Review: Curse of Strahd

Curse of Strahd is at once the strongest of the official Dungeons & Dragons adventures, and a slightly worrying business move; hopefully this doesn’t signal a shift towards retelling classic modules in order to bump up the sales numbers. Assuming that isn’t the case, there literally isn’t a better module for Wizards of the Coast to retell, since I6 Ravenloft ranked among the best modules of all time, and Curse truly takes the necessary steps to improve on it, rather than simply repackaging old material. What you’re getting is the iconic Ravenloft adventure featuring Strahd von Zarovich’s Castle Ravenloft and the haunted village of Barovia, but with the tragic backstory spread over a bigger playing field that presents hundreds of new mysteries, encounters, and possibilities. It sheds new light on the classic story and challenges players with new, engaging material. Best of all, the concept of “replayability” present in the original module through the Fortunes of Ravenloft Tarokka card drawing is back, and that means you never know who’s your greatest ally, where the secrets to defeating Strahd might lay, and ultimately, where Strahd will reveal himself for the inevitable epic battle at the adventure’s climax.

Rating: Content 4/5 and Form 4/5.

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Read on for the full review!

Curse of Strahd Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Content (4/5)

Curse of Strahd is a re-tread of the original plot of I6 Ravenloft (later revised for AD&D 2nd edition as RM4 House of Strahd, and again, but more heavily so, for the revised 3.5 edition as Expedition to Castle Ravenloft), but with a metric boatload of added content. Kinda like Expedition, yet dramatically different.

While the bulk is about the vampire Strahd von Zarovich and his oppressive rulership over the Village of Barovia, as well as his eternal sorrow and rage manifesting in physical form throughout his lair — Castle Ravenloft, of course — there’s a ton of other plots directly and indirectly tied to Strahd. The players can try to rid Barovia of zombies and hags, take on werewolves, and break into Castle Ravenloft only to face their deaths…or they  can play it smart and travel the lands of Barovia, gathering magic items, allies, and lore that will help make the fight against Strahd that much more likely to be a success. Built for characters of levels 1 through 10, there’s easily enough adventuring material for characters to climb a fair bit higher than that, though the bulk of the challenges tend to hover around levels 4-9.

Hit the Ground Running

Thankfully, Curse of Strahd kicks off with something missing in Out of the Abyss: an Introduction! Who’d have thunk it?! I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why Abyss dropped us off in the middle of the adventure without any idea of what’s happening, but Curse clearly corrected course.

The Introduction, most of Ch. 1 Into the Mists, and all of Ch. 2 The Lands of Barovia act as a campaign setting supplement to Barovia (and indirectly the entire Ravenloft setting), so you’re getting more than just preamble: you’re getting unbelievably strong methods and mechanics to nail the tone, lore, and mechanics of The Domains of Dread. Tips range from concrete examples of ratcheting up the tension (characters with high Percpetion might catch things that others don’t) to broad strokes “This is what horror gaming means in relation to Dungeons & Dragons,” and there’s not a piece of it that’s not fantastic. Another feature missing from Out of the Abyss but extremely welcome here is a table calling out the expected PC levels when hitting various locations in the adventure. Since it’s a non-linear adventure, this is absolutely critical information.

Additionally, there’s a system for using Tarokka cards — Tarot-like cards used by the Vistani fortune-tellers — to randomly place a few important features of the adventure, just like in the original I6 Ravenloft. Specifically, this reading will determine:

  1. Strahd’s location in Castle Ravenloft.
  2. The location of the Tome of Strahd, the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, and the Sunsword, three items that can make the climactic battle against Strahd a wee bit easier, or distract him from his goals.
  3. An NPC that will act as a powerful ally.
  4. Strahd’s goals. <- Nope, that was the case in previous versions of this adventure, but not so in Curse of Strahd. His goals are fixed: (1) turn Ireena Kolyana into a vampire spawn consort of his, (2) find and destroy Ruldolph Van Richten, and (3) search for a successor or consort…among the PCs!

The DM can perform a “reading” with the cards to determine these things ahead of time, but there are two NPCs (up from solely Madam Eva in the I6 Ravenloft version of this adventure) who can perform readings for the players, which might alter the results and give them additional clues. More on the Tarokka cards themselves below.

Strahd astride his nightmare steed

Strahd astride his nightmare steed

Let’s chat about the random placement feature in a little more depth, because it’s an absolutely killer idea that the original AD&D Ravenloft adventure featured, and which returns for a really good reason: because it is made of 100% pure, unfiltered awesome. By leaving these critical pieces of the adventure up to random card draws from a 54-card Tarokka deck, you’ve just ensured that Curse of Strahd can be replayed dozens of times without much chance of any repeats. The results aren’t just a single line, either: “Draw The Soldier of Swords and place the Doohickey in the Abbey of Alliterative Grave Markers.” Nope, each and every possibility gets a reference in the appropriate location of the adventure titled “Fortunes of Ravenloft” that gives you a succinct-yet-detailed blurb about what happens when the Thing of Great Import™ is placed there. Not only is this awesome because of the replayability — consider, too, that this is a non-linear adventure — but it provides the right level of guidance for newer Dungeon Masters.

…So, maybe I should have said “99% pure, unfiltered awesome,” because there’s one flaw. The Tarokka cards for the magic items and the adventure locations they map to don’t follow any internal logic, so if you are running a truncated version of Curse of Strahd, removing certain locations so you have a more streamlined/straightforward experience like in I6 Ravenloft, you’re going to have to fudge the results. You can’t just “remove all 3s” or “remove all aces” and expect to get results that work with exactly whatever it is you’re removing from the adventure. As you’ll see when we touch on certain sections, this is a bit problematic, but if you’re planning to use the whole playing field, then it’s nothing to worry about it.

I’m going to revisit this topic again and again, so file it away in your brain.

