Genres of Horror Inspires Uniquely Terrifying Adventures from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft
The mists of Ravenloft have arisen to envelop fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons and adventurers must overcome their dread or forever be its prisoner! Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft makes a dark promise to provide everything 5E D&D players need to craft horror themed campaigns with new story hooks, character options and campaign customization to bring one of the most exciting and beloved D&D settings to life — including a comprehensive look at all the Genres of Horror with tips, tricks and guidance for evoking them at the gaming table. Let’s get into it.
Ravenloft’s Domains of Dread explore all the genres of horror
Among the many ways I’m a big time nerd is when it comes to product layout and like Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything I feel like there’s very important design choices made when it comes to organizing Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. The book dives right in with character creation options because let’s face it — players eat this stuff up and there’s no sense burying the lead. But any player who curiously looks just beyond this point finds a wonderful chapter on Creating Domains of Dread.
There’s no crunchy material to be found within those pages and instead the book seeks to inspire the imagination of the reader. The introductory section of the chapter explicitly empowers the reader to draw on their own imagination to create domains and the Darklords at the heart of them and I feel strongly this is meant to help foster new Dungeon Masters. Not for nothing but the recent infographic from Wizards of the Coast indicated a significant rise in DMs out there and I’ve got to think the way they present their products has something to do with this wonderful development.
The Genres of Horror section describes several horror subgenres and material for each one to inspire players to create their own Darklords and Domains of Dread. There’s tips for creating monsters and villains, examples of torments for Darklords, settings, adventure sites, plots and of course tables to inspiration DMs.
This is probably the genre of horror I most often stray into when I’m running a game. I’m not a huge horror aficionado and I’m quite squeamish. But unpredictable transformations and weirdness hold a certain appeal.
- Body Horror Monsters. I’m elated to see my favorite monster included here along with some truly horrifying creatures. Body horror monsters work great when otherwise mundane NPCs, beasts or the like suddenly become yucky monsters to fight (or run away from in horror).
- Body Horror Villains. Kudos to Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft for stating how body horror villains usually include a tragic quality. I never thought about this before but it makes sense. There’s a table with ten body horror villain examples and my favorite is, “A house that remembers having tenants and will do anything to regain them.”
- Body Horror Torments. A villain who’s own body contributes to their torment while also providing a source of power makes for some amazing storytelling potential. There’s a table with ten body horror torment examples and my favorite is, “The Darklord possesses a second starving mouth in their torso, one that howls unless fed.”
- Body Horror Settings. Body horror don’t need no special setting! When the surroundings themselves create a menacing vibe it goes a long way towards engaging players and in my experience weird settings lead to interesting choices. There’s a table with ten body horror setting examples and my favorite is, “A domain ordinary save for the abundance of black hair, the strands always moving even when there is no breeze.”
- Body Horror Adventure Sites. The unnerving nature of body horror comes across even more disturbingly when it’s juxtaposed with the mundane. There’s a table with eight body horror adventure sites examples and my favorite is, “A derelict ship, buried for mysterious reasons.”
- Body Horror Plots. Surviving the horrible transformations is a victory. But body horror stories also incorporate investigations to discover the source of the horror amid the mundane. There’s a table with eight body horror plots examples and my favorite is, “Learn who’s organizing the local dinner parties before more epicureans die of autophagia.”
Vast and incomprehensible entities make for fantastic antagonists representing the unknown. Somewhere along the way tentacles became representative of this whole genre. What we can’t understand and the implications for mere mortals makes for wonderful storytelling.
- Cosmic Horror Monsters. A great selection of monsters shows the variety and scope of the cosmic horror genre. The usual suspects appear but there’s some unexpected monsters to make you reconsider the genre.
- Cosmic Horror Villains. There’s a distinct hierarchy of cosmic horror villains. The lowest of these are mere pawns of the unspeakable entities who carry out their will followed by the spawn of those cosmic horrors. Then there’s the cosmic horrors themselves. There’s a table with eight cosmic horror villains examples and my favorite is, “An astronomer broken and enraptured by what they saw in the stars.”
