D&D 5E Sammael's Curse of Strahd (CoS) Extravaganza


So, before the Big Crash of 2016, I started a number of threads and replied to an even greater number of threads related to 5E and, in particular, the Curse of Strahd adventure. All my *cough* wisdom *cough* was lost ;) but fear not - I'll try to recreate some of that content here. I hope this thread will end up being one part story hour (lite), one part my 5E commentary, and one part me asking for help on running the game.

First a small intro - I have considerable DMing experience (~17 years), mostly AD&D second edition, 3.0, 3.5, and some WHFRP, Dark Heresy, and World of Darkness (old and new). I have my own d20 system variant called Fatebinder, and I've spent thousands of hours on it, but it's far from finished. I generally DM more than I play, though that has changed a bit in the recent years as several of my current players are also good (and willing) DMs.

I bought the 5E core books when they originally came out, read them, found them a lot better than 4E (which was not to my taste at all), and then promptly shelved them. I was in full Fatebinder homebrew mode then, and didn't really need a new system. But then, CoS came out earlier this year and I felt drawn to the mists once again...

After buying CoS in May, reading it and rereading it, I was astonished - I was not used to sandboxy content of this magnitude in official publications. Furthermore, I knew that only one of my regular players had any experience with Ravenloft. So, I decided to make a pitch when one of our standard campaigns was put on hiatus - I proposed to run a one-off based on the Death House to see if I liked DMing 5E. The players agreed and soon I had Rogar the Dragonborn Barbarian, Surly the Dwarf Rogue, Thanas the Human Warlock, and Flick the Half-Elf Cleric of Waukeen.



Also, my players stay out :)

Entrance into Ravenloft played out reasonably well. All PCs were asleep on the anchored Rusty Plank, a boat owned by the Cleric. They awoke in the middle of the night to find the rest of the crew missing (with signs of violence) and the boat itself afloat in a sea of fog.

Cleric steered the boat towards what seemend to be a lighthouse, but, as it turned out, was a large campfire on a rocky shore. The boat crashed, PCs rushed out and were greeted by friendly vistani from the campfire who offered them warmth, food, and drinks. Cleric was suspicious, but even he ran ashore after a kraken appeared and started to tear the ship apart. After a long night, Barbarian discovered that vistani were packing and leaving and a teenage vistani girl warned him that she read their destiny and that unless they followed them, they would all meet their doom. This was, of course, all part of...

Acting under orders of Madame Eva, vistani assassin Arrigal sneaked aboard the Rusty Plank, murdered the sleeping crew and untied the ship’s ropes (making it appear as if it was the work of a kraken). With a little help from Stanimir (vistani elder) and weather control magic, the ship was set on course towards the vistani camp. Arrigal and Stanimir returned to the camp on horseback and hid on the shore to observe. Once the ship was beached, Stanimir created an illusion of the kraken attack. The elder then instructed Damia to manipulate Rogar; the girl felt quite guilty about the deception, but she had to respect her elder’s wishes.

So, they traveled the road following vistani tracks, had a random encounter with several berserkers (really deadly for a 1st level party!), a non-violent encounter with the skeletal rider, discovered some clues about their whereabouts, and finally made it into the village of Barovia where mists steered them to the Death House. I had them level up to 2nd level after entering the house.

The Death House was a bit weird - I am not sure any of us liked the house itself or the dungeon, but everyone liked the hints of things beyond. At the time, I wasn't sure I was going to continue running CoS, so I didn't tie the house to the rest of the setting. Later on, I made the following retcon:

The Death House is a failed joint experiment between the arcanaloth Inajira (Amber Temple) and the night hag Morgantha (Old Bonegrinder). Inajira passionately hates Strahd, and he sponsored the cult in vain hope that Strahd would see the Durst family as worthy successors and abdicate in their favor (thus allowing Inajira to finally collect his soul). Unfortunately, the Dursts were as incompetent as they were depraved, and so Strahd never saw them as anything but abject failures. After the Dursts’ demise, Inajira and Morgantha turned the house into a proving ground of sorts for adventurers, culling the weak from the strong and supplying them with intel on potential allies. It is their magic, not Strahd's, that rebuilds the house from ashes every time it is burned to the ground. Strahd believes the Death House to be a playground of the Dark Powers and doesn't suspect the truth.

