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 HP 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.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.
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. They 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.
Big Fancy Castle: Castle Ravenloft. Although some parts are pretty much falling apart from age and neglect.
Bilingual Bonus: True of several domains' Meaningful Names, sometimes to the point of giving things away (e.g. "Richemulot" = "Rich Mouse", home domain of aristocratic wererats).
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 Implications 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. Malken 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.
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.
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, it is not known if there is a way to destroy 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.
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.
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.
Dogged Nice Guy: Strahd in I, Strahd acts like this toward Tatyana, even though he knows she is already his brother Sergei's fiance.
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.
Genius Loci: The Demiplane itself may or may not be sentient.
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 (by picking primate forms).
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 aide 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.
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.
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.
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). That 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.
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.
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.