- Cosmic Horror Torments. The villains of these stories are tormented by the terrible knowledge they’ve gained and inflict their psychological damage on the world around them. Or they’re the source of such psychological trauma. There’s a table with eight cosmic horror torments examples and my favorite is, “The Darklord is haunted by otherworldly masters that whisper from reflective surfaces.”
- Cosmic Horror Settings. I’m gonna call a bit of a foul on this one. The cosmic horror genre owes a lot to H.P. Lovecraft but I feel like it’s come a long way since the early 1920s, at least enough to broaden the scope beyond academia and maritime settings. Especially in the fantasy settings of 5E D&D the possibility for hidden knowledge exists everywhere and anywhere. There’s a table with eight cosmic horror settings examples and my favorite is, “A world with slowly vanishing land masses being consumed by an obsidian sea.”
- Cosmic Horror Adventure Sites. Growing unease sells the sizzle of cosmic horror so a persistent location does a lot of heavy lifting as characters see the changes taking place over time. There’s a table with eight cosmic adventure sites examples and my favorite is, “A decrepit manor, empty save for staff who swear the lord is merely preoccupied.”
- Cosmic Horror Plots. Here’s where 5E D&D’s D&D-ness can get in the way. Even in the most epic cosmic horror stories the heroes almost always die in the end. My favorite game of all time is Mass Effect and at the end of all things the “best” ending sees the hero perish. Winning by overcoming the cosmic horror kinda makes it not cosmic horror anymore. Nevertheless there’s a table with eight cosmic horror plots examples and my favorite is, “Learn why the bakers of a small town have started making pastries filled with a popular, delicious, and faintly glowing blue goo.”
My great friend and Nerdarchy writer Steven Partridge is all about dark fantasy and tried explaining it to me several times. If I’m honest it never quite clicked and after reading this section of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft I feel like it’s really simple — standard fantasy but with some horror twists incorporated. Am I correct?
- Dark Fantasy Monsters. My takeaway is pretty much any 5E D&D monster can suitably represent dark fantasy, from goblins to dragons to purple worms(?).
- Dark Fantasy Villains. The antagonists of these stories typically represent the explicit power center of the setting. They’re no hidden figures or mysterious goals. These villains are front and center. There’s a table with ten dark fantasy villains examples and my favorite is, “The leader of a subterranean people who plots to manipulate the moon to blot out the sun’s searing light.”
- Dark Fantasy Torments. The same position of power giving dark fantasy villains their place in the story simultaneously causes their suffering, which is a fantastic storytelling device. For my taste though I’d make sure to make the villain thoroughly unsympathetic. I know this makes for the best kinds of villains but I prefer campaign conflicts without all the second guessing and moral ambiguity. There’s a table with ten dark fantasy torments examples and my favorite is, “Others excessively revere or fear the Darklord, leaving the Darklord isolated.”
- Dark Fantasy Settings. The settings surrounding dark fantasy villains are reflective of those entities. This can be overt through leaving their mark upon the domain everywhere or covert through the disastrous results of their dark ambitions. There’s a table with eight dark fantasy settings examples and my favorite is, “A country devastated by magical pollution or the fallout of weapons used in an age-old war.”
- Dark Fantasy Adventure Sites. Because dark fantasy villains are so prominent in these domains the places where adventure takes place must be even more ostentatious. There’s a table with eight dark fantasy adventure sites examples and my favorite is, “A forest where every tree grows from the body of a mummified hero.”
- Dark Fantasy Plots. For my 2 gp these sound like the kinds of plots I enjoy the most as a player. The villain is clear and heroes — whether unlikely or reluctant — strike back. Maybe I’m more of a dark fantasy fan than I thought! There’s a table with eight dark fantasy plots examples and my favorite is, “Banish a spirit haunting the moon.”
Calling all cryptozoologists! Among all these Genres of Horror this is the one with the most crossover for me. I dig cryptids and taking trips to places where legends hint at their existence. This genre speaks to me on many levels.
