Forts & Frontiers: 5E in 17th Century North America

I came across Campaign GamesForts & Frontiers quickstart “The Feast of the Dead” browsing the box of options for Free RPG Day this year, but ended up going home with something else and somewhat regretted it— Forts & Frontiers was something new and different over the familiar skeleton of 5E, so I was excited when they announced they were putting it up for free at DriveThroughRPG and followed up with a kickstarter campaign that kicked off this last week.

My initial thoughts are pretty much based on a first read at the airport and a few brief interactions on with them on Twitter, so when I finally get a chance to try this at a table, I’ll be sure to follow up here as well.

The PDF and booklet both have an old-school RPG feel, the cover format evoking old TSR modules like “The Keep on the Borderlands”, and the original artwork throughout is fantastic and expressive— I especially love the Wendigo encounter. The featured image above is from the quickstart— it and the rest of the illustrations are by Stephen W. Gurtowski.

The RPG drops us into 17th/18th century North America built on the D&D 5E SRD, with European settlers expanding through and exploring the new world, and the existing nations they encounter along the way. This quickstart is set in 17th century Wendake (present-day Ontario).

Since it’s designed on top of 5E, on-boarding is quick and easy, with a couple pages of history/background and a page or so of new content and rules adjustments before we dive into the adventure.

The rules adjustments are lightweight— Firearms take an an extra action to load, black powder an additional action on top of that. Archery ammunition is also more limited, and takes a survival check (with degrees of success) to recover. I am definitely all-in on the choice to use the Dungeon Master’s Guide’s realistic rest times— 8 hour for a short rest, 7 days for a long rest. D&D’s fantasy magic does not exist per say, but some kind of magic/faith/medicine is used by the Jesuts and some of the Wendat. Three of the PCs have minor spell casting abilities (“prayers/rituals” using a couple of D&D’s cleric spells), with no spell slots, but recovered on a short/long rest.

The pre-generated characters are (almost) all part of the same Wendat tribe, and the module suggests which of the six could/should be run as NPCs if you play with four or five of the six possible PCs.

One new mechanic introduced is a character’s Belief, which reads (in part),

When an extraordinary event occurs, for example a European priest heals someone by laying on hands or a creature of North Ameri- can legend is encountered in the wilderness, players must make a Wisdom saving throw with the DC set by the magnitude of the event. On failure, their characters gain a point of belief. The more belief points characters have, the more disposed they are toward the influencing civilization.

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I’m onboard with the concept of it, but it’s not immediately clear how mechanical use of it works as it increases, it just is. If a failed wisdom save increases one’s belief, it would seem the higher-wisdom characters would be less accepting/“believing” than others? It’s only in the context of the adventure (in fact, the second-to-last page), that it’s explained belief points are a pool to be spent— In this adventure, they can be added to a persuasion role trying to convince a shaman to allow Anatole Berger, the Jesuit priest, to assist in helping a sick man, but they also have the possibility to hinder rolls— We’ll get to that below.

The Adventure

The Portage & The Hunt

Sunset on the water in Bowron Provincial Park, BC.
I couldn’t find any of my photos from canoeing in Ontario, so here’s sunset at Bowron Lake Provincial Park, BC five years ago.

I don’t love kicking off the adventure with “Roll of Exhaustion”. I’ve encountered this with a couple Adventurer’s League modules before, and it can make the session rather frustrating. This story starts with two back-to-back, one for the journey “up to this point” (they’ve been traveling for about six weeks), and another as the party attempts a portage around rapids— the first task of the game. Spending the entire rest of the adventure rolling all your checks at disadvantage is no fun, exhaustion is an unforgiving mechanic even in full-flavor D&D, and with limited healing/recovery (and seven-day long rests!), I can’t imagine it’s going to be any less debilitating in 17th-century North America. I would definitely drop one, and maybe drop both of the exhaustion checks at the top of the session. I’ll have to think on what other consequences (if any) to use instead.

The check for this portage is also a bit vague. It notes the DC depends on how many people are helping with each boat, but it’s unclear the cost of either choice— they are a party of two boats for six people (originally four, but the original trading party has picked up two more, Anatole, the Jesuit, and Yahounk, another Wendat), why would two of the party not be helping? As GM I’d try to offer up alternative options for what two of the party might do instead of carrying— are they scouting (thereby giving advantage to everyone else making their rolls for the portage)? Getting a head-start on hunting/foraging (which is the next encounter, and oh look, another chance for exhaustion!).

Downtime and Storytelling!

I love campfire downtime and the chance to spur on conversation and roleplaying between party members. The module includes a short Wendat creation myth, and suggest giving the handout to one of the players to share the story with everyone else (and most importantly, their Catholic companion).

A couple days of camp time to rest and prep food from hunting/foraging also lets us see the belief mechanic in action, although once again, it’s there, but it’s unclear how to use it until later.

A Monster, More Travel, More Exhaustion

The Wendigo encounter should be fun, dialing up the creepy factor with a player character who thinks he hears his family’s voices. More travel rolls on the part of the guide means more possibilities for Exhaustion CON saves, putting us at the fourth or fifth check for some of these characters and (if their not rolling well) getting into the truly debilitating stuff. There is a note to roll for random encounters in the event they need to repair a canoe at one point, but I didn’t see any kind of encounter table to use.

Finale & Using Belief Points

We get to the last act of the encounter and get to see these belief points in use, but I’m still a little fuzzy on it all. The points can be pooled to help in persuading a shaman to allow Fr. Berger to help a sick man (and specifically call out “points gained through interaction with Anatole Berger”), but also, in the event the shaman tries to stop Berger, belief points Berger gained from interacting with the Wendat are subtracted from Berger’s roll.

Wrapping up with a strong social encounter (with the possibility of combat) gives us a satisfying ending, and one of my favorite parts of running a one-shot/quickstart— There are no personal stakes for the player and their PC, so they can be just as satisfied with drastic action, death, and/or any other failure. They’re likely never going to play this character again, and they may have become emotionally invested in the last couple hours of gameplay, but killing, banishing, or capturing a PC carries none of the baggage that it might in an ongoing campaign. Instead you and each player can give a quick one or two sentence epilogue— ask them what is is that happens, and just like that, it does.

