Last night was the final session of our Curse of Strahd campaign. The heroes were prepped and primed for one last hurrah, a showdown in the lair of the devil himself – Castle Ravenloft.
Since capturing Ireena, Strahd has busily spent his time preparing to wed the woman he called Tatyana in a belief that doing so would free him from his curse and release him from the prison of Barovia.
Naturally, everyone in Barovia received an invite but no guests were probably more important than the would-be heroes.
One part of the invitation stood out to the players more than the rest though and that was the inclusion of a small caveat that would see them be made to swear an oath of hospitality upon entering the castle whereby their weapons would be confiscated for the duration of their stay. Clearly perturbed by the notion of entering the lair of Strahd unarmed, the group scrambled to come up with a plan which would enable them to sneak their weapons into the castle.
Was too much time devoted to this cause? Perhaps. Afterall, they did have allies at the castle who would have undoubtedly lent their weapons to the heroes. Any castle that’s worthy of being a castle would have an armoury of some sort, suits of armour mounted to the wall with weapons, guardsmen that could be lead away from the main group and bashed on the head for their weapons. There were lots of choices for overcoming this obstacle but for better or worse the group decided to use Grom, their druid to wildshape and sneak the weapons in under the guise of a spider or bat.
The plan worked, the group were able to sneak their weapons in but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened should they have just handed their arms over at the main gate. Their weapons would have clearly been taken and stored somewhere, would this have opened up the potential for some exploration of the castle to be done before the wedding got underway proper? Could they have gained any further intel, found better weapons than those they already had?
As they mingled with the guests they soon realised that they were the only members of the wedding that were unnarmed. Even their allies, the Martikovs had their weapons proudly on display and the Vistani couldn’t help but flaunt the fact they were armed too. The group had been duped. After a short while and after being given the chance to mingle with the other guests, Rahadin, Strahd’s man servant, whisked D’Lyla away to visit the bride whilst the others were greeted by Strahd for a private chat. Again, was there a possibility here to get some scouting done? Would it have mattered? What would they have learned? Strahd promised the players that if they just let the wedding go ahead without interruption they would be free to leave Barovia in the morning and return home whilst Ireena asked D’Lyla to be her maid of honour.
Would Strahd have come true on his promise? Would he have just let them go if they’d stood by and let him have his way with Ireena? Would there have been an opportunity later in the evening to explore the castle more freely or perhaps find Strahd to be otherwise pre-occupied with his new bride? Would that have been the one way to catch Strahd off-guard and literally with his pants down? Sure, he would have guards posted at his room but one has to believe that there would have still be an element of privacy so perhaps the guards would have been at a minimum. If Strahd had somehow escaped this showdown and retreated elsewhere within the castle would a running battle been a better bet than a full on assault against Strahd and his many allies? Clearing the path ahead, corridor at a time, battle at a time? With the Martikovs and Dusk Elves present you have to wonder how this would have panned out as the group scrambled to get to the castle dungeons to catch Strahd.
Unfortunately though, all of those questions will remain unanswered. Our group chose a different and far more fatal path. After learning about the Heart of Sorrow and the shielding powers it granted to the titular vampire the group decided to make this their priority. Not a bad call but I was surprised however when their plan involved sending Grom, in the form of a bat to go and destroy this gem on his own. The importance of this gem was perhaps exaggerated by the Wereravens but I couldn’t understand why that didn’t come with the realisation that such an object may be well guarded. Grom was successful in finding and destroying the gem, removing Strahd’s shield but he sadly perished in the process. This left the group without a key paty of their party makeup and in character, they didn’t even know. Grom died attempting an impossible task that he probably should have never been sent on.
After many discussions during the actual ceremony to end the wedding, the group decided that the odds were too greatly stacked against them and instead sat and endured as the event unfolded before them. Each passing second adding an additional layer of drama and tension to the proceedings. D’Lyla did attempt to stop the wedding toward the key “you may now kiss the bride” moment but tragically failed to roll well enough to hit the priest with the holy water she had snuck in. The wedding was complete. Strahd and Ireena were now married and for all intents and purposes, the group had “failed” in their mission.
