Authors: Andrew Cermak, John W. Mangrum, Steve Miller, Ryan Naylor, Andrew Wyatt
Summary of content:
Fifth in the series of gazetteers for Ravenloft, written by the enigmatic “S”.
David "Jester" Gibson
This book is the most recent in the applauded series detailing the Core and quite possibly the last one for a while. This Gaz features the highest page count of all the Gazetteers and a massive Attached Notes chapter. Detailing Nova Vassa, Tepest, Keening and the Shadow Rift this Gaz had the daunting task of uniting several conflicting histories and detailing some strange and alien places. Was this done well? Read on.
The book briefly starts with S being confronted by several of the Vistani met at the end of the last book. They quickly make an attempt to kill her but fail, of course. Given the descriptions these look to be darklings from the Tribe of Hyskosa described in Champions of Darkness. So that book looks to be canon after all. Guess that means the Sheriff still exists as well.
After that S moves on to Nova Vassa, one of the lands blessed with the most continuity errors. The lord has no less than three divergent origins and the sole published NPC from that land has been non-canon for years (originally published in the Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium vol II). Likewise, the only published novel (The Enemy Within) is also non-canon. Additionally in the single published adventure that features the land it is described as having five moons and no seasons but summer. The writer had his work cut out for him.
Overall the chapter is well done and nicely captures both the feel of the land and the oppressive nature of the aristocracy as well as the heavy burden of taxation. The cities are well described and quite evocative easily capturing the imagination. Likewise the attention paid to the noble families is excellent and usefully easily offering a wealth of story ideas. The history also nicely ties the land, possibly, into the Forgotten Realms while still allowing Realms-nuts to ignore its existence. What most struck me was the feel of the populace and the mindset of the people which really fits in with the nature of the land. There are so many contrasting pairs one would be hard pressed to count them all.
What does stand out in the Nova Vassa section is the almost total lack of Dread Possibilities. All but one have been edited out! This hurts the chapter a lot as so many of these sections have evidently been used to tie in old details, such as the non-canon NPC mentioned earlier. Instead of a full inclusionary Dread Possibility we are left with a picture and a brief note in the text easily skimmed over and missed. This is a sad incident paralleling the Borca entry from Gazetter IV where nine Dread Possibilities were cut and the section on an entire city. These cuts and edits are unfortunately common throughout the book.
Tepest follows Nova Vassa and introduces some nice continuity between the chapters. Given each Domain’s section is written by a different author the introduction of the infant and its role show some excellent teamwork between the writers. This chapter once again does an excellent job describing the history and myths of Tepest. The people and their motives for the Inquisition and nicely spelled out and it is nice to see a witchhunter who really is trying to do the right thing and is not completely misguided. The goblins, whose inclusion I was worried about, are nicely done. If the Tepestani are the Celts and Scots than the goblins easily become more akin to the pagan woods people or mythical beasties said to inhabit the woods. Some small sidebars give detail to goblin traps and the existence of Dread Goblins. Castle Island, last seen in the adventure Servants of Darkness also makes a return appearance.
Saddly, like Nova Vassa before it, there are no Dread Possibilities here and the only noteworthy sidebars detail the aforementioned goblin info and some brief notes on a pair of unusual Tepestani plants. There is also the small sidebar that revisits Belenus giving a very tiny note to the other Celtic/Tepestani gods. Sadly there is no sidebar revisiting Hala despite the attention her followers receive in this book. There is a new clerical domain in the Attached notes but its existence is not referenced earlier. Thus when the spell Weave’s Bounty shows up it might lead to some confusion as to who can cast it (the level is described as "Wev 6").
One further note on the Tepest chapter before moving on to Keening myself, a very famous and yet very mysterious NPC marks his return to Ravenloft with this product and makes a rather impressive appearance. Not to mention we get a picture of the dashing fellow. But once again his appearance does more to raise questions than answer any.
Keening is one of the most seldom used Domains and for good reason. It is small and populated with fewer people than even Forlorn. The sole inhabitants are quite dead and some are not all that receptive to visitors. The history to the Domain is left suitably vague in the text and the environment is nice and creepy, devoid of all life everywhere. There are some new plants introduced but for the most part the land is without foliage (sad then that the map places a couple forests there). The main inhabitants are the zombies of the City of the Dead (who are only humanoid despite the picture to the contrary that has animated animals despite text that explicitly states otherwise. Eh, stuff happens), however this book also introduces a new form of ghostly undead. There are Dread Possibilities in this chapter (finally!) although these three and relegated to a single sidebar although the small section on living in the City of the Dead functions almost as one.
I was impressed by how seamlessly the Keening and Shadow Rift entries meshed with the details given in Van Richten’s Guide to the Shadow Fey. I did not spot anything that blatantly contradicted either and the two books thus nicely complement each other.
Keening is described excellently and the horrific, alien and hash environment is notably a hard environ to write for. It does remain a place for a small series of adventures at most and is not a place to base an entire campaign around.
