Always wanting to mix things up, I created a situation this year which was a mash-up an existing motivation and something new. For background Strahd once loved a woman named Tatyana, who rejected him in favor of his younger brother Sergei. On Sergei and Tatyana's wedding day Strahd murdered his brother and the grieving Tatyana jumped from the walls of Ravenloft to her death. Hundreds of years later in the small town of Barovia dwells a woman named Ireena Kolyana, who is basically a reincarnation of Tatyana. Strahd in the madness of his undead curse still loves Tatyana and wants Ireena to be her.
Traditionally the player characters are drawn into this adventure when they arrive in Barovia and learn Ireena has been bitten twice by a vampire. One of the published motivations of Strahd in I6 is: Strahd will attempt to charm all of the PCs, and make them attack Ireena. When they attack, Strahd will swoop down and save her from the PCs. Strahd hopes that the rescue will turn Ireena's heart to him. He wants Ireena to love him willingly rather than by force.
My twist this year included this motivation as part of my story. First I wanted to design some dark and gothic characters for the players to pick from. I have enjoyed the game Darkest Dungeon and thought the character types in the game were a great source of inspiration. Using the 5E ruleset I created a Bounty Hunter (ranger), Grave Robber (rogue), Mortician (rogue/wizard), Exorcist (fighter/cleric), Leper (fighter), and Plague Doctor (cleric). After tweaking their backgrounds a bit I had a cadre of gothic characters fit for a night of Ravenloft. I also used the character images from Darkest Dungeon to make table name cards for the players.
For my session this year Lief was changed to a vampire spawn traveling the land in the disguise of a Vistani gypsy. The bounty was an elaborate setup to draw powerful opponents into Barovia so Strahd could complete his goal of “saving Ireena”. Without outsiders there is little in the way of challenge for a 400 year old and very legendary vampire. The players arrived on the outskirts of Barovia and stopped at an inn for a hot meal and room for the night. A stranger (Lief) appeared and delivered them a forged letter from the Burgomaster asking for their help in Barovia. This was curious to the players since they were already heading there. The real letter was in the hand of a man who perished a week earlier at the hands of Strahd’s creatures of the night. This was actually the first tip off that something was very much afoot and not right. For my story Strahd was concerned news may have spread to the outlining borders that he was a vampire. He could not risk losing his opportunity to impress Ireena and wanted ensure the heroes actually came.
The players would eventually find the actual letter after crossing over into Barovia. But unfortunately they also became aware that the strange mists prevented them from leaving. I usually try and design props for special game sessions but had time constraints this year. However I was able to create both the letters which consisted of printing them on my inkjet and aging the paper. I used a technique which has never failed me for years. Liberally wet the paper and dissolve instant coffee on it. Let the paper marinate in the instant coffee for darkness and then drain. I then bake the paper in the oven at 350 until it dry’s and curls and then have awesome looking (and smelling) parchment props. Tactile props can really add atmosphere to your game if not overused.
The players enjoyed handling the letters and comparing the differences in real time. And the fact that they appear as they would in the game really adds to immersion. In terms of other props I also took some old six sided dice and splattered them with red paint to appear bloody. These twelve dice were part of the Dark Inspiration pool. I then placed them inside a gothic looking bowl right in the center of the game table. At any time during the session a player could use one to increase an ability check, saving throw or to hit roll. The catch was for every dark inspiration die used one had to be given to the Dungeon Master. Dark powers are tempting but alas they come with a price!
Soon the players made their way into the forlorn village of Barovia. Here they would meet Ireena, a priest who was protecting the village with nightly prayers and learn the burgomaster was indeed dead. Using magic and elbow grease they helped to rebuild the church some but were stopped by the attacks for Strahd’s night creatures. Strahd himself pounded on the Wizard Locked doors and not much sleep was had by anyone. In the morning the players accompanied with Ireena set off to find a camp of Vistani gypsies who apparently knew where Lief may be.
Eventually the players would learn Lief was inside Castle Ravenloft and they would strike a deal with the Vistani. One of their own, a women named Helga was Strahd’s captive. If they would liberate this woman the Vistani would provide them with the secret of parting the mists and escaping Barovia. With Lief and Helga potentially in the same place they headed to the imposing castle. Once inside they had dinner with Strahd (or his illusions) with one player chomping happily on grapes which turned out to be eyeballs!
Their adventures inside the castle eventually led them to a sweeping staircase filled with portraits and murals. The images were blurred and writing smeared or scratched. The Mortician decided to use his Mending cantrip to clear them up a bit. Unfortunately the first one he repaired was the painting of Sergei to which Ireena recognized and read his name out loud. To this point the players had not encountered Strahd but I placed an hour glass on the table. They had no idea what this meant but it was my timer for when he would make his first appearance.
Soon the players would also find Helga who unbeknownst to them was a vampire spawn. Not caring any longer about the bounty for Lief they began to flee Ravenloft with Helga. Half way out of the castle she attacked as the sand in the timer was getting dangerously low again. The tension created by the hour glass along was music from Dracula Untold was palpable. Right after defeating Helga the Bounty Hunter opened a door and Strahd was standing there.
The second battle was a great example of sound strategy and epic dice rolling. Using the Mold Earth cantrip the players excavated the ground beneath Strahd. Unfortunately he grabbed the Bounty Hunter and started biting him on the face. As the players attacked Strahd he floated in the hole and used his legendary actions to press his attack on the Bounty Hunter. Amazingly the Bounty Hunter rolled two natural 20s on his turn and took Strahd’s life total down by 75% just with his attacks! A well placed sneak attack with a magic shovel from the Grave Robber and some radiant damage from the Exorcist had Strahd on the ropes.
The Bounty hunter then died the next round as the Mortician cast Earth Bind on Strahd slamming him into the ground over 30’ in the room below. This was enough to make him form into mist and return to his resting place. The players then gathered themselves and proof of Helga’s demise and ran out of Ravenloft castle. The Vistani were saddened by the news of Helga but kept of their end of the bargain. Soon after the player characters crossed the borders of Barovia with use of a special elixir and never looked back.
Obviously, I did not include all the details of our 8 hour game session but I think I gave a good flavor. The foundation I believe in running I6 is the gothic horror element of it. The story needs a slow build up to the point where they player characters encounter Strahd. In traditional gothic horror there is a pervading sense of uncertainty coupled with usually a nearly insurmountable foe. This was my eleventh Halloween season running this adventure and Strahd has most of the victories. This year the player’s legitimately won and can wear that badge of honor with pride. When Strahd became mist there was a round of hi-fives all around the game table.
In a decade, only once has Strahd been staked in my game sessions and that occurrence will continue to be a rare very instance. Defeating Strahd in my opinion should be surviving him and stopping whatever his immediate machinations may be. Strahd will always be a name that strikes fear in the players which gather around the table in the Game Tavern. After all he is ancient, he is the land, he is Strahd…