Curse of Strahd

My Advice for Running D&D 5e Monsters?

Run 4e Monsters...

No, seriously.

I, like many, bounced off Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, because I found the rules overly complex for what they were trying to do, and moving ever further away from roleplaying and back into wargaming. Now, there's nothing wrong with wargaming, and there is definitely a place for it (a place that I enjoy as well!) but for me that isn't in my roleplaying.
(Images from Wizards.)
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition reverted a lot of those changes, and brought the game to a point simpler than 3rd Edition, which meant I was once more interested. Whilst I have many (many) gripes remaining about D&D as a whole, I have gotten almost 3 years of mileage out of 5e, and I can see a lot of merits in it.

But, in those 3 years I have noticed one thing: the Monster Manual is flat... It's, honestly, very bland. When you boil each monster down, they are merely sliders on the same variables. This one has more HP, that one has a higher damage die, etc. The descriptions given often work well to tell you where the monster may be found, and generally what it is like, but they fail miserably with the one key note that is vital to D&D (given that it's a game about braving dungeons and fighting dragons).

There are no TACTICS.
(Image from Wizards.)
We know where a monster may lair, and what it looks like. We know who probably made it, and where it comes from. We know, sometimes, how it communicates with its fellows, and which monsters it hates.

But we don't know what it does. When it is cornered, how does it fight? We can see that it might claw an opponent, but when and why? Does it just run at the opponent and claw them until it is dead? Does it claw, then run away, then growl, or something else? It might. We can say that it does. But there is nothing in the book to suggest what it should be doing.

This, ultimately, leads to pretty static fights. Unless the GM does a lot of prep before hand, most fights will likely end the same - with monsters moving in, and the two sides grinding down until one has lost.
(Image from Wizards.)
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition did not have this problem!

4e, when you crack open the Monster Manual, is filled with monsters that are accompanied by tactics. Each entry tells you not only what they can do in a fight, but how, and in what order. For most of them, this is just a small paragraph. This means, when you need a monster, or you don't want to prep much, you can open it up, turn to the monster entry, read very quickly, and have an interesting, game changing, way to run that monster.

Here is a cross example between the two books:

Whilst running Curse of Strahd, I needed to use 8 Gargoyles in an encounter in Castle Ravenloft itself (those of you who have played it will know the bit I mean). I read the entry in the 5e MM, and all I came up with was a straight forward fight. There was nothing particularly interesting there.

Then, I had the idea to read the 4e MM, and that spawned an idea of the Gargoyles flanking the PCs, some engaging in melee, and others grappling them to lift them to the ceiling (which is quite high up in this bit) and dashing them onto the floor to kill them. This utilised their abilities which the PCs couldn't match - flight - as well as adding their cruel natures into the mix. This change in tactics was inspired by their flyby ability. I didn't have to change the 5e entry at all, I just had to think about them differently.
(Image from Wizards.)
Note, even, that this tactic isn't the one in the MM. All that happened was thinking about the tactics, rather than the abilities, got me thinking about encounter design differently.

Now, whenever I need a set-piece combat, I turn to the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Monster Manual first. I encourage you to, as well.

It has come to my attention that Matthew Colville, a GM who does YouTube videos on how to run Dungeons & Dragons has talked about very similar topics on the following video. His videos tend to be awesome, and this one is no different. He's also a great author, and you should check out his books here and here!

Have you used this method before? Which monsters did you reverse engineer in this way? Which monsters do you think could be improved in 5e?

Curse of Strahd #2 - Into Death House...

Please note this is a continuing campaign diary. If you haven't read the first session, you should start there. Also, like last time, if you're intending to play in Curse of Strahd you shouldn't read this series. Whilst I've changed a great many things, and tweaked it like any GM will, this write-up will still give away many many spoilers for those wishing to play the game.

