Wizards of the Coast, $49.95, ISBN 9-780786-96725-4
Well, well, so the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons does remember that there is more to Ravenloft than Count Strahd von Zarovich.
Mind you, while waiting for my copy to arrive, I hear many people complaining that this setting has become woke. Not that I am surprised if this happened to be the case, mind you, because those woke people with unemployable degrees needed to go somewhere after their low-paying gigs at Kotaku, The Mary Sue, etc went nowhere. Now that comics are tanking while tabletop RPG is on the rise thanks to the lockdown and Critical Role, plus tabletop RPG writing gigs pay as much or little as churning out rage-baits for those failing online “news” sites or crapping out flop comics of X-Men attending proms and going “YASSS KWEEN, I AM A SEXY FLEEK NON-BINARY NOW!”, of course those people will migrate to that genre.
It’s a good thing that the nature of tabletop RPG means that one gets to choose and reject whatever is present in a splatbook, as well as to mix and match rules and flavors from various settings, so the woke crowd’s powers to actually influence a campaign setting is limited to them screeching on Twitter.
At any rate, now that my copy has arrived, I am pleasantly thrilled to say that it’s not as woke as some people claim it is. If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I am not a fan of wokeness in its current hypocritical, self-serving form, so believe me when I say I’m not the type that gets sneak previews and goodies from these people. I scan this thing with a critical eye, looking for nonsensical performative wokeness, and while there certainly is some of that present here, for the most part, it’s actually A-OK in my book.
We have Strahd going “Muahahaha!” above two people, but the old man, said to be Rudolph Van Richten himself, is looking at a completely different angle. The woman next to him is also looking at another direction different from where Van Richten is looking at, and it looks like her head is doing a 360 and is about to fly off her body. Why aren’t they looking at Strahd? Is it because he has cast on some invisibility and forgotten about it?
The alternate cover is so much better, so of course I have to end up with this one.
This one extrapolates from the 4th Edition reshaping of Ravenloft. It consists of pocket demiplanes within the Plane of Shadow. Each domain is self-contained, although there are three mobile small domains here that can travel across the Mists to encroach onto other domains, while some other small domains mentioned here can also be easily re-imagined into similar traveling domains. The Sea of Sorrows is both a self-contained nautical domain as well as a mobile domain in the sense that one sailing the oceans of other domains is likely to eventually end up on this domain.
So yes, no Core domains, no Islands of Terror, none of that. Just individual, distinct domains bordered by the Mists, and when one manages to leave the domain and enter the Mists, they may end up in a different domain or, if they were fortunate, some place else out of the Plane of Shadows completely.
Verdict: I like this. One issue I have with Old Ravenloft is how messy it was. Why have continents of domains when there are already the Mists to complicate travel? It makes no sense to design several domains to be in a continent, called the Core in Old Ravenloft, when at the same time I’m told that the geography is always changing, I can rely on maps, and I can’t tell where I’ll end up by crossing the Mists. It’s like taking a plane from US to the UK, but the moment the plane crosses the Mists, it ends up in North Korea instead for a lovely surprise awaiting all the passengers.
So, why even bother with geography altogether? What these people did for the 4th and 5th Edition makes perfect sense. Let the Mists define the borders of each domain, but let each domain be independent of other domains. That way, the poor DM also doesn’t have to deal with hard-to-answer questions from bewildered players at the table or face accusations of railroading.
THE DARK POWERS
The so-called inscrutable deities of Ravenloft are more defined here, with three actually given names. One is Tenebrous, which if I recall correctly is another name for Orcus, the demon lord of undeath in the Dungeons & Dragons version of the Abyss. Another is Shami-Amourae, which I recall was a powerful rival of the succubi demon lord Malcanthet and was last seen freed from the Wells of Darkness during the 3.5th Edition era of Dungeons & Dragons. Wait, so the Dark Powers are jumpstarted demon lords now, or are the people behind this re-envisioning of Ravenloft just pulling names out from old lore and slapping them here nilly-willy?
