Sunday, 19 March 2017

Review - Curse Of Strahd (no spoilers)

Once again I'd like to share my opinion on a new version of a gaming product that got it's initial launch 20+ years ago and look backwards before looking forwards.

In the now ancient times of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (that's what the first edition was called) most adventures featured a setting (dungeon, castle, town, etc) stocked with fairly static monsters and traps that although they could be challenging felt very artificial.  What I mean by "artificial" is that monsters would basically sit around in their fixed locations waiting for player characters to come along and interact with them and doing nothing that made any sense outside of some basic responses to PC actions.  I actually remember DMing one published adventure where my group fought and killed some orcs guarding a chest and when they opened the chest they found magic armour and a magic sword inside it, prompting one of my players to actually wonder aloud "if the orcs had magic weapons and armour, why didn't they use them to fight us?".  I literally had no answer for that question.  In the midst of all these fun but somewhat dry adventures was released AD&D adventure module I6 Ravenloft.

Now I'd like to say that I carefully researched my purchase of this module back in the day back that would be a total lie.  I bought it because it had hands down the best cover art of any AD&D module up to that point (still hold up really well) and I really liked the idea of a little horror in my fantasy game (something I still haven't outgrown).  I couldn't believe how lucky I was to  buy an adventure for some fairly superficial reasons and then crack it open and find I had TSR's first quantum leap in adventure design in my hands.  Ravenloft did two things that were so completely different as to change my perception of what an RPG module could be:
1.  There was a fortune telling mechanic that meant key items and events would happen in different places everytime you played the adventure (so it could be replayed multiple times by the same players).
2.  The villain had complex motivations and tactics that meant he would move around, retreat, harass the PCs and basically behave like the DMs personal character rather than a pile of stats and rules to be murdered at a fixed point in the game.
These things elevated Ravenloft from being just another adventure to feeling like the most epic and grand adventure to date, in spite of the fact that it was only 32 pages in total including all the additional fortune telling mechanics and magic items.

I6 kicked off a franchise within a franchise getting it's own full campaign setting for AD&D 2nd Edition, being licensed out to White Wolf to produce a full line of books under the OGL for d20 D&D, being adapted and updated in the Expedition series towards the end of the 3.5 run, being produced as one of the D&D board games during the period 4th Edition was the core rules set and now finally Curse Of Strahd for D&D Next/5th Edition.  I have had great affection for every Ravenloft product with the exception of Expedition To Castle Ravenloft and I was really excited when Curse Of Strahd was announced.

What's interesting about my perspective on Curse Of Strahd is that I went into it with fan-boy excitement levels but had not yet forgotten my last Ravenloft purchase had been my most personally disappointing.  I didn't know what to expect and beyond my Player's Handbook this was actually my first D&D Next/5th Edition purchase.

I am overwhelming satisfied with Curse Of Strahd and can't imagine any DM would feel differently!  This iteration of the classic adventure keeps all the things that made the original I6 so popular (random changing placement of key items, actions for Strahd based on his motivations and the player's actions, compelling NPCs, etc) but really expands the experience that makes this version even more useful and re-playable than the original.  In addition to Castle Ravenloft and the village of Barovia that have always been present Curse of Strahd now populates and describes the entire province that they exist within.  There are 14 fully detailed and mapped encounter areas outside of the village and castle each of which could be played as a single stand alone game session even without playing through the main adventure.  The production value of the book is amazing with fantastically detailed maps (which are also available for purchase online for use on virtual table tops) of the new areas and the original 3D maps of the castle being retained and use for Strahd's lair.  You could easily run an entire campaign using just this one book (with some slight modifications and padding) and the world itself feels very lived in.  I'm currently running my first group through the adventure, they are 2-3 sessions away from completion and I'm already thinking about when I'll be running it again.

Having talked about how much I like this module I do want to call out a few things that could use improvement.  The module is rated levels 1-10 and although it does scale across that range it would be very easy for a group to wander into somethings that would be way over their current level early on.  There is also a lead in adventure called Death House which is in the main book and also available as a free download on Wizards Of The Coast's website that is intended for levels 1-3 but I found the final encounter was beyond the abilities of low level characters unless they had the correct mix of abilities and I had to modify it to not TPK the group.  In hindsight my mistake was not allowing the party to level up mid-way through the Death House to give them a better shot at the final encounter.

Other than that the only things I would call out is that you really do need a balanced party to succeed in this adventure (not necessarily a criticism).  There are times where if your group is primarily social they will fail, and other times where if they are primarily combat focused they will fail.  The irony in this for my current group being that two encounters that were supposed to be nuisances turned almost lethal as the result of a few bad die rolls.

To summarize I highly recommend Curse Of Strahd and if you can find them the deck of Tarokka Cards and the DM screen for the adventure produced by Gale Force 9 are well worth adding in as well.



  1. Holy crap!
    Did I say 20+ years ago? Because I guess what I meant to say was 33 years ago....damn....

  2. Replies
    1. When I checked the copyright date I literally had to count backwards, and sure enough the result was; damn I'm old.

  3. Part of what makes good horror is knowing when to run…
    I don’t think encounters should always be balanced, it brings a realism to the threat.
    I also think its kind of fun that we left the horrible beast in the basement, knowing its still there adds to the terror of that haunted house.
    I’m enjoying playing this adventure immensely!

    1. Glad you're enjoying it!

      I was worried the sandbox might be too big and broad but there are enough leads and clues to keep giving the group things to keep them (more-or-less) on track.