Review: Curse of Strahd

curse-of-strahd-cover-artFor the fourth storyline/ adventure path for 5th Edition, Wizards of the Coast moved the writing process in-house and brought back the original creators to expand on their creation – almost 33-years after its original publication – with Curse of Strahd.

As always, this is a heavy review of the product and will likely have spoilers for the adventure. If you plan on playing, I caution you not to read ahead or skip to my final thoughts.

But before I get into the review, be warned: I’m a huge Ravenloft junkie. It was the first campaign setting I bought, fourth D&D product I purchased, and first official setting I ran. I have on my shelf every Ravenloft product printed (as well as a few that were never officially printed). So this product hits pretty close to home, and I’m a little more defensive of the Ravenloft setting than other content, which will likely colour my review.

What Is It

Curse of Strahd is a 256-page hardcover adventure, written and published by WotC. The book takes characters from 1st level to roughly 10th level, but makes use of the optional milestone leveling in a few places, meaning Dungeon Masters wanting to use just experience points for advancement might need to add a few random encounters or side quests. Including at the back of the book is a poster map, with Castle Ravenloft on one side and a map of Barovia on the other, complete with map inserts of the various towns. The book includes a few magic items, a new background for players, and several new monsters, including four animated objects, the Barovia witch, tree blight, mongrelfolk, phantom warrior, were raven, and Strahd zombie. In addition there are seven unique NPCs. Plus Pidlwick II.  

Cos-Logo-on-WhiteThe Curse of Strahd super-adventure is a retelling of the classic 1st Edition module I6: Ravenloft, originally published in 1983. This is the third such retelling, preceded by House of Strahd for 2nd Edition, and Expedition to Castle Ravenloft for 3rd. Excluding the Silver Edition module, which was just a reprint.

I6: Ravenloft is one of the most popular adventure modules of all time, and was adapted into a Choose-Your-Own adventure style book, Master of Ravenloft, in 1986, expanded into the Ravenloft Campaign Setting in the 1990, and used to inspire the Castle Ravenloft board game in 2010.

Like 2006’s Expedition (which was a roughly 221-pages, running from roughly 6th level to 10th level), Curse of Strahd takes the classic adventure and expands the module, adding more content prior to the dungeon crawl through Castle Ravenloft and presumably climaxing in a confrontation with Strahd. In both cases, the adventure is presented as the first time adventurers have faced the count, being a reimagining rather than a sequel.  

The Good

IMG_2586As always, the production values of the book are superb. There is excellent art throughout, and the book has the now-standard 5th Edition ink splatter design, occasionally supplemented with appropriate bloodstains. I didn’t notice any obvious typos or textual problems. A high quality, professional work all around.  

The adventure is a large sandbox adventure, and players can explore the region of Barovia on their own terms. There are frequent hooks to direct players from one area to another or send adventures to key locations, which makes this a well designed sandbox as it doesn’t rely on the players to just get curious or abandon plot hooks to see the most interesting locations. Unlike prior sandbox adventures, the book provides a chart that gives the average level of threats in each region. Additionally, a number of side quests and areas are teased throughout the adventure, like the Blinsky toys, the Wizard of Wines winery, and certain pies. The various sub-adventures in the sandbox feel connected and real, rather than being isolated little dungeons existing in a vacuum (for the most part).

The book includes optional DM rules and advice, such as tips for running a horror campaign, some altered magic rules and resurrection madness, as well as rules for running a Tarokka fortune card reading. (Cards sold separately.) Like the original adventure, a Tarokka reading is part of the plot and provides a random element to the location of treasure and identity of reliable allies.

The book also includes a short guide of the region of Barovia, including some details on the Vistani gypsies. The adventure also describes three towns in the region in reasonable detail, with complete maps and some NPCs. Although exploring the region encompasses the bulk of the adventure. There are an assortment of locations labeled A to Z that are detailed in order through the book, so the location of an encounter in the book is determined based on the letter it was assigned rather than the challenge of the encounters or where the encounters are expected to fall in the campaign. Interestingly, when possible, the letter assigned seems to correspond to the first letter of the locales name. This means locations are scattered randomly, but the naming often makes sense.

