Ravenloft Review – Tiger Insurgents, Werewolf Bards, and Flesh Golems, Oh My!

Welcome back once again to an extended review of all the various Domains and Darklords of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. Happy Halloween is growing steadily closer to being actually relevant!

Today we’ll be looking at the Domains of Kalakeri, Kartakass, and Lamordia – which is almost as weird a trio as last week.

Click through for Frankenstein’s monster and more!

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.

Kalakeri (or, as autocorrect would say, Calamari)

Horror: Insurgency horror, probably.
Length: Anything up to a full campaign.
Cumulative Grade: A-

Oddly enough, I think the most useful comparison to make concerning Kalakeri is with I’Cath, featured in last week’s post. This might seem surprising given that I’Cath got one of the lowest scores overall, and Kalakeri is here rocking an A- rank.

Now, to answer that confusion… yeah, it’s pretty odd. But hopefully it’ll make more sense in a bit. The key point here is that both Domains have a dubious relationship with the concept of “horror.” With I’Cath that led to a less interesting and very un-Ravenloft feeling. With Kalakeri, however, you end up with a unique brand of horror that isn’t really possible elsewhere in Ravenloft.

Domain: Kalakeri

Grade: B
Size: Large

This Domain is fascinating to me, because Kalakeri should have the same problems as I’Cath. Neither one really matches their given horror. The difference is that Kalakeri actually does have a form of horror to it. That genre just happens to not be present elsewhere in the book. I would call this genre “partisan horror” – the fear that stems from living in an unstable political system wherein your livelihood, family, friends, and life are subjected to the whims of an imperfect ruler with absolute, unfettered power.

Kalakeri is the horror story of living in a military junta, or during a bloody revolution. Kalakeri is the type of place where something like Stalin’s Purge could happen at any time, and there is literally no way for you to guarantee the safety of even yourself, much less others you care about. Even kissing up to someone in power isn’t a surefire way to remain safe. What happens if that person loses power? Whoever usurps them will almost assuredly kill you as a matter of course.

Ultimately, this isn’t a horror genre found anywhere else in Ravenloft. You can see elements of it in the pseudo-fascist attitude of the Talons in Falkovnia, or the social intrigue of Dementlieu. But those places have these elements as secondary characteristics. In Falkovnia, the true horror is that the dead have risen and are hungry for your flesh. The threat of the Talons impaling you for disloyalty is just a bonus.

I’ll get more into the concept of “partisan horror” in the Darklord section, but before moving on there’s one more thing to say about the Domain itself. It has a clear cultural theme, but it doesn’t seem to use that to its full extent. You look at somewhere like I’Cath which has a decidedly Asian theming, and that theming is accompanied by an actual Asian horror element – the jiangshi. Even Har’Akir takes notes from Egyptian mythology in order to customize its mummies. So I guess I’m just disappointed that Kalakeri doesn’t bring in any cultural horror elements to match its aesthetic.

(I should note that I’m aware that raksasha actually are a Hindu mythology inspired monster. However in this case the raksasha in question isn’t really used very differently to the way the Monster Manual portrays them, which is itself a rather culture-neutral fashion that really doesn’t reflect the original legend.)

Anyway, that’s why Kalakeri gets a B rank. I think the horror genre it feels meant to embody is embodied really well, but I wish they had taken more time to establish that genre rather than simply defining the Domain as “gothic horror and dark fantasy” as a kind of catch-all. I also wish there were more cultural-specific influences here besides just names and visual aesthetics.

Darklord: Ramya Vasavadan

Grade: A
Statblock: Death Knight

I feel that Ramya Vasavadan is a really good Darklord because she is, by nature, theoretically friendly. I’ve made this point before, but I really do feel like the Darklords who can be something other than a final boss are better. They have more options and more capacity for surprise and unexpected developments (both important parts of any horror story).

Oddly, a lot of her appeal also stems from her siblings who are not Darklords. Their presence is what defines the Domain, after all. There’s the loyalists and the revolutionaries – “loyalists” don’t have a purpose if there isn’t someone for them to oppose. But she has her own qualities too.

Her backstory is one of my favorites simply because she wasn’t innately evil at the beginning. So many other Darklords seem to be evil (or at least dubiously amoral) from the start. Vladeska has always been brutal, perhaps too brutal. Harkon Lukas is trash and always has been. But Ramya wasn’t that bad. Her only mistake was trusting her sister and her only sin was the furious overreaction to that betrayal. She’s a complex character. She could do almost anything.

