Review: Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica

In a surprise move this summer, Wizards of the Coast announced a fourth book for their 2018 schedule—the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica—breaking the pattern of previous years where there were only three major releases. Even more surprising, this product was a campaign setting and and a product set in the world of Ravnica, previously only seen in the Magic the Gathering collectable card game.

D&D and Magic have only loosely crossed over before. Since WotC purchased D&D in 1997 along with the other properties of TSR, there has long been speculation that there would be a crossover of some kind, or that elements of the CCG industry would bleed into D&D. Shortly before the release of 5th Edition, a former D&D team member now working on MtG began releasing small little campaign guides for the Magic worlds, known as Plane Shifts. As of this writing, there’s currently six free Plane Shift PDFs available along with an adventure. Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica is largely a supersized Plane Shift book released to stores rather than free online.

What It Is

Basically a large hardcover Plane Shift, this is a very brief guide to the world/ plane of Ravnica along with a description of the ten associated guilds and many new monsters. Like other official D&D releases, this is a full colour hardcover book. Clocking in at 256 pages, Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica has five brand new Player Character races (centaur, minotaur, simic hybrid, vedalken, and loxodon; plus the goblin, reprinted from Guide to Monsters), two new subclasses—cleric of order and spore druid—and 16 magic items, along with 10 new backgrounds: one for each guild. In the middle of the book there is even a short adventure. There’s also a whopping 79 new monsters ranging in challenge  CR 1/4 to 26, which make use of art recycled from Magic cards.

The focus of the book is very much the Guilds, which are the centerpiece of several sections and even receive their own unique monstres: the heads of each of the Guilds are given stat blocks.

Like some of the other recent releases, there’s also a set of dice, which comes in a decorated tin and includes a “guild die” that can be used to randomly choose one of the 10 Guilds. (But, sadly, only one d20.) There is also a map pack, reprinting the maps in the book. These locations are somewhat generic, making the map pack relatively useful for other games. (However, as it is black-and-white line art, the encounter maps in the book are not particularly difficult to print out at home, or even copy by hand.) There’s even a set of miniatures, so the new monsters in this book will be represented, and there’s two companion sets

Disclaimer

I know absolutely nothing about Magic the Gathering. Well… beyond the obvious that it is a collectable card game. I played two games in in my life (both games being twenty years ago) with a starter deck, purchased before starter decks could stand alone and back when they were just larger randomised packs. And after those humiliating defeats, I lost all interest in the game. (Even then, I never really read the cards in those games.) Similarly, my knowledge of Ravnica is limited to a few message board discussions that mostly focused on the importance of the Guilds.

For the interested in Ravnica, there are several articles on the Magic wiki, several episodes of the Dragon Talk podcast, as well as a forthcoming art book that contains additional lore . However, I purposely avoided doing any of this pre-research and tried to go into the book relatively blind. It seemed the best way to evaluate how well it explained the concepts and lore of the setting.

The Good

I’ll start with the obvious: this book is a bonus. It is not for everyone, being a non-D&D world that is a crossover with another game. Not every D&D fan will like this product, let alone want this product. Personally, when it was announced I was aghast that they picked this world to be the first non-Realms setting for 5th Edition rather than any of the classic settings I was familiar with. However, as this book was an unexpected fourth book, it’s not coming at the expense of an existing D&D book. I (and other MtG agnostics) lose nothing by ignoring it. While Magic the Gathering is not my jam, there are more than a few fans of that game in the world, and this product might be the one that pushes them to try D&D.

Despite being an… extraneous release, the mechanics of this book are as solid as any official D&D product. The two new subclasses were reviewed blind by the D&D community, publically playtested via the Unearthed Arcana articles. A third subclass was offered but didn’t make the cut based on fan feedback. Similarly, the minotaur and centaur were also revealed and tested, and after the book was announced the simic hybrid, vedalken, and loxodon were tested and reviewed. The fifth race in this book is one we’ve seen before: the goblin. But as that people is common and important to the world, I like that they reprinted it rather than directing the audience to Volo’s Guide to Monsters.

Emphasising this is a Magic player’s starter book for D&D, in the middle of the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, is an adventure for first level characters. (Unfortunately, there’s no associated pregens.) Similarly, it’s a shame this book makes use of a druid subclass, rather than focusing classes from the Basic Rules, making this work almost as a stand-alone starter product. (The spore druid does feel rather essential to one of the ten Guilds that are the centerpiece of the setting and this book, so I guess that was unavoidable. Still… the druid is in the SRD, so you can make do.)