Adventure Plot & Locations

The Village of Barovia and Castle Ravenloft are lifted almost directly from I6 Ravenloft, and the wilderness features all the original favorites. Additionally, there are a total of 12 new areas, all of which have ingenious connections woven between them and the original areas, expanding the adventuring opportunities significantly. For some perspective, the stuff that made up I6 Ravenloft and RM4 House of Strahd amounts to slightly less than pages 23-95 of Curse of Strahd, or about 70 pages, while another 120 pages are all new adventuring material filled with memorable plots, NPCs, and locations. The Fortunes of Ravenloft card reading can theoretically place any or all three of the treasures plus the important ally among several of these locations, which serves to tie things together with even greater strength. Everything is centered around Strahd, whether it’s being oppressed by him, serving him fanatically or grudgingly, trying to usurp his power, or running an underground resistance against him, so there’s no escaping the central themes of the adventure.

Let’s run down this stuff, shall we?

The Lands of Barovia. An overview of the wilderness areas on the main map of Barovia makes up most of this chapter, but it also provides the general lore of the region and its people (Barovians and Vistani), alterations to various magical spells and effects due to the mists and Strahd’s control over the land, the random encounters that can be triggered both daytime and nighttime, and a few useful sidebars: Barovian Names (60+ male and female first names as well as surnames), and Barovian Calendar, which is a simple calendar that follows lunar cycles.

The Village of Barovia. This chapter covers the partially-abandoned village of Barovia. It was the site of constant wolf attacks and now has a lingering infestation of Strahd zombies and rats. There is little of interest to the overarching story outside of the fact that Ireena Kolyana resides here, who is almost certain to join the group or be the focus of their attentions in ensuring she isn’t turned into one of Strahd’s consorts. Notably, Curse of Strahd states that the burgomaster — Ireena’s adopted father — died three days ago, a number that varied in I6 Ravenloft and RM4 House of Strahd (the longer time-frame was 10 days, which makes for one stinky corpse!). Additionally, Ireena has been bitten twice by Strahd, only requiring one more encounter to be turned, and there’s not a single stated reason for Strahd delaying, other than perhaps the fact that Ireena is a pretty mean swordswoman, so maybe he can’t lift a finger to force her to submit to him? Considering his stats, that’s about as lame-duck an excuse as you can get, so it’s either something you’re going to just roll with or you’re going to want to consider changing. Giving her the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind is one possibility, or simply subjecting her to non-specific protective magics from allied wereravens (see the sections on Vallaki and Wizard of the Wines for more info) is your best bet.

Among the only changes to the original adventure modules is that the chapel’s priest has a son that was turned into a vampire spawn during a foolish attempt to rouse a mob to kill Strahd, and he’s currently locked in the basement of the chapel. This is a riff on the fate of Doru in Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, where he was killed by brigands and raised by the priest, but a terrible mistake turned Doru into the epicenter of a zombie apocalypse-style outbreak. In fairness, the random zombies in Barovia make a little bit less sense without that scenario, but have been around since I6 Ravenloft, so I guess you can go with your heart on that one.

Castle Ravenloft. Castle Ravenloft is where Strahd dwells, and is a haunted place suitable for 9th+ level characters, so it’s going to be the climactic end-piece to the adventure, despite the fact that it is presented up-front in the book. The layout remains entirely unchanged from the original adventures (unless I missed something), but the presentation is vastly improved over the original adventures, avoiding the wall-of-text syndrome of AD&D modules, and adds close-up, top-down maps and diagrams that help explain traps or tight-spaces that in the original version(s) of the adventure were left strictly to text descriptions. There are several monster/NPC changes, but they are often as simple as a monster-swap (for example, there’s an encounter where instead of a spectre in AD&D they use two gargoyles in 5th Edition), or an expansion of some minor character’s role, such as incorporating a clockwork “clone” of the court jester into the adventure, or expanding the role of some of the connections such as Strahd’s right-hand man Rahadin, or the role of the Barovian witches. As in the earlier-edition modules, many of the rooms are exploration-focused and few have set-piece monster encounters, but there is an ever-present threat of wandering monster rolls that are fun and evocative, and might even lead to a few run-ins with Strahd before the climactic battle at a location determined by the Fortunes of Ravenloft Tarokka draw.

The Town of Vallaki. This town is a bit better off than Barovia, and features all the fixin’s of a normal town in D&D…but there are twists! The tavern is run by a group of secret wereravens who run a resistance against Strahd, and they are family members of the Wizard of Wines (see below). The burgomaster is a bizarre madman — more wacky than deadly — who forces the people to constantly engage in celebrations and parties to alleviate the gloom of Strahd’s oppression, but instead becomes its own weight on their shoulders. The burgomaster has a crazed son trying to become a mage, and a bodyguard with the right arm of a demon and an interesting connection to Ireena Kolyana, Strahd’s love-interest. There’s also a plot to overthrow the burgomaster. Oh, and Rudolph Van Richten hangs out in disguise here, looking to make a move on a nearby Vistani camp, his plan being to slaughter them with a trained saber-toothed tiger.

Some of this may sound over the top, or not “grim-dark” enough for Ravenloft. If you think that, you clearly haven’t re-read the entire Crypt section of Castle Ravenloft, ripped 90% straight from the original module, with grave-markers for the likes of Sir Klutz Tripalotsky. No joke. What I’m saying is that Vallaki sits right at home with the original module, and adds whole new layers of depth and tons of great interaction encounters that can lead to some fun mysteries and some truly memorable combats, if things go a little off the rails for the PCs.

Worth noting now: most (but not all) of the chapters — especially Vallaki and other settlement-style locations — have a Special Events section at the end of the chapter, providing either set-piece events that the players can witness or muck up, or additional plot threads and direction for the DM to tie various locations, NPCs, and so on together, creating a truly immersive environment and adding to the idea that Barovia is a living, breathing place.

