The worlds of Ravenloft quickly became, and remained, popular among D&D players throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, and the Fifth Edition adventure Curse of Strahd—which focused solely on the best-known domain and Darklord—reinvigorated the community’s passion for tabletop horror. “The campfire experience and the tabletop experience are so similar,” says Wes Schneider, Lead Designer on Van Richten’s Guide. “You’ve got one person who’s telling a story, and they’re telling it dramatically, and authentically, and atmospherically, and everybody’s leaning in. When folks think about, ‘What does immersive storytelling look like?’, ghost stories around the campfire come to mind, but then, so does tabletop role-playing. They’re sort of a natural complement to each other.”
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With Van Richten’s Guide, however, Schneider and the other designers—including authors K. Tempest Bradford and Cassandra Khaw—are hoping to step away from the somewhat homogenous gothic themes that were the foundation for so many of Ravenloft’s original worlds. “When Ravenloft came together as a campaign setting, it continued to lean into gothic horror tropes,” Schneider says, “but there are much broader opportunities for horror. With Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, we really wanted to open up all of Pandora’s Boxes there. We wanted to be able to do gothic horror, yes, of course—that’s always been core to the domain, and that’s still a major tent post of the book—but, body horror, cosmic horror, psychological horror; there’s no reason for us to be like, ‘Oh D&D only does this … we’re only interested in this one flavor of horror,’ when there’s an entire buffet of horror out there.”
This brings us back to zombies. Schneider recently gave us an in-depth look at Falkovnia, one of the domains receiving a big renovation from its ’90s roots. While other domains—like Har’Akir or Lamordia, which were effectively Advanced Dungeons & Dragon’s “Mummy World” and “Frankenstein Land,” respectively—drew on classic horror inspirations, the domain of Falkovnia was always considerably less fantastical. Its Darklord was a fairly basic analog for Vlad the Impaler, a brutal warlord with a penchant for ultraviolence, and it had few defining characteristics beyond being a land ruled by a brutal warlord with a penchant for ultraviolence. In 2021, however, Falkovnia has been reimagined as a nightmarish Groundhog’s Day-style loop, where a struggling nation—which happens to be ruled by a brutal warlord—is endlessly besieged by massive hordes of the walking dead, who just so happen to look like everyone this warlord has ever killed.
“Something that I feel that many of the past editions of Ravenloft didn’t focus on,” Schneider says, “[was that] the dark lords have always been prisoners. But how are they suffering? How are they tormented? These are evil characters, and they’re imprisoned and trapped here. Why is this a terrible experience most of all for them? That’s something that really gets driven home throughout every one of the domains.”
Of course, if the living dead aren’t really your speed, Van Richten’s Guide has sections on how to swap out zombies for another monstrous apocalypse. Maybe you’d rather see an infinite swarm of Kuo-toa fish-men, or giants — the Guide is more about presenting options for running a variety of horror games instead of just classic Gothic Horror. This new take on Falkovnia is based on what the team calls “Disaster Horror,” the struggle of humanity’s—or elfdom’s, or dwarvenkind’s, whatever your flavor of civilization is—last holdout against the unstoppable.
Zombies just happen to be a great vehicle for that sort of horror, and one that the team knew they wanted to explore from the start — which made Falkovnia a perfect fit. Not only because it wasn’t as extraordinary as some of the other domains and thus due for a refresh, but because the setting’s foundational elements meshed so well with themes that often appear in zombie media. “It’s an agrarian society, there’s a working-class, there’s like this whole elaborate structure that people depend on just to survive under this harsh ruler,” Schneider says. “There are hard-working people here that depend on each other for food and survival, and so on and so forth. That’s a great place to have a zombie apocalypse… How does it start? How do [the players] get involved with that? How do things go wrong? How do things go worse? What are the horrible sacrifices that the amoral regime decides to make to save as many people as possible or themselves? And then, how does all that resolve?”
While there may only be a few additions mechanically—including some new creatures for the Monster Manual (like the massive Zombie Clot, above, easily in the running for Grossest Voltron Ever), and rules for how an undead siege on the Falkovnian capital of Lekar differs from those by living armies—as with so many zombie stories, the real focus is on the people the zombified masses are trying to overwhelm. While this certainly offers plenty of unique options to player characters, Schneider says it also makes Falkovnia’s reimagined Darklord, Vladeska Drakov, singularly unique. “She’s a Darklord who almost doesn’t have the time to be a Darklord,” he laughs. “So many of the other Darklords are like, ‘All right, this is my shtick, I’m doing this horrible thing.’ Strahd’s in his castle, he’s got schemes, he’s doing his Strahd thing, but Vladeska is on a freaking deadline.“
Schneider says that while there is downtime built into the design of Falkovnia, the hordes will always be back, and yes, probably in greater numbers. It seems to not only be an effective means of spurring players to action but to also provide a unique problem for players to solve in the face of such overwhelming opposition. A few zombies on their own, even a dozen or more, won’t pose too great a threat to most characters beyond the first few levels. With only 22 hit points, a well-placed Fireball spell rolling below-average damage can incinerate a small horde in one turn. The aim of Falkovnia, according to Schneider, is to answer the question “What happens when there are more zombies than there are Fireballs?” And because Ravenloft doesn’t work like other campaign settings—where you might beseech a neighboring kingdom for aid, or recruit a plucky band of NPCs to bolster your defenses—the nature of the Demiplane domains create a sort of “nightmare logic,” where you know escape is all but impossible, so you can’t help but try to fight or flee.
“The Dark Powers don’t need to make a logical continuity,” Schneider says. “If Lekar falls, your party might be a group that manages to escape back into the mists. They might have different adventures, and then someday, they might find themselves back in Falkovnia – but Lekar hasn’t fallen, and it’s all happening again.”
The most terrifying nightmares are recurring ones, after all – though that zombie Voltron is pretty high up there,now, too.
What sort of nightmarish Kobayashi Maru would you want to run in Ravenloft? Let us know in the comments, and for more TRPGs on IGN, why not dig into the “remastered” Curse of Strahd boxed set with its lead writer, Chris Perkins, or read up on how video games still draw from their tabletop roots!
JR is a Senior Producer at IGN, and will 100% be throwing WWZ-style mountains of fish people at his players when they finally get back together. In the meantime, you can find him on Twitter, probably also tweeting about D&D.