Review – Curse of Strahd (Dungeons & Dragons 5E)

After taking a slight detour for the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, D&D Fifth Edition (5E) is back with a new campaign/adventure book, Curse of Strahd, which releases on March 15, 2016. Curse of Strahd is an extended campaign book, taking PCs from around 1-10th levels as they seek a way to defeat Count Strahd von Zarovich and escape the demi-plane of Barovia is his, and now the characters’, prison. Welcome back to Ravenloft!

Warning: This review contains information on some of the plots of the Curse of Strahd campaign. Those who want to play this campaign and know nothing going in may wish to look away.

The Basics

Ravenloft_I6            Curse of Strahd is a 254-page, full-color hardcover that retails for about $50. It also includes a double-sided poster map, with one side featuring a large-scale map of the demi-plane of Barovia, and the other featuring page-sized maps of certain localities. Curse of Strahd expands, updates, and re-imagines the classic I6: Ravenloft adventure, which was originally released in 1983 (the original designers of that module, Tracy and Laura Hickman, served as creative consultants on Curse of Strahd). That module (which later got a sequel in AD&D 1E, an entire campaign setting in AD&D 2E, an OGL campaign setting, and then a D&D 3.5 sequel), centered around Strahd, a vampire with a Dracula-like origin story who now rules over the eponymous Castle Ravenloft and its nearby environs (Barovia), where he is master, but also first among prisoners.

Overview and General Mood

There are a few things that make Curse of Strahd stand out from more standard D&D fare, and also from the other D&D 5E adventure/campaign books. #1 is simply that it is set in Ravenloft, which means the themes and mood are generally that of gothic horror, not the more common sword & sorcery flavor of most D&D campaign settings. On a basic level, this means lots of horror staple creatures, eternal gloom, and visits to decrepit mansions instead of dungeons. On a more subtle level, it means more social interaction, more plotting, and a lack of easy “right” answers in some situations.

curse-of-strahd-cover-artIn addition to the mood, this is also the first real step outside of the Forgotten Realms for D&D 5E. Sure, one of the several hooks for how the characters get dragged into Barovia is specific to the Realms and includes tie-ins to the factions, but once the characters are in Barovia they’re stuck there until the campaign book is over.

Further, Curse of Strahd is more of a sandbox than any of the previous campaigns, even Out of the Abyss, which was pretty free-form itself. The entire campaign takes place in one fairly small region, making it easy for the characters to travel to wherever tickles their fancy, and they will need to visit some of the locations more than once to take full advantage. Adding to this flexibility is the placement of certain plot elements (the locations of three treasures, the identity of an NPC ally, and the site of the final confrontation with Strahd), which do not have fixed locations, but rather are dictated by a tarot reading that an NPC does for the characters (there are dozens of options for the treasure locations, and about a dozen for the other two).

The sandbox nature of the campaign has its usual ups and downs. Luckily, Curse of Strahd does have a handy table giving a suggested appropriate level for each section, making the DM’s life a little easier. There is still a fine line to be walked, however, between ‘forcing’ the PCs to go to the level-appropriate places and letting the party march to certain doom. There may be some situations where the PCs have the opportunity to flee, but the DM will need to make sure that the players understand that this is an option. While the book encourages the DM to lean towards letting the players wander into things, it’s ultimately counterproductive to let the characters walk into a new region and then trigger some lightning trap that will kill the whole party (oh, and there are traps everywhere, if you like that sort of thing). The rewards for this sort of campaign can be high, but they can require the DM to put in a little more effort to steer things without feeling like they’re steering things.

There’s also a smaller range of levels supported in Curse of Strahd than the other large-size 5E campaign books (the two smaller individual books in the double-book campaign Hoard of the Dragon Queen/Rise of Tiamat were more compact), covering only levels 1-10 (and levels 1 and 2 are only supported by a self-contained introductory adventure). This is one factor in Curse of Strahd having an incredible level of detail in most of its locations (Castle Ravenloft itself is especially loaded).

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This is where I would usually sketch an outline of the plot, but because of the nature of Curse of Strahd, that’s a little hard. The plot itself is extremely simple – the characters are drawn into Barovia, and then must gather information, allies, treasures small and large, and experience, until they are capable of defeating Strahd and (at least temporarily) freeing Barovia from its curse, thus permitting the PCs to leave again, should they choose. For a campaign like this, however, it’s all about how the characters get from Point A to Point B.

