D&D General Ravenloft: Monsters vs Darklords

Remathilis

Legend
Note: this question will attempt to be as edition neutral as possible. If you want to argue about 5e vs classic Ravenloft, do that elsewhere.

For DMs who run Ravenloft, I have a philosophical question. When you are setting up an adventure involving a villain or monsters, how often do you make them a Darklord vs how often do they exist as residents of an existing domain?

Ravenloft has always done both, of course. MCA 2 was full of a dozen denizens who were evil as they were, and didn't warrant their own domain. But the vast majority of them seem to get their own domain, something encouraged in some versions (like the supplement Dark lords or the 5e version) and less so with others (the living core version of DoD and 3e).

I ask this because, as I design adventures for Ravenloft, I often debate if I should be setting it in an already existing domain or making a brand new one for the adventure. On the one hand, it's refreshing to not have every adventure in a domain be about the dark lord (or, not everything in Barovia needs to be about Strahd) but in the other, having unique monsters and villains not have their own lands and tragic flaws feels like a let down. After all, why shouldn't La Lorrona get her own domain?

Obviously there is no single answer to this, but I wonder what other DMs do when it comes to making villains in Ravenloft; do you err on the side of new Darklords and domains or opt to make them denizens of existing ones?
 

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Voadam

Legend
Classic Ravenloft is full of monsters who are not Darklords. The monstrous compendiums and the Children of the Night series provide lots of examples. The Van Richten's guides are filled with examples of villainous bad guys that Van Richten faced who were not darklords but would be great to center a mystery and adventure around.

I generally made very few Darklords but I was fine adding in non-Darklord villains everywhere.

The Dark Powers of the Mist are enigmatic and apparently a bit capricious in what triggers the creation of a lord and domain.
 


Ravenloft without the darklords is just the Shadowfell with sunlight and more people.
You don't have to remove the darklords, just not make them the focus of every adventure.

As a Ravenloft fan who was hugely influenced by the old Van Richten's Guides and the Arthaus-era Gazeteers, I'm a big proponent of running less-darklord-centric adventures in Ravenloft. They make the world feel much more real and lived in (which may or may not be your jam, of course...), but also they give the PCs the chance to have a legit victory that they can feel good about, rather than just going through the motions against an enemy who's functionally undefeatable because the cosmic powers want to keep them around to make them miserable.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
You don't have to remove the darklords, just not make them the focus of every adventure.

As a Ravenloft fan who was hugely influenced by the old Van Richten's Guides and the Arthaus-era Gazeteers, I'm a big proponent of running less-darklord-centric adventures in Ravenloft. They make the world feel much more real and lived in (which may or may not be your jam, of course...), but also they give the PCs the chance to have a legit victory that they can feel good about, rather than just going through the motions against an enemy who's functionally undefeatable because the cosmic powers want to keep them around to make them miserable.
So me Ravenloft without darklord focus is just a generic grimdark setting.

It's the twist that makes the famous grimdark settings. Dark Sun has their sand, offense, and lack of religious focus. Ravenloft has it's darklords. The Old World has Chaos!


If the PCs can win without a full confrontation with a darklord, it isn't a Ravenloft campaign. It's like one of those Multiverse or Time travel campaigns.
 

GrimCo

Adventurer
I very rarely use Darklords. Simply put, most PCs are not significant enough to get attention from the Big Bad. If they survive long enough and poke their nose enough in Darklords business, then they get noticed. And even then, Darklords first send their henchmen to deal with trouble makers.

For me, it works best if Darklord is evil presence looming in background, making his moves behind curtains. PCs hear about them, see some of the outcomes of their deeds, but they can't interact with them and can't go directly against them ( i mean, they can, if they want to storm Castle Ravenloft as lv 5 group, their funeral, squad of vampire guards will wipe them out before they even set foot inside of castle).

My favourite is show them how futile their attempts are. No matter how hard they try to cleanse the Domain, they can't stop every monster, they can't save every NPC, and in the end, they cannot win ( winning is surviving to fight uphill battle another day).
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
For DMs who run Ravenloft, I have a philosophical question. When you are setting up an adventure involving a villain or monsters, how often do you make them a Darklord vs how often do they exist as residents of an existing domain?
I'm not sure I have a breakdown of the ratio, as for me it's more about impact, i.e. the consequences of going up against someone with outsized influence over an area, which is what darklords have. That, in turn, is dictated by what's happening in the campaign.

Now, you can have a non-darklord villain also have an outsized presence in a particular area, but that's likely to be due to other factors, such as fiends and their reality wrinkles. It's entirely possible to have a powerful villain with "darklord-level" powers (which actually doesn't mean that much, since darklords run the gamut of power) but who doesn't affect nearly as much in a given area. Likewise, you can have a powerful darklord who's nevertheless only got a small domain (which itself might be an Island of Terror, and so has no sociopolitical impact outside of the domain if they die and their realm dissolves).

Essentially, I look at where the PCs are and what they've done, and contrast that in with where they seem likely to go (and would like to go, though that doesn't always mean that they'll get there), and look for a character who best seems to fit that mold, darklord or no, and adjust things accordingly when I find one.
 

Remathilis

Legend
So me Ravenloft without darklord focus is just a generic grimdark setting.

It's the twist that makes the famous grimdark settings. Dark Sun has their sand, offense, and lack of religious focus. Ravenloft has it's darklords. The Old World has Chaos!


If the PCs can win without a full confrontation with a darklord, it isn't a Ravenloft campaign. It's like one of those Multiverse or Time travel campaigns.
Oh, I'm not advocating for not using Darklords, but I am asking how often they are the focus of the adventure.

Let's take for example that you want to run a relentless slasher/Jack the Ripper style antagonist. Classic horror, right? You could do it one of two ways: place the killer on the streets of any urban area (Dementieu, Il Akuk, Saint Ronges) or make a new "foggy streets of London" domain. Both have pros and cons to the approach. I was just wondering how often people opt for the former idea (a villain doing things in a domain unrelated to its darklord) vs making a new domain to focus on the villain. The latter seems like it would get old rather quickly, but I can't deny the amount of creative freedom is tempting.

I guess a secondary question that is hiding in this quandary is how often do you run adventure in a domain where the darklord isn't the focus (or maybe even involved). Some domains are big enough that you can adventure for a long time and never meet the darklord (Mordent and Darkon are good examples) others are so small (like Keening) or tied to their lord it seems impossible (I've never seen a Barovian adventure that didn't prominently feature Strahd, for example).
 


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