The last named Dark Power is Osybus, formerly a powerful human that manipulated Strahd and his own followers into committing vile deeds that fuel Osybus’s own apotheosis into a Dark Power. Indeed, there is a meta arc here in that the former followers of Osybus, now called imaginatively the Priests of Osybus, are now working with or trying to manipulate Strahd so that this Darklord can break free from Ravenloft. Strahd is the first Darklord as well as the first vampire, and it is from his domain, Barovia, that the rest of Ravenloft grows out from. Hence, by helping Strahd break out from his domain, then Ravenloft will be dismantled and the Priests of Osybus that finally achieved greatness that is denied to them by their former master.
Of course, there are superheroes here opposing these Priests, including a flock of wereravens that pose as mediums and what not, and the more standard covert band of operative heroes.
Also, the Dark Powers can have greater interactions with adventurers as daring or foolhardy adventurers can now form pacts called Dark Bargains to receive Dark Gifts. Wow, there are certainly many imaginative names going around here!
Verdict: I actually like a more defined pantheon of Dark Powers. My issue with the Dark Powers of Old Ravenloft is that they are too obviously designed to be railroad devices for the DM, and railroading in my opinion should be done only in a light-handed manner or else the players will eventually sour on the DM. Too many things about Old Ravenloft are railroad devices, including the Mists, sabotages on various save rolls, and the whole “you really can’t kill a Darklord even if you follow the rules” thing, which can make for a frustrating campaign because it may lead players to feel that the DM is cheating just to make life harder for them.
Some critics of New Ravenloft complain that it is no longer horror. I don’t see it. If anything, New Ravenloft correctly identifies the scope of horror present in this setting and highlights them accordingly.
Purists of Old Ravenloft keep saying that Ravenloft is all about and only about Gothic horror. Well, if it is, even the designers of Old Ravenloft were not aware of that principle, as we then saw domains filled with illithids, liches, serial killers… I dare anyone to tell me with a straight face that Nosos, a domain built on a huge trash heap, is Gothic horror.
What the folks of New Ravenloft have done here is correctly pinpoint the genres of horror associated with various domains. The illithid domain, Bluetspur, is now all about cosmic horror, as it should be, for example. Lamordia, the land of golems and brains-in-jars, is correctly pegged as a domain of body horror.
These folks line out what makes body horror, psychological horror, dark fantasy, et cetera what they are, and you know, I’m all for this. As a horror fan, I’m always of that viewpoint that the more genres of horror we can fit into Ravenloft, the better, especially since Old Ravenloft was actually a theme park horror ride that is pure Gothic horror in name only.
Also, while Old Ravenloft took its inspiration from horror movies of the old days, New Ravenloft incorporates more modern influences, as I’d touch into more when I get to the domains.
Verdict: I approve. Definitely all for this.
I’m okay with this in the context of Ravenloft. Good horror involves suspense too, as one never knows who is good or evil. Having alignment kind of defeats the purpose. Furthermore, ambiguity is also an important element of horror, as good characters can be driven to acts of evil, or evil characters may turn out to be unexpected allies. The lawful good paladin or the chaotic neutral rogue is a meme for a good reason; imagine how they will react, in the hands of a troll or an… interesting, shall we say, player to more complex scenarios in a Ravenloft adventure.
NEW RACES, CLASSES, & MONSTERS
I like some of the new races: hexblood, basically folks tainted by hag magic, and the reborn, basically golems and animated corpses, will make some intriguing player characters with potentially poignant back stories. The monsters are generally okay, although I’m amused that finally these people include the body snatcher plant long after Pathfinder had theirs.
As an aside, this does prove one thing: the two main tabletop RPG brands, Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, are becoming harder to tell apart. It makes sense, as the same pool of writers are going around Paizo and Wizards of the Coast like a very special Portland version of musical chairs, but it also means that we are coming to an age when everything has to be so sanitized and conform to the way a handful of people consider the right one, that everything just comes together into a bland ball of conformity.
