When we last saw our brave band of adventurers, they were heading off to Vallaki to find a wedding dress for the Abbot’s “Bride of Strahd”, but as it turned out, they decided to go back to the Wizard of Wines winery to pick up some more wine for the village (to make the townsfolk more helpful). Did they actually make it to Vallaki this session? Not a chance! Instead, they were thrust back into the conflict between the winemakers and the evil druids.
One of the things about Curse of Strahd is that it has a lot of information in it. You are likely to miss things. I’ve been running games for over 30 years, I read books extremely quickly… and I still miss things. This is a normal part of running Dungeons & Dragons. The fact is that most D&D adventures are written with far more information in them than you actually need. However, as the information each person needs is different, a published adventure needs to cover a large array of DM and player types.
The other thing is that just because something is in the adventure doesn’t mean that you have to use it. My adventure has been proceeding extremely well without using everything provided. Sometimes it’s not there because I missed it, but there are also times it’s because I made a conscious decision not to use it. Thus, in this play-through of Curse of Strahd, there has been no mention whatsoever of the stolen gems of the vineyard. (I am using them as a major plot point of the other campaign I’m running, however!)
However, even without the gem quest, the vineyard is still an interesting place. Mainly because, upon arriving there, the players learnt from Davien that his family had still been seeing blights and druids in the area… and they’d been coming from the south.
This led the adventurers to Yester Hill. I love the hill. There’s part of my background that means I find the idea of creepy druids living on hills really, really cool! I’m not so sure that the players feel the same way. They came to the hill, and were soon alerted to the presence of the Blood Spear by the ghost of its one-time possessor. And they took it without a second thought. Potential cursed magic weapon? Did someone say magic?
The hill was eerily deserted – no druids. Just stone cairns and the summit… with its great wicker statue of Strahd. By this time in many other games, Strahd has already made an appearance. Not so here – he’s been conspicuously absent. But only in body; the players have been hearing plenty of stories about him…
The group slowly began to approach the statue, and it was then that the druids began to arise from “graves” dug around the summit. The adventurers were not really prepared for this, and, after slaying a couple and seeing more druids were forcing their way out of the ground, they fled. Back to the winery, where they prepared for an assault by the druids.
It should be noted that the adventure says that the druids all arise at once. We were down in players this session, so that was a certain way of getting a TPK… and, contrary to some reports, I often don’t want to get TPKs. So, instead, I set up the combat in a way that it allowed the players to escape. (The other group I ran it for had all the druids rise at once, but as the graves were a long way apart – perhaps 200 feet from the furthest to the party – they had time to deal with small groups of foes before reinforcements arrived. That was still a tough combat!)
I threw a few incidental blight attacks on the adventurers as they travelled to and from the hill, just to keep the threat everpresent in their mind. And then came the Tree Blight attack…
This is described in the adventure as something that happens if the players leave the winery without dealing with the druids. I actually kept it in about the same timeline as written, but this play found the blight attacking the winery when the adventurers were there. And, in addition, they had been preparing for an assault: digging trenches, making barricades and the like. So, when the massive blight emerged from the forest line, they could see it… half a mile away!
Seeing a monster that far away gives players options. And, in their case, it was to wait until it reached the extent of their long-range attacks, and then let loose with everything they had. It dashed towards them. Occasionally it dodged. And it still went down, thanks to it being caught in the open. The players had gone to the trouble of describing how they were preparing for an assault, and so they benefitted from their actions. That’s the thing about a RPG: you can reward the players for good planning even if it isn’t described in the book!
Following the defeat of the worst the druids could throw at them, the group returned to Yester Hill. There, they found a great black tree, the Gulthias Tree (familiar to all of us players who were around in 2000 when 3E was first released as a major plot-point of The Sunless Citadel). Many blights were defending it, but the group were able to destroy them, and retrieve a magical axe left behind by a noble warrior who had fallen to the druids while attempting to destroy the tree. With the tree finally destroyed, the group headed back to the winery. This time, Davien decided he’d accompany him, as he needed to visit his estranged son in Vallaki. And so the next stage of the adventure got underway with the druids no longer a threat…