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 4 contains Dungeon Master advice, and several new mechanics including a whole new type of playable character. That's a lot of content, but that's not all chapter 4 has to offer. Just when you think you're getting a feel for what the chapter's all about, it surprises you with a 20-page adventure module! No wonder they had to limit each domain to 6 pages!
The introductory sections are all about to present a game of horror to players. Ostensibly, this section is about running a horror adventure, which implies that it's talking to the Dungeon Master. Interestingly, though, much of the section actually applies to all players at the table, and to a lot more than just horror. The section mostly urges you to be considerate of the people you're playing the game with. In one way, it seems like really obvious advice. It's stuff that might even feel insulting at first. Of course I wouldn't force a player into a situation that made them personally uncomfortable. I want the game to be fun. But then you start to realise just how easy it is to not know, even when you think you do know, what a player does or does not want.
And it can seem like a puzzle. How do you give a player the chance to tell you that zombies are not fun for her without also explaining the whole plot of the adventure? Are you supposed to just let the player read the whole adventure first, and spoil all the surprises? Surely it's not possible to uncover every possible thing that makes anyone uncomfortable and still have time or story left to play a game?
Well, as it turns out the key is communication. Communication is a diverse skill, too. You can use your INT, WIS, or CHA modifier to achieve optimal communication, and the DC is surprisingly low. Make your table an open and comfortable place, where everyone feels good about sharing information about themselves, and you're half way there.
The book has lots of definitive advice on how to handle game-related communication, and I guess Tash's Cauldron has a section on that, too.
I was fully prepared to skip this session, but once I started reading it, I was surprised that I recognised myself in some of the paragraphs. I mean, sometimes I saw mistakes that I've made before, and I also saw things that had been done to me as a player in the past. A lot of them are little things, and probably don't really matter in the end, but other things have stuck with me.
It's safe to assume that there's always going to be miscommunication, and non-optimal interactions. We're never going to vanquish that, as gamers. But that's not the win condition. What matters is that we try. We must try to minimise the miscommunication, while optimising communal fun. It's not as hard as it seems (and for the record, I substitute animated skeletons for the player who hates zombies. It works a treat.)
The next section mentions the tarokka deck, but honestly relies on previous Ravenloft adventures to actually explain it. I guess it's vaguely nice that this book acknowledges that it exists, but I'm not really sure why it bothers. Seems like wasted space to me, because what it does tell you isn't enough to use the deck.
What it does talk a little more about is the spirit board. A spirit board is a non-trademark-infringing ouija board. It's intended to be a game prop for a pretend seance and, like the ouija board, makes no claim of being an actual spiritual medium. Also like the ouija board, I'm 100% certain that some people won't care that it makes no claim at being a way to contact a supernatural world, and will nevertheless believe that it's a subversive and dangerous tool for devil worship. Assuming you're not one of those people, though, you can print out a copy of the spirit board and the planchette, and use them during imaginary seances with pretend spirits that do not actually exist. As the Dungeon Master, of course, you move the planchette so that it spells out clues or plot hooks for the adventure you're running.
It's amazing, and profoundly sad, that two decades after the Satanic Panic, D&D and its players continue to suffer the reputation of being actual witches and spiritualists. It's also a little funny, because D&D players are probably more aware than anyone that the game is just a simulation of a fantasy world. After all, we're the ones doing the math to drive the simulation forward!
There's a section on curses, which are essentially conditions placed on a player character, and haunts, which are effects placed on a location. There are rules on how to detect and dispel them, and a few examples.
Unfortunately, the haunt mechanic is pretty ill-defined, especially when you compare them to Pathfinder's haunts. A haunt in Pathfinder is basically a stationary monster, with attributes relevant to detecting, discerning, and defeating it. A Pathfinder haunt has a challenge rating (CR), so defeating one haunt can results in XP (because XP is defined by a CR.)
The haunts in Van Richten's Guide, however, have just one stat: a haunt bonus. The haunt bonus + 10 is the required DC to succeed on a Perception test. That's useful, but the rest of the haunt is purely descriptive text. All of the example ones do have an area of effect and a DC to, some have an AC, but everything's buried within descriptive text. There's no CR rating for any of them, and no XP.
I ran a pretty severe haunt for a group of players, and when they managed to overcome it, I have to admit that awarding them just the XP for the undead spirit that happened to be nearby felt a little lackluster.
There's a d12 table describing seeds of fear, which are essentially triggers that you place on a character. When the trigger happens, the character gains the frightened condition until the end of their next turn. This is an interesting mechanic, and obviously one that doesn't make much sense normally. D&D; characters are usually pretty heroic and fearless. But I can see it working in a horror game, maybe, especially if it was explained away as a magical effect.
Your stress level, on the other hand, is a point system that ultimately acts as a negative modifier to saving throws. The triggers for gaining a stress point isn't as clearly defined as seeds of fear are, but I do like the mechanic. This sort of cumulative effect reminds me of the Call of Cthulu game, and I wouldn't mind trying something like the stress mechanic in a game where it makes sense. I don't love how it's defined (or not defined) here, and it feels awkward in a game about fantasy superheroes who fight vampires and beholders and illithids, so I would have to think about how to implement it.
Then again, these 5e books are starting to come across as a little disorganised to me, so maybe there 's a section later in this chapter with an obvious scenario in which fear and stress makes sense.
Oh look, a section with an obvious scenario in which fear and stress makes sense!
This is the most fascinating part of this chapter (and that's saying a lot). A survivor is a new playable character type, and it's essentially a 0-level character. A survivor has no class, as such, and only goes from level 1 to level 3. With no class, a survivor has no class features and very few abilities. Basically, a survivor is a regular person within the D&D world, with a standard array of 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 for stats.
Survivore do have at least one unique action. The Sneak gets to disengage for free. The Squire can take the shove action as a bonus action. The Apprentice and Disciple can cast a cantrip each, and some low-level utility spells. They also gain talents as they level up, so there is some sense of progression.
If this sounds like a nerfed player character, that's because that's exactly what it is. Mostly, a survivor's goal is to survive. They're the cast of a horror movie, with little more than a butcher's knife or a pitchfork to fend off the impending threat.
I am intrigued by this concept, although I admit I'm a little confused about it. Is it D&D; on hard mode? Why not just run your players through deadly encounters instead of challenging encounters? why bother nerfing the player character?
I don't mean that in an outraged way. I enjoy a good challenge in D&D, I'm just wondering what the purpose is. If I wanted to play a weak character with no cool abilities, I don't feel like I'd be playing D&D, or I'd just build a really useless character. But who knows, maybe it's actually hard to build a poor character in 5e? I've admittedly never tried.
The book seems to suggest that survivors are meant for "cut scenes." I think that means you're supposed to assign survivor roles to players when you need to "show" them exposition about a place by having them experience the event themselves. Instead of just telling your players the history of Barovia, you can make them play survivors of the moment when Strahd became the vampire that he is now. Personally, I've never really loved this technique. I don't feel like the emotional investment is at its highest when you're playing a bit part in a flashback. But I had a Game Master once who managed to do this really well (survivors inevitably turned up in later scenes as NPCs), so it's probably can be a really effective technique in the right hands. I'll have to try it myself some time.
Did I mention there was a whole adventure at the end of this chapter? My next post will be about The House of Lament.