Every year, we try to make it a habit to run something thematic for Halloween. Our regular Sunday game fell on All Saints’ Day, so I pitched something I thought was thematic and fun: let’s play the old I6 – Ravenloft AD&D module. That got some support (if only so that our Star Wars GM could take a load off).
The only question was what system to use; I’d debated using a faster, more dynamic system that still had that OSR dungeon-crawly feel. Dungeon World or Fate Freeport were the prime contenders, but I was convinced to run it using D&D 5th. It works; the group is burned out and bemoaning the flaws of Pathfinder, and I wasn’t looking forward to teaching half of them a new system.
D&D 5 still has something of a learning curve—one of my players gets confused by the difference between “sleeping” and a long rest, and seems miffed that they aren’t loaded down with magic items—but it’s hard to fail at a simple d20 system.
Ravenloft takes an interesting place in the hierarchy of classic D&D modules. It’s one of the earliest adventures that was more than just a pure OSR dungeon crawl, and had quite a bit of story behind it—foreshadowing the more plot- (and metaplot-) heavy adventures of late 1eAD&D (DragonLance) and more of the directions that 2e AD&D took with its adventures.
The module’s written by Tracy and Laura Hickman of DragonLance fame, and it shares a lot of similarities. Strahd is a GM’s wet dream, an intelligent adversary who toys with the vastly outgunned PC’s; the backstory and more rounded characterization are what drives the adventure. It’s pure Halloween goodness, busting out every classic horror trope in a locale hybridizing the traditional D&D murder dungeon with a haunted house.
It’s full of rich gothic atmosphere, to the point of being overwrought and a bit hackneyed; despite those fond memories of reading DragonLance back when we were 12, the Hickmans’ writing is not the greatest. My players are a bit tired of having at least one anthropomorphized inanimate object per “read this text aloud” box. The sconces are sad, the weeds are grasping, the houses sigh. It’s a bit much.
And the module is railroady, though perhaps not as bad as it’s reputed to be. Namely, when trying to leave certain parts of the dungeon, any number of obstacles get in the way. You can’t even leave the valley Barovia is in without choking to death if Strahd hasn’t been defeated. It’s presented as a small sandbox, but there’s only one destination—Strahd’s castle. Overall, it’s got problems but is a pretty decent module; it has a lot of elements that can be chafing, and won’t work for every GM, but the castle and setup is pretty iconic.
Session the First
So, we start out with our heroes in the most typical of places—a tavern somewhere outside of Luskan. A gypsy comes in with a letter from a local Burgomaster, offering gold and loot for the taking. Our brave 5th-level adventurers agreed and set out the next day, into the mists of Barovia.
The party is a good example of “the group needs someone to do X, but I don’t want to play [class] so I’m going to play [semi-related class] instead.” They also gave a very hearty “FUCK YOU” to being heroes. This leaves us with:
- Ren Stormrider, Human Cleric (clerk), the one player who took one of the four original base classes. Unfortunately the healer is also the front-line fighter, being of the War domain (which is boss, for the extra attacks). Also, he’s NE, a fish priest of the storm goddess Umberlee. (The Bitch Queen. Yay D&D feminism.) Really, he just wants to look like this guy, decked out with his fish hook (glaive) and various undersea magic items that have no bearing on this adventure.
- Morthwil, Halfling Warlock. He’s CE and has a familiar, a demonic toad, which the party uses as a lighter/portable stove/scrying device as the need arises. Morthwil, being a warlock, casts a lot of eldritch blasts and has a huge book strapped to his back. The book tells him to burn things. Morthwil isn’t that smart. You can see where this is going.
- Nails, Half-elf Bard. (Wow. So hardcore. Very metal.) He’s LE and has a magical lute that lets him cast more than the paltry number of spells a feeble normal bard can. He’s a highwayman, robbing people and threatening to let Morthwil burn them. He’s got an INT of 12 (IIRC), and a WIS of 10, so naturally being the smartest and most charismatic of the lot, the others elected him party leader. He’s also the one who’ll get them stuck in the dungeon (more on that later).
- Prendalfin (or something like that, we can’t remember and so just call him Purty) the Elven Monk. He has shoes of striding and springing, a silver short sword, and he punches things a lot. He’s also vaguely racist against humans. Even though he’s CG, the average NPC hates him more than the various criminals and sadists he travels with, because of how he always chides humans for their inferiority to elves. He’s a shadow monk or somesuch and can turn himself invisible or make a small zone of silence a very few times a day.
So, with the addition of two horses, 1d10 loot donkies, and a riding St. Bernard, that’s our group of bold adventurers.
After sleeping in the spooky tavern (or in the case of Nails and Morthwil, in the stables, not knowing they all had rooms for the night), they set off on a five hour tour for the land of Barovia. The module involves a lot of “read this text aloud” boxes to simulate a journey; then the group finds a corpse in the mist, a suspiciously similar gypsy with a suspiciously similar note. Morthwil decides they should stick together and not leave the trail, right before abandoning the others and wandering off into the mists. (He also dealt first blood, shooting a flaming bolt randomly into the mists that pegs Nails in the back.) They are then attacked by worgs, which isn’t much of a threat to 5th-level characters, but leads to an evocative mist-laden combat nonetheless.
