The Song of Aracos

Curse of Strahd is one of my fondest D&D memories. Who am I kidding, it’s my favorite.  But that was also years ago.  It’s seductive to drink from the fountain of “Remember When?”  So I felt a nice little nostalgia jolt when our Curse of Strahd DM needed a break and I got to run “The Song of Aracos”.  This is a level 6 adventure set during Curse of Strahd.  You can find it on the DM’s Guild for five bucks and it’s an absolute steal.

This is going to contain spoilers for the adventure so let me just put the TL: DR here.  Buy this.

The premise of the adventure is that the PCs find a little town in Barovia named Aracos where something strange is happening to the soulless people there.  One piece of lore about the Ravenloft setting, there’s a fixed number of souls there and they’re continuously reincarnated into new people.  The setting itself creates new people without souls like random NPCs in a Grand Theft Auto game.

So Aracos is a village where a Bard has wandered in from outside Ravenloft.  Like Curse of Strahd PCs (probably) The Bard is not a native to the setting.  His name is Tarin Nightingale.  The Bard starts playing at the local tavern in Aracos when something wondrous happens.  The unmoored souls of Barovia start joining with the soulless people because of Tarin’s music.  They begin to experience pleasure and happiness like a gothic version of Pleasantville.  

Aracos is also home to two other NPCs of note.  The first one is Vasha, a woman who had a child with Strahd when they were both human, hundreds of years ago.  She’s been cursed with immortality and is now just an old herbalist living outside Aracos. The second NPC is Talaitha, the daughter of Strahd and Vasha.  She died at age 4 but lingers as a ghost.  This is the Dark Powers trying to torture Vasha who can’t interact with her daughter’s ghost at all.

The setup in this adventure is obvious if explained out loud.  The Bard’s music is joining souls and soulless.  A mother prays for her daughter, the daughter wants her mommy.  Neither can achieve the peace of death.  But there’s a complication and in Barovia that complication is Strahd.  Actually, it’s the Dark Powers who mess with Strahd.  Strahd and his Vistani minions are your antagonists preventing the PCs from joining the little girl’s ghost and her mother with the bard’s magic.

I love the structure of this adventure.  Every potential scene is very clearly laid out with all the NPCs, their motivations, and what the writer expects the goal of the scene to be.  YES.  YES.  This is great.  Normally the best practice is to throw the PCs into a situation to see what they do.  But when I’m paying for an adventure I kinda wanna pay for someone else’s opinion of how that situation should go.  And while every scene has a script to work from, these are situations. It’s not a railroad adventure.

Like Curse of Strahd there’s also some randomness introduced by a Tarokka deck reading at the start.  The cards tell you what Strahd’s actions are in the adventure.  Does he attack the PCs?  Does he try to recruit them?  How does he view Vasha and Talaitha?  How does he view the bard Tarin Nightingale?

I was scared to run this adventure.  If you recall, I was the guy who concluded from Descent into Avernus that I am a bad fit to DM my particular home group.  I gel better as a player in that social dynamic.  Nevermind that Descent requires a ton of work and player buy-in to run in a way that’s fun for everyone.  I felt like I failed and so I wanted to see if I could still do this DMing thing.  So I had a lot of ego riding on this one.

One benefit this adventure has: no maps.  There is combat here, potentially intense combat, against Strahd and his minions, but the areas are small and devoid of terrain features.  There’s really no need for a grid.

The adventure isn’t completely flawless even though it’s damn close.  Some of these problems were because of how long our group had to game.  This is probably a six to eight hour adventure.  Definitely too big for one of our usual 2½ to 3 hour sessions.  I had to make some heavy cuts to fit this into two sessions and most of those came from potential combats.  I know I’m fine cutting combat but the players who make Combat Monster PCs might’ve felt bored with that.

The opening scene introduces an NPC named Bogan being attacked and a combat scene ensues.  Bogan dies of the wounds shortly after.  This brings up a perennial problem in D&D: having stirring death scenes when someone can cast Spare the Dying or other healing spells.  Bogan dies of plot wounds.  Sorry.  It can also be tough to get across to the PCs what is going on in this Aracos situation but being explicit about it ruins the mystery.  There isn’t a clear cut way to say, “Bring Vasha and Talaitha to the tavern and let Tarin’s music join their spirits because that’s what Tarin’s music does.”

