“The master of Ravenloft is having guests for dinner. And you are invited.”
Welcome back to Barovia, my friends. Curse of Strahd is here. And it’s great.
The team at Wizards of the Coast has delivered. Curse of Strahd is a super creepy horror adventure that does a lot of new things while referencing the major notes of what made 1983’s Ravenloft a classic.
(Beware: Spoilers ahead!)
The basic plot is the same as both the original Ravenloft adventure and its subsequent iterations: The vampire wizard Strahd von Zarovich rules over the valley kingdom of Barovia while lusting after Ireena, a woman who looks strikingly similar to his long, lost love Tatyana. Adventurers arrive, and Strahd engages them in a game of cat-and-mouse for his own amusement. The players must locate certain artifacts in their quest to defeat Strahd and free Barovia from his curse.
Curse of Strahd is therefore a very open ended adventure.
The book, available now at game shops and out March 15 at other retailers, provides several adventure hooks to get the characters into Barovia and meeting its citizens, but there’s not a particular structure to this story. If they want to, PCs are welcome to march right up to Castle Ravenloft and attempt to confront Strahd in the first five minutes (though that would be an extremely dumb idea).
That said, the story is given a through line when the characters have their fortunes read. Madame Eva (as well as a few other characters) pull cards from the Tarokka deck to reveal fortunes such as “I see the skeleton of a deadly warrior, lying on a bed of stone flanked by gargoyles” or “Search for a troubled young man surrounded by wealth and madness. His home is his prison.”
It gives the adventure structure by laying out locations and people for the characters to visit. They’re abstract enough to force the players to ask around and explore Barovia while they’re at it.
The depiction of the land is incredibly creepy. Streets of the town are abandoned, but you might find ghastly children playing outside. Werewolves roam the woods. The Visanti nomads are often helpful, but many are spies for Strahd. And players will eventually find out not every resident has a soul.
That all makes Barovia a dangerous and exciting land. Random encounters can range from exciting to totally deadly, and if the PCs decide to seek out a particular person or item before they’re at the appropriate level, they could get steamrolled.
A poster map in the back of the book (Hooray for poster maps!) depicts the entirety of Barovia as well as the interior of Castle Ravenloft.
The maps in the book are wonderful, and they provide great gothic horror scenery. (I highly recommend downloading high-resolution copies of the maps from cartographer Mike Schley.)
Unfortunately the maps depicting Castle Ravenloft itself are depicted at 3/4 overhead view rather than top-down. It looks really cool when you flip through the book, and they’re great illustrations that show the expanse of the mountaintop castle very well.
But for those DMs (myself included) that might want to use the maps to play with miniatures, they’re totally useless. I’m going to have to recreate each one of these rather large maps so the players can explore the castle, and that’s going to take a lot of time.
Speaking of the castle, it is filled with cats, spiders, shadows and Strahd himself. The mechanics actually make it so Strahd is the subject of a random encounter. He could show up at any time in the castle (and almost anywhere else in Barovia) and really mess with the players. (Hint: It’s a good idea to have him do that a few times just to screw with them.)
Descriptions of each room in the castle (there are 88 of them; the place is huge) make the place haunting. And I’ll add here that the entire book has great flavor text in general.
The towns of Barovia, Vallaki and Krezk are full of fascinating characters, and the many NPCs will provide some great roleplaying opportunities. The Visanti people in Vallaki and elsewhere in the adventure will be really fun to act out as a DM.
I particularly enjoy the other locales including Old Bonegrinder (a grain mill home to three hags) and Argynvostholt (a ruined mansion formerly home to Strahd’s ancient enemy, a silver dragon).
Each of these ruined locales (as well as a wizard’s tower and a temple) are filled with zombies, hags, ghosts and revenants. And the peculiar forces at work in Barovia have them behave a little differently than in most campaigns. Undead are not so easily defeated.
And I should mention here that the players may not even defeat Strahd. If they face him too early or go after him without the Sunsword, the Tome of Strahd or certain allies, he could easily crush them. And you as DM will have to figure out what to do in that event.
Perhaps a new group of adventurers arrive and attempt to defeat Strahd?
Curse of Strahd does some new and fun things, but if you’re looking for an adventure that stays around Ravenloft but greatly departs from the past, you won’t find it here. This is an update on the original for 5th edition, and it’s done well. But it’s still the same basic story.
This adventure is also going to create a lot of work for Dungeon Masters. Characters could strike off for any part of Barovia they feel like, so you’ll have to be on your toes in case they do so.
The lack of structure could be a problem for some, but preparation should alleviate that. Unfortunately, the adventure doesn’t exactly spell out how to level characters. It says certain milestones should auto-level the party, but XP could handle that in other places. It’s going to take a little trial and error to figure it out as the adventure progresses.
Curse of Strahd says it’s for 1st to 10th level characters, but the Death House mini adventure (available in the book and online here) is confusing me already. Death House says Curse of Strahd can be run from first level if you do Death House first. So why is that not the first part of the book? It’s in an appendix for some reason, and that’s super confusing.
The appendices in the back of the book do include a lot of good stuff including several new monsters (including tree blights, phantom warriors, pidlwicks and wereravens) and NPCs (Madam Eva, Baba Lysaga and Strahd himself, among others). There’s also full illustration of the Tarokka deck and various letters you’ll be able to copy to use as props. (I’ve already done some photocopying.)
There are also lots of good hints on how to run a horror campaign, suggestions for making the scene feel gothic and a character background that may help characters fit into the adventure. (Download the Haunted One background here.)
All in all, it’s an adventure that will surely provide loads of entertainment. I’ve already begun plotting out how to begin the adventure and do a Tarokka reading for my players.
What do you think of Curse of Strahd? Let’s talk in the comments.