by Mike Shea on 24 October 2016
On 21 October, I lost a dear friend and the D&D and roleplaying community lost a great man, Randall Walker. Randall Walker was a father, husband, a great roleplaying gamemaster, and a great friend to many of us. Randall and I had met a few times in person, been on a panel at Gencon together, and spoke often in email, Twitter, and on numerous episodes of the Behind the DM Screen podcast. I will miss him.
That's a picture I took of Randall running a game in a hotel lobby at Gencon. I didn't get a chance to play in that game but, looking at it now, I imagine everyone in that picture is exactly where they wanted to be at that exact moment. Every moment we can get together with our friends and turn into nine year olds again is a great moment. Let's cherish them.
This article is part 2 in our detailed look at running Strahd von Zarovich in the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure, the Curse of Strahd. You can begin by reading part 1 of this series, Strahd's Negotiation, to see how Strahd might handle things with the characters without necessarily drawing blood.
If things get ugly, however, it's best that Strahd is prepared for the fight.
Boss monsters in Dungeons & Dragons are notoriously hard to run, though. In boss fights, there's a fine line between the battle being too easy or too hard. Experienced players with well-built characters might have an easy time with this vampire lord. Other less experienced groups might find themselves completely captivated by this fiend, ending up dead, in his dungeons, or as one of his eternal playthings. If we push things too far with Strahd, the battle just turns into a pain in the ass rather than something fun and exciting. Overusing Strahd's charm, for example, takes agency out of the hands of players without necessarily making the battle much more fun.
The truth is, we can't really know how a battle against Strahd will go until we run it. But that, right there, is our way to find out. How can we know how a battle against Strahd will go? We can run him more than once.
As we run the later levels of Curse of Strahd, Strahd may begin to test the merit of these adventurers who are mucking around in his lands. Because he's a vampire, he's not too worried about losing. If the characters possess powerful items like the Sunsword, the Icon of Ravenloft, he can find this out the hard way. If he's knocked down and killed, he simply returns to his coffin and rests up before trying them again later.
Each time Strahd faces the characters, we can make that battle unique and interesting. Perhaps Strahd attacks the party while transformed as a dire wolf surrounded by a number of other dire wolves or werewolf companions. Another time he might leap in as a giant bat among dozens of swarms of bats. Other times he might simply harass them with spells to see what sort of defenses they put up. Only at the end, when he is in the one place they know they will find him, will he fight them fully and completely.
During all of these battles, Strahd can't really be killed. Unless the characters destroy the big crystalline heart in the high tower and find him in his coffin, they can't destroy him. Strahd knows this as well as we do. If they face him and they defeat him easily, he'll come back with new tricks, new allies, and new magic items to make it harder the next time. He can do this both inside and outside of his castle.
And, if he does defeat them all, that's a good time for us to fail forward.
In the adventure as written, Strahd invites the characters to Ravenloft just about the time he's had enough of their bullshit. This is probably around the time they defeat Baba Lysaga, clear Argynvostholt, or return from the Amber Temple. In game-terms, it's just about the time they have discovered the final item they need that isn't in the castle itself.
In the book, they see Strahd at the organ and then he disappears, but this misses out on a great opportunity to playtest our villain. Maybe he's not alone at the dinner. Maybe he has some of his vampire children there. Maybe a couple of vampire bloodknights to spice things up. This is a great chance for Strahd to discuss his negotiation with the characters and, if that fails, it's time for a fight. Strahd can see the characters fight at their full strength and each side can see what the other is made of. If they have an easy time by blinding him with the Sunsword or preventing any of his cool charm abilities with the Icon of Ravenloft, he (and we!) will take note of this. He might go from brute force to hit-and-run tactics. He might send in hundreds of rats when they try to take a long rest and eat away at their resources piece by piece until their final confrontation with him.
During these battles, we can see what's going on. Strahd is a brilliant combatant, probably better than we are, which means we're going to have to be extra crafty to keep the characters on their toes. Where are the characters having an easy time? What tricks do they have that hose up Strahd's tactics? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
If the characters are holding the Sunsword, the Icon of Ravenloft, or the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, they might have a huge advantage against Strahd. The Power Score blog has a great writeup on running the final battle against Strahd worth reading. The author linked to an Enworld Thread on experiences running battles against Strahd with wide ranging results. Does Strahd have access to this forum? Probably!
The heavy obscurement effects of fog cloud and darkness are interesting and not real intuitive. They are also really helpful in your Strahd battle if your group is using protection from evil, the Sunblade, or the Icon of Ravenloft's sun power.
Here's the weird bit about fog cloud and darkness:
When a creature cannot be seen, it has advantages on attacks against those who cannot see it. When a creature cannot see, it has disadvantage when trying to attack those it cannot see. This ends up working both ways. If a character is within the effects of darkness, all of this cancels out since advantage and disadvantage cancel out and the effects do not stack. Thus, if a creature is in darkness, advantages and disadvantages cancel out. ANY advantages and disadvantages cancel out. So if our vampire friends, including Strahd, find themselves at a disadvantage, all they have to do is wrap themselves and their foes in darkness or fog and suddenly all advantages and disadvantages are canceled out on both sides.
Strahd's primary defense against the Sunsword or Protection from Evil is heavy obscurement. Anything that clears out advantage and disadvantage will aid Strahd in these fights.
Even with his great genius and strategic mind, Strahd might have too hard a time against characters dishing out 140 points of damage in a single turn. We might need to tweak him a bit to keep the challenge high. There are a few ways we can tweak Strahd to ensure he's a solid challenge. Think of these tweaks like the "nastier specials" in 13th Age. Use them as you need given how things went in the previous battles against Strahd. If your group is having a hard time already, you might skip these. If your group is made up of a bunch of powerhouses, though, these might come in handy.
Empowered Vitality. Strahd begins with his maximum hit points of 204. Remember that the crystalline heart gives him a boost of survivability as well. You can either include this in his hit points or just treat it as an emergency buffer.
Enhanced Armor. Strahd has the habit of all good wizards, by casting mage armor at breakfast and tea-time. He also wears a pair of bracers of defense and a ring of protection. This gives him an armor class of 20. No power attacks here!
Lifedraining Touch. Strahd's unarmed strikes inflict 21 (6d6) necrotic damage instead of 14 (4d6).
Mirror Image Contingency. When a battle begins, Strahd is immediately protected with mirror image.
Prepared Spells. Strahd might choose a different lineup of spells when facing foes in combat. He prepares shield instead of comprehend languages, counterspell instead of animate dead, lightning bolt instead of fireball", and dispel magic instead of nondetection*.
Beguiling Gaze. Strahd doesn't have any good bonus actions so we can give him a nice beguiling gaze attack taken from Sly Flourish's Vampires. As a bonus action, Strahd fixes his gaze on a creature he can see within 30 feet of him. If the target can see Strahd, the target must succeed on a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or Strahd has advantage on attack rolls against the target. The effect lasts until the target takes damage or until the start of Strahd's next turn. For that time, the affected creature is also a willing target for Strahd's bite attack. A creature that can't be charmed is immune to this effect. A creature that successfully saves against Strahd's gaze is immune to it for 1 hour.
Choose the options above that best fit the areas where your characters need the increased challenge. If they hit often and hit hard, increasing hit points and AC are valid choices. If they are heavy spell casters with lots of tactical superiority, give him the spells to deal with that. If they have a lot of hit points and survivability, go with the lifedraining touch. If they're just really powerful, give him all of the options!
Strahd is never going to face the characters all by himself. Many times he'll surround himself with vampire spawn, vampire adventurers, tons of rats, and maybe his two vampire bloodknight bodyguards who have served him for centuries.
Building a challenging encounter against Strahd that maintains the proper pacing for an exciting battle is really hard. Groups that possess the Sunsword, the Icon of Ravenloft, and the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind push things heavily in their advantage when fighting Strahd. Strahd can counteract this, to a point, with spells like darkness and fog cloud, as we mentioned, but they either might not work or might end up screwing over characters who really need to see their enemies to be effective at all.
