Curse of Strahd Campaign – Update #3

My last report on Curse of Strahd was in early June.  Four months later our group is headed into the final act of the adventure still going strong.  Our last session ended with the players inside the Amber Temple.  They had just encountered the spellcaster in the statue.  This caught them completely off-guard and the party split into three groups to seek cover.  I’ll have more to say on this later.  After the Temple, only Castle Ravenloft will remain.  I think they will need two more sessions to complete the Amber Temple and I’m thinking 4-5 separate sessions or one Super Session for Castle Ravenloft.

But first allow me to recap what happened leading up to the Amber Temple.

The Winery and Yester Hill kind of fell flat for me.  They played out as just big fights that weren’t that difficult for the players.  There wasn’t a moment where the players felt like they were in real trouble.  This is mostly to do with the players having a number of powerful NPC allies.  And I’ve often found that ramping up the difficulty to counter this makes combat longer but not more fun.  If I ran this adventure again I would probably do as Chris Perkins did and cut the fight with the Druids and Barbarians and Blights for one big fight with Wintersplinter, the walking tree.  I can see why he did things this way.  A fight with a walking tree makes way better radio than berserkers and druids.  After this, the players weren’t really sure what to do next so they went back to Vallaki.  When they left, I decided Lady Wachter assumed power after the death of the Burgomaster and was in league with the Hag Coven that the players drove out of the windmill.

The next couple sessions revolved around combat.  I wasn’t really sure how to portray Vallaki under Lady Wachter’s rule other than “more oppressive.”  One thing I did do was have Lady Wachter capture Blinksy, the kindly toymaker, to force him to use the magic mirror in the Vallakovich house which can only be used by Good-aligned people.  Doing so had driven him evil.  Another series of fights ensued with the PCs slaying the hags and Lady Wachter’s cult.  The session was running long so I had Lady Wachter coyly yield herself up for execution since she knew she was beat rather than attack the party.  Cutting her throat as a yielding prisoner was a more disturbing way to kill her off rather than making her just another monster in the initiative.

After this the party went to confront the Mad Mage of Mount Bartok.  In the book, he has Archmage stats and doesn’t fuck around, attacking the PCs immediately and then fleeing when below half HP.  But the PCs were set on finding a non-combat solution and I yielded to this wish.  Maybe if I have a big weakness as a DM it is a reluctance to force combat on unwilling players.  If the PCs are willing to talk, I run the NPCs as willing to listen.  Because I know the second someone starts a fight they’re going to finish it.  No one spends resources for half a victory, they either talk the monster to submission or kill it.  This was a bigger problem in 4E.  The group I ran then was much more into powergaming and character optimization.  When the DM said, “roll initiative” all roleplaying stopped and the game became a tactical miniatures game.  It was like a Final Fantasy Game where there was just no connection between fighting and the rest of the game.  I don’t like the idea that a player feels they’re wasting their action, a resource in combat, by doing something other than “as much damage as possible.”

But that rant is for another day.  Short Story Long, the Mad Mage invited them into his Magnificent Mansion.  He was still Mad but in a loveable Hatter sort of way rather than an Aerys Targaryen “burn them all” sort of way.  I had the PCs make Medicine and Arcana checks to heal him rather than using Greater Restoration because no one had Greater Restoration to cast.

This brings me to my D&D Adventure Wishlist.  We are seeing two big book adventures published per year and a host of shorter PDF adventures of varying quality available online.  I never want to see a spell used to unlock part of the plot ever again.  In Curse of Strahd and Out of the Abyss, several mentally ill NPCs require the “Greater Restoration” spell to heal them of their madness which makes them far more useful NPCs and then they start handing out backstory.  Maybe that “5th level spell to cure mental illness” should be offensive.  But what I really hate is that part of the story depends on using this particular spell.  It’s a spell only a couple classes get and then not until 9th level.  And in my experience, expecting the PCs to use their combat resources for less than obvious means can go either way.  I will tell you this, the Druid in our party is not using his only 5th Level Spell Slot to prep a spell just in case the opportunity comes up.

Curse of Strahd has at least 3 NPCs like this that require Greater Restoration cast on them to make them useful.  One of these, the Lich in the Amber Temple, requires two castings.  The first casting is enough to get him to reveal the backstory of the Temple.  The next time he will accompany the PCs and they won’t be attacked again but they have no way of knowing this unless I tell them.  So the next time the PCs encounter someone weird, the DM has to telegraph to them “Cast Greater Restoration on this NPC for more roleplaying options!”  The brazen meta-ness of this doesn’t make me happy as a storyteller and it also doesn’t make me happy as someone who wants the dole out monsters and traps so the PCs spend their resources and feel challenged.  It doesn’t feel like a legitimate challenge.  The cost to the PCs is, “what could we be doing instead of waiting a day to cast spells again?”  Maybe it would be okay if it only came up once, but three different NPCs?

Now on to the Amber Temple.

The Amber Temple is built for level 9 PCs placing its challenge on the same level as Castle Ravenloft.  But it has way fewer rooms than Castle Ravenloft so that challenge is in bigger chunks.  Ravenloft is an endurance trial with nowhere safe to rest and a hundred small threats:  Wights, Zombies, CR 2 Witches.  The Amber Temple is a Roundhouse Kick to the goddamn head followed by a People’s Elbow in the crotch when you’re down.  After the Tsolenka Pass vrocks and the barbarians just inside the Temple the PCs took a long rest.  Then the next room had the first group of Flameskulls.  Then they found a second group of Flameskulls.  Then the Golem.  Then the Sympathy Trap, which caught 3 of 5 PCs.  Then one of those PCs fell into a pit trap and got attacked by Poltergeists.  It was at this point the PCs decided to get the fuck out and settle in for another long rest.  Rather than tangle with the Sympathy Trap again, they crossed the large temple floor…and were promptly attacked by the Arcanaloth (More difficult fiendish version of the Archmage) hiding in the statue.

The Sympathy Trap was a great trick.  3 PCs instantly become transfixed by this statue in the room.  The problem with it is that it isn’t clear what the PCs are supposed to do after this, but the spell description says the PCs get a saving throw if they end their turn out of range of the effect.  So the two unaffected NPCs, the Druid and the Sorcerer, dragged the Rogue/Paladin out onto the balcony.  Where it was revealed that the weakened balcony cannot support the weight of three people and they fell 30 feet.  I love traps like that where the most obvious solution puts you in a worse situation.  The sorcerer lowered a rope, secured it, and they were able to climb up.  The Druid then used stone shape to haul the PCs to a safer room but not before he fell down a shaft and got attacked by Poltergeists.  Fortunately the Sorcerer Dimension Doored him out of that situation.

It was at this point the PCs decided to head out for another long rest only to be attacked by an Arcanaloth, a jackal like fiendish spellcasting monster.  The Arcanaloth has a spell list going up to 8th level, can turn invisible, change form, teleport at will, and has many resistances and immunities including non-magical weapons.  So he is a bad motherfucker.  The party and he burned through a lot of counterspells with one NPC needing to receive healing magic.  One thing I’m doing that I have no idea is right is letting the NPCs operate on PC death rules which basically makes them unkillable.  But this fight came down to a stalemate where the PCs had done enough damage to the Arcanaloth that he’s looking for an exit.

Also the PCs are hurting.  When the spells started flying they split, taking cover behind different columns.  The Rogue/Paladin ran smack into the three witches.  Realistically, he can probably take them but I left him on a cliffhanger thinking they were hags because I wanted him to sweat.  The Druid sees the open door at the end of the hallway with the party’s first sighting of the Amber Sarcophagi.  The Arcanaloth is surrendering but the book says he will backstab the PCs at the first opportunity.  I’m thinking he goes invisible and then through the secret door then circles around them to wait rather than continue to feign an amiable nature.  The PCs turned on the Evil Mage NPC Vilnius after he displayed less than total submission to them which led to a great moment where he tried to take Ireena hostage.  I suspect they will demand complete and unconditional surrender from this guy.

