Writing up AP posts is a simple pleasure. From experience, I know how nice it is to not only share fun game moments but in the years after the game, looking back on old game write-ups and reliving those moments a bit.
The above text is a slamming campaign starter that I’m still eager to give a go. That said, this post was published in November of 2016 and it has been my most viewed post for the years of 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021. Are there that many people looking for blog posts about Volo’s Guide to Monsters or are there that many gamers looking for kobold content? Did I do something with the posts tags or categories to make it easier to find? Does the Demon-God Algo-Rhy-Thum just adore it?
Istebin, Monk, last of the Ulmist Inquisitors, who has died trying to kill Strahd countless times and can barely remember his homeland.
Gadaar, Druid, branded and tongueless for betraying his evil Druidic Order, realizing that this world is not right and needs fixing.
Had a bit of a warm-up fight with some thugs from the castle. Jusko and Aldjo were there to find Aldjo’s wife but the thugs in Castle Ravenloft livery were putting up a notice that she had been arrested for sedition. I was going to make this first fight against Vampire Spawn but I didn’t want it to run that long and didn’t want to kill the entire party by accident. I was second-guessing myself a bunch tonight.
The player characters decimated them and got to be cool and feel out these new characters. I stand by the decision.
I used to hand NPC roles to players whose characters weren’t involved in the scene when I played Ars Magica in college. I forgot what a delight it could be. The way the players unveiled their secrets and their presentation was amazing and they made very different choices than I did. It was a nice change of pace.
Jusko asked the group to a nearby hill to get out of the village and discuss their options. Lady Baleron remembered a secret entrance into the crypts, leading to Strahd’s parents’ tomb. In they went…
Tense dungeon-crawling and marking traps with chalk. They made their way through a secret tunnel, Jusko saved Aldjo from falling into a chute trap. They made their way into a room with an arcane teleportation device. Lady Baleron rolled so well on her Wisdom check that I said she had helped install this device. They knew how it worked and stole all of the stones.
From the Observation Deck, down into the torture chamber and through the hall. Finally…the dungeon…
They could hear Strahd talking to Aldjo’s wife, Barushka. “Do you think they will come and try to save you?”
“No, they are an Outlands Expedition Team; they’re professionals. They are gathering allies to come here and put you down.”
“I hope so. Saving you would be so boring and predictable. I am flattered to have Sigil’s attention. We’ll see…”
Some chatter with Emil about werewolf stuff and he turned to mist. They couldn’t see any other way for him to leave the room. I asked them what they were going to do in case he left down the hallway they were standing in.
Lady Baleron used Divine Sense to make sure they were clear. Usually, this would be no big deal, just a small detail but it ended up changing the adventure entirely.
I was considering having Barushka betray the group. I knew that she and Aldjo had bonded over both having children who were lost somewhere in the Demi-Plane of Dread’s Domains. Perhaps Strahd offered to find her lost child. But if she had decided to do that, wouldn’t the Paladin notice the evil? I didn’t mention that Barushka was evil.
Or is Barushka not evil until she actually DOES it?
I decided that it wasn’t cool to penalize Lady Baleron for playing smart and looking around for undead and evil. Barushak considered it but at the last instant, she decided not to do it.
Maybe it is more interesting that she was tempted and didn’t do it. We’ll see.
Despite the lack of a final twist, it was a fun, tense night.
Having freed the imprisoned werewolf, Emil, they made their way out of the crypts. Lady Baleron, Aldjo and Barushka used the teleportation device to get to the Amber Temple and would meet up with the rest of the team later.
Brother Estabin used Shadow Arts and they got out quietly.
Running big dungeons is not, nor has it ever been, my strong suit. I need to break the rest of Castle Ravenloft into bite-sized pieces so I can DM navigating it better. Still. it was a fun, tense night with lots of great rolls and players spending everything they had to keep from failing a roll that could get them found.
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I have seen it in a thousand reddit posts on DM’s Academy. “The bridge spanning the chasm is broken but one of the players has wings. What do I do so the flying player can’t be cool for a moment?”
Toss aside your plan and let the player with wings be cool.
The werewolves and their wolves were sprinting after the distant camp where a pair of Drow, a pterodactyl and Damius, a young Vistani Mist-Walker guide awaited.
Bugwump and Jusko jumped on their Chultan guide’s pterodactyl to get there first. Helewynn ordered her Dire Wolf pack to allow her friends to ride them (Persuasion 18) to the camp.
Lots of talking and chatter during the trip. The table was in a chipper mood tonight; it was nice.
Helewynn’s player, B, is new to D&D; this is their first game. B always comes up with amazing plans and thinks outside the box in combat. Helewynn rarely ever just hits someone without a cool description or a strategic move that changes the course of the battle. It is amazing.
B had discussed trying to get Bugwump to use fire magic to melt down Helewynn’s silver chainmail to coat their werewolf’s claws in silver. There was no time but it is an awesome idea. Never stop thinking outside the box, B.
Jusko asks to be dropped right in the hedge-gap, where the pack will have enter the camp. Bugwump casts Haste upon him, “As no wizard has ever done before; I cast Haste on the fighter.”
The pack Alpha, Kiril Stoyanovich, the one Helewynn’s Wolf Spirit told her she would likely die if she attempted to defeat in battle for pack supremacy, reached Jusko first. Jusko tapped his helm visor down with the pommel of his vorpal sword and got his shield ready.
And so ended Kiril Stoyanovich, Barovian Pack’s Alpha, who believed Mother Night had blessed and ordained Strahd with all of the Night’s Power.
I rolled a Wisdom Save for the rest of the pack. What did I roll?
You can guess. Hell, you already know.
The remaining werewolves ran; Jusko kicked their late alpha’s head at them and slashed at one in a burst of arcane speed.
The borders are closed. They can’t mist-walk their way out. They consider getting to a border and seeing if Kuru’s magic-cutting knife can cut through. Damius, the other Mist-Walker, asks if the knife is a mighty artifact; it is not.
Helewynn talked to the Sunsword, who appeared as Strahd’s brother, Sergei von Zarovich. The sword suggested luring Strahd outside the castle with his beloved or the Book of Strahd, either one would inspire a wrathful pursuit.
“If you plan to run into the Mists, leave me here for a warrior who will confront the Devil Strahd, so I can do what I was made to do…” The sword also said that Jusko’s vorpal blade had killed more people than 100 Strahd’s…
The group debates inside Bugwump’s Leomund’s Tiny Hut. Rahadin approaches with an invitation from Strahd. Jusko tries to get her to lash out but she does not.
Lots of jokes about Strahd’s proofreader being out of town or dead or the Olde Barovian spelling of boundary. I joined in. It was funny as hell.
They are not taking Strahd up on his invitation.
The other Outlands Expedition Team has been dubbed, The B Team. Their Ranger, Aldjo, married a woman he met in the village of Barovia. The debate was whether or not to go get her or head northwest and find the Prophet (the re-named Abbot if you are following at home). Adjo insisted that they go northwest and Jusko realized the ranger thought she was already dead.
The game ended with Jusko and Aldjo jumping on a Jusko’s pterodactyl, lovingly named, Stupid Dragon, and heading for Barovia while Kuru followed along yelling, “BUT YOU’LL NEED STEALTH AND I’M THE STEALTHY ONE!”
Hence the title of our next game…
Next Session: Into the Devil’s Lair
Two players will be out of town so three players will be playing NPC’s as Jusko heads into the shadow of the Castle Ravenloft…
“But Judd,” you say, “this is a horror game and everyone was laughing…isn’t that a problem?”
No, not at all. We don’t play characters with punny names and goof around all night but laughter is part of the game. I would even argue that laughter is a natural result of tension and this game has been dark for weeks. Not saying that we’ve never laughed in past weeks but this session felt like a release valve. If you want to hear more about pterodactyls in Ravenloft, I talk about it on my podcast, Daydreaming about Dragons.
The team debated going after Strahd or just leaving now that Trundle can Mistwalk. They decided to grab their friend’s wife in the village of Barovia and get out of Ravenloft.
Trundle and Bugwump step into the mists. Trundle realizes that he can trap the mist (and possibly vampire mist) in an amber container if the make of it is fine enough. The ranger realizes that moving through the Mist is moving through something that is quite alive. Bugwump knows the Mist is sentient and malevolent.
“This method of travel should not be taken lightly.”
Meanwhile, Helewynn turns into werewolf form and howls a challenge to Barovia’s werewolf pack. A Dire Wolf approaches and says that it will pass on the message but it will take a while.
Long story short – Helewynn takes over the Dire Wolf pack (while Jusko and Kuru watch in awe) and sends two wolves northward to tell the pack that an Emissary of Mother Night (another name for her Moon Goddess) has come.
