Wizards of the Coast is rebooting the many realms of Ravenloft, a classic setting for Dungeons & Dragons. Due out on May 18, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft contains more than 30 new Domains of Dread, each with its own darklord for groups to explore together. Lead designer Wes Schneider told Polygon that the goal was to move beyond the derivative tropes that have plagued the Ravenloft setting in the past, while also allowing players to engage with the material from a number of different perspectives.
The Ravenloft setting was born in 1983 with the publication of Ravenloft, an adventure for the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons written by Tracy and Laura Hickman. It used classic vampire stories to good effect, tracing the tale of the valley of Barovia, the cursed count Strahd von Zarovich, and his quest for the immortal soul of his obsession, Tatyana. Over the years, it has been criticized as derivative — and for reinforcing harmful stereotypes through its portrayal of the Vistani, an in-fiction analogue for the Roma people.
Nonetheless, the adventure has proved to be wildly popular. That’s because it has a strong lead character in Strahd, a conflicted villain eternally tortured for his misdeeds. It spawned many additional modules, each one taking place in a different Domain of Dread. One of those domains is called Har’Akir, and it’s a setting that in the past has leveraged problematic Orientalist tropes to tell its tales.
“One of the things that was really interesting about the domain is that past versions of it — and we see this a lot in RPGs — is treating a part of history as a adventure setting,” Schneider told Polygon. “Definitely the older versions of Har’Akir were very ‘Hey, you saw Boris Karloff’s The Mummy? Here, run that as an adventure.’ We’ve seen that before, and we wanted to do something that felt different and we wanted to do something that feels uniquely 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 darklord, Anhktepot, into something other than an English actor covered in hundreds of yards of fabric pretending to be an Egyptian.
“I think you’ll even see from the image that we have of Anhktepot that this is not Boris Karloff,” Schneider said. “This is a much more magical looking character who we are hoping feels like a character, that it feels like a mummy that comes from a D&D setting, that comes from a high fantasy setting — not necessarily from the history of Egypt.”
“She’s a fantastic novelist,” Schneider said, “and she was a fantastic resource on this who brought a ton of experience, a ton of history, just a ton of creativity to be, like, ‘Alright, we want to take this initial conceptual historical idea, but then let’s make it fantasy. Let’s make it horror, let’s make it D&D.’”
The writers at Wizards also worked to give the denizens of Har’Akir more agency. This time they’re not simply part of the setting.
“Whether it’s the Boris Karloff version [of The Mummy], or the Brendan Fraser one, there’s the story of outsiders coming in and having adventures in this other culture,” Schneider said. “This time around […] we provide you all of the elements needed to be somebody from Har’Akir, and to have this world be your world. This isn’t necessarily a story about going into tombs and grave robbing and pillaging somebody else’s past. This can very easily be [a story about] your home. [Your character] can imagine a world where there are not these horrors, and it’s up to you to make them better. That’s a quite different proposition from what you see in many of these classic horror stories, but also nonetheless terrifying because now what’s happening is within your own home.”
Van Richten’s Guide also uses the idea of “nightmare logic” to further distance itself from the real Egypt, and to make the realm of Har’Akir seem something entirely different.
“Why is there a Domain that is a desert that is riddled with these ancient, inexplicable haunted monuments and ruined pyramids?” Schneider said. “How does a Domain like that exist? How does it make sense? To an extent it doesn’t, and it’s going to be the players that come and explore that, who are some of the only people that realize that the entirety of the domain is, to an extent, gaslighting them.”
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is a 256-page book — the same size as most modern D&D supplements like Curse of Strahd. The more than 30 Domains of Dread will, at most, get just five or six pages dedicated to them. That means DMs will need to do a lot of creative work alongside their players to flesh out their campaigns. Schneider said that his team has also worked in another, more elaborate storyline for ambitious DMs interested in taking things to the next level.
“Maybe Tatyana’s soul is in Har’Akir and is actually Anktepot’s soul,” Schneider said. “Or maybe Anktepot’s soul is in Barovia and is tied up with Tatyana. There’s an interesting potential link here for, ‘Hey, do you want to tell a story where maybe you’ve got two different darklords vying for the same lost spirit?’ Just one of these fun little links that, as you start putting these domains together, some really creepy narratives potentially come out of them.”