Category Archives: Curse of Strahd

Reflections on Curse of Strahd Part 2

Themes and Concepts

I had an incredibly good time running this adventure.  The limited sandbox structure gave the party a good deal of freedom without having to deal with a huge open world where your players might potentially go way outside the lines with little to no warning.  The book itself gives some really good advice about running a horror adventure which I will expand on slightly here.  I went into the campaign with the following ideas:

  • Keep things moving.  In order to maintain a level of suspense, it should feel like there’s always something urgent that needs to be done.  (or in some cases avoided)  Down time should be sparse.
  • Force the players to make hard choices.  You can only focus on doing one thing at a time.  Even if you make a “right” choice it’s going to mean that you’ve opted to neglect some other plot element that may develop negatively as a result.  True horror isn’t just about what the characters have happen to them.  It’s about the terrible things that they convince themselves to do.
  • There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity in Barovia.  The characters may need to ally themselves with people that they might not otherwise trust.  Even many of the “good guys” have significant character flaws which should be emphasized.
  • Make the NPC’s active participants in the world.  They shouldn’t be sitting around waiting for the player characters to come interact with them.  They all have their own goals and motivations so they should be acting on their own when they are “off stage” and spurring the party on where needed.
  • Strahd should feel omnipresent.  This isn’t some dragon sitting in a cave at the end of the adventure that you only know by reputation right up until the final session of the campaign.  He is the land.  He has ways of finding out what the group is up to.  They should interact with him on several occasions prior to the culmination of the adventure.
  • Try to divide the party.  Give them reasons to be suspicious of each other.  Have the bad guys play them against each other.  Try to create situations where Strahd or other enemies get to speak with part of the group alone.  Offer some of them gifts while tormenting the others.

Other Advice

  • Start your party at 3rd level.  They’re going to need the help and it won’t detract much from the sense of danger.
  • Make it clear to your players that not everything in this campaign is designed to be “fair” with regards to game balance.  There are things in here that will completely destroy if you if you approach them cavalierly and that’s how it *should* be for this style of gothic horror adventure.
  • Use Strahd early and often.  Remember that he doesn’t particularly want to kill the party, at least not at first.  He’s sadistic and bored.  He wants to toy with them.  He wants to torment them.  He wants to see if he can get any of them to give into their baser instincts and become just as evil and corrupt as he is.  This will evolve over time, but his plans should always be more complex than “OMG I’m gonna kill those guys!
  • Use the hags to their full potential including all of their coven spells and their ability to go ethereal and escape if they get into trouble.
  • Try to get the party into the castle by the middle of the adventure.  Let them get in way over their heads and barely escape.  It’ll set the stage for their eventual return at higher level when they are better prepared.
  • Telegraph the fact that the Amber Temple is a BAD PLACE.  Nobody should be surprised when it turns out to be extraordinarily dangerous and that the vestiges are beings of utter and complete evil.  If characters want to accept the dark gifts, they should do so with the understanding that they are risking serious consequences.


This was probably the best published adventure that I’ve ever run.  It took about a year to run it to completion and I relished every session.  I feel like I grew a lot as a DM during the course of this adventure and I hope to carry over that growth into Tomb of Annihilation.

Reflections on Curse of Strahd Part 1

I’ve just recently finished running Curse of Strahd, a module where I’m credited as a playtester even though my involvement was *extremely* minimal.  It took my bi-weekly group a total of 20 sessions and about a year of real world time to complete this campaign.  In hindsight I wish that I had blogged more about this as I was running it, but I will do my best to summarize the highlights here.  I’ll try to avoid making this an exhaustive retelling of the tale because I don’t think anyone wants to wade through a campaign summary spanning thousands upon thousands of words.

The Party
Canis Lupus – The wolf-obsessed druid who interacted better with beasts than with other humanoids at times.
Daveak – The hurdy-gurdy playing bard who was consistently “that guy.”  The guy that constantly gets everyone into trouble yet who never seems to suffer the consequences of his own actions.w
Edred – The cleric of  Selune who wanted to do the right thing but insisted on keeping his own secrets.
Imnek – The urban barbarian who stuck by his pal Daveak through thick and thin no matter what horrible choices Daveak made.
Yaro – The rogue swashbuckler with a great love of wine, women, and eventually power.
Wilril – The fighter who came to Barovia seeking his hero Van Richten only to find that maybe it’s best not to meet your idols.