Curse of Strahd Creepy character art

Creepy character art

Old Bonegrinder. A windmill overlooking the forested valley in which Vallaki sits has become the lair of three creepy old ladies selling pastries that act as a hallucinogenic drug to help the inhabitants of Barovia escape their grim-dark existence under Strahd’s oppression. Turns out it’s a coven of night hags, and their secret ingredient is the ground up bones of children, many of whom they get in exchange for the pastries once the Barovians are hooked on the pastries but can no longer afford them. There are a couple of kids in need of rescuing, but since they were sold off by their parents, they don’t really want to go home; luckily, the adventure addresses this and gives some options on what to do with the little rascals. This chapter presents some pretty heavy material in the form of child torture and murder; I’m pretty sure there are no dead babies elsewhere in the adventure, but this comes real close to that sort of thing, so be careful with how you handle it.

Argynvostholt. This location features an awesome redemption quest, but it’s going to be hard to fulfill as it requires understanding that a group of knights dedicated to a good order not only were destroyed by Strahd (that’s the easy part to get), but also continue to haunt the location because they fell from grace, having gone wayward in the centuries since Strahd took power over Barovia (much harder for the players to pick up). On top of that, the party has to go to Castle Ravenloft, pick up a fairly random skull (I mean, it’s unique, but there are a LOT of unique skulls in that damn castle!), and bring it back in order to put the revenants here to rest. Interestingly, there is one revenant who can accompany the party regardless of whether the redemption quest is completed, so that adds a unique sidekick to the party. This location — and several of the subsequent ones — feature a lot of really cool, evocative “fake-out” encounters, like weird strangers watching from windows, or bizarre reflections, none of which can be interacted with any useful manner, but heighten the feeling of dread, and reveal how far-reaching Strahd’s evil can be.

The Village of Krezk. This village has an abbey-turned-insane-asylum at one end, and the whole thing — abbey and village — is full of horror movie tropes. It’s like a D&D-version of the American Horror Story TV show. The central conflict is represented by a fallen angel-turned asylum warden stitching together flesh golems to offer as a bride to Strahd in an attempt to backstab him later on. Important to the plot: the angel needs a bridal gown, and getting one is a pretty hefty quest with far-reaching consequences whether or not the party joins in and/or succeeds. Talk about “not your typical D&D fare!”

Tsolenka Pass. This chapter is the only part of the book that is chock-full of missed opportunities. It’s an abandoned bridge-spanning fortress, and it certainly looks cool…but there’s nothing there. The only way this location becomes at all interesting is if the random Tarokka draw places one of the treasures here, which triggers an encounter with some pretty scary spirits. But if the treasure isn’t there, literally nothing happens, and nothing is revealed by going here.

The Ruins of Berez. This town suffered the wrath of Strahd in the past, and now lies hunted and half-submerged in an bug-infested swamp. A very cool encounter with a witchy-hag monster awaits — Baba Lysaga, who has a tree-stump hut that crawls around like a spider on its roots, as well as flying hill giant skull she uses as a hover-bike — and her ties to Strahd ensure that not only does the party learn some interesting backstory-related stuff, but also that they witness some truly horrifying images in the process. In a location filled with great encounter ideas, one of the scariest — bloated, drowned humans that barf up swarms of snakes when they get reduced to zero hit points — is unfortunately only triggered if the Tarokka deck places a treasure here. Not as bad as Tsolenka Pass, which is utterly useless without the random card draw, but still a missed opportunity.

Baba Lysaga's creeping hut

Baba Lysaga’s creeping hut

Van Richten’s Tower. Once the lair of a looney fellow that helped Strahd out way back when, this ruined tower fell to the elements and remained abandoned until the famous vampire hunter Ruduloph Van Richten took it over as his headquarters after arriving from Darkon. After some time, he figured out what he needed about Strahd and the Vistani — thanks in part to the mummified skull of a Vistana that the players can now extract info from — and set out to Vallaki. Shortly after he left, his erstwhile compatriot Ezmerelda d’Avenir showed up, and has since made the tower her headquarters. The tower is simple, but has some neat little twists and a lot of potential answers for the characters to discover. There’s even a chance Ezmerelda could show up, providing more info and a powerful ally, if the players don’t mess around.

If (or when) Ezmerelda returns to the tower, it’s because she’s just gotten into a tussle with Strahd and lost. This has the side effect of giving Strahd a new goal in the adventure: to kill Ezmerelda. Not just an interesting twist, this also reinforces that whole replayability thing that’s ever-present in Curse of Strahd, providing yet another angle that can greatly alter the flow of events and the relationships of characters in this campaign. It also shows why using the Tarokka deck to determine Strahd’s goals — a trope from the original I6 Ravenloft — can be unnecessarily limiting in the face of the relationships that the players will form with NPCs scattered throughout this version of the module.

The Wizard of Wines. The winery detailed in this section is — first and foremost — a really fun building encounter; you can easily strip this section for the maps and layout, reappropriating it for any haunted house, abandoned mansion, or even a fully-stocked noble’s manor (you’ll see this again in Appendix B: Death House). It’s also a fun interlude from the rest of Barovia and Castle Ravenloft, as it basically frames a “woe is us!” quest as some mysterious vintners (actually members of the underground good-guy group of wereravens) have had their winery occupied by a band of evil druids and their blight servitors. There are even swarms of ravens lurking in the rafters that will help the party out! The weakness of it is that it’s really just a handful of druids and like a billion blights that swarm the players en masse. At least this occurs among cool set-piece battles in wine-making vats, barrel-storage rooms, and things like that, so there’s a lot of really interesting ways to use the environment; a few more tips for new DMs along those lines might have been useful.

