Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, Part 2b. Do You Wanna Build a Darklord?

Darlessa, the Vampire Queen
Wait.  Shouldn't this be Part 4?  Yes, but everything I am talking about here deals perfectly with the material I reviewed in Part 2 and very little of Part 3.  

One of the shifts in design goals of the new Ravenloft book is a move to focus more on the Darklords you can create for your own game. 

While several updated and new Darklords and Domains are detailed, the fun comes creating your own, and in particular, one that has meaning for your players and characters.   Chapter 2 covers this well and comes before Chapter 3 on the existing Darklords and Domains to get the readers and potential DMs to think about what the domains mean to them.

So let's take the advice of the book and create a new Darklord and Domain.  Now my first horror game likely happened as soon as I got my Moldvay Basic set if not before.  I dig horror. A lot. So I have at least 40+ years' worth of horror gaming to draw on.  And while such D&D campaigns I have run in the past, The Shadow War, Ogre Battle, or even The Dragon and the Phoenix had horror elements to them, but none really rose up to the levels of Ravenloft worth horror, though the Shadow War back in 1991 came close and even featured some Ravenloft game sessions.  My own Ravenloft campaign was essentially a tour of the then Domains ala "The Fantastic Journey" only horror and not sci-fi.  I imprinted on a lot of weird shit as a kid. While a lot of fun, it does not give much in the way of "new" material.  Sure there is a lot of old material I could bring back, but that's not what I want to do here now. 

So let's start with Chapter 2 and build a Domain. And do that, we need a Darklord.

Who is My Darklord?

It's going to be a vampire. Why? I like Vampires. I played a cleric as my first class ever so I could be like Van Helsing. My goal what to fight vampires and undead.  Let me put a pin in that idea for a moment. 

I thought about maybe using my cavalier that I ran through Ravenloft as a player or one of my favorite NPCs I used as a reoccurring character that would torment the players because while she was a vampire she was not overtly evil. But my cavalier died in the Shadow War and the NPC, well she ended up the focus of a ritual to bring a vampire back to life.  She is human now, and given the history of that character, I kinda want to keep it that way. 

There is only one NPC that could really be my Darklord.  That is Darlessa the Vampire Queen.

Spend any time here and you will know about my history obsession with the various Vampire Queens.  I love them.  Blame Hammer Horror, blame 60's and 70's Giallo, but they are so great.  Darlessa comes to me via Small Niche Games and the Valnwall products where she is credited with killing St. Johan, my very first Cleric character. So the origin here is still Basic, B/X style at that, D&D.   Truthfully there is a multitude of reasons why this works for me, so I am not going to bore you with the justification and the details and just state "it works."  

So let's start with Darklord Creation.  Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft says:

A Darklord’s memories, desires, mistakes, and evil deeds shape the domain’s twisted lands, inhabitants, and features. You need not create these in a vacuum, though. When creating your own Darklord, consider the relationship that will define their evil in your adventures: their conflict with your players’ characters.

- Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, p. 39

Well...I don't have any players, not just yet.  You all are my players now. The adventures you have had are reading this blog. 

One this is clear off the bat.  The Darklord is evil.  Darlessa might be a lot of things, but a misunderstood villain is not one of them.  This notion of evil and evil deeds is repeated many times in this section. So much for Ravenloft not having good vs. evil. 

What are Darlessa's evil deeds? She kills people. Well, lots of vampires do that. She used her evil and power and privilege to command others.  She tolerated no rivals. She kidnapped the granddaughter of Johan Werper and threatened to kill her. She caused Johan's death instead and this was her last act that damned her.  Let's consult this questionnaire from VRGtR, answers in parentheses:

  • Where was the Darklord before the Mists took them?  (In the swamp outside her castle)
  • Who was the Darklord’s family? (none, she had killed them all centuries ago)
  • How was the Darklord’s family oppressed, oppressive, or both? (domineering over her, killing them might have done the world some good)
  • What was the Darklord’s childhood like?  (oppressive. She was bullied and bullied in return)
  • Whom did the Darklord care about? (Only herself mostly, BUT I am willing to work on this)
  • Who cared about the Darklord? (Maybe a sister?  I will think about this.)
  • Who hurt the Darklord? (everyone, but usually only once)
  • Whose respect or love did the Darklord crave? (only those who had more power than her)
  • What did the Darklord value? (power)

So Darlessa is a vampire, not because she craves lives and blood, but because she craves power. Her desire to control everyone and everything around her was her undoing as a vampire and led her to become a Darklord.  But lots of vampires never become Darklords.  She has to be something else.

In "Corrupt Beyond Redemption" on page 40 we are given some ideas of what makes a Darklord more than your average villain.  The Darklord needs to commit Evil Acts, or "The Dark Powers consider an act to be evil if it is intentional, unnecessary, and successful, and most importantly if it causes significant harm."  Those Harmed have to be significant.  In this case, it was my first character trying to protect my first AD&D 2nd Ed character.  Maybe not significant to you but for me it has gravitas.  And finally, the act has to be Irredeemable.  Darlessa was about to drain the life out of a seven-year-old girl just to get to her parents and grandfather. She managed to cause the death of the grandfather and scar the granddaughter so much she was terrified of the dark.  (Role-Playing tip. Try playing an AD&D character who you have decided is afraid of the dark. All dark, all the time.)

Background

Darlessa always fancied herself as a Queen, which of course is impossible because she is from Glantri. She might have been an upstart Princess if fate had been kinder to her, but instead, the only magic she learned was witchcraft, a "lesser" form of magic to the Glantri ruling class.  Rejected by those she considered her peers and laughed at by those she considered underlings it was no surprise that she turned to evil.  She married a minor noble and soon had him murdered.  She moved up in social status by marrying one of the lesser Princes.  She could not kill him as easily so she had him locked away due to madness, which she of course caused.  She was always vying for more and more power, a better position in the social hierarchy. While she felt she was in control of her situation and had everyone else figured out in truth all the nobility saw through her ruse and were just toying with her.  When discovered this and was laughed out of court she sought out her demon to turn her into a vampire. But even then she chaffed under this yoke and sought to kill her new master. 

She managed to escape and had planned her glorious revenge on all who had mocked her, only to discover that everyone from the court was dead.  Not of some nefarious or evil plan, but of the natural progress of time.  She had taken decades to break free and now it was too late. All that remained were the offspring of those who had rejected her.  She reinvented herself as a noble and re-entered court, this time none knew her.  She would have been successful too had it not been for the cleric Johan.  Clerics had been banned in her day in Glantri, but Johan was distantly related to a noble and had proved a wise council on ecclesiastic and occult matters.  He quickly spotted Darlessa for what she was and thus began 40 years of open conflict between the two.  

Until the night she got what she had desired.  She was going to kill Johan and his granddaughter. Johan had taken his granddaughter to see the court. Her chance had come, everyone who had stood against her were all in one place. She had killed every servant in the castle to get to the girl and had taken her back to her own keep.  Johan followed. The ancient enemies fought and both died by the flaming holy oil.  Only the young granddaughter survived.  Johan was canonized and became St. Johan.  

Darlessa awoke to find herself in a finely appointed castle much like that of the court.  She was surrounded by servants and nobles, and all addressed her as Queen.

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels
The Domain

The Domain of Darlessa is a small island, or at least that is what it seems to be. There is the island and it is surrounded by water, but they are on a lake and the island is in that lake.  Beyond are only mists.  Darlessa is the Queen, but she has no subjects. She has servants, the very ones she had killed to get to Johan, but they are mindless, repeating the same tasks every day, day in day out.  Members of her court have the exact same conversations over and over again.  Games of chess or cards always result in the same outcomes no matter how many times they are played. Everyone in the castle adores her and they tell her this, often. Every day. The exact same way.  She has tried to feed on her servants, but they provide her with no life and they are returned the very next day.  She has gone on berserk killing sprees, killing every member of her court, and they return the next day acting as they always have.

The night she was rejected by society plays over and over again as it did in her mind when she was subservient to her demon lord. Now it plays out for real and she holds the place of power and honor. Her every desire has been given to her. And she is tortured by it all. 

This Domain has treated Darlessa everything she ever wanted and she is sickened by it all.  The fawning courtiers, the sycophants, the hangers-on. They all disgust her and there is no release.  The sun remains behind dense clouds and is never bright enough to kill her.  She thirsts constantly, but no one inside her domain can satisfy her.  Even her small cadre of warlocks (of the Undead) who do her bidding are revolting to her.  Though they do leave the island to gather new souls for their Queen.  In truth, she longs for a great Paladin or Cleric to come to destroy her to end her endless torment. Sadly, for her, those were outlawed. 

For the Darklord Connections (p. 44) we have the following:  1: An adventurer reminds the Darklord of their bond, desire or loved one.  OR in this case as the clerics Johan or his granddaughter Celene.  Darlessa is convinced that only Celene would be able to free her. 

Genres of Horror

This Domain is pure Dark Fantasy with bits of Gothic Horror and Psychological Horror. It should feel like a D&D world (Mystara in particular) in the movie Groundhog's Day.  The same day repeats over and over in an endless cycle. It is Dark Fantasy with the trappings of Gothic Horror.  The castle is haunted, but not by ghosts, but by memories.  Psychological horror comes from the "Repeat" and not knowing who is on repeat or not.  Also, how does one get out of it all?

Arevenir
Domain of the Vampire Queen

Darklord: Queen Darlessa
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Gothic Horror
Hallmarks: Undead ruler, same day repeats over and over.
Mist Talismans: Invitation to the Royal Court, a book of beginner spells from the School of Magic, a single candle.

Arevenir is a depressing domain consisting of a small island, a castle on the island and the surrounding village.  The locals are glum and speak no language the characters will understand right away.  The populace will claim the woods nearby are haunted with evil fae creatures and wolves with eyes that glow with balefire. 

The castle offers a respite from the cold, uninviting village. Inside the events of the same night play over and over again. The PCs will find they are trapped inside with no hope of escape except from the evil Queen herself and her warlock acolytes.

To escape they have to find the proper talisman. 

--

I am sure I can develop more if needed. But this is a good start.  With this setup the PCs do not need to fight Darlessa at all. So while I have stats for her I don't need stats for her.  Even if they did like everything else in the castle she would just return the next day. 

What I want here is a land influenced by the French and Italian horror of the mid 1970s.  Similar to the most recent October Horror Movie marathon I just did where I focused on Pre-Exorcist European Horror.

It would be fun little diversion. 

Now if I were making a new Domain for players well I get more player input.  Every successful horror game I have ever run has had one thing in common; Player's buy-in.  They have to want to play it in order to make it work out fine.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Character Creation Challenge: Swords & Wizardry Boxed Set

Swords & Wizardry Boxed set
Is it really June 1st??  Spent my Memorial Day weekend the same way I always do; grilling a bunch of food and spending all my time helping my wife in her garden.  So far we have 61 tomato plants in, 3 tomatillos, 74 peppers ranging from sweet to "Satan's Kiss,"  untold numbers of onions, potatoes, celery, squash and I have no idea what else.  Sadly we ended up losing all of our okra plants due to a late-season frost.

But today is a new month and that means a new character.  Although today's character is not new, per se, it is new since this is the first time I have presented this character before she became a Vampire.

The Game: Swords & Wizardry Boxed Set

I got my Swords & Wizardry Boxed set in the mail over the weekend from the Kickstarter.  It is a great-looking set and I want to spend some more time with it.  Getting a set of dice inside was a nice touch.  The books are top-notch really. Though I fear that my old-school itch is now being scratched by Old-School Essentials. Still, my oldest saw my set and admired it so maybe he will do some running with it.

There is a lot to like about it.

Old School Boxed sets

The Character: Darlessa

Long-time readers know of my love for the various "Vampire Queen" adventures out there and my own history with them.   Darlessa is one of the Vampire Queens I most often use.  She has a nice personal history with me and my characters and she is 100% OGC so others can use her too.

I am going to be using her in another project very soon, so I thought it might be nice to talk about her today before she became a Vampire.  Since I have this new rule system here that mimics the oldest RPG in our hobby, I thought it might be nice to go back and see her as a human witch. Right before her humiliating betrayal and her seeking out her demonic patron to turn her into a vampire.

Darlessa as a human witch
Darlessa

Chaotic Female Human Witch, 13th level

Strength: 10
Dexterity: 12
Constitution: 13
Intelligence: 15
Wisdom: 14
Charisma: 18

Saving Throw: 5
Hit Points: 43
AC: 1

Occult Powers

Familiar (Raven)
Evil’s Touch
Devil’s Tongue

Spells by Level

1st (4): Burning Hands, Cause Fear, Minor Curse, Read Languages
2nd (4): Agony, Bewitch II, Enthrall, Rite of Remote Seeing
3rd (3): Clairaudience/Clairvoyance, Danse Macabre, Toad Mind
4th (3): Arcane Eye, Bewitch IV, Phantom Lacerations
5th (2): Death Curse, Greater Command
6th (2): Death Blade
7th (1): Wave of Mutilation

Magic Items

Bracers of defense, ring of protection, ring spell storing.

Background

Darlessa always fancied herself as a Queen, which of course is impossible because she is from Glantri. She might have been an upstart Princess if fate had been kinder to her, but instead, the only magic she learned was witchcraft, a "lesser" form of magic to the Glantri ruling class.  Rejected by those she considered her peers and laughed at by those she considered underlings it was no surprise that she turned to evil.  She married a minor noble and soon had him murdered.  She moved up in social status by marrying one of the lesser Princes.  She could not kill him as easily so she had him locked away due to madness, which she of course caused.  She was always vying for more and more power, a better position in the social hierarchy. While she felt she was in control of her situation and had everyone else figured out in truth all the nobility saw through her ruse and were just toying with her.  When discovered this and was laughed out of court she sought out her demon to turn her into a vampire.

Darlessa, S&W character sheet

That is the sad tale of Darlessa. One of jealousy, anger, and hubris.  What happens to her next?  Tune in tomorrow and see!

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Sword & Sorcery & Cinema: Frankenstein

May has been split between two themes for me.  We started off with Sci-Fi month with a bunch of reviews on sci-fi games and movies and I ended with a week-long journey back to Ravenloft with the new 5e Ravenloft book.

What movie could I watch that would cover both halves of this theme?

Well really there is only one that could do it proper justice and I have a LOT of choices of that one.

The story is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  The movie is...well there are a lot of them.

While Frankenstein, or as it properly titled, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818 when she was only 20 years old.  

While it is a horror novel and a Gothic and Romantic Horror novel at that, it really is more properly one of the very first Science Fiction novels published. Jules Verne and H.G. Welles were not even alive at this point.  They might be known as the fathers of Science Fiction, but the mother of Science Fiction was a teenage girl and one of the most prominent feminist icons of her day.

So suck it up. Science Fiction was created by a teenaged feminist.

Currently, there are over 70 movies featuring Frankenstein and/or his monster. And those are just the ones I have access to on the Internet, there are likely even more.

No way am I going to watch them all tonight!  That would be a good October Movie Marathon month. But here are some I have seen in the past.

I am surprised by what is not on my list.  Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorites and the closest we have seen to Shelley's book.

Maybe a Frankenstein Movie Marathon is in order after all!

Friday, May 28, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, Part 3 Horrors and Monsters

Ravenloft Spirit Board
This is Part 3 of my coverage of Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft.  For this, I am going to cover Chapters 4 and 5.
You can also read Part 1, Part 1b, and Part 2.

Chapter 4: Horror Adventures

This chapter covers how to do horror in Ravenloft.  No to be sure this is "how to do horror in the situated rules of D&D and Fantasy Heroics."  It is not, nor should it be "how to do Horror for every other RPG out there."  The advice is good, but only when used in the proper situations and circumstances.  The advice given here is good advice, and it is not dissimilar to any number of horror games I have played in the past. 

For reference, I compared this chapter to some other horror games and books I have here.  In particular, I used: 

These are the ones I use the most, though I could grab examples from another couple dozen or so games.

VRGtR covers Preparing for Horror and this covers not just what sort of horror game everyone wants to play it also covers things like consent. Yes. Consent. No this is not a political stance, it is what I like to call "not being a fucking dick about it."   Section 7.3 of Nightmares of Mine states that 

"Even if the player has originally given his consent, he should be able to veto further exploration of a theme that causes real discomfort, insult, or distraction. Many people don't know exactly where their discomfort zones begin until it is too late."

- Nightmares of Mine, p. 119

And that was written over 20 years ago.  If you are complaining about consent being part of a horror game you lost that battle a long time ago.

Horror Guides

Ravenloft's Session 0 (p. 186) almost matches perfectly to Spooky's "Pre Game Checklist" (p.34) in terms of what sort of horror game is this? Who are the characters? What purpose does the story serve?  Spooky asks "What is the Monster?" Ravenloft asks "Who is the Darklord?"

VRGtR also covers the physical environment to running a horror game. This includes advice, while not exactly cribbed from 2nd Ed Ravenloft, certainly inspired by it.  This includes dimming the lights, props, music, and so on.  Chill also addresses this throughout their game. No shock, Chill 2nd Ed and Ravenloft both came out of the same section of the upper midwest at pretty much the same time.

There is also a section on using the Tarokka Deck (there are many available) and the spirit board that is replicated on the last page of the book. I am hoping that one becomes commercially available. 

Pause for a second here and consider this.  D&D along with Ouija Boards were a favorite target of busy moms and the Christian far-right during the Satanic Panic.  Now consider this. Ravenloft is back, full of all sorts of horror themes AND there is their own version of a spirit board included.  And yeah it is still getting attacked.  I guess some things never change.

There is a fun Horror Toolkit that includes some great Curses to lay down on people, places or whatever needs it.  Similar to what we saw in the AD&D Forbidden Lore set. There is a Fear and Stress mechanic.  Madness is gone. Good ridance.  Here is something I wrote about Madness in my own Sanity in Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death. 1997

I have always had a problem with the way that the various Ravenloft rulebooks have handled fear, horror and madness checks, but madness in particular. In real life and in most Gothic literature, madness is a gradual thing, usually built up over long periods of time; think of the madness as described in Poe or even Lovecraft. The Madness checks from Ravenloft and later Masque of the Red Death were an all or nothing affair, one failed roll could turn anyone into a raving lunatic. Plus the rules in The Realms of Terror and the Masque of the Red Death books mostly dealt with madness as an after effect of psionic interference. Of course millions of people suffer from mental illness without the “benefit” of being psionic.