Another problem here is the Tarokka reading.  If I did adventure again, I would find a way to shorten this scene.  The scene where the PCs have their fortunes told is clunky.  The number of cards drawn is the same size as Madame Eva’s. It’s all metaphors and they’re much more vague than Madame Eva’s.  None of this is going to stick with the PCs.  This reading is great for the DM to plan out the adventure but it felt boring at the table for me.  If I’d had more prep time I think I would’ve drawn the cards before the game and written out a more concise speech that gives the same information.

Also like Madame Eva’s drawing, and I hate to say this, but there are some duds on the potential fortunes you can get.  It’s possible that Strahd takes no interest in one of the NPCs or the PCs themselves.  That’s kinda lame!  In the same way that it’d be kinda bullshit to get the Sunsword and Holy Symbol in the first few scenes of Curse of Strahd, or have the PC’s Ally be someone they don’t care about or someone that might outshine the party (Ezmerelda or The Mad Mage), or to fight Strahd in some small room that denies everyone the Duel of Fates style conclusion they deserve.  You want the randomness to inspire and prompt but also to deliver something satisfying.  And you want it in under 20 minutes.

I cut down the combat heavily to move things along.  In the second combat, I knew 8 swarms was going to be too much for our party of single target warriors and I thought hellhounds felt derivative after using Death Dogs in the first encounter.  Strahd and a couple swarms felt like plenty in that scene.  I’m also gun-shy about throwing a high deadly encounter at this table because some people build Combat Monsters and if the DM goes High Deadly the PCs go High Deadly right back.  Then you’re in a two hour fight that goes far longer than the story value of the scene.

The PCs figured out some likely people to talk to pretty quickly.  It’s almost a handwave that the investigation part of the adventure takes days and days to conclude.  The point of it taking days and days is that Strahd is visiting the Bard Tarin nightly, slowly turning him to a vampire.  I had a good time with the PCs bopping around Aracos checking things out but the town isn’t really fleshed out.  It’s weird that this tiny town in Barovia, land of Gothic horror, has 600 years of town records on hand.

The ending of the adventure was rough in the sense that I knew I would need to cut any combat down for time.  Some of the potential endings are a huge knockdown dragout fight.  The cards for this time did not say that though.  The Tarokka drawing we did gave me the following parameters. 1) Strahd wants to take his former lover Vasha back to Ravenloft, 2) Strahd vants to see his daughter’s ghost laid to rest, and 3) Strahd is willing to let Tarin go.

Because I had very little time to prep and I didn’t really know the character and motivations of the PCs besides their love of “Evangelism and Vampire Killin”.  I kind of had to make up the ending on the spot.  I reasoned that Strahd would make the PCs an offer.  The Bard Tarin goes free if Vasha returns to Ravenloft with Strahd.  He did not tell them he would make her a vampire bride.  Vasha would agree to go if the PCs promised to lay her daughter to rest.  Strahd proposed a way to get that done too, if the PCs go to the Amber Temple they can gain the power to restore her to life.  Which made me cackle internally because I fucking love The Amber Temple.  As a DM at least.  As a player I’m pretty sure we’re gonna die, at least my character will.

I thought it was a pretty in-character offer for Strahd to make and the PCs wound up taking the deal.  Tarin goes free, Strahd’s ex and their daughter go to Ravenloft.  I think I got lucky that the other person in the group who’s played Curse of Strahd wasn’t there because he would’ve rejected this out of hand since, like every deal in Ravenloft, Strahd’s gifts are poison.  But in the moment it made a pretty damn good story.

Tarin departed and gave the PCs his Mandolin which became an Instrument of the Bards.  I am normally the #1 advocate of changing an adventure’s treasure to, you know, actually be relevant to the PCs.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’d be nothing worse than putting something like the Ravenloft Sunsword in some kind of all caster party where no one uses swords.  Since getting a magic mandolin is just too perfect for this adventure I’d say just cut the class requirement for the magic item and make the spells once per day.

So that was our Song of Aracos experience.  Again, this adventure is a strong yes buy this.  It makes a damn good interlude if you want your PCs to dip a toe into Ravenloft.  It also works as a substitute if your PCs aren’t really interested in Krezk, Argynvostholt, or the Winery subplots that make up the level 5-7 portion in Curse of Strahd.  Or if you love Curse of Strahd and want to pad things out another 2-3 sessions, this is a way to do it.  Without hyperbole I can say this is one of the best short stories you can get on the DM’s Guild and it’s only five dollars!

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