Story-wise, this area ties in with The Ruins of Berez and Yester Hill, continuing plot threads surrounding savage berserker/druid tribes that treat Strahd like some sort of patron deity, as well as some powerful gems that have bizarre effects (make sure to read those sections immediately!). The gems — one of which animates Baba Lysaga’s hut in Berez — seem to make things come to life, and you’ll see this again in Yester Hill, where the evil druids animate a tree that they’ll incidentally point in the direction of this winery and say “Hulk Smash!” There’s a major problem though: the gems came in a group of three, and powered the ability of the winery to make good fruit on otherwise scary, dark land…and all three are gone. Two I’ve covered, but that third one is precisely nowhere: unless I missed something in an earlier chapter, I don’t recall it ever cropping up. This ensures that the winery will fail eventually, and as that is one of the only symbols of hope in Barovia, that’s a questionable thing to miss. On the one hand, it’s genre appropriate for the entire citizenry to eventually feel hopeless, but it seems like a small enough success to give heroic characters, and like something that can easily be added with like one or two lines of text anywhere in the adventure. Toward those ends, I recommend adding it to either Tsolenka Pass or Death House, as these areas have some weaknesses. Death House already has the perfect storyline to be powered by one of these gems: if one animates a hut and one animates a tree, why can’t one bring life to the restless spirtis of the Death House (or the shambling mound that is the final encounter there)? When you consider that Death House also happens to include writs to far-ranging areas like the mill (see Old Bonegrinder), it’s not entirely unreasonable that the gem could have wound up there.

The Amber Temple. The Amber Temple is 5th Edition’s attempt to peel back the layers of the Ravenloft onion and provide a reveal for how the Dark Powers came to forge a pact with Strahd that turned him into the ruler of this land. I really enjoy what they did here: there’s a temple to a god of secrets that has fallen to profane powers, and in it resides a buddy of Strahd’s that has lost all memory…and yep, he’s a lich, because who wouldn’t go that route? Buried amid the traps and undead are several tombs dedicated to the Dark Powers, which have been recast as Vestiges (something that appeared at least as early as the D&D 3.5 Tome of Magic and its Binder class), and each can still offer some great (temporary) magical power if someone is willing to take the (permanent) corruption that comes along with it. In a thoughtful twist, several NPCs are either in the Temple looking for these secrets or could stumble upon them, and there’s a pair of NPCs (Kasimir and Patrina) that would seek these powers out, ultimately in order to take control of the domain from Strahd out of revenge for Patrina’s death and imprisonment in Castle Ravenloft.

But therein lies a problem for Ravenloft purists: if you want to keep the Dark Powers secret and mysterious — which in fairness, they will still kinda be — you’ll have to remove the story ties to Strahd or remove the Amber Temple entirely. This isn’t hard, but it also robs the party of one of their greatest chances to see the origins of Strahd, outside of the love-triangle plot that defines why he’s after Ireena (she reminds him of his tragic lost love) and how Ireena can get beyond Strahd’s grasp (by being reunited with the ghost of her past life’s love, Strahd’s brother Sergei). Actually, this does shine a light on one of the only big flaws of Curse of Strahd‘s core storyline: the only sure way of saving Ireena involves handing her over to a creepy-ass ghost, player choice be damned. On the flip side, learning all about Strahd requires player choice (where to travel, how deep to delve, and how close they want to get to handing over their souls for some dark powers granted by the Dark Powers). It’s not a terrible flaw, but it’s annoying that I figured that out in Chapter 13.

Yester Hill. Throughout several random encounters, and later in the Wizard of Wines chapter, there is mention of the berserkers and evil druids that worship Strahd. Well, Yester Hill is their home, and it’s a bit annoying you have to wait this long to figure that out, as this section describes their beliefs and activities in good detail. Yester Hill is a really interesting area largely divorced (physically) from other areas of the setting, but containing two great things: (1) the berserker/druid forces involved in taking out the Wizard of Wines winery and operating throughout Barovia, and (2) a terrifying mirage that both haunts Strahd and provides the players with a glimpse at how truly horrific Barovia is for Strahd (and by dint of proximity to Strahd, everyone else in Barovia). There’s a part of me that wants to spoil it, but it’s so small and yet so awesome…Let’s just say, it has no mechanical implications, so it doesn’t affect the PCs, but it’ll certainly affect how the players view the plight of Barovia, and Strahd in particular.

Werewolf Den. Strahd has a band of werewolves that work for him, ravaging the countryside in his name. Turns out he’s also got one of their members imprisoned in the bowels of Castle Ravenloft, because the guy was attempting to create a schism in the pack, and Strahd was like, “Um, no.” This area is a pretty basic cave setting for a dungeon crawl, but it quickly turns out to be a sort of red herring, as the players will only encounter the “ecology” of the werewolf den: old and young, members that have been reduced in station for helping create the schism in the pack, and some captive children who might get turned into werewolves later on (after beating on each other as a sort of initiation ritual). In other words, the typical family and non-combatants of a generic dungeon crawl, except they are werewolves, so they aren’t really non-combatants! But, the werewolf pack warriors are likely to return, and if the party was in “kill everything” mode, the werewolves quickly realize something is up and be able to flank the party in the caves, making the encounter much harder. And I can’t forget one more cool twist: if the players allow (accidentally or not) any of the werewolves to live, there’s a good chance that the pack will either become more numerous or become more closely allied with Strahd, so it’s kind of a catch-22 for the players. If they just decide to kill everyone and let the gods sort out the dead, well, the fact is that the spirits of the dead remain in Barovia as long as Strahd is still active, so there’s really no win condition here.

Tied to the story of the werewolf prisoner in Castle Ravenloft, there are so many cool options to change up the particulars of this encounter site that you really can’t be sure how things will go down until the players enter, and that’s cool. Best of all, it can easily be ripped out if you need to streamline the adventure, or if you want to use just this encounter area and its plotline as a standalone adventure.

Epilogue. The Epilogue covers what happens if Strahd wins (I’m pretty sure he curb-stomps them, the whole time yelling, “T.P.K., bitches!”) or if the players defeat Strahd. While there is some manner in which things are “wrapped up neatly,” this is a horror adventure after all, so literally nothing goes perfectly right. Tying in with that beautiful glimpse of the nature of Barovia that I wouldn’t spoil in the Yester Hill chapter, there’s a very real chance that even the best possible ending simply sees Barovia falling under the darkness of Strahd’s spell yet again, only he’s even more angry since Ireena met up with the ghost of Sergei and no longer reincarnates among the people of Barovia. As Curse notes, souls can only leave if/when Strahd is defeated, and that’s exactly what the best possible ending is for Ireena, which in a way, is the worst possible ending for everyone else when Strahd eventually reforms within his domain and doles out his anger on the populace.

