5 Reasons to Use This Badass WerePanther For Your Next D&D Game: Meet Baron Urik von Kharkov
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Congratulations are in order to you. Uncovering a doppelganger is no mean feat. I'm sorry the fiend slipped your grasp, but heartened to hear you already have a lead. As to your query: if, as you say, the monster was seen heading for Castle Pantara, you may indeed need to treat with Baron Urik von Kharkov of those lands. Fortunately, he and I have interacted on occasion in the past, and I would be happy to provide you with a few words to the wise regarding him and his domain.
Baron Urik von Kharkov is the Darklord of Valachan. A werepanther as well as a vampire, he rules his populace with the help of an army of werepanther secret police. Each year he selects a bride by lottery, but he is unable to control his compulsions to harm his brides. Within the year, each unfortunate victim is dead by his hands.
1) Demon Lover
Baron Urik von Kharkov's defining trait is his tragic marital history. With each annual bridal lottery, his hopes climb higher with dreams of the future, and with each unfortunate illness or accident, his despair plunges deeper than ever before. You may find him most approachable immediately before or after this annual lottery.
Baron Urik von Kharkov's story centers around an allegory for domestic violence and the behavioral cycles of an abuser. When first courting potential brides (and potential victims, including PCs), he is attentive, erudite, and elegant. Gradually his demeanor shifts, becoming more demanding and more wrathful. By the time he begins harming people, either his underlings or his wives, he will have given the victim ample reason to believe he's only reacting to their bad actions; maybe even acting for their own good! If his victims ever awake to the realization of how much of a monster he truly is, they will be bound to inextricably to him that escape will be impossible, only a choice of death at his hands or their own.
This is a sensitive topic, and should be handled appropriately. While von Kharkov (like many abusers) may believe that his evil actions spring from something within him, a Beast that is beyond his control, this is merely self-delusion. Like all Darklords, von Kharkov has been damned not because of his inherent nature, but the evil choices he willingly made.
2) Of the People
The people are Valachan are dark of skin and black of hair, and if you or your companions have a contrasting appearance, you may find that it generates a great deal of attention. The Valachani culture differs significantly from that of the western Core as well, and is often considered 'less civilized' by the less worldly minds of our home realms. For their differences, the Valachani are no less civilized than you or I, and thinking otherwise would be a grave mistake indeed.
Baron von Kharkov cuts one of the most impressive figures out of all the Darklords of Ravenloft. It can be refreshing to see a character that not only provides representation for black characters, but is also a character who is educated, powerful, refined, in command and beloved by his people. He has elegance and poise, with an undercurrent of menace, like the mighty feline predators he is so heavily involved with thematically. Rick Worthy and Steven Williams have both given magnificent performances of this variety that you can reference if needed. As well, Valachan serves as a good example of a prosperous and functional black-predominant fantasy nation.
There are a couple stumbling blocks to look out for here. The first is the notion of a black man as a domestic abuser. This is a tired trope in fiction, which often ends up played to racist hyperbole or comedic effect. You'll get a better result if you take care to make von Kharkov's actions and relationships nuanced and rounded. Depending on the party's makeup, there is also the risk of running 'white savior' stories, where a group of well-meaning white adventurers deign to travel to a backwards group of people of color to solve their problems. Keep in mind that the Valachani are an independent, capable people, and you should have no trouble giving your players the same impression.
3) Cycle of Pain
Despite his lofty status now, Urik has suffered many abuses in the past. Wizards in particular may find little favor to be had in Castle Pantara, as practitioners of the arcane have been no friend to the Baron in earlier days.
Like many good villains, Baron Urik von Kharkov has a backstory filled with personal heartache that informs his present motivations. Despite the fact that he's utterly evil, like Erik Killmonger or Hannibal Lecter, von Kharkov has a true horror in his past. He's been enslaved, tortured, experimented on, and cruelly manipulated into harming those he cared about. If he's persecuting those who enslaved him (or people of the same bent) like the Red Wizards or the Kargat, it's easy to muddy the waters and make the PCs really struggle to think about who the bad guy really is.
It's important to remember though, that a tragic backstory doesn't excuse his actions. No matter what von Kharkov says, at the end of the day he's still the one responsible for his own actions, and he can't lay the blame for the blood he's shed at the feet of those who hurt him. Remember again, he wouldn't be a Darklord if he hadn't chosen his own path.
4) Thieves in the Night
The Baron is a terrifying combatant, to be sure, but the force that truly keeps Valachan in line is the Black Leopards. Forming the backbone of the Baron's authority in Valachan, the Black Leopards act as secret police, ruthlessly enforcing the Baron's will and security through fear and brutal violence.
The Black Leopards (many of whom are werepanthers) are Urik's main tool to keep Valachan under his thumb. Given their distinctive appearance and fascist behavior, they make marvelous underbosses. Their stark contrast to the respectable, empathetic populace of Valachan makes them great center-stage bad guys, and their potent supernatural abilities let them pose a threat to even veteran adventuring groups.
With fascist groups like the Black Leopards, there can be a temptation to make them appear sympathetic, as though their terrorism and violence is required to keep their borders secure against dangerous outsiders. Although this is the excuse such villains always hide behind, it isn't true in the Black Leopards case. While it's true that the Mordentish look down their nose at the Valachani, the 'dangerous threats' that the Black Leopards' violent actions and interrogations are meant to quell are merely a product of von Kharkov's paranoia and his underlings' cruelty and greed.
5) King Among Monsters
I have seen three heroes pursue Baron Urik von Kharkov to their own deaths. Each believed they had the truth of von Kharkov's nature. One believed him to be a tyrannical dictator, a military leader held in power by a team of elite monstrous soldiers. One believed von Kharkov to be a werepanther, using his curse to infect and control the most sadistic and predatory of his citizens to control the rest of the nation. The third believed Urik to be a nosferatu, who drained the life from his captive populace as surely as he stole the lives of his own brides. Each of these heroes perished because none had the full picture: all of them were correct, and it is a blindness to all the facets of the Baron's character that has proved the undoing of many a hero.
For the crunch-favoring DMs out there, Baron von Kharkov is a dream come true. As both a werepanther and a vampire, he offers a whole palette of abilities to choose from. As an undead shapeshifter he can ignore a whole range of spells and magical abilities, he can hold his own in combat, and his stealth and intelligence gathering abilities are so extensive it's nearly impossible for a party to get the jump on him. He's even got the ability to suborn feline party members like mounts, animal companions, and familiars to his own service! Best yet, many of the standard weaknesses of his monster types do not apply to him.
It's important not to give the party a fair fight, however. Urik von Kharkov was born as a panther, not a man, and understands the need for stealth, ambush, and waiting for the opportune moment to strike. His ability to drain blood (and erase memories), spread disease, and command a wide variety of mortal, monstrous, and bestial servants allows him to ensure that a party on his hit list never gets a moment's peace, much less a short rest.
If you decide to pursue this villain to Castle Pantara, I sincerely hope you find that the Baron has dealt with him first, in a terminal manner. Otherwise I fear it may be you who finds yourself being...dealt with. If you should survive, my own men can meet you at the Mordentish border and ferry you to safety with all available haste.
In the meantime, good luck and happy hunting,
Frankie “Farshot” Drakeson,
Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon
Frankie Drakeson is a retired rifleman and the current mayor of Carinford-Halldon in Mordent. He is married to Gwendolyn Drakeson, making him Nathan Timothy’s grandson by marriage.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Picture Reference: https://guardians-of-the-mists.obsidianportal.com/characters/baron-urik-von-kharkov
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