Thursday, November 3, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Horror of Strahd's Power

This past weekend one of our regular groups gathered for our Curse of Strahd campaign. The characters are all level five now and had just finished up with the Wizard of Wines scenario. They had been planning their next moves, which included delivering wine to Krezck and taking on Yester Hill. I will not go into much detail on those places as not to spoil things for those still playing. We gathered for our game session sort of at the last minute, so I was not as prepared as I would like to be.

I decided to spend the night showing how powerful Strahd was to the group. By level five the legendary vampire should now be taking interest in the adventurers. They have interfered with his plans for Ireena, and perhaps even defeated some of his minions by now. Strahd, being ancient does not feel threatened yet, but perhaps is experiencing exhilaration for the first time in ages. He likes these new playthings and will test them to see if they are worthy opponents or maybe even servants.

Because of life and summer conventions this campaign was on hiatus for a bit. So rather then get wrapped up in the story to much this was a good opportunity to shake off the rust. The adventurers found themselves back on the Old Svalich Road when a light rain began to fall. In the distance through the fog they found an old cemetery and church they could use for shelter. The cemetery was completely churned with tombstones and coffins protruding in twisted ways. This description caused some immediate jokes around the table like, “what could go wrong” etcetera. That said, their investigation of the immediate area proved to be rather benign save some howling wolves in the distance.

This is when I decided to have Strahd’s black carriage make its first appearance. The tenebrous transport, pulled by snorting horses pulled right up next to the cemetery. The door swung open and out stepped Strahd to the immediate pale faces of the players (and probably their characters). The vampire lord walked over to the two female characters (one with red hair like Ireena) and immediately tried to charm them. Amazingly the players rolled an 18 and a natural 20 for their Wisdom saves. Even when this failed the sweat on their brows continued to flow. Strahd explained to the group that “Ireena was his and they should remember that.”

Strahd then turned his attention to the group’s cleric, who rolled a 4 and failed his save, thus becoming charmed. Strahd allegedly handed him an object and explained he wanted him to drop it in the cemetery when he left. This was nothing more than the first show of power since Strahd gave nothing to the cleric. Strahd then departed, and the group decided to attack the cleric for fear of what may be in his hand. As he walked toward the cemetery with his placebo item he nearly died from the assault. The characters felt terrible afterward for succumbing to this fear.

When the dust settled Strahd’s laughter could be heard throughout the area as the cemetery began to rumble. Before their very eyes, the PCs watched as the earth congealed with casket and tombstone forming into monstrous creatures which attacked them. These Gravestone Elementals turned out to be quite a challenge for the group. I mixed an Earth Elemental with a Shambling Mound in terms of statistics as follows:

Gravestone Elemental
Large elemental, neutral
Armor Class 17
Hit Points 126 (12d10 + 60)
Speed 30 ft., burrow 30 ft.
STR 20 (+5)
DEX 8 (-1)
CON 20 (+5)
INT 5 (-3)
WIS 10 (+0)
CHA 5 (-3)
Damage Vulnerabilities thunder
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities poison, lightning
Condition Immunities exhaustion, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, unconscious
Senses darkvision 60 ft., tremorsense 60 ft., passive Perception 10
Languages Terran
Challenge 6 (2,300 XP)
Special Traits
  • Earth Glide: The elemental can burrow through nonmagical, unworked earth and stone. While doing so, the elemental doesn't disturb the material it moves through. 
  • Siege Monster: The elemental deals double damage to objects and structures.
  • Lightning Absorption: Whenever the gravestone elemental is subjected to lightning damage, it takes no damage and regains hit points equal to the lightning damage dealt.
  • Multiattack: The gravestone elemental makes two slam attacks. If both attacks hit a Medium or smaller target, the target is grappled (escape DC 14), and the gravestone elemental uses its Engulf on it.
  • Slam: Melee Weapon Attack: +8 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 14 (2d8 + 5) bludgeoning damage.
  • Engulf: The gravestone elemental engulfs a Medium or smaller creature grappled by it. The engulfed target is blinded, restrained, and unable to breathe, and it must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw at the start of each of the elemental's turns or take 13 (2d8 + 4) bludgeoning damage. If the elemental moves, the engulfed target moves with it. The elemental can have only one creature engulfed at a time.
These statistics are just what I whipped up quickly for my game session so feel free to adjust them for your own campaign. I considered also allowing them to pull tombstones from their bodies and use them as missile attacks. This never came up since the battle immediately turned to a vicious melee. A few well-placed Thunderwaves turned out to be a big help by the group’s wizard.

I enjoyed running these encounters to show the group the level of Strahd’s power. The vampire himself never lifted a finger, yet caused so much mayhem. We all want to believe we have agency over our own choices and destiny, yet Strahd almost forced the group to dispatch one of their own. Then with another display of power or perhaps force of will, Strahd commanded these elementals to destroy the group.

I think introducing Strahd into the campaign is perhaps the most difficult thing for any Dungeon Master. Most of these early encounters probably end up being a combat, which I would argue is incredibly boring. A big part of gothic horror is suspense and nerve wracking build-up. Having Strahd working in the background using his servants and various mind compulsion is terrifying. It creates an atmosphere of dread and keeps the players on their toes. Furthermore, it puts the players on notice that this is a villain who is much more than statistics on a page!