Ravenloft is a campaign setting for the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, focusing on themes of Gothic Horror and dark fantasy. Events take place in a pocket dimension called the Land of Mists. The enigmatic Dark Powers have cobbled together a patchwork land of diverse kingdoms, each hiding their own foul secrets and held in thrall by a hideously corrupt being—its darklord—for whom each domain is both a sovereign territory and a prison. "Ravenloft" is actually the name of a castle in one of the most famous dark dominions of the setting.Many of the individual domains of Ravenloft, along with their inhabitants, are directly inspired by classic horror and Gothic literature, infamous historical figures, and twisted versions of Fairy Tales and other stories. Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Pinocchio, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Shakespeare's Macbeth, and the historical Borgia family among many others comprise only a few examples.The first version of the setting, Ravenloft: Realm of Terror, was released as a boxed set (the Black Box) for AD&D in 1990. The Ravenloft Campaign Setting boxed set (the Red Box), released in 1994, revised and updated the setting to include developments in the metaplot. In 1997, the hardcover Domains of Dread updated both setting and rules, and was the first version to include rules for the demiplane's natives. The setting was licensed for Third Edition D&D by White Wolf, who released supplements through their Arthaus imprint, starting with 2001's Ravenloft hardcover. They updated it for 3.5 with 2003's Ravenloft Player's Handbook. Plans to publish a fourth edition version of the setting were cancelled, but a number of Domains of Dread were introduced to 4e's default setting. In this way, Ravenloft was integrated into fourth edition's core.There is also a Spinoff setting, Masque Of The Red Death, released in 1994, which takes place on an alternate version of Earth that has been under the influence of some entity called the Red Death. It features many of the above mentioned classic characters that Ravenloft drew inspiration from as villains.For a long while, getting hold of any Ravenloft books was basically a matter of Keep Circulating the Tapes, but with Wizards of the Coast's return to the PDF market, the AD&D Ravenloft books are being made available as official PDFs. Given the size of the D&D back catalog, it may be a while before everything's released.See the Darth Wiki entry for darker tropes.
This tabletop game provides examples of:
Achilles' Heel: Every Darklord (and most villains in general) has one, usually associated with the curse that made him or her a Darklord (For example, in Strahd's case, it's Tatyana; the mere sight of her - or someone who looks just like her - is enough to make him take risks he would never otherwise take). The rulebooks emphasize that in order to have any success challenging - let alone defeating - one of these villains, a hero would have to learn this weakness and exploit it. Not that it makes it easy, but in order to make the chance remotely possible, one has to learn it.
Adaptation Expansion: The game-setting itself is an expansion of an extremely well-received 1st edition adventure, also called "Ravenloft", and its sequel, "Ravenloft 2: The House on Gryphon Hill".
Affably Evil: Some of the Darklords can be like this, most likely so the PCs can sympathize with them, even if just a little.
Ancient Order of Protectors: The Order of the Guardians are a monastic sect which keeps cursed artifacts sealed away in hidden locations, keeping them out of the hands of innocent bystanders and villains alike.
Arc Welding: The six-module Grand Conjunction Story Arc was belatedly welded together into one apocalyptic plotline, using a poorly-worded Vistani prophecy as solder.
Armed With Canon: James Lowder wrote Knight of the Black Rose, which brought Lord Soth from Dragonlance to Ravenloft. Tracy Hickman complained incessantly until TSR had When Black Roses Bloom made, removing Soth from Ravenloft. Despite that, Hickman still insists that Soth never went to Ravenloft, even plugging a non-action, non-dialogue cameo into Dragons of Summer Flame for the sole purpose of conflicting with the Ravenloft timeline, necessitating a fair amount of Fan Wank to deconflict the two.
