I grew up playing 2nd edition D&D, and my two favorite worlds were the deserts of DarkSun and the mists of Ravenloft. So when our group’s DM decided he wanted to take a break, I stepped in to take the party to the gothic horror realm of Barovia with my take on the fifth edition Curse of Strahd module.
As tradition mandates, I had the mists transport them when they least expected it after the party set up camp for a long rest in the caves of the Underdark in our last adventure. This allowed me to awaken them surrounded by the thick mists of Ravenloft. Since both I and a few other members weren’t going to be available as players for this adventure, the mists also served as a convenient way to split up the party. Leaving those who were unavailable trapped in its depths while dropping off the rest of the players at the edge of the Old Svalich Road with no explanation.
Like most games with this group, the session began with lots of jokes and puns. The party was cautious, but they were generally light-hearted. Which was something I started chipping away at immediately? They encountered a strange spectral rider on the road which allowed me to supply them with a dream journal that as a physical prop gave them a place to take notes, and will also serve to allow me to give them some notes between sessions in the form of prophetic dreams that will appear in the journal on their own. This also allowed me to introduce the ultimate antagonist’s name as the ghost screamed it as he charged them.
Not long after they discovered a rotting corpse along with a sealed letter from the Bürgermeister of the village of Barovia. A version of this letter exists as a handout in the back of the Curse of Strahd adventure module book. However, I wasn’t a fan of the look of the handout, the font is a bit hard to read and gets worse when you try to make a copy of it. And since I happen to be a big fan of props, I took the basic text of the handout and printed it with an easier to read font that still looked like it was handwritten. Then I printed it on some aged looking paper and used a wax seal I have to give it an authentic finish. I always feel that physical props like this really help improve immersion. And I know that my players took the letter and got really excited. Oddly enough, I had to encourage them to actually open it.
For those who have done the adventure, or just read through the module, the letter speaks of the need for heroes in these lands, the threat to the Bürgermeister’s daughter Ireena, and the darkness spreading over the land from a dread Vamprye. Thus setting the first adventure hook and giving the party something to begin investigating in this strange new land as they try to find their way home.
It’s also the first guidepost for the party. The Curse of Strahd module is written in such a way that the players are free to wander the land of Barovia as they like, even into places that they are desperately unprepared for. Little things like the letter help let them know where important things might be found, as on occasion I’ll likely drop them to let them know when an area might be a bit to dangerous for them.
Back to the game itself. after being chased by wolves the party eventually reached the village of Barovia itself. While they continued their jokes, asking everyone where the master burger maker lived, harassing an apple vendor for information, and bringing in a running joke of the group. Greg the man with the bristleless broom (in this case in the form of an NPC they were told was kicked in the head by donkey and wasn’t all there). They also commented on the fact that those NPCs that would actually speak with them seemed to be dressed in bright colorful clothes while most of the villagers wore nothing but drab browns and greys.
I sobered the mood a bit when they encountered Mad Mary, a mentally broken mother sobbing on the street as she clutched the doll that had once belonged to her missing daughter. While they only spoke to her briefly, that encounter gave them another possible hook and helped reinforce the tone of this world. I also started dropping some notes for the players that gave some hints of creeping madness.
The session ended on an even more somber mood after a brief combat in which they fought to protect the fair Ireena. When Strahd arrived the party ranger decided to take a shot, one which the great vampire laughed off, before dominating the ranger and forcing her to turn and slay the Bürgermeister right in front of his daughter. As a DM there is no better feeling than a speechless table from a well-placed twist. This gave the players a hint about just how powerful Strahd truly is, and showed the kind of stakes in play as they begin their quest to destroy him in earnest.