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Denizens of Dread

Authors: Beth Bostic, Bernard E Cana, Jackie Cassada, Andrew Cermak, Leonard Dessert, Robert Fansworth, Christopher S Gurney, Carla Hollar, Jeffrey Kahrs, Brett King, Rucht Lilavivat, Joe Masdon, Stewart MacWilliam, Tadd McDivitt, Nicky Rea, John Richardson, C. Bryant Strickland, Andrew Wyatt and Fred Yelk
Type: Monster Manual
Format: 240 pages, hardback
Release date: January 2004

Summary of content: Mainly a 3.5 update of the Denizens of Darkness book (detailed Monsters and templates), but also has new monsters included in it :

  • Ancient Dead (template, with 5 ranks samples)
  • Animator (was in DoDarkness, more samples for all object size)
  • Boneless – was in Van Richten's Guide to the Walking Dead
  • Bruja
  • Fiend, Transposition template
  • Ghosts (template, with 5 ranks samples)
  • Golem, Flesh – was in Gaz II
  • Golem, Mist
  • Golem, Snow
  • Golem, Wax
  • Hags, Spectral – annis, green, sea
  • Lich, Elemental
  • Lycanthrope (was in DoDarkness, more detail on alternate forms –human, animal and hybrid forms)
  • Mist Horror (template)
  • Skeleton, Strahd – was in Gaz I
  • Vampire Spawn for the new vampires strains - was in the DoDarkness web enhancement (vampire Spawn strains)
  • Zombie, Cannibal – was in Van Richten's Guide to the Walking Dead
  • Zombie, Desert
  • Zombie, Mud
  • Zombie, Sea
  • Zombie, Strahd – was in Gaz I

Fabulous new art by Claudio Pozas!

Note from John W. Mangrum : ‘I wasn't involved in this book in any meaningful way, so I asked that my name be removed from the credits’.


Jacopo Veronese

So, here we are.

Before our eyes is the updating to 3.5 revision of Denizens of Darkness, essentially the Ravenloft Monster Manual. Since there’s no outstanding review of that sourcebook, I’ll indulge on many of the monsters presented in the manual, while describing some of the monsters first presented in this revision. The introduction deals with the way every monster type lives in Ravenloft. It explains which monsters are common, gives suggestion on how to use them, and the chapter ends with the reminding of the modified special qualities in Ravenloft (damage reduction and turn resistance, to name a few).

A shame this chapter is lacking a paragraph regarding the presence in the Land of the Mists of D&D iconic monsters, how they are modified by the Mists, or the differences they have from their “normal worlds” counterparts. For example, we know, by reading the Gazetteers, that tha Demiplane is inhabited by monsters presented on the Monster Manual (both I and II), Monsters of Faerŭn and the Fiend Folio.

So, how do I know that hobgoblins are to goblins what calibans are to humans? Is there a significant bugbear population? Are there beholders in Ravenloft? Sprites are the same as those on Oerth, or are they twisted, as the nature almost always is?  These are informations that were to be given in this chapter, but are shamefully absent. Regarding monsters, I’ll analyze them in alphabetical order, describing only those that caught my attention. My attention, is caught by very well done monsters, very poorly done monsters, very well done pictures, very poorly done pictures.

Let’s start from the Ancient Dead template, the second monster in the book. The template is reprinted here, almost totally unchanged from its first appearance in the RLPHB, but with five sample ancient dead, one for every rank and a picture representing with great precision every sample given in the paragraph.

The spontaneous question is: “Why present the template again, in this manual?”. There are no modifications, it was not hard to apply to an existing NPC, it had no obscure points… One can guess they had in mind to represent every template in the RLPHB, but, then again… Other than the Ancient Dead, we see reprinted only the Ghost template. Last word: why explain on the RLPHB that an ancient dead is not just a mummy, then title the paragraph “Ancient Dead (mummies)” and represent all of the sample in the picture as corpses in shrouds? Mystery.

