The idea of boiling down the iconic adventure Curse of Strahd is one that isn’t exactly promising for a few reasons: Strahd works best when he shows up several times, there’s a lot of backstory conveyed through locations and NPCs in Barovia, and there’s several artifacts spread out across the realm that even the odds against Strahd and present their own sidequests. Castle Ravenloft itself is a big place, with hundreds of areas to explore.
But Strahd’s been around for decades, so literally thousands of players have already played through some edition’s version of the adventure surrounding Ravenloft’s key adversary, or they’ve read about his exploits and power-level. The iconic status that makes him the perfect enemy for a party is also what makes him so cool for players to challenge head-to-head over and over again. In fact, that’s a key element of the campaign: Strahd, as a Dark Lord of a domain in Ravenloft, may have no way of being permanently defeated, and so he will play out his torturous, unrequited love story for all of time.
For Halloween, I’ve attempted to boil down Curse of Strahd to its barest elements, and I think I’ve created something that can be finished in 4-6 hours of play while still revealing the story of Strahd. Let’s see what you think!
This whole thing assumes you’re familiar with Curse of Strahd.
Let’s start off by figuring out what the point of this exercise is:
- The player characters need to have an encounter (fight) with Strahd. Preferably more than one.
- Strahd’s backstory — his tragic love of Tatyana, the fiancee of Strahd’s own brother, Sergei, and the subsequent curse that befell Barovia because of it — should be ripe for discovery.
- Castle Ravenloft is pretty darned cool, so let’s include as much of that as possible.
- The Tarokka reading by Madame Eva is spooky, so this fits in with the fact that I’m specifically doing this as a one-shot during Halloween.
Now, you could go in different directions, and you could certainly argue that I’m missing out on some stellar bits. Is Ireena Kolyana going to show up? What about the coolest monster hunter of all time, Rudolph Van Richten? Does the party really get the sense of what Strahd is up to if they skip out on the Village of Barovia? What about all those other cool sites that speak to Strahd’s tragedy and Barovia’s curse, such as Yester Hill, the Amber Temple, and the other villages that are plagued by the shadow of the vampire lord? How does the party learn of the magical artifacts that can weaken Strahd, and how do they procure them?
Well, you’re right that I’m missing out, but I think we can solve enough of it to give Strahd a good backstory without bogging down a 4-6 hour gaming session with tons of journal writings, mysterious and opaque NPC interactions, and a boatload of secondary characters, fun though they may be. But because you’re right, maybe we can cram a little more into this exercise, so let’s make sure to bring in Ireena and Van Richten.
So that brings us to:
- Encounter Strahd. At least twice.
- Reveal Strahd’s tragic backstory through the locations visited within Castle Ravenloft.
- Reveal that Ireena is Tatyana’s soul reborn, and that there’s a chance either (A) she’ll simply repeat this tragedy with Strahd over and over again, or (B) her soul can only be freed through the destruction of Strahd.
- (Unstated in my notes below) We can use the Tarokka reading and Rudolph Van Richten as the means to fill the characters in on the minor details, and provide them with the firepower they need to face Strahd.
Armed with that, I pored over Curse of Strahd and made a bunch of notes that looked like this:
For a bit of a closer inspection:
Okay, so seeing my note-taking is either super-helpful or painfully close to looking into the yawning madness of a Great Old One. Either way, perhaps the insights you’ll glean are useful…? Or maybe you can just read on, where I spell things out a lot more clearly.
The whole of it consists of the following pieces:
- A flowchart of rooms that stuck out at me because they were cool and/or reveal story-related details.
- References (page numbers, etc.) for the rooms and monsters that appeared in my flowchart.
- A couple story notes on the flowchart to remind myself how this might all come together, or what additions to make so it’s actually a fun, challenging adventure, preferably with some twists that don’t appear in the original adventure (to surprise repeat players) or come from different areas of the original adventure (to make maximum use of ideas already on the pages, since making up all-new stuff is hard and time-consuming).
As you can see, I primarily set all of this in Castle Ravenloft because that’s the iconic thing that goes along with Strahd. But I still worked in a few notes and ideas about Madame Eva at the Vistani encampment, as well as noted the horse-drawn carriage that can be used to arrive at the front gates of Castle Ravenloft. I’m not 100% sure I’ll use all of this, but if nothing else, it provides a quick reference I can throw in while introducing the players to the setup of the adventure: “You guys met up with this gypsy-like woman and she did this Tarokka reading, and then you headed to Castle Ravenloft via a carriage with some mighty stubborn horses.”
What you don’t see on here is Ireena Kolyana and Rudolph Van Richten. We’ll figure that out in the next step. The point of the flowchart is it gives us a bunch of rooms already stocked with story details, traps, puzzles, and monsters. So we’ve got our initial list of challenges and a map of how the story might unfold.
Rooms & Monsters
Armed with a list of rooms and the monsters and story beats we find within them, it’s now time to figure out “what’s cool.” That’s subjective, and that’s why this whole article is really just my example; you may find different things cool. You’ll also notice that I deviate quite a bit from the initial list of encounters, because several of them might’ve been cool in the context of the full version of Castle Ravenloft, but I’m going to be running a significantly reduced one, so some encounters that would be too weak need severe ramping up, and using too many stock monsters (monsters the players likely faced a bajillion times in other adventures) is boring, so what I’m going to do is make maximum use of Curse of Strahd’s monster appendix to fill out the encounters, and challenge a party that’s 9th level.
To frame the characters’ journey through the castle in a sensible way despite them basically being on a railroad (or near railroad), you can simply describe how the castle has fallen into ruin, and many of the wings, side rooms, and upper towers of the castle have crumbled, filling many areas with rubble that the party cannot navigate, or that you simply gloss over as they move between rooms with encounters that are actually fun. Otherwise, you can simply give up on the logic of the castle’s layout, and simply say each room the party actually comes across is located roughly adjacent to each other. This is fine for a one-shot, but do keep in mind that if the party uses a lot of movement, they may initiate encounters in multiple rooms, and since these encounters are often hard or deadly in terms of challenge rating, you may be leading your players into a TPK if you cram everything immediately next to each other.
Not Just Combat
We want to make the adventure interesting and feature some NPCs to interact with, rather than just to kill, since that’s so important to Strahd’s backstory and his domain. So we’ll begin with the party meeting Rudolph Van Richten on the road to Castle Ravenloft. He can fill the party in on anything they feel they need to know, and leads them to the carriage, knowing its the only way to arrive at the gates of Castle Ravenloft without any undo encounters. At some point — maybe during the carriage ride, or just before, or shortly after — he might ask what they learned from the Vistani, at which point the DM can run the Tarokka reading as a flashback.
There’s a couple ways to run the Tarokka reading, but the end result should be the same: whatever items get placed, the party already completed some adventure(s) to obtain at least one of them, and therefore they have that advantage. Stacking the Tarokka deck so the party starts with the Sunsword (COS 223) or the Holy Symbol of Ravenloft (COS 222) might be best, but honestly any of the items presented in the appendix can be helpful.
Running the Tarokka Reading. James Introcaso has a great simplified version of the Tarokka reading for a one-shot Curse of Strahd game, but it still assumes you’ll be using most of Castle Ravenloft. Other options might be…XXX
Note: references include Monster Manual (MM), Curse of Strahd (COS), and Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG).
Areas I and J (COS 37-38). Strahd’s nightmare (MM 235), Beucephalus will be drawing the carriage (maybe acting as a normal horse). It is mounted by Strahd’s animated armor (COS 227). Once the party arrives at the Gates of Ravenloft (Area J) — whether they take the carriage, or put Van Richten in as a decoy and follow it from a distance — they get waylaid by 6-8 Strahd zombies (COS 241). At that point, the nightmare busts off the carriage and attacks, along with the animated armor. The party can stand and fight or rush into the castle grounds, but don’t forget there’s a patch of green slime (DMG chapter 5) in the entry tunnel.
K1. Front Courtyard through K6. Overlook (COS 52-54). Normally, Rahadin (COS 237) meets the party in K8 and acts the part of the goodly castle chamberlain, but his abilities to move around and stay hidden make him a much better villain outside, where there should be rain and fog (don’t you know anything about setting the mood?!). So have him out on the grounds; the party will run into him any time you feel the need to drive them inside (perhaps he won’t even pursue them once they enter the castle). To make matters worse, the party has a chance of encountering Strahd himself (COS 239-240) for the very first time at K6. Overlook, and you can roll on Strahd’s Minions table (COS 239) for some additional monsters patrolling the grounds, or simply place 1d4+2 Strahd zombies there. These encounters are brutal if faced en masse, but the point is to (1) drive the party inside, and (2) maybe have the party meet Strahd once or get in a few words with Rahadin that might reveal Strahd’s tragedy — like his anger — is never ending.
Alternatively, you can just skip the outside area other than the front door. Rahadin doesn’t get to use his abilities as well indoors, though, so you might want to consider either still having an encounter with him outside, maybe by replacing all the monsters in the first encounter (Area J) other than Beucephalus with Rahadin. The nightmare and the chamberlain are a pretty nasty force to reckon with, though.
K8. Great Entry (COS 55). When the party enters, they are greated by a high ceilinged hall with lit torches, soon to be extinguished by the fluttering of wings from the eight gargoyles (MM 140) that will attack! A fight in the pitch dark at any level is going to be difficult, and with flying creatures this is no less the case; keep in mind that the gargoyles have darkvision out to 60 ft.
K10. Dining Hall (COS 56). An illusion of Strahd sits at the organ beyond a fully set dining table. This is illusion, according to the room entry text, might “talk about his family or shed light on the castle’s history,” making this the perfect opportunity to begin to reveal some facets of Strahd’s ultimate tragedy. This is also a great place to dress the room with huge paintings of Strahd, Sergei, their parents and perhaps even Tatyana; better still that Sergei and Tatyana share a picture with an engraved plate below it that reads “THE BETROTHED” or some such.
A picture of Tatyana appears on COS 67. A portrait of Strahd appears on COS 70. Portraits of King Barov and Queen Ravenovia appear on COS 94. Unless I missed something, no pictures exist of Strahd’s brother Sergei, so having his depiction marred, scratched, damaged, destroyed, or completely absent are totally in character with the story of Strahd’s jealousy, so use that to your advantage: create handouts of all of these portraits except Sergie, or find a picture in a similar art style (such as Lief Liepsig in COS) and damage it or photoshop extreme warping or something.
K15. Chapel (COS 57). The Icon of Ravenloft (COS 222) can be found here, clutched in the hands of an NPC that might sell the adventure a little more than just some rando who died here. For example, if Van Richten ever splits off from the party, place his corpse here. Did you do a flashback with Madame Eva? Have it be her, or a Vistani agent of hers. Don’t know what would sell it best? Ask one of the players: “Quickly tell me about your character’s mentor/lover/best friend.” Then say, “Yeah, that’s the dude/dudette that’s lying dead on the floor, clutching the Icon of Ravenloft. You don’t know how they knew how to find you, but they obviously wanted to deliver this artifact to you to help you on your quest…but clearly they fared poorly in Strahd’s domain.”
K20. Heart of Sorrow & Staircase (COS 59). A spiral staircase runs up into the heart of the ruined castle…and unironically, that’s where the Heart of Sorrow (COS 59 and 239) lies. Or rather, floats. Ringing the staircase, set on the walls are 10 animated halberds (treat as flying swords — MM 20 — with AC 15 and dealing 1d10+1 slashing damage) and at varying levels along the upper portion of the staircase near the Heart are 3 guardian portraits (COS 227). The guardian portraits are another opportunity to add portraits of Strahd, King Barov, Queen Ravenovia, or Sergei and possibly Tatyana, their visages warping and appearing demonic as they attack and act against the PCs.
As soon as the Heart takes any damage, 4 vampire spawn (MM 298) are dispatched and appear in 3 rounds, scuttling in from above using their Spider Climb ability to cling to the walls.
If you assume that Castle Ravenloft lies largely in ruins — thus blocking off all the other rooms of the place other than the ones you want the party to go through — you can place plenty of rubble around for the guardian portraits to make use of with their telekinesis. Note also that if the party attacks the Heart, the appearance of the vampire spawn in 3 rounds will make this an incredibly deadly encounter unless they make quick work of the halberds and portraits. That said, it’s relatively easy to avoid the guardian portraits if they simply move to the lower portions of the staircase and head down to the catacombs, rather than lingering on the staircase itself and fighting all of these enemies.
K84. Catacombs (COS 85-93). The catacombs are the heart of the adventure (you know, as opposed to the room with the Heart, I guess) because this is where the party meets Strahd for what might seem like the final confrontation. Several monsters exist in the crypts, and several story beats can be revealed as the party opens tombs to attempt to trap or escape from Strahd and his minions. This is a great sequence for a running battle to find the source of Strahd’s power, perhaps with some snippet of info gleaned from either Madame Eva’s Tarokka reading or Van Richten’s intelligence on Strahd’s abilities: defeating him at or placing his injured or seemingly destroyed body in his coffin might be the only way to see to it that he is defeated once and for all, freeing the souls trapped in Barovia.
The Catacombs you might want to include are listed below with the resident monster(s) and some additional notes. Generally speaking, you want to use these as opportunities to add monsters to the encounter and — unlike in previous encounters — probably refrain from piling them on top of creatures from the Strahd’s Minions table (COS 239) since that would make this area a guaranteed TPK: remember, Strahd should be present, fighting the party and taunting them the whole time they are in the catacombs: this is their chance to feel like they are in a final boss fight. Except their not, because Strahd reappears in K86 if defeated here (unless you’re running out of time for the one-shot!).
- #20 (COS 89). Vampire spawn (MM 298). Sasha Ivliskova was one of Strahd’s many brides. Waking her up is both creepy (read the line she speaks upon rising!) and a great opportunity to shed some light on the Ireena/Tatyana connection, as well as Strahd’s long legacy of taking brides that he cannot truly love. For example, Sasha might bear a resemblance to Ireena (and the portraits of Tatyana that the party has seen by this point), but making it clear that it’s only a minor resemblance might drive home the theme that Sasha was not the reborn soul of Tatyana. Or maybe she was; depends how you wanna play it. If Ireena is present, or mentioned, Sasha flies into a jealous rage because that’s who Strahd “truly loved,” which is a sore spot for this long-forgotten wife of Strahd’s.
- #21 (COS 89). Banshee (MM 23). Patrina Velikovna was a rival of Strahd’s in life, but for the purposes of this one-shot, her role can be changed to be another former bride of Strahd’s, or as the tormented victim of Strahd’s family’s ascendancy to power in Barovia; perhaps she was murdered and imprisoned here as some sort of leverage against Rahadin. Worse still, maybe she died at Rahadin’s hands, his former lover whom Strahd forced him to kill to prove his loyalty to the vampire lord.
- #27 (COS 90). 3x giant wolf spiders (MM 330). In lieu of using the Strahd’s Minions table, activating these monsters and the following few helps get across the idea that Strahd has low-powered creatures at his beck and call.
- #35 (COS 92). 6x ghouls (MM 148).
- #38 (COS 92). Wraith (MM 302), 3x hell hounds (MM 182). The shattered spear located here could be repaired or wielded as the Blood Spear or Gulthias Staff (both COS 221) if you haven’t already handed out such items.
- #39 (COS 93). Beucephalus the nightmare (MM 235, 104 hit points). If this hellish horse hasn’t made his debut earlier, or wasn’t defeated, he’s here.
K85. Sergei’s Tomb and K88. Tomb of King Barov and Queen Ravenovia (COS 93 & 94). You can place these among the other crypts in the catacombs to reveal them a bit earlier (and more easily) to the players in order to build some story hooks. Sergei’s tomb is a great area to hide any last-minute treasures the party could use, especially healing items. In fact, a great device would be that entering this crypt — with all of its shiny contents and feeling of calmness and peace — and receiving the benefits of a long rest. The party’s probably really beat up by this point, after all. If Strahd’s not immediately about, you can have an illusion of him appear weeping over the coffin; it disappears when the party invariably opens the lid. This not only reveals whatever treasures you place here (+2 plate armor is here by default, but do what thou wilt), but might also be a great time to toss in a very brief flashback the party receives of Strahd murdering Sergei and Tatyana taking a swan dive off the castle walls. Sell the tragedy!
Like Sergei’s tomb, the tomb of Strahd’s parents provide a strangely humanizing place because it’s where Strahd might go to seek some sort of counsel or solace. Best to ram home the horror in one-shot, though, so why not have an illusion of Strahd (or the real thing!) here, flying into a rage! Best of all, you can have Strahd screaming things like “why won’t you answer me” or “why did you leave me” or some other such thing that shows he does feel loss and rage for very human reasons, only he cannot control them and come back down. He exists in an eternity of loss, sorrow, and anger.
K86. Strahd’s Tomb (COS 93). Final fight #2…or is that just the actual final fight? Regardless, this is where the party ends the whole ordeal, or dies trying. If Ireena was held captive, she’s here. If she’s been with the party, this is where she will — once Strahd is defeated — see the ghost of Sergei and cross the threshold, her soul (and Sergei’s) finally being able to escape Barovia, and thus Strahd will never see Tatyana’s reborn soul or her likeness ever again. Pro tip: if this occurs, describe how any likeness of Sergei and Tatyana from paintings or statues or whatever falls apart and crumbles into a state where they cannot be repaired. Strahd will never see the object of his lust again.
The following links were especially helpful in guiding the creation of this article:
- Playing Curse of Strahd as a One Shot via James Introcaso’s Worldbuilder
- Curse of Strahd One Shot (that time I crammed Ravenloft into 4 hours) @Reddit
- Curse of Strahd as a one shot @Giant in the Playground
- Curse of Strahd: Just the Castle as a One-Shot @ENWorld
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