Luckily, there are other characters involved who may try to tip the balance, or who might try something else that makes big waves in Barovia, which radically changes the situation for Strahd. For example, Ezmerelda d’Avenir remains behind, expecting (rightfully so) that Strahd will rise again. Patrina Velikovna, a dusk elf that was stoned to death for trying to marry Strahd and is currently chilling as a banshee in Castle Ravenlfot’s crypt, might be resurrected by her brother (Kasimir, a dusk elf in Vallaki), and her plotline involves some serious repercussions as she and Kasimir hit up the Amber Temple, and she tries to become the Dark Lord of Barovia in Strahd’s absence. His inevitable return will create some serious conflict there.

Appendix A: Character Options. A new Background appears here, good for any horror setting or just a really grim-dark character: Haunted One includes all the stuff found in every Background of the PHB, along with a Harrowing Event table that’d be fun to roll on for any random NPCs encountered throughout Curse of Strahd. This is followed by a pretty extensive table of Gothic Trinkets, which can be used alongside or separate from the regular Trinkets table in the PHB.

Appendix B: Death House. Death House is a level 1 adventure that sees the party forcibly entering a haunted house in Barovia village to escape the Mists, and therein discovering the horrifying legacy of a cult dedicated to Strahd, but who failed to receive anything from the vampire lord other than his disdain. It’s a great little standalone encounter area, featuring a house haunted by the spirits of children and angry cultists, and a basement filled with ghouls and ghasts. There’s an awful lot of rooms with evocative descriptions, but not a lot of encounters. Those that exist do have some variety, but it’s a lot less varied and interesting than some of the haunting images in other parts of the Curse of Strahd, so it’s a little disappointing that this might be some players’ intro: there’s just not enough of the scary little vignettes and twists that show up later on, so chances are that much of Death House will end up being somewhat monotonous room-by-room descriptions. DMs would be strongly urged to look to sections like Krezk and perhaps even finding some means of rolling Tsolenka Pass into the Death House adventure, at least as inspiration for some cool, scary images that aren’t actually encounters, but are more interesting than “here’s a room with a candelabra, some really pretty curtains, and an ornate desk.”

The ghostly children of Death House

The ghostly children of Death House

It should be noted that crunching the numbers for the encounter math in the basement area of Death House reveals no less than three that are considered Deadly for Level 2 characters. Considering that the party is trapped in the house (remember, they are there because the Mists have closed in around them), and there’s not a single healing item among the few treasures littered throughout the manor, so kind DMs may want to sprinkle a few healing potions about the place, or pre-equip the characters with such things. Alternatively, some of the ornate window dressing described in each of the rooms could have magical properties that heal the party, and it’s not hard to imagine this happening (purposely or not) by the hand of the two ghost children that interact with the party, since they are Lawful Good. It might encourage exploration a bit more, allowing for the party to piece together the history of Death House’s inhabitants, which is always a good thing. Another alternative would be that anyone getting possessed by the child-ghosts can layer on their hit points to bolster them.

Death House is available as a separate, free download via DRAGON+, with no changes from what appears in Curse of Strahd. Tribality offers some great prep notes, and is a great site for D&D stuff besides.

Appendix C: Treasures. The Tome of Strahd is a mundane journal, but its importance to Strahd is enough to put all of his other goals on hold if it falls into the hands of undesirables like, well, ya know, FREAKING PLAYER CHARACTERS. Aside from that, the following magic items get descriptions and stats:

  • Blood Spear: Basically, this spear drains life from people slain with it and transfers that as temporary hit points to the wielder.
  • Gulthias Staff: This evil Druidy staff sucks blood out of people in a rather horrifying manner, and also serves as a focus for giving animation to blights.
  • Holy Symbol of Ravenkind: The all-purpose holy symbol of Screwing Undead Over.
  • Icon of Ravenloft: This little statuette provides soothsaying, empowers the ability of Turning Undead, and can heal.
  • Saint Markovia’s Thighbone: This is literally a thighbone that can be used as a mace of disruption.
  • Sunsword: The iconic lightsaber of I6 Ravenloft, this is a sunblade that also has a vengeful sentience.

Appendix D: Monsters and NPCs. Over a dozen new creatures and NPCs get their own unique stat blocks here.

  • The Abbot actually has no stats, just descriptive text and how to modify the Deva from the Monster Manual to represent this fallen angel
  • Animated Objects: Baby Lysaga’s Creeping Hut, Broom of Animated Attack, Guardian Portrait, Strahd’s Animated Armor
  • Baba Lysaga, a powerful witch obsessed with Strahd
  • Barovian witch
  • Tree blight
  • Ezmerelda d’Avenir, vampire hunter
  • Izek Strazni, a demon-grafted thug for the Baron of Vallaki
  • Kasimir Velikov, a distraught dusk elf seeking to resurrect his sister Patrina (who is now a banshee in Castle Ravenloft’s crypts)
  • Madam Eva, the Vistana fortune-teller
  • Mongrelfolk
  • Phantom warriors, a sort of spectral knight
  • Pidlwick II, a clockwork automaton with a minor murderous streak
  • Rahadin, Strahd’s dusk elf chamberlain
  • Rictavio, actually Rudolph Van Richten
  • Strahd von Zarovich, featuring full-on sections on Tactics, Minions, and his Lair Actions
  • Strahd zombies
  • Vladimir Horngaard, a revenant and enemy of Strahd that might join the party
  • Wereravens

Appendix E: The Tarokka Deck. Describes the Tarokka cards, and pictures all of them. See below for more chatter about these guys.

Appendix F: Handouts. There’s a few letters, an invitation, some pages from journals, and some pages from the Tome of Strahd, all of which can be photocopied. Is this stuff available to download for printing anywhere? Because I can’t find them, and that’s a big miss if that’s the case, because you’ll be bending the crap outta this book’s spine!

