My Curse of Strahd

If you play Dungeons & Dragons, chances are you’ve heard of the extremely popular adventure, The Curse of Strahd. It’s one of those adventures that every DM runs at some point, because there is so much opportunity to adapt it to fit what you want, more than most adventures, and you are curious to see how YOU would run it. As of this writing, I am about to run my fourth session, so many of these ideas are UNTESTED, however, after I complete the campaign, I will come back to make comments on what worked, what didn’t, and how I would change it again.

So little of these ideas are originally mine, but just my combination of other influences. If you are interested in running your own Curse of Strahd, I would recommend the following sources:

Before each new section, I plan to go through these guides, in that order, to see how I will prep the next session.

Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.

Bruce Lee

If the names ZookZanna, Yon, or Conall mean anything to you, DO NOT READ.

Story

The story of Curse of Strahd is a very basic recreation of classic allusions popular in most vampire adaptations. However, it is clear, when reading it, that it really started with just a Castle Ravenloft dungeon crawl, and then different creators added different aspects over the years. So there are a lot of different pieces that are not written to be a cohesive piece. So I wanted to flip some aspects entirely, as if the whole thing was written from scratch, with the intent of being a D&D adventure. Because it is one.

First of all, we are going to start on the opposite side of the map, in Krezk to the West, as opposed to the Village of Barovia to the East. This does two very important things. The most important thing it does is ease your way into the darkness. When you start in Barovia, you are immediately hit with all the dread, despair, and hopelessness of the setting, then as you visit other places, it seems like a refuge. If you start in Krezk, you make the players put themselves in that scary environment, knowing their only way out, is through. Also, many tables have a problem with Ireena being the Main Character of the story, as opposed to the actual PCs. Having it so they don’t meet Ireena for several sessions allows them to explore the valley on their own, and then see how Ireena is stuck in the middle, and they then have ideas on where they can bring her.

For my plot hook, I’m using the werewolves that have attacked the “outside world” of Daggerford.

Krezk

So if we start in Krezk, the Baron (Burgomaster) is still very uncomfortable with outsiders, but when the party arrives, the first thing they find are a couple Krezk guards fighting wolves and a werewolf, and everyone is well into the fight, so the party can come in, do a cool attack, and save the guards from certain death. This gives them enough credit with the guards that the Baron allows them to stay in Krezk “for one night.” Over the course of that night, the Baron tells the party that they are the latest in a generations long line of mercenaries that have been trapped, and he tells them all the basic Barovian Lore that is readily available, as well as the Krezk Lore, giving the party a number of plot hooks to choose from.

Instead of the Abbot having a Dr. Moreau vibe, I’m going to have Dr. Viktra Mordenheim, who makes flesh golems (Frankensteins), and all of the Mongrelfolk are previous adventurers, who have died, and she experiments on their bodies, usually based on how they died. Someone who’s legs were bitten off gets new animal legs, someone who’s eyes were cut get cat eyes, etc. Because the valley is so Human-centric, having the Mongrelfolk be dwarves/tieflings/dragonborn/etc will make them stand out, and show that they aren’t so different from the party.

If we are starting in Krezk, we still need to do the Tarroka Reading, but Ezmerelda in the Abbey is a Vistana, and she can perform the reading. If you want Madam Eva to still be important, you can have Ez do an incomplete reading, or have Madam Eva be able to do a more personalized reading, however you feel will be more dramatic. Also, since I want this adventure to feel more intentional, I’m going to have preselected options for the reading. The Tome of Strahd is with Lady Wachter, the Amulet of Ravenkind is in Argynvostholt, and the Sunsword is under Yesterhill. I’m not sure if these will work, but I am hopeful, and they seem more dramatic than being in Castle Ravenloft, or already in the Abbey, or something else boring.

Also, the Baron and his wife is secretly a werewolf, who has mastered his ability to control himself. I’m not fully sure what this will do to the adventure, but it’s a good little seed of drama.

Vallaki

Vallaki is already incredibly dense, and I don’t think there’s much to adjust here, as the political tension between the Baron and the Wachters is really well develped, I feel. I will be adding the St Andral’s Orphanage, but that’s less of a new layer, and more just a development.

One problem I’ve found with Vallaki, is that a lot of stuff happens as soon as you get there, so I’m not going to have the bones of St Andral missing until the second, or even third visit to Vallaki. So the first visit is more about the Festival of the Burning Sun, then I really like the Dark Carnival from Van Richten’s Guide, that will come through, and be the closest thing to a relief session as I can, with games and food, but also evil killer clowns a la Pennywise, before it leaves. Then, the third visit, or week, will be the Bones/Feast of St Andral. I think this will break it up a bit, and not seem like everything is happening all at once.

In Vallaki, Lady Wachter has the Tome of Strahd, and I am intending to run it as the Interactive Tome of Strahd from DungeonMastersGuild.com, where I am going to go full Tom Riddle’s Diary from Harry Potter. Not only will it start with the party witnessing the formative events of young Strahd’s life, but then after, I am going to have Sergei’s spirit trapped in the Tome, so if they write in it, the text disappears, and new text reappears, as Sergei responds.

