Thursday, March 17, 2016

Curse of Strahd Review & Synopsis

Hello, this is the RPG Crawler, and welcome to a tabletop review of Curse of Strahd: the new horror adventure released by Wizards of the Coast based on the old AD&D I6: Ravenloft module and the AD&D 2nd edition Ravenloft material. If you intend to be a player in this module, I would urge you to stop reading this review, because while I have tried to remain vague on a lot of the specific details, you still might very well find quite a bit of it to spoil the experience for you.

I’m assuming that the rest of you are curious as to how this stacks up with the classic adventure it’s based off of, and whether it’s worth buying. Well, I can’t answer the last question for you, only for me, but let’s go over the content and I’ll tell you what I thought, and hopefully you’ll come out more informed.

Any time you want to remake a classic, you’re going to get a lot of people who will doubt your efforts or hate it just on principle. Having played the original, and the 2nd and 3.5 edition remakes, I have to say that this version really tries to capture and expand upon the feel of the original, and for the most part, it manages to do so. It incorporates just enough of the lore of the old Ravenloft setting to make oldschool players of that campaign world feel at home, yet doesn’t go so far as declaring an entire cluster of linked domains, and honestly? I feel that it’s better off for not doing so. Aside from the content itself, the adventure does make mention of some techniques to heighten and defuse the tension in your game, some of which are similar to what I covered in my Horror in Roleplaying video, as well as some I did not mention, and their inclusion is much appreciated.

Chapter 1 sets up the classic Strahd story. If you're familiar with I6, House of Strahd, or (to a lesser extent) Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, then you'll be familiar with the story in question. There are a few surprises here, which I'll leave off so as not to provide spoilers, but much like prior versions of the adventure, there are tips on how to roleplay Strahd and a card reading mechanic to determine the location of key story elements (which has been expanded to encompass the larger realm). There are more adventure hooks to get the characters involved, including the original Vistani messenger from the original I6, as well as threads leading from the Forgotten Realms setting (I really liked this one, but it may not be suitable for 1st level characters), Adventurer's League players, and a generic 'fogs sweep you into Ravenloft' style no-choice lead in.

Chapter 2 gives an overview of the people and the land, touching on the expanded areas of the domain. Now, while the town of Vallaki and the village of Krezk were both mentioned in prior materials, this book goes all out in fleshing them out (albeit later in the book). This chapter also covers such favorites as the mists of Barovia, how sunlight works, the alterations to magic -- not as restrictive as 2nd edition AD&D version but fairly flavorful. It touches on the people of Barovia and the unique qualities inherent to them, and how they treat nonhumans. The lore of the land and the Vistani are detailed here, as well as random encounters that occur while exploring the domain. Further, detailed descriptions of static encounters and common mechanics of features in the domain are listed here.

The map of Barovia is in this chapter, and after some examination appears to be a fleshed out and detailed subset of the northern part of the domain as previously described in Ravenloft supplements. The eastern part of the domain is that which was detailed in I6, and closely resembles the original maps, while slightly more liberties were taken with the maps from the Ravenloft boxed set. It does, however, fit the setting. Between the maps and the static overworld encounters detailed here, a DM should be relatively confident in allowing his players to explore the domain at their leisure.

Chapter 3 covers the Village of Barovia in depth. It does a good job of presenting the classic feel of the village from I6, sticking closer to it than to say, the zombie nightmare from Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. It includes all of the old quests from Barovia village, in addition to a few new ones to help connect the new adventures and areas so that PCs can make their way up from level 1. One of the newly added areas, Death House, is covered in Appendix B as a separate adventure in itself.

Chapter 4 covers Castle Ravenloft, which might seem like the last place characters will visit in this adventure, but might very well be returned to again and again over the course of the campaign. It includes random encounters, including new NPCs, as well as most of the old NPCs and locations from I6. In fact, if you or your players are familiar with the iconic floor plan of Castle Ravenloft, it is largely unchanged from previous releases. The maps have been cleaned up and detailed out a bit more, but appear nearly identical to prior versions of the adventure. A few npcs have been fleshed out or added, as stated above, to support the new range of levels. Of particular note is the artwork in this chapter, which can be very useful in setting the mood in a game session.

