Gothic horror returns to D&D!
“The master of Ravenloft is having guests for dinner, and you are invited.”
So opens Curse of Strahd, D&D‘s latest adventure, in turn based on the classic I6 gothic horror Ravenloft module from 1983. Ravenloft has been a beloved adventure and setting for over three decades and it shows no signs of losing its appeal, given the interest Curse of Strahd has generated since it was announced a few months back.
Feel free to check out this video review, or read on below. Either way don’t forget the photo gallery at the end of this post!
From lead designer Chris Perkins and designers Adam Lee, Richard Witters and Jeremey Crawford, Curse of Strahd is actually a retelling of the original module. It includes expanded material created in consultation with original Ravenloft designers Tracy and Laura Hickman, with more information on the lands around Castle Ravenloft and casting new, er, light on wizard vampire and all around nasty guy Strahd von Zarovich’s past.
The book officially releases March 15. Friendly local game stores in the Wizards preferred store network received copies on March 4.
Curse of Strahd is intended for 4-6 players levels 1-10 and includes the mini adventure “Death House” to advance characters to 3rd level.*
- Cover Price: $49.95 (Amazon lists it much cheaper)
- 256 pages
- 15 chapters
- 6 appendices
- Foreword by Tracy Hickman
- Multiple handouts for players (yay!)
- A 2-sided, fold out map (again, yay!)
Yes, there’s an over sized, fold out two-sided map that detaches from the book. On one side you’ll find the land of Barovia and certain areas of interest within it, and on the other you’ll find the same kind of isometric “3D” maps of Castle Ravenloft that were so popular in the original module.
I like the inclusion of some handouts to give to the players. I feel Out of the Abyss could have benefited from handouts, especially something to help manage all of the NPCs introduced at the very beginning of that adventure.
Downloadables including Curse of Strahd maps and handouts:
(thanks to YouTube user COMICBOOKJEDI1 for the tip)
Rules-wise, Curse of Strahd contains:
- One new character background, the “Haunted One”
- Monster Hunter’s Pack
- Gothic trinkets
- A few magic items (several of which are essential to the plot)
- Multiple NPC and new gothic horror monster stats and descriptions
No new classes or spells, etc. are included.
This is very much an adventure and not a sourcebook although there is a lot of location and background information included for Barovia.
The tarroka deck is Ravenloft’s version of the tarot. The tarroka is essential to Curse of Strahd both for the gothic atmosphere it helps to reinforce and also to randomize each playthrough. This was a feature of the original Ravenloft module and continues to this day. The DM draws cards randomly before the adventure begins, and those cards determine story elements that are important to defeating Strahd.
An appendix lists all of the tarroka cards and their meanings. DMs can substitute a regular deck of playing cards for use. Gale Force 9 has an official D&D tarroka deck releasing in April.
The book itself
Again, Wizards of the Coast’s D&D team shines in the art direction and layout of the book and quality of writing and final polish. So far high production and aesthetic quality has been a hallmark 5th Edition and Curse of Strahd is no exception.
Portraits, maps, illustrations, tarroka cards, typography and color scheme ( dark reds, maroons, blues, and grays) all work together for a very nice whole. I don’t necessarily want to spend $50 on a D&D adventure, but if I need to something like this is what I want hold in my hands after I spend the money.
Sink your teeth into the story
Curse of Strahd is “excessively” (in their own words) open ended, so much so that it has a table listing appropriate character levels for different areas. All sorts of dread, gothic dangers await your players from werewolves to witches to whispering wraiths as they navigate this dangerous realm and attempt to bring relief to its inhabitants.
Ultimately it tells the tale of the characters’ attempt to hunt down and destroy the vampire wizard Strahd who is the dread lord of the domain, and his attempts in turn to destroy or corrupt the characters.
Many paths can and will wind in various directions before the final confrontation, but in the end they will face him. There it is, Castle Ravenloft, looming over the terrified village below. Look! Is that a figure upon the battlements…?
The success of the story will rise and fall on Strahd as a character, not just as a stat block. Multiple pages are given to to detailing how he ticks and how to run him during the adventure. Tracy Hickman notes in the foreword that Strahd is a true evil despite the romance that surrounds him. DMs and players will do well to remember that.
All of this takes place in the fog-surrounded realm of Barovia, which the unsuspecting party of adventurers suddenly finds themselves in. Barovia is a gothic realm all its own, and is not part of any other realm such as the Forgotten Realms. Only supernatural, magical methods can transport one into or out of Barovia. Think of every oppressed, superstitious Eastern European village from the old black and white horror films and you basically have Barovia.
Characters will encounter many frightening locations in Barovia. Even a windmill can be a menacing silhouette on the horizon, with potential deadly dangers awaiting inside. Is the bird flying overhead simply a bird, or a wereraven? Does that village townhouse have a mind and sinister purpose of its own? Is that distant moaning the wind, or something more fearful? Magic itself seems to behave horrifically in this dread realm…
It’s also of note that much of Curse of Strahd involves social interaction, which DMs and players that prefer role play to roll play will love.
Tips are included on how to advance character levels through milestones rather than pure XP collection to help compensate for the emphasis on social encounters in addition to combat.
Horrified by horror?
Feel intimidated by running a gothic horror D&D adventure? Fear not! A section entitled “Marks of Horror” gives helpful notes on doing so, and plenty of notes, artwork and flavor text throughout the book help as well. Multiple adventure hooks are provided to get things started in a way that suits the style of the DM and/or party.
It’s worth remarking again on the gothic horror tone of this adventure. There is combat, yes. There are the kinds of encounters parties are used to, yes. Yet this is a realm of ongoing, oppressive dread and that is a foe and character as much as any monsters the party may confront.
Think on this: the designers have provided two possible ending scenarios. One where the party prevails, and one where Strahd prevails (a wolf howls in the distance). Does that intimidate you, mortal? Does it give you pause?
So, is Curse of Strahd worth the time and money?
As with my other reviews, I offer no one size fits all answer. That would sell both the product short as well as the wide spectrum of gamer types and interests that exist in our hobby. So here is a spectrum of recommendations:
If you want to run or play in a classic, familiar, comfortable Tolkienesque fantasy RPG hack and slash adventure where the odds are daunting but good is certain to prevail… Curse of Strahd is not for you. (Note: That’s not meant to be a diss. I rather like those kinds of adventures, even after all these years)
If you love vampires and gothic horror and its trappings and want to while away an evening or two absorbing D&D‘s take on it, regardless of whether you want to run or play the adventure… Curse of Strahd could be for you.
If you want a Ravenloft sourcebook to create your own adventures in Barovia…. Curse of Strahd might be for you but you are going to have to put some time into extrapolating and modifying what is here. Again, this is an adventure not a sourcebook but there is a lot of information on the setting, atmosphere, locations, history, NPCs and monsters.
If you want to run or play in a fully realized, well-written gothic horror RPG adventure with a lot of social interaction in addition to combat… Curse of Strahd is for you.
If you love Ravenloft and can’t wait to play the 5th Edition version, Curse of Strahd is absolutely for you.
Thanks so much for reading! Enjoy the photo gallery below.
*I feel the Death House mini adventure serves a useful purpose in addition to a handy way to get the party to 3rd level. Since it is available in PDF from WotC for free, it’s a great way for both DMs and players to get a taste of gothic horror D&D to see if they like it before investing both the time and money into a full campaign like Curse of Strahd.