I was worried about the Shadow Rift entry the most. I craved details on the hidden land but at the same time I did not want S to gain easy access and spend days wandering throughout it easily. A compromise was nicely reached and S does not actually venture herself into the land but it is still described in detail.
One of the most notable features of the Shadow Rift chapter is the lack of a useful map. No new map has been made of this land. The details provided do allow one to picture the land enough to work map-less but the book would still have been improved with some effort put into making a new one. Disappointing.
There is a lot of new information found here. The brief descriptions in the Shadow Rift mega-adventure have been greatly expanded on and improved. The Greenlands is far more creepy and described excellently. There is even a full page of new plants introduced. And the extra dangers added to the Black Marsh are great. The contrast between the two halves of the rift is very nice. Additionally the cities have been greatly improved upon and the make for very interesting places. There descriptions also help conjure up an image of what the Rift looked like back when it was still Arak. Also added is a sidebar on the Spider Queen and her worship by Arak. A fair bit of attention is also paid to the government(s) of the Arak and the two different courts. The goals and attitudes of both are described.
The main problem with the Shadow Rift chapter is its use of the Book of Vile Darkness. Two of the domains of clerics of the Spider Queen are from that book and many powers of the Lord are likewise from there. This is frustrating for those without said optional book, especially when it has not been used elsewhere in Ravenloft products. Unlike other entries using optional books (such as the option for a non-psionic Living Brain in GazIII) there are no notes on what said feats and domains do.
The attached notes feature two prestige classes, three clerical domains, nine new spells two sets of magical items (hands of power and the regalia of Arak) and five new monsters three of which are templates, not to mention the eight NPC entries (counting the three sisters as one entry) at the end of the book. The Attached Notes chapter is mammoth. Talon does and exemplary job as always on the portraits, most notably Tristessa and the Lady of the Lake. The Malken portrait is unusual but well done. I wish the three hags could have been given a larger box though as theirs in unnecessarily small. We also finally get ‘full’ stats for Gwydion although only for his imprisoned form. Not that his free stats would be usable as the Kill Everything that Moves (Su) does not make for interesting games.
As all Gazetteers it is a must have for anyone planning on using the featured Domains. It is almost unthinkable to set a story there and not purchase this excellent book. It is a very good book describing some of the more underused and seldom described lands. Unfortunately, the heavy editing and removal of most of the Dread Possibilities and several sidebars is a large flaw. The Gazetteers were designed to unite and update all the previously published references and without these the book is lacking. Despite this it is one of the strongest Gazetteers. The storyline and metaplot is strong in the book and the characters have been established, the writers have really hit their stride at this point.
Four severed digits out of five.
This fifth (and so far final) volume of the esteemed Ravenloft Gazetteer series covers the four remaining lands of the eastern Core – Nova Vaasa, Tepest, Keening, and the Shadow Rift.
I was particularly looking forward to this volume because the domain of Nova Vaasa has always intrigued me. It seems as modern as Dementlieu and Lamordia, but with a more medieval flavor. Overall, I think the domain was handled well. Several dichotomies where presented and explored (urban/rural, nobles/peasants, etc.), which really strengthens the relationship between the land and its darklord. The few adventures and characters from 2nd edition (Sekmet from The Awakening, Dr. Illhousen from The Nightmare Lands) are seamlessly fitted into the domain’s extensive history. This chapter would have been outstanding if it had more dread possibilities, however. The author’s notes, which can be found elsewhere on this website, are excellent and I wish they had seen print. The other little quibble I had was the omission of the Black Fane, headquarters of the Church of the Lawgiver. I had been anticipating learning more about its operations ever since the notes in the Hazlan chapter in the first gazetteer.
I was also interested in what new revelations we would receive about the land of Tepest. A domain filled with goblins, witches, and various assorted fey promised to be full of possibilities. Unfortunately, not much new information was presented. We do get an in depth look at Wyan and how his Inquisition operates. We also get a few tidbits about the goblins of the land and their relationship to the three hags. I think this is another chapter that needs dread possibilities to flesh it out. The domain as written is very good, but nothing has been added to spice it up since the events of Servants of Darkness. Wyan is still leading the hunt to track down all the fey in the land, while the three hags go about their usual business of terrorizing villagers. I guess that kind of cultural stasis is to be expected from such a backward domain, though.
As a side note, I wanted to make a few comments on the Gentleman Caller and his reappearance here. I won’t give too much away, but two figures presented in this volume are connected to him. The only hint I will give is that each of his “children” is close to the temporal (but not the actual) rulers of their respective domains. This leads me to believe the GC is siring half-demons throughout the land either to take over the domains of Ravenloft, or to aid the darklords in their escape from them.
The chapter on Keening is hard to place. On the one hand, I think more could have been done with this domain. But on the other, what is covered gives me a lot of good ideas for adventure hooks. The more I think about it, Keening is a great no man’s land where ghosts and apparitions rule. But Tristessa seems kinda bland and goal-less as a darklord. I’d play her more like a Lord Godfrey type - an undead spirit collecting warriors to lead a raid on her former enemies in the Shadow Rift to gain her revenge. The caverns underneath Mount Lament were a new element, and one that I could base a handful of good adventures on. Also, painting the City of the Dead as a refuge for bandits or more sinister creatures of the night is another good use of the domain’s landscape.
