Van Richten's Guide to Ghosts
Authors: William W. Connors
Summary of content:
After the excellent VRG on vampires (my all time fave monster), I was expecting to be disappointed by the same book on ghosts. Not at all! Another excellent work. Again a wealth of information included in it.
Before this guide, ghosts were mainly a 'boo, you aged 40 years' type of encounter. Now, like vampires, they became fully fleshed NPCs with complexity and potential for DM gothic / tragic stories. The fear of the unknown and concern for the pathetic existence of ghosts.
Chapter one is on basic ghost types. A new concept is 'magnitude', the level of emotion involved in the creation of ghosts, giving them more power as the emotion is strong. The physical consistency (from incorporeal to semicorporeal and corporeal), physical appearance (vaporous, spectral, distorted, etc.), origins (sudden death dedication, vengeance, curses, etc.), anchors (to a relationship, a place or an object), and triggers for their apparition (time, an action, a cycle). While I didn't like the concept of magnitude at first, and would have preferred a concept related to age like for vampires, I now like this concept a lot: a newly created ghost can be a powerful creature if it is of the rare fifth magnitude.
Also, importantly, the VRGtG was made to sort was out the mess in the numerous incorporeal undead of 1st and 2nd edition products and eliminate them (we got all kinds of ghost-like undead before that: apparitions, poltergeist, haunts, revenants, specters, etc.). These ghostly creatures are now covered for Ravenloft with the different magnitudes and salient abilities of the VRGtG. Ghosts encounters were not for higher levels only as before: now a low magnitude creature could make a great low level encounter.
Chapter two is on ordinary powers discussion, i,.e. the basic abilities of ghosts (insubstantiality, invisibility (when in the ethereal plane), rejuvenation, immunities, etc. Interesting discussion. The author here has more credits then for the same part in the vampire guide, as most of the stuff presented here is new - there wasn't centuries of traditions and beliefs about ghosts to feed from.
Chapter three is on extraordinary powers. Again, this guide is giving DMs the option of creating unique ghosts by giving them rare powers. Some of them are quite imaginative and well suited for ghosts, IMHO: cause despair, cause paralysis, create illusions, drain memory, etc. Aging (the staple monster manual ghost ability) is just one of these options.
Chapter four is on ghosts vulnerabilities, to help monster hunter in their quest against evil. Interesting chapter on magic effects on ghost, as well as interesting allergens, etc.
Chapter five is on mediums, and how they contact ghost and speak with them. Chapter six is on method for investigating an haunting. Interesting adventure hooks there!
Also, a bonus: the Van Richten narration is better then the VRGttVampires. Very good book. 4 on 5. Another must.
The second of the popular VanRichten’s Guide to series, this book tackles the subject of ghosts and hauntings. It is the follow-up to the Guide to Vampires released earlier the same year. This book is a marked improvement on its progenitor and of the best of the early Ravenloft books predating even Islands of Terror and Forbidden Lore!
The book starts, as so many others do, with an introduction. This very briefly retells the sound-byte version of the origin of everyone’s favourite monster hunter. As a bonus it also includes his introduction to the world of ghosts and phantoms. Nicely, this book ties that event in with an earlier related event (mentioned in the product Darklords), this casual reference excellently ties together the life of Rudolph Van and seems to give the setting a coherent continuity. Chance encounters are not occurring in a vacuum but instead affect other products and character’s histories. This was a good idea for the still developing setting and well done.