Still, I don’t think that this is all that bad. As I’ve said, these splatbooks are just suggestions for the DMs and players, who have the right of refusal when faced with things that may not be what they want for their games.
Verdict: It’s alright, this part of the splatbook. Personally, I will incorporate the more thought-out classes from the Horror Adventures and other “dark” splatbooks in the 1st-edition Pathfinder line into a homebrew Ravenloft campaign, as well as some of the monsters there. 1st edition Pathfinder started out edgier than a thirteen-year old kid discovering angst for the first time, and much of the edgy stuff actually works well for Ravenloft, especially compared to the deliberately tamer and less R-rated stuff Wizards of the Coast puts out.
There are lovely, colourful maps are available for most domains. However, many of the maps are just too small, that it’s hard to read the words on the maps without the aid of a magnifying glass. Perhaps this is where getting a digital copy will be a better option, as one can then easily magnify the text on the maps, although I can only hope the words are legible when one does this.
Also, many of the locations of the map are not described in the text, and vice-versa. A very obvious example of this is the map of Mordent. Much is made in the text about the House on Gryphon Hill, the most haunted locale in the domain, and that place is not even marked on the map. Why is this?
The maps, when I can read the words on them, highlight some interesting places with intriguing names, but I suppose the people behind New Ravenloft are saving the information about these places in later splatbooks or adventure modules. That or they want DMs to use their imagination, I guess.
Verdict: The maps are pretty, but the words are often too small, and it gets worse when the color of the text blends into the background color. Key locations mentioned in the text are often not indicated on the map, and conversely, locations with intriguing names on the map are not touched upon in the text. Hence, the maps are nice to look at, but somewhat useless for the most part.
Now, let’s go to what everyone is most interested in: the realms of horror and terror known as domains.
Absolutely horror-ific! Keep!
I’cath. Old I’cath is crap. New I’Cath is pure Asian Lovecraft-ian joy, so it’s a “Keep! Keep! Keep!” for me. Tsien Chiang has a more well-fleshed, less “one-note evil dragon lady muahaha” background, and the duality of the real world versus the dream world concept is fantastic. You see, Tsien Chiang dreams of having the perfect city, but in reality, she is unable to make her city-domain as perfect as she wants it to be. Meanwhile, she creates a dream version of I’Cath, which is exactly what she envisions. The poor folks of I’Cath have to choose between real life of being pursued by jiang-shis while trying to find what little food or water available to sustain themselves, or surrender to an ever-lasting magical dream in which they will never have to worry about starving or being hunted, but remain oppressed slaves to a control-freak Karen of a tyrant.
In many ways, this is still a limited “Kill the Darklord!” domain, but the resulting campaign arc will be a far more interesting one. Just think: adventurers coming onto a domain where almost everyone is asleep. What is going on here? Only Tsien Chiang can open the domain to let anyone out, but to even learn of her existence, the adventurers will have to learn that there is a dream I’Cath and find a way to get into that dream to confront the Darklord. Anything a DM can come up with with this new I’Cath will be better than the trash presented in Old I’Cath. Plus, the Chinese horror elements of the domain are far better utilized here too.
Lamordia. Where once it’s a snow-capped land of Dr Frankenstein and his monster, now it’s a land of body horror. Victor Mordenheim is now Viktra Mordenheim, and Viktra’s Adam is now Elise, a body thief that she fell in love with and tried to save from a wasting disease by turning Elise into the Ravenloft equivalent of Mordenheim’s monster. While I have no issues with this change—in fact, I like Viktra being the Darklord as, in Old Lamordia, Adam being a Darklord makes little sense as he is in every sense of the word a monster created by circumstances—I feel that having Viktra doing what she does because of mad science robs that character of much depths. Victor Mordenheim is a mad scientist desperate to revive his wife, and that lends an element of poignancy and even sympathetic villainy to that fellow. Here, though, Viktra is the title character of Dexter’s Laboratory gone cray cray, and it’s kind of boring.
