A couple weeks ago I started prepping a campaign for a Dungeons & Dragons group. I met with the players, discussed expectations, and helped them create their characters.
My two older sons (ages 16 & 11) are part of the group, and I thought it would be good for them to try out their characters’ abilities before the whole group meets to start the campaign. We decided we’d play around with some light combat, exploration, and social interaction so they could practice their skills and role-playing.
Then The Curse of Strahd came in the mail. This book is 5th Edition’s version of Ravenloft, a popular campaign setting that goes back to the original D&D from the early 80s. Count Strahd von Zarovich is the central vampire villain, D&D’s version of Dracula, a character who appears in numerous products related to the game. I remember a fighting game and customizable card game that included Strahd among other notable characters from various expansions and supplements.
What impresses me most about 5th Edition’s core books is that they return the focus to elements of story-telling. 4th Edition was fun enough for me (and the first version I played). You could tell a story using those rules, but the system seemed to center on all the characters’ powers–daily abilities, encounter spells, at-will powers, feats and skills and so on. 5th Edition keeps some of that, but from the start, the books are built around the story the players and DM are trying to tell, from the subtle but evocative details described within a room to the long-term arcs and world-changing events that could form a thrilling campaign.
Curse of Strahd continues this trend beautifully. The first part of the book addresses how to run a horror-themed campaign instead of the usual swords-and-sorcery that D&D regulars might expect. The book also includes a player character background for someone who has endured a harrowing experience that forever scars their lives. Of course there is a long campaign arc with various locales, adventures, monsters, factions, and details necessary to run multiple sessions taking characters from level 1 to 10. As an option, there’s a short exploration adventure called Death House which is designed to bring new characters from level 1 to 3.
I decided to run Death House with my sons to give them a chance to learn their characters. I haven’t ever had as much fun with pre-made expansions as I did with this small excerpt from the larger campaign setting. To set the mood, we started just before dusk with the lights turned off and some creepy music playing from a YouTube track. My oldest son was immediately suspicious of everything, from the swirling mists (something like a magical side-effect of the corruption on the land) to the dirt road near the party’s campsite (something like a dirt road made of dirt that leads to a place).
After much cajoling, I got them to the actual house where the adventure was to take place. The book describes each room of the four story manor in great detail, and practices what it preaches about setting the horror tone. Some recurring bits of description show that not all is right in the Durst family manor. For example, almost every room has ornately carved wood paneling that seems like something artistic and lovely at first glance–say, children dancing in the woods. On closer inspection, characters can see corpses hanging from the trees, or swarms of bats attacking the children. The description of a spare bedroom addresses all the plain,. dusty furnishings, then includes the following: a smiling doll in a yellow dress sits in a nook under a window, her face covered in cobwebs like a wedding veil.
Without spoiling too much, each the most innocuous rooms or objects in the manor can prove dangerous… especially when my younger son decided to investigate everything.
Me: “The door creaks on rusty hinges as it swings open to reveal a dusty closet. Some tattered rags and old bars of soap clutter the shelf, and a broom leans against the back wall behind strands of ancient spiderweb.”
Younger son: “I investigate the room!”
Older son: “What? Why? It’s just a closet.”
Me: “Haha, seriously? Ok. Well, as soon as you step into the closet, the broom flies into the air, thrashing about, trying to beat you back. It’s magically animated and exceedingly hostile to intruders. Roll for initiative.”
This is all straight from the book, which mentions the animated broom of attack that goes on the offensive if anyone comes within five feet. I thought, “Why would anyone step into a dusty closet of worthless belongings?” To investigate, of course! Silly me–you never know what players are going to do.
Since I only had two players, I made a couple NPCs, especially since my older son is practicing healing as a cleric. He got his chance when the younger son’s rogue took a broomstick to the noggin and got knocked out. (Lesson learned? Perhaps? We’ll see.)
I made a gnome tank for hilarity’s sake, and she took a little abuse. Then I tried the “haunted one” background to make a warlock, who proved to be a fun NPC I’ll use in future efforts. She repeats the last few words of every sentence, but in a whisper. I stole this strange and seemingly unconscious mannerism from a girl who lived in our neighborhood some years ago. “We should proceed with caution with caution… the spirits here seem restless and vengeful and vengeful…”
The haunted one background led to a character who witnessed a monster slaughtering dozens of innocents around her, yet for some reason it looked right at her and spared her life before continuing its rampage. As a result, she’s disturbed and broken, but it drives her to assist anyone in need even if the situation is dangerous. Additionally, her faith in divine beings is shattered, but she also talks to spirits no one else can see. The background provides for a random trinket selected from a list of 50 options designed for a gothic style campaign or setting–for example a clock that runs backwards for one hour every midnight, a coat stolen from a dying soldier, or a handmirror with an image of a bronze medusa on the backing. The options are all splendid and offer interesting hooks for future stories.
I wanted to play the NPC more than I ended up doing, but acting as DM and trying to run two distinct characters was a bit much to keep up with… plus I don’t like the idea of the DM playing a character, as it often leads to a sense of stealing the spotlight from the players.
Nevertheless, we had an exciting time and a great warm-up for the new characters my children made. We explored about halfway through the adventure in the first 3-hour session, then finished it off in a second session of similar length. It could have gone another session had we been thorough in exploring every hall and room. I revealed only what the characters could see, using a makeshift map hastily drawn on loose paper. (“You see a hall to the left and stairs that lead down. The chanting is stronger downstairs.”)
That left several rooms in the basement untouched, preventing a number of possible encounters from taking place.
The adventure is designed for leveling up based on story progress instead of experience points. Once the players reached the way downstairs, they hit level 2, regardless of what they have or haven’t completed. After they leave the manor, no matter how they complete the scenario, they reach level 3 and stand ready to delve deeper into 5th Edition Ravenloft.
While prepping for this D&D group, I noted with some chagrin the massive amount of crap I bought for 4th Edition. The pre-made, published adventures all remain unused, several of them still wrapped in plastic. I feared I might also dislike the campaign components of the 5th Edition books… but Curse of Strahd has proved well worth the time and money spent.