Curse of Strahd – Vampires Don’t Suck

Curse of Strahd is something different from Wizards of the Coast.  It’s their first adventure not in the Forgotten Realms.  Although by their own admission it is easy to get to this adventure from the Forgotten Realms setting.  It also goes up to level 10, not level 15 as the three previous adventures did.  It was also not outsourced to another team of designers.  This one has been written by WotC’s MVP, Chris Perkins.  I’m glad they did it, it was time to do anything other than a Forgotten Realms adventure and this is a baby step in the right direction.

This is also the first of these adventures I’m making plans to DM.  I have a few people who really like the Ravenloft setting.  Myself, I know kind of the big picture but I would not call myself a Ravenloft fan in any way near how I’m a big fan of Eberron or Dark Sun.

As of this paragraph on the day of writing I got my first taste of the adventure.  Like Princes of the Apocalypse, “Curse of Strahd” technically starts at level 3.  Within the book is a preview adventure called, “Death House” meant to take the players from Level 1 to Level 3.  I got to play Death House at a comic book store for about 5 hours.  The adventure did not really sell me on the adventure but the DM did great.  The adventure leans hard on the Exploration Pillar of D&D.  It’s a lot of walk in the room and nothing happens.  The thing is you’re playing an adventure called Death House.  Every room you walk into that has nothing terrible makes you think the next room is going to be even worse.

The big problem with Death House is the hook.  I foresaw this kind of problem with Out of the Abyss.  At the time it was announced I thought, there is no fucking way a bunch of player characters are going to walk into the Underdark swarming with Demon Lords.  There was no treasure great enough to make that an attractive option.  Fortunately Green Ronin saw this problem too so you start as a prisoner and then spend 7-8 levels escaping the Underdark.  Then you go back in to prevent them from destroying the world when you have enough power to do something about it.

Curse of Strahd will apparently have several different hooks you can have to get involved.  But the one we went with for Death House was: you go to sleep in one place and wake up in a strange land.  Then your only road leads to Barovia.  The only thing to interact with is this one house in the village of Barovia with two kids outside.  Then the kids beg you to help because their parents are fighting a monster in the basement.  They don’t follow you inside, and if you bring them inside they vanish. To which I asked the group, why the fuck are you in this fucking creepy ass house following the orders of these creepy ass kids?  The entire thing smacks of horror movie logic where the characters really ought to know they should not to do what they’re doing but if they stop the story ends.  It reminded me of Cabin in the Woods, specifically The Fool.  In the movie, everyone gets drugged to act like idiots in a horror movie except for the stoner guy who keeps asking what the hell is going on and saying what a terrible idea every decision is.  The hook is, you wanna play D&D tonight or not?

We didn’t finish Death House but long story short you explore the house, fight some monsters, and it has an extremely large basement that acts as a little dungeon crawl.  It feels like a small low level version of Ravenloft castle which the players will explore in the full length Curse of Strahd adventure.

So let’s discuss the full length Curse of Strahd adventure.  Before I get going, this is really meant for DMs interested in running this adventure or players or players who are not in the game I’m going to run.  You are really only cheating yourself. #Shame #ShameUponTheSpoiler #Shame

If Princes of the Apocalypse was considered a reboot of Temple of Elemental Evil, Curse of Strahd is a direct remake of the original Ravenloft adventure.  But that adventure was a scant 32 pages.  This is a 256 page book.  Where it expands on is fleshing out the area around outside the village of Barovia and Castle Ravenloft.  The first 40 pages set the scene with information on the region and the famous Ravenloft card reading.  The next 55 pages cover the village of Barovia and Castle Ravenloft itself.  Then there are 110 pages with Barovia the country.  There are almost 20 pages of statted NPCs and monsters.

This adventure starts with a discussion of how to run a game with horror elements.  While Out of the Abyss dipped a toe into the Lovecraftian Curse of Strahd is firmly meant to be in the Gothic Horror genre.  Vampires, Flesh Golems, Undead and Werewolves lurk in named locations with 2d6 wolves in every dark stretch of misty woods.