In the process, the DM will probably want to use milestones to leveling up, as the actual number of monsters defeated may not be that great for some sections, and the book generally does not give specific experience awards for non-combat problem-solving. Here, Curse of Strahd could use a few more suggestions, as it is not always obvious which actions are intended to be milestones (I must presume that, since the book runs from levels 1-10, the designers did not intend each of the 13 locations to provide a milestone, and yet one of the shortest chapters is specifically noted as being a possible milestone). Added to this is the suggestion that discovering the three plot point treasures should be milestones, which (depending on whether these treasures are randomly seeded in the ‘easy’ parts of the campaign or the harder ones) could mean the characters getting lots of levels very quickly, or not getting enough until quite late; either way this could make the campaign unsatisfyingly difficult or simple for the characters. At the end of the day, I suspect that each DM will need to sit down and come up with their own expected progression in advance, and then change things on the fly if the characters get too far off the expected path. I have arranged the contents discussion below to follow something like what I judge would be a common pathing.

Contents

Introduction and Chapter 1: Into the Mists (~20 pages) – An introduction to the book, Strahd, and the themes and mood of the campaign. The page count reaches what it does because this also includes the discussion on how to conduct the tarot card reading for the characters to seed some of the plot points.

tarokka

Chapter 2: The Lands of Barovia (~20 pages) – This chapter covers the general lay of the land, including effects on magic, how the mists prevent anyone from leaving Barovia, the sometimes soulless and emotionless nature of the demi-plane, travel and random encounters, and what the general groups of citizens of Barovia actually know about their situation. Chapter 2 also provides a guide to the map of Barovia (which is reproduced here in smaller form, in addition to the pull-out map).

Chapter 3: The Village of Barovia (~10 pages) – This village is the likely starting point for new visitors to Barovia (and effectively the required starting point if the characters aren’t third level yet). Barovia primarily exists to introduce the characters to the demi-plane and lay out a variety of plot hooks, including Strahd’s current ‘romantic’ obsession with one of the town’s residents.

Appendix B: Death House (~10 pages) – Death House is the introductory adventure for characters who aren’t yet level 3 (it grants two levels through milestones, although it can likely be completed in one session). It takes place entirely in one mansion in Barovia. The characters are drawn to the mansion by an apparition, and must discover the house’s secrets. It should serve well to set the thematic table for this gothic horror campaign, including an introduction to the concept that doing the ‘right’ thing in Barovia does not make one’s life easy.

Chapter 6: Old Bonegrinder (~5 pages) – As this windmill lies on the road between the village of Barovia and anywhere else (the characters will likely have the chance to meet their first group of Vistani on the way and have their fortunes read, and also the option of heading directly to Castle Ravenloft, a decision that would probably not bode terribly well for them unless the DM has a solid plan to make sure they can get back out), windmills come up in the Death House, and there’s a plot hook in the village related to the residents of this windmill, I think it’s likely that the PCs will end up hitting the Old Bonegrinder while on the road to Vallaki, which is covered in Chapter 5. This location is a fairly straightforward ‘kill the bad things’ encounter, if the PCs are up to taking on the inhabitants.

Chapter 5: The Town of Vallaki (~30 pages) – The town of Vallaki is suffused with evil, both mundane and supernatural. The mayor is a tyrant, but the characters will not get far on his bad side (or, if they are powerful enough, without overthrowing him – which may, it turns out, only make matters worse). There is much more to do in Vallaki than in Barovia; it is a destination in its own right, not just a leaping off point. The party will be with mystery and politics, as well as an introduction to some of the more noteworthy NPCs in the campaign (including Ravenloft’s Van Helsing stand in). There is also a second Vistani camp here.

vallaki

Chapter 8: The Village of Krezk (~15 pages) – Initially, Krezk will likely serve mostly as a place that the PCs cannot get into, with the quest they have to complete to get in driving them to the Winery of Wizards, which will then drive the PCs to other locations. Once the PCs access Krezk itself, they will mainly interact with the Abbey of Saint Markovia, where they must contend with a somewhat insane abbot and his freak show. As with much of the campaign, Krezk features on both side of adventure hooks, with the characters needing to go here to accomplish some goals, but also needing to go elsewhere to accomplish some of the goals found here.

