Powers Checks (an abbreviation of Dark Powers Checks) are a mechanic unique to the Dungeons & Dragons setting of Ravenloft. Intended to be a way to enforce mechanically the roleplaying/thematic background element of how the Dark Powers rewards villains by gifting them with both unnatural powers and malefic curses, the basic idea is that when a player characters commits certain sinful acts, such as murder, betrayal, using a necromantic spell, blasphemy, etc, the player rolls a Percentile Die. This is compared to a large table that combines various sins and sin modifiers (acts of passion tend to be more likely to draw their eyes than cold-blooded, dispassionate malice, for example); if the player rolls equal to or less than this number, then they have caught the attention of the Dark Powers and are infused with spiritual taint. The more times this happens, the greater their powers - and their curses - grow, until ultimately they become monsters or even full-fledged Darklords.
Dark Powers Checks have a fairly simple mechanic that remains pretty consistent between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. When a character commits an evil act, they have to roll a d100 and check the result against the value assigned to that kind of act; if multiple sins are committed in a single swoop (for example, using the necromancer spell Chill Touch to murder an innocent child), add the value of the combined sins together. If the percentile roll is over the resultant value, that character escapes the attention of the Dark Powers... for now. If they roll equal to or under that value, though, they've caught their attention, and they descend one stage of corruption, until finally they are damned.
It bears mentioning that the "value" of a sin depends on its target. As a demiplane embodying the concept of Gothic Horror, the Demiplane of Dread fundamentally operates on a very "black and white" view of morality, so doing evil unto evil is usually not as big a deal as doing it unto the goodly. As such, "sin values" are divided into four categories: Evil NPCs and Monsters (M), Neutral NPCs (N), Good NPCs (G), and Fellow PCs, Family Members, and Innocents (I).
Assault, Unprovoked: This is defined as an assault in which the perpetrator has no actual intent to murder or cause lasting harm to the victim, such as most unwarranted manifestations of malice, spite or bigotry - mugging is an example of this kind of sin. Its sin values are 0% (M), 1% (N), 2% (G) or 3% (I).
Assault, Grievous: This is any attack in which the perpetrator doesn't specifically intend to kill the victim, but doesn't care if they end up dying anyway. Its sin values are 1% (M), 2% (N), 4% (G) or 6% (I).
Betrayal, Major: This sin is defined as violating the spirit of a secular promise in such a way as to cause long-lasting harm or even death to the other fellow - breaching holy oaths or spiritual tenets are their own distinct sins covered under Blasphemy below. Its sin values are 1% (M), 3% (N), 6% (G) or 9% (I).
Betrayal, Minor: This sin is defined as violating a secular promise and, in doing so, causing public humiliation or forcing a change in the lifestyle of the person you betrayed. The example is revealing an embarrassing secret entrusted to you by a friend or lover. Its sin values are 0% (M), 1% (N), 3% (G) or 6% (I).
Extortion: This covers any criminal acts not directly described as sins here, as well as forcing others to perform evil or undesirable acts on your behalf. Its sin values are 0% (M), 2% (N), 5% (G) or 8% (I).
Lying: This is actually one of the least serious sins on the list - you literally don't have to bother making a Powers Check for this unless you lie to a fellow PC, a family member, or an Innocent, and even then, it's only a 1% failure!
Murder, Brutal: While all murders are, technically, brutal, to count as this sin, the kill must be slow and inflict unnecessary suffering. The example given is strapping a victim to a table and forcing them to watch as an axe-bladed pendulum slowly swings itself down lower until they are decapitated or cut open by it. Its sin values are 3% (M), 6% (N), 10% (G) or 100% (I).
Murder, Nonbrutal or Premeditated: This is basically any act of killing that doesn't count as the above, especially kills made in the name of personal gain or vengeance. Its sin values are 2% (M), 3% (N), 6% (G) or 10% (I).
