Things seem to be getting a little better. The world’s still fucked but I mean my own tabletop RPG play. The unique cocktail from a few months ago of Staff Cuts+Increased Workload+Descent Being Tough to Run+World Overwhelming that led to me thinking, “man I’m never playing D&D again” is fading a bit. I still think I have the mental energy to run one game which right now is my Sunday Dragon Age game. But I’m feeling open again to the possibility of being a player in a game.
Fortunately, a friend is running Curse of Strahd. We can debate if Strahd’s a great module or the greatest module among 5e’s hardcover adventures. It is the only one I’ve run aside from the first half of Descent. This seems like a quality opportunity to re-acclimate to this group and being a 5e player. First things first, I need to wrap my Saturday Dragon Age game. It’s been going for just over two years at this point and I feel out of creative gas. I love love the characters and the world but I’m not sure where else to go. Time to save the world and bring things to a close. Again, the overall strategy here is to run just one game. Reduce the overall level of social commitments and responsibility.
This puts my joining for Curse of Strahd towards end of October. I’m kind of hoping to join at or just after Vallaki when the adventure really opens up and there’s a diminished chance of being murdered by Night Hags. It’d also be a slightly higher level, man do I not want to do low level 5e. Joining a campaign already in progress goes with my existing tendency to want to fill roles in a group. I am the kind of player who asks, “what is everyone else playing?” I want to find a story that excites me that no one else is doing. The existing group seems to have a Fighter, a Cleric, and a Melee Rogue and is human/half-elf centric.
I gave it some thought and I think I want to be a Kenku reskinned as a Wereraven. I imagine a Wereraven, a member of the Keepers of the Feather, the Wereraven underground of Barovia set on resisting Strahd. Although I don’t know exactly how their resistance functions. The adventure is short on details and I can’t really blame them. Resisting an all powerful all seeing god-emperor vampire in a small prison seems like a loser of a project. The Keepers seem to be based around the Winery and the Vallaki tavern where Wereraven NPCs can be found. This is why I would go with the Smuggler background from Ghosts of Saltmarsh. The background feature provides for Safe Houses for the player and party. Safe houses in every village seems to make the most sense and be useful when compared to other background features. For a motivation I think all this character wants to do is get back their ability to fly. This fits nicely with the Kenku canon
Kenku are a weird race to play in 5e. Their stats make them prime candidates to be Rogues. They get extra skills and advantage with forgeries. They’re +2 Dex, +1 Wis in Volo’s Guide. Not that anyone cares what you put stat bumps into anymore. But they have two big drawbacks. Three if you count them being bird people. First, they can’t speak. They speak by mimicking sounds they’ve heard whether those are things in the world or words they’ve heard spoken. Second, is that they can’t create new things. They don’t imagine or plan, they replicate. The first thing is a specific rule while the second is mentioned as part of their potential lore.
For a reskinned Wereraven I might throw the second thing about imagination out the window although it can be fun to play that kind of inhuman mindset. To address the other point about speech, I imagine that this Wereraven is cursed with more than just lycanthropy. What if they got captured by Baba Lysaga? Lysaga is a Hag-Coded spellcaster in Barovia with what I think is a very cool backstory. What if she cursed this wereraven removing their wings, speech, and ability to transform? Sure, that’s a lot to frontload but it’s also easily explained. “Why are you not like the other wereravens? Cursed by a witch, got it.” I suppose I could’ve just played an Aarakocra but that seems a little dull compared to the Kenku. And I don’t want to inflict a PC with permanent flight on the DM. Skill bonuses! Mimickry! Exciting shit!
For class I initially veered towards Ranger. The party already has a Rogue and I don’t really want to play a primary spellcaster. I’ve never played a Monk before but it doesn’t seem in keeping with Curse of Strahd’s Slavic aesthetic. Some kind of archery focused Ranger seemed appropriate. Then I broke out the PHB. Oh God. Better people than me have expressed dismay at the 5e Ranger. Check out Total Party Thrill’s ‘Ranger Danger’ episode for more information. The 5e Ranger is a lot like the 4e Wizard in that the design intent doesn’t really thrive in the current mechanics. To sidestep a long discussion let’s leave it at ‘Anything the Ranger Can Do, The Rogue or Druid Can Do Better, They Can Do Everything Better Than The Ranger.’ Even Morgan Webb, in the Acq Inc live show, at least once she played The Revised Ranger, which is kind of a piece of vaporware in 5E.
Rather than just play the Straight Ranger I am thinking I will multiclass into the Scout Rogue. The Scout Rogue is basically a Ranger with the serial numbers filed off. If the 5e Ranger Class winds up dead in a ditch, the Scout Rogue did it. Total Party Thrill actually had a build for a class called “The Rangerer” which is a Samurai Fighter/Scout Rogue/Knowledge Cleric that does The Ranger Stuff better. For my purposes, Curse of Strahd is a level 1-10 adventure. It’s not going to last forever. I think that Ranger 5, Rogue 5 is a winning combo that functions at low levels. Take Rogue 1, then Ranger to 5 for extra attack. Finish out Rogue for the rest of the book. No one ever plays to level 20 but we all imagine level 20 characters. I envision this as Rogue 13/Ranger 7 in that fictional 1-20 campaign.
The first level of Rogue starts a character off with the most skill proficiencies in 5e. The cost of this is delaying Extra Attack by one level. Going up to Rogue 3 or Rogue 4 might be good but I don’t want to compete overmuch with the other Rogue in the party. In general the goal is to downplay the Rogue-ness. The 3rd Level Scout Rogue gets the Nature and Survival skills with Expertise. This where the Rogue really takes the Ranger’s lunch money. With Curse of Strahd this would be hitting near the end of the module so it’s not going to be much of a factor.
Most of the Ranger features aren’t great. The Favored Enemy, Primeval Awareness, and Natural Explorer traits are kind of garbage although Favored Enemy does give bonuses languages. That appeals to me and no one else, I get that. I have no idea what languages to take since the biggest enemies in Barovia are undoubtedly Undead and Humans. Probably Infernal and Abyssal. I highly doubt any of the other features here would be relevant. Curse of Strahd has the great fortune to take place almost entirely along the very navigable Old Svalich Road.
For good Ranger stuff, you have the fighting style. Archery is the obvious choice with its +2 to hit bonus. The Ranger doesn’t get many spells especially with multiclassing. Most of these go towards Hunter’s Mark, which kind of sucks. It really oughta be a class feature rather than a concentration spell. If you’re a two weapon fighter it’s a bonus action spell which seems punishing because then you need to choose between Bonus Action uses. The real benefit here is your specialization as a Ranger. I took one look at Hunter and said, “That’s it?” Gloom Stalker on the other hand brings something to the table. It combines the traits of Colossus Slayer and Horde Breaker albeit only during the first round of combat with an extra attack that deals +1d8 damage. You also get Darkvision which Kenku doesn’t get but a lycanthrope does. You’re also invisible to other creatures’ Darkvision. Find me now Strahd!
So this is the backstory I envision. Ivar (short for Ivarius Karlinov), was an adventurer somewhere sometime who found their way into Barovia like so many others over the years. Being a roguish, rangerish, found his way to the Keepers of the Feather. One of the sideplots in Curse of Strahd is that the wine shortage, that the magic gems that make the grapes grow in Barovia have been stolen. One by the Druids of Yester Hill, the other by Baba Lysaga. I picture Ivar thinking he could creep in and grab the gem. He circled the area as a raven, crept in close, only to be trapped and defeated by her animated scarecrows. Ivar committed the worst D&D sin, he split the party. Over the course of days, weeks maybe, she broke Ivar, and cursed him to remain in Raven/Human hybrid form but without the powers of flight or speech.
It might be more powerful to go straight Rogue or Fighter/Rogue but I told the DM I was bringing a Ranger, there’s already a Fighter and a Rogue, and I like the Ranger/Rogue’s grab bag of non-combat features. They probably won’t be useful but I like them. For a character name I’m going with Ivarius, Ivar for short. After the violin maker. Because it s Curse of Strahd.
And to think I usually hate puns.
POST TASHA’S UPDATE
I’ve now been in Curse of Strahd as a player for a few months. And it’s great to be back with this group. And I really like my character, Ivar the Wereraven Ranger. My RP of the character is not what I initially intended. Normally when I’m thinking of a PC I think of a couple fictional characters for inspiration. For Ivar I thought of Amos from The Expanse, Richard Harrow from Boardwalk Empire, and dash of Burt Gummer from Tremors.
Amos Burton and Richard Harrow are both traumatized characters. For Ivar I’m kind of putting Amos’s personality on Richard Harrow’s backstory. Amos hates bullies, Amos is brutally honest, Amos is kind of violent sociopath barely hanging on to a veneer of tranquility. Like a beautiful pond with a starving crocodile under the water.
Richard Harrow from Boardwalk Empire is one of the best written characters on HBO’s collection of high budget drama series. The show is about gangsters in prohibition era Atlantic City. Richard Harrow was a sniper during WWI. Like Harvey Dent or Sandor Clegane, he is severely disfigured with half his face missing. Like Amos, he combines lethality with some level of unbreakable morality. You feel a genuine sympathy for the character.
The wounded quality of Ivar doesn’t really come through at the table. I’m enjoying myself when I’m with friends playing D&D so it’s difficult to play a character that’s constantly experiencing grief and loss. I’m also the player who normally chats up the NPCs which is a bit difficult as a Kenku. The last few sessions I’ve pretty much junked that part and said whatever I wanted. I should dial this back.
I started this edit to talk about Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything but we seem to have drifted off. Let’s return to that. A couple months after I wrote up Ivar’s character sheet, Tasha’s was released. The book has a deal of power creep. Characters with this book can simply do more stuff. Barbarians get more skills. Clerics seemingly get a fix for the Forge and Trickery domains with the ability to deal radiant damage instead of the frequently resisted Poison or Fire.
