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.
- 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.