Reviewed in the United States on May 30, 2021
This is the worst Ravenloft book ever released.
That is not meant to be the slam it sounds like. This is only the worst book because the rest of Ravenloft is so high quality. If this were a new D&D campaign setting, or if you compared it to the average 5e release, this book would come off pretty well, minus some parts that are just completely irredeemable.
But this isn't a new campaign setting, and it's not something you can just compare to the rest of 5E. This is a book that invited comparisons to *Ravenloft,* arguably the most august D&D setting after The Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. And by the standards of Ravenloft releases, this book is frankly insulting. Not just because it's of substandard quality compared to the rest of the Ravenloft canon, but because it literally insults the reader.
Let's start with the most meta-level problem with the book: It wants to be three things at once, and ends up doing none of them as well as it should. Specifically, it wants to be a guide for playing horror games (awful), a reboot of the Ravenloft campaign setting (mixed), and a sort of combination Player's Handbook/Monster Manual for horror characters (actually not bad) at the same time.
So let's be maximally charitable and start with the good stuff. When this book actually wants to do mechanics, they're actually pretty good. I personally didn't find the Fear/Horror/Madness Save mechanics in earlier editions of Ravenloft particularly useful, not because they were un-PC, but because at bottom, they were basically just Will Saves with three different coats of paint applied. They also added needlessly complicated amounts of bookkeeping for both the DM and player, keeping track of all the potential effects. I'm sure some people enjoyed that, but every player I've played with preferred to actually feel scared or horrified rather than having me tell them, "This is supposed to be scary. Roll dice." Here, fear and madness (yeah I know it's called "stress," but we all know it's madness) are simplified down to easily tracked mechanics that aid roleplaying rather than making it a bureaucratic exercise. The idea of using Inspiration as a carrot to roleplay these things is also a good suggestion and one I hadn't considered.
The options for character creation are also quite enjoyable, though I will be contrarian and say they shouldn't be something you let your players use, unless you want to house-rule a bunch of things. Many of them are frankly too overpowered for that. What's more, it kind of defeats the terror of Ravenloft's monsters if your players themselves are part-Vampire/fae/Frankenstein's monsters. Not that it couldn't be done well, but most players won't necessarily want to do the heavy lifting on backstory and roleplaying required to justify these races (yeah I know they're called "Lineages," but does anyone call demons Tanar'ri? I thought not). Now, using these options for VILLAINS, on the other hand...that would work really well at upping the challenge, and would create a nice element of "oh God what on earth are you" for players. On that note, it's nice to see some truly great monsters from the original 5E make their way to Ravenloft, along with some excellent original monsters that still feel tonally at peace with the setting. That said, the Priests of Osybus and the Ulmist Inquisitors are blasphemous additions that you should either ignore completely or use the stats for something else. First rule of the Dark Powers is we do not talk about the Dark Powers, especially to clarify who, exactly, they are.
And on that note, let's get out of the stuff that works and talk about the stuff that only sometimes does, starting with the elephant in the room: the new lore.
Again, let's be charitable and talk about what works first. Saidra D'Honaire is a great villain, and could easily be reconciled with the original Dementlieu as, say, Dominic's self-made widow. Falkovnia, while it leans too hard on being "The Walking Dead" and its new version of the Darklord does not work AT ALL, does lend some urgency to a domain where I frankly thought the original Vlad Drakov got off too light with regard to his curse, considering his truly horrific personality. It was nice to see the Apparatus return to Mordent without some of the more confusing elements of the House on Gryphon Hill. The bagman is a genuinely good and creepy new addition, as are the new domains of the Vhage Agency and Cyre 1313. Valachan's new Darklord, Chakuna, is a much more effective tragic monster than Urik von Kharkov, and manages to show the real danger that the pursuit of power to end oppression can make you the oppressor, which is a very Gothic theme (and rather tonally inconsistent with the rest of the book). Ivan Dilsinya is more distinctive and more disturbing, imo, than his rather forgettable previous incarnation, and his mutual loathing with Ivana is more justified than just "they've been around each other too long." Darkon as a "Horror Game of Thrones meets the apocalypse" domain has real, deep potential, particularly with regard to its showing what happens when a Darklord "escapes" and his domain has no more reason to exist. I'Cath has gone from a derisive afterthought to a trippy literal nightmare, even if Tsien Chiang's backstory is needlessly sanitized. Anhktepot's curse, to want to die and be unable to, is far more interesting than "grrr my land is too small," even if (again) his backstory is needlessly sanitized. Kalakeri didn't need to be renamed, but many of its elements are better fleshed out than the original. So, too, is the God-Brain's curse clearer and more effective.
