Strahd von Zarovich
"I am the Ancient. I am the Land. I am Strahd von Zarovich."
The vampire Strahd von Zarovich of Barovia is one of the most famous villains that Dungeons & Dragons have ever produced. Created for the 1e module I6, "Ravenloft" by Tracy & Laura Hickman (the writers who created the module/novel series that became Dragonlance), he ultimately became the foundation for the setting of Ravenloft which was released in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
Although his nature has changed slightly between the original modules and the setting, Strahd's history remains the same, in broad details: created in an attempt to go back to Gothic Horror roots by writers who felt that vampires had become trite and mundane, Strahd was once a mighty conquering hero, who established his domain by defeating an enemy army from a culture called the Tergs. He established his home of Castle Ravenloft, and his family finally came out to meet him - most notably, his dramatically younger and nicer brother, Sergei, who Strahd quickly grew to hate on account of his youthfulness and handsome appearance. Strahd's descent into darkness began in earnest when Sergei found a bride-to-be from amongst the local Barovians, a beautiful woman named Tatyana; Strahd was instantly smitten with her and tried to subtly woo her away from Sergei. His efforts failed, for she was devoted to Sergei, and her friendly nickname for Strahd of "Uncle" incensed the older man, who became convinced that his age was to blame for his failure and that he had squandered his precious youth in aiding his ungrateful family.
Ultimately, he swore an oath to a being he referred to as "Death", and was rewarded by being transformed into a vampire. In this state, he murdered Sergei on his wedding day, massacred the wedding party after drinking his blood, then tried to use his hypnotic powers to compel Tatyana to love him back. Tatyana was repulsed by the foul creature and chose to leap to her death from the castle wall instead, cursing him as a fratricide and a monster as she fell. He was slain by the guards that day, only to rise again soon afterward. When his parents found out, they literally bound him to Castle Ravenloft and sent the ENTIRE LAND OF BAROVIA into the Shadowfells, where several dark powers torture him by reincarnating Tatyana into several different Vistani families and basically making him relive the cycle of losing his beloved time and time again. He calms his nerves by occasionally murdering anyone foolish enough to wander into the mists and end up in Barovia. (Just so you know, that includes YOU!!!!)
Oh yeah, and the woman who was the midwife for his birth was a witch.
Dragon Magazine in its final print volume, Issue #359, named Strahd as the greatest villain ever to come out of D&D.
Strahd first appeared in the 1e module I6 "Ravenloft" in 1983. This module was essentially a typical dungeon crawl with Universal Horror trappings; the party is summoned to the mysterious mountain village of Barovia, which is under the tyrannical rule of the dread vampire Strahd von Zarovich. Trapped in the village by a cloud of toxic mists that unfailingly kills those who try to escape, the party is compelled to seek cryptic advice from the local band of creepy gypsies, the Vistani, and then penetrate the castle to slay the vampire. Replayability was attempted by using a card-based random generation to determine the position of the Holy Symbol and the Sunsword, two items that would make defeating Strahd easier, as well as the location of the vampire himself, the location of his autobiography, and which of his four motivations is currently in play:
- Attempting to take a PC's place by turning them into a vampire and using shapeshifting magic on them both, so he might have the adventurers lead him to new lands to prey upon.
- Attempting to woo the Burgomeister's adopted daughter Ireena, by charming the PC's into attacking her so that he can save her.
- Recovering the missing Sunsword and destroying it.
- Finishing the creation of the Sphere of Darkness, a magical item that will protect him from the sun's rays.
Whatever his goal, Strahd is a dangerous opponent, as he has powers of both a vampire and a wizard, making him far stronger than the ordinary (for the time) D&D vampire.
This module was later updated, expanded and rereleased for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e (RM4: House of Strahd), D&D 3.5e (Expedition to Castle Ravenloft), and D&D 5e (Curse of Strahd).
Strahd's second appearance was in the AD&D module I10 "Ravenloft II: House on Gryphon Hill". This was written by new authors from outline drafts the Hickmans created before leaving TSR. Playable either on its own or as a direct sequel to the former module, it revolves around the creepy moorland town of Mordentshire, where Strahd and the lich Azalin Rex are conducting experiments with a strange, soul-manipulating arcane device called the Alchemist's Apparatus. Through this item, Strahd has managed to sunder himself into two versions; one evil vampire, and one benevolent human. As with the original module, a lot of random generation was made use of:
"The Creature" could have one of four different goals; killing his human counterpart, tormenting his human counterpart's fiancee, claiming a new realm to feast upon, or becoming human himself.
Likewise, the form the Creature took was randomly generated; he could have been a vampire double of "The Alchemist", possessed the Alchemist in a Jekyll & Hyde situation, have partial control over the body of Lady Weathermay, or have complete control over the bodies of either Lord Weathermay or Mistress Ardent.
Finally, the location of the adventure's Plot Important Items was randomly generated, just like the Holy Symbol and the Sunsword from the first module.