Sanity in Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death. 1997

I wrote that because as someone with multiple degrees in psychology and a former Qualified Mental Health Professional I have NEVER been happy with how any RPG's system for "Madness" or "Sanity" worked.  Call of Cthulhu was an exception because what it did was so closely tied to the stories it emulated.  I attempted to do the same. 

This new system works better for the Fantasy Horror of Ravenloft. For me, the guy who used to be in charge of the night shift at a mental facility for schizophrenics, this system is better.  Yeah, people are going to say "but madness is part of horror!" No. It is part of Gothic Horror and to a degree Cosmic Horror, but there is nothing in Fantasy Horror that needs Madness. Yes, you can use it. No, you don't NEED to use it.  AD&D 2nd Ed used it, I used my own mechanics. I am happy to drop both today.

Though, there is no corruption mechanic here or a fall to Dark Powers.  The underlying assumption is that the PCs are heroes in the pure and true sense.  That is great, but D&D 5 players are no different than AD&D 1st ed players.  Dangle power in front of them and they will grab it with both hands and ask for more.  I get that, I really do and it works for this game. I am going to have to see how it works for me as I play Ravenloft 5e. On one of the few times I was a Ravenloft player and not a DM I had a character, a cavalier-sort, who was sucked in to the Mists and went blind.  He gained the ability to "see" while fighting but no other time (think Daredevil) it was a struggle to keep him from reaching out for more. He did move from Lawful Good to Lawful Neutral, but that was as far as his slide went.

Moving on to a GREAT piece are Survivors.  Survivors are a little bit more than normal humans, and a little bit less than a 1st level character.  These would be the people/characters in Ravenloft that would have souls. There are four basic types and they map on perfectly to the four class archetypes.

  • Apprentices have a minor talent for magic (Wizards, Magic-Users)
  • Disciples adhere to the tenets of the faith (Priests, Clerics)
  • Sneaks survive by their wits and are petty thieves. (Rogue, Theif)
  • Squires have some martial prowess or training. (Warrior, Fighter)

There are stat blocks for these four on the following page. They get a minor talent (like a feat, but not as strong).  Basically, they are Basic D&D 1st level characters.  If I was going to start a Ravenloft game, I would figure out what everyone wanted to play and then give them these level 0.5 characters that match their archetype.  Playing a Warlock? You start out as an Apprentice. And so on.  

House of Lament
The House of Lament

The included adventure deals with the House of Lament.  To new players it is a creepy ass haunted house that holds the spirits of Mara Silvra and Dalk Dranzorg (which are totally names you would find in Glantri, just saying). To older fans, the House of Lament was just as evil.  Now Mara goes from helpless victim to warrior now complicit in her own damnation in Ravenloft.  In both cases, her body is entombed in the house and her spirit haunts it.   The House of Lament was introduced in one of the first accessories for Ravenloft, RR1 Darklords which was released in 1991.  This new house has all the chills of the first.

There are rules for séances and the replies from the various spectral inhabitants.  There is even a handy adventure flowchart.  You don't have to follow it, but it does help.  The new house pretty much looks like the one in Darklords.  The maps are not 100% the same, but close enough that is obvious there are supposed to be the same place. Or at least built by the same hand. BTW the maps of the House of Lament are by none other than Dyson Logos

The change is interesting and hits on things we all talked about online back in the 90s.  So in the original House, Mara was an innocent victim, yet her soul was stuck in this house with the other spirits.  We always wondered why the Mists would trap an innocent soul.   We came up with a lot of reasons, but the current authors bypass the issue altogether and make Mara more active in her placement here.

Still, tt is a great introductory adventure.

Chapter 5: Monsters of Ravenloft

The very last part is a collection of new (well...new to some) monsters found in the Mists and Domains of Ravenloft.

First, we get a bit about how to use monsters in a horror game.  It is good but I do feel it could have been longer. Then we get into the monsters themselves.  First off. I LOVE the Bagman!  Why I never came up with it myself I will never forgive myself for. We get the expected cast.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers Pods, Brain in a Jar, Boneless, evil dolls, headless horsemen, ghosts, Star Spawn of Cthulhu Emissary, slashers, couple of different Vampires, zombies. The expected cast.  Given Ravenloft's history, there are tons more that could be added.  Well, it will keep the folks on DMsGuild busy for a long time!

Ok. So. Let's address it. The monsters do not have alignments listed.  "Oh no" the cries come from the Internet, "nothing is evil anymore! D&D is DOOOOMED!" Oh, grow the fuck up.

Monsters. They are still evil.

I have lost track of how many times over the last 40 years someone has brought up "hey maybe we should get rid of alignments in D&D."  Also aside from Ravenloft how many Horror RPGs have alignments?  Right. None.  Well...maybe Beyond the Supernatural. Just checked, yeah it does, but none of the other non-D&D-derived Horror games have it. One thing is made abundantly clear, monsters are there to be fought and fought against.  There is no "Subjective morality" here the monsters are described in terms of their "Wrongness" (p. 224) or their nightmarish qualities (p. 225). To be clear here every monster listed either wants your soul, your body, your blood, your life, or some combination of all the above.  In truth, there should never be anything at all like a random monster. Everything should be in place to maximize the effect the DM is wanting.  At no point should a random goblin show up in the middle of investigating an undead killer moving through the streets. Every monster should thought out, planned and figured out where they exist in the ecology of fear the DM is creating.  If that means a Boneless is a horrible creature trying to attack OR is it a helpless victim that needs the PCs, then alignments printed on the page would not matter. 

My only complaint about this chapter is there needs to be more. But I do love my monsters.

We end with an art page of the spirit board.

Edited to Add: Wizards of the Coast has a free PDF where you can print out the Ravenloft Spirit board. Print it out and glue it to some wood or cardboard.

All in all this is my favorite D&D 5 book.  I can see myself reviving (reanimating?) my old Ravenloft game with these new rules.  My original players are all over the world now, but I have new ones.  OR what I am more likely to do is add elements of Ravenloft into my current games.  The Second Campaign is headed to a large desert.  You know that Ankhtepot is going to be there.

