Just recently, Wizards of the Coast released Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, a worldbuilding sourcebook for Dungeons and Dragons 5e.
It expands on the Ravenloft campaign setting for this edition – a realm of darkness and horror best known for one of its denizens: Strahd von Zarovich. This ancient vampire rules one of the many dimensions that make up Ravenloft, and is the focus of the immensely popular module Curse of Strahd.
Curse of Strahd, and the setting of Ravenloft in general, are an immensely popular setting for DnD players. In fact, Ravenloft has been adapted into every edition since it was first conceived during 2e.
When you look at the setting, it isn’t hard to see why. Not only does it find a careful balance between gothic horror and adventure fantasy, which appeals to fans of the macabre and the magical alike, but it also comes with a built-in impetus for campaigns and exploration.
Ravenloft as Gothic Adventure
As creepy-crawly as it is, Ravenloft is not usually a horror setting.
It has the trappings of a horror setting, sure: ghouls, vampires, undead legions, an endless supply of dark and stormy nights. The only thing missing is the ability to actually horrify.
Despite its gothic aesthetic, stories set in Ravenloft generally aren’t actually meant to invoke fear or existential dread in the way that true horror RPGs are (in fact, one might argue that even Rime of the Frostmaiden, an Icewind Dale module, invokes more emotional aspects of horror than Curse of Strahd does). It varies from module to module, of course, and a DM interested in a truly terrifying camping would definitely find the setting useful. But by and large, the setting is one of gothic adventure, rather than gothic horror.
This is largely an effect of Dungeons and Dragons being an adventure game. It’s mechanics center around combat and exploration rather than investigation and illusion. It evokes the thrill of being powerful and important rather than small and afraid.
This isn’t a bad thing – it allows players to enjoy the dark aesthetics and stories without the actual discomfort of genuine horror. And for a huge number of people, that’s extremely appealing.
Van Richten’s Optional Terror
At least, Ravenloft has previously been a relatively fear-free setting.
The newest sourcebook released by WotC includes suggestions for how to make the game more chilling, more like a proper horror TTRPG.
While I’m not personally convinced that this is really necessary (as mentioned before, a setting with the surface aesthetics of horror has a different appeal than a true experience, and Ravenloft draws and keeps fans of the former well enough), I can see plenty of people making use of it. I’m holding my judgement, however, on just how effective horror implementation will really be when combined with the rest of 5e’s mechanics.
True Horror TTRPGs
If you’re looking for something truly terrifying and less pulpy than Ravenloft, you might try some of these horror RPGs. They’re meant to give players a fully fraught experience:
It isn’t only the aesthetic of Ravenloft that’s made it so enduring. It also has a few built-in aspects that make it an excellent choice for DMs and players alike, no matter the edition that they’re playing. Recognizable characters, clear enemies and goals, and a contained world that can be easily explored by both players and characters at the same time.
Halloween Monsters in DnD
Ravenloft has the advantage of being inspired by a genre which is known for its strong characters: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolfman. Gothic literature is full to the brim with recognizable character tropes ripe to be tinkered and played with.
People know and love the kinds of characters that make up Ravenloft NPCs. And for 5e, a game in which you essentially select your subclass by character trope, the shameless adoption of these archetypes is far from out-of-place.
Simple Gothic Storytelling
Another convention of the gothic genre, which Ravenloft makes use of, is fairly clear goals and enemies for players. This isn’t a land of mind-twisting political conundrum, solved by careful negotiation and subterfuge in which you have no true allies (not that those campaigns aren’t fun, but they do require a very particular kind of player, which 5e isn’t terribly well designed for). This is a land ruled by literal bloodsucking monsters, with a terrified population and obvious foes. And generally, it’s problems are solved by epic adventure and the endurance of the human spirit.
It’s not any better or worse than more down-to-earth settings, but it does have a broader appeal. You can choose to subvert this narrative, of course, in your campaign, but it’s nice to have the option not to.
Contained Exploration and Worldbuilding
Ravenloft is set in a demi-plane, which easily sucks things in, but makes it hard for them to escape. This allows players to enter the game with roughly the same amount of knowledge as their characters – to learn things as they are presented to them in-game. It saves a great deal of the slog that is exposition and managing character background knowledge, and allows for a show-not-tell style of worldbuilding.
It also ensures that players can’t decide to wander so far off the beaten track that they wind up on the other side of the world. The players are stuck in Ravenloft until the DM says otherwise, which keeps them nicely on track without putting hardly any restrictions on them. Plenty of modules attempt to ‘box in’ characters in their location, which can seem a bit forced. In Ravenloft, the setting does it for you naturally.
Finally, it also keeps the DM from getting too out-of-hand. It can be tempting for a DM to throw in a little too much into their campaigns, and the restrictions of Ravenloft are a help in ensuring that the world doesn’t get too complicated for the players to keep track of as much as it helps keep the players on track.