It’s Newb-Friendly

Whether we’re talking about the tropes and tricks of horror-fantasy in Dungeons & Dragons, or covering a non-linear adventure where artifacts and NPCs can be randomly placed at times, Curse of Strahd is a win on every front, and — as I mentioned earlier — a strong adventure for newer DMs to pick up. Now, I think a lot of other reviewers are going to say the opposite, reflecting on how difficult non-linear adventures can be to both read and run, but much like the less linear portions of Lost Mine of Phandelver from the D&D Starter BoxCurse provides such good, succinct advice on these topics that I think it’s astronomically better at teaching how good D&D adventures can be, and how non-dungeon-crawly they can get and still be every bit as much “Dungeons & Dragons” in every way (well, except it maybe needs a few more dragons). By breaking things down into chunks — even when those chunks are 50 pages of haunted castle ruled by evil vampire lord — this adventure shows a DM how to handle all the pillars of play extremely well, and how to create a good variety of locations, encounters, and plot threads. And manage it all, too. Never an easy feat, but if you’re going to do it, why shouldn’t it be with one of the Most Popular Adventures of All Time according to popular vote? Kudos.

There’s a few instances of the writing failing to live up to a consistently strong level, where things are mentioned out of order or are left so open-ended that a DM won’t have guidance for some logical actions. It’s rare, but it happens, so be willing to feel like you don’t know what the hell they are talking about only to find on the next page a reference to what the the hell they are talking about. Generally, though, the references are great, and the fact that the text of Castle Ravenloft itself is cleaned up and features specific call-outs regarding what room is connected to what stairway off of this or that hallway…it’s way, way less confusing than it could be, but it’s complicated enough that you shouldn’t be reading this at nighttime, under the effects of Ambien®, right before that big meeting you have first thing in the morning.

Tarokka!

You can pick up the 54-card official Curse of Strahd Tarokka Deck from Gale Force 9 (looks like it’s $10 US).

Tarokka Deck by Gale Force 9

Tarokka Deck by Gale Force 9

ENWorld spent a great deal of time collecting images of the Tarokka cards so you can truly get a feel for what you’re buying. Take a look:

Tarokka Card images by ENWorld

I’m pretty sure I see some of my relatives in there.

If you can’t wait or need some electronic options for online gaming, here ya go:

Dunno if anyone else has said, so I’ll be the bad guy: I’m shocked there’s not already a PDF or print-on-demand card option on Dungeon Masters Guild by somebody else. I may be conspiracy-theorizing here, but I suspect anybody taking a stab at cutting Gale Force 9 off at the pass with such a release would get the boot by Wizards’ moderating forces on the Guild, as that would undercut some kind of licensing or exclusivity (or at the very least, profit).

While we’re on the subject of Gale Force 9, they’ve also announced a Curse of Strahd Dungeon Master’s Screen that you can pretty much ignore like so many of their screens. It’s got some recycled artwork that’s poorly laid out so the players can wonder why you spent money on it, and on the DM-facing side is some useful stuff…but what it’s missing will probably leave you a bit perplexed, and building your own reference sheets anyway. It’s $15 and comes out like a month or two after the adventure, much like the Tarokka Deck, so if you’ve got a full slate of gaming until then, you’re good, but if you’re itching to run the adventure right away, you can safely avoid these money traps.

The Vampire’s Weaknesses

Look: Ravenloft in its many incarnations has garnered huge critical success and is pretty much the number 1 or 2 adventure on everybody’s list, whether they are talking about the original I6 Ravenloft version, the revised 2nd Edition update House of Strahd, or the 3.5 Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. Even the Adventure System board game Castle Ravenloft maintains incredibly high reviews. How can you go wrong updating this icon to the latest and greatest edition of D&D?

Curse of Strahd is an update, and not something new, so there’s going to be issues for both the grognards and the new folks showing up at Strahd’s door. Instead of a generation of gamers getting their own story to tell about Strahd the vampire and the foreboding mists of Ravenloft, we’ve got a generation of gamers who have to sit there and be lectured about how their thing is the same but not as good as the nostalgic thing. How their thing is more video gamey, or was made easier by the presence of healing surges, or was a pale shadow of the expansive world that Ravenloft became under the auspices of its own, full-on campaign setting. Or whatever the ramblings of some old fogeys suggest.

Chevy Chase playing Dungeons & Dragons (Community)

Back in my day, the font was too small for me to read the monster’s hit points. I just made some shit up!

The book doesn’t really mention this on the back cover or in the foreword; you have to wait till the sidebar on page 5 entitled A Classic Retold. Granted, the official product description at Wizards’ site mentions this, but the terms are just vague enough (and not in the Amazon listing, for example) that some people might miss it:

The adventure incorporates material from the original Ravenloft adventure…

There’s only a few other bits that are mildly annoying. Curse of Strahd succeeds so well at adding variety and expanding the plot lines to new locations on a bigger map, yet that works against it with regard to finding ways to shorten the thing…which is precisely one thing that Expedition to Castle Ravenloft nailed. Expedition discussed how to manipulate the adventure so that it could be run as a long-term campaign, a several-session-long adventure, or a single night’s worth of encounters. If your Tarokka reading tosses the magical artifacts necessary for destroying Strahd to the four winds, it’ll require some work to revise the reading and cut out certain locales. If you just want to run the players through the “classic module,” they’re going to find the village of Barovia a cake-walk, or else Castle Ravenloft will be a guaranteed TPK. Judicious use of the wilderness random encounter tables can serve to radically increase the challenge level of pretty much all of the areas, though, so the tools are available to rejigger things such that a much shorter stint in Barovia can still be a big challenge outside Castle Ravenloft, if you’ve got the time to devote to running some encounter math. It’s too bad they didn’t do some of this for us.

