Wizards of the Coast is restarting the many areas of Ravenloft, a classic environment for Dungeons & Dragons. Due on May 18th, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft includes more than 30 new Domains of Dread, each with their own Darklord for groups to explore together. Chief Designer Wes Schneider told Polygon that the goal is to go beyond the inferred tropes that have plagued the Ravenloft environment in the past while also allowing players to engage with the material from multiple perspectives.
The Ravenloft environment was born in 1983 with the release of Ravenloft, an adventure for the first installment of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, written by Tracy and Laura Hickman. It used classic vampire tales to trace the story of the Barovia Valley, the cursed Count Strahd von Zarovich, and his search for the immortal soul of his obsession, Tatyana. Over the years it has been criticized as a derivative – and to reinforce harmful stereotypes by portraying the Vistani, an in-fiction analogue for the Roma.
Even so, the adventure has proven extremely popular. That’s because it has a strong main character in Strahd, a conflicted villain who is forever tortured for his misdeeds. Many additional modules were created, each of which took place in a different Domain of Dread. One of these domains is called Har’Akir and has used problematic orientalist tropics in the past to tell their stories.
“One of the things that was really interesting about the Domain is that previous versions of it – and we see this a lot in role-playing games – treat part of the story as an adventure setting,” Schneider told Polygon. “In any case, the older versions of Har’Akir were very, ‘Hey, you saw Boris Karloffs The Mummy? Here, run this as an adventure. ‘We’ve seen this before and wanted to do something that felt different and we wanted to do something that felt unique like D&D. “
[Warning: This story will spoil some of the secrets found in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, as well as the modern version of Ravenloft, a 5th edition D&D campaign titled Curse of Strahd.]
Part of the solution was to turn Har’Akir’s malevolent Dark Lord Anhktepot into something other than an English actor covered in hundreds of yards of cloth pretending to be an Egyptian.
“I think you will even see in the picture we have of Anhktepot that this is not Boris Karloff,” said Schneider. “This is a much magical looking character that we hope will feel like a character that feels like a mummy that comes from a D&D environment that comes from a high fantasy environment – not necessarily from the history of Egypt. “
Part of this creative process required the involvement of an outside writer named K. Tempest Bradfordwhose work in Clockwork Cairo: Steampunk Tales of Egypt served as inspiration for Wizards of the Coast.
“She’s a fantastic writer,” Schneider said, “and she was a fantastic resource that brought a lot of experience, a lot of history, just a lot of creativity to say,” Okay, let’s take this initial, conceptual historical idea, but then we make it fantasy. Let’s make it a horror, let’s make it a D&D. ‘”
The writers of Wizards also worked to give Har’Akir residents more freedom of choice. This time around, they’re not just part of the setting.
“Whether it’s the Boris Karloff version [of The Mummy], or the Brendan Fraser, there is the story of outsiders who come in and have adventures in this other culture, ”said Schneider. “This time […] We provide you with all the elements you need to be someone from Har’Akir and make this world yours. This isn’t necessarily a story about entering graves and robbing and looting someone else’s past. It can be very easy [a story about] Your House. [Your character] I can imagine a world where these horrors don’t exist, and it’s up to you to make them better. That’s a very different proposition from many of those classic horror stories, but also terrifying because now what happens is in your own home. “
Van Richten’s guide also uses the idea of ”nightmare logic” to distance oneself further from the real Egypt and to make the empire of Har’Akir appear something completely different.
“Why is there a domain that is a desert, littered with those ancient, inexplicable, haunted monuments and ruined pyramids?” Said Schneider. “How does such a domain exist? How does it make sense? To some extent, this is not the case, and it will be the players who research this. You are some of the only ones who realize that the entire domain is gas lighting them to some extent. ”
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is a 256 page book – the same size as most modern day D&D supplements Curse of Strahd. The more than 30 Domains of Dread receive a maximum of five or six pages. That means DMs have to do a lot of creative work alongside their players to refine their campaigns. Schneider said his team also worked in another, more elaborate story for ambitious DMs interested in taking things to the next level.
“Perhaps Tatyana’s soul is in Har’Akir and indeed Anktepot’s soul,” said Schneider. “Or maybe Anktepot’s soul is in Barovia and connected to Tatyana. There’s an interesting potential link here for, “Hey, would you like to tell a story where you might have two different Darklords vying for the same lost ghost?” Just one of those fun little links that might turn out to be some really creepy tales when you put these domains together. “