In modern culture vampires tend to be pigeon holed into what might be referred to as vampiric genres; the slick, eastern European aristocracy of the night, who murmurs “Gooood Evenink” as his smile shows his fangs. The bestial Nosferatu, all pale withered skin, rat fangs, grave stink and animal hunger. The virus vampire, hordes of running blood suckers, similar to 28 Days Later zombies.
And of course, the sparkle skinned, pale, teenage sexy vamp, who we would all be better off forgetting. These archetypes propagate our media, from Edward Cullen through to Underworld, to the Count from Sesame Street (Do puppet vampires feed on other puppets…do puppets have blood?) and the same is true of RPG’s. We know Vampires right? Teeth, blood, sunlight, silver, crosses, Wesley Snipes, done. The problem is that familiarity breeds contempt, the Vampire just doesn’t stir the adventurers’ blood like a Demon Prince or an Evil God does. So, how did Tracy and Laura Hickman (original writers of the Ravenloft setting, now recalled to service) overcome the yawn factor of this iconic villain……read on adventurer, if you dare?
Firstly, let’s talk about the book itself. I once again brought my book with my own astral diamonds (actually it was a birthday present) and once again resisted the blandishments of “big roleplay” (actually they didn’t ask), and overall I’m very pleased with the quality of the product. The book is well made and well bound, the artwork is exemplary and the internal design is well thought out and cohesive. It’s a welcome change from the blandness of Tyranny of Dragons or the confusing jumble of Princes of the Apocalypse. The preface by Tracy Hickman is one of the most interesting I have ever read, charting the rise of the Vampire myth, and this is echoed in the rest of the writing which manages to tread the narrow line between informative and engaging.
As a slight warning to prospective DMs, Curse of Strahd is heavily stylized in the direction of the traditional Transylvanian Wampyr. The whole book is replete with Eastern European names, accents, styling and a healthy dash of villainous gipsies. If that’s really not your thing then perhaps this isn’t the product for you, but if you’re on the fence I urge you to stick with it as this stylization is, on the whole, artfully done and adds significant flavour to the adventure.
So how does Curse of Strahd overcome the quotidian nature of the vampire bad guy? Well mostly by avoiding confrontation with him. While the villain of the piece is the great Strahd von Zarovich, the greatest threat to the players is the land of Barovia itself. The tone of this demi-plane is set early on, crushingly dismal, oppressively grey, a constant inescapable nightmare which grinds down even the most well-meaning of people. Strahd’s power isn’t felt through his combat prowess (although he is a beast), it’s seen in his effect on the well written and three dimensional NPC’s that fill this adventure. And through this Strahd himself is the player’s shadow, appearing in a mirror and flitting through the background, killing off NPC’s in front of the Players and attacking the party at their lowest moment before melting back into the night with a mocking chuckle. All of this combined means that when the players arrive at the mighty and imposing Ravenloft, glowing blades and holy symbols in hand, they should hate Strahd with a passion.
It’s this quality of writing that elevates Strahd from simple vampire to memorable arch enemy, he’s not something the players have to kill, he’s someone they want to kill. This is reinforced by the use of rumours in each of the towns, depending on who they talk to the players might initially perceive Strahd as a tragic hero, a Prince and ruler laid low by treachery and searching the afterlife for his lost love. But as more of the truth is revealed the players learn this is a porcelain mask which conceals the beast beneath, Strahd is, in fact, a selfish and evil creature whose twisted desires destroyed the people around him and created this terrible purgatory.
Having established that the Hickman’s writing has turned Strahd from the run of the mill fang-banger into memorable big bad, let’s have a look at the nuts and bolts of the game. I’ll try not to give too many of the specifics away because you should really read the book yourself and I don’t want to ruin it, but I will try and cover the major points and anything I think stands out.
Let’s start with the Tarokka cards, mine hasn’t arrived yet so I can’t review them yet but I do like the mechanic. The main plot of Curse of Strahd is determined by a tarot style reading done by the DM before the game. This establishes the places of certain items, potential allies and Strahd himself for the showdown. The great part is that at any point the players can visit certain NPC’s and have their fortune read, at which point you redo the card draw and potentially change the course of the game. I like this mechanic, there are a significant number of potential outcomes and, if you were that way inclined, you could totally stack the deck to produce the result you felt was best. If you don’t have the cards then there is a conversion table for using a standard card deck, this I also like as unlike some companies *cough* Games Workshop *cough* it indicates that this is genuine mechanic rather than a conceit to force you to buy add-on products.
The land of Barovia is brought to life with through great description and fantastic art work and I was pleasantly surprised to find a full-scale map fold out map, that could be removed from the back of the book, detailing Barovia on one side and Castle Ravenloft on the other (the map is a little flimsy and mine tore a bit when removing it so be careful). There are three main villages to visit and each is its own slice of hell, from the crushing misery of Barovia through the false happiness of Vallaki and the false security of Krezk. Surrounding them is a plethora of gothic encounter areas like werewolf dens, wizard’s towers, mills run by hags and crumbling forgotten temples. There’s more than enough here for a party to do, especially between levels one and ten, and your players shouldn’t get bored. The monsters, Tarroka deck and magic items are all detailed in the index at the back of the book, where they are easily accessed, rather than scattered throughout and an into quest called “Death House”” if you need your players shepherded up to level three.
So how do I think it’s going to play? Well obviously that depends on your players but a couple of things stand out. If they go charging straight at the castle they are going to die, as they should. If they repeatedly attempt to escape Barovia they are going to die, also as they should. Perhaps the book doesn’t impress this quite as much it should but at the beginning, Strahd is an insurmountable threat and if your players go straight at him then it’s going to be a short campaign. If they explore the land of Barovia and collect the items (and levels) to give them a fighting chance against Strahd it should build to a great climactic fight.
Speaking of fighting there is enough to keep even the most blood hungry of players happy, however, this isn’t the main thrust of the game. Having restricted themselves to the gothic horror genre the Hickman’s also restricted the type of enemy they could use without
breaking the theme. They could have just ignored that and thrown wave after wave of the undead against the players until “roll for initiative” elicited more groans from the players than the zombies, but instead they have chosen to use the milestone advancement technique and mixed rewards for puzzle solving and social interaction in with the choppy choppy.
So is this the perfect adventure? Well no, it has its faults. In the introduction, which talks about setting the scene, the Hickman’s statement that “there are no stranger bed fellows than horror and humour” and they are totally right. So I was disappointed to see a few jokey tombs thrown into the crypts of Castle Ravenloft; for my money the tomb of Sir Klutz Tripalotsky (who fell on his own sword…bah dum cha!) really detracts from the oppressive atmosphere of Castle Ravenloft and I will be taking the red pen to him and all other comedy names. Speaking of Ravenloft, and wereravens, and the symbol of Ravenloft, and Queen Ravenovia and RAVENSRAVENSRAVENSRAVENS, there is such a thing as over egging a pudding……with Ravens. Also while there is some advice at the start of the book about creating a horror setting they are a little brief for my liking. I have some thoughts on running a horror campaign myself which I will be discussing in a later article. I suppose it should also be mentioned that Strahd breaks no ground on the vampire theme, this is pure Bram Stoker/Vlad Dracula fare, it’s a black choker and cape party but it’s done so well I didn’t find it jarring. Overall, however, this is well put together gothic romp which your average player should enjoy and will have the Ann Rice reading, eyeliner loving, pentacle wearers creaming their crypts. I give it nine out of ten screaming skulls.
TL; DR. It’s great, probably the best set out and written campaign so far. Unless you don’t like Vampires……or Ravens. If that’s you then stay away mortal and look a little closer at the cover art of the things you purchase.