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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons - A Guide to Strahd Von Zarovich

This guide is meant to provide DMs with an overview of one of D&D's major villains - the vampire Strahd Von Zarovich. I am going to go through each product from each edition that has Strahd in it, and pull out notable material to give you stuff to use when you put Strahd in your games. This should give you options as far as how to run Strahd and which version of his story you want to go with.

Strahd is regarded as one of D&D's greatest villains. The adventure he first appeared in, Ravenloft, is considered one of the best of all time. He was so popular that he spawned an entire setting - second edition's "Ravenloft" campaign. Most recently Strahd is the star of what is probably 5th edition''s most popular adventure - Curse of Strahd.

You can buy Curse of Strahd or the original Ravenloft adventure on Amazon

Curse of Strahd: A Dungeons & Dragons Sourcebook (D&D Supplement)
Ravenloft, I6 (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Official Game Adventure 9075)
I'm sure I've missed some stuff. Feel free to let me know, and if I can I'll track down the material and add it to this post.

Real Life Origin
According to this interview, Tracy Hickman made up the original Ravenloft adventure (initially titled "Vampyr") in the '70's and ran it for his group on Halloween. He continued to run it every Halloween for 5 years, each time tweaking and developing it more.

The original idea came to him when he was playing in his friend's D&D campaign. The heroes were going through a dungeon, and in a room was a vampire. Tracy thought to himself that a vampire was worthy of being a main villain, and it didn't feel right as a random monster in a dungeon. He read Bram Stoker's Dracula and got to work. Eventually he and his wife sold the finished version to TSR.

The Essential Information

Here's what you need to know about Strahd:
  • He calls himself "the first vampire". The villagers of Barovia call him "The devil Strahd."
  • He lives in Castle Ravenloft.
  • He is served by bats, wolves and "Strahd" zombies.
  • He is cursed to always pursue a woman who looks like his unrequited love Tatyana, but he is never able to marry her.
  • He rules a kingdom called Barovia. He can control choking fog that surrounds the place.
  • In most editions, he is unaffected by garlic and mirrors. He usually has some sort of protection against sunlight, whether a natural resistance or an artifact.
  • In life, his younger brother Sergei was about to marry a woman named Tatyana. Strahd was in love with her, but she thought he was too old. Strahd killed his brother and tried to profess his love to Tatyana. She fled and jumped off a balcony to her death (or she plunged into a mist, depending on the edition). "Death", or the dark powers of Ravenloft, took notice of Strahd's evil act. Strahd turned into a vampire and went on a rampage, killing his guards and the wedding party. His realm of Barovia became shrouded with mist and he became cursed. Over the many years, women would be born in his domain that looked and acted like Tatyana. When he discovers this "reincarnation", he tries to make her his bride but he always fails.
  • In 4th edition, Ravenloft is in the Shadowfell.
My Experience With Strahd

As a kid, I bought the 1e adventure at a convention. I flipped through it, saw the huge map of the castle and felt overwhelmed. This adventure had too many moving parts for me, so I never ran it.

When I got the 2e Ravenloft boxed set, I ran a Ravenloft campaign. I saw that Strahd had 55 hit points, and felt my hack and slash heroes would destroy him in a fight. I didn't feel capable of running him, as he had so many powers and spells to keep track of. Not wanting to make a mockery of a major NPC, I never used him.

AD&D 1st Edition

I6 Ravenloft

This adventure was written by Tracy and Laura Hickman. It features art by my favorite D&D artist, Clyde Caldwell, and IMO his depiction of Strahd (whether in black and white or fully painted) puts everyone else to shame.

The Plot: There is a woman in Barovia named Ireena who looks like Strahd's beloved Tatyana. Strahd wants her, the heroes get involved. It's a classic tale of a vampire living in a castle looming over a sad village. Most of the plot points are variable, determined by a random card reading....

Fortunes of Ravenloft: The DM does this card reading before the adventure begins or during the session when the PCs meet the gypsies. There's instructions on using a deck of cards to do the reading. This reading determines major plot points of the actual adventure, including:
  • What Strahd's goal is. One goal possibility includes polymorphing a PC into a vampire (!) and putting them in a coffin. Strahd joins the party, impersonating the PC
  • Where the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind is.
  • Where the Tome of Strahd is.
  • Where Strahd is located in the castle for the final battle.
  • Where the Sunsword Hilt is.

Strahd is a complicated villain to run. He has a lot of powers and abilities. He is meant to pop in, hurt the heroes, and then flee back to his castle. This is a tricky thing to do in D&D. Here's some of his traits:
  • He has 55 hit points and an AC of -1 (which is the equivalent of a 21 AC in 5e terms).
  • When he hits an enemy, they lose two levels!
  • There is a 60% chance he knows where the heroes are throughout the adventure, thanks to a network of spies and servants.
Leaving Barovia is Fatal: If the heroes try to leave Barovia before the adventure is finished, they choke and die within 24 hours due to the poison fog outside the town.

Book Found in Strahd's Lounge: "Life Among the Undead: Learning to Cope"

How it Ends: Once the group defeats Strahd, the ghost (?) of Sergei (Strahd's brother!) thanks the heroes, and then he asks Tatyana/Ireena to join him in the afterlife. She realizes she is Tatyana reborn, takes his hand, and they walk off together and vanish.

Magic Items: A good portion of this adventure involves the heroes tracking down items that are essential to learning more about Strahd and defeating him. These items appear in many subsequent adventures over the editions:
  • Holy Symbol of Ravenkind: It basically paralyzes vampires for d10 rounds once per week. 
  • Sunsword: +2 sword, glows when undead are close, does +10 damage versus vampires. This item is weird. It's just the blade. When the group finds the blade, it magically attaches to the hilt of a hero's sword, supplanting the previous blade.
  • Tome of Strahd: A diary written by Strahd that reveals his origin. It's written in a weird shorthand so PCs only have a 30% chance of understanding.
Don't Trust Gypsies: Gypsies will sell the PCs a potion that protects them from the vampire. It's a fake.

