Welcome back to an extended review of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, going Domain by Domain. Happy Halloween again!
Today we’ll be looking at the Domains of Har’Akir, Hazlan, and I’Cath, which are pretty much only similar in that I have pithy one-liners already prepped for all three.
Click through for more horror and/or horrible jokes!
Once again, here’s our scale for reference:
- 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 it’s time for some pyramids in the sunny land of Har’Akir!
Har’Akir, or Brenden Frasier’s The Mummy
Horror: Classic ancient Egyptian escapades and scares.
Length: Anything up to a full campaign.
Cumulative Grade: A-
I compare Har’Akir to The Mummy as a complement, by the way. It’s a great movie, and this is a great Domain. Like all of the truly good Domains, Har’Akir has a very specific goal that it succeeds at.
My only caveat is that I don’t find the Domain particularly “scary,” but that’s likely because the mummy movies I’ve seen (IE Brenden Frasier’s The Mummy) are more action movie than horror flick. Mummy movies have horror elements and a spooky atmosphere, but mentally I file them under the same header as the Indiana Jones movies and not under the same heading as Alien.
But that’s just my opinion! And I’m not a huge horror movie fan! So I’m not really the target demographic for this Domain, and I feel like anyone who was the right demographic would absolutely love this place.
This is the least deserted desert I’ve ever seen. Unlike so many fantasy deserts, Har’Akir doesn’t take “wasteland” as an excuse to waste land by not putting anything there.
Har’Akir is full to bursting with opportunity. Multiple locations have detailed summaries to serve as inspiration for adventures, and numerous other locations are named in imaginative ways that are guaranteed to get ideas started. Someone (or several someones) put a lot of thought into this, and I love it.
Another high point is just the fact that, despite being so full of detail, the Domain is specifically set up to be expandable. The twisting Labyrinth under the desert is the perfect way to work in pretty much whatever kind of dungeon you wanted. Hell, you could throw the Tomb of Horrors in there and it wouldn’t be out of place!
In addition to that, Har’Akir fits its theme flawlessly. The amount of locations to explore supports the feasibility of multiple ancient tomb excavations. The city of Muhar and the existence of a powerful, wealthy, and capricious priestly class means there’s always a benefactor to pay top dollar for artifacts.
Again there’s the potential issue of the Domain lacking in terror, but I still feel like that’s just me. Ultimately, the creepiness is up to atmosphere. As long as you, the DM, put in the effort… I’m confident it’ll be scary.
And the Domain itself supports that, and provides all the tools for a fun adventure as well. That’s an A rank Domain.
Statblock: Mummy Lord
I love Ankhtepot’s story. It’s a fun narrative, it has plenty of ambiguities for DMs to expand on, and it perfectly fits the atmosphere of the Domain. I also love his motivations. He wants to die! And it makes sense for him as a character. That’s a brilliant motive, and it presents a lot of opportunities for interesting plotlines. After all, wouldn’t killing him be giving him what he wants? (Well… no, actually, cause he’s rather set on the “becoming a mortal again first” part, but still at least it could offer an interesting wrinkle to the party.)
Where Ankhtepot loses a bit of steam is when it comes to him interacting with the party. The fact that he doesn’t have to be instantly hostile is still a big positive, however I feel his interaction options just aren’t as broad as, say, Strahd’s or Vladeska’s. Still, just being able to be something more than “the final boss fight” is good.
The problem comes from the fact that he’s a mummy. And mummies are the primary “horror element” of this Domain. And if you have players meet a mummy right off the bat, and a potentially cooperative mummy at that, you’ve effectively crippled your ability to inject fear later on in the story. There are ways around this, such as having his High Priestess contact the party on his behalf, but then we’re back to the “wait… who is this guy?” problem when the final boss fight rolls around.