The domain, however, is awesome. It’s the land of Herbert Wests running around doing all kinds of mad science that result in things like brains-in-a-jar, golems, horrific steampunk constructs, and more, with even the threat of a dormant, mysterious, and no doubt destructive slumbering creature that could be awakened by rapacious mining activities.
Tepest. Old Tepest is just a land of hillbillies with the Darklords being three hags that don’t do anything much other than to sit around a cauldron and boil smelly stuff. Yeah, it’s a poorly-developed place. Later, the folks at White Wolf tried to spice things up with some hillbillies carrying out their own equivalent of the Salem witch trials, but the result is still a resounding who cares. Smell the hay, swallow some poppy, cast some spells to singe hillbillies armed with pitchforks… a weekend in Tepest sounds like a snooze.
New Tepest on the other hand… well, think Wicker Man, Apostle, Midsommar. One of the three hags, Lorinda, has always wanted a child of her own, while her sisters are like, really bitch, way to go to embarrass all hags. So, she imprisoned her sisters in a magical cauldron so that she can also siphon their magic to augment her own. Recreating herself as a nature deity called Mother, she treats the whole population of Tepest as her new family, while creating a child of her own, Laoirse, from magic and raw materials of nature. Yes, hags love names that begin with L for some reason. However, any Laoirse she creates can only survive for weeks at most, and Lorinda can extend the life of her “daughter” by having the daughter devour a lucky sacrifice from the people of Tepest.
Hence, we have a domain full of cheerful people that propitiate a goddess for bounty and prosperity—Mother Lorinda even makes it such that these people can only have children with her benevolent permission; she often creates hexblood children for her people instead of letting them make their own the old-fashioned way—and all they have to do is to obey Mother’s will and offer a sacrifice to Laoirse four times a year during a festival called the Tithe.
I love this. This Tepest fully makes use of the ingredients of the domain to create a marvelously creepy flavor of horrors present in nature. I especially love how Lorinda can move to where her most loyal acolytes are by crawling out of their empty eye socket. This is a place of dark, disturbing secrets held by a domain of apparent rustic paradise.
Adding to the element of sinister mystery is now the Shadow Rift is now subsumed to be the underdark of sorts of Tepest. Loht and Maeve still rule their respective courts here, and they keep their people from attacking the folks above ground only because they fear that Lorinda or one of the more powerful folks above ground have the means to unlock what is said to be a powerful weapon locked away under a mountain called Gwydion’s Claw. Hmm, that’s an Easter egg alright to folks that are familiar with Old Shadow Rift! I also am all for this, because Old Shadow Rift is hostile and near-inaccessible to non-Araks, the race that populates that domain, making it a domain of only situational use. Here, it can find more use as a secret realm that very few folks of Tepest are aware of, and perhaps some foolish adventurers believe that whatever is hidden beneath Gwydion’s Claw can be used to take down Lorinda. Heh, won’t they be happy when they find out what that place is keeping under lock and key!
Valachan. Old Valachan is a blaxploitation domain, with a black-skinned were-panther vampire that is concerned mostly about getting, ravishing, and savaging brides. Yes, that is pretty unfortunate, and also, this domain feels unnecessary when we already have Old Ravenloft domains that are centered around hostile nature (Verbrek, Tepest, Markovia), vampires (Barovia, Gundarak, and oh so many others), and were-whatever (Kartakass, Verbrek, Darkon). The only thing that made Old Valachan stood out was its Darklord being a horny black rapist-killer of womankind, and yes, I can see why the folks of New Ravenloft decide to completely redo this domain.
And what a domain New Valachan is. It’s basically the Wildlands, the Old Ravenloft domain of hostile wildlife, taken over by wretched folks that walk on two feet. The previous Darklord, Urik von Karkhov, hunted the current Darklord Chakuna’s were-panther folks to near-extinction until she finally killed him after performing a ritual which saw her removing her heart and placing it in a location considered to be the heart of the domain. She then ripped out Urik’s heart and place it in the cavity where her heart used to be, thus subsuming his powers and becoming the new Darklord of Valachan. It was then that she learned a terrible secret about the domain: Valachan is a realm where everything eats itself; only the strongest predator can control the domain and prevent the wildlife—animals as well as plants—from turning on the people living there. To remain the strongest predator and hence the ruler of Valachan, Chakuna must do what Urik did: shed enough blood every year to appease the domain. In other words, she has become the new Urik, although this time she keeps her own people out of this while considering everyone else in Valachan to be fair game.