When I first heard of the Guilds and how important they were to the city, I was expecting them to be familiar urban guilds: the merchant’s guild, the artisan’s guild, the mercenary guild, etc. I was rather surprised to instead find them to be very unique and flavourful, more being large and varied monolithic organizations. Almost akin to cyberpunk mega-corps focused around a single broad theme or hook. Instead of the generic “Guild of Tradesfolk” there’s a Guild entirely focused on ruling the city, enacting laws, and keeping the peace. And a Guild that is equal parts state church and moneylenders.

As someone who goes by the name “Jester” online, the Cult of Rakdos is fun, being the traditional satirist court jesters but also wild entertainers, with the added twist of being led by a demon. That’s rather nifty and gives the carnival folk and entertainers a very dark edge. And it establishes an instant difference between a non-Guild bard and a Guilded bard beyond their credentials.

These ten Guilds are very, very much the focus of the book. Each Guild is given a couple page write-up along with a background to tie PCs to the Guild (each Guild probably receives more total pages than the default setting of the 10th District). There are occasionally unique spells and other new mechanics, along with text spent on their locations, the type of adventures the Guilds are involved in, how the Guilds work as adversaries, and the role of both character classes and adventurers in each of the Guilds. This book should almost have been called “A Guide to the Ravnican Guilds“.

I’m not entirely sure what makes the guilds special beyond the fact each was founded 10,000 years ago and their survival is tied into some unbreakable law that is at the core of the plane/world’s society. Aka the Guildpact (which is also a dude). Why these ten groups? Given there’s ten Guilds and Magic the Gathering is known for its five schools of magic, I’m guessing each Guild is tied to either a dark or light reflection of a school. (Or, more likely, law vs chaos.) As such, they special because they’re tied to the backstory of the game of Magic, and the lore of that universe. There might be an element of “balance” at play. But I’m just guessing at this point.

Regardless, this leads to some interesting concepts and makes the Guilds varied in attitude, and even varied in tone, from very formal organizations that look and feel like traditional Guilds, and very anarchist collectives that are more akin to gangs.

The Bad

Not knowing anything of the setting beyond that the city was a megaopolis that covered the entire planet and that the Guilds were super important (so much so that it’s presumed all stories set in Ravnica will involve them), I went into this book seeking answers to several questions:

Why are the Guilds so important, and what role do non-Guild people play?

Is the entire surface of the planet a uniform city? Or are their expansive suburbs the size of provinces? Parks the size small states? Are there still rivers and oceans? Are entire districts floating? Were mountains pancaked flat, or did the city weave around them? How about canyons? Where does the food come from? What’s the source of raw materials to build new things? Is everything made from recycled goods now or is there still mines?

And the book told me… very little.

Apparently, the city covers the oceans and rivers, which can be reached by passing deep into the reaches below the city. So the entire city is a good distance above sea level. It mentions rain water being collected, cleaned, and piped into wealthy neighbourhoods, but I’m not sure where common people get their water. Wells might work for a fraction of the surface, but how does that work when you’re on a city-shaped crust above miles and miles of ocean?

There are “greenbelts” that provide the food, but the one in the book is barely the size of central park. Realistic cities require rural farmland covering twice the landscape as the urban core to sustain themselves, so two-thirds of the planet should be “green”. This is very much not so.

(I’m aware of the paradox of bringing up “realistic cities” in a fantasy book. But the excuse “because magic” is passable for a nitpicky complaint, but very much not for something as large as asking how everyone doesn’t starve.” It’s literally “a wizard did it”, which is super dismissive. “Because magic” works best when invoked on purpose and not as a justification for shoddy worldbuilding.)

The scale of things in general seems very poorly thought out. As demonstrated by the map. It’s a lovely map of a district, but the map scale denotes it as covering an area roughly the size of the island of Manhattan. But it shows individual buildings, so it should really have a scale half as large. Unless each of those buildings is HUGE.

