Though Ravenloft is primarily inspired by Gothic Horror, it owes just as much to the portrayal of that genre in Universal Horror and Hammer Horror films - particularly the latter. As such, when designing their setting, the writers at TSR felt that their setting also needed its own race of "morally ambiguous" magical gypsies to fit with the tradition.
Meet the Vistani (singular Vistana), who were created to fill that niche. Foreign-looking humans who live as nomads, travelling the demiplane in caravans and making a living as entertainers, mystics and thieves, feared and hated by the sedentary people of the demiplane and looking down on the "Giorgio" right back in kind, smugly considering themselves superior to ordinary people and cursing them for their bigotry, even as they rob and manipulate those people whenever they see fit.
...Yeah, the Vistani do press a lot of 'Gypsy Stereotype' buttons. In their defense, they're not quite as bad as the Aperusa of Spelljammer, who're slathered with a lot more of the negative parts of that stereotype, but still, there are people who find them kind of embarrassing.
Vistani are distinguished from ordinary humans by not only possessing more knowledge of the dark creatures roaming the demiplane, but by natural affinities for magic and the ability to break some of the "rules" of the demiplanes. Vistani mystics can see the future via the power they call The Sight, an art normally impossible in the Demiplane of Dread. While technically both male and female Vistani are capable of The Sight, it is far more common among women- in no small part due to the fact that any male Vistana with the Sight is fated to become a Dukkar, who is destined to seek the destruction of the Vistani as a whole. Their caravans can reliably travel from domain to domain within it, even against the wills of the Darklords. Furthermore, all Vistani can use powerful magical curses, collectively known as the Evil Eye. There's also drawbacks to this, mostly in the form of needing to regularly travel, or else they will permanently lose all of their magical abilities.
Narratively, Vistani serve pretty much the same role that Elminster is supposed to serve in-universe: a convenient deus ex machina. Need to get the party somewhere? A Vistani caravan can take them there. Need to give your players a smack with a clue-by-four? A Vistani fortune-teller can do it for you. Party desperately needs some macguffin or another? A Vistani caravan will helpfully provide it - for a price. Need to explain why this latest monster or villain is being a nuisance? A Vistani curse went horribly right, as they seem to always do.
In both 2nd and 3rd edition, Vistani were far too powerful to be used as a PC race, and so Half-Vistani were introduced instead; still with a dash of Vistani mysticism, but with some added "you are alienated from your peers" and "you were probably not conceived willingly" fluff. Ironically, Van Richten's Guide to the Vistani does actually include Vistani PC mechanics in it, although it explains that these are meant to help the DM create Vistani NPCs.
4th edition's designers thought that this was stupid, and so they redesigned the Vistani into a collective culture of mystical, but not necessarily inhuman, plane-travelling nomads in Dragon Magazine #380. This meant you could finally play a full-fledged Vistani, something that was immediately met with skub.
It goes without saying, but the combination of ethnic stereotyping and hamfisted plot device makes Vistani a rather contentious aspect of the setting for some fans. The Vistani went back to their older concept in 5th Edition's Curse of Strahd, but some fluff text for a magic item in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, an artifact called Luba’s Tarokka of Souls, describes the Vistani as once again being more in-line with their 4E incarnation as a bunch of nomads who wander around the Shadowfell and accept members of other races into their bands.
Tasques & Tribes
Culturally, the Vistani are divided into three Tasques, which can be thought of as representing different nations or subraces of the Vistani people as a whole. Each Tasque is then broken up into a number of different Tribes, which are smaller subdivisions of the Tasques, usually revolving around distinct extended family lines.
Those Vistani who belong to the Boem Tasque are regarded as exemplifying the ideal of the Vistani as carefree wanderers. Their particular aptitude is an ability to temporarily charm and befriend others; whilst this near-supernatural charisma wears off once the Vistani leaves, the Boemians can reliably turn even the most hostile of initial greetings into a warm welcome. Notably Boemian tribes include the Naiat (traveling carnival performers) and the Corvara (masters-of-none, who tend to live down to the Vistani reputation as a bunch of lying, thieving, sneaky grey marketeers).
Vistani of the Kaldresh are particularly known as skilled campfollowers, crafters, and traders. They particularly rely on trade, especially to the armies of other races, and Vistani of this Tasque seem to have a peculiar knack for not only homing in on places where people will need their mercantile skills, but for always having exactly what their future customers will need. Notable Kaldresh tribes include the Kamii (master smiths), the Equaar (master animal trainers and equestrians), and the Vatraska (expert healers).
