Curse of Strahd, a Retrospective
We finished our Curse of Strahd game
last week two weeks ago after about ~9 months of weekly sessions. After needing to skip the occasional week the whole thing wound up being 33 three-hour sessions excluding our session 0.
All in all, it was a solid break from our typical multi-year homebrew campaigns. The lighter workload that a premade adventure module gave me was an enormous boon. It’s a great option for people looking to DM, but don’t have a ton of time on their hands for proper pre-session prep.
Although that last statement is dependant on the quality of the adventure module. Curse of Strahd, however, meets that criteria in my experience.
My personal experiment with running CoS was to homebrew and tweak the adventure as little as possible. Of course, if the party made a choice and went off the rails, I’d do my best to accommodate that, but I wasn’t going to change anything outside of that.
CoS absolutely stood up to the test. It’s a complete adventure through-and-through, and can, in my opinion, be run without much poking and prodding. However, that’s not to say that it wasn’t without weak points. There were definitely factors or parts that either I or the players disliked too.
So, here’s a little retrospective for anyone thinking of stepping foot in Barovia.
Spoilers abound from here on out. Go forth at your own discretion!
Fantastic Dungeon Crawls
The dungeons were for sure the highlight of the campaign. Which was a huge plus for me since that’s why my group plays D&D. We like dungeon delving and combat!
While my group didn’t explore every dungeon or take on every quest in the campaign, the ones they opted into were always a blast. Our personal favorites were the Death House and The Amber Temple.
I’ve previously gone over my thoughts on Death House, but I wanted to highlight what a fantastic first-level adventure that was. Especially since a few of the players noted that it was their personal favorite part of the campaign.
It’s a fantastic introduction to the setting of CoS and a solid horror-themed dungeon crawl in its own right. It hits all the right notes, even if it does feel a bit too deadly for 1st-level PCs at times.
The Amber Temple was a really fun time. The mysteriousness of the temple was really cool as they went there knowing almost nothing about it other than the fact that it held power that could help them defeat Strahd.
Their initial assumption, of course, was that it had swaths of magical items they could use. While there were some, they were quite disappointed at their meager haul until they delved into the vestiges.
Temporary powers are cool rewards. I think the modules went overboard with the number of offerings, but I thought they were a fun way to showcase the dark magics in the temple while giving brave (or reckless) PCs a powerful reward for their efforts.
They also restored Exthanter’s memory which served as both a fun side-quest as well as a convenient lore dump for the party as they neared the end of the campaign.
I was looking forward to the party’s exploration of Castle Ravenloft as it’s a huge megadungeon full of fun fights and treasures. However, the party wound up avoiding it. Primarily because they got way too cocky rushing into it at level 4, antagonizing Strahd in the process who proceeded to chase them out.
I think not giving them some extra breadcrumbs to get them back into the castle has got to be my biggest “missed opportunity” of the campaign. The castle seems like a really fun dungeon delve that we missed out on.
Cool Locales and Interesting NPCs
Barovia is an awesome setting. Sure, existing there sucks, but as a gothic horror-inspired game setting it’s a top-notch place.
I was also taken aback by the variety of places to explore. Each town had its own vibe and unique aspects. The walled town of Vallaki was very different from the decrepit Village of Barovia.
Yet it’s not just the settlements that showcase this variety. There are tons of creepy ruins or abandoned locations to explore. There are encampments full of lively and potentially dangerous people. There’s a giant mountain and bodies of water to check out as well as a sprawling forest that surrounds the entirety of Barovia.
There’s a ton of variety packed into such a small package.
Each location in Barovia had plenty of cool plot hooks, lore, and NPCs for the party to explore and interact with. It was a treasure trove of dark secrets and deceit and I loved every minute of it.
While the unique NPCs were always a delight to play, there are many interesting “less important” NPCs scattered throughout Barovia. For a dreary and hopeless location like Barovia, there are a ton of colorful characters (RIP Blinsky) hiding in the woodwork.
Strahd is a Phenomenal Villain
I’ve dedicated an article to how much I loved playing as Strahd. Playing him as a reoccurring villain was the highlight of DMing this campaign.
Strahd is ruthless, evil, and cunning. He was the perfect big bad for poking and prodding at the party. Testing them and ripping away hope whenever they started to gain an ounce of confidence.
I loved that you’re given a sense of direction with the character and then you’re left to your own devices as to how you interact with the party. You’re given some background info, a statblock, characterization, and the odd example encounter with Strahd, but otherwise, it’s entirely on the DM to utilize him to his full potential.
Which I totally did. My party of 6 was terrified of him although they probably could’ve taken Strahd out before they stepped foot in The Amber Temple. Yet each time Strahd showed his face, the party was more terrified of his presence than the last.
They Were Never Without a Sense of Direction
While there’s tons to do in Barovia, the party was never felt lost. They always had a goal in mind or a mystery to solve, and the few times that they didn’t have one on hand, there was a boatload of plot hooks scattered about whatever location they’re currently in. All they need to do is talk to someone.
