The first vampire, the Master of Castle Ravenloft, the brooding darklord of Barovia — Strahd is a name that’s been sending chills down D&D players’ spines since the early 1980s.
Since his first appearance in the 1983 adventure I6 Ravenloft, Count Strahd Von Zarovich has come to be regarded as one of the all-time great villains in D&D history.
He’s manipulative, highly intelligent, emotionless, cruel, and a powerful magician — an ancient vampire lord with near-total dominion over his realm.
That realm, Ravenloft, is also Strahd’s prison where he dwells for all eternity, held captive by the same dark powers that granted him immortality in the first place.
If you want to inject a touch of velvet-cloaked, blood-soaked, gothic horror into your next D&D 5e campaign or are perhaps about to embark on a journey through the mists of Ravenloft to Count Strahd’s domain, this article is going to give you everything you need to know about D&D’s oldest and most dangerous vampire.
The Tragedy of Strahd Von Zarovich
“I am ancient, I am the Land. My beginnings are lost in the darkness of the past. I am not dead. Nor am I alive. I am undead, forever.” — Tome of Strahd
The tale of Strahd Von Zarovich is a tragedy steeped in the gothic horror tradition.
In life, Strahd was human, a powerful, cruel, psychopathic (if we’re reading between the lines) warlord, prince, soldier, or noble, depending on whom you ask.
Following the death of his father, Barov, Strahd waged a tireless, vengeful war against his family’s enemies, finally crushing them once and for all in a remote valley.
Looking around him, Strahd was taken by the stark beauty of the valley. He decided to settle there, renaming it Barovia after his father, King Barov.
Strahd brutally subjugated the people of Barovia and brought unflinching order to his new domain.
Strahd’s mother, Queen Ravenovia, was afraid of her eldest son, fearful that years of war had made him cruel and arrogant. Just as much as she rejected Strahd, she lavished her affections doubly on her younger son, Sergei.
They stayed away from Barovia and their murderous relative, and so it may have remained had Strahd not begun to feel the weight of his years upon his shoulders.
“I was the warrior, I was good and just. I thundered across the land like the wrath of a just god, but the war years and the killing years wore down my soul as the wind wears stone into sand.” — Tome of Strahd
Weary from war and bored by peace, Strahd gathered all the wizards and artisans from his conquered realms, forcing them to begin the construction of a great castle overlooking the valley of Barovia.
In what was perhaps the ultimate, over-the-top gothic expression of mommy issues, he named it Ravenloft.
With Castle Ravenloft complete, Strahd sent for his remaining family members to come live with him.
His mother died en route to the castle and is now buried beneath the castle, but Sergei made it safely to the castle and, for a while, lived with Strahd in Barovia.
Strahd — now with a glaring mother-shaped hole in his life and all the emotional capabilities of a pair of pruning shears — turned his attention to a woman from Barovia called Tatyana.
He fell in love with her, lavishing her with gifts and offering to make her his bride.
Instead, she fell in love with Sergei. Rather than accept Tatyana’s choice and find joy in his brother’s happiness, Strahd saw his beloved’s decision as an incontestable metaphor that his best years had been squandered and death would soon take him.
On the day of Tatyana and Sergei’s wedding, Strahd murdered Sergei, forging a pact with the dark powers (possibly with the evil magics of the Shadowfell, or possibly with death itself) in exchange for immortality.
With his brother’s blood caked around his lips, Strahd chased Tatyana through the gardens of Castle Ravenloft until she, wracked with terror and despair, threw herself from the battlements to her death over a thousand feet below.
Seeing what their master had done, Strahd’s own guards turned on him, riddling his body with arrows, but the Count did not die.
The dark powers were true to their word. Strahd was granted immortality — transformed into the first vampire. He slaughtered his guards and everyone else in the castle.
Whether it was a part of their pact or simply a reflection of the evil Strahd wrought on that day, the dark powers drew him and the entire land of Barovia away into a demiplane known as Ravenloft.
