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Running Ravenloft / Curse of Strahd in a Single Session

by Mike on 19 October 2020

This article is one in a series of articles on i6 Ravenloft and the campaign adventure Curse of Strahd. The other articles include:

  • Running Curse of Strahd
  • Running Death House
  • Tarokka-based Random Encounter Effects
  • Pool Table Dungeon Mastering in Barovia
  • Strahd's Negotiation
  • Running Strahd von Zarovich
  • Sly Flourish's Vampires
  • Running Curse of Strahd YouTube Video
  • Published in 1983, the classic D&D adventure I6 Ravