Zombies aren’t precisely a brand new idea in Dungeons & Dragons — odds are in the event you’ve ever performed D&D you have had a few zombies come out of a coffin whereas delving into some long-buried tomb.
They may not perform precisely the identical as you are used to seeing them in motion pictures — for instance, within the present guidelines as written Zombies do not also have a chew assault — however the traditional undead monsters are about to shamble into the highlight with the upcoming sourcebook, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, in one of many greatest departures from the supply materials for the fan-favorite setting.
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The worlds of Ravenloft rapidly grew to become, and remained, widespread amongst D&D gamers all through the ’90s and early 2000s, and the Fifth Version journey Curse of Strahd—which targeted solely on the best-known area and Darklord—reinvigorated the neighborhood’s ardour for tabletop horror. “The campfire expertise and the tabletop expertise are so related,” says Wes Schneider, Lead Designer on Van Richten’s Information. “You’ve got acquired one one who’s telling a narrative, they usually’re telling it dramatically, and authentically, and atmospherically, and everyone’s leaning in. When of us take into consideration, ‘What does immersive storytelling appear to be?’, ghost tales across the campfire come to thoughts, however then, so does tabletop role-playing. They’re kind of a pure complement to one another.”
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With Van Richten’s Information, nonetheless, Schneider and the opposite designers—together with authors Okay. Tempest Bradford and Cassandra Khaw—are hoping to step away from the considerably homogenous gothic themes that have been the muse for thus a lot of Ravenloft’s unique worlds. “When Ravenloft got here collectively as a marketing campaign setting, it continued to lean into gothic horror tropes,” Schneider says, “however there are a lot broader alternatives for horror. With Van Richten’s Information to Ravenloft, we actually needed to open up all of Pandora’s Bins there. We needed to have the ability to do gothic horror, sure, in fact—that is at all times been core to the area, and that is nonetheless a significant tent submit of the e-book—however, physique horror, cosmic horror, psychological horror; there is no cause for us to be like, ‘Oh D&D solely does this … we’re solely on this one taste of horror,’ when there’s a complete buffet of horror on the market.”
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This brings us again to zombies. Schneider not too long ago gave us an in-depth take a look at Falkovnia, one of many domains receiving an enormous renovation from its ’90s roots. Whereas different domains—like Har’Akir or Lamordia, which have been successfully Superior Dungeons & Dragon’s “Mummy World” and “Frankenstein Land,” respectively—drew on traditional horror inspirations, the area of Falkovnia was at all times significantly much less fantastical. Its Darklord was a reasonably fundamental analog for Vlad the Impaler, a brutal warlord with a penchant for ultraviolence, and it had few defining traits past being a land dominated by a brutal warlord with a penchant for ultraviolence. In 2021, nonetheless, Falkovnia has been reimagined as a nightmarish Groundhog’s Day-style loop, the place a struggling nation—which occurs to be dominated by a brutal warlord—is endlessly besieged by large hordes of the strolling lifeless, who simply so occur to appear to be everybody this warlord has ever killed.
“One thing that I really feel that lots of the previous editions of Ravenloft did not deal with,” Schneider says, “[was that] the darkish lords have at all times been prisoners. However how are they struggling? How are they tormented? These are evil characters, they usually’re imprisoned and trapped right here. Why is that this a horrible expertise most of all for them? That is one thing that actually will get pushed house all through each one of many domains.”
In fact, if the dwelling lifeless aren’t actually your velocity, Van Richten’s Information has sections on easy methods to swap out zombies for one more monstrous apocalypse. Perhaps you’d slightly see an infinite swarm of Kuo-toa fish-men, or giants — the Information is extra about presenting choices for operating quite a lot of horror video games as a substitute of simply traditional Gothic Horror. This new tackle Falkovnia is predicated on what the crew calls “Catastrophe Horror,” the wrestle of humanity’s—or elfdom’s, or dwarvenkind’s, no matter your taste of civilization is—final holdout in opposition to the unstoppable.
Zombies simply occur to be an excellent automobile for that kind of horror, and one which the crew knew they needed to discover from the beginning — which made Falkovnia an ideal match. Not solely as a result of it wasn’t as extraordinary as among the different domains and thus due for a refresh, however as a result of the setting’s foundational components meshed so effectively with themes that usually seem in zombie media. “It is an agrarian society, there is a working-class, there’s like this entire elaborate construction that individuals rely on simply to outlive below this harsh ruler,” Schneider says. “There are hard-working individuals right here that rely on one another for meals and survival, and so forth and so forth. That is an excellent place to have a zombie apocalypse… How does it begin? How do [the players] become involved with that? How do issues go flawed? How do issues go worse? What are the horrible sacrifices that the amoral regime decides to make to avoid wasting as many individuals as attainable or themselves? After which, how does all that resolve?”
Whereas there might solely be a number of additions mechanically—together with some new creatures for the Monster Handbook (like the large Zombie Clot, above, simply within the operating for Grossest Voltron Ever), and guidelines for the way an undead siege on the Falkovnian capital of Lekar differs from these by dwelling armies—as with so many zombie tales, the actual focus is on the individuals the zombified lots try to overwhelm. Whereas this definitely affords loads of distinctive choices to participant characters, Schneider says it additionally makes Falkovnia’s reimagined Darklord, Vladeska Drakov, singularly distinctive. “She’s a Darklord who nearly does not have the time to be a Darklord,” he laughs. “So lots of the different Darklords are like, ‘All proper, that is my shtick, I am doing this horrible factor.’ Strahd’s in his fortress, he is acquired schemes, he is doing his Strahd factor, however Vladeska is on a freaking deadline.”
Schneider says that whereas there’s downtime constructed into the design of Falkovnia, the hordes will at all times be again, and sure, in all probability in larger numbers. It appears to not solely be an efficient technique of spurring gamers to motion however to additionally present a novel drawback for gamers to unravel within the face of such overwhelming opposition. A couple of zombies on their very own, even a dozen or extra, will not pose too nice a risk to most characters past the primary few ranges. With solely 22 hit factors, a well-placed Fireball spell rolling below-average injury can incinerate a small horde in a single flip. The intention of Falkovnia, in keeping with Schneider, is to reply the query “What occurs when there are extra zombies than there are Fireballs?” And since Ravenloft does not work like different marketing campaign settings—the place you may beseech a neighboring kingdom for support, or recruit a plucky band of NPCs to bolster your defenses—the character of the Demiplane domains create a kind of “nightmare logic,” the place you already know escape is all however inconceivable, so you’ll be able to’t assist however attempt to combat or flee.
“The Darkish Powers need not make a logical continuity,” Schneider says. “If Lekar falls, your occasion could be a gaggle that manages to flee again into the mists. They could have totally different adventures, after which sometime, they may discover themselves again in Falkovnia – however Lekar hasn’t fallen, and it is all occurring once more.”
Essentially the most terrifying nightmares are recurring ones, in any case – although that zombie Voltron is fairly excessive up there,now, too.
What kind of nightmarish Kobayashi Maru would you wish to run in Ravenloft? Tell us within the feedback, and for extra TRPGs on IGN, why not dig into the “remastered” Curse of Strahd boxed set with its lead writer, Chris Perkins, or learn up on how video games still draw from their tabletop roots!
JR is a Senior Producer at IGN, and can 100% be throwing WWZ-style mountains of fish individuals at his gamers once they lastly get again collectively. Within the meantime, you’ll be able to find him on Twitter, in all probability additionally tweeting about D&D.
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