Ravenloft Review – Van Richten’s Guide to Halloween

For me, Halloween season started a solid couple of weeks ago. But that isn’t important right now, because what we’re here to do is prep for a Halloween of Dungeons and Dragons scares! And to do that, we’re going to review all of the Domains from the latest Ravenloft book. Not all at once, but still.

So just step on through that mist and we’ll get started. What do you mean “is the mist dangerous?” It’s mist in a Ravenloft setting.

Of course it’s dangerous.

Click through below if you dare!

Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft dropped mid-May (which I guess is the Q2 Halloween) with an absolute crypt-load of content. And not a real crypt, one of those fantasy crypts where they apparently buried every living being to have ever lived.

Anyway, the gist of these posts is that I love the new Ravenloft book. I could go on about that for ages. But Halloween is coming up, so instead I thought we’d go through the various darkened Domains and dreadful Darklords that Van Richten’s has to offer. I’ll rank each of them for their Domain, Darklord, and combined appeal using the following tier system (with pluses and minuses for differentiation):

  • S Rank – The best of the best. Mostly reserved for Strahd.
  • A Rank – Brilliant ideas executed perfectly. High-quality content.
  • B Rank – Good ideas with few flaws. Fantastic content, with a little work.
  • C Rank – Decent ideas hobbled in some way. Good inspiration to build on.
  • D Rank – Usable, but difficult for some reason. Ideas with issues.

Without further ado, let’s go! Beginning, of course, with the classic – Barovia.

Barovia and the Count

Horror: Classic gothic fantasy.
Length: Anything up to a full campaign.
Cumulative Grade: S

Now, let’s begin by talking about what those stats mean. In reality, I’m not going to be rating Barovia. It’s the original, it’s the classic, and it’s had infinitely more time to mature and perfect itself compared to many of these other Domains. So instead we’ll use Barovia as an example entry.

In the initial portion, we’ll discuss the general facts, themes, and inspirations of the Domain. Barovia is easy, since it’s a fairly direct (and brilliant) take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the vampire horror genre it pioneered. If there are any interesting history bits about the Domain, I’ll list them here as well.

Domain: Barovia

Grade: S
Size: Large

In the Domain section we’ll look at the style, size, and usability of the setting itself. Grading is dependent on how well the Domain suits its horror genre and how easily a DM can use the information presented to create an engaging game.

Barovia gets an S rank because, honestly, it’s had a lot of time to grow. The original Ravenloft module came out in 1983. And even though I shouldn’t, I do feel a bit smug that I can check that by going to my bookshelf and not Google (though I did still Google it in case it was a later printing or something). Essentially, Barovia is large, full of terrors, and wonderfully fleshed out (in some cases literally).

To make Barovia into a D rank Domain, the easiest thing to do would be to just remove 80% of the map, leaving only the village of Barovia and Castle Ravenloft itself. You could also do it by replacing that missing 80% with an enchanted wood filled with pixies and faeries. A good Domain is one that has a wealth of options, all of which still perfectly mesh with the overarching theme of the Domain (and its attendant Darklord).

Darklord: Count Strahd von Zarovitch

Grade: S
Statblock: Vampire

In the Darklord section, we’ll go over the basics of the character and how they interact with the Domain. Grading is dependent on two factors – how well the Darklord works as an antagonist and/or narrative force, and how fun and interesting the Darklord’s character and interactions with the party can be.

Strahd gets an S rank because his backstory and personality are perfect for making an engaging story, and because he has a wealth of options in how he can interact with players. He isn’t inherently hostile, and his “gracious host” affectation can be an excellent way to bring him in early and bring him in big. Also the “S” in the S rank literally stands for Strahd (at least in my ratings system).

As an example, to make Strahd into a D rank Darklord you’d have to basically remove everything that makes him… well, Strahd. Take away the affable and welcoming host façade and leave a plain ol’ hungry vampire. Simplify his backstory to remove ambiguities and make him less a tragic figure and more a jerk. Darklords who get D ranks are the ones that just aren’t fun.

Advice and Final Thoughts

Honestly, I don’t have much to say here when it comes to Barovia, but this will be a regular part of the other entries. This space is primarily for any suggestions I have on how to use the Domain, and any other closing thoughts. For Barovia, you can basically just grab the revised Curse of Strahd and be fine.

And with that taken care of, let’s go to the next Domain and the first actual rating – Bluetspur.

