DnD 5e - Dark Gifts or Distinctive Quirks?
Last Updated: June 9th, 2021
RPGBOT uses the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
- : Good options.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.
The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials are released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.
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Despite being a horror supplement, Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft introduces a new and exciting character option called "Dark Gifts.” While ostensibly flavored as pacts or offerings from dark entities that come with strings attached, these Dark Gifts can be made to fit many settings with a little tweaking of flavor.
In my games, I have used at least one of these Dark Gifts to represent a second chance from a benevolent spirit connected with a dying character, by drawing energy from other points in their timeline. Rather than malicious, the side effects are unintentional consequences of being connected to these other points in time.
As such, these Dark Gifts can be modified to form the basis of "Quirks" which give players additional ways to customize their character, receiving both a bonus and a penalty. In some ways, this operates like an additional feat, where the cost is rolled into the decision to take them. Or, if your group is not using feats, a way to bring a limited selection of feat-like effects with built-in drawbacks into your game.
Below, I'll discuss each of the presented Dark Gifts: their benefits, drawbacks, how to use them as quirks for your characters, and some ideas about customizing them further.
You gain additional skill proficiencies and language choices, representing some sort of merging between yourself and another soul.
Once per rest (short or long), when you roll a natural 1 on the d20 for an attack, ability check, or saving throw, the world distorts, and you must roll on an additional consequence table. The results are mostly detrimental, but include a beneficial effect to reroll the die.
As a Quirk
This gift has several options that make it suited for a non-horror campaign without much alteration. That said, it could be flavored as a divine gift, granting skills and speaking in a new tongue, but sometimes being overwhelmed by that divine power.
A simple change might be to swap the skills and language for other proficiencies, such as with weapons or tools. In this case, you might consider increasing the number of proficiencies granted.
A more drastic modification would be to change this by letting the player select two skills that the character is not proficient in, and granting the ability to roll those skills with advantage. However, if a check fails or either die rolls a natural 1, they suffer a consequence and can’t use the feature for the rest of the day.
This consequence could follow closely to the original drawback of the gift, or could be removing proficiency in some other skill or skills until they finish a long rest, replacing the other benefits and drawbacks. This could represent a spirit trapped within the character, offering abilities, but which threatens to break free and afflict the character in some way.
You learn a form of the Message cantrip and gain an ability to increase your AC against an attack, themed around spirits which constantly whisper to you.
Once per rest (short or long), when you roll a natural 1 on the d20 for an attack, ability check, or saving throw, the voices become too loud to ignore, forcing you to roll on an additional consequence table. The results are mostly detrimental, but include a beneficial effect to cast a limited form of the Augury spell.
As a Quirk
This gift can be used as it is, but could also be reflavored to be some sort of soothing presence which comforts the character through beneficial (if sometimes overwhelming) feelings and/or words. These messages could, rather than howling spirits, instead be deeply confusing or distracting to anyone other than the character, who has grown to live with them. You might additionally consider limiting the message cantrip to only convey feelings or simple phrases.
Replace the Message cantrip with another cantrip, such as Blade Ward. This could alter the gift into the "Unstable Weave", where a small amount of unformed powerful magic rests just inside the character. This allows them to project a limited shield, but also leaves them open to that magic overwhelming them at any time.
You might also consider changing the results list for the drawback to better align with this new direction, such as potentially having the character immediately cast Blur on themselves instead of casting Augury.
You learn a form of the Mage Hand cantrip and a limited ability to increase the reach of your melee attacks, as your shadow takes on tangible form.
Once per rest (short or long), when you roll a natural 1 on the d20 for an attack, ability check, or saving throw, your shadow gains a will of its own, and the next d20 roll a creature makes is helped or hindered at random.
As a Quirk
Instead of a shadow, the thing that grants these abilities might be some sort of magical or fey spirit that lives within the character, generally assisting them, but sometimes causing chaos.
A modification here could be to replace the reach granting benefit with another one or two cantrips, creating a more focused “Wild Magic Prodigy” that manipulates raw magic. When they roll a natural 1, the magic bursts out of them and they must roll on a table containing various cantrips that then target random characters around them. (Or use some select results from the Wild Magic Sorcerer’s Surge table.)
You gain a limited ability to cast the Misty Step spell and can more easily travel to Domains of Dread you have knowledge of, due to some interaction with the mists that surround those worlds.