This domain is now basically Battle Royale with all the monsters out of a Syfy catalog thrown in. Mechashark, megapython, giant anacondas… whatever one can see in those horrible Syfy movies, I’m pretty sure it’s here. Chakuna holds the Trial of Hearts when the moon is full, an event in which selected people are tossed into the wilderness, with the objective to reach one of two endpoints alive. They can and will likely try to kill one another to get there, if the wildlife and Chakuna’s traps didn’t get them first, and all the while, Chakuna will gleefully stalk and hunt them down.
Like I’Cath, this is clearly a one-use domain—get tossed into and survive the Trial of Hearts—but it’s heads and shoulders above Old Valachan. I approve! However, I will personally bring back King Crocodile, the Darklord of the Wildlands, and make it a primary antagonist of Chakuna. There are lizardfolk communities in New Valachan, so hey, I say let’s toss in some talking apes too. We can have good apes and those charau-kas from Pathfinder having a party here!
Bluetspur. Pretty similar to Old Bluetspur, except that the geography now is more mapped out, and the vampiric mind flayers are cool insane abominations that exist only to gather cerebral fluids from unwilling victims, only to then return and dissolve in the pool of brine of the God-Brain.
What elevates New Bluetspur from Old Bluetspur is that the God-Brain now has a background story, and it’s far better than the one concocted by certain fans. No offense to those folks, but come on, some crazy guy becoming a God-Brain is more laughable than anything else. Here, the story is that the God-Brain was one of many, and it had the audacity to perform some heinous, far-out research that resulted in it contracting an until-then unheard of wasting disease. Repulsed and terrified, the other God-Brains attempted to drive it out of existence, only for it to end up in Bluetspur instead. Now, it directs its minions to conduct increasingly inhumane experiments on captives and unwary visitors to find a way to cure itself.
See? This is a far better back story than some dude becoming a God-Brain.
Also, I love that the domain doesn’t close its borders as much as the God-Brain wiping out the memories of the domain and the holiday-in-Bluetspur experiences of the person leaving the domain. When folks claim to be kidnapped by UFOs in Ravenloft, what actually happened was that they took a detour to this domain. This gives rise to plenty of “Oh my god, I’ve been anal-probed here… sixteen times before!” moments of epiphany-possibilities in an adventuring party that ends up in this lovely place.
Barovia. I never really like Strahd, which is blasphemy I know, but I like the domain. Here, the domain is mostly the same, except that, with Barovia being the first domain and hence a possible key to undoing all of Ravenloft, it is also a teeming ground for secret societies of both good and evil hoping to prop up or take down the overrated blowhard of a Darklord.
Har’Akir. Pretty much the same in many fundamental ways, although I like that the Darklord is now a more active one, thus giving rise to much more interesting possibilities. The domain also has a more robust population, complete with powerful undead rivals vying to take down Ankhtepot, and this in my opinion is a good change because the domain becomes less of a “come here and kill that bugger” domain.
It’s still Little Egypt, though, complete with tired old tropes such as pyramids and crocodiles, and hence feels as generic as any fantasy place set in an Egyptian setting. I think part of the issue is that every Egyptian setting in a fantasy world highlights the more horror-ish aspects of such setting, such as mummies, ancient curses, et cetera. Hence, it’s hard to see how a horror Egyptian setting is much different from any similar setting in any other fantasy world.
Still, I guess I can just keep this one, as it is still a step-up from boring Old Har’Akir. I personally will sow in elements from Sebua, Pharazia, and other similar domains from Old Ravenloft here, though, as Har’Akir is the most stereotypical Egyptian domain and hence, the least interesting of them all. Having Diamabel around as one of Ankhtepot’s lieutenants or rivals, for instance, may make things more lively.