There has been much ado about the changes to the Vistani. They are less of a cultural stereotype now so that is good. They can be good, or evil, as individuals choose, so that is also good.  Generally improved all the way around.  I have to be honest, I never used them very much save in Barovia, but that was it.

D&D 5 Books

With all the other D&D books out now you can build quite a collection of resources for Ravenloft.  The Candlekeep mysteries adventure, Book of the Raven, was our D&D 5 introduction to the Vistani and some Ravenloft concepts. 

More D&D 5 Books

The new various "Guides" have plenty of monsters and other ideas to flesh out your Ravenloft for 5e.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, Part 2 Domains and Darklords

VRGtR: Special Edition Cover
This is Part 2 of my exploration of the new Ravenloft book. You can also read Part 1 and Part 1b.

So last time I ended with character creation.  A couple of other points.   I was talking with my oldest son about the new classes, asking his expert opinion on how balanced they were.  He says that they are fine, nothing too out of the ordinary.  He just wondered why we need a Warlock with the Undead as a Patron when The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide already had a Warlock with the Patron The Undying.  Yes, they are fairly similar.

People seem concerned that two of the three lineages can see in the dark (Darkvision).  Well...this has always been an issue, elves, dwarves, gnomes, all have been there from the very, very start and they can also see in the dark.  Fear of the dark is a powerful fear, but it is also not the only one.  I always made the mists very opaque.  You might be able to see in the dark, but not the dark found in Ravenloft.  Afraid yet?  Well to quote one important gnome, "you will be. You will be."

Chapter 2: Creating Domains of Dread

Before we get into all the Domains of Dread (39 domains in total) we are going to talk about the creation of a Darklord.   Why do this first? This gets the Ravenloft DM to think about what needs to go into a Domain, AND what doesn't.  

Domains are reflections of their Darklord.  The building of a Darklord looks at the relationship between the Darklord and the characters and even the players.  I mean starting in Barovia with Strahd is always fun, but what if your players are not into vampires?  No problem, there is something here for you and your players.  Here the Darklord is created by asking questions about their past life, their fatal flaws, what makes them evil.  Yes.  This book presents the Darklords as all as unrepentantly evil. Evil with a capital E. Of course, the Darklords may not see themselves as evil or even as a Darklord, but that doesn't change what they are. 

Following the Darklord creation, we create a Domain. Remember that Domains are designed not just to be a prison for the Darklord, but one that tortures the Darklord as well.  Strahd is trapped and constantly tormented by his obsession with Tatyana. She is constantly being reborn, each time she torments him more.  Various other questions are asked.  What sort of culture is this? What do they fear? How do they treat outsiders? And a lot more.  Asking these questions here help understand what the domains are later on. 

Larissa Snowmane
Larissa Snowmane on the River Dancer.  Growing up near the Mississippi, I have had nightmares like this.

The next section, and one of the best, cover all the different sorts of horror you can use and the ones this book uses.  Reminder.  Ravenloft is not really Gothic Horror.  Sure it has elements of Gothic Horror. It has the tropes of Gothic Horror.  But even the AD&D 2nd Ed version of Domains of Dread informed us that Ravenloft is actually Fantasy Horror.  So let's see what the book has. 

  • Body Horror - horrors about being transformed or our bodies failing us.  Think of movies like The Fly, The Thing, or one of my newer favorites, Tusk.
  • Cosmic Horror - horrors from beyond and the cults that follow them.  Think Cthulhu.
  • Dark Fantasy - the intersection of fantasy and horror. Arguably where Ravenloft works the best.
  • Folk Horror - One of my favorites. Old towns with strange natives. Pagan cults and practices.  The Witch, The Wickerman (original one please), and Midsommer are good movie examples, but there are a lot more.
  • Ghost Stories - an old favorite. Ghosts, haunted houses, haunted...well everything. 
  • Gothic Horror - yes, it is represented here. Gothic Horror has much in common with the Romance genre.  The difference is the inclusion of a monster. Not a snarling beast, but often an old, often European aristocrat.  Dracula is the prime example given, but also the works of Poe and Le Fanu.
These are the main ones.  They all feature examples and tone. They also discuss the types of monsters that would be common.  Additionally like all D&D 5 books, there are plenty of d8 and d10 tables of options and suggestions.

There also others that are more briefly covered. Disaster Horror, Occult Detective Horror, Psychological Horror, and Slasher Horror.  All of these are now used in the Domains.  Well...they have all always been used, to be honest, now we are just more explicit about it.

Is this enough to run a horror game? Well...no, not really. It is PERFECT for running a Ravenloft game.  It's not really designed to run a Call of Cthulhu game and certainly not a Kult or Little Fears one, but it does work here.  

If you have never run a horror game before then there is a lot here that will help you.  If you have run horror games then this is a good introduction to the type of horror you can run in Ravenloft.

Chapter 3: Domains of Ravenloft

This the largest portion of the book. Nearly half of all the pages.

The first part covers souls. As in, most of the people in the Domains don't have them.  This is not a new idea really.  It was touched on in the Knight of the Black Rose books. The soul of Kitara was "copied" and her true soul was set free by the Darkpowers to whatever reward (well, punishment) her god (Takhisis) demanded.  What stayed behind was created by the Darkpowers to torture Lord Soth.  Similar to the soul of Firan Zal’honan's son.  

The section on souls also has a bit that should really scare D&D players.  While most "people" don't have souls, the ones that do better keep a tight grip on them.  Dying in Ravenloft is bad.  How bad? Even if you are raised or brought back under 24 hours a bit of your soul is still wandering the Mists.  Over 24 hours?  Your body might be raised, but it won't have your soul in it. That soul will be reincarnated over and over in Ravenloft.  Welcome to the Hotel Barovia. You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.  While I felt this was a negative feature in Curse of Strahd, it is a positive here. A scary one at that. Death is permanent after a point and death is not even an escape from the mists.

The Domains are now not all Gothic Horror.  They fit into 1 to 3 sub-genres of horror described above.  Gothic Horror is just one of those types.

Unlike previous editions that would feature the Darklords and the Domains separately, this book keeps them together.  This is a big improvement.  Darklords are inseparable from their Domains, and this book sells that philosophy well.

