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Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft calls Barovia the "Domain of the First Vampire", and later says this about Strahd in the chapter 3 section on Barovia (emphasis mine throughout):

The nature of his bargain with the Dark Powers was revealed, and Strahd became the multiverse’s first vampire.

And in chapter 5 in the section about the Ulmist Inquisitors:

In the days before Count Strahd von Zarovich became the first vampire, Strahd thundered across the lands with Ulmed.

I read back through the info on Strahd printed in the 5e adventure Curse of Strahd, and while I found the account of Strahd's pact and conversion, it makes no mention of Strahd being the first vampire. I then recalled that the Domains of Dread had a brief mention in the Dungeon Master's Guide, and I observed this:

he best known of these is the valley of Barovia, overlooked by the towering spires of Castle Ravenloft and ruled by Count Strahd von Zarovich, the first vampire.

Now, this is where my quest to learn more about the Count took an interesting turn. I found this passage on page 210 of the 4th Edition supplement Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead:

Strahd calls himself the "First Vampire," but the claim is likely untrue, given the diffusion of vampires across the world. However, he might have been the first vampire in Barovia, the land he rules with an iron fist.

If all we had was the nickname for Barovia, "Domain of the First Vampire", and the brief DMG statement calling Strahd the first vampire, I would interpret those things to refer to Strahd titularly as Open Grave from 4e tells us. But the quotes from Van Richten's Guide seem pretty clear - they actually mean that no other vampires existed before Strahd in the whole multiverse. So here we have a case of 5th Edition material retconning lore from previous editions, something that seems to be happening increasingly often as 5th Edition moves forward.

So my question is this: does any material from 4th Edition or earlier attest that Strahd is indeed the very first vampire, or is 5th Edition, once again, retconning older material?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't want to make an answer since I'm working from memory, but I recall some of the novels indicating that he was not the multiverse's first vampire. I believe Vampire of the Mists expressly stated that Jander Sunstar was significantly older than Strahd, and doesn't even suggest Jander was the first. Strahd being Barovia's first vampire is consistent with everything I remember from Vampire of the Mists. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 15, 2022 at 22:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ The 5e MM also claims him as the first vampire, p. 296, inset Strahd von Zarovich: "But he did not die. He became a vampire-the first vampire, according to many sages." \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2022 at 5:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I need to look up the source, but would a cited answer of “they actually named someone else,” be a useful answer here? Obviously, naming someone else doesn’t conclusively prove they didn't also name Strahd (we know at least one source did, per Dan’s answer), but it seems highly relevant. Particularly considering the limitations of the mention that Dan found. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jul 16, 2022 at 16:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Yes, that would be very valuable. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2022 at 16:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think something else to bear in mind is this: anything presented in the core rulebooks is going to be making an assumption that you're playing in the Forgotten Realms. Admittedly there's now a wider multiverse model that - as Thomas says - seems to be retconning things so WoTC can tie things together more easily, but I wouldn't be surprised if (for example, and made-up examples) "the first Vampire in Greyhawk", "the first Vampire in Faerun", and "the first Vampire in Eberron" were completely different people, assuming the "first Vampire in the multiverse" claim is a more recent thing \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2022 at 16:38

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In (AD&D 1e) module I6 Ravenloft (published in 1983), the introduction of Strahd and the Barovia setting, Strahd is described in his stat block, as

Count Strahd Von Zarovich (The First Vampyr)

This detail is missing from the 2nd Edition updates to his stat block.

Despite this, the 3rd Edition Expedition to Castle Ravenloft adds

Strahd calls himself the “first vampire,” but the claim seems unlikely.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "First" meaning foremost or progenitor? \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Jul 15, 2022 at 21:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @fectin Attempting to assign anything like "canon' to AD&D is a substantial mistake. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 15, 2022 at 21:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @fectin like Korvin says, it's impossible to be absolutely sure, but "foremost" is a less common use of "first", would be my instinct. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 15, 2022 at 21:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ As I recall, the Hickmans were put off by an adventure where a vampire was just another monster to randomly kill in the dungeon. They felt this did not do the dramatic nature of the vampire justice. I6 is the origin of Strahd, so there can be no earlier source stating anything about him. Clearly, in spite of what he may claim in the adventure, there were other vampires in D&D earlier on. Vampire is a monster in the OD&D roster, Palace of the Vampire Queen, the first module (1976) teemed with them. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2022 at 5:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ It is really important to be very clear that the original adventure was not set in any other D&D campaign setting. Barovia was off in its own little world, which the adventure basically forbade you from exploring via the mists. That statement therefore applies, at best, to the unnamed setting in which the original Barovia was found, and not to broader D&D. (And +1 to @KorvinStarmast’s comment about this adventure effectively predating the very concept of a D&D canon.) \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jul 16, 2022 at 15:49
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Each of the oldest and latest Ravenloft publications name Strahd...