Instead, we can lean a bit on the game side of our situation here and build an encounter environment that aids in building a fun encounter against Strahd. Probably on his second encounter with the group, Strahd lures the characters into a room or chamber of the castle with one of the effects below. He then seals the doors and windows using his first lair action and then the effect takes place before combat begins.
The Dark Idol. Two centuries ago, Strahd found an ancient idol to a dark demon god in the swamps of Berez. When called upon, the statue vomits forth a thick cloud of necrotic gas that fills an entire room. This gas has the effects of a fog cloud. Any living creature that begins its turn within the chamber of the idol takes 7 (2d6) points of necrotic damage with a DC 14 Constitution save for half. The statue has 40 hit points and an AC of 14. It is resistant to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage and immune to all elemental effects except for force or thunder damage. A creature can inflict 15 points of damage with a DC 14 Intelligence (Arcana) check or Strength (Athletics) check. When it is destroyed, the fog dissipates.
Strahd's Lightstealing Torches. Upon the walls of this chamber burn six violet torches in iron sconces. Upon a word from Strahd, these torches steal all light from the room, leaving it in complete darkness. The entire room is under the effects of a darkness spell. Each torch has an AC of 12, 20 hit points, is resistant to piercing, and slashing damage. They are immune to all elemental effects except for force and thunder damage. A torch can be destroyed by casting a dispel magic, or light upon it. Daylight can destroy two of the torches with a single casting. Torches can also be destroyed with a DC 12 Intelligence (Arcana) or Strength (Athletics) check. Only when all six torches are destroyed does light return to the room.
The Bats. Massive cracks break through the ancient stone walls of the castle. First one, then two, then thousands of bats pour forth from the wall, heavily obscuring everything in the room. Stepping through the cloud of bats is the lord of Ravenloft himself, half-transformed into a twisted batlike humanoid. On initiative count 20, each enemy of Strahd within the room is attacked by a swarm of bats. Due to their blindsight, the bats have advantage on this attack. The bat swarms act as a single creature with the statistics of the bat swarm but with 25 hit points per character in the room. Like the bat swarm, they are resistant to bludgeoning, slashing, and piercing. When the giant swarm of bats is reduced to zero, so many bats have fallen that the room is effectively clear, though many remaining bats skitter about.
These effects are designed to make the first couple of rounds against Strahd scary and dangerous, drawing the attention of the characters away from Strahd and his minions while the characters deal with the torches or statue. They can probably figure out what is going on with these, in full, about half way through the first round, giving Strahd two rounds before he's blind and burning to ash. In the second half of the battle, the characters have defeated the traps and can use the full powers they have been given to give Strahd what for.
This is definitely a gamified approach to Strahd and may not to be your or your group's liking. It isn't typical 5th edition D&D design style, which is much more of a "let the chips fall where they may" sort of approach.
It doesn't punish the characters, however, and gives them a chance to face a challenging foe in poor circumstances but then turn the circumstances in their favor and have a strong ending to the encounter.
When we have a super-smart villain and a desire to ensure that our big bad final boss is a good challenge to the characters, it's easy to go too far. The line between a boring slog of a fight and a TPK is really slim. Pushing the characters to their limits is a worthy goal, but counteracting all of their primary abilities, abilities they worked hard to acquire, can remove a lot of the fun of the game.
Beyond acting as our villain would act, running a fun game is a much more important goal. "That's what my character would do" is as much of a bullshit excuse for the DM as it is for the player if doing so hurts the fun of the game. Strahd's charm ability, for example, can be easily overused and remove just about all agency from a character and remove a lot of joy from the player.
A few other writers have discussed this topic and their articles are worth a read as well. You can find them below.
Strahd may be the ultimate Dungeons & Dragons villain. His visage has frightened the players of D&D for three decades. We owe it to our players, to ourselves, and to Strahd himself to make him as memorable a villain as possible. Luckily for us, we have some major advantages in being able to do so. Like us, Strahd himself wants to see what sort of heroes these adventurers really are. Let's find out.
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