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5E Curse of Strahd - What am I missing? (Possible spoilers?)

Curse of Strahd seems to get universal acclaim. I was excited to play it. Yet, I found my experience lacking. I wouldn't say I hated it, that may be too strong a word, but I definitely found it disappointing. Now, I was a player and I have no idea what the DM altered, cut, or just simply forgot about. So it is entirely possible that my experience will be completely different than yours.

First off, this didn't feel like Ravenloft to me. If it didn't say Strahd on the tin it could have easily just as been Generic Spooky Setting. The Dark Powers and their influence were completely absent. Magic worked just fine and we never had to roll a Dark Powers Check. Fear, horror or madness checks were completely absent, too. Everyone seemed scared of Strahd but that was it. He was just this boogey man in a castle. There really wasn't any evidence of his influence and hold over the people other than their fear.

Around level 4, the campaign started to take a turn towards silliness. Everything went from "Oh my goodness, how are we going to survive?" to "Wolves? Again? Alright." Now, this was shortly after our only PC death (The bard died saving the paladin and letting the warlock escape) so I don't know if the DM pulled back on some things, if events occurred behind the scenes that we simply weren't aware of, or if Level 3 to Level 4 is a big power jump for players. I'll admit my 5E system mastery is not amazing. It's not that I wanted a meat grinder of a game but there were a few times were we just had the paladin face tank encounters. The worst example would have been the coffin maker's home. Now it may be that we encountered that fight much later than we were supposed to due to the sandbox-y nature of the module but I feel like a big fight with vampire spawn should not devolve into the paladin casts Protection from Good and Evil and laughs as the monsters feebly scratch at his armor.

Maybe my group falls into the Thick as Mud category but, I feel like we had some unclear agency. None of us really cared about Barovia. We just wanted to leave. Well, the bard cared but he died and so went the morale compass of the party. And so most of our adventuring consisted of looking at the map of Barovia and going "Well, we haven't been here yet. Maybe what we need is there?" and then later putting a big red X on the map and asking Ezmerelda for help on what we should be doing. Yes, we had the vistani prophecy but none of us really could make heads or tails of what we should be doing with it.

I did not like Ezmerelda. Parts of the campaign felt like we were just following her around and she felt a bit too much like a Mary Sue.

We dumped Irena off on Rictavio and the two of them hid in Valaki without any problems. So Irena's plight just sort of ended with a whimper.

I feel like the end game of the module was weak, too. Strahd showed up when we restored Argonvost and through a combination of crazy tactics and dumb luck we managed to trounce him. Now, the party was going to poke around and try to follow up on a few ideas we had still: the ghostly army and the mage that fell over Tser Falls. But then it started to snow and Ezmerelda (The DM?) was like "No, we need to go to the castle. Now." Which leads me to...

The Sunblade. Now, the impression I got from all the NPCs was that this was the key to getting an edge in fighting Strahd. An edge. That little bit that might just tip the scales in our favor. Not turn the last dungeon into LOL GG EZ mode. We cranked that sucker to full power, beat on Strahd for a bit (he escaped), and then had a nice long rest in his castle before hunting him down and finishing him off. I think he had some generic skeletons with him at the end but they were almost an after thought at that point. It was hardly the grand showdown with a Dark Lord that I was expecting.

This isn't to say that you are having bad wrong fun if you enjoyed this adventure. I understand that not every campaign or style is for every player. Maybe this just wasn't for me. I'm just wondering if my experience was atypical. Was there something I was missing? Did my friends and I completely bungle our way through the adventure and fail upwards?
 

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Retreater

Legend
Hey. I am currently running this for my group and had a lot of experience running/playing Ravenloft (the campaign setting) in previous editions. But I agree to a certain point. I think that adding sanity and horror checks would go a long way in evoking the classic feel, as well as altering spells. Yes, it is depicted as a standard adventure with horror tropes (so in that way, closer in spirit to the original AD&D 1st edition adventure), but it doesn't really alter the experience of the players as it did in the 2nd edition campaign setting.
So far, I think it is the best of the WotC produced 5e campaign adventures, but it can use a bit to customize it for your group.
 

dnd4vr

The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
In one game we are playing CoS (on a break as we play another game and the DM preps for the castle/ final stages) and I have enjoyed it but found it not challenging at all really. Now, a lot of the challenge has been removed because we've had some pretty stellar plans to deal with things.

