Domains of Ravenloft Cover All the Horror for 5E D&D with Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft
Way back in 1983 I6: Ravenloft was but one of over 200 modules published by TSR for first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The plot of the now legendary module introduced one of the most iconic villains in D&D history with the vampire Strahd von Zarovich. The module proved so popular it spawned a sequel and later an entire campaign setting for second edition AD&D encompassing an entire pocket dimension called the Demiplane of Dread and the collection of domains ruled by mystical Darklords bound together by the Dark Powers. Fast forward to today where Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft re-introduces the Domains of Dread for the fifth edition D&D community. Let’s get into it.
Domains of Dread for 5E D&D
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft clarifies some of the potentially murky structure of the Domains of Dread right off the bat in the book’s introduction. While technically Ravenloft refers specifically to Castle Ravenloft in the demiplane’s most infamous domain Barovia it’s become a catchall term for the entirety of the magical realm and all its domains. John Ford’s 1962 film really nailed it, huh?
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — Carleton Young as Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The award winning Realm of Terror boxed set contained many Domains of Dread beyond the misty borders of Barovia where Castle Ravenloft’s dark master dwells. When I was a kid we gobbled up the evocative illustrations and dreadful details of these different realms. We probably adventured in all of them through disconnected stories with different characters. That’s just how we played when I was a kid and aspirations for long running complex narratives didn’t really enter our thoughts.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft aims to re-establish those Domains of Dread for the 5E D&D audience and the book does a wonderful job encapsulating what makes each one special in that deliciously dark way. There are 17 Domains of Dread covered within the pages of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. Each entry includes an overview, noteworthy features, settlements and sites, a Darklord, adventure hooks and a Domain focus highlighting story elements and resources to aid in creating horror adventures in those realms.
A somewhat controversial aspect of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft concerns mechanical representation for the Darklords of each realm. I’m just going to flat out suggest to folks upset about this to get over it. There’s nearly 2,000 creature stat blocks found in official 5E D&D content and untold thousands (probably tens of thousands) more monsters from third party creators. Heck, we’ve created and published at least 200 ourselves! DMs will be fine without another creature stat block for characters to pit themselves against.
The omission of new stat blocks for the Darklords of each Domain of Dread is explored more in our coverage of the monsters of Ravenloft here. Basically the entire domain is a manifestation of the Darklord. Undermining the Darklord’s schemes and addressing their torments is the key to defeating them — not just beating down their hit point pool and dealing with some dangerous combat actions. More explanation from the designers and our thoughts on the matter can be found along with a preview of the 32 new monsters you’ll find inside Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft in that linked post.
Characters from Domains
A very cool inclusion with Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft are sidebars with each Domain of Dread with guidance for players to create characters whose origins lie in a particular realm. This is fantastic! We love sidebars in our own products to highlight special or unique qualities. Guidance for domain origin characters includes what the people there are like, what sort of horrors they encounter regularly and naming conventions for those who hail from the realm. I really dig that last one since it’s something I find particularly interesting for my own characters and settings.
- Barovia. First in the minds of D&D nerds and first alphabetically too. Strahd von Zarovich is the Darklord of this Gothic horror Domain of the First Vampire. Ghouls, ghosts, things that go bump in the dark and the children of the night curse this haunted realm of obsession and despair.
- Bluetspur. Quite literally worlds apart from the familiar Gothic setting of Barovia this alien landscape bubbles over with cosmic horror. The God-Brain’s protean wasteland is a lethal alien environment littered with the remains of civilizations brought to extinction.
- Borca. Like Barovia this Domain of Desire and Deceit evokes Gothic horror. I like the sound of this realm for a 5E D&D game better though. In place of a singular pervasive threat and a society of mostly soulless inhabitants Borca boasts courtly intrigue and scheming manipulators to create more of a class struggle scenario.
- The Carnival. Revelry gone wrong and subverting a typically fun atmosphere to one of creepy dread lies at the heart of the Wandering Domain of Wonders. A unique quality of the Carnival is that the domain itself travels to visit other domains and even lands outside the Demiplane of Dread. A promise of escape from gloomy life to the marvels and wonders of the Carnival lead the way to body horror and dark fantasy. The Darklord of this domain is equally unique — a corrupted and sentient holy avenger! How cool is that?
- Darkon. One of the more memorable Darklords from the original Realm of Terror boxed set the lich Azalin Rex was prisoner of this Domain on the Brink of Destruction. He’s since vanished and since then the realm erodes as a roiling Shroud eats away at the land. The power vacuum here led to hopeful tyrants vying to claim rulership and halt the disaster horror and gradual annihilation of the entire domain.
- Dementlieu. This Domain of Decadent Delusion intrigues me. In some ways it strikes me as a social commentary on our own modern life taken to dark extremes. This can easily go sideways for my taste and I don’t know if this is even the design intent but it comes across terrifically in this case. A wraithlike Darklord of a realm hiding deep anxiety behind an ephemeral veneer of sophistication sounds all kinds of layered in the best ways.