And now we come back to my earlier point on “partisan horror.” The key element here is assured uncertainty. You know for a fact that there are factions but you can never be sure what they’ll do. Each one has consistent goals and motives, but their actions are all over the place. One day Ramya could simply decide that all spellcasters are traitors and completely outlaw magic. Similarly, the revolutionaries might decide to start burning down villages to deny Ramya her undead soldiers.

The central theme is fear of the unknown. Even if you know where you stand with a faction, you can never know what that means. I’m in good standing with Ramya, but how will that affect me? Will her faction ignore any potentially off-brand actions I take, too convinced of my purity and loyalty to question me? Or could Ramya end up thinking so highly of me that I’m sent on a suicide mission and expected to prevail?

Advice and Final Thoughts

I don’t know that I’d use Kalakeri, but not really because it’s bad. For me, even if partisan horror is a valid horror genre it isn’t really one I would do in the context of Ravenloft.

But again, that’s just me. You could have an excellent campaign in Kalakeri. All you have to do is make sure that the factional conflict plays a central role in the story. That’s a bit limiting, but you don’t have to get knee-deep in politics. All it takes is a consistent pattern of the party needing things from both sides. One moment they need a book that’s in Ramya’s private collection. But then they need a guarantee of safe passage through rebel-held lands.

The other thing to remember is to insert plenty of unexpected twists, but only when it comes to the decision-making process of the factions. Don’t have a monster pop out of nowhere, or a random storm whip up without warning. Have players arrive at a village to restock, only to be told that the local rebel leader just ordered all the food in town burned so it couldn’t support Ramya (despite the well-known and acknowledged fact that her soldiers are undead that don’t eat – irrationality is important).

The horror of Kalakeri comes from its factions. So if you play that up, you should be fine.

Kartakass, or “Ravenloft: The Musical”

Horror: False smiles hiding predatory instincts.
Length: Up to a full campaign, though I’d go with less.
Cumulative Grade: A

Bardic Werewolf Town! After all this time, we’re finally here! Now I can stop making jokes about it!

(Not going to happen.)

Anyway, I really like Kartakass. The atmosphere is completely on point, the horror beats are good, and it has a lot of options. And the Darklord? Harkon Whats-his-name might be one of my favorites just for his torment alone. But we’ll come back to that.

Overall, Kartakass is another one of those Domains that does its specialty so well that you’d be crazy not to make use of it. Does that lead to a narrow and limited Domain? Luckily, no. Kartakass is a bit like Falkovnia. Both only do one thing (zombies or eerie art) but they do that thing in so many different ways that you don’t need anything else. Literally any story involving werewolves, evil bards, creepy songs and plays, or unnerving personas could happen here.

Domain: Kartakass

Grade: A
Size: Moderate

Finally, the perfect setting for my long-awaited Wolf Totem Warrior and Valor Bard multiclass, commonly referred to as “the Bardbarian.” Or maybe Wolfhowl, Bard of the Full Moon? I’m not sure. Anyway, time to get serious. There are several things I like about Kartakass and pretty much nothing that I dislike. It’s great.

First up is the atmosphere. Kartakass embodies a very specific sort of theme that I will call “northern forest gothic.” It probably has an actual name, but I’m not a big horror buff so I wouldn’t know it. Is the howling outside just the wind, or do the wolves not sound quite right anymore? The trees are trembling but the breeze is light – were those footsteps in the distance? Snow is piling up, food is running low, but at least we have our friends and families, but perhaps…

Again, I’m not a huge horror fan! I don’t know the lingo at all. But this “northern forest gothic” definitely feels like a distinct genre of its own. And Kartakass does it very, very well.

But that’s not all! Kartakass also has range, and that’s what really takes it to the next level. It feels like the Domain is stuffed full of interesting places to visit, and each one seems to have a very clear and distinct idea of what it is and why it exists. Each village has its own specific brand of horror that differs from the others. And yet they all also feel like they belong together in this Domain. Everyone is different but they all fit together snugly. It’s perfect!

That’s why I mentioned I probably wouldn’t do a full campaign here, by the way. The more Domain-wide theme (which we’ll get to in the Darklord section) isn’t one that appeals to me. But even given that there’s still so many things to do that I feel you could comfortably do individual adventures set here one after the other for a long while with no issues. One sign of how much I like this place is that it’s currently second on my list of “where to do a Ravenloft-based Scooby-Doo campaign” (Mordent is number one, by the way).

One last thing – Kartakass is one of the few Domains where I feel a campaign could easily start with characters who were actually born in that Domain. Most other Domains seem best suited for a party of outsiders (Barovia, Falkovnia, and Hazlan being other notable exceptions). This is for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, but Kartakass breaks the pattern and I think that’s great.

Darklord: Harkon Lukas

Grade: A-
Statblock: Loup Garou

Harkon Lukas is actually one of my favorite Darklords. His torment from the godlike Dark Powers is to be eternally washed up. Literally, his karmic punishment is to show up at towns and always be greeted with “oh yeah, didn’t you retire?” He’s a nobody by design, and there are so many ways you can play around with that.

He’s also just an interesting character to interact with. He’s charming as hell but also extremely sleazy, plus he has all these subtle, cannibalistic undertones. He’s a very well written character, as one would hope for given the theme of the Domain. He has real moments of honesty and genuine sentiment mixed in with a slew of lies. He can have a meaningful connection to one or more characters, and actually come off as being a supportive, helpful friend… until the moment the wolf turns on you

Now, one of Harkon’s biggest strengths is his lack of notoriety. All the other Domains I can think of right now have their Darklords front-and-center. Strahd is the lord of Barovia, Chakuna is the literal heart of Valachan, and Vladeska is Falkovnia’s tyrant ruler. Harkon Lukas is a washed-up musician whose songs might get played on special “throwback Thursday” performances. People might recognize him on the street, but they’ll struggle to remember his name right and others with them might go “oh, Lukas? I thought that was a woman” while thinking about his much more successful daughter.

However… that also limits him, just a little bit. Because he isn’t famous or important, pretty much any story with him has to begin with him not serving as the initial antagonist. He might terrorize the party behind-the-scenes, but he’s not going to be this big confrontation players look forward to the entire time. But that’s fine! All you have to do is make sure he’s close to the party and they recognize him, and then your climatic revelation can be just as exciting as the party’s final showdown with Strahd.

Another thing Harkon offers is access to a rather unorthodox option as far as Ravenloft campaigns go – abusive Hollywood producer. It’s strange, it really is, but Harkon makes it work and that really says something about his quality as a character. Is that a story I’d ever run? Nah, too real. But regardless it is an interesting tale. And it also would be the ideal way to run a full campaign in Kartakass – each bizarre town or village is just one stop on your grand tour to stardom, baby! And don’t worry, ol’ Harkon will be with you. Every. Step. You. Take.

Oh, I nearly forgot about Harkon’s backstory. Which is, sadly, forgettable. Personally I would just never address it or mention it, mostly because it just feels a little silly. I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen, being such a famous singer that you get crowned king, I’m just saying if it could happen then that isn’t a world in which Ravenloft fits very well. It’s a little bit like Ender’s brother in Ender’s Game, who managed to get enough subscribers on his Tumblr blog that he was unanimously appointed as President of Earth. Theoretically possible? Sure. Interesting story? Eh…

Advice and Final Thoughts

Using Kartakass requires a decent knowledge of the very specific brand of horror it employs. I do not have that knowledge, so I would not use it. I would love to play it, though, and that speaks to how good of a Domain it is.

My only advice for a Kartakass campaign is to try your best to make sure no one knows Harkon Lukas is the Darklord. Set someone up as a distraction – his daughter, perhaps, given her abiding fame and success – and relegate Harkon to a minor role at the party’s side. Then, while you explore all the other horror themes available in Kartakass, slowly erode the players’ trust in Harkon. Was he always so demanding? There’s an old apprentice of his – why are they so downtrodden? Is Harkon Lukas who he says he his, who he seems to be?

Is he, perhaps, not what he looks like at all?

To me, that’s the best path in Kartakass. Or you can ignore Harkon entirely and just do a series of adventures in these various bizarre and spooky towns. While the Darklord could definitely add something, he isn’t required. And that is the mark of a good Domain.

Lamordia and Resurrected Interest

Horror: Body horror and the terrors of scientific progress.
Length: Up to a full campaign, if a shorter one.
Cumulative Grade: A

Out of all the Domains, I think Lamordia had the biggest change in my perception of it in between my two readings. On first read-through, I didn’t really like it. On second read-through, I absolutely loved it. Most of that shift, I believe, came from a new understanding of the Domain’s Darklord, but there’s still more to it than just that.

Lamordia is an interest choice, and if you want to do mad science gone horribly wrong it really is your best bet. More so even than Hazlan, once again cementing my opinion of that Domain too. Lamordia’s Darklord is a bit less certain for me. She’s got potential to be sure. I’m just still unsure if I really get her enough to use her effectively. But hey, that could just be me being too thick to understand. Can’t blame the Domain for that now can we!

Domain: Lamordia

Grade: A+
Size: Moderate.