Final thoughts, quick notes and open questions

  • Belief— My initial understanding was Belief was something that would grow over time/encounters and build, but once I got into the adventure understood it to be more of a pool to spend and regain again. I find myself trying to draw half-baked parallels to the Sanity and Mythos skills in Call of Cthulhu, but it’s not quite right. As noted above, it seems to sometimes help, sometimes hinder. Does one want belief in all cases? I would think the increase in cross-cultural belief and understanding should be a good thing, if it denotes a grown in one’s knowledge and acceptance of the “other’s” culture, but it also gets in the way of Fr. Anatole’s ability to heal someone.
  • Degrees of Success. After picking up Expanse AGE I’ve tried to work on ways to incorporate degrees of success and “failing forward” in my 5E games (something Call of Cthulhu also handles well with its “pushed” rolls). Most/all of the checks described in the scenario include details on what to do with a critical success/failure, a failure of five or more, or multiple DCs (for example, recovering one spent arrow after a fight is a DC11 survival check, recovering all of them DC16).
  • The adventure does a great job of checking the quickstart boxes (this is an exploration heavy game! Here’s an example of combat! Oh look, the supernatural is at least a little bit real! Here’s a social encounter, see our new belief mechanic in action!), but does expect an understanding of 5E’s basic rules and mechanics, with little hand-holding beyond pointing to the SRD or Player’s Handbook).
  • Be careful with that exhaustion! I could be being overcautious about how this would actually play out (and indeed, having travelled by canoe in Canada for two weeks, I can imagine traveling by canoe for two months would be rather exhausting), but I’m a little afraid of how a number of failed CON saves will stack up— With a long rest unlikely in the course of the adventure, the party could be only a few unlucky rolls away from To Build a Fire.

I have a feeling much of vagueness or questions I encountered will be addressed by the fleshed-out version coming from the Kickstarter, and I’m interested to see how the nationality-based “race” replacement will work for character creation, as well as more details on how the classes are defined— Between the six PCs, we have two flavors of cleric (priest), and one fighter (warbearer). Check out the kickstarter for the rest of the month, and I hope to followup with a reflection on actual play before the end of the summer.

Arabelle’s Fortune Telling

I was scanning through the 4e module Fair Barovia this morning, looking for the encounter at the base of Tser Falls to adapt into “my” Barovia for this evening’s game, when I came across this module’s version of the Tarokka reading again, here given by a grown-up Arabelle.

Powersore RPG has a fun lore deep-dive into past versions of Barovia that spends a fair amount of time on Fair Barovia and the various connections between the NPCs featured in both. Fair Barovia is interesting as it cannot be nailed down as a clear sequel or prequel— For example, Kolyan Indirovich, burgomaster of the Village of Barovia, has not yet found and adopted his daughter Ireena, while Arabelle is a grown woman and a gifted Vistani seer in her own right. Given the cyclical nature of time and generations in Barovia, I’m not sure it matters too much anyway. Best not to think about it too much.

Arabelle’s Tarokka reading offers a small boon (or curse!) in a specific location based on the suit and face of the card drawn. The module’s reading uses a handful of cards from a standard deck of cards, but can easily be adapted to the Tarokka deck we’ve grown to love. I’ll weigh our adapted list in favor of boons since I see this reading as a potential reward for saving Arabelle from the lake, but as with everything else in this wretched valley, there is still a certain amount of risk when playing with fate. For this reading, we’ll only use the low deck (1-10 of the four suits).

To start, we’ll identify the locations where the effects of the reading apply:

Coins: (Diamonds): Krezk / Monastery / Fidatov Estate
Swords (Spades): Argynvostholt
Stars (Clubs): Berez
Glyphs (Hearts): The Winery / Yester Hill

You could swap out any location, including Castle Ravenloft or the Amber Temple, but I chose these four as I expect the party will need their full faculties in the final two dungeons of the game.

The Fidatov estate is the manor home featured in DDAL04-09: The Tempter, one of my favorite modules from the Curse of Strahd AL season. Check out this chapter of Fleshing out Curse of Strahd from the CoS subreddit for an idea on how to integrate the estate with Krezk, and I’ll try to write up a post on running the estate within a Curse of Strahd campaign as well— it was one of my favorite “side quest” sessions the last time I ran the campaign, as there is no better reward for a DM than dropping a cursed honeypot in front of a bunch of greedy PCs who will greedily snatch up piles of gold despite knowing it is 100% cursed and a bad idea.

I assume when I do this reading, the party will not have visited any of these locations, so we can look to the descriptions given for the treasure locations in Chapter One for ideas on how to describe the locations without explicitly naming them (Curse of Strahd, pp. 12-15).

Have each player draw a card (or Arabelle draws for them). The suit determines the location, while the value applies the affect from the list below. Have Arabelle read the italicized text when the card is drawn.

  1. Advantage on initiative rolls
    Danger lurks around every corner, but your reflexes are heightened in this place, and your guard remains up where your companions may falter.
  2. Disadvantage on initiative rolls
    Blades will be drawn when you least expect it.
  3. Bonus 1d4 to health gained from second wind (Fighter), dark one’s blessing (Warlock, Fiend patron) and hit dice rolls
    Your blood will sustain you in this place.
  4. Automatically roll 51 on Barovian nightmare d100 rolls. This does not affect haunting from a Night Hag if the party has made an enemy of Morgantha and her daughters.‡
    Rest easy in this location, for the first time in too long, an easy, dreamless sleep comes to you.
  5. Advantage on INT/WIS/CHA ability checks and saving throws
    Your soul is shielded from from evil in this place.
  6. Disadvantage on INT/WIS/CHA ability checks and saving throws*
    Your soul is laid bare and vulnerable in this place.
  7. Advantage on STR/DEX/CON ability checks and saving throws
    Strength courses through your veins, you draw newfound power from this place, finding yourself capable of new feats.
  8. Disadvantage on STR/DEX/CON ability checks and saving throws*
    The place saps your life, atrophying your very being and wasting away as long as you remain.
  9. Advantage on Concentration CON saving throws†
    The weave is closer in this place, your connection and concentration stronger for it.
  10. Disadvantage on Concentration CON saving throws†
    The weave is thin and frayed in this place, your connection to your magic holding by a thread, easily broken.

* One of the Fair Barovia possibilities limits the curse to until the character is bloodied (a 4e term, reaching half hit points or below), and in the same light, the broad curses on checks and saves could end once the PC reached 0 HP for the first time in the chosen location. If you wish to do this, add “…but ebbing life sustains you.” to the prophecy.
† If you draw either of these for a non-spellcaster, quickly roll a d8 and use that result from the table instead.
‡ To add an unfortunate twist on this one, (or you’re not a sadist penalizing sleep as I do), when resting, the character falls into a deep slumber, and cannot be woken except by taking damage, after which they will gain no benefit from the long rest.


Credit where credit is due, some of the above lines (and of course the core idea) of the table above are adapted or lifted directly from Fair Barovia, by Claudio Pozas, published in Dungeon Magazine #207. The original reading can be found on page 47.

Learning A Bit More Every Time We Draw Blood

Vampire spawn are nothing to laugh at at level three. I’m once again finding I need to re-adjust my expectations for Barovia, and I’m beginning to understand how deadly this early campaign really can be. When we entered Barovia a year and a half ago with the players I’d gotten to known over two years of Out of the Abyss, they were packing some serious firepower. Between the fact that we were starting with six player characters, and the fact that most of them were fairly well optimized builds designed for packing a serious punch (Especially with our Sharpshooting Monster Slayer Ranger and the Scorlock blasting away, they had no issue burning through the undead’s hitpoints), those first few sessions of Curse of Strahd were a little less harrowing than all the stories had prepared me for.

I found I was not really challenging them until they found themselves in a place they had no business being just yet, and were met with the harsh reality of sandbox campaign books run by a DM still wet behind the ears— diving headlong into a region they had no business being at just yet, and losing two PCs as a result. One accepted the uncertain offer, the other did not. And once again, ss all of this happened before, all of this will happen again. This time, right out of the gate I’ve found myself with two dead PCs within two sessions.

Death House Lives Up To Its Name

It’s actually been three sessions since I updated on Curse of Strahd, two of which finished out Death House. I ran with the updated/alternative Death House I mentioned in my last post, and I think it worked really well. The updated story basically makes Walter (the infant son the nursemaid cares for upstairs) part of the shambling mound in the dungeon, giving the party a shortcut if they choose to fight the monster— when the shambling mound uses engulf, the restrained player has a chance to see Walter, and if they sever his connection to the mound, it collapses, and they no longer need to fight it.

Session two covered the rest of the house (basically level three and attic, plus part of the basement), including some fun RP when our fighter was possessed by the bossy twelve-year-old ghost girl. Between sessions two and three, we found our fourth player, and we rounded out the party with a monk. The player asked if she could be from Barovia, and I said there wasn’t really a great fit for her in Barovia, but we dove into some of the 2e and 3/3.5e Ravenloft source books, and dropped her monastery in Darkon. I gave her some vague references to van Richten and Ezmerelda I’ll hook into later (she doesn’t know either by name), and she gave me 2.5 pages of backstory to work with, including a love-interest NPC she’s looking for who has some vague history with Barovia and/or Strahd too. I’m still figuring out exactly what I’ll do with her, but I’ll figure something out.

I gave her a variation on “creeping mists” once again, another of the dreams I’d used in the past, but this time she woke up in the father’s (otherwise empty) coffin of Death House’s family crypt. The rest of the party heard her pounding and shouting, and introductions were made. Eventually, they made their way through he rest of the catacombs, refused to sacrifice anyone on the bloody alter, and shambling Walter attacked.

Once the shambling mound was defeated, the party still had to get out, and since they skipped out on the room with the trap door, took the long way all the way back to attic of the House. I’ve seen a lot of DMs complain about the last act of Death House, the house coming to life and trying to kill everyone with noxious fumes and slashing scythe blades, but I love it, especially as the shambling mound feels like it should be the “end of dungeon boss and now we get treasure” moment, and instead everything goes to hell. By the time they reached the front porch, three we unconscious and rolling death saves. The rogue landed a natural 20 and popped back up gasping for breath, and was able to stabilize her companion. The monk was not so lucky.

Death’s Dark Vignettes

The DM’s Guide for Curse of Strahd’s Adventurer League season includes an alternative to faction charity resurrection for Ravenloft— a deal with the dark powers where the character gets to return to life— at a cost. I used these last time I ran, and it was the craziest, most exciting thing to happen in the early game, when Sumu, the poor cleric, took a lighting bolt between the shoulder blades at Yester Hill (aforementioned “victim of the sandbox” session). She was dead and gone, until she wasn’t. Sumu awoke with a second face on the back of her head, a malevolent Edward Mordake whispering horrible things to her and the rest of the party ad nausium. The DM’s guide has a few options (I think four or six  on the table) but there’s an additional full d20 list to work from too.

Last year I came across this excellent Reddit thread with options and ideas for presenting this offer to the player. I’ve used the scenario  presented by the original author twice, and sketched out a couple more inspired by the scenarios given as well as my own ideas. Here, the monk took the offer, and returned with a humpback— and disadvantage on DEX ability checks and saving throws. I’m not going to lie, I felt a little bad about that at first (since it’s a core attribute of being a monk in the first place), but I’m really excited to see where this goes for the character since it happened so early on.

Ismark and Ireena

Getting on to this week’s session, the party found an abandoned house to crawl into and tend their wounds (oh, did I mention we’re rolling with the DMG’s Lingering Injuries table?), spent the night, and set out in the morning again. I think I might need to readjust my dreams and nightmare d100 list, if only because I’m no longer trying to keep the small army that was last year’s campaign at full strength all the time. They made it to the Blood of the Vine Inn, learned they were in Barovia (whatever that means), and met Ismark and the Vistani bar owners.

I won’t detail everything with meeting Ismark and Ireena (I should be posting session by session if I want to dive into moment to moment recaps), but I want to move on to the church, so suffice to say, the party met them, who A. needed help transporting and burying their dead father, and B. need someone to travel with them on the road if they are to go to Vallaki. Now the party doesn’t know where Vallaki is, but they are headed east to fine Madam Eva, so they agreed.

What They Did In the Shadows…

Which leads us to the church basement and the party’s first encounter with a vampire (spawn) in Ravenloft. The party had just hit level three upon surviving (well, technically) Death House. Hit points! Class Archetypes! Second level spells! And now they were thrown against a single, very hungry vampire spawn in the basement, the son of the village priest.

This was the instance that cemented for me that this trip through Barovia is going to be a very different experience than the last time I ran it. I find I’m entering scenarios with the confidence of having dealt with it once before, but I need to keep that in check as well— this is still brand new for everyone else at the table, and what was a fairly straightforward (if long) fight for one party ended up being a different story this time around.

One major mistake on my part that ended up working in the party’s favor was that I completely forgot to consider weapon resistance for the Vampire Spawn. Their weapon attacks should have been dealing half as much damage, which would have been killer when you account for the vampire’s regeneration, as the monk and fighter were the only ones dealing any significant damage. What was already a bit of a drawn-out slugfest could have easily turned south if the Vampire had twice as many chances to draw blood.

There’s always a dangerous game of what-if I play post-session when looking at how everything played out.  I’m curious if I’d kept the resistance, would they have given up and fled faster (seeing how futile their attacks were), would they have come up with other tactics? If we hadn’t jumped into combat at the end of the night, would they have made different choices with more time to the combat (I was fairly pushy about making choices and keeping combat moving since I knew we had pushed passed time). And finally, most importantly— should I have ended combat the way I did?

And Another One Down…

We were a half hour past our usual cut off time.  DC Metro does not run all night, and people needed to get going. The cleric had gone down and was rolling death saves, but the vampire was on his last legs. I finally said “Ok, you’re able to finally kill the Vampire, Charrick [the cleric], go ahead and roll three death saves to see how this plays out.” Already at one success and one failure, it was a close one— and when the dice landed, Charrick had expired. I don’t think the player himself was upset, but the rest of the party was beating themselves up knowing the could or should have tried to stabilize him before this all happened. We called it a night, and I followed up by email the next day.

I sent Charrick’s player another offer from the dark powers (once again inspired by the vignettes link above), but he ultimately decided against it. This cleric wouldn’t take the offer, and we spent the rest of the week discussing where we’ll go from here. I’m looking forward to his next character (I’ll have to write up this party at some point soon), and he’ll play Ismark and Ireena until I find the time and place to introduce our latest victim of the mists. I’m also looking forward to when the PC’s see their companion spirit rise from the graveyard in the March of the Dead, the nightly procession of Adventurers who fell victim to Ravenloft, as they spend the night at the church.

Ever Forward

I’m not sure I have any particular conclusion for final point to follow up on the last 1700 words or so, other than every game for us is another chance to learn from past mistakes, as well as make new ones. This is D&D, PCs Die. Ravenloft is an especially deadly place, but also a really exciting setting where Death truly doesn’t need to be the end, and as this latest group will eventually learn, might not even be the worst outcome…

Suddenly the Tavern Doors Swings Open…

All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again…
Battlestar Galactica (but apparently also Peter Pan)

This week I returned to Curse of Strahd (yes the only thing I’ve been writing about, but at this point, I’m at “write what you know”). It was towards the end of my last run of the campaign last spring that I started following (and very occasionally contributing to) the Curse of Strahd DM’s subreddit and Facebook group. Now I’m excited to revisit Barovia with all of the lessons I learned running the first time, as well as the amazing ideas I’ve come across to steal from the Internet DM hivemind.

I introduced the party with the same hook I’d used before: individual dreams and a variation on the “Cry For Help” hook. I like the Daggerford/Mysterious Visitors hook as it doesn’t immediately vilify the Vistani and gets the party to Madam Eva immediately, but I think it only works if you’re starting the party at third level, which I didn’t want to do here as one players was relatively new to D&D, and another brand new to 5E.

“…these aren’t the same trees that surrounded you the night before.”
Photo by Thomas Claeys on Unsplash.

We’re starting with only three PCs this time (which I’m equally excited and terrified about!). The initial meeting went well enough, but none were sold on following a strange man’s invitation through strange woods, and instead decided the continue on to the nearest city. The following night, the mists hugged their campsite close, and when they awoke, nothing looked the same.

We made it it Death House by way of my favorite image in the book, the gates of Barovia. For the second time I pulled off a D&D “jump scare”— Rolling initiative against the wolves in the den/parlor in Death House, then revealing the characters were frightened by a bunch of stuffed wolves.

Jumping at Shadows

When the PC opens the door to the den on the first floor, describe the light of their lantern or torch catching the reflection of glowing red eyes, glistening teeth dripping with saliva. I didn’t mention any sound, but perhaps they might imagine a low, menacing growl. Ask to roll initiative, roll your die for the wolves— no matter what’s on the die, the wolves roll a 1, ending up at the the bottom of the initiative order. If you really want to sell it, start flipping through your Monster Manual. This will probably be the first initiative of the campaign, so everyone will be amped up. The PCs will be up first, and describe the first blow— an axe coming down, a gout of flame, a arrow finding it’s target in the wolf— and how there is a burst of sawdust and fur, and they all realize that <PC Who Attacked First> panicked and attacked a piece of particularly high-quality taxidermy. The tension is broken, initiative is broken, and they can explore the rest of the den at their leisure.

I think I stole this from somebody’s blog or reddit post, and attribution means a lot to me, so please, if anybody recognizes the source of this little tidbit, please drop me a message and I would love to give credit where it is due!

Onwards and Upwards

We made it through the first and second floors without much incident (although the delightfully creepy reliefs and wallpapers kept everyone on edge). None of the PCs were interested in the library, which ended up being a relief for me, as I realized I forgot to print out the letter! This is fantastic, though, as I was later reminded of another DM’s writeup on Reddit on streamlining Death House, cutting or changing many of the fights, and rewriting the narrative a bit to make Lady Durst the true villain. I don’t think anything that happened in this first session will affect any of those changes (and I probably won’t be running off that guide line-by-line either), so I’m looking forward to reviewing all of those changes again and putting it all into action next week.

I wrapped up the session with the Animated Armor beaten down (although not before it got a few good blows in too), and the weirdness of this house will begin to ramp up next week…

Trying Out The Expanse RPG

I’ve been excited about The Expanse’s RPG kickstarter for a while now. Sometime late last year I saw mention of it, but for a while the only information I could find was a press release from Green Ronin saying it was coming August 2018 alongside Gencon. I would keep my eye on Twitter and Reddit as the excitement of The Expanse’s cancellation and new contract with Amazon came and went, but there was frustratingly little to find on the game. Finally the kickstarter launched, and blew through its funding goal within an hour. I downloaded the quickstart, and was quickly impressed with the Adventure Game Engine (AGE) mechanics, but it took a few more weeks to get it on the table and give the quickstart a go. A friend mailed me a copy of the quickstart paperback from Gencon, and we got a group together on Hangouts this Wednesday. What follows will be a combination of reflections on the mechanics themselves (at least how I understand them from the parsed-down basics), the scenario Cupbearers, as well as help filling in the minor details and holes that cropped up teaching and playing the game in a “here, learn from my mistakes” kind of explanation.

** The following contain plenty of spoilers for the quickstart adventure, Cupbearers **

Ganymede (before any station construction) NASA/JPL.

Getting to know the characters

I’ve not played any of the other AGE RPGs, but I loved how simple this was to pick up and teach. 3d6 + ability score + focus bonus if you have it— give me the total and the value of the drama die. Easy and done. After the second or third test, almost everybody knew what they were doing and where on the character sheet they were looking. We played with four of the pre-generated PCs, and they got going pretty quickly. It was very helpful to have the focuses and abilities defined and explained on the character sheet— no need to flip back and forth between the character sheet and rules when everyone is still getting their feet under them. The first version of the quickstart did have a number of typos on the character sheets and NPC stat blocks, but many of those were fixed in version 1.2 of the PDF, which is what is linked from the Kickstarter/Green Ronin. Unfortunately version 1.0 is what made it to print, so I had to doctor my rule book when it first arrived. Most of the errors were in the calculated attack bonus and damage rolls, the rest were minor spelling or formatting typos. The few I’ve caught that are still in the 1.2 PDF Are:

  • Izzy’s pistol attack bonus should be +3, not +2 (accuracy)
  • Ade’s pistol damage should be 2d6 +3 (perception)
  • Pinkwater Security’s speed should not be 0 (I assumed 11, like the Tough or Wendell)
  • Orn’s unarmed damage should be 1d6+2 (Like Casey, he has the Striking Style talent)

Wait, where is that explained?

There were also a few features or conditioned that were not well explained in the course of the rules or the adventure. The trap on page 18 points you to the Conditions section (p 7) to learn what “Exhausted” means, but that’s not actually listed as a possible condition— instead it’s in the explanation of Wounded: “their Speed halved and [are] unable to take the Run action”.

There are also two pieces of the NPC stats blocks that bear no explanation in the rest of the document: penetrating damage (Pinkwater Security + Wendell), and Wendell’s Pinpoint Accuracy talent. Fortunately, the  community that has grown up around this Kickstarter already had my back. Posting to the Facebook group for help, I got the following from someone with the Modern AGE rules on hand:

Penetrating damage ignores most armor and comes from special weapons, hazards, and abilities, such as raging open flames or the Called Shot stunt. Very few things reduce penetrating damage. Page 39.

Page 61 Modern Age. Pinpoint Attack

Requirements: Accuracy or Fighting 1 or higher, and Dexterity 1 or higher If you can see it, you can hit it. Hard.
Novice: You can strike where it hurts the most. Once per round, you can add 1d6 to the damage of a successful attack if your Dexterity is greater than your target’s.

Other than that, the rest was pretty much the learning curve of running a brand-new system with brand-new players all around— there were bound to be mistakes on all sides.

Mistakes on all Sides

When we got into combat for the first time, I think I was forgetting pieces a lot more than the players were. I was happy to see little of the Analysis Paralysis I’d seen in first-time D&D players facing a pair of dead horses and a couple of goblins with short bows for the first time. A short list of major and minor actions and as much description as you can muster for flavor. The first time around I often forgot the NPC’s minor actions on their turns— if they weren’t moving they would take a shot, but I’d forget to let them aim and get the +1 bonus. I also forgot to use the injured/wounded rolls— when they ran out of hit points fortune, they dropped. Oops! So all that to say, things went fairly well for the players their first combat round. I also could or should have played the NPCs a bit smarter— in the final fight they should have given up Kai after their leader went down (per the scenario description, and common sense), but I had the last two toughs keep firing.

It also took me a few tests and checks to get better about using the drama die to explain their “success level” and how easily they accomplished their various tasks. I was surprised how often doubles actually came up during the game. I haven’t really done the math on the probability of rolling any set of doubles across 3d6 but after a bit of play, it’s clearly lower than I thought. The stunts are a great mechanic, and I hope/expect there are more options that come with the full rules, or perhaps come into play at higher levels.

Another mechanic that got a little rocky for us (or at least me) was shifting the attitudes of the NPCs towards the characters. The rules and suggestions in the book are fairly straightforward, but it was really the first real moment of gameplay for us, and I’m not sure I explained particularly well what they were supposed to do or how interacting with the people in the brothel really worked mechanically. All the same, they won over a bartender soon enough and got the introduction they needed. Next time, I would probably be more explicit in asking whats expected of them, especially with new players, since this is literally the first place they end up after arrival.

Advanced Tests and the Locked Room

One of my favorite mechanics in Expanse AGE is the “advanced test”, skills checks across multiple rounds to reach a running total. Since my first reading of the rules I’ve already been thinking about how to run something like that in D&D (my brother and I already had a lengthy Telegram conversation about it). In practice, I was actually surprised and a little disappointing in how it went. It was over quickly— I can’t fault them for rolling well, they noticed the dropping oxygen quickly, got two successes on their technology rolls, with a 5 and a 6 on the drama dice. I was considering that on another pass I’d probably bump the running total up a bit, but things could just as easily go badly for the group with the dice landing slightly differently.

The part I found more frustrating was that I didn’t have much else for anyone else to do— Each test takes one minute out of the five they have before they’re in a vacuum, and only one character performs the check. I played around with an “assist” mechanic, but I never really settled on anything I liked well enough that I put into play— If Naomi is trying to hack a computer system, the last thing she would want is Prax elbowing in and trying  to help Two Idiots One Keyboard with her. There needed to be a cost, or at least a danger, alongside the benefit of someone helping. I kept the rest of the team involved and asked what they were doing elsewhere in the room, and one of their alternative solutions might have gotten them somewhere (or bought time) if the hacking player had failed or taken more time, but it ultimately ended up not mattering.

The scenario I see this option really shining is someone trying to do something mid-combat— The rest of the party holding off waves of security over a series of rounds while one person tries to hack the communications array and get tight-beam message out.

But… Why?

The players never actually talked to Orn Aquilo directly about Kai, instead opting to make a bit of money selling the location of the stolen luxury goods in exchange for some good old-fashioned cash.

I’ve no idea what did or didn’t get pieced together on their end without all the pieces, but they never really got a straight answer about why Kai was fleeing Ganymede or why Moneta had him in the first place (other than Orn told them he thought she was going to ransom something “particularly valuable” of his. When they DID get to Kai and he found out the crew was taking him back to Titan, he tried to book it out of there, at which point Casey knocked him out and fireman-carried him to the ship in a good old-fashioned black bag kidnapping.

Clearly they got enough story (and had fun with it), but I’m sometimes left with the feeling that I’ll leave players more confused than they probably actually are.

So I’m Injured, Now What?

This fortunately never came up, but it’s a likely one— how can we help an injured Player Character? The rules tell us First Aid can be used to stabilize a dying character, but offers nothing on healing an injury or wound. Can these only be helped with proper treatment in a medical bay? Is there any sort of battlefield medicine option to help? We already don’t have hit points, instead just our fortune, so anybody with an injury or wound is clearly already in dire straits. I assume we’ll have to wait for the rest of the rulebook to figure this out.

Misc: Open-Ended Thoughts and Questions I’m Looking Forward To Getting Answers to

  • Do Stunt Die stack if they take the Lighting Attack stunt and roll doubles again?  Do they get to take another round of stunts immediately? Could that include a second Lighting Attack, or are they disqualified from stunts they’ve taken this turn?
  • How else is fortune used? Clearly there are options other than “avoid damage”, but none are detailed in the quickstart. I tried to implement a “luck roll” kind of mechanic using an over/under based on the PCs fortune, a la Call of Cthulhu,  but it wasn’t particularly well thought out. I assume there will be an option to use fortune to succeed when a test would otherwise fail.
  • When circumstances, player choices, or just particularly good roleplaying call for a + or – on a test, is it better to give the bonus to the player to calculate with, or adjust the Target Number behind the scenes? I used a mix of both, and will likely continue to do so, I’d just love to hear opinions.
  • How does leveling up and interlude time work? Would they have hit “level two” after a scenario like this?
  • Assuming this merry band of misfits comes together again, what can they do with decently large sum of cash they scored from Orn? They already had their ship paid off per their agreement with Daddy Dardanus. Perhaps a minor upgrade to one of their ship’s systems? A (very) nice coffee machine in the galley?
  • I didn’t use any of the mechanics Green Ronin has been teasing out during the Kickstarter (although I think The Churn is the only one really applicable/usable with the quickstart at the moment), but I’m really looking forward to the ship combat released today and the various Interlude/Downtime options to fill time between chapters and scenarios.

Curse of Strahd: Chapter-by-Chapter Guides

The best part of running a campaign a year or two after its release is the wealth of information out there from other DM’s who have already been in your shoes. Across the weeks and months of running Curse of Strahd, I find myself returning again and again to guides and reference tools others have put out for our consumption and reference, learning from the lessons and mistakes or others, learning from what worked and didn’t work at others tables. Every group is obviously different with wildly different dynamics, and what works for one dungeon master will not work for all, but these resources have been an enormous help.

When preparing a particular chapter or section, I’ll often double back and read all three of the guides noted here again, weaving together the advice given alongside my own notes from the source book.

Powerscore RPG’s Guide by Sean McGovern

Sean has a number of guides, both on his blog as well as published on DMs Guild, for each (or at least most) of the D&D hardcover campaigns. His Strahd guide offers great advice on “connecting the dots” between the somewhat disjointed chapters (because chapters are divided by location and somewhat out-of-order, it’s up to the DM and the players to find the through-line), and general advice on everything from what pages of the DMG you’ll find what you need for a trap or a treasure, to specific suggestions on how and when to introduce the party to Strahd von Zarovich. This was one of the first guides I found and read, and it was the best overview on how

/r/DMAcadEMY, /r/DnDBehindTheScreen, /R/CurseOfStrahd, and other D&D Subreddits, With Special Attention to “What I Have Learned from Running Curse of Strahd Twice”

There are a number of D&D subreddits on Reddit. I want to draw particular attention to an excellent series of twenty posts by the user /u/paintraina, starting with a guide to Death House, and covering nearly every chapter, sometimes across multiple posts. On top of the posts’ excellent suggestions, you’ll also find more gems in the dialogue and disagreements that stem from any conversational forum. Most of the posts are crosslinked to each other, so you can jump between sections. At the time of writing, the final(?) post on running the final encounter doesn’t seem to be linked on the other posts.

/r/CurseOfStrahd hadn’t really pick up (or at least, I hadn’t discovered it yet) until after I was close to the end of the campaign, but there are a ton of great resources, write-ups, and alternatives from DMs that really dive into fleshing out Barovia and its inhabitants. One of my favorites was a post on adding more depth to the Tome of Strahd, and turning it into a more helpful magic item than the one-off lore dump that the hardcover gives us. I thought this dovetailed nicely with my own Tome of Strahd reading additions, and would definitely incorporate into another run of the campaign.

Elven Tower’s Guide by Derek Ruiz

Like Powerscore RPG, Elven Tower’s guide is available both on the website, divided by chapter, as well as a PDF on DMs Guild. I actually hadn’t encountered Derek’s guide until I was already running the campaign, and I wish I’d discovered/read through some of his material before then— For example, Yester Hill. Yester Hill is enormous, and get the scale and elevation changes of the the map across to the players can be difficult. Elven Tower’s post breaking down Yester Hill includes an elevation to accompany your map, which does wonders to clarify the hill’s terrain almost immediately. Yester Hill’s session was not a disaster, per say (Yester Hill’s session could be a post in and of itself), but I do not think I ran the encounter particularly well, and ultimately required considerably better preparation on my part than what my party ultimately got.

One of my favorite additions from Elven Tower is a collection of short speeches from each of the Amber Temple’s vestiges to try and seduce the party members. I used the vestiges’ quotes almost verbatem when it was time for the party to visit the Amber Temple, and I was quite happy with how everything came together (or fell apart) for them when they got there.

Sly Flourish’s Guide to Curse of Strahd

Mike Shea’s guide to Curse of Strahd does not dive into chapter-specific detail the way these other three guides do, but offers a lot of good general advice for a successful Barovian campaign. He does have an article exclusively dedicated to running Death House, Curse of Strahd‘s optional introduction for fast-tracking the players up from level one to three in a couple sessions. Among the resources is included a great pdf of all the letter handouts the players will encounter across Barovia for easy printing which I loved, but got caught offgaurd— the Tome of Strahd document differs slightly from the text in the source material, which I did not notice when I skimmed the letters (this seems to be a bit of a trend for me), and only discovered when it was read out loud at the table for the first time.

Sly Flourish’s guide is an excellent resource for figuring out how to play the character of Curse of Strahd, and especially von Zarovich himself.

Campaign Read-Aloud: I, Strahd: The Memoirs of a Vampire

When I finished P.N. Elrond’s I, Strahd: The Memoirs of a Vampire during campaign prep for Curse of Strahd, I knew I wanted to find a way to share some of the magic of the story with my party when we got to finally playing the campaign. I can’t say the book is quality literature, but I had a hell of a good time with it, and it did a lot to inform my own telling of Curse of Strahd and who Strahd von Zarovich is. While reading, I found myself flagging particularly notable scenes, especially pieces that tied directly into people and places I recognized from the adventure: Strahd taking formal control of the castle (one of my favorite bits). Strahd meeting Tatyana for the first time. The first time Tatyana is reincarnated in Berez. When I was finished, I collected these flagged sections, doubled back and specifically marked out paragraphs that might make for good “box text” for the party. With that, the idea of expanding on the Tome of Strahd came to life, and I found a fun way to share more exposition with the party in a more natural way.

In the end, I came up with a list of eleven sections to read. The party would not receive the Tome of Strahd until mid to late game (level six, Argynvostholt), so some of the stories shared through the excerpts would be already known to them, others were revelations. I would definitely avoid doing this until later if they had received the tome at, say, the crossroads or Vallaki. The party also received the the Tome of Strahd text from the adventure, which more or less covers the same information. I wanted them to get to know the Strahd I had gotten to know, someone so much more than a black-caped villain with a Romanian accent, a monstrous overlord lurking in a castle. Not that he isn’t necessarily those things, but he’s other things too.

When we started with the “further study” of the tome, on a long or short rest, someone could sit down to try and read the tome if they wished. I would ask a player for an intelligence check to attempt to “decipher” the faded text and coded script, but I quickly did away with that check as I wanted them to succeed on that anyway. The was no reason or consequence to failing the save, so  what was the point? Our first time, I asked if they wanted to attempted to decipher the text front-to-back, or skip around. They decided to skip around, meaning a d12 roll on their part chose which excerpt would be read next. If the number rolled had already been read, I simply proceeded to the next one on the list.

NumberPage NumberDateSubject
13512 Moon, 347Ravenloft Castle
23712 Moon, 347Strahd Takes Possession
3896 Moon, 350Strahd on Mortality
41016 Moon, 350Strahd Meets Tatyana
51356 Moon, 351This Was Dark Magic...
61416 Moon, 351Drinking Alek's Blood
71656 Moon, 351Tatyana's Suicide
82176 Moon, 352I Walk The Land
92416 Moon, 398The Mists
1027210 Moon, 400Marina
1130412 Moon, 720Strahd Reflecting on Tatyana

We didn’t end up reading every single excerpt (although there were only eleven, we would often forget to have a reading at a given rest, so we never made it through the full list). Characters who had dreamed of some of these excerpts had fun moments when a familiar story was given context, and I tried to provide a reaction from Ireena (or provoke a reaction, when I’d fully handed off control to a player) when the story directly involved Tatyana.

Two Tales of Dr. Van Richten

I had a horrifying moment halfway through the campaign when the party finally got their hands on Rudolph van Richten’s diary. Like many of my “Oh shit, what’s going on?” DM moments, this one came out of not reading the book closely enough and covering the details that were given in separate sections of the book. One of the biggest challenges I had DMing Curse of Strahd (and, probably a problem many DMs have with the hardcovers), is the disjointed way information is related. Other DMs’ guides have been invaluable in avoiding this, but it’s nearly unavoidable even for the best of us, and I am most definitely not that.

Thanks for Bearing with the Page Flipping

One of the worst offenders besides Dr. van Richten, whom I’ll return to in a moment, is the story of the Abbot in Krezk and the Mongrelfolk. The story of the abbey is related in the chapter introduction (page 143), and sprinkled throughout the abbey’s sections’ descriptions (pp. 147—155). There is more vital information provided in Appendix D, Monsters and NPCs, but again split between the Abbot’s entry (p. 225), and the Mongrelfolk (p. 234). When we got to the Abbey, one of the party’s first questions was, “Where did the mongrlfolk come from? Why are they like this?” I was already a bit unprepared this session, as I had expected the party to go to the winery before getting into Krezk, and had planned accordingly. Of course our adventurers consistently preferred to ignore the Reece’s Pieces I’d laid in front of them, talked their way into Krezk, and bolted for the abbey, leaving me frantically flipping through the abbey’s pages instead. I had read the entire book (many sections more than once) while prepping, so I vaguely recalled the answer (lepers the abbot healed, they asked to be made even more special, more than human, &c. &c.), but for the life of me, could not find the text that related this information (for the record, of course it’s in the abbot’s section of Appendix D). I don’t remember what vague story the party got as I scrambled for the answer, but I ended up following up and retconning by email when I found the right page later that night.

The Problem with Rudolph van Richten’s Journal

When the party acquired the burnt journal pages, I handed a player a print out of the pages, not thinking much of it, they had been curious about who this van Richten person was, and I’m sure were excited to get another piece of the puzzle. When our party’s sorcerer got to reading the pages aloud, however, I had a definite internal “Wait, what?” moment as he read the passage about van Richten unleashing a horde of undead on the Vistani camp. Where did that come from? There is a huge split between the story the journal tells and what is related only a few pages earlier in Ezmerelda’s story. This time, not only was I hit with information split across multiple sections, but the stories were in direct conflict with each other! According to Ezmerelda, the doctor spared her family once he’d gotten all the information he could out of them, continuing on to pursue the vampire who held his son. That mercy inspired her to seek him out, to become a vampire hunter herself and the good doctor’s eventual protégé. I have no idea how a mistake like this made it to print, I  know I have myself to blame for missed it during my own preparation, but that seems absurdly negligent on the part of editing.

In the end, the party didn’t spend much time with Rictavio/van Richten, and they never point-blank asked about the discrepancy between his and Ezmerela’s stories about that fateful night. One DM on Reddit posted an alternative journal entry which I would use if I run the campaign again.

Another option might be to reveal the document has been tampered with: when Ezmerelda read it, it showed the “real” story, but Strahd or Rahadin got his hands on it at some point (perhaps while Ezmerelda was in the castle?), and edited it with a minor spell of some sort that tells a different story, intending to sow distrust between the party and a potential ally. With that, a dispel magic or similar spell would reveal the illusion and you can pass along the alternative version linked above.

Another DM suggested replacing the journal with a draft of Guide to Vampire‘s introduction which I like quite a bit, as I agree it seems a bit careless for the very careful doctor to have left pages of his journal behind like that.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…
Hamlet

Dreams ended up being one of my favorite storytelling tools throughout the campaign. Sometimes it was major undertakings— I wrote longer dream narratives for every character on two occasions: once for their first session, as part of bringing them together and introducing them to the Demiplane of Dread, and again to get them interested in the Amber Temple. The vestiges imprisoned there reached out to each of them, promising great power and pushing them to return to Kasimir and venture south into the mountains. Some nights, I would have short hand-written bits and pieces, used to nudge the narrative in one direction or the other, or reveal bits and pieces to those who had given me backstory to play with— Sumu’s history in Barovia, Chand’s past run-ins with lycanthropes, laying the groundwork for things to come.

When we started Curse of Strahd, we had a small army of six PCs marauding across Barovia. I knew they would quickly be making friends and influencing people, and they shortly already had Ismark and Ireena in tow. When I realized how easily a well-balanced party of six made it through Death House more-or-less unscathed (which I’ve often heard referred to as TPK House), I started looking into ways to make Barovia as a whole that much more dangerous. If the party was rolling into every fight fresh-faced and at full strength, hair combed and muscles oiled like Leonidas at Thermopylae, nothing I threw at them “by the book” was going to be much of a threat.

Increasing encounter CR helps, but I wasn’t very good at it, and even a few more zombies in the horde didn’t do much, so instead looked for ways ways to tax their most precious assets— health and magic.

Every long rest in Barovia required a “nightmare roll” at the end of the night, to see who slept through the night unscathed. The roll was a d100 + their Charisma save, with an optional 1d10 if they felt “safe” that night. I left the d10 to the players discretion— How had the previous day’s events affected them? Were they in warm beds in the Blue Water Inn, or curled up under a damp fur ten feet away from a party member’s charred corpse?

I would also offer a (very high DC) save for the various effects of the nightmares that might halve the effect, running the campaign again, I would not offer that again.

RangeEffect
1-5Roll twice, halve the results (round <6 up to 6)
6-10Dream Spell "Nightmare" (PHB 236) - No benefits of rest, 3d6 psychic damage
11-15Gain 1 Level of exhaustion
16-202d6 Psychic damage
21-25Long-Term Madness (1d8 Hours)
26-30Fail to recover 2d4 spell slots, or 2d6 psychic damage if not a spellcaster
31-40Do not recover health
41-45Fail to recover 1d4 spell slots or 1d6 psychic damage if not a spellcaster
46-50Do not recover hit dice
51-99No Effect
100+Recover 1 additional hit die (lost if not spent before the next long rest)

* Roll 1d100
* Add 1d10 if you're feeling safe in your bed tonight
* Halve the total roll if sleeping inside Castle Ravenloft
* Races who do not sleep (elves) cannot roll below 21
* Native Barovians cannot roll below 31
* Roll optionally for NPCS

Ensuring Strahd Can Take a Punch

We’d reached the last act of the campaign. The party had left the amber temple, not entirely in one piece. Kasimir and Ezmerelda had provided good support in the temple, but I knew the party was already powerful, and wouldn’t need much more help in Ravenloft itself. So far, they’d not fought Strahd himself, though they had met the lord a few times. I thought an encounter on the bridge would make for a nice introduction and reminder of Strahd’s supremacy, and instead they nearly took him down in only a few rounds— Strahd’s plan to grapple Ezmerelda and throw her off the bridge cut short as Strahd found himself holding onto an angry polymorphed Giant Ape. The paladin engaged with some heavy-hitting blows from his Greatsword, and Strahd’s Heart of Sorrow was nowhere near enough to keep him from the pummeling my party was subjecting him to.

Strahd cut his losses and bailed, but I was shocked how quickly that session had turned against me, and I knew Strahd was going to need some adjustments for the finale. By the time they make it into and through Castle Ravenloft, the party is beefed up with some pretty powerful artifacts, and are definitely punching above their weight class. I didn’t end up using every one of the following suggestions, but I kicked around variations on all of them as I was preparing for the final battle.

In the end, Four level-nine PCs and two party-controlled NPCs still took Strahd down to zero HP in only a couple rounds— Luckily he went down outside the range of the sunsword, and could misty-escape back to his crypt. The chase was on!

  • The first thing Strahd can do is put on some fancy armor. Magical Plate, AC 18 or 19 will help. He’s seen what the party can do, and won’t be taking any chances. Adamantine Plate is another possible upgrade, but I thought robbing the party of the fun of a critical hit against the end-game boss might be a bit cheap— Through all of this remember the goal is a challenge for the party to enjoy.
  • A few more spell slots at each level won’t hurt— If Strahd wanted to try a spell (I was trying to counter the disadvantage brought on by the Sunsword + Icon of Ravenloft that covered the whole party), Kasimir was ready with his Counterspell. Give Strahd a couple extra to burn through at each level.
  • 1/round at-will counterspell
  • Bump his spell + charm save DC
  • Give Strahd a fourth legendary action each round
  • Cast a cantrip as a legendary action
  • Using Strahd’s Charm against a PC seems counter-fun in a climactic battle, but instead use it on a favorite NPC that’s with them! Give him or her some kind of specific order— “Bring me that holy symbol the cleric is holding.” or “don’t lose sight of the rogue [perception check every round to counter hiding].” Then suddenly they’re down an ally, and are distracted by trying to non-lethally keep this new challenge at bay.
  • Give him a familiar using the help action, countering disadvantage on attack rolls
  • Switch up his spellbook! Strahd won’t be using Scrying tonight. I added Maximillian’s Earthen Grasp, Dispel Magic, Banishment, and Wall of Force. Strahd is a wizard with hundreds of years to study and Exethanter’s library in the Amber Temple at his disposal. He could reasonable prepare any spell fifth level and below you think could serve him.
  • Give him friends. The book says he has minions anywhere except the location chosen by the Tarroka, but we can ignore that. Shadows are good against fighters and strength-based PCs. Swarms of rats and bats will force players to think twice about chasing after Strahd without disengaging.