Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Curse of Strahd - Session 1

This is a journal of my new D&D campaign, where I lead 4 players through the Curse of Strahd adventure. Curse of Strahd is the latest version of the Ravenloft adventure, the first of which was in 1983 for first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I have played this adventure as a DM in every edition, even in 4th edition, where I made the 4E version myself, there being no official one. Let's say I know Castle Ravenloft and Count Strahd von Zarovich well. However, the Ravenloft adventure module is 32 pages and covers just the castle, while Curse of Strahd is a 256 pages campaign, with a lot of other locations in the lands of Barovia.

Our adventure starts not in Barovia, but in the Forgotten Realms, in the Green Fog Inn in the village of Sarton, located at the edge of a large swamp. Currently in the inn is the lord of the village, Gustav von Zarovich, visiting his domain to look after his taxes. He is currently a level 1 paladin, but will become an oathbreaker paladin / hexblade over the course of the adventure, with an evil alignment. As he isn't the only evil guy in the group, I started the campaign with a simple house rule: Don't be evil to each other. Gustav is a descendent of King Barov. He owns a book of history of the von Zarovich family, and thus knows that after King Barov's death 4 centuries ago, his son went conquering far away lands, and only moved his core family with him. The rest of the von Zarovich family was left behind, rich, but with no army, only minor titles, and no major power.

Also in the inn is Aëlis Martikov, a dark haired human woman. She is in fact a were-raven, and was born in Barovia. Vistani travelers took her away from Barovia, but never told her why. So one day she ran away from them, and joined a temple of Shar as an acolyte. She is now a twilight domain cleric, also neutral evil. Aëlis has a nomadic life, because sometimes people catch her transforming into raven or hybrid form and chase her away. After such an encounter a week ago in a neighboring village, Aëlis is currently hunkering down in Sarton, earning a bit of coin by reading fortunes.

The only local in the inn is Bilros Wenkins, a gnome artificer with dreams of becoming a battle smith. He is chaotic good, and will be the only one in the group with a good alignment. In his youth, 10 years ago, Bilros still had a gnome friend and cousin of his age, but he disappeared 10 years ago without a trace.

The adventure begins with that cousin, Warryn Glittergem, stumbling into the village, quickly causing all the villagers to assemble. Warryn tells them that he has in fact been kidnapped by an evil witch in the swamp 10 years ago, kept in a cage at night and made to do chores during the day. However, he also had access to the witches books, so he is now a wizard of the school of necromancy, chaotic neutral. His appearance causes quite a commotion and discussion, with some villagers wanting to go on a witch hunt, while others are mistrustful whether Warryn is really who he says, or some sort of evil spirit or shapechanger. Now Gustav von Zarovich has a reputation as a witch hunter (he burned a crazy cat lady some other village was suspicious off, to get himself celebrated as a hero). So the village elder implores his lord to gather some volunteers and find out what really happens, burning the witch if necessary. Although Warryn is quite afraid of the witch that treated him badly for so long, he is roped in as a guide.

So Gustav, Aëlis, Bilros, and Warryn set out into the swamp to look for the witch. But first they come across a giant frog, and while they try to sneak past they realize that the frog is part of an ambush by bullywugs. First combat! Man, combat at level 1 in D&D sucks! The players keep rolling low, lots of natural 1s, and get hit a lot. Fortunately Aëlis heals them back up, and at some point their luck turns. Finally they kill all the bullywugs and the giant frog, without the frog managing to swallow one of the gnomes. In this campaign I am using a milestone combat, and the milestones of forming the group and surviving the first battle allows the group to level up to level 2.

Rested up and leveled up, the group reaches the island in the middle of the swamp on which the hut of the witch stands. The witch is an ugly, old woman, who pretends that Warryn is her child, and just a bit soft in the head. The group doesn't hesitate, and attacks. At level 2, D&D combat is still rather swingy, but this time the luck is with the group. Warryn uses his familiar, Oswald the owl, to deliver an inflict wounds spell, and rolls high. The witch transforms into a swamp hag (technically a sea hag), trying to scare the group with her horrific appearance. Only Bilros is scared. The hag uses her death glare on him, and Bilros drops dead from a heart attack, but is saved by a healing spell from Aëlis. Other than Bilros' bad luck of failing two DC 11 wisdom saving throws, the combat goes smoothly and the witch dies quickly. However, with her dying words, she curses the group: “I curse you: May the fog devour you!”. And as she says that, a fog comes rolling in. As it is already evening, the group spends the night in the witch's hut, where Bilros finds a book that basically allows him to build a magic light crossbow +1 which is self-loading.

