Friday, December 30, 2016

Curse of Strahd, Abridged

Strahd is easily in the running for D&D's
most iconic villain.
Several of the Fifth Edition adventures released so far are based on adventures from earlier editions of D&D, and Curse of Strahd is no exception. In 1983, Tracy and Laura Hickman released Ravenloft for the first edition of "Advanced" D&D and the adventure became an instant classic. Ravenloft introduced the iconic villain Strahd von Zarovich - a vampire lord with a tragic background - and his domain, the cursed castle of Ravenloft.

Curse of Strahd is a compelling adventure. It's completely different from the hack-and-slash heroic fantasy of Tyranny of Dragons or the madcap adventure of Out of the Abyss. Instead, players must confront the depressed land of Barovia and a tragic yet irredeemably evil villain. However, the adventure also spans ten levels and likely months of play for a regular group.

As a DM, you might wish to run just the original Ravenloft adventure, getting a taste of the unique horror of Barovia without dedicating an entire campaign to it. The good news is that all the elements you need to run Castle Ravenloft as a one-shot are contained within Curse of Strahd. In this article, I'll walk through the changes you'll need to make in order to run just the "classic" portion of the adventure. Depending on your group's play speed, this might take from six to twelve hours - perfect fodder for a long day or a few sessions of adventuring. In this article I'll be referencing the Curse of Strahd book, as well as map locations on page 35.

Start at Level Nine
Curse of Strahd assumes that the characters will travel through the cursed land of Barovia for several levels, gaining experience and allies, before venturing into Castle Ravenloft itself. Since the castle is geared for characters from level 9-10, we'll simply start our PCs at that level. (Which level? It depends - how hard do you want the adventure to be?)

If you're creating new level 9 or 10 characters for this adventure, you'll want to check out page 38 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, which suggests starting equipment for level 9 PCs. In short, each PC ought to start with about 600 GP and maybe one uncommon magic item in addition to their normal starting equipment.

Shrink the Borders of Barovia
Once you enter Barovia, your only escape is to kill Strahd.
Artist: Jedd Chev
The cursed land of Barovia is already bordered by deadly fog that makes escape impossible (p. 23-24). Since our goal is to bring the players to the castle as soon as possible, we can simply shrink the area bordered by the mists. The second pair of "Gates of Barovia" (the leftmost area B on the map) makes a natural cut-off point for the mists, and we can let mist surround the roads as well, making travel into the woods or towards Mount Ghakis impossible.

With this change, we are left with areas A-K on the map accessible and all others unreachable. That means we only need concern ourselves with Chapters 1-4, along with the Introduction, Epilogue, and Appendices.

Change Madam Eva's Tarot Reading
Ideally, your PCs will make their way to Madam Eva at the Tser Pool Encampment. If they don't, the tarot reading is still relevant. You'll make one before the adventure and use it if the PCs don't get their fortunes told. Regardless, you'll need to do at least one fortune reading, but you'll need to make sure the three items and the PC's ally are in accessible places - in essence, you're going through the deck and removing cards with inaccessible results.

Here are the possible (accessible) locations for the Treasures of Barovia:

Tarroka (Common Deck)Area
2 of Swords (Paladin)Sergei's tomb
4 of Swords (Mercenary)Castle Ravenloft crypt
6 of Swords (Berserker)Mad Dog's crypt
8 of Swords (Dictator)Castle Ravenloft audience hall
Master of Swords (Warrior)Strahd's tomb
1 of Stars (Transmuter)North Tower peak
2 of Stars (Diviner)Madam Eva's encampment
6 of Stars (Evoker)Gralmore Nimbleknob's crypt
8 of Stars (Necromancer)Castle Ravenloft study
1 of Coins (Swashbuckler)Crypt of Endorovich
4 of Coins (Merchant)Castle Ravenloft wine cellar
5 of Coins (Guild Member)Crypt of Artank Swilovich
7 of Coins (Thief)River Ivlis crossroads
9 of Coins (Miser)Castle Ravenloft treasury
4 of Glyphs (Shepard)Tomb of King Barov and Queen Ravenovia
6 of Glyphs (Anarchist)Castle Ravenloft hall of bones
Master of Glyphs (Priest)Castle Ravenloft chapel

Among this group you may wish to remove a few locations. For example, if you don't want the PCs to have access to a treasure before entering the castle, you could remove the 2 of Stars and the 7 of Coins. (Remember, though - it could be really exciting and fun to discover one of the items immediately!) You might also feel like having to pick through the unimportant crypts is too much of a chore, and you'd prefer to have the Treasures hidden in more interesting places. In this case, remove the 4 of Swords, the 6 of Stars, and the 1 and 4 of Coins.

As the object of Strahd's desire, Ireena Kolyana
makes a valuable (if vulnerable) ally.
You'll also want to make sure the Ally is one that can be encountered in the part of the adventure you're running. Here are the options:

Tarroka (High Deck)Ally
Broken OneDonavich
GhostSir Klutz
ExecutionerIsmark Kolyanovitch
InnocentParriwimple/Ireena Kolyana
MarionettePidlwick II
MistsEzmerelda d'Avenir

You could consider modifying these options as well. In particular, you might remove the "unimportant" characters and cut the deck down to just Darklord, Executioner, Innocent (Ireena, of course), and Mists, although this sticks the players with a 1/4 chance of ending up with no ally at all. Note that as written, Esmerelda is a random encounter in the Castle. If you draw her, you might want to ensure that your players run into her at some point.