Theft, Grave Robbing: Stealing from the dead, or taking corpses to turn them into undead or Flesh Golems, is the most horrific form of theft under Gothic values. If the native culture believes strongly in the sanctity of the dead, this may even count as an act of Desecration (see below) - especially if the grave robber is from that culture themselves! Its sin values are 0% (M), 1% (N), 5% (G) or 7% (I).
Theft, Major: For terms of Powers Checks, major and minor thievery is defined by "how badly does this hurt whoever you're stealing from"? Taking 20 silver from a merchant prince with a personal vault filled with thousands of gold pieces is minor theft... taking the same sum from a peasant family who will literally starve to death before they can hope to regain that much money is a major theft. Its sin values are 0% (M), 1% (N), 4% (G) or 7% (I).
Theft, Minor: For terms of Powers Checks, major and minor thievery is defined by "how badly does this hurt whoever you're stealing from"? Taking 20 silver from a merchant prince with a personal vault filled with thousands of gold pieces is minor theft... taking the same sum from a peasant family who will literally starve to death before they can hope to regain that much money is a major theft. Its sin values are 0% (M), 0% (N), 3% (G) or 6% (I).
Threats of Violence: Like with Lying, intimidation isn't really a major concern to the Dark Powers; it's only a sin if you use it on Good NPCs (1%) or against the Innocent (2%), and even then the odds of the Dark Powers giving a shit aren't that high.
Torture, Routine: Basically, any act of torture, no matter what you justify through committing it, is a sin in Ravenloft - and a pretty major league one at that! Its sin values are 4% (M), 7% (N), 100% (G) or 100% (I).
Torture, Sadistic: What distinguishes sadistic torture from routine? Basically, routine torture is just done for the job - it's an attempt to force somebody to reveal concealed information or assigned as legal punishment. Sadistic torture, on the other hand, is just done because the torturer likes to hurt other people, so it definitely going to get noticed. Its sin values are 10% (M), 100% (N), 100% (G) or 100% (I).
As well as the "basic" sins described above, there are some sins which mess with the formula in different ways, which are described below.
Acts of Blasphemy: Committing acts of disrespect against religions are judged in severity based on the native nature of the faith; none of these acts are a sin if committed against an Evil-aligned religion, whilst they are if committed against Neutral or Good-aligned ones. As with the "common" sins being most likely to get noticed if you harm the purest spirits or those closest to you, blaspheming against your personal religion is much more likely to get noticed. Unlike the "standard" sins, a character can only commit blasphemy knowingly - if you have no idea what the tenets of a specific religion are, you never need to make Dark Powers Check for breaching them. If you perform a blood sacrifice on an god's altar without knowing that god disapproves of the practice, it's not blasphemy. On the other hand, if you do know, then there's no excuse.
- Breaking a Religious Tenet: This is the sin of knowingly going against a rule or stricture of a religion - if a religion demands vegetarian diets, then eating a juicy steak is this sin. Its sin values are 1% (N), 2% (G) or 5% (P).
- Breaking a Holy Oath: What separates these from breaking tenets is that the sinner specifically promised their deity that they would uphold this charge, so it's the blasphemous equivalent of betrayal. Its sin values are 2% (N), 5% (G) or 10% (P).
- Breaking a Holy Vow: This is the worst form of blasphemous betrayal. Its sin values are 5% (N), 10% (G) or 100% (P).
- Defilement: This is defined as any act which makes a once-sacred thing lose its sacred nature, such as pouring lamp oil into a font of holy water. Its sin values are 4% (N), 8% (G) or 100% (P).
- Desecration: Defilement's big brother, Desecration means the sinner actively seeks to make the once-sacred thing be unholy or unclean in its patron deity's eyes - performing a blood sacrifice on the altar of a god of love and peace, for example. Its sin values are 8% (N), 100% (G) or 100% (P).