Unlike the other three hardcover adventures, this adventure doesn’t seem give a shit about what level the players are in terms of where they can go in the countryside.  Princes of the Apocalypse you could go anywhere you wanted but each dungeon was geared to a specific level.  And it was hard to get to the level 10 dungeon before you found the level 5 dungeon.  Out of the Abyss was more of a sandbox but each chapter was marked out as one milestone giving you a clear point to level up and you were meant to do them in kind of an order.  That’s why in Abyss you couldn’t escape the underdark until you reached level 7-8.  Getting to that level sort of “unlocked” the exit.  Curse of Strahd has a chart on page 6 that gives you the expected average level for your party of 4-6 adventurers which is the only mention of appropriate level from then on.  The book is oddly indifferent about how you give out XP.  The book tells you that milestones are probably the best way to go.  Probably is awesome DM advice Mr. Published Adventure.  Okay, so what are the milestones, Curse of Strahd?  The book says that maybe you could give the players a milestone when the players get an artifact (such as the Tome of Strahd) or when the players defeat a featured antagonist (such as the Hag Coven in chapter 6).  As the artifacts’ locations are randomly determined, those exact milestones might not make sense.  The point is that unlike the previous adventures, this is not a strictly level 3-level 10 affair.  If Princes or Abyss seemed open-ended in theory then Curse is more open-ended in practice because the players can go from end to end of Barovia and not feel like they’re out of their depths until they suddenly realize they are and get themselves killed.

This is causing me some worry already because of pacing.  The previous adventures were very clear that each chapter is one level’s worth of experience.  That meant I know that each chapter should be completed in about 2-4 weeks.  With Curse I guess I’m going to need to figure out what those milestones are in advance.  Maybe that’s supposed to be easy to figure out if you’re an awesome DM?  I don’t know, I was kind of hoping the book would do that heavy lifting for me.  The start of the book said that the card reading could give some good ideas for when to throw in milestones because a good place to have them is when the PCs find an artifact of which the adventure has three.

The original Ravenloft has a card reading prior to entering Castle Ravenloft where the PCs stop by a stereotypical gypsy camp and have their fortunes told.  In Ravenloft gypsies are called Vistani because gypsy is an offensive term.   The original Ravenloft card reading randomized the location of artifacts, tells you Strahd’s goal in the adventure, and tells you where Strahd will always be in the castle.  He may come after the PCs a few different times but he is always at the place the cards dictate the first time they enter that place.  There’s also some flavor text on each “reading” to hint for the players where this stuff is.  If the Tome is in the Dragon Castle it hints at that.  But I’m wondering if this card reading will work in a campaign length adventure.  The original Ravenloft can be played in 1 session.  Based on the number of levels this book probably has about 24 sessions of content.  I’m curious if the reading will carry the same weight over a few months as players struggle to remember the clues.

I ran the card reading once I figured out how to do it.  The three artifacts will be spread out over Van Richten’s Tower, The Vistani Vault, and one of the Crypts in Castle Ravenloft.  Instead of randomly determining Strahd’s goal, the Curse of of Strahd card reading determines an NPC that is Strahd’s enemy.  This NPC can give the players Inspiration as an action.  I got Dr. Rudolph Van Richten, an NPC I’ll have more to say about later.  Finally, Strahd’s location.  I got the tomb of his brother Sergei, also in the Crypts of Castle Ravenloft.

Are you tired of me saying, “unlike the previous three adventures” yet?  Unlike the previous three adventures, Curse features Strahd von Zarovich as a strong antagonist NPC that is meant to drive the adventure.  Vanifer, Demogorgon, any of those assclowns from the Cult of the Dragon, none of them are really omnipresent in their respective adventures.  As written, they show up in various places but none of them are truly distinguished.  They’re final bosses, but they’re not Big Bad Evil Guys (BBEGs).  One surefire way to improve Tyranny and Princes would be to pick an NPC like Severin or Gar Shatterkeel and make them a larger part of the adventure.  From every piece of DM advice I’ve ever seen, running NPCs well seems to be the number one thing you to do to be a great DM.  The best thing a published adventure can do to assist with that goal is make sure the NPC has something to do in the adventure.  Gar Shatterkeel and Vanifer, for all their backstory, are largely regulated to waiting for the PCs to show up unless the DM changes the adventure.  Strahd has goals, the PCs should have an incentive to thwart him.  That’s your adventure right there.

So how do you give the PCs an incentive to stop Strahd?  Some players have likely played Ravenloft before, maybe annually around Halloween and are completely down to wander through Barovia.  But I’m not among the initiated so I asked during Death House, why should I care about these people?  What are the hooks?

“Into the Mists” is the hook I’ve mentioned.  I went through it when I played the pre-adventure Death House.  Chris Perkins used it on Dice, Camera, Action, a youtube series where he runs Curse of Strahd.  In this hook, the PCs go to sleep one night and then they wake up in Barovia surrounded by different trees and strange mists.  Annnd that’s it.  Welcome to Barovia, bitches!  It reminds me of what the great 4E Blog Eleven Foot Pole wrote about an adventure hook for Thunderspire Labyrinth named “Call to Adventure.”

“As hooks go, this is on a par with the DM declaring that the next adventure is going to be in Thunderspire and asking if anyone has a reason not to go there.”

The writer also called this hook, “so brazen as to be almost worthy of respect.”  In the case of this particular hook, really the content is meaningless.  It is the DM asking the players, do you want to play Curse of Strahd or not?  Obviously that’s not how things go in real life.  In real life, a friend of mine texted me a couple months ago asking if I would run Curse of Strahd for him and his friends and I said yes.  Everyone at that table knows we’re playing Curse of Strahd.  If someone shows up wanting to play a Dragonmarked airship pilot or a gladiator trying to overthrow King Nibenay, we’re going to have a problem.  Because I’m not showing up one night and whipping out Curse of Strahd like it’s a surprise.  Everyone is at least partially bought in.

But I’ve found a character does need some kind of incentive that the player agrees with to complete that player’s buy-in for the adventure/campaign.  For example, my recent Dark Sun game fell apart because in part I didn’t give the players a strong enough incentive to do anything.  I figured I’m going set it in Salt View, this town of thieves and killers, and figured okay they’ll pursue their goals and we’ll have some good times.  The hook was non-existent so you had the players  who reached out to me with ideas and character goals having fun but the rest of the party was being dragged along.  A game doesn’t work if two characters are driving while the rest of the party asks “are we there yet” with no idea where “there” is.  Contrast with Legacy of the Crystal Shard.  I went to a preview event with this cultured urban rogue and realized I had no idea why this character is headed to the frozen hellhole where the adventure is set.  Then the DM handed me a card saying I was part of a crime that went bad and needed to lay low for a while.  It was PERFECT and it helped carried my interest for the rest of the night.  Anytime something happened or I got bored I thought about my hook.  I needed money, I didn’t want to stand out, and I was real interested when some other thugs showed up in town.

For this reason I’m planning to do a session zero to get a sense of what’s on people’s minds for hooks.  “Plea for Help” is the hook from the original 1983 adventure.  A mysterious stranger comes into a tavern one foggy night.  He gives the PCs a letter from the Burgomaster (eastern European word for mayor) to come to Barovia and help protect the guy’s daughter Ireena, promising payment.  This is a lie, the letter is from Strahd himself because he thinks the PCs can take his place or bring Ireena to him.  One hook is meant for PCs in the Forgotten Realms, “Mysterious Visitors.”  The PCs are asked to kindly chase away some Vistani who bring them into Barovia to have their fortunes told.  Another hook, “Werewolves In the Mist” is meant to appeal to organized play.  The five factions seek to hunt down some werewolves in the area but during the pursuit the players wind up in Barovia.

In each of these three hooks the players are tricked into entering Barovia by Strahd.  At no point is it assumed that players would enter this place willingly to slay the tyrant Strahd.  That has more to do with the nature of Ravenloft as a campaign setting.  Barovia is Strahd’s personal hell where the gods of the plane, the Dark Powers, torment him over and over again like it’s some kind of cosmic Groundhog’s Day.