Vilnius and the Arcanaloth are evil treacherous NPCs that seem to be specifically written to backstab the PCs at the first opportunity.  But they highlight a problem I’ve found in my years of DMing.  PCs are not tolerant of morally ambiguous NPCs.  A whiff of betrayal or an agenda counter to their own marks that NPC with an instant death sentence.   An NPC can be evil but PCs do not suffer traitors.  I’m pretty sure Chris Perkins mentioned this in his Dungeon Master Experience articles.  I’ll save this exploration for another day.

The PCs have not even met the Lich living in the Temple yet.  I figure if the PCs try to flee the temple I’ll have the Temple Lich meet them at the door.  Like the Lich from Princes of the Apocalypse he’s not instantly hostile.  Instead, this Lich has been keeping the temple for the past thousand years or so but is losing his power and memory.  He can also explain how to use the amber sarcophagi but I’d rather they encounter them blind without truly knowing what will happen or what they are.  These players are Ravenloft alumni and I don’t want to just tell them, these are the Dark Powers, place your hand on the big scary block of amber for a feat and a flaw.  Then I’ve defined it and its not scary anymore.

There are a couple other odds and ends I want to write about my experience with Curse of Strahd.  For one thing, the NPCs like Van Richten and Ezmerelda have too much damn health.  From now on, no combat helping NPC should have more than 40 HP.  These NPCs have never been at risk of dying.  I also think I should’ve cut the Barbarians in the temple.  Maybe their stuff is there and the PCs don’t know when they’re coming back.  But as it stands they’re filler in a very difficult dungeon that needs no more fights.

I also wish the book had more suggestions (maybe one a chapter?) for Strahd interludes.  I need ideas that feel horrific, not just show up, collect 20 hp from each PC, leave.  I’m terrified the Arcanaloth in the Amber Temple is going to be a tougher fight than Strahd.  I really think I’m going to need to cheat for the Strahd final fight.  The Arcanaloth has a slew of resistances and none of the weaknesses or artifacts specifically meant to kill him.  More Strahd interludes would also give the PCs a reason to include Ireena Kolyana.  The PCs pulled her away from the pool in Krezk damning her to an admittedly hilarious fate stuck in Barovia.  But honestly she has been The Load this entire game.  There isn’t really anything to do, she can’t contribute much in fights.  She’s dead weight and the party knows it.  I had Kasimir the Dusk Elf join the party to give the Amber Temple some stakes and he’s largely assumed the same role Victor had which is fitting as they have the same stats.  He has become the party’s magic missile bot.

Victor, Kasimir, Ezmerelda, Van Richten, and even Strahd all get most of their power from robust spell lists.  This requires much flipping and makes combat a chore as the DM has to manage the spell list for every spellcasting NPC.  For these friendly NPCs I’ve outsourced them to the PCs.  It was pointed out online that Strahd has a lot of concentration spells on his list.  And while I’m all for chucking the rule about one concentration spell at a time for Special Monsters, I’m not sure I want to do that in my first playthrough of this book.  Spellcasting Monsters reinforce an idea that I hate, that the game is 5 players versus one DM.  It takes the DM just as many mental resources to manage a spell list as it does a PC except the DM is also watching a whole lot of other stuff.  I much prefer Monsters such as Rahadin, Strahd’s evil chamberlin.  Rahadin has a few spells on his list but most of his challenge comes from innate abilities and his sword and the text for that is all in his stat block.  This sort of self-contained monster design is one thing that I think 4E got completely right.  Almost all the information I need to run Rahadin is on one page.

So we go into our third Amber Temple Session with the party in its darkest hour.  They are split, wounded, and have no idea how they can get out of this mess.  I’m really looking forward to it.  If they die or get in too much trouble I can have the Temple Lich or Rahadin bail them out.  I think that is the real genius behind Curse of Strahd.  If someone dies you have Strahd show up, bring them back, and say they do not have his permission to die…yet.

Post 3rd and 4th Session Update

Wow.  That all escalated quickly.

So located in the Amber Temple is a Staff of Frost straight out of the DMG.  Recognizing this as a powerful magic item the Sorcerer snatched it up right quick.  Problem: This staff inflicts the flaw, “I crave power above all else and will do anything to obtain more of it.”  At first it was okay.  Then they found the Amber Sarcophagi.

