Last Night I Dreamt of Ravenloft Again…

Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death.
Richard III

Portends and prophecy, dreams and nightmares are constant motifs in Curse of Strahd. Ireena dreams of Strahd every night following his visit. Izek dreams of Ireena. The Tarroka deck literally spells out the party’s fate. Birds of ill open (somewhat subverted in this case) warn unsuspecting adventurers off from some of the most dangerous encounters of the valley, including Old Bonegrinder, which party fresh out of Death House might think would be an excellent place to explore.

When I started Curse of Strahd, I wanted to do it right. I was nervous. We’d come off more than a year of Out of the Abyss under a seasoned DM. I had never played before that year, but here I was claiming I was going to run Curse of Strahd, a sandbox campaign that relies more than anything on tone. On getting suspense, dread, and atmosphere down. Every module from Adventurer’s League Season 4 warned, “For a Ravenloft game, the world itself should be treated with great respect—it is a character unto itself…” I wanted to do Ravenloft right, to tell a story worth telling. I read PN Elrond’s I, Strahd. I got my hands on old Ravenloft modules, Van Richthen’s Guide to Vampires, and poured every DM’s guide on the web I could find. We discussed character creation over email over a couple weeks, and soon enough it was time for our first session.

The party met in a tavern. Of course. Why not? It’s overdone because it works. The book offers three introductions to get a group of adventurers into Barovia. Vistani visitors. Werewolves in the woods. And a strange visitor in a tavern. To get each of them into the tavern, though, I wrote up a handful of dreams the night before, distributing to the players as they arrived that night.

I. Kolyana Inderovich’s Mansion

You find yourself standing in the dark entrance hall of an aging mansion. The air is cold. You notice the widows have been boarded and the door barred. You look down, notice unfamiliar clothing and a sword you don’t recognize clutched in your hand. A howl outside pierces the night, joined by a chorus of the same from all sides of the house. The front door shudders under a massive blow, flexing on its hinges against the the crossbeam haphazardly installed across the doorframe. A woman screams from behind you, “Papa, Papa, no! Please wake up!”
You turn and run into the house, following the sound of sobbing, but room after room, door after door, you never seem to get any closer. Eventually you realize you the sobbing is gone, and you are no longer running to something, but from something. The walls have turned to clay and stone as you continue running, ducking and weaving as you search for an exit. Something slick and wet grasps at your leg, pulling you to the floor.

You wake with a start, your cloths cold and damp from your own sweat.

Everyone is troubled by bad dreams at some point, and you have had more than your fair share yourself, but never anything like this last one. That same morning, something inside you you can’t place, a drive, an instinct, a whisper— brings you back to the Crossing Inn, a waystation for travelers along the Phlan Path on the edge of the Quivering Forest, where you stopped in a ten-day past.

II. The Fall of Argynvostholt

The sound of battle echoes around you, the bitter smell of blood and smoke, the scream of metal on metal and the cries of dying men and women. A large wooden throne stands at one end of the hall, and six knights decked in silver and black stand shoulder-to-shoulder as crimson clad soldiers pour through every door. A massive roar shakes the room to its very foundation, and with a mighty crash the entire western wall collapses under the weight of something falling from above.

One of the knights breaks from the ranks and begins cleaving his way through the soldiers before he is overwhelmed. Tears in his eyes, one knight leads the remaining four with a wordless howl of anguish like nothing you’ve never heard. You barely get your sword up in time as you find yourself engaged in the melee yourself, and lose track of the remaining knights as a sea of crimson surrounds both you and them. At a mighty blow to the head, everything goes black, and you wake with a start by the smoldering remains of your fire.

Everyone is troubled by bad dreams at some point, and you have had more than your fair share yourself, but never anything like this last one. That same morning, something inside you you can’t place, a drive, an instinct, a whisper— brings you back to the Crossing Inn, a waystation for travelers along the Phlan Path on the edge of the Quivering Forest, where you stopped in a ten-day past.

III. Marina’s Death

You find yourself restrained on a bed in a small room. The window has been boarded up, and a fire burns in the hearth. What little light filters through the boards on the western window burns a deep blood-red. You hear a soft sobbing muffled by the door. “Come, we haven’t much time, sundown is almost upon us and then The Devil will walk among us again.” The door creaks open to reveal two men, one in a rough-hewn robe, the other in a much finer garment, distressed from a few day’s wear.

The man in the robe begins intoning a prayer, and both stride toward you, tears streaming from the second man’s eyes. He bends down and whispers, “I love you, my child.” The first man produces a mallet and wooden stake, the end tempered to a fine point. The second man takes them, and after a moment’s hesitation, sets the stake to your breast and raises the mallet above his head. With a tormented cry, the mallet comes crashing down in a single mighty blow.
You wake with a start, the blanket you fell asleep with twisted tightly around your body like a straitjacket. The fire in the hearth has gone cold.

Everyone is troubled by bad dreams at some point, and you have had more than your fair share yourself, but never anything like this last one. That same morning, something inside you you can’t place, a drive, an instinct, a whisper— brings you back to the Crossing Inn, a waystation for travelers along the Phlan Path on the edge of the Quivering Forest, where you stopped in a ten-day past.

IV. Strahd Pursues Tatyana

You are racing across slick cobblestone, the rain striking your face, but you don’t feel the cold. Every corner you turn, every door you wrench open, you catch a glimpse of her— and she’s gone again. You round a tower and find yourself in a garden, warm light glowing from the stained glass behind you. She is in front of you, and now turns to look back. In that moment, in her eyes you see is all: fear, revulsion, and yes, hatred. She turns away. With a burst of speed, she strides for the low wall of the overlook. One, two, three steps. Without a break in her momentum, not a moment’s hesitation, she leaps, plants a foot on the wall— and without a sound is gone.

You bolt for the overlook, an inhuman cry erupting from your throat. As you lean past the gargoyles facing out into the void a sudden updraft brings a lace veil riding up from below. You reach for it, but just as quickly it whips away, disappearing into the misty darkness.
With a start up you sit up suddenly, drenched in a cold sweat and a knot at the pit of your stomach.

Everyone is troubled by bad dreams at some point, and you have had more than your fair share yourself, but never anything like this last one. That same morning, something inside you you can’t place, a drive, an instinct, a whisper— brings you back to the Crossing Inn, a waystation for travelers along the Phlan Path on the edge of the Quivering Forest, where you stopped in a ten-day past.

V. Strahd Takes Ravenloft Castle

You are standing among ranks of men at attention inside the curtain wall of a massive keep. Trash and offal collects in the corners, a stained glass window stands smashed, but beyond this abuse and neglect, the strength and beauty of this place is readily apparent. The sheer size imparts a sense of awe like you’ve never felt before. Thunder rumbles softly in the distance as a slow drizzle leaves everyone uncomfortable and wet, but nobody moves. A tall figure on a black steed crosses the drawbridge ahead of you, and dismounts at the center of the courtyard. The man is an imposing presence, and you can feel those around you shift uncomfortably under his gaze. He draws a dagger from his belt, and a chaplain steps forward holding a small gold ewer, from which he pours a dark wine across the blade of the dagger. He makes a sign of his faith over the glistening dagger before stepping back. The tall man removes his glove and pulls back the sleeve of his cloak, baring his forearm to the sky. He raises the dagger to the sky before pointing it briefly North, East, South, and West, then stabs in lightly into his wrist.

“I am Strahd. I am the Land,” he intones loudly, “Draw near and witness, I, Strahd am the Land.” Count Strahd von Zarovich then looks up, straight into your eyes, with menacing, burning orbs that seem to lay bare every inch of your soul. You bolt upright with a scream, startling those around you not yet asleep. The fire beside you still glows brightly, but does nothing to warm the chill that has taken ahold of you.

Everyone is troubled by bad dreams at some point, and you have had more than your fair share yourself, but never anything like this last one. That same morning, something inside you you can’t place, a drive, an instinct, a whisper— brings you back to the Crossing Inn, a waystation for travelers along the Phlan Path on the edge of the Quivering Forest, where you stopped in a ten-day past.

VI. Vilnius’ Narrow Escape

The light of the driftglobe glitters off the amber walls of the arched corridor. A hand grabs your shoulder and roughly pulls you back. The wizard points his staff to the wall before you, and mutters an incantation. A rune you clearly missed yourself reveals itself among the dirt and grime, glowing for a second before dispersing in a blast of light and necrotic energy. You shudder, imaging what something like that would have done to you if you’d stepped any closer. “Stupid fool, pay attention, or you’ll get us both killed!” he berates you, and shoves you back in front of him. A mad laughter echoes from the hall behind you, and you turn to see three skulls rise from an alcove, wreathed in a green flame. A bolt of fire shoots from the center skull’s eyes, grazing the side of your head. Self preservation kicks in and you bolt for the stairs at the end of the hall. Three successive explosions fill the hall behind you, and the acrid smell of burning flesh and hair fills your nostrils. You can tell the old man is certainly not long for this world, even if he did somehow survive that.

You burst through one pair of doors and then another, then with a misty step, reach the balcony opposite this massive chamber. As you enter the smaller antechamber beyond the balcony, a massive jackal-headed warrior stands at the center of the room, now turning to you with a massive fist raised. A flick of the wrist and you get your shield up just in time as you duck around the deadly statue. The attack glances off your shoulder, a wash of arcane energy deflecting the blow, the massive fist cracking the stone floor at your feet instead. You burst through the doors in front of you and with a flourish, turn invisible. Golems like that can’t be that smart, can they?

A start, and your eyes fly open, awake but unable to move at first. After a few terrifying seconds you regain control of your limbs and sit up with a shudder. The fire in the hearth has gone cold.

Everyone is troubled by bad dreams at some point, and you have had more than your fair share yourself, but never anything like this last one. That same morning, something inside you you can’t place, a drive, an instinct, a whisper— brings you back to the Crossing Inn, a waystation for travelers along the Phlan Path on the edge of the Quivering Forest, where you stopped in a ten-day past.

Once everyone was at the table, I gave an adapted version of Arrigal’s into hook (CoS pp 18—19), and we were off and running.

In the end, some of the dreams worked better than others. A couple players never made it far enough in the campaign to visit the sites they had dreamed of. But when it worked out for other characters, it was great to see the spark and excitement of recognition as someone connected the dots. III, IV, and V were adapted from excerpts in I, Strahd, the rest drawn from the adventure text itself.