Vallaki, the fortified town to which the adventurers took Ireena, is an important place in the progression of running Curse of Strahd. It provides a place where the players can rest between expeditions and also provides a number of NPCs who can guide the players towards quests.
The Blue Water Inn is the hub of this. We tend to think of adventurers being given quests in taverns as a cliché. However, in the fantasy world, if a person wants to hire adventurers for a quest, the tavern is the most likely place to find them; it’s not like travelling adventurers have an office! The advantage of the tavern is that it can be frequented by whoever the DM considers important, and from there they can interact with the players.
I took note of the map of Vallaki as the adventurers entered the town, so that I could describe notable features to the players as they entered and made their way to the inn. From the east gate, this meant there was one item of interest: the carnival wagon of Rictavio. Mel was quite taken by it, but the group resolved to get to the Inn first before investigating further.
At the inn, they met the owner, Urwin Martikov. He’s one of those characters that could be quite important to the campaign – even more so if their Fortune so indicates. His initial interaction directed the players towards the Wizard of Wines Winery, one of the easier quests in the campaign. The players weren’t free to accept yet, but they promised to investigate when they could. They were a little split over whether to leave Ireena here or take her to the Abbey, so they left her at the Inn while they investigate the town a little further.
This brought them to the realisation that Vallaki wasn’t quite… right. Signs in the town square revealed that the town’s burgomaster was holding festivals on a weekly basis and was trying to force the citizens to be happy. (“I’m glad you’re happy.” “I’m happy you’re glad!”) They followed his henchman, who was putting up new posters advertising the newest festival, to the Burgomaster’s home, but chose not to confront him yet. Instead, they decided to get Ireena out of there as quickly as possible, which would be the next day.
That evening, they met Rictavio, bard and carnival master, who was staying at the inn. He’s another character that will grow in importance as the campaign continues, but for now it was just a basic introduction to the NPC. He told stories and interacted with the characters, thus letting them know that he was a character to pay attention to, but I didn’t want to distract the players from their main quest just yet.
The players continued onto Krezk, the location of the Abbey, the next day. And there they were denied admittance. The adventurers asked the obvious question: was there any way they could enter? Well, apparently there was: they’d have to prove themselves worthy. What could they do? Find out what was going on with the Wizard of Wines Winery, because the village needed wine and none had arrived!
And so now the players were directed, very firmly, towards the Wizard of Wines.
Upon arriving at the winery, they discovered the owners, the Martikov family, had been driven out by evil druids. We ended the session on a cliffhanger: as they approached the main building, dozens of blights emerged from the vines around them, closing upon them as they searched for a way in…
The second session revolved entirely about fighting the druids and their blights in the farmhouse.
The tone of this session can change dramatically depending on how the DM approaches it. If you chose, it could be extremely creepy, with blights staying just out of sight… except for glimpses from the corner of the characters’ eyes. The druids’ appearance is unusual enough just to begin with!
It could also be run as a straight-up fight, with the players having to deal with the blights as the druids and their followers each arrive a few rounds, putting the pressure on the party to deal with each group before their growing numbers overwhelm them. I might have used this method if I’d had a higher-level party.
As it was, my group were a selection of 2nd to 4th level characters, which made it quite possible that I could overwhelm them if I wasn’t careful. So, instead I kept the druids fairly static in their original locations, thus giving the players an opportunity to deal with each of them individually – and to heal between combats.
As a DM, part of the role is to adjust things to fit your players’ capabilities when needed. It’s fine to have areas where they’re overwhelmed if they enter them foolishly, but if the players are doing everything right – and especially if they’re performing an important quest – they need to face a realistic level of threat.
So, the players hunted down the druids and slew them, one by one. They discovered one poisoning the wine, and Josh revealed that he’d prepared purify food and drink at the beginning of the campaign, because he felt sure that it’d be useful in this campaign. He was right! So, the wine was saved.
The climax of this section came when the adventurers reached the druid with the Gulthias staff. The actual combat to capture him was pretty amusing (Dean’s monk balancing on the winch to fight him, and an errant thunderwave spell cracking the winch and sending both down below). Once the staff was in the adventurers’ possession, I described how all the blights were being drawn towards them. The group tried to rest in one of the bedrooms, and the blights had climbed up the side of the house and were pressing against the window glass, the sounds of scraping reverberating… and then a crack! as the glass shattered…
They broke the staff, and the blights withered away.
The one druid that hadn’t been found tried to flee, only to be pecked to death by ravens.
The session ended with the Martikovs returning to the winery and congratulating the adventurers. The Martikovs agreed to deliver wine to Krezk and Vallaki, and requested the adventurers accompany them on the journey. Something will probably happen on the trip…
And thus ended the Wizard of the Wines quest, and the latest session of Curse of Strahd. We’re running this in 2-hour instalments as part of our regular Saturday play at Guf Ballarat. For those wondering about what happened with Ireena in the Winery, the PCs left her in the care of the Martikovs as they investigated. She’s back with them now, and we’ll see what everyone does once they get to Krezk. Places of safety in Barovia tend to be not as safe as you hope!