Running Ravenloft

by Mike Shea on 31 October 2013

Note: This article has been updated since its original version published in November 2012.

Published in 1983, the classic D&D adventure I6 Ravenloft, was ranked in 2004 by Dungeon magazine as the second greatest adventure of all time. Five years before its publication, Tracy and Laura Hickman ran the classic D&D module, I6 Ravenloft every Halloween. Ravenloft contains one of the best open-ended randomly determined adventures produced for Dungeons and Dragons and it's perfect for a Halloween one-shot game. Today we're going to look at how to run your own Ravenloft Halloween game so you can start your own yearly tradition.

Ravenloft is available both as a used hardcopy or digitally from D&D Classics.

For this version of Ravenloft, we will play with Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition rules by reskinning any monsters using the closest monsters in the Monster Manual and playing with PCs at level 7.

Ravenloft Altar

Set Simple Character Quests

In a single-session game, deep character backgrounds and PC interconnections don't really come into play. Instead, just have PCs choose or randomly determine their primary quest and have them work it into their background.

  1. You seek a holy talisman known as the Icon of Ravenloft.
  2. You seek the hilt to a strange blade you possess.
  3. You seek an ancient book known as the Tome of Strahd.
  4. You must slay the first vampyr.
  5. You must protect Ireena Indrirovich.
  6. You must raise the darkness from Barovia.

Listing Out the Beats

Ravenloft has a lot of material. If you're pressed for time you'll want to make sure to understand the beats of the adventure and plan accordingly. Here are the major pieces of the adventure you'll want to hit:

Your goal is generally to get the PCs to the castle within your first hour.

You can use these Ravenloft handouts to give copies of the letters to your players. This also contains fragments of the Tome of Strahd should players be interested in reading it.

Alternative Beginning: Worgs and Werewolves

To start things with a bang, the PCs can be attacked by a 2d4 worgs led by a werewolf at area C on page 7. Once they defeat the worgs, the PCs discover the bloody note from the Burgomaster's messenger.

The PCs then travel to the village without incident. Focus the PCs attention on two locations: the Blood of the Vine tavern and the Burgomaster's Home. At the Burgomaster's home, they learn of Ireena's fate and are sent to the Tser Pool to meet with Madame Eva and have their fortune told as normal.

In a four-hour game, the goal should be to get the players through all of this in the first 90 minutes. This leaves two and a half hours for the exploration of the castle.

Alternative Beginning: Start At the Castle

If you want PCs to have almost all their time focused on exploring the castle, you can start them on the carriage mentioned on page 11 section I of the original adventure and run Madame Eva's fortune telling from within the carriage. This focuses the attention of the adventure on exploring the castle instead of dealing with the Burgomaster and his family. Some brief read-aloud text can get the PCs started:

You find yourself in the cursed land of Barovia where the Burgomaster of the town has asked you to save his daughter from the clutches of the vampyr, Strahd. Aboard a ghastly carriage led by horses black as pitch, you find yourself facing a hunched figure who places a deck of cards on the small table within the carriage. "Let us see what future you face within the depths of Castle Ravenloft!"

Then begin the card reading on page 4 to determine the location of the Tome of Strahd, the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, the Sunsword, and Strahd himself.

Tweak Strahd's Goals

Strahd's goals in the original I6 are problematic. Here are other options for the last card on page 5:

3 or 5: Ireena's brother, Ismark, has been turned into a vampire by Strahd. He meets the PCs in the castle and attempts to lure them into the worst parts of the castle.

7 or 10: Strahd is attempting to channel the power of a god through the heart in the high tower. The PCs must destroy it or risk Strahd becoming even more powerful. The heart is the tool mentioned in the read-aloud text.

Jack or Queen: Ireena's life force is slowly being drained through a powerful spell. Strahd hopes that, in turning her into the undead, they will live together forever.

Make Ireena a PC

Optionally, one of the players can choose to play Ireena Kolyana as their PC. They still get to choose the class and start at the same level as the other PCs but their PC is now the focus of Strahd's attention.

Schrodinger's Ravenloft

Even with a faster game system like D&D Next, Fate Accelerated, or Dungeon World, you'll want to plan on about six hours of game time. There are eighty-eight rooms in Castle Ravenloft alone, not including the areas in the lands of Barovia. That's a lot of potential exploring and, if your group gets off track, it could take even longer.

Limiting the PCs' options helps reduce this problem.

Every time you run Ravenloft, the adventure is different. The locations of the items, Strahd's motivation, and the advantages or disadvantages PCs face in these locations change with every playthrough. As the cards of the Madam Eva hit the table, the whole world changes to accommodate them.

Madam Eva's fortune telling is one of the most memorable moments in the adventure. We don't want to railroad our PCs too much but if they miss this scene, they miss out on a lot of fun. Find a way to steer them to the fortune teller.

Ravenloft Cards

Pick up a nice creepy deck of playing cards for Madam Eva's drawing. The Alchemy cards or Anne Stokes cards by Bicycle are beautiful and perfectly themed for Madam Eva's fortune cards.

When you run Madam Eva's fortune telling, help your players understand the resulting predictions. The wording as written can be a little weird. Ask your players what they believe they heard and have them build their checklist of potential locations where they will recover the items built into their character's background. It's quite possible two items will be located in the same place, so that streamlines things further.

Once you know the goals of Strahd and the notable location of the adventure, you can start sealing off areas of Castle Ravenloft that stray off course from the selected locations. Doors to other locations become unsurpassable walls. Whole floors of the castle may disappear. Your goal is to get the PCs to the final room for a nice big confrontation. Rebuild the castle to focus the PCs on their goals and destinations. Given the complexity of the castle, this can be hard to do. Take your time to understand where they should go. If you mess up, simply have the whole castle shift to refocus them. The whole place is Strahd's domain after all. It can move as he wishes.

Time Strahd's Attack

Set an alarm for 30 minutes before the end of your session. At that point, Strahd attacks the PCs wherever they are in the castle.

On top of being a vampire, Strahd is also a powerful magic user. Before the fight, Strahd casts fire shield (cold) and mage armor (AC 19). He uses his reaction to cast counterspells and shield when need be. Strahd's claw attack inflicts the same 10 points of necrotic damage that his bite does.

A New D&D Tradition

Ravenloft is one of the most iconic D&D modules of all time. It's a fantastic well-written adventure and one of the best designed modules ever published. By streamlining the adventure you can give your group a fantastic unique Halloween adventure every year.

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