It became the first of many Domains of Dread, and Strahd has remained there since — both tyrant and prisoner, the vampire lord of Ravenloft.
Barovia: Domain of Dread
Figuring out exactly which names apply to which parts of Strahd’s domain can sometimes feel a bit like trying to lock down all the different parts of the UK.
There’s Britain, the British Isles, and the United Kingdom. They overlap, but there are important differences.
To quickly clear up some terms…
A demiplane surrounded by supernatural, deadly mists that contains Strahd’s own realm of Barovia and was expanded in the D&D 2e Ravenloft setting to also include more than 20 other Domains of Dread.
These, like Strahd’s home, were prisons created by the mysterious dark powers to house powerful beings, like the lich lord Vecna, who remained trapped in Ravenloft while also having total command of their own domain.
Strahd’s domain — a mountainous valley blanketed by the thick Svalich Woods and rolling fog banks, containing several towns (including Vallaki, Krezk, and the ruins of Berez as well as the village of Barovia itself), other adventuring locations, and, at its heart, Strahd’s lair: Castle Ravenloft.
An accursed village that cowers in the shadow of Castle Ravenloft. Home to gloomy, soulless (literally — Barovia has fewer souls than it has bodies) folk and the supposed reincarnation of Tatyana, Ireena Kolyana.
The grim fortress from which the entire demiplane gets its name. This is Strahd’s home — a macabre citadel perched atop a thousand-foot cliff like one of the many gargoyles that cling to its own walls.
To step into Barovia is to step into Strahd’s domain. There are no other classic villains in D&D that are so intrinsically linked — both in a narrative and very literal sense — to their land.
Strahd cannot leave Barovia and, while he is there, he has total command over it.
He dominates the creatures that dwell there — werewolves, regular wolves, bats, ravens, and all manner of gothic awfulness — controls its weather, and feeds on the humans trapped within his borders by the magical Mists of Ravenloft.
Strahd Through the Ages: From AD&D to 5e
The origins of Strahd as a villain in D&D can be traced back to a game played by fantasy author Tracy Hickman (who, along with his wife Laura, also created the Dragonlance Saga) back in the late 1970s.
“We turned the corner and there was a vampire. I groaned and rolled my eyes,” recalls Hickman in the foreword to the 2016 Curse of Strahd adventure.
Back in the earliest days of D&D, dungeon masters had a tendency to stock dungeons with monsters using random tables and little regard for the concept of dungeon ecology.
Finding a vampire as merely the next monster to “beat up” for treasure as the next attraction in “a hodgepodge collection of rooms connected by dungeon corridors” didn’t sit well with Hickman.
After that session, he and his wife Laura sat down to create an adventure that would do justice to the vampire, placing it at the very heart of the module.
“Strahd would be no afterthought — he demanded his own setting, his own tragic history.”
The result was I6 Ravenloft, a 32-page adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons first edition and effectively the first true introduction of gothic horror into D&D — which at that time was much more preoccupied with sword-and-sorcery pulp-fantasy aesthetics and storytelling.
In many respects, I6 Ravenloft is a masterpiece of compact, dense storytelling.
In some ways (more than others — the gypsies, which later became the Vistani, were kind of problematic and lazy), it’s better than the 5e version, which has been repeatedly hailed as the best adventure written for the current edition of the game.
It positively oozes dark, gothic melancholy. It includes a fantastic, seven-level dungeon packed full of horrific strangeness and undead and generally does a great job of engineering the tropes and hallmarks of gothic horror into a gameable D&D experience.
My personal favorite example of this takes place when the PCs are on the road to Barovia through the Svalich woods.
“Roll 1d6 every turn the PCs are in the woods. If the result is 4 or more, the PCs hear a lone wolf cry in the distance. One more wolf cries each round. If the PCs are still in the woods after 5 rounds of howling, the wolves attack.”
