Review by Art Schmidt
Count Strahd von Zarovich is having guests for dinner – and you are invited.
The latest storyline in Dungeon & Dragons 5th Edition debuts this Tuesday, March 15, 2016, and much like the three previous storylines (Tyranny of Dragons, Elemental Evil and Rage of Demons), it takes a tried-and-true theme from the original edition of the “world’s greatest roleplaying game” and re-vamps it, adding in more flavor, updating the theme, and expanding it with many more areas to explore. Curse of Strahd takes one of the most beloved adventures from 1st Edition D&D’s Castle Ravenloft and presents a large, in-depth and exciting reincarnation of the classic adventure for players and game masters of all levels of expertise.
The campaign book for the Rage of Demons storyline, entitled Out of the Abyss, was an excellent adventure, but that manual is thick with rules and can be difficult to run in several places, lending itself to a more experienced game master and players. Curse of Strahd is just as well thought-out and immersive an experience, but can be handled by those with less experience and even, dare I say, newbie game masters looking to cut their teeth on a meaty adventure. And CoS has the meats!
Waaaay back in the first iteration of Dungeons & Dragons (before anyone thought to call it “First Edition” because, hey, that’s all there was!), adventures were typically narrow of scope and limited to a couple of locations. They were meant to be played in a single or handful of sessions, and then the game master would have to look elsewhere for another challenge for their players. And most of these adventures were the stuff of pulp fiction; simple goals, thin plots and lots of monsters to hack your way through in order to gain the treasure and gold. And everyone loved that.
Then along came Tracy Hickman (of Dragonlance, Darksword Trilogy and Death Gate Cycle fame) and he had the audacity to think “Why are these monsters here? Why are they trying to defeat us? What’s their story?” Tracy and his wife Laura came up with Count Strahd von Zarovich, a tragic but thoroughly evil and menacing figure modeled after the original vampires of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel and Nosferatu of early cinema. Then they wrapped an immersive story around this figure, with NPCs (non-player characters, for the uninitiated), locations and lesser foes who made sense, who thoroughly belonged in the adventure and had more depth than a set of statistics to be overcome by the power-hungry party of adventurers. To top it off, they added a groundbreaking 3D map (shown below) and guidelines for adding an ambience to the story that no other adventure had ever provided before.
Thus was born Ravenloft, one of the most popular and loved adventures (and then series) in all of tabletop role-playing game history. It has been re-created and expanded in almost every edition of Dungeons & Dragons ever since, for better or worse (as these things always go, more worse than better).
Ravenloft and Count Strahd have endured in gamers’ imaginations for over 30 years, and now there is a new version of the old story for players new and old alike to enjoy. But, just how enjoyable is Curse of Strahd?
The book itself is very nicely done, as all of the books Wizards of the Coast has done for this latest revision have been. Great artwork and a top-notch layout design make the book itself worthy of the money it costs to purchase. Artists Ben Oliver, Kieran Yanner, Dave Allsop and many others capture the dark, Gothic feel of the story in their drawings and paintings, lending the book a genuine horror flavor. Unlike the last storyline, this campaign book included several handouts for the game master to provide to the players in the form of notes, journal entries and pages from ancient tomes. These are available for download from the WotC website here. Anyone who has played a tabletop RPG understands the value in handing tangible items to your players, so they can take a mental break from your voice reading them tons of text, and interpret some of the adventure purely for themselves. It adds a lot to the immersive experience of a good roleplaying game.
The adventure is designed for a group of players from first through tenth level, which is a bit of a departure from previous campaign materials. To date, WotC has published campaigns taking characters up to fifteenth level, which while close to the current maximum level of 20 provided for in the rules, doesn’t provide opportunity for players to reach the upper stratosphere of character power. And now, Curse of Strahd only plays through tenth, which cuts both the campaign’s play life and the players’ experiences somewhat short. Also, the campaign itself is designed to start at third level, with a mini-adventure provided in an Appendix A (Death House) to play characters from first to third. While this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the adventure, it does highlight one of the main complaints about this latest campaign book.
The book seems to pack in a lot of material, but for a shorter campaign length. At 256 pages, it is the same size as the previous two campaigns, Out of the Abyss and Princes of the Apocalypse. But whereas those two campaigns started characters at first level and provided them with encounters and exploration options to advance through fifteenth level, Curse of Strahd really starts with the players; characters at third level and takes them up through tenth, with the mini-adventure for first and second levels being added in almost as an after-thought. The good news is that this mini-adventure, called Death House, is also available online at the WotC site here, so a group can play through it for free while deciding whether the milieu and atmosphere fits their play style and expectations, and whether to invest in the campaign manual or not. This continues WotC’s commitment to get Dungeons & Dragons into the hands of as many players as possible. This has thus far been an excellent strategy and seems to have worked out well for the company.
Despite this limitation on play-length, the materials provided in the campaign manual are rich in detail, tips for running a successful horror game, and should still be well worth the money if your group wishes to explore Barovia. And for more experienced gamers who have explored the environs around Ravenloft in a past edition, this new re-imagining of Castle Ravenloft has a boat load of additional content. The lands of Barovia, the countryside around Castle Ravenloft, has been greatly expanded over the original module, with more locations, more encounters and adventures to experience, and a story with more depth than in previous incarnations. One way to demonstrate this difference is in the map of the countryside the adventurers will be inhabiting for the duration of the campaign.
This is the original map of Barovia from Castle Ravenloft:
And this is the map as it is provided in Curse of Strahd, on a large poster-sized map, no less!
This and other maps for the campaign can be downloaded for free from the WotC website here, so you don’t have to photocopy or cut the ones out of your manual to show the players.
The campaign also contains new monsters and magical items for the adventurers to discover and deal with, but one thing it does not have is any new classes, spells or other character source material. This has been a hit or miss thing in the previous four campaigns, and that’s fine with me; Wizards seems to be keeping the new splat or player character option material to a minimum, providing some new stuff ever year so far but not going all in with new handbooks and other whatnots that previous versions were infamous for. There is one new Background available, the Haunted One, which lends itself directly to the campaign and the story, so that fits in well, along with some new Trinkets to fit into the Gothic milieu. It is also available for free download at the WotC site here.
Also back from previous incarnations of Ravenloft is the Tarokka Deck, a set of fortune telling cards carried by the campaign’s gypsy race called the Vistana. They are used by the game master to randomly place certain items, events and monsters in the campaign throughout the adventure, so that it can be played more than once with different outcomes. And while most players will not re-play an adventure they spend months going through, it both harkens back to the original adventure and also provides some nice variety and flexibility for the Dungeon Master. There are instructions in the manual on how to use a normal deck of playing cards to do the Tarokka fortune telling, or a DM with an extra $10 (plus S&H!) in their pockets can purchase an actual deck from Gale Force 9 at its website, here.
All in all, Curse of Strahd is a campaign most folks who want to play D&D in a Gothic or horror environment will love. Players of the game will also enjoy the adventure on its own merits, even without the macabre atmosphere, as the plot and sub-plots are engrossing and the environment richly detailed.
Curse of Strahd has an MSRP of $49.99, and is available at Amazon.com here and other fine online retailers for around $32.00. It can also be picked up at your Local Friendly Game Store (or LFGS) for less than the sticker price.