Welcome back to an extended review of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, going Domain by Domain. Happy Halloween! In like a month.
Today we’ll be covering three of my favorite Domains: Darkon, Dementlieu, and Falkovnia. So essentially we’ll go from dark fantasy apocalypse to zombie apocalypse by way of… evil Cinderella town. Still good though!
Click through below to prepare for the end!
Just as a reminder, we’re using a sliding scale from D to S for ranking the Domains, Darklords, and cumulative entries (along with some 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.
Now, let’s begin at the end with the slow apocalypse of Darkon.
Horror: High fantasy reimagined as an apocalypse story.
Length: Anything up to a full campaign.
Cumulative Grade: A-
Overall, Darkon is a fascinating entry in the Domains of Dread. It’s unique in that it has no actual Darklord and it checks a lot of boxes to make me like it. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have issues – it does – just that it generally works despite or around those weaknesses.
As a note, Azalin Rex is one of the most famous and central Darklords presented in this book. Typically the “big” Darklords are (of course) Strahd, the fallen paladin Lord Soth, and lich-turned-god Vecna. Azalin Rex is easily listed alongside them. Which makes it odd that he technically doesn’t appear here, but we’ll get to that.
Oh, and if you want to do a true domain-spanning campaign based around the inner mysteries and true nature of the Domains of Dread and the Dark Powers themselves, the only two Domains you absolutely have to visit are Barovia and Darkon. So it’s a bit of a big deal.
Some would be tempted to give Darkon a similar exception to Barovia on the grounds that it, too, has been around a long time. But Darkon has changed significantly – Barovia hasn’t (as much).
Now, for some reason I just love the basic premise of Darkon. With Azalin gone, there’s no longer any reason for Darkon to exist. It’s a prison cell with no prisoner. The fact that there are thousands of seemingly sentient creatures left behind to be essentially obliterated is… unimportant, cosmically speaking.
This creates a perfect environment for a horror game. Ultimately none of the people of Darkon are “real” like the player characters are. So why care? But if you put in the effort and make the party start to like these people, it becomes much more threatening.
As far as usability goes, Darkon has a decent spread of locations and points of interest. Its three fledgling Darklords also provide a lot of options. Most of all, though… the mists eating the plane away feels like it provides infinite opportunities – every point of interest can be molded and changed just by adjusting where the mists have cut off the land around it. A normal city can be made into a desperate last stand by having the mists surround it so no food can get in. A town could be half-devoured – what happens to the survivors?
It has a lot of potential, and that’s great.
Darklord: Azalin Rex (formerly)
Grade: From C to B+
The proto-Darklords of Darkon are a mixed bag. There are three listed in the book: the vampire-gangster Alcio “Baron” Metus; the ghostly echo of Darkon’s first ruler, Darcalus Rex; and the fantastic invisible woman, Madame Talisveri Eris.
First up is Metus. Out of all the Darklords, she’s the least interesting. The basic problem is that she has nothing to do with the Domain as a whole. Her whole motive is finding Dr. Rudolph van Richten, who isn’t even in Darkon anymore. She just doesn’t have any reason to care about Darkon in the slightest. This issue nets her the C.
Next is Darcalus Rex, and he’s… the best one. He’s more interesting than the other two, and the various potentials for what he actually is provides a lot of customization. He gets the B+, and the honor of being mentioned again later.
Lastly is Madame Talisveri Eris, who is essentially the inverse of Metus. Where Metus is interesting but has no reason to care about anything, Madame Eris has every reason to care about Darkon but just isn’t interesting. She’s invisible, both in-game and narratively. She’s a great antagonist, but definitely not a Darklord.
And maybe this is all intentional. After all, the real thing you should do with Darkon is focus on the negative space. What makes the Domain special is that its Darklord isn’t here anymore. He left. And Azalin? Here’s a good Darklord. He’s got personality, his backstory (though the book barely touches it) is great, and he has a wide variety of potential motives. If you were to use him, then you have a solid A+ rank Darklord.
As an interesting note: Darcalus Rex isn’t a new character. In the old lore, he was actually one half of Azalin’s split soul when he first arrived in Darkon. So yes, Darcalus technically is the original ruler… but he’s still just Azalin in the end. And then there’s Firan Zal’honan the mysterious scholar, because someone at WotC is being deliberately secretive in such a way that only people familiar with the old lore can recognize what is, essentially, the best con in this entire book.
Advice and Final Thoughts
My ideal way to use Darkon would be in a Ravenloft-spanning campaign based around the mysteries of the Dark Powers and the true nature of the demiplane itself. Azalin would be a recurring character, potentially helpful while nudging players to break Ravenloft in a way that allows him to escape. The campaign would probably start in Barovia, go to a couple other Domains, then come to Darkon before moving to the climax.
But that’s just me.
Anyway, Darkon also works on its own. In that case, I think Darcalus Rex is the most promising potential Darklord (especially if you choose to interpret him as an odd split-soul version of Azalin). The key in this case would be to make sure the players care about some location in Darkon. A lot of the Domain feels like a typical D&D world, which could lead to a focus on dungeon delving. But remember – this is apocalypse horror. The best way to get that across is to create a charming village full of beloved characters for the party to return to after each dungeon, the nearby mists inching closer each time. Who knows when they might return to find the village swallowed up entirely?
That’s your horror. Not a screaming monster, but a train trundling in from the distance right as you get get your feet caught in the rail ties.
Dementlieu: A Cinderella Story
Horror: Societal horror based on status, wealth, and mental state.
Length: Up to a full campaign, albeit a shorter one.
Cumulative Grade: A-
The domain of Dementlieu is one big twisted fairy tale which oddly enough lacks the staple of horrific fairy tales – a dark forest. This isn’t a bad thing though, because it means the horror here stays fresh.
Ultimately, Dementlieu only does one thing – masquerades. And while that may seem limited, it does that thing so well that it doesn’t matter. Dementlieu is a Domain that was created by analyzing and dissolving the “fairy tale” down to its smallest discernable pieces and then micromanaging every one of them.
It only does one thing, but it does that thing better than anything else.
Where other Domains offer counties or nations, Dementlieu has but a single city. A single, messed-up, nightmarish, anxiety-inducing, decadently decaying city. And it is beautiful.
This is a case where my rating system runs into a weird position. Normally a Domain with not much to do in it would be rated poorly. But while Dementlieu looks small on paper, it makes up for it with a comprehensive and exhaustive approach to everything it has.
Everything in Dementlieu leads to the masquerade. It’s a brilliant deconstruction of the Cinderella tale, really, because the ball is pretty much the only thing that matters in the end. And what a ball it is! The Domain has phenomenal rules for running masquerades as a full encounter, not just some role-play leading to the next quest. A Dementlieu masquerade is the pinnacle of the Domain’s horror, and the climax of any story set in it. And that’s what nets it the B+.
Darklord: Saidra d’Honaire
So, just to get it out of the way – yes this is just evil Cinderella. Okay cool, now let’s talk about interesting things.
For one, despite her rather familiar backstory, her character motives are refreshingly new. Rather than a rags-to-riches story, hers is one of lies and disguises. This focus on unmasking is a critical part of her character, as well as the entire Domain. And that makes her interesting.
She also gets credit for having multiple methods of interaction. I mentioned this in the pseudo-review of Barovia, but the idea is that you want a Darklord to be more than just a final boss. Despite visual similarities, Ravenloft is not Dark Souls – you don’t want the final boss to be some random deific creature you’ve never heard of. Saidra is a character, not an encounter, and that is phenomenal.
She also has one of the plainest potential plots of any Darklord. Unlike with Strahd or other Darklords, there is a super specific way in which players can defeat Saidra besides physical confrontation – call her out on her lies. I think this is a good thing, since it makes adventures in Dementlieu easier to structure.
Now, all that being said there is one issue – Saidra is a very narrow character. She’s very specifically defined, and that same simplicity of plot can be a hindrance as well. But ultimately I don’t think it’d be fair to hold that against her. Just like her Domain, Saidra only does one thing, but she does it really, really well.
