So, ya wanna do spooky stuff in your D&D campaign?! Same, dude.
Especially after reading the official WotC expansion to D&D 5e (or the WotCetdd5e as the pros say) Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.
I love to provide my players with choices that are on theme with my campaigns, or match as closely as possible with what they envision for their characters. Here are some of my fave creepy player options from this haunted book!
Let’s start with the new subclasses - I love new subclasses. This book gives us only two:
Bard: College of Spirits
It’s an interesting spin on a loremaster-type character. These bards tell historical (or mythical) tales of bardic inspiration to grant unique randomly selected bonuses on the battlefield, with potential for use in role-playing or ability checks. These Tales from Beyond are actually spirits speaking through the bard, imbuing them (or their targets) with magic from supernatural realms. In simple terms, you roll a d12 to see what weird schtuff your bardic inspiration does.
Additional spellcasting focuses for bards: Candles, crystal balls, skulls, spirit boards, or tarokka decks. I just love the flavor of these items… I’ll likely be implementing them in my games with or without the College of Spirits Bard. Maybe a character reminiscent of X-Men’s Gambit? Or to keep with the typical goofy, horny bard type we all know and love, you could create a kooky palm reader or fortune teller.
Though I do like the unpredictability that Tales from Beyond can bring to the game, I don’t love the idea of tying us up in yet another die roll to figure out what’s going to happen, then reading about it, figuring out how to roleplay it, then strategizing accordingly, etc. Not great for quick one-shots or the likes.
Spirit Session kicks in at 6th level and allows the bard to channel the abilities of long dead spirits, selecting one spell from any class to adopt for the day. I'm a sucker for versatility. There are also countless opportunities for a DM to use the spirits of the dead, or the seance-like rituals involved with the subclass as plot hooks or ways to branch off into side quests.
Warlock: The Undead
Ever wanted to owe a powerful debt to a lich? Well… now you can! Any high level, intelligent, undead creature serves as a perfect patron to a warlock who chooses this dark path (unless the dark path chooses them first, amirite?) The main feature that levels up alongside your warlock is the Form of Dread which enables you to transform into something a little tougher and a lot spookier, inspiring fear in your foes. Combined with Necrotic Husk which gives you the ability to just say, “Nah” instead of dropping to zero hp… this is one of the tankier warlock options.
Warlocks are great at customizing their skill sets to be unstoppable. At later levels, spirit projection makes you even tankier and scarier, like a beefed up invoke duplicity (trickster cleric).
The two abilities I most want to play with are unlocked at level 10 (Necrotic Husk) and level 14 (Spirit Projection). I think a lot of the potential for cool is locked away a little longer than I’d wish on my players.
Flavor, flavor, flavor. Everybody knows a player who wants this subclass. Form of Dread basically lets you choose your transformation from your own twisted mind. It’s mostly a visual thing, sure, but it is also great for roleplaying.
I’ll be honest - the two subclasses didn’t wow me. Maybe I was a little spoiled with the 30 subclasses from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. But I reeeeaaaally enjoyed the Lineages.
A lineage can be chosen in place of a race at the start of a campaign, or it can be gained during a campaign as a modifier to your character’s race. The simplest explanation of this… You’re bit by a vampire, some magic happens, now you’re a Dhampir.
In the past, 5th edition made becoming a vampire pretty all-or-nothing, end-game material. The Dhampir gives us another (better) option. Role-playing a Dhampir that hungers for blood (or one of the 5 other symptoms in the book). Think of the moody origin stories! Or the transformation that could take place to a formerly “normal” or tired character. The best thing about this lineage is that the affliction described is general enough to have been caused by any number of monsters that best suit your story… though obviously it’s a vampire.
Honestly? I’m gonna leave this blank. Yes, this is could become an OP option mechanically in combat, but as a DM I see plenty of ways to use the Dhampir lineage as a unique weakness to challenge a player off the battlefield (depending of course on their willingness to roleplay).
The abilities that come with this lineage are fun. 35ft walking speed. Spider climb. And best of all, a vampiric bite that can grant you HP, or even a bonus to the next ability check or attack roll. Is this stuff OP? Don’t know. Don’t care. It’s cool. Think of the moment when a character realizes they can bite their friends in a desperate effort to stay alive. Desperate Housewives level drama!
A Hexblood was cursed, kidnapped, or created through ungodly ritual, typically by hags. Maybe they made a deal with a hag or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way, now they’ve got a cute/creepy horn crown thing and a fantastic skin color - usually blue, green, or purple.
Eerie Token. It’s an ability with multiple parts, but it basically involves the character peeling off a fingernail or pulling a tooth (hags are gross) and using it to grant special divination magic for a time. At last, you can give your friends your fingernails and they will thank you for it.
Again, no dislikes. I think these lineages (races) are done right. Even if they could have just been called races.
The Hexblood has one complicated ability, and nothing else. It’s simplicity allows us to easily integrate hags into a campaign. I love the idea of a coven of hags being uneasy “allies”. Maybe they have to be kept secret from your party’s paladin. Maybe you owe them a debt. And maybe, when your character retires, they’re ready to fulfill their destiny and become a hag themselves!!
Additional “Horror” Backgrounds
In one word: Trauma. Call your therapist before and after you read.
Dark Gifts I LOVE the Dark Gifts. Players and DMs alike will LOVE the Dark Gifts. Curses and mysteries and campaign foreshadowing stuff. Each gift provides a pretty awesome benefit at a unique and terrifying cost.
The book is, admittedly, mostly for DM’s, especially if you’re considering adding horror elements to your game or beginning a new campaign set among The Mists (basically an entire twilight zone-esque setting). It has been very useful in my work to plan a Horror one-shot for a Roll For It crossover event we’re hosting in the fall, and has given me insight into crafting villains that mirror or oppose the flaws and personalities of the PC’s.
That said, if a horror game simply doesn’t interest you… You don’t need this.