The Carriage: The heroes come upon a carriage with two horses. The door is open. If the PCs get in, the horses pull the carriage to Castle Ravenloft.

Strahd Zombies: These monsters lose a limb whenever they take 5+ damage, but the limb continues to attack.

I've never run this module, but it looks like a lot of fun. After going through all of the subsequent remakes and sequels, none of them really measure up to this one.

I10 Ravenloft 2: The House on Gryphon Hill

This is a really weird adventure. It can be run as a sequel to the original, or there is a section explaining how to combine this with the original. This whole book has actually been sort of written out of continuity in some future products. For years, the pdf of this was offered as a free download on the official D&D site along with other oddities.

It has a lot of great ideas. The whole concept of a device that switches the souls of monsters and villagers is really fun. Also, hypnotism has never really been explored in D&D, and seems like it could lead to cool things.

This blog points out that the adventure was only outlined by the Hickmans, and that other designers filled in the blanks. Ravenloft 2 seems to be pretty reviled.

The Plot: The soul of Strahd has split into two creatures, one good ("The Alchemist"), one bad ("The Creature"). One half is searching for the other half. This takes place in a village called Mordentshire. There is this giant device which is being used to switch souls between people and monsters.

Hypnotism: This adventure uses the fortune teller random placement gimmick again, but this time instead of using a tarot card reading, it involves "The Mersmerist's Pendulum". The heroes get hypnotized, and the DM rolls on a random chart to determine the location of items and Strahd's goal.

The Apparatus: This thing is two stories tall and is a device that the Alchemist is using to try to purge his soul of evil. It has the power to switch souls between two creatures.

Magic Items:
  • The Ring of Reversion: Can restore the rightful spirit to a possessed body.
  • The Rod of Rastinon: This can be used with the Apparatus to drive out the evil Strahd.
  • The Soul Searcher Orb: This can reveal the true nature of a creature.
The Beginning: The entire adventure starts off with the heroes fighting and being killed by Strahd... but it's only a dream.

Delirium: Throughout the adventure, the heroes are suffering from delirium caused by a fever. They will have -2 to all die rolls or see hallucinations at certain points.

Murder in Mordentshire: If a hero kills a townsperson, a mob of villagers comes and gets them and they are put on trial for murder. The character could be sentenced to slavery or death.

Black Cat: There is a black cat that, when it crosses a PC's path, forces a saving throw. Fail means that the PC suffers a -1 to rolls in the next encounter and "...will also suffer one unfortunate accident of the DM's choice."

Climax: The whole story of the adventure is meant to culminate in a scene where the two Strahds are in the apparatus. Lightning strikes the place and the two Strahds run out into the rain and fight each other. The heroes can only see five feet ahead due to sheets of rain. There's these flashes of lightning that illuminate the scene and trigger encounters, like battling zombie versions of themselves, etc.
The slightly complex tracking chart
Strahd's Stats: He gained a few hit points. He's up to 69 now. He's also got a sword of wounding and a rope of entangling.

Azalin the Lich: This NPC went on to big things. He gets his own domain of dread in 2nd edition, is featured in a series of novels, and is part of the 2nd edition Ravenloft pseudo-adventure path. In this adventure, he's an ally of Strahd. Fun facts:
  • He has a -14 comeliness. That's the most 1st edition sentence ever.
  • He has a quasit named Tintantilus, who can take the form of a bat or wolf.
  • His body is decaying, and he needs a new one.
AD&D 2nd Edition

Ravenloft Boxed Set

In 2nd edition, the whole Ravenloft concept was expanded into a complete campaign setting boxed set. Ravenloft is this demiplane of horror that people get drawn into and are trapped in by the Ravenloft mist (an ethereal plane fog that can reach into the Prime Material and pull people into Ravenloft).

The demiplane is divided up into islands and other 'domains', each bordered by the mists of Ravenloft that keep people in. Barovia is one such domain. Once in a while, there is a "conjunction" where the borders of two domains overlap. At those times, people can travel between those domains.

Strahd's Domain: Barovia is detailed. We learn:
  • Anyone entering Strahd's castle uninvited will be put to death
  • There's a choking fog similar to the stuff in the 1e adventure. Anyone who tries to leave Barovia through the fog loses 1 point of constitution per hour until they die or come back. Strahd can lift the fog if he chooses. 
  • The Vistani (gypsies) are Strahd's spies.
2nd Edition Strahd: Strahd is now a 16th level Necromancer Vampire. He's got all sorts of new tweaks:
  • His hit points have dropped to 55.
  • He can cast 8th level spells! He's got finger of death and limited wish.
  • He can stand 10 rounds of sunlight and you need a +2 weapon to hit him.
  • He can appear in any area of Barovia at any time (!).
  • During the day, he falls into a coma and appears dead.
Gypsy Pact: In the year 470 (current year in the revised boxed set is 740) Strahd made a pact with the gypsy Madame Eva. Strahd would protect her and her people, and in turn she and her Vistani would search for an exit from Barovia.

Ravenloft 2 Was a Dream: There's an interesting note that in 579, Azalin the lich transported himself and Strahd to a domain called "Mordent". This is apparently where Ravenloft 2 took place (Mordentshire). Mordent was annexed into Barovia, and neither Strahd nor Azalin the lich remembers what happened there. Azalin the lich ended up ruling his own domain, and he hates Strahd.