The other annoyance is the “General Features” sidebars that are common to most locations in pretty much all D&D adventures up to this point (not just 5th Edition, either!). In a case of some truly bad editing for consistency, these sidebars are a regular thing right up until Chapter 4: Castle Ravenloft. They entirely disappear for maybe 8 chapters! Not consecutively, but still. There are instances where it’s okay, since the locations vary so much from room to room that they’d be useless, but that’s rarely the case (probably only Tsolenka Pass and The Ruins of Berez). Not having these guidelines throughout Castle Ravenloft creates a situation where you don’t know how high the ceilings are in rooms like K7. Entry, where four red dragon wyrmlings lurk in the “vaulted foyer” overhead. They are flying creatures…and I have no clue how high they can fly in this room that they won’t leave. Annoying.

Finally, there’s the minor quibbles mentioned throughout the chapters. So much love and care was put into this module that it’s hard to read sections like Tsolenka Pass or Death House and count up the missed opportunities there. They are always small and contained like that, though, so it’s not like it ruins the overall adventure, which is incredibly strong, and as the Foreword tells us, shows just how irredeemably evil Strahd is while remaining just relatable enough to be tragic.

The only weakness in the core story that runs throughout this module is that Ireena’s part feels a bit too much like a plot device, with Strahd simply forgetting to bite her for a third time until the players conveniently show up, or the players having to basically trip and drop her into the hands of Sergei’s waiting ghostly embrace in order to free her from Strahd’s endless hunting…it’s all a bit too convenient and ham-handed. A simple fix would be to have some of the apparition-related non-encounters just be Sergei trying to reach out for Ireena, literally or symbolically, and perhaps some journal or something of Sergei’s left behind to explain the fact that he’s not one of the “bad guy ghosts.” We’re talking like 3-5 lines of text here, or maybe a single additional player handout, and this would be solved.

Dungeon Masters Guild

At the time of this writing, there’s about 30 products written by the fans on Dungeon Masters Guild when you search for “Ravenloft” (excluding all the D&D Classics official stuff). It’s mostly archetypes and backgrounds, along with a dozen adventures or so. Most are dirt cheap or Pay What You Want.

If you’re looking to expand your campaign beyond Barovia, or gather more of the backstory of the Ravenloft campaign setting as a whole, this RPGNet thread discusses the pros and cons of the various existing Ravenloft Campaign Setting versions. It sounds like Domains of Dread was the winner.

Curse of Strahd

Curse of Strahd

Form (4/5)

Wizards has done a great job with all of their releases, but there are flaws, to be sure. Some folks complain of smudging; yep, it’s there (mine’s on page 28). When that’s been a common complaint of your books since day 1 — my Dungeon Master’s Guide smudged easily when I was pawing at the Monster Statistics By Challenge Rating table — it’s even worse when you look at the background design featured on every page of Curse of Strahd: it looks like the bottom third of the page is old newspaper print, which adds extra smudginess to your smudge-inclined book. It’s a weird design decision…or it’s a failed attempt at covering up the printing flaws, I dunno. Either way, the only question beyond “Where’s the quality control” is “WHY ARE THEY USING OLD NEWSPAPER AS A DESIGN ENHANCEMENT?” Shouldn’t there be mist or something? Maybe some bats and skulls?

Haunted One Background from Curse of Strahd

The Haunted One Background

Back to the theme of “Doing It Right,” Curse includes about 50 zillion maps, all of them of great quality, clean and easy on the eyes, and perhaps best of all — if nostalgia is your thing — there’s both top-down maps of Castle Ravenloft’s interior as well as the return of the isometric maps! For the uninitiated, that means sweet, three-quarter rotated maps that add a layer of “depth” so you can see features that project vertically, offering a more “realistic” (for lack of a better term) view of the interior features of various rooms, something that top-down maps always have a bit of trouble showing off. Let’s face it, D&D is a fun game of tactical combat when it comes to that pillar of the game (the other pillars being interaction and exploration), so in my not-so-humble opinion, more of this sort of thing would be a blessing.

Jeremy Crawford shows off the Curse of Strahd poster map

Jeremy Crawford shows off the Curse of Strahd poster map

As always, Mike Schley has all of his Curse of Strahd Maps available at his site in super-dee-duper hi-rez, so you can go nuts with printing out combat maps, or laminating them as posters for your basement, or otherwise ensuring that your less D&D-inclined significant other (current or future) wonders often and with great concern at your money-spending and wall-decorating habits. Notwithstanding my jerkbag proclamation that all maps should already come printed out and bundled with the adventure in shrinkwrap or through some other means — not because I hate Mike Schley, but because I’d rather Wizards pay him ten dump-trucks worth of money so he doesn’t have to sell his maps separately and Wizards can damn well print the maps out themselves because I’m one of those guys who wants to use them and not spend another $30 on maps when economics suggest that Wizards could bundle them and just up the price of the adventure another $10-15 — let me just note that LO!!! There is a fold-out map included, perforated into the back of Curse and featuring the entirety of Castle Ravenloft, the regional map of Barovia, all three villages/towns, and several of the smaller — but still important — encounter locations.

I guess I’m pretty cool with that.

It’s worth noting that — unless I’m missing something — there doesn’t appear to be a “player-friendly version” of any of the maps, including (and especially) the map of the Barovian wilderness, not even among Schley’s offerings. This isn’t as big a crime as it might be in some adventures, as there’s a chance in the adventure that the party might gain a copy of that very same map through one of the NPCs (Ezmerelda d’Avenir, if I recall correctly), and it even goes so far as to specifically say that said map features all of the noted locations from the DM’s map. Looks like it’s time to hit Hexographer and make a player-friendly one! Still, that’s a major oversight, considering there’s a “Player Handouts” section.

Other Resources

Update 5/2/2016! I’m just going to add an “Other Resources” section to all of my major reviews going forward, because there’s so much fan-created material and additional official stuff coming from Dungeon Masters Guild and other venues that it’s a really useful thing to compile it in one place. So why not on my reviews?

Castle Ravenloft Maps. Paul just uploaded a bunch of top-down maps of Castle Ravenloft to support battle-mappers and virtual table-toppers. Curse of Strahd by Paul Johnson at Deviant Art. Show some love in this thread at ENWorld.

Map of Barovia, UNTAGGED! Looks like Wizards listens to the fans, because they just released a completely untagged Map of Barovia on Dungeon Masters Guild for free!