The most common theory was that Soth really did get sucked into Ravenloft, where he spent several decades forming one of the worst Villanous BSODs on record. After about a decade continually locked in his "happy place" caused his realm to literally begin falling apart around him, the White Rose appeared in Sithicus to snap Soth out of his reverie. Once he recovered, the Dark Powers let the White Rose take Soth back with her to Krynn, realizing that there was nothing they could do to Lord Soth that his own memories and haunting spirits couldn't do worse. When he came back, he returned to Krynn only an hour/a day/five minutes after he left, leaving him available for any Dragonlance events that came along in the meantime.
Ax-Crazy: This is actually very rare among darklords. Insanity would suggest that they aren't responsible for their actions, something which, as emphasized frequently, they are. The only one that truly fits the Trope is Esan the Mad of Vechor. A few of them do show some leanings towards the Trope, such as the Hive Queen, Tristessa, Malken, and Duke Gundar, as do quite a few non-darklord villains like the Midnight Slasher.
Be Careful What You Wish For: The "wish" spell is dicey even on more benign worlds. Here it will always be perverted while fulfilling the Exact Words, no matter how carefully you phrase your request. (Unless you're evil, in which case the Powers may decided you've already taken care of that part for them.)
Best Served Cold: Revenge was the original motive for Dr. Rudolph Van Richten's career as a vampire hunter, which he later expanded to monster hunter in general. After his son was turned into an undead slave by a cruel vampire named Baron Metus, he was forced to kill his son via Mercy Killing, but the Baron retaliated by murdering Van Richten's whole family. The doctor swore revenge against vampires in general, and his first victim was Baron Metus. (Sadly, this had unfortunate consequences that lasted his whole life; see Doom Magnet below.)
Canon Discontinuity: The novel Lord of the Necropolis explicitly stated the nature of the Dark Powers; both book and explanation were stricken from canon, as the Dark Powers are intended to be left undefined. Of course, one can always interpret that LOTN did happen, but Azalin only thought he discovered the true nature of the Dark Powers and he was mistaken at the time.
Also, the novel The Enemy Within, and the backstory of an NPC (Desmond LaRouche) were declared non-canon because they contradicted the origin story for Malken. He was given yet another origin story in Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium Appendix II: Children of the Night where he was even more of an expy of the scientist in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Cranium Chase: In a non-comedy example, Jacqueline Montarri was cursed by the Vistani to live on without her head. She murders victims to appropriate their heads, then wears them to pass for human as she scours the Land of Mists for her missing original.
Crossover: Many of the darklords originated in published campaign settings, plus there were a few novels and adventures that bridged the gap with other settings.
Knight of the Black Rose crossed Ravenloft and Dragonlance.
Castle Spulzeer was a Forgotten Realms module that ended with both the PCs and its villain being swept up by the Mists, kicking off a follow-up adventure in the Ravenloft module The Forgotten Terror.
Averted in the case of Spelljammer: although one SJ module ended with the option of having its villain swept up by the Ravenloft Mists, the Ravenloft design team never followed up on this, probably because Spelljammer's style of gaming was so much goofier than Ravenloft's as to be thematically incompatible.
Also, though it wasn't official, Keith Baker said on his Twitter that the most likely Eberron NPC to become a darklord would be Erandis Vol or Merrix from the tie-in novel Son Of Khyber.
At the start of the video game Ravenloft a man manages to travel from Ravenloft to Faerun to steal an artefact which can kill Strahd. After his pursuers kill him, Mists envelop them all and bring them to Ravenloft. At the end of the second game they manage to find a portal back to Faerun.
Crossover Cosmology: The slate of deities worshiped in Ravenloft is a grab-bag of historical pagan deities (Belenus, the Akiri and Rajian pantheons), deities imported from other game-settings (the Morninglord and Lawgiver from Forgotten Realms, the Eternal Order's death-gods from Greyhawk), and deities made up for (Ezra, Hala) or even by (Zhakata, the Overseer) natives of the Land of Mists.