From the Shadows

Strahd is featured in some of the adventures that form a sort of Ravenloft adventure path. It is known as "The Grand Conjunction Cycle" . What's weird is that the adventures vary in level, so you couldn't run them in the intended order with the same group of heroes if you wanted to. From the Shadows is the fifth in the cycle. There's no problem in reordering them by level, as the connecting story is very loose (almost non-existent). Here's the first four:
  1. Feast of Goblyns: An adventure about a wolfwere.
  2. Ship of Horror: The heroes sail to an island to battle a necromancer.
  3. Touch of Death: A desert trek and mummies.
  4. Night of the Walking Dead: Zombies!
From the Shadows is part 5, and it is the notorious adventure that starts off with an encounter where the headless horseman cuts the heroes heads off, no matter what they do. Needless to say, my group absolutely loathed this module.

The Plot: Azalin the lich wants to know more about how the demiplane of Ravenloft formed. He's trying to undo it, so he can escape. He sends the group back in time and, I guess, to the prime material plane to steal the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind right after Strahd first became a vampire.

His thinking is that this will cause the Grand Conjunction to take place (it does). This Conjunction causes the lands of Ravenloft to return to the Prime Material plane.

Time Travel: When Azalin sends the heroes back in time to Castle Ravenloft, they inhabit the body of a random wedding guest. You roll on a chart to see what class (if any) each PC is. I can't even fathom what players must have thought of this after already being railroaded into having their heads cut off.

The Adventure Wants to Make Your Players Angry: The heroes appear in Castle Ravenloft just 5 rounds before Strahd chases Tatyana and she jumps off the balcony to her doom. Once she dies, Strahd flips out and goes on a murderous rampage. So.. he attacks the PCs.

Look at this DM advice here:

"The rest of this encounter is a merry chase in which Strahd kills all the characters one by one. The DM should be cruel; none of the players are losing their real characters."

When I ran this way back when in my early teens, even I knew to alter all of this. Once all the PCs are slain or if they crossed a certain drawbridge, they appear back in Azalin's laboratory.

The rest of the adventure involves the group exploring Azalin's castle. It leads right into the final adventure in the Grand Conjunction Cycle...

Roots of Evil

This is a really convoluted, gigantic adventure. It's the final part of the Grand Conjunction Cycle. The story boils down to the fact that Azalin is trying to use the heroes to kill Strahd. Strahd made a pact with yugoloths that didn't go well, and now yugoloths are trying to kill him and get their Book of Secrets back.

The heroes kind of travel around and watch NPCs do things. Strahd bosses them around. Here's some Azalin dialogue:

“I challenge you!” he hisses your way, his dried lips drawn back in a sinister smile.

“I challenge you to catch me! If even one of you survives -- an amusing idea -- I shall revive you all and give you the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind (and the Icon)!

“Now, to use a quaint mortal phrase, tag -- you’re it!”


Double Your Magic Items: This module has a massive dungeon full of very creative rooms. There is actually one room where magic mirrors create ghoul doubles of the group.. and their magic items:

"They have the same clothes and items as the PC, but the undead creatures lack the intelligence to cast spells or use magical items that must be activated. They will, however, use the weapon carried by the PC."

So... the heroes kill 6 ghouls and double their magic items?

More Time Travel: Then Azalin sends the heroes back in time. They possess the bodies of Strahd's foot soldiers (they have basic soldier stats with 18 hit points). Then they ruin his deal with the yugoloths and come back to present day.

This Dissolves The Demiplane: Doing this fulfills the prophecy, and Ravenloft ceases to exist. There's just mist and monsters.. and Castle Ravenloft.

The Climax: In the end, Azalin, Inajira (the yugoloth who wants his yugoloth-summoning book back) and Strahd fight. Strahd's wife, a queen (who is an incarnation of Tatyana), helps the heroes destroy the book. They place Azalin's phylactery and the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind on an altar, and Ravenloft is reformed and the bad guys are sucked back into their domains.

The party appears wherever the DM wants, be it Ravenloft or some prime world.

House of Strahd

This adventure is a "remake" or "update" of the original 1st edition adventure. It updates everything to the 2e rules and adds in the Ravenloft fear and horror checks. I really like the way it is condensed and formatted. It's very easy on the eyes (though I'd imagine that the pink boxed text sections might melt some sensitive retinas) and looks worthy of being run.

Van Richten's Guide to Vampires

This vampire-centric supplement has a few pages devoted to Strahd. It tells the tale of a bard named Greggori Kolyan. Strahd captured him, told him his origin, and had the bard write it down. The bard was then allowed to leave, to spread the word of Strahd.

This is basically a re-telling of Strahd's story, slightly altered. There's a guard who figured out Strahd's plan to kill his brother. Strahd killed him but was mortally wounded. That is when Strahd made the dark pact.

Dragon Magazine 205

A woman named Dori Hein writes a bit about Strahd. Check out this little nugget:

He's rich!
The article points out that the Grand Conjunction cycle caused a lot of changes in Ravenloft. The Grand Conjunction was a real life excuse to ditch certain boring domains (or ones that just didn't fit) and to add new ones to the setting.

D&D 3rd Edition

Dragon Magazine 315 - Ravenloft: The Return of Strahd

This article stats out Strahd for 3rd edition. There's two versions of him, one as a vampire and the other as a high level necromancer.

There's notes on running Strahd as a villain who strikes at the heroes, and then gets away. "When you run Strahd, think of two escape plans he can use if the PCs get the upper hand."

Here's some tips we are given:
  • Listening: Strahd is always eavesdropping with his crystal ball and invisibility.
  • Test With Minions: Strahd sends his bats, wolves or zombies after the group to observe their tactics and capabilities.
  • Slow Them Down: Use symbol spells to block doors and buy time.
  • Separate: Strahd should try and isolate a PC, drain their blood and make them his vampiric thrall. Alternately he could dominate them.
Map: Then we get a map of Castle Ravenloft. This has got to be one of the most-mapped locales in D&D history.

