I was reading this thread on ENWorld and I see that people are having wildly different experiences when they fight Strahd. Some people are killing him in a single round..?
Way back in second edition, I ran a "surprise" Ravenloft campaign. I told the players I was running a campaign in Greyhawk and gave no advance details about it. By the end of the first adventure, the group had been sucked into the mists of Ravenloft. Thankfully, they were very happy and genuinely surprised when I held up the boxed set, which I kept hidden in my backpack through the whole session.
One of the first things I noticed about that 2e boxed set is that Strahd had a total of 55 hit points, if I remember right. He seemed very weak to me. I don't think I ever used him, but if I had, I think it would have come off real flat. I was not good at using monsters to their full capabilities.
A Dynamic Finish
I think that the key to avoiding an anticlimax is to make sure that you don't run all of your encounters in "dungeon crawl" mode leading up to the big final battle. When I say "dungeon crawl mode," I mean the style of game where your group traverses the map, kicking in doors and killing the monsters inside. The monsters don't talk, parlay, give information, etc. They are just things in a room to be killed for XP and loot.
You can do that with most of this adventure if that's what you like. But I feel like the biggest advantage that Strahd has in this adventure is that he has a ton of minions and that he can hit and run. Try to put yourself in his shoes. Look at all the stuff he has at his disposal. He can and should use it all!
Tone: That said, if you are running the game mostly dungeon crawl style and then you run the Strahd fight with lots of hit-and-run tactics or hordes of maneuvering NPC allies, the group might feel a little "cheated." You switched it up on them. Throughout the whole campaign, they've been playing a certain way and rightly assumed that the final battle would be handled in the same manner. They planned accordingly. Now the fight comes and you're completely changing how you run the monsters.
If you can see yourself in this situation, from here on out, try to run one encounter in each session where a creature "thinks." Put yourself in the creature's shoes and do what you need to - try to trick the group, try to barter for your life, try to poison them. That way, the group will understand on some level that some of the encounters in the adventure are being run differently. You've set a precedent and now everything is fair game.
Total Party Kill
The problem here is that you want to challenge your group, not slaughter them. In my opinion, a TPK should happen mostly due to either fateful die rolls/decisions or if the group violates the "stupid rule." That is when the players get a warning from me that what they are doing is risky/foolish and might have severe consequences. If they do it anyway, then we let the dice fall where they may.
The tricky thing with the stupid rule is that what is "stupid" to one person is perfectly reasonable to another. So in those cases, before action is taken, make sure that the environment and the situation is completely clear in their minds. Often, a player makes an action because they are imagining the room differently or they misheard/misinterpreted a vital piece of boxed text. It is really hard to describe complex areas in D&D and it is easy for misunderstandings to take place.
I haven't run Curse of Strahd, so I'm not sure what your group's characters can and can't do. That has a huge impact on the battle. I spent a lot of time looking up things Strahd can do and I realized that the way he watches the group is very important.
A big part of this adventure is the fact that Strahd keeps tabs on the group. He casts scrying once per day, he can go personally watch them in a shapechanged form and his spies check in with him twice per day.
Pick Scrying Time in Advance: It is hard to remember and decide what Strahd knows and when he's watching. If you can, before you run each session, decide when Strahd will scrying on the party. That way, you're not just deciding what Strahd knows after the fact.
Scrying: (PH page 273) It takes ten minutes to cast. It costs 1,000 gp in components or a font full of holy water. Other stuff to know:
- It lasts up to 10 minutes. It's a concentration spell.
- It targets a specific creature. Strahd has the option of choosing a fixed location instead.
- It creates an invisible sensor that follows the creature. If someone can see invisible, they can see the sensor!
- The target makes a wisdom save DC 18 with modifiers. If Strahd has a body part of the target, that bumps the DC by 10.
- If the target succeeds on the saving throw, they can't be scried on for 24 hours.
- If they fail the save, there's an invisible sensor that moves with the target
Shapechanging: Also remember, he can turn into a bat. I think it would be fun to have him watch the group from up on a tree branch in bat form once in a while. They might never know he's there, but you will. Anything the characters say out loud, he will hear. A lot of times, crazy stuff happens from little decisions like that.
Spies: Check out Strahd's Spies on page 29 of Curse of Strahd. He has vistani and "swarms of bats" reporting to him. They report to him at dawn and dusk every day. So there might be points where the group does things that Strahd won't know about for hours.
Here's something I don't remember reading before. "Every day and night the characters remain in Barovia, one or more of the vampire's spies check on them and attempt to return with a report." The spy needs to use stealth to beat the highest passive perception. The spy will try to flee if noticed.
I think you should come up with a vistani or two for this. They should have a lie ready. If caught, they could say that they are lost and hungry, or that they're looking for Arabelle and were wondering if the group had taken her. That's a good one, because it could throw the group off the scent quite nicely.
Locks of Hair: The spy wants to acquire something from each character so that Strahd can scry better. I think the best way to do this is to just have a vistani come right up to them and trade trinkets or Blinsky toys in exchange for locks of their hair. The vistani could say that he's making a wig for a sick child who lost their hair (how dastardly). Also, they could just try for a lock of hair of one character. Strahd can see through the sensor and will likely be able to see the whole party anyway.