Bluetspur’s Braineaters

Horror: Alien abductions with a dash of eldritch body horror.
Length: A few sessions, depending on how much you visit other planes.
Cumulative Grade: D+

To begin, I want to make it clear that I don’t dislike Bluetspur. I just feel that it’s missing a lot of what it needed in order to be a true fully-fledged Domain. There’s a few reasons for that and many of them might be just my own preferences. However I feel the major problem confronting Bluetspur is its reliance on other Domains and its relatively bare-bones environment.

I will note, though, that I can’t imagine a better domain for the alien side of your classic alien abduction horror story. Once you’ve been abducted, this place is great. It’s actually getting there that poses a problem.

Domain: Bluetspur

Grade: D
Size: Small

Ultimately Bluetspur just comes off as feeling empty. It’s a smaller Domain already, and it contains very few points of interest. Additionally, there are only mind flayers in the Domain, nothing else. This isn’t an issue, but it does sort of limit how long you can effectively stay in the Domain. The content it has is good, it just doesn’t have that much.

The biggest problem with Bluetspur, however, is one of theming. Bluetspur is a parasitic Domain – it relies on infusions from other Domains and other planes. The idea is that your character will be kidnapped from another plane and then returned with only fragmentary memories. This is a problem because it means every alien abduction tale has to make a detour through bardic werewolf town (Kartakass) or some other random horror locale in order to get back to your alien horror. The alternative is to have players abducted from and then returned to a non-Ravenloft world, and in that case I don’t even think you can call that a “Ravenloft” campaign. No matter what you do, you have to spend a significant amount of time in a non-Bluetspur location in order to effectively use Bluetspur.

And that’s why Bluetspur gets a D. It’s a small Domain with few areas to expand on, and it requires causing genre-whiplash by thrusting players ready for alien adventure into a distinctly not alien adventure. It’s a bit of a shame, really – I like most of the flavor of Bluetspur. I just wish it had more.

Darklord: The God-Brain

Grade: C
Statblock: Elder Brain

I like the backstory of the God-Brain. The idea that there was one elder brain that even other elder brains couldn’t stand is just innately interesting to me. I also like that the God-Brain’s predicament forces it to be active. It’s endlessly decaying and needs to do something to prevent itself from dying. This means it has to be an active character. It has to do things, and that helps it be interesting.

The issue is that while the God-Brain is theoretically interesting, in practice it has almost no methods by which to interact with the party directly. You’re not going to have people just talking to the God-Brain. And it isn’t one to monologue. In fact, almost none of the residents of this Domain are likely to talk. And while talking isn’t innately necessary for a good narrative, it definitely makes things a lot harder when no one says anything.

Instead, the God-Brain is a final boss monster. It’s just the Brain of Mensis or Mother Brain or any other generic giant brain monster. So yeah, you can definitely use the God-Brain in a great narrative. It’ll just be more difficult than it has to be, in my opinion.

Advice and Final Thoughts

Bluetspur is an imaginative Domain, and more importantly it’s a Domain that I feel goes outside Ravenloft’s “comfort zone” of gothic fantasy. My one recommendation for it, as a Domain, would be to add in a small group of non-illithid escapees. Maybe even have some of them under the thrall of the mind flayers. They think they’ve escaped and are struggling to survive and hide from the illithid, but in reality they’re just another experiment. Just give the party someone to talk to while they’re in Bluetspur.

Personally, though, I wouldn’t use Bluetspur as a Domain of Dread in a “full Ravenloft” campaign. I feel that to get the best out of its ideas you need to have all the non-Bluetspur time (IE before and after the initial abduction) take place in a “normal” setting like Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or (if you hate yourself) Grayhawk. There’s just no getting around it.

If you do that, though? You might have a super fun alien abduction campaign on your hands. Put some illithid mindslaves in charge of a special guild that tracks down and covers up Bluetspur activities. Introduce “crackpot” characters whose crazy stories sound ridiculous but have a disconcerting similarity to the party’s own experiences. Add some crop circles. Essentially, just have fun with it!

Next up we have the land of toxic familial relationships – Borca.

Borca and the Ivan(a)s

Horror: Political intrigue with a gothic twist.
Length: Anything up to a full campaign.
Cumulative Grade: B+

I really like Borca because it offers a gothic alternative to Barovia. While Count Strahd’s homeland is great, it does lack a noble community besides, well, him. Barovia is a realm focused on rural villages and countryside castles. Borca is a world of galas and conspiracies.