There are other ways to fix it, though. You could have him interact with them while disguised as a living person, only for his disguise to rapidly rot away at a climatic moment, providing a gross and terror-inducing transition scene. Or maybe you learn about his past through flashbacks while trying to find his soul, so you only ever see him as a living person and not an undead. Again, there are options. It’s just something to be mindful of so you don’t end up blowing one of your first horror opportunities (the introduction of mummies) on a session zero introduction.
And that’s ultimately why he gets an A- rank. He’s very usable, very interesting, and has only potential implementation issues.
Advice and Final Thoughts
Honestly, I think Har’Akir is best used as a straight up mummy movie adventure. I probably wouldn’t even stress the horror elements too much, just enough to make sure there’s a spooky atmosphere. Players would be contracted by a mysterious but wealthy patron who would send them to various ruins. While exploring they would discover the history of an ancient king, showing his downfall. Finally they’d return to their benefactor with an odd treasure only for him to reveal his true, grotesque nature as Ankhtepot, the Darklord. Simple doesn’t mean it’s bad.
If you wanted to stress the horror element instead, I feel your best bet is to take some hints from the body horror genre. You could easily steal certain things from Lamordia as well, just with a desert spin. But the introduction of mummies should remain the climactic horror of “act one” (narratively speaking). From there, you’d have to get additional horror elements mostly from the “disgusting” category. Bugs crawling out of corpses, slithering snake piles, bubbling tar from living beings dying from a horrible curse… Stuff like that.
Hazlan, or “Early Access Dark Sun“
Horror: Magical experimentation gone mad and the resultant natural apocalypse.
Length: Up to a full campaign, with a little work.
Cumulative Grade: C+
I sometimes wonder if my opinions on Hazlan would have been different if it hadn’t come immediately after Har’Akir in the alphabet. The two Domains aren’t that similar, but I think Hazlan just feels a bit hollow after reading Har’Akir.
There really isn’t anything necessarily wrong with Hazlan, it just doesn’t provide as much context as other Domains. Again, it isn’t bad, it just feels lacking.
You can probably sum up my opinion on Hazlan with this quote – “Anything explainable with ‘an evil wizard did it’ fits perfectly here.” I’ve never been a fan of the “evil wizard did it” plot device, and I feel that it especially doesn’t work in horror. It feels arbitrary, and horror (to me) needs to feel justifiable.
The other thing that gets me is that I just don’t believe that there are any ideas that flat out can’t be done anywhere but Hazlan. I mean, I guess the fact that Hazlan can do everything is, by itself, a strength. But that still means you’d be arguably better off just traversing the mists between different Domains. Hazlan is the only way to do two completely different ideas in one Domain, but it’s far from the only way to do two different ideas in one campaign.
I do think there are some cool elements, of course. The “mages versus non-mages” angle is fun, and I like the environmental effects of Hazlik’s simultaneously hands-off and hyper-observant leadership style (more on that below). I also like a lot of the provided points of interest, too.
Hazlan is hard for me to rate. On the one hand, it definitely does have a wealth of content. And even without the directly described regions, the Domain itself is broad enough to accommodate nearly anything a DM could want to do. That’s a huge positive.
However I also struggle to solidly define what the theme of Hazlan is as a Domain. It’s an impending apocalypse caused by reckless magic, but then again so is Darkon. It has a disinterested ruler who only cares about a very specific topic, whose magically powerful lieutenants have no checks… but that’s just Har’Akir. It has an inhospitable landscape and a wealth of body horror opportunities, just like Bluetspur. Hazlan isn’t identical to any of those, of course, I just struggle to say what makes it unique besides being a general melting pot of horror genres.
Maybe that’s the point. If so, I’d probably bump the ranking up a bit. Ultimately though, it’s a Domain with a wealth of options and no real theme binding them together.
Now here’s an odd one. As far as his backstory goes, he’s pretty cool. He has a sense of unearned pride that makes for a good antagonist. He also has an interesting personality.
Hazlik’s best feature is his unique combination of hypervigilance and extreme hands-off governing. This makes for an interesting villain because you can easily explain why he doesn’t bother the party until a certain point, but you can also choose to have him obsessively looking over every move the party makes.
And then there’s the question of Hazlik’s motives. He wants to discover why Hazlan doesn’t feel “real” like Thay did, and he wants to escape. He also wants to maintain his magical superiority despite being unable to learn new spells.
That’s where we run into trouble though. In old Ad&D 2nd Edition, a wizard unable to learn new spells was crippled due to the literal dozens of high level spells they wouldn’t have access to. A wizard could be devastated by lacking complex spells like spell engine or various cloning magics.
But in 5e this doesn’t make sense anymore. A high-level wizard who can’t learn new spells is still definitely disadvantaged, but not as much. They might lack a few nice utility spells like time stop or contingency (depending on what they already knew), but those aren’t huge issues. And given the lower number of spells in 5e to begin with, it’s much more possible that a given wizard will have already learned everything of interest by the time they have their ability to learn new magic removed.
That’s my base problem with Hazlik. We don’t have his spell list and are just told it “echoes an archmage” – it’s cool that this leaves the DM freedom to make this decision themselves, but it also requires the DM to figure out a) what spells Hazlik is missing, b) why he wants/needs those spells, and c) why the hell he never learned these spells back in Thay. It’s the home of the Red Wizards, you sort of have to assume that they have access to practically every known wizard spell.
That being said, Hazlik isn’t unusable. He just takes a bit of extra work. I had originally ranked him way down at a C, but on my second read-through I decided to bump him up again. He has plenty of good points and is still definitely usable. He lacks the crippling flaws of a nigh-unusable Darklord (such as Nepenthe and/or Isolde from the Carnival). But he will take more work to implement well than most other Darklords, so that has to count against him.
Advice and Final Thoughts
I just can’t say I’d use Hazlan, to be honest. Again, most things you could do in Hazlan seem equally possible in other Domains that have a more solid grip on their genre.
But… if I was to use Hazlan, here’s what I’d do. Firstly, I would base the entire story around a specific magical effect. What that is doesn’t matter much, it could be a spell to fuse living beings, it could be a magical item for interplanar travel, it could be whatever.
Secondly, I’d have it so this magic is of a type which is unavailable to Hazlik. Perhaps it’s a divine effect, thus he never studied it (or even never knew there was a non-divine equivalent). Maybe it’s of a school Hazlik disdained – perhaps he thought illusions weak, or considered divination unimportant.
Finally, I’d make sure the party themselves carried the only source of this magic for Hazlik. They could have a magical item that reproduces the effect, or perhaps they hold the only transcription of that spell into a usable scroll.
From there, I’d likely try something where the party’s main goal is to escape Hazlik’s attention. To do that they need to go somewhere uninhabited where none of his eyes would be, but those are the same places that are lethal dangerous to explore. I might also have the party connected to one of Hazlik’s apprentices. Perhaps they’re secretly taking the magic to the apprentice, and that’s why they have to avoid Hazlik’s notice.
I’Cath, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s Inception
Horror: See below.
Length: Hard to say, honestly.
Cumulative Grade: C-
Reviewing I’Cath is difficult to me because I don’t really understand what’s scary about it. We’ll get to it more in the Domain section, but even though the book lists “body horror” and “cosmic horror” for this Domain, I don’t really see either.
Size: Indeterminate (small).
So what is I’Cath (and how do you pronounce it)? Well, it’s a city of sleeping residents where grim, vampiric undead prowl the streets anywhere that the ghosts don’t already hold sway. The city’s ruler, Tsien Chiang, desires a perfectly ordered paradise but can only achieve her goal in her dreams (and even then it never feels right).
So what’s scary about it? Well undead are frightening, sure. And there is a sort of despair to the city, but that isn’t fear really. Maybe the dream city is better? But no, the only special part of the dream is that the buildings look better and people are actually moving around. None of that says cosmic or body horror to me.