Tools at the Group's Disposal
I took a look at some of the things the group will have when they fight Strahd and I think I see the problem. Sunlight! Here's some stuff:
Strahd's Enemy: The NPC ally can give out inspiration to a PC when Strahd is in sight. I guess they can do this every round.
Sunsword: It's a sun blade (DMG page 205).
- +2 to hit, does radiant damage (which will shut down vampire regeneration).
- +d8 damage to undead.
- Emits sunlight 15 foot radius. As an action you can extend the aura to 30 feet.
Holy Symbol of Ravenkind: More sunlight. It has 10 charges.
- Hold Vampires: DC 15 Wis save fail = paralyzed for one minute, save each round.
- Turn Undead: They have disadvantage on saves.
- It can emit sunlight! Wow.. 30 foot radius, lasts 10 minutes. It can do this up to twice per day.
Strahd's Brides: I feel like Strahd's Brides are underutilized (page 94). They are really interesting. Are they jealous of one another? What do they think of Ireena? Does one of them have a thing for Escher? Are they lonely? Would one of them take a fancy to one of the heroes? You could do a billion fun things with them.
The Wandering Monsters: Once the group enters the castle, there is nothing stopping Strahd from rounding up a few of these creatures to aid him.
- d6 shadows obey Strahd's commands.
- Rahadin (page 51) You could use him to just bring the group right to Strahd and then he could be part of the battle. Rahadin has a shadow demon in his room (page 79). No reason why it couldn't be with him.
- d4+1 Vampire Spawn (page 52) - former adventurers!
- d4+1 Vistani Thugs (page 52)
- d4 Wights (page 52) - They are undead castle guards
Vampire Spawn: (MM page 298) Strahd's 3 brides are in the tomb with him.
- Regenerate 10 hit points per round.
- Resistant to nonmagic.
- They can claw for 8 and bite for a total of 13 (-7 max hit points).
All right, let's assume that the final area is Strahd's Tomb (page 93). That's the one I would have used for this. I am going to throw in the kitchen sink here and we're not going to worry about the group being defeated, because we've planned for it in case it happens.
Here's my basic idea:
- Strahd needs to use his powers to get those sunlight items out of the picture.
- Use greater invisibility and launch off fireballs.
- Use legendary actions to keep moving.
- Use the huge crypt area to keep distance from the sunlight auras.
- Use the teleport trap to split the group and bring in one or more wights to help.
- Summon shadows every round and try to drain strength points off of a low-strength PC.
- Have the brides spread out so they don't all get hit by the sunlight aura at once.
- Once Strahd is hurt, assume mist form. He can fully regenerate in 8 rounds.
- When he assumes mist form, have Rahadin and the invisible Barovian witches come in from k87, where they've been lurking in wait.
- The witches will all cast Tasha's hideous laughter on the group. This could potentially drop the entire party.
- Strahd doesn't want them killed. He has plans for them.
One possible way for the endgame to be triggered is if the group gets close to the Heart of Sorrow. Maybe Rahadin invites them to meet with Strahd. Strahd wouldn't want the heart destroyed, so he might figure now is the time to take them down, before they can deactivate the heart.
I am thinking the set-up goes like this.
- The group enters the castle and has/gets all the items they need.
- Strahd goes and gets Rahadin and the witches.
- He tells them to wait in K87.
- Strahd and his brides lurk in Strahd's Tomb. Strahd can have informants keep him apprised of things or he could periodically leave the tomb in mist form to track the group's progress.
If the group heads toward K87, or if they are looking like they might leave to go rest soon, Strahd throws something right on a trapped square. It makes noise. I'd say it's a trinket, a Blinsky toy, or something relating to the life and past of whoever has the holy symbol or the sunsword.
Hopefully, one or more characters come over to pick up the item. When they step on the trapped square, they appear down in a coffin in crypt 14 and a wight appears where they were standing!
The wight attacks, the brides open the portcullis, and Strahd quietly casts greater invisibility. Greater invisibility is awesome - he'll have 10 rounds where he can attack and maneuver and the group might have a really hard time pinpointing his location.
Strahd will want to keep space between himself and the sunlight auras. So will the brides. The goal is to use the vast area of the crypts to keep those auras from decimating all of the vampires at once. He can use his legendary actions to move many times per round so he should have no problem keeping his distance while invisible.
If possible, stay near the trapped squares. Strahd can use gust of wind to send more characters onto them. He needs to get that sunsword and holy symbol out of here, and teleporting them down into the crypt is a nice way to do it.
If Strahd is invisible and using his innate spiderclimb ability to stand on the ceiling, dropping fireballs on the group while his brides try to suck their blood, I think that's a pretty epic final fight.
Play by the Rules: If you want to have Strahd try to separate the group from their sunlight items, play fair! There is no disarming! He can't just snatch it from their grasp, just like they can't do it to your bad guys. He'll have to get it from the heroes via his charm power or by dropping them to 0 hit points.
