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Archives of Candlekeep: Take It In Strahd

This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Fifty Five on 3 March 2021.

Ryu: Okay, I realize the whole warlock thing is hitting you hard but this is too far.
Lennon: What? Capes are cool, they should really make a comeback.
Ryu: I’m fine with the cape, it’s the grey face paint and the red contacts. Isn’t that racist or something?
Ostron: Against who? Grimlocks? They don’t generally raise objections in civil court.
Ryu: All right fine, So why are you going all Dracula? It’s nowhere near Halloween.
Lennon: Well, I figured new class, new Identity, and everyone thinks vampires are cool. Especially this one.
Ostron: Which one?
Lennon: Come on, I really tried with the makeup here. Guy in a castle? Unrequited love? Dark Lord?
Ryu: I’m sorry, you’re trying to impersonate Strahd!?
Lennon: There you go!
Ostron: That…okay there are so many ways that’s a bad idea I don’t know where to start.
Lennon: Oh come on. Look I did a little research.
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When you look for information on villains in D&D a few names regularly appear. Asmodeus, Orcus, Demogorgon, Ascerak, and the Tarrasque are all regularly mentioned as formidable enemies, but few villains get as much press as Strahd von Zarovich, ruler of Barovia and Master vampire.

Vampires had existed in D&D from the beginning, but Tracy Hickman had been playing a random encounter session of D&D and got pulled out of the experience because there was a vampire just hanging around in a cavern, and that didn’t fit with his mental image of vampires. So he went home to his wife Laura and they decided to rewrite vampires for D&D.

The result was Strahd von Zarovich, a vampire based less on the vicious bloodsucking monster trope that had set in by the 1980s and more on the traditional vampires and gothic monsters of literature. The Hickman’s goal was to draw on the themes where vampires were almost sympathetic creatures on the face of it, until you examined their actions and motivations and realized they were ultimately selfish and abusive. They developed their story centered on Strahd and playtested it around, eventually generating enough buzz for TSR to take notice. Module 16: Ravenloft, was published for 1st edition soon after.

To this day Strahd is lauded as the first “fully realized villain” in the game with personality, goals, and behavior beyond a simple stat block and very basic objectives. He made such an impression that by 2nd edition, Ravenloft became an entire setting unto itself, with Strahd as the central figure. Ravenloft: Realm of Terror was the module that really cemented Strahd as the infamous vampire he is today.

Fortunately for fans of the vampire, despite being a long-standing member of the mythos his history and purpose hasn’t changed very much over the editions, though Wizards has often seemed reluctant to do much with him. He didn’t receive a release in 3rd edition, and only debuted for 3.5 near the very end of the product’s run, and given that “Expedition to Castle Ravenloft” was mostly just a collection of known Strahd lore and an update of the various creatures’ stat blocks to 3.5, many people think it was just a cover for the fact that Wizards’ attention had fully shifted to 4th edition by then.

Strahd only appeared in 4th edition in “guest spots” where a few dungeon magazine adventures included him or set themselves in Barovia. WotC had announced plans to release a Ravenloft setting but it never happened. Make of that what you will.

Over the course of 2nd edition, Strahd had morphed from a tortured vampire to more of an immortal magic overlord of a domain. For 5th edition, Wizards wanted to get back to the Strahd that had excited and threatened original D&D players, so they brought the Hickmans back to consult for Curse of Strahd. That module has proved to be one of the most popular adventure modules released for 5th edition, so clearly that was a good call.

As mentioned previously, the various masters of D&D have adopted an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the vampire, so his history has remained consistent throughout the years. We should note that some of the information following counts as spoilers for the Curse of Strahd module so if you’re still in the dark about the details and want to stay that way, skip ahead from here.

Strahd began life as the eldest son of the von Zarovich noble line. As expected by tradition, he became a military leader. Originally he was a force for good, but endless war began to grate on him and by his middle age he felt he’d wasted his life. Then came the conflict with a barbarian horde known as the Tergs, who’d overrun the von Zarovich lands. Strahd’s campaign against them lasted over a decade, and during the course of the fighting he employed brutal and merciless tactics. Accounts differ at this point; Strahd either conquered the land and named it Barovia after his father, or it had already been named that, but either way he took charge. The people were happy for a while but Strahd was a compassionless ruler by then, to the point where the rest of his family were wary of being near him. He built Castle Ravenloft with the help of local wizards and named it Ravenloft after his mother to encourage his family to come live there, including his brother Sergei, who was significantly younger and had been kept apart from him because his mother believed he would be a bad influence.

