The Real Curse of Strahd

Oct 28, 2022 | 7 minutes read

Tags: ttrpg, osm

In pursuit of an idea1, I decided to run the original 1983 Ravenloft module. You know, the AD&D module that introduced us to the lord of the Domain of Dread, Strahd von Zarovich. The setup was simple enough: I proposed to run the adventure using Old School Essentials characters and mechanics, and it would take a session or two. Or so I thought. The reality is that at the pace my players were going, a full run-through of the module was set to take at least four sessions. Since I was allocating these sessions on a monthly basis, and I couldn't guarantee the players would be able to return (in fact, some didn't), I did not find this a sustainable path. I shelved that series, but it wasn't the length of the module that ultimately turned me off.

From the outset, I knew that Ravenloft was a troubled module. Its most recent incarnation via 5e's Curse of Strahd has done little to address the worst concerns, but my own tweaks2 probably didn't fare much better. But with some changes, I pushed on. In the first session, the players concentrated their efforts on the gloomy village of Barovia, whose ambience the descriptive text adequately conveys. They spent the entirety of the four hour session poking around the village before holing up for the night with the Burgomaster's children. A nighttime attack gave me my first clue on how deeply difficult this module was intended to be for players. A mere handful of wolves and a swarm of bats was enough to seriously deplete the party, and the group barely made it through enough rounds before the wolves and bats faded into the night accompanied by the sound of Strahd's laughter.

Strahd is a Grade A Bastard. He has no intention of engaging in a fair fight, and if he can whittle down player characters, he will do so. But out of the box, I couldn't quite run the encounters associated with him without overtaxing the party. The module was designed for AD&D characters of at least level 6. I probably did myself few favors by having the OSE characters maintain roughly the same level, with the thought that by swapping in OSE monsters, it would be a wash. It was not. This first session, by the way, was the closest any group ended up getting to a direct encounter with Strahd, though the third got close without specifically knowing it.

I picked up the second session with a slightly altered mix of players, starting them at the dilapidated church in Barovia, from which they were to make their way to the castle above. Oddly (or not!) they tried to delay this as long as possible without really doing much else. The only tool in my toolbox was to spring another Bastard Strahd encounter, but I didn't have the heart to do that. Eventually they continued on up, passing through the camp of the wood witch I used to replace the module's bad caricature of Travelers (later modules called them Vistani and gave them a culture). Upon reaching the entrance to the castle, the party took one look at the brightly lit open doors and … went around to the back of the castle looking for another way in.

Now, this session was my first using a very nicely made set of VTT maps, which I spent hours setting up in Foundry to use the walls and lighting tools. Explorable battle maps with dynamic lighting and fog of war are certainly very neat artifacts, but I feel like they change the overall tone of the module. Whereas relying on theater of the mind amplifies the dread of “what's around the next corner?", an explorable battle map merely puts a fog over the unknown while undermining the sense of unknowability. And let me tell you, that unknowability? That's 80% of the module.

This didn't become as apparent until the third session, when I got a new group together to play from the castle entrance. Like the previous group, this one also steered clear of the open castle door, suspecting a trap. To increase pressure, I rolled up a random encounter and got a handful of incoroporal undead to harass the party. I treated them as extensions of Strahd, merely toying with the PCs, but in truth I was less happy about their level draining. Like the wolves in the first session, these level draining undead could easily have wiped out the party, and they were just plain old random encounters. More of them could be lurking around any corner.

But there was one more twist in this sordid tale. The players, eschewing the front door and even skipping the back door, decided on the least likely approach, which was included presumably to tempt fate. There is a window looking into one of the tombs in the lower level, accessible only by rope, which the PCs had. We finagled a setup that got them to the window and into the tomb, thereby bypassing the rest of the castle and pitting them against the sycophantic servants of Strahd, namely vampires in their crypts. Fortunately for the PCs, they grabbed one of the the items of power useful in combating the vampires. A lengthy combat ensued, during which the vampire charmed two PCs before being pinned down by the holy symbol's brilliant light.

Between the nigh impossibility of defeating vampires without this powerful artifact (the existence of which, I must note, depends on the PCs having caught wind of them in the first place), the charm, and the level draining, I determined that the module had just a bit too much provisionality, often of the save or die variety, for my taste. But the final nail was this: the pace of random encounters, many of which could end the party outright, was slow, and most of the castle feels empty. All of the evocative boxed text goes into ambience, but very little into offering things the players can use to solve the predicament. The PCs are, after all, trapped in Barovia unless they can find a way out. Scant and missable hints exist, but what good is a hint if nobody can find it? So the PCs wander around trying to interact with things that yield nothing or, if they are profoundly unlucky, instant or near-instant death.

In the end, I found this module requiring far too much additional prep work necessary to make it remotely usable for the table, and if I'm going to do that much work, I might as well just write my own module. Which I might. I have a very nice map.

Bullshit you'll encounter in this module:

  • Weird economics3.
  • Overpowered random encounters.
  • Evocative and lovely descriptions that are as interactive as a painting.
  • Complex traps I didn't even get to try out.
  • Helpful items, knowledge of which depends entirely on whether the PCs go the right way and pick up the right clues.
  • Harmful stereotypes of real peoples via fantasy tropes.
  • Level draining nonsense. Come on, just drain CON and be done with it.

In the Wikipedia entry for this module4, TSR desinger and author Rick Swan is quote as saying that there is “so much gothic atmosphere in Ravenloft that if it had any more, it'd flap its pages and fly away.” Perhaps it should have flown off into the sunset. The real curse of Strahd is frustrating the DM and the players alike.

I've shelved this module. Next month, I will take a group of adventurers into a modern OSR dungeon via Winter's Daughter. This will be my second time running it.


  1. This is part of a series I am calling Old School Monthly, where I offer to run one game a month in the old school tradition: old school system, modern but old school renaissance system, or an adventure that fits one of those descriptions. So far I've only run two months, but once I get it going reliably, I will write up more about it.
  2. I replaced Madame Eva with a wood witch of the same name. I modeled her after a Baba Yaga figure, which gives me some wonderful worldbuilding ideas. I don't know if it works in the Ravenloft context, but it might be fruitful in a rework of the material.
  3. FOUR HUNDRED years of oppression by a vampire lord? You can enter but not leave? It's perpetually overcast? And nobody ever leaves their homes? This populace should have starved to death. The fantasy Travelers the module badly caricatures are unlikely to have sufficient numbers to bring everything a town needs, and so the economics of this place are deeply weird, almost as if they are an afterthought. Maybe it shouldn't bug me, but it really, really does.