As Dan O’Shea’s fine answer details, the original 1983 adventure Ravenloft gives Strahd the epithet “The First Vampyr” in his statblock. The only other pre-5e mention of this claim, however, is the table of contents from the same Ravenloft adventure, which, as Daniel R. Collins’s answer shows, isn’t actually used on the corresponding page in the text—suggesting that at some point, the title of the section was updated and the table of contents wasn’t. It’s not clear how strongly Ravenloft was ever asserting that Strahd actually was the first vampire—none of the actual text discussing Strahd makes that claim, just the epithet.

As noted in the question, the 5e Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft then repeats this claim, and in fact doubles down on it, asserting it is more than an epithet but a fact, and that it applies to the entire multiverse.

...but everything in between names Kanchelsis

In between Ravenloft and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, Ravenloft publications have avoided, or even outright rejected, this claim, as we can see in Kirt’s answer with I, Strahd—The Memoirs of a Vampire and Dan O’Shea’s answer with Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. So literally the very first Ravenloft publication, and the very latest Ravenloft publication, are the only ones to claim Strahd is the first vampire. That’s nearly forty years of not making that claim.

And in between, we have a different character that is claimed to be the first vampire.

Monster Mythology (AD&D, 1992) describes Kanchelsis, vampire god of blood, and says

His origins in myth are shrouded in secrecy, but the avatar often takes half-elven form and travels with an elven or half-elven vampiric companion, so the dreadful secret of the Seldarine may indeed be a truth.

(Monster Mythology, pg. 112)

The “dreadful secret of the Seldarine” mentioned here is not described in greater detail in this entry, nor is it described elsewhere in Monster Mythology (that I can tell; can’t Ctrl+F a book from 1992). But it seems clear that the reader was expected to be familiar with the story, and we can find more information about it from other sources:

The “Class Acts: Cleric—Forgotten Faiths” article in Dragon vol. 359 gives Kanchelsis stats for the “v.3.5 revised edition” of D&D (in its very last 3.5e issue), and goes into more detail about the “dreadful secret of the Seldarine.” Note that Dragon magazine was, at the time, published by Paizo under license from Wizards of the Coast—in this case, we reference it primarily because the author here knows what Monster Mythology was referring to, rather than as a primary source.

In the earliest days of creation, blood served as the paint with which the freshly inspired deities poured out their creative works. […] On one world, though, the works of the elven pantheon, the Seldarine, and a nameless creator of humans intruded upon one another. This accidental mixture of birthed a being possessed of the beauty and longevity of the elves, but with the hu[n]ger and ambition of humanity. More and less than both races, the thing became known as Kanchelsis, the first vampire, the darkest secret of the Seldarine.

(Dragon vol. 359, pg. 121)

Kanchelsis is extremely obscure, while Strahd is one of the most famous characters in D&D—one can see why Wizards of the Coast might prefer that a major title like this goes to the bigger character. But Dragon vol. 359 itself even mentions Strahd’s claim—another article in the same issue, listing the most famous villains in D&D, refers to him as “the so-called first vampire.”

Strahd as first vampire in the multiverse basically makes no sense

Strahd may well have been the first vampire in Barovia, or perhaps even in the unnamed world in which Barovia was situated. He may well have been sire to all of the other vampires in the country, which gives him some local claim to the title of “first.” But the original Ravenloft adventure wasn’t set in Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms (which existed only in Ed Greenwood’s personal notes at the time) or the wider D&D multiverse (which Gygax had only begun to sketch out). It was stand-alone, which meant it could say whatever it wanted without concern for “D&D canon”—which, to a great extent, also didn’t exist at the time.

Strahd is also, arguably, the first vampire in the Demiplane of Dread—because he was arguably the first anything in the Demiplane of Dread. Barovia was the first Domain and Strahd was its first Darklord. The Dark Powers seem to have created the demiplane around him, or at least its initial creation was for him. The whole of Barovia was transported by the Mists from the Material Plane to the Demiplane of Dread, but even if any vampires in Barovia at the time would have simultaneous claim to being “first,” it seems pretty clear that Strahd’s claim is best and strongest—especially since, as we just discussed, he probably sired the others.

But in the wider multiverse, Strahd is a very, very unlikely figure to be the first vampire. Strahd isn’t from the mists before time or anything like that; he’s ancient, in the way vampires are ancient, but he isn’t ancient like the planes themselves are ancient. Kanchelsis, on the other hand, would be, dating back to the earliest days of mortal life being created by the gods. Considering how common vampires are throughout the planes—and considering the existence of blood fiends, who are literally “mortal fear of vampires”-incarnate—that’s the kind of age we should be looking at for vampirism’s origins. Moreover, for Strahd’s entire tenure as a vampire, Barovia has been nearly impossible to leave, so it’s just not possible that he is the ultimate source of vampirism. It’s just barely possible that Strahd could have been first, but then an independent strain of vampirism developed outside Barovia, unrelated to Strahd, but that is extremely implausible. Hence the 3e Expedition to Castle Ravenloft’s observation that “the claim seems unlikely.”