The Story
I drew my party into Barova with an investigation into strange happenings in the woods near Daggerford. (werewolves, mists, disappearances) A nighttime werewolf attack drew them into the forest hastily and from there the mists had them.  When werewolves ambushed them, Edred was bit and Daveak fled screaming into the night, leading the players further and further into the mists.  This led them to the Death House where they very nearly met their demise.  As they stumbled out into the streets bloody and exhausted there was a kindly old woman there to offer them some pastries that would give them a much needed night’s rest.  Several of the decided to indulge in the dream pastries before later discovering their secret ingredient.

The following days were spent in the exploration of the village of Barovia and the surrounding area.  They were horrified by the presence of Doru in the church basement, but left the situation unresolved.  One other player had to drop from the campaign at this time for scheduling reasons, so his dream pastry addicted paladin was left behind in the care of the village priest.  He’ll pop up again much later.  They had their fortunes read by Madame Eva and eventually made their way to the Old Bonegrinder.  They quickly sussed out that the hags were up to no good and quickly started a fight that they were unable to finish.  They were forced to make a blood pact with the hags and flee without having killed a single hag.  This proved to be an ongoing problem.  The hags continued to torment them in their dreams for much of the campaign, sapping hit points with every visit.  The dreams were designed to cultivate suspicion and dissent between party members, which slowly took its toll on group morale.  Around this time Edred began his involuntary transformations into a werewolf whenever he entered a stressful situation.

Vallaki seemed like a glimmering beacon of hope at first, but it quickly became apparent that there were issues here as well.  They happily turned Ireena over to the Burgomaster’s care then quickly regretted it after seeing what else was happening in town. They dealt with the bones of St. Andral and the vampires in the coffin makers shop only to have things come to a head during the Feast of the Blazing Sun.  Yaro went off on his own during the festival to try and rescue Ireena.   Meanwhile, Daveak instigated trouble with the Baron after the “blazing sun” failed to blaze.  This led to the Baron and Izek returning to the Baron’s manor just as Viktor killed Ireena and knocked Yaro unconcious with a well-timed cone of cold.  Yaro was captured and charged with the murder of Ireena to cover for Viktor’s crime.

The rest of the party, not knowing Yaro’s plan, took this opportunity to take their leave of Vallaki to do some exploration of Argynvostholt (where they were promptly beaten up and expelled) and Van Richten’s tower.  They met Ezmerelda in the process and received a message via wereraven to let them know that their friend back in Vallaki was in trouble.  Thus began the “Festival of Infinite Justice.”  The scene consisted of Yaro, beaten and drugged, placed inside a wicker ball repurposed from the Festival of the Blazing Sun.  A brief trial was held, Yaro was sentenced to die, and a rescue attempt commenced and eventually succeeded with Ezmerelda’s help.  The Baron and Izek were slain and Yaro was freed, but Ireena remained quite dead.  Edred, upon reaching level 5, managed to remove his curse of lycanthropy.

After recovering from this experience the party set up to find the Abbot in Krezk with the hopes of having Ireena raised.  They were turned away at the gate which led to a foray to the Wizards of Wine and then Yester Hill.  After clearing the winery of intruders, disrupting the druid ritual at Yester Hill, and surviving their first direct meeting with Strahd, the party finally returned to Krezk only to discover that Ireena’s body had been stolen by Strahd.  After meeting briefly with the Abbot they managed to instigate fights with two different sets of mongrelmen which infuriated the Abbot to the point where he took his true form and smote Daveak into unconsciousness.  Further help from the Abbot was not forthcoming.

This led to the party’s first foray into Castle Ravenloft, whereupon Yaro and Wilril triggered the elevator trap and the divided party did their best to both find Ireena and each other in an episode taken straight out of Scooby Doo.  The werewolf Emil was freed in the process.  Ireena was eventually recovered and the party reunited just in time to use the magical brazier to teleport out to Tsolenka Pass.