Like drowning Baba Lysaga in her tub so she couldn't do anything while two PCs stabbed her to death. It was way too easy as we were only 5th level then

We have 4 PCs. A Paladin, a ranger, a bard/rogue, and a sorcerer/warlock. We are 9th level now after finishing the Amber Temple. We've doing everything at this point except the castle. Hopefully it will be a good challenge, but I am afraid it will be "fun" but not too difficult really.

Now, a friend of mine is watching a group play CoS online (I think he watches their videos on YouTube) and he laughs because they are having a heck of a time! I am surprised how many issues they are having.[/SPOILER]
 


I see it like a "teaser" or a pilot episode of the future return of the setting. Some details are added, and this for me means there are plants to continue the metaplot with some retcons.

In the right time, Ravenloft will become one of the most important cash-cows for Hasbro, because it's perfect for the market of teenage and (young) adults. I would dare to say we may see a future Ravenloft movie, and not only for D&D fandom but all (gothic) horror fandom.
 

Nebulous

Legend
I am running this myself now too. I love it, but it's a big, complex, sprawling story. I'm following the advice of an extensive reddit walkthrough and changing some things up. The PCs are about to reach 4th level in Vallaki, and I don't know what is going to happen next, as the sandboxy nature of the module has blown wide open by this point.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Curse of Strahd seems to get universal acclaim. I was excited to play it. Yet, I found my experience lacking. I wouldn't say I hated it, that may be too strong a word, but I definitely found it disappointing. Now, I was a player and I have no idea what the DM altered, cut, or just simply forgot about. So it is entirely possible that my experience will be completely different than yours.

First off, this didn't feel like Ravenloft to me. If it didn't say Strahd on the tin it could have easily just as been Generic Spooky Setting. The Dark Powers and their influence were completely absent. Magic worked just fine and we never had to roll a Dark Powers Check. Fear, horror or madness checks were completely absent, too. Everyone seemed scared of Strahd but that was it. He was just this boogey man in a castle. There really wasn't any evidence of his influence and hold over the people other than their fear.

Around level 4, the campaign started to take a turn towards silliness. Everything went from "Oh my goodness, how are we going to survive?" to "Wolves? Again? Alright." Now, this was shortly after our only PC death (The bard died saving the paladin and letting the warlock escape) so I don't know if the DM pulled back on some things, if events occurred behind the scenes that we simply weren't aware of, or if Level 3 to Level 4 is a big power jump for players. I'll admit my 5E system mastery is not amazing. It's not that I wanted a meat grinder of a game but there were a few times were we just had the paladin face tank encounters. The worst example would have been the coffin maker's home. Now it may be that we encountered that fight much later than we were supposed to due to the sandbox-y nature of the module but I feel like a big fight with vampire spawn should not devolve into the paladin casts Protection from Good and Evil and laughs as the monsters feebly scratch at his armor.

Maybe my group falls into the Thick as Mud category but, I feel like we had some unclear agency. None of us really cared about Barovia. We just wanted to leave. Well, the bard cared but he died and so went the morale compass of the party. And so most of our adventuring consisted of looking at the map of Barovia and going "Well, we haven't been here yet. Maybe what we need is there?" and then later putting a big red X on the map and asking Ezmerelda for help on what we should be doing. Yes, we had the vistani prophecy but none of us really could make heads or tails of what we should be doing with it.

I did not like Ezmerelda. Parts of the campaign felt like we were just following her around and she felt a bit too much like a Mary Sue.

We dumped Irena off on Rictavio and the two of them hid in Valaki without any problems. So Irena's plight just sort of ended with a whimper.

I feel like the end game of the module was weak, too. Strahd showed up when we restored Argonvost and through a combination of crazy tactics and dumb luck we managed to trounce him. Now, the party was going to poke around and try to follow up on a few ideas we had still: the ghostly army and the mage that fell over Tser Falls. But then it started to snow and Ezmerelda (The DM?) was like "No, we need to go to the castle. Now." Which leads me to...

The Sunblade. Now, the impression I got from all the NPCs was that this was the key to getting an edge in fighting Strahd. An edge. That little bit that might just tip the scales in our favor. Not turn the last dungeon into LOL GG EZ mode. We cranked that sucker to full power, beat on Strahd for a bit (he escaped), and then had a nice long rest in his castle before hunting him down and finishing him off. I think he had some generic skeletons with him at the end but they were almost an after thought at that point. It was hardly the grand showdown with a Dark Lord that I was expecting.

This isn't to say that you are having bad wrong fun if you enjoyed this adventure. I understand that not every campaign or style is for every player. Maybe this just wasn't for me. I'm just wondering if my experience was atypical. Was there something I was missing? Did my friends and I completely bungle our way through the adventure and fail upwards?
It sounds like your DM had a hard time using the adventure, to me.