(the players have not yet met either Inajira or Morgantha, so I haven't had a chance to use this backstory).

I modified the house to include several illusory flashbacks:

  • After the party explores the secret room in the library, they can watch through the library windows as Strahd appears in his coach, scolds and dismisses Gustav Durst and leaves him to rot in the house
  • After the party defeats the animated armor on 3rd floor, they see Elizabeth Durst running up the stairs and arguing with the pregnant nursemaid; she then pushes the nursemaid down the marble staircase
  • After the party discovers the secret door leading to the basement, they see a procession of ghostly cultists walking to the attic door and chanting (their chanting continues to echo in the dungeon).
  • In my second second CoS run (more details later), I added a ghostly ball taking place on the second floor if one of the PCs tries his hand at playing the harpsichord.

In the end, Warlock from the original party got killed and eaten by Lorgoth the Decayer, which allowed the others to retreat and regroup. Warlock's player decided not to raise him and wanted to make a new character instead (which had to wait for them to leave the house). After resting, burying children's remains, and devising a fairly clever plan to drop the portcullis on Lorgoth, they managed to destroy it and then managed to escape the house.

That's the first 3 sessions summed up. Everybody wanted to continue, so we did and are currently prepping for session #14.

As this was my first time running 5E, I was amazed at how easy it was to run. I liked:

  • Fast character creation
  • Background and personality charts and especially trinkets
  • Fast combats
  • Advantage/disadvantage
  • Inspiration

I was unsure on:

  • How deadly the game was (was I doing something wrong, or was the game itself so brutal?)

I disliked:

  • That the game was really vague or had no rulings on several issues that arose during the first few sessions
  • That monsters had very few abilities beyond their basic attacks
  • That a long rest healed everything

More commentary to come soon :)

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After Death House, the party leveled to level 3. As the PCs moved on to explore the village of Barovia over the next two sessions, I realized that CoS would take a lot longer to run than I had anticipated - particularly since they were interested in all the little side-quests and didn't want to leave any stones unturned. At this point, I came up with the milestone system for the adventure. Basically, there is a rather large list of milestones, and PCs gain a new level after resolving any four milestones from the list. Some of the milestones are mutually exclusive, but the total number of milestones is large enough that PCs will hit the L10 level cap before resolving them all. Here it is (note that some locations were updated after the Tarokka reading):

Interaction Milestones (Location)
Burial for Kolyan Indirovich (Barovia)
Obtain a Tarokka reading from Madame Eva (Tzer Pool)
Win Jeny Greenteeth's favor (Tzer Falls)
Rescue Arabelle from Bluto (Lake Zarovich)
Forge alliance with Van Richten (Vallaki)
Resolve the power struggle in Vallaki (Vallaki)
Restore the Krezkov bloodline (Krezk)
Reunite Sergei and Tatyana (Krezk)
Help Donavich with Doru (Barovia, Krezk)
Forge alliance with Ezmerelda (Anywhere)
Restore Mad Mage's Sanity (Mount Baratok)
Save children from the werewolves (Werewolf den)
Forge alliance with the hags (Old Bonegrinder)
Restore Patrina to life (Amber Temple, Castle Ravenloft)
Rescue Gertruda (Castle Ravenloft)
Befriend Piddlewick II (Castle Ravenloft)

Exploration Milestones (Location)
Obtain the Tome of Strahd (Vistani Camp south of Vallaki)
Recover the Bones of St Andral (Vallaki)
Find the Sunsword (Vallaki)
Find the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind (Krezk)
Deliver bridal dress to the Abbot (Krezk)
Light the Beacon of Argynvostholt (Argynvostholt)
Restore Wizard of Wines (2 or 3 gems) (Wizard of Wines)
Reconsecrate the Shrine of Mother Night (Werewolf den)
Discover the secrets of Amber Temple (Amber Temple)
Destroy all amber sarcophagi (Amber Temple)
Destroy Heart of Sorrow (Castle Ravenloft)

