Curse of Strahd Prep (part 4)

It’s a month in, and I hope some folks have been able to benefit from this series. To recap, I am running the Curse of Strahd adventure for a small, intimate group of roleplayers. This marks the third time running this amazing published adventure, so I wanted to mix things up a bit, flex some creative muscles, and add a personal touch to some of the plot elements.

Spoiler Alert: As is my custom, I want to warn anyone reading that this Curse of Strahd prep series has plenty of spoilers for the adventure. So avert your gentle eyes should you wish to be spared the tyranny of the spoiler!

In Part 1, I talked a bit about the Village of Barovia. In Part 2, I detailed my own little witch coven being queened over Morgantha, a bheur hag whose anger is exceeded only by her hatred of Strahd. And in Part 3, I talked about my version of the Mad Mage of Baratok, who sent her son out into the world to destroy Strahd. Yikes! There is a lot of hatred going on against poor, lonely Strad von Zarovich!

Why is everyone always picking on me?

So maybe Strahd has a few allies? Well, ally is such a subjective word. But if, as the adventure suggests, Strahd can never truly be free of Barovia, then maybe he has taken some precautions. You see, Strahd’s existence is a little bit like Ground Hog Day. If he is destroyed, Strahd will return to Barovia with full memory of his defeat. That got me to thinking, if Strahd gets defeated and reborn continuously, each time with full memory of his former defeats, wouldn’t he start to hedge his bets a bit?

Spoiler: The answer is yes, he would!

My mind turned to the concept of vampire allies, not vampire spawn, but true, full vampires. Curse of Strahd tells us that Strahd takes lovers, grows bored of them, and eventually destroys or enslaves them. In my version of Barovia, Strahd has hand-picked three promising individuals and groomed them to be full, but still subservient, vampires. He calls them his Dark Parliament. In reality, they have no real power, and serve to keep Barovia secure until Strahd returns should he be defeated by the adventurers he loves to bring into his realm and toy with.

Make no mistake, this represents a serious departure from the overall theme of Curse of Strahd: a Gothic, lonely tale of a solitary, cursed, and evil creature, unable to hide from the things he’s done. But after running this amazing story a couple of times already, I was ready to try some different things.


Vampiric ruling bodies are certainly nothing new. Vampire: The Masquerade has its Camarilla (kam-a-ril-ah or kam-a-reya?). Blade has its Vampire Council. Underworld has its Elite Council. Twlight has its Volturi. The list goes on. One thing is for sure, though, I did not want my Curse of Strahd game to become a game of V:tM. Don’t get me wrong, Vampire is a game I have enjoyed, but that wasn’t what I was going for. Rather, I wanted to sprinkle a few dark seeds into the story in the form of vampires–powerful in their own right–that were wholly subservient to Strahd. If this were a video game, I wanted some “mini bosses.”

In order to safeguard certain secrets or items during times when he was…indisposed, Strahd groomed three lovers, lavishing them with gifts and attention, and even conferring on them some small degree of power. All of it, of course, was a lie, just another example of Strahd’s long-game manipulation.


Sofia was a Vistana servant in Castle Ravenloft when Strahd was still mortal. He often took her to his chambers to…ah…fluff the pillows. This happened many times over the course of a year or more, and many times during that period Sofia had chances to profit from her secret. Never once did she betray Strahd, and never once did she try to blackmail him. As witnessed by his loyalty to the Vistani people as a whole, Strahd tends to reward and return loyalty (at least at first until his 10 kinds of crazy kick in). Because Sofia was Vistana in life, Strahd affords her the most latitude in death. But even her mortal bloodline would not protect Sofia if Strahd needed to dispose of her.


During the first hundred or so years of his ensorcelled incarceration, Strahd was particular cruel and vicious. He raged against his fate. It was, so to speak, his vampiric childhood, and the terror and body count during that time was staggering. Then he met a young man so beautiful and gentle, that even a heart as cold and dead as Strahd’s thawed just a little. Of the three members of the Dark Parliament, Vano is the least scheming. Even after a few hundred years, he still genuinely loves Strahd and strives (in vain) to please his maker. Strahd encourages and nurtures this instinct in Vano because he knows that sometimes there is a need for love-based loyalty. Of course, if it suited his purposes, Strahd would not hesitate to destroy Vano.


Ironic to her name, Mercy is Vano’s polar opposite. She was the “nanny” of Baron Vallakovich’s manor. It is commonplace for citizen of Vallaki who are not fully supportive of the Baron’s methods to be taken to the manor for reeducation. Not a pointlessly cruel man, Vallakovich would entrust children brought to the manor into the care of his servant, Mercy. Little did he know that she was a vicious, inhumane nanny who never found reason to spare the rod. Additionally, Mercy keeps an eye on the town of Vallaki. Strahd mostly believes that Baron Vallakovich’s festival antics are harmless, but one can’t be too careful.

Each of the three were transformed into full vampires through ancient rituals performed in the Amber Temple, done in such a way as to leave the recipient of the dark gift indebted to Strahd. And through further psychological manipulation, each recipient was further enamored to his or her maker. They believe themselves co-rulers of Barovia, but it is all an illusion carefully crafted by Strahd to protect his own long-term interests. If he is defeated–as he has been in the past–there must be someone left behind in secret to keep his kingdom in order until he returns.

This is going to be my last post in this series. I think everyone gets the idea: while a published adventure can be run verbatim as printed, it can also be a starting point for a busy Dungeon Master to express her creativity without having to design something from the ground up.

With my Tomb of Annihilation campaign getting ready to come to an end (yeah, I run two different campaigns), I’m turning my attention to what is next. I strongly suspect that Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is going to be on the near horizon. I also have been craving a little bit of modern (or near-modern) horror, so some Chill might be in the queue as well.


Curse of Strahd Prep (part 3)

Taking some inspiration from Sly Flourish and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I made some changes to Morgantha and her coven of hags in Curse of Strahd as detailed in part 2 of my Curse of Strahd Prep series. By why bother at all? I mean, you just paid a good money for a complete, end-to-end adventure. Why spend the time and energy to customize the story? Well, there are a few reasons that Dungeon Masters would want to make these kinds of changes:

Creative exercise. Perhaps you like flexing your creative muscles, but don’t have the time to create entire adventures from scratch. A good compromise between complete adventure creation and following a published adventure verbatim could be to take areas of the adventure and build them out to suit your liking.

Filling gaps. Creating an adventure that covers all eventualities and completely fills in all gaps would not only burden the designers and editors to the point of absurdity, but it would make adventure prep for DMs into a nightmare. Designers intentionally leave gaps that don’t directly contribute to the story so that individual DMs can build them out as desired, or simply ignore them as desired.

Alleviate tedium. Sometimes a Dungeon Master will, for a variety of reasons, run the same adventure multiple times. Customizing aspects of the story can be a great way to keep the adventure fresh, and to express yourself through the story.

Trick those tricksy players. For whatever reason, sometimes a player will expose herself to the materials of a published adventure. Maybe she played in it before. Maybe she DMed it before. Maybe she is a slave to her curiosity. Who knows. But customizing some areas of a published adventure will keep those players on their toes!

Oh shut up, and start talking about me.

Spoiler Alert! This is an article about prepping the Curse of Strahd adventure, so there are heavy spoilers involved. You have been warned.

North of Barovia, the rocky, oppressive Mount Baratok relentlessly bars passage to all who would try to traverse it. Curse of Strahd tells us that even the wolves–Strahd’s tireless minions–avoid Baratok’s arduous terrain. Yet, nestled somewhere among the uninviting terrain, the Mad Mage of Mount Baratok lives in his extradimensional lair.

According to the adventure, the Mad Mage is none other than Mordenkainen himself! The story tells us that “more than a year” prior to the arrival of the PCs in Barovia, Mordenkainen traveled to Barovia to defeat Strahd and free the people from his crushing tyranny. Having badly underestimated Strahd’s power, Mordenkainen failed and subsequently fled to the mountains where he lives in his grandiose manor, crushed beneath the weight of his failure.