A portion of the party went to go deal with the witches on the other side of the temple.  As I said before, these 3 witches are CR 2.  Their brooms are CR ¼ .  The Swashbuckler alone could’ve handled them but I hinted these were Hags and inflicted some fear on the party.  SwashRogue, The Gish, The FeyLock, Kasimir the Dusk Elf NPC, and Van Fucking Richten went in to sort them out and it was over pretty quickly.

Much more interesting was the tale of the Druid and now power-crazed Sorcerer on the other side of the temple who had the party’s first encounter with the Amber Sarcophagi.  There is one room to the Sarcophagi open and they were beckoned forth by Nothics in the room.  The Nothics use their Weird Insight power to pry secrets from the PCs but otherwise do not attack lest they are attacked first.  I implied that Nothics were significantly more badass than they really are and that if they hadn’t attacked on sight they probably wouldn’t.  I did this in order to goad the Druid and Sorcerer to explore without gathering the rest of the party first.

The party thus split, the Sorcerer leapt at the chance to gain the Dark Gifts bestowed by the Sarcophagi.  Both she and the Druid took the ability to cast Cone of Cold seven times.  But these gifts all have a price and this one is in the form of a flaw that says, “Fire Terrifies Me.”  The Sorcerer took the next gift immediately, gaining the ability to cast Scrying three times at the cost of a low whispery voice and eternal cruel smile.  Then they moved onto the next room

All of the other doors to the Sarcophagi are locked.  And worse, if forced open a magical trap deals 4d10 Necrotic damage instantly, no save (rather than using the passwords which only the Lich knows and he only remembers them if restored magically).  But worst of all, a PC who dies from this damage is instantly turned to bone and ash and thus cannot be restored by Raise Dead, requiring a more powerful Reincarnate or Resurrection spell.  The Sorcerer blasted the doors open with magic triggering the trap and killing the Druid.

This was the first PC kill I’ve seen in a long time.  Back when 5E first came out I saw one other PC death at the table.  During Lost Mine of Phandelver, in the first cave, there is a Bugbear.  Bugbears have sneak attack and stealth and this one heard the PCs coming and hid.  One PC walked alone into the room to look around, not expecting the Bugbear to Ambush them and score a one-hit kill with his Morningstar.

My own tale of PC death and party splitting is not so glamorous.  Once whilst playing in a version of the AD&D module “Dark Clouds Gather” during the playtest I wandered off and got killed by giants somehow hiding in the ruins of a town.  I felt robbed, I felt the DM hadn’t explained the situation, and he did let me retcon it.  But I didn’t come back after that game.  The reason I was wandering off was because it was the third week of the game and I felt I’d done literally nothing for three weeks on a plot railroad.  Looking back, I was being an asshole at the table but the DM also kept calling things “gay” in front of his young son and I was looking for a reason to get out of his shitty game.

Anyways, back to Curse of Strahd.  Fortunately the Druid player was extremely chill about his beloved character dying and willing to take up Kasimir, the Dusk Elf Mage NPC.  The Sorcerer entered the chamber and it was at this point I knew I could’ve killed her.  In this room is a Death Slaad.  I’ll save you a trip to the Monster Manual, a Death Slaad is a CR 10 monster with spells and a greatsword and it could’ve butchered her.  But I didn’t want her dead I wanted her to fall in the True Ravenloft fashion.

When she hestitated I had the Slaad make its presence known and she realized her peril.  The rest of the group, on the other side of the temple, they start making perception checks to give themselves a reason to go check on the other players.  The Sorcerer, seeking self-preservation, took on the gifts of this room which include +30 Max HP (enabling her to take the blows from the creatures sword), an instant 25 Strength Score (+7 modifier), and Truesight.  However, one of the other effects of these gifts is that the PC is required to make a Charisma saving throw.  The Sorcerer made the first few easy but nothing lasts forever.