The Vistani of the Manusa Tasque are noted as naturally gifted with magic, even by the standards of the Vistani as a whole. The Canjars are all skilled wizards who always know what spell they need ahead of time and so can be prepared to cast it. One of their most famous member-tribes, the Zarovans, have a "non-linear" relationship with time, meaning they do not exist in the standard progression of past-present-future like other beings do.
Officially, you're not supposed to play Vistani; they're supposed to be this mystical, mysterious, magical race who exist for ambience and to help the DM railroad you. That's why the Half-Vistani exists. But D&D players are D&D players, and so there have been some... cheats.
The topic of Vistani PCs is discussed in a massive sidebar at the end of Van Richten's Guide to the Vistani, which emphasizes that the Half-Vistani race and the Gypsy class exist to allow for you to play a Vistani without actually being a Vistani. But it does begrudgingly allow you the option to make a Mortu Vistani - a Vistani who has lost most of their racial powers due to remaining in one place too long and suffering their racial curse - by playing a human character with the following racial kit. These same mechanics can also be used to play a giamarga, a Half-Visani/Half-Elf hybrid, by applying the kit to the standard half-elf. What does it do? Well...
Mortu Vistani suffer -2 Intelligence; Giamarga gain +1 Intelligence, +1 Wisdom, -2 Charisma.
Mortu Vistani must have be one of the Any Neutral alignments (Neutral Good, Neutral Evil, Lawful Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, True Neutral).
- Can perfectly identify plants, animals and pure water, as per druid.
- If the Vistani has the Fire-building proficiency, they never need to make proficiency checks to light a fire, even in high winds, with damp fuel or in rainy conditions.
- Giamarga have a 95% chance to successfully interpret the Patterna with an Intelligence check.
- Mortu Vistani can identify Paaaterns on a d6 roll of 1-4.
- All vistani can take Astrology, regardless of class.
- Cannot take the Paladin clss.
- Vistani cannot take weapon specializations nor have extraordinary Strength, even if they belong to a Warrior class.
- Vistani can only reach 10th level as Wizards.
- If a Vistani or Giamarga takes the Specialist Wizard class, they can only be Conjurers, Enchanters or Illusionists, unless they are female (adds Diviner) and/or a giamarga (adds Arcanist). No Vistani PC can ever be an Elementalist.
- If the "pay-for-training" rule is used, the vistani must pay twice the usual amount.
- Vistani have a 75% chance of being treated as a suspected criminal, which can rise to 90% if unexplained trouble has occurred.
- Vistani, both mortu and half-breed, suffer from "moon madness". On the nights of the full moon, they are extremely agitated; they cannot regain HP by sleeping, and will suffer a -2 penalty to all saves until they get 8 hours of uninterrupted rest. Each night at midnight, they must make a Madness save, or suffer from that madness until either they pass the next night's Madness save or the full moon ends. Finally, there is a 1% chance at the start of the full moon period that they will feel an almost irresistable urge to slip away and cavort beneath the stars.
Once all of the abov e traits are applied, the mortu or giamarga then has to select which tribe they belong to, which gives them some other positive and negative attributes.
- Cannot take a Spellcaster class.
- Automatically start with Proficiency in Blacksmithing.
- Can instantly identify Vistani-made metalwork.
- 25% chance to detect if a metal item is cursed.
- Automatically posseses Animal Lore and Land-Based Riding.
- Can buy Tracking for 1 NWP slot.
- Automatically possesses Herbalist.
- Can buy Healing for 1 slot.
- Can identify poisons; use rules for druids identifying plants.
- DM's Discretion: the Vatraska can create a cure-or-kill antidote for a natural poison; the imbiber must make a save vs. poison and is cured on a success and dies on a failure.
- DM's Discretion: By spending 1d6+1 days, the Vatraska can gather enough organic ingredients to make 2 doses of a sleeping-draught potion (imbiber must save vs. poison of fall asleep for 1d4 rounds); doses last for 1 week.
- Cannot take the Druid class.
- Free proficiency with Singing and Dancing.
- Can take Musical Instrument proficiency regardless of class.
- +1 bonus to encounter reactions (+2 if the player roleplays well).
