What Do I Know About Reviews? Encounters with the Dark Powers (Dungeon Masters Guild Product)
There is a category of RPG product that I think has really flourished in the Dungeons & Dragons 5e era. That’s not to say this category didn’t exist previous to 5e. I know, for example, Legendary Games started off by providing supplementary campaign products to Pathfinder adventure paths, but the campaign supplemental product is well represented on the Dungeon Masters Guild.
This one caught my attention because I have, in different campaigns, utilized bargains in the afterlife as an alternative to keep a character in a game. In my case, I’ve used the devils that are allowed to bargain with the souls in line for judgement in the Fugue Plane in the Forgotten Realms in this capacity.
In that vein, let’s look at Encounters with the Dark Powers, a Ravenloft supplement available on the Dungeon Masters Guild. Let’s see how much life this product has in it.
Encounters with the Dark Powers is a PDF product with 20 pages. This includes a coversheet/legal page, table of contents/credits page, five full page color pictures, and a full-page ad for Encounters in Barovia, another Ravenloft product by the same author, Christian Zeuch.
The book has a somewhat similar format to the D&D 5e standard trade dress, although this is lighter grey and red, with bloodstained borders around all the pages. There are sidebars, tables, and read aloud text, which all appear nicely laid out.
What Are These Encounters?
These encounters aren’t meant to be randomly run or inserted into adventures under the same circumstances that some encounter products may assume. Instead, these are specifically encounters that happen to a character that is about to die. At the moment of the character’s death, one of these encounters can trigger.
If you haven’t delved too deeply into Ravenloft lore, the Dark Powers are the ephemeral entities that bind the Demiplane of Dread together, pulling in candidates to be Darklords of various domains, and temping people to give in to their darkest nature.
In AD&D 2nd Edition, there were various circumstances that could trigger different phases of a transformation. What I like about this concept is that instead of framing this as a “gotcha” moment, where characters do X and then have to make a save or else gain this “gift,” this is a mechanized form of temptation that depends on character agency.
The product contains 20 encounters with different titles. The character can accept the temptation extended to them, and instead of dying, they are alive with 1 hit point, and they pick up some kind of special ability. These abilities might be accompanied by an additional penalty, they might be a double-edged sword, and some may only be triggered a limited number of times per rest.
As an example of different gifts, characters might gain the ability to turn into a mist, but the downside is that the process causes the character to take a level of exhaustion. Some characters might end up with skeletal hands that grant them claw attacks, but . . . well, you don’t have skin on your hands anymore.
Characters that accept one of these gifts end up as “mostly” undead, counting as undead for most effects accept Turn Undead. There is a process by which characters can be revivified or raised, which also leaves them with a lingering level of exhaustion until a remove curse is utilized.
While there is a chart to detail all the mechanical effects of the gifts, the largest section of the book frames each of the gifts as an encounter. Effectively, there is some opening text, a developing narrative that hints at the kind of gift the character is being offered, and a choice that the character makes at the end of the scene.
Boxed text may or may not be popular, and I myself may have made some comments about how summary and bullet points are my preference over read aloud text. In this case, however, I think the boxed texts are helpful for unfolding the hints and the framing the scene for the player when they make their decision about if they will accept the bargain.
While the chart is arranged as a d20 chart, you can pick a fitting Dark Gift with to which you present the player. Obviously, some of these may be more logical to use depending on the circumstances that led to the character’s death. As an example, The Frozen One is a good option for someone that died due to cold damage, and The Lupine One might be a good one to use for someone that died at the hands of a wolf like monster.
The game specifically mentions that player agency is important with these rules, and I wholeheartedly agree. I would take it one step further. I would let someone look at the Dark Gifts and work with them outside the narrative of the game to find one that they would like to play. Some players may assume their gift is going to be more subtle and sinister, and sprouting wings or having skeletal hands isn’t going to work with what they want to play.
I really appreciate that this product includes a content warning up front, especially given some of the gruesome and creepy scenes that might be used to introduce various gifts. While most of these powers don’t feel like they are going to drastically change the power level of the game, I’m also not sure that the are “balanced” in the traditional sense. Honestly, I don’t mind this, because the point is more to have a creepy gift you can lean on, while knowing you have already compromised yourself to the Dark Powers.
I touched on this above, but while I appreciate the emphasis on consent of the player, when it comes to rolling or picking from the table, the language implies that all of this is the DM’s choice, and there is a sidebar discussing using apps or running the encounter away from the party. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of real world secrets in the group (see my desire to reward players for sharing their secrets in some of my more recent reviews), and I think it’s fine if the table knows the deal the character made, even if their characters don’t.
The “Dread Mark” sidebar works for detailing a “mostly undead” character state, but I would rather just reference the Supernatural Gift: Hollow One from Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, although I don’t believe that content is available for use in Dungeon Masters Guild products. I’m still a sucker for unified rules implementation, though, so I would probably use that instead of the “Dread Mark” rules.
I understand why, but characters are only tempted by these encounters up to 5th level (the level when you start getting some ability to mitigate character death). I think that works fine, but at the same time, I would love to see a follow up that would fill the design space of tempting characters higher than 5th level, and to see what that temptation looks like.
Rise from Your Grave
I love that the idea of making a Ravenloft game more survivable also makes it more sinister in a manner that fits perfectly into established Ravenloft lore. I’m really happy to see the emphasis on player agency and content warnings in a product like this. The individual encounters are flavorful and evocative, and I like the variety of gifts that can be granted. I mean, how often to player characters get the ability to use someone else’s shadow against them?
Out of Lives
I do think this is a product that would benefit from players having more input into what they are about to adopt as part of their story, but that may just be my dirty story gamer tendencies coming through. I would also like a less “rote” way of excising the gift, other than just casting spells. I would love for there to be specific tasks associated with different gifts that might allow for another choice that either strengthens the gift or removes the taint of the gift.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
This is an imaginative and well executed product. It’s a great addition to a game that is set in Ravenloft, or that has a gothic/sinister tone. It’s very flavored towards that style of setting, and it would be harder to use this as a buffer against death in a setting that doesn’t assume that sinister powers are waiting to corrupt and claim your soul.
That said, if you are interested in exploring rules to mitigate death in Dungeons & Dragons 5e, or if you are playing in Ravenloft or another horror themed, sinister setting or campaign, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in this purchase.