If you missed Session #1, please find it here!
(Image from Mike Schley.)
Face to face with a looming townhouse, with not another soul around except for two lonely and frightened children, our heroes had little choice. Though they were cold, wet, and injured from their journey through the woods, they could not ignore the pleas for help from the children - Rose and Thorn. They'd heard the sound of monsters in the basement, and their baby brother was still in his room in the attic... The party couldn't turn away.

Asimi scaled the front of the building, attempting to get to the top landing - in and out - with the baby. However, when she made it to the second story, a raven flew onto the perch she was hanging from. At first it cawed and danced back and forth, but when Asimi tried to shoo it away, it nipped at her ear. Arkaeous sensed magic emanating from the house and the bird, and shot at it with his Eldritch Blast, but the bird evaded and flew away. Seconds later, a great wind and a grim presence, spread over the area and threatened to tear Asimi away from the building and dash her against the ground. She managed to pry open the window shutter and slip inside to relative safety.
(Image from Wizards.)
Arkaeous also noticed that the two children were in fact illusions, and secretly gave this information to Rowena and Mizhena. Informed, yet playing along, they entered the house and instructed the children to wait outside. When they turned back around, the child-illusions were gone.

Inside the house, they discovered that all the rooms were dark. Everything seemed in good repair, but abandoned. Quickly, they began to ascend the central staircase to reconnect with Asimi, but on the way Mizhena inspected some of the wall hangings and moulded plaster scenes decorating the walls. Each one at first seemed beautiful - depicting scenes of youths dancing among orchards, or animals frolicking in the forest - but the longer Mizhena looked, the more darkly twisted they became. The youths weren't dancing, but fending off bats as they bit at their hands and faces. The animals weren't frolicking, but running from hungry wolves. Further, the more she looked at these scenes, the more she became convinced she heard them - the fluttering of bats wings, and the howling of wolves.
(Image from missquitecontrary.)
Eventually, the party reconnected with Asimi who had found herself in an old yet elegant ballroom with an ornate harpsichord in one corner. She had been inspecting the harpsichord and had discovered that several of the keys were rigged up to trip lines throughout the construct. She didn't know what the mechanisms did, but made a mental note and they continued upwards.

The party reached the third floor, where they discovered that the well-kept nature of the lower two floors did not reach the third. Thick dust, as if from centuries of disuse, covered everything. The floor was rotten and spongy below their boots, and the walls were faded and damaged from mould. Furthermore, they were confronted by a black suit of armour fashioned with a wolf's head helmet. Asimi moved to investigate, and the armour animated and began to attack. The fight was short but brutal, ending in an incredibly frustrated Rowena striking the helmet from the gorget, and destroying it entirely. Asimi recovered some valuable-looking armour shards and they pressed on.
(Image from enjin.)
The party found a large portrait of the Durst family - the owners of the house - showing the two children they had met, standing in front of a stern looking couple who were obviously their parents. The father held in his arms a small bundle which was obviously a baby - the children's baby brother. The mother, however, looked at the baby with obvious scorn on her face.

Mizhena continued to investigate the wall mouldings, and discovered a scene of writhing snakes. As she stared at it, she began to hear hissing and, pressing her hand into the wall discovered that it was a secret door that slid back to reveal a staircase into the attic. Without wasting time, the party journeyed upwards.

Upstairs in the attic, the wear and tear on the house was even worse. Cobwebs covered every surface, and the air around them was heavy with dust, spores, and the stench of ancient death. The party discovered a door held closed with a padlock that had rusted and fused into a brittle clump. With little effort, Mizhena was able to push into the room.
(Image from Andre Govia.)
On the other side, the party discovered a cell, with a barred window in the back, two small beds, a chest of toys, and a to-scale dollhouse of the house they were in. In the middle of the room, they also found the small skeletons of two children, as well as the shreds of clothes they recognised - these were the bodies of Rose and Thorn.

The party began to investigate the room when Arkaeous reached for the toy chest. A ghostly hand reached out to stop him, and the party were startled by the apparitions of Rose and Thorn. Arkaeous examined the ghosts and found them to be entirely different from the illusions - these were real, yet good-natured, undead.

