Sunday, May 30, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Har'Akir, Hazlan, I'Cath

There have been many people covering the rules content in Van Richten's Guide, such as the new lineages, new subclasses, dark gifts, and other widgets, but I want to talk about the domains as a long-time fan of Ravenloft. How do they stack up, what alterations have been made, and how gameable does this iteration of the Domains of Dread feel? I've covered Barovia, Bluetspur, and Borca here, the Carnival and Darkon here, and Dementlieu and Falkovnia here. Today we're talking talking about Har'Akir, Hazlan, and I'Cath.


Har'Akir was conceived of as Ravenloft's Egyptian analog, and so it remains. It's got mummies, pyramids, vast dangerous deserts, etc. There are a couple of nice twists, such as animal-headed mummy-priests in service to the domain's Darklord and the fact that all of its labyrinthian dungeons are connected beneath the waves of sand. Har'Akir has never really sparked my imagination in its past versions, and the new version doesn't really light my world on fire either.  It's fine! It's perfectly functional! It just doesn't call to me. You could do your The Mummy adventures here, or do something a little Dark Sun-esque but with a more Egyptian flavor.


Hazlan is "wizard hell," a domain ruled by selfish arcanists whose experiments have created an unstable land of wild magic. Hazlan also has a bit of a "Big Brother is watching" feel; Hazlik, the domain's wizardly Darklord, can see through magical sigils that are inscribed everywhere throughout the realm. Of course, as "wizard hell," you can basically use that as an excuse to use any monster you want and call it an escaped magical experiment. 

Hazlan functions as an amplification of anxieties about environmental degradation due to industrialization, only here the environmental impacts are given a magical gloss, such as toxic marshes polluted by alchemy, an area where the land is simply disintegrating, and Dune-esque sites where purple worms gather. I do wonder if there is a bit too much conceptual overlap with Darkon, but the environmental disaster aspect does at least help it stand out. If you really pushed that angle, you might even up in Jeff VanderMeer territory.


In the 2e-era, I'Cath was a domain suitable for exactly one minor adventure. (And it wasn't even a good adventure.) Once that adventure was complete, there was really nothing else there to interact with. The 5e version of I'Cath is...quite high concept. On the surface, it's "Gothic China'; the real premise is that by day I'Cath is a delipidated realm of misery, but most of its residents have fallen prey to an enchanted sleep. While they slumber, they exist in a different version of the setting in which they labor to create the perfect city in their dreams. It's all a bit Dark City, but I've read this section several times and to be honest it's still a little unclear to me how this works and what kind of adventures this domain is meant to inspire. 

One thing that struck me about I'Cath is that it feels even more referential to ethnic stereotypes than the past version, which is strange for product coming out of WotC's zeitgeist of sensitivity and the rehabilitation of old tropes. Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but Tsien Chiang, the Darklord of I'Cath, is presented as a mother who wants her daughters to love her, wants everyone around her to be perfect, and is also doomed never to be satisfied--which feels like a magnification of the "tiger mom" stereotype. The "escape the horrific real world by venturing into the phantasmagoria of dreams" angle in I'Cath feels like it leans on the "Chinese opium den" trope, although it sidesteps any drug references and replaces opium with the ringing of an enchanted bell. However, since that bell was created from the body of a dragon, it's still a version of "chasing the dragon" in an almost literalized sense.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Berserk Monster Manual, Ravenloft Travel Agent, Claymore

Three Youtube videos for your entertainment and edification:


Berserk Monster Manual

Ever wonder about the monsters and foes found in the Berserk manga? Well, wonder no more. Youtuber RealLifeRyan has a series called Berserk Monster Manual that delves into all things gruesome and foul. RIP Kentaro Miura, you were a real one. Playlist here

Ravenloft Travel Agent

Do you desire a guided tour through the old versions of Ravenloft's Domains of Dread? RavenloftTravelAgent has you covered. Playlists here.

Claymore: The Imperfect Trailblazer

Bonsai Pop has done a very nice video on the history and themes of the Claymore manga and anime.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Dementlieu and Falkovnia

There have been many people covering the rules content in Van Richten's Guide, such as the new lineages, new subclasses, dark gifts, and other widgets, but I want to talk about the domains as a long-time fan of Ravenloft. How do they stack up, what alterations have been made, and how gameable does this iteration of the Domains of Dread feel? I've covered Barovia, Bluetspur, and Borca here, and the Carnival and Darkon here. Today we're talking about Dementlieu and Falkovnia, two domains that received massive facelifts yet couldn't be more different.


