by Mike Shea on 28 August 2016
Barovia is a living breathing place. Though the D&D adventure Curse of Strahd sets it all out on paper, when we run our games in this fog-enshrouded sandbox, the world comes alive.
Barovia is a perfect example of a potential pool-table campaign. Imagine that Curse of Strahd is a great big pool table. We have the table, represented by the land of Barovia itself with clear borders defined by the fog surrounding the lands. We have a bunch of balls each representing the major NPCs in this land. We have the cue ball representing the PCs and we have the stick representing the actions the PCs take.
When the PCs take actions, the cue ball smashes against all of the other balls and those balls go zipping around, hitting the bumpers, hitting each other and, sometimes, hitting back at the cue ball itself. When the PCs take these actions in Barovia, there are reactions. When the PCs choose to save Ireena, that starts a series of events. When they get Madame Eva's prophecy, that starts another series of events. When they fight or negotiate with Vistani in service to Strahd or deal with the werewolves, that fires off other events.
Not knowing exactly what actions the PCs will take means we don't know what reactions the NPCs will take. The story can go in a lot of different directions and not knowing makes DMing the adventure that much more fun.
There are many groups and factions in Barovia to react to the PCs' actions. Here's a list of some of the ones in the book:
There are others too, of course.
For funzies we can add a few of our own factions just to make things more exciting. Here are a couple of factions I've added to my own games.
If we have the opportunity, we can tie these factions to the background of the PCs. Did one of the PCs lose a relative to those jerk hags at the Old Bonegrinder? Did the PCs escape from the evil Vistani outside of Valliki? Does a brother of one of the PCs serve in the Order of the Silver Dragon, hanging villagers who showed some small sign of potential servitude to Strahd?
We can focus on the factions with the closest ties to the PCs. For example, instead of having vampires go crazy in Valliki, we could have the werewolf clan of the Children of the Nightmother go crazy in the town because one of the PCs is secretly an escaped member of their clan.
Now comes the fun part. The PCs start to do things. Maybe they defeat and destroy the death house. Maybe they get into a scrape with the Knights of the Silver Dragon or get in the middle of warring factions of Vistani. This all starts things colliding together. One faction might start fighting with another. When the werewolves of Barovia cause chaos in Valliki, maybe the Knights of the Silver Dragon take control of the city, hanging the burgomeister, his wife, and his son alongside Lady Fiona Wacther and her corrupt book club.
The point is that the PCs take actions and the world of Barovia reacts. The more of an impact the PCs have in Barovia, the more it changes.
Strahd is the land. Strahd is the 8 ball on our Barovian pool table. As a villain, Strahd knows what is going on in Barovia. He has spies everywhere. He has scrying magic. Aside from a few specific areas (like Madame Eva's tent), he watches with amusement as the PCs create chaos in Barovia. This probably ceases when the PCs kill Baba Lysaga.
When the PCs kill Baba Lysaga, Strahd starts to get concerned. She was a very powerful entity in Barovia and one tied closely to Strahd's will. If she falls, that means he could fall, and he has no intention of falling. He might play new cards at this point, summoning his former adventurers-turned-vampires to fight for him. He might personally visit the werewolf children of the Nightmother and send them to further harry the party.
Another action might put Strahd into motion—the risk of death for Ireena Kolyana. He wasn't too worried about her before but if it looks like her life is at risk, either by journeying with the PCs to face Baba Lysaga or if they decide to take her with them into Argynvostholt or the Amber Temple, he might step in. If Ireena separates from the PCs and heads towards the Amber Temple, Strahd might even visit the PCs directly to bargain with them to rescue Ireena as his typical servants are less careful about protecting life.
However it works out, Strahd is an active force in Barovia. He can visit the party multiple times, putting challenges in their way, striking dark bargains with them and, eventually, inviting them to dinner.
Treating Barovia as a fixed but flexible mini-campaign is a great way for us to have fun watching the world come alive. We can see through the eyes of our villains and watch them collide together with the PCs, with each other, and with the land itself.
When we open the pages of Curse of Strahd, we're not just reading a book, we're staring through the gates into another living breathing world. It's up to us to make it come alive.