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!
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.