The monsters in the back are given lots of detail and description, provided full monster write-ups rather than a small paragraph of fluff and a stat block. Most are an illustration away from being pulled straight from the Monster Manual. Of the new monsters, mongrelfolk and wereravens get the most love, with both being found in multiple places throughout the adventure. Wereravens are almost are present as vampires in the adventure.

The adventure and dungeons are decent. Better than that actually. There’s excellent atmosphere throughout, with a goodly amount of creep in every encounter and scene, with a tonne of small details and unnerving features. The dungeon chambers aren’t just room after room of monsters broken by empty descriptor rooms serving a vague purpose. Instead, the empty rooms maintain the tone and establish an atmosphere, and there are assorted traps and magical effects. There is a sense of wonder to many of the magical traps, with lots of unique effects. Not every dungeon need involve fighting, and I can imagine negotiation or stealth could factor into more than one. The adventure assumes combat (because it has to) but it doesn’t mandate combat and some roleplaying details are given for many of the monsters, who often feel like individuals and not just sacks of experience to be slaughtered. Very old school, and yet very modern. This is easily, hands down, the best set of dungeons published for 5e, being far more interesting, unique, and evocative than the straight fights of Princes of the Apocalypse.

Even elements of the original are improved and tightened. The treasure of Castle Ravenloft are expanded beyond the walls of the castle, and can be found scattered across the land. And formerly unimpressive or bland rooms of the castle are expanded, with room descriptions and details punched up, and NPCs given more life. Tricky areas (like certain traps) are given much more detail, making them actually usable.

The expansion side-quests of the adventure touch on many Gothic/ horror tropes. This makes the entire adventure feel much like a microcosm of the entire campaign setting. There are werewolf packs in the woods, a haunted manor full of ghosts, a coven of witches, and a crazed healer making flesh golems. Some are just what you would expect but others are surprising, like the golem surgeon who is very different than Frankenstein.

The book also has a number of nods to the Ravenloft campaign setting. Most of these are just Easter Eggs or borrowed lore, but a few are used to expand the setting and give Barovia more history and depth. The Wachter family are particularly noteworthy in that regard.

The Bad

IMG_2585The colouring of the page backgrounds can be dark in places, occasionally blending with text to give the impression the text is slightly smeared. A couple pages in my printing seemed discoloured, with one having a very distinct red hue. Odd. But this never really affected the legibility, so it’s a minor quibble.

Strahd looks too young throughout the book. He was meant to be old. Middle aged at least, and a harden middle aged after a lifetime of war. That’s explicitly stated as one of the reasons (if not the reason) Tatyana rejected him in favour of his younger brother Sergei. The depictions of Strahd are excellently drawn (and a few are amazing pieces of art), but he’s still more Lestat than Dracula. This is curious given the emphasis Tracy Hickman gives in the introduction to returning Strahd to his monstrous roots, as he’s a very romantic looking character.

The opening of the adventure is a little soft. There’s the traditional invitation – ala the original module – but this doesn’t work as well when characters aren’t going to immediately head to the castle. There’s also a hook involving the factions from the Adventurer’s Guild and the railroady as heck Death House prequel adventure (that, curiously, dumps people in the middle of the Village of Barovia when finished rather the edge of the land) plus a couple other weak hooks, but most just dump the players at the edge of the land with little direction. Even in a sandbox you need a rough goal to start you off.