Klorr. A new domain, at least to me, which is practically a maelstrom where dead domains (including Sithicus and Cavitius) go to die. Only, the people in those domains can only wait for their impending doom, as domains are destroyed on a predictable schedule, and there is nothing one can do to disrupt the process… unless they can identify the Darklord and get that person to spare the domain, that is. Awesome concept, awesome chilling scenario—keep, keep, keep.
The Shadowlands. I’m kind of cheating here, as the write-up is a pretty short one, like the one for Klorr. However, the folks of New Ravenloft have done a good thing here, in my opinion: they realize that too many Darklords squatting over a small area may be tad too complicated for no reason. Hence, Ebonbane is now the Darklord of a domain that consists of Old Avonleigh, Old Nidala, and Old Shadowborn Manor. Elena Faith-Hold and Morgoroth are reduced to key villain status, which is not a bad thing if you ask me, and the tragic crazy-courageous Knights of the Circle finally get the prominence they deserve.
Borca. The domain of the Borgias, used to be one of my favorites, but New Borca is a mixed bag. Now that we are all woke, women are not allowed to be sexy, because that would just trigger the women on social media that are acutely insecure of their own appearance, weight, and social calendar. So, Ivana Boritsi is now an alchemist and master poisoner that generally spends her time sulking because she has to do bothersome stuff like having responsibilities and she can’t find anyone that shares her personal viewpoint to be with. In other words, she’s the equivalent of a social media dangerhair screeching in traumatized outright upon stumbling a tweet made by a Republican.
On the other hand, Ivan Dilisnya got a pretty good makeover. He is now the equivalent of André Toulon, creating murderous toys and puppets, and perhaps even life-like automatons to act as his sleeper agents.
So, what will I do with this domain? Keep the domain as it is, but I’d ditch this Ivana for the Old Borca version.
Odaire. Nothing really changes, although Odaire gets only a short write-up as one of the “other lesser domains”.
I never liked the Pinocchio-ripoff domain in both Old and New Ravenloft anyway, but New Borca has given me an idea. I will make the Old Ivana of New Borca the sole Darklord of Borca, and have the New Ivan Dilisnya become the Darklord of Odaire instead, with Maligno being his primary rival. Ivan’s curse as the Darklord of Odaire is that, given that he has always considered toys and such to be the only “friends” he can depend on, these “friends”, such as Maligno, will eventually betray him, much to his consternation, as they view humans such as him to be the imperfect life form.
Kalakeri. This isn’t a new domain in a sense; it’s Sri Raji after a makeover. Old Sri Raji was another boring domain, as it’s basically Little India full of sexy insane hot babes in saris sacrificing people to a man-eating bloke with a tiger’s head. Yes, I can see why the folks behind New Ravenloft would go, nope, that domain could be problematic. Somehow it’s more acceptable to have a domain soaked in civil war instead, as Arijani, the Darklord of Sri Raji, is now one of the treacherous siblings of the actual Darklord, Ramya Vasavadan.
Arijani and his sister Reeva betrayed and had Ramya executed in order to seize the throne for themselves. Oops, Ramya only comes back to life as a graveknight, and she has them executed next. Well, too bad, they both come back to life too as murderous furries, and then the whole land becomes a domain in Ravenloft as both sides keep trying to obliterate one another.
Okay, I almost listed this one as a domain I’d keep, but the more I think about it, the more I go, “Hmm… maybe not.” I like how the Indian cultural elements are better incorporated here instead of just going “Kali! Tigers! Sexy babes belly dancing in saris!” all the time, but I don’t know. Why is Ramya the Darklord, for one? She was betrayed, by her siblings that are arguably more qualified to be the Darklords. Also, if both sides are constantly are at war, why is it that the population isn’t completely decimated after a while?
