Personal Thoughts on Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft

This is a very personal blog. It should almost start it with a content warning… 

I’m uncertain if I’ll post this as it feels a lot like whining, and I should just ctrl-x the entire piece and throw it into https://screamintothevoid.com/ (But since I killed my main Twitter account, traffic to my site has slowed, so I doubt anyone will read this anyway. So same difference.) 

Things have been rough for me the last eighteen months. 

Yes, I know, 2020 sucked for everyone. And people lost their jobs and homes. And family members! I shouldn’t complain because no one I know died (yet) and I still have my health (mostly). 

But things still hurt.

My wife left me. She had lots of reasons, but a big one was her mental health and inability to put up with my bullshit. Specifically my Autism-related depression and meltdowns. My moods were too taxing for her and she had to decide between her mental health and mine. She chose herself and so the marriage ended. Which was a total surprise to me. One day I thought things were fine and the next it was over. 

I lost daily access to my son. My dog. My house (including my amazing gaming room). Half my friends (including one of my two gaming groups). My financial security and retirement plan. And even things like reliable and fast internet, as I moved to a place with much poorer cables and service. This was in December of 2019. A few months later… well, y’know. And I had to deal with everything 2020 threw at me pretty much on my own. Including being laid off for four months. 

I kept a few things. My cat. My job. (Which I’ll probably eventually have to leave for something that can allow me more financial stability.) A D&D group. A couple close friends, who I’m exceedingly thankful for as they’ve literally kept me sane; but there’s only so much of my drama I can dump on them, as they’re dealing with their own COVIDrama.

What does this have to do with Ravenloft you ask?

I’m getting there.

Down to D&D

Despite everything that happened I still had D&D. I could still play. Write and share content online. I could buy books (when my finances allow) and write reviews. I could look forward to the new books each year. In the dark years of my teens, D&D was something that keep me going. And to some degree it still is.

This has been getting harder, and not just because virtual tabletop games are less satisfying. I don’t play Magic the Gathering and have no affection for those settings. I haven’t been a brand new player in a lifetime, so the endless starter boxes have zero appeal. As much as I love Critical Role, I don’t have any desire to play in that world. And few of the new storyline adventures have wow-ed me: I’ve reviewed too many not to see the cracks and weaker elements in the modules and how much I’d have to work to make them playable. Without counting 3rd Party books, I now have a half-dozen 5e D&D books on my shelf that are just there to occupy space.

Now, I know I shouldn’t expect to be the target audience of every D&D book. There’s so many new players out there who need a turn in the spotlight. People other than middle aged (mostly) straight cis white dudes very much deserve books and content. There are people out there who love the MtG settings or leapt at the chance to run a Stranger Things or Rick & Morty campaign. 

But then van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft was announced. That felt like the one book in years directly aimed at me. It wasn’t just a classic setting but the one I loved. The Ravenloft Red Box was one of the first D&D products I purchased. I’ve run a half-dozen campaigns in Ravenloft, spent thousands of dollars on Ravenloft products, written a half-dozen Ravenloft books for the DMsGuild, and was actively planning a new Ravenloft campaign for when I can roll dice in-person again. (Probably even over-planning to be honest.)

It was the D&D product just for me! The one product where gamers like myself wouldn’t be an afterthought. 
Or so I assumed. 
Wrongly, as it turned out.

It wasn’t the Ravenloft I know and love. The one where I have set countless adventures and run a multitude of game sessions. Instead, van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft feels entirely directed at new players who have never read an older Ravenloft product. It’s a Ravenloft book not aimed at Ravenloft fans. I’d even say it was “Ravenloft for people who hated past versions of Ravenloft.” I was hoping for Kevin Smith’s He-Man Revelations and instead got Noelle Stephenson’s She-Ra.

My Ravenloft was gone again. While before I could at least dream of someday having a new Ravenloft book and imagine at how awesome it could be, the setting I knew had been overwritten and is likely never coming back. It was replaced. I had been replaced. 

Which oddly hurts…

Reversal

It’s not just the revision of the campaign setting that is triggering me. Whenever the previews mentioned old products, the tone was… overwhelmingly negative. Mean even. In interviews, the designers are simultaneously apologizing for the past and mocking its flaws. This really put me on the defensive: nobody likes having something they enjoy roasted. At the same time I was reminded of the launch of 4th Edition, where Wizards of the Coast dedicated their previews teasing and mocking 3rd Edition and lauding how cool the new edition would be.

The old products absolutely had their flaws, but they had good elements as well. Imperfect and flawed domains had received a decade-and-a-half of lore and updates improving them and giving you a reason to care. But the work of all those authors to improve the setting was being brushed aside without a thought.

Additionally—for lack of a better term—much of the interviews & associated came across as “virtue signalling.” The extra diversity is truly nice, but it’s really being flaunted. As if the writers want attention and praise for their progress. In general, Wizards of the Coast has become wary of scandal and negative reactions to older content, so they’re throwing that content under the bus. Repeatedly. And, by extension, us older fans who have strong nostalgia for that content. This is almost the theme of 2021’s releases, where WotC frantically tries to win over angry online protestors by showing how much they’ve improved and working with their critics. But since haters gotta hate this doesn’t work: disgruntled tweeters and bloggers will always find something to be outraged about. And commenters who have made their name criticizing D&D online aren’t going to stop attacking just because they have a byline. In fact, they’ll probably attack more, because it worked so well the first time and they don’t want to be seen as having “sold out” or putting a price on their silence or risk losing the audience of D&D detractors they’ve carefully curated.

D&D is choosing its critics over fans who have supported the game for decades. 

Being reminded of 4th Edition just makes this change feel extra ironic. Because WotC spent years trying to win back their fans in the build-up and release of 5th Edition. But now D&D has ascended to a new peak, WotC can’t drop their old fans for the new ones fast enough.

To reiterate, I don’t believe every product needs to be aimed at us grognards and old fogies. And basing new content entirely on nostalgia absolutely isn’t healthy for the brand either. You need a mix of content and a balance between the old and new. But for the last two or three years, the conversation and products have been heavily skewed to newcomers. 

And I cannot help but take this personally and internalize the rejection. 

Going Forward

As I wonder what the next book will be I find myself having trouble working up enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter what the summer storyline adventure is. Or the fall expansion book. I’m no longer who Wizards is selling books to. I’ve aged out of the target demographic. 

I worry that D&D will become like the superhero comic book industry. Where each edition brings with it a new reboot of the continuity, erasing the past for the new author’s imaginative new take. Crisis on Infinite Realms. Each author revises a world to leave their own mark on D&D, but since everyone is doing it the impact is lessened and the “mark” becomes more and more forgettable.  

But I could also be totally wrong. It’s quite possible the next couple campaign settings will retain their original continuity. I’m not sure that would be better or worse. If they do a Dark Sun setting like they did in 4th Edition—where they keep the vast majority of the setting intact but set it in a specific era—then why is Dark Sun worth preserving while Ravenloft needed to be torn down and rebuilt? It feels extra insulting that Ravenloft content is so replaceable.
Still, I rather doubt this will happen: I expect the next two campaign settings (be it Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, or Spelljammer) to be as revised as Ravenloft. The Delver’s Guide to Greyhawk where the Free City of Greyhawk and a dozen neighbouring nations each get 2-3 pages and each nation is completely revised to remove historical analogues and become less humanocentric. (The ancient Baklunish and Suel empires that caused the Invoked Devastation could easily be dragonborn and tiefling empires respectively.) 

Which makes me wonder if I’ve purchased my last D&D book. My last RPG book! I’ve spent the last twenty years—my entire adult life—wondering about what’s next for D&D and trying to financially justify getting the newest accessory. And now that feeling is gone. And in four months, when the new D&D book comes out it will likely just be another Tuesday. 

Am I being overly dramatic as I whine about how D&D is being ruined forever? Oh, probably. I have no doubt RPGs in general and D&D in specific will survive just fine. It’s the golden age of D&D and it has fans for days. But it will largely be with me. And the hobby won’t even notice my withdrawl. 

If I vocalized this on Twitter or Discord the advice I’d undoubtedly receive is “don’t worry about the industry and WotC and focus on making your game great.” Which is good advice but feels hollow. I’m already throwing as much attention into my home games as feels necessary. More prep won’t make my game better (and might even be detrimental as I “sunk cost” my players into a railroad). There’s no correlation between excessive prep and great games, and sometimes games with minimal preparation are superiour. And as I was planning a Ravenloft campaign for the new year, I’ll continually be reminded of my disappointment every time I play. Focusing on my game might not help…

Regardless, I’m still losing that little bit of happy in my life that comes from anticipating the new book and thinking about what’s next for D&D. That little bit of incentive to think about the future and look forward to the new shiny. And replacing that bit of happy is just more apathy and ennui.