It’s not my fault! Strahd is really, really strong. 😦

As a kid, Greyhawk was my stomping grounds. In our D&D room, we had poster maps of the campaign world proudly hung above the gaming table. We revered the named NPCs (Mordenkainen, Drawmij, Melf, Bigby, etc.). So I felt like I didn’t want to reduce one of those D&D saints to a simpering husk. I also started thinking about my school of witches beneath the Old Bonegrinder. I liked the idea of having these girls and young women being groomed into powerful, living weapons with a predisposition to destroy Strahd.

But Curse of Strahd tells us that its namesake takes many lovers, then quickly grows bored of them and casts them aside or destroys them. I wanted to have another one of these “indirectly fired missiles” going after Strahd, so I decided to risk a little redundancy for the potential payoff of someone else being groomed as a living weapon, and the subsequent possible synergy with Morgantha’s witches. For this, I took some inspiration from the magnificent 1981 film Excalibur. If you have never seen it, stop reading right now and go watch it, then come back. I’ll wait.

In Excalibur, Morgana, Arthur’s half sister, magically disguises herself and seduces Arthur, bearing a son named Mordred. She grooms Mordred to hate Arthur, raising him as a living weapon to destroy the offspring of Uther, who betrayed her father, Gorlois.

I hate my father, and I don’t really know why. Being a teenager sucks!

My Mad Mage of Baratok became another one of Strahd’s jilted lovers. I mean, if you leave pissed off girlfriends and boyfriends in your wake as you bound callously through eternity being all emo, you’re going to create some problems for your future self. I decided to name her Helena, an homage to the incomparable Dame Helen Mirren who played Morgana in Excalibur. Helena bore a son, Ronan, whom she has raised to deplore Strahd.

Ronan has no mortal father. He is the product of dark and ancient magics wielded by Helena. She learned these wicked rituals in tomes she discovered in Castle Ravenloft. A crafty old incubus named Sylan fulfilled the magical bargain struck through the rituals, and impregnated Helen. However, she has raised Ronan to believe that Strahd is his father, which is, of course, impossible. She claims that she was able to bear Strahd’s child through a dark ritual.

If such a thing becomes important within the narrative, Ronan will be an Oath of Vengeance paladin who has become very twisted in his vows. He views the destruction of Strahd von Zarovich as the single most important thing he can accomplish, and all other considerations are secondary. There is little Ronan would not do in pursuit of his goal, which might put him toward lawful neutral or lawful evil on the alignment spectrum.

In my campaign, Ronan will likely be found in Castle Ravenloft. He has become a mortal lover to the vampire spawn Escher (see chapter 4, area K49 of Curse of Strahd) in an attempt to worm his way into the inner workings of Strahd’s court. Ronan believes that the closer he is to Strahd, the more information he can gather on his enemy. Helena is vengeful, but she isn’t stupid. She raised Ronan to understand that Strahd is old and extremely powerful. Ronan will not strike until he is convinced he has the upper hand.

There are many other ways that Ronan can be worked into the story, if I feel that such a situation presents itself organically. Perhaps he was discovered and captured by Strahd. The PCs might find him locked in one of the cells of Castle Ravenloft’s dungeon level, or they may even come across him as an unfortunate recipient of attention in the castle’s torture chamber. Ronan may be involved in a campaign of extermination against Morgantha’s witches. Even though they share a common goal, Ronan can be very stubborn and unreasonable; he may have mistaken their actions as contrary to his quest. Once someone gets on this wrong side of Ronan, it is nearly impossible to get back in the twisted paladin’s good graces.

So how can an NPC like Ronan be used to enhance the narrative of a DMs Curse of Strahd campaign?

An ally for the PCs. Presumably, the PCs want to destroy Strahd. Ronan wants to destroy Strahd. That makes for a potential alliance. However, Ronan is self-confident and self-assured to a fault. He also suffers from a severe case of borderline personality disorder. Should the PCs do anything that Ronan considers even slightly off track, he will abandon them at best, outright turn on them at worst. Which leads to…

An enemy for the PCs. Once Ronan gets it in his head that the PCs are not 100% in his camp — and due to his illness, he will eventually come to this conclusion, no matter how cooperative or submissive the PCs are — he will consider them in all ways to be an enemy, and will treat them accordingly.