After arriving at the near-abandoned town of Borovia in the valley of Barovia, the characters wander around. Ren undergoes a personal montage to fix a fountain at the center of town; Purty tries to sell wolf/worg meat to the shopkeep but is appalled at his inflated prices; Nails investigates some crying but ignores it in favor of going to the Burgomaster’s house. Having found the plot, he discovers the truth: the Burgomaster is long dead, dead of a heart attack. Strahd von Zarovich, local vampire lord, was tormenting his daughter Ireena because Strahd has the hots for her. Also, this land is cursed and dying and you can’t leave it and stuff.
After looking for help, they find only a low-level priest defending a broken church, that mysterious crying they decide is best left ignored, and a group of gypsies at the tavern (including her half-brother). It’s unclear why the gypsies don’t fight to save her—by “her” I mean Ireena, only woman in town—but whatev, they’re gypsies. Probably as likely to steal her firstborn as they are to help fend off creatures of the night. (Yay cultural stereotypes.) The party agrees to help her, and that night they fend off an assault of worgs and bats.
Starting off the next day, refreshed after a night of worg-slaying, the party sets leaves Ireena in her broken house and venture forth. They meet more gypsies, have their fortunes read, barely understand the prophecies, and continue on. (The prophecies involve a tarot-style draw that randomly determines Strahd’s goals, where powerful objects that weaken him are, and where Strahd can be found. It’s interesting in that it makes the module a bit more replayable, but ultimately does not impact the adventure very much other than determining where the epic loots are dropped.)
Lastly, they find an all-glass carriage drawn by horses with flaming red eyes. With a shrug, Purty, Ren, Morthwil, and Morthwil’s dog get into the glass-bottom carriage ride and are taken off to Castle Ravenloft. (Lightning crashes, horses wicker, etc.) Nails lets out a blistering solo, casting Fly, so that he can ride his horse up to the castle. Ren’s horse and loot donkies are left forgotten, abandoned to wander the valley and become worg chow.
Really, the first session is largely scene-setting; if you wanted to trim this for a convention it’s very do-able, but running it as a campaign is pretty similar to my experiences with other classic OSR modules. There’s a dungeon, but first the characters must stop by the local town, pay the inflated fee for 10-foot poles and iron rations, pick up some rumors or local lore, and then set out into the murder dungeon. It’s the safe lobby you get your bearings in before entering the murder house.
Session the Second
Passing over a drawbridge into the courtyard, the party first looks for a place to stash the remaining horse and riding St. Bernard. They find the carriage house with another scary carriage and some more scary horses, and decide that’s the perfect place for Nails’ horse to bed down. (The dog, having 8 hp, is left to roam around in expectation that it knows how to survive.) They investigate the back of the castle/dungeon, and decided to descend and go in through some back windows rather than go in via the main entryway. (This is only the third time my players have decided “sure, let’s go in the castle’s poop chute, that seems the best way to enter.”)
Trick is, said windows are 110 feet below them, 890 feet above the bottom of the cliff; they end up with another levitate/fly trick to lower everybody down to some grimy old castle windows. Unbeknownst to them, I rolled up to see if this area—the crypt of the Zarovich elders—had any roving guardians; it did, and 1d6 (6) specters had phased through the walls and lay in wait.
Purty bursts in the window, followed by Morthwil. That’s when the specters attack; Ren is hit with the HP drain, Morthwil takes some damage but regains it due to his warlock abilities (temporary HP whenever he kills an adversary), and soon the monsters are slain. Investigating the twin tombs, the party feared the worst (vampires); instead, they find two of the ancient relics needed to defeat Strahd: the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, and the Tome of Strahd. (Yay random draws; this is where the tarot draw determined the items would show up.) After staking the bones of Countess Ravenovia, then deciding to mend them so as not to be grave defilers and incite the wrath there. Next, they hunker down for a short rest.
One random roll later, they’re attacked by 2d4 (7) giant spiders. Those don’t fare as well, and take a huge hit from a single fireball from Morthwil. Several people get webbed and Ren is almost poisoned, but wounded giant spiders don’t turn out to be as potent an adversary as specters. Down they go.
Debating yet another short rest—they’re running low on spells, you see—the party decides to ascend the nearby set of stairs and leave this room. They come to a shimmering barrier; Torchie the demonic toad disappears when he’s pushed through it, having been teleported to the top of the stairs. Purty can pass through no problem, though, so the other three attempt it… only to be teleported to the top of the stairs. After a little trial and error, they realize they can’t pass through because they are all evil characters, and the barrier is one that refuses to let evil creatures enter the holy crypt of the dead Zarovich elders. (“What about those wandering monsters, mister GM?” you ask, and I say “incorporeal undead, fuck you.”)
So, now they realize that they are trapped in the sub-basement of a murder dungeon, a bit out of their league and without an easy escape route/semi-secure area (e.g., that crypt) to rest up in. Instead of being safe from everything except spiders and incorporeal undead, they’re now in the belly of the deathtrap dungeon.
