D&D 5E Curse of Strahd Post-Mortem (Spoilers)

Retreater

Legend
As is my tradition, each time a campaign ends, I'm trying to learn from it. This will be about my “Curse of Strahd” campaign.

About the Group and Selection of the Campaign
The group of players are the same as those featured in the Rime of the Frostmaiden Post-Mortem.

Real quick introduction to these guys that I didn’t include in the Frostmaiden post-mortem. My long-time friend (the guy I’ve been playing with for 20 years) introduced me to some of his co-workers. He had run a one-shot adventure with them, and they were wanting to play more. I came in to run a short adventure with them, and they loved gaming so much they wanted to keep playing. Now, a couple years later, we’ve played through several adventures together.

The biggest issue was that we had trouble all getting together to play. Several of the players have young children, I live in a different town, etc. When the pandemic hit, we moved to an online game and have been able to play consistently every week for close to two years.

Being mega-fans of D&D, several of the players have been collecting adventure books and reading them. I wanted to pick one they hadn’t read yet, that had good reviews, was available on Roll20, etc. We settled on “Curse of Strahd.”

Preparation
I go back a long way with Ravenloft. My first real experience with AD&D was joining a Ravenloft campaign in 2E when I was in high school. We played through many of the adventures, Adam’s Wrath, Web of Illusion, etc. That was my introduction to Strahd (sadly, I didn’t start with the original Ravenloft adventure). But over the years, I ran my own 2E Ravenloft campaign, and then ran the 3.5 edition of Castle Ravenloft, played the 4e-inspired board game, etc. Curse of Strahd was my wife’s real introduction to D&D, and I got to hear about many of her adventures. I thought it was time to run this for 5e and for a new group of players.

After loading the adventure into Roll20, there was very little prep I needed to do (besides reading through the adventure). I did locate my original 2E Tarokka deck to do a “real-time” reading to place the plot elements.

The Death House
The Death House was a challenging intro adventure. I had to change certain elements of it in response to one of the player’s emotional health. Otherwise, I ran it very close to the book - and in fact, stayed close to the book throughout Curse of Strahd - changing only references to the death of young children.

Heading into the Darkness
One of the coolest features was the map of Barovia, where I was able to place a real fog of war on it, so the party could only explore a hex at a time. It legitimately made them feel isolated and scared of what could be around the corner.

The Hags
Old Bonegrinder (the windmill) was going to be a literal meatgrinder. I decided to not have the entire coven of hags there so the party had a chance. And they did - but it was a nasty, nasty fight.

The Mad Mayor
The campaign really took off in Vallaki. The political factions, choosing the lesser of two evils. This was some of the best roleplaying I’ve had in a game, going to a thrilling end as the party got chased out of town.

NPC Overload
I’m going to forget all the specific names of NPCs since it’s been a year and a half since I’ve run this. But the party got Van Richten and his protege to join as well as the dusk elf. Having three NPCs with the party made the later chapters very easy. Especially as they investigated every nook and cranny to locate every potential artifact and ally to use against Strahd.

The Amber Temple
The Amber Temple is one of the coolest (literally) sites in the campaign. Unfortunately, I found the map a little confusing and think I messed it up when I ran it. I thought it was ground level and basement instead of 1st floor and mezzanine. However, it was the scariest and closest to death the party got (even more than Castle Ravenloft).

I went off book a bit in the Amber Temple. In the adventure it’s written that this is the place where Strahd became a vampire and became a vessel of the Dark Powers. So I used my knowledge of the 2E Ravenloft Campaign setting and pulled in visions of all the other Dark Lords. One of the players even fought a nightmare visage of Lord Soth.

What ended up happening was the Dark Powers were trying to corrupt the party, making them think that by accepting them it would be the only way they could destroy Strahd. Some of them believed this, some of them didn’t. They took the dark deals before the other half of the party could react. And then they went after each other - TPK.

And that would’ve been the end of the campaign. For the next week in real life I got emails from several players, people angry with their friends for ruining the game, people ready to quit D&D. I had to backtrack. Give them the chance for a do-over of “that’s the vision you had if you’d taken the deal.” (I thought this was appropriate because they were already having nightmarish visions in the Amber Temple anyway.)

