Welcome to the first review of this October season, where we’ll be gazing into the darkness…and hoping it doesn’t gaze back too hard. Today’s review will be of the Ravenloft Player’s Handbook from Sword and Sorcery Studios (a subsidiary tendril of White Wolf. Yes, that White Wolf). I’ll warn you ahead of time: this campaign setting isn’t for everyone. It’s like a D&D version of Call of Cthulhu: It wants you to die. Painfully. In creative and tortuous ways. Especially if you’re a spellcaster.
You might be asking yourself the following question: “What is Ravenloft?” Well, let me answer that for you. A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, there was a company called TSR. They created a little game called Dungeons and Dragons, one of the settings of which was called Ravenloft. Later, a company called Wizards of the Coast ate TSR and produced 3E, and for the most part ignored Ravenloft. On the other hand, White Wolf picked up the line with some licensing finesse and created a set of 3E Ravenloft. Nowadays, 4E has had Wizards of the Coast look at Ravenloft again (although by bastardizing it into just being a subportion of the Shadowfell instead of its own demiplane as it was in the past).
At its core, Ravenloft is like every Medieval and Victorian horror archetype bundled together into one realm of terror. Across its expanse, darkness, shadow, and fog (both figurative and literal for all three counts) choke the land, which is cut up into various lands ruled by beings known as Darklords. But enough generalizing, let’s get into the meat of things.
We Don’t Allow Orcs Here: Races in Ravenloft
Ravenloft doesn’t completely adhere to your standard D&D races, so let’s have a look through the species you can find as playables.
Humans: Humans are the most numerous beings in Ravenloft. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense; what are zombies, ghouls, ghosts, and vampires (most of the time) but undead humans? There are really no major changes beyond them speaking languages other than common and native to Ravenloft, such as Balok and Darkonese.
Caliban: Ravenloft’s equivalent of half-orcs, that use half-orc stats. They are flavorfully different, however; caliban are the result of humans contorted in the womb by hag magic, coming out resembling more of less a crossbreed between the Hunchback of Notre Dame and an ogre.
Dwarves and the Like: Dwarves are…typical D&D dwarves. Same with elves, half-elves, gnomes, and halflings. The pen and ink image of a curvaceous dwarf woman in a Renaissance-era tunic and her thick-beared claymore-carrying male companion is much more interesting than standard miner or cleric dwarf images, though, as is the Hamlet-expy gnome male (complete with a skull he’s monologuing at!).
Giomorgo: Also known as half-Vistani, the giomorgo are essentially stereotypical gypsies elevated to an entire race, in appearance and attitude. They don’t have many interesting game traits going for them, with the exception of an inability to cast spells or heal naturally during the period of the full moon due to lunar madness.
In other words…humanoids aren’t really the focus of Ravenloft’s creative pursuits. Those go toward other things.
Class Act: Classes in Ravenloft
The classes have been altered some as well, mostly adding Fear, Horror, and Madness effects as per Unearthed Arcana’s system (so I won’t go over those portions) and potentially higher weakness to corruption. There are, however, some other interesting notes to be touched upon.
Barbarian: Barbarians get a nasty little surprise in that they can’t end their rages. Once all foes are dead, allies are still in danger from the feral raging of the clouded mind of a Ravenloft Barbarian. In other words: player to player kills are justified and welcomed. >_>;
Bard: Bards get a kick to the shins as well. Their Bardic Knowledge is a fair degree harder to use, and their curative magic has a good chance of failure due to the darkness of the realm.
Fighter: Fighters get no really big penalties but gain some new feats. Presumably because the poor fellows don’t deserve more punishment than they get, even from the unforgiving Ravenloft.
Paladin: Paladins in Ravenloft are nearly unheard of, for obvious reasons. Those that are present, however, are like giant bullseyes due to the fact that they ruffle the very fabric of the dark realm’s reality. Players of Paladins are likely to be savaged and violently assaults more than any other party member. Remember, Ravenloft hates you just as much as you hate Ravenloft!
Sorcerers and Wizards: Not only do the townsfolk often not trust you, magic itself hates you in Ravenloft. Spells cast in this domain go horribly wrong, injure you, or fail outright. You have to make the Will save for mind-affecting powers instead of your target, transmutations are painful, divinations utterly fail, and necromancy is high reward for a high risk for both the body and the mind.
There’s also a new prestige class called the Monster Hunter, which is essentially a 5-level Ranger with some Cleric-like defensive powers and Bard-like knowledge thrown in. All in all…it doesn’t matter what class you take, Ravenloft hates you anyway.
Here Be Monsters
The monsters chapter in the Ravenloft Player’s Handbook isn’t a major event, certainly not an entire bestiary (at least on its own…), but it has some interesting points to go over. These creatures have no full stats (here, at least…).
The Three Lords of the Undead: Vampires, ghosts, and liches all gain new abilities, ranging from necromantic animation at will with a simple touch to hypnotic vapors. All are much stronger than their standard versions, and have varied powers that make them interesting and customizable to a great extent. I’m tempted to use a lich that has the skull scry (the ability to see through the eyes of any bare skull within a 100 mile radius) and animating touch.
Werebeasts: Obviously, lycanthropes and were-creatures in general would be part of a horror setting such as this. While there are no new weres presented, there is a new ability given to them. All werecreatures in Ravenloft must consume a large amount of raw meat per day or be consumed by feral hunger that drives their every move. It makes them all the more imposing, even when in human form.
Golems: Golems get a new template, the dread golem, that grants them an Intelligence score, telepathy, and powers that for the most part revolve around fear 0r mobility. I like the dread golem, even if the “always Chaotic Evil” part makes them strange choices for, say, a vampire’s guard or something and pretty much relegates them to the mad scientist’s creation role.
Mummies: All mummies (referred to in Ravenloft as “ancient dead”) in the setting can be healed by positive energy like a living being, a holdover from pre-3E editions of the game. They also gain new powers that vary from individual to individual, such as object animation, animal control, and mental domination. They, like the undead mentioned previously, are tougher and more variable than their main counterparts.
Demons and Devils: The fiendkind in Ravenloft are much less physically present, but can corrupt humans, tainting and controlling their minds over a period of time. They can also spread disease and corruption into the very land itself. In other words, more Medieval paranoia-type demons than things the players are going to physically combat.
The Hags: Surprisingly, instead of being their own creature, hags in Ravenloft are actually human women that had something corrupt them in their old age, giving them monstrous appearances and magical powers. I’m not sure I can really applaud this idea as much as the other monsters, since it seems a bit stereotypical and mean-spirited, but eh. To each their own.
Vistani: Stereotypical gypsies gone magical being, and Ravenloft’s only fully Ravenloft-centric creature (at least in this title. You’ll see what I’ve been hinting at…). They have an “evil eye” gaze attack, they use tarot cards, they’re…yeah. Not a big fan of them, since they don’t really bring that much to the table.
This is a very polarizing title. If you like classic horror, grab it. If you like challenging play, grab it. If you don’t like archetypical events, horror, or seeing your character suffer in a meat grinder game..don’t grab it. 7/10.