Dragon Magazine 348 - The Tome of Strahd

This article details Strahd's tome. It contains a bunch of spells that could really help Strahd out big time. Curse of the Gypsies could be very nasty, as the effects are permanent!

(lvl 4) Bloodstone's Frightful Joining: Your soul attempts to invade the body of an undead creature, leaving your own body lifeless. This lasts for one hour per level
(lvl 2) Curse of the Gypsies: You can choose from three curses..
  1. Bad Luck: Whenever the target rolls a natural 20, they must re-roll and take the second result.
  2. Mark of the Gypsies: The victim has a permanent mark on their forehead that's invisible to all but the person's closest family and companions. This mark causes negative reactions, and some NPCs may shun them.
  3. Unnatural Aura: Animals can sense the victim from 30 feet away. They panic and regard the victim with fear.
(lvl 3) Rain of Terror: You cause unnatural rain (hot blood or writhing snakes) to fall from the sky that causes a fear effect.
(lvl 4) Strahd's Baneful Attractor: You cause spells to divert from their original paths to strike a new target. So, magic missile or scorching ray would be diverted.
(lvl 4) Wraithform: This is like gaseous form, except the target can move faster. Mindless undead do not perceive you as a threat.

Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

This is a gigantic hardcover adventure by the great Bruce Cordell. It is basically just a 3rd edition remake of the original 1e adventure with a lot of extraneous additions. There is a lot of free stuff and previews pertaining to this adventure on the wizards site.

3rd Edition Strahd: Strahd is a CR 15 monster, and he looks more Castlevania-y than ever. Also:
  • He has 70 hit points.
  • He has an artifact known as the dayheart. It makes Strahd immune to sunlight.
  • There are three sites in the woods where he performs rituals that give him special powers. 
  • This adventure calls The Sunsword "the original model for all sun blades".
  • He has a minion named Kavan the Grim, who is a "daywalker" created by Strahd. He is a savage berserker.
The Plot: The adventure goes like this:
  1. Zombies attack Barovia. Those who are bitten become zombies.
  2. The heroes meet Ireena, who is the reincarnation of Tatyana.
  3. The group tracks down the source of the zombies (a necromancer).
  4. The group visit Madame Eva at the Tser Pool encampment.
  5. She does a card reading, which works quite like in the original 1e adventure.
  6. The group tracks down the Sunsword, The Tome of Strahd and the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind in the lands of Barovia.
  7. While doing so, they'll face off against werewolves, a crazed trapper and three hags.
  8. The group goes to Castle Ravenloft to battle Strahd.
3e Ireena/Tatyana
Encounters: The book uses the "encounter" format, where each battle gets a two-page spread and a detailed map. I really like the Dining Room. Here's some of the flavor:

"At the end of the table, his back to you, sits an elegant gentleman in the fine clothing of a nobleman. As you enter, he turns to face you, revealing a gaunt but aristocratic face with prominent cheekbones and a high forehead. His piercing eyes take you in, then he slowly smiles. "Welcome to Castle Ravenloft", he says."

He invites the heroes to eat with him The wine is laced with vampiric blood! Drinking it gives a hero a penalty to save against his domination ability.

If/when a fight breaks out, he assumes gaseous form and flees.
Madame Eva
Lots of Strahd Fights: The final battle with Strahd occurs in a room determined by Madame Eva's card reading. The book actually has about 10 encounters, all fully statted out, of possible battles with Strahd.

Organizations: The book also contains a prestige class and a guild:
  • Knights of the Raven: Champions of evil against the undead. They ca speak with ravens, and they have a celestial raven as a companion. The raven ally can give an enemy a penalty to AC, or prevent attacks of opportunity, that kind of thing. Higher level knights can see through their eyes and cast spells through them. The ghost of one of these knights is in Castle Ravenloft (on page 146). She is Lady Vey Rallen, now a ghost powered by positive energy.
  • Lightbringers: A guild of undead hunters. Not much to it, really. The guild helps them out, loaning a member NPCs or casting restoration once in a while for free.
There's also really weird magic item:

Vampire Hide Armor: Yes, armor made from the skin of a vampire! It's just regular magic leather armor +3, and it gives a bit of damage resistance to silver and magic.

This adventure looks fun, but it definitely feels overloaded with unnecessary encounters. There's all sorts of weird monsters in the castle that feel really out of place, including a gibbering mouther, a barlgura and giant ants.

Dragon Magazine 359

This is the final print issue of Dragon, and it is absolutely loaded with great stuff. There is a list of the top 20 villains of D&D in which Strahd gets a full page bio. There's stats for a new creature associated with the vampire:  

Strahd's Skeletal Steed: It's an undead skeleton horse that can breathe noxious gas five times per day. It also has the ability to revert to a pile of bones when not in use.

D&D 4th Edition

Open Grave

I love this book. Strahd is located in the "Undead Hall of Infamy" section of Open Grave. Here's what we learn:
  • Guess what? No more 55 hit points. 4e Strahd has 930 hit points!
  • When he drops to 0 hit points, he doesn't die. He turns to mist and must reach his coffin within 2 hours.
  • For 27 years Strahd warred against the savage and barbaric Tergs, "..leading his troops with a combination of bravery, tactical genius and unrivaled charisma."
  • He claimed an enemy stronghold and renamed it Castle Ravenloft in memory of his mother, Ravenia.
  • In 4e, apparently Strahd sought a ritual hoping to restore his youth so that Tatyana would find him appealing. Frustrated, he ended up using a necromantic ritual to turn into a vampire.
Dragon Magazine 416 - History Check: Strahd and Van Richten

This article is perfect if you just want one succinct document that explains the basics of Strahd's story. There's not much new here, but it is well worth a read.