Most of the locations are seeded throughout the adventure, but the connections of a few are weak. I didn’t see much reason for adventurers to explore van Richten’s tower, other than general curiosity and the metagamey reason that if it exists it should be looted and explored. The haunted manor of Argynvostholt is also somewhat weak, with the climax of that requiring a fairly deep delve into Castle Ravenloft. However, the manor accommodates groups two levels lower than ones ready to head into Ravenloft and the Castle is designed to discourage people from easily leaving once they’ve entered. It doesn’t seem likely that the party will stop their delving of the Castle to spend a couple days putting ghosts to rest (and let the defenders regroup and heal). That plot seems likely to be resolved after the climax of the adventure. But continuing to play after defeating Strahd feels like an anticlimax (especially since, at that point, the adventure feels “done” and there’ll be pressure to move on to the next campaign or storyline).

Similarly, the Temple of Amber is positioned high in the level range to either follow the Castle or be explored between trips into Ravenloft. But, again, once the delve into Ravenloft has begun and the end of the campaign is in sight, the party is unlikely to just stop. I didn’t even really see convincing reasons to explore the Temple, apart from being teleported there from inside the Castle.

The largest flaw of the adventure is that is a retread of an adventure that has been retread twice prior. Many players will have experienced the climax of this adventure already. This is fourth version of the same damn story. Unlike Princes of the Apocalypse, which took the classic adventure and set it in a new campaign setting, with new dungeons, new opponents, and climaxed in a fight a completely different end boss, this is pretty much the exact same thing we’ve seen before only with an extended opening.

It’s really not that hard to update classic adventures to 5e. During Mike Mearls’ Reddit AMA updating classic adventures was touched on, with Mearls saying “I’d suggest extending the adventure with new content rather than just copying it, because updates to 5e are fairly easy. I think you’d need to add a personal spin to it to get attention.” The centerpiece and climax of the campaign – the delve through Castle Ravenloft – is functionally identical to the original, and everything prior is just adventures to get the characters to the right level (the definition of filler). Very little “personal spin” has been added to the delve through Ravenloft.

I can’t help but think about the missed opportunity for a sequel, an adventure that assumes the events of I6 took place and does different things with the castle and advancement of the Strahd story.

While the adventure expands on the lands of Barovia (pulling place names and maps of other villages from the campaign setting), very little is done with the village of Barovia and familiar locations. Despite being expected to pass through the Village of Barovia twice (at the start and then near the end at least once, possibly more) the village isn’t expanded beyond the barebones description in the original. There’s no new locations in the village or NPCs or people of note. There’s no blacksmith for armour and weapons, no stables, no coffin maker, and the like.

Also directly updated is the classic isometric castle map. Which is not a bad thing, being an iconic part of the adventure and a decent map (albeit with a lot of odd twists and turns. I’m not certain how people who lived in the castle were expected to navigate its halls). However, unlike Expedition to Castle Ravenloft there are no top-down companion maps for encounters. So, sadly, people running this on a VTT will need to find or make their own maps, as tokens won’t work well on the isometric maps. (Using the maps from Expedition also aren’t an option; WotC released those as a web expansion, but they were low-rez and included the monster tokens, making them not at all player friendly.)

Curse of Strahd retains some of the more the curious elements of the old adventure, such as the height of the castle, which is significantly taller than any mundane castle. The walls of Castle Ravenloft are twice as tall as typical medieval fortifications and each floor of the castle 40 or 50 feet high for no good reason. Also retained are the needless humourous crypts in the castle. I’m of the school of thought that humour is the antithesis of horror, and a cheesy meta pun just takes people out of the game. It’s not so bad for crypts like “#16: Elsa Fallona von Twitterberg (beloved actor): She had many followers” (it was just “Elsa Fallona (beloved actor)” in the original), as I can just skip the groan worthy social media joke. But Crypt 33 and “Sir Klutz Tripalotsky” is harder as I need to make-up a new name – possibly on the fly – or accept the tension being drained as the table rolls their eyes at the gag of a knight tripping and impaling himself with his own sword.

The Ugly

IMG_2587The accompanying poster map is glued into the spine and pulled out by perforation. This leaves a bit of map left in the book, and also risks tearing the map if not amazingly careful upon extraction (the perforation is good, but I still turned to an X-Acto knife for a stubborn middle part). This reduces the risk of map theft or staining from a removable adhesive, but I dislike the 1/2 cm bit of paper sticking jutting from the inside spine of the book.