The Shadow Fey are a queer set of villains in my opinion. I don’t think they fit very well into the whole gothic horror setting, but maybe that’s because I don’t know much about their real world origins. The Shadow Rift accessory in 2nd edition did a good job of introducing this troublesome race, and at least it’s good to see they are being given more attention in 3rd edition, with the recent publishing of VRGttSF. All that being said, the Shadow Rift chapter was very well done. It gives a good look at the various settlements of the domain, with a few other interesting features highlighted also (the Midnight Gardens, the Shifting Sands, and the Tomb of Arak). This is also the first place we get a cohesive history of the domain after the late 2nd edition retcon of the domain. The machinations of the Seelie and Unseelie court are also brought forward after the events of in TSR.
The biggest problem I had with this chapter was the map, or lack thereof. I mean, come on, we all know the Shadow Rift is a mass of black mists in the middle of the Core. Why do we need a close up picture of that
The Attached Notes section is packed with goodies this time around: two new creature templates (The Scourged andWidderìbhinn), two prestige classes (Zelldrow and Inquisitor), and two sets of magical items (the Regalia of Arak and the Hands of Power). Nine major NPCs are reviewed. A few, like Gwydion and the Lady of the Lake, I didn’t care for too much. I’d rather have their pasts and powers left blank for me to fill in on my own, rather than have them spelled out. The entry on the three hags of Tepest didn’t really add anything new to their background or current sketch, but was satisfactory nonetheless. The background on Wyan was especially welcome. Rarely do we get any background or in depth information on one of the good guys.
Overall, I give this book 4 drops out of 5. It was better than the last volume, but because of the missing dread possibilities and such, it wasn’t quite up there with the first three. Still, this is good book that unifies and updates a lot of diverse information from 2nd edition.
The Travelogue to Nova Vaasa, the Shadow Rift, Keening, and Tepest.
Gazetteer V isn't my favorite of the Gazetteers but it's the last of them and nevertheless one of the quality works of RPGing I've ever read and for that I'm grateful. The entire series has been one gigantic expansion of the Domains of Dread and while they're all filled with too much obviousness that 'there ain't something right about these parts.' Every domain is nevertheless given a detailed and fascinating history. Part of the success of the line is due to S, the third most engaging character in Ravenloft after Strahd and Doctor Van Ritchen (Azalin is now fourth). The stoic and cynical female narrator is probably one of the least displayed females in fantasy and gets by on her personality alone. Compared to the Weathermay Sisters, her professionalism and experience is a welcome return to Doctor Van Ritchen levels of detail. It's a pity we'll never find out what would happen to her in Blaustein, I'Cath, or Pardion.
Nova Vaasa- This entry does well in expanding on Nova Vaasa, a domain that has remained the "other" not-so-terrible domain after Mordent for people who want to visit some place without interesting plots afoot. This has changed and Nova Vaasa is now a festering cesspool of poverty, crime, and passion. It's pretty clearly a place you can play both Russians and the Old West at once. If there's one complaint, it's the fact that Nova Vaasa doesn't really have much in the way of monster content. Aside from Cowboys and Indians, there's not much in the way for characters to fight evil here unless they want to try and deal with the edemic vice to the region.
Tepest- The depiction of Tepest makes it a place that's pretty much a mixture of people from The Crucible and Grimm's Fairy Tales. It's a little one note with the Inquisition and the superstitious peasantry the ONLY noteworthy features of the place that don't involve the massive goblyn population. Maybe it's my own bias against religious bigotry but moreso than Necropolis, I don't think the Domains of Dread would lose much if this entire domain vanished with their dread lords.
Keening- Keening is a problematic domain really because aside from the town of the dead (Necropolis does 'undead hellhole' much better even if it was second), there's not much interesting to the domain and Tristessa is one of those few domain lords you can slay without effecting the Demiplane at all (the only other Core domain lord with this dubious distinction is Sir Tristan Al Blanc). They add some nice moment though with undead Shadow Fey afoot and a few Rumplestiltskin moments. This is one of those areas that could have used a comple overhaul though rather than refresher.
The Shadow Rift- A wonderful fleshing out of the domain by the writers and one I'm grateful for. They cover everything you need to know about the mysterious and frightening Shadow Fey here. I admit, I was skeptical when they revealed the Shadow Rift was populated by FAERIES of all things but they've created a thriving and surreal subculture out of it and now it's difficult to imagine Ravenloft without them.
The prestige classes were well done and enjoyable with unfortunately "Inquisitor" not really something a player would take. The monsters were intriguing and well detailed. I liked the character write-ups as well with Gwydion growing more and more like Cthulhu with every bit of writing (he's a former ARCHFIEND?)
I wished they'd included an updated Desmound Larouche though.
5 out of 5 blood drops
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