Sink your teeth into D&D 5e’s guide to the gothic horror setting of Ravenloft
Out of the box, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is stunningly illustrated, providing inspiration for campaigns of danger and despair that permeate the setting of Ravenloft. A campaign book this is not so if you’re looking for a resource book that will allow you to run a campaign with minimal preparation, then this is not the book for you. However, if you’re looking to learn the lore of D&D’s most sinister setting or, if you want a framework that allows you to create a horror campaign set in one of the 30+ “Domains of Dread” that make up the misty lands of Ravenloft, then look no further because Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is arguably 5e’s greatest source book to date!
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is one of the densest source books available with 256 pages detailing everything you need to know about creating a campaign in Ravenloft. The contents include:
- Character Creation
- Creating Domains of Dread
- Domains of Ravenloft
- Horror Adventures
- Monsters of Ravenloft
We’ll go into what you get out of each of these sections in detail below.
Character creation options are very much stylised towards adventures in Ravenloft though the flexibility of these options means they could appropriately exist outside of this setting.
The addition of lineages means that any race can have additional rules associated with their character that reflect certain aspects of their ancestry. Dhampir’s have vampiric origins, Hexbloods have been created from Hags and Reborns, you guessed it, who have died and have somehow come back to life. Each lineage option is interesting and flexible allowing characters to take these options and tailor them to the circumstances of their character.
The lands of Ravenloft are ruled over by the “Dark Powers”. Loosely defined beings of great power who keep the denizens of Ravenloft in a state of perpetual torment. The Dark Powers are known to “gift” individuals with “Dark Gifts”, powers that can help the wielder, but always come at a price. A dungeon master may choose to offer such Dark Gifts to players and here you’ll not only find ideas of gifts and consequences to these “boons”, but also rules by which they can operate. All in all, they offer interesting ideas and twists you can insert into your campaigns
Van Richten’s adds some additional subclasses that’re both unique and interesting and add opportunities for great role-playing elements. The College of Spirits Bard has the ability to commune with spirits, making them brilliant investigators. An additional pact creature for Warlocks to use as their patron has also been added in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, that of an undead patron. This allows warlocks to make pacts with creatures like liches, vampires and mummies offering similarly necrotic abilities to match the powers bestowed by their patron.
Both subclasses are great options though just 2 new subclasses does feel a little light on options and perhaps indicates how the focus in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is primarily on giving tools to dungeon masters rather than on providing players with additional options. While I spend more of my time as a DM than as a player, I would have still liked to have seen some extra subclasses featured in here, especially as there’s such a rich variety of lore to draw from.
Similar to lineages, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft provides additional options for spicing up your character including the impact of trauma on players and options for someone with an investigative background. These add a nice extra touch to characters of all classes and races.
Creating Domains of Dread
This is where we start to dig into the vast array of Dungeon Master tools Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft provides. The first thing to understand is that Ravenloft is not a single interconnected landmass, but actually separate “Domains”, each encompassed by mists that separate each domain from another. Each domain is created by the Dark Powers to torture its inhabitants with domains being stylised after their Dark Lord, usually a powerful ruler who has performed evil acts and spends their time in a tortured state.
There’s a potentially unlimited number of Domains of Dread though several receive greater focus than others such as Barovia, the domain ruled by Strahd Von Zarovich. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft gives you the tools to create your own Domain of Dread that can be used to stylise the domain towards your campaign.
The considerations and ideas laid out here are very useful, helping dungeon masters consider what makes their Domain interesting and horrific. Of particular use is the section on horror genres. Personally, I wasn’t aware of how much variety there is in the horror genre and this provided a literal smorgus board of ideas and concepts to use within a campaign with 6 of the 10 horror genre receiving 48 different ideas (that’s 288 for anyone not doing the math) plus a handful of ideas for the other 4 genres.
With genres ranging from classic Dark Fantasy, Gothic Horror and Ghost Stories to wilder horror like those from Cosmic and Psychological Horror settings. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft really does help supply DMs with the creative juices they need to create a fully-realised horror setting.
Domains of Ravenloft
Possibly Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft’s greatest strength lies in the world building on display within the domains of dread. 39 different domains of dread are described within this section. 17 of these receive detailed history, lore and character descriptions while the others have received more generic descriptions allowing DMs the flexibility to develop their own world building within these settings.