Cry for the Devil: It would be wrong to show any sympathy for any of the darklords (if they were capable of redemption, they would not be darklords), but some did, indeed, have tragic pasts. A few notable examples:
Hazlik was once a member of a tyrannical society of wizards, but was really no worse than the typical member. But when he was framed for rape by his rival, he was stripped of his position and all his possessions, forcibly marked with tattoos that only women wear, and exiled with a warning that they not only had the right, but a legal obligation, to kill him on sight if he ever showed his face. In revenge, he killed his rival by ambush, cut his heart out, fed it to the woman he had been accused of raping, and then murdered her as well, thus crossing the line and causing him to be drawn into Ravenloft.
Esan the Mad of Vechor was a benign wizard who opposed evil, until he was taken prisoner by the cruel tyrant Iuz the Old. Esan told Iuz, to paraphrase, that Evil Cannot Comprehend Good; Iuz agreed, and in order to learn more, bound a demonic spirit to Esan’s soul. How much Iuz learned from this is unknown, but Esan was slowly driven mad by the demon, and trying to find a cure by using technology and studying spirit magic only made it worse, driving him Axe Crazy and causing him to commit horrendous acts, eventually drawing him into Ravenloft.
The best example may be Sir Tristen Hiregaard of Nova Vaasa. He never really did anything wrong his entire life. The curse that turns him into the murderous madman Malken was inherited from his cruel father. (Of course, technically, Malken is the true darklord of Nova Vaasa, not Hiregaard, and he is a different entity entirely. And killing Hiregaard would not kill Malken; if that happened, the curse would be passed to Hiregaard’s eldest son. Short of killing every male member of the family, Word of God mentions that Malken can be laid to rest if his current host was slain by a woman who truly loved him.)
Dark Is Not Evil: The Dark Powers are known to reward some people that pass their tests. They also are suspected of powering clerics' and paladins' class abilities, as it's unclear whether or not gods can influence events within the setting in that way. Of course, the Dark Powers also torment people who don't remotely deserve it. Dark is not good, but may be closer to Chaotic Neutral. Or blue.
Practicing arcane magic in front of Tepestanis isn't a good idea, unless you'd like to play out the Burn the Witch! trope. Or rather, Burn The Fey, but that's hardly an improvement.
Deal with the Devil: Strahd claims that a bargain like this that he made was what made him a vampire and the Darklord of Barovia, which in turn, led to the creation of the whole Demiplane. He says that he made the bargain with Death itself, but most think it was actually the Dark Powers.
Death Is the Only Option: The setting has some adventures that require someone to die, although often you can foist this onto an npc. In addition, it has several evil beings and magic items which offer Power at a Price, gradually entrapping a character until dying is the only way to escape.
Decade Dissonance: Each domain being tailored to its Darklord, the Demiplane of Dread is composed of a patchwork of small countries of very different civilization levels. Some are medieval, others Renaissance, and some even display a touch of Victorian London.
Dogged Nice Guy: Strahd in I, Strahd acts like this toward Tatyana, even though he knows she is already his brother Sergei's fiance.
Doom Magnet: For most of his career as a monster hunter, almost all of Dr. Rudolph Van Richten's friends and allies who helped him in this pursuit died horrible deaths. As it turned out, this was due to a Vistani curse that had been placed on him early in his career. The curse was eventually lifted, but he disappeared soon after, and was presumed dead.
Down the Rabbit Hole: Oftentimes the earliest adventures have player characters being plucked up from their world by stumbling into the fog or somehow sailing into the Tractless Sea.
Empty Shell: The "Lost Ones," people who have been driven catatonic through horrible encounters with Ravenloft's many horrors.
Exiled from Continuity: When White Wolf got the license to do Ravenloft for third edition, they only got Ravenloft, not the other D&D settings, so all references to those settings had to be removed—though Lord Soth was still implicitly referred to as "the death knight" or Black Rose on occasion.