- Folk Horror Monsters. So many. A great number of 5E D&D monsters are drawn from our own real world myths and legends. Most, if not all of the monster entries include folklore elements specifically meant to inspire DMs. You’d have to go out of your way to find a monster without folklore to draw on. We even modified an existing monster of folklore to make it even more folksy!
- Folk Horror Villains. I’m not sure I agree with the explanation of folk horror villains being manipulative. Perhaps it’s just the particular word choice but I feel like these kinds of villains are more often like a force of nature than a mindful will. There’s a table with eight folk horror villains examples and my favorite is, “A wicker giant that animates during the new moon, collecting sacrifices and punishing the unwary.” Oh, No! Not the bees! Not the bees! Ahhhhhhh oh, they’re in my eyes!
- Folk Horror Torments. Not surprisingly it is the same traditions and rituals connected to the folklore consuming the villains of these stories. They are compelled to carry on in their dark duties as victims of a different sort than those they subject to the folk horror. There’s a table with six folk horror torments examples and my favorite is, “The Darklord is the only one who adheres to an ancient faith and desperately works to convert nonbelievers.”
- Folk Horror Settings. This is relatively easy to incorporate into 5E D&D since folk horror stories tend to occur in remote places and communities without strong ties to modern sensibilities. To me this is just about anywhere in a fantasy setting. There’s a table with six folk horror settings examples and my favorite is, “A glacier that residents never leave, lest the icy spirits haunting their community escape.”
- Folk Horror Adventure Sites. In stark contrast to the grandiose sites of dark fantasy when it comes to folk horror it’s all about the unassuming places just off the beaten path. There’s a table with six folk horror adventure sites examples and my favorite is, “A field where paths grow in corridor-like patterns leading to a ruin at the center.”
- Folk Horror Plots. Again this is an easy one for 5E D&D adventurers, who are very often outsiders visiting a new region and dealing with whatever peculiarities exist. There’s a table with eight folk horror plots examples and my favorite is, “Recover a missing villager who ran away to escape the local cult.”
Spooky tales and the supernatural hold great appeal for me. Restless spirits, hauntings and opportunities to help lay to rest entities whose souls linger on for any number of reasons make fantastic stories and when it comes to 5E D&D you best start believing in ghost stories — you’re in one!
- Ghost Stories Monsters. Along with expected ghosts and ghostlike creatures some intriguing suggestions appear here like death dog, animated armor and treant. I also just noticed one of the new monsters in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is a dullahan, which is a really neat mythological creature we took a different approach with as a playable race (complete with detachable head!).
- Ghost Stories Villains. No surprises here. The villains of ghost stories are ghosts but haunted locations can fit the bill as well as living beings who set the ghost story in motion. There’s a table with ten ghost story villains examples and my favorite is, “The spirit of a long-dead murderer who stalks the same types of victims in death as in life.”
- Ghost Stories Torments. Tailored specifically for Darklords of the Domains of Dread the central figures of these ghost stories brought about their own restless afterlife. Now they pay the price for their mistakes at the hands of dark powers. There’s a table with eight ghost story torments examples and my favorite is, “A dozen phantoms cater to the Darklord; each spirit is an emotion he can no longer feel.”
- Ghost Stories Settings. Escalation is the name of the game in a setting influenced by a powerful ghost story. Odd occurrences and unexplainable events grow more pronounced and more impactful as the haunting manifests. There’s a table with eight ghost story settings examples and my favorite is, “A realm in which a common ritual allows a living individual to trade places with a dead one.”
- Ghost Stories Adventure Sites. Because ghost stories are so intrinsically tied to a personal story and history the haunted places where these adventures take place hold a powerful sense of history. There’s a table with six ghost story adventure sites examples and my favorite is, “A lighthouse where a lone guard is the only living individual keeping an army of spirits at bay.”
- Ghost Stories Plots. The whole point of a ghost story is learning the reason for the haunting and resolving the unfinished business, which makes a fantastic structure for a 5E D&D game. There’s a table with eight ghost story adventure sites examples and my favorite is, “Discreetly follow a phantom vagabond to find out where she disappears to and with whom.”
