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.
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…