Castle Ravenloft
Through gritted teeth, about at each other’s throats over betrayal, the characters entered Castle Ravenloft. With the help of their NPC allies they were able to follow the clues from the Tarokka reading to find the one place Strahd wouldn’t flee from. They went there and trapped him in his father’s crypt and handedly kicked his butt, carving him to pieces with the sunsword.
Castle Ravenloft took all of about 2 sessions and Strahd was a complete push-over. But everything else up to this was epic.

What Did I Learn?
Know your limits on how to push people. Be sensitive to the emotional trauma of your players - but don’t discount an adventure for that reason, just be willing to adapt it as needed.
Ravenloft is a cream-of-the-crop adventure in any edition. It certainly deserves its classic status. But I would say that the setting of Barovia - the Gothic sandbox - was better than the castle itself.
There is nothing in D&D - not even Strahd - that can stand up to 4 characters and 3 NPC allies. I should’ve killed off the allies, turned them against the party, or separated them with chutes, sliding walls, and Scooby Doo traps.

What Came Next?
We finished the campaign and decided the next one would be to start a playtest on the OSR campaign adventure I was writing, Against the Black City. That is another tale.
 

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pukunui

Legend
Thank you for typing up these short recaps. I enjoy them.
Ditto. Thanks @Retreater!

I've both played and DMed Curse of Strahd. I played through it first. It was a lot of fun, but we also felt that Strahd was a bit too easy to defeat. So when I ran it, I decided to beef him up some, changing his prepared spells and giving him some more HPs and the like. I probably overdid, as my run-through ended with a near-TPK.

I ran Death Curse as an April Fools' Day one-shot with some pregens. That was a lot of fun. I don't think I would want to run it as part of the Curse of Strahd campaign, though.

I think the fact that Curse of Strahd was originally written for levels 8-11 shows in a few places (Old Bonegrinder, anyone?). I've thought about running it again, but I'd need to be in the right mood for it, and I think I'd probably shorten the level span. And not beef up Strahd so much.

I also cheated with the Tarokka cards and pre-chose the ones I wanted then put them at the top of the deck. None of my players noticed. I did it that way to prevent the game from randomly putting all the macguffins in close proximity or in anti-climactic / lackluster places.

I didn't use the Amber Temple section in my run-through because I'd previously used it as a stand-alone adventure location in a previous episodic campaign. (The PCs were looking for a way to raise someone from the dead in a world that didn't have easy access to resurrection magic.)
 

Retreater

Legend
I didn't use the Amber Temple section in my run-through because I'd previously used it as a stand-alone adventure location in a previous episodic campaign. (The PCs were looking for a way to raise someone from the dead in a world that didn't have easy access to resurrection magic.)
The Amber Temple is soooo good. I can understand how it doesn't fit naturally into the Curse of Strahd, though. It's almost like an epilogue to Castle Ravenloft - which, at that stage, what's the point?
Running it individually seems like a smart idea. I was running it as a jumping-off point to go into other Domains of Dread, had we wanted to go in that direction after Strahd.
 

pukunui

Legend
The Amber Temple is soooo good. I can understand how it doesn't fit naturally into the Curse of Strahd, though. It's almost like an epilogue to Castle Ravenloft - which, at that stage, what's the point?
Running it individually seems like a smart idea. I was running it as a jumping-off point to go into other Domains of Dread, had we wanted to go in that direction after Strahd.
I agree it's a highlight. I would have included it in my run-through of CoS if I hadn't already used it for the preceding campaign, as both were with pretty much the same group, and I wasn't sure if they'd enjoy doing that part again.

That said, the Amber Temple has been one of the more memorable adventure locations I've run in 5e. My players still reminisce about how one of them ended up with both a partially paralyzed face and a 24 in Charisma (plus a few other things, I think) -- only to lose most of the benefits (but none of the drawbacks) to a hag who'd "helped" that PC earlier in the campaign.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
We ran through it with a rather different outcome. We had a DM who liked to discover what was happening at the same time as us and purposefully didn't read ahead, just ran it as it lay straight from the book. He picked it up (both hardcover and Roll20) because he didn't have a lot of prep time and it had a lot of good reviews.

Several times during exploration we just ran into threats well above us. First time it happened was in the basement of the Death House and it would have been a TPK except he fudged the foe down greatly. After that we were ready to run from trouble.

But twice (thrice?) more we had overwhelming immediate and unbroadcasted damage and lost characters before having any chance to react or retreat. Because we were exploring blind trying to find the artifacts in the Troika deck and had been unsuccessful at any attempts to research locations or get information about the threats at them.