Alongside greats such as Falkovnia and Kartakass, Lamordia stands as a clear example of a Domain with purpose and skill enough to pull it off. Larmordia does mad science. That’s it. But it does mad science so damn well that you’ll never need another Domain for it.

Just as an aside before we begin, I also like Lamordia’s icy climate. It seems like there really aren’t a lot of icy Domains. Wet ones or dry ones, sure. Hot and arid, we got that. Bizarre alien moonscape? Present and accounted for. It’s just odd that none have a distinctly wintery theme besides this one (others can have winters, but only Lamordia is distinctly northern in its environment).

But to get on to more important matters, the really impressive thing about Lamordia is simply how many different interpretations of “mad science” they managed to convincingly squeeze into a single Domain. You’ve got flesh golems, you’ve got actual golems, there’s clockwork, there’s steam power, we have radiation and Lovecraftian secrets… hell, we can even have a bit of fun with evil Artificial Intelligences! How neat is that?

It really does just have everything you could ever want. And, even better, each theme has multiple starting points. So many other Domains will contain diverse theme possibilities, but each one will be tied to a single place. “Oh, you want X theme? Go to good ol’ X-ville!” But Lamordia has a real wealth of options. You can start most themes in a wide variety of places, and I’m really struggling to pick out any one theme that doesn’t have at least two different starting scenarios for it to use.

Darklord: Dr. Viktra Mordenheim

Grade: B+
Statblock: Spy

When I first read through Lamordia, I viewed Dr. Mordenheim as a stand-in Dr. Frankenstein… and not a very good stand-in at that. But upon reflection, I think that association was premature. She’s fundamentally different from not-actually-a-Dr. Frankenstein simply because the impetus of her sinful creation was different.

Now, I still have a bit of a problem with Dr. Mordenheim’s sin. She’s presented as one of the most uncaring and amoral human Darklords out there, and yet her crowning sin which brought the Dark Powers’ attention was ultimately a crime of passion. A desperate attempt to save someone she loved. And that’s fine, it just… for me, it offers a little too much redemption potential. I feel Darklords should be fundamentally irredeemable. They’re monsters who, even if offered the opportunity to change, never, ever would.

Luckily there’s a simple fix for this. Just solidify Dr. Mordenheim’s “love” as something a little more… possessive. She revived Elise because Elise was hers. She wants the Unbreakable Heart back because it was her creation. She made the Heart, so she owns it. She brought Elise back from the dead, so now she owns her too. Rephrasing her character in this way moves her firmly out of “possible redemption” and squarely into “monster” as a character, and I feel that solves a lot of her backstory problem.

Of course, ultimately you don’t even have to use her backstory. She’s done some sketchy stuff since arriving in Lamordia, such as the whole brain-in-a-jar fiasco, which can easily serve as a starting point. And even though she’s limited to just being an antagonist, she still has plenty of options on how she can antagonize the party. Is she an employer with harsh demands? A snide genius refusing to help others? Ultimately that’s up to you, and that means no two adventures with her as the villain should be quite the same.

In the end, she isn’t as solid a Darklord as Lamordia is a Domain. She has flaws but, well, so do we all. She’s a perfect Darklord for any stories you might want to put her in. And even if those stories are limited, they’ll still end up as good, fun adventures so it doesn’t really matter in the end.

Advice and Final Thoughts

Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do with Lamordia. It has so many cool leads that it can be difficult to pick. For one, I probably wouldn’t use Dr. Mordenheim (or, at least, I wouldn’t use her much). I’d focus on one brand of sci-fi horror and leave it at that.

Personally, I think both the radiation and Lovecraftian themes speak to me the most. This is a well-known bias with me, given my D&D group has mostly tired of Lovecraftian-style things after two back-to-back campaigns of it (from two DMs, so it wasn’t just me!).

Beyond that though, I think an exploration of clockwork monsters could be fun. I also somewhat want to try to port the vague concept of Dr. Faustus into this place. I feel the titular doctor would fit in perfectly, and mixing in a bit of fiendish summoning would add a nice bit of color.

Or you could just do a classic Frankenstein’s monster adventure, though I’m not sure I’d actually use Elise for that. Maybe a lesser scientist who creates a lesser sort of ultimate flesh golem. And you could even bring Dr. Mordenheim in to try to steal it for study!

And there we have it! Check back next time for the haunted lands of Mordent, the all-too-real world of Richemulot, and the fairy tale terror of Tepest! And for anyone who is worried since that apparently leaves just Valachan for the final part… don’t stress about it. There’ll be enough content to fill up the article, trust me.

I still haven’t even begun talking about Cyre 1313 after all.

Let me know what you think!

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