A bread crumb. The DM may want to draw attention to other areas of the story, and Ronan can be an excellent tool for that purpose. As I noted above, I may want to pit Ronan against Morgantha’s witches, which would make a lot of narrative noise, drawing attention to the coven. Or Ronan might be on an extermination campaign against the Children of Mother Night (see Curse of Strahd, chapter 15).

So that, as they say, is that. As with most NPCs, I will leave Ronan’s important, or lack thereof, to the natural ebb and flow of the narrative. I find that being reactive can be as — or more — important than being proactive when it comes to DMing a complex story.

Check back next week when I really take Curse of Strahd off the rails with a Vampiric Council!

Curse of Strahd Prep (part 2)

So, exciting news! A friend who has never played a tabletop, pen-and-paper roleplaying game before will be joining us this week for one session to try it out. His wife bought him a Player’s Handbook, and he has reached out to me a couple of times with excited questions. For a veteran roleplayer, there are few gaming pleasures greater than introducing a newbie into the family. I’m so excited for game night!

In Curse of Strahd Prep (part 1), I talked about molding the Curse of Strahd story to make it my own. I think Dungeon Masters should really feel free to dig in and mold stories to their own liking, and to the liking of their players. As someone who has written (or co-written) a few roleplaying products, I want to say that designers don’t view their own work as sacred texts. The best adventures leave a lot of room for the Dungeon Master to fiddle and tweak. The original writers have no idea what your play style is like, or the play style of your players. For some excellent essays on this — and many other topics — by designers a whole hell of a lot more prolific and experienced than I, check out Goodman Games’ How to Write Adventure Module That Don’t Suck.

Spoiler Alert: It should probably be needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway. This Curse of Strahd adventure prep series is loaded with spoilers about, yep, the Curse of Strahd adventure.

Let’s get back to it! I want to talk about Morgantha, and her coven. The Old Bonegrinder is one of the creepiest areas of the adventure. And that’s saying a lot! A coven of night hags lives there, plying their evil trade of exchanging batches of dream pastries — baked goods that allow the consumer to slip into a euphoric dream state, thus temporarily escaping the oppressive realm of Barovia — with poverty-stricken, grief-stricken parents for their children, whose bones they grind up in their fiendish windmill to make more dream pastries. Pretty nasty stuff.

Don’t judge me!

I wanted to add some additional depth to the witches. The first time I ran the adventure, I felt like I really dropped the ball with them. They basically just ended up being a couple of battles, and were then forgotten. I started imagining Strahd taking a mortal lover some time ago, promising to make her a vampire. But, like Strahd does, he grew bored of her (maybe she just wasn’t Tatyana-like enough for him), and he cast her aside before fulfilling his promise. He didn’t even have enough passion to kill her. She was too unimportant.

So Anabel, a mortal, was filled with deep rage and humiliation. She wanted, above all else, to have her revenge on Strahd. But Anabel knew that as a mortal, she had no chance against the powerful vampire lord, so she made a desperate trek up the frozen Balinok Mountains to attempt to strike a bargain with evil entities there that she once read about in a book in one of Strahd’s studies. Unfortunately, she was too frail for the harsh journey and she literally froze to death within sight of the Amber Temple’s facade. But her cries fell upon receptive ears, charged as they were with utter anguish.


Long-dormant powers inside the Amber Temple granted Anabel the power she needed to begin a dark journey of vengeance: they raised her dead, frozen form as a bheur hag. When Anabel pried her own body up out of the frozen snow and realized her fate, her screams of anguish cascaded across the valleys.

