" It does tell you everything you could possibly want to know about the walking dead, fleshing them out beyond what this monkey would have believed possible. And they needed fleshing out, seriously--rotting corpses shambling around aimlessly don't exactly end up with a lot of meat left on the bones, and animate carrion is good eatin'. "
Title: Van Richten's Guide to the Walking Dead by Sword & Sorcery Studios (White Wolf)
Format: Ravenloft D20 Monster Guide
Reviewing Monkey: Genghis Kong
The Hype: In the tradition of 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, Sword & Sorcery Studios has picked up the ongoing "Van Richten's" guides and manuals to the supernatural, following the wisdom of Ravenloft's premier monster-hunter (whose name bears a very strong resemblance to a man in a book with a vampire… Ravenloft isn't really strong on originality) into the dark places of the Dread Realms. PCs who would otherwise be shouting "I waste it with my crossbow!" have a chance to read texts that will actually explain to them how you kill a monster, thus giving them no excuse when the DM informs them that said crossbow bolt has no effect. I know what you're asking--"Genghis, who cares about killing the Walking Dead? I mean… don't you just hit them with blunt objects until they fall down?" Well, I know I've advocated that method of problem solving in the past (as well as being a method for plumbing, computer troubleshooting, personal grooming, and social interaction), but now… well, read on.
What This Monkey Thought...
Story and Drama: If there's one thing White Wolf knows how to do, it's "turn 120 pages of rules text into educational gaming text," and Sword & Sorcery Studios is (collective gasp) White Wolf. Instead of being a dry, fact-filled Monstrous Manual of undead and their weaknesses, the Guide is primarily an in-character collection of essays and facts written by the Weathermay-Foxgrove sisters, Gennifer and Laurie, being Dr. Rudolph van Richten's nieces and the heiresses to his work. The sisters share memoirs of their encounters with the walking dead (being all the various subtypes, which I'll list later) as well as tips on how to find and combat them. They contain a great amount of philosophy about the walking dead that takes these frequent grunt soldiers and turns them into a far more compelling and sympathetic type of monster, actually adding a human angle to what would otherwise be an extremely one-dimensional encounter. The flavor text of actual prose encounters is interesting and detailed, showing the high quality of story that Sword & Sorcery products have made a name of, and the two undead NPCs presented (the haunted revenant Ratik Ubel and the disturbing Toben the Many) are fascinating and unique--certainly not standard fare for a hack & slash environment. The book is interesting enough to hold its own among the Ravenloft novels I've read, and monkeys, that's some illustrious company to be in. 5 out of 5.
Layout and Presentation: The book is pretty straightforward, which is good, though you sort of need to know a bit about the walking dead and their classifications to navigate it. The Introduction is an unorthodox story of one of the walking dead who was (in life) a close relative of the Weathermay-Foxgrove sisters, setting the tone of the book by pointing out that the walking dead were formerly people we knew and loved, and likewise explaining the purpose behind the guide. Chapter One is titled Necrology, and deals primarily with the common factors between undead, including states of preservation and general composition. Chapter Two is the Obedient Dead, discussing skeletons and zombies and their ilk, with Chapter Three following as the Hungry Dead and dealing with ghouls and ghasts. Chapter Four is the Restless Dead, that being revenants and wights and the like of self-resurrected undead. Chapter Five deals with Weaknesses universal to undead, while Chapter Six goes straight to the source of Necromancers, who command the undead. Chapter Seven deals entirely with Hunting the Walking Dead, and is the most useful chapter for player characters, while the DM's Appendix illustrates new undead monster types and templates for use within any campaign. The artwork is primarily bland where it isn't bad--those seeing Talon Dunning's name in the credits are in for a rude awakening when they realize he drew all of two images in the book While the images are fantastic (showing once again why Talon is one of the best hands in the field), they don't make up for the over-inked work Jason Walker contributes (which isn't all bad, but which is mostly not particularly good), nor the decent but unimpressive grayscale of Jamie Powers, which makes up the other half of the art in the book. Borders are subdued, the letterhead for Ravenloft is still the cool wrought iron with twin ravens, and the pages look like they're from a dusty tome-making the book a pleasant read if you don't look too hard at the art. 2.5 out of 5.
Playability: I'm of two minds about this category, my monkeys, and I'll tell you why. On one hand, the undead are a major stock villain in most D&D campaigns, and most especially in Ravenloft, which could hardly get along without them. They appear so often that a guide to fighting them must be useful, right? But on the other hand, they are stock villains--they are a brief encounter in a graveyard, the mindless soldiers of a necromancer, and the walking heralds of Azalin Rex. They aren't exactly villains you're going to interrogate. So… how often is any of this stuff going to come up? The book proves itself to primarily be a boon to the Dungeon Master, who can throw curveballs at his players with new undead powers and types of monsters players haven't encountered before, but most players are still going to hack away as always to get through the grunts and to the one responsible. While it makes for a great read, the book has limited field use among players whose DM doesn't also subscribe to the alternate rules within. 3.5 out of 5.
Desired Content: If you wanted a guidebook that covered vampires, mummies, ghosts, and other undead baddies… you didn't get it. They aren't, surprisingly, classified among the walking dead. The book deals exclusively with the undead one generally classifies as "cannon fodder" to varying degrees, which may be a disappointment to anyone having hoped for more. However, it does tell you everything you could possibly want to know about the walking dead, fleshing them out beyond what this monkey would have believed possible. And they needed fleshing out, seriously--rotting corpses shambling around aimlessly don't exactly end up with a lot of meat left on the bones, and animate carrion is good eatin'. 4 out of 5.
|So what we find ourselves with is a book that is interesting and compelling if not particularly useful unless everyone plays along. Primarily a DM's tool, Van Richten's Guide to the Walking Dead still has a lot of player appeal, but in the end you're still looking at a book about zombies and skeletons. This monkey can't remember the last time he needed a guide on how to kill a skeleton.|
The Good: Detailed beyond all expectations, great flavor text, unusual optional powers.
The Bad: Limited use due to subject matter, doesn't much change how PCs treat undead.
The Overall Ugly: A good addition to your Ravenloft library if you like well-written supplements and think optional rules are cool
What it's Worth: Maybe a shade under market. $23 seems a bit steep for a book about zombies.