Dungeon Magazine 207 - Fair Barovia

This is an adventure for characters levels 5-7. It is a really cool scenario that involves Strahd, who uses the heroes to wipe out a rival named Leo Dilysnia.

Leo Dilysnia: He was one of Strahd's soldiers who attempted to overthrow Strahd on the night of the wedding of Sergei and Tatyana. Strahd turned him into a vampire and trapped him in The White Sun Monastery, home to monks who quietly oppose Strahd. Leo has turned the monks into vampire spawn and Strahd now wants to manipulate the heroes into going there and slaying Leo.

The story of Leo is actually detailed in the novel I, Strahd.

Strahd's Agents: A few agents of Strahd help to manipulate the heroes into taking out Leo. I think these two are depicted on the cover art (above):
  • Falstan Mitrache: A halfling who is amiable and competent. He is haunted by a memory - his beloved, Yera, fell from a boat and perished. She has become a ghast and attacks people near the Tser Pool.
  • Arabelle Zarovan: She is a vistani and a great source of rumors and information. She's a fortune teller and can perform object reading rituals.
Tons of Details: This thing is a treasure trove of details. We get a full write-up of the settlement of Vallaki, which includes links to old 2e Ravenloft adventures. We also get full details on Barovia and the Svalich Woods!

We even get details on what happens if the group tries to go to Castle Ravenloft. The drawbridge is up and a horde of monster lurk in the gatehouse - 2 gargoyles and 10 zombies. Here's the flavor:

"The air is clammy and a cold wind brushes past you as you approach Castle Ravenloft. The drawbridge connecting to the gatehouse to the castle is raised. A stone ledge juts out over a misty chasm, which plunges to a depth of nearly one thousand feet."

The Witch of Lysaga Hill: Patrina Velikovna is a banshee that lives in the ruins of a monastery on top of a hill. Check out her origin story:

Patrina was a witch who willingly became Strahd's vampiric bride. But when she tried to feed on an elf child to complete her transformation into a vampire, she was stoned to death by a crowd that included her own brother, Kasimir. Now she is a banshee looking to exact her revenge, turning the elves into her undead servitors.

Final Battle: When the heroes bust into the White Sun Monastery, they find Leo kneeling before a headless statue of  a raven-winged woman. He is a bearded man with piercing red eyes. He says, "My name is Leo Dilysnia. Even Strahd von Zarovich could not destroy me. What makes you think you can do better?"

Leaving Ravenloft: Once Leo is slain, Strahd sends his carriage for the heroes. Two black stallions pull a luxurious coach decorated in silver filigree. The driver is Vasilt von Holtz, who tells the heroes he will take them to the border of the land so that the heroes may go home.

Vasilt is actually Strahd masquerading as a mortal servant. Awesome.


Vampire of the Mists

The premise to this one is interesting. An elf vampire named Jander of the Forgotten Realms falls in love with an insane woman. She blames Barovia for her madness, and dies. Jander kills everyone in the asylum and is sucked into Ravenloft and basically Jander goes through the 1e Ravenloft module. It turns out Anna is actually the original Tatyana (!).

Knight of the Black Rose

This book stars Lord Soth (of Dragonlance fame) in a tale about how the dark powers of Ravenloft brought him to Barovia. This book is all about Lord Soth vs. Strahd, which sounds very cool.

I, Strahd

This is a retelling of Strahd's origin, written in memoir form. People seem to like it. You can buy this on amazon here:

I, Strahd : The Memoirs of a Vampire (Ravenloft Books)

I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin

I'd never heard of this one before. This book is also in memoir form, and deals with the time in which Strahd had bound Azalin the Lich into his service. There's a long build up, and then Strahd and Azalin go to war in the last 50 pages. People really seem to love these I, Strahd books by P.N. Elrod, even those who aren't into D&D. You can buy this book on amazon here:

I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin
Related NPCs

Dr. Van Richten

He was a doctor whose son was kidnapped by Vistani and sold to a vampire named Baron Metus. The son became a vampire minion. When Dr. Van Richten tracked him down, his son begged his father to slay him. He did.

Metus got revenge by killing Van Richten's wife. Dr. Van Richten closed up his practice and devoted his life to slaying Metus, vampires, and assorted undead.

Dr. Van Richten destroyed Metus and wrote a series of guides on supernatural monsters.

As of 4th edition, Van Richten owned a herbalist shop in Darkon (Azalin the lich's domain).

Lyssa Von Zarovich

Lyssa is a descendant of Strahd who appears in Thoughts of Darkness, a high level adventure in the domain of mindflayers. In the adventure, she creates vampire illithids for a mind flayer trying to overthrow an elder brain. In exchange, she wants the mind flayers to attack Barovia.

In this adventure, she actually steals the Tome of Strahd and learns how to build the apparatus from Ravenloft 2. It is further revealed that there is a group of psionic monks called the Brotherhood of Contemplative Monks living in Barovia.

Lyssa is the granddaughter of Sturm Von Zarovich, one of the few people to survive Strahd's wedding massacre. Lyssa despises Strahd and plots against him.

In order to become a vampire, she made a dark pact. She slew her fiance and taunted his ghost. The ghost used its aging ability to age her 200 years (which was a way to explain how powerful she was. She had more hit points than Strahd).

