Thursday, June 22, 2017

Curse of Strahd: The Story So Far

New Players, New Beginnings
**Curse of Strahd Spoilers within**
A few months back a friend of mine asked me if I would run a Dungeons & Dragons game for him and his co-workers. It was explained to me that most of the players were inexperienced with D&D and everyone was new to the 5th Edition version of the game. Generally, I love playing with people who are new to tabletop gaming because they tend to think and describe what their characters are trying to do rather than explain things through game mechanics. When this happens the storytelling that is at the heart of everything really flourishes. I was pretty excited by the prospect of converting some people to the satanic vices of D&D.

And being something of a sadist as a DM, I decided what better place to bring them to their first experience than the weeping land of Barovia by running the hardcover adventure Curse of Strahd. For those who are unfamiliar, the demi-plane of Barovia is a terrible place where the sun don't shine and is analogous to the Transylvania of Bram Stroker's Dracula (as is its famous villain, the vampire dreadlord Count Strahd von Zarovich). It is a place where tragedy lurks around every corner and there are no happy endings.

As a demiplane, Barovia kind of show up wherever the DM says it is.

Let us introduce our cast of characters. First in this list is our paladin Reinhardt, the righteous knight and protector of Bahamut, King of the Good Dragons. He is guided by his oath to seek out evil and defeat it where it hides. Next we have Lirean the half-elf druid. She was raised by her single elf mother and was bullied as a child for her heritage. This upbringing brought her to seek out the friendship and solace of the woodland creatures and nature itself. The human ranger, Colstad, is a man quick with a joke and deadly while dual-wielding his scimitars. He is unrivaled on the battlefield and with his pick-up lines. And lastly we have the bookish gnome warlock, Barzulen. Equipped with a strange tome left by a patron in the library where he spent much of his time, the young lad is searching for answers on how to understand its eldritch runes.

The adventurers were offered a reward of gold to make contact with a group of colorful nomads who were suspected of robbing merchants upon the main route into town. An easy task it would seem, so the party headed out to make contact and met not a group of murderous highway robbers but a gathering that appeared much more like an outdoor college frat party. Drinking and tall tales were told around the campfire and soon the group found themselves drifting off into an alcohol fueled slumber.

Welcome to Barovia
They awoke to find themselves alone and the air filled with a thick fog. This was not the same place they were the night before. Confused and disoriented, they began their march through the mists. Howls from beasts in the distance were frequent, and though it seemed to be day judging from the dim light that crept through the clouds, the sun could not be seen. Soon they found a village with a crooked wooden sign marking the path to "Barovia."

I love games set in Barovia because of my own childhood having been traumatized by survival horror video games like Silent Hill. Fog obscures just about everything outside no matter the time of day, so you never know what is lurking behind the obscuring mists. Better safe inside, right? Well in a realm of dilapidated houses, churches with priests who speak about the hopelessness of existence, and massive haunted castles that isn't always the case.

I worried about introducing a new group to Barovia because a lot of the interest and intrigue is not in combat and action scenes, but in the unknown and the slow pacing of dread. It takes a group invested in the horror aspect of the campaign to make it work. The suspension of what is known to the players versus what the characters are experiencing and accepting the loss of certain assumptions that would normally be in the game are key to making Ravenloft a unique experience.

To my relief, the players seemed to bite. In the village they met a man named Ismark, son of the burgomaster (the title for mayors in Barovia) and his sister, a strong willed young woman named Ireena. The lord of the land, a man the locals would only refer to as "the Devil," had something of an unhealthy obsession with Ireena (unhealthy in that she already had two fang marks on her neck from his advances when they met her). It didn't take long for the party to receive a lovely invitation to come meet the reigning despot, Count Strahd von Zarovich, to Castle Ravenloft for dinner. It would seem he had a love of meeting foreigners who happened to stroll into town.

At dinner, Strahd was cold in demeanor but polite and offered extreme hospitality to his guests. Colstad made an unfortunate vampire joke, which Strahd rewarded with a new shadow that did not seem to follow the ranger's movements, but instead moved independently and had the silhouette of a silent informant writing into a notepad, recording every word and action. The dinner party ended and everyone stayed the night in the spooky old castle.

The night was filled with attempted seduction, murderous animated household items, and a request by Strahd for Reinhardt, being a man of valor, to find and slay an assassin by the name of Dr. Rudolph van Richten. Furthermore, Ismark was to return to his village and bring his sister Ireena to the castle, for Strahd intended to marry her and make her Countess of Barovia.

Needless to say, the party smiled and nodded to all of the dreadlord's decrees, and no sooner as they set foot beyond the castle's walls did they scurry along and devise a plan to escape the shadow of Strahd's spires. They went back to town to get Ireena and they headed across the land to find sanctuary for Ireena and keep her from becoming a victim to Strahd. This has been their quest for the past few sessions.

Strahd doesn't sparkle.

I would like to tell you a story about each of the characters so far.