I think this domain can work for a long-term setting, not just a one-off adventure time, with a few tweaks. I will make whoever sits on the throne of Kalakeri the Darklord of the day. I initially considered making the throne the Darklord, but nah, that will be too absurd even for me. Anyway, with whoever sitting on the throne getting Darklord privileges, the flavors of the rulership can vary. Ramya is more militant, Arijani is more about subterfuge, and Reeva just wants to cast spells on everyone to make them respect her.
Also, instead of having the domain in outright war all the time, I’d make it more like outright militant skirmishes interspersed by long periods of cold war, subterfuge, and reluctant alliances. All three siblings will share a curse born out of the situation they are in: they cannot fully eliminate one another, and they know it, because once any of them fall, there are many people in Kalakeri that will seize the opportunity to challenge whichever sibling left standing. Hence, there will be moments when two siblings, for example Reeva and Ramya, will be forced to work together, such as to allow trade to happen between their factions in order to keep their factions hale and hearty to keep fighting.
Hence, Kalakeri will be domain of civil war, but it will be more Game of Thrones than an outright non-stop war festival.
Kartakass. Mostly the same as Old Kartakass, except now Harkon Lukas has a daughter too along with a son. He’s also black now, but honestly, that is not an issue with me as I don’t see why people would think Harkon was white in the first place. My disappointment with this domain is the same as the one I harbored for Old Kartakass: what exactly is evil about it? Sure, Harkon is crazy-possessive, fame hungry, and he tends to eat people what with being a werewolf and all, but at the end of the day, he’s just a charismatic werewolf.
Also, the domain itself is not the most exciting one. The flavor is great: it is a domain of music and werewolves. Yet, how do these two elements coexist? Well, the Darklord is a werewolf bard and most of the concert-goers are werewolves… and that’s about it. You know what I would do with this domain? Up the fairy tale horror atmosphere: this domain is going to be more like the movie The Company of Wolves. The most powerful bards in this domain use their voices to manipulate thoughts and minds. Spells and prayers incorporate elements of song. Wolf hunters, in red hoods, operate covertly to cull the werewolf population, while every lullaby and bedtime story holds clues to discovering or slaying ancient evils.
Harkon’s curse won’t be as simple as never winning Kartakass Idol: he will be acutely aware that he is far from the biggest threat in his own land. There will be terrors roaming the land, maybe the urban legend of a young girl in red hood slaying werewolves with impunity, or a traveling house of sweets and dough belonging to a deadly witch that feeds on children both human and werewolf. Maybe a plague that robs people of the ability to speak. There will always be something that requires putting down in order to establish any dominance over his own land, and Harkon will have to constantly find outside help—something that vexes him deeply.
Invidia. This is a tough one. Old Gabrielle Aderre is one of my favorite Darklords due to the many layers to her character, but I also know that the Old Gabrielle only works when there are cross-domain interactions for Malocchio Aderre to plot with Azalin, With this New Ravenloft, it makes more sense to give Gabrielle a more self-contained do-over. However, she is now the helicopter parent obsessed over her son, who is apparently possessed based on the short write-up of the domain. So, she’s now basically the female version of Duke Gundar, who both loves and is terrified of his son? I suppose it will work, but I don’t know. Sure, this Gabrielle fills the The Omen niche of horror, but it also feels like a huge step-down from Old Gabrielle.
Falkovnia. Old Falkovnia is boring. It has a brutal tyrannical military leader… stuck in a domain unable to do anything other than to impale people on spikes and make babies. Basically, whoever ends up in this domain will face the terrible possibility of having a spike up their arse, and that gets super old fast. The puns that can fly during a campaign in that place may be amusing for a few seconds, though. The White Wolf folks tried to add things like secret vampire clubs, which only added to the unintentional hilarity of the knight Gondegal being Blade coming around to pay these clubs a visit.
New Falkovnia is the land of the zombie invasion. That’s right, come here to take part in repelling the zombies, folks! While this is certainly more interesting than Old Falkovnia, I do wonder how the domain keeps repopulating its people. This domain is one-note, but it can make for some interesting and exciting, albeit likely one-off, adventures.
Do not want—send these to Klorr!