I will breeze over the rest of these chapters, since they contain a lot of new material, and would enter serious spoiler territory if I were to include too many details.

Chapter 5 fleshes out the town of Vallaki, which had been mentioned in previous sources, but I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen it filled out as much as it is here. It has random encounters, general information, NPCs and places fleshed out like Barovia village, except this is content that did not appear in I6 or House of Strahd. Being a larger town, there’s more relevant NPCs to interact with, and many form sort of mini adventures unto themselves, just waiting for the PCs to stumble across them. Overall, the town is very well written, and includes a Vistani camp and a few special events that can occur during the course of the PCs stay, ones which will undoubtedly leave their marks on the party’s memory.

Chapter 6 involves an adventure area, the windmill Old Bonegrinder. Its inhabitants can either be somewhat unwholesome allies or a challenge for PCs to overcome. Chapter 7, meanwhile, details the ruins of Argynvostholt, the former  headquarters of a knightly order now fallen into ruin and corruption. While some quests might tend to indicate this could be treated as merely some dungeon crawl, it is a little more complex than that, resulting in a tragic place the players may want to redeem. Chapter 8 includes the village of Krezk and the Abbey of Saint Markovia, a place that is less fleshed out as a settlement and more as an adventure area, with a number of surprising twists that I honestly don’t want to reveal.

Chapter 9 and 10 are more adventure areas, a pass and a ruined settlement where quests or the characters’ own curiosity might take them. Chapter 11 is the former home of Rudolph van Richten, now rendered into another encounter area. 12 is a winery with troubles the characters may solve,  13 is both an expansive dungeon area, as well as ground zero for the story of Strahd’s transformation. It introduces a lot of lore that went long unmentioned. Finally, Chapter 14 and 15 cover more lairs for the allies of Strahd out in the wilds, adding dark druids and werewolves to the mix of things the PCs might have to face on their way to defeating the lord of the domain.

Finally, an epilogue gives details on what happens if various ending conditions are met: If Strahd wins, if he dies, and if he dies while certain other things are active. It also includes  information on what happens thereafter, should other parties wish to brave the land of mists or the main party just want to continue onward. Overall, the adventure structure is very nonlinear, with several entry points and leads that might take characters crisscrossing across the haunted countryside. There is certainly an optimal way to progress through these adventure areas, but even then a great many of them are optional.

The book wraps up with a new character background, the Haunted One, as well as some gothic trinkets starting characters can take. An introductory adventure: ‘Death House’ allows characters to rise from first level to third, for a better chance at surviving the rigors of the land, while a further appendix updates many classic items from I6 to fifth edition format. There’s a section with monster stats for monsters and NPCs found in the adventure, including many classic Ravenloft creatures such as the Strahd Zombie, and finally graphics for the Tarokka deck, handouts for the players to receive during play, and fold out maps.

As far as the book itself, I have little to compare it to, since this is the first non-core 5th edition rulebook I’ve purchased. Overall, the quality of the book itself is on par with the core rulebooks, with similar bindings and trade dressing. The artwork is beautiful, evocative of the setting itself. The sheer amount of content over the original adventures it is based off of, combined with the more than adequate build quality definitely makes this a valued addition to my collection. Overall, I am extremely happy with my purchase. While I was uncertain whether the additional material was worth the price, if you manage to get it from Amazon or another retailer that shaves that 49.95 sticker price down a bit (I paid just over 31$ as a pre order, not sure if you can still get it for that anywhere), I’d say that it is well worth it. While there is a notable quality difference between some of the new material and the old material, it’s not bad by any means, and quite a bit of it is well integrated, expanding the backstory of Strahd and his ties to the land in a way that allows the players to experience, rather than simply be told about it.

I would have to say that, in my humble opinion, Curse of Strahd is the definitive version of the Ravenloft adventure, at least once you get into the meat of the accessory, and it is definitely something I am proud to have on my gaming shelf. I look forward to running this for various groups for years to come.

This has been my first review of a tabletop product, and I hope that it’s been informative. If you have any feedback on the review format itself, do let me know. If you’d prefer to see this in video format, I have a version of it on my Youtube channel, which I encourage you to check out. Until next time, take care!

Curse of Strahd
Wizards of the Coast
Released: March 15, 2016
Price: $49.95
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