Madame Eva’s reading should have been a fairly solid guide as to where to go and what you needed, especially with the help of the book of Strahd.

I definitely prefer to modify Irena’s place in the module to be a bit beefier, including having her take up arms and help you regardless of who the ally is, but it sounds like the DM may have skipped some stuff.

Overall, I recommend folks read slyflourish’s take on running CoS.
 

Nebulous

Legend
It sounds like your DM had a hard time using the adventure, to me.

Madame Eva’s reading should have been a fairly solid guide as to where to go and what you needed, especially with the help of the book of Strahd.

I definitely prefer to modify Irena’s place in the module to be a bit beefier, including having her take up arms and help you regardless of who the ally is, but it sounds like the DM may have skipped some stuff.
yes, Eva's fortunes should give the PCs a rough roadmap of where to go. I chose the cards ahead of time and just pretended they were random picks, the players had no idea. I actually put Pidlwick II in Vallaki with the toymaker and made him a magic item/ally. He now works like a ring of regeneration for the rogue, but is still an evil little Chucky doll.

We have a new player coming soon and I think she is going to play Ireena as a fully statted PC.

I think it is a really tough adventure to prep for. I highly recommend anyone running this to find a guideline, it will make your life much easier. Vallakki gets into Game of Thrones territory with political machinations and sheer number of NPCs to interact with.
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
In my opinion, Curse of Strahd has very strong bones, but needs a good DM to flesh them out. I think that’s part of why it’s so popular with DMs - it gives you a really solid framework and leaves you the space to make the adventure your own. And that’s great for DMs who like to tinker. But if you’ve got a DM who wants to just run an adventure straight out of the book, it’s likely to be a struggle. I speak from experience, as the first time I DMed Curse of Strahd I was not yet confident enough to want to try putting my own touch on it. I tried to just run it “by-the-book”, and that campaign had a lot of the same issues you describe here. I’m currently on my second pass at the adventure and this time I’ve been treating the book as more of a setting guide for a sandbox instead of an on-rails adventure like most of the 5e modules have been. Approaching it this way is working much, MUCH better.
 

I ran Strahd less than two years ago and we had fabulous time with it. However:
I had 4 PCs, first time into 5e and trust me, it wasn't optimised party - and yet, after getting Sunblade, most fights felt on easy side. I can imagine optimised or bigger party owning the place, and I think DM should make amends for it.
Strahd is definitely too easy, you can make him almost unbeatable however, if you cheese some mechanics (like flying through walls). But vampire playing partisan war in his own castle isn't very classy, so, again DM should just buff him.
Barovia in CoS isn't real Ravenloft. We used Dark Powers checks from 2nd edition and I modified magic accordingly to 2nd edition modifications.
Finally, whole adventure is just nice gothic fantasy sandbox, not Call of Cthulhu type, PC-destroying horror. I gave it bizarre, TimBurtonish feel and it worked great, but again, it was more "Buffy Vampire Slayer" than "It".
 

Nebulous

Legend
In my opinion, Curse of Strahd has very strong bones, but needs a good DM to flesh them out. I think that’s part of why it’s so popular with DMs - it gives you a really solid framework and leaves you the space to make the adventure your own. And that’s great for DMs who like to tinker. But if you’ve got a DM who’s trying to just run the adventure straight out of the book, it’s likely to be a struggle. I speak from experience, as the first time I DMed Curse of Strahd I was not yet confident enough to want to try putting my own touch on it. I tried to just run it “by-the-book”, and that campaign had a lot of the same issues you describe here. I’m currently on my second pass at the adventure and this time it’s working so much better because I’ve been treating the book as more of a setting guide for a sandbox instead of an on-rails adventure like most of the 5e modules have been.
Agreed. This is not a friendly adventure for starting DMs. To really make it shine you need some A) experience under your belt, and B) spend time on it above and beyond cracking the book open before the next session.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Agreed. This is not a friendly adventure for starting DMs. To really make it shine you need some A) experience under your belt, and B) spend time on it above and beyond cracking the book open before the next session.
I recommend to any DM considering running Curse of Strahd to watch Chris Perkins run it on Dice, Camera, Action. Not because I think he runs it particularly well (he does a fine job, but not an exemplary one in my opinion) but to see just how much the adventure’s own lead writer deviates from the book when running it.

