The Group finished Curse of Strahd successfully! Much to my surprise and internal (and eternal) shame no PCs were killed in the course of their final battle.
We had left off the previous session after one round of combat ending with The Druid summoning a horde of boars. I had a couple weeks to think of how to get out of that situation. Fight through? Run? The idea I went with was actually the last idea to occur to me. My original intention was to have Strahd use one of his lair actions (allowing him to walk through walls for the rest of the round) and fall back into the crypt behind him(containing one of his vampire spawn). But then I realized that he could pass through the floors as easily as he could the walls and simply went under the boars.
There were certain moments that I wanted to happen in the course of this final battle which took the entire session. I tried to think of something I could do for each PC. I want to say I got almost all of them at least in part.
- After the Sorcerer killed Ireena to place her soul in Van Richten’s Ring of Mind Shielding I really wanted Strahd to put her down (not looking for a kill, merely 0 HP) and tell her “This is what she felt.” The vibe I was going for was Sons of Anarchy’s season 3 finale. Spoilers if you want to see it: https://youtu.be/4_L3l5Cjx7k?t=46
- I completely forgot to tell the Warlock “you broke my heart” after she literally broke The Heart of Sorrow earlier in the adventure. She was also stalked by Strahd (or courted as he would say) with the intent of betrothal and murder, not necessarily in that order. So I dropped the ball on that one.
- I sort of got what I wanted from the Paladin character. With his multiclass to Rogue and a haste spell on him he had a just insane speed per round and used it to search through the crypts to find the one Madame Eva prophesized contained the Sun Sword. This was a great cat and mouse thing as Strahd was sort of dogging his heels but couldn’t really keep up even with his Longstrider spell. Of course, the crypt of Gralmore Nimblenobs, Wizard Ordinaire, was on the bottom row as far away as one could get from where the PCs came in. If they had teleported to Strahd’s tomb using the Iron Brazier they would’ve walked right past it. What I really wanted to do was have Strahd use his Telekinesis spell to throw the sun sword hilt or the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind into a hole in one of the crypts where there is a silence spell cast to mask the presence of six ghouls in a shaft 20 feet below. Instead he snatched it into a Fog Cloud which got cast through Wild Magic and completely changed the encounter mostly in Strahd’s favor because it gave him a place to lurk and hide.
- One player had taken the lead on running Van Richten at the table. I really wanted Van Richten, facing death, to decide to grant that player inspiration Obi Wan style instead of healing himself. Van Richten almost died but was saved via timely interaction by the Druid. With summoned boars and spells he also kept a lot of the party alive.
Really everyone almost died in this encounter. It felt like every round if one player hadn’t done the thing they did the PC death spiral would’ve begun. Every PC at some point saved someone else’s life. People fell down but they got healed. And I think that’s what you want out of a boss fight at the end of the day. No one sets out to kill PCs. But if they end with a load of spells and hit points leftover it sort of feels like you failed.
Strahd met his end by being Magic Missiled whilst being grappled by a T-Rex. No one ever wrote that sentence before. I’m glad polymorph T-Rex didn’t make an appearance until the fight was basically over. Like Woodland Critter Conjuration, Polymorph T-Rex (often twinned) is one of the internet’s favorite 5E munchkin tactics. We were in “The Grind” phase of the encounter where no one needs to move anymore and you’re just wailing on each other with at will attacks until the PCs probably win. Total Party Thrill’s advice if you happen to be a munchkin is “Do your trick once.” This worked perfectly especially as it was getting late.
Strahd himself I heavily edited from the book version with the advice of the internet. As written, he is a CR 15 creature. CR or Challenge Rating implies that this creature, alone and by itself, poses a challenge to an average party of that level. BULL. SHIT. For one thing, also as written, a party in Curse of Strahd is gathering magic items SPECIFICALLY to take down vampires. I had to nerf The Icon of Ravenloft as it seems to give Protection from Good and Evil to everyone within thirty feet and I hate rolling 4d20s per turn for his two attacks. One person with that spell (5E Munchkin Fave #3) is bad enough. A permanent magic item? Fuuuck that.
The specific things I did were mostly straight out of the “Guide to CR 17 Strahd” which you can find floating around the internet. I bumped his HP from an anemic 144 to 250. His AC increased from 16 to 18. His savings throws got increased by 1, and his damage I changed from 1d8+4d6+4 to 3d10+2d8. At this point the party was basically invulnerable to Charm so that didn’t see much play. The other big change was his spell list. Again I copied the internet’s advice. Telekinesis replaced Animate Objects. Longstrider replaced Comprehend Languages. Counterspell replaced Animate Dead among other changes to make it more useful for someone going into the fight of their life.