Fantastic Racism: Demihumans get a lot of mistrust, alienation and prejudice in the setting, to the point the third edition rules introduced an "Outsider Rating" that posed an increasingly high penalty to most diplomatic-focused skills. Sadly, it's kind of justified by the fact that Ravenloft is officially crawling with all manner of monsters that look almost, but not quite, like normal human beings. These include several varities of Always Chaotic Evilwerebeasts, multiple types of vampire, and even weirder creatures ("Red Widows" are an always female race of sapient Giant Spiders that can shapeshift into always-redhaired humanoid forms and which reproduce by mating with humanoids, paralysing them, and then laying the eggs into their bodies).
Also a lot of Dark Power curses result in changes to your appearance, and you get them only through evil acts.
Fantastic Science: The Van Richten's Guides are presented as being written by Dr. Rudolph Van Richten (or later the Weathermay-Foxgrove Twins, his heirs) and are written to be scientific sounding.
Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Apart from Darkon, which looks like (almost) a standard Elves-and-Dwarves Fantasy setting, each inhabited Domain is based on a real-world historical or literary country, as summed up on this webpage.
Flat Earth Atheist: Literally. The demiplane is a pocket dimension consisting of a single continent and a number of "islands" floating in the Ethereal Plane. Entire domains have been known to appear, disappear or move. Yet a fair number of people, especially in the more technologically advanced domains, are strict rationalists to the point of willful denial of the supernatural nature of their world. Ironically, the Dark Powers that are effectively the "gods" of the demiplane help preserve this mindset.
Genius Loci: The Demiplane itself may or may not be sentient.
In the 3rd Edition rules, certain places could get so saturated with evil that they could spontaneously awaken to sentience. These places were known as Phantasmagoria. The House of Lament in Borca is so strongly evil that it's actually a tiny Domain.
Ghost Pirate: Captain Pieter van Riese, Darklord of the Sea of Sorrows. (Well, technically he was a greedy merchant when he was alive, not a pirate, but he haunts the sea on a Ghost Ship and he was crueler than even most pirates, so he probably qualifies.)
Gypsy Curse: This is a big part of the plot of a lot of stories. (In fact, here's a good safety tip if you end up here: Do NOT make the Vistani angry at you. They won't kill you, but eventually, you'll wish they had.)
Heroic Albino: Helping an innocent young albino girl find refuge from prejudice among other human oddities is one of the sample scenarios from the supplement Carnival.
Humanlike Hand Anatomy: In a non-cartoon example, the darklord Markov is cursed to always have the body of a beast and the head of a man, but can invoke this trope on himself at will. He favors primate forms anyway, but can opt for hands instead of paws or hooves in his other shapes also.
The Hunter: Dr. Rudolph Van Richten. The PCs may also take on this sort of role depending on how the GM is running the setting.
I Should Write a Book About This: The various Van Richten Monster Hunter Guides are supposedly authored by Van Richten himself. (He is the Narrator in each of them.) However, he never claims he wrote them for profit, but to aid those who would, like him, fight the evils of Ravenloft.
Informed Ability: Especially notable with Darklords whose superpowers are social influence or cerebral. E.g. Azalin is hailed as a genius-level spellcaster able to use spells creatively in combat. Yet in the two official adventures where he features prominently as a combat Big Bad, the writers presumably realized there was no way to do him justice. In one adventure they write in a plotline justifying a death wish so he's "intentionally" not using any of his brilliant strategies, and in another adventure they simply ignore it and write ultra-generic description text of a battle raging in the background. See also Take Our Word for It.
Kryptonite Factor: Virtually any monster is likely to have one, and identifying the Factor of an individual creature is often the only way to defeat it.
Laser-Guided Amnesia: The Dark Powers do this to people a lot. For example, most residents of Darkon believe that they have always lived there, and newcomers likewise quickly develop imagined family histories.
Lighthouse Point: Monette, the werebat darklord, resides in a lighthouse on a tiny isle in the Nocturnal Sea.
Like a Badass out of Hell: The weirdest case of qualifying for this trope ever. Lord Soth, one of D&D's favorite villians, is the only one ever to escape the Land of Mists, but he does it in the most bizarre way possible....by not giving a crap.
