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


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Nebulous

Legend
For one thing he drains two levels with each hit in the original.
oh, well that's a 5e thing, most undead are just not as scary. But yeah, level drain was awful. They should implement a hit die drain mechanic, players would be terrified of that.
 
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toucanbuzz

Adventurer
...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....
Yep, that's part of it. Perhaps the better way to phrase it is that it wouldn't be in character for him to gallop in on a nightmare, harass the low-level PCs like some sort of gym bully at school, pull down their pants, and ride away. He plays a long-term game. Everything has meaning. In my game, his appearances were few and far between, to send a message. When they sought to elevate the Church in Vallaki as a safe haven for Ireena, Strahd tore down its trappings during a service, slaughtered the priest, and sent a loud and clear message that he is the Land. There is no safe haven. They're trying to interfere with his destiny by influencing Ireena. Yet, he won't kill them for that curiosity bit.

All these other times he's failed, Ireena/Tatyana has been surrounded by natives of the land. The party is a novel factor and one he intends to play into altering a legacy of failed attempts. He just hasn't quite figured that part out yet, and this is where the adventure can take a fantastic spin. I had no idea my PCs would do what they did in the way they did.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Yep, that's part of it. Perhaps the better way to phrase it is that it wouldn't be in character for him to gallop in on a nightmare, harass the low-level PCs like some sort of gym bully at school, pull down their pants, and ride away. He plays a long-term game. Everything has meaning. In my game, his appearances were few and far between, to send a message. When they sought to elevate the Church in Vallaki as a safe haven for Ireena, Strahd tore down its trappings during a service, slaughtered the priest, and sent a loud and clear message that he is the Land. There is no safe haven. They're trying to interfere with his destiny by influencing Ireena. Yet, he won't kill them for that curiosity bit.

All these other times he's failed, Ireena/Tatyana has been surrounded by natives of the land. The party is a novel factor and one he intends to play into altering a legacy of failed attempts. He just hasn't quite figured that part out yet, and this is where the adventure can take a fantastic spin. I had no idea my PCs would do what they did in the way they did.
Yup, I think we’re on the same page. I actually do like to have him show up frequently, but it’s always meaningful when he does.

One example of how I use him is at Kolyan’s funeral. As-written some wolves menace the characters at the funeral as a mysterious shadowy figure watches from the mist. Yawn. I have him attend the funeral, as a mourner. Why the hell would he skulk around the outskirts like some kind of weirdo? He came to pay his respects to Kolyan and offer his sympathies to Ireena, and that’s exactly what he’ll do. Plus, having the bad guy just waltz up to the party, bold as brass, and introduce himself is infinitely more intimidating than hiding in the shadows because it shows that there’s nothing anyone can do to stop him and he knows it.

That’s the kind of appearance I like to have Strahd frequently make. Just casually showing up to flaunt the fact that the would-be heroes can’t do squat about it, not to engage in cartoonish pranks.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Or for every bite lose 2 points of every stat these stats can be recovered by one long rest per bite.
 

jayoungr

Hero
Supporter
I notice that several of the OP's complaints are specifically about the lack of horror-related mechanics.

Looking over the instructions in CoS on how to set the mood of horror, I can see that most of them are narrative elements. The module seems built on the philosophy that horror is most effective when it's developed through the story and atmosphere, rather than the mechanics. So I think a large part of the issue here is just a mismatch of expectations between the players and the writers of the adventure.

The Dark Powers and their influence were completely absent.
Did you go the Amber Temple? That is the main place where the Dark Powers come into Curse of Strahd, but some DMs choose to cut that part.

Magic worked just fine and we never had to roll a Dark Powers Check.
Page 24 of the hardback includes a list of alterations to magic: spells that would allow a party to leave Barovia won't work, and Strahd may intercept any spell that attempts to contact another plane. It also has suggested cosmetic changes to spells (for example, mage hand would appear as a skeletal shadowy hand rather than a normal one); did your DM use those?

As for magic just plain not always working, it seems to me like that would penalize the players of magic-using characters in unfun ways. But that's just MHO.

Fear, horror or madness checks were completely absent, too.
There is a system for tracking sanity and rolling for fear/horror/madness in the Dungeon Master's Guide, which your DM could have added to CoS. I do think the book would have benefitted from a pointer to that section of the DMG and a note on how DMs could incorporate it. To really integrate fear/horror/madness checks deeply into the adventure as written would take a lot of work, though.

I ran the Adventurer's League modules that accompany this adventure last year, which do include some horror/madness checks. To be honest, I don't think they worked well for our group. They just felt tacked on. That's why I think it would take some doing to bring this fully into the adventure, and not every table really wants to track sanity as if they were playing Call of Cthulhu, so for every group that was happy to have this fully and officially woven into the adventure, another group would probably be turned off. Plus, as I noted at the beginning of this post, the authors seem to be approaching the story with the goal of doing more with narrative and less with mechanical changes.
 
