Tabletop Review: Ravenloft: Darklords (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition)

Ravenloft: Darklords (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast (Originally TSR)
Cost: $9.99 (Originally $10.95)
Page Count: 98
Release Date: 11/12/2013 (Originally 1991)
Get it Here:

As you can tell from the RR1 coding, Darklords was the first supplement release for TSR’s Ravenloft campaign setting. There had been an adventure or two published beforehand, like Ship of Horror, but Darklords was to be the first of many pieces to flesh out what ended up being the second most successful (and lucrative) campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition (Only Forgotten Realms did better).

Darklords takes a look at sixteen different Darklords spread out over thirteen chapters. Some of these Darklords would go on to have full adventures devoted to them, one would be the star of a SSI video game and still others would appear in published fiction. Yet others would never be seen again. It’s interesting to see how these sixteen big bads turned out because back in 1991, the sky was the limit for each character. Let’s take a look at them.

1. Anhktepot. The book starts out with one of my top five Darklords. Anhktepot was a great character for so many reasons. First, he was the best mummy in D&D history. Second, he was an evil worshipper of the sun, which always threw off a lot cleric PCs. Third, he was one of only three Darklords to star in a video game (Stone Prophet), making him arguably the most famous original creation for Ravenloft for mainstream gamers (The other two to appear in video games were Strahd and Lord Soth ,of course). He would also go on to have a very important adventure (Touch of Death) which would help to change the very makeup of the Dark Domain itself. The background of the character is an impressive one and his domain is especially cruel. Anhktepot is a lot of fun to use in any Ravenloft campaign and out of the sixteen in this book, he’s one of the four that went on to make a huge impact on the campaign setting.

2. Tristessa is a drow banshee who rules a realm of the undead. She is completely mad and wishes only two things – to find her lost child and revenge against the drow. The Darklord of Keening, Tristessa was an interesting take on the banshee and potentially one of the few Darklords PCs can make allies with (as long as they hate Drow too). Tristessa never came to much. She had a short story in Tales of Ravenloft but she was a Darklord that didn’t see much use from players or writers. Pity.

3. Bluebeard. This is exactly what you think. The classic French folk tale character turned into a Darklord for Ravenloft. I always thought this was a silly idea and honestly it seems like so did everyone else. He got a short story in Tales of Ravenloft and then was never used by anyone again except for a brief mention in Sword & Sorcery’s Third Edition version of the setting. Arguably one of the worst Darklord ideas ever.

4. Ebonbane. From one of the worst to one of my favorites. Ebonbane is a living evil sword who is trapped in a castle with the geist of its arch-nemesis – a paladin named Kateri Shadowborn. Ebonbane stars in one of my favorite Dungeon! adventures of all time – “Bane of the Shadowborn.” Because the goal of the adventure is to destroy Ebonbane, that and Darklords are its only real appearance in Ravenloft. I’m always very opposed to adventures where the goal is to kill a Darklord because that utterly defeats the purpose of one and is spitting in the face of what Ravenloft SHOULD be, but Bane of the Shadowborn is so well done and Ebonbane existed only for that adventure, so it’s one of the rare exceptions that I make on the subject.

5-7. The Three Hags. I never cared for the hags or their domain of Tepest, but they get an extremely long and well fleshed out back story here. In spite of that, most writers and gamers felt the same way about the hags as I did. They never received any mention in second edition besides this and their initial writeup and 3e only paid them a tiny amount of lip service. The triad of Darklords for a single domain does make it extremely hard to take them down if you’re using Ravenloft as a boss fight type setting (ick), but they are amongst the most forgettable Darklords in the entire setting.

8. The Headless Horseman. I was annoyed by turning Bluebeard into a Darklord, but I did originally like the idea of the Horseman as one. After all, he’s a very iconic figure in American horror and he’s so vaguely defined by his original creator that he works a lot better than trying to shoehorn Bluebeard (whose story has a complete beginning and end) into the Dark Domain. Plus one is ghost of sorts and the other is merely a serial killer. ANYWAY, I never cared for how the Headless Horseman was used by Ravenloft He is forever riding a horse and cutting off heads, with his domain being a single road he constantly runs down. That’s all there is. There’s no depths, definition or defining of the Horseman. He’s just schlocky cheap fear. The Darklord would appear briefly in an adventure and he too got a short story in Tales of Ravenloft, but he was one of the few Darklords to not see even a line of print in the Third Edition version of the Dark Domain. Alas.