Seventeen Domains and their Darklords are covered here in greater detail and 22 in lesser detail.  Not every Domain from the old books are here. Nor should they be. So goodbye Sithicus, you were fun, but we don't need you now. 

Each Domain is covered, it's Darklord listed, the Genre (from above) listed, usually one to three, the Hallmarks of the Domain and the various Mist Talismans that can drag you here or help you leave.  Also, each covers what characters and people with souls think of their lands and what it means to them. While the Domains are not really part of a world as others think it there is no reason that people living there know that.  Some might suspect something, but they have always lived like this and this is what is normal for them. 

There are some alterations to every part of the Domains. Some are minor, many are major.  While some bemoan this I see it as fantastic.  First, I am not going to be playing this with anyone that knows the difference between Falkovnia and Fallstaff, AZ, let alone the difference between Mordent now and Mordent then.  Plus even if they did, well that is just the Dark Powers messing with their memories.  “Yeah you thought it was like this, but it really isn’t!”

A couple of other points.  The Darklords don't have stats.  But really, the Darklords don’t need stats.  At no point EVER in all the years I ran Ravenloft I never had a group of players that wanted to go after a Darklord.  And many that never even knew who the Darklord truly was.  How many Dracula movies are there?  How many has he been killed in?  Same here, I don't care even if the Darklord IS killed, they will be back as soon as I need them to be.

Also, the Domains are not as connected as they once were. Domains can be islands, or connected or not.  Ravenloft is not a "world" it is a loose collection of semi-connected prisons.  Only the Vistani can safely and somewhat reliably navigate the Mists and that is exactly as it should be.  Connect them if you want, I am playing this as an homage to the old TV series "The Fantastic Journey," the characters, and the players, step into the Mists and no one will know where they will end up. 

Each Domain feels new to me.  Like I am headed back to a place I once knew.  It would be exactly like me going back to my old University town. It has changed a lot since I was last there in 1994, the streets are the same, but the buildings are all different. Some things are the same, but there are things that are new.  This is the same.  

Barovia is the first, well for many reasons, but here it is alphabetical.  It is also the one that will most familiar to old and new players alike thanks to Curse of Strahd.  Like Curse of Strahd is completely supports my thinking that Baravoia is from Mystara, even though it is never stated here. 

the Amber Temple

A couple of other notable Domains.  Darkon was the former domain of Azlin Rex, now it is a Domain in slow-motion destruction. Like watching an explosion slowed down. Azalin is gone, where is he? No one knows. The Kargat still run the place, and there are other factions, but everything else is falling apart.  It is listed as Dark Fantasy with Disaster Horror.  Darkon was always the most "D&D" of the Domains, but now it is in tatters.  It is also a Domain searching for a new Darklord; PCs beware.  

Falkovia is now ruled by Vladeska Drakov. Now no longer a dime-store Transylvania and a bargain-basement Vlad Tepes, it is now World War Z in the Dark Ages.  Think the Black Death, if the Black Death could get up and go after you.  This is fantastic! And, really let's be honest, Vlad Drakov and Falkovia always kinda sucked. Really. It did.  This is so much better.  Har'Akir is so improved that I want to use it first.  Hazlan's Darklord Hazlik finally is portrayed as we always said he was back on the old RAVEN-L lists. He is not evil because he is gay, he is evil because he is a cold-blooded psychotic killer, even beyond that what other Red Wizards of Thay can accept. 

Dementlieu. Ah...now here is something really fun.  Completely changed from the old one this is an endless Masquerade, both in terms of the party and how everyone lives.  The Darklord of Dementlieu is "Duchess" Saidra d'Honaire. She fancies herself as a Lady, but is really just a commoner. In fact, everyone lies in Dementlieu, and every lie has to be more outlandish than the last, but uncovering a lie, or having your lies uncovered, is tantamount to that person's death.  It is Cinderella plus Masque of the Red Death (Poe's version, not the AD&D one) mixed with Bridgerton where every negative high-class society stereotype turned all the way up to 11 and put in a background of "be the most popular or die" attitude.  Get caught up in the lies and deceit and you could be lost in the Grand Masquerade.  You will never or should never get into combat situations in Dementlieu. You could for example challenge some "Lord" to a duel, but his second will, unfortunately, will not be there and he is under strict guidance from his doctor not to duel. Or some other reason.  Most likely Saidra d'Honaire will out you as a fraud first. OR, the would-be combative will be caught in a lie and reduced to ash in front of your very eyes by the Duchess.  

The list can go on. Harkon Lukas is more than just a fop now. He is a great example of a Darklord that has no idea he is a Darklord and thinks he is good. But we know he isn't.  Viktra Mordenheim is a great update over the thin pastiche that Viktor Mordenheim was to Dr. Frankenstein.  Chakuna, the new Darklord of Valachan replaces the old Darklord Baron Urik von Kharkov. I actually liked Baron Urik von Kharkov and the later art made him look like Tony Todd, always a plus.  No opinion yet on this one. But it does look interesting.

Chakuna, the new Darklord of Valachan
The Displacer Beast is a nice touch for this Domain

Not everything is perfect here though.

Yes, some of the domains are not as well defined as they could be or even should be.  Some details are here, but some are left out. I mean how do you grow food in an endless night?  To be honest, I really don’t care where the crops are coming from in Ravenloft to feed the townspeople anymore than I am worrying about where the crops come from to feed the townspeople in Frankenstein Created Woman all I care about is will they have their pitchforks ready when I need them.   And in truth, the book covers this in the very beginning with their “this is a world of nightmare logic” and the fact that most "people" in the Domains are not even real. You can even assume that nothing exists for real until the characters need it too.  The Dark Powers provide it all. How can hordes of zombies attack Falkovia every month like it's Episode 8.03 of Game of Thrones? Doesn't matter, it does and they do until the end of time.

We also get some important NPCs.  They are a great bunch, to be honest.  Among our "Stars" are Van Richten himself, the Weathermay-Foxgrove twins, and Ez d'Avenir.   Others are also returning stars from previous editions with more details.

