I have run the Curse of Strahd adventure twice before. Those who know me and game with me know that it is my favorite published D&D adventure of all time. In my <cough, mumble> number of years of DMing, I have mostly avoided published adventures except to treat them as books full of bits and pieces to be scavenged, like an old husk of a car being stripped for parts. But this new 5th edition line of D&D adventures designed by this new breed of talented, driven, focused designers has given me a new appreciation for running someone else’s story wholesale (with, as you will see, many touches of my own added).
Spoiler Alert: Although I think the statute of limitation for spoilers on an adventure published in 2016 has expired, I nonetheless would like to caution you, gentle reader, that this series of blog posts will contain many.
I knew from the start that running the same published adventure three times in two and a half years would require some personal touches and changes from me in order to keep my own interest level high. In addition, I wanted to take into account what my goals were regarding the players at the table. So a quick bit of history: Up until recently, I was a player in this group. Our DM, Bill, just wound down a two-year D&D 4th edition campaign in which combat and tactical scenes dominated. But I’m a storyteller. Roleplaying and character-development are my watchwords. How was I to take this group and mold them into roleplayers without diminishing their enjoyment of the game?
Smithian economics has a concept called the invisible hand that describes Smith’s theory that people acting in their own self interest actually end up benefiting society as a whole. I decided I wanted to have an invisible hand of my own. I figured, if I could get myself excited with my invisible hand (okay, this is starting to go off the rails), my players would naturally get excited about the story as well. So in an odd way, I decided that one of the pieces of getting combat-grizzled players to sip of the wine of Curse of Strahd was to mold a story that I was excited to run.
As much as I enjoy Death House (the level 1-3 introductory adventure in Curse of Strahd), I decided to bring the group into the adventure already level 3. I felt that Death House was more confined and focused that I wanted to be this time around running CoS. I did, however, put ghostly little Rose and Thorn on the street out in front of their row house for the party to meet as a sort of homage to Death House. They said some spooky things, freaked out some of the characters, and then vanished into the house, which could not be entered by the PCs.
My goals for the Village of Barovia were simple: to introduce the players to their new home away from home. I knew I wanted to accomplish a small, focused set of goals there:
- Get Ireena into the party. She is a major breadcrumb for getting the party to go to Vallaki (and beyond).
- To introduce the characters to Ireena’s brother, Ismark. I plan to do some terrible things to poor, doomed Ismark, so why not get everyone to like him first?
- Have some combat in the church with Father Donovich’s son, Doru, so my battle-loving players could roll some dice and kick some vampire ass.
I didn’t do much customization of the Village of Barovia simply because I didn’t intend to spend much time there, and it’s already an excellent environment because of its simplicity.
In the church, I decided to make Doru younger. The adventure puts him at twenty years old, but children in horror is a trope all its own, so I decided to make Doru a child of “around ten years of age.” We are genetically wired to be protective of children, so I took great delight in the PCs creeping down the stairs into the dark, damp undercroft of the church to deal with a monster in the form of a young child.
Ultimately, I made sure that Doru got away. There was no way that a CR 5 vampire spawn was going to successfully go toe to toe with a party of four 3rd-level characters who have no other battles to fight during the current “workday.” So as a combat opponent, Doru would be just another pile of numbers to be easily dealt with. But the image of young Doru scaling spider-like up the sheer cliff face above the church toward Castle Ravenloft left an impression with the players. And, yeah, you can bet they will be seeing li’l Doru again.
In the village square outside of the Blood on the Vine tavern, I added a circular bench with sets of built-in manacles to secure the ankles of anyone sitting there. I emphasized that the manacles were small. At one point in their travels around the village, the party saw a man securing a small, crying girl at the bench. Naturally, the heroes rescued the girl. That’s when they found out that when a family in the Village of Barovia can’t feed themselves, they will sometimes decide to leave one of their children at the bench for “the Witch” to claim. When they do so, the family is mysteriously fed for a year and a day! Find out next week how I changed Morgantha and her coven of hags in the Old Bonegrinder to make them my own.