It’s a classic gothic horror trope gamified perfectly, and I recommend all DMs steal it for any situation when they want to prolong the tension between rolling a random encounter and rolling for initiative.
The success of I6 Ravenloft prompted a rapid follow up with Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill and the launch of an entire setting in 1990 with Ravenloft: Realm of Terror for D&D 2e.
As a setting, Ravenloft grew into a sprawling network of loosely connected adventures (some great, some not so great — I’m looking at you Adam’s Wrath) featuring other mainstays of horror fiction like werewolves, zombies, and ghosts as well as other iconic D&D villains like Lord Soth the Death Knight (When Black Roses Bloom).
I6 Ravenloft has been reimagined (sometimes more than once) in pretty much every subsequent edition of D&D, but Strahd has also appeared in several other adventures throughout the years, including…
- RQ3 From the Shadows: the first of two adventures that feature Azalin the lich and Strahd von Zarovich in their eternal conflict as Azalin plots to find a way out of Ravenloft and back into the mortal world.
- RM1 Roots of Evil: the conclusion to the two-adventure arc started in From the Shadows sees the PCs travel into Castle Ravenloft to learn new secrets about Strahd’s origins.
- RM 4 House of Strahd: the first revision of I6 Ravenloft for 2e, also by Tracy and Laura Hickman.
- Expedition to Castle Ravenloft: I6 Ravenloft and House of Strahd given the 3rd Edition treatment.
Strahd’s various appearances throughout the years, as well as the material from several novels and a comic series, were compiled in the 5e adventure House of Strahd, which brings together the existing information from Realm of Terror and other setting supplements on Barovia and grafts it on to the events of I6 Ravenloft and House of Strahd.
Curse of Strahd: A Quick Primer
Strahd is all powerful, malicious, cruel and… bored. He has ruled Barovia for centuries, and there is nothing left in his lands that can surprise him.
Also, he’s in love again with a woman called Ireena Kolyana living in the town of Barovia who bears a striking resemblance to Strahd’s lost “love” Tatyana.
Manipulative, gaslighting monster that he is, Strahd is devoted to possessing Ireena, and his seduction of her is the event that the PCs will bumble into when they first arrive in Ravenloft.
From there, the whole domain of dread opens up before them, which they must explore for a way to defeat Strahd in the hope of freeing Ireena, slaying the vampire lord, and hopefully escaping with their lives. It’s rarely that simple.
My favorite thing about Curse of Strahd (and any adventure set in Barovia for that matter) is that Strahd is no end-game boss patiently waiting in his dungeon.
He’s an active participant in the campaign. He’s highly mobile, wants to confront and interact with the PCs throughout the adventure, and has his own goals.
In Curse of Strahd, his plans involve claiming the fair Ireena Kolyana (the reincarnation of Strahd’s lost “love” Tatyana), killing a famous vampire hunter called Van Richten, and maybe even tricking one of the PCs into becoming the ruler of Ravenloft so that he might finally escape his prison.
Surviving Strahd: A Player’s Guide
First, let’s take a look at Strahd’s stat block, which is a monster in its own right.
Strahd Lair Actions
While Strahd is in Castle Ravenloft, he can take lair actions as long as he isn’t incapacitated. On initiative count 20 (losing initiative ties), Strahd can take one of the following lair action options or forgo using any of them in that round:
- Until initiative count 20 of the next round, Strahd can pass through solid walls, doors, ceilings, and floors as if they weren’t there.
- Strahd targets any number of doors and windows that he can see, causing each one to either open or close as he wishes. Closed doors can be magically locked (needing a successful DC 20 Strength check to force open) until Strahd chooses to end the effect or until Strahd uses this lair action again.
- Strahd summons the angry spirit of one who has died in the castle. The apparition appears next to a hostile creature that Strahd can see, makes an attack against that creature, and then disappears. The apparition has the statistics of a specter.
