These Van Richten books are a fucking emotional rollercoaster. They're good on average. Certainly, the concept is sound. They're a guide to using horror movie monsters and they're narrated by the old-timey monster hunter who would show up in the first act of a horror movie, mentor the main characters, and then promptly die. When the book is in its wheelhouse, it's pretty decent. Some of the out-of-character sections, where they talk about how to run horror stories, are even actively good. But then sometimes, without warning, it gets bad.
Where it gets challenging for me is that sometimes Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium is bad in a funny way, and that's what I really want to talk about, but every so often it's bad in a racist way and I skipped talking about that in Volume 1, so now I have to get right into it.
Van Richten has a racist backstory. I didn't realize that the first time I read this book because I first heard of the Roma people when I was in my early 20s, but Ravenloft has this group of people called the Vistani who are basically Roma stereotypes and are repeatedly referred to by a racial slur. The Vistani stole Van Richten's son and sold him to a vampire.
This is . . . I don't know. I don't even have an analogy to describe it. We're in blood libel territory here. Ravenloft took the most odious historical stereotype about the Roma and for setting's thinly-veiled Roma stand-ins, they made the stereotype true.
Then there's Van Richten repeatedly going off on them. Bringing up some nonsense like "the dreaded evil eye" and tossing around the g-word. It was worse in volume 1, but it's still going on (volume 3 has Van Richten's Guide to the Vistani, which I shudder to think about). I think it's supposed to be a genre trope (I suspect, like me, the earliest D&D authors didn't realize that the traveling fortune-tellers and rogues that show up in gothic horror were based on old-world hate speech), but it didn't age well at all.
It's a relatively small element, though. At least until the next volume. Let's pivot to the ways this book is incredibly ridiculous. Here's an alternate reality fan-fic pitch for you, based on Van Richten's Guide to Ghosts - what if, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge had hired Van Helsing to come in and slay the ghost of Jacob Marley with a platinum sword?
This, by the way, is not a hypothetical extrapolation of the game rules. It's a paraphrase, "Clearly, Marley was a miser. Perhaps it might be possible to keep his spirit from entering an area by ringing it with gold coins. Perhaps only weapons made from precious metals could harm the creature, with a platinum sword doing its normal damage to the spirit. . ."
In the book's defense, it follows this up with a much better suggestion of helping put Marley's ghost to rest by helping Scrooge, but the fact that reenacting the redemption arc was the second suggestion just goes to show how completely out-to-lunch this book can be.
Here's a fun drinking game for Van Richten's Guide to the Lich - take a shot every time a narrator describes a lich in a voice of breathless terror while the lich itself is being completely harmless. "I turned the corner and came upon a figure leaning over one of our crystal balls. . . I must have made some noise to alert it to my presence . . .What turned in answer nearly frightened me to death . . .I recognized it immediately as a lich and raised my hands to cast a warding spell. However, it employed some device and faded from view before I could complete my incantation, most likely returning from whence it came."
I don't want to go full alternate-character-interpretation here and cast the liches as innocent victims of Van Richten's extremism, but a lot of the time, he was just describing a bunch of spooky nerds. So much of what the liches are doing is just sitting quietly in their homes reading books.
Even when they're at their most frightening, it's as often as not in the context of defending their homes from invading adventurers. OMG, the foul lich killed all but one of that adventuring party . . . and then pretended that the sole survivor managed to slay it . . . so it could lie low and cool it with the evil schemes for a couple hundred years so that all of its enemies are felled by the scourge of old age!
I think you have to meet the book half way when it comes to its implied setting. When it says the lich transformation potion requires a heart "preferably from a sentient creature," maybe you just read that as dark rituals, human sacrifice, and the blasphemous consumption of souls. Maybe when it talks about demiliches resting quietly in ruined fortresses, exploring the higher planes, you could assume they're doing some kind of damage to the natural order. You know, when a lich reaches the highest levels of mystical development, it starts causing natural disasters and undermining the metaphysical underpinnings of existence instead of being a sedentary pile of dust that occasionally casts sinister cantrips ("Sinister Cantrip" is, incidentally, the name of one of this book's custom spells for liches).
The culprit here is just the alignment system, though. It allows you to simply label a creature "evil" in lieu of showing it doing specific evil deeds. Van Richten has a really on-the-nose example of this when he talks about Liches' power rituals (spells which grant the lich extraordinary magical strength at the cost of potentially massive backlashes - which is why liches are always careful to cast them far away from populated areas). He says, "I'm sure that a lich would take great delight in destroying a religious structure to clear an area for the ritual."
Why is this phrased as a hypothetical? Why not just say that the desecration of holy ground is a key component? Or, at the very least, give a concrete example of a lich taking delight in destroying a religious structure. It makes Van Richten sound really petty.
"I'm sure you'd love it if you got to knock down a church to cast your evil magic."
"First of all, the magic isn't evil, it's just dangerous, and secondly, when have I ever destroyed a church? Can you name even one incident of me taking pleasure in vandalism?"
"Not yet, but I just know it's the sort of thing you would do."