Once Strahd was gaseous forming off to his coffin the adventure was pretty much over and I tried to speed things along. I elected not to remove the teleport trap surrounding his tomb on the off chance everyone walked into it. Once I knew that wasn’t the case I handwaved most of the other challenges as being inevitable PC victories. Befitting a vampire lord, Strahd has three brides in his tomb but I wasn’t about to have a second fight the PCs would probably win and they died when their master died for real, with the Druid plunging the Gulthias Staff from Yester Hill into his chest. At some point before I made the mistake of saying stakes made of Ash wood worked best of all, that had no basis in the adventure. I was happy the Gulthias staff got play in that way although the original Gulthias tree formed from absorbing the pure evil of a vampire lord so I’m not sure this was a good idea in the long run. Not wanting to impose on the hospitality of our hosting player on a Sunday I tried to work quickly through the epilogue. Strahd is defeated, there is much rejoicing. Technically you’re not supposed to get the Sergei and Ireena reunion unless she’s still alive but they kept her soul in a ring so why not.
I usually make big maps for the game which has the byproduct of making it difficult to conceal there are secret rooms. I overcame this by coloring the Treasury with tiles the same color as the background rather than covering it with black as I normally do before the PCs enter a room. I could’ve given them a push to help them find the treasury but it’s oddly poorly written. It’s in a portable fortress in a room behind a fake treasury and only Strahd has the ability to enter it unless you teleport or use gaseous form or something. There are a few magic items there and oodles of useless fucking money. 5E is in dire need of something for players to spend money on.
Beyond that, the player’s completed just about everything in the adventure. There were a few magic items in some of the crypts they didn’t enter but I figure those are the best things to save for the next adventure. The epilogue is oddly silent about what happens to The Abbott of St. Markovia once creatures are free to leave Barovia. I decided the Gods of Good would recall his ass to the Upper Planes the second they were able.
Looking back this was probably the best campaign I ever ran. For one thing, it ended with an ending, not slowly bleeding off due to attendance or Life Shit keeping us away. Everything just worked well together. If I was doing it over again, there are certainly things I would change. It seems like at least 3 groups I’ve read about online left Vallaki a smoking crater. I reasoned that after the population fell past the point of death the Dark Powers would start repopulating it with new people which the still living residents don’t like to think about. Still, I would like there to be an easier way to not leave Vallaki in ruin. I would stretch out the XP a bit more so the PCs don’t feel like they’re being deprived when 2-3 weeks in Castle Ravenloft doesn’t constitute a milestone. As much as it is a spell cast by several items or NPCs in the adventure I would rule that Protection from Good and Evil doesn’t work in Barovia. There is no protection from evil. Ever. Not even in death. Especially not in death. I wish the book had more advice on interludes with Strahd or Rahadin. I wish the Abbey of St. Markovia had other ways to “finish” it other than killing the Abbott, and maybe advice on what to do in case the players aren’t trying to kill him. I wish there was more for Ireena to do, especially if the PCs, understandably, pull her away from the creepy grabbing water in Krezk. I wish there was an incentive for the NPCs in the adventure to not join up with the PCs as the adventure goes. In Chris Perkins’s Dice Camera Action many of the NPCs were played by guest stars. It wasn’t questioned when they weren’t around the next week. In our game the PCs weren’t really taking no for an answer.
I held off on writing this for awhile because after the campaign wrapped I jumped right into writing a sequel. I didn’t want to reflect, I wanted more. My players are Ravenloft fans but outside Curse I’m not familiar with the setting so I came up with a reason to move the sequel to Eberron. I’m basing it on two ideas. One, what if instead of raising up a group of adventurers to save the world someone just cast the “Summon Mightiest Heroes” Spell. Kind of like in the comic Erfworld how Parson is brought from Earth through the “Summon Perfect Warlord” spell. That combined with the fact that one of the Dark Powers from the Amber Temple got released. Uh oh.
If there were two lessons I want to take from this campaign the first is a couple drinks greatly improves my DMing ability. The second and more applicable to the public would be, never make an NPC you’re not a fan of. Dungeon World says “be fans of the PCs.” But it cuts the same way with your NPCs. Don’t make supporting characters who fade into the background easily or who you’re okay with fading away. Ireena didn’t have enough to do here. But I liked playing the role of Strahd von Zarovich very much. I hope to find him again someday.