And we’re back! I’m now settled in on the beautiful Sunshine Coast, BC, and ready to start way too many hobby projects. I’ve since built a gaming table, got a nice new battlemat, a ton of new terrain, and started a new D&D campaign, but today’s post is about what I left behind in Kingston.
Before I left we were nearing the end of our Curse of Strahd campaign. One more session would have done it, but we ended things in a bit of a hurry. The new group I’ve started out here in BC is currently about a quarter of the way through Out of the Abyss, but I’m eyeing up Curse of Strahd once more to run after this campaign closes.
Curse of Strahd is a fantastic adventure book, probably the best one that Wizards of the Coast has put out to date for 5th edition. I think it also surpasses many, if not all, of the Pathfinder adventure path series that I’ve read and run. But there is one specific thing I’d change to make it even better: Strahd von Zarovich.
What’s wrong with him? Well, in his current presentation in the book, he is a big bag of hit points (a big with sharp teeth) that players spend the whole adventure looking for three items to help them fight him. They know that they have to fight and kill him, as he isn’t going to just let them walk out of Barovia. This doesn’t come as a surprise at all. All of this information can be found out probably within the first session, in the village of Barovia. Information likely to be found out after the adventure is that Strahd and the land of Barovia are tied to each other, meaning that Strahd will return at some point, and all their hard work will have only bought the people of Barovia a temporary respite.
For an adventure that has horror as one of its major themes, the idea of knowing who you are going to have to fight (the book title has his name in it…), and when you have to fight (after collecting three items), seems a little off. Sure, he does a good job of being intimidating and spooky, occasionally harassing the players and putting them in their place, as well as constantly spying on them, even if they don’t know it until much later. But these encounters with Strahd, if they devolve into combat, only serve to humanize him. They allow players to get an idea of what he does in a fight, the limits of his power and abilities, and to essentially set the benchmark of what they have to beat.
A villain such as Strahd would serve the adventure better by being hidden, seeming to be of limitless power and above fighting, until confronted of course. All of the recurring themes, such as corruption and subsequent redemption, personally justifiable evil, curses, and oppression, are thrown out of the window when it comes to him. There is no chance with the book as written to redeem Strahd, or break the curse that he or the land are under. While all of this can be changed, I think there’s a better way to handle Strahd and the end of the adventure.
What can really add a feeling of horror to an adventure is the slow dawning realization that you haven’t figured out everything, that you’re missing a crucial part of the larger picture. That the person you thought was the root of all evil actually isn’t, and that there is something much darker and more sinister that needs to be dealt with.
For this adventure I would incorporate something like that, using the Dark Powers of the Amber Temple as the ultimate force that has to be stopped. After all, Strahd only became the way he is after making a pact with them, and they are what keeps him and Barovia alive. I would even allow the players to learn that Strahd and Barovia are both cursed during the exploration of the Amber Temple, perhaps as a bit of exposition from the temple’s guardian, Exethanter. If anyone would know this, it would be him, and it actually now allows us to have another villain on the way to defeating the dark powers.
But how does one defeat dark powers, that aren’t really things to fight? The players could try and break all of the vestiges, I’m sure that’d do something, but it lacks the sort of grand finale that this adventure deserves. Instead, I’d offer a number of solutions to the players.
First, drawing upon some of the themes of this adventure, it could require the redemption or self sacrifice of someone infused by the Dark Powers, one such as Strahd von Zarovich. However, being the strong personality that he is, I doubt Strahd is just going to give his life up. It would take a huge amount of motivation and some amazing circumstances, but we might get those through the use of Ireena. A second solution might be to have a single player draw out the power of each of the vestiges, resulting in their transformation into an avatar of the Dark Powers who must then be slain by the rest of the party. A third option might be to have to kill anyone that has taken any of the gifts of the vestiges such as Strahd and Exethanter. Whichever option is used, it should not just require the death of Strahd, which should become clear when the players try to leave Barovia.
Whatever you do though, don’t make Exethanter the final villain. That trend of a lich as the overarching villain has gone on way too long. Why can’t Exethanter just be a genuinely nice crazy lich?