names to domains with a little additional flavor information:

Dementlieu, ruled by the cruel Saidra díHonaire, is a twisted take on the fairy tale genre. Lamordia is home to Dr. Viktra Mordenheim, who chases her escaped flesh golem, Elise, across the land. Falkovnia has a new ruler named Vladeska Drakov and has been reimagined as a realm on the brink of a zombie apocalypse. There’s Kalakeri, which draws its inspiration from Indian folklore and mythology, where darklords Ramya, Arijani, and Reeva each vie for control. The last realm teased is called Valachan, where the darklord Chakuna relentlessly hunts down player characters for sport.

Back to Gizmodo:

The wildest reinvention of all might be Van Richten’s Guide’s version of Falkovnia: once similar to Barovia as a riff on vampiric horror, it’s now a full-on zombie apocalypse zone. “Falkovnia was always one of the places where the whole concept of ‘let’s bring these old domains back but really given them a new spin’ started coming from,” Schneider noted. “In the past, it was run by a character named Vlad Dracov, who was sort of Vlad the Impaler—that was sort of the whole domain’s schtick. Well, we’ve sort of got a Vlad-esque character with Strahd, already! So, with Falkovnia, this was one where there wasn’t really a good seed, so, what we ended up doing was when we updated it, it’s like, ‘Here’s a domain, it’s a cool setting, there’s a lot of cool places and whatnot’—what’s the neat spin we can give it? So, we turned Falkovnia into our zombie apocalypse domain. 

This is one area where I think the marketing has forgotten to fact check a few things. Falkovnia was never "another vampire realm" and Vlad Drakov (with a K, not a C) was never a vampiric villain! Although it is true that both Strahd and Drakov have their roots in Dracula, Drakov is a human tyrant based on the real-world Vlad Tepes while Strahd is the obvious analog to Stoker's vampire count. Instead of being "more gothic horror as seen in Barovia," Falkovnia was always a place that explored the horrors of living under a fascist military dictatorship. The problem is that nothing interesting was ever done with that fairly rich premise. Turning Falkovnia into a zombie apocalpse is all right; it makes sense, in a post-Walking Dead world, but I hope they manage to make it more than just all zombies all the time.

Tying all the different realms together in the book are a people who will be familiar to players who’ve ventured into Ravenloft before: the Vistani, who formed a major part of The Curse of Strahd’s setting. A nomadic culture, the Vistani provide a chance for adventurers to encounter people who have visited lands beyond the one their current story is taking place in. “You’re not generally going to run into Lamordians in Barovia, or the folks from Valachan—you could in isolated instances, but as a general throughline, these are characters you might run into again and again. Fundamentally, they are people who have a specific cultural experience,” Schneider said of the Vistani’s role in Van Richten’s Guide.

I think the new depiction of the Vistani will have a lot of eyes on it as soon as this book drops. I am positive that certain keyboard warriors on Twitter are already salivating at the thought of being able to denounce whatever is in the book as bad representation. Me, I'm more concerned that once again the notion of Ravenloft as a coherent setting in which its residents can travel from domain to domain is downplayed. I've always felt that does some damage to the setting as a holistic place for D&D adventures. I'd love to discover that my reading-between-the-lines is off here.

“The domains that we present are, in a way, sort of examples for if you want to take a splash of gothic horror and you want to throw in some disaster horror, this is the domain that might come out of it, here’s your example for that,” Schneider added. “But we’ve done a whole chapter on ‘What is a domain?’ ‘What is a Dark Lord?’ ‘What is this specific secret sauce for making your own Domain of Dread?’—What we do is go through a variety of genres of horror just being like, ‘Alright, these are some settings in this genre—these are what ghostly villains might look like, these are what body horror settings look like,’ so, to an extent, you can use that for inspiration or mix and match your own element, put them all together and then have a unique horror experience that you randomly generated. Or, if you wanted to make a more bespoke nightmare, you’ve got all the tools that you need.”

I hope the tools for creating domains and Darklords are robust. Being able to add your own domains has always been an obvious selling point to the setting that weirdly remained unexplored and untapped by official products.

“We’re gonna put it all together into a 20-page adventure called The House of Lament, which focuses on one of Ravenloft’s most notorious haunted houses,” Schneider teased. 

The House of Lament is a classic location from the 2e version of the setting, so it's nice to hear that it will be returning in some fashion. The tidbit that the adventure might involve the players performing a seance is extremely my shit.

Hamon also expounded on the more mechanical side of things the book will delve into. Aside from the official arrival of two ‘Unearthed Arcana’ subclasses from Wizard’s playtesting initiative—the College of Spirits for Bards, and the Undead Patron for Warlocks—three new lineage options will allow players to role Dhampir, Hexblood, and Undead characters, either entirely from scratch or to incorporate the transformation of their current characters. If that wasn’t spooky enough, new “Dark Gifts” will give players options to tie their adventurer’s spiritual existence to the realms they’re visiting, having them be haunted by the ghouls and ghosts of the land.

I love the three new lineages. Even if I never end up running a Ravenloft game again, those will find a place in my Krevborna campaign. The new subclasses will also be similarly useful to me. I'm not sure if the Dark Gifts in this book will be different from the ones in Curse of Strahd (they sound like a different kind of mechanic) so I'm interested in checking them out as well. A bestiary will also be part of the book. Is it too much for me to hope that some long-wished-for favorites of mine make it into this hardback? I would love to see mohrgs and penanggalan in this. 

As well as the tools to create spooky stories, Van Richten’s Guide will also include directions on how to run them safely and consensually. 

I'm not really laughing at the inclusion of "safety guidelines," as I gather some people actually need them, but "consensually" here makes it sound like people are being shanghaied into games of D&D against their will.

Though we probably don't know much more than the broad shape of things to come in this new Ravenloft, I'm definitely excited to hear more. If you'd like to see more:

Here's the product page for the book.

Here's the book's trailer.