from Wizards of the Coast
Review by Kat @SunsStepchild
Curse of Strahd (2016) is a 256 page campaign adventure for 5e D&D characters level 3 to 10. It is based on the original 1983 Ravenloft module by Tracy and Laura Hickman for 1st edition D&D and huge parts of CoS are lifted directly from this and other editions of Ravenloft.
The lead designer of Curse of Strahd (CoS) is Chris Perkins, senior producer for Dungeons and Dragons 5e. Cap’s already done a review on him here but I actually know him better from Dice Camera Action (DCA), a real play D&D twitch and youtube series where Perkins DMs Curse of Strahd.
Meat of It
So I’ve now run Curse of Strahd for 2 different groups, one once a month, in real life and another pretty much weekly on roll20 and both are near or at the end of the adventurer.
At the start of CoS, they PCs are whisked away into the demiplane of Barovia, a cut-off shadowy realm where the sun never shines, expressionless locals go about their dreary lives, and werewolves and undead haunt the land.
The first sight of civilization the PCs encounter is the village of Barovia where they meet Ismark, son of the Burgomaster (mayor) and his sister Ireena, a beautiful recently orphaned woman who is being hunted by Strahd Von Zarovich, an ancient, cruel vampire who rules this land from Castle Ravenloft which looks down on the miserable village from the dark cliffs hundreds of feet above.
Strahd & Ireena (SPOILERS)
Unknown to both the players and most citizens of Barovia, Ireena is the reincarnation of Strahd’s brother’s betrothed, Tatyana. Over 300 years ago, Strahd’s younger brother Sergei returned to the castle with Tatyana, a strikingly beautiful peasant girl from the village. Strahd was instantly smitten and for months wallowed in anger and bitterness, longing for a way to make her love him over his brother.
One night, as he searched for a love spell or a way restore himself to the vibrant youth Tatyana shared with Sergei, Strahd was approached by… something. In the early editions of Ravenloft, and the novel I, Strahd, the entity that approaches Strahd is merely named Death. In CoS however, it’s implied to be a Vestige trapped inside the Amber Temple (a secret dungeon filled with secrets and dark power).
Strahd was then offered the gift of vampirism, which he fully accepted after murdering his brother on his wedding day. *That same day, the Castle’s inhabitants and wedding guests were massacred by the Dilisnya Family, a noble mercantile family from Strahd’s homeland in revenge against the Von Zarovich Family and to seize the lands of Barovia for themselves. When Tatyana learned of Sergei’s death and that capture by the Dilisnyas would end in her death or torture, she fled from Strahd and threw herself off the Castle’s balcony to the misty ravine, thousands of feet below. In a furious rage, Strahd fully accepted his vampirism and single highhandedly slew nearly every member of the traitorous Dilisnya Household, capturing several to feed on over the next several months.
Marina of Berez (SPOILERS)
He never found Tatyana’s body in the ravine below Ravenloft and fell into a deep depression, letting his citizens to fend for themselves. Decades later, while visiting the Burgomaster of Berez, Strahd found himself face to face with his beloved Tatyana. Only she hadn’t aged a day and introduced herself as Marina, amnesiac ward of the Burgomaster and had no memory of Tatyana or Sergei and only a strange sense of familiarity with Strahd. Strahd set about wooing Marina and transforming her into a vampire but his plans were detected by the local priest and the Burgomaster who staked her before Strahd’s last visit. When Strahd arrived, he corpse once again vanished without a trace. In a rage, Strahd killed every single inhabitant of the village, leaving it a ghost town occupied by hags, witches, and scarecrows, by the time the PCs arrive.
*Note: The Dilisnya’s massacre is not mentioned in the 2016 CoS but is referenced in some earlier edition Ravenloft supplements as well as the I, Strahd novel.