I’m also not certain of the role of Guildless in the city. A sidebar early on in the book pegs the percentage of Guildless at 50%—roughly 5% of the population would be in each Guild. More or less. But it also implies there is a higher percentage of Guildless outside of the more urban cores, so it might be higher than 50% Guilded in the 10th District. (What the city even looks like outside the more urban centers is also not detailed.) I’m also uncertain how the Guildless are seen in the world, given it is a 50/50 split. As they’re more common outside the urban core, is it a Red State/ Blue State distinction? An upper class/ lower class division? Are the Guildless seen as blue collar working folk that keep the system running, or a forgotten underclass dismissed by the Guilded elites? Or perhaps they’re viewed as the essential servers and officer workers who keep the system working rather than manufacturing? Are Guilds seen as the groups that “get things done” for everyone else?

The book does a passable job explaining how most of the classes fit into the setting, which can be awkward as some are so very much tied to D&D and presumably not the tropes of Magic. For example, sorcerers are explained as gaining magic from experiments and it implies warlocks have a pact with several guildmasters. But there’s no list of other potential patrons, such as Great Old Ones. Meanwhile, it says the worship of gods is rare, and that clerics typically devote themselves to a cause, but spends virtually no time on religion at all. Is Ravnica atheistic? One of the Guilds is kinda sorta a church (Orzhov Syndicate) but they feel like a bank that founded a religion worshipping wealth and the presence of the divine in their beliefs isn’t stated.

The description of monsters is folded partially into the monster chapter, which makes it easy to miss that vampires are immortal but significantly less powerful, or that medusas are called “gorgons”. In general, it’s unstated if the the nature and flavour of D&D monsters is the same or different in Ravnica, or the role and culture these monster societies possess. Are giants all one species/ people or are the different types as different as frost and fire giants? I have no idea. And looking at images of the miniature set showed that Ravnica ogres apparently look very different from D&D ogres. I have no idea if it’s just cosmetic or if they should be presented differently. Are there even orcs in Ravnica? Hobgoblins? I have no idea.

And then there’s monsters like the Skyswimmer that receive a single paragraph monster writeup that would be sad and anemic in 3e.

The Ugly

The 10,000 years of Ravnica’s history is ridiculously long. That’s twice as long as recorded human history! And it gets even more screwy when you consider that ONE faction has managed all the laws and policing over that time: the Azorius Senate. Who basically has control in a one party political system. Meanwhile, on Earth, if a single political party is in power for more than ten years they become crazy corrupt and start abusing their power.

It gets even more silly when you consider the goals of a couple guilds, like the Golgari Swarm and the Gruul Clans. The primary philosophy of the Swarm is that they want to tear down the existing social order and replace it, and that the other Guilds of Ravnica are “shortsighted and inevitably doomed to collapse”. And yet… these quote-unquote short sighted Guilds are twice as old as the story of Gilgamesh!! And the Gruul Clans are basically random violent gangs who are somehow considered a necessary Guild (probably because of needless symmetry, and needing an evil/chaotic variant of another Guild. Azorius maybe?) Their primary goal is furthering the cause of anarchy and destroying civilization… and yet the entire planet is a city and the same social order has been maintained for 10,000 years. Congratulation Gruul, you’re a joke. A Guild of losers. And because the primary goal of the Guild would destroy a core aspect of the setting (that the world is entirely covered in a single city) the Gruul can never, ever achieve their primary goal. The setting has indestructible plot armour. So the Gruul aren’t just abject failures, but paper tigers doomed to a Sisyphean task.

I’m not even certain what the purpose of these Guilds is. It’s implied in a few places that the Guilds were chose for some in-world reason (with the Cult of Rakdos being formed to find a positive societal place for devils) but I’m uncertain why the Gruul or Swarm were established. The Golgari have a refuse management and slime/ algae/ fungi  farming position in the present, but that hardly would have been useful ten millennia prior.

Centaurs in an urban setting seem weird. They’re an awkward fit for the world. Likely literally. Climbing stairs would be a pain and no one would like them on a train or in a carriage. Do they even have a role in polite society?

Most of the mechanics are good. But from a game design perspective, many of the Guild renown perks are problematic. I like the concept of focusing on renown and making this the sourcebook for factions and reputation perks. However, gaining the assistance of half-dozen NPCs is a massive pain in the ass. Not only for DMs trying to balance encounters, but just in terms of table management. Do they each get seperate turns? Act on the same initiative as their boss? If everyone has that level the “party” might be over twenty-members strong!

The Awesome

Early in the book there is a flowchart questionnaire that can be used to assign a guild based on the answers to a couple choice questions.