The original conception of Dementlieu is "Gothic France with a mesmerist villain." Unfortunately, it just wasn't ever very interesting and Borca already covered the "upper-class intrigues" angle. The version of Dementlieu in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft scraps almost all of that; I'd say it's one of the domains that has been altered the most from its origins.

The new Dementlieu is a "dark fairytale" realm. Where Dementlieu was once an entire nation, the new Dementlieu is now just a single city, Port-a-Lucine. Although characters in the domain sometimes talk of their estates in Chateaufaux, these tales are always a lie. And therein lies the crux of Dementlieu: it is the domain of impostor syndrome and "fake it til you make it," no one is what they seem, and everyone is constantly engaging in self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. 

The central conceit of Dementlieu is that Saidra d'Honaire, the Darklord of the domain, throws a lavish masked ball every week. Everyone jockeys for status and position at the masquerade, but everyone is hiding something and fears being unmasked by the hostess. In this case, being unmasked carries a dire penalty: Saidra is a combination of a Poe-esque "Red Death" figure and a dark Cinderella who has the power to disintegrate anyone attending the masquerade.

When I first heard about the changes to Dementlieu, I thought this concept sounded fairly narrow and difficult to implement. But now that I've read the section on Dementlieu I have an abundance of ideas for adventures set here. I definitely have some glamor-hound, skulduggery-favoring players who will love this domain.


Like Dementlieu, the Falkovnia of Van Richten's Guide differs greatly from its original version. When Ravenloft first appeared as a setting, the designers essentially deployed two versions of Dracula. Strahd is obviously the Dracula of Bram Stoker's novel, but Vlad Drakov, Darklord of Falkovnia, was based on the historical Vlad the Impaler. As such, he was a tyrannical, bloodthirsty military leader destined to always have his bellicose ambitions come to nothing. His story is interesting, but it didn't really make for an exciting adventure location. (There was also a heavy emphasis on "fantasy racism" in the old Falkovnia that just plain made it difficult to navigate as a setting.)

The new Falkovnia is a land besieged; on the night of the full moon, legions of zombies emerge from the mists and attack the fortifications of the living. Adding a "zombie horde" domain was a really smart move for Ravenloft; it's got obvious appeal with the popularity of The Walking Dead. The new Darklord, Vladeska Drakov, is more than just a gender-swapped version of the old Darklord. Although she's a terrible, doomed person, there's some pathos in the fact that her tyrannical rule is the only thing standing between the people of the domain and being devoured by the undead.

This version of Falkovnia also incorporates an idea I used in my Ravenloft games: Falkovnia as a place where innovations in war machines is well underway. Overall, this feels like a Falkovnia you could actually use, especially if you want your characters to take part in defending the capital city from waves of zombies.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: The Carnival and Darkon

There have been many people covering the rules content in Van Richten's Guide, such as the new lineages, new subclasses, dark gifts, and other widgets, but I want to talk about the domains as a long-time fan of Ravenloft. How do they stack up, what alterations have been made, and how gameable does this iteration of the Domains of Dread feel? I've covered Barovia, Bluetspur, and Borca here. Today we're looking at the Carnival and Darkon.

The Carnival

The Carnival differs from most Domains of Dread in that it is not a stationary place; it is a sinister circus that can arrive anywhere in Ravenloft. The performers who travel as part of the Carnival are not generally ill-intentioned, but malignancy is always nearby in the form of fey merchants who arrive to sell their strange wares (and get up to god knows what else) alongside the Carnival. These fey merchants remind me a bit of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market. Since the Carnival can travel throughout the domains, it's a nifty way for your characters to get from place to place: just hitch a ride by running away with the circus.

Overall, I love the presentation of the Carnival. It reminds me of the best parts of Carnivale and my own experiences on many a midway. However, I do find the Carnival's backstory, particularly regarding its proprietor Isolde, a bit convoluted and overly long. I also think that the Carnival write-up is confused about how the rest of the book says Darklords in Ravenloft work. You see, Darklords are trapped in their domains where they are tormented by their prior sins. Isolde is tormented by her role in the Carnival because it causes her to feel torn between conflicting loyalties and a desire for vengeance. This would work fine, except Isolde isn't the Darklord of the Carnival! 

Isolde's sentient sword Nepenthe is the actual Darklord, but the sword has no real backstory and doesn't seem to be tormented by the domain at all. Additionally, the sword can at least temporarily leave the domain, which is generally not how the domain/Darklord set-up is supposed to work. It feels like whoever wrote the Carnival section didn't quite get the memo. It's certainly not a deal-breaker, though. I'd certainly use the Carnival in my games, though I would likely avoid going too much into the backstory.