And as a side note, the narrative cutout of what to say if Saidra unmasks someone at a party is brilliant. It’s dramatic, it has perfect rising tension, and it flawlessly incorporates just a hint of dark humor (the ghoul servant waiting in the wings with a dustpan) to really hammer home the moment. It’s beautiful, and whoever wrote that part did a phenomenal job.
Advice and Final Thoughts
Only run a Dementlieu game if what you want is a fairy tale horror-themed masquerade. There are other plot threads available, but to me it seems they all feed back into the masquerade eventually.
My one piece of advice would be to really incorporate masks as not just a narrative element but an actual game mechanic. This can create interesting interactions if the players learn to switch masks or if they notice someone familiar wearing the wrong face. But more importantly it allows Saidra, in her Red Death form, to be an active obstacle to the players throughout the story, without compromising the secrecy and intrigue of the final masquerade.
And Saidra is a Darklord worth using, in my opinion. The only real question you face with her is how upfront to be about how she’s literally evil Cinderella. Keeping that fact back may cause an issue later if players break the tense atmosphere laughing, or it can be a brilliant reveal.
Falkovnia: Welcome to Hell
Horror: Classic zombie apocalypse.
Length: Anything up to a full campaign.
Cumulative Grade: A+
I love Falkovnia. It’s easily my favorite of the big Domains (not including you, Cyre 1313, I love you the most and I always will). Everything about Falkovnia is just… ideal. And, even better, it shares very little thematic overlap with Barovia! It’s beautiful.
I do, of course, have some points of contention. But they’re petty. They are so petty. Stuff like “I wish this was bigger because I never want it to end” and “zombie apocalypse as a genre can be kinda depressing, which is an issue since this place is literal zombie apocalypse perfection.” But we’ll still go over them, just to be fair.
One fun trivia fact I learned while writing this – Falkovnia isn’t actually “new.” I had thought it was (since I didn’t recognize it like I did with others like Darkon or Mordent), but nope! Turns out the original Falkovnia was… a somewhat bland take on Vlad the Impaler. As in it was just a Domain ruled by a bloodthirsty warrior-king. I’ll have to look more into the OG Falkovnia another time just to compare it to the new version, but I can comfortably say that this current incarnation is far superior.
It just rocks.
There’s so much to do in Falkovnia because it has, essentially, triple the amount of land that it visually appears to have. That’s due to the zombie hordes – every point of interest has a pre-invasion high, a mid-invasion nightmare, and a post-invasion low. The only described areas are the main city of Lekar, the ruined farms of Morfenzi, the silent village of Silbervas, and the ominous Vigila Forest (plus a lot of interestingly named but non-described areas and regions), which is less than other Domains.
That doesn’t sound like a lot. But in reality, it’s more than enough. Lekar the day after the zombie horde is a very different city to Lekar a week before the invasion. The former is a ruin of fire and death. The latter is a tense but surviving sanctuary. And then during the invasion, Lekar is an unliving nightmare.
Falkovnia is just perfect for its genre. It has every essential locale for a zombie apocalypse covered. Lekar is the hoped-for holdout. Silbervas is the anxious settlement. Morfenzi is a scavenger’s paradise. And there’s even more – abandoned villages, burnt-out homes, potentially zombie-filled wildernesses… It’s beautiful.
Another brilliant part of Falkovnia is the narrative of the Talons. An organized and oppressive force of brutal soldiers is the perfect foil to the mindless undead. The threat of the Talons is a great way to mix things up so it isn’t all zombies, all day, every day.
The one thing, the lone, single issue that Falkovnia has… is that it can be a little depressing. It’s hopeless. That can be a bit harsh on people. But the nice thing is that hopelessness is integral to the genre. Anyone who would be bothered by this type of story likely would never actually choose to play a game here. So as long as you talk to your group first, this is never an issue. You do still have to establish concrete goals for the party, of course. Players need to know they’re making progress. But it’s relatively easy to create a motive for the party that doesn’t hinder the hopeless atmosphere. The players can succeed in their quest… but they can’t save Falkovnia itself.
