Review: Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica
Ravnica blends fantasy tropes with steampunk wackiness to build a world so ripe for adventure that you’d think it was made especially for D&D, and while the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica falls a little short when it comes to providing a solid campaign setting it almost makes up for that with sheer imagination and personality.
Originally created as a setting for Magic: The Gathering, Ravnica is both a world and a city-state; a metropolis so vast that it has consumed everything it can, and where the only wilderness is a rubble-strewn belt of abandoned buildings and cracked streets. There are no countries and no governments, with power instead lying in the hands of ten vast guilds that handle everything from growing food to waging war.
It would be easy to assume that ten big factions could be too many to handle, but each and every one of the guilds has their own unique take on the world that you can easily build stories and characters around. The Boros Legion, for example, is led by angels who run Ravnica’s military with the fiery passion of a first-edition paladin, while the Orzhov Syndicate controls both churches and organised crime when they aren’t tapping into the forces of undeath.
These guilds are the heart and soul of the setting, and what truly sets it apart from the countless other fantasy worlds sitting on the shelf. Almost every character in Ravnica will be a guild member, and almost every adventure will involve guild business. This dynamic means that planning out parties and quests will involve a little more effort than the usual “you meet in a tavern, go stomp some goblins” but it’s not too hard to imagine a team from some of the more cooperative guilds working together.
The Guildmaster’s Guide subtly encourages players to commit to a guild during character creation through backgrounds that allow them to start out with membership. These are a little more powerful that regular backgrounds, especially for spellcasters who get free expanded spell lists that reflect the outlook of their chosen guild. This can create some cool little character builds, with the nature-loving Slesneya Conclave allowing even wizards to manipulate plants and beasts.
On top of this, membership in most guilds is tied to progression up the ranks as characters build renown and reputation, providing them with useful perks on top of responsibilities. These fairly minor changes all come together to encourage players and even entire parties to feel like they’re part of a greater whole, rather than an unattached band of warriors that don’t care for the world around them.
Of course, this does sometimes create tension among the party if there’s a clash of ideals or parent guilds are clashing elsewhere, but this can be a source of intrigue and character development as well as a problem to overcome.
There are two other major factors that give Ravnica a special twist, the first of which is the fact that it’s virtually impossible to find a true wilderness. Streets and plazas stretch as far as the eye can see, and every building is stuffed with normal people carrying out their normal jobs and normal lives – normal by Ravnican standards, anyway.
This changes the feel of the adventures in ways you may not expect. Collateral damage is much more of an issue, as even if your characters don’t care too much about dropping a fireball in a crowded market the law enforcers of the Azorius Senate and Boros Legion certainly will. More than that, it gives plenty of room for bards and rogues to shine with stealth and subtlety becoming increasingly important.
That doesn’t mean that the barbarian is going to feel left out, however, as Ravnica still has plenty of nasty creatures to deal with. Vampires – or worse, non guild-affiliated vampires – may be lurking in abandoned houses, while clanking monstrosities escaping from the laboratories of the Izzet League’s scientist-mages seems to be a fairly commonplace occurrence.
This brings us neatly to our second point – the weird and wonderful creatures of Ravnica. And perhaps the weirdest thing about them, from a D&D perspective, are the one that are missing. There are no dwarves in Ravnica, no halflings, no gnomes and no dragonborn. While the plane-hopping nature of Magic makes it easy to explain away the sudden appearance of such a creature in the city, they aren’t included as standard.
Instead, we’re treated to the appearance of several new races, ranging from the fairly conventional centaurs and minotaurs all the way to the elephantine loxodon and biologically-altered simic hybrids. Each of these are interesting in their own way, though the fairly rigid guidelines on which races typically belong to which guild can feel a bit limiting.
This is the area in which Guildmaster’s Guide excels; it paints wonderful characters and gives you all the magic items, mechanics and guidelines needed to play them. Where it fall a little short, however, is in the creation of the world itself.
Everything in the book feels a little shallow; like there’s been too much polish and not enough grounding. All the high-concept stuff is wonderful, but it’s hard to tell how things relate to each other, what the geography is like and who the players can truly interact with.
In the setting book we get a whistle-stop tour of one of ten major districts, and are given the impression that there’s much more of the city left to explore. It seems to expect that the DM will fill in the gaps, but in the case of the Guildmaster’s Guide you’re left with more gap than content.
It feels as though a lot of this comes from the fact that Ravnica wasn’t created with RPGs in mind, but rather it was meant to act as a broad setting that could produce some cool cards and tell some interesting stories. This means that it suffers from the same issues as many licensed properties, where the world works just fine for its original purpose but suffers when it tries to support the depth needed to set an RPG there.
The question remains, however, of whether this is a major problem for you.
If you’re heading into the Guildmaster’s Guide because you want a setting that you can easily drop players into, you may well find yourself struggling. The imagination and dizzying array of ideas that make up Ravnica mean that you’ll never be bored, but there’s a lot of work needed to make a campaign there feel alive.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for inspiration or are comfortable enough in your own skills that you relish the challenge of filling in content, Guildmaster’s Guide is a great purchase. It’s beautifully designed, well-written and stuffed with possibilities.
Just beware of the risk that you might get sucked into the dark world of Magic; your wallet may never forgive you.
You can learn more about The Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica on the Wizards of the Coast Website.