You can’t remain in one location for more than a few weeks before the land starts to absorb your vitality, granting increasing levels of exhaustion.
As a Quirk
As this gift is directly related to the Domains of Dread, a more overt change is required to make it into something suited for another campaign setting. That being said, a good path might be to make it represent a connection with the land around the character, granting them some parts of the Ranger’s Natural Explorer feature. (Such as the inability to become lost and the ability to easily find food. Alternatively, let the player select two of the options.)
You might additionally change the granted spell to something else, such as Pass without Trace, to represent this close tie to the lands the character travels through. This connection comes with a similar price to the original version, draining the vitality of the character over time as they stay in one place.
While the above is something of a modification itself, an additional path might be to make this gift into an attunement with the planes themselves, granting the ability to safely navigate them. This could be represented by any teleportation effect that the character participates in being treated as though the caster has seen the destination location casually, so long as you know approximately where the location is.
Additionally, treat plane shift effects the character is involved in as though the caster is familiar with a safe place on the destination plane, so long as the character knows its name. In this case, retaining Misty Step matches the flavor well, and the original drawback can be used to represent the plane around the character gradually trying to recover whatever is within the character that grants them this ability.
A second way to modify this gift might be to flavor it as something sinister, intangible, and relentless which is hunting the character and will drain their vitality in close proximity. For this, you might have the player choose one of the types from the Ranger’s Favored Enemy list to represent what kind of thing is hunting them and offer an additional bonus against those enemy types. (Such as a +1 to attacks and damage against them.)
You might also replace Misty Step with Hunter’s Mark, to match the new flavor. You could use either the original drawback or make it an actual creature that can catch up with the party and be defeated, but which will always return to continue hunting the character.
You gain an ability to cast a limited form of Alter Self, intended to represent some form of monstrous transformation.
When some catalyst occurs (such as seeing a full moon) you must make a saving throw or involuntarily change, potentially disrupting the current situation.
As a Quirk
Once again, this gift can stand on its own in other campaigns. Simple adjustments to tailor it for the particular flavor of a player character will go a long way. It fits well for non-horror uses of werewolf or vampire tropes, and could be used to represent some sort of demonic or fiendish touch to a character, or an evil (or good) spirit that manifests in the face of significant good or evil acts.
As a gift that is mostly based on roleplay, this one can be a little hard to modify in a meaningful way. One potential path to change this quirk is turning it into a double-sided blessing of truth, using Zone of Truth as the focal spell instead of Alter Self. The benefit, in this case, would be the ability to cast Zone of Truth once per long rest, while the drawback would be that when the trigger condition occurs, the character must make a saving throw or a Zone of Truth effect is placed just on them for a specified period of time (10 minutes, to match the spell, is probably easiest.)
You gain additional skills and languages, and the ability to gain bonuses to failed saving throws, as another being shares your body, with its own knowledge and a vested interest in your survival.
The being has an agenda of its own, potentially attempting to take control of you if you refuse to work toward those ends.
As a Quirk
Recasting the body horror element here is pretty easy. The other being can be turned into an object inhabited by a spirit, which has a connection with the character. There could be additional penalties to prevent the character and object from being separated.
Alternatively the object might simply be unable to separate from them, instead returning or teleporting back to them after moving a certain distance away. Or maybe it can, but it is still able to influence the character over any distance. That could make for an interesting character arc where the player is searching for such a bound item in order to remove the connection.
Changing the being into an elemental spirit that inhabits the character could give an alternate set of abilities, such as granting the character a reaction to gain resistance to a specific damage type for a turn (based on the nature of the spirit) and the ability to deal additional damage of that type with an attack.
In this case, the drawback might be that the spirit requires the character to take a specific kind of damage each day. Or when they take a type of damage opposite to the nature of the spirit, it reduces the character’s maximum hit points by a fixed amount until they finish a long rest.
Touch of Death
You gain the ability to deal necrotic damage with an unarmed strike or when grappling, and ignore resistance to necrotic damage in certain situations, because your simple touch is deadly to life.
You are unable to make skin contact with others without doing them harm.
As a Quirk
This gift is appropriate for use in a variety of campaign settings on its own, but you might consider a reflavoring that makes it the opposite of what it is currently. Instead of a touch bringing death, it could be overwhelming life and positive energy which is too much for another creature, causing them harm. You might choose to retain the necrotic damage or change the effect into radiant damage to reflect this.