- Regardless of class, a Naiat with a violin may influence reactions and inspire allies, as per a bard.
- Must take the Wizard class.
- Can leave a single 1st level and 2nd level spell slot "open", allowing the canjar to cast any spell of that level from their spellbook with that slot, at the cost of increasing its casting time to 1 round.
- Must take the Wizard class.
- Zarovans exist partially out of phase with time itself; after initiative is rolled, the Zarovan rolls 2d10, adds the results and compares to the table below to determine what their temporal positioning is during this combat.
- 2: -8 to opponents attack roll; doubled actions
- 3: -4 to opponents attack roll
- 4-5: -2 to opponents attack roll
- 6-8: -1 to opponents attack roll
- 9-13: No penalties or bonuses
- 14-16: +1 to opponents attack roll
- 17-18: +2 to opponents attack roll
- 19: +4 to opponents attack roll
- 20: +8 to opponents attack roll; no actions.
Because monsters and playable races largely use the same chassis in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, it's technically possible to play a Vistani in 3e, as they have monster writeups in both the 3.0 "Ravenloft Campaign Setting" and the 3.5 "Ravenloft Player's Guide"... exactly why the Player's Guide for the setting has a chapter on monsters and the Ravenloft DM's Guide doesn't is... anybody's guess.
- Ability Score Modifiers: +4 Wisdom, +2 Charisma
- Size: Medium
- Speed: 30 feet
- Vision: Normal
- Bonus Feat: Voice of Wrath (+4 to Curse checks)
- Curse Master (Ex): A Vistani can gain a bonus to Curse checks if they use a "focus item" for that curse. A simple effigy grants a +1 bonus, but an item belonging to the victim (or part of the victim's body) grants a +2 to +4 bonus, depending on their connection.
- Evil Eye (Ex): 3/day, as a standard action, a Vistani can make a Gaze Attack that inflicts one of the following conditions if the victim fails a Will save. The save DC against the Evil Eye is (10 + 1/2 Vistani's Hit Dice + Vistani's Charisma modifier) if used by a male Vistani and (12 + 1/2 Vistani's Hit Dice + Vistani's Charisma modifier) if used by a female Vistani.
- Paralysis: 1d4+1 rounds. If the save is failed by 4 or higher, then the victim is paralyzed for 2 rounds and then goes into convulsions for 3 rounds, taking 1 damage per round, before having to make a DC 15 Fortitude save; if they pass tis second save, the victim merely faints, but if they fail, then they die outright.
- Fear: 1d4+1 rounds.
- Domination: 1d4+1 rounds.
- Suggestion: Lasts for 1 day or until task is complete, whichever comes first.
- The Sight (Su): The Vistani ignore the normal rules affecting Divination spells in the Demiplane of Dread, with the caveat that Vistani cannot use divination to directly foretell their own future, or divine their past. Not all Vistani have this power, but only female Vistani may possess this trait; males who develop the Sight are traditionally killed, to avert disaster.
- Mist Navigation (Ex): Vistani can freely travel the Demiplane of Dread, entering the Mists and exiting wherever they desire, even in another plane. They can take travelers with them. This ability does not mean they are free of the risk of encountering random monsters whilst traveling to their destination.
- Magical Tracking (Su): Vistani can magically track any individual they wish from any distance away, so long as the target is not magically shielded from detection. Even then, the Vistani are skilled at tracking victims through indirect means and mundane methods of tracking.
- Static Burn (Su): The Vistani's magical nature comes at a price; they must constantly migrate. A Vistani that remains within 1 mile of any point for longer than a week falls ill; if they re not carried beyond the designated area within 1d6+1 days, then they lose all of their magical abilities, permanently. The mechanics for this are, unfortunately not explicit, but an easy way to handle it is to replace the Vistani racial traits (up to and including Ability Score Modifiers and the Voice of Wrath bonus feat, if you're feeling cruel) with the Half-Vistani racial traits.
Unlike Half-Vistani, Vistani do not explicitly gain tasque-specific racial abilities, but it would make sense to "backport" those traits onto them. The one exception are the Boemian tasque, who can mystically compel others to like them (DC 15 Will save each round; if failed, the victim ignores the Vistani's Outcast Rating... nevermind we aren't actually told how high that is... - other Boemians and people with a legit grievance against Boemians can ignore this effect if their first save is a success, and creature immune to Charm Person are unaffected by it entirely).