Laying a Curse: The act of invoking the Dark Powers to lay a curse on somebody has its own minigrid, based on how justified the curse is (Highly Justified, Justified, Unjustified) and the severity of the curse across its 5 layers of deadliness. Embarrassing Curses have sin values of 0% (HJ), 1% (J) and 2% (U). Frustrating Curses have sin values of 1% (HJ), 2% (J) and 3% (U). Troublesome Curses have sin values of 2% (HJ), 4% (J) and 8% (U). Dangerous Curses have sin values of 4% (HJ), 8% (J) and 16% (U). And finally, Lethal Curses have sin values of 8% (HJ), 16% (J) and 32% (U).
Using Black Magic: Finally, using magic classified as inherently evil just provokes its own kind of Powers Check. In AD&D, "Evil, Non-Necromantic" spells have a 1%/spell level sin value, whilst "Evil, Necromantic" spells have a 2%/spell level sin value. In both cases, using this magic with good intentions halves the power's check value. In 3rd edition, the mechanics are more complicated, largely because the definition of black magic is more explicitly baked into the rules and because magic items are more prevalent:
- Spell has the Evil descriptor OR Necromancy school: 1% per effective spell level
- Spell has the Evil descriptor AND Necromancy school: 2% per effective spell level
- Using an Evil Magic Item: As per casting equivalent spell.
- Bearing an Evil Magic Item: 1/week, sin value is equivalent to that of the most powerful spell it can replicate.
- Creating an Evil Magic Item: Combined sin value of all invoked spells; if the item is reusable, multiple by 10% of EXP value. For example, a Hand of Glory requires Animate Dead (3rd level spell) and 288 EXP, so creating one calls for a 31% Powers Check (3% for Animate Dead, times 28 for the EXP value).
In AD&D, using "Evil Psionics" also calls for a Powers Check; 5% for a Science and 3% for a Devotion. In 3e, this is simplified to certain psionic powers having the same Powers Check value as equivalent black magic spells.
Act of Ultimate Darkness
In Ravenloft canon, there are some acts so foul, so horrible, so monstrous, that no Powers Checks are required; those who commit them just automatically get the Dark Powers' attention. For PCs, this is generally an automatic failed Powers Check, but for NPCs, this could even cause them to leap from "normal person" to "Darklord" in a single fell swoop.
Precisely what counts as an Act of Ultimate Darkness is largely left to the DM's discretion. For example, Strahd von Zarovich, in one night: turned himself into a vampire to try and preserve his youth, murdered his brother to take his brother's wife, murdered all the guests at his brother's wedding to disguise what he'd done, and tried to mind control the woman he "loved" so he could turn her into his vampire bride - which caused her to curse him and leap to her death from the parapets of Castle Ravenloft.
Powers Checks are intended to build towards a specific theme; the end result should be a coherent set of powers and curses that ultimately creates a recognizable monster. The term "Terror Track" is thusly used to define a specific set of Powers Check-gated gifts & curses that build towards a specific creature end-goal - for example, one of the earliest uses of the term in the boxed set "Domains of Dread" for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, gives us the Terror Track of the Vampire.
Unfortunately, much like the general powers and curses of a failed Powers Check in general, the effort of inventing a Terror Track is left up to the DM. The Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition provides three sample Terror Tracks; the Ringleader, the Brute, and the Coward. Fans have responded by trying to create Terror Tracks for other DMs to use, resulting in them being scattered over various Ravenloft netbooks.
The largest source of Terror Tracks, however, can be found in the article "Terrible Transformations" for The Book of Shadows, which features twenty different Terror Tracks! Uniquely, it's the only one of its kind that focuses on rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Terror Tracks, whereas the other five mentioned above are written for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition.
- Skin Thief
- Chosen One
- Dream Spawn
- Mist Horror
- Red Widow
- Sea Spawn Master
- Zombie Lord
Unlike in some games, Ravenloft Powers Checks are not certain doom for your player; redemption is as much a part of Gothic Horror as damnation, after all. It's not easy, and you can never reach the heights of purity again, but it is possible through roleplaying and mechanical actions to purge yourself of the dark gifts and curses, climbing back towards normalcy.