My best guess is that the horror is meant to come from the inherent spookiness of a once-populated abandoned place, paired with the menacing threat of vampiric or ghostly undead. But that’s no different from any abandoned, undead-filled ruin. Then inside the dream world the horror comes from a fear of losing one’s individuality and being trapped within a never-ending dream that you know to be false. That second part does somewhat speak to the Domain’s “cosmic horror” claim, but only just.
Other than that, the Domain is just small and sparsely populated with points of interest. I know the idea is that the city is reshaped daily, but I just feel like it needs to give me something. I need something to work off of, and I wasn’t feeling that in I’Cath.
Maybe that’s all just my own perspective, but hey – that’s what all of this anyway. And to me, I struggle to understand what makes I’Cath’s genre, theme, and horror unique. Fundamentally it feels to similar to any one of a million different “abandoned, ghost-haunted city” settings.
Darklord: Tsien Chiang
Grade: C (B- when paired with her daughters)
First off, I like Tsien’s backstory. It’s interesting and provides plenty of angles to expand on in your game. I feel it also provides a really good view of who she is, making her easier to roleplay.
However, the problem is that she’s just not very interesting in-game. She doesn’t have many established ways of interacting with players, and (to me, at least) she doesn’t have any inclination to interact with them either. She’s reactionary – there isn’t anything the players would have innately that she would desire.
That’s a source of many other Darklords’ charm. Vladeska always needs troops, and troops with the level of skill and talent of the player characters are too good to pass up. Strahd always has his latest Tatyana scheme. Ankhtepot needs people to find his soul, Harkon Lukas is always looking for new talent, and Chakuna is constantly in need of blood to feed the land’s curse.
They all have a reason to screw with the party. Tsien just sort of… doesn’t. She wants to make a perfect city. The players can’t really help with that unless they’re all coincidentally architects. She also needs to keep the peace, but her jiangshi take care of that for the most part. Maybe she’d want someone to hunt down her real-world monstrous daughters, but even then… she mostly pretends they don’t exist, so why bother?
Now, on to the topic of the monstrous daughters. They are a huge help to Tsien in terms of interactivity. Where Tsien is passive and reactionary, the daughters are active. They have specific goals, and are generally inclined to ask for help. They’re interesting too, especially in their connection with their dreamworld doubles. They also contain some of the only direct body horror content in the entire section, which really drives home how absent that theme is from the rest of I’Cath given it’s listed as one of the Domain’s core themes.
Ultimately, Tsien just isn’t interesting. She seems like a villain who would more likely walk away than actually interfere with the players. And in D&D that just doesn’t work very well (unless you have another villain in the background or somehow do something else to ensure there’s still adversity).
Advice and Final Thoughts
I wouldn’t use I’Cath. It just has too many issues, and it doesn’t offer anything I’m interested in.
However, if I was to use it, my first task would be to add more horror. My preferred choice would be body horror through unsettling differences between the dream and the waking world. Perhaps while in the dream players could give themselves certain exploration abilities (flight, wall climbing, etc). But when they wake, they gain penalties based on what they lost (feeling heavy and slow after having wings, for example), and they would have an unsettling feeling that their body was trying to change. After having wings, they would feel as if the tips of their shoulder blades are misshapen and sticking out too far. A climbing speed would leave their hands feeling stiff and clawlike, or similar symptoms.
Another option would be to make it so Tsien’s middlemen in the dream can physically change dreamers. You could get a baboon head for refusing to work, or if you break an arm they may just force it back together. When you awake, it feels as though during the night your actual body tried to match the dream, once again leaving unsettling aftereffects.
As for cosmic horror… eh, I just don’t feel it too much here. Cosmic horror is already difficult to define, and it just doesn’t feel like there’s much to work with here. The closest I’Cath gets to cosmic horror is with the idea of becoming trapped in the dream and unable to act. And that doesn’t sound like a fun D&D campaign to me.
And there we go. Next up is Kalakeri,
Bardic Werewolf Town Kartakass, and Lamordia!
Let me know what you think!