The penalty for failing this save is your character immediately becomes Evil and an NPC.  Not wanting the game to end in a really uncomfortable “hand over your sheet” I let her keep going and had the Slaad back off because where’s the fun in killing them?  But I had an ace up my sleeve.  One of the gifts is that the character becomes covered in Black Fur.  It was at this point I had the Shapechanging Arcanaloth who had escaped come back in the room disguised as the Sorcerer, saying that a hideous monster had killed the Druid and lurked in the next room.  None of the PCs knew the creature was a shapeshifting monster yet but they wanted to make all the insight checks they could.  After a tense roleplaying moment the Arcanaloth turned on the party again killing Stella Wachter, the NPC who believed she was a cat, until it was finally killed by the PCs.

So dealing with this new cursed version of the Sorcerer character was tough for everyone and especially for the player who has always been a diligent note taker and wrapped up in the lives of the NPCs.  Immediately I started trying to think of a way to fix this.  Fortunately, we ended the session with the players going into the grandest chamber where they’re immediately jumped by vampire spawn.  I had two weeks to figure out what to do.

This was not a particularly challenging fight but it was long due to regeneration and many spells got used.  It made me think that the previous encounter in Vallaki, the Feast of St. Andral’s, should really have a note that it is appropriate for level 7-9 characters.  It might not have been nearly as easy if the Paladin/Swashbuckler had not remembered he carried the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind which is capable of paralyzing all vampires in 30 feet.  Most of the enemies were paralyzed for part of the fight.  Strangely he did not use the Sunlight feature of the symbol which could have really hurried things up.  Of course, that paralyze only uses one charge of the symbol’s ten per day.  It could be an effective way to burn through Strahd’s legendary resistance.

During the two weeks we had between sessions I decided how I would reverse the damage done.  The Druid’s death was the easiest solution but strangely difficult in game.  I reasoned that Van Richten, believing the characters to be instrumental to overthrowing Strahd and having only a short time to live himself, would make the ultimate sacrifice of part of his mortality to gain the Dark Gift which allows the person to cast Resurrection once time.  Kasimir the Dusk Elf also accepted this gift.  His primary motivation in the adventure is to use this gift to resurrect his sister, who is entombed beneath Ravenloft.  One party member was very much opposed to this.  I think his reasoning was that these things were evil and he did not want to lose Van Fucking Richten for nothing.  Maybe from a meta power gamey point of view, there’s no reason this player couldn’t roll up another Druid.  I can understand that.  Really what I wanted to offer (without forcing) was a way for his character to get back into the game that made sense in the story but at the same time was not free of charge.

The Sorcerer was trickier.  I don’t want to reveal all my thinking lest the player find this blog.  I decided that the Dark Power that is capable of making your players into Liches (but only if they have 9th Level Spells which is impossible in this adventure) desired escape and would offer to remove the gifts and their curses from the player’s soul if the Sorcerer would break their Amber Sarcophagus.  After we finish Curse of Strahd, if the players would like to continue this campaign with these characters, the consequences of this will be the basis of a new campaign.  I talked to the player beforehand saying I would offer them a chance to remove the curses.  I reasoned both out of game as DM and in game from the perspective of the Dark Powers that they would not be pleased this character was basically tricked into accepting their pacts because of that goddamn Frost Staff.

After this and the Vampires the PCs confronted the Amber Golem in the treasury vault.  A summoned earth elemental and high AC PCs were able to tank the thing while Eldritch Blast, Divine Smite, and Green Flame Blade (GREEN FLAME!) whittled it down.  The Treasury is a huge quantity of coinage and heavy loot.  It is way too much for the PCs to haul out of there on backpacks.  Also while forcing open the door out of the treasury I decided it has the same Necrotic Damage effect of ALL the other doors in the temple rather than the book effect of making the already dead Golem invisible.  This vaporized Kasimir and panicked the Druid who had literally just returned.

All through this Ireena was again ignored so I ended the game on a cliffhanger, with the Dusk Elf Rahadin having snatched her while the PCs dealt with the Golem/Treasury and now holds her before the God of Secrets ready to make sacrifice.  I can cobble together one more session before the PCs tackle Castle Ravenloft itself.

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