To elaborate, Soth basically accepts that he deserves to be tormented by the Dark Powers and admits his failures. He refuses to rise to anything they present him with, be it despair or hope; eventually, realising that it's pointless to keep him around since he won't respond to anything they do, the Dark Powers release him from Ravenloft.
Literary Agent Hypothesis: Van Richten's monster guides are presented as documents written by Rudolph Van Richten (and later his heirs, the Weathermay-Foxgrove twins). The Gazetteer series, spotlighting the demiplane's domains, is presented as a research project by the scholar 'S' for a mysterious patron. Both of them have Out of Character side bars explaining the (admittedly very few) factual errors.
Load-Bearing Boss: Depending on how the GM wants to run things, the Darklords could end up being load bearing bosses for their whole domain.
Magic Compass: Compasses do point north, but this is presumably a magical effect because the Land of Mists is not a globe, so doesn't have poles. Just what force it is that attracts compass-needles there is a bit of a mystery.
Magic Versus Science: As a rule, the more technologically advanced a given domain is, the less the natives are prone to put much faith in magic, even though the level of magic is fairly consistent throughout the demiplane. For example, magic is not taken very seriously in Dementlieu, Mordent or especially Lamordia, despite the dominance of nearby Darkon in the northern Core.
Mainlining the Monster: Vampires from the Kargat secret police dole out their blood to human minions, the Kargatane, as a means of increasing their strength and delaying their rate of aging.
In the adventure "Neither Man Nor Beast", the beach where the player characters become marooned on Markovia is covered with giant stone figures buried waist-deep in the sand or just offshore.
Graben Island is shaped like a three-clawed monstrous hand.
More Predators Than Prey: Many, many gamemasters adjust the population figures and sizes of the domains up by a factor of ten or more to avert this trope.
Mummy: Mummies got their own rules supplement back in 2E called Van Richten's Guide to the Ancient Dead.
Mundane Made Awesome: The process for electing a new mayor of Skald, capital of Kartakass. The whole thing basically consists of several minutes of the candidates all explaining their platforms and issues, followed by several hours of a battle royale singing competition that's eventually decided by voice vote(read: applause). The fact that Harkon Lucas has won every "election" for the past few decades doesn't preclude, say, a PC from throwing their hat into the ring. Say what you will about it, it's still the closest thing to democracy in the Core by a long shot.
New Powers as the Plot Demands: DM's are explicitly advised not to let the stats limit what the darklords can do. If, for example, it is thematically appropriate to an adventure that a given darklord can control the weather in their domain, then go for it. Conveniently, since the powers that darklords possess beyond those normal for their race and character class are granted by the Dark Powers, who delight in tormenting them, DM's can also feel free to limit these to one-off special occasions.
Not So Extinct: In Scholar of Decay, a wizard exploring some underground passages in Richemulot has a brief encounter with a black pudding, a D&D monster not at all typical of the Gothic Horror-style Land of Mists. He avoids it, then pauses to marvel at its presence, as they're considered to be extinct.
Patchwork Map: Justified by the very nature of the world. The Dark Powers have even been known to add, subtract, or rearrange the patches from time to time.
Phlebotinum Induced Stupidity: As with Laser-Guided Amnesia, the Dark Powers do this to people, including the darklords, so as to preserve the "theme" of the domains. For example, even though a number of nations in the Core near to Falkovnia have firearms technology, Vlad Drakov will never adopt the use of these by his army even though it would certainly help in his attempted conquests (especially against Darkon).
Although the above is actually justified In-Universe by the fact that Drakov's pride and arrogance outweighs his common sense, and always has; he hates guns because they're "cowards' weapons" and so he refuses to use them. It's the same reason why he refuses to train spellcasters to fight alongside his troops, despite the fact that Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards applies as much in Ravenloft as it does in any other D&D setting, instead enslaving them to churn out enchanted armor and weapons for his elite soldiers.