Combat Milestones (Location)
Destroy Lady Wachter's book club (Vallaki)
Disrupt St. Andral's feast (Vallaki)
Defeat the Abbot (Krezk)
Defeat Wintersplinter (Wizard of Wines)
Clear Yester Hill (Yester Hill)
Reconsecrate the Circle of Standing Stones (Ruins of Berez)
Clear Old Bonegrinder (Old Bonegrinder)
Clear Tsolenka Pass (Tsolenka pass)
Defeat Rahadin (Amber Temple/Castle Ravenloft)

I'll detail some of the non-obvious milestones a bit later on. Perhaps I can compile this (and other enhancements) into a document of some sort, if they would be useful...

In any case, the party first met warlock's replacement character, Evendur the Human Fighter, at the tavern. To supply them with a bit of background information, and to better fit the player's background story, I actually declared that Evendur arrived in Barovia about six months ago with another, more experienced adventuring party. They were overconfident, stormed Castle Ravenloft, and got slaughtered - except for Evendur who was captured by one of Strahd's vampire brides and drained within an inch of his life. The bride then gifted him her funeral bouquet (one of gothic trinkets) and bid him farewell. He reached the village and spent the following months pawning his equipment to pay for food and drink (lots and lots of drink) at the tavern, all the while desperately trying to come up with a plan for revenge.

With their new party member in line (and in possession of valuable info concerning Barovia and the castle), PCs set out to:

  • Go to Burgomaster's mansion with Ismark to meet his sister Ireena
  • Visit the church where they learn what happened to Donavich's son (they left him alone and promised they would seek help from the Abbot in Krezk)
  • Learn about the ghostly adventurers and their midnight march on the castle
  • Bury Kolyan Indirovich
  • Learn about Morgantha and her soul cakes
  • Hear Mad Mary's plea for help (and tie Gertruda's disappearance to Morgantha)
  • Escort Ireena to Vallaki

The Ismark/Ireena part went smoothly (although they couldn't convince Ireena to stay barricaded in the house for the funeral), and PCs were disgusted at the villagers who didn't want to help bury their former Burgomaster. I added a few details here and there:

  • There was a mob of villagers picketing in front of the church who accused Donavich and "his monster" of all their problems. Ismark almost got into a fight with them, but PCs managed to stop it by intimidating the hell out of villagers who ran away
  • Two PCs were guarding Kolyan's body in the church over night when Rahadin appeared and nailed a proclamation on the church door, placing the church under Strahd's protection (to fuel the villagers' doubts... and play with the PCs minds)
  • When they were escorting Ireena to the church for the funeral, Strahd himself appeared - as an invisible presence - and started whispering to her; needless to say, they literally ran to the church, hoping it would offer them some protection
  • When leaving the village, Ismark dug out the third Wizard of Wines gem from his garden (unaccounted for in the actual adventure) and gave it to the PCs as payment, explaining that his father obtained it ten years ago during a famine and it had saved the village from starvation

And while the PCs didn't wonder how Strahd was able to enter Burgomaster's mansion uninvited and bite Ireena, I did... and here's what I came up with:

Three months ago, under guise of Vasili von Holtz, a minor nobleman from the south, Strahd tricked Kolyan Indirovich into inviting him into his mansion. Von Holtz claimed to be a hunter who got lost in Svalich Woods after dire wolves had slaughtered most of his hunting party. Burgomaster let him into the house to recuperate. After surveying the mansion, Strahd returned several nights later and charmed Ireena into allowing him to bite her. When Kolyan died recently, the house formally passed on to Ismark, which meant that von Holtz’s invitation had been revoked. Neither Ismark nor Ireena are aware of von Holtz’s true nature (and would not believe it unless presented with evidence). Vasili von Holtz will appear again in Vallaki.

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