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…

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…

Curse of Strahd – 8 – The Toll of Yester Hill

In which the group makes peace with permanently losing a player (Grismar), and in which the powers of darkness see one character slip through their fingers, but manage to seduce another.

That morning, in the kitchen of the winery, Grismar puts his goblet down on the table. He looks at Davian and says: “I wonder if this one should have been aged a few weeks more.” Adrian puts his fork down just a little too carefully. Elvir, just about to pour himself another drink, pauses, holding the bottle awkwardly in mid-air. Even Sefania, standing at the stove with little Yolanda strapped to her back, pauses her stirring. They all look at their father expectantly. The old man raises his considerable eyebrows. “Oh, you wonder, do you now.” With a move like a bird diving for a worm, Davian snatches the goblet from beside Grismar’s plate and sticks his rather beak-like nose in. He inhales deeply, then frowns even more deeply. He returns Grismar’s drink, then snatches the bottle from his son’s hand and pours a small amount into the brown mug beside his plate. He picks up the mug, making a swirling motion. The kitchen is utterly silent.

One audible swallow later, Davian’s frown has not receded. “Claudio!” he barks. A gangly teenager jumps up out of his chair. “Check the ledger for this batch, and tell me what vats they were from. I believe our guest here may be onto something.” Davian’s grandson speeds out of the kitchen with the offending bottle, and tension leaves the room with him. Sefania cracks another egg into a pan. Elvir gets up to retrieve another bottle from a cabinet.

When the other party members enter the kitchen, they find Grismar and Davian seated opposite of each other with a row of opaque glasses between them. “I wonder where you got that nose, boy.” the Old Crow says. Grismar only shrugs as Davian continues “I wonder too if you don’t have a future as a wine maker. If you wanted one. We could use the extra hands.” Grismar looks pensive as he eyes his friends digging into their omelets.

Less than an hour later, the party, minus Ireena, who complained of worse than normal nightmares, meets in the courtyard between the woodpile and an empty cart. “To Yester Hill it is then. Let these druids see that they are no match for us. Are you coming?” Fitzworth looks at the dwarf with a question in his eyes. Grismar looks torn. Just as Chand opens his mouth, two small boys come tearing around the corner. “Gwismaw, Gwismaw! Look what we found!” They skid to a stop in front of the dwarf and the bigger child pulls an enormous frog out of the pocket of his coat. “We found it in the watew cistewn! Thewe awe so many! Come help us catch them!” And with that, the boys run off again. Grismar looks after them, shrugs eloquently and plunges his axe into the chopping block. “I can’t, Fitz. I need to be here.” With that, he turns and trots off in the direction of the shed, where excited squeals can now be heard.

Just a few hours later, storm clouds pass over the winery. The main force of the storm is a few miles away, but by the sound of it, lightning strikes there every few seconds.

The Martakovs huddle together in the kitchen, which smells of freshly baked bread. Just as it begins to rain, a raven pecks at the window. Sefania lets it in, and tears off a crust from a warm loaf. The raven gobbles this down, then utters a long series of squawks. Grismar strains his ears. He can almost understand it. When he looks to the others, his suspicion is confirmed. Bad tidings indeed. The flock of ravens that went with his friends – all dead. And another, a human, struck down by what the Martikovs say is surely Strahd von Zarovich. And then the raven seemed to lose coherence. More death, but not really, and one person that speaks with two voices. Surely the poor bird was confused, distraught by the loss of members from her flock.

As soon as the rain clears, the dwarf yanks his axe out of the chopping block and starts to pace in the courtyard of the winery. Adrian comes outside and beckons him over. “Leave be. Come back inside. One horse cannot wear two saddles, Grismar, no matter how much it may want to. Like my father, I am sure that your place is here with us. Surely your friends knew what they were up against. And didn’t you hear that most of them still live? The raven said so herself.” Grismar pulls on his beard in distraction. “Most of them, yes, but apparently not all.” Adrian stares at him with a blank look. “Nothing you can do will change this. It is simply what happens to those who stand in his way.” He shakes his head. A loud and angry howling approaches as Sefania enters the courtyard as well, skirts billowing like a ship under full sail. In her arms is an angry, flailing babe – little Yolanda. “Please, Grismar,” she says over the noise, “Can’t you hold her for a moment? Davian and Dag need my help with the labeling machine, and I can’t think straight when she’s like this. I’d ask Ireena, but she says she is not well.” Grismar drops the axe, and extends his arms to receive a tear-stained angry bundle from which two black eyes stare fiercely into his own at. A little arm swings out from the swaddling cloths and yanks on his beard. “Ow!” he says, as he untangles Yolanda’s fingers. As Sefania and her brother retreat into the house, he sits down on the chopping block and clears his throat, then starts in on a song he remembers from a long time ago.

“Cannily, cannily

Hush my lal bairnikie
Divn’t tha cry, my lal pet
Whisht at thy greetin’
Thee should be sleeping
It’s no’ time to waken as yet”

Once Yolanda is quiet, he looks up to scan the path on which his friends left earlier that morning.

Movement in the distance!

With the sleeping child still held against his chest, he starts down the path, towards the slow-moving group that looks both strange and familiar. Why is Fitzworth in his horse form? And what is the bundle slung over his back? He speeds up, taking note of Fillegan’s eyebrows which have apparently been burned away, and Ismark who looks grimmer than ever. Chand has not a hair out of place, of course, but Sumu’s rats’ nest is worse than usual, and she staggers like she’s drunk. Then it hits him. Kurwin. He’s not there. Unless, of course… an angry cry interrupts his frantic stock-taking. He’s squeezed Yolanda and she protests fiercely. He offers her a pinky, which she accepts with alacrity.

By now Grismar is within earshot of the party. Chand seems to be making a point.” Well, yes, obviously we’ll burn the body. But what do we do with his journal? Burning it would seem less than optimal.” Fillegan protests “It was his. He never left it out of his sight. Doing anything else with it would be adding insult to injury.” Fitzworth-as-horse throws his head up and seems to nod. Ismark shakes his head instead. “Kurwin was an accomplished hunter, and much of what he learned of his prey might be in here. I agree with Chand.” A shrill an unfamiliar voice cuts in “Burn it, keep it, what’s it matter! Ashes to ashes, that’s what all of this will come to.” Sumu reaches up behind her head with both hands and pulls her hair back. Once she’s braided it, the new voice sounds considerably more muffled. “That’s so rude! Don’t tell me your order allows its clerics to even be rude. Psh!” In her own voice, Sumu says “I-I can keep it for a while. Not read it, or use it, but keep it with us. Just as a reminder of what’s at stake.”

Ismark notices Grismar first. “Ho friend,” he says, voice raised to cross the distance still between them. “Please tell the house to expect us. Maybe ask your two young frog catchers to gather dry wood and brush for us some distance from the house. I am afraid we have a most unpleasant duty to fulfill.”