Pocket Dimension: The Demiplane of Dread is a seemingly finite space shaped in the Ethereal Plane by the will of the Dark Powers.
Riddle for the Ages: The true nature of the Dark Powers is this trope, both among scholars in-universe and among gamers.
Saharan Shipwreck: Why sailors traveling via Mistways prefer to avoid the Jackal's Ruse.
Samus Is a Girl: Most fans assumed that S was a man until Gazetteer III, when she mentioned trying to wear all the corsets, skirts, and petticoats that were popular in Dementlieu.
Scenery Porn: It is mentioned in the 3.0 setting book that the Demiplane of Dread is actually a beautiful land filled with lots of pretty scenery.
Sealed Evil in a Can: The Order of Guardians was founded to seal a lot of evil artifacts into cans, and to keep them there.
All darklords are trapped inside their own domains, which are effectively Cans the size of a country. Darklords such as Gwydion or Tristan ApBlanc are also sealed into cans within their domains.
She's a Man in Japan: Kalid-Ma, portrayed as female in early Ravenloft appearances, is a male sorcerer-king in Dark Sun and in his/her corrected later appearances.
Status Quo Is God: While world-shaking events like the Grand Conjunction have rocked the demiplane, the Dark Powers tend to quickly "fix" people's memories so that there is no lasting cultural impact. Likewise, even though domains in the Core vary wildly in levels of technology and use of magic, their cultures are nonetheless preserved as distinct and separate. Thus, even though Lamordia is adjacent to Darkon, Lamordians are not great believers in the power of magic, despite the massive wizard-ruled nation on their border.
Tarot Motifs: Tarot exists in Ravenloft as "Tarokka", which is used for fortunetelling by the Vistani. "Real" Tarokka decks have been released to support the game.
Technology Levels: Most domains fit very neatly into a single specific era, corresponding roughly with the real world ranging from the Stone Age up to about the early 19th Century. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Dark Powers, the fact the population lives in a blatantly supernatural world does not alter the fact that people in the more advanced domains tend to be skeptical of magic. Exceptions are domains like Darkon and Hazlan, which are openly ruled by wizards.
The Wall Around the World: The Misty Border that surrounds every domain, although they can also take the form of heatwaves or blizzards.
Wolverine Publicity: No fewer than a half dozen different darklords have visiting Barovia and being chased off by Count von Zarovich as part of their background. Lord Soth got around this by already having as much Popularity Power as the Count, who only escaped with his undead hide intact by kicking out one of Soth's ghostly servants who'd sought shelter with him. Soth cared more about getting revenge on his disloyal servant than on repaying the insults the Count had visited on him, and so chased his servant all the way to the Misty Border, where he eventually caught and killed him (again), but not before being caught by the Mists and trapped in his own domain.
Played straight and averted in the Domains of Dread core rulebook, which introduced Vecna and Kas as darklords. Unlike the Lord Soth example, Vecna's entrapment was explicitly acknowledged by various Greyhawk sourcebooks when he was described as missing and/or trapped. Played straight as Vecna and Kas were two of the most famous Greyhawk characters in the setting and introduced some measure of celebrity to Ravenloft, but averted when the two were given a pair of domains adjacent to one another and in their own separate cluster where they could war against each other eternally, effectively making their appearance a sideshow that wouldn't disrupt the Core domains as a whole. Vecna, already a demigod at the very limits of the Dark Powers to hold and contain, managed to escape within a few years in an insane Gambit Roulette scheme that involved luring Iuz to Ravenloft, absorbing his essence to become a true god, and using his power to warp the Mists into shunting him into Sigil where, as a true God within the Cage, his very presence began breaking down the rules of reality (and replacing them with those of 3rd edition). Problematic for violating the explicit rules of three different settings? Or Crowning Moment Of Awesome for violating the explicit rules of threedifferentsettings? Your call.