I think Alanik Ray and Arthur Sedgewick are very much improved.  They remind me of what Holmes and Watson from the Netflix show the Irregulars could have been like.  I know there are people complaining that “they made Holmes and Watson gay!” No. They made Alanik Ray and Arthur Sedgewick gay. And guess what. They can do that if they want.   They are now more than just a thinly veiled dime store Holmes and Watson.

Having  Larissa Snowmane from the novel Dance of the Dead is a nice nod to fans, but they mention she avoids Nathan Timothy and yet they give no indication of who that is or his own Domain or why they would be interacting.  I mean I can pull my old books, but newer players don't have that.

They bring up Firan Zal’honan, but also never talk about how he used to be Azilin Rex. Or maybe he will be again?  I mean I am thrilled to see him! I can remember reading “I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin” in 1998 when it came out, sitting on my backyard deck and watching my wife work in the garden. This is deep-cut stuff.  But my son, who was not even born yet at that time, has his own copy of this book and has no idea who Firan is. 

Among the new Domains is the very compelling Cyre 1313 from Eberron. It's a freaking Ghost Train!  Who has never heard a tale about a Ghost Train?  This is one of the Domains, like the Carnival, that overlaps other Domains for a time.  It can travel the Mists and not in a good way. 

Cyre 1313

I am not a huge fan of how it looks, but my knowledge of Eberron is slim. This might be how all trains look. For me, I might make it look more Victorian.  But that's my solution for most things.  Though floating over the ground with little electrical sparks is good.

That is quite a lot of the book.  Next time I cover Chapters 4 and 5.

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, Part 1b But...It's Not Like Old Ravenloft

Note: Part 1 of this series is here.

One thing I hear from many sides on this new Ravenloft book is that it is not like the old Ravenloft books.

This might come as a shock, but it is not supposed to be like the old books.

Ravenloft books
All of these books were purchased as new in the last two weeks

Right now Wizard of the Coast is reporting that sales of D&D are the best they have ever been with 2020 sales outpacing the previous "best year ever" of 2019.  

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft is for all fans of horror-inspired gaming in D&D. But by and large, the target audience is the 5e players and DMs.  Not the fans of 2nd Ed. Ravenloft.

And that is OK.

Really. It is.  

If I want to play Ravenloft like I did back in 1990 (I don't mind you, I want to play like I do now) well, I am not at a loss for options. 

DriveThru RPG has their big D&D Settings sale on now, so I got all three of those books cheap.  I can now tuck my originals away. This is good because my Realms of Terror box looks like it lived through the Grand Conjunction AND the Requiem; which it did.  And because I played those I don't need to go back.

Right now you can get PDF and/or Print on Demand versions of the Classic Ravenloft books.

Realms of Terror

Realms of Terror books

Realms of Terror books

Realms of Terror books

The entire boxed set in one huge volume.

Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

For 3e.

Ravenloft 5e, 2e and 3e

Ravenloft 3e

Ravenloft 3e

Though not part of the sale D&D sales on DriveThru, these are on sale for the Domains of Dread sales on DMsGuild!  Use the DriveThru or DMSGuild sites for the sales, the prices are the same.

Forbidden Lore

Ravenloft 2e

Ravenloft 2e

Ravenloft 2e

Domains of Dread

Ravenloft 2e books

Ravenloft 2e books

Ravenloft 2e books

There is still Ravenloft to be had regardless of how or even when you want to play it.

If you want to play Ravenloft 5e and you want some of these older options, well go on over to the DMsGuild and their Domains of Dread Sales.  Certainly, there is something there for you. 

Even the original Ravenloft I6 and Ravenloft II: I10 are on sale.  I honestly don't need another copy of I6, I have my original, but it is tempting.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, Part 1 Welcome to Ravenloft

Ravenloft Cover
Last week I picked up the newest guide for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft (VRGtR). I have spent some time with it and going back over some well-thumbed volumes of  Ravenloft's past.  Today I hope I can share how this new one compares to what was done in the past and what I might do in the future with it.

Spend any time here and you will know of my love for Ravenloft.  I grabbed the original module, I6 Ravenloft when it first came out.  I also got the sequel and when it was expanded into a campaign setting for AD&D 2nd Edition, it became my setting of choice, pretty much to the exclusion of all others including my own favorites of Mystara/The Known World and Greyhawk. I was active on the RAVEN-L list that MPGN/TSR and then later WotC ran.  I had entries published in all (except for maybe one) of the official Kargatane fan publications.  Ravenloft, more so than AD&D 2nd Ed, was my game of choice. When Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death came out I had found my perfect world, or nearly perfect.  I'd go on to write the RPG for Christopher Golden and Amber Benson's "Ghosts of Albion" using all the experience that playing in Gothic Earth gave me.  Ravenloft lead me to the World of Darkness, to Cthulhu by Gaslight, to Kult, and eventually to WitchCraft and working for Eden Studios.  Horror is what I do.

So naturally, I was VERY excited when I heard a new Ravenloft setting book was coming.  Let get into it.

A couple of notes.  

VRGtR = Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, D&D 5e, published 2021.  256 pages.
DoD = Domains of Dread, AD&D 2nd Ed, published 1997.  264 pages.
Rot = Realms of Terror, AD&D 2nd Ed, published 1990.  144 pages.


Elements of Fear

Ravenloft has always billed itself as a horror RPG and it is, to a degree. It is not however fully Gothic Horror.  It is a pastiche of gothic horror tropes, but the one it can't fully embrace is one that makes gothic horror so horrifying.  In true gothic horror, the heroes have no power.  In fact, they are not even heroes, most often they are "the next victim."  The quintessential piece of gothic horror, Bram Stoker's Dracula, still features the deaths and abuse of many prominent characters before their "Dark Lord" is put down.  Compare this to say Harry Potter, which uses similar tropes but the difference is still largely one of power; Harry has magic, Harker and the rest only have knowledge.  No, Ravenloft is an action-adventure RPG set in a realm of Gothic Horror.  It is something that even the authors of Ravenloft's "Domains of Dread" acknowledged in 1997.

"The RAVENLOFT game involves classic horror in which the darkest of evils descend upon a more or less civilized world and prey upon the unsuspecting citizenry therein. However, it is also a game of swords and sorcery, knights and wizards, heroes and monsters. Unlike any other horror or fantasy game, this system meshes these two traditions into one genre that can best be called fantasy horror." 