Again, the book is an excellent framework; a starting point. But it doesn’t have enough meat and connective tissue to make for a really great experience on its own.
 

toucanbuzz

Adventurer
Curse of Strahd seems to get universal acclaim. I was excited to play it. Yet, I found my experience lacking...
After I ran it, players I'd been gaming with for 15+ years said it was the best we'd ever played. To me, it was the best in 20+ years of DMing, and that's saying a LOT. BUT, I didn't run it as-is, straight from the module. If your DM did, I can see people being disappointed. It wasn't all just me scouring the net for what other DMs had done, getting a guide, adding material from the Ravenloft novels, and altering Strahd's story; it was also my players agreeing to immerse in a theme of despair, and to get into a medieval Romanian/Slavic setting by not playing dragonborn, orcs, tabaxi, (exotic high fantasy races) etc. The immersion helped quite a bit, a ton in fact.

Everyone seemed scared of Strahd but that was it. He was just this boogey man in a castle. There really wasn't any evidence of his influence and hold over the people other than their fear.
Strahd needed a complete overhaul. The adventure didn't do him justice. I read, back in the 90s, the "I, Strahd" novel as well as other Ravenloft novels that get into his head. The entire time the party was nothing but an afterthought. He's immortal. If he fails this time, he'll wait another generation and do it all over again. The only time the party comes onto his radar is when they interfere with Irena, who the DM must do everything in his power to make the PCs care about. She's a domestic violence victim, not past him yet. And that's complex. His only interaction with my PCs was to advise them not to interfere with the rules, and eventually an offer to convince Ireena to give herself to him.

If your experience was Strahd just popped in like an ass, threw a fireball and taunted the PCs then ran, then he was being run from the module only, and the module totally missed the mark on a very complex bad guy. I put probably dozens of extra hours into improving this part of the game.

None of us really cared about Barovia. We just wanted to leave....
Some work needs to be done with the story on this one, and again that's on the DM. It should've been clear Strahd closes borders, so you can't leave. He closes borders because he wants Ireena, but not by physical force. Drawing upon the novels, he wanted to recreate in my campaign the scenario of the past, when he first (nearly) seduced her and she instead threw herself off a cliff. I created a countdown to when this would match the calendar. He's beating her down emotionally, and this should piss people off. If it doesn't, then the Vistani give a 2nd reason: Strahd is cursed and needs to be fixed. Here's how, and then you can go home. You can't go home unless Strahd is fixed. But, he's an immortal god, and only relics from his past can undo him.

Because 90% of the souls in Barovia are simply shades (not sure this ever came into play) and not real souls, no one would care about taking on this task. The shades wouldn't care at all because they're puppets created by the Dark Powers to populate Barovia. Otherwise, I also played up the Ravens. They're trying to combat despair. Why give away free wine? Because it brings a slight bit of happy to this land, which wants to beat you down, make you dig your own grave and crawl into it, then feed off that hopelessness.

Ireena's story also has to be strong. It's easy to abandon her in Vallaki, so she needs to be tortured by Strahd. He wants to isolate her, beat her down. If you can stand by and watch someone do this to another, then maybe you're in the wrong game. And, it's not all Strahd. In my game, the party had met the Abbott who wanted them to kill Ireena (no competition for his bride). After the party convinced him this was wrong, they went adventuring. When they returned to Vallaki, they found the Abbott had taken their advice. He sent his minions and took Ireena's face, then healed her. He stitched the face onto his bride so Strahd would have the face he loves and the obedience of a home-made wife to cure him. This is the type of horror that caused jaws to drop. Then, he sent the party a wedding invitation, fully believing in his insanity they'd appreciate his moral solution.

From there, the party was on suicide watch for Ireena, who wanted nothing more than to die, for this to be over, and at her lowest, she gave herself to Strahd.

I feel like the end game of the module was weak, too. Strahd showed up when we restored Argonvost and through a combination of crazy tactics and dumb luck we managed to trounce him....
As above, the party means nothing. Why would he leave his castle? He could simply outlive them. He IS the Land. It won't let its favorite plaything die. His suffering is delicious to the Land. In his castle, Strahd is pretty much invincible. He can run through walls. In my game, he did "hit and run," accepting any attack of opportunity, regenerating, then doing it again. Because he needs no rest, he could do this forever until the party depleted itself. He was a genius general and he doesn't fight stupid...

And that was the key to defeating him. How can you get Strahd to abandon his genius tactics? What from his journal, or exploring his castle history, and from understanding him could tell you? I added a lot (some from the novels) to ghostly scenes that became more common the closer the party got to the conjunction of now with Strahd's original anniversary of the dark wedding. I let the PCs take roles, like a play, and get into the head of Strahd and what happened.

