Confession time: though I thought the 5E D&D setting books from Wizards I’ve reviewed so far (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, Eberron: Rising From the Last War, and Guildmasters’ Guide To Ravnica) were all pretty decently executed, I haven’t actually kept hold of any of them, and indeed I’ve not bought into many of the new setting books Wizards have brought out (Strixhaven, Mythic Odysseys of Theros, the Critical Role tie-in one, etc.).
That’s mostly because I ultimately don’t have that much affection for the worlds in question. Forgotten Realms is so generic that I struggle to care all that much. Eberron is a setting which leans hard into a lot of ideas which were in vogue when 3.X was fresh, because it was explicitly designed for a 3rd Edition-era setting contest, so it largely reminds me of a time when I’d walked away from D&D. I was never that into Magic: the Gathering and don’t particularly care about its settings.
What I do have some affection for is Ravenloft. The 2E rendition of the setting may have had its issues, but it did a great job of adapting D&D to a style of play which on the one hand was several notches spookier than the default but still worked within a D&D framework, and offered an approach to horror distinct from the major offerings of the time like Call of Cthulhu or Vampire: the Masquerade. 5E’s first dip into the setting was Curse of Strahd, an update of the original Ravenloft campaign (much as 2E’s House of Strahd was that edition’s update). It was enough of a commercial success to prompt a lavish deluxe reprint (mildly revised to make the depiction of the Vistani less based in anti-Romani racist tropes), and seems to have been pretty critically acclaimed – on a purely anecdotal level, I’m aware of more people who’ve played or run D&D games using Curse of Strahd than any of the other major Wizards-released campaigns.
In this face of such success, it was probably inevitable that we’d get a 5E update of the setting as a whole, and that’s exactly what Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft offers. This brings in a swathe of tweaks to Ravenloft canon, but I don’t regard that as a problem; the design team have done a good job of adding in diversity in a way which enriches and enlivens the stories and makes the setting richer as a result, and if you really want the old canon the old supplements are right there on DrivethruRPG for you to consult.
Some of the changes are more radical than “inject more diversity into the cast of NPCs”, mind you. A major shift is that the idea of Ravenloft’s “Core” has now been abolished. Cosmologically speaking, rather than Ravenloft being a single Demiplane of Dread, its Domains are basically all pocket planes in the depths of the Shadowfell (a clever application of a bit of post-4E cosmology which makes a lot of sense), and when you leave a Domain you enter the Mists and can conceivably end up in any other Domain. In other words, they are all now like the old island “Domains”, and the idea of having (for example) a consistent road between Barovia and Darkon is now gone: now the road out of Barovia goes into the Mist and you don’t know where it will take you when you go in.
I’m happy to accept this change, because I see the point to it. Older renditions of Ravenloft often struggled to reconcile two basically incompatible visions of the setting. On the one hand, some of the material seemed to try to treat the Demiplane of Dread like it were any other campaign world – oh, sure, it’s an otherdimensional realm and not a planet, but there was still that impulse there to essentially think about the internal consistency of the setting and nail down the geography and have consistent trade routes. On the other hand, there was the side of things which embraced the gothic and psychological horror roots of the setting, emphasising the idea that this isn’t so much a nuts-and-bolts world so much as it’s a nightmare realm of bizarre phantasmagoria, in which the Darklords’ inner malfunctions are exteriorised to create Domains optimised to torment them and those trapped with them – in other words, a sort of D&D take on Silent Hill.
It seems like somewhere along the line, Wizards have decided to jump off the fence and make it clear that Ravenloft is that plastic, mutable nightmare realm, not a place of reliable certainties and clearly nailed-down canon, and breaking up the Core seems to work just fine in the service of this. The fact that the Darklords – Core or otherwise – could always close the borders of their Domains for their own arbitrary reasons means that the Core was never that unified a world to begin with, and doing it this way is more convenient for referees doing travelogue-style campaigns anyway (because they can just have their PCs arrive in whichever Domain they want them to go to next without worrying about their route).
That said, the new book isn’t quite that consistent on this matter. Sure, it does a long way towards giving you tools for making your own decisions about canon – but then it does weird stuff like proposing specific identities for the Dark Powers, something nobody particularly was asking for to begin with and doesn’t really add anything. In addition, they work in some odd cross-Ravenloft concepts here and there, most of which are tied into Strahd in some respect. Perhaps this is inevitable when one Domain and one Darklord are so much more famous and prominent among the fanbase than any of the others, but it’s still a weird flex for an edition of the setting which emphasises that you don’t need to worry about canonical answers or keeping what’s going on in your custom Domains consistent with any of the canonical Domains.
The meat of any Ravenloft setting guide is always going to be in the insights it offers into Domains and Darklords, and the book offers a nice, flavourful number – providing deep-ish dives with lots of instantly game-worthy detail on some 17 Domains and brief rundowns of another 22. By contrast, the 2nd Edition box covered 20 Domains, more or less all in less detail than is offered here on the 17 fully fleshed-out Domains.
What isn’t here is an array of statblocks for Darklords; in many cases the referee is simply nudged to use particular stock NPC or Monster Manual stats with some tweaks proposed. This is fine by me – it frees up space in the book for more setting material, and nicely emphasises that Darklords are not gods or superheroes, they can in fact be extremely ordinary people who happen to have been invested with sinister authority over the Domain by the Dark Powers but are also imprisoned in it.
As well as the Domain and Darklord breakdowns, the book offers the usual cluster of player options and referee advice. On the latter front, there’s some nice considerations of horror, the appeal of it, and how you can adapt the game to different genres of it, and there’s some really good thoughts on offer for cooking up villainous PCs. Sure, the consideration of adversary design isn’t quite on the level of depth of The Complete Book of Villains (perhaps the best system-agnostic book TSR ever produced when it came to NPC design advice), and the discussion of horror roleplaying isn’t as definitive as Ken Hite’s landmark Nightmares of Mine, but they’re both pretty solid treatments of the subject in their own right.
I suspect I’ll only be coming back to the 5E setting books if they put out an original setting which is astonishingly eye-catching (sorry, Strixhaven, but I can’t be arsed with any Harry Potter with the serial numbers filed off nonsense), or if they come up with another revised presentation of one of 2E’s more flavourful settings. (Dark Sun and Planescape must surely be on the cards sooner or later… also DO SPELLJAMMER YOU TOTAL COWARDS.) If the updates are done with as much thoughtfulness and love as Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, those old worlds will be in good hands.
That said, I have spotted one bit where they’ve missed a trick. There’s a pattern you can photocopy and cut out here for a “spirit board” and its planchette, though the design isn’t enormously appealing. The thing is, Parker Brothers is under the Hasbro umbrella and Wizards, thanks to record profits, are riding high in the Hasbro family right now. Surely they can pull some strings and just manufacture some official Ravenloft-brand ouija boards?