From there they split up with Yaro and Canis making their way to the Abbey to please with the Abbot for mercy and the rest of the group following Emil back to the werewolf den to help him reassert control over his clan.  This was done successfully and the party reunited at Krezk.  Ireena was raised in exchange for a favor to be done for the Abbot to be named later.  When the party took Ireena to reunite with her brother at the shrine of Krezk where he had been sitting and praying, the spirit of Sergei appeared.  Sadly, the party did not trust this apparition and pulled Ireena away from her eternal love.  However, some of her memories of her previous lives returned to her in that instant and she was distraught as a result.  She proclaimed her hatred for the party for doing this to her and her and Ismark parted ways with the group.

With no obvious next step in mind, the group decided that it was time to return to the Old Bonegrinder and settle a score with the hags.  Along the way the party learned that the Vistani girl Arrabelle was missing.  They successfully rescued her but Bluto was killed in the process, so they quietly left town and continued on their way.  Upon arrriving at the Bonegrinder  the hags were expecting company.  One of the hags was killed (breaking the coven) but the other two escaped into the ether to plot their revenge.

The party returned to Vallaki to plot their next move.  They were disturbed to learn that Bluto had been a much loved member of the community.  The Vallakians were furious about his death.  Daveak, with an offhand comment, implied that the Vistani may be to blame for Bluto’s death.  The Vallakians (with some prodding from Rictavio) formed a mob to storm the Vistani camp and drive them away from Vallaki once and for all.

The party snuck away from this genocide in process and continued on their way.  They received a message from the Abbott calling in his favor and insisting that they restore the light of goodness to Argynvostholt.  They spent a few hours exploring the mansion, more carefully this time, and learned that it would be necessary to retrieve the skull of Argynvost from the Castle.  This was an unfortunate development because they had walked right past it during their previous foray into Castle Ravenloft.

They also found Savid the Vistani in the haunted mansion and agreed to escort him back to Vallaki.  The Vistani camp was a smoking ruin when they arrived.  Arrigal emerged from the shadows and nearly assassinated Daveak for his role in the genocide before Daveak’s companions could put the Vistani leader down.  Arrigal cursed Daveak with blindness with his final breath.  They also met the dusk elf Kasimir who agreed to escort them to the Amber Temple and told them the woeful tale of him, his sister, and the dusk elves.  Daveak, blind and helpless, was abandoned in Van Richten’s tower “for his own safety.”

The Amber Temple nearly proved to be the death of the party.  They were at death’s door on several occasions and were unable to identify a strategy for dealing with the temple’s main guardian, the arcanaloth.  Wilril was killed during one of the first attempts to enter the temple.  They skirted around the main chamber and began consuming dark gifts like they were candy.  Canis took on the apperance of a demon lord with skeletal wings and dark black fur.  Yaro and Canis both failed their saving throws and became corrupted by the evil.  Wilril was restored to life by one of Yaro’s dark gifts.

Meanwhile, Rahadin and Morgantha paid a visit to Daveak.  They offered to restore his site and take him to his friends in exchange for a favor to be named later.  Daveak gladly made this deal and him and Rahadin went galloping towards the Amber Temple.  They snuck past the rest of the group as they explored and Rahadin accepted the dark gift of the Vampyre.  He emerged from the crypt to come face  to face with the party and Kasimir, his mortal enemy.  This was not an accident and the party helped Rahadin to fulfill his dark gift by striking down his mortal form.  Yaro, unbeknownst to the rest of the group, also accepted the dark gift of the Vampyre at this time. (but needed to either kill or die to activate it)  Imnek was also slain in this battle and restored to life.

Upon exiting the Amber Temple, the beaten and battered party was met by a wereraven messenger informing them that Strahd was to be wed to Ireena in a day’s time.  After recovering their wounds, the group hustled back to Vallaki to find that this was in fact true and that they had barely arrived in time for the public ceremony.  Ireena and her brother stood with the priest in the center of the town square while Strahd and his entourage proceeded in from the east.  The characters quickly tried to gather information and come up with a plan.  Yaro, in a fit of murderous rage, attempted to rush the stage and slay Ireena where she stood but he was thwarted by Ezmerelda.  as the ceremony proceeded, the true Ireena revealed herself with the sunsword in hand and attacked Strahd.  (it was later revealed that the false “Ireena” was Vasilka disguised using Van Richten’s hat of disguise)

Yaro made his way close enough to wound Ireena and disrupt the ambush long enough for Strahd to escape to his nightmare mount Bucephalus.  Yaro pursued the vampire into a fog cloud, was struck down, and carried away into the night sky.  The rest of the party was assaulted by zombies, Rahadin, vampire spawn, and two hags that had done well at blending into the crowd of wedding guests.  Finally, the ground rumbled and Baba Lysaga entered the fray with her hut in tow.  The Abbott observed serenely from a balcony until he was provoked by a lightning attack by Daveak, adding yet another enemy to the battle.  The day was eventually won, but the hags, Rahadin, and Strahd had all escaped.  The plot hatched by Ireena, Ismark, Van Richten, and Ezmerelda had been foiled.  The Wachter family, recently asceneded to the rule of Vallaki, was also killed in the combat.