9. The House of Lament. This is an evil living house that has one of several potential explanations behind what it is and why it does what it does. I always loved this location. The house is less a Darklord than a fine setting for an adventure, but it is really quite memorable and a lot of fun to use – especially on low level characters or people new to RPGs. Unfortunately, nothing ever became of the house and this was its only appearance besides a brief mention in third edition. Talk about your lost potential.

10. Von Kharkov. This was always one of my favorite Darklords. He’s a Panther that was polymorphed onto a person and then turned into a vampire. So he’s a vampire panther. It’s very convoluted, but the back story is rich and a lot of fun. Von Kharkov would appear here and there in several texts through second and third edition, but never very in-depth and never with a spotlight on him except for this book. He got a short story in Tales of Ravenloft and that was really his fifteen minutes of fame. Pity, because every player I know has a soft spot for this Darklord but no one ever seemed to know what to do with him on the writing side of things.

11. Merilee. A generic child vampire. She’s not actually a Darklord of a domain, so I always disliked her inclusion in this book. She’s also not very interesting and was realized to be a bit of a mistake as soon as this was printed. You never hear about her again and she’s definitely the low point of the book.

12. Captain Alan Monette. Another character who shows up here and is never heard from again. Too bad too, as he’s quite interesting. Monette is a werebat pirate who transforms based on the tides rather than the phases of the moon. Trapped on an island with a spooky lighthouse, Monette makes a great one-off villain but not the best Darklord. Fun to craft an adventure around though!

13. The Phantom Lover. Another one shot who is never seen nor heard from again, The Phantom Lover is badly defined, way overpowered and a pretty stupid concept. He’s kind of a Marty Stu unkillable incubus. Bleck. Definitely up there with Merilee as a low point in the collection.

14. d’Polarno. The darklord of a small domain, Marquis Stezen d’Polarno gets a story in Tales of Ravenloft and a few brief mentions in Third Edition, but that’s about it. He’s not particularly memorable either. He’s a souless drab being that can regain his original personality and love of life by using an enchanted painting to drain souls from victims. Another character best suited for a one shot adventure rather than as a Darklord.

15. Tiyet. Tiyet is a strange mummy offshoot that is pretty memorable as well as challenging to any PCs who encounter here as she doesn’t appear undead at all. Rather she appears to be a beautiful classical Egyptian woman. Her domain is all but emptied of life and she is a rather lonely and sad inidivudal, compelled to eat the hearts of the living. This is her only real exposure in Ravenloft save one or two very brief mentions. Like several other characters, Tiyet makes an interesting being to revolve an adventure around, but she doesn’t really work as a Darklord. A very interesting and well done read though.

16. Zolnik. The last Darklord in the collection is a skinwalker or Loup de Noir werewolf. He has a very impressive backstory and is one of the more memorable Darklords in this collection. Unfortunately, TSR decided to job him out and kill him off in the adventure Dark of the Moon, which I reviewed back in October. Why TSR would go to the trouble of giving these Darklords such rich back stories and deep characterizations just to kill them off in a short little adventure is beyond me, but I really wasn’t in charge of the line seeing as I was in sixth grade or so when it was released. Still, Zolnik might be killed off rather easily in a throw away adventure, but we’re looking at the content for him in Darklords and it’s top notch indeed.

So there you go. A look at the sixteen Darklords of Darklords. I’m not happy with four of the sixteen, but that means there’s a 75% quality ratio here and that’s pretty darn good. As well, Darklords is a must own for anyone even casually interested in Ravenloft to see just how much depth and detail was put into even a C-level minor lord of the Dark Domain. This PDF rerelease is a bit pricey consider the physical copy was only a dollar more back in 1991, but D&D PDFs do tend to be a bit overpriced compared to their contemporaries. If you don’t already own a copy of Darklords, I would still strongly recommend the PDF version at this price as it’s very well done, but you might want to check Ebay for a physical copy first as you can undoubtedly get it cheaper.



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