Speaking of backstory, fans of the Carnival's previous incarnation may be pleased that it retains a connection to the mysterious villain known as the Gentleman Caller. (Although now it's just known as The Caller.) Gone, however, is "the Twisting," Isolde's power to forcibly remake anyone into a circus freak. That bit is likely too attached to ableist tropes for 2021 Wizards of the Coast, although it would fit with the "body horror" tag that the Carnival supposedly exemplifies. Note, though, that Silessa's entry does still suggest that she was a snake who was transformed into an elf, so some remnants of the Twisting remain.

One thing I like about the Carnival write-up, and Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft overall, is how willing the design team is to use reskinning liberally. Although Isolde is an eladrin, it's suggested that we use the cambion statblock for her. Similarly, one performer is a werehare, but since those aren't yet statted out (and likely don't need to be) using the stats of a wererat will get you close enough. I am less convinced that the werehare needs to be a "rapper," but that's just me. I guess hip-hop is now canonical to the D&Dverse, but as ever the WotC's sense of humor errs on the side of lame: a hippity-hop does the hip-hop, you see.


In its original conception, Darkon was the most "fantasy"-oriented domain in Ravenloft. It was a magical land ruled by Azalin Rex, an evil lich-king, which is a premise not really far afield from any vanilla high fantasy setting. As a remedy to the relative blandness of that idea, and as a way to advance the setting's metaplot, Darkon was revised in the 2e-era as a land that had undergone a necromantic catastrophe that resulted in arcane strangeness, the rise of a figure called Death, and a boatload of undead roaming the land.

The 5e version of Darkon riffs on the idea of a magical apocalypse to some extent. Darkon is a domain that is literally dying. Now that Azalin has escaped his imprisonment in the domain (apparently through splitting his soul horcrux-style, though this is never fully explained and there are several random tables to determine Azalin's ultimate fate), the domain is slowly disintegrating and being consumed by the mists. 

The bits that remain are pretty interesting. You've got a bustling port city that is visited by "eerie vessels from mysterious lands" (I want to know more about those!) and the ruins of Azalin's castle now suspended in mid-air, constantly reforming in new ways, due to a magical mishap. Some old favorites remain as well. The Kargat, Darkon's fascistic and vampiric secret police, are still active, as are the Eternal Order. There's also a bit of revisionism present. The Mad Slasher, a serial murderer who formerly haunted the domain of Invidia, now appears to be a fixture in Darkon. 

My favorite alteration here is that this version of the domain does away with the idea that anyone who stays within Darkon forgets their past life and assumes they have lived in the domain all their lives. That always struck me as a dopey element of the original. Perhaps a vestige of it survives in the description of the strange properties possessed by the spas of Nevuchar Springs, but it's slight enough that it doesn't annoy me.

The coolest thing about the Darkon section is that it posits three possible replacements for Azalin. If any one of these personages were be become the new Darklord, the domain would be saved from destruction. Of course, installing a Darklord also means empowering a villain and thrusting an irredeemable damnation upon them, so this is an extremely gray moral quandary to delve into for players--which makes it perfect fodder for a game. I can definitely imagine a campaign that forces the characters into the role of evil kingmakers in Darkon.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 1)

Photo by Dario Bronnimann
I've been running the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries lightly reskinned for my Krevborna setting. The characters are all employed as members of Creedhall University Library's "Special Collections" department, aka adventurers. This is a recap of what happened in "A Deep and Creeping Darkness." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin, played by Anne

Rising Leaf and Raging Storm, human monk, played by Michael

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve

Doctor Tobias Wolfe, human sorcerer, played by Dennis


One of the scholars at Creedhall University is currently researching the demise of a mining town called Vermillion, as detailed in a book called A Deep and Creeping Darkness. The characters were given a map to the abandoned site in hopes that they might discover additional books about the town that the scholar could use for their project. From browsing A Deep and Creeping Darkness, the group knew that the town suffered a deadly mine collapse and that following the tragedy townspeople began to disappear one by one in the night. Eventually, those left behind vacated the town, even though the platinum mine was still a going concern.

The group decided to first stop at Maerin, another mining town located a three days' ride from the ruins of Vermillion at the foot of a mountain. Maerin was a bustling, prosperous place. Asking around, the party discovered that two former residents of Vermillion were currently living in Maerin. They found Astra Vorn, a half-elf florist, at their flower stall in the market. Astra's family fled Vermillion when they were a child due to the horrible nightmares that assailed their mother when townsfolk began to go missing. The group bought a memorial wreath from Astra that they promised to leave in Vermillion. 