Kiril Stoyanovitch and his wolf pack meet them in the Standing Stone in the Berez Ruins. Helewynn cannot convince them that Strahd is not the annointed of Mother Night.
“If not, why is he the strongest when the moon rises? Why can none stand against him and live? Why do even the Druids agree that Strahd is the Land and the Land is Strahd?”
They part ways, Kiril hopes to meet her again some day…
During Kuru’s watch, he sees a pterodactyl, like the ones they flew in Chult. It was their guide from Chult, Tefnek. Turns out, their Sigil City Agent, the drider, Quarace Arkenrae, sent a team to get them out of Ravenloft. She plane-shifted a team of Drow, a Vistani and Tefnek with several pterodactyls to Gloomwrought and from there the Vistani Mist-Walked them through the Shadowfell to Barovia.
As Tefnek explains that Kuru had cut the chords of their portal and it was inoperable, their Vistani guide could walk them out. As she says that, Trundle feels the borders of the domain slam shut as Strahd hears their escape plan. Up until that point, he didn’t know that Trundle was a Mist-Walker (and he still doesn’t).
They heard Kiril’s werewolf pack howl in the distance. Helewynn knows it is the howl of a pack on a hunt sent as an order from Strahd himself. Next session we’ll start with a mad dash to save the team sent to save the team that was sent in to save the team.
Am I the type of nerd who writes a 1500 word story about an NPC who is working in the background to support the PC’s?
Adventurers, Monster Hunters, Zealots, Tomb Robbers, Treasure-Seekers and Heroic Fools,
Welcome to Ravenloft. I have lived many lives here and remember most of them.
Most know me because the monster known as Count Strahd von Zarovich desires me. Many might know that when Strahd built Castle Ravenloft he called forth many wizards and architects to build a castle his mother would be proud to inhabit. Few know that I was among those learned folk. I was an up-and-coming wizard who had written on demi-planar mechanics. The act of using magic to create liminal spaces such as in Leomund’s Tiny Hut, Bags of Holding and Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion was my passion and specialty.
Three books and more than a dozen well cited scrolls on demi-planar mechanics all went out the window after I fell to my death running from Strahd on my wedding day after he butchered beautiful Sergei. Sergei was to be my groom; we were going to leave Barovia after the honeymoon and live in Sigil, so I could continue my studies in an urban academic community. He was hoping to join an Outlands Expedition Team.
I have lost count of how many times my soul has been churned out into another life in the mists of Ravenloft. I realize that some powerful entities from the Shadowfell have created a demi-plane to imprison monsters. I know that much.
You might think that a monster like Strahd being locked up is a good thing and makes the planes a safer place. Once I might have agreed with you. The problem is that the prison has become a hungry sentient creature. The prison craves power and the only way prisons gain power is by having more prisoners. A beast with this kind of hunger doesn’t just imprison monsters; it creates monsters so that it can have more kept here against their will under its fell mists.
The Demi-Plane of Dread does not care about justice. Many of us survivors are imprisoned here too. You might say that we are here to cause the monster pain but I never asked to spend lifetimes torturing a murderous parasite.
If you should kill Strahd, I hope I am next to you in battle. If not, seek me out in whatever incarnation Ravenloft’s Mists have seen fit to put me in (probably buxom with good hair). It would be my pleasure to shovel the hole at the crossroads in which we bury his head. But know that when we kill the Devil-Strahd, as the Vistani call him, our work is not over. The only way to truly do good is to abolish this prison, disperse the mists so that its powers are sent out among the planes and this cycle of suffering can end.
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The Amber Golem was decimated by the group. None missed and the golem never got a shot off. It was brutal and confidence-building.
Vilnius, a wizard the golem was chasing, was grateful but after a solid roll Kuru and Jusko realized the wizard was evil and would betray them. Kuru back-stabbed the evil wizard with a fiery knife. Vilnius died in fire and blood.
Vilnius’ Quasi familiar, Chester, led them to Vilnius’ teacher’s corpose and suggested they look into the statue more carefully for secrets. They did and found a wizard within and the hilt of the Sun Sword they were seeking.
Bugwump bound Chester as his familiar. Chester suggested they head back to Darkon and take over. “Azalin Rex is gone; the domain is in chaos. A group like you could wreak bloody havoc and own that place.” The Team nixed this idea.
The wizard’s name was Nef and told them that he was the last of the Amber Wizards who made this temple. He led them into the vaults so Helewynn could bind the spirit of a Great Wolf, a daughter of the Moon and take her Dark Gift.