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Just one more comment, on Madness checks this time.
Lately, I have long romance with Call of Cthulhu, and there, Sanity works both as a Madness roll (you need to pass the test or you are behaving erratically for 1d10 rounds) and more importantly, as a resource. Because combat in CoC is deadly, players engage in it quite rarely, and for GM, hitting on their sanity is a way to deplete vital resource without crippling their actions too much. That being said, I noticed that people like slippery slope of slowly losing Sanity, but are not fond of short term bouts of madness.
From my experience with Ravenloft itself, I think expanding Dark Powers mechanics would work better than forcing madness and horror checks on players. Slowly becoming monster you try to fight - what can be more awesome in horror game?
Other than that, indeed, 5e is not deadly enough for this style of play. I would love to see "Van Richten's Guide to the Undead" Volo-style book with variant rules for little more ravenlofty experience, but as long as we don't try to make D&D into grim dark realistic game (there are plenty of those out there) DMG variants are enough to make Curse of Strahd dangerous and deadly (as someone said above, Amber Temple is good reality check for players. Mine barely made out of it alive - but its also totally non-ravenloftian dungeon crawl).
(Oh, I just recalled that Marr Mercer once posted his 5e version of corruption rules - its another good thing to add to CoS campaign to make it less high fantasy).
 

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.
I agree. Plus I've heard a number of people say that Strahd should basically "move around/appear outta nowhere" to torment the party.

Oh a pack of wolves? Should be easy like the last pa-yo why is that one particular wolf different from the others?

Oh a knock on the door? Can you come in you ask? Well I'm not sure if I should...that group of PC/NPCs told me it's not safe to open his door at night.Its not a good.....You know what, okay yeah su-Strahd grabs the poor smuck as he's given permission to enter, and the guy gets dragged out into the Darkness outside.

Walking down the castle hall just min-gets blasted by a Fireball as Strahd laughs manically and phase back through the wall.

Basically, your not safe from Strahd no matter where your at on his home turf.
 
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Retreater

Legend
So reading this has inspired me that I should get the Dark Powers involved more and try to add a little more of the old Ravenloft flavor into my campaign. They are just finishing up Vallaki, around 6th level. I wonder when would be a good time to introduce it? Maybe having them unleash it at the Amber Temple?
 

So reading this has inspired me that I should get the Dark Powers involved more and try to add a little more of the old Ravenloft flavor into my campaign. They are just finishing up Vallaki, around 6th level. I wonder when would be a good time to introduce it? Maybe having them unleash it at the Amber Temple?
My players got VERY excited when they learned about existence of Dark Powers and Amber Temple. For them, it was explanation they wanted (their previous, false explanation was existence of ancient vampire beneath Yester Hill). So, make Wereravens or Gray Elves (or Vistani) talk about Dark Powers and point them into Amber Temple. Also, if one of your players die in the meantime, make him comeback with a little gift from Dark Powers. Have fun!
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I agree. Plus I've heard a number of people say that Strahd should basically "move around/appear outta nowhere" to torment the party.

Oh a pack of wolves? Should be easy like the last pa-yo why is that one particular wolf different from the others?

Oh a knock on the door? Can you come in you ask? Well I'm not sure if I should...Okay yeah su-Strahd grabs the poor smuck as he's given permission, and the guy gets dragged out into the Darkness outside.

Walking down the castle hall just min-gets blasted by a Fireball as Strahd laughs manically and phase back through the wall.

Basically, your not safe from Strahd no matter where your at on his home turf.
While I agree the party should never feel safe from him, I also think it’s important to keep an air of menace to his appearances. If he just pops up to slap the players around a bit and then disappear, it risks making him more of a nuisance than a truly terrifying villain. His presence should be like the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds (or the strudel scene, or the bar scene... take your pick really, that whole movie is a masterclass in dramatic tension). You know he could kill you at any moment, and he knows you know it, and he is going to lord it over you every moment of this interaction, all the while wearing a thin veneer of politeness and respectability.

Only once the players start getting enough levels and Fortunes of Ravenloft under their belt to actually start giving Strahd pause should that dynamic start to shift. That’s when Strahd decides to stop playing with the PCs and get serious. That’s when it goes from taunting to full-on psychological warfare.
 

Nebulous

Legend
So reading this has inspired me that I should get the Dark Powers involved more and try to add a little more of the old Ravenloft flavor into my campaign. They are just finishing up Vallaki, around 6th level. I wonder when would be a good time to introduce it? Maybe having them unleash it at the Amber Temple?
Maybe even sooner than the Amber Temple, as that is getting late game.
 