For Ivar, as an archer, one thing I want to use is a new feature for Level 3 Rogues, Steady Aim. If you don’t move on a turn, you can use your bonus action to get advantage on an attack roll. I like this more than the normal hide-and-shoot Rogues, especially the Halfling Rogues who hide behind the same damn thing but no it’s totally surprising when they pop out to shoot for the third time in the row from the same place behind the fighter.
The main reason I wanted to write some more (also because I miss my character) is to talk about the new Ranger features in Tasha’s. The Ranger receives a number of new features that replace features from the PHB. And I go back and forth on what to do with them.
First up, Deft Explorer. This is meant to replace Natural Explorer from the PHB. Natural Explorer gives the ranger a grab of features that work only in a specific terrain, and you get more terrains at levels 6 and 10. Deft Explorer is more instantly useful. You get expertise in one skill and two bonus languages. At higher levels you get different features but Curse of Strahd isn’t going to go that long so this is the only relevant one since I want to multiclass into Scout Rogue. The features from the PHB’s Natural Explorer are interesting but none of these have come up at all during Curse of Strahd. We don’t get lost along the old Svalich Road, we’re not dealing with foraging, overland travel, or tracking in great detail. Taking Deft Explorer seems like a good choice.
The second feature I keep going back and forth on. Favored Foe is meant to replace the PHB’s Favored Enemy. Favored Enemy gives you advantage on Survival and Intelligence checks that relate to two types of enemies. You also learn two languages that your enemies might use. Being in Barovia, I chose Undead and Humans. Humans standing in for Lycanthropes.
Favored Foe on the other hand, gives you a damage bonus for one minute after you hit someone. This is a Concentration effect so it doesn’t stack with Concentration Spells. You can do this, proficiency bonus # of times per day. This benefits two kinds of rangers: people who want more mileage out of their spells so they don’t need to cast Hunter’s Mark all the time and rangers using their bonus action to hit stuff rather than cast Hunter’s Mark.
This is a tough call. I kind of wish they’d just given Rangers the spell Hunter’s Mark as a free action feature proficiency times per day. What really ought to decide the matter is that in the last four months I haven’t had to make any Survival or Intelligence checks about Humans or Undead. But. The +1d4 damage from Favored Foe is less than the +1d6 damage from Hunter’s Mark. And I’m not planning to go above Ranger level 5 in this campaign so the damage is outclassed. And unlike Hunter’s Mark this feature doesn’t jump from enemy to enemy as they die. And I kind of prefer having Four Bonus Languages. So although no one’s going to care or notice if I change my mind later, I’m sticking with Favored Enemy.
Like everyone else the Ranger also gets some spells added to its list. As a filthy multiclasser I don’t have many. I picked the same ones everyone probably chooses, Absorb Elements, Hunter’s Mark. I decided to pick Alarm instead of Cure Wounds, the “Oh Shit Button”. I reasoned that as an archer, smuggler, and now cursed person sometimes leaving the safety of towns in Barovia, Ivar would value being able to get a good night’s sleep.
However, Tasha’s does add one spell that I considered a must grab, Magic Weapon. I don’t think Curse of Strahd is too stingy on magic items but it is for a party with two Dexterity based characters. And it has a potential shitload of werewolves. So finding a silvered or magic weapon is more or less a must, especially with us getting into level 7+ territory when it’s appropriate to use Lycanthropes or Golems against us.
The last feature to discuss, at least, the last relevant one since I’m only going to Ranger 5, is Primal Awareness. This replaces the PHB’s Primeval Awareness. Do these all of need such similar goddamn names?
Primeval Awareness is kinda fuckin’ useless. You spend a spell slot and for one minute you can tell what types of creatures are within one mile. It doesn’t however give you any information on their location or number. If you’re in your favored terrain that extends to six miles, so you need Natural Explorer to get that mileage out of the ability.
Of course, being Barovia, undead are kind of the only thing. And I’d much rather know if there are undead within 1 mile than 6 miles. I actually did use this one to determine that the Abbott in Krezk was a Celestial, but I kinda already knew that since I’ve run the adventure.
The Tasha’s Option, Primal Awareness, would mean more if I wasn’t multiclassing. You can add some spells to your spell list and cast them for free once per day. Being a 5th Level Ranger for Curse of Strahd this means Speak With Animals and Beast Sense. I think if I wasn’t in Barovia, I might take Primeval Awareness. In Eberron it would be invaluable to tell when a Dragon is nearby, shapechanged. But I think the more thematic option for a former Wereraven would be to speak and see through Raven eyes.
That is how I see Tasha’s affecting my Wereraven/Kenku Rogue-Ranger Ivar. The new options are mostly good enough to justify taking. It’s a bit telling that, according to Total Party Thrill, even if a ranger got all of these options they wouldn’t be overpowered. I agree with that sentence.
I always fall too in love with my PCs. I’m sad when I have to move on and write another. That’s one reason I like to DM, it’s easier to let go.