- Strahd targets one Medium or smaller creature that casts a shadow. The target’s shadow must be visible to Strahd and within 30 feet of him. If the target fails a DC 17 Charisma saving throw, its shadow detaches from it and becomes a shadow that obeys Strahd’s commands, acting on initiative count 20. A greater restoration spell or a remove curse spell cast on the target restores its natural shadow but only if its undead shadow has been destroyed.
There are three elements of Count Strahd Von Zarovich I want to emphasize in order to show exactly why he’s such a fearsome threat and hopefully to show how a party of brave and, above all, clever adventurers can defeat him.
Strahd the Vampire
Count Strahd is a vampire lord, an exceedingly powerful undead that retains its intelligence and free will.
I go into more detail about what it’s like to fight vampires in general in this article here, but suffice to say, Strahd takes all those nasty dials and turns them up to 11.
He’s tough and fast and can shapeshift into a bat, a wolf, or a cloud of mist. Also, getting him to 0 hit points doesn’t mean you’ve won – just that he’s going to try and return to his coffin to regenerate.
He can charm party members in order to bite them, use his legendary actions to evade spell effects, and generally run rings around a party who isn’t ready for him.
Strahd the Wizard
Next, in addition to being a nastier-than-your-average-vampire, Strahd is also an immortal, extremely powerful wizard.
His spell list is extensive in addition to powerful battlefield effects like Fireball (which honestly seem a bit out of place for a vampire lord — dracula throwing fireballs sounds more like a cocaine-fueled 80s movie pitch than anything remotely in step with the tone of the rest of the adventure, but I digress) and more thematic abilities like Scrying and Animate Dead.
Fighting a wizard with access to this spell list would be enough to make most high-level parties sweat.
Account for the fact that they’re bolted onto an already extremely powerful monster, and you start to get a picture of just how challenging an opponent Strahd can be.
Strahd Is the Land
Lastly, as he says, Strahd is Barovia. He has total control over his domain, especially when he’s inside Castle Ravenloft.
He can use his lair actions to phase through walls, summon specters and shadows to attack the party, and control all manner of nasty creatures that go bump in the night.
You should also keep in mind that the real danger Strahd poses doesn’t even come from his stat block — which is what makes him one of D&D’s best monsters, in my opinion.
Strahd is ancient and highly intelligent. He also embodies all of the manipulative, weasel-like cunning and cruelty that you could hope for.
Strahd will spy on you, analyze you from afar, toy with you, test your defenses, and figure out what you care about. He’ll figure out what you want to hear and then tell you that.
He’ll praise your skills, convince you to drop your guard with pathos, or take one of any other number of avenues to convince you that, really, he’s not such a bad guy.
Strahd can be courteous, polite, and even charming without resorting to his vampiric abilities.
Do not be fooled; Strahd is a selfish, self-aggrandizing bastard through and through. His greatest power is his ability to make you forget that fact.
Strahd is at his most dangerous when he’s not fighting you.
The Sunsword and The Holy Symbol of Ravenkind
The best chance you have of defeating Strahd is probably to recover one or both of the important items scattered throughout Barovia.
The Sunsword is a powerful, radiant blade that was made to slay vampires, and the holy symbol can emit a blast of sunlight that’s capable of paralyzing Strahd and inflicting massive damage on the vampire lord.
Both are well hidden, however, and if Strahd senses you’re getting close to them, he’s likely to take steps to thwart your plans.
How To Run Strahd: A Dungeon Master’s Guide to Horror
Count Strahd is one of my favorite villains to run in all of D&D. He’s not just a big bad with a ton of abilities and hit points; he’s a setting, a tragedy, and a series of interesting goals and repulsive personality traits all wrapped up in one.
I’m not going to give any super detailed advice for running Strahd in combat. That could be a whole article in and of itself, and plenty of other people have done it already.
If you’re looking for detailed walkthroughs, I’d advise checking out this great post from reddit user u/guildsbounty on how to run Strahd like an unholy terror and this great article by Keith Ammann on The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, which deals with running vampires in combat.