The ghosts talked to the party, and told them that they had been locked in here by their parents, and had starved to death. Their parents spent a lot of time in the basement of their house, and must have forgotten about them. They also talked about their baby brother, who they revealed was stillborn. Further, as they talked, the party realised that the baby wasn't in fact their full brother, but their half-brother - a bastard child of their father and the house keeper...
(Image from Wizards.)
The party wanted to put Rose and Thorn to rest, but Mizhena declared that it would be impossible without putting them in their correct tombs. Rose told them that they had a crypt in the basement built for their family, and pointed to the dollhouse which showed the layout of all the rooms, including many from the basement. Rose instructed the PCs on how to access the basement - a code to be played on the harpsichord downstairs that would unlock a secret stairwell in the attic. The PCs decided to take the bodies with them to be interred.

When they tried to leave, however, Rose and Thorn became scared. They didn't want to be left alone again, and pleaded with the party to let them come with them. This, naturally, meant they needed to possess two of the party members. Feeling compassion for the children, Arkaeous and Rowena agreed to have Thorn and Rose possess them respectively. Whilst the two of them retained their own minds, they began to become agitated - Arkaeous became frightful, and Rowena became bossy (even more so than usual).

The PCs travelled back to the ballroom and played the notes. As each note chimed, apparitions were summoned into the room. First of twirling aristocrats, dancing to the tune. Second of a caped and regal figure, standing in the doorway to the room, looking in balefully. Third of a massacre, of the caped man moving blindingly fast throughout the room tearing throats and bowels from the revellers.
(Image from Halloween on Earth.)
After the third note, a loud clunking sound could be heard above as the secret door was opened. The party, terrified of what they'd seen, travelled upwards, entered the musty and cramped secret stair, and began their descent into the basement of the haunted townhouse... But not before Rowena caught a glance of her reflection in a strange mirror, seeing her face withered and aged beyond recognition. The vision lasted for a blink of an eye, but left her shaken. A portent of what was to come? Only the land of Barovia could know for certain...

The party made it to the bottom of the stairwell, and found themselves in a rough-hewn, clay-cut warren. They followed the sketched floor plan they had created by copying the dollhouse, and discovered the family's crypt. Inside, they laid down the bones of the children, and Mizhena gave them their final rites. A hush fell over the party, and the spirits of Rose and Thorn left Rowena and Arkaeous. The children were at rest, but the monster - the thing in the basement - and the constant chanting they could hear remained...
(Image from megalithic.)
The party continued to explore the warren, and discovered several sleeping chambers for far more than just a family. These chambers included the possessions of what seemed to be cultists, not servants, and spoke of potential blasphemous rites that the Durst family had been undertaking. Eventually, they found several locked boxes which Asimi threw open with the flick of her thieves tools. Within they discovered several objects of a fell disposition, as well as a silvered short sword and a sack of silver pieces.

Continuing on, the party came to a ritual room, dominated by a wooden statue of a man with pale skin and striking angular features - the same man they saw in the vision who butchered the revellers in the ballroom. With one hand, the statue held the collar of a wolf. In the other, he held a misty-coloured orb. Around the room were pillars upon which hung chains from which dangled the broken remains of a score of sacrifice victims.
(Image from Tribality.)
Arkaeous inspected the orb, but in his curious haste, fumbled it and it shattered on the hardened clay floor. Instantly, living shadows melted from the walls and began to attack. The shadows proved immune to the weapons of the party, save for the silvered short sword. Asimi tried to figure out a solution to their problem, as they were quickly being driven back, when Mizhena fell to the ground clutching her wounds. All seemed dire, when Rowena lay her hands on Mizhena, and then put two and two together: the silvered short sword repelled the Shadows, so she instructed Asimi to scatter the silver coins along the floors to create a wall. This delayed the Shadows long enough that with the aid of fire and spells, they were able to defeat them or drive them from the room.