Chapter 12: The Wizard of Wines (~10 pages) – Wine is, sadly, one of the few joys left to the people of Barovia, and the Wizard of Wines winery is where they get it. Unfortunately, the magic that permits the grapes to grow has been stolen – one magical gem taken by each of two hostile groups/entities. This is a fairly straightforward part of the campaign – the vintners are fairly clear good guys, their enemies are clearly bad guys, and the characters will need to restore the wine to score political points in other locations.

Chapter 14: Yester Hill (~5 pages) – A straightforward smash-and-grab by Ravenloft standards, the PCs can head straight from the Wizard of Wines to Yester Hill to recover the first missing gem. Yester Hill is populated by a circle of evil druids, who are up to some pretty creepy stuff.

baroviaregion

Chapter 11: Van Richten’s Tower (~5 pages) – Van Richten’s Tower is a brief waystation, allowing the characters to discover an ally and gather more information on Barovia/Strahd. It is, to some extent, a giant puzzle. It is also one of those places where low-level PCs might get themselves killed if they aren’t cautious enough. Since it is not far off the road between Vallaki and Krezk, a DM warning may be in order.

Chapter 7: Argynvostholt (~10 pages) – This fortress is the home to the fallen remnants of a once noble knightly order. But it is one that the PCs can help restore the honor of. Success at this mission will have significant benefits for the characters, but also requires venturing into Castle Ravenloft itself. Argynvosholt, with its ties to other locations and much of the action taking place elsewhere, exemplifies the interconnected nature of many of the subplots in Curse of Strahd. Like Van Richten’s Tower, the characters may discovery Argynvosholt on the way to Krezk, but will be unlikely to be able to fully face it at that time.

Chapter 15 – Werewolf Den (~5 pages) – If Argynvosholt symbolizes interconnection, then the Werewolf Den is on the opposite end of that spectrum. It does not seem to have much of a tie to the rest of Barovia, and is even physically off in one corner of the map. It is, however, directly tied to the Forgotten Realms-specific hook for pulling characters into Barovia.

Chapter 10: The Ruins of Berez (~5 pages) – The second obvious destination for the characters in order to help the Wizard of Wines, the Ruins of Berez presents a notably tougher challenge than the druids of Yester Hill. The location itself is more extensive than some of the brief chapters, but is ultimately focused around retrieving the magical stone from Baba Lysaga and her animated hut.

Chapter 9: Tsolenka Pass (~5 pages) – This chapter is essentially a lengthy encounter on the way to the Amber Temple.

Chapter 13: The Amber Temple (~15 pages) – The Amber Temple may be the characters penultimate stop before their final foray into Castle Ravenloft, and it is also the part of Curse of Strahd that most resembles standard D&D fair – there is a dungeon-like temple filled with evil, and there is a reasonable amount of monster-killing to be had. The Amber Temple is also a prison for ancient evils, which will be happy to help the characters out. For absolutely free, no strings attached, nothing could possibly go wrong, of course. This presents the somewhat odd situation where there are write-ups of these beings, their gifts, and the costs of them … which the PCs are mostly best off not touching with a 10 foot pole (at least, I wouldn’t want my character taking them).

Chapter 4: Castle Ravenloft (~45 pages) – Although Castle Ravenloft is the most difficult part of the campaign to fully complete (including the final showdown with Strahd), it is unlikely to be the location the characters go last. Indeed, it seems likely that the characters will visit it multiple times before their final confrontation with Strahd, as various quests require some object to be retrieved from here or some action to be taken here (for example, restoring the beacon of hope at Argynvostholt requires venturing into Castle Ravenloft). And that’s setting aside the likelihood of Strahd extending a formal invitation to the characters to pay him a visit. Indeed, even if the party is experienced, running through the Castle in one go would be a challenge, as it is an extensive structure (there’s a reason why this chapter takes up almost a fifth of the book). Castle Ravenloft has 88 numbered rooms to cover, and that’s not counting things like the 40 different crypts and their contents that are individually detailed, but all contained within one numbered room.

Other: In addition to the main presentation above, several appendices present a new background, some unique magic items found in Barovia, and about 20 pages of new monsters and NPCs. There are also a variety of letters and pages then can be photocopied and presented to the players at appropriate times.

