Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
Curse of Strahd - Session 9, 10, and 11

Over the last months we continued our Curse of Strahd campaign in several shorter sessions. Since the last session reported, the group crossed Tsolenka Pass and reached Amber Temple. They cleared Amber Temple, which is the second-biggest dungeon in the module, and just started with the biggest and final one: Castle Ravenloft. In the process the group leveled up to level 9. Apart from a fun encounter with a forgetful Lich, Tsolenka Pass and the Amber Temple feel a bit like filler material to get the group to the level required for Castle Ravenloft, and get them some magic items. Most of the sessions were filled with combat. Which brings me to the discussion of a spell I am growing to hate as a DM: Polymorph.

On paper, Polymorph looks like a fun spell. You can either polymorph a willing ally into whatever beast is useful for the situation, or you can polymorph an enemy into a harmless animal, reminiscent of the World of Warcraft spell turning enemies into sheep. However, the latter version is far inferior to the former, because of the saving throw involved. And because Polymorph is a 4th level spell, which you don't get before level 7, the spell ends up being nearly exclusive used to turn allies into a Giant Ape at level 7, and into a Tyrannosaurus Rex at level 8. With two characters in the group having access to the spell, we ended up with several combat sessions with two players polymorphed into Tyrannosaurus Rexes.

A Tyrannosaurus Rex with challenge rating 8 has a lot more hit points and hits a lot harder than your typical level 8 character. And the spell lasts for an hour, unless concentration is broken. But the T-Rex has a high constitution score, and between feats and artificer infusions (Mind Sharpener) it is easy enough to never lose concentration. So I have now two dinosaurs constantly stomping through my gothic horror campaign, like in a "Godzilla vs. Dracula" Japanese B-movie. That is fun once or twice, but gets old really quick, and somehow ruins the atmosphere the module is going for.

Fortunately in Castle Ravenloft the staircases are a lot smaller, you can't squeeze a T-Rex up or down a medieval spiral staircase. But for future campaigns, I am going to introduce a house rule that you can't polymorph somebody into the form of a beast that you have never seen (which is the same rule already applying to the druid's Wild Shape). So as long as there are no encounters with Giant Apes and T-Rexes, the players won't be able to use those forms. I also think that my players were abusing the Mind Sharpener Artificer infusion: As it is an item, it shouldn't be usable by a polymorphed character.

Story-wise, the main event in the Amber Temple was Gustav acquiring the Sunsword, the last of the three artifacts foretold to them by Madame Eva for being useful against Strahd. They also learned where Strahd's powers came from: Dark Gifts from the remnants of evil gods, imprisoned in amber blocks in the temple. The group picked up some dark gifts, each coming with a disadvantage, like skeletal wings that allow you to fly. But by this time they were all okay with being evil and looking like monsters.

When they got into Castle Ravenloft, they did get a reminder of the disadvantages of being evil. In the chapel they found a holy artifact, which does 16d10 on an evil creature voluntarily touching it (no, you can't slingshot that into Strahd as a weapon). Having some indication that while Strahd is somewhere upstairs in the castle, it would be best to first disperse the earth in his grave, the group headed downstairs into the crypt, where we will continue next time.


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[Previous comment deleted due to typo changing the meaning of the comment]

Is it not possible to just discuss with the players ? Explain them why you think it is not a good idea from both the story and global enjoyment of the session to do the TRex VS vampire thing ? If they are doing it purely from a game optimisation goal, a compromise could be driven by giving them the power of the spirit or whatever, essentially doing the same thing gameplay-wize but not in the story/depiction of the scene.
Maybe on the other hand, they love this idea, and find those scenes very funny. In this case it is a balance between your own enjoyment as a GM VS their enjoyment.

It might be beacause I am coming from an Improv' background, where the story is a co-construction, and all idea should be welcome, but when GMing, I prefer to responsabilise my players to the story creation and find a consensus than use game rules - there will always be loophole for creative-thinking player, or the rule system will not allow any creative thinking to happen.

Keeping in mind that I am quite a GM newbie, and that you have far more experiences in GMing, so I am very interested on why you chose your approach 'by the rule' more than a more out-of-the-game discussion ?
I think Godzilla vs. Dracula sounds like a terrific movie premise. If you want to enforce your planned rule, you'll have to watch your players' back stories closely. Whose to say Will the Wizard didn't see a t-rex in the travelling Wonders of Chult show when he was a lad.
The problem I have with polymorph is that its only great for a few levels. There's nothing bigger than a t-rex or giant ape to summon and those creatures are really easy to hit so by the time you are at lvl 11 its not worth the hassle for a meat shield that's only going to last a round or two.
I approach the situation "by the rule" because the one thing I would hate would be changing the rules during the campaign. I'm okay to act if something is both game-breaking and rule-breaking for the current campaign. But if it is just game-breaking, but totally within the rules, I do not want to punish players for having optimized their characters. So I let them do their thing, and then change the rules for the next campaign to remove the game-breaking issue.

Role-playing isn't improv. While you certainly *can* play with a good story being the overarching goal, in most situations most players will have other goals, usually to make the best character possible, even if that goal collides with the story.
@Tobold : Thanks for your answer.

I guess our different approach are both valable depending of the players/GM/context : I am playing with player new to the game, using a rule-light system ( Quest RPG) where a lot is left for the GM to assess, and they know I am also a beginner, so the expectations are very different. In my first campaign, I even restricted the magic of the different classes, because I was feeling a more down-to-earth campaign would be easier for me to manage and balance.

I can now understand that in a game where player are more focused on the game part of it, removing their access to the 'cheat' they find themselves would be not welcome, and that 'hackign' the rules to keep them their power without destroying the story would be more dangerous in a complex rule system such as D&D.
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