It is not easy being trapped in a dimension where nightmare logic is the law of the land and prisons of tragic irony cage immortal evil. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. It is easy to become trapped in said dimension. Everything that follows? Not so much.
Such is the premise of the newest entry in the Dungeons & Dragons mainline of books, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. At least, that is the theme one might glean from a casual perusal of this setting guide. The titular Ravenloft, also known as the Domains of Dread, is a sprawling series of island-like areas that are connected by the ever-present Mists. Said mists are unpredictable and fickle, swallowing adventurers and commoners alike to send them flailing across realms dominated by monsters from every nightmarish corner of the multiverse. The Domains themselves serve as both prisons and reflections of Dark Lords; foes which range from ancient vampires and undead creations of mad science to eldritch horrors and more esoteric threats to one’s sanity. All of this serves to present a world of uncertainty, terror, and grim adventure.
What a delightful setting for your game of Dungeons & Dragons, right?
For some, it is.
Horror is one of the most effective tools at a Dungeon Master’s disposal when it comes to building tension and getting players invested in a story. Whether it’s confronting the existential dread of a nightmare realm like Ravenloft or simply running away from a pack of angry kobolds (look, we were all level one at some point), fear is both a great motivator for story momentum and, at times, literal momentum on the part of any adventurers involved. Like most elements in collaborative story-telling though, there is a catch and it is one that Van Richten’s Guide addresses right up front. Consent.
One of the most integral parts of any game of Dungeons & Dragons is the player’s ability to trust their Dungeon Master. That isn’t to say that a humble DM can’t hide things from their players (they absolutely can), it’s that they should never violate a player’s trust by pushing them into a situation of extreme discomfort. D&D is a game after all, the goal should be to have fun ultimately. And fun can come in many forms. A haunted house or scary movie can be fun but it is up to everyone playing to make sure that they are on the same page about what folks want out of their games.
Van Richten’s Guide devotes a whole section early in the book (literally right up front) to discussing this topic, which is a novel and welcome thing to see. It is one of those topics that many DMs (myself included) have given thought to over the years but is rarely codified in the official texts. It is obviously a reaction to many discussions that have been had for a few years now in the TTRPG (Tabletop Roleplaying Game) space about the use of content safety tools at individual tables.
In short, Safety Tools involve systems to allow players to signal to their Dungeon Masters that certain topics are upsetting, hurtful or otherwise off-limits without interrupting the flow of gameplay. They are generally just a small part of larger conversations that happen between everyone at a specific game group about what topics they would rather not handle in their fantasy escapism. These types of preemptive discussions combined with active signaling can ensure that everyone is having a good time and doesn’t feel alienated by any subject matter that the other players or DM might not even realize is upsetting someone else.
With the horror genre especially it can be very easy to slip into content that someone at your table might find too graphic or disturbing. Zombies are all well and good but getting into the gritty, gristle-laden details of the undead might not be what someone signed up for on their Sunday evening game night. And that’s okay! Just so long as everyone at the table knows where the limits are and everyone can work together to have a good time.
“Your primary goal as a DM running a horror adventure is to facilitate a fun D&D experience.” says Van Richten’s Guide in a later chapter that delves deeper into these ideas while talking directly to the presumed Dungeon Master. “This book assumes you and your players enjoy the thrill and suspense of scary stories. The audience of a horror movie can enjoy the menace on screen because they know it can’t harm them.”
In previous editions of D&D one might not receive this type of discussion in their text. Many a Monster Manual or Setting Guide simply dispensed the relevant information or blocks of statistics and left the rest to those sitting at the table. That is not to say conversations about consent, content and themes never happened before but encouraging it upfront can do a lot to make sure that no one is alienated from the hobby accidentally.
Obviously there is also that requisite information and stat blocks in Van Richten’s Guide. I finally have stats for a Vampiric Mind Flayer and a Brain In A Jar! I couldn’t be more pleased! But seeing such important talking points brought forward in a book by Wizards of the Coast ensures that while you might be picking up Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft for the monsters and nightmare-scapes, you might just find yourself building a better connection with those sitting with you at the table and ensuring everyone is having a good time.