The intent behind Powers Checks was to act as a curtail on Murderhobos. Did it work? Well... honestly, probably not; many players find Powers Checks either never come up, or else annoying in how they seem deliberately tailored to screw over the players - the 3.5 "Ravenloft Player's Handbook" was widely critiqued for how many extra sources of Powers Checks it added, including leveling up in certain classes, and even before then there were absurdities like the Speak with Dead and Deathwatch spells (which, respectively, let you ask a few questions of the deceased and let you check how much HP creatures have) causing Powers Checks.
To say nothing of munchkins deliberately aiming for Powers Checks because the penalties were often roleplaying centric and thusly worth it for the mechanical benefits of the powers.
In Later Editions
Powers Checks were deeply rooted in TSR's approach to D&D, and so they didn't really sit too well with WotC. In 4th edition, the concept was dropped (if only because a dedicated Ravenloft setting never resurfaced there), with instead the player being suggested to come up with spooky background or character traits to represent brushes with the dark powers. The closest that 4e got to Powers Checks were a pair of Themes called the Haunted Blade and the Misshapen, which gave the character powers tied to a brush with dark forces.
In 5th edition, Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft scrapped the idea of Powers Checks entirely and replaced them with Dark Gifts: an entirely voluntary option that the player can pick at starting level, or earn through play, that grants them distinct boons, at the cost of largely cosmetic "spooky" drawbacks. As a result, the book contains a specific array of Dark Gifts, consisting of the following. Each grants a couple of minor powers, but comes with a drawback.
Echoing Soul: You have a connection to past incarnations, were magically swapped into your current body, or you have a deep spiritual link to another being - there's a d6 table to roll on to randomly generate the specifics. Regardless, you experience intrusive echoes of one or more entirely different lives; on the plus side, this gives you two free skill proficiencies and a bonus language. The downside is the Intrusive Echoes trait; if you trigger the downside by rolling a 1 on an attack roll, ability check or saving throw, you become overwhelmed by foreign visions and memories, which you determine by rolling on a d6 table. You might end up charmed or frightened by a random creature for 1 minute, blinded for a turn, halve your speed for a turn, be incapacitated for a turn, or even get to reroll the triggering roll because you awoke a memory of a past triumph. Fortunately, Intrusive Echoes can only happen once per short rest.
Gathered Whispers: You're a spiritwalker, somebody who can naturally perceive the spirits of the deceased or denizens of other planes, and thus have to deal with them endlessly haunting you. d6 table to explain who the haunts are. It gives you the positive traits Spirit Whispers (Message as an SLA) and Sudden Cacophony (1/day, add Proficiency Bonus to AC vs. an attack - doesn't work against deaf assailants). The negative trait is Voices from Beyond, which forces you to roll on a d4 table; you might end up with Disadvantage on your next attack roll/ability check/saving throw, be deafened for 1 minute, be frightened of a random creature for a turn, or get the benefits of a free Augury spells. Voices from Beyond triggers when you roll a 1 on an attack roll, ability check or saving throw, but can only happen once per short rest, just like the Intrusive Echoes trait.
Living Shadow: Like the name says, your shadow is mysteriously animate all on its own. Ever heard of a little Disney movie called "The Princess and the Frog"? You're basically Dr. Facilier. Positive traits: Grasping Shadow (Mage Hand SLA) and Shadow Strike (give yourself +10feet of reach with a melee attack Proficiency Bonus times per day). Downside: Ominous Will, which causes the next creature to make an attack roll, saving throw or ability check within 30 feet to roll a d4; they add the even number as a bonus and subtract the odd number as a penalty.