The start gives you some sample party compositions, with complimentary class, Guild, and role configurations. Useful for new players as well as thinking of what type of campaign the table wants. And you can just roll and pick randomly, setting disputes over the type of game that way.

Speaking of new players, there are tips and reminders regarding common rules mistakes. This really emphasises that this book is aimed at first time D&Ders.

While I bitched about the scale, the district/ city map is awesome. Some lovely, lovely art. And likely easy to steal and appropriate for another city, even in a homebrew setting.

I’m a fan of the Horrors monster, which are nicely customizable. They remind me as less tentacly feyr (or fihyr), which are a classic-esque D&D critter.

Rubblebelts are fun. These are basically neighbourhoods where the city has decayed and fallen into ruin (or potentially been overgrown/ reclaimed by nature; but these might overlap with greenbelts). Rubblebelts are basically the “wilds” of the setting where monsters live. It makes sense that there’d be areas that just get ignored: former mining or industrial cities where the jobs have moved on or areas where a natural disaster wrecked the buildings and no one wants to pay for the reconstruction. This sets up interesting dungeon crawls through abandoned warehouses and factories or wandering through neighborhoods that have more in common with a city in Fallout.

Final Thoughts

As a non-Magic fan, Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica was always going to have to work to selling me on the setting. I wasn’t coming into the product with established affection. However, I am a junkie for neat campaign settings, and every time I read one I end up thinking of two or three campaigns I want to run in that world. WotC has proven me wrong a few times, surprising me with products I was sure I’d be indifferent towards; while I was initially hesitant (and vocally so) I was prepared to be proven wrong and fall in love with the setting.

In general, I’d much rather have a cool product I can praise than to be right. I desperately wanted this product to be good.

But as I read Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica I found myself left with more questions over the world than I had answers. While I could play or run in the setting with what I was given, I never felt like I was given enough information to manage the setting or accurately portray it, let alone present it as a living place. I never felt like I was given enough information to understand the world and I would either have to invent large swaths of the setting (defeating the purpose of paying $50 for a campaign setting product) or do further research. Lots of research. Likely necessitating the purchase of additional books.

As a small example, the Izzet League is a Guild of magic/steampunk inventors—as seen by the cover illustration—but I have no idea how widespread their technology is. Is it found everywhere with arc lamp streetlights, flying ships, and trains? Or is that localized to their holdings, and the technology seen as proprietary “Guild secrets”? To me that’s essential information as it informs how I describe the setting, the potential weaponry of enemies, and even the setpieces of encounters.

Meanwhile, also I prefer to make my own choices over what I find most interesting in a setting. I like to have a choice, to find some small side area to make my own, or small reference that enflames my imagination. This book doesn’t give me that. It provides the absolute minimum details for a single small area (that may or may not be representative of the entire world) and assumes I’m playing a Guild-focused game. When given a single non-choice like that I makes me want to rebel and do a game where the Guilds are in the background.  

Now, in fairness, the city proper is given twelve pages of text detailing the neighbourhoods, which is probably comparable to the world lore given to Greyhawk in the World of Greyhawk folio that launched a hundred campaigns. So you can very easily run a game just with this book. It just requires some invention and willingness to take liberties with the setting. But if your players are not familiar with the setting, they won’t know or care that you’re making it all up.

That said, this book feels like it was written for existing fans of Ravnica and not casual fans looking to learn more about the setting. It was designed for those fans who already know how the world works and just need some specifics. It’s a book designed to introduce those fans to D&D. It’s almost a conversion guide providing the rules for the current edition.

By this metric, how does the book measure up?

The Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica certainly gives you the mechanics needed to play in the setting. It doesn’t attempt to translate the five schools of magic to D&D (even in a flavourful method) but it gives you everything else. If you are a Magic fan curious about D&D, then this will be a solid purchase, and pair fairly nicely with the Basic Rules, getting you started and playing, with the monsters in that free PDF and this hardcover being all you need to adventure for months.

But if you’re not a Magic fan and you just want a new world to play in… this is probably not a good choice. Try the Eberron book on the Dungeon Master’s Guild, which is somehow more comprehensive despite being far smaller. Or check out the Midgard Campaign Setting from Kobold Press.

But to me, this book felt incredibly anaemic and probably inferiour in terms of both quantity of lore and mechanics to even the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.

 

 

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