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.

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…

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.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…

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.

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.

The Amber Temple: Where Chasing Your Dreams Can Prove Deadly

Let’s follow him, And by the way let us recount our dreams.
Demetrius, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reaching the end of Act II, the party was once in need of a little direction. It was time to get them down to the Amber Temple. The dark vestiges entombed there were looking forward to a new collection of playthings. I picked one of the dark gifts I thought might appeal to each character, and had that vestige who offered it reach out. Some of them shared their dreams with each other. Others played their cards closer to their chest. I was worried everyone would be too good. Instead, the Amber Temple did exactly what it was supposed to do: divide the party, sow seeds of mistrust, and spur into action the only inter-party violence I’ve condoned at my table as a DM.

The following narratives were obviously much more closely tailored to the characters I’d gotten to know than their dreams from the start of the campaign. Some of it was working with what the players haven given me “under the table”, others simply feeding into how they’d been behaving and decisions they’d made over months of play. Hopefully these can offer more than enough inspiration to tell your own stories. The Dark Gifts Dialogue Compendium over at Elven Tower was a great inspiration for finding the voice of each of the Amber Temple’s vestiges, and I used most of the read-aloud text there when the party finally made it into the vaults.


You hear a voice whispering in your right ear, “Chand…” “Chand Starmaraster…”, suddenly more forcefully, “WAKE!”

Your eyes fly open. The camp is covered in mist, the fire burning low. Is this even where you fell asleep? Something seems off. You look around. The bedrolls around you are empty. Where’s Fillagin? Samael? Wasn’t Ismark supposed to be on watch?

Kneeling by the fire poking at the coals is a slim figure. His? Her? Its… Its cowl pulled forward and casting deep shadows on its face in the dying firelight. It sits back after a moment as the fire flares back to life. In the dim light you now recognize the features of a young woman, but her eyes… those eyes are impossibly old. “Come, Starmaraster, sit with me.” Something about her… This woman radiates power, ancient power you can barely fathom. 

“They call me The Kingmaker,” she continues, “but I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for. You made a deal, a deal in a moment of weakness and despair, a deal you regret and fear, but know this: you can be safe here.” She motions to the fog creeping across the ground, swirling and dancing in the darkness on the edges of the firelight. “Nothing gets in or out of these mists without our knowledge and consent. So yes, I heard every word of the deal you struck with that hideous beast, but know his power here pales compared to ours. To mine. I could have cut him off mid-sentence, left both of you screaming in the darkness, such is the power of the mists of Barovia. I can share some of that power with you, give you the influence and aura of a king, the art and eloquence to set your terms the next time he reaches out to you, or you to him. Here within the mists, you needn’t fear that overgrown lizard when you feel true power.

“Follow the dusk elf, seek me out within the temple, although,” she laughs, a truly terrifying sound, “you had best beware the spider’s friends.” Without another word, she rises and strolls into the mists, swallowed by the shadows just beyond the fire. You sit by the fire for a moment, and before you know it, your eyelids feel heavier and heavier, as sleep overtakes you again.


You duck through the crowd, trying to put as much space between you and the guards rounding the corner. You push your way through a baker’s stall, grabbing a hot biscuit as you go. It burns your fingers, but you toss it in your mouth with a laugh, it’s delicious. Around another corner, sliding nimbly between the legs of a very surprised matron, to the delightful laughs of the children accompanying you. You give them a wink without slowing down, and smile when you hear one of them shout “I think he went that way!”, pointing in the opposite direction.

You duck into the nearest shop— a tailor’s! The cloak you grabbed on your way out the back door is several sizes too big, but will do in a pinch. Another ally, another turn, and another, and you’re crouched behind a pile of crates and barrels to catch your breath. You listen carefully to the sounds of the city around you, but it appears you’ve lost anyone on your tail. With a grin, you slip the merchant’s pouch into your pocket, brush the crumbs from your face, slowing your breathing and calming your heartbeat.

Suddenly there is a rustle, a whisper of fabric, and what you initially mistook to be a pile of rags materializes into a figure, a wizened old man who nonetheless has a sharp clarity in his eyes. He moves with surprising agility, sidling up next to with a small grin. “That was impressive work, Fillagin, truly impressive.” How did this man know your name? How much had he seen? “Oh don’t worry, I won’t be turning you in.”  he says.

“You’ve shown an aptitude for putting your gift to work, but I can offer you gifts far beyond your limited magic, perhaps even enough to make that cocky sorcerer you travel with jealous.” He grins even wider. You notice the few teeth he’s not missing are likely almost entirely made of gold. “Follow the dusk elf to Mount Ghakis. When you get to my door, ask for Thangob. You’ll be let right in. I’ll be waiting.”


BAM! Your eyes fly open, you sit bolt upright in your chair, shaken. “Ismark Kolyanovich, did you fall asleep?” The tudor towers over you, face full of rage, as the adrenaline courses through your bloodstream. “Stand up! Clearly then blessed Saint Markova’s poetry is not engaging enough for you, instead, you will recite for me the dates of our first Lord Strahd von Zarovich’s reign and the reigns of his successors through the current century.” You stand up quickly, racking your brain to try and recall the first year of Strahd I’s reign. When did his army finally conquer this little valley? Was it 345? 348?

A familiar whisper begins in the back of your head. “Ismark the Lesser,” it says mockingly, “Never will live up to his father, now will he?” A new voice chimes in, “perhaps we can help the boy?”
“Yes!” Another one pipes up excitedly.
“Is he strong enough?” a third intones, before a fourth counters, “We will make him strong enough!” The voices begin speaking over each other, sometimes finishing each others phrases, sometimes speaking in unison, somehow merging to become a single consciousness speaking in chorus.

“Yes, Great Taar Haak can give you the strength you need, the strength to rise from your father’s shadow and take what is yours. All you need is the strength of will to accept our gift. Can you do that, Ismark Kolyanovich? With our gift, you will be strong enough to protect Ireena Kolyana from anything that might seek to hurt her. We promise you. Seek us in the vault of Harkotha. Beware the invisible guardian. We will await you.”


“Life, death, what does it mean, really?” The abbot slams the dusty tome shut, the noise echoing though the still library. Sunlight streams down from the stained-glass window above you, breaking into facets of silver and gold light as it filters through the image of a skeletal arm balancing a set of scales. “Our duty in this church is to send the souls of the dead on to our lord and master, the Lord of the Dead and final Judge of the Damned.” He begins pacing among the rows between the tables before you, sometimes addressing the air, sometimes the other acolytes, more and more though, he seems to be addressing you directly. “Our canons damn the practice of necromancy, and ask us to question even the magics of resurrection and restoration that the priests of so-called “life” will practice. But there is one magic our lord himself is known to have practiced at least once, perhaps even smiled favorably on among his followers, and that is the art of reincarnation.”

“Yes, What if the soul were to return, at the price of losing a body? The elf returns a man, suffers the prejudices he never knew in his former life, sees the world through new eyes, and in doing so gains a better understanding of the suffering around him. This understanding is a gift from our lord, and not one to be taken lightly.” The abbot is now addressing you directly. “Samael Mortis. Would you take that gift, were it offered to you? The guarantee of living another life?” The abbot’s face has begun to shift and boil in front of you, taking on an elf’s eyes, a halflings lips, a human’s brow, each for a second or two before shifting away again. “Find me,” he whispers, “Follow the dusk elf and find me.” He grins at you, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth. The grin grows wider, splitting open impossibly wide revealing more and more teeth before you. “Dahlver-Nar awaits you.”


You are bounding through the forest, clearing shrubs and boulders with ease. Your massive form rockets over the damp earth, muscles rippling beneath your fur. The deer is not far, and bleeding. You will eat well tonight. Saliva glistens on your fangs as your approach the clearing.

There he is, 200 yards across the clearing. The sight gives you another burst of speed. 100 yards to go. Fifty. Suddenly out of the trees burst two figures on four legs. More wolves. You weren’t looking to share this evening. One readies to pounce, but the other stops, seems as if he’s about to— what? Howl? Growl? With a roar, a sudden gout of flame bursts from his jaws. The deer screams, but the other wolf is quick with a second bite. You can smell the flesh of the deer searing beneath the beasts fangs. What are these things?

“Ok girls, heel!” A voice suddenly calls from the trees.  “You won’t deny Fitzworth his meal this evening, will you?” The wolves draw away from the carcass, circling back to stand on either side of a man who has stepped out of the trees to your right. “It’s alright Fitzworth Tinkertonk Tiddlywink, the deer is yours. They will not touch it. Magnificent creatures, aren’t they?” He wears the dress of a trapper or hunter, a longbow slung over his shoulder and a deadly-looking dagger at his belt. “I am Seriach, and my friends here,” he says motioning to the hounds alongside him, “could be your friends. I could even teach you to channel your transformations in order to run with them for a limited time. Follow the dusk elf. Seek me out with Vaund and Norganas.”

Never breaking their gaze with you, all three creatures withdraw into the shadows until they are consumed by the darkness, leaving you to enjoy the beast in front of you.

By the time the party made their way down the mountain, one of their number was dead at the hands of another, who had since disappeared into the darkness. One had grown a third eye, another great skeletal wings. Evil had infiltrated their ranks, unknown to the rest of the party…

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.