He was cool with the NPCs - they all went off to gather reinforcements for an assault on the castle and didn't adventure with us.

On the other hand he was generous with items and we had all started with some sort of boon connected to a fatal flaw, and we ended up fragile but overpowered.

We got hints to the Amber Temple, DM told us is was super ool and way hard. We started for it and ... he got bored of running? Basically forcedgave us a teleportation effect to get into Castle Ravenloft and handwaved that our allies would know and launch their attack.

It was big with lots of things to be investigated that ate time, but ended up dragging. Then we fought Strahd, and killed him with the only real moment of tension being that one of our party was unbreakably charmed for 24 hours so we had to knock him out.

It felt like too much exploration/investigation which turned into a drag, with periodic moments of too-easy or too-hard combat.

As a low-prep, run-from-the-book adventure, it did not deliver to my table.

EDIT: And I've seen and believe all the peopel thrilled with it. It just didn't work at my table with that DM.
 
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Here's a write up of our last battle with Strahd:

Curse Of Strahd...Took us over a year...We spent about 4 months in Beast of Graenseskov(A separate 1st to 3rd level adventure in Barovia). The final session was epic like it should be. My group was 7 players at 9th level. 3 of the players are experienced, the other 4 are pretty new to D&D. (2 males, 5 females including my wife).
So we began the session at the top of the Heart of Sorrow(K60). Pidlwick II didn't like the Druid, who kept threatening to smash him into bits(my wife). So Pidlwick tried to trip her down the stairs and fails. Druid threatens Pidlwick again but Pidlwick gets support from the fighter, who keeps him safe from the Druid and carries him in his backpack.
They go all the way down the tower without incident and take stairs to the Guards Room. They then encounter Strahd in the Hall of Bones(from their Tarot reading). Strahd is ready for them. He has 4 Vampire's Spawn hiding in the Darkness in the hall. Strahd has been upgraded to CR 17(From the Elven Tower suggestions). I made a change to 2nd level spells in adding Darkness and removing Gust of Wind. Darkness lets the vampires have a safe place to regenerate out of harm's way.
Strahd asks the Warlock (who has a Charisma of 22) to become his bride and also tries to charm her. She refuses so Strahd opens the battle with a fireball and then slips into the Darkness. The Vampire Spawns jump out of the darkness and bottle the party in Kingsmen Hall. Strahd harasses the party out of the Darkness by casting Blight on the spell casters. One of the Vampire Spawn falls to overwhelming damage from the Spell Casters and fighter before being able to get to the Darkness. Strahd moves up to the doorway hidden in the darkness and strikes the Paladin multiple times with his blade. During the battle he continues to strike the Paladin with legendary actions, Strahd takes the Paladin down. The 2 healers with Beacon of Hope are able to revive the Paladin and heal the Spell Casters.
One of the Vampire Spawns retreats into the Darkness...The warlock in the party can see through the Darkness and points Strahd's location to the Paladin. Who then rushes past the Vampire Spawn to smite Strahd with the Sun Sword. Another Vampire Spawn retreats into the darkness, extremely hurt. The Warlock is able to destroy this Vampire Spawn. Strahd is smacked by the Paladin even though he was striking Strahd with disadvantage. Strahd then uses a legendary action to run by the Paladin and Fighter (who has moved into the Hall of Bones) and strikes the Druid. The Druid falls to the onslaught. Strahd then uses a Legendary lair action to slam the door shut, locking the Spell Casters in the room with Strahd, and the Melee with the 2 remaining Vampire Spawn. Fear runs through the Spell Casters as they see the Druid easily fall to Strahd.
One of the healers a small gnome has been living in the backpack of the Paladin. He tries to knock the door down with the help of his God. The Fighter and the Paladin join in and knock the door down. Strahd seeing the door-busting open, bolts across the room, and opens the door to his servant Rahadin. The Paladin misty steps next to Strahd and smites him with the Sun Sword and turns Strahd into mist. Rahadin misty steps past the Paladin and attacks the Spell Casters. He attacks the Druid who has been healed and again the Druid is taken down. Strahd in misty form goes through the secret door down to the Dungeon and Catacombs(K79). The Paladin is attacked by the Shadow Demon. One of the healers grabs the fighter and Dimension Doors past the secret door to follow Strahd. The fighter then opens the secret door, Rahadin seeing that his master is in danger misty steps to the Healer and attacks her. She is hurt seriously, but with the help of the fighter, they are able to kill Rahadin. The Paladin destroys the Shadow Demon, the rest of the spell casters destroy the remaining Vampire Spawn.
They follow the mist and then run into the Illusionary Strahd. At first, fear instills in them, but they quickly surmise this is an illusion. They make their way to the Brazier Room, the Paladin wants nothing to do with the Brazier. The warlock uses the Yellow Stone and then touches the flame and disappears. I slowly start counting, letting them see that the sand is falling out of the hourglass. The fighter touches the flame and also disappears. Much discussion from the rest of the group, but no one else touches the flame. The rest of the party leaves the brazier alone and follows the mist.
We then cut over to the Warlock and Fighter in the Tomb of Strahd. The 3 Brides try to seduce the 2, but they don't fall for it. Pidlwick (who has been hiding in the backpack of the fighter) helps the fighter get an advantage against one of the Vampires. The Vampire then turns around and breaks Pidlwick into pieces. A nasty fight begins, the 2 of them easily kill one of the Vampire Spawns but that leaves the Warlock without any spells and heavily damaged. One of the Vampire Spawns takes the Warlock down, Then two of the Vampire Spawn start mauling the fighter. He's not able to kill the second vampire, the gets close but unable to get a killing blow before it's able to regenerate enough to keep her in the fight. He's taken almost down by the 2 Vampire Spawns. Then the tide turns for Vampire Spawn, the Warlock rolls a 20 on her Death Saving Throw. She then Eldritch Blast the almost dead Vampire Spawn and destroys it. The 3rd Vampire Spawn can't hit the fighter(without advantage) and can't reach the Warlock. The fighter and Warlock unleash everything they have(which is just base abilities) taking her out.
After the battle I let the Warlock use Mend to repair Pidlwick from his damage(though he now has a very bad limp). Strahd later shows up in misty form, with the 2 of them waiting for him. They plunge a stake in his heart. Next week we will do a follow-up, I'm thinking of offering the Warlock the kingdom of Barovia. I had Zantras be her patron, I think it would be fitting for him to make her queen and who knows who will be the next Vampire Leader.
Used Fighting Strahd – Tactics and Strategy - Elven Tower Adventures highly recommend the Elven Towers Guide to Curse of Strahd.
 