Enter Tatyana. Most accounts say that Strahd met and fell in love with Tatyana independently, but she never returned the affection, seeing too many years and too much pain and sorrow in Strahd. Instead she fell in love with Sergei and the pair presented themselves to Strahd for his blessing of their union. At that point Strahd fixated on the fact that Tatyana regularly called him old and made an infernal bargain to restore his youth and prevent his death so Tatyana would love him. Who or what he made the bargain with is unclear, just that it was with “Dark Powers”. After that, at Sergei and Tatyana’s wedding, he killed his brother, drank his blood as instructed, and then pursued the bride. For some reason she did not consider the newly immortal Strahd with her fiance’s blood dripping down his chin to be an improvement, and instead threw herself off one of the castle towers. At that point either the castle guards or a rival family’s retainers attempted to kill Strahd but failed because he was a vampire by that point, and returned the favor by killing them all. The true nature of the bargain then took hold, and Borovia became the first Domain of Dread, with Strahd as its dark lord. The local inhabitants soon regarded Strahd as more of a myth as he ceased making public appearances soon after his transformation, mourning Tatyana and his fate.

Tatyana had actually thrown herself into the newly formed mists marking the border of the Domain of Dread, and a piece of Tatyana’s soul was shorn off and ended up manifesting in Waterdeep as a woman named Anna. Unfortunately the realities of the split meant Anna was incurably insane. An elven vampire named Jander Sunstar (who some Avernus veterans may recognize) found her and cared for her but was unable to prevent her death. He sought out the source of her problem, eventually making his way to Borovia and meeting Strahd. At that point he was several centuries more experienced in vampirism and taught Strahd everything he knew, unaware of Strahd’s role in Anna/Tatyana’s fate.

Eventually he did figure it out and the vampires fought one another to a stalemate, Jander’s experience offset by Strahd’s mastery of Borovian environment and creatures. Jander attempted suicide but without any real sunlight in Borovia he couldn’t achieve it, instead being taken out of the domain by the Dark Powers for unknown reasons.

At this point Strahd’s history is pulled from earlier editions and diverges from 5th edition’s current stance, but only by omission. Strahd, as mentioned, was the first Dark Lord over the first Domain of Dread. In other editions, Ravenloft became its own demiplane separate from all others, and over time the Dark Lords created and attached other Domains of Dread to Borovia, each with their own Dark Lords, most notably the evil wizard Azalin and the warrior Drakov.

Also at some point, the wandering Vistani entered Barovia. Their leader at the time, one Madame Eva, entered into an uneasy truce with Strahd where members of her people would occasionally lure people into his Domain, and in return he would tolerate their presence.

The rest of Strahd’s existence In D&D has been as a sort of recurring villain. The nature of his curse means he continually relives the Tatyana tragedy, with her spirit reincarnating in his domain every generation or so, and the curse of the Dark Lords ensures even if he is successfully vanquished as one would with a real vampire, he never actually dies.

When he isn’t busy searching for his unrequited love, he’s gotten involved with or met a few big names in D&D. He ran into the Heroes of Baldur’s gate when they were dealing with an artifact that was apparently a locket originally belonging to Tatyana. Volo visited Barovia for a time on a bet but was intelligent enough to get a locket from Ellminster that would ensure his ability to escape first. Mordenkainen also spent some time in Barovia after the disastrous death of the Council of Nine in the realm of Greyhawk led him to confront Strahd, though he vastly underestimated the vampire’s power.

It’s not yet clear how much of the larger history of Barovia as a Domain of Dread will be carried over for 5th edition. Domains of Dread have been codified in some 5e resources, but lack details, and they are placed in the Shadowfell, rather than being part of a separate demiplane with Ravenloft as the central feature. Still, so far most of Strahd’s history has remained unchanged through the editions of D&D, so it’s likely most if not all of the lore will remain intact.

In light of the upcoming resource, it’s worth mentioning that Rudolph van Richten was an inhabitant of one of the Ravenloft-adjacent Domains, specifically Darkon. His family was killed, reportedly due to a scheme by an evil Vistani clan and a lesser vampire. In response, he dedicated his life to cataloging all of the various horrors present in Ravenloft, including weaknesses of the creatures and strategies for defeating some of the Dark Lords.

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Lennon: Okay so…in retrospect Strahd doesn’t sound like the best role model.
Ryu: I’d be glad, but we had to spend all that time explaining it rather than you just knowing an undead vampire isn’t someone you should imitate.
Lennon: Fine. Although now I have all this grey cosmetic paint I don’t know what to do with.
Ostron: Let’s go to the scrying pool. Maybe after we finish clearing out the listener notes you can put out an advert and someone will buy it.

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