Whisked off upstairs, the group were taken to the reception of the wedding where speeches were to be had and gifts were to be given. This was a short lived process though because bizarrely (given their prior decision to hold off attacking Strahd when his goons were around him) the group decided to launch their attack. Now, mathematically this was going to be a tough but manageable fight for the group. On paper they would have been able to scrape by and as Strahd’s instant reaction was to flee with his bride he was instantly removed from the combat along with the newly turned former adventurer, Rhogar. This left our 5 group members against 8 enemies. Not bad odds given that 4 of these enemies had an AC of 11 and 30 HP each, a well timed area spell would have taken these out in one swoop leaving the remaining enemies open to be picked off one by one.
This never happened. The group proceeded to roll extraordinarily low on all of their attacks and spells and it wasn’t long that they were overrun. Between Rahadin’s multi attacks and psychic ability and Arrigal’s poison sword the group were in danger fast. Grom, their often times soul source of healing had died before the fight begun trying to destroy the Heart of Sorrow and Vertiginus would go down next, failing his death saves to meet a tragic end. Shortly after that it was Corus’ turn who was the victim of two consecutive critical hits dealing a combined 60 points of damage. After being assaulted by Vampire Spawn throughout the entire battle it was short work for a nearby Vistani thug to end his life once and for all.
The battle was bloody and messy and not in favour of the heroes. With only three heroes left standing and their resources low, even if they were to survive this fight they were resigned to the fact they would not be leaving this castle alive. They still had Strahd to contend with, his three brides, Rhogar his bodyguard and however many Vistani and vampire spawn that stood between them The game was over, it was a bust and it ended not with a bang but with a whimper. No final showdown, no epic battle in the crypts. Death in a dining hall at the hands of minions and thugs.
Obviously being a game based on chance this was always going to be a possibility but it’s never the way you want your adventure to end. It’s not the way you want things to go down and I couldn’t help but walk away from the game feeling disappointed – not in the guys playing but in the adventure itself.
Curse of Strahd, from the outset is overwhelming in it’s bleakness. It’s unforgiving and harsh and brutal in making the players feel hopeless and as if they cannot win. There is no let up on that front, no remorse, the adventure is punishing but not in the same way a 1980’s video game is. The game is punishing in a way that feels grossly unfair. From the Death House to the Bonegrinder Windmill to the battle in Berez the game constantly pits the players up against odds that they cannot stand a chance against. I had been toning down and outright replacing enemies throughout the adventure and perhaps I should have done the same with the finale but seeing as the adventure is written for a group of four, I assumed our group of 6 would have been fine. Perhaps that assumption was wrong.
I never like changing the difficulty of things. If something is meant to be challenging then I feel as though it’s a disservice to the group if I don’t deliver on that but when the challenge becomes one that is less about skill and strategy and more about the luck of your die rolls then that’s a problem. It’s unfair and lazy design in the worst way. Anyone can pull a high level monster from the monster manual and kill their party but that should never be the aim of either a Games Master or an adventure writer.
I struggle to agree with alot of the design decisions made by Wizards of the Coast throughout this book and whilst the book largely receives positive feedback from the community it has been one of the biggest factors there is in my decision to step away from D&D 5th edition for a while. I feel utterly worn out but the experience of running this adventure. The oppressive bleakness, the setting, the constant uphill struggle, the lack of a reprieve, the lack of fun and hope. I am all for an atmosphere and scene setting, I’m all for a grim world but when that grimness comes with nothing to counter balance it you’re going to get worn out. There were many times throughout this adventure that I struggled to keep going.
I did enjoy the story of our group, I enjoyed the story we told and I enjoyed the adventure we had. The moments we created that were genuinely funny and memorable were fantastic but when all of these moments occurred from things that aren’t published in the book I think you have a problem with the source material.
All in all I walk away from this adventure feeling glad that it’s over and for all the wrong reasons. I woke up today feeling as though a real weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The only way I can describe it is the same way you felt as a kid when you had left a stack of homework to pile up for far too long and then you finally do it. You’re glad it’s done but you can’t say you’re looking forward to doing it again.
I am saddened that the adventure ended the way it did without a satisfying conclusion, a TPK against a group of enemies that were entirely inconsequential to the story is never the way you want to go out. I can’t say my experience of Ravenloft was a good one but it has certainly been memorable. Perhaps on some strange level the threat of death will now be a lot more real to the players going forward, knowing it can happen and it has happened might instil within them the importance of not over thinking decisions but swiftly making the right ones that are relevant on a story basis as opposed to a game basis.
Now excuse me, I need a long, strong drink.