Darklords (1991)

The success of Ravenloft depends largely on the appeal of its villains, the Darklords, so it makes sense that one of the first supplements for the campaign setting was a collection of additional Darklords, entitled, appropriately: Darklords.

The assortment here is a great one. There’s literary types like Bluebeard and the Headless Horsemen, there’s a couple mummies, a were-panther, an intelligent sword (there is a scenario in a Dungeon magazine that deals with that one brilliantly) and many more. They illustrate the depth and breadth of what a Darklord can be, both in the narrative sense and mechanically.

Which is also to say, they reveal the inherent problem with Darklords. They’re so damn interesting and fleshed out, they beg to be used as foes for your game, but using them presents a host of conflicting challenges. As they are already seasoned characters supported by the Dark Powers, they’re too powerful for any but the most experienced parties to deal with head to head (both physically and politically). But keeping them removed to a safe distance will lead to the party feeling like they can’t accomplish any change in the game world. And if the characters slip into evil, or attain the power to defeat a Darklord, that dilutes the bleak essence of the setting’s horror theme.

The riddle of the Darklords is the great failing of Ravenloft. It is an extremely compelling setting, but, in my experience, one that is extremely difficult to play in, largely because it uses D&D rules. D&D is about accumulating personal power. Horror is about negating personal power. Perhaps if it had mechanics more akin to Birthright or Pendragon?

Anyway. Stephen Fabian is in great form here, delivering over a dozen full-page illustrations. My favorite is the mysterious frontispiece. Is that a druid? Can druids be Darklords? Why is he menacing that woman with birds? I want to read this story.

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