Player Handouts, digital version for printing and reformatting. My problems with the player handouts have been rectified with the release of the COS_Handouts with Text for free on DMsGuild.

Factions, story expansions/clarifications, an NPC index, gotcha! encounters, and a DM Screen. I created an NPC index for Curse of Strahd (there’s so many of them!), and in doing so also ended up writing up three player-friendly Factions, a bunch of expansions for certain plotlines, discussed balance for some of the encounter areas, and made customized DM Screen inserts for DIY-style screens that collects all of the general D&D stuff you need as well as the Curse of Strahd-specific stuff. Make running this campaign a breeze with the Curse of Strahd DM’s Kit & Screen!

Looking for a beefed up Challenge 17 version of Strahd? Here ya go, courtesy of dave2008‘s 5e EPIC MONSTER UPDATES thread.

Looking to change up Strahd’s spell list? Chris Lamere wrote a very informative post in the Curse of Strahd DMs group on Facebook, and allowed me to share it!

1000 words on Strahd’s spell list

I’m running adventurer’s league, so when i first started looking at strahd’s stat block, I thought I had to color inside of the lines. However, as per AL rules, DMs are allowed to swap out Spellcaster spells. Strahd has a lot of concentration spells, and for some reason, a lot of his low level spells are noncombat. Though they make sense outside of combat with the PCs, when the PCs attack castle ravenloft I want strahd to put on his big boy pants. This is the alternate spell list for when strahd knows the PCs are coming, or after they take a long rest after attacking the castle. All these spells would be within Strahds spellbook.

Sleep is nearly useless against PCs. If Strahd even manages to succeed on casting it on a tier 2 PC, he’d probably have a better time just killing them. Sleep removes one, maybe two actions from the initiative order, depending on when that person goes. I’d suggest replacing it with shield. Strahd gets a lot out of a single casting of shield, simply because he’s the target of almost everyones attacks.

Comprehend languages is a spell which makes sense if strahd is exploring the Amber Temple, but while fighting off an attack by PCs he might want a different sort of spell. I’m replacing comprehend languages with longstrider. Longstrider effects strahd’s legendary actions, which makes the spell get a lot of mileage. It’s also a non-concentration buff spell, which strahd needs.

Fog Cloud is an important spell for Strahd, not just because he controls the mists of ravenloft, but because it gives him protection from the sunsword and (as I’ve detailed elsewhere,) it’s good to fill with bats.

Strahd’s level 2 spells are mostly good. Mirror image doesn’t require concentration, which is quite a nice buff for our vampire lord. Gust of wind is another spell which can keep the sunsword away from him. Detect thoughts might be a good spell for strahd to cast if he is aware that the PCs are coming for him, so he can know if they have a secret plan to deal with him.One alteration which I might suggest, but am not going to give to Strahd myself, is Levitate. It offers Strahd MORE ways to keep the sunsword away, but its another concentration spell. maybe swap out gust of wind.

Level 3 spells:

In my party’s first encounter with Strahd, he was having a bit of trouble. the tanks got up in the front line and were messing him up with the sunsword (that’s the reason i decided to write all this,) while the back line peppered him with arrows. Because I always like intelligent,controlling wizards, I don’t tend to have my NPCs throwing around fireball willy nilly. However, a single fireball was enough to demolish the entire back line of archers and mages, forcing the front line to retreat and giving strahd a chance to escape. Don’t discount fireballs ability to control the terms of the fight. Nondetection is Non-negotiable. Strahd casts this spell at the crack of dawn when he goes to sleep, to ensure that no erstwhile adventurers scry on his lair.

Animate Dead is another spell which seems alright for strahd when he’s terrorizing villagers, but not so good when he’s fighting adventurers. I suggest swapping it out with Counterspell. The painting of strahd can cast it, why not the man himself?

Level 4: I’m a big fan of Polymorph, just for the cinematic effect of Strahd turning into a big ole Monstrous bat, Castlevania Style. It’s another concentration spell, and it’s easier to dispel than strahd’s other concentration spells because Strahd doesn’t get to keep his +4 constitution bonus while he’s a t-rex. Others have discussed using polymorph to turn a PC into a rat, then having strahd bite them. I’m not sure that I like this, but it’s yet another way to get the sunsword away from Strahd.

Greater invisibility will MESS THE PLAYERS UP. good time to drop fireballs and then get into melee. It’s another concentration spell.

Blight is my least favorite spell on strahd’s spell list. It seems like a flavor spell, strahd striking out with his necromatic energy, but it doesn’t exactly do heavy damage. on average, it deals 32 necrotic damage. Strahd can do 21 damage with ONE unarmed strike. If the PCs are a bunch of plant monsters for some reason, definitely keep this spell. otherwise, place it gently into the trash bin.

A better single target spell which has the potential to deal more damage over time and control movement is Phantasmal Killer. It’s ANOTHER concentration spell, but has the potential to remove a PC from melee combat with strahd, the phantasmal force interposing between strahd and the melee combatant. I think that the better choice, however, is not another direct damage spell but a buff spell, this one WITHOUT concentration. Fire Shield punishes PCs for getting into melee with strahd further than “you’re going to get bitten and it’s going to hurt.” Because this spell and Mirror image don’t require concentration, I’d suggest stacking them with polymorph to create a sort of”This isn’t even my final form” sort of combat, with strahd in Monstrous bat (T-Rex) form, dealing passive damage to anyone who manages to hit the correct monster.

For fifth level slots, animate objects is sort of out of place. I can see it making sense with the whole “I am the Ancient, I am the Land” situation,but I feel like it doesn’t give quite enough utility to really function.Instead, I’d replace it with Telekinesis. Strahd attempts to scry Ireena every night, so he won’t have access to this spell until he’s in the castle. his best option is to start trying to take the anti-vampire relics (probably starting with the physically weakest player since telekinesis is opposed by strength) and hurling them from the tower.

And that’s all of the spell levels! I hope people find this useful. I found it useful to write out.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He's been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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