The possible locations for Strahd in Castle Ravenloft need not be trimmed, of course. If you remove cards from the High Deck some locations will be removed, but that probably won't break anything. You could also select an ally from the limited High Deck, then shuffle in more cards before you choose Strahd's location.

Lastly, you might consider stacking the deck. While the randomness of this adventure brings it a lot of spontaneity and interest, it's not for every DM. Simply pick out the locations that you think are appropriate and set the card reading up so it reveals those locations. Fancy card legerdemain is optional.

Remove References to Greater Barovia
Because Curse of Strahd is so heavily based on the original Ravenloft adventure (which just included Barovia Village, Madam Eva's Camp, and Castle Ravenloft), the content in areas A-K is generally self-contained. Still, there are a few references to later areas that you may want to remove:

  • Some of the random encounters (p. 29) reference other parts of Barovia - notably, the Druid/Twig Blights, Revenant, Wereraven, and Werewolves all allude to other encounter areas in some way. You could change these encounters to be self-contained or remove them. You also might want to consider removing Barovian wilderness encounters altogether, as they are unlikely to present a serious challenge to 9th or 10th level characters.
  • Ismark in the village of Barovia wants the character's help escorting Ireena to Vallaki, which is of course unreachable through the mists. He and Ireena might simply ask for the characters' help defeating Strahd instead, as Ireena will never be truly safe within his domain. If either Ismark or Ireena is an ally, 
  • Donavich, the priest of Barovia's church, suggests taking Ireena to Krezk or Vallaki. This is impossible in the adventure's abridged version. Instead he might tell the characters that the only way to make Barovia safe is to defeat Strahd.
  • The Dream Pastries event in Barovia village references Old Bonegrinder (area O); it can be removed.
  • The brazier room in Castle Ravenloft (area 78, chapter 4) can teleport PCs to Vallaki, the Amber Temple, Krezk, and Tsolenka Pass. The easiest way to modify this is to remove the violet, green, indigo, and blue stones from the rim of the brazier.
  • If you are using Ezmerelda d'Avenir, her backstory mentions that she tracked her mentor, Rudolph van Richten, to Vallaki. Instead, perhaps she simply journeyed to Barovia and Castle Ravenloft in order to do what van Richten never could and destroy Strahd von Zarovich, the greatest vampire of them all.

Tips for Preparation
Even in its shortened form, Curse of Strahd is a complex adventure with a lot to take in. You'll want to pay special attention to the Introduction and Chapter 1, as these segments give context to the adventure's atmosphere and Strahd's motivation. By contrast, much of Chapter 2 can be skimmed, as it deals with the lands outside Castle Ravenloft - which your PCs will only encounter comparatively briefly.

Any of the adventure hooks in Chapter 1 can work, save "Werewolves in the Mist," which references area Z on the map. (This is probably the adventure's weakest hook in my opinion anyway.) The "Plea for Help" hook is the most classic, however, so if you're looking to recreate the original Ravenloft it might be your preference. Keep in mind that "Creeping Fog" can replace any other hook if the characters turn it down (but make sure your players are okay with their adventure being hijacked by Strahd!).

Read through Chapter 4 carefully, several times, paying special attention to any area or monster you don't understand at first glance. Castle Ravenloft is a pretty huge and complex dungeon and you don't want to be figuring these things out in play. It's probably worthwhile pulling out the poster map and tracing the routes your PCs (and NPCs) might take through the dungeon, including movement between floors.

A new addition to the Ravenloft canon,
Ezmeralda is a Vistani vampire
hunter with a tragic story.
The treasures in Appendix C and the monster statistics in Appendix D are worth going over. Take some time to look over the roleplaying notes of the NPCs that appear in this part of the adventure, particularly Madam Eva, Pidlwick II, Rahadin, and - if you plan on using her - Ezmerelda d'Avenir, who appears as a random encounter in Castle Ravenloft. Also take considerable time to become familiar with Strahd's statistics, as the PCs will likely encounter him several times before the adventure's conclusion. You might want to bookmark his spells or pull out the appropriate spell cards before play.

If you're short on time, you might consider cutting some of the material in Chapter 3 (specifically the Doru and Donavich sidequest), and have the NPCs in Barovia Village focus on directing the characters to Madam Eva's Camp and Castle Ravenloft. This would also be a good reason to dismiss with random encounters outside of the castle.

If your PCs are beginning at level 9, it might be worth thinking about when to let them level up. Taking a long rest inside the castle is difficult if not impossible due to the number of random encounters, so think carefully before requiring it as a prerequisite to level gain. You might give the PCs a level once they find all three treasures, or complete some milestone such as destroying the Heart of Sorrow.

Curse of Strahd is, in my opinion, the best adventure released for D&D 5E to date. Even if your group isn't up for a full-blown gothic horror campaign, you're still likely to have a lot of fun playing through Castle Ravenloft and facing off against D&D's iconic vampire villain. With this article, I hope that you've gained some insight into how to do exactly that.

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