I thought I would take some time to talk about this module, as not only is it a module I’m currently running, it is without doubt my favourite piece of content from Wizards of the Coast/D&D in general.
I’ll start by providing a basic warning, there are no significant spoilers within this post, I will describe the outline of the campaign and some features/aspects but I will absolutely not ‘spoil’ any content as I would hate to ruin this module for anyone. If there is anything close to a spoiler I’ll obscure suitably and you can choose whether to read or not, however I intend to stay away from this as much as possible. I will mark sections which lead to spoilers in red and the spoiler will be hidden in white text marked by brackets like the following example. [You are the best, thanks for reading!]
Curse of Strahd
Initially released as adventure module ‘Ravenloft – I6’ (for characters between Level 5-7) for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) all the way back in 1983 the module has grown and evolved providing multiple spin-offs, attached modules and reprints over the years. My first exposure to this module was with a previous group where the DM had lovingly recreated the module to be playable in 3.5 and my love affair with this tragic tale began. In 2016 Wizards of the Coast answered my many dark prayers and released an updated version of the module (for characters between effectively level 4 – 10 if you include the ‘Death House’ introductory module which is included / freely available). This module is now heavily expanded and has done an incredible job of combining lots of separate elements from across all of the ‘Ravenloft’ modules which encompass Strahd and the lands of Barovia.
There is also an amazing novel known as ‘I, Strahd’ which was released to supplement the vast background of Strahd’s character and Barovia in general, this book serves as a hugely influential piece of lore and is a treasure trove of information for those wanting to learn more or DM games in this setting. I would advise however that players avoid reading this until they have discovered ‘The Tome of Strahd’ in game or it will significantly spoil a lot of game content.
I’ll explain the plot/lore a bit more before I discuss this further as I appreciate there are likely some terms in here which are confusing already……
The story involves a party of player characters (PCs) who travel to the land of Barovia, possibly by accident or maybe even lured there by Strahd or his agents, Barovia is a small nation surrounded by a deadly magical fog which allows entry into the realm, but the only exits are with Strahd’s permission or death (even then this isn’t always true). The master of this land lives in the nearby Castle Ravenloft, known as Count Strahd von Zarovich, he tyrannically rules the entire country both spiritually and physically, and a prologue explains that the residents must barricade their doors each night to avoid attacks by Strahd and his minions. The Burgomaster’s mansion seems to be the main focus of these attacks, and, for reasons that are not initially explained, Strahd desperately seeks the Burgomaster’s adopted daughter, Ireena Kolyana.
During the course of the module, players will visit a myriad of locations/dungeons/temples and over world locations which allow them to explore the lands of Barovia and gain valuable insight into Strahd’s character while ultimately trying to escape, survive or save the land by defeating Strahd and break his ‘Curse’. The basic nature of this curse will be obvious to most however its cause and ongoing effects will not be, not without some investigation and the location of the Tome of Strahd, the major and obvious points, I’m going to hide here in the event you don’t want to know, this is a very basic summary however as the lore behind this is hugely significant/deep:
[He’s a Vampire, but also his curse binds him to Barovia (why he has such power over it) and forces him to witness/suffer roughly the same tragic event over and over again.]
Barovia is a vastly unique setting, it is effectively its own realm which can be cut/pasted into almost any setting with great hooks into any campaign you can imagine. Barovia is effectively in its own bubble, which can overlap with the ‘real’ world at Strahd’s whims or more likely cruel fates. Barovia is an eternally dusky/gloomy setting similar to 19th century eastern Europe/Transylvania, where the sun never shines and a persistent fog lingers across the realm, it is home to all manner of strange and fell creatures ranging from undead to dire wolves and many other classic ‘movie-monster’ tropes such as Frankenstein-esque monstrosities, Shadows and Spectres, Witches, Cultists, Dracula/Vampires, Werewolves and all manner of undead from classic Liches to shambling hoardes of Zombies and Skeletons.
Interestingly Barovia itself is as much of an enemy as any creature you will meet within it as it maintains an eternal twilight/gloom and the land itself seems to respond to Strahd’s wishes, the few remaining ‘human’ Barovian settlements are dire and dismal places where Barovians are allowed to survive in a state of constant cycle of misery and death. However there is some merriment in this dismal land, in the shape of the Vistani, Vistani are human travellers much akin to travelling families / gypsies, these people seemingly thrive in Barovia and seem to be able to leave the land whenever they wish without suffering the issues of the poisonous deadly magical fog which surrounds Barovia, that separate it from the ‘real’ world. Another amazing piece of lore eventually explains the reason for this but for now….. You’ll either have to play or pick up the associated lore, or read over here for a basic explanation:
[The Vistani once saved Strahd while he was human, for this he rewarded them with a debt of honour, allowing them to travel and leave his lands freely.]
One of the unique aspects the Vistani add to the game actually takes place before ‘play’ begins, the DM randomly draws five cards from a Tarroka (Tarot) deck. This is usually done as part of the early campaign phase where the party encounter the Vistani and their famed fortune teller, Madam Eva. Two of these cards determine the locations of two magical weapons useful in defeating Strahd: the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind and the Sunsword. The next two cards determine the locations of an ally who will help in the trials/battles against Strahd and the Tome of Strahd, a book that details Strahd’s long-ago unrequited love and backstory. The fifth and final card selected determines Strahd’s location within Castle Ravenloft when it comes time to face him on his own turf.
As the party journeys through Barovia and the Castle Ravenloft where Strahd makes his home, the party’s main objective will likely be to destroy Strahd and break his curse which surrounds and ultimately controls the fate of Barovia, however without the necessary items or information this is not as simple as most other modules you’ll play from Wizards of the Coast. This is significant part of what I love about this module, is that it truly plays like no other and creates an unbelievably unique feeling every time you play (or DM) it. Why you ask? Let’s discuss……
The first reason I love this module is for one simple reason, Barovia itself, the land you will be trapped in (or DMing in) absolutely sucks. That’s right, it’s awful, it really sucks to live there, visit there, to be trapped there or even ruling over it in some way or another for a lack of a better word: SUCKS.
Confused yet? Well it gets even worse, Barovia technically speaking is a poor country, what little wealth can be found is meagre at best and rarely worth clinging to as it’ll likely cause greater misfortune later. The land itself is in a perpetual state of gloom/death/decay which even deities/gods seem unable to pierce, this means very little grows or survives here and what does is rarely ‘good’. The country is sparse, mostly filled with heavy/looming forests hiding awful monstrosities; there are few significant settlements, most of which are near impossible to defend in any meaningful manner and most of which contain little of value. The people of which live in a state of constant misery, fear or absolute madness and the land itself is seemingly resistant to any changes which may improve it.
So why is this good? Easy, it flips the D&D narrative on its head, gone are the days of high adventure with magic and sorcery abound, where easy answers or aid can be found lurking around each corner
in a local shop, a friendly NPC’s house or even within a players spell list. Barovia introduces desperation, exhaustion and corruption at every breath. There are little to no ‘easy’ answers in Barovia as even the most basic spells are significantly altered, simply because of where you are. (The module itself lends great advice for DM’s on how to implement this). It also makes seldom used features like exhaustion/starvation/madness far more prevalent and actually useful tools as some/many are not so simple to be rid of in Barovia. Unlike the ‘real’ world, most issues cannot simply be wiped off your sheet a few minutes later, this module will stick with you if not in game terms but then as a player…. Speaking of which…..
Next up, the entire story and campaign is a tragedy from start to finish, players will likely suffer many tragedies while they are here and the entire module can and likely will end in some kind of tragedy, (in some cases very quickly). Why is that good you ask? Again it flips the narrative on its head which is something I’m a huge fan of. Unlike other D&D modules where there are clear lines between heroes and villains or ‘good and evil’, the Curse of Strahd modules have an amazing ability to completely blur those lines into a million shades of Barovian Grey. There are few endings here that will be as clear as ‘the good guys win’ and it’s incredibly unlikely you’ll ever pull an ending like that off, this module will change you and your character forever, those distinct ‘alignments’ will blur and bend to the point that you’ll have rubbed a hole into your character sheet where it used to say ‘ALIGNMENT’.
The entire backstory, story choices, player options and setting have hundreds of methods to swing and challenge players, you will find a multitude of opportunities to mess with or really grow characters within this setting, whether this is through the corrupting touch of Barovia and its denizens or via the vast array of morally ambiguous characters and their social/emotional drives. I’ve played through this campaign successfully a full 3 times and I’m working with one group currently for a 4th time (not to mention a few groups who died trying, Barovia and Strahd are not kind) and every time it has been vastly different, not only from a play point of view but from character adaption. I’ve seen similar characters buy into the sad or tragic backstories of NPC’s and take completely opposing stances/actions, lots of which I’d never have thought of (even after 15+ years this module, in its various forms, has never failed to surprise me) or they have developed emotional connections again unlike anything I’ve seen in other modules.
To get this point across it is worth mentioning that actually the main drive for this article and this section actually came from this Monday nights Curse of Strahd session, (the group for which are absolutely incredible and are pulling off my favourite run through yet), as we settled in for a game the group came together in one of the main villages to collect their thoughts and gain some perspective on what has been occurring across Barovia in light of their recent actions. Ultimately they learned that while the majority of their intentions across the campaign have been for ‘good’ few of these have ended well, most in the longer term have ended in tragedy, death or heartbreak. As we sat and mulled this over and progressed through the night, I had a moment where I began to feel a bit bad as my players seemed to be a bit dejected, so I decided to talk it out and the realization wasn’t so much that I wasn’t DM-ing well (phew!) it was actually that emotional investment was causing this dejection, the players were feeling terrible out of game for what their actions had caused in game. Now don’t get me wrong, all D&D campaigns will have a level of emotional investment although this is usually centred more on their own characters, close NPCs or the party, this was something uniquely different this was investment in the setting/land/campaign and that while obviously distressing, I must admit was an incredible feeling, that players had become so invested that it affected them out of game. (I don’t like the concept of upsetting people, but thankfully this is much different).