The party, nearly broken and exhausted, slumped to the floor. They would set camp in this room, defend the doorways, and rest for a few hours before they pressed on into the Death House.

And that concludes the second session of our Curse of Strahd campaign! I hope you enjoyed it, and that you come back next time for more.

Edited by Amelia Sarif.

Curse of Strahd #1 - Enter, our Heroes!

A little backstory before I get into this... 

As I mentioned last week, I had never really intended to play Curse of Strahd so soon after Ameshirel: A World Undone, but found myself in a state of 'No Campaign Madness'. I collected a good group of friends, we made adventurers, and set off into the lands of Barovia. 

This is their story.

Note: If you're intending to play in Curse of Strahd you shouldn't read this series. Whilst I've changed a great many things, and tweaked it like any GM will, this write-up will still give away many many spoilers for those wishing to play the game.
I had to get into a Strahdy mood. It may have gone too far...
The party consists of four adventurers, all from the Forgotten Realms:
  • "Rowena" (formerly Jane Hull), a Human Paladin of Sharess – the Goddess of Seduction and Life's Pleasures. She's a vain, jealous person, who wants to evoke beauty and joy in the world... So long as it includes, and is somewhat focused on, her. Played by Alex.

  • Asimi Naftikos, a Human Rogue and former Ship's Girl, turned Mutineer, turned High Seas Pirate, turned Treasure Seeker. She's a greedy, treasure loving adventurer, through and through, who wants to seize enough riches to purchase her own ship. But she has a heart of... perhaps not gold, but something shiny. Her pirating ways are dominated by a desire to stand up for the rights of exploited sailors working under terrible captains and overly affluent merchants. Played by Amelia.

  • Battle Sister Mizhena, Stalwart of Tempus, a Human Cleric of Tempus, the Foehammer. She's proud and boastful, and quick to action. As the good Lord Tempus demands, she's fair in a fight, eager for adventure, with a lusty desire for glorious battle! Played by Danny.

  • Arkaeous, a Tiefling Warlock, addicted entirely to the magic gifted him by his patron – a terrible Pact Devil, beholden to the Demon Queen of Spiders Lolth! In his heart, he yearns for atonement for terrible sins he has committed in the lust after his magic, but yet he is unwilling to give up the baleful energy coursing through his body. Played by Sam.
Danny knows of the Forgotten Realms. Mention of Strahd and Lolth does not a confident Danny make!
Our adventure began in a nameless hamlet on the edge of civilisation, far to the north of the Dalelands. Here, our adventurers had been called by a friend of a friend, to come to the aid of Father Rennic – the local priest – to aid in matters of the undead.

Though at first they feared a necromancer, or other such evil, the adventurers were only able to find five lonely zombies in the woods. Dispatching them easily, and after weeks of searching, they concluded with the Father that their job there was done. Still, the mysterious, and thoroughly dated, ruffed clothing they wore, and the lack of evidence from where they came, continued to confuse everyone in the sleepy little hamlet.

On the night before they were to leave, there was a cry from the edge of the woods. Fearing another zombie, the villagers called on the heroes to investigate. They discovered it was no zombie, but a man named Arrigal, wounded and dressed in similar clothing to the zombies. The heroes questioned him, but he knew nothing of the undead, and had his own problems which needed their urgent attention.
(Image from Wizards.)
Arrigal told the story of his people - the travelling Vistani – who were beset by a pack of three werewolves. They had been attacked, but Arrigal lured the werewolves away. His Baba – priestess of their people – put a spell over their caravan which meant that until morning no outside eyes could see them.

Arrigal pleaded with the party to hunt down the werewolves before dawn, whilst he sought out his caravan. The party – foremost Rowena – distrusted Arrigal, and wanted to either go with him to his people, or to await the morning. Arrigal, however, was sly, and produced reason after reason to lure them into the woods. Unable to confirm their suspicions about Arrigal - and unwilling to let innocents be slaughtered, they set off... Not without first extracting promise of payment in treasure from Arrigal.