In particular, I like the number of options you have with Borca. Each noble family has their own hyper-specific brand of horror to serve up on command. Some are more interesting and others less, but there’s always something to do in Borca. Options are open.

Domain: Borca

Grade: A
Size: Medium

The land of Borca falls into the broad category of “gothic landscapes” along with Barovia, Mordent, and others. That isn’t a bad thing. It just means there isn’t much to say here about the Domain’s attention to theme – it does a good job, and that’s that.

Where Borca excels is in its points of interest. And not the quantity either – the quality. Each noble house in Borca has an estate, and each family has a different scary story to tell you.

I mean… what do you want? A potentially haunted boarding school with a sinister secret? Got it, head over to the Ivliskovas (they even have orphanages too for good measure). Want a predatory casino you can literally bet your life on? Pretorius, next question.

Want a weird, huge and haunted aquarium full of undead fish or something? Stunningly enough, Borca has that. And that’s why the Domain gets an A rank. In this case, the “A” stands for “anything you damn well please.”

Darklords: Ivana Boritsi and Ivan Dilisnya

Grade: C
Statblock(s): Spy & Noble

To be honest, if I was just rating their names they’d get a solid D-. There is no way in hell that the Ivana/Ivan confusion won’t come up at least three times per session. No thank you.

However, as Darklords they aren’t super interesting anyway. Weirdly enough, it feels like Borca is best when you just ignore them. Neither one does anything really different from the other. It’s all intrigue in the end, and neither one feels very active.

I suppose this could be a bit of personal preference (I’m not much for majority-social games). I just still feel like they aren’t very suited to their own genres. I think one huge issue here is that their motives fall a bit flat, to me at least. Neither one seems to want anything drastic, leaving their desires without a certain sense of flair and absent a satisfying climax.

They’re both just very passive. And maybe that’s just how a social intrigue horror game should be. For me, though, it just isn’t enough to build on. You can make either one work, but it’ll take effort.

Advice and Final Thoughts

In a lot of ways I feel you can view Borca as a second Barovia. It’s ideal for pretty much any gothic horror theme that wouldn’t fit in Barovia. And that’s great!

My advice would be to ignore Ivan(a) as Darklords entirely and focus on whichever noble house specializes in the correct theme. Bring the players into contact with only the necessary parts of Borca. Don’t bother introducing either Darklord if they aren’t relevant. Focus on the “little story” and bring things down to a level that people can easily emphasize with. Talk about a group of children or even siblings forced to go to a sinister boarding school. Let the players encounter a strange eccentric who uses his money to create a haunted aquarium. Focus on exactly what your story is about.

Next, the Domain I nearly forgot. Originally this post just ended with Borca, and then the next post started with Darkon. I had completely forgotten about… the Carnival.

Carnival of Horrors

Horror: Spooky carnival with entirely too much evil clown potential.
Length: A few sessions at most.
Cumulative Grade: D-

I wonder if including the Carnival in this book was really a good idea. One of the major, recurrent themes in Van Richten’s is the idea of removing inherent racism and discrimination from the Ravenloft setting.

This primarily can be seen in the book’s treatment of the Visitani, who were originally one huge negative stereotype of the Romani. Now, the discussion of how that went is a tale for another day (though I will say I feel it went better than I had expected), but it has bearing here due to the nature of carnivals and “traveling entertainment troupes” in fantasy.

Essentially, the horror of carnival-themed scary stories comes from the portrayal of the performers as “freaks” that astound and disgust the “sensible characters” of the story. Needless to say, this is a rather big and damaging stereotype, so Van Richten’s wisely chooses to discard it.

The only issue is that they don’t really get anything to replace it, so the Carnival ends up being… not terribly scary.

Domain: The Carnival

Grade: D-
Size: Miniscule (Traveling)

At its heart, the problem with the Carnival is that it just isn’t scary. Again, I think this goes back to WotC attempting to remove harmful stereotypes (which is still a good thing) while trying to keep the theme intact. While that works in other cases, it fails in this one for a single reason.

Carnivals are supposed to be fun.

That’s the whole point. So in order to make a “fun festival” into a “creepy carnival” you have to add something scary. Historically this was done by emphasizing the most “disturbing” parts of the carnival, usually the “oddities and freaks” displays featuring heavily tattooed or pierced performers as well as people with rare deformities.

And that, obviously, has to go. After all, there’s not really a difference between an un-tattooed person and someone with many tattoos (except, in my case, a crippling fear of needles). A lot of people who play D&D have tattoos and piercings – several people in my own group have one or both. I know I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, so I’m never going to have any interest in something that demonizes tattooed and pierced people (along with any other marginalized groups).