Before getting to the modifications, this gift is the only one without a significant mechanical drawback, which may or may not be an issue for your group. I think making the damage occur whenever they are touched (such as with touch spells), even through clothing, provides a more relevant mechanical drawback and leads to more interesting situations. If you change this aspect, you might also consider lowering that damage die to a d8.
Beyond that, an interesting modification would be to have this gift represent a connection to one of the primary elemental planes. Elemental power flows through and out of the character, harming those nearby. You might consider changing the unarmed strike into a limited use attack that can be used either in melee or at range, dealing an appropriate damage type for the plane the character has a connection to.
To balance this improvement, you might have the character always deal damage to anyone that touches them, even without skin contact. Alternatively, you might have them let loose an uncontrolled burst of power when they roll a natural 1, forcing Dexterity saving throws from those around them to avoid damage. (Using the same damage die increases as specified in the original gift.)
You have the ability to gain advantage on certain skill checks and can’t be blinded for a limited period of time, because a cloud of spirits follows you constantly and you can share their vision.
You always have disadvantage on various charisma-based skill checks and are more vulnerable to the Scrying spell because the spirits are distinctive and unsettling.
As a Quirk
While this gift can work as a quirk without much trouble, there are options if the overt supernatural element is too much for a campaign. You could instead make the watchers only visible to the character, but have their influence be felt as unease or an unsettling presence when other creatures interact with the character, keeping the same benefits and drawbacks. This also opens the option for you to ascribe special meaning to some other character being able to see these watchers, perhaps kickstarting additional plot or character development.
To create something less supernatural, you might consider modifying this gift into a quirk that gives the character intense focus for a time, but exhausts them afterward. This could provide advantage on Perception and Investigation checks and the ability to add a d4 to one attack each turn, lasting for an hour or until the end of a combat. Afterward, the character gains a level of exhaustion that could not be removed except by a long rest, to represent the toll that such focus takes on them. This adds the interesting possibility of letting the character repeatedly use the ability, if they are willing to take additional levels of exhaustion and the risk that comes with them.
Using Dark Gifts
Giving players access to Dark Gifts (or the Quirks suggested above) can feel like just another way to give their characters more abilities, potentially upsetting the balance and pace of a game. While the rules in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft offer some helpful advice, such as offering a gift as a tradeoff to prevent a character death, there are additional options to consider.
First, you can consider them a type of treasure, something on par with a magic item (or a cursed one, anyway), and use them as the reward for a quest or something ancient sitting in a dungeon somewhere, just like any other treasure. For some players and groups, this might be a more interesting option than just a normal piece of treasure. If making it optional though, you might want to have something else waiting in the wings to offer them if they choose not to take it.
Second, Dark Gifts can be used to balance the player types in a group. If your group includes players that go for the greatest mechanical advantages and also those that focus on other areas of the game, you can use Dark Gifts to tilt things just a little to bring the characters to an even level. This has the advantage of being something special which works in favor of roleplay, and is not a pure improvement, making it more palatable for the rest of the group.
Lastly, you can consider allowing players to select Dark Gifts during character creation, and adjust the power level of your campaign to compensate. This has the advantage of being open and outright, providing a maximum of expression for your players, and clearly stating goals for the campaign as a whole.
In all, as with every game, it is important to discuss with your players how they feel about using new rules and what their expectations are. In my group, we are open to many changes and homebrew options, but have a standing agreement that if something becomes unfun, for the players or the game master, then we will review it and work to make it better. There is a saying in improv theater: “Yes, but . . .” meaning to always keep the conversation going and never have a hard stop, which is a principle I apply to my tabletop games. I find this communication and understanding to be the backbone of working new and interesting ideas into a game.
The Dark Gifts are a fantastic starting point for new ideas to customize characters, adding a subtle amount of extra ability that comes with a drawback. Beyond the mechanical ideas, they also allow for a greater variety of backstories or personal traits to be expressed during the game in a meaningful way, which never fails to bring more depth to the experience.
What do you think of them? My personal favorites are the three Dark Gifts that give consequences to a natural 1, which is something that my group made great use of in previous editions. Bringing that here with the ability to opt in or out of that experience, even between players in the same game, is fantastic flexibility.