They found Lukas Grosvenor, an elderly tavernkeeper, at The Bored Weasel--his inn and pub. Lukas had been a miner at Vermillion; he had survived the collapse, but his wife had not. He asked the group to retrieve a locket he had left inside a knothole in the large tree in front of the burgomaster's residence--it was a keepsake he couldn't bear to have near him after his wife's death, but now that he's nearing the end of his life he wanted to hold it one more time.

Having gleaned what information they could from the residents of Maerin, the adventurers set off for Vermillion. The town was mostly in ruins, having falling prey to time and neglect. A few buildings still remained, such as the smithy, the stonemason's shop, and the burgomaster's residence, and they could also see the graveyard and the entrance to the mines. They decided to take a look at the graveyard first.

On the way to the burial grounds, they discovered a merchant's wagon that did not appear to be as weathered as they would expect if it had been left behind when the town was abandoned. Indeed, searching the wagon revealed that although its contents had been riffled through by a bear, some of the casks and crates still held potable wine and edible dried food within. Ominously, they also found the skeletal remains of the horse hitched to the wagon in the tall grass nearby.

Within the burial grounds, it was confirmed that the town had suffered a great loss of life during the mine collapse due to many of the markers sharing a common date of death. The group laid their funereal wreath at the grave of Lorna Grosvenor, and an audible sigh of content seemed to waft on the wind.

The group then approached the burgomaster's residence. Lukas's platinum locket was easily recovered from the tree outside. However, the first of several strange occurrences was detected when one of the group saw their collective shadows begin to move in a frantic way that did not map to their current movements. Once inside the burgomaster's home, the odd phenomena continued. One member of the party heard a voice speaking indistinctly in their ear, they all heard a spectral piercing scream, and they could not shake the feeling of being watched.

Inside the house, the group discovered many books (which were, of course, loaded on their cart to be added to the library's collection). One book seemed to be of particular note; it was a volume on the Feywild and a section on malicious fey creatures called meenlocks was annotated with "Could this be the answer?" Skimming the book revealed that meenlocks are spontaneously created during times of pronounced fear in areas where the boundary between the mortal realm and the Feywild are thin. The book also claimed that meenlocks "reproduce" by transforming humanoids into meenlocks through psychic torment, which may explain the unnatural phenomena the group had experienced. 

The group also found several letters from the burgomaster requesting aid from nearby settlements, but sadly those letters were never sent. The group also spotted something small and furry and man-shaped underneath a bed. No one wanted to touch it. Eventually it was swatted from under the bed with a staff, but still no one wanted to go near it. They wanted to know what it was, but feared to get too close to it. After much consternation, nerves were steeled and the thing was approached. It was...a teddy bear.

As night was coming on, the group decided to look for a place to spend the night that was emphatically not the mine. The blacksmith's shop was explored as a possibility first. It seemed mostly intact and in order. Underneath a secret panel in the floor, they discovered a shield chased in platinum, a pair of short sword with platinum filigree, and ten bars of quality iron. As the session came to a close, the group was heading to the stonemason's shop to weigh its benefits as a place to hole up against those of the smithy's shop.

Previous Adventures

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 1)

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 2)

Mazworth's Mighty Digressions

Book of the Raven

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Barovia, Bluetspur, Borca

Looking at the list of modifications I tend to make to Ravenloft that I posted here last week, it's interesting to see how many of these have been incorporated into the version of the setting presenting in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft:

More larger cities and populations? Some domains do feel more populated. It's also very interesting that the idea of "Ludendorf University" is now canon, when I'm pretty sure it wasn't when I started inserting it into my games! In any event, I like that they don't really spell out population numbers for any of the locations; I find that stuff unnecessary and limiting.

More interconnection, particularly by sea Nope. Breaking the "Core" into islands in the Mists was always going to curtail that, but I don't think it would be hard to add in if you wanted to. Here's how I would do it: some seafarers and merchant caravans possess mist talismans that allow them to forge lucrative trade routes throughout the domains. Of course, these talismans are jealously guarded and work as objects around which you could craft some interesting adventures.

Down with fantasy racism YES. It is explicitly called out that the people of Ravenloft are used to strange visitors being pulled into their lands, so they don't raise a mob to murder every non-human they encounter.

The people know their land is horrible and haunted Mostly, yeah. This one was already implemented in Curse of Strahd, so it seems natural to extend it throughout most of the other domains.

Twists There are certainly a lot of twists, substitutions, and retcons in this version of Ravenloft. Urik von Kharkov is dead, long live Chakuna the huntress! I don't love all of the new takes on once-familiar domains, but they're mostly good. Some seem very cool, in fact.

