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.

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.”