Strahd’s stat block is a little anaemic. He’s basically the spellcasting variant vampire from the Monster Manual with a few different spells, a higher Intelligence, a few new skills, and some extra necrotic damage on a hit. The rest of the book doesn’t shy away from using a one-paragraph modification of an existing stat block rather than making a brand new monster, but Strahd has fewer changes than some of the Vistani or dusk elf NPCs. Furthermore, CR 13 always seems a little low for regular MM vampires, and being a modification of that seems low for Strahd. He has the hit points of a CR 10 monster (I played in a game where a party with an average level of <10 ripped apart a vampire backed up by waves of spawn, despite the group not being optimised for vampire slayage. By the time they get to Castle Ravenloft, the adventurers should be kitted out for killing undead. A party that gets lucky on initiative will rip right through Strahd. He could use some more hit points…

The book plays fast and loose with Ravenloft setting lore. Which isn’t surprising as it’s a retelling of the stand-alone adventure, and just mines the campaign setting for ideas, but it’s still unfortunate. Reducing a campaign setting to inspiration fodder for a nostalgia driven rehashing of an adventure.

To give a few examples, the ring of choking fog no longer encircles the Village of Barovia but instead the province, and Vistani potions do nothing against the fog. Madame Eva is an entirely different character, and not the Raunie of the Zarovan Vistani (but at least she’s not a hag like in Expedition). There’s no mention of Sturm von Zarovich, the middle child between Strahd and Sergei, and the von Zarovich lineage is dead.

This reimagining makes the timeline wonky as well. In the timeline of the Ravenloft Campaign setting, Ireena Kolyana wasn’t the current reincarnation of Tatyana as the events of the I6 adventure were assumed to have taken place in the past (year 528 according to the original Black Box Campaign Setting) but Rudolph van Richten was a more modern figure, who didn’t start fighting monsters until the year 706. And egregiously, van Richten is presented as a spellcaster when previously he was a straight rogue. Boo. (And is acting wildly out of character to say the least.) This feels akin to retelling the Time of Troubles adventures for the Forgotten Realms, but including Havilar and Farideh from the Brimstone Angels book series, and statting-up Havilar as a bard.

I’m not opposed to additions to the lore. For instance, the book introduces the idea of Mother Night as an ancient Barovia goddess and counterpart to the Morninglord. Which is fine. Adding a new god is an additive change and enriches the world. Cool. But making the Morninglord an ancient Barovian deity rather than a cult inspired by the presence of a sun elf vampire and distorted teachings of Lathander that began decades after Strahd’s reign is needlessly revisionary.

Arguably the largest victim of the canon revision is Strahd himself. There’s no mention of Strahd driving away the invading Tergs, and instead he’s described as making some generic warfare (and portrayed more as a conqueror). Strahd is also pretty damn evil prior to murdering Sergei. Super evil. He mutilates a silver dragon, and was already seeking immortality from evil beings prior to the Sergei’s Wedding (The Black Wedding?), forging a pack directly with vestiges in the Amber Temple. Thus, Tatyana’s rejection is just the convenient excuse for what he was already planning. This sucks all the tragedy out of Strahd’s story as he didn’t fall from nobility, he wasn’t driven to evil through rejection and lost love, and there was no turning point where he has to make a decision between good or evil. He wasn’t a man that became a monster, but a monster that just became a slightly different kind of monster. Strahd’s goals in the adventure are also lackluster, with one of his ambitions being to find a replacement for himself to rule over Barovia now his bloodline is dead. But that seems like a very un-Strahd of a goal; he literally identifies and equates himself with Barovia, and I don’t see why he would ever want to abdicate. And, as evil schemes go, it’s decidedly lacking terms of both scheming and evil. His motivations beyond Tatyana need a LOT more oomf.