Which brings me to what I want to write about. There have been many people covering the rules content in Van Richten's Guide, such as the new lineages, new subclasses, dark gifts, and other widgets, but I want to talk about the domains as a long-time fan of Ravenloft. How do they stack up, what alterations have been made, and how gameable does this iteration of the Domains of Dread feel?


Barovia is already a known quantity as its presentation in Van Richten's Guide is not substantially different from the domain as it is detailed in Curse of Strahd. Barovia is still Dracula's Transylvania with a D&D gloss. There are a few more bits of interconnection with elements that are new to this book (such as the priests of Osybus), as well as callbacks to aspects of the 2e and 3e versions of Barovia (such as Duke Gundar and Lyssa von Zarovich). The best bit in this section is a series of tables that can be used to determine Tatyana's latest incarnation and how he or she is connected to Strahd, either by trying to avoid his grasp or by hunting him. There's also a table for placing Tatyana in another domain if you want even more interconnection; Barovia doesn't feel quite so isolated anymore.


2e's version of Bluetspur seemed like a domain suitable for exactly one adventure--destined to never really see the light of day once the module Thoughts of Darkness had been completed. The domain is still described as utterly alien and inhospitable, but at least it doesn't have rules for how you're going to be zapped by lightning every few feet until you find shelter as you're herded onto the narrative railroad. 

Bluetspur is the prime example of "cosmic horror" in the book, substituting mind flayers for Lovecraft's otherworldly gribblies. This time, however, Bluetspur comes ready made with a reason why adventurers might find themselves in the domain: it now plays up the idea of "alien abduction," with the mind flayers stealing humanoids for use in their experiments to prolong the life of the dying God-Brain. 

The surface of Bluetspur is still devoid of life; personally, I would have stolen a page from Lovecraft and placed a few remote, eldritch fishing villages here and there, full of the demented results of the mind flayers' experiments. Beneath the surface of the domain are the mind flayers' laboratory dungeons; the domain definitely amps up the sci-fi horror angle. There's also rival factions of mind flayers you could potentially pit against each other, with the adventurers caught in the middle. There's some rather nice writing in this section. In particular, I like this description of Mount Makab:

Calling Makab a mountain is a wild misnomer; it is a malignant deformation on a planetary scale, a spire with no apparent summit. Its contorted slopes stretch into the toxic heavens, and its form occupies the periphery of viewers’ attention no matter which direction they look.


Borca remains a domain enfolded in schemes and intrigue ala the historical Borgias. I like that Borca retains both rural villages and cities as part of its description; it feels like you can play through a variety of scenarios here, although the focus is definitely on the abuses of wealthy aristocrats. 

Borca also preserves its two most infamous prisoners as its dual Darklords: the poisoner Ivana Boritsi and Ivan Dilisnya. The pair have been given a fresh coat of paint. Ivana's role as a seductive "black widow" has been diminished. I do miss her coterie of poisonous women, but I understand why the change was made--the sexual threat she formerly represented was not really in line with modern squeamishness. Ivan is very different; this version of him is a decrepit old man living in an extended childhood of murderous mechanical "toys." 

Each of the sites detailed in Borca's write-up have strong hooks, even if their entries are short. Which is my preference, to be honest. They're terse, but they say something that gets me thinking about adventure possibilities. One interesting thing I noticed: the Scholomance, the mythical school of black magic mentioned in Bram Stoker's Dracula, is placed on the map of Borca! Was the Scholomance always a part of Ravenloft and I never noticed?

Monday, May 17, 2021

Just Use...Wardukes???

I don't claim to have any sort of meaningful answer to the issues to representation, colonialism, and racial essentialism in Dungeons & Dragons. If you want a nuanced take on those topics, you should read Allandaros's Productive Scab-Picking: On Oppressive Themes in Gaming. Seriously, go read it right now; there's not going to be a better blog post than that this year.

If you stuck around, all you're going to get for your troubles is a really stupid idea. If you're concerned that orcs, goblins, and the like might map to real-world ethnic and racial subjectivities...just replace those creatures with wardukes. 

As far as I'm aware, no one has ever claimed that Warduke is poor representation, so it's probably okay for your fictional characters to kill droves of them in a game. If you're worried about the indulgence of violence against individuals possessing free will, I suppose you could always go the Star Wars route and have wardukes all be clones of the original Warduke. 