The book does not waste space jumping right into the first chapter, Types of Ghosts. A heavy chapter crammed with information this introduces the magnitudes of power (ghostly ranks from one to five, a numbering system originated here but used elsewhere), Physical Consistency (from incorporeal to mutable), Physical Appearance (running the full gamut from vapour to decaying to corrupt and finishing at beauteous), Origin (sudden death, curses, need for justice and the like) and finishing with Anchors. This chapter almost seems crowded with the information it has on making and describing ghosts. This was a big step at the time with the book being published only a few scant years into AD&D 2nd Edition. Ghosts and other spectral undead (banshees, poltergeists, spectres, wraiths, haunts, etc) were all set monsters with specific stats, strengths and abilities with a distinct hierarchy of power. Poltergeists were less powerful than spectres for example. This book -from chapter one- establishes that ghosts could be of any shape, size, power and appearance from glowy balls of light to angelic figures. They could be the fragile and easily dispatched Rank 1 ghosts or the almost unstoppable Rank 5 ghosts.
The second chapter deals with the Ordinary Powers of ghosts. Powers such as moving through objects and invisibility are covered in here. The chapter also lists each power in terms of the creature’s rank so the might of the higher ranks becomes evident early on. This chapter also describes spell immunities briefly and even some notes on class abilities and the creation of undead. Worth noting is the sidebars in this text, these include excerpts from The Life of Alanik Ray by Arthur Sedgwick, quite possibly the first appearance of Ravenloft’s esteemed detective slipped casually into the text. This was a nice surprise and something I had previously missed on earlier readings.
Chapter three deals almost entirely with Extraordinary Powers, what were called Salient Powers in the earlier book on Vampires. Again this chapter is revolutionary because it takes almost all the abilities formerly possessed by spectres, wraiths, banshees and the like and associates them all with ghosts. There are simply only ghosts of differing names and appearances, unique and fully customizable monsters. There is an astonishing twenty-one separate powers filling up the chapter here. Also worthy of noting is the change in editing for this chapter. The Guide to Vampires had all the in-character text at the beginning and simply finished with a large, extended box of DM-only game material. This product throws that formatting out the window and instead opts to include the game material in smaller boxes after each and every entry for ease of reference. A small change but a nice improvement of style. And again the powers are affected by Rank. More powerful ghosts do not simply gain more powers but they are more affective as well.
The next chapter deals with Vulnerabilities; each ghost can have a specific and unique weakness. This chapter also describes the effect standard weaknesses have on ghosts based on their rank. Holy water and turning undead affect undead differently based on their rank. Thankfully, these are not the only weaknesses of ghosts who also have Allergens and vulnerabilities to a myriad of spells. The list of spells and their effects is long and tiresome, especially with the shift to another gaming edition, but at least it is complete and comprehensive. The chapter also goes into the personal vulnerabilities of ghosts, different from allergens as these cause physical harm.
The book them moves onto the topic Speak With the Dead, a discussion of mediums and the various methods of communicating with the deceased. This is an excellent chapter touching on both magical and psionic means and the many variants on origin and style. This provides many new rules although I would have liked to have seen more on player character mediums. Despite this minor quibble there is an impressive amount of information on this chapter and a great deal of variants, options and advice for both players and dungeon masters. A truly inspired chapter.
The final chapter deals solely with investigating a haunting. This is demonstrated through the re-telling of one of VanRichten’s earlier investigations. His investigation parallels his recommended steps demonstrating how he would conduct such a ghost hunt. At the same time this chapter acts as an example of all the new rules and ideas introduced in the book, while the ghost is still being unlike anything mentioned before. Very nice.
The book concludes with the standard DM Appendix offering advice on making and running ghosts. A pretty standard chapter of the type but still more than adequate for any DM. It even goes into the need for history and symbolism.
Overall this book is excellent, a great improvement on VanRichten’s Guide to Vampires in terms of style, use, new content and even formatting. It takes the 2nd Edition rules to a new height and provides so many customizations. It offers excellent advice on writing tales that fit both the mood and the setting. Additionally it does not just focus on ghosts as foes but also as mysteries to unravel, cursed to put to rest and the wronged who need something righted. These are more than simply villains that need hunted and squashed and the writers realized this and focused on this. This is easily one of the best of the already excellent VanRichten Guides and a highly recommended work.
Four-and-a-half severed digits out of five!
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