The encounters that were met this session were encounters I’d been worrying about probably since I started with Curse of Strahd. With the end of the campaign drawing ever closer, my worries were amplified. Not for me, but for the players.
I think it’d be a real kicker to have journeyed this far only to fall short just of the finish line. I’ve never considered myself to be one of these overly confrontational games masters. I’ve tried hard to not fall in to the trap of the game being a “me vs. them” scenario and instead I’ve always wanted to verge more on the side of cultivating a good story and a fun experience for everyone at the table. That said, I’m not opposed to character death. In fact I think a death at the right time can add a real dramatic edge to the game, it can bring the other characters closer as they fight on with a renewed sense of purpose but all of that comes down to the dice. A GM can control a lot of things when it comes to these games but not those dice!
So when I first read about the encounter in Berez I circled it. I underlined it and I put a big warning sticker over the top. This thing was going to be deadly and the internet seemed to agree with me. Reddit, ENWorld, the Curse of Strahd DM page – everyone was unified under the opinion that this was a TPK maker.
But let’s rewind a little. The group’s first port of call was the ruined home of a dragon, Argynvostholt. Argynvostholt itself is a large ruined house/castle/mansion that has fallen into a state far beyond disrepair. The building is structrually unstable and has seen years of wear and tear, not to mention raids by Strahd’s armies. Haunted by its past, Argynvostholt is home to ghosts and spirits who relive their la
st days on a strange loop.
Aside from the ghosts, the biggest reason to visit this place is for the Knights themselves who have become revenants. Revenants are an awesome concept. Returned to life as undead beings, they have a year to complete their unfinished business before their spirit can move on. Business completed or not. In Barovia however these revenants aren’t clock watching, they’ve been allowed (or cursed) to linger for hundreds of years.
Our group also had their card reading dictate that an ally would be here to help them in their battle against Strahd. Was it the no-nonsense Vladimir, who seemed to lead the revenants or was it Argynvost himself? Eitherway the group were tasked with retrieving Argynvost’s skull from Berez and returning it to the manor. Completion of this quest would prove their worth and they would receive a blessing from the silver dragon. A reward they didn’t want to turn down.
Argynvostholt itself was a creepy place that reminded me slightly of the Death House. Lots of cool little tidbits to get the players thinking and I liked how the visions of ghosts played out. My issue with it as written is that it was needlessly big and empty. There are so many rooms that have absolutely nothing in them, running this like a standard dungeon crawl would have been a drag. I decided to group large clusters of rooms together and give an overall description of how they’d appear, noting anything peculiar or anything that stood out. I think it worked. There just wasn’t enough here to justify it which is a shame, I quite liked the whole premise of these knights and would have liked to have seen their base fleshed out a little more.
Onward to Berez
Berez then. The nastiest place in all of Barovia. Once a thriving village the town collapsed into ruin following the death of a girl named Marina who Strahd thought to be yet another incarnation of Tatyana.
We had a cool moment here with Zook who had been finding clues about his past throughout the campaign only to discover this was once his home. Grom, our Druid sent out some invisible pixies to scout the rest of the swamp in the interim only to find that they hadn’t all returned and the ones that did were terrified of what they’d found.
They should have been.
Morgantha, the hag the group had let go earlier had made numerous comments about an “ancient one” in the swamps and she reprised her creepy, child catcher role here too as the group caught her off guard singing a song about cooking babies.
Alarmingly that wasn’t what caused them to attack. Nope. Eat all the babies you like but don’t dare sacrifice a goat, not when Grom is around!
Combat exploded far sooner than I’d expected and it was really going to hinder the group further than they were going to be anyway. Getting the jump on Morgantha caught her by surprise, she got off a few spells but didn’t serve as much more than a sponge to absorb those tasty spell slots. It was Jack who discovered the nearby hut as he repositioned himself in combat and in doing so, discovered Baba Lysaga.
Baba Lysaga is an amazing character who I was looking for to roleplaying but never got the chance. Her history and back story was really well told and I was going to seriously enjoy toying with the party. Especially with her intelligence score of 20.
The battle with Morgantha rolled over to Lysaga and her swarms of insects and then inevitably her hut. I’d made a prop for this which worked like a cardboard transformer. It started off as a hut but then had clip on legs and also a working hidden trap door that housed the gem which kept it animated.
I held no punches here and this battle took the group to their limit. Everyone went unconscious numerous times. Spell slots were waning and the damage dealt by the hut combined with how difficult it was to hit Lysaga in the flying skull of Argynvost was mental.
I tried to offer the group a few hints about maybe climbing the roots of the hut when I saw them in trouble but a series of unlucky rolls and not quite following what i was saying lead to further damage all round. Eventually the hut was breached and the trapdoor and it’s gem discovered. The hut crashed to the ground in a heap and after that Lysaga was taken care of pretty swiftly, despite using her highest level spells.
The group survived. Just. Next stop is Castle Ravenloft for the wedding of all weddings… I hope they know what they’re getting themselves into.