But the frustrating thing about alignment is not the way it sometimes substitutes for characterization. The real damage alignment does is when it starts to substitute for worldbuilding. There's a lot to like about Ravenloft, but one thing I absolutely cannot stand is the way that it takes creature types which normally have a variety of alignments and then insists that in the "Demiplane of Dread" they are always evil.
This kind of works with vampires and liches. They're corpses brought back to life with dark magic and they exist for selfish reasons. They became immortal to pursue their pleasures or obsessions and maybe that cuts them off from something essential in humanity that allows us to live benevolently. Desecrate yourself and you'll have no problem desecrating the world.
And maybe with werebeasts and golems, there's a needle you can thread. Like, yes many werebeasts are dangerous predators, and so they could be scary if they got in the habit of devaluing human life, but I can't remember the last time I was afraid of a werewolf, I've gotten so used to thinking of them as just another form of animal life. A fantasy setting's got elves and goblins and wolf-people and they're all just demihumans. To suddenly have their characterization so limited felt jarring to me. And Ravenloft's approach to flesh golems is just ass-backwards. The whole reason golems are dangerous is because they rise to the level of evil with which they're treated. Humanity can't coexist with the created because of its own judgemental cruelty.
I'd go so far as to say that, given how Ravenloft bills itself, it's actually the setting least suited to strict alignment, because the alignment system can't distinguish between something that's evil and something that's harmful. And that distinction is at the crux of the problem with the ghost section.
In nearly every ghost story worth telling, the ghost is the character most in need of help. Sometimes it'll be the ghost of a murderer who just wants to continue murdering after their death, but mostly a ghost is a soul in torment. Your default stance is supposed to be compassion - "we must bring peace to this spirit and allow it to rest," that sort of thing. The challenge of the ghost story is one of communication. The ghost is in such pain that it can't really see the world of the living. The harm it does is not done with intent, but is rather tied to a fixation. They reenact the trauma that trapped them in the shadow-world, and their flailing poses a threat to the living. The way you "defeat" a ghost is to let it know that it is understood and to correct the imbalance that keeps them from moving on.
Or you could, I guess, just slap a label of "evil" on them and talk about how they're vulnerable to certain spells and magic items or being confronted with the thing that killed them (there's an example of a ghost who died after being tortured and is subsequently destroyed with a flaming blade . . . it's pretty fucked up)
It's kind of wild to think about, though. A ghost hunting team that gets rid of ghosts by exploiting their trauma to terrorize them. ("You were betrayed by a man who sent you roses . . . then we'll shove bouquets in your face until you flee the area"). It kind of breaks the dramatic rules of haunting stories - reminding a ghost of its drama is the one thing most guaranteed to get you mixed up in it - and it's ridiculously cruel, but you might be able to mine the concept for humor. It's also AD&D's default mode of play, so grab your platinum sword and keep those ghosts away from Scrooge!
Finally I guess I have to talk about mummies. They're kind of the odd one out when it comes to classic movie monsters, because the word "mummy" sounds kind of funny (which is probably why they go with "Ancient Dead" in the title), and they're only really threatening to archaeologists and grave robbers. They're the only monster that only attacks if you ignore the prominently posted warnings and dodge the gauntlet of deadly traps specifically put in place to keep you as far away as possible.
I guess you could say that in D&D world, you sometimes get mummies who decide to leave the tomb of their own volition and then kill people for no adequately explained reason, but it really feels like the authors are reaching when they do that. It's a rare mummy who manages to both feel properly villainous and also be reasonably like a mummy. Usually, the villainous mummy winds up just being a lich by another name. The only ones who really manage to hit the sweet spot are ancient kings who come back from the dead to pick up where they left off.
Which skirts right up against the most awkward part about using mummies as a fantasy monster - technically, mummification is an honor. They don't do it for villains, or at least, not for the sort of villains who are out of sync with the values of their society. It's possible, even probable, that a well-regarded tyrant could be made into a mummy, but most mummies are going to be people the living wanted to stick around.
Van Richten's Guide to the Ancient Dead tries to have it both ways by pointing out that elaborate embalming rituals are a respected cultural practice, but only lawful evil priests will turn an embalmed corpse into an undead creature. This calls into question the very notion of mummies as an undead category - why aren't they just a well-preserved strain of zombies - while also being a total cop-out. If it weren't for naturally-mummified anomalies and the occasional reborn king, almost every mummy in existence would be doing a religious duty - defending temples, tracking down and punishing grave robbers, etc. The most evil thing about them is that their punishments are often disproportionate to the crime.
Overall, I'm enjoying these Van Richten books, but these swerves can be disorienting. One minute, you've got some solid AD&D writing that is among the best in the line, and then the next minute you've got something completely laughable, and there's never any warning. I can't even separate it out into sections. Every book, every chapter, every subsection of every chapter - they all have both.
Ukss Contribution: I'm going to pick some of the mummies who really had no business being mummies. They call themselves the Ghost Clan. They were a family of bandits and now they're all dead and hanging out as mummies together, still occasionally doing the banditry. One of them was defeated by bagpipes.
I'll probably leave that part out, but then again, maybe not. Maybe this is a two-for-one and Ukss has bagpipes now too.