Nef offered to send the teams out of Ravenloft through the Mists if Jusko would follow them to his family’s holdings, where they were cruelly ruling a young world. Jusko declined.
While Helewynn bound the wolf spirit, Trundle bound himself to a Raven Spirit, the Mist Walker. He can now walk the mists as the Vistani do.
Nef asked Failed Soldier if he would like to leave his murderous sin in Ravenloft and take it off his soul’s ledger. Failed Soldier elected to hold on to that sin.
The team has decided to kill Strahd. First they plan on finding the Mad Mage who wanders the forest and the Prophet in the north, who is said to have fallen from the Heavens. There was talk of Helewynn binding the werewolf packs to her will.
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The vaulted chamber of the temple had a statue of a wizard whose face was shrouded in darkness and (inspired by DragnaCarta’s Curse of Strahd Reloaded) it asked those who entered to leave a secret or something holy at the feet of the statue. That prompted cool shit from the players.
Jusko whispered, “I belong here,” while pressing his family signet ring into some wax on the statue. EEK.
Failed Soldier wrote a sealed note about the sailor he killed in a previous adventure in a shrine to a storm goddess.
Kuru tried to get by leaving a cheap coin and pretending it was holy to him but the statue was on to his bullshit.
Trundle left one of his carvings of the world they saw born in a previous adventure.
Helewynn left her holy symbol since the moon here seemed to be godless.
They found the two lost members of the other team surrounded by 3 Flameskulls…
One of the Flameskulls unleashed its fireball, doing some healthy damage but all in all, the 3 were dispatched without too much trouble. The other team missed in a terrible first round of to-hit rolls, prompting Jusko to fuck with them later…
Trundle engaged Crum, a Dwarven cleric of Portals, who wears a key holy symbol. I rolled to see how informed he was on getting in and out of Ravenloft and rolled a 20. He knows shit.
Bugwump’s Arcana checks are off the chain since he has a magic staff from Tomb of Annihilation. They know all about Sergei’s Sunsword, the other team believes the sword is here somewhere.
There was some talk about just heading back to Ravenwatch and getting to the portal. I reminded folks that Kuru had cut up the portal with his magic-cutting knife and it wasn’t a sure thing that it was working.
Helewynn hasn’t seen moonlight since being bitten by the werewolf. When she does, we’ll make some rolls and see what happens.
Failed Soldier gave Lem the Nine Gods Orchid he picked for her from the previous adventure. I said that it felt like a lifetime ago that she asked him for that but thing is, it actually does kinda feel like a lifetime ago. It was cool that we got to see that completed.
What does Nine Gods Orchid do? I’m thinking some kind of cool tea that inspires prophetic dreams.
After a short rest, the team heard someone screaming for help and found a wizard with a quazit familiar running from an Amber Golem. Kuru and Trundle stealthed over and engaged; we’ll start there with everyone else rolling initiative next week.
“Thank Vecna you folks showed up to save me,” the burned, half-starved wizard said.
When I read Apocalypse World I can see that (like me) Meguey and Vincent spent their college years playing Ars Magica. I can feel seasonal arcane lab work in the ole Savvyhead. Inspired by their Tinkering move in their Burned Over ruleset and a question on an RPG slack I frequent, here’s a move for making magic items in D&D:
Forgive me as I imitate AW’s examples of play, my favorite examples from any RPG:
Bugwump the Frog-kin Wizard wants to add charges to Kuru’s Wand of Lightning. Poor Kuru, the Hobbit Thief, has been moping ever since the wand lost its oomph. “Clearly you need to go to a mountaintop and get this thing hit by lightning,” I say.
“Oooh, it should be a special mountain, holy to the Storm Giants,” Kuru’s player says.
Bugwump’s player says, “You aren’t making this easy.”
“It’ll be fun! What is the worst that could happen?”
“Lightning from a Storm Giant’s holy mountaintop. Sounds awesome. There is one you’ve heard about not too far away, the Sky’s Anvil…”
Jusko’s player wants to keep his ancestral blade but it isn’t magical.
“Maybe you could unlock its secret powers by vanquishing an ancestor who is making a nuisance of themselves as an undead menace…” Helewynn’s player says.
“That is amazing. Do you want to run that adventure?” I ask.
“Nah, I have some ideas about it that’ll email you, though,” Helewynn’s player says.
I nod, keeping an eye out for opportunities for new DM’s to take the reigns.
“My friends, could you help me vanquish my wraith great-uncle who is causing problems for the countryside?” Jusko asks his comrades.
