Ravenloft First Impressions - Curse of Strahd

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I finished my read-through of the 5e D&D take on the classic Ravenloft setting this morning, and overall I am impressed and looking forward to running it later this year.

Curse of Strahd is presented as a 256-page hardcover, with maps inset at the back endpaper. Key maps and handouts are also available to download at the Wizards of the Coast website and you can buy high resolution expanded versions of them from Mike Schley's website which include player versions without locations. The book is full colour throughout and beautifully illustrated. It is clear and easy to read with good cross-referencing between sections.

Gorgeously presented

The module (campaign) presented is nominally fit for levels 1 to 10, except it isn't. It's really made for levels 3 to 10, as it recommends you play a prequel / introductory adventure called 'Death House' provided in the appendices as an introduction. Once your first level characters complete this, they become third level. Progression within the game is meant to be driven by completing key milestones, rather than a combat grind.

Curse of Strahd is structured as a large sandbox style campaign, with much more similarity to the original I6 Ravenloft module than the 2e Domains of Dread approach. The realm of Barovia has a mix of factions and locations who can help and hinder the characters. Some can do both. There are classic gothic horror elements here; zombies, skeletons, werewolves and twisted, corrupted people. There are few innocents left. What few joys the people of Barovia have are threatened, and the players can standby and watch them fall, or act against the darkness.

Castle Ravenloft itself is presented in similar detail to the original version, and could easily be used more than once in the same campaign. I can envisage a situation where characters enter the castle to gain information or artefacts rather than to kill Strahd. The maps are well done. Unwary players will lose characters easily without the Vampire Lord having to show himself.

Beyond the presentation, the biggest change from the original is the expanded detail about Barovia, with locations added that can both reveal the roots of Strahd's power and give the character's advantages in their battle against him. There is a lot going on in this campaign. I do like some of the NPCs who can be allies, rivals or enemies depending on how the characters engage with them.

I'd have liked to see some kind of graphical representation of the needs and relationships links as there are a good number of moving parts here. I'll likely produce that myself when I read it through again to run.

The only negative I see is the attempt at humour with some names which seems to want to pull the module to a more Tim Burton-esque place. I honestly can't remember if these were there in the original.

Working through the text, it's apparent that certain spells will be critical for the campaign; restoration, knock and dispel magic to name a few. I need to work through how I will address spellcaster progression in a closed realm with limited options before I run this.

I'm not certain about Death House. It's definitely gothic horror but I'm not sure that it matches the rest of the campaign in feel. I'm going to ponder a bit more before I decide whether to use that to start off my campaign.

Overall, I'm impressed with this reimagining of the original. Remakes of movies are always fraught with risk, and classic roleplaying scenarios are no different. This takes the original work and builds upon it to create an impressive and expanded view of the original. It feels like great care has been taken so that Curse of Strahd feels like a worthy reboot of I6 Ravenloft.

21 August 2019

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