Beware the lore claims made in Van Richten’s. It does not treat existing D&D canon with care, and makes numerous claims that are outright nonsense, even with the extremely limited subset of D&D lore that has been published for 5e specifically. I would put this in that category, since it’s literally impossible for all vampires to trace their lineage back to Strahd (Barovian vampirism has never had an opportunity to spread to any other place or plane), and it’s nearly as impossible to imagine that there were no other vampires before Strahd.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I upvoted this because as always can be expected from your posts, it crams an awsome amount of interesting and useful knowledge. I think however, we are getting away a bit from Thomas' original question: he is not asking if Strahd was indeed the first Vampire, only, if there are earlier claims than 5e that he was the first vampire (whether those are true, or not). \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2022 at 19:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin I specifically asked Thomas if this would be a useful approach to answering his question, and he answered enthusiastically in the affirmative. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jul 16, 2022 at 19:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin A claim that someone else was the first Vampire is also in some sense making a claim about Strahd not being the first vampire, isn’t it? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2022 at 20:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov Yes, absolutely, that's a good way to think about it. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2022 at 20:16
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I, Strahd - The Memoirs of a Vampire

This 1993 novelization of Strahd's story is not clearly canon nor clearly set in a specific edition of the game.

Wikipedia Link here. Video Review here.

However, the book was explicitly cited as inspiration for the 5e Curse of Strahd and many of the characters and settings it introduced are used in that adventure. It begins with a prologue explaining that Rudolph van Richten found Strahd's diary (which is the book itself) which Strahd set down to correct all the misunderstandings about him. Whether he is just another unreliable narrator or whether this was TSR establishing new canon and retconning old lore is not clear.

Regardless, it is clear that the position of the book is that Strahd is a vampire, not the vampire and certainly not the first vampire. This is obvious from the title itself, but also:

Page 5:

Strahd the Ancient, Strahd who was the Land, Strahd the great and aweful Lord of Barovia - genius, necromancer, ruthless killer - was now at his most vulnerable.
Strahd von Zarovich, the vampire, was in hibernation.
Van Richten, who knew as much about the undead as any living man, was reasonably certain that...

Page 197:

However, giving them the truth was an equally unwise move. I had no wish for anyone to return and plague me with hammer, stake, and holy symbols under the mistaken impression that they were doing me a favor.

These passages and others confirm that while most people do not know Strahd's true nature and consider him 'a devil', those who do know that he is a vampire connect him, his powers, abilities, and weaknesses, to what they already know of other, pre-existing vampires.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ But at this point, how long had Strahd lived? Even if Strahd was the first vampire, later down the line, after vampires and the knowledge of them has spread, then people would still be able to connect him to those vampires without them needing to have preceded him. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 17, 2022 at 15:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BobbitTheDog The first quote is likely after he is Ancient, hundreds of years old - but the second is taken from only a few years after he became a vampire - he still has prisoners living in his cells that were taken during his transformation. At least the second quote would definitely come from a time when people did not know what he was, but if they did, they would immediately connect it to pre-existing vampire lore. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jul 17, 2022 at 20:16
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Dan O'Shea points to AD&D Module I6, Ravenloft (1980), the first appearance of Strahd, and the title of the stat block where it says "The First Vampyr" (on p. 3).

There's also a bit more in the same adventure module: Looking at the Table of Contents (on p. 1), the very last entry shows this:

The Tome of Strahd/ How Strahd became the first Vampyr... 31

Now, turning to p. 31, there is indeed a section labeled the "Tome of Strahd", featuring a 14-paragraph memoir written by Strahd, that the PCs might find and partially decipher. But this page does not have the "How Strahd became the first Vampyr" subtitle anywhere, and Strahd does not explicitly make that claim in his in-character writing. It does include this:

... I did not die. Nor did I live. I became undead, forever. I have studied much since then. "Vampyr" is my new name...

This latter line is a bit tough to decode. It seems to say that studying revealed Strahd's new nature and name of the undead type. But that seems contradictory with the idea of him being the first. Perhaps he chose the name of the type himself? Were his studies around some prophet or Nostradamus-type predicting his appearance at a future time?

It's easy to see why the 3E text wrapped this in a skeptical interpretation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the additional detail from I6. In retrospect, Strahd has created a number of other vampires (his brides) and Barovia is cut off by the Mists even before Ravenloft was a setting. Perhaps what he means / the module means is that he was the first vampire in Barovia and is the 'parent' (or grandparent etc) to all of the vampires currently there. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jul 16, 2022 at 17:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good find! It was quite late when I skim-read the thing, so I missed that bit on the contents page. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2022 at 19:12

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