@jayoungr we did go to the Amber temple with Kasimir (Earless the Elf). I remember we touched a few of the pillars and they all asked us if we wanted their gifts but we couldn't pump them for any information. The only deal that was made was when the warlock got a pair of hell hounds and the only draw back was that she was stinky if she spoke infernal. If those were supposed to be the Dark Powers, I am very disappointed. The DM told us he was surprised that we survived the Amber Temple since we went at a lower level than we were supposed to(?).

Kasamir made his deal in the Amber Temple and immediately bailed on us. "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal" was said by pretty much all the players. Then Rahadin showed up with some mountain folk(?) to curb stomp us and kidnapped Ezmerelda.

Strahd did show up a few times in my experience. He'd smack us around, just like a bully @toucanbuzz, then he would toss a off a one liner and disappear. I personally found this annoying because if a villain is so out of my league, I feel that the moment I become remotely threatening he should show up to end me. But that doesn't make for a good game. I do recall that at first we were trying to keep our movements secret but as the campaign progressed and it didn't appear that Strahd really cared how many times we poked him in the eye, we just stopped caring about stealth.

I am definitely getting the impression that my expectations and the module did not line up. Bummer. :(
 


pukunui

Hero
You should talk to my players. Many of them still have nightmares about their visit to Barovia. I think maybe only one of them survived the final showdown with Strahd, and he ran off to hide in the woods with the mad mage. It was essentially a TPK.

That being said, I had already played through CoS once as a player, and I did feel it was a bit too easy, so I may have gone too far the other way in my attempt to make it a challenge for my group when I DMed them through it. I'd say they still enjoyed it, even though they didn't "win".

And I'd love to run it again sometime.

Curse of Strahd, Storm King's Thunder, and Tomb of Annihilation are all highlights from the 5e adventures for me.
 

toucanbuzz

Adventurer
...Strahd did show up a few times in my experience. He'd smack us around, just like a bully @toucanbuzz, then he would toss a off a one liner and disappear. I personally found this annoying because if a villain is so out of my league, I feel that the moment I become remotely threatening he should show up to end me. But that doesn't make for a good game...I am definitely getting the impression that my expectations and the module did not line up. Bummer. :(
That's unfortunate, but not 100% (maybe more like 75%) on your DM as it's the way the module was written, which was poorly. It reminded me of a horrific AD&D Dragonlance adventure involving Lord Soth, a tragic death knight with a major role in the novels. In his sidebar, it basically says he teleports in, summons monsters or tosses a damaging spell, then teleports away, and NOTHING the party does can affect him when he's being a jerk. I thought this type of poor and lazy writing had gone to the wayside, but then it showed up in Strahd... DM radar should go off when stuff like this shows up!

If you can take your DM out for a beer (virtual or otherwise), share your thoughts on what you liked and didn't like. If they're a good DM, they'll take it to heart. A good DM always wants to be better and always wants their players to be open for next time.
 

How in the world did the party get a long rest in Strahds Castle?
He heals 20 HPs per ROUND and can walk through the walls.
We charged the sunblade up to max and then rested in the crypts, all the while laughing that this should not be possible. But it did. Somehow. Did the DM misread how the sunblade worked?

Also, the DM emphasized how important our alignment was going to be during session 0. That it would influence things we could and could not do. But I don't think our alignment ever came up during the course of play. Is this something else that fell through the cracks?
 

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.
Dark Powers? What are these Dark Powers? I've played I6 a few times and read I6 and I10 many times. I don't remember any references to Dark Powers. Did they get added in a later book?

I am curently in a game of Curse of Strahd. Our experiences are certainly different to yours, except for the "missing moral compass" bit - our party is a bunch of thieving bastards plus one character who has a strong reason to end Strahd. Combats have been nasty and brutish. We have no magical weapons, no magical armour, hmmm, we have I think one magical item total, at level 5. There are no pearls, so the item is currently unidentified (in other words, useless to us).

If I had to describe our experiences in one word, it would be "impoverished." Nowhere to buy scrolls or potions or the ingredients to make them. Normal equipment at 10× to 50× PHB price (but 1/10 to 1/50 sell price of normal gear, with nowhere to sell treasure). My 5th level character, who entered the game at the start of level 4, has never had "healing potion" written on the character sheet.

Our most important spell is goodberry, because without it we would starve. WIS (Survival) you wonder? It doesn't work when there aren't any farms or edible plants or huntable animals (this valley is seriously screwed).
 

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?
I don't really play 5E, so my judgement is probably not that significant here. But I picked this up when it came out because I was a huge fan of Ravenloft back in the 2E days (I pretty much ran ravenloft exclusively all through the 90s). This just didn't land with me, and to be honest I am not sure why. Just didn't feel like Ravenloft and the content didn't appeal to me. But then, to me Ravenloft is the original module and the black boxed set, and the early part of the line (the Van Richten Books, Feast of Goblyns, Castles Forlorn, etc). I wasn't a huge fan of the 3E version that came out either.
 

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