- Domains of Dread, p. 220

Emphasis mine.

While the original Realms of Terror boxed set did try to go with a more gothic horror feel, it did this in the trappings.  The adventures for Ravenloft were largely of the Fantasy Horror variety.  Note. Some of the smaller adventures, in particular, ones found in The Book of Crypts and the Bleak House were more gothic in their feel.  The Bleak House with some minor tweaks can be run as a Southern Gothic Horror to great effectiveness.

The new Ravenloft approaches this from the point of view of embracing Fantasy Horror (knowing who the characters are) and adding in the tropes and mechanics of not just Gothic Horror, but also Cosmic, Folk, and even slasher horror. We will get to these all in a bit.

Fear is part and parcel of the Ravenloft experience. There is a content warning and a player warning in a sidebar on page 7 of VRGtR.  Some people are taking umbrage with this.  Yet similar advice is given in the original Ravenloft Realm of Terror boxed set on pages 133-135. Here they are interwoven on how to make the game more successful. The effects of the fear mechanic are even discussed on page 140 of Domains of Dread.  The difference is now the "consent" of the fear and terror are now front and center and in the hands of the players, not just the DM.   Maybe someone doesn't want to be scared but fight vampires. Ok, that is great and likely a fun game (in fact I worked on that one too) but it may or may not be Ravenloft, or at least not like how I would play it.  It is not my job to be the fun police for other people's games.

Let's get into the book proper.

The Weathermay-Foxgrove Sisters
Introduction: Welcome to Ravenloft

This is what you expect it to be really. We get an overview and background on what the Domains of Dread are.  There is a wonderful Dracula-esque like exchange of letters between our iconic hunters with emphasis on Ez d'Avenir as our principle iconic.  I like this.  While Van Richten's name might be on the cover, this is a "world" that has room for more than one investigator and slayer of the undead.  Plus, and let's be 100% honest here, there is a long shadow cast by Buffy and to not acknowledge that is to be very disingenuous.  We get an overview of the book's contents (Five total Chapters) and a brief overview of horror in your game.  VRGtR embraces the Fantasy Horror of AD&D 2nd ed's Domains of Dread. 

There is also an overview of what the domains are. Or more to the point, what they are not.  The Domains (now a capital) are not a world, are not safe and the only logic that rules here is the logic of the dark powers that surround you.  The Dark Lords who rule their pocket Domains/prisons and the Dark Powers that control it all.  Like the previous versions, the Dark Powers are at best ill-defined, as they should be.  No character is going to go toe to toe with these powers, nor will they even encounter them. We do however get some rumored names like Osybus, Shami-Amourae, and Tenebrous, these are only names here.  To long-time Ravenloft fans and D&D players though these names are tantalizing clues.  It does leave out my personal favorite option from the DoD, the Dark Powers are Imaginary.  The Dark Lords are prisoners of their own device. I will say though there is one Dark Lord in VRGtR that supports my claim for this edition as well.

The Mists are still the Mists and they do their own thing.  Domains are still largely defined as prisons for the Darklords even if they have power within them.  Anyone with any knowledge of Strahd knows this is slim comfort to him. Darklords are covered in here briefly with more detail to come later. These three pages cover pretty the exact same information we read in all the previous editions of Ravenloft.  Added to this is a bit on the adventurers within this "world." Again, "world" in quotes since the book is careful to tell us this is not a world per se but lands within the Mist that might be within the Plane of Shadow or the Shadowfell.  We never came out and said that back in the 90s, but it is what many of us thought.  Adventures are meant to be the heroes of this Fantasy Horror.  That takes us to the first chapter.

Chapter 1: Character Creation

The character creation chapter covers characters native to the Domains of Dread. So what does that mean?  It means that "normal" D&D rules don't have to apply here. Most do, but there is no reason why they have too.  Players are told from the start to "Prepared to be Scared" that this is a horror game and the characters should be designed to be scared.  Using the Gothic Traditions of literature I ALWAYS had Ravenloft characters that were a bit lower than average.  Typically I would make my players roll 2d6+3 for abilities.  So while that still gave me an average of "10" the max and min points were shifted. This Ravenloft is not quite as "Evil" as I was then, but the idea here is that characters are still a bit haunted, a bit scarred and scared.  Horror Lineages are introduced such as the Dhampir (pretty much what is says on the tin), Hexblood (there is a bit of hag blood in your background), and the Reborn which cover the Revenants and Shades of previous editions. These all come with perks and disadvantages. 

horror traits
Ravenloft Cat Ladies are scary
This is Ravenloft and characters can also have Dark Gifts. These are similar to the Powers checks made in the original Realm of Terror. Only know you can be born cursed.  Comparing pages 22-27 of VRGtR to pages 18-20 of Realms of Terror I see they are tying for the same ideas, just slightly different execution.  The VRGtR offers more thematic sorts of changes and "gifts" and less in the way of RoT's Touches of Darkness.  I am not sure if VRGtR offers any way to "become" a Dark Lord like RoT, but even this was made harder to do in DoD.  In truth no character should seek out a way to become a Dark Lord, this represents a failure on the part of the character unless of course it is being used as a plot for the other characters.  Then this is DM fiat. 

This would not be a D&D 5 book without some subclasses.  We get the Bard: College of Spirits where they not only talk about and tell stories of the dead and the dead rise up to share their tales.  And the Warlock gets a powerful Undead patron.

There are new character backgrounds in line with Ravenloft's histories and themes.  These include new Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.  The backgrounds are The Haunted One and the Investigator. These can all be used in other places sure, but they do not carry the same weight in Waterdeep as they do in Baroiva. 

Another addition is the use of Horror trinkets.  A 100 of these are just little curiosities that may or may not play into another part of the adventures.  Some might be a Mist Talisman (detailed later) others might just be a weird little thing. 

I am going to cover the Domains and Darklords next time in Part 2 and Horrors and Monsters in Part 3. There might be a Part 4, but let's see how this goes.

Spoiler. I have read through the book a couple of times now.  I feel that most of the people complaining about it on the Internet have not actually read this book.  Certainly, people are handpicking their examples to make their arguments.