When Ravenloft: Realms of Terror came out as a setting in its own right in 1990, Strahd was given pride of place as the literal "heart" of the demiplane. This setting slightly retconned the modules; now, Strahd's damnation had drawn him from his old world into a mist-veiled demi-plane that functioned as a holding place for evil forces. The original village of Barovia remained (having been drawn into the mists with him), but the land of Barovia was greatly expanded, though the toxic mists still remained only around the village proper. One of Strahd's potential motivations in the original module became a curse imposed upon him by the Dark Powers that made him a Darklord; that he would fall in love with the reincarnation of his beloved Tatyana once per generation, and that she would reject him and ultimately die as a result. In effect, he was condemned to repeat the events leading to his damnation over and over again.
The second module became the source of two of the other domains of Ravenloft; Darkon, ruled by Azalin, and Mordent, home of the town of Mordentshire, where the second module took place and which was absorbed into Ravenloft as a side-effect of Strahd and Azalin's experiments. It also connected it to the Ravenloft setting proper, in which Strahd and Azalin's experiments were revealed to be a botched attempt to escape Ravenloft that ended with the two of them blaming each other for its failure and becoming sworn enemies. Azalin is said to have become Darklord of Drakon soon afterwards.
The D20 version of Strahd retains the lethality of his module version and then some, being a level 20 character (Fighter 4, Necromancer 16) with the Vampire (Ancient age category) template applied over the top of it. Furthermore, as the Darklord of Barovia he now has complete control over the mists surrounding Barovia, allowing him to dispel them at will; however, being a Darklord also means he is incapable of leaving Barovia itself.
Recently Wizards of the Coast made an adventure/campaign for the as-of-now newest edition of D&D, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. The whole adventure is a level 1 to 10 retelling of the first Ravenloft module but with a large amount of additional content in the form of new towns and new locations to visit/fuck up and new NPCs. Because of these new things, the Tarokka reading offered by Madame Eva (just like in I6 Ravenloft) accounts for this and has a whole slew of new allies and locations to find the three McGuffin items in the game.
It's been generally well received and is a fairly faithful retelling of the original module, even keeping the tradition of naming things in the crypt after recent jokes such as one woman's crypt being a clear allusion to Twitter.
There are some issues though. For one thing, Strahd retains his ability to cast spells (something added later on in the canon in 2e) but in this adventure some of the spells are a little odd choices, especially given the backstory as to how he learned spellcasting and a specific location in the adventure the party may go to later on around levels 8 or so. Oh, and there is a random tie-in character to boot that's there just for shits and grins.
Another issue is that, even though 99% of the adventure takes place in the Dread Realm of Ravenloft, the adventure hooks assume the party is just from the Forgotten Realms. Given that almost every single book and adventure put out by WotC since the edition's launch has been nothing but FR shit, some people take offense. Still, this is just as easy to homebrew since it still maintains the classic "the mists draw in around the party and they appear in front of a huge decrepit gate while the howls of wolves can be heard" approach first used in the original module.
Not meant for the novice DM but great to spring on a group of players who think they can take on the world.
When asked about Ravenloft in Eberron, Keith Baker made note that his personal choice for Strahd's backstory would be related to Ancient Karrnath.
"Barovia could easily have been a fiefdom in pre-Galifar Karrnath. With this approach you could use Strahd and his history exactly as written. Alternately, you could keep the basic story of Strahd, but change him to an infamous character from the history of Khorvaire. My first choice would be to make him Karrn the Conqueror, the king who first sought to unite the Five Nations by force... and failed. In this model, Karrn retreated to his ancestral stronghold of Ravenloft after his defeat, drawing his family and closest allies to him – and it is here that you could overlay the existing story of Strahd. This would be interesting because it would present Barovia as Karrn's idealized vision of what Karrnath (and the Five Nations under his rule) should have been. It would also present the vision of a ruthless, vampire Karrn king... an interesting contrast and foil to Kaius III of present day Karrnath. And it opens the possibility that Karrn/Strahd could be seeking a way to return to Eberron, still hoping to unite the Five Nations under his rule. If I ran Ravenloft in Eberron, this is the path I would likely take."
Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft
They didn’t republish Curse of Strahd with this book but instead gave more context for interacting with other Domains of Dread, alternative plot hooks and some extra tables with some wacky option on how Tatyana will reincarnate this time. The fact that it's possible for her to come back as a teenaged boy or a male Dragonborn may be a poorly executed attempt to make Strahd bisexual - which shouldn't come as any surprise, as they already overtly made him bisexual in Curse of Strahd, between literally giving him an explicit harem of vampire lovers ala Dracula, of which at least one is a guy, and explicitly saying that Strahd will basically hit on PCs of both genders.
The Guide also brings up more of Strahd's backstory about before his fall such as Osybus, a priest of the dark powers that lived on Strahds homeworld, attempting to become the most powerful lich before being defeated by the then still mortal Strahd, the Ulmist Inquisition, and the betrayal of Osybus's followers. Their betrayal of Osybus cost them their guaranteed immortality via unlife and so the priests made a deal with the Dark Powers to find a vessel so the Powers could conquer the world. They masterminded Strahd's fall and his finding the Amber Temple, but being the biggest of dicks, the mist took Strahd. Since Osybus had managed to become a Dark Power after his death, this was his revenge plot apparently.