Nebulous

Legend
The Amber Temple
The Amber Temple is one of the coolest (literally) sites in the campaign. Unfortunately, I found the map a little confusing and think I messed it up when I ran it. I thought it was ground level and basement instead of 1st floor and mezzanine. However, it was the scariest and closest to death the party got (even more than Castle Ravenloft).

I went off book a bit in the Amber Temple. In the adventure it’s written that this is the place where Strahd became a vampire and became a vessel of the Dark Powers. So I used my knowledge of the 2E Ravenloft Campaign setting and pulled in visions of all the other Dark Lords. One of the players even fought a nightmare visage of Lord Soth.


Castle Ravenloft
Through gritted teeth, about at each other’s throats over betrayal, the characters entered Castle Ravenloft. With the help of their NPC allies they were able to follow the clues from the Tarokka reading to find the one place Strahd wouldn’t flee from. They went there and trapped him in his father’s crypt and handedly kicked his butt, carving him to pieces with the sunsword. Castle Ravenloft took all of about 2 sessions and Strahd was a complete push-over. But everything else up to this was epic.
I agree that Amber Temple was was of the coolest places. No one died (I pulled some punches) but they were terrified the whole time. I re-used the map in another campaign as The Crumbling Tomb, changed some encounters around and added a sublevel demi-plane. I liked the revised version even better than the original.

They're at Ravenloft now. We're having a hard time playing more than once a month though, so God knows when we will finish. The layout of the castle gives me a headache, it is incredibly convoluted, but I think I have the hang of it now. I am also retrofitting portions of Ravenloft into Castle Shadowcrag in the other campaign, and will swap out most of the encounters for something else. Seemed a waste to have these two amazing places and not maximize their usefulness.
 

The layout of the castle gives me a headache, it is incredibly convoluted, but I think I have the hang of it now.
I highly recommend these maps. They make the castle and where everything is...easier...
 


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