Stat-wise, short wardukes equal goblins and kobolds, hairy wardukes equal bugbears, etc.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Book of the Raven

I've been running the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries lightly reskinned for my Krevborna setting. The characters are all employed as members of Creedhall University Library's "Special Collections" department, aka adventurers. This is a recap of what happened in "Book of the Raven." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.
Photo by Valentin Petkov

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin, played by Anne

Rising Leaf and Raging Storm, human monk, played by Michael

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve


The party were called into a meeting by their supervisor, Horatio Lupa. Surprisingly, Valor--the woman they had questioned in their last adventure in which books were turning into monsters--was also in attendance. Valor explained that a raven flew by while she was working on the roof of one of the library's buildings and dropped a book from its claws. The book didn't mean anything to Valor, but she found a map hidden within it. The map traced a path into the hinterlands; for reasons she didn't explain, Valor felt that she was meant to follow it to the destination marked on the map. She offered the book to the library in return for a few members of the Special Collections department coming along as back-up.

While traveling, the group made a short stop at Valor's request at a desolate village where the farmsteads were now overrun with wild pigs. Rifling through a case strapped to her horse, Valor selected a sword to give to each member of the party. The journey continued.

The destination turned out to be an abandoned chalet with a small family graveyard next to it. The group decided to take a look at the graveyard first before attempting to enter the chalet. The graveyard was surrounded by a tall iron fence; the name "Brantifax" was spelled out in the iron of the graveyard's gate. Inside, they found four graves: one belonging to Baron Brantifax, two belonging to his daughters, and one belonging to his favorite hound. Four ravens were perched on the graves.

One of the graves had clearly been disturbed. It was decided that they would excavate the grave. Buried in the grave was a human-shaped thing, laying face down, clad in clothes made of burlap. Disturbing this thing further revealed it to be an animate scarecrow, but it was dealt with swiftly after it attempted to choke the life out of Elsabeth. During the melee, the ravens took flight and landed on the roof of the chalet.

The front door of the chalet was barred from the inside, so the group entered through one of the chalet's many broken windows. While exploring the house, the group discovered the Baroness's journal, which divulged some family history. The chalet was the Baron's hunting lodge, and he would often invite other members of the aristocracy to come and hunt with him. The couple had two children. The firstborn was Sylphine, who was born with deformities. She died aged six, and the journal intimated that the Baroness may have had a hand in her daughter's demise. The second daughter was Heluthe, who died aged nine after being attacked by a wolf while hunting with her father.

The group were assaulted by Heluthe's ghost after Elsabeth dared to touch one of the girl's dolls in the nursery. The ghost bared her teeth like a wolf before charging at them in full spectral fury. After a brief scuffle, Heluthe's specter was banished. Further exploration revealed that the top of the chalet's tower had been damaged by an explosion. Amid the rubble were the remains of alchemical equipment, so the cause of the explosion seemed obvious. 

As they poked around in the ruins of the tower, the group noticed that the ravens they had spotted earlier were now perched atop what was left of the top of the tower. Rising Leaf managed to acrobatically climb up what remained of the tower's stairs and make his way toward the ravens. On the way, he discovered a hidden wooden box. Inside was a potion and a collection of the kind of treasures birds might hoard: colorful ribbons, shiny bone buttons, etc. Leaf offered the contents of the box to the ravens; they removed the junk with their beaks, leaving the potion behind, then took flight. Once in the air, they dove down into another hole in the chalet's roof.

Following the birds, the party traversed the chalet's rickety roof and managed to enlarge the hole the birds had used to enter the house. Peering down into the hole revealed that the four ravens had transformed into humans who were hastily donning dark robes and scarlet sashes they had stashed in that chamber of the chalet. The four of them were, in fact, wereravens. 

The party dropped down into the room and began a conversation with the wereravens. The wereravens admitted responsibility for dropping the book into Valor's lap, but they seemed mystified as to why they had lured her to this particular house. Something seemed to be exerting an influence over them. One of the wereravens was hiding an item behind her back; she was coaxed into revealing it--a strange statuette of a bloated, demonic fiend with bat wings and the head of a skeletal ram. The wereravens claimed that they had brought the statuette, which they claimed was an artifact of evil, to hide it away within the abandoned chalet.

Valor visibly paled when she saw the statuette. She explained that the figure depicted Orcus, a demon lord. She also told the group that the other knights of her order were slain by a death cult devoted to Orcus. In fact, the swords that Valor had given the party earlier all previously belonged to the knights of Valor's order. Rufus, Leaf, and Elsabeth speculated that the cultists may have used the wereravens to lure Valor to this location so they could finish their unhallowed task and kill the last remaining member of the knights who had previously escaped their clutches.