My only advice running Strahd in combat would be to plan ahead of time.
His stat block is honestly everything I hate about 5e game design — it assumes that because a monster is important, it must have a small novella for an entry. It’s cumbersome and hard to deal with at the table.
If you’re running Strahd, I would go through his stat block and convert him into an Action-Oriented Monster a la Matt Colville.
Pick a thing that Strahd is going to do on turn one, two, three, and four of the combat.
Maybe he starts by charming a PC or summoning some minions and then using his spider climb to get on the roof.
After that, he can shoot some spells to disrupt the party while they fight his minions and only gets into melee when one or more PCs are downed.
Or you could create a short flow chart. If a PC is down, then Strahd attacks with multiattack; if not, Strahd uses charm or casts a spell.
Basically, Strahd presents you with so many options for things to do that unless this is your fourth or fifth time running him, you’re likely going to feel overwhelmed and make mistakes.
Strahd is a villain that feels as dangerous to fight against as the DM is good at running him, so do what you can to be prepared.
Anyway, I don’t want to talk about fighting Strahd. I want to talk about some more high-level stuff that should help you make any adventure with Strahd into a memorable experience for your players.
A Guide To Running Strahd Like the Gothic Villain He Is
All Strahd-centric adventures, from I6 Ravenloft to Curse of Strahd, wear their gothic-horror influences on their sleeve.
In Ravenloft: Realm of Terror, the 2e setting book, authors Bruce Nesmith and Andria Hayday include a fantastic section detailing a few core tenets of how to portray gothic horror in a roleplaying game, which are restated in the intro to Curse of Strahd as “Marks of Horror.”
If you’re running Curse of Strahd specifically, keeping these criteria in mind can do a lot to cultivate the right atmosphere at your table. When running a monster like Strahd, the right tone is half the battle.
Things are scariest when we can’t see them and when our minds are left to fill in the blanks and come to the worst possible conclusions.
Horror is the fear of the unknown, so hinting at Strahd’s power, keeping him just outside the party’s line of vision, and keeping his goals and the extent of his powers obscured is going to be a great way to keep him terrifying.
Horror is all about hinting at the horrible thing just around the next corner. In many ways, this is similar to the unknown.
It’s about pulling back the curtain slowly and letting the party hear the monster’s footfalls, see its clawed hand on the doorframe, and feel its breath on their necks.
Present the players with evidence of Strahd’s power and malice before they come face to face with him.
Barovia is an ancient place — a monument to the ultimate folly of trying to cheat death.
In any horror setting where the villain is an immortal monster, heightening the sheer age of a place is a great way to make players feel out of their depth.
Matt Colville has a great video on using dead empires to create a “time abyss,” which I always try to work into my own campaigns, whether they’re horror or not.
This one’s pretty simple. Darkness is defined by — and means nothing without — light. An unrelentingly dark tone is only going to desensitize your players.
Therefore, include moments of light, of humor, and of hope. Let them have moments of calm and quiet reflection or heartwarming interactions with genuinely good NPCs.
The more the players care, the more ammunition you have to make them sweat when Strahd comes calling.
“Barovia cowers in the shadow of Castle Ravenloft.” One of my favorite tropes of gothic fiction is the tendency to imbue places, even the land itself, with human qualities.
By letting a place be sick, or evil, or sad — not just the people who live there — you reinforce the tone of horror and make Strahd’s cruel reign seem more absolute.
When you run Strahd, run him as an extension of Ravenloft, and run Ravenloft as an extension of his will. Also, don’t keep him locked away in the castle until the final fight.
Strahd wants to get up close and personal with the party and to cordially greet them, charm them, and manipulate them into turning against one another.
Remember: he’s ancient, evil, and a liar. And, he’s really, really bored.
Good luck out there, adventurers. And remember: stay out of the mists.