At long last the party crossed the threshold and entered Castle Ravenloft. We planned for an all-day session to finish off Curse of Strahd once and for all.
After 10 hours we are not even close to finishing but speaking just for me I had a blast. I think the players did too. We ended the session with the PCs having removed the dragon Argynvost’s skull from the castle and returned it to its rightful place granting the entire party a +1 to AC and Saving Throws as well as a +2 Greatsword. And thankfully, rightfully, I think the most memorable encounter of the evening was an appearance by Strahd von Zarovich himself. He actually felt menacing and after 8-9 hours of D&D my voice was hoarse enough to pull off a consistent malevolent deep tone.
Let’s start with the beginning. The PCs took a couple hours to talk strategy in the Abbey of St. Markovia where they returned after the Amber Temple. They weren’t sure if they wanted to kill The Abbott or not but the situation felt unresolved in their minds. There, they decided to use Van Richten’s “Ring of Mind Shielding” (which can store the soul of its wearer if they die with it on) to house Ireena’s soul while they went into Castle Ravenloft. They reasoned that bringing her or leaving her was not an option but they didn’t just want to murder her. The ring allows them to maintain some level of agency over while abdicating some level of responsibility. I’m not quite certain what the end game here is but they wanted to put time into thinking this through so I don’t want to screw them or make this choice seem either a) wrong or b) a waste of time. I did add one complication, I decided that rather than have Van Richten simply turn over his magic items to the PCs his reason for keeping the ring was that it contained the soul of his son. Van Richten the Vampire Hunter’s backstory (in brief) is that his son was turned into a vampire who he later killed. I’m sure I’m fucking up lore or “D&D rules of magic governing souls” by putting his soul into a ring but it added a level of complexity that made the decision to do this more meaningful.
After that, we’re off to Castle Ravenloft! Over the course of several weeks I crafted the entire castle in my virtual tabletop. I’m very proud of how it came out and there’s definitely some ego at play in wanting the players to see every single room. It is slow going because the PCs are dead set on checking every door for traps but I don’t mind because everyone’s the right kind of scared. One player is at least somewhat familiar with the Ravenloft adventure and part of his emotional kick is having that knowledge of the adventure finally rewarded so it’s not taking anything away to indulge some.
I’ve never played 1E Ravenloft but in 5E the challenge seems to come not from the individual, relatively easy encounters (as the PCs are level 9-10) but from taking them as a whole. It’s an endurance trial. The intent of the Castle is for the PCs to have a final confrontation with Strahd but not at full strength. They’re supposed to be worn down. This is where I’m foreseeing a problem with this incarnation of the adventure. I’m not sure what it was in 1E, but the 5E remake has one room with a rainbow colored brazier that can teleport the PCs to many different places in Barovia. The PCs, by accident, wound up teleporting themselves to Vallaki outside the castle. This gave them a golden opportunity to get a rest. Damn.
After winding up in Vallaki the PCs took a short rest and announced their intention to use this teleporting brazier to get Argynvost’s skull out of the castle. At this point in the day time was getting short so I handwaved the book’s encounters with the drawbridge and gargoyles. I literally suggested that maybe the PCs wanted to run past the gargoyles. I did not want to throw a 45 minute fight with no stakes at the group. It seemed like a great stopping point for the day and getting the skull back to Argynvostholt would give them an accomplishment to end the day on.
That was when I rolled for Strahd on the Random Encounter Table in Rahadin’s office.
First I want to talk about Rahadin. The PC’s journey through the castle took them from the dining room to a back stairwell to the “Larders of Ill Omen” which provides 3 easy combats before the PCs find Rahadin’s office. Rahadin is the castle chamberlain, Strahd’s second in command. He is also one of the best designed 5E monsters I’ve seen, relying on a few easy to remember spells and self-contained actions in his stat block. He immediately established himself as a badass throwing out psychic damage. He also has a great backstory I wanted to dole out in pieces through the fight. In the context of the adventure, Rahadin introduced Strahd to Tatyana and was very involved with Kasimir and Patrina, two elf siblings that appear in other places in the adventure.
