I picked up Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft and have been reading it cover to cover. This is my review of the book, chapter by chapter. Chapter 3 covers over 30 domains, so I'm posting about it as I work my way through the different domains.
Kalakeri is listed as Gothic horror and dark fantasy, and it's a rich and vibrant setting that also happens to be terrifyingly oppressive. On the surface, it seems like it would be a great place to visit. It's filled with rain forests and a latticework of intersecting rivers. I can just imagine lounging about in a fine hotel in Jadurai, the thousand-year old capital city boasting the heavenly Cerulean Citadel, and later taking a daytrip into the Backwaters to explore ancient sites, sights, and history.
The problem with Kalakeri is that it's ruled, as domains of dread are, by a darklord. Ramya Vasavadan is a power-hungry warlord with two siblings, Arijani and Reeva, competing to steal her throne. Arijani has been rebord as a rakshasa, and Reeva has been reborn as an arcanoloth, so they're both formible enemies.
Each sibling also has a strong faction of followers, and this section encourages you to use the Renown Rules from the Dungeon Master's Guide. I'm a big fan of Ravnica's Guild system, and this feels a lot like that, but with potentially even more at stake. Player characters can gain renown with one faction, and become hunted by another faction as a result. Ramya loyalists are fiercely opposed to rebels, while Arijani rebels are opposed to both Ramya loyalists and Reeva rebels, and Reeva rebels are opposed to Arijani rebels and Ramya loyalists. No matter what you do, you're going to be the enemy of at least one faction, but probably two, and there's no right or even good choice. It's way beyond intrigue. It's pure social cannibalism.
There are a few things that make me wonder whether this was a domain that got developed before the decision to make Ravenloft a product of Dark Powers. As with many other domains of dread in this book, it's unclear when and how Kalakeri got its start. Was there a real world Kalakeri at some point? Did it get absorbed into Ravenloft? Or did Ramya, when she died on the Prime Material plane, cross over into the Shadow Plane to be restored in an undead form in Ravenloft, in a realm that's basically a simulacrum of her previous home? I assume the residents of the Ravenloft Kalakeri are Shadow Plane manifestations invented for the darklord, because the global rule is that the people within domains of dread mostly have no soul.
But as written, the history of Kalakeri seems to have occured in Kalakeri. There's no indication that Kalakeri existed elsewhere, but it was spelled out very clearly for Hazlan and I'Cath that those darklords existed first in one place (Toril for Hazlik, and an unspecified but definitely separate location for I'Cath) and then they crossed into Ravenloft at some specific time.
I assume that Ramya Vasavadan got brought to Ravenloft when she died. I don't know what that means for Arijani and Reeva, though. Are the Ravenloft versions of them real? Are they functionally also darklords, aside from them not lording over anything? If we return to Kalakeri in the next edition of D&D, might we find that Ramya Vasavadan has been displaced by one of her siblings? Or are they just shadows that exist for her torment? Or are they actually demons (or demon and daemon, as the case may be) who are enjoying a little time away from the Blood War for a little torture vacation on the Shadow Plane?
It's also unclear as to what the player character's goal might be when playing in Kalakeri, which is fine because it's a great setting. I'll happily run a game in Kalakeri with the darklord or darklords remaining in the background (except for that part at the beginning of the book that encouraged me to use the darklords as central players in their domains), but at the end of the section there are tables showing the benefits of renown, and the tables have some oddly specific entries. Maybe they're specific in order to suggest plot ideas, or just to add flavour, but it left me wondering if there was a specific adventure planned in Kalakeri that didn't quite make it into the book. There's a d10 table of adventure hooks, but none of them relate to any of the entries in the renown tables.
Then again, maybe I'm over-thinking it.
Let's face it, when I run an adventure in Kalakeri, it'll most likely involve putting somebody in power in Ramya Vasavadan's place. The player characters will have to decide who that somebody is, and as that develops there will arise some improvised quests, which will probably involve tasks straight off the Benefits of renown tables. That's where my thoughts went, as I struggled to figure out what I would run in this setting, and so I have to assume the authors understand that. They wrote what the wrote, and I've ended up exactly where they ended up. They could have spelled it out, but it apparently wasn't necessary.
By the end of the section, we have Kalakeri, a warlord darklord and two opposing factions, rakshasa and arcanoloth nemeses, and a once beautiful setting that's now essentially a warzone. This is the stuff of high tension, daring adventure, and potentially a good about of groteque horror. Sounds like a domain of dread to me.