I’m going to leave a lot of the Rictavio/van Richten stuff the same, but I’m going to put a secret basement in his tower, where he has a lab, similar to the one in I Am Legend, where van Richten is going to be taking some Vistani, infecting them with vampirism, and then testing new ways to cure/treat/kill them.

Barovia

The Village of Barovia is going to stay pretty similar, but now that it is the third town you visit, it really shows the difference of what it’s like being in the shadow of Castle Ravenloft. I don’t want the party to feel like they got pushed into this scary semi-abandoned town, but that they realized they needed to go in, right under Strahd’s very nose, and that anything that happens there is then their fault.

Also, to make Madam Evan not completely ignorable, I’m going to create a Tarrokan Deck of Many Things, a magical deck she has that can change the party’s fate, but not quite as dramatic as the actual Deck of Many Things. They will be inspired by the meaning of each card as described in the back of the book. It’s not finished yet, but some things I’m planning include:

  • Simple stat changes (+/- 2 to STR/DEX/CON/INT/WIS/CHA)
  • Violent Storms rage
  • A local pledges service to you (like a Follower/Retainer)
  • Gain/Lose wealth
  • Strahd is outside, he has come to check on your progress in his valley

There are about a third that are good things, a third that are bad, and a third that just changes the environment/challenges around you, but not necessarily better or worse. I like the idea that when the party thinks they know what’s going on, that’s when things change.

NPCs + Monsters

Replace Baba Lysaga with Baba Yaga. Obviously Baba Lysaga is a Baba Yaga reference, but Wizards of the Coast felt they couldn’t just to Baba Yaga, because she is already in Forgotten Realms canon, and she can’t be there AND here. Well, I don’t play in Forgotten Realms, so I don’t care about that. I’m just going to make her Baba Yaga, and tell the players “Everything you, sitting at this table know about Baba Yaga, you’re characters also know.” This balance makes it really fun, because there are so many versions of Baba Yaga, that those just reflect the rumors their characters might have heard. I can still make changes as I see fit, but it adds a Meta-context to the character.

If Baba Yaga is in this world, then it should be noted that some of that Forgotten Realms canon is that she is the mother of Tasha, from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. If that’s the case, why don’t we just replace Mordenkainen with Tasha, to add a little more drama to the Mad Mage of Mount Baratok.

Why have a hut on walking roots, when you can just do the chicken legs?

While my plan is to run the ending of Curse of Strahd as written, where they kill Strahd, free the valley, but then a decade later Strahd returns, and everyone is trapped again, I’m going to subtly add the Fanes, the three Archfey that used to rule the valley that Strahd defeated to “Become the Land.” If they go down those extra paths, then there is a chance that they could actually free Barovia, actually save the day. Otherwise, they are just the latest in a long line of mercenaries.

Personally, I really like the show The Witcher, so I’m putting two monster allusions from the Netflix show. First, the Brides should be more than just Vampire Spawn, since there are so many of those. Instead, they will be the Bruxa from Season 2, including a cool scream that knocks you back. Then, I want to change the Tree Blight Wintersplinter into a Leshen, but not the Season 2 version, but the anime Nightmare of the Wolf version. Both changes are largely narrative, but with a cool ability change.

Some more MetaHorror I want to add, is there is a Gallows outside of Tser Encampment, that it supposed to have an illusion that looks like one of the party members. An idea I saw online that is SO much cooler, is to have the player’s characters from their previous campaign hanging. If you give their race and an iconic piece of their outfit, then it will be similar to the Sun Tree scene in Critical Role/Vox Machina.

Lastly, I think that you can’t have horror without comedy. While there are surely going to be lots of places with natural jokes, there is one joke that I think will be hilarious, in a very subtle way. Any time any party member mentions the Tsolenka Pass, whatever NPC is around will correct them on their pronunciation. Doesn’t matter who it is, doesn’t matter what’s going on. Just like Nikolaj from Brooklyn 99.

Mechanics

Lastly, a style that I really want to recreate for this campaign is from the Netflix Castlevania series, specifically during combat. So how do you make D&D combat more “anime” without revamping (no pun intended) the whole thing?

First, Hit Points. In D&D Fourth Edition, there was a condition called “Bloodied,” which just meant you were at half your total HP. 4e had a number of things that happen when you are Bloodied, but for this game to feel more chaotic and irregular, whenever any creature, PCs included, reach half HP and are “Bloodied” they can use their reaction for a free Fight or Flight response. Either you can have a free Opportunity Attack (Fight), or a free movement (Flight). More reactions make it feel more chaotic during a fight, but if everyone gets it, then it’s still balanced (enough).