Powerful though she was, Anabel knew she was still no match for Strahd, so she set about enacting a long game. She went to the Old Bonegrinder where she knew a coven of hags lived. Strahd had talked about them before. He long knew of the coven’s existence, but they were no threat to him, so he deigned for them to exist. Anabel, however, felt their activities were pedestrian and unimaginative, so she went to the windmill and slew Morgantha. Anabel then took the name Morgantha as her own, and gave Bella and Offalia (Morgantha’s daughters) a choice: follow her or die like their mother did.

With a coven all her own, the new Morgantha set about building a school of dark magic below the Old Bonegrinder windmill. She enslaved some workers from Barovia and Vallaki to dig out and build a complex below the windmill. Then she instructed her newly adopted daughters to only exchange dream pastries for male children, whose bones would be ground up to make more pastries. For females, however, a family would magically receive food for a year and a day. The female children were the key to Morgantha’s plan of vengeance.

Morgantha has been housing the girls in her subterranean chambers, teaching them dark arts and evil magics. She brainwashes and indoctrinates each of them to be absolutely loyal to her, and her alone. Any who show signs of willfulness or disobedience suffer the same fate as all of the boys that Morgantha’s daughters receive. Her plan is to create an army of witches to challenge Strahd, and eventually destroy him.


So what’s the point? I mean, why make this change at all? Just going around customizing everything just for the sake of giving it my own flavor, while rewarding, might not be the best use of time and energy. Ideally, there should be a point, some effect on the overall story.

A powerful, ongoing adversary. If the party members are heroic in nature, then a coven of evil, brainwashed witches could make for a powerful adversary. Early in the adventure, at lower levels, the party would be no match for the coven of hags, especially with Morgantha upgraded from a CR 5 night hag to a CR 7 bheur hag. But they may run afoul of the coven by countering their efforts in the Village of Barovia, or perhaps even by staging guerrilla raids on the Old Bonegrinder to free children. This could lead to witches being dispatched by Morgantha to thwart the party’s efforts at inopportune times.

A potential dark ally.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right? Maybe. But whether the adventurers are heroes making a reluctant alliance against a powerful foe, a group of possibly evil, self-interested travelers, or anything in between, there can be little doubt that Morgantha and her coven are a potent force with a preexisting hatred for the master of Castle Ravenloft. Against a foe as mighty as Strahd, can the party afford to overlook such powerful potential partners? And even if the adventurers look down their noses at such an alliance early on, after being beaten up by Barovia for weeks or maybe even months, they may eventually change their tune. And the cunning hags would recognize such desperation, and thus have the upper hand on negotiations.

A source of information. Morgantha and company have been increasing their knowledge for years. From the many groups of would-be heroes that Strahd lures into his lands, they have stolen many a tome or spellbook. Perhaps the party might find themselves negotiating with the evil hags for access to their knowledge.

A source of power. The DM might seed magic items, or even one of the items from the Fortunes of Ravenloft reading, into Morgantha’s subterranean caverns. Imagine having to fight your way into those dark horror chambers to retrieve a powerful item that will help in the quest to destroy Strahd! The 7 of glyphs card in the Fortunes of Ravenloft leads to the Old Bonegrinder. The treasure may be down in the undergrounds chambers instead of up in the windmill. Or the DM might decide that one of Morgantha’s “students” secretly wishes to escape her dark mistress’ grasp, and would repay her rescuers by aiding in the fight against Strahd (i.e., create a new entry for the Strahd’s enemy tarokka reading category).

However it goes down, whatever decisions the players make, I will be looking forward to seeing how Morgantha 2.0 and her witches organically develop. But one thing is for sure, I won’t be pushing any agenda. If the players take the story in such a way that doesn’t highlight my creation, I will roll with the punches. I think a significant mistake that a DM can make is to become emotionally attached to the party becoming involved in “pet” parts of the adventure. That leads to railroading, and may potentially lead to unhappy players.

Next week, I’m going to talk about my plans for the Mad Mage of Baratok! See you then.

Curse of Strahd Prep (part 1)

I have run the Curse of Strahd adventure twice before. Those who know me and game with me know that it is my favorite published D&D adventure of all time. In my <cough, mumble> number of years of DMing, I have mostly avoided published adventures except to treat them as books full of bits and pieces to be scavenged, like an old husk of a car being stripped for parts. But this new 5th edition line of D&D adventures designed by this new breed of talented, driven, focused designers has given me a new appreciation for running someone else’s story wholesale (with, as you will see, many touches of my own added).

