D&D’s new Ravenloft book swaps outdated tropes for a high-fantasy approach

Zita Johann wearing a hat: Boris Karloff, and Zita Johann in The Mummy, circa 1932. © Photo: FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images Boris Karloff, and Zita Johann in The Mummy, circa 1932.

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.]

© Image: Caroline Gariba/Wizards of the Coast

D&D’s new Ravenloft book swaps outdated tropes for a high-fantasy approach