The Carnival. Whatever this travesty is, it has been stripped of all the unique flavors that made Old Carnival one of the best domains ever created.
Hazlan. I like the New Hazlik. He now plays a more active role in his own downfall—instead of being driven cray cray by two scheming rivals, he now betrays and gruesomely kills his boyfriend after jumping to conclusions—but the domain itself is horrible. Old Hazlan has a well-defined culture and what the White Wolf folks did to that domain was exquisite. New Hazlan is just magic gone wild, a giant Spellplague basically. What is one going to do? Running errands for deranged wizards and ducking fireballs, I guess. Oh, and Hazlik is basically bald Azalin if one considers his torment. Lame.
Darkon. Azalin is gone, although if one knows his backstory, one’s brows will lift when one comes across a certain NPC described here. Old Darkon is not an interesting domain, honestly, as it’s just a messy potpourri of all kinds of mismatched tropes thrown in and held together by the fact that the Darklord is Azalin and he’s supposed to be the most awesome thing ever since Strahd. Hence, this New Darkon is basically the same old mishmash of tropes, without Azalin. The only notable difference is that the domain is splintering due to the absence of a Darklord, and it now exists as a very obvious place for a DM to throw players in and have them get involved in a quest to find a new Darklord for Darkon. Hence, this Darkon is basically a domain in transition, rather than a full-fledged domain in its own right. I find myself thinking that I’d prefer the latter.
Dementlieu. Old Dementlieu is… I don’t now. The Darklord is a powerful mind-control dude with a curse that makes him a walking date-rape pill as well. I can see why the folks of New Ravenloft want to change that. Not to mention, when one fellow has most of the domain under his control, what kind of adventures can one get into in that place? I suppose there is always that pod people kind of horror, I guess.
New Dementlieu takes on an interesting concept: evil Cinderella. However, the result is still silly. The Darklord is now Saira d’Honaire, who isn’t human but pretends to be one and throws a masquerade every Sunday. Anyone who is invited better be at their best looks and behavior or gets zapped into dust by her. How is this interesting? This domain is in trouble when the most interesting plot hook it offers is that a man closely resembling Dominic d’Honaire, the Darklord of Old Dementlieu, trying to hone in on Saira. Old Dementlieu is dull, so it pains me to say it, but I prefer that to this silly redo.
Richumelot. Jacqueline Renier is now a one-dimensional stereotype of a xenophobic Republican, and the whole domain is now a plague-decimated wasteland dotted with a few sad gated cities. This leads to the same question that plagues Falkovnia and Kalakeri: how does this domain not lose its entire population within a few years? The cultural and social stratification of Old Richumelot— which leads to the beautiful irony of rats being at the top of the oppressive societal hierarchy of the place—is all gone, so there is none of the chilling parables to real life to be made in New Richumelot. Who created this mess? It’s so stupid. Maybe make this an entirely different domain, perhaps one where superstitions and quackery reign despite the deaths they cause. Then again, we already have Tepest, so there’s that.
At the very least, they could have taken a leaf from Degenesis and introduce the Ravenloft version of the Spitalins: kick-ass doctor-soldier types. That may save this domain a bit. May, that is.
ALRIGHT, I WILL STOP HERE.
I spent five hours writing this review, and I really can’t go on without starting a drinking habit. Let me just say that Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is actually a pretty good campaign setting splatbook. It attempts to and succeeds quite well, in my opinion, in making Ravenloft less Darklord-centric and more of a rich, dynamic setting to have various adventures of different flavors in.
Sure, it’s not entirely successful, but that’s the beauty of tabletop RPG gaming. If you love Ravenloft, approach this one with an open mind and take what’s appropriate for your sessions here and use them for your vintage-flavored sessions. If you are introduced to Ravenloft by this splatbook, well, do look up places like DriveThruRPG for digital copies of vintage Ravenloft stuff, or just borrow them from someone. There are many years of legacy Ravenloft materials, some good, many more being… okay (just want to be polite here so as to not scare newbies away), that can help make a weekend in hell one to really remember.