- Falkovnia. Zombie apocalypse. If this high concept thrills you chances are the Domain Besieged by the Dead is the place for your 5E D&D adventures. Considering a zombie apocalypse as disaster horror making the days of the living numbered feels brilliant. I absolutely love the Darklord of this domain, her story and everything about this one.
- Har’Akir. I’ve got to give credit to 2017’s The Mummy film for leading me to deep appreciation of mummy lords in 5E D&D. Dark fantasy adventure amid the desert Domain of the Ancient Dead sounds so exciting. I read somewhere how the design team’s approach to revitalizing Ravenloft for 5E put strong emphasis on not merely transposing classic horror tropes into D&D but leaning into what the game offers those familiar elements. The piece focused on Darklord Ankhtepot and how rather than dropping a Boris Karloff knockoff into a D&D setting the goal was playing up the fantastical. Ancient tombs, desert perils, lost gods — sign me up!
- Hazlan. In the Domain Doomed by Magic the evil wizard really did do it — all of it! Magical catastrophe is the name of the game here in the realm of the despicable archmage Hazlik. The magic ravaged environment of Hazlan appeals to the fan of weirdness within me. Arcane experimentation, strange creatures and bizarre features exude danger and excitement throughout this realm.
- I’Cath. I’m sold through and through on the Domain Trapped in a Dream. This moniker alone hooks me since I adore dreams, dreamscapes and the strange adventures possible within them. (Maybe my appreciation for dreams is because I never remember any of my own?) Our own Lord of Dead Dreams haunts my imagination and the villainous ogre magi’s tendrils have crept into several of our modules. A 5E D&D campaign set in a realm where the entirely of its inhabitants enter a dream version of the city whenever they fall asleep sounds amazing. It’s like Dark City with powerful body horror and cosmic horror vibes and I’m very much here for it.
- Kalakeri. Okay, hold up. I’ve been going through these realms one by one and growing more impressed every time. After pouring over ten of them so far I’m surprised to come away from this one with a distinctly different feeling. More than others this Domain of Betrayal and Revenge illustrates dark fantasy very succinctly. And it does so in a rich setting of sunlight and beauty concealing a dark curse and an awesome Darklord locked in a violent conflict with their monstrous siblings.
- Kartakass. Like Dementlieu this Domain of Tarnished Dreams feels a bit like social commentary on today’s real world life. The dark fantasy environment surrounding Darklord Harkon Lukas compels everything — including the flora and fauna — considers themselves performers of the highest order. Everything is content including cycles of nature and woe be to any entity whose audience grows bored. Also Harkon suffers a lycanthrope problem revealed with the full moon, which draws out the hunger for dominance and blood. So there’s that.
- Lamordia. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would be proud to know her blend of horror and perhaps the first instance of science fiction created a legacy enduring to this day in this case as the Domain of Snow and Stitched Flesh. In this bleak and frigid land mortals’ reach far exceeds their grasp and this amoral science for the sake of the land’s very survival has no better representative than Darklord Viktra Mordenheim.
- Mordent. Your 5E D&D adventurers had best start believing in ghost stories because in this Domain of the Haunted they’re in one. Family curses, haunted houses, sinister wilderness and the spirits at the heart of it all create a shadow world of fright. Rather than pass on to an afterlife mortals who die here simply remain as restless spirits.
- Richemulot. Paladins are going to be your best friends in the Domain of Disease, Isolation and Wererats with a distinctly French flavor. Not for nothing but one of our own character concepts would thrive here as well. Sort of a 5E D&D fantasy take on the Black Plague this realm suffers from the Gnawing Plague carried by any and all rodents. This is a really exploration of wererats and Jacqueline Renier gets my vote for most on-brand Darklord with her rat stole, slippers and accessories in the terrific illustration.
- Tepest. I know for certain I’m not the only one who immediately thought, “Ooh! Fey Domain of Dread!” Dark dealings, dangerous ritualistic traditions and heartless terror lurks just beneath the surface of the otherwise colorful and pastoral Domain of Nature’s Cruel Secrets. Folklore monsters make some of the most engaging antagonists for 5E D&D adventure and that’s the jam for this realm.
- Valachan. The most dangerous game in the Domain of the Hunter is the adventuring party! Actually it’s the realm’s Darklord Chakuna who forever roams the hostile jungles hunting prey and drawing sapient quarry into fatal contests. A great mystery lies within this domain too. It’s one of the better stories surrounding a Darklord and one I’d be thrilled to explore in a campaign set in this exciting domain.
*Featured image — Dr. Viktra Mordenheim, Darklord of Lamordia, crafts the perfect body for her newest band of golem-hunting mercenaries as seen in the 5E D&D Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]