After another lightning wand goes dead in the middle of Strahd’s family tombs, Kuru throws the dead stick to the ground. “Bugwump! This is nonsense!”
Bugwump says, “I’m not just adding more charges to the wand this time.”
“That Storm Giant jarl nearly killed me!” Kuru says.
“I’m making a lightning pistol,” Bugwump says.
Kuru’s player becomes the living embodiment of the heart-eyes emoji.
“We have been rocking a western vibe. Are we okay with pistols that spit lightning in-game?” I say.
A long discussion about fantasy fiction and westerns and blending genres ensues. We agree that it is okay but don’t want pistols to become ubiquitous. I’ve got ideas on how to make certain that doesn’t happen.
“First, you are going to have to get a smith to make a pistol that can hold lightning,” I say.
“My sister is a smith. I could write her a letter,” Trundle’s player says.
“She might want a favor or a huge pile of gold to make a weapon like this – even for family, ” I say.
“Once it is completed you’ll have to get it hit by six different arcane lightning bolts from six different sources,” I say.
“I can throw a lightning bolt,” Bugwump says.
The group starts brainstorming where to get the other five lightning bolts – the local blue dragon who hit that merchant caravan last year, that monk who has a lightning fist, the Storm Giant who seemed ready to rebel against her father’s rule during a previous adventure…
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I’ve seen friendly hobbit parties cut off goblin’s fingers and local heroes done good threaten worse than that. In my experience, it is a sign of frustration at withheld information. Step out of game and talk it over, my friends.
Kuru talked up the three Vistani ladies who owned the Blood of the Vine Tavern.
“Judd, what is the name of the tavern?”
“Blood of the Vine…”
“Of course it is…”
They learned that the previous team had been driven from town for assaulting an old lady who is a witch – the bad kind, that the Vistani saved Strahd when he was mortal and some serve him as penance for helping create such a devil.
Trundle, when he entered the inn, offered a prayer against fiends (his chosen enemy) in Infernal. Just a nice bit of color that I loved.
Also, we learned that Jusko’s family, the Hajeks, rule a city in the west, Vallicki.
These details didn’t mean anything today but I adore them and sometimes they end up being THE thing that changes the campaign. Ya never know.
The team witnessed the March of the Dead, in which the ghosts of adventurers who have fought Strahd and died rise and march to re-live their deaths as they walk to Castle Ravenloft.
They dug up the body of one of their former comrades from another team, Dylan was a warlock. Strahd ripped out his heart with his bare hands. When they asked Dylan how he suggested they proceed he said, “Don’t. This mission is folly. Pay the Vistani whatever they ask and make your way to Gloomwrought. From there you should be able to make your way home eventually through the Shadowfell…”
They learned that the previous team had headed west to find something called the Amber Temple on the western slopes of Mt. Ghakis.
They found Father Donavich holding his son, Boru, in the undercroft while sobbing. The boy, inspired by strangers recently in town. After some discussions about morality and such, they decided to chalk this up as a local conflict and leave it be. They vampire-bitten young man had gone berserk right about when Bugwump cast Leomund’s Tiny Hut (scrying doesn’t penetrate the hut).
As they left, the priest to the Morninglord was sitting atop the undercroft door, sobbing quietly.
They tracked the previous team as they went off the road and headed west. They team left glyphs to let any other Outlands Expedition Teams know that they were headed to the western slope of the mountain and that they were being hunted by something following them.
One of the awesome players at our table suggested that these glyphs teams leave for one another are an off-shoot of thieves’ cant; so rogues can often tease out more details or leave more nuanced messages.
The pack of werewolves hunting the team (7 in total, Trundle the Dwarven Ranger could tell) suddenly headed westward, up the mountain. It didn’t make much sense. They found a barrow adorned with goat and deer skulls where one of the werewolves was interred, having been killed by silver arrows and a pit trap and some more silver arrows. Helewyn wisely dug out the silver arrows.
Next week we begin with the pack trying to flank a lone archer on an old goat path known as the Blood Moon Path.
This game being a mission, where they want to get their comrades out and get back home to Sigil has changed the tenor of the game. Destroying Strahd is a tertiary goal. The team is very willing to leave situations be and not get embroiled in what they see as endless local nonsense. They are invested but they have their eye on the prize – getting their friends out. Very interesting…
Today’s shirt reads: “I survived the Satanic Panic and all I got was this t-shrit, creative lifelong friends and a love of fantasy, history and literature.”