Further Reading

Fraternity of Shadows: A complete Strahd chronology.
Official 3e stats and info on Ireena
Let's Play Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession - A playthrough of an old Ravenloft video game. 
A Review of the Castle Ravenloft Board Game
Check out the official Strahd D&D miniature

Monday, January 18, 2016

Dead Gods - Vault of the Drow

Tonight we got to a really interesting part of Dead Gods. The heroes had to go to the Vault of the Drow on the world of Oerth (aka the Greyhawk setting). They're looking for a drow named Erehe, who lost his memory. Essentially in this chapter, the group revisited a site from a classic Gary Gygax adventure.

There is some criticism out there of this chapter that I agree with. The problem in this section is that the vault and the city are described, but there are almost literally no encounters or city locations detailed.

It's weird. The heroes could basically zip right to Erehe very quickly, which feels like a waste. We're in the Vault of the Drow! Let's get our money's worth!

So I dug up the 1st edition adventure along with the material in the 4e Underdark book and fleshed out the city. I also borrowed liberally from Out of the Abyss. The Menzoberranzan chapter is littered with fun drow city encounters.

The Party

(Jessie) Bidam - Platinum-Scaled Dragonborn Fighter
(George) Theran - Drow Wizard

George is cautious and thoughtful. Jessie likes to jump into things and take risks for the sake of adventure.

Fiendish Fortresses

Last time, the adventurers helped out a demon on the path of becoming a demon lord. They used a modron device to create a fortress in her image.

I used a great Monte Cook article from Dragon #233 to flesh this place out:
  • It is sentient - It can sense activity within 5 feet of it, it gets 3 attacks per round,  is immune to lightning, fire and poison, etc.
  • It is covered in eyes with blinking eyelashes.
  • It has spell projectors (see the above image of the levlevor).
  • It is surrounded by a clockwork maze with conveyor belts.
  • There's a chamber of mirrors, where the walls, floor and ceiling are all mirrors. When you look into it, each of your infinite reflections show a different possible version of yourself - different race, class, color, gender, etc.
Bidam had seduced the lady would-be demon lord last time. We ran a goofy mini-adventure about Bidam's sperm going through the "Womb of Perils". I'll spare you the details.

Bazuuma gave the heroes a copy of a spell called Teleport Ward. It protects an area from teleportation. It's from the dragon magazine article. I am trying to give the heroes more spells as part of my new policy: when I use an article or supplement that has new spells in it, I should let the players learn some of them.

The Demonweb

The adventurers said goodbye to Bazuuma and their caravan headed back out into the Plain of 1,000 Portals. They spotted some manes (low level demons) and let them be. Later, they passed a lake of molten iron.

They crossed a bridge over the River Styx. Quavis pointed out that if the heroes touched it, they'd lose their memories forever. I meant for this to be a huge clue as to how the two drow in this adventure lost their memories, but neither player picked up on it.

They met with a drow who led them into a portal to the Demonweb. Out among the strands, the group saw a half-mile long spider watching them. It was actually Lolth's animated fortress (from Q1, Queen of the Demonweb Pits).

The heroes popped out in a chamber in the underground cavern known as the vault of the drow. Dark elves approached them, talked to Quavis and began to unload the cargo. All of them wore green hooded cloaks.

From here, the adventurers were on their own. It was up to them to sneak or talk their way past the drow and get into the city.

I changed this area a bit. In the adventure, there's a chamber called the Egg of Lolth and in it is a tall building known as the Fane of Lolth. The building is dangerous and is barely detailed in this book. There's nothing to gain by going in there. So I just decided that it is nothing but a pile of rubble.

Instead, in the Egg of Lolth, a bunch of drow parade out some prisoners. Three mindflayers pick out some prisoners and eat their brains. The rest are thrown into a magma rift. I did this to foreshadow a few things:
  1. House Kilsek has taken over the city, and they have been killing anyone suspected of being sympathizers to House Tormtor.
  2. House Kilsek is working with mind flayers.
So in the middle of all this, the heroes tried to bluff their way past all these drow. Theran had a really hard time bluffing. The drow heard him speak and were suspicious of his "surface elf" accent. They were the first to ask him, "Where's your pifwafwi?!" He had no idea what she was talking about.

They asked a priestess about the drow they were looking for - Erehe. The priestess explained that Erehe was with the enemy - House Tormtor. After a ton of awkward back and forth, the heroes were able to get past the Egg of Lolth and headed into the vault.

The Vault

I made player maps of the vault, as it is pretty confusing. There's three main sections:
  1. An area with estates of the drow houses.
  2. Erelhei-Cinlu, the depraved city of the drow.
  3. The Lower Vault, an area full of fungus fields and merchant houses.
The whole place is in the middle of a civil war. Three drow houses - Tormtor, Aleval and Everhate are battling the rest of the houses for control.

The group got to the estate area. They ran into some drow riding giant lizards. The drow asked Theran, "Where's your pifwafwi?" The heroes bluffed and privately wondered among themselves, "What the hell is a pifwafwi?!" They'd be asked this question by almost everyone they came across - gate guards, beggars, suspicious merchants, etc.

Theran had no idea what they were talking about. Remember, Theran was a regular elf transformed by a slaad lord to look like a drow. When he speaks, he speaks with a "surface elf" accent.

I kept waiting for the group to head off the road so I could have a displacer beast attack them, but they stuck to the road.

They went to the estate of House Tormtor and asked to speak with Erehe. There were githyanki guards there, which threw the heroes off a bit. Basically what has happened is that Tormtor recruited the aid of the githyanki in the civil war.

After a long discussion, the heroes were told that Erehe was at war further in the vault and wouldn't be in the estate for a few days. The group actually seriously considered handing over all of their weapons, armor and equipment and waiting in the estate for several days for Erehe.


They went into the city. They wanted to make their way through it to get to the Great Gate, as apparently Erehe was involved in a battle there.