The Sunblade. Now, the impression I got from all the NPCs was that this was the key to getting an edge in fighting Strahd.... It was hardly the grand showdown with a Dark Lord that I was expecting.
If Strahd stands straight up and faces a party equipped with all artifacts, then yeah, he'll be easy peasy. It strips away much of his awesomeness, as it's supposed to. Hence, the "hit and run" my Strahd did.

So, did my players win? You bet. Ireena was taken in our story, turned and her face restored by Strahd. As a fledgling vampire, she needed rest. The party put up a Leomund's Hut, rested up, and made a plan to find her crypt in the maze of crypts (I had assigned her one). It was a footrace as they busted out, taking out posted sentinels while surviving his hit and run, then staking Ireena. Strahd loses. And this drives him to an insane fury. He forgets all strategy. He wants his fingers around the neck of these fool mortals. And his arrogance, his rage, it costs him. My PCs dropped him in 2 rounds.

SUMMARY: I had a love of the setting, so I put in a ton of hours customizing it. I, like others, get the impression your DM ran it as-is. I view all adventures as a coloring book, waiting for me to fill it in. So, sorry to hear it wasn't what it could've been, but don't give your DM too hard of a time. We all learn as we go. But in this day and age, where we have hundreds of forums and gamer sites with some amazing DM stories of what works and doesn't work, I hope all DMs are taking that extra time and effort to make their stuff a bit better.
 
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neogod22

Explorer
I was pretty disappointed running it too. I too was expecting the same type of setting 2e had. The beginning was pretty hard fir the players, but they found the Holy Symbol in the gypsy camp, which made undead encounters laughable early on. When the book came out, WotC didn't know that the monster Nerf and player buffs that 5e created would destroy the CR for everything once the players hit level 5 back then, so while they thought a vampire at CR 15 would be too hard for the players, and gave them the tools that should've made the fight fair, they just made it too easy. There are ways to make this more challenging when they get to the castle. Here are some ideas.

1. No rests in the castle. I would suggest the DM create 1 or 2 safe areas where the players can stay long enough for a short rest only. Once they use it, they can't use it again.

2. Buff Strahd. Double his HP, give him magic armor and a weapon. If you really want to be nasty, have him wear the the Strahd animated armor, and have all damage go to that before it's destroyed. If the players didn't destroy the heart, have that amulet mitigate 50hp per round instead of it just failing once it absorbs that much damage. Also make Strahd resistant to all damage besides radiant, and allow him to regenerate any damage that's not radiant damage even if he take radiant damage that round also.

3. Use Strahd's abilities. One of Strahd's lair actions is the ability to move through the walls, ceiling and floor. When he takes say 25% damage, have him have him leave the room and make the players have to move through the castle and find him, allowing him to regenerate, and throw more monsters at them to use up resources. Don't forget, Strahd is also a wizard, use spells to his advantage. I.e. he may pop in while the players are fighting trash mobs, and say cast hold person on the warrior or wizard, judt to make the fight that much harder, then retreat when the players get the upper hand.

3. Wherever the final battle is suppoed to be, make sure you lead the players there for the fight. Feel free to manipulate the results of the tarot reading to have the final battle where you think it should be fought.

4. If things go bad, remember, the players are suppoed to win. They should have an ally, and feel free to kill that NPC before killing a player. Maybe that could be a dramatic scene that allows the opening for the players to finish off Strahd.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
As above, the party means nothing. Why would he leave his castle? He could simply outlive them. He IS the Land. It won't let its favorite plaything die.
I agree wholeheartedly with basically everything in this post, but this particular bit I wanted to challenge a bit. In my opinion, the question is not why would Strahd leave his castle, but why would he stay? He’s the land, yes, but he’s also the lord of the land. He can go wherever he pleases without the slightest of threat or challenge, because it’s his land, and who’s going to stop him? On top of that he’s so interminably bored. For centuries he’s been trapped in this tiny snow globe of a domain, with the same souls being recycled over and over again, history repeating itself with only minor variations generation after generation. I can’t imagine him being content to just sit in his castle looking menacingly out a window like some gothic Cercei Lannister. I see him going out among his subjects, feeding on who he pleases, manipulating the populace just to make something happen. That’s why he messed with Donnovich and the Abbot and all the others; he hasn’t been surprised in centuries, so he passes his time just screwing with people in the hopes of getting a mildly amusing result.
 




Nebulous

Legend
I do agree that 5e is too easy. It really doesn't want PCs to die. Now, I do make my personal campaigns much harder, but yeah, you have to adopt a certain playstyle. I don't allow hardly anything to influence death saves, it's usually a straight up 10+.
 

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