"How about this? I am a famous juggler among my people. I propose a wager  we Vistani have much treasure, and I shall juggle it all when next we meet. Any treasure that I drop, is yours to keep!"

With that, Arrigal disappeared into the woods, and the party set off in the direction he told them.

After many hours of walking, they became enshrouded in mists, first ankle, then knee high. Arkaeous determined that the mists were supernatural, and that they were growing behind them, preventing them from turning back. The party was now certain that they had been betrayed, and that they had been spirited away into a land unlike their own.
(Image from Dragon+.)
The howls of wolves began to punctuate the air, giving credence to at least part of Arrigal's lies. There were werewolves in these woods – at that revelation, a form moved through the trees and dashed out onto the road. Before they could see it clearly, it was gone - dissipated into the mist.

The party made their way to a great gatehouse, crossing a path that had formed in the woods. Wrought of black stone and cold iron bars, they journeyed through the gatehouse, into the other side. Arrigal sprang from the other side of the gatehouse, and locked the gates before they could move. They had fallen into his trap! All of a sudden, the great walls of the gate were gone – crumbled to nothing. The structure seemed to blink forward in time thousands of years in desolation. Arrigal himself, gone completely...

But they were not alone. 

On the road ahead of them, a great snarling sounded and they spun to confront a werewolf. Rushing into the fray, Rowena set up a strong position between the beast and her companions. Asimi was about to loose an arrow towards it when another werewolf launched from the forest and began to gore Rowena.
Pardon the orc and gnoll - we proxy a lot of our minis!
Finally, another huge werewolf (in wolf form) padded onto the road, but didn't engage – merely watching as its other pack mates fought. After several rounds of combat, the werewolf that had gored Rowena broke and fled – fearing the divine might of Mizhena. The fleeing werewolf called out to the other that was still engaged with the party, calling it "Emil" and begging it to flee as well.

The third, larger werewolf sprung on this opportunity, and dragged the fleeing werewolf away, preventing it from hesitating and getting back to Emil as he was cut down. The screaming werewolf transformed back into a human, a woman, and fought the large wolf dragging her away – confusing and building mystery for our heroes... Which was somewhat resolved when, picking over the corpse of Emil, they discovered a wedding ring with the name Zuleika etched into the band. With a dead werewolf on the road, and two very living werewolves somewhere ahead of them, the party didn't have time to rest. 

The momentary peace was punctured when Asimi stumbled upon a skeletal rider atop a skeletal horse, fully animated, watching them from the woods off the road. The rider looked to have once been a knight, given its torn and destroyed clothing, and the barding on its horse.
(Image from Tribality.)
The rider, unable to speak without lungs or a tongue, clacked and attempted to communicate with the party – Rowena in particular. It made the motion of a shield, and pointed at Rowena. It pointed west along the road, then back east the way they'd come through the mists. It shook its head in warning. Then it turned and rode slowly back through the trees.

Mystified by this encounter, the party pressed on – believing that Arkaeous's suspicion was correct. They could not leave this realm until they performed some deed to reverse the spell: started in the woods, and ended with the locking of the gatehouse. 

They made their way to a large grassy plain beyond the woods, but still upon the road. A few more hours, and they saw the gloomy shapes of a settlement in this forsaken land. Bunching up tight, they stepped into the shadow of the buildings, and noticed no one was around – even though it was early, perhaps 6'o'clock in the morning. They expected someone at least to be out. Worse still, Rowena was able to sense the presence of undead within some of the buildings...

Then, a cry. A young girl, dressed in rather fine yet strange attire, ran from her house to the heroes. She held the hand of her younger brother, and they both looked frightened and concerned.

"Help! Our parents are not at home, and there's a monster in our house!"

The party looked towards the daunting yet proud townhouse, with its swinging open iron gate, and felt dread for their adventures to come...
(Image from Wizards.)
And that concludes the first session of our Curse of Strahd campaign! I hope you enjoyed it, and that you come back next time for more.