Now, let's talk about what doesn't work: everything else. The gender-flips rarely, if ever, work. Victor Mordenheim has been turned into girl!Strahd, with Elise (the new monster) as her Tatyana. Ffs, we already have Strahd. The original backstory for Victor works so much better, is more complex, and could have been done with a lesbian Viktra if they really wanted to. Vladeska Drakov's mere existence raises so many questions I don't even know where to start, but perhaps the most important one is: why would you want Ravenloft's equivalent of Hitler to be a woman? Ridiculous. The Carnival has been sanitized to the point of being unrecognizable and frankly pointless, with the Gentleman Caller now nothing but the ex-boyfriend from an Adele/Taylor Swift song. For God's sake, the Gentleman Caller is a DEMON. You do not tone demons down; it defeats the purpose of them being demons. Hazlik's new depiction is frankly insulting. His being turned evil by his homophobic and gendered humiliation has been completely excised (this one especially angered one of my trans players, who felt that her experience with persecution for her gender identity had been erased, and she is right to be upset). Also, why give Hazlik Azalin's curse? It makes absolutely no sense with his character. Wilfred Godefroy's curse is also watered down for no apparent reason. Now he can just avoid the room where the ghosts of his dead family are. Some curse!
And that's just the domains that are fleshed out. Some of the absolute worst changes occur in the domains that aren't. There's too many problems to list them all, but some of the worst offenders in no particular order are as follows.
Nova Vaasa's Darklord has been given the backstory of Diamabel (who I assume we won't be seeing at all in this version), turning what was a great spin on Jekyll/Hyde into yet another hackneyed "female warlord who the Mists took for being too much of a girlboss" character. The Nightmare Lands have had all the mystery and complexity of the various members of the Nightmare Court stripped out in favor of making them all one person's delusions. Invidia has been turned into a comment on "Karen" tropes rather than the rich Omen-inspired hellscape it was before. As for the House of Lament, apparently even acknowledging that domestic abuse could turn someone evil was just too upsetting for Wizards, because now Mara is a Strong Independent Ghost Who Don't Need No Man, and isn't even the Darklord anymore. The map of the house is still useful, but the adventure is not.
Established characters have also been modified for flimsy reasons. The Vistani are unrecognizable, and have apparently been rewritten to be less offensive by people who have never actually read the original depiction of the Vistani. Here's a hint: the original depiction was not nearly as racist as some want to pretend. The Vistani had multiple clans, each with their own distinct culture, and the spectrum of Vistani characters ranged from the evil (Madame Eva) to the obviously good (Arturi Radanavich). The real irony in this is that the reason Wizards had to execute this act of fictional butchery is because they wrote the Vistani as racist caricatures in "Curse of Strahd," when they hadn't been before! Guys, maybe you're the problem here, not the 2nd edition version. On that note, just don't bother using Ezmerelda d'Avenir. Her character isn't a person, she's a walking after school special on disability awareness. Just use Arturi. She was a substitute for him anyway.
Do I seem angry? Well, it's nothing to what I have to say about the part of this book that not only has no value, but shouldn't have even been printed. That is to say, the "advice" for DMs. Cards on the table: I have been DMing Ravenoft since I was 15, when it was still 3rd edition, and am running a 5E game right now, where the majority of the players are female and have no problem with the original setting, nor with difficult subject matter. I have had players of almost every imaginable identity group play in my Ravenloft games in the time I've run them, and not a single one ever complained about my consideration as a DM. In fact, they often pushed the envelope more than me in order to work through their own issues in-game, which I and everyone else encouraged and rewarded them for. I know how to run an inclusive horror game just fine, and I make a point of welcoming anyone who wants to play, regardless of background. And no, I am not one of the people who complained about combat wheelchairs. If magic exists, they can. I think that covers all the usual well-poisoning tropes people use to disregard criticism of this book.
Having said all of that, here follows the real rant:
Firstly, if ANY player brings an "X card" to one of my games, I will simply ask them to leave. The DM puts in a ton of work writing an adventure for every session. The players ultimately control the destiny of their characters, but the DM controls the world around them and decides what stories their characters engage with (even if the players derail those stories). Doing this is hard enough without people flashing cards whenever they find something vaguely upsetting. DMing is not a job that needs an HR department. The best thing to do is just to be very transparent about the tone of your games with potential players, and then let them decide whether your style is right for them. I certainly warn my players that my games sometimes use X-rated content and if they're not prepared to deal with really dark subject matter, mine is not the game for them.
Self-selection matters in D&D. Not every game can be accessible to everyone, because different players want different things from games. No one is forcing you to play in a DM's game, or to DM for people you don't like. I don't think that a good horror game necessarily *has to* be nothing but torture porn or traumatizing subject matter. I'm not 12. I love classic horror, and it often is very PG with its subject matter, which many of my adventures often imitate. But that's my choice as a DM. It is absolutely absurd, to the point of being insulting, to suggest that games made up of grown adults need to have all the difficult bits of horror gentrified out for the sake of "sensitivity." I have had PTSD survivors in my games with actual triggers who enjoyed my games precisely because they were free to confront their fears in-game without worrying about making other people uncomfortable. Not that I've ever had a player who was genuinely triggered by something in-game, but as my players are usually close friends, I would happily pause the session if something like that did happen and talk to them to see how we could work around it. But that should be the exception in games, not the rule, especially in horror games.