The next morning the group awakes in a very different location. Instead of a warm and humid swamp, they are now in a cold and dry pine forest. There is a road from east to west, but the east is blocked by a thick fog, which they decide not even to explore. Moving west they come across a large gate, with gigantic stone statues of warriors, who lost their heads with age. Curiously the warriors have the same von Zarovich family crest on their shields as Gustav has. Gustav also realizes that the history book of the von Zarovich family that he is carrying around as a family heirloom has now gained new pages, including a map of a domain called Barovia. It seems the group is now in Barovia.

A bit further on the forest road, the group comes across three corpses. Mistrustful they use different abilities to check whether those are undead, but the three men are really just dead. One of them carries a letter from the burgomaster Kolyan Indirovich of the village of Barovia, who says that his daughter Ireena Kolyana was bitten by a "vampyr". At that moment a black carriage approaches from behind, whose occupant stops next to Gustav and presents himself as Count Strahd von Zarovich, lord of this domain. Gustav presents himself as von Zarovich, and Strahd accepts that he might be a "nephew". As the start of a running gag, Strahd believes that Gustav came visiting with his wife and his two rather ugly boys. As there a no non-human races in Barovia, the Barovians have never seen gnomes (nor elves or dwarves), and given their size constantly confuse them with children.

In any case, Strahd tells the group that he wants to test their worth, and snaps his fingers. His carriage takes off, and the three dead men arise as Strahd Zombies, which are more powerful than regular zombies. Combat ensues. When hit with large chunks of damage, the Strahd Zombies lose body parts, but even their detached arms are still crawling and attacking. But the group is learning how to work together, and overcome the zombies. Continuing their travel they reach the border of the forest, and see a valley before them. Ahead is the village of Barovia, with Castle Ravenloft high above on a rock. With another milestone reached, the group goes up to level 3.

Entering the village of Barovia they find that this is a sad place, with many abandoned houses. The only sign of life at first is an old woman, Morgantha, with a peddler's cart full of meat pies. She believes the group to be a family, and wants to sell them her dream pies for 1 gold piece each. She admits that this is expensive, but says her pies have the ability to give you sweet dreams if you eat them before going to sleep. She also offers to buy one of the "children" for 10 gold, if the parents don't have enough money. In spite of that dubious offer, and Warryn believing Morgantha to be a witch, the other three buy a dream pie each. Morgantha moves on, selling her pies door to door, so the group moves on.

A bit further, more signs of life: On the main square of the village light comes from both a shop and a tavern, while the sound of sobbing comes from further south the road. The group wants to visit the tavern first, which is called Blood of the Vines, but somebody has scratched the "of" on the sign and overpainted it with an "on". Outside a raven is making noise and knocking on an empty wine barrel, and on inspection Aëlis finds her family name, Martikov, inscribed upon it. Inside the tavern are three Vistani women, a barkeep, and a young man, Ismark the lesser, who turns out to be the son of Kolyan Indirovich, the burgomaster. The Vistani slip Aëlis a message that she should visit the Vistani camp near Tser Pool, and leave. The bar is 1,20 m high and has a "must be this high to order alcohol" sign. :) With the Vistani gone, Ismark asks the group to come with him to the burgomaster mansion, mentioning that some Vistani work for Strahd.

At the mansion, which shows signs of having been attacked repeatedly, they meet Ireena Kolyana, who has been bitten once by Strahd. Two more bites, and she turns into a vampire herself. Now Strahd and the monsters and beasts he controls lay siege every night to the mansion, the stress of which caused the burgomaster to have a heart attack. Bilros can relate. Ismark needs to stay in the village as the new burgomaster, but begs the group to bring his sister Ireena to the town of Vallaki, which is less under direct control of Strahd. However Ireena insists that they need to bury her father first.