The gnomish bibliophile, Barzulen, has been getting messages sent to him through the cryptic tome that he carries. It has been urging him to find the "amber doors," which the player who controls the character never fails to ask me about anytime a set of doors is described. While in the town of Vallaki, he joined a book club by the invitation of a woman named Lady Fiona. It turned out that it was less of a book club and more of a cult. Reciting passages from a text called "The Devil You Know," he remained undercover until a ritualistic summoning of a demon offered him untold power if he would seek him out within the halls of the Amber Temple. The player knows that the rest of the party would never let him go there if they knew the true reason he wants to find it, so even though he will continue to ask the question "are the doors amber in color?" he has kept to himself about what might be found there.

Ugh, another text heavy handout.

One of the things I appreciate about the writing team that does the D&D 5th Edition hardcover adventures is their inclusion of characters who identify as LGBTQ, and Strahd is seemingly among them. He has a male consort named Escher who lives in the castle and is quite sulky about not being among the dreadlord's favored at the time that the party arrives at the castle. While they stay overnight, Colstad meets Escher and it is propositioned that they team up to overthrow Strahd. With some flirty conversation, a bit of friendship was made with Escher and a bit of information learned about Strahd's jealous infatuation with Ireena who it would seem is a reincarnation of a former love from Strahd's past. It would seem the player understands that a jilted lover can be the undoing of even the most powerful of tyrants.

I gather that the player who controls the druid in the group has played some tabletop games in the past including previous editions of D&D. I wanted to give this player something particularly special, and unnerving, to incorporate into her character. Upon rescuing a group of children from a windmill that was being used as a bakery (with the children being the secret ingredient), she noticed that one of the children was of half-elf heritage. She and the rest of the party brought the child to the village of Vallaki, where she said she lived. Her father was supposedly a terrible man, and the party vowed to keep her safe at the church until they could find an alternative. A lot of chaos transpired during the interim and the party seemed to forget about this loose end until they passed by a toy maker's stand at a festival in the town square. The toy maker seemed fascinated with Lirean for her likeness to some of the dolls he was commissioned to make by the burgomaster's right hand man and local bully, Izek Stanzi. Questions commenced and horror ensued when the players identified the potential Lirean a living doll? With the taunting of the other players echoing the teasing her character received as a child, the player of Lirean came to her own sudden conclusion: she needed to show her father the light and bring out the goodness in him! (is this a Star Wars RPG?)

I hope Lirean's alignment keeps her from lying, or I might be tempted.

The paladin of Bahamut found a sword hilt within the witches' windmill that he learned to channel a blade made of sunlight (again, is this a Star Wars RPG?). They had learned that this sword was an ancient artifact that would be instrumental in the final battle with the vampire lord. Strahd attacked the town of Vallaki during a festival and was seeking Ireena whom he knew was taking refuge there. The party stood to oppose Strahd when he used his charm ability to force Reinhardt to hand over the weapon. A failed wisdom saving throw later and Reinhardt found himself marching forward in deference to the dreadlord and upon bended knee he offered the blade's hilt. As Strahd reached forward for it, the hilt hovered in the air and floated away out an open window. Strahd seemed enraged by this, and abandoned his assault on the party to chase after the weapon. Reinhardt felt discouraged having lost the very thing that could have aided them in slaying the vampire.

Lords of light...aaaaaand its gone.

In time, the party learned what had happened: the legendary vampire slayer Dr. Rudolph van Richten (the "assassin" that Strahd had asked the party to take care of) had been under a greater invisibility spell and had been aiding the party to stand up to the Count during the fight. He absconded with the weapon when it was obvious Reinhardt was under Strahd's charm spell. The weapon was returned to Reinhardt's possession and a big sigh of relief was had at the end of a very stressful session.

Final Thoughts
What I have learned about running this campaign so far is that a genuine love for the story being told does wonders for bringing it to life. It is a feeling that I normally only have for my own homebrew campaigns, but the Curse of Strahd published story is a compelling one with tons of incredibly interesting characters. It helps that I have experienced the Curse of Strahd game as a player and was addicted to Dice, Camera, Action! through all 31 episodes of their playthrough. Last summer I read the best D&D based novel I have ever picked up, I, Strahd by P.N. Elrod, which tells the story of Strahd's origin and transformation into a vampire. All of this has made me feel comfortable with the world in which the players are interacting and allows it unfold rather fluidly.

It was also a reward to see the risk of running a campaign with new players which they were not forewarned about the type of experience they would have pay off. It totally could have backfired and turned the players off from tabletop gaming altogether. I am sure that prior to the start of the first session they had images of fighting orcs and running around scenarios straight from Lord of the Rings. Instead, they entered a gothic horror adventure and are discovering the sorrowful tale of Barovia and its master, Strahd von Zarovich.

This Friday we will be kicking off our 6th session of the campaign. In my future posts related to Ravenloft, I hope to discuss a little bit about what occurs during each session, ways I have made the Curse of Strahd hardcover individualized for the players, thoughts on my playlists I construct for each session, and visual aids I bring to the table to make it come alive,

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