One problem we have here is that many of Strahd's spells are concentration spells. There are other useful ones:
Polymorph: (PH page 266) This is a bit of a controversial spell and I'm not sure I'd use it. The target must make a WIS save DC 18 or they're polymorphed into a beast of your choosing.
If you want to be a real bastard, you can polymorph them into a sea horse (MM page 337). It has one hit point, no attacks, a speed of 0 and can only breathe underwater.
I wouldn't do it because that's too brutal and I don't want a player sitting there flopping like a fish for a few rounds. Plus, you have now opened the door to let your players do the same when they have a character who can cast polymorph. I'm not sure if the sunlight aura goes away if the person holding the sunsword or holy symbol is polymorphed. I think it does.
Let's do a rat (MM page 335). At least it can move around and has an attack.
Gust of Wind: (PH page 248) This is concentration, too. A line of wind 60 feet long, 10 feet wide. When a creature starts its turn in it, they need to make a strength save or be pushed 15 feet. We can use this to slide heroes onto the teleport trap squares.
Animate Object: (PH page 213) Strahd could, I guess, animate object on the doors of the crypts? How big are those doors? Medium? Honestly, I don't think I'd bother with this spell.
Charm: The target has to be able to see Strahd to be charmed, so that's tricky becuse we're going to be invisible for a while (hopefully). The target will protect him and obey him. "Hand over the sunsword so that I can admire it" is a very reasonable request. Strahd could chuck it in the shaft at k18a while the charmed hero defends him.
Lair Actions: This goes off at initiative count 20.
- Summon a Specter: (MM page 279) The problem here is that they have only 22 hp and they also have sunlight sensitivity. The neat thing is that they can pass through creatures and walls.
- Summon a Shadow: (MM page 269) They have 16 hp and they have sunlight weakness. They do drain d4 strength if they hit and the hero dies once their strength is 0. I'd have them under strict orders not to go under a strength of 1.
- Gain the ability to walk through the walls/ceiling/floor - perfect for escape
If Strahd Drops to 0: He becomes mist instead of falling unconscious. He must get in his coffin in two hours. He does not have to go there right away! I'm sure Rahadin knows the deal. Depending on where the PCs go during these two hours, Rahadin could round up Escher and some other allies to guard Strahd while he recovers.
Once the Sunlight is Gone: When in doubt, Strahd attacks whoever has the Tome of Strahd (page 221).
If the Group Runs: If the group flees the castle, he could fly on Beucephalus (he can get on Beucephalus and fly out of the shaft - he'd be outside long before the group would) and drop every fireball spell and.. actually.. ray of frost would slow them down. He could also try to gust of wind them right off the bridge.
Rahadin is Fast: Rahadin has a speed of 35, so he can outrun most heroes. Misty step is a bonus action, too. That's another 30 feet of movement. If one of the sunlight aura heroes drops, Rahadin can run over, pick up the sunsword or holy symbol and chuck it somewhere.
Heck, he could try bring it to the brazier room and chuck it through a portal to the Amber Temple. One character might give chase... that would be great. A one-on-one battle with Rahadin while the rest of the group has to deal with Strahd.
7 Invisible Barovian Witches: (page 229) Tasha's hideous laughter DC 12. Then, more invisibility or ray of sickness.
Plan for Failure
Here we are making the fight tough. My thinking is that either the group actually prevails in what would definitely be an epic battle, or they are defeated and we go into a really fun "temptation" scenario.
During the battle, try to avoid 'fudging' in obvious ways by "forgetting" to use powers. Players pick up on that and it kind of damages the whole experience. The best thing to do is to handle it in a logical way. Strahd doesn't want them dead. He wants to break them.
If the battle is going bad for the heroes and there is a PC that Strahd wants as a consort or protegee, he can tell the character that if they swear fealty to him, he will let his friends live.
Defeat: Strahd wants them all alive. The group can be thrown in the prison (page 81). Their stuff will be taken. Perhaps the bad guys will excitedly get ready to torture them in the torture room (page 82). Rahadin might handle that.
I think it would be awesome for Strahd to make "gifts" of them. Perhaps Escher, the brides and Pidlwick 2 want new friends to keep them from getting bored. Gertruda could probably teach a PC to be a butler. Generally, Strahd enjoys breaking the spirit of his enemies and turning them to evil more than just killing them (like he wants to do with Van Richten).
The heroes can lick their wounds and scheme to their hearts content. Strahd wants them to be his new Rahadins! He wants to win them over and integrate them into his world. It would be a lot of fun running a scene where a character hangs out with Pidlwick 2. The brides would probably use the heroes as blood dispensers, but maybe the adventurers could be charming and win them over or something.
Ultimately, the group can get help from their NPC ally, Van Richten, wereravens, Emil, whoever. The point is that the group can explore the castle safely, gather intelligence and scheme to get their items back. Once that is done, they are going to get their revenge.
If Ireena is still around, Strahd could set up an actual wedding, reminiscent of his brother's wedding so long ago.
We've already had our hard battle, so now I'd be inclined to hand Strahd to the group on a silver platter. They could bust into his tomb and drive a stake into him, or whatever ends up happening.
When Strahd Dies: Don't forget, if Rahadin is still around when Strahd is slain, he has a freak out and attacks as described on page 207.