When asked about strange phenomena in and around the house, the wereravens replied that they had encountered some ghostly activity in the chalet and also that Heluthe's grave emitted a strange fog with the coming of night. Leaving the chalet to see for themselves, the party observed that an unearthly fog was pouring from the girl's grave. The party entered the fog and found themselves transported to a darker version of the landscape they had just left behind; open graves dotted the earth for as far as the eye could see, and a stone mausoleum stood where the chalet should be.

The group entered the mausoleum, noting that its roof was flanked by man-sized statues identical to the statuette. Inside, a withered and skeletal figure armed with a sword emerged from a sarcophagus; Valor recognized this figure as one of the undead cultists who had decimated her order. Battle was joined! While the cultist was backed into the crypt battle commenced inside the tomb, an ominous thud was heard; the two statues of Orcus had animated and were now entering the mausoleum, effectively trapping the party inside. 

Valor was savagely mauled by one of the statues, her head bouncing off the wall of the mausoleum and leaving a bloody imprint. However, the death cult of Orcus had not counted on the presence of the Special Collections department, who carried the day and defeated the creatures. The party made their way to Heluthe's grave and traversed back to the mortal realm by literally clawing their way out of the grave. The wereravens had departed. The group gathered a few paintings from the chalet and traveled with Valor back to the library at Creedhall. Valor handed over the book to their care, content that the cult that had been after her had been dealt a serious blow.

Previous Adventures

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 1)

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 2)

Mazworth's Mighty Digressions

Sunday, May 9, 2021

My Ravenloft

In anticipation of Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, I've been posting some aspects of the canonical Ravenloft setting that I exclude from my games set in the Domains of Dread. This time, I want to talk about the changes I tend to bring to the setting instead of things I avoid. With Van Richten's Guide on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how closely the new version of the setting hews to how I like to use the setting. (I've added some notes based on my best guesses as to how closely the Ravenloft of Van Richten's Guide will hew to my vision of the setting.) My Ravenloft deviates from the standard presentation of the setting in the following ways:

Brighter Points of Light. Any large town in the “official lore” is probably at least a small city in my version of the setting. Additionally, the landscape is dotted with many villages, farmsteads, and towns not detailed on conventional maps of the setting. There are more inhabitants in Ravenloft and consequently more institutions of note. For example, the city of Ludendorf in Lamordia is home to the acclaimed Ludendorf University, a college focused on the sciences and natural philosophy. Ingenious scholar teach there—though they are shadowed by rumors of dark, inhumane experiments. (Note: By breaking Ravenloft's "Core" into a bunch of islands floating in the mists, it seems likely that the new version of Ravenloft won't quite adopt this the way I'd prefer.)

The Seas are Harsh Mistresses. The Nocturnal Sea and the Sea of Sorrows are both dangerous, but they can be traversed reliably and are central in connecting the civilized lands through trade. Persistent mistways—passages through the mists that form the boundary of the known seas—allow for more frequent visits to otherwise isolated island domains. Knowledge of the mistways is carefully guarded by captains and navigators who wish to have a monopoly on trade with those lands. (Note: it's unclear to me right now, but it seems like sea travel and interconnection between domains is being downplayed in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft.)

A Land of Strange Visitors. Because strangers from other worlds are often pulled into Ravenloft by the mists, the people of Ravenloft are more used to—and more accepting of—encountering a wider variety of folk. Although they may be rare, any race or ancestry can be found in the land. Strangers bring their cultures, factions, and religions with them—some of which will have taken root in Ravenloft to become new institutions on foreign soil. (Note: I suspect this will be the standard in the new Ravenloft, actually. WotC must know that now is not the moment to explore "fantasy racism" again in the setting.)

Haunted by Evil. The people who inhabit Ravenloft know that their land is plagued by supernatural evils. They might still cling to inaccurate superstitions about magic and monstrosities, but they harbor no illusions about the world around them. For example, the people of Barovia know that Strahd von Zarovich is a vampire—but there is precious little they can do about the undead sovereign who rules their land. (Note: WotC actually made this change to Barovia in Curse of Strahd. Good on 'em.)

Ravenloft with a Twist. Several bits of "lore" that I find silly don't make the cut. For example, the people of Darkon do not suffer from magical amnesia. In particular, the darklords’ backstories will be significantly different and, in the cases of the more convoluted origin stories, vastly simplified. It is unlikely that my version of Urik von Kharkov is a panther who was transformed into a man who later also became a vampire. Also, I feel absolutely free to add many factions, religions, secret societies, and nonplayer characters borrowed from the Ravenloft fan community and of my own devise. (Note: It will be interesting to see if there is one of those "the setting is yours to modify!" disclaimers in the book.)