Strahd von Zizzle says, “Beware of spoilers! This blog series will contain many! Muahahaha!”

Spoiler Alert: Although I think the statute of limitation for spoilers on an adventure published in 2016 has expired, I nonetheless would like to caution you, gentle reader, that this series of blog posts will contain many.

I knew from the start that running the same published adventure three times in two and a half years would require some personal touches and changes from me in order to keep my own interest level high. In addition, I wanted to take into account what my goals were regarding the players at the table. So a quick bit of history: Up until recently, I was a player in this group. Our DM, Bill, just wound down a two-year D&D 4th edition campaign in which combat and tactical scenes dominated. But I’m a storyteller. Roleplaying and character-development are my watchwords. How was I to take this group and mold them into roleplayers without diminishing their enjoyment of the game?

Smithian economics has a concept called the invisible hand that describes Smith’s theory that people acting in their own self interest actually end up benefiting society as a whole. I decided I wanted to have an invisible hand of my own. I figured, if I could get myself excited with my invisible hand (okay, this is starting to go off the rails), my players would naturally get excited about the story as well. So in an odd way, I decided that one of the pieces of getting combat-grizzled players to sip of the wine of Curse of Strahd was to mold a story that I was excited to run.

An actual image of my invisible hand

As much as I enjoy Death House (the level 1-3 introductory adventure in Curse of Strahd), I decided to bring the group into the adventure already level 3. I felt that Death House was more confined and focused that I wanted to be this time around running CoS. I did, however, put ghostly little Rose and Thorn on the street out in front of their row house for the party to meet as a sort of homage to Death House. They said some spooky things, freaked out some of the characters, and then vanished into the house, which could not be entered by the PCs.

My goals for the Village of Barovia were simple: to introduce the players to their new home away from home. I knew I wanted to accomplish a small, focused set of goals there:

  • Get Ireena into the party. She is a major breadcrumb for getting the party to go to Vallaki (and beyond).
  • To introduce the characters to Ireena’s brother, Ismark. I plan to do some terrible things to poor, doomed Ismark, so why not get everyone to like him first?
  • Have some combat in the church with Father Donovich’s son, Doru, so my battle-loving players could roll some dice and kick some vampire ass.

I didn’t do much customization of the Village of Barovia simply because I didn’t intend to spend much time there, and it’s already an excellent environment because of its simplicity.

In the church, I decided to make Doru younger. The adventure puts him at twenty years old, but children in horror is a trope all its own, so I decided to make Doru a child of “around ten years of age.” We are genetically wired to be protective of children, so I took great delight in the PCs creeping down the stairs into the dark, damp undercroft of the church to deal with a monster in the form of a young child.

“Doru? Don’t be afraid, your daddy sent us here to ‘help’ you. Doru?”

Ultimately, I made sure that Doru got away. There was no way that a CR 5 vampire spawn was going to successfully go toe to toe with a party of four 3rd-level characters who have no other battles to fight during the current “workday.” So as a combat opponent, Doru would be just another pile of numbers to be easily dealt with. But the image of young Doru scaling spider-like up the sheer cliff face above the church toward Castle Ravenloft left an impression with the players. And, yeah, you can bet they will be seeing li’l Doru again.

In the village square outside of the Blood on the Vine tavern, I added a circular bench with sets of built-in manacles to secure the ankles of anyone sitting there. I emphasized that the manacles were small. At one point in their travels around the village, the party saw a man securing a small, crying girl at the bench. Naturally, the heroes rescued the girl. That’s when they found out that when a family in the Village of Barovia can’t feed themselves, they will sometimes decide to leave one of their children at the bench for “the Witch” to claim. When they do so, the family is mysteriously fed for a year and a day! Find out next week how I changed Morgantha and her coven of hags in the Old Bonegrinder to make them my own.