Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft

settings rpg dnd 5e

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.

Har'akir is Ancient Egypt land, with Ankhtepot, a mummified Pharaoh, as its darklord. When I was a kid, Ancient Egyptian mythology was an exciting alternative to my public school's focus on Greek mythology. I loved reading about mummies and the Egyptian pantheon, and to this day I still can't get enough. I've run a few games in a desert setting, and this one definitely appeals to me.

In his native land before being consigned to a domain of dread, Ankhtepot led a rebellion against an unpopular Pharoah. I gather that this wasn't the greatest offense. I believe his great sin was that he had the hubris to believe he was the best replacement Pharoah, and when he appointed himself as ruler of the land. The people turned against him and he was killed. The gods wouldn't let him into the afterlife, though, and so he ended up a living mummy in Ravenloft.

If you're keeping track of tropes (I'm not intending to, but I think I can't avoid it subconsciously), this fulfills The Mummy horror trope.

False gods

A detail that seems to be neither here nor there is that Ankhtepot replaced the people's gods (the Egyptian pantheon as described in the PHB) with false gods. What this means for the setting isn't really explained in this book, but I think it adds a dimension that could add some colour to the game world or become a major plot for an adventure.

The plot

Like the god-brain of Bluetspur, Ankhtepot wants more than anything to die. To do that, he requires his missing ka, a piece of his soul stolen from him at death by the true gods.

The plot this book provides for Har'akir is the recovery of Ankhtepot's ka, and it's even suggested that finding it could require the traversal of multiple domains. I can almost see the flowchart of such a campaign. You start in Har'akir, where you discover that Ankhtepot can be defeated (or redeemed?) by restoring his ka. Unfortunately, his ka has been broken into lots of pieces and embedded into artefacts spread across Ravenloft. You find a mist talisman leading you to the next domain, where you go through a great adventure to recover the first artefact, which also happens to be a mist talsiman leading to the next domain, and so on.

Setting details

The interesting thing about settings is that they tend to fade into the background. That's what they are, after all: literal backgrounds for an adventure. I feel like generic fantasy settings are easy to both forget and remember. When you sit down at a table to play D&D, it's very often understood that the setting is "generic" fantasy. The setting may not actually be generic, but most players can easily fill in things that aren't explicitly described with generic fantasy tropes because they've seen Lord of the Rings.

When the setting changes, though, it's harder to fill in the unspoken details because many of us have fewer sources to draw from. There aren't many fantasies set in an ancient desert, and fewer good ones. I've run one game in Kobold Press's Southlands, and it's an invaluable source for really good fantasy Ancient Egypt material. It's actually astonishingly good, and lacking a full campaign in that setting, it's great to be able to draw from it for one-shot visits to fantasy desert settings.

This domain is a nice setting to have. It's as under-developed as all the other domains in this book, but as long as you come to the table with lots of fantasy-Egypt tropes in your head, I think there's enough here for a fun session.

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