At the start of the adventure, Strahd has already visited Ireena a few times and to protect her, she and her adopted brother Ismark has barricaded the house, covering every inch in holy symbols. Recognizing the party as capable outsiders, Ismark immediately approaches them and begs them to escort his sister away from the village to one of the other villages, either Vallaki or Krezk. In exchange he offers to accompany the party on their adventures once Ireena is safe (although some might have him offer gold to greedy parties).
Ireena McGuffin Kolyana
One major complaint about the module that I have is that while Ireena’s story is compelling and interesting, she behaves as little more than a McGuffin, a helpless woman cursed to be victimized by an obsessive vampire and then die over and over endlessly. She has little to no personality, not even any Ideals/ Bonds/ Flaws like those given in the back of the book for other NPCs (although Ismark is not given these either). In my games I roleplayed her as brave and stubborn. Tired of being the victim she took up her adopted father’s ancestral longsword (which I treated as a rapier) and waded into battle alongside her brother and new companions (though I typically had Ismark ready his action to attack any creature that targeted Ireena because a] it’s what any good brother would do and b] she has *very* few HP).
Although detailed early in the book, in Chapter 4, it’s recommended the party not visit the Castle until they’ve gained a few levels. The Castle can be very dangerous or easy as pie, depending on how the DM and players react to things. The book states that Strahd invites the party to dine with him early on and while they are his guests, neither he nor his servants will harm them. That said, the Castle is specifically designed to be a one way trip. Many traps only target those attempting to leave the castle and the creatures and traps within can be *very* dangerous.
The town of Vallaki will likely soon become something of a home-base for your party if only for the sheer number of NPCs that live here as well as the comfortable inn and protected church. When the party first arrives here, they become aware that not only is the town in turmoil because of the Burgomaster’s obsession with festivals and forcing his citizens to be happy, but that Strahd himself is plotting to destroy the only place in his domain that Strahd cannot enter, Vallaki’s sanctified church. The town is filled with scheming NPCs, helpful but secretive allies, and plenty of leads on where to go next from here.
Old Bonegrinder (SPOILERS)
Chapter 6 introduces a strange dilapidated windmill, which the party can easily spot on their way to the village of Vallaki. The PCs are still relatively low (3rd or 4th) level at the point they notice this place, the natural curiosity of players will lead most to investigate. As a DM, you must either a) plan this encounter in a way that either weakens the windmill’s inhabitants or gives the PCs an incredible edge either with a helpful NPC or item or b) STRONGLY DETER them from exploring. The inhabitants of the mill look to be sweet old crones but are actually 3 (THREE!!!) CR 5 night hags in disguise.
The book recommends the party be of 4th level or higher before entering here. For those curious, an encounter of 3 CR 5 creatures has an encounter level of 13, *SEVEN* times the XP of what would constitute a hard encounter for a party of 4 4th lvl PCs. To lower the difficulty challenge from Deadly to Hard, the PCs would need to be *10th LEVEL*
For DMs running this encounter, I suggest swapping the night hag stats for green hag stats (dropping the encounter CR for 3 hags from 13 to 8). Alternatively, you might have the PCs encounter the hags in pairs or alone (drops encounter CR from 13 to 9 for a pair and 5 for a solo hag). But yeah, this is easily the most dangerous encounter in the book and requires a lot of work from the DM to warn the players of its dangers.
Amber Temple (SPOILERS)
Chapter 13 details the Amber Temple, a secret dungeon filled with forbidden knowledge and a WHOLE bunch of death traps and powerful monsters waiting to ambush the party. First off, the entire dungeon and surrounding landscape is considered Extreme Cold, meaning any PC without magic or sufficiently warm clothing will likely have levels of exhaustion the WHOLE time they’re here.
The recommended level for this area is 9 and rightly so as the PCs face monsters such as a hidden arcanaloth disguising itself as a magic trap (CR 12), 3 flameskulls (encounter CR 10), and an invisible stone golem (CR 10). But by far the most deadly encounter in the area is a cursed magical staff. The staff is imprinted with it’s former users’s personality giving the first character that touches it the flaw “I crave power above all else, and will do anything to obtain more of it.”