The city is crazy. It is full of brothels, torture parlors, drug saloons and beggars who give you leprosy if you don't give them money! There are slaves everywhere. In Gygax's Vault, there's a mention of three different drow drugs:
  • Mushroom powder
  • Poppy juice
  • Lotus dust
No notes on what they do, as far as I could find.

I included a lot of merchants in the city. I figured I'd give the group a chance to acquire magic items if they wanted them.

A group of "bitter youths," who were half-orc/half-drow, tried to mess with the heroes. They shoved Theran to the ground and started stomping on him. Others tried to snatch The Orcusword out of Bidam's sheath!

Theran knocked three of them out with a spell, while Bidam dropped the other three in a single round. The people in the streets gathered around and cheered the heroes on, shouting "Slit their throats!" The heroes refused.

The adventurers watched in dismay as people swarmed the bitter youths, slit their throats and looted their meager belongings. Then, a swarm of spiders began devouring what was left of their bodies.

Spiders are everywhere in Erelhei Cinlu. The people revere them. There are webs all over the place and spiders of all sizes just hanging out.

The heroes resumed their trip through the city, intent on getting out of this evil place as quickly as possible. They saw a drow in an alley whipping a slave and just kept going. They passed by a gambling hall and a torture parlor.

They passed through market, and stopped in their tracks when they saw a lady selling pifwafwis for 1500 gold each.

A pifwafwi is a cloak that all the drow wear in the Vault. They are magic cloaks that make you predator-invisible when the hood is up, and those drow who don't wear one are deemed to be suspicious or outsiders. The heroes were going to buy them, but realized that maybe they should just kill some drow and steal them instead.

They were approached by goblin beggars who asked for food. The heroes gave them a pile of gold. The goblins, overjoyed, asked the heroes to meet their boss in a secret tunnel.

The adventurers went into the secret tunnel, a small area underground area where a bunch of smelly goblins lived in hiding. They explained the House Kilsek had taken control of the city, and were killing thousands of people - anyone they suspected of being allies of Tormtor.

The goblins offered to let the heroes stay in the tunnel whenever they liked. The heroes bought them food, and in exchange the boss gave the heroes a crusty ring. It turned out the ring was actually a ring of arachnid control!


The goblins also knew a guy who might know where Erehe was. His name was Terrigen, a rebellious dark elf who hated the noble houses. The group met him in a bar. I went into this huge description of Terrigen - he was covered in scars, his eyes flickered with equal parts sorrow and rage, he was drinking shadow stein and seemed lost in thought.

Terrigen looked the heroes over. A goblin whispered to him. Terrigen nodded, thought for a moment, looked around conspiratorially and leaned forward.

He asked Theran in a whisper: "Where's your pifwafwi?!"

This might be a "you had to be there" kind of thing, but none of us could stop laughing for what seemed like forever.

Terrigen agreed to take them to Erehe if they would do something for him - he wanted them to kill the House Kilsek constable who was in charge of slaughtering the thousands of civilians.

The group agreed.


Drow and a Draegloth
Theran and Bidam decided to go to a brothel to find some drow to rob. The brothel they chose had human and elf slaves working there, being watched by a draegloth guard. The heroes brought two women to the same room.

There was a bit of planning, which really should have been done prior to the entry of the brothel. Once the slaves realized that the adventurers were intent on battling the drow of Erelhei Cinlu, the slaves begged the heroes to free them.

The heroes went downstairs, talked with the draegloth, and bought the slaves. They took the slaves out of the brothel and hid them with the goblins. Then they hung out outside the brothel and waited for two drow wearing pifwafwis to come out of the brothel.

After some waiting, the adventurers spotted targets. Bidam laid in an alley, pretending to be unconscious or dead. Theran used the ring of arachnid control to make a swarm of spiders head into the alley. The two drow noticed the swarm, followed it, and saw Bidam lying there in the alley. They got excited, as Bidam is overloaded with treasure.

One drow leaned over Bidam and went to slit his throat. Theran jumped into the alley and blasted him with his wand of magic missiles. Bidam stabbed the other guy with the Orcusword. As they traded blows, Bidam repeatedly rolled natural 1's to hit.

If you remember, in the book, The Orcusword is supposed to break on a natural one. I didn't like that, so I am just narrating damage. I think I'll have it where Bidam needs to repair the Orcusword in some fashion next session.

One drow put Theran in a globe of darkness. Bidam killed the other. We had a bit of confusion as far as what spell Theran could cast without seeing his target and what penalties applied. I googled it now and it's still a bit fuzzy.

The surviving drow tried to flee. He lost his concentration on the darkness globe and raced out into the street. Theran used a ray of frost to slow him and then Bidam had a brief duel with him and killed him. Most people in the street fled, but a few drow took notice. I rolled randomly to see if there were guards present, but I rolled low. So I decided that the drow watchers were messed up on lotus dust.

The heroes finally had their pifwafwis. Now they needed to go kill some drow guards. Bidam was hurt very badly (he had about 4 hit points left), as he had been stabbed repeatedly by the drow's poison blade. They needed to find somewhere safe to rest.

Click here to proceed to The Battle of The Great Gate.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons - 5th Edition So Far

Now that I have gotten caught up with Out of the Abyss, I'd like to take some time to talk about the current way the D&D team is handling things. Back in November, Chris Perkins gave us a lot of insight during a seminar at Game Hole 2015. Merric Blackman did a great job summing it up here.

I'm using art by Jeff Carlisle, who was really awesome but never quite got his due for some reason. He seemed to stop doing D&D art right when he got really good.

Here's some topics from this seminar that stuck out to me:

A Lot of Old D&D Books Were Bought and Never Used

I think that is certainly true. So much stuff - a lot of it really good - was made that people never got to. This phenomenon goes way back to my time in 2nd Edition. You may notice that right now in 2016 I am running Dead Gods, an adventure which came out in the mid-90's. I have been waiting 20 years to run it! It sat on the shelf so long because there was just so much other material I wanted to run. I still want to run Age of Worms, which came out around 10 years ago.