Of Barovia and Castle Ravenloft there is not much to say and even less if you are familiar with the original adventure.  You roll into town and everything sucks.  There’s a big scary castle on the mountain looking over the town.  The castle is a dungeon.  It is a good dungeon though and a good dungeon is not to be scorned.  With the sandboxy nature of the adventure it is conceivable that the players could make multiple forays into Castle Ravenloft.  You should keep in mind though that the Castle is geared towards being a dungeon for a Level 9 party.  At level 5 the players will have some confidence and think they can run with the big dogs.  You could disabuse them of this notion by sending them into Castle Ravenloft.

There were a few thoughts I had reading through the dungeon.  One is that several places feature magic sleep gas as a means of incapaciting members of the party.  I realize it’s a fantasy game with goblins and shit but this struck me as out of place and bizarre to use more than once in this proto-eastern European setting.  The difficulty is also wonky.  The entrance way to the castle has four CR 4 Dragon Wyrmlings in one tiny room and eight CR 2 Gargoyles in another room.  But then other rooms will have bat swarms and giant spiders.  The dungeon can’t be all slog all the time and you have to remember the goal here is horror.  You want your PCs to think they’re going to die.  The trick is not actually kill them right away.

I’ll let someone better than me tackle the mechanical side of Strahd.  He’s a CR 15 Vampire as opposed to the standard CR 13 vampire that Sly Flourish argues works better as a CR 7.  On the fun side, Strahd should be a looming presence in your campaign.  This motherfucker is out there and he has his blood red eyes on you.  He is not calmly waiting for these PCs to level up until the point where they can take him.  Chris Perkins recommends he not menace the party more than once per session.  And I agree, if the last half-hour of every session is “Strahd fucks with the PCs” then things get stale.  On the other hand, I’m a big fan of the stinger ending where Vic Mackey shoots Terry in the head or Hiro and Isaac both see the end of the world.  I think the thing you want is, you want the party to be training almost to counter his tricks.  Vampires have tricks.  They have charms, they have spells, they have all kinds of shit.  Dole them out slowly so the players feel like they’ve learned to overcome Strahd by thinking smarter rather than increasing the numbers on their sheet.  Also remember that Strahd doesn’t just identify these PCs as a threat and murder them.  Otherwise a level three party would roll into Barovia and Strahd would come down and say, “Welcome to town!” *RIP* “Oh dear, was that your throat?”

The Village of Barovia and Castle Ravenloft make up chapters three and four.  The remainder of the book features other locations throughout the country of Barovia where the players can explore and level up until they feel ready to take the fight to Strahd’s door.  The first of these locations is Vallaki.  My first impression on reading the description was that it’s like the town of Barovia but slightly less hopeless.  Barovia feels so defeated that there is no point in remaining there.  If you give the PCs an opportunity for heroism they’ll usually bite but when you offer them a no-win scenario some players will opt to simply not bite the hook and look for easier prey/adventures.  But I’m not sure Vallaki qualifies as an adventure.  This might have more to do with the way the book is written but there doesn’t appear to be an adventure here in the same way there was in Out of the Abyss.

For example, when you go to Blingdenstone in Abyss, there are several threads to follow.  All roads lead to the Pudding King and then the PCs go help people with the little mini-adventures to gain enough support to take down the servants of Jubliex.  In Neverlight Grove you walk through scenes of increasing horror, witness Zuggtmoy, and get the fuck out of there.  These are locations that aren’t dungeons where the goal is typically a variation on “get to the last/hardest to get to room.”  It’s almost like I feel thrown for a loop because Curse of Strahd’s sandbox is actually written like a sandbox rather than holding my hand like in Out of the Abyss.  This is not written as “Go to Vallaki.  Complete these 1-3 adventures. Congratulations, you have completed the town of Vallaki.  Level and continue to the next chapter.”  Instead its written like a gazetteer or guide to the town with hooks.  Lady Watcher is evil and wants to overthrow the mayor.  The Half-Elf Rictavio living at the tavern has an armored saber-tooth tiger in his wagon.  The owner of the tavern and his family are all lycanthropes.  The mayor arrests anyone he doesn’t like.  His son is building a teleportation circle and murdered two servants.  These are not necessarily adventures in the traditional sense.  But they are hooks and the DM has all the material they need to expand on whichever one the PCs find interesting.  The trick here is the PCs really need to help the DM out and be forward in what they want to pursue.  A little girl has gone missing from the Vistani camp outside town.  Holy relics are missing from the church.  The Mayor’s Sandor Clegane like bodyguard is asking the local toymaker to make him increasingly life-like dolls modeled on a local woman.  Pick a hook, pick several hooks, but make sure you pick.  It would be easy for the DM to push something but the game will go smoother if the players display interest then let the DM sketch out the potential adventure based on that interest.

This chapter on Vallaki ends with adventures that are so short they’re more samples than anything fleshed out.  Vallaki’s shtick is that the Mayor believes if everyone in town is happy they’ll be free from Strahd’s reign of terror.  He seeks to accomplish this by holding festivals throughout the year for his joyless people and throwing dissenters into the stocks.  After their arrival, the next festival is ruined because of the rain.  Someone laughs and is thrown in jail.  That’s it, that is what happens.  The text says if the players get involved the mayor orders them arrested.  Or they can do nothing.  Or you can skip this event entirely.  Maybe the guy in town with the tiger has it break out and you help him skip town because he is a Lawful Good guy.  Or don’t help him.  Whatever.  One of these is the players’ first opportunity to meet Strahd if the DM is presenting the content in order.  If the holy relics are not returned to the church one night Strahd, some bat swarms, and a bunch of vampire spawn roll in during mass and kill some people including the Priest.  The town then turns on the Mayor, riots, and lynches him, his wife, and their son.  All of these are optional events you can play through in Vallaki.  The last one with Strahd could worked into an entire session.  The first one with the festival could take less than ten minutes to go through.

Vallaki is sort of at the center of the map. With that location and a lawful good family running an inn there this would seem to make a good home base for the PCs while they explore the other adventure sites in Barovia.  The book is disorganized in this regard as the order in which the PCs should do things has no relation to the order of chapters.  The PCs should leave the village of Barovia at level 3 but they should hit level 4 at some point on their way through the woods.  One site that the players pass on the way to Vallaki is “The Old Bonegrinder” which makes up chapter 6.  This is very short mini-dungeon intended for level 4 PCs.  Basically there are three Night Hags in a windmill, they make kids into pastries.  The adventure is to stop them.  It says level 4 PCs but Night Hags are CR 5 and there are three of these bitches.  That is a deadly deadly encounter.  As a DM, I’m going to call bullshit on that level 4 dungeon line.

Argynvostholt is the next Chapter and it is listed as a dungeon for 7th level PCs.  The story here is that Argynvost was the name of a Silver Dragon.  He founded this order of knights creatively named “The Order of the Silver Dragon.”  They are protecting another adventure site called “The Amber Temple” which appears later in the book.  But when Strahd came to this land he eventually defeated the knights and killed the dragon leaving their castle a ruin.  The Knights themselves rose as Revenants which are statted out in the Monster Manual.  However, the Knights realized the truth about Barovia, that this nation, this plane, whatever you want to call it, that Barovia is Strahd’s own personal hell and that the kindest thing they could do would be to kill him.  So instead, the knights attack anyone who seeks to slay Strahd.  They are consumed with hate and do not wish to see Strahd earn the peace of death.  It’s a good bit of lore but it’s better for roleplaying than being a dungeon.  Most of the rooms are empty or contain a scare for the PCs.

There are a few things definitely worth comment though.  The reason the dungeon is here is that, the ghost of the dragon is not at rest.  How do you put it at rest?  You need to place his skull at the highest tower in Argynvostholt.  This gives cheer to Strahd’s enemies and the PCs a +1 bonus to AC/Saving Throws for the rest of the adventure which is a big get.  Problem, the skull is located in Castle Ravenloft.  The room is K67, the “Hall of Bones.”  It is one floor below the ground floor in the servants area. Another problem is the thing weighs 250 pounds.  So good luck.  Another thing are the Revenants themselves.  Their leader Sir Vladimir and one the order, Sir Godfrey, were lovers in life.  This is the first time that I can think of in an adventure where two NPCs were gay.  I applaud Wizards for putting these NPCs in the adventure, explicitly saying they were romantically involved, and I hope to see more LGBT NPCs in the future.  The end of the chapter has two sort of mini adventure hooks similar to the end of the Vallaki chapter.  First is just a scare.  A wagon drops off a coffin with a PC’s name on it.  Inside is a swarm of bats.  Ha!  A little practical joke from Strahd von Zarovich.  Definitely use this if he hasn’t menaced the PCs.  It reminds them that the motherfucker is out there.  The second is a potential first encounter with Ezmerelda d’Avenir who is running from some Vistani.  Ezmerelda is a CR 8 potential ally for the PCs.  There are a few different places to encounter her apart from Argynvostholt including Castle Ravenloft itself.  She is a vampire hunter like her mentor Rudolph van Richten who will also be encountered later in the adventure.

There are a couple other locations around Vallaki that don’t have chapters but are instead mentioned in Chapter 2.  Lake Zarovich is about a half mile north of Vallaki.  When the PCs arrive, they meet Bluto, a local fisherman.  Bluto is planning to throw Arabelle, a seven year old Vistani girl, into the lake as a sacrifice to improve his chances of catching a fish.  Several minutes after the PCs arrive he throws her into the water bound in a burlap sack giving the PCs an opportunity to save her.  This is pretty fucked up, but I can completely see my PCs watching someone row out and throw a human sized sack into a lake thinking, “Just another day in Ravenloft” and letting him go about his business.  I would strongly encourage you to let the PCs hear the rumor about the missing girl before that happens.  North of the lake the players can encounter the Mad Mage of Mount Bartok who attacks them on sight.  He is actually an Archmage (CR 12) so the PCs might want to flee for their fucking lives.  This guy is Mordenkainen, an NPC prominent in D&D history.  If I’m running this adventure I might cut this guy.  Something about having this all powerful wizard hiding in the woods rubs me the wrong way.

This brings me to a brief tangent about the card reading earlier in the adventure.  There are 5 cards to draw, three for magic items in the adventure, one for Strahd’s location, and one to determine which NPC will accompany the PCs to fight Strahd.  This NPC can, as an action, grant inspiration to a PC when they are in sight of Strahd.  Here’s the problem with this.  Among your potential allies are Dr. Rudolph Van Ricten and Ezmerelda, both NPCs statted out to be Vampire Hunters.  Another potential is the Mad Mage who as previously mentioned is an Archmage.  You do need to restore his sanity first but still he is CR 12.  The card reading is just as likely to bring you Arabelle, the seven year old commoner with 2 HP.  Does that seem a tad fucked up to anyone else?  I believe wonky is the charitable word.  Swingy, mayhaps?

Like Old Bonegrinder and Argynvostholt the next 8 chapters are all pretty short dungeons or small adventure sites.  They make up 62 pages.  The most civilized of these is Krezk.  I have no idea how I’m going to pronounce that one.  Krezk is at the edge of the map and it is a closed town.  The residents produce everything they need inside their 20 foot high walls and much like me in my early twenties only rely on the outside world for wine.  Looming above the village is the Abbey of St. Markovia, our dungeon for this chapter.  I like the Burgomaster of this village, Dmitri.  He’s seen adventurers before and whether the PCs are Strahd’s allies or enemies he wants no part of their shit.  Having said that, if they go to the Wizard of Wines vineyard and get them a wagonload of the red they’ll be welcomed with open arms.

The Abbey is the centerpiece of the chapter though.  Residents hear bells and screams coming from within.  Apparently the Abbot arrived centuries ago and hasn’t aged a day since.  Most residents assume he’s Strahd.  I like how that sort of implies the hopelessness and resilience of the residents of Barovia.  They know if Strahd wants them dead, or wants to come into their walls they’re dead.  But the walls keep out the wolves and tragedy still strikes with the Burgomaster’s last child recently dying due to an illness before the PCs arrive.  The Abbey is inhabited by Mongrelfolk, a kind of humans who have undergone magic transformation and become fused with beasts of various sorts.  It’s basically the Abbey of Dr. Moreau.  Many of the Mongrelfolk are afflicted with Indefinite Madness and can I just say I am goddamn sick and tired of being redirected to the Madness Effects table of the DMG.  Reprint the goddamn table you cheap bastards.

This location is not actually closed to the PCs.  The two mongrelfolk on the door let them in whether the PCs come in peace or hostility.  If the PCs come in peace, the guards escort them to the courtyard to meet the Abbot.  The courtyard is full of cells with howling screaming people.  Really there is nothing to do here, it’s just disturbing.  Inside the Abbot’s solar is where shit gets real.  The Abbot is a serene young man with an eerie calm.  Then there’s the woman with him, beautiful from a distance.  If the PCs get close they can see the stitches holding her together.  Yep, she’s a Flesh Golem.  The Abbot is teaching her dance and etiquette to make her an appealing bride for Strahd.  So far she can’t talk except to emit an unholy scream.

Until the PCs behave rudely or attack or something The Abbot doesn’t attack.  Instead he wants the PCs to find him a proper wedding gown for The Bride.  If they do that for him he will cast Raise Dead up to three times for them.  How did he get such holy powers?  Well it turns out he is a Deva, the CR 10 version of an Angel.  When Saint Markovia was slain by Strahd, the Deva came to restore the Abbey and bring healing and light to this dark realm of Barovia.  But the Dark Powers who are the “gods” of this place corrupted him.  He cured the Belview family of their leprosy but he could not make them perfect.  Some wanted the eyes of a cat, or wings like a bat, so with the help of a man who turned out to be Strahd in disguise, the Abbot created the Mongrelfolk.  The Abbot believes that if Strahd can be united with his true love then Strahd’s curse, and thus Barovia’s, will end.  This is a lie that Strahd told the Deva to corrupt him even further.

This is not really a dungeon at all, this is just a really fucked up situation.  There’s another Flesh Golem, an earlier effort of the Abbott, guarding the rest of the Mongrelfolk who are prisoners in this place, some of them starving, all of them insane.  Much like the previous chapters this one ends with some recommended hooks.  In them, The Abbot raises the Burgomaster’s son from the dead with madness.  In return, the Abbot wants that goddamn wedding dress.  One can be found in Vallaki, property of that village’s burgomaster’s wife.  If the players don’t help with this, the Burgomaster’s wife dies trying to get that dress to pay for her son’s resurrection and the Abbot looses the Mongrelfolk on the village causing damage and the Burgomaster hangs himself.

Krezk is also the best place for the adventurers to find a happy/bittersweet ending.  Earlier in the village of Barovia, a local priest recommends the PCs should take Ireena, the target of Strahd’s undesired advances, to the Abbey of St. Markovia. He does not know it is full of beast people.  What happens instead is Ireena encounters the spirit of Strahd’s brother, Sergei von Zarovich, in a pool at the town.  Sergei was her true love when they were alive.  The two disappear and Ireena’s soul is safe to the extreme displeasure of Strahd.

After Krezk these next few chapters all kind of blend together.  There are some evil druids and werewolves and they’re grouped into a few areas with 2-3 combat encounters.  Fight Druids at the Wizard of Wines vineyard, fight werewolves in their den.  There’s a hag called Baba Lysaga, she has a walking house and she has some lore about Strahd that I’m not sure how to include in the adventure.  Van Richten’s tower offers the PCs a meaningful way to fuck up.  The tower has a complicated puzzle lock and if the players don’t do it right three times the tower blows up.  Ezmerelda has parked her wagon in front of the tower and it is also rigged to blow.  I like adventures where the possibility of failure or making things a lot worse is accounted for.

One of these last chapters is one of the longest after Castle Ravenloft itself, a dungeon called the Amber Temple.  This is a weird dungeon. On the one hand its cool to see something really different but on the other hand, this dungeon could seriously fuck up your campaign on par with a Deck of Many Things.  The lore of the dungeon is that a long time ago a bunch of good wizards hid a bunch of vestiges here of dead evil wizards and gods .  The way I like to think of it is that these good wizards still knew that there was something to be learned from the defeat of the most powerful evil wizards/gods of ancient days so they hid their souls away here after they were defeated.  Sort of like if you killed all the Sorcerer Kings from Dark Sun and then put their skulls in a room to occasionally cast Speak With Dead.  You already know how this story goes right?  The good wizards were corrupted and turned against each other.