The previous backstory of Strahd was also intentionally vague on how he became a vampire, if the “Death” referred to in the Tome of Strahd was the infamous Dark Powers of Ravenloft or another force. Curse of Strahd outright says that “Death” was in fact the Dark Powers, and then goes on to mention they’re from the Shadowfell. And later it clarifies Strahd made his pact was made in the Amber Temple with the vestiges within, pretty much revealing the nature of the Dark Powers as the named vestiges of that temple. Revealing anything about the Dark Powers is kinda the big “no no” of the Ravenloft campaign setting and the one product that did so was instantly hit with the “non-canon bat”. It’s like revealing the cause of the Day of Mourning in Eberron or who killed Aroden in Paizo’s Golarion. 

The Awesome

650x650_c19c2c4f42679de3e96670375cd18017c890d04434d4db69ffc9363aReturning to the art, the cover is decent but the piece on page 8 is amazeballs. It’s a fantastic piece and one of my favourite illustrations of Strahd.

The NPCs in the book have full histories and background, but also list their Bond, Ideal, and Flaw. I’m a little stunned it took this long to actually include the NPC information the Dungeon Master’s Guide recommended every NPC should have. It’s great to see.

The monster selection throughout the adventure is nicely done. There is limited aberrations and outsiders, with precious few demons & devils. Expedition to Castle Ravenloft took the alternate route that if it was horrifying, it fit the adventure, so there was a lot more just Evil stuff and Lovecraftian monstrosities in a Gothic horror adventure. And not all monsters are what you would expect, such as the nature of the surprise villains in the Abbey of Saint Markov.

One of the revisions in the lore is that only 1 in 10 Barovians has a soul, and the rest are simply husks. Given the low population of the region, this means there are precious few people with souls (especially since everything seems to be hunting them in particular). Like maybe 300. But it’s a cool that rather works with the setting; another good example of additive rather than revisionary lore. Although I might reduce the number of soulless to a more reasonable half, maybe 75% at the very most.

Bonegrinder and the pies is fun and creepy. It’s a nice intersection of dark fairy tale elements and a more modern (and musical) horror, but works so very well. I just hope people running the adventure read ahead to this section when their player’s get peckish and decide to have the pie.

Baba Lysaga is a fun way to do Baba Yaga in Ravenloft without just adding Baba Yaga to Ravenloft. As Eastern European folklore, Baba Yaga really fits the tone of Ravenloft and I’m rather surprised she hasn’t really be added to the Mists prior. I’m only sad this section is so small, and feels like more could have been done with Baba Lysaga.

There are a number of handouts included at the back of the book, which are also available on the D&D website, along with black-and-white copies of the various maps (beside a link to the artist’s website so you can purchase higher rez colour versions. Classy.) I always appreciate when bits of the adventure you want to copy are released as a web enhancement. Unlike the first two adventures, there’s no web enhancement that includes all the monsters and magic items not found in the Basic rules. But between the Basic Rules and System Reference Document, most should be covered.

Final Thoughts

For fans of the Ravenloft adventure, this is everything you loved and more. For those who have never experienced Castle Ravenloft before, this is the classic experience in entirety, given a polish and tweak, with so much more included prior to tackling the castle. The adventure is atmospheric, with lots of amazing descriptions and imagery and lots of little details that rewards inquisitive and cautious players. And at many times it’s quite deadly, encouraging intelligent play and cunning plans over simply kicking in doors.

But I still have problems with some elements of the adventure, specifically when it connects to the campaign setting (or rather, how it doesn’t and just steals names & ideas from the setting). I find it unfortunate that the adventure was designed in such a way that the biggest fans of the material will take the most umbrage with the product. However, these complaints are largely independent of the quality of adventure itself and are a complete and total non-issues for anyone who does not care about the campaign setting.

I would have preferred a new story, a Return to Castle Ravenloft that tells the tale of a resurrected Strahd reclaiming his kingdom and taking revenge on the ancestors of his killers. Or another twist on the classic tale and does something new with Count von Zarovich and would surprise those familiar with the original, in addition to entertaining the uninitiated.

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