Many of my fights include an obvious leader, and their followers. So if a follower gets Bloodied before the leader, then they will always choose Fight. If the leader gets Bloodied, then they make a decision based on their motivations. If a follower gets Bloodied after the leader, they will follow whatever the leader does. And if a follower gets Bloodied after the leader dies, then they will always choose Flight. This adds a small level of morale and motivation to the enemy.

Also, every monster with a stat block has a HP range, and an average score listed. Before I would just stick to that average, because I couldn’t think of a reason not to. Now, I use all three numbers, the minimum, the average, and the maximum. A problem I always had with combat, is when an enemy was 1hp away from death after a big cool attack, and someone else does a minimum damage attack, but they get the kill anyway. So now, once an enemy reaches that minimum HP range, that’s when the monster is “Bloodied,” at which point any super cool attack can kill them, even if the total damage is less than the average. Then, once they reach that average range, then any decent attack will kill them, as long as it’s more than like 3 damage total. Of course, if they nickel-and-dime the fight, once they get to that max HP, then any attack will do it, no matter what.

You know what else makes a fight seem more dynamic? The Fighter Battle Master’s maneuvers. I didn’t have a Fighter Battle Master in my group, so I decided to go ahead and steal simplified version of those maneuvers, and hand them out based on your weapon. Now, you can perform the Maneuver an amount of times equal to your Proficiency Bonus per Long Rest. If this is something you’re interested in, I’d recommend going through your party’s weapons and give what you think is thematically appropriate, but just for some examples:

  • Shortbow – Commander’s Strike – When you take the Attack action on your turn, you can forgo one of your attacks and use a bonus action to direct one of your companions to strike. When you do so, choose a friendly creature who can see or hear you. That creature can immediately use its reaction to make one weapon attack.
  • Sickle – Disarming Attack – When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can attempt to disarm the target, forcing it to drop one item of your choice that it’s holding. The target must make a Strength saving throw, and on a failed save, it drops the object you choose. The object lands at its feet.
  • Flail – Distracting Strike – When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can distract the creature, giving your allies an opening. The next attack roll against the target by an attacker other than you has advantage if the attack is made before the start of your next turn.
  • Longbow – Evasive Footwork – When you move, you can add your Proficiency Bonus to your AC until you stop moving.
  • Rapier – Feinting Attack – You can use a bonus action on your turn to feint, choosing one creature within 5 feet of you as your target. You have advantage on your next attack roll against that creature this turn.
  • Club – Goading Attack – When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can attempt to goad the target into attacking you. The target must make a Wisdom saving throw, and on a failed save, the target has disadvantage on all attack rolls against targets other than you until the end of your next turn.
  • Longsword – Lunging Attack – When you make a melee weapon attack on your turn, you can increase your reach for that attack by 5 feet.
  • Handaxe – Maneuvering Attack – When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can maneuver one of your comrades into a more advantageous position. You choose a friendly creature who can see or hear you. That creature can use its reaction to move up to half its speed without provoking opportunity attacks from the target of your attack.
  • Greataxe – Menacing Attack – When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can attempt to frighten the target. The target must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, it is frightened of you until the end of your next turn.
  • Shortsword – Parry – When another creature damages you with a melee attack, you can use your reaction to reduce the damage an amount equal to your Proficiency Bonus + your Dexterity modifier.
  • Javelin – Precision Attack – When you make a weapon attack roll against a creature, you can add your Proficiency Bonus to the roll. You can use this maneuver before or after making the attack roll, but before any effects of the attack are applied.
  • Maul – Pushing Attack – When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can attempt to drive the target back. You add your Proficiency Bonus to the attack’s damage roll, and if the target is Large or smaller, it must make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, you push the target up to 15 feet away from you.
  • Scimitar – Rally – On your turn, you can use a bonus action to bolster the resolve of one of your companions. When you do so, choose a friendly creature who can see or hear you. That creature gains temporary hit points equal to your Proficiency Bonus + your Charisma modifier.
  • Dagger – Riposte – When a creature misses you with a melee attack, you can use your reaction to make a melee weapon attack against the creature. If you hit, you add your Proficiency Bonus to the attack’s damage roll.
  • Glaive – Sweeping Attack – When you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack, you can attempt to damage another creature with the same attack. Choose another creature within 5 feet of the original target and within your reach. If the original attack roll would hit the second creature, it takes damage equal to your Proficiency Bonus. The damage is of the same type dealt by the original attack.
  • Halberd – Trip Attack – When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can attempt to knock the target down. You add your Proficiency Bonus to the attack’s damage roll, and if the target is Large or smaller, it must make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, you knock the target prone.

I think that those Maneuvers helps keep the battle engaging, because it’s more than a boxing match, and really feels like something new is going to happen each turn, besides just Roll/Hit/Roll/Damage/Next over and over.

Again, I’m going to come back to this article after I finish Curse of Strahd, which my understanding is it takes anywhere between 6 months to 2 years to see how well things worked.

What do you do to make Curse of Strahd unique for your table? Let me know in the comments below!

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s