Then the Warlock paralyzed him and the Melee PCs made a quick and brutal end to it. I kept forgetting that paralysis meant no talking. I decided to put a journal in his desk that allowed me to read his backstory out of the book and the players were kind enough to indulge me.
When the PCs came back into the castle they knew they could go straight from the room with the skull to the brazier room providing them an easy way out of the castle. But then the random encounter table told me to send in Strahd. Realizing that the office was a dreadfully small place we’d already had one combat in I had him move through the floor to await them in the brazier room where they HAD to go if they wanted to get out with the castle.
By this point I’d been DMing for about 8-9 hours so my voice was completely shot. Fortunately a shot voice is a Strahd Voice and I think I finally hit the raspy Peter Stormare vibe that Chris Perkins favorited on my twitter. This is what I want Strahd to sound like:
Incidentally this fight between Batman and Dracula was how the fight between Strahd and the Party went. At the first fight in St. Andral’s Church I realized that the PCs were hopelessly outgunned which shook my confidence. This time I’d written down some quips which helped me sell the character of Strahd and the dice were also cooperating with me where they didn’t in St. Andrals. When you send a Vampire Lord to make his first appearance it sucks when your first attack roll is a one and then the guy gets arrowed and moonbeamed. Not scary. This time though I thought it worked.
Speaking of quips, something to note for next time: Any villain should come with at least five one liners. If you write an adventure, put in some sample banter for the Big Bad. I loved Gar Shatterkeel and Vanifer from Princes of the Apocalypse but by christ people give them a monologue! After six months of a campaign your players deserve something on the scale of “Why so serious?” or “I’ve done worse than kill you. I’ve hurt you.” For Strahd I’m stealing from fiction’s great vampires like Kain and Viktor from Underworld. Strahd and Kain have a lot in common, a lot of the dialogue works for both of them. One good monologue from a video game none of the players remember will do wonders for building immersion.
I think part of the reason this session worked is that it combined relatively straightforward beatable encounters with good NPCs. In addition to Strahd we also had Cyrus, Castle Ravenloft’s insane mongrelfolk butler. His drive in the book is to bring the PCs to their rooms where presumably they’ll be murdered in their sleep. But he’s also easily manipulated and not very helpful so he stuck around with the party to offer color commentary in the guise of advice. Chris Perkins got an amazing reaction moment out of him in the Dice Camera Action series where he is serving a PC and the vampire Escher dinner and Escher knocks a bowl of soup off the table like a cat. I don’t think I’ll get to recreate that one. Then the party sent him ahead to scout where they knew Strahd was waiting. I figured Strahd would not approve of him helping the party and couldn’t think of a reason he wouldn’t just slay poor Cyrus and throw his body to the PCs to rub it in their faces. Thus endeth his story.
Other NPCs in this session included Emil, the werewolf prisoner. Very briefly, Emil was the leader of the werewolf tribe in the adventure. His rival, Kiril, has Strahd throw him in prison so he can take over the tribe. I decided to cut that portion of the adventure although I left in a few hints and the party finally killed Kiril at the Abbey of St. Markovia.
Speaking of, I was pleasantly surprised I got to bring back The Abbott in a non-combat capacity. The party asked him to safeguard the soul of Erasmus, Van Richten’s son, while Ireena’s soul was stored in the ring. Behind the scenes, I know he would not treat the soul with any great reverence. He’ll probably junk the corpse because he doesn’t think its important. He’s also in contact with Strahd and probably revealed to him (perhaps inadvertently) that the party had killed Ireena but still had her soul.
After the adventure I was still wired up so I decided to write the PCs a letter from Strahd gloating and threatening. Most of it I stole from Barlow’s letter in ‘Salem’s Lot. Again, it sure sounds like it could be Strahd von Zarovich.
All in all, good sesh.