Oooh gothic, it’s so sophisticated! Whatever. The terror within and the sensibility that we’re all monsters doesn’t appeal to me. It’s incredibly challenging to evoke dread in 5E D&D and although I enjoy the emotional journey characters take as much as the action packed one I feel like when a game sets out to explicitly highlight intense emotion it comes across contrived.
- Gothic Horror Monsters. Since the preeminent Gothic Horror of D&D is Barovia it makes sense for classic monsters like gargoyles, vampires and werewolves to show up. Oddly enough though whereas the other Genres of Horror suggested monsters included more variety these seem like they all came from the same bucket. Except there’s an efreeti in the mix?
- Gothic Horror Villains. Unassuming villains who conceal their true natures may fit the mold of Gothic Horror in a broad sense but I’ll invoke Barovia here again since Strahd is not subtle whatsoever. There’s a table with ten gothic horror villains examples and my favorite is, “An artist who manufactures terrible accidents to provide inspiration and reference for her art.”
- Gothic Horror Torments. Self-loathing is one way of describing the villains of gothic horror and I’m cool with this if it means the players and their characters do too. Loath those villains y’all! There’s a table with eight gothic horror torments examples and my favorite is, “The Darklord’s soul is so consumed by shadows that it extinguishes all light that shines on them.”
- Gothic Horror Settings. This feels a bit phoned in if I’m honest. Connections to the past, presence of the supernatural and a feeling of menace sounds pretty generic and applicable to all of these Genres of Horror. There’s a table with eight gothic horror settings examples and my favorite is, “An artist’s paradise where cruelties are elevated to terrible and beautiful art forms.”
- Gothic Horror Adventure Sites. Here again, kinda comes across weaksauce. Forlorn places where corruption dwells is what D&D does. I’m quite surprised at the lack of depth in the Gothic Horror section since it’s the flagship Domain of Dread. There’s a table with eight gothic horror adventure sites examples and my favorite is, “A science lab where preserved body parts carry the consciousnesses of their former owners.”
- Gothic Horror Plots. I’m getting the sense gothic horror stories as presented in this book celebrate the villain more than the heroes. Witnessing the villain face a poetic end as the consequences for their own wickedness comes across kind of like, “The DM has a story to tell the players about this tragic villain.” There’s a table with eight gothic horror plots examples and my favorite is, “Track down a serial killer who impales her victims on the same monument.”
Other Horror Genres
Steven and I were chatting just last night about different Genres of Horror, what we like and don’t like and why. For all I know this could be a widely understood concept but it crossed my mind how relatability plays a major factor. I am squeamish and generally do not like visceral, grisly violence and mutilation of one human (or humanoid) by another. There’s little to no entertainment value in being reminded how cruel people can really be. Along similar lines there’s Genres of Horror Steven avoids because of relatability.
At any rate these additional Genres of Horror include only a brief summary and explanation of what they entail along with a list of questions to consider when developing adventures inspired by these types of horror.
- Disaster Horror. Truly frightening stuff when the world itself seeks destruction. There’s often little for heroes to do except survive but on the other hand we’re talking 5E D&D here so the cause and solution for disasters may absolutely be things adventurers can engage. I love the idea of playing in a campaign focused on this.
- Occult Detective Stories. Doesn’t this apply to just about every Genre of Horror? I don’t get what makes this a distinct genre. It seems like what the protagonists do in horror stories of any genre touching on the supernatural.
- Psychological Horror. Here again this seems more like a component of the storytelling in almost any of the Genres of Horror. On the other hand I’ve read plenty of psychological horror books and seen enough movies to feel like this is a terrible concept for a D&D game on it’s own. Psychological dread brought on by the horror of these genres is one thing but as a sole source of conflict D&D is barking up the wrong tree.
- Slasher Horror. I can get behind this one. Classic slasher stories like Friday and 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street make incredible sources of inspiration for 5E D&D. More modern slasher stories are way more visceral than I care for though but that’s me. This feels like a good place to mention how stories like the amazing Hannibal television series offer a very unique take on slasher horror with a blend of psychological horror too. It’s an awesome show, seriously.