It was clear to everyone now that things must come to an end soon, for good or ill.  Ismark and Ireena, refusing to trust the player characters, chose to stay behind in Vallaki and see to its defenses.  Ezmerelda and Van Richten agreed to accompany the group but to go their own separate way upon entering the castle.

The rest of the party wasn’t aware at this time that Yaro had been killed by Strahd in the wedding melee and returned to life as a vampire.  Strahd, assuming that Yaro was a thrall under his control, placed him in the dungeon as bait for the rest of his friends.  He also destroyed the servant’s entrance to the castle, forcing the intruders to enter through the gauntlet that is the main entrance (dragon and gargoyle defenders) or another similarly guarded point of access.  They chose to go through the front, suffering the flames and running immediately down to the lower levels.  There they found their captive friend but were immediately attacks by ghouls lurking in the water and Strahd lurking behind them.

This was only a hit and run attack intended to bleed the party of resources and attempt to misdirect them through the rest of the castle.  They proceeded then to the catacombs, opening many of the tombs along the way. They discovered Sergei’s armor to great joy but continued to use spells and hit dice.  While many of the party members rested, Canis became possessed by a ghost and proceeded to climb to the top of the high tower and fling himself from it.  He miraculously survived the fall and Edred was able to restore him to some semblance of life.

It was becoming clear now that they would find no rest inside Strahd’s lair and that escape may be unlikely, so they headed to the Father’s Tomb where Madame Eva had predicted that their final conflict would take place.  And indeed it did.  Strahd kindly offered the party one last opportunity to turn aside from this quest and leave Barovia forever.  The party declined this offer, although some did so for different reasons.

A large battle ensued versus Strahd, his iron golem guarding, spectres conjured from the coffins, and an earth elemental summoned by Canis that had found a new master.  After the party was engaged, Rahadin attacked from the rear.  Edred was picked up by a telekinesis spell and nearly flung out a window to his certain death.  Imnek was held in place by magic and the sun sword taken from his grasp.  It seemed that all would be lost until Ezmerelda and Van Richten appeared at the rear of the room, providing enough reinforcements / distraction for the characters to get back on their feat.  All but Daveak, who suddenly found himself being stabbed in the back by Yaro, the would-be new dark lord of the realm.

At this point in the fight Canis had taken on the form of a massive carnivorous lizard and then fallen for Strahd’s charms.  At the vampires direction, he had eaten the unconscious form of his ally Edred, killing him. Van Richten had also been slain. Edred’s body was expelled when the polymorph spell ended, but he was still quite dead.  Ezmerelda, thinking quickly, retrieved Van Richten’s scroll of reviving the dead and used it upon Edred.  (Van Richten had previously expressed on many occasions that he had lived long enough already.)  Edred conjured guards of Selune who dealt the killing blow to Strahd, who dissolved in the sunlight of the Amulet of Ravenkind.

A standoff then ensued between Canis and Yaro on one side and the remainder of the party on the other.  They had all been battered and bruised by this fight.  Yaro and Canis had both accepted that they were now tied to this land and would never be able to leave.  They demanded that their former companions leave and never return.  After some tense conversation this was agreed upon.

Wilril, Ezmerelda, Daveak, Imnek, and Edred recovered the skull of Argynvost and as their final act in Barovia they returned it to its rightful place, lighting the beacon for all to see.  They walked through the mists and found themselves back in the woods near Daggerford nearly a year after the originally departed.

Canis and Yaro divided the realm between them, with Yaro ruling the castle and Canis ruling the wilds.  The hags continued to look on with great amusement as new adventurers and would be vampire slayers gathered to plot against the land’s dark lords and the cycle continued.