“Under raging storm clouds, the vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich stands silhouetted against the ancient walls of Castle Ravenloft. Rumbling thunder pounds the castle spires. The wind’s howling increases as he turns his gaze down toward the village of Barovia. Far below, yet not beyond his keen eyesight, a party of adventurers has just entered his domain. Strahd’s face forms the barest hint of a smile as his dark plan unfolds. The master of Castle Ravenloft is having guests for dinner. And you are invited.“
Curse of Strand is a D&D 5e horror adventure released in March 2016. This popular adventure is a fun journey with a lot of amazing bonus content and progressive updates to the original material available online.
Our Curse of Strahd Campaign
I DMed Curse of Strahd from September 19, 2020 – October 30, 2022 (yes, we angled to finish on Halloween weekend). This campaign was one of the primary social activities I had during COVID, and during our two years playing together, our group met in person, outside in the park, or online depending upon what was safest at any given point. It was my first time running a campaign, but I had such a fun time combining the original material with bonus content I found online (listed at the end of this blog post).
We started with four players and ended with three, which I think is pretty good for a two-year campaign! Meet the players and their characters:
- Tricia (DM). Although I had experience running one-shots, this was my first campaign to manage. I especially loved roleplaying the following NPCs: Strahd, Szoldar (who took on an outsized role in our campaign), and Arabella.
- Rachel (Ireena, human). Normally an NPC, Rachel infused Ireena’s character with trickster cleric energy, a passion for small business, and an intense hatred of Strahd.
- Frank (Seraphina, half elf). As a Paladin to Athena, Seraphina was a righteous voice for good in a morally complex world.
- Nick (Beldhur, elf). Strahd’s not the only one wrestling with a Dark Power, and Beldhur’s inner evil was a game changer in our final session.
Curse of Strahd is an adventure designed to take players through traditional horror tropes like vampires, werewolves, and witches. We took a more “dark fantasy” approach full of quests and high emotions with a side of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque humor. The characters found themselves in the locked land of Barovia, ruled over by the vampire lord Strahd von Zarovich. He is obsessed with the local woman Ireena, and the players are tasked with keeping her safe from him and, along the way, saving the world from his evil rule! The playable world is a predefined valley with three main towns and a few dungeons, it has a lot of depth that allows locations to feel different when explored with new information. The small world also allows players to feel the impact of their actions, as decisions made in Vallaki have a spill over effect for other NPCs in other locations.
Although the book is designed to take characters from level 1-10, my players got to level 12 because I included the Fanes additional content (described below), and each time the group reconsecrated a Fane location, they leveled up. Actually, Nick ended up level 14, because I offered him additional power if he pledged himself to his Dark Power. During the final battle when all seemed helpless, he accepted the deal!
What Did I Do Differently?
- Ireena was a PC. Making Ireena a playable character rather than an NPC allowed the initial adventure hook to feel impactful throughout the entire adventure. It also raised the emotional impact of revelations regarding Ireena’s surfacing memories as Tatyana, since it was directly related to one of my players rather than an NPC. I highly recommend this change; because Ireena has led a sheltered life in only one town, she doesn’t need to have much pre-knowledge of the world.
If you would like to flesh out Ireena’s backstory and give your player something to base her performance on, Rachel and I created the Tome of Ireena to describe her childhood and pre-story interactions with Strahd.
- The Three Fanes. Using Mandy Mod’s bonus content (related below), I added the Three Fanes into Barovian mythology. This gave the history of the world more weight, further vilified Strahd, and gave the players a concrete way to start changing the world by reconsecrating their shrines.
- Making the Vistani less problematic. Curse of Strahd is famous for its thoughtless portrayal of the Vistani as thinly veiled Romani, and they’re coded as fairly evil, no less! There are a lot of resources online to guide you in changing this dynamic. I kept the group as ostracized for their historical support of Strahd, but took out the cursing and Gypsy descriptions. I also made their support of Strahd much more understandable and sympathetic, to the point that the group made it their mission to reconcile the Vistani with the other Barovians.
- Szoldar became a main character. Szoldar is a wolf hunter in Vallaki with a throwaway description in the original adventure. There is always one NPC in caampaigns like these that capture the players’ attention, and Szoldar was that NPC! Rachel’s Ireena fell in love with him, and they even got engaged in an epic one-shot that Rachel DMed to elaborately propose.
- No Argynvostholt or Dinner at Ravenloft. My players were suspicious of Strahd from the beginning, so they never accepted his multiple invitations to dinner (this may be a consequence of having Ireena as a PC). This meant that when they stormed Ravenloft in the finale, they had never been there before; luckily, they found the castle blueprints in the Amber Temple and could therefore make a plan of attack.
They also never got around to visiting Argynvostholt, which is too bad! I kept reminding them of its existence, but they chose other adventures that wound up leading to Strahd’s increasing wrath, and eventually it became clear that they needed to kill him or risk all of Barovia being wiped out. I think the Argynvostholt dungeon could still work as a post-finale mini adventure if the group wants to get back together to finish clearing out the valley’s last dark spots.
- Mandy Mod’s Fleshing Out Curse of Strahd (free). This is the material I used as religiously as the actual adventure book. Mandy Mod has created an immense “Fleshing Out Curse of Strand” chapters on Reddit that adds NPC personalities and motivations as well as large scale changes such as the addition of the Fanes into the world of Barovia. 100% recommend this should be treated as essential.
- The Interactive Tome of Strand ($14.99). The Tome of Strand is an item in the original book that offers one page of information; this bonus content revolutionizes the item into a book that PCs can enter and live through 14 of Strahd’s memories that really opens up his character and the world.
- Countess von Zarovich ($9.99). This 62-page PDF reimagines Strahd as a woman. This isn’t a surface gender swap; the creators explain in depth how Strahd’s female gender would have shaped her upbringing and motivations. I found this too late for my campaign but will definitely use it if I run it again!
- Landmarks on the Svalich Road (free). DragnaCarta’s CoS expansions on Reddit are often used in place of, or alongside, Mandy Mod’s content. I didn’t find his style as much to my taste, but I did love this Google Doc that adds a lot more flavor to traveling the main road throughout Barovia.
- Visions of the Vestiges ($8.95). One of my favorite parts of CoS is tempting my PCs with Dark Power deals so that they will hopefully unleash one at the Amber Temple and set themselves up as the next Dark Lord of Barovia. This PDF expands on this idea by fleshing out the Vestiges and including artifacts throughout Barovia to bind PCs to their will.
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