Remember how I mentioned earlier that the Amber Temple is a place filled with Dark Power? Yeah, that’s kind of a big deal. Inside the temple are numerous dark artifacts that creatures can accept Dark Gifts from, powerful abilities that allow them to cast spells, improve their ability scores, and protect themselves. The downside? Each Dark Gift comes with a downside, usually a physical deformity marking the individual as cursed. The real kicker though, is that evil corrupts. Each time a non-evil creature accepts a Dark Gift, they risk changing their alignment to evil. Once they turn evil, they become an NPC under the DM’s control. What this means is that whatever poor sod picks up the staff is very likely to have their PC’s personality and alignment change before having their PC taken away and they are forced to make a new character while the rest of the party has *no idea why this happened*.
In my game, the party bard picked up the staff. He then proceeded to take nearly *every single* Dark Gift he could because he was committed to RPing it properly. His fellow party member paladin stood back and let him corrupt himself (I think the player was worried that stepping in and stopping him would violate player agency) before the paladin and rogue decided “He chose his path” and abandoned the bard at the temple without telling him. This will likely lead to the bard to falling further into his corruption, believing his friends abandoned him for no reason. Right now the paladin and rogue are headed to try and redeem a corrupted NPC in the area (no, they don’t see the irony in that) and the power hungry bard is considering taking on Strahd alone, now that he has so much power. Yeah, next session is gonna be *interesting*.
I love this adventure. It’s not ideal for new DMs and it can fall apart quickly, forcing the players and DM to work together to keep focused on the goals of the campaign but the open-world quality means that every time you play CoS it feels completely different.
I do wish the book chapters were ordered differently, if nearby places were grouped together (Ch. 9 Tsolenka Pass with Ch. 13 Amber Temple and Ch. 12 Wizard of Wines with Ch.14 Yester Hill). Better consolidation of NPCs and locations in each Chapter would also be very useful. It’s a huge pain trying to flip through the 29 page chapter on Vallaki to find the name of the Burgomaster’s son. In my book I keep an index card or post it note in each chapter detailing key NPCs and pg numbers and locations on the back.
While the maps are all beautiful, the isometric maps of Ravenloft make placing tokens on roll20 a nightmare and impossible at an actual table, and I often had to use top down maps from other sources. Also, several maps (particularly Ravenloft and more so Yester Hill) are so incredibly huge that the map is pretty much worthless. Each square on the Yest Hill map is FIFTY FEET. Both my groups ran this entire encounter in theater of the mind just because it was useless to bother placing tokens unless i wanted to completely redraw the map on the fly, based on where my PCs wanted to go.
Last word of warning, CoS is *deadly*. Your PCs will eventually roll death saves, they will likely die, and it might not be easy to bring them back. Your players should be warned to play it safe and smart and to be aware that running away and coming back when they’re better prepared is a fantastic tactic.
I’ve found several invaluable aids to make my Curse of Strahd game easier and more fun. Here are a few.
- Powerscore’s A Guide to Curse of Strahd, available on DM’s Guild
- A huge compilation of advice articles including player options, pre-campaign homework, and guides to each location. Search “Strahd” in his blog to find articles on Ravenloft supplements from earlier editions, Strahd himself, Dice Camera Action reviews, as well as all kinds of other goodies!
- Paintraina’s beautiful Reddit guide What I have learned from Running Curse of Strahd Twice
- Sly Flourish’s articles Running Curse of Strahd and Pool Table DMing in Barovia a guide to the many factions in CoS and how they react to each other and the PCs.
- Any of the numerous supplements listed here or here
- My favorite published supplements and modules include Domains of Dread, Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires, Expidition to Castle Ravenloft, Ravenloft Gazetteer, and Ravenloft Monstrous Compendiums
Things i made: