t has arrived at last. The final published product for the RAVENLOFT campaign setting (excluding, of course, any forays to the Demiplane of Dread in Die, Vecna, Die!). There's a melancholy to the holding this book in your hand, but the final volume of the reprinted Van Richten Guides is probably as good a note to bow out on as any. We could have has an earth-shattering mega-adventure, but somehow, this Compendium is more fitting. It represents one of the most fundamental contributions of the RAVENLOFT setting to the fantasy role-playing experience: the metamorphosis of monsters from drones to be exterminated into villains to be hunted.
But enough poetic musing. How good is this book? Up front, I should say that I don't own the previous two volumes of the Compendium. While the bargain price and luscious new formatting should be tempting to those who have been hunting for the original, now out-of-print Guides, those who already own them already have no substantial reason to lay down their hard-earned money for the Compendiums. They're reprints. Tweaked in places, and with all-new artwork, but reprints nonetheless.
But Volume Three is something special. Included are not only the Guide to Fiends (now renamed Guide to Demons) and Guide to the Vistani, but a never-before published work from the good doctor, the Guide to Witches. The new Guide covers two related but distinct topics: hags and witches (though the nature of these "witches" may surprise you). The Big Question, of course, is whether or not the new Guide is worth the $24.95 price tag of the Compendium, for those who already own the previous two accessories. The answer is a guarded "yes".
First, however, I should address the previously published material. I'm not going to review the Guide to Demons and Guide to the Vistani here. Suffice to say that they are both excellent treatments of their respective topics. The Guide to the Vistani is a particularly vital book for RAVENLOFT GM's, and while Demons is perhaps less broadly applicable to anyone's campaign, it presents an intriguing, distinctly gothic view of the infernal. They're both good, n'uff said. If you don't own them already, here's your chance.
Now on to the unexplored territory. Author Steve Miller has chosen an interesting pair of topics for the Guide to Witches. On one hand, there are the hags. They receive the traditional Van Richten treatment, with extensive discussion of their nature, habits, and complex life cycle. And of course, there are strategies for would-be monster hunters. The witches are addressed in a tangential fashion, as the danger posed by hags is brought to Van Richten's attention by a secretive group of spellcasters he refers to as witches and warlocks (the latter being the male counterparts to witches). Because of the superficial similarities between hags and witches, Van Richten describes these mysterious folk as a note of caution, lest an innocent be slain in a case of mistaken identity.
The witches Van Richten describes are a unusual lot, and they carry a naturalistic, socially enlightened agenda that does not sit well with the inhabitants of the Demiplane of Dread. For those of you who are keeping score, these witches are not wizards who have taken the witch kit described in the Complete Wizard's Handbook (although those sinister spellcasters are mentioned). They're much closer to the witches of Rasheman in the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting, although still somewhat different. Witches are not true wizards or priests. The talent for witchcraft is hereditary, so one cannot simply study to become one. The female witches cast priest spells, while the male warlocks cast wizard spells. By banding together in covens, both witches and warlocks can cast the spells normally unavailable to them (thus witches may cast wizard spells and warlocks may cast priests spells). All witches need a spell focus and a spellbook to work their magic, though their spells look nothing like the arcane formulae of wizards or the prayers and incantations of priests. Confused yet?
My main problem with the Guide to Witches is that it reads the same way it was perhaps developed. The hag section is good and typical of a Van Richten Guide, but it runs short and the section on this new secret society of witches is required to flesh things out. The discussion of witches isn't bad; it just feels unnecessary. There are even some seemingly unrelated topics touched upon with the witches, such as eremites, the Vistani, and redheads with natural spellcasting abilities (lifted from Castles Forlorn). All of this is presented in the context of cautioning against misidentifying the "old woman in the woods" as a hag, but there is still a somewhat rough feel to it. Granted, some interesting secrets are revealed about the setting, particularly concerning the Church of Hala's relationship with the Demiplane's witches. In the end, the witches presented here are definitely interesting, although the language and logic get a bit muddled at times. The witches of the Land of Mists add a new facet to the mysteries of the setting, but I personally didn't find them interesting enough to transplant them into my campaign any time soon. There are rules for PC witches and warlocks, by the way, including new spells, but oddly enough, the mechanic is presented as a kit, only accessible to non-spellcasting classes (i.e. fighters and thieves).
Now that I've harped a bit on the things that rubbed me the wrong way about Witches, I should reinforce the positives. The thing that jumped out at me early in the Guide, and held up throughout the discussion of both hags and witches, is the subtle theme of gender that runs through the Guide. Although Miller certainly doesn't break any kind of feminist ground, he does touch on some serious and intriguing themes that don't typically get raised in medieval role-playing settings. For instance, the myth a greenhag relates about the origin of hags is steeped in feminine outrage over the way women are used up by an ungrateful male world and then tossed aside. There's lots of uncomfortable issues in here, and although the Guide certainly doesn't wear a feminist agenda on its sleeve, it's very refreshing and invigorating to see difficult issues raised in a DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS product, not matter how subtly. Best of all, this undercurrent has a purpose, in that it brings new kinds of distinctly gothic themes—such as the reactionary male fear of a woman who wields naturalistic, magical power—to the attention of RAVENLOFT DM's. For this alone, Miller is to be commended.
Just in terms of covering all the bases, Witches fulfills is duty admirably. The hags of D&D are given a facelift (well, at least metaphorically) and plenty of substance, and the discussion of witches is at least meaty enough to give DM's who want to use them a starting point. My interest in hags was rekindled by this Guide, and, much like Van Richten, I found myself seeing a great threat to light and goodness where before I only saw a cackling old woman.
As with the previous Compendium volumes, the new layout and formatting in this book is beautiful, complete with the dusky red and silver cover. I was a bit disappointed to see that the promising image of a Vistani vardo in the early cover pictures has been replaced by a recycled image of a demon from Circle of Darkness. Much to my pleasant surprise, Kevin McKann's interior art has improved (at least to my eye) since Carnival, and though I still find his depictions awkward at times, most of his work in this volume is undeniably dark and luscious, perfect for the RAVENLOFT setting. Though I haven't perused the reprinted Guides yet, I found a several typos in the Guide to Witches, a few more than is acceptable.
Devoted RAVENLOFT DM's and completists should have no problem finding a reason to like this volume of the Compendium. If you don't own at least one of the two reprinted Guides, pick it up. Either Demons or Vistani plus the new Guide is worth the price. The section on witches is a bit of a letdown, if only because it felt somewhat misplaced and less than it could have been, but overall, this book is a nice last hurrah from the dear departed doctor and our favorite campaign setting.