Mist Walker: You have spent so long traversing the infamous Mists of Ravenloft that you have gained an unparalled connection to them, for both good and ill. The positive traits are Misty Step (cast Misty Step 1/day, and if spellcaster, gain it as a bonus spell) and Mist Traveler (you don't need Mist Talismans to reach domains; you just need to know the domain's name). The downside is Poisoned Roots: Once you finish a long rest, the terrain in a 10-mile radius becomes spiritually poisoned against you. You can only stay in such an area for weeks equal to your Constitution modifier, and if you overstay, you gain 1 level of Exhaustion each time you complete a long rest there which can't be removed until you move on. Basically, this is an adapatation of the Static Burn curse that the Vistani suffered in 2nd and 3rd edition.
Second Skin: You have a Jekyll & Hyde-esque ability to transform into a strange secondary form, which you can either specifically designate or generate through a roll on a d6 table. There's only a single benefit here; Transformation, which lets you cast Alter Self (Change Appearance only) on yourself 1/day and adds Alter Self to your spells list if you're a spellcaster. But, if you use this SLA, then when you return to normal, you'll retain some visible trait of your previous form until you complete a long rest. Rather than the standard "critical fail" triggered downside, this Dark Gift's downside is Involuntary Change, where exposure to a catalyst (either determined or chosen from a d6 table) forces you to pass a DC 15 Charisma save or automatically shapeshift via your Alter Self SLA. Basically, this gift is pretty much all fluff, as there's not a lot of crunch wrapped up in transforming this way.
Symbiotic Being: You're Venom. Seriously. That's it. You have a physical living creature with its own indepentent mind and personality fused to your body. There's a d6 table to generate manifestation, and they include a living tattoo, crystalline growths, and a face that's basically an homage to Vampire Hunter D (or Voldemort in the very first Harry Potter novel). You gain the traits Entwined Existence (Symbiote has its own Int, Wis and Cha scores, and gives you free proficiency in either Arcana, Deception, History, Intimidation, Insight, Investigation, Nature, Religion, Perception or Persuasion) and Sustained Symbiosis (1/day, you can sacrifice a Hit Dice to either boost a saving throw or to automatically critical succeed a Death Saving Throw). The downside is, of course, Symbiotic Agenda - your symbiote has its own goal that it wants to achieve, and if you try to pass up an opportunity to pursue that goal, you have to pass a Charisma save (DC 12 + symbiote's Cha modifier) or else it takes over you, represented as a Charm effect that lasts 1d12 hours. You can either create the symbiote's agenda, or roll on the provided d6 table.
Touch of Death: Your flesh courses with malevolent energies or supernatural venom, allowing you to bring death to whoever brushes your skin. There's a d6 table to suggest how this might have been caused and manifests. Your positive traits are Death Touch (as an action, make an unarmed strike that does +1d10 Necrotic damage, boosted by +1d10 at levels 5, 11 and 17), Inescapable Death (your attacks ignore Necrotic Resistance), and Withering Contact (if you start your turn grappling or being grappled, the other guy takes 1d10 Necrotic damage). Surprisingly, there's no explicit downside to this ability! Although a sneaky DM could rule that the ability can activate involuntarily outside of combat and cause you to accidently kill someone you touch. Either way, you better get used to not being able to hug things anymore.
Watchers: You are the object of interest to ethereal spirits, which manifest themselves in Tiny-sized bodies made of shadowstuff and constantly hang arond you, even if you try to drive them away. There's a d8 table of example forms that these watchers might take, from ravens and rats to drifting religious symbols or animated objects. For a positive trait, you get Borrowed Eyes, which lets you invoke the power of the Watchers to gain Adventage on Investigation & Perception checks plus Immunity to Blindness for 1 hour 1/day. The negative trait is Dread Presence: you have Disadvantage on saves against Scrying, and if your Watchers are visible, you also suffer Disadvantage on Deception, Performance and Charisma checks. You can disperse these Watchers with a minute's work and a successful DC 15 Animal Handling check, but it only lasts for 1 hour and can only be done 1/day.