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. The final chapter is a bestiary with an assortment of new monsters for Ravenloft. D&D monsters are a pretty easy target. Dungeon Masters always need new monsters, and Ravenloft-inspired monsters not only provide new terrors for players to contend with, they're also an opportunity to expound upon the already [morbidly] fascinating lore of the setting.
The chapter introduction took me by surprise, though. It's a section on creating your own monsters. That's already been explained in the Monster Manual, but this method takes a different approach. It mostly uses the old "re-skinning" technique, where you invent your own creature concept while using the stats of some monster that approximates what you're imagining. Maybe instead of fire damage, you tell your players they're being dealt cold damage, and maybe instead of an earthquake effect you impose an ice storm effect, but all the adjustments you make are pure "flavour." The intro of this chapter, though, describes reflavouring an existing monster, plus some customization by borrowing abilities from other monsters.
I know not every DM requires "permission" to mix and match monsters, but I think it's great to have a discussion about building monsters here. It emphasizes the flexibility of the game, and the importance of DM creativity. It takes a little experimentation and a lot of experience, but once a DM understands how to balance their game, the ability to customize threats to a party is essential. No two parties are exactly alike, and if you try to limit challenges to off-the-shelf monsters, the game just isn't as fun for anyone. The first couple of pages in chapter 5 do an excellent job of explaining how to do that.
The one problem I have with this bestiary is that the monsters lack alignment. I realise that in 5e, there's almost no need for alignment any more, because very few spells or abilities use alignment. In previous editions, there were very cool abilities that relied on alignment, which simultaneously limited and empowered players. For instance, you might have a bane or smite ability that only works against evil creatures. This made you extra powerful against some creatures, and send you running for your life when faced with a neutral creature. D&D 5e doesn't really have abilities like that, and the concept of alignment seems to be falling out of favour.
That's fine (although I do prefer the added layer of game play) but there's another function alignment serves. Say you open a bestiary, and find a dark and mysterious creature that appeals to you. It seems to suit the adventure you're running, the challenge rating is about right, and the stat block looks good. Yes, this should pose a problem for your players. And then you read the description. The monster you've stumbled upon is a force of good, dedicated to protecting innocent folk from the dark forces of malevolence.
In other words, alignment has always been shorthand for the DM. Need a creature to fight against your players? Use this evil monster. Need a creature to fight with your players? Use this good creature. It's really simple, it requires a total of one word. It establishes at a glance a broad, non-binding, general tendency of an entity.
I realize that can just re-skin a creature with lore that says it's good, but I want it to be bad. But if I do that, why do I have the lore at all? Why not just present me with a monster with no particular story, and just let me decide how it fits into the setting?
Or I could throw in some "good" creatures who have gone bad. But to be honest, I think that muddles the story and the setting. I don't want to have to explain why these creatures were bad, but these other creatures were good. I just want some assets, neatly organized into clearly labelled boxes, that I can take out and place on the battle mat, and continue to run my game. Unlike in the real world, there can be absolutes in D&D. Strahd, Maligno, the god-brain, and so on, are evil. The monsters that prey upon innocent people within Ravenloft can also be evil. For the gaming groups that want moral ambiguity in their games, those labels are easily ignored. But within a setting that's designed to tell a story, it's really helpful to have a clear and quick indication of which side of the game board a miniature is placed.
Of all the great advice in this book on how to run a horror adventure, the monster advice is some of the best. In just a few paragraphs, it's described how to build an anxiety-inducing monster from a totally generic creature. In the example provided, a simple low-level skeleton is turned into a macabre, menacing, stalker out of a slasher movie, and it's done entirely through description. I got chills just reading about it, so I can only imagine how I'd feel as a player in a game with it as an enemy.
All of the monsters in this chapter are great. Not all of them hit a specific horror trope (although many do), but they're all pretty horrific. There's a bias, as usual, for low- to medium-tier play, but there are a few truly great high-level monsters. I'm not going to spoil any of them here, but I'm very excited to use each one in a game (and in fact I've already used a few, both in and out of Ravenloft.)
There's a lot of material in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft. Some of it seems a little truncated or confusing, but on the whole I found a lot of value here. I don't think anybody would call this the definitive volume about Ravenloft, or even a particularly great setting book, but this is an excellent Dungeon Master's Guide II.