The problem this leaves, though, is that the Carnival is now a Domain of Dread that isn’t dreadful. It just isn’t scary! Dangerous sure, there’s like… evil Fey following them, or something. But it isn’t very creepy. Because again, carnivals are supposed to be fun.

Additionally I’ll point out that the Carnival is by far the smallest and most limited Domain. That may be intentional, seeing as it’s intended to serve as a supplement to other Domains. However that just makes me confused as to why they didn’t include it as a non-Domain phenomenon. I feel like it could have just been in a separate “Means of Transversing the Mists” section with pretty much all the same Domain info, just not presented as a “primary source of horror theming” like an actual Domain is.

That would also take care of the Carnival’s other issue, namely…

Darklord: Nepenthe

Grade: D-
Statblock: Sword (wielded by a Fey-themed Cambion)

On the one hand, I do like how the Darklord is actually a sword. It feels interesting and novel, however it doesn’t lead to an actually good Darklord.

For one, what crimes did this sword commit? The backstory entry just says that the sword was used to execute innocent people falsely accused of various crimes, but that really… just isn’t that big a deal? I mean, Strahd murdered his own brother over a woman. Vladeska Drakov (of Falkovnia) led a bloody revolution against nobility which slaughtered thousands of innocents. Both Ivana and Ivan of Borca wiped out their entire families.

But no, a sword which was used by other people to commit murder is definitely evil enough to be a Darklord. Even though the book itself seems to treat Isolde (the sword’s wielder) as the “actual” Darklord. The torment section even focuses on her – how are the Dark Powers tormenting the sword? How could they?

Even if this sword was personally responsible for evil acts (ever read Warbreaker?) it still lacks any potentially interesting ways to interact with players. A lot of this could be fixed if Nepenthe and Isolde had significantly different goals. Then you have an odd plot wherein players might assume Isolde is the Darklord until the moment when she tries to open the borders and it’s the sword that says no.

Also neither the sword nor the wielder really have anything to do with carnivals. Isolde at the least has actually managed a carnival before, but your guess is as good as mine as to how the hell Nepenthe relates to the thematic concept of a carnival. Literally the sword’s only connection to the Carnival is that it just so happens that its last owner died while traveling with them.

Furthermore, it seems odd to specify that Nepenthe was made by the shadar-kai when the shadar-kai who actually passed it on to Isolde acquired it by way of a random half-ogre. I suppose the shadar-kai are from the Shadowfell, so it being made by them goes towards explaining why it takes to Ravenloft so easily (given it’s a demiplane of the Shadowfell). But again, why is Nepenthe the Darklord of a Domain which has literally no connection to it or its past, and in fact is just the place where the sword coincidentally ended up? No idea.

It all feels very random and doesn’t lend itself to a coherent, interconnected narrative. It’s not like I think Nepenthe and Isolde are unusable, I just feel like using either of them in a satisfying way requires significantly more investment from the DM to make their characters interesting and relevant to their own setting.

Advice and Final Thoughts

There’s one simple way to use the Carnival – don’t have it be a Domain. Just ignore everything in the section that relates to Darklords or mist borders or Domains or torments… just use the Carnival as a fun diversion to another Domain’s story, or even a mode of transport for players going to other Domains.

You can keep Isolde and Nepenthe if you want, there’s nothing wrong with them as characters, but just don’t have either of them be Darklords. Oh, and don’t expect the Carnival itself to be that scary. The source of your fear should be whatever other Domain is present.

One last note, just of a cool idea I had. If you use the Carnival as a means of transportation, enforce the bizarre solitary nature of the mists by having it take more than a day to cross from one Domain to another. The Carnival leaves the borders of a Domain and enter the mists, and while the land nearby could be clear the mists obscure everything else. Don’t worry about a map showing how far apart different Domains are. And, finally, have the Carnival change aesthetics each time it enters a Domain. In Borca or Barovia it’s a typical carnival. In Kartakass it’s a traveling theatre troupe. In Har’Akir the Carnival takes on a desert theme, while in Dementlieu it appears as a high-class cirque de mists. No one in the Carnival seems to notice, but the players do. This oddity is then left unexplained.

And there we have it! Next time we’ll look at a few more domains. I’m looking forward to it because it includes two of my favorites, Darkon and Falkovnia.

Let me know what you think!

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