So just to recap – Falkovnia has a decent number of points of interest, each of which has at least three distinct versions based on what time it is. Everything necessary for a zombie apocalypse is included on the map by default. And even though it seems zombie-focused, the Talons add a significant secondary antagonistic force to mess with. Oh, and the only problem is one that not only isn’t caused by the Domain, but is an issue with the Domain’s genre in general.
Thus, we have an A+ rank Domain.
Darklord: Vladeska Drakov
The only Darklord whose imprisonment and torment echoes the perfection of Strahd’s is Vladeska. Technically speaking, there’s nothing keeping her in Falkovnia. She could just leave. But the Dark Powers know she won’t, because she can’t just retreat. And her torment is brilliant – she’s a genius tactician placed in an impossible situation. No matter how good she is, it’s always just good enough to keep from dying. It’s never successful, or good. She never makes progress, she just continues to flail at the surface of the sea. This is even reflected in her power over the Domain, or rather her lack of power over it. Most other Darklords have at least some semblance of control over their Domain. Vladeska has nothing. She can’t open or close the borders, she is just as powerless as everyone else. And that’s beautiful.
But let’s pause my effusive praise of her backstory so we can get a bit of effusive praise for her implementation.
Vladeska is an ideal example of how to make a good Darklord. She has multiple means of interacting with players (just like Strahd) which means she can appear in almost any context. You can introduce her from the very first moments of the campaign, or you can have her discussed with almost religious fervor even though players never directly see her.
I also really like that she can actually be “on the same side” as the party. Many Darklords will work with or employ the PCs, but besides her I honestly can’t think of any who would do so without any implied future treachery or current deception. And I certainly can’t think of any who have goals that the players would support. At best the Darklord and players just have overlapping interests en route to their final goals… which remain completely separate.
But Vladeska can truly and honestly be on the same team as the players. Her eventual goal might be something the party doesn’t really like, but right now she’s just trying to save the Domain and its inhabitants from the relentless undead hordes. Despotism is better than being dead.
That’s brilliant! It’s completely unique for a Darklord, and it opens up endless possibilities for interesting narratives. I could go on about those for a long time, but I won’t.
Instead I’ll just say – excluding Strahd, Vladeska Drakov is my ideal Darklord. She still loses to Strahd given his depth of character (a benefit of having existed for over twenty years more than her), but of all the Darklords in this book she comes the closest. And that’s your A+ rank right there.
Advice and Final Thoughts
I think a key element of Falkovnia is the loneliness of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. NPCs should be few and far between. The Talons should initially be a strictly hostile force until the party meets a higher-up. All of them should speak of Vladeska as if she’s some kind of prophet, offering their lives to her cause. Survivors should be rare, and if players return to visit a survivor they met earlier, they should almost always stumble upon the character’s corpse. Whenever they eventually meet the much-hyped Vladeska, she should come off as almost friendly. Cold and calculating, sure, but open and earnestly grateful for the party’s help in protecting her people.
Then, during the horde’s assault, the party should finally realize who the real monster is. With the same stiff formality with which she welcomed them into her home, she should then consign hundreds of innocents to the undead… all as collateral damage. Whether the players then turn on her or are forced to help because at least she’s better than the zombies is up to you.
That is my ideal usage of Falkovnia. The only other point I’d make is that I, personally, prefer Falkovnia as an adventure in which the party knows they’re in Ravenloft from the start. These shouldn’t be characters from Falkovnia (which is an option for a lot of Domains, and can be neat in certain cases), they should be visitors or passers-by. I also think the best motive for a Falkovnian detour is either a quest to take an item or person from the Domain, or a situation in which the players have been stranded there and now must survive long enough to escape.
Man I love Falkovnia.
Anyway… there we go! Next up is Har’Akir, Hazlan, and I’Cath. It’s a weird trio, to be honest, but that’s how the alphabet sorts out I guess!
Let me know what you think!