At the church they find the priest Donavich, but the church is in a sad state. Doru, the son of Donavich, took part a year ago in a peasant uprising against Strahd, and got turned into a vampire spawn for that. Donavich locked him into the basement, but Doru keeps shouting how hungry he is, and that he wants to drink human blood. While Donavich doesn't have the heart (or power) to kill his son, the group decides to put an end to him. Which isn't all that easy, because vampire spawns regenerate unless hit with radiant damage, and take only half damage from non-magical weapons. But ultimately the group wins the fight, using a shield spell at the right moment to not get bitten. In the basement they also find the weapons of the peasant revolt (which was supported by a wizard and some heroes, all dead now), including a few magical +1 magical weapons. So now the group has the basic supplies against creatures that can only be hit by magical weapons. The funeral of the burgomaster is planned for the next day, together with Doru's funeral.

On the way back to the burgomaster the group passes again the house from which they heard sobbing before. The woman inside is still sobbing, and Ismark tells them that she is Mad Mary, whose adult daughter Gertruda went missing a week ago. The group investigates and finds Mad Mary in a room decorated for a little girl, with lots of pink, painted walls, unicorns and rainbows. However the size of the bed and clothing shows that Gertruda wasn't so little anymore. Apparently one day she wandered off and didn't come back, Mad Mary is persuaded that Strahd took her.

Before going to bed, Aëlis, Bilros, and Gustav eat their dream pies. Cue "tastes like chicken" jokes, but they don't really know what is in the pies. In any case, Gustav resists the effect, while Aëlis and Bilros fall asleep and have wonderful dreams, leaving them eager for more of those pies. After the funerals the next day, the group is ready to leave the village of Barovia, taking Ireena with them to the town of Vallaki. Having played for 5 hours, we stopped the session at that point. We had a *lot* of fun, despite the sometimes dark themes.


Its always nice to read your game recap.

Are you playing from the hardcover book or the "coffin-like" Curse of Strahd revamed ?

I need to get that adventure and prepare it for Halloween even if its more a campaign than a 1 shot.
I have the hardcover book in both English and French, and I have the coffin box of the "revamped" version. But we are playing on Roll20, so I have the module there as well.
Polygon named Curse of Strahd the best campaign for beginners, which is blatantly untrue. Curse of Strahd is a very complex, non-linear, sandbox campaign, and will be a challenge even for experienced dungeon masters. Yes, it's great. But greatness comes with a price of complexity which is going to overwhelm any new DM.

For example, you might have noticed from my journal that I did not run the Death House adventure, which is the optional adventure to get your group from level 1 to level 3. Unfortunately that adventure isn't very good, more B-movie horror flick than gothic horror, and rather deadly for beginners. Furthermore Death House happens in the village of Barovia, thus not providing your group with a story of how the group came to Barovia. The witch hunt I played was designed by myself. Of course, your mileage may vary, for my groups I prefer going up from level 1 to level 3 very quickly. Most character classes aren't really developed at level 1 yet, and characters can be killed by a single critical hit. But even if you want a longer adventure to level 3, taking something else other than Death House is probably a good idea. Barovia is a "domain of dread" in the parlance of earlier editions, and it makes more sense if the group arrives there as some sort of curse or punishment for something they did, rather than randomly.
Totally true, all of it! I watched a few twitch game of Curse of Strahd and reading your recap i noticed you didnt do the Death House and thats fine by me, i mean all great DM usually modify the adventure so it fit better with their players' characters and the story they want to tell.

I'll clearly have to buy it and read it and see how i want to run it.

Thanks for the input!
Forgot to ask... would you suggest the hardcover book or the revamped box if i want to DM that adventure ? I feel the revamped is pricy for splat books but it might be easier to have many books open than dealing with only the hardcover ?

I'm planning to run it in fall 2021 hoping we can be back around the table by then. Or go in another direction and run the Free League Alien scenario.. that looks scary. Either would be cool for Halloween!
I would say handling of the regular hardcover is easier. The revamped edition is better for style, has the tarokka deck included, and the map is a lot thicker and more solid. Splitting the monsters into a second small booklet isn’t doing much for me.
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