Taking some inspiration from Sly Flourish and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I made some changes to Morgantha and her coven of hags in Curse of Strahd as detailed in part 2 of my Curse of Strahd Prep series. By why bother at all? I mean, you just paid a good money for a complete, end-to-end adventure. Why spend the time and energy to customize the story? Well, there are a few reasons that Dungeon Masters would want to make these kinds of changes:
Creative exercise. Perhaps you like flexing your creative muscles, but don’t have the time to create entire adventures from scratch. A good compromise between complete adventure creation and following a published adventure verbatim could be to take areas of the adventure and build them out to suit your liking.
Filling gaps. Creating an adventure that covers all eventualities and completely fills in all gaps would not only burden the designers and editors to the point of absurdity, but it would make adventure prep for DMs into a nightmare. Designers intentionally leave gaps that don’t directly contribute to the story so that individual DMs can build them out as desired, or simply ignore them as desired.
Alleviate tedium. Sometimes a Dungeon Master will, for a variety of reasons, run the same adventure multiple times. Customizing aspects of the story can be a great way to keep the adventure fresh, and to express yourself through the story.
Trick those tricksy players. For whatever reason, sometimes a player will expose herself to the materials of a published adventure. Maybe she played in it before. Maybe she DMed it before. Maybe she is a slave to her curiosity. Who knows. But customizing some areas of a published adventure will keep those players on their toes!
Spoiler Alert! This is an article about prepping the Curse of Strahd adventure, so there are heavy spoilers involved. You have been warned.
North of Barovia, the rocky, oppressive Mount Baratok relentlessly bars passage to all who would try to traverse it. Curse of Strahd tells us that even the wolves–Strahd’s tireless minions–avoid Baratok’s arduous terrain. Yet, nestled somewhere among the uninviting terrain, the Mad Mage of Mount Baratok lives in his extradimensional lair.
According to the adventure, the Mad Mage is none other than Mordenkainen himself! The story tells us that “more than a year” prior to the arrival of the PCs in Barovia, Mordenkainen traveled to Barovia to defeat Strahd and free the people from his crushing tyranny. Having badly underestimated Strahd’s power, Mordenkainen failed and subsequently fled to the mountains where he lives in his grandiose manor, crushed beneath the weight of his failure.
As a kid, Greyhawk was my stomping grounds. In our D&D room, we had poster maps of the campaign world proudly hung above the gaming table. We revered the named NPCs (Mordenkainen, Drawmij, Melf, Bigby, etc.). So I felt like I didn’t want to reduce one of those D&D saints to a simpering husk. I also started thinking about my school of witches beneath the Old Bonegrinder. I liked the idea of having these girls and young women being groomed into powerful, living weapons with a predisposition to destroy Strahd.
But Curse of Strahd tells us that its namesake takes many lovers, then quickly grows bored of them and casts them aside or destroys them. I wanted to have another one of these “indirectly fired missiles” going after Strahd, so I decided to risk a little redundancy for the potential payoff of someone else being groomed as a living weapon, and the subsequent possible synergy with Morgantha’s witches. For this, I took some inspiration from the magnificent 1981 film Excalibur. If you have never seen it, stop reading right now and go watch it, then come back. I’ll wait.
In Excalibur, Morgana, Arthur’s half sister, magically disguises herself and seduces Arthur, bearing a son named Mordred. She grooms Mordred to hate Arthur, raising him as a living weapon to destroy the offspring of Uther, who betrayed her father, Gorlois.
My Mad Mage of Baratok became another one of Strahd’s jilted lovers. I mean, if you leave pissed off girlfriends and boyfriends in your wake as you bound callously through eternity being all emo, you’re going to create some problems for your future self. I decided to name her Helena, an homage to the incomparable Dame Helen Mirren who played Morgana in Excalibur. Helena bore a son, Ronan, whom she has raised to deplore Strahd.
Ronan has no mortal father. He is the product of dark and ancient magics wielded by Helena. She learned these wicked rituals in tomes she discovered in Castle Ravenloft. A crafty old incubus named Sylan fulfilled the magical bargain struck through the rituals, and impregnated Helen. However, she has raised Ronan to believe that Strahd is his father, which is, of course, impossible. She claims that she was able to bear Strahd’s child through a dark ritual.
If such a thing becomes important within the narrative, Ronan will be an Oath of Vengeance paladin who has become very twisted in his vows. He views the destruction of Strahd von Zarovich as the single most important thing he can accomplish, and all other considerations are secondary. There is little Ronan would not do in pursuit of his goal, which might put him toward lawful neutral or lawful evil on the alignment spectrum.
In my campaign, Ronan will likely be found in Castle Ravenloft. He has become a mortal lover to the vampire spawn Escher (see chapter 4, area K49 of Curse of Strahd) in an attempt to worm his way into the inner workings of Strahd’s court. Ronan believes that the closer he is to Strahd, the more information he can gather on his enemy. Helena is vengeful, but she isn’t stupid. She raised Ronan to understand that Strahd is old and extremely powerful. Ronan will not strike until he is convinced he has the upper hand.
There are many other ways that Ronan can be worked into the story, if I feel that such a situation presents itself organically. Perhaps he was discovered and captured by Strahd. The PCs might find him locked in one of the cells of Castle Ravenloft’s dungeon level, or they may even come across him as an unfortunate recipient of attention in the castle’s torture chamber. Ronan may be involved in a campaign of extermination against Morgantha’s witches. Even though they share a common goal, Ronan can be very stubborn and unreasonable; he may have mistaken their actions as contrary to his quest. Once someone gets on this wrong side of Ronan, it is nearly impossible to get back in the twisted paladin’s good graces.
So how can an NPC like Ronan be used to enhance the narrative of a DMs Curse of Strahd campaign?
An ally for the PCs. Presumably, the PCs want to destroy Strahd. Ronan wants to destroy Strahd. That makes for a potential alliance. However, Ronan is self-confident and self-assured to a fault. He also suffers from a severe case of borderline personality disorder. Should the PCs do anything that Ronan considers even slightly off track, he will abandon them at best, outright turn on them at worst. Which leads to…
An enemy for the PCs. Once Ronan gets it in his head that the PCs are not 100% in his camp — and due to his illness, he will eventually come to this conclusion, no matter how cooperative or submissive the PCs are — he will consider them in all ways to be an enemy, and will treat them accordingly.
A bread crumb. The DM may want to draw attention to other areas of the story, and Ronan can be an excellent tool for that purpose. As I noted above, I may want to pit Ronan against Morgantha’s witches, which would make a lot of narrative noise, drawing attention to the coven. Or Ronan might be on an extermination campaign against the Children of Mother Night (see Curse of Strahd, chapter 15).
So that, as they say, is that. As with most NPCs, I will leave Ronan’s important, or lack thereof, to the natural ebb and flow of the narrative. I find that being reactive can be as — or more — important than being proactive when it comes to DMing a complex story.
Check back next week when I really take Curse of Strahd off the rails with a Vampiric Council!