The Domains of Dread have a rich and varied lore with each domain feeling distinct from each other despite the similarities in tone and theme. Players can embark on vampiric adventures in Barovia, face Ancient Egyptian themed horrors in Har’Akir, solve ghostly mysteries in Mordent, engage in the decadent, twisted world of Dementlieu, survive the doomed land of Hazlan or any of the other varied domains Ravenloft has to offer. While the descriptions of these domains are never more than a few pages, they create an ideal backdrop for DMs to create their own adventures within these worlds as well as providing a surprisingly dens amount of lore.
Each Domain of Dread is ruled over by a “Darklord” such as Strahd Von Zarovich of Barovia. It is these tortured souls for whom each Domain has been created by the Dark Powers to serve as an everlasting-cycle of suffering where escape is virtually impossible. The book is careful to provide information to allow such characters to serve as both antagonist but also as a plot-device in which character’s objectives may not be to defeat the Darklord. This is purposeful and leans into the concept that not every opponent has to be defeated and lays the foundations for more different experiences than just going to kill the bad guy.
In some respects however, this move is controversial. In leaning away from Darklords as definite antagonists, Wizards of the Coast have also opted to not provide stat blocks for the Darklords. While the intent behind this does make sense, as a Dungeon Master that puts a lot of preparation into creating a campaign, having small things like stat blocks for if my group choose to fight a Darklord does make the preparation that little bit easier making this feel like an oversight.
This section also provides an array of supporting characters (including Rudolph van Richten himself). Again, these characters are interesting and varied with differing motivations allowing them to be inserted into adventures and serve as unique plot points within an adventure.
As a player, I’ve come to realise that my favourite sessions have been those where I felt truly threatened, where I felt there were consequences to my actions and where I felt one wrong move could leave my character dead. As a Dungeon Master, I’ve found that recreating those feelings can be a challenge, especially at higher levels when PCs can become super-powered. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft’s section on horror adventures provides guidelines and rules that help DMs create a more fear-inducing atmosphere and help characters focus on role-playing those aspects of an adventure with their character.
Some of this is simple to integrate into a campaign such as finding out what PCs are afraid of in a session 0 or creating a more chilling atmosphere through dimmed lights, music, props and other real-world tools. There’s also a lot of advice on running a horror-themed game such as lingering on certain details, utilising the unknown and not causing apathy through a situations that have no hope. I’ve introduced these themes into my most recent campaign which has had brilliant effect on the players and how they approach and feel about the campaign.
The game mechanics introduced in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft are useful, flexible and can add to the atmosphere of the games. There are mechanics around curses, fear, stress, haunted traps and the effects of horror on survivors. All of these feel carefully considered.
The House of Lament
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft has a single session’s adventure that can be run by a DM with minimal preparation called House of Lament. It’s an excellent introduction into utilising the horror themes within Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft and provides a mysterious and unknown evil that players will need to explore and escape from (or destroy).
This is a fantastic one shot session that can easily be added into most adventures however, as a DM looking for tools to help me spend less time preparing for adventures, it’s a little disappointing that Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft doesn’t have more in the way of adventures to be run from the book. 5-6 similar adventures would have been ideal.
Monsters of Ravenloft
The final section of the book covers off monsters that might be encountered in Ravenloft (but could also be easily inserted into other settings). The first thing to note here is that despite having 3 dedicated manuals for 100s of different types of monsters and creatures (The Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkeinen’s Tome of Foes), Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft does a very good job of making each of its 32 additional monsters unique and terrifying. Many monsters even feel like a miniature self-contained puzzle that will be required as part of combat to understand how to defeat that creature.
There’s a solid amount of variety here too from Bodytaker Plants that consume creatures creating a mimic of that creature called a podling, to carrionettes who can swap souls between bodies. Each of these creatures feels like truly terrifying foe and varying challenge ratings ensure that there are creatures to occupy characters as they progress through levels. However, this does not represent a full index of creatures that may be encountered in Ravenloft and we’d certainly recommend at least having a Monster Manual on hand to complement the creatures on show in here.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is a fantastic source book and arguably one of the best created for 5e. It contains interesting lore, great new mechanics, interesting NPCs, a fantastic setting with huge variety in Domains and offers up a great new adventure, character options and new monsters. Everything that Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft does, it does well.
Really, the only criticisms that can really be levelled against Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft are in its absences; a few extra subclasses would have been nice, stat blocks for Darklords and some additional adventures to run would have really perfected what is already an outstanding source book. Despite this, it’s hard to feel disappointed when you’ve been treated to 256 pages of fantastically horrific source material.