I’ve achieved similar effects in other games/campaigns, but admittedly nowhere near to this level or scale and again I can’t stress how much the setting/story makes this possible (along with quite frankly, incredible players), I doubt I’ll find another module to do this so simply/effectively and that always encourages me into using this module as much as possible….. but wouldn’t that get boring? Well let’s talk about something else…..
While debatable (as anything RPG related can be), I maintain the stance that this module is quite literally the most versatile setting/module that has been produced, in particular for 5th edition (I’ve run all the main modules currently available except Avernus…. which is relatively new but will happen soon likely). While all of the pre-generated modules/adventures are great and obviously re-workable, I think you’ll struggle to find one that achieves this effect as well as ‘Curse of Strahd’. As I mentioned early on this setting and the routes into this campaign are easily and effectively designed, the book itself lending great swathes of information on how to interlace this into any campaign, some of these I have used before but most to be honest I’ve developed myself in addition quite simply because this module is so darn versatile that it allows so many additional options like this. One of the more interesting options available is actually a pre-cursor adventure known as ‘Death House’ which allows a group of level 3-4 players to take on an early entry to Curse of Strahd by playing out an adventure in a ‘Haunted House’ style adventure which can result in their transportation to Barovia or if you find your group unhappy with this adventure, allows you to spit them back out in the world they know and love. (Although I’m yet to see Death House / Strahd fail to grip a player).
When it comes to manoeuvring/battling in Barovia, there are countless options on how this can be run and the setting lends itself beautifully by allowing you to expand or shrink the campaign to suit, the content itself can be made easily modular to allow chops and changes and the ever-growing collection of lore and the deep history of this module allows you to explore just about every option you could imagine. The versatility within the setting is staggering, as mentioned the ability to re-sculpt spells to affect players and the persistent effects of Strahd’s rule over the land will allow you to achieve or conduct effects unlike anything you’ve ever seen in any module you’ve played previously making combats and roleplay immensely powerful and engaging very easily.
Finally in roleplaying terms the module allows you to use or adapt the lore as you see fit, to include as much or as little as you like, but the ‘main’ characters and the majority of NPC’s within ‘Curse of Strahd’ are incredibly well flushed and rounded out, your players will never find themselves short of roleplay if that’s what they prefer and the actions/relationships taken within Barovia, even small ones, can have significant effects, making every choice, even small ones that much more powerful. This makes DM-ing these sessions intense but incredibly rewarding when the group does choose to engage this, I’ve seen my combat focused groups have their heads turned in this setting and spend entire sessions avoiding combat to discuss/explore and I’ve seen the opposite happen too as there is no shortage of conflict in Curse of Strahd either….. which brings me to my final point……
Count on him
Count Strahd Von Zarovich is quite possibly the most interesting and unique “big bad’s” (if you want to use simpler terms) across the current pool of D&D big bad’s. First off while he is a major source of the conflict within Barovia, he is not as simple as just being the ‘bad guy’. His character, motivations and actions are uniquely his own and while many seem detrimental to the party or Barovia itself, this is not always true, blurring the lines of black/white into that pale Barovian Grey you will come to grow and love. He offers DM’s thousands of options and actions and makes for a consistent/Omni-present force working/scheming throughout the campaign. He can be used to harass, destroy, rule, disappear, provide dark dealings, trick, disguise and even directly aid/help the party where required all to achieve his own ends, his motivations and actions across the campaign can change in response to the characters actions and in some cases his motivations/drives can be sympathizing, understandable or even agreeable to those with more open alignments or character. I wish I could expand this section much more as I could discuss Strahd for hours but I don’t want to risk spoiling any more than I have. (I may revisit this in a separate article sometime) but I genuinely urge you to explore his rich history if you intend to run this module (read I, Strahd. PLEASE!!!) and for players if you intend to play it learn as much as you can in games and the second you pick up the Tome of Strahd in game (or after the campaign is over) I would encourage you also to read I, Strahd or delve further into the lore via older modules/content.
#1: If you aren’t currently playing Curse of Strahd, start begging your DM to run it.
#2: If you are a DM (or a player willing to make the jump), run Curse of Strahd as soon as possible.
#3: If you are in the middle of a Curse of Strahd campaign, keep playing until you meet one of the criteria above and repeat until the inevitable heat death of the universe. As you’ll still enjoy it the millionth time around, I personally swear this.
#4: If you’ve never played an RPG/D&D and you are reading this, you are now obliged to the first two rules listed above. (Also thanks for reading even though you don’t play.)
#5: You must now keep reading my blog for more amazing articles and content…… okay, I’m chancing my hand a bit there….. thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time!