Barovia isn’t a large place, but it’s jam-packed with stuff. There are so many plot hooks stuffed in-between the covers of this adventure that my party didn’t even come close to uncovering them all. There’s at least half a campaign’s worth of quests and encounters left untouched still in CoS
In fact, we spent about an hour and a half going over things they missed or quests they never wound up completing. If anything, this post-game breakdown proved to me that the group was invested in both the story of the campaign as well as the world itself.
Lack of Useful Rewards (in Some Places)
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of treasure to be plundered throughout Barovia. However, not a whole lot of it is useful. The party was swimming in gold by the end of it and due to the nature of Barovia having a scarcity of items to purchase it was difficult for the party to find ways to use it.
Sure, there’s also the high inflation rate that Barovia has that does help give all this gold more value, but the lack of selection just made the party hesitant to bother shopping much.
It was also super hit-or-miss as to where or when the party would find some valuable treasure. For example, taking on a coven of hags in Old Bonegrinder netted them nothing but gold and some weird elixirs that weren’t much use. At least the Death House had healing potions!
The martial-heavy party was also quite peeved at a lack of magical item options. While it’s true that if they ventured into Castle Ravenloft they’d have found some goodies. It kinda sucks that there wasn’t a decent selection of magical weapons elsewhere.
This lead to the martial PCs without magical weapons becoming totally outclassed by their magic-wielding counterparts. Sure, magical weapons shouldn’t be abundant in a setting that’s full of undead for game balance purposes, but at level 8+ I think it’s reasonable for everyone to have something.
A Lackluster Ending
Due to the events of the campaign, the party had lost a few of their comrades to previous skirmishes with Strahd or they betrayed the party and joined him outright. In the spirit of wrapping up those remaining loose ends, I ran an additional encounter against those characters before them meeting up with Strahd.
Other than that, I tried to leave as much RAW as possible in there for the final encounter with Strahd.
To reiterate, we had a party of 6 instead of the recommended party size of 4. However, in the end, I realized that solely throwing Strahd at them would still be super boring. While I had an experiment to run, I still wanted to give the players a satisfying ending.
So, in the spirit of that, rebalanced the final encounter by buffing Strahd a bit (HP & damage) as well as adding Rahadin to the encounter to help even out the action economy. Yet even that wasn’t enough to turn Strahd into a mechanically fun fight against level 10 PCs. It had to have been the worst final fight against a BBEG I’ve ever run.
Strahd needs to be scarier. He needs to be more unique than just a souped-up vampire spellcaster because as is the idea of fighting Strahd von Zarovich is much more terrifying than actually squaring off against him.
If you are thinking of running Curse of Strahd I would urge you to do at least one of two things:
- Homebrew the hell out of Strahd. Give him some Mythic Actions and turn him into a two-stage boss battle. Give him some crazy-powerful item that lets him rip off even more powerful spells. Give him a few of the vestiges from the Amber Temple. Anything to make him more interesting.
- Usher the party toward the final confrontation way earlier. I let them advance to 10th level to cap off the module and that just made them way too powerful. They could’ve had a pretty close fight against Strahd at level 8 instead and it’d have been a more rewarding victory.
WHERE’S THE 3RD SEED?
This is a minor nitpick, but only 2 of the 3 magical seed MacGuffins in the Wizard of Wines Winery had a canon location. I get that it isn’t difficult to figure out a location for the 3rd, but it really rubbed me the wrong way that they left this plot hook unfinished.
Perhaps the intention was to give the DM an avenue to add content of their own to the adventure, but that’s something a DM can do regardless. If a DM doesn’t the seeds’ locations, they can change them.
Despite its flaws, Curse of Strahd is a phenomenal adventure. There’s plenty of horror, intrigue, dungeon delving, and if your table is down for it, cutthroat betrayal. It was everything I could ask for and more.
Like other adventure modules, it would benefit greatly from a bit of homebrewing. Especially the final encounter with Strahd. However, it’s a fairly solid module in its own right and gives you ample information and plot hooks to use as springboards for your additions.
If you’re looking to save on some prep time for your next campaign and are considering running a premade adventure, I’d highly, highly recommend picking up Curse of Strahd. We had a blast.
Although with that said and done, I’m quite ready to get going on my next homebrew project…
For our final fight with Strahd, he invited us for a second meeting at Ravenloft but said no weapons except the Sun sword and bring his journal. He had taken a bunch of our allies such as the Martikovs, the priest in Vallaki, and Ismark hostage to make it an offer we couldn’t refuse. He had a meal prepared for us again which was poisoned this time.
That took about a third of everyone’s HP. Strahd then disappeared and left us to fight a a bunch of helmed horrors. We then fought through the castle to locate the hostages. By the time Strahd returned to finish us we were out of half our resources including HP. He brought Rahadin and one of his brides (the spellcaster) which made it a very tough fight.
So TLDR, have the party expend half it’s resources before Strahd initiates the final fight.
Great write up on your adventure. The only thing I didn’t like in our campaign and what seems to have happened in yours is that characters took the dark gifts at the Amber Temple for the LOLs and there were no reprecussions.
This has been a fun ride as you’ve told us how you ran this campaign. I JUST finished a 3-yr homebrew with the recurring BBEG being the apex predator & manipulator of a pyramid of villains… who was a vampire. So we won’t be able to run CoS anytime soon. But now I really want to someday!