We have then the Animator, an incorporeal undead capable of controlling objects. What’s truly new is the presence of sample animators of all the sizes: from a scarf to a cottage! A very good thing, in my opinion. We meet again the Broken Ones, unlucky but evil creature transformed in hideous mix between man and animal by a sadistic surgeon or caster. The broken one, as in this sourcebook, is terribly lame. It has nothing of the creatures it is created from, but is an ordinary 3-HD aberration with four special qualities to select from. Wouldn’t a template be much better? Let’s supersede.

The first new monster is the Bruja, a non-evil hag. Interesting monster, but… If we have a template for the hags, why isn’t there one for the brujas? The Boneless appeared first on Van Richten’s Guide to the Walking Dead, and is represented here, unchanged. In the Carrionette, the living puppets, the picture is the same from previous edition. Unfortunately, it is an old pictures (from the Carnival supplement, I guess) and it does not represent a carrionette….  In the section regarding Dream Spawns, I don’t understand the meaning of the picture of a young Vistani girl standing in the rain. Interesting is the new template of the Dread Fiend, making the transpossessed creature similar to an half-fiend creature.

The Furies picture has changed: a shame, since the old one was really representing a deformed monster, horrible and frightening, while the new one, though very good, changes them in the seems-necessary “sexy and monstrous creature”. Just read the description (the one written in italic font) and then look at the picture: it made me raise an eyebrow. As with the Ancient Dead, we meet again the Ghost template. Same considerations I reserved to the reprint of the ancient dead template, but it is a shame we don’t get to see the powers of ghosts we first read in the various Gazetteers.

The section on Dread Golems is embellished by the presence (other than the already presented glass, zombie, bone, doll gargoyle golem) by the ravenloftian flesh golem, together with a pretty image. Unfortunately, we don’t see any reference to the template with the same name that appeared on the RLPHB. Confusing.  We have then the snow, wax, and mist golem. Very good monsters, in my opinion. The Grave Ooze has a new picture. Luckily, I might add, since the old one was a bit confused. The Grim Reaper is probably one of the best monsters in the manual. Good pic too.

The Spectral Hag is a kind of mystery to me. Interesting template, of course, but… If we have a Hag template in the RLPHB, so to create hag always different from those presented on the Monster Manual, why apply the template to a sea hag, an annis and a green hag? The Jack Frost, evil and sadistic spirit from the frozen reaches, has a new picture. Very well drawn, really, but I found the old picture, that of little figurines dancing around the frozen man, much more… disturbing than a sexy dark-skinned elf sitting in the snow with a white and tight vest. Same considerations as the Furies.

The value of picture of the Mist Ferryman is one I found quite debatable. It is much less frightening than the one from Denizens of Darkness. We have a perfectly visible creature (if something is called “MIST ferryman”, I at least expect MISTS, in its picture…) with proportions making it seem at least five feet high. If its proportions are correct, I imagine the boat is nothing more than a chunk of wood, on which the ferryman is standing in perfect balance.  The picture of the Dread Nightmare has changed: I find this new one really good, though I really liked the “ethereal” nightmare in Denizens of Darkness too. A good job.

The oversized Shadow Fiend is gone. Thank gods. The Tentacle Rat is a monster I’d have some troubles presenting in a frightening way to my players. I think they’d end laughing uncontrollably. The new Shadow Unicorn is probably the worst picture in the whole manual. The picture represents an obese donkey with a tuft of hair on the head and a false horn kept in place with some super-glue. Add to this some false canines and you’ll get the idea. The last monster is the new collection of zombies, all of them inherited from Van Richten’s Guide to the Walking Dead.

As usual, the question is: “Do I need this sourcebook?”  My answer is: “Yes, even thought you have DoDarkness”.  In this manual, many errors are corrected, and there are many new and (mostly) well done monsters.  The manual is graphically enhanced (worsening its aspect would have required a notable effort, anyway). As with the old version, the major flaws are the description (too brief: Ravenloft Monster Compendium I gives better informations) and the tendency to abuse the word “Dread”.  A good manual, with a feeling of… “lacking” somewhere, though. I give three bloody canines on five.


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