Continuing in my quest for atonement by writing a series of RPG reviews for www.rpg.net and White Wolf, today I’ll focus on Van Richten’s Guide to the Walking Dead, or VRGWD. Despite being labeled a supplement for the d20 incarnation of Ravenloft, VRGWD is actually a quite impressive collection of ideas and alterations regarding the living dead in any d20 game. And while the focus is on those dead with physical bodies, most of the material and ideas could be used as-is for ghosts, specters, and the like.
The Introduction continues with previous Ravenloft continuity and explains that VRGWD is actually a compilation of the late Van Richten’s notes on mummies, skeletons, ghouls, and the like, collected by and combined with information from the Weathermay-Foxgrave sisters. Written as if by the characters in the setting, the “fluff” of the introduction sets a good standard which the rest of the book manages to maintain.
The first chapter, Necrology, details the basics of Undead existence. Psychology, physiology, state of preservation, and origins form a good starting point for the rest of the book. Continuing with the trend started in the Introduction, this chapter doesn’t just say “animals can be undead”, it gives examples.
“the Pale Herd, for instance, is a vast collection of undead animals amassed by a vampiric druid in Verbrek to pander to her every need.
Everything from chipmunks to stags comprises the dread assemblage, and the perform almost every conceivable task for her. To the best
of our knowledge, the Pale Herd and its malevolent mistress are still active in southern Verbrek, so travelers in that region have more to
beware of than vicious wolves.”
One of the key points this chapter brings up is that not all undead are mindless, evil, slaves to greater powers. Even a zombie or skeleton can break the mold, and be something the character’s haven’t seen before. It’s a small touch, but one that’s dwelt on throughout the book.
After that we start getting into the guts of the undead in the next chapter, The Obedient Dead. What they are, what they are not, how they are created, and what use they are besides brute muscles is covered here. But what will likely catch a GM’s eyes first are the Salient Abilities. While the main text gives examples of how people see and deal with these unusual and unique abilities, adjacent boxes contain the required Challenge Rating modifiers and other game statistics. Nineteen powers and examples are given, and broken down into powers of mobility, attack, defense, sense, and pack-mind. Tired of using plain zombies? Try a pack of zombies able to use barbarian’s rage and filled with poisonous spiders. If there’s any problem with this chapter, it would be that it seems too short.
The Hungry Dead is a chapter dedicated to those undead who must take sustenance from the bodies of others. Sophisticated vampires and savage ghouls are the most obvious examples, but using the Salient Abilities in this chapter and the last, GMs could create creatures that are unlike either. Differences in the Hungry Dead from other types are noted, both in the fluff and the mechanics. Finishing out the chapter are some notes on the social lives of these dead and cannibalism among the living. Much like the last chapter, it feels short, but is actually quite dense with material.
Next in the book, The Restless Dead, continues the tradition of the last two chapters, but with a twist. Whereas the Obedient Dead exist to serve another, and the Hungry Dead exist to fee, the Restless Dead are different. Each is driven to continue past death by a unique and overwhelming desire. While vengeance is the most obvious reason, greed, jealousy, and even devotion can be enough to cause a body to rise. To better help reflect how unique these creatures are, some truly odd Salient Abilities are listed for them. Killing Zone is a good example, where the undead turns everyone around itself invisible and silent, to make for an easier kill. Also, for long term fans of the Ravenloft metaplot, Alanik Ray and Ratik Ubel play big roles in this chapter.
Chapter five, Weaknesses, covers the classic weakness of the undead: holy water, turning, and inability to naturally heal. It also considers the psychology of the dead as well as any Salient Weaknesses the dead may have. GMs may find it useful to create some horrid monster of immense power, and give him weaknesses that even a lowly peasant could use. Players will begin to research their foes for an easier kill, after their swords and spells are proven ineffective.
Necromancers details new spells, skills, magical items, and so forth for necromancers. While the material here belongs in this book and is very good, it is also very short and feels like more of an afterthought than anything. This may be due to the “high magic” nature of this chapter being at odds with some games of Ravenloft, I don’t know though. What I will say is that there is some seriously messed up stuff here, and I wish there was more.
Next up is Hunting the Walking Dead. Whereas the rest of the book has been a mix of fluff and mechanics, this chapter breaks down the story of the Weathermay-Foxgrove twins’ hunt for the Glutton of G’Henna, a powerful member of the restless dead. It’s well written and interesting, but it’s also six pages that could have probably been better used in the last chapter.
Finishing up the book is the DM’s Appendix, a grab-bag of new creatures, NPCs, techniques for using the walking dead as well as making new types of undead. While there’s nothing exceptional here, some of the new undead types are interesting.
For Style, I’ll give this book a solid 4. The art is adequate, but the writing really lends itself both to Ravenloft and to the scary nature of the walking dead. For Substance I have to give the book a slightly less solid 4. A bit more information on necromancers would have been nice, and raised the rank to 5 for me, as would more Salient Abilities.
Who should get this book? For fans of Ravenloft or d20 undead, I’d say it’s a must buy. Horror fans of other games may find its gothic undead to be useful too, and the book itself isn’t a bad read at all. While the mechanics may differ, the book should provide a few ideas for undead in other systems and settings.