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Mazworth's Mighty Digressions

Photo by Egor Myznik on unsplash
I've been running the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries lightly reskinned for my Krevborna setting. The characters are all employed as members of Creedhall University Library's "Special Collections" department, aka adventurers. This is a recap of what happened in "Mazfroth's Mighty Digressions." I called "Mazfroth" Mazworth instead, mainly because Forgotten Realms names are terrible and do not exactly slide off the tongue easily. Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin, played by Anne

Rising Leaf and Raging Storm, human monk, played by Michael

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve

Doctor Tobias Wolfe, human sorcerer played by Dennis


Elsabeth, Leaf, Rufus, and Tobias were assigned to shelving newly acquired books in a restricted portion of the library. Leaf dropped a book, which happened to flip open to an illustration of a bloated, bat-winged demon with the head of a skeletal goat. As he bent down to pick up the tome, it transformed into a whirling mass of black energy and a crackling lightning strike erupted from it! Rufus attempted to pull Leaf out of harms way, but his act of altruism did not go unpunished; he was blasted by a bolt from the creature. A brief melee erupted within the aisle, but the group soon killed the monster--as it died, it contracted into nothingness.

During a debriefing session with Horatio Lupa regarding the incident, they learned that two other books had transformed into monstrous creatures and attacked library employees. Horatio set them to a task: discover why recently acquired books were becoming monsters and, if possible, seek replacements for the three books (Mazworth's Digressions, The Dark Hunger, and Fallen Tethyamar) that had been lost from the library's collection. Horatio gave them two leads: Mazworth's Digressions had been brought to the Creedhall University Library by a scholar named Yalerion, who could often be found at the shrine of St. Iona, and The Dark Hunger had been donated by a woman named Valor, who was currently repairing the roof of a library building as payment for the damage caused by the book she had gifted.

The group decided to start by questioning Valor, since she was closest at hand. Valor was a powerfully built, broad-shouldered tiefling. She was was not happy to have her work interrupted; she clearly wanted to fix the roof and be on her way. She did, however, tell the party that she purchased The Dark Hunger at a book stall in Creedhall's Wide Market in hopes of trading it to the library for access to books that would help her find someone she was looking for. She couldn't remember the exact location of the bookstall because she didn't stay in the market long; it "reeked of greed," to her.

Yalerion was found lounging on a pew inside the shrine to St. Iona. He also purchased his book from a stall in the Wide Market, and he remembered that the stall had "dune" somewhere in its name. He decided to donate Mazworth's Digressions when it turned out to be a book about demon lords instead of a more uplifting theological work. Having determined that neither Valor no Yalerion seemed to have seeded these monstrous books within the library, the group set off to find the bookstall in the Wide Market.

After a digression in which Elsabeth was hornswoggled into buying a book on crystals and their energies, the group located the Amberdune bookstall at the mouth of an alleyway on the fringes of the market square. The two employees of the bookstall were surprised to hear that books from their stock had been turning into murderous creatures, but were otherwise unhelpful. Leaf demanded to speak to the manager, which sent the older of the two sellers scuttling off. He returned with an imposing woman named Korvala who was brusque and unobliging. They group pretended to leave, but kept close watch on the bookstall. When Korvala left, Rufus and Tobias shadowed her to a hovel in a rough area of town. 

Clearly, the booksellers were hiding something. When the party reconvened, they decided that a frontal assault on the hovel was the way forward. The hovel's door was kicked in and then the fun began. The group was assaulted by the rug in the common room, which tried to smother Rufus. While they fought the rug, two jackalweres ran into the room to join the fray. A mimic posing as a chest was fought. More jackalweres rushed in to their deaths at the hands of the Special Collections Department. A young man cowering the kitchen tried to enforce his will over Tobias, but Tobias's eldritch mind proved too powerful. The elder man from the bookstall tried to make a break for it, but was subdued. Korvala ran upstairs to confront the party, only to be massacred immediately.

When the dust settled, the group had taken several captives and discovered a pile of gold, several books of note (including the ones Horatio had requested they find), and a desiccated heart wrapped in parchment. A wagon was procured and the captives and the loot were transported back to the library. 

After examination by senior Special Collections staff, it was revealed that the booksellers were jackalwere demon cultists who had once been led by a lamia, whose shriveled heart they had kept after she was killed by adventurers. The cult had been selling simulacra of its most valuable books to raise the funds needed to resurrect their master from the grave, but these simulacra were monsters in disguise--the cult relished the added chaos that their attacks would cause. But, ultimately, the cult was subdued by the brave men and women of Special Collections.