How D&D is Going Full ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ Mode in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft

Zombies aren’t precisely a brand new idea in Dungeons & Dragons — odds are when you’ve ever performed D&D you have had a few zombies come out of a coffin whereas delving into some long-buried tomb.They won’t operate precisely the identical as you are used to seeing them in films — for instance, in the present guidelines as written Zombies do not also have a chew assault — however the traditional undead monsters are about to shamble into the highlight with the upcoming sourcebook, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, in one of many largest departures from the supply materials for the fan-favorite setting.

“There’s no reason for us to be like, ‘We’re only interested in this one flavor of horror,’ when there’s an entire buffet out there.”

The worlds of Ravenloft rapidly turned, and remained, fashionable amongst D&D gamers all through the ’90s and early 2000s, and the Fifth Edition journey Curse of Strahd—which targeted solely on the best-known area and Darklord—reinvigorated the neighborhood’s ardour for tabletop horror. “The campfire experience and the tabletop experience are so similar,” says Wes Schneider, Lead Designer on Van Richten’s Guide. “You’ve got one person who’s telling a story, and they’re telling it dramatically, and authentically, and atmospherically, and everybody’s leaning in. When folks think about, ‘What does immersive storytelling look like?’, ghost stories around the campfire come to mind, but then, so does tabletop role-playing. They’re sort of a natural complement to each other.”

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With Van Richten’s Guide, nevertheless, Schneider and the opposite designers—together with authors Ok. Tempest Bradford and Cassandra Khaw—are hoping to step away from the considerably homogenous gothic themes that had been the inspiration for therefore lots of Ravenloft’s authentic worlds. “When Ravenloft came together as a campaign setting, it continued to lean into gothic horror tropes,” Schneider says, “but there are much broader opportunities for horror. With Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, we really wanted to open up all of Pandora’s Boxes there. We wanted to be able to do gothic horror, yes, of course—that’s always been core to the domain, and that’s still a major tent post of the book—but, body horror, cosmic horror, psychological horror; there’s no reason for us to be like, ‘Oh D&D only does this … we’re only interested in this one flavor of horror,’ when there’s an entire buffet of horror out there.”

“The Dark Powers don’t need to make a logical continuity.”

This brings us again to zombies. Schneider just lately gave us an in-depth have a look at Falkovnia, one of many domains receiving a giant renovation from its ’90s roots. While different domains—like Har’Akir or Lamordia, which had been successfully Advanced Dungeons & Dragon’s “Mummy World” and “Frankenstein Land,” respectively—drew on traditional horror inspirations, the area of Falkovnia was all the time significantly much less fantastical. Its Darklord was a reasonably primary analog for Vlad the Impaler, a brutal warlord with a penchant for ultraviolence, and it had few defining traits past being a land dominated by a brutal warlord with a penchant for ultraviolence. In 2021, nevertheless, Falkovnia has been reimagined as a nightmarish Groundhog’s Day-style loop, the place a struggling nation—which occurs to be dominated by a brutal warlord—is endlessly besieged by large hordes of the strolling lifeless, who simply so occur to appear like everybody this warlord has ever killed.

“Something that I feel that many of the past editions of Ravenloft didn’t focus on,” Schneider says, “[was that] the dark lords have always been prisoners. But how are they suffering? How are they tormented? These are evil characters, and they’re imprisoned and trapped here. Why is this a terrible experience most of all for them? That’s something that really gets driven home throughout every one of the domains.”Art and an excerpt from Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft

An excerpt on zombies from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. Art by Scott Murphy.

Of course, if the dwelling lifeless aren’t actually your velocity, Van Richten’s Guide has sections on how to swap out zombies for an additional monstrous apocalypse. Maybe you’d somewhat see an infinite swarm of Kuo-toa fish-men, or giants — the Guide is extra about presenting choices for working a wide range of horror video games as an alternative of simply traditional Gothic Horror. This new tackle Falkovnia is primarily based on what the workforce calls “Disaster Horror,” the battle of humanity’s—or elfdom’s, or dwarvenkind’s, no matter your taste of civilization is—final holdout in opposition to the unstoppable.

Zombies simply occur to be an important car for that form of horror, and one which the workforce knew they wished to discover from the beginning — which made Falkovnia an ideal match. Not solely as a result of it wasn’t as extraordinary as a few of the different domains and thus due for a refresh, however as a result of the setting’s foundational components meshed so nicely with themes that usually seem in zombie media. “It’s an agrarian society, there’s a working-class, there’s like this whole elaborate structure that people depend on just to survive under this harsh ruler,” Schneider says. “There are hard-working people here that depend on each other for food and survival, and so on and so forth. That’s a great place to have a zombie apocalypse… How does it start? How do [the players] get involved with that? How do things go wrong? How do things go worse? What are the horrible sacrifices that the amoral regime decides to make to save as many people as possible or themselves? And then, how does all that resolve?”

While there might solely be a number of additions mechanically—together with some new creatures for the Monster Manual (like the huge Zombie Clot, above, simply in the working for Grossest Voltron Ever), and guidelines for the way an undead siege on the Falkovnian capital of Lekar differs from these by dwelling armies—as with so many zombie tales, the actual focus is on the individuals the zombified lots try to overwhelm. While this actually provides loads of distinctive choices to participant characters, Schneider says it additionally makes Falkovnia’s reimagined Darklord, Vladeska Drakov, singularly distinctive. “She’s a Darklord who almost doesn’t have the time to be a Darklord,” he laughs. “So many of the other Darklords are like, ‘All right, this is my shtick, I’m doing this horrible thing.’ Strahd’s in his castle, he’s got schemes, he’s doing his Strahd thing, but Vladeska is on a freaking deadline.Vladeska Drakov repels a zombie attack. Art by Mark Behm

Vladeska Drakov repels a zombie assault. Art by Mark Behm

Schneider says that whereas there is downtime constructed into the design of Falkovnia, the hordes will all the time be again, and sure, most likely in higher numbers. It appears to not solely be an efficient technique of spurring gamers to motion however to additionally present a singular downside for gamers to resolve in the face of such overwhelming opposition. Just a few zombies on their very own, even a dozen or extra, will not pose too nice a risk to most characters past the primary few ranges. With solely 22 hit factors, a well-placed Fireball spell rolling below-average injury can incinerate a small horde in one flip. The intention of Falkovnia, in accordance to Schneider, is to reply the query “What happens when there are more zombies than there are Fireballs?” And as a result of Ravenloft would not work like different marketing campaign settings—the place you may beseech a neighboring kingdom for assist, or recruit a plucky band of NPCs to bolster your defenses—the character of the Demiplane domains create a form of “nightmare logic,” the place you already know escape is all however not possible, so you may’t assist however attempt to combat or flee.

“The Dark Powers don’t need to make a logical continuity,” Schneider says. “If Lekar falls, your party might be a group that manages to escape back into the mists. They might have different adventures, and then someday, they might find themselves back in Falkovnia – but Lekar hasn’t fallen, and it’s all happening again.”

The most terrifying nightmares are recurring ones, in spite of everything – although that zombie Voltron is fairly excessive up there,now, too.

What form of nightmarish Kobayashi Maru would you need to run in Ravenloft? Let us know in the feedback, and for extra TRPGs on IGN, why not dig into the “remastered” Curse of Strahd boxed set with its lead writer, Chris Perkins, or learn up on how video games still draw from their tabletop roots!

JR is a Senior Producer at IGN, and can 100% be throwing WWZ-style mountains of fish individuals at his gamers after they lastly get again collectively. In the meantime, you may find him on Twitter, most likely additionally tweeting about D&D.

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