Somebody didn’t think their cunning plan all the way through…
Finding themselves in a mist-shrouded undercrypt, they decide to, naturally, start clearing the place out before looking for a way up. The first few crypts they open are empty, or full of bones and rags. The third has one of Strahd’s brides, a vampire spawn. Moving much faster than the party, she gets the drop on them and grapples Purty, giving him a nice bite and lowering his max HP by 7; in response, Purty activates the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind and she’s stun-locked by its holy light, whereupon they stake her. This rustles up the 3,000 bats resting on the ceiling, but aside from making a shit-ton of noise (and alerting a wandering monster or two), they manage to finish the vampire spawn off.
After another round of healing, they open some more crypts, and end up with another ex-wife (a banshee, really, Christ this is pretty misogynist) on their hands. Ren fails his saves and is terrified, then drops to 0 hp from the banshee’s wail. He does make his first Death Save with a nat 20. The rest of the party does some severe damage to said banshee, though Purty is roughed up a bit; Nails scares her away for a few rounds as they heal up Ren. While she slips through the floor to get a good hit on Purty’s back, she’s low on health and goes down hard. Morthwil is thrilled to find all of her platinum, gold, and electrum pieces, but Purty was hoping for magic items that may help them stay alive. (Also: if only they had some loot donkies to carry all this gold, instead of having left them upstairs in the scary horse shed!)
(Convenient aside: both 1e AD&D and 5e are relatively low-magic. In a 3.x-based system like Pathfinder, you can expect item bonuses to go up by +1 every 3 levels, though in most modules and adventure paths the power level usually rises a lot faster than that. In 5e, you’re capped at 3 or so magic items, and they are much harder to find; they can also be a bit more powerful, especially thanks to bounded accuracy where a +1 bonus carries more of an impact.)
Next up is a crypt full of three phase spiders, which pounce on the PCs as they’re attempting to open the door; Ren, as usual, fails his save and takes a big hit of poison damage. With a flash of fury, Purty smote one spider dead in one blow; Morthwil and Nails finished off another, and after a bit of flailing around on behalf of everyone involved, the final spider lay dead.
With Morthwil’s player needing to head out, that was it for session two… leaving the group dangerously low on spells, just about out of short rest hit dice, and badly wounded (Ren went from 50 max HP down to 30 max HP from the specters’ penalties, and Purty took a 7 max HP penalty from the Banshee). They need a long rest to regain those spells and lose those HP penalties, but without being able to pass beyond the barrier into the relative safety of the crypt, they haven’t found a place yet that they feel comfortable chancing a rest.
For those looking for a decent 1e AD&D to 5e conversion, see here. The monsters are all straightforward; aside from Strahd himself and the Strahd zombies, everything is in the 5e MM. Specters and wraiths are less dangerous, with level drain replaced by reductions to a character’s max HP allotment, but that’s still pretty deadly combined with their reductions and immunities. Vampires are downright powerful, too, and I look forward to being able to use one on the PCs… especially Strahd, who is a 10th-level magic user.
Note that I did start them out at 10,500xp, a bit over halfway to 6th level IIRC. I also gave them all a magic item (metal bard = magic lute, fishhead cleric = various aquatic crap and +1 glaive, warlock = RoP +1, monk = boots of striding/springing, in hopes that’ll get him over some traps), gave them a free Raise Dead scroll and some heal potions, and had them take max HP. Despite that, they’re still getting the crap kicked out of them; if I’d pushed hard in any of the combats with a wandering monster, or worse—Strahd—it would have been a TPK.
Really, a barbarian, paladin, or fighter would have taken the abuse better than the war cleric + monk combo, though the monk can dish out a ton of attacks (and thus crits a lot), and war cleric is one of the best variants of an already excellent class. Warlock is proving to be a solid choice, burning through spells only to regain them every short rest, and the bard has proven his worth thanks to several utility spells and backup healing.
The sad thing is, I’ve seen forum/blog posts about several groups who made it into the dungeon by taking the same back way in, through the ancient Zarovich crypts, enabling the PCs to slap down Strahd, stake him, and finish the module early. While it put the party right where they wanted to be, next to two icons of power, the barrier trapped them on the exact wrong side of the castle. They still need the Sunsword in order to defeat Strahd, and that’s upstairs in one of the towers or something. They can’t get back the way they came, and I think they’re going to end up forcing a Strahd encounter down in the crypts if they’re not careful.
Of course, many of the really dangerous foes are now above them, and there’s some fun stuff in the crypts (plus wandering monsters), so there’s no shortage of potential TPK’s. The vampire spawn, for example, was a pretty beastly encounter even though it only acted once—one of the players was sure something it was a full vampire. They survived without losing spells or healing due to their use of the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind… but, by shooting that wad, now they don’t have a main weapon on hand to use against Strahd.
To be a bit more fair, I think I’ll give Ren the ability to “re-charge” it with one attempt per day after a long rest, after some stupidly high skill check or series of skill checks (sum 50+ on three skill checks?). First, though, the party needs to get their bearings, and disturbing the crypts has already irritated the 3,000 bats above them, attracting the attention of some shambling friends…