Now that the campaign is over, I can do a proper review of it all. I’ll cover a few things I did right or wrong, but I mostly want to talk about the book itself, as a product for a DM. I’ll also suggest changes and advice for anyone who’s thinking about running it.
I’m going to try to keep this mainly spoiler-free, but obviously I’ll be talking about locations, characters, etc. in broad terms.
If you want to go back and read all my session reports, they’re linked here:
Mr Big Stuff
Strahd von Zarovich is the main character of the campaign, the whole thing revolves around him. It’s called “Curse of Strahd” after all! How you play Strahd, and how the players interact with him affects the entire campaign. He needs to be all-powerful and terrifying, but he should also talk to the party, and even tempt/intimidate them into giving up information and helping him.
I think there’s a thousand ways to get this ‘wrong’, and finding the right balance and tone is really difficult. I’ve heard of parties that fought him (and won) very early on, so even if he escapes, the tension is broken. But the DM can also use his powers too greatly or frequently, so that the players feel they’ve no chance and every session ends with “Strahd appears and attacks you all”.
The book spends a fair amount of space making this clear to the DM, suggesting ways Strahd might act or react, and setting his goals. However it’s still quite demanding on a DM, especially when the players don’t do what you expect…
Difficult Difficult Lemon Difficult
If you follow the book, the campaign starts at level 3 (either after you’ve run the mini-adventure Death House, or with some other hook). Everything in Barovia can kill the party at level 3! In some ways this is a good way to set up the horror of being trapped there, but it makes it very difficult for the players to do anything except run away.
The most annoying thing about this is that the game even leads you into terrifyingly difficult encounters almost without warming. For example, my players began investigating the missing bones from the church in Vallaki. After a series of non-combat encounters and roleplaying, they end up ambushed in an impossible fight (see part 2).
And it’s the same with loads of locations they might travel to. Investigate the old mill (that’s literally one of the first things you walk past)? Dead. Go inside the ruined castle (Argynvostholt)? Dead. Wander into the drowned village? Dead. Ok, if the party play carefully and don’t go in looking for a fight they can get away from most things, but it can make for a difficult few sessions as the players get frustrated.
The only ‘beginner’ quest is the winery, and that’s right on the other side of the map. You really have to push the party in that direction as the DM to give them something to do (and gain levels). If I were to run the campaign again I’d probably start at level 5, so that a lot of the encounters are still tough, they’re just slightly more survivable.
Big Trouble in Little Barovia
Barovia is a small place – ignoring random encounters , you can easily walk from one side to the other in a day or less. But the villages – Vallaki, Krezk, Barovia, etc are all written as if they’re isolated, and often don’t have an enormous impact on the overall plot (unless you create one). I think Krezk is the most egregious, if none of the treasures or things happen to be there, there’s almost no reason to visit. And I don’t think removing it would seriously affect the game at all.
Don’t get me wrong, all of the places are fun and have a lot of character, they just don’t hang together and can feel like padding. The book doesn’t lead you through them in a a particular order, and if the DM hasn’t read and digested the whole thing from cover to cover, it’s difficult to build up a coherent story.
There’s also almost none of the standard D&D dungeon crawls (apart form the big castle Ravenloft), which you might see as a good thing, but as with the above, it can make it harder for the players to figure out what they’re meant to do at any given point. Sometimes you just need to wander around some ruins and smack a few monsters you know?
Finally, one of the big ‘features’ of the campaign is the random Tarokka card reading near the start that determines where all the plot items are. In itself, I quite like the idea, but it adds to the above points to make the adventure seem a little aimless and disjointed at times.
Despite what you’ve just read, I actually really enjoyed CoS! It’s just a little more demanding of the DM than perhaps I was prepared for, and I think some of the players would have preferred a little more hack n slash like they’re used to.
The adventure is full of great ideas, characters and places, just give yourself a little longer to prepare and/or don’t be afraid to wing it when it all goes pear-shaped.
If I were to run the whole thing again (which is a possibility!), I’d do the following:
- Start at level 5. Either use some other hook to get them into Barovia, extend Death House, or whatever. Level 3 characters will have a bad time.
- Remove most of the superfluous locations: Krezk, Argynvostholt, Berez, definitely the Amber Temple. Keep the action focused on foiling the plans of Strahd, and collecting the treasures (obviously you’ll have to remove some cards when you do the reading).
- Don’t worry about the level of the party (due to removing a lot of content). Strahd is pushover for a level 10 party in a straight fight (especially if they have all the treasures and some allies).
If you really wanted a short, tight campaign, you could remove everything except the village of Barovia, castle Ravenloft and the Vistani camp in between. Which is pretty much the original module!
- Have Strahd be a recurring pain for the party, but don’t overdo it. He should toy with them and then disappear, not kill them all. Don’t be afraid to kill a few characters (PCs or NPCs) to make a point though.
- As well as Strahd, have goals for a lot of the big NPCs. How does the Burgomaster of Vallaki react to the party? What does Lady Wachter want, and how will she use the players to get it? The book is very open-ended, so fill in the gaps.
- Above all: warn the players how open and deadly the campaign is! That one guy who always plays a barbarian and negotiates with his axe? He is going to hate this campaign.