And yes, this is horror. If any genre comes with a "you must be this tall to ride" warning, it's this one. The idea that characters should be scared, but not players, is a silly one. The characters aren't real. The people are. And the people are usually playing a horror game (which is advertised as a horror game) because *they* want to be scared. And if it gets to be too much, there are ways around that. Generally, if my players need a break from being scared in-game, they just dispel the tension with a joke. That's why this book's advice to "avoid humor" is also dubious. People need a release valve in horror, and humor can provide that. I once had a game's final encounter start off with the players blanching in terror, and then ending with me playing the Benny Hill theme song as they effortlessly avoided the villain's attacks. The give and take of terror and humor is an essential part of any horror campaign, and the fact that this book tries to eliminate both terror and humor says all you need to know. What's more, the book can't seem to decide whether it wants the game to be scary for players or not, because on the one hand it tells you the game shouldn't be scary for players, and then in another section it gives you advice on...making the game scary for players. Pick one.
Its advice on themes and writing adventures is even worse. A particularly egregious offender here is the by-now infamous "avoiding cliches" sidebar, which isn't so much about avoiding cliches as telling you not to DARE to do anything in your games that might get you canceled on Twitter. I know this might come as a shock to Wizards, but literally no player I have ever had has mistaken my portrayal of a character from a different/marginalized background as somehow representative of real world people. I've had female players play men, and male players play women, in highly stereotypical ways. No one ever thought these were what real men/women were like. If anything, every player found them funny precisely because they were so inaccurate. To that end, while I never really paid attention to the tropes I use in my games, I can no say that I intend to use every single one of the "cliches" and "problematic tropes" from genres like Body Horror and Cosmic Horror that this book identifies in my next few adventures just to prove the point that a skilled storyteller can use any trope in a story and make it work. Especially since this is Ravenoft, aka Hammer Horror by Wizards of the Coast.
Which is another thing: the advice is not just bad. It's self-contradictory. For example, under avoiding cliches, it tells you to not use characters/accents that reflect badly on real-world groups, and then a few lines later, it says to ignore real world plausibility because fantasy settings are not based on real world history. Well, if they're not based on real world history, then why worry about portraying certain characters the "wrong" way? It's just fantasy with no resemblance to the real world, so no one could possibly mistake them for being real, right?
In reality, there's a balance between how much the game resembles the real world and how much it's fantastical. On the one hand, the 3rd edition of Ravenloft listed a domain's level of technological advancement using actual periods of human history for comparison, just so you'd know what the players could expect. On the other, the game is about hobbits, elves, and dwarves running around pastiches of 17th-century Europe, with magic and combat wheelchairs, so obviously it's not a one-to-one recreation of history. But that line between being fantastical and being just plain implausible is nearly impossible to define, and is something that a DM has to learn to navigate by experience. Which doesn’t fit at all with the bureaucratic approach of this “advice.”
And yes, I know no one can force you to use this stuff. But the problem with putting it in the book is that new players to Ravenloft will now expect this kind of thing in games. Which will either cut them off entirely from DMs with a shred of artistic integrity (which will make them experience worse games in general), or will necessitate huge amounts of shock treatment from those DMs to make new players realize that D&D without childproofing is possible, or will just make many DMs give up on 5e altogether. If Wizards wants people to keep buying their stuff, they shouldn't even be courting the last option, but I guess not having buyers who their staff think of as bad people is less important to them than turning a profit.
What a shame. Because the one thing the defenders of this book get right is that D&D is for everyone, which is precisely why the role of books like this is to produce neutral rulesets that can be used by anyone, for any kind of game they want to run, NOT to mandate how people play, how they write their adventures, or how players are "supposed" to interact. Of course, the cynic in me says this "advice" isn't even about making games more sensitive, or more PC (though I hate to use that term because it turns people's brains off), or more accepting. The point, I fear, is to make creativity impossible for DMs, so they have to not homebrew their games and instead rely on pre-published, childsafe, X card-proof modules...which they will buy from Wizards. Honestly, it would not be surprising. But, mercifully, thanks to DM's guild, this plan will fail.
And speaking of DM's guild, that gets to the one thing that ironically defangs the worst of this book: the absence of stat blocks. Wizards evidently forgot something very important where this is concerned: anything without stats/mechanics is something that readers will feel safe ignoring. Which means that, unlike the lavishly detailed stats and backstory for Ravenloft's Darklords in 2e, these Darklords are nothing but coats of paint on generic Monster Manual entries, and as such, can be completely dismissed in favor of better constructed materials put out by Indy publishers on DM's guild. In fact, even now, there's a fantastic 5e version of "Who's Doomed" that retails for three dollars on DM's Guild and includes almost all the original Darklords of Ravenloft with complete 5E stats. With that around, no one needs this book for lore purposes, and even if that didn't exist, no one would need this book for "advice." Save your money until this book goes on sale, buy actual updated stats from DM's Guild (if you can't homebrew them yourself) and keep Ravenloft the weird, screwed up, dark, unsafe space that it has been since the 80's, and will be again long after the social craze that produced this book is remembered for what it was: a desperate and futile attempt by society's moral guardians to sanitize people's imaginations.