Also, in every edition there were so many sourcebooks full of things that I am still sifting through. There's just only so much stuff you can fit into a session. For example, say you get a book on seafaring. You have to wait until your heroes are near an ocean to use it! And if you're running Out of the Abyss now, and maybe a Ravenloft campaign next, then that book you bought will be sitting idle on a shelf for a very long time.

A good portion of this blog is really just me sifting through all the old volumes and pulling out cool material.

I think one of the unique things about role playing games in general is that a huge portion of the people who play the game also have the desire and ability to create material for the game. DrivethruRPG is full of 3rd party stuff for 5e, far more than anyone could actually use.

Shared Experiences

The current model is to put out one big adventure every 6 months. They want everyone to have a "shared experience", kind of like how many of us from the 80's have fond memories of the Tomb of Horrors or the Isle of Dread. Back in the old days, you can ask someone you just met at a convention, "So what did your group do in the opening hallway in the Tomb of Horrors?" and you'd usually get an answer.

I think that the ultimate goal for the creators of D&D is for when people look back on Out of the Abyss, they think of December 2015 and the friends they had at that time, the music they listened to, all that kind of thing. Sort of like the Marvel comic book crossovers. The Infinity Gauntlet miniseries brings me right back to the late 80's/early 90's.

The Adventures Are Too Long

There's been a problem with this approach, though. The adventures are too long. This is touched on in Chris' seminar.

In fact, these adventures aren't just a little too long, they are way too long. Out of the Abyss takes a group from level 1 to level 15. I don't think there's too many gaming groups who will be even close to done with it in 6 months of play.

I wrote quite a bit about the other groups in my game store back when I was running Adventurers League games. If you remember, there was one table that played Hoard of the Dragon Queen every week for six months. After all that time, they had only made it to chapter 4! That group would need about two years of weekly play just to complete Tyranny of Dragons.

Judging from the search results in my blog, by far the thing people are googling the most is stuff from Tyranny of Dragons. That's the first storyline. People are still playing the first adventure.

I think groups play slower than Wizards of the Coast expects them to. I also think people for the most part, at least those outside of the Adventurers League, do not play D&D on a weekly basis. I think they get together when they can, but when they can is more of a monthly schedule than a weekly one.

So right now we are in this weird situation where Wizards of the Coast are putting out adventures that are so big that groups won't be able to play (or have the need to buy) the next book for a very long time.

I have been trying to figure out the best solution to this. How long should an adventure be that groups can complete in six months?

What Length is Best?

These old adventures we have fond memories of were about 14-22 pages long. I was stunned when I read through White Plume Mountain a while back. It's just a handful of pages. Yet it is a large dungeon that took 4 sessions to get through. And it was awesome.

So if you're making a 5th edition adventure that takes 6 months of real life time to finish, I guess you could make it where characters start at level 1 and they finish at about level 8. People can definitely do that in 6 months, I think. The hardcover book might be a little shorter, but that's OK.

But it seems like wizards wants these adventures to be epic. The final battle in each path has been with a major entity: Tiamat, Imix (or another prince of elemental evil), and Demogorgon (or other demon lords).

If these adventures only go to level 8, then that means we don't get those fights. Also you'll run into the problem where players are going to want to keep leveling. It happened over and over again in the 4e encounters program. After every season ended, the next adventure started at level one and players got annoyed. They wanted to keep going with their old character. 

I personally like the idea of Wizards putting out one adventure for levels 1-8, and then another one for levels 8-15. So then groups could level their characters all the way up over the course of one year. But I wonder if putting out a book for high level characters will be harmful, as new players need to start at level one and thus won't buy that book.

Future Adventures

I was tantalized by this quote:

"One upcoming adventure will be very short, but is very, very replayable: it can be played 200 times and you would never play the same adventure twice. The adventure can be played two or three times in 6 months, and it really changes up the model for adventure design."

The thing that pops into my mind when I read this is Baba Yaga's Hut. All of the rooms are connected in a weird way, but there's room to shift them around and there's a lot of interdimensional stuff going on.

Or maybe this adventure is some kind of random chart scenario? Where you roll to see what room or area comes next?

I'd really like an adventure set in Sigil, and one in the city of Greyhawk. All of this Forgotten Realms stuff just isn't my thing.

Are the 5e Adventures Classics?

I think it is too early to say whether the 5e adventures will be fondly remembered. From what I can tell, more people are playing them than, say, the people who played the 4e path. 4e's Keep on the Shadowfell is not fondly recalled, I don't think.

Personally I think that the 5e adventures are good but are missing a certain inspired element. I can't think of too many really crazy moments in any of the adventures that players truly got excited about.

I did like the beginning of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, with the town under siege. The problem there was that the whole thing was too difficult to run as written. To me, the very beginning of an adventure is where there should be a classic memorable scene or encounter of some kind. That's partly because not everyone is going to play through to the end.

Play Every Week
Writing this post really crystallized things for me. I can't encourage everyone enough to make an effort to play every week. You don't have to play for 6 hours. Just do 2. If you're organized, you can get a lot done. 

A weekly schedule keeps everything fresh in people's heads. It gives the campaign a ton of momentum. And it's something to look forward to, really.

That's one of the great things about D&D. It's a pretty healthy hobby to have. You're not doing drugs, you're not getting wasted (well, probably not). You are socializing with friends.

I just watched this documentary on loneliness. A lot of people out there are having a hard time feeling connected. D&D is the perfect way to connect in a safe and healthy way. It is an excuse to get together and to sit and laugh and create with other people.