After the TPK (Total Party Kill) in Death House, we started playing the full Curse of Strahd adventure. And, of course, things promptly got interesting.
Curse in Strahd is an adventure where the players need to deal with a great threat – the vampire Strahd, ruler of Barovia – without initially having the tools to do so. There are a lot of people who think that it’s an adventure about trying to escape from Barovia. This isn’t really true. Yes, you could run it that way, but it is entirely possible to run it without the players ever realising they can’t leave. The Castle Ravenloft adventure was originally written for heroes: like most of Tracy and Laura Hickman’s work, it has a strong moral centre. When you have the players trying to be heroes against impossible odds, I think the adventure is at its best. And that’s the way I want to run it.
The introduction to the adventure was going to be key. I used the original Ravenloft introduction: the players receive a letter purportedly from the Burgomaster of Barovia, begging them to help. This is a strong start: it sets the characters up as heroes from the very start. Yes, it’s possible some players may have more mercenary tendencies – “It’s a paying job!” – but I prefer to have the characters being heroic.
The development of the introduction found the players finding themselves in an unsettling land. Old forests. Mist everywhere. Large gates opening without anyone nearby. And wolves howling.
This is all to get players into the right mood. And then came the discovery of the second messenger. The real one. The one who has the letter from the Burgomaster imploring all to abandon them. This encounter is optional by the adventure text; it’s a reward for investing in Perception. I was extremely pleased they found it: it immediately sets up a mystery. Which letter is real? Who sent the false one? What’s going on here?
The adventurers pressed on. They reached the village Barovia. The sound of sobbing led them to a poor woman, worried about her daughter. How could they help her? They couldn’t. There were no clues. All they could do was comfort her and promise to search for the missing child.
And so, into the one other building that was open: the village inn.
Here, they met the son of the Burgomaster. Now was the time to reveal the plot. He took them to his house, and revealed that his father had died. He revealed that his sister, Ireena, needed to be escorted away from the grasp of “the Master”. And he revealed that the Master, Count Strahd von Zarovich, was a vampire.
Right. We had the big threat of the adventure revealed – the cause of all ills the party would face. We had the “damsel in distress”, although my Ireena is going to be a really cool ally of the party who has some amazing sword-play skills. (She just can’t stand up to Strahd. Let’s face it – at present, no-one can!) And we had an immediate goal: get Ireena away from danger.
Having that initial goal is really, really important. It gives the players direction. In such a sandbox adventure, it’s very easy to get lost. You want to allow the players to go where they want, but you don’t want them to be wandering aimlessly. Give them things to do. And a simple road-trip, which also introduces them to the land, is a great way of doing this.
The last thing we did in the first session was meet the village priest, who needed to bury the Burgomaster. And we discovered his horrible story as well. It’s another quest, if the players wish to undertake it at some point.
The second session involved the travel from Barovia to Valliki (or the Abbey), where Ireena would be safe – she hoped! I made the decision to have her brother stay in Barovia. This is partly to keep the number of NPCs with the party under control, as I have great difficulty in properly role-playing large numbers of them. Or, indeed, two! And also because with his father dead, he needs to do what he can to protect everyone else in the village.
We had two “random” encounters on the first day of the journey, and neither of them was random. I selected them. I love random encounter tables. Really, really love them… but as a source of inspiration, not as a “you must use anything you roll” straightjacket. A lot of the time, the encounters don’t make sense for the situation. So, I rolled once or twice, saw that the results weren’t going to work for this part of the adventure, then said “the hell with it” and sent ten wolves against the party.
Note to self: ten wolves are really tough, especially against a party which is mostly level 1 characters! Don’t do that again!
No, it wasn’t a TPK. It did see a few characters unconscious, though. Wolves are very dangerous to send against a party because characters typically can’t outrun them. You need to be careful about that. If the party do run, let them throw rations to distract the wolves or something like that – otherwise situations could turn out ugly.
The importance of this encounter was showing that Strahd was aware of their flight and was sending his minions to harass them. (It also gave them valuable XP).
The second encounter was with a mud-covered man in the forest, only slightly glimpsed. Who was he? That’s an answer for another day. Enemy or ally? Could be either. This encounter helped build up the mystery of the land. (It also tested the party’s intelligence. More on this below.)
One of the important encounters of the adventure will be with the fortune-tellers, who will tell the party what they need to do to complete the adventure successfully (i.e. defeat Strahd). It could quite easily have happened here on the journey. I considered it, but delayed it because I wanted to have an actual Tarokka deck first – it was on the way, but hadn’t arrived yet (it has now!) So, I delayed the encounter until later.
As the party came in sight of Valliki, they also passed near an old windmill. Under some circumstances they might have bypassed it, but in this case they decided to investigate. Why? Well, one played had played Death House and survived (by virtue of missing the final session!) And he had the deeds to the windmill. So, he wanted to investigate it, and the rest of the party agreed – it was getting late, and they might be able to rest there.
Here they came up against some of the most dangerous foes in Curse of Strahd: a trio of witches who were grinding the bones of people to make bread. Here’s the thing: they’re not hostile unless provoked. They see themselves as providing a service to the good folks of Barovia. And they are. It’s just not something most people would be comfortable with. It’s meant to make the players uneasy. And it did.
You’re probably going to see a lot of me talking about PC “Intelligence Tests” over this series. What I mean by the term is this: Not everything in the adventure can be defeated, certainly not by beginning characters. To play Curse of Strahd well, the players need to be aware of this. They need to spend time judging the foe. They need to work out if the NPC immediately wants to kill them. It’s a very bad idea in Curse of Strahd to make enemies before you have to. So, any time the party come up against something more powerful than them, it’s an intelligence test. Are they smart enough to realise that being nice and returning only when they’re powerful enough to fight the foe is the proper plan? Or are they going to attack everything and just die?
In this case, the paladin of the group attacked the witches. And he died. (In a single critical hit – he went from full damage to outright dead). Everyone else fled, with some of the players taking special care to see that Ireena was safe. The witches continued to laugh at the party as they fled, but did not pursue. And so ended our second session.
It should be noted that the paladin was played by a pretty good player who knew he was only going to be around for this one session, so it was him helping give an object lesson for the other players. It was, however, a good object lesson. The party has another goal – avenge their friend – but again, they’ll have to wait to gain that vengeance.
That basically covers the first three hours of play of Curse of Strahd. We’re still in the introductory part of the adventure. The players are on their initial quest, but they don’t know exactly what to do yet. As the campaign goes on, I’ll explain my decisions for why I run certain encounters the way I do, and why I include them in the first place. I hope you find the reports useful!