Celebrity endorsements and a pandemic that forced many to stay indoors has helped the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) achieve a kind of resurgence. While enduring in an age of Xboxes and Playstations, its current popularity boost has created a smorgasbord of D&D tie-in media, even whole universes that exist under the D&D umbrella. One such universe doesn’t even use a dragon. The Ravenloft universe of D&D has its players typically fight vampires and werewolves rather than fire-breathing dragons, but this world does provide a lot of storytelling opportunities, as demonstrated in the book D&D: Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle, written by Casey Gilly and illustrated by Bailey Underwood.
The opening of this story might be very familiar to some: a dark, foreboding castle; flashes of lightning, and a creation that has just awakened. However, it is not Dr. Frankenstein who has brought his creation to life. The doctor in question is Viktra Mordenheim and what has awakened has no memory of who she was before. She chooses the name Miranda, and she mostly obeys Dr. Mordenheim’s rules, particularly that she should stay on the castle grounds and never venture outside, but Miranda is desperate to learn more about her past, even if it could cost her the new life she was given.
This book could initially be dismissed as heavily plagiarizing Frankenstein. However, the dynamic of Miranda and Viktra is just the wraparound story, and the majority of this collection features stories about other Ravenloft inhabitants encountering ghosts, sea monsters, and other creatures that stalk the night. These stories might vary in quality from one to another, but they all involve characters meeting gruesome ends, which brings to mind horror anthology films that also keep their individual terrifying tales tied together with a wraparound story.
The artwork itself is restrained, using a more spooky atmosphere rather than relying on visceral, full-on horror. The designs of the various characters even show a slight manga influence, which signals that the target audience of this book are young adults who are familiar with the world of Ravenloft and of D&D. There are characters that appear to resemble elves and halflings (or Hobbits, a term familiar with Lord of the Rings fans), meaning that Gilly and Underwood expect their audience to have at least a basic familiarity with the universe their characters occupy.
This book is definitely for a specific audience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a niche one. There are plenty of people that, if they’re not currently playing D&D, then they remember playing the game and having fun, and there are still those who have fond memories of or wish to learn more about the Ravenloft setting. To see if this would be a good purchase for your library’s collection, look for signs in your own library. Does it have a Dungeons & Dragons group? Do you have the rulebooks and adventures for the game, and if so, how often do they check out? This book is a solid collection of creepy stories, but the entryway into them requires knowing something about the book’s dark and dreadful universe.
Dungeons & Dragons: Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle
By Casey Gilly
Art by Bayleigh Underwood
Related media: Game to Comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)