Conclusion

Curse of Strahd goes for a significantly different feel from a standard D&D campaign, and it’s right on the money – creepiness abounds, with locations and characters who just drip gothic horror. Groups that hate being “railroaded” will love the sandbox nature of Barovia, which is even more open-ended and interconnected than Out of the Abyss – it’s not just the freedom to pick which large dungeon to tackle first, but a freedom (and probably requirement, really) to wander to and then later revisit various locations. I wouldn’t pick Curse of Strahd as the one 5E campaign I would recommend, because if someone was going to do one thing D&D I’d probably go with something more standard sword & sorcery. But setting that consideration aside, Curse of Strahd is the best 5E campaign book yet.


7 thoughts on “Review – Curse of Strahd (Dungeons & Dragons 5E)

  1. Thanks for the review. Ive already ordered this and am neck deep in Out of the Abyss but hope to get to this one day.

    I particuarly like the idea of a much smaller game area.

  2. I have just finished reading the Curse Of Strahd module and it’s a masterpiece. The module is incredibly well written and detailed, it was an absolute joy to read through. The author’s have created a D&D adventure which is the epitomisation of the Gothic horror genera. Strahd is a brilliant with complex motives, that should be a joy for the DM to play.

    The module contains tarroka cards which change the way the story is played out in every play through. The cards are used to predict the future in the game and hence dictate the course of the adventure. The cards work in a similar way as cluedo cards work in the game of Cluedo.
    The module isn’t too sandboxy and the DM should be able to use random encounters and the mists of Stradh to slow the players progress when extra preparation is needed. There aren’t many magic weapons and items in the adventure and their won’t be any opportunities to buy them once the characters are trapped in Barovia. The general lack of magical weapons and items should ensure that Stradh remains all powerful until the right time and that player characters remain vulnerable to supernatural enemies. There are plenty of spell books and casters scattered throughout Barovia, so spell casters should be able to learn new spells by acquiring them.
    There are some nasty traps in the adventure as the review mentions above, which could kill the characters, but the DM could neuter them so as not to kill the party off if they encountered them at a low level.
    The Van Ricktens tower where the lightning trap is located for example could have a pile of bones and armour around it or may be a danger sign could be left scratched on to a stone of a skull and cross bones. Ezmerelda’s wagon is also a nasty trap. I guess the other thing the DM could do is to move the tower to the middle of the lake and turn Ezmerelda’s wagon into a river boat instead, this would make sense as vampires can’t cross running water.
    Sudden and unexpected death is an essential element of Gothic horror so I don’t think it should be discouraged, however it’s inadvisable to kill the entire party at once. Strahd wouldn’t want to do that as it simply wouldn’t be fun and twisted enough for him. Killing one character at a time and having the other characters witness it so much more horrifying and chilling.
    My only criticism of the module is that the maps for castle Ravenloft have been drawn in an isometric projection, making them useless for table top play and online play. The maps shouldn’t be too hard to recreate in plan, but this is something I would rather not have to do.
    I am really looking forward to DMing this adventure as it has the perfect mix of game and role play.

  3. I have to disagree. This campaign is torture porn for the DM and torture for the players. The problem isn’t just with the difficulty. After all, one would expect this to be one of the most difficult and that’s fine. But it goes over the top in many places. It’s easy to die even after doing everything right. For being touted as one of the most flexible modules, it’s incredibly narrow. Beyond combat, which is often not an option because enemies are ridiculously powerdul, there is often only one viable non-combat solution. NPCs are single minded and unyielding. Argynvostholt is particularly bad. Unless you’re exceptionally well-equipped and high level, there’s simply no way of defeating the keep’s master and his cronies in combat. He’s also utterly unreasonable. What’s worse is that the clues to completing the keep wihout confronting him are thinly spread and it’s very easy to wander into an encounter with him without learning the secret to victory beforehand.

    And that’s really the problem. Curse of Strahd forgets one of the cardinal rules of rpg game design. An enemy can be unreasonable if it’s defeatable, or unbeatable if it can be reasoned down through clever role playing and smarts. Curse of Strahd regularly forgets this. Despite it’s openness, and given the ridiculously overpowered enemies, players are forced to march lockstep to the designers’ often esoteric plans or face oblivion. Total party kills IN THE FIRST DUNGEON are not uncommon, and while I appreciate that a good challenge is necessary to give encounters any weight, there needs to be some kind reasonable design or it becomes an exercise in frustration and defeat. Every DnD game should be challenging, especially one set in Ravenloft. But Curse of Strahd is simply too much and lacks the game design finesse to compensate.

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