Curse of Strahd is the best published adventure that I’ve ever played in. The atmosphere is fantastic, the locations, NPCs and villains are interesting, tragic and funny and the campaign requires you to play skillfully. And I must say, played in, not played to the end, because we TPK’ed about half-way through… I will keep the review spoiler free. Perhaps you will buy it for your DM? DM’s like that kind of sucking up (you can buy it here)!
Curse of Strahd can be improved (or modified) though, and I hope any DMs who run it will consider my perspective. As a reviewer, my challenge is that I haven’t read the campaign. I’ve only played in it, and therefore my DM’s choices, awesomeness, mistakes, additions or oversights is reflected in my opinion.
The sand-box campaign is a remake of the original Ravenloft module. The original mainly focused on the dungeon – the castle itself. The remake is bigger and contains Strahd’s domain of Barovia and several locations and many NPCs living there.
We played with the Rest Variant – Gritty Realism (DMG pg. 267), with the change that you could use HD to regain spell slots. I think this added a lot of tension to the whole story, and helps create a more realistic timeline.
What I really liked:
- Lore, which is important to your survival, is scattered all over. Every time you speak to an NPC or find a new location, you have a sense that there is more pieces to recover for the grand puzzle. It made the world feel important and alive, and exploration and paying attention to detail was essential.
- It is difficult. It is hard to judge what locations are the most dangerous, and you feel very vulnerable in the beginning. We got somewhat overconfident though, which was stupid, and partly led to our demise. It feels like Skyrim without the save functionality.
- Loot and good equipment is scarce. The supply of goods in Barovia is limited, and stuff like armor and spell components are hard to get. It added a fun dimension that we had to struggle for items even at level 5 and 6.
- The mood is awesome, and there are some great stories and people and sub-plots in the adventure.
The card mechanic that helps define the campaign (and was in the original, I believe) adds re-play-ability, which is good for us, as we never reached the end.
What I disliked or would want changed:
- Everyone we met, basically said that everywhere was dangerous (and it was compared to the villagers). But after you survive the first few locations that description becomes less meaningful, and led us to misjudge the location where we TPK’ed. Only one NPC hinted that one location was beyond us, until we were significantly more experienced. I would like a little more indicators as to the danger level, because let’s face it, it will be years before we try the adventure again.
- The Curse of Strahd (and Storm King’s Thunder) use milestone XP, and we didn’t like that. We don’t find it satisfying as players to walk up to a new location and then the DM tells us we get a level, because the adventure says so. We want to earn it. But on the other hand, it seems like there isn’t enough material in the adventure to progress to the required level the old-fashioned way. Thus, the DM would have to add a few more locations and plots.
- I would like even more minor locations and sub-plots.
We TPK’ed, after we had visited Castle Ravenloft once to steal an important item. The heist was an evening full of tension, and I wished there were more direct hints to go to a part of the castle to complete a specific task during the adventure. It seems like many save the castle to last, but that is not necessarily the right thing to do.
One of the things that was a bit mysterious to me was the fact that one of the cards we drew led us to the encounter where we TPK’ed. At 6th level we were completely outmatched. And I mean completely. We were all dead at the end of round two. We may have missed something obvious, but I’m not sure directing us there, to something that is clearly evil (and we are mainly good guys), and expecting us to come out ahead, is good design.
We only saw a small portion of Castle Ravenloft, and I assume there is a lot of interesting material in there.
We will try again…
After our wipe, we talked about picking the adventure up again after a couple of years, and perhaps starting at level 5, with the initial elements of the story completed, narrating that part together with the DM, and drawing fresh cards. I know for sure that I would like to return to Castle Ravenloft and face the Lord of Barovia.
For now, though, we’ve begun a game, where we play low level mobsters (or petty criminals who know some mobsters, really) in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in the glorious city of Luccini. It is going to be great fun!