Where it gets controversial is that these vestiges are the Dark Powers of the Ravenloft setting that made Strahd von Zarovich.  These entities feed on Strahd’s evil and have no desire to give him up to death.  A friend of mine who is a big Ravenloft fan told me that the true nature of Ravenloft’s Dark Powers is one of those big questions that isn’t supposed to get a canon answer.  What caused the Day of Mourning in the Eberron setting?  Keith Baker isn’t going to tell you because that question is and should be different in every individual Eberron campaign.  What are the Dark Powers, what do they want, and why have they turned Barovia into a combo of Groundhog’s Day & Personal Ironic Hell for this one asshole Strahd von Zarovich?  It turns out they’re these black shadows in coffins made of amber who feed on evil.

What does this mean for you and your table?  This dungeon, in addition to the regular foes that populate the dungeon has 21 amber sarcophagi within it.  Each one can offer one creature a power of some kind once but it comes with a flaw of some kind.  Mechanically speaking, all Dark Powers are not created equally.  One vestige offers you the ability to cast Suggestion three times with Advantage.  That’s it, the suggestion spell, three times.  The flaw this gives is “I can’t get enough pleasure, I desire others to create beauty for me at all times.”  Another one gives you +30 HP for 10 days but oily black fur covers your face and body.  The flaws inflicted are supposed to be forever.  That sounds like bullshit to me.  I realize Wizards of the Coast is terrified of someone getting permanent flight in organized play but come on.  If a player sacrifices their soul to the Dark Powers of Ravenloft I’m not going to give them the ability to cast Lightning Bolt three times WELP THAT’S IT I GUESS YOU GOT A SHITTY PRICE FOR YOUR SOUL.  The catch here preventing a player from taking all of these is that a non-evil PC must make a DC 12 Charisma saving throw each time they do this and if they fail they become an NPC.  And yes, one of these vestiges gives a player the ability to become a Vampire.

In the end, no matter what the players accomplish, victory in Ravenloft is meant to be temporary.  Should the players triumph over Strahd von Zarovich, Barovia earns a few peaceful months before the Dark Powers resurrect him to play out the drama of continuously losing the woman he desires to have an abusive relationship with.

The book closes out with some extremely well developed NPCs you can and should loot for your own game.  As opposed to Severin from Rise of Tiamat, the named NPCs in this adventure each get a half page or more of flavor text explaining their history and motivations.

That is all the content from Curse of Strahd.  I find myself anxious about running it.  I worry about doing justice to an adventure that people seem to know and love.  I did enjoy reading through this book.  It certainly wouldn’t take much effort to turn this into a one-shot for level 9 PCs.  I worry about running an adventure that hinges on the DMs ability to keep one NPC alive against the cunning and resources of a party of adventurers, especially when a number of them know this adventure very well.  At no point during Out of the Abyss is Orcus worried about the PCs.  Curse ends when Strahd does though.  I would recommend purchasing it based on the production quality which, as in the rest of 5E, has been consistent and high.  I might wish for one book a quarter but releasing one every six months has definitely made each one a must-own.  I think having it tied to a specific campaign setting makes this one a little less lootable than Princes of the Apocalypse.  The emphasis on horror leads some of the dungeons like Death House and Argynvostholt to be a bit empty as opposed to Princes (again) where you have page after page of dungeon crawling action but that’s the different intent of the book and they definitely hit the mark they wanted to.  I would say that some of the subplots like the werewolves and druids seem a bit phoned in.  There’s just no way for a bunch of Druids attacking a winery to compare to Castle Fucking Ravenloft.  They’re the B-Plot and the NPCs know they’re the B-Plot and so will your PCs.  Compare with Out of the Abyss where everything is kind of building to the atmosphere of madness including the sidetreks.  I guess it all comes back to pacing.  Are the PCs going to find the non-Strahd parts of the adventure interesting enough to stick around until they’re high enough level to take on the Big Guy himself?  Will one of them become a Lich in the Amber Temple and fuck up the campaign?  And will their ally in their quest to stop this immortal monster be the undead slayer Ezmerelda, her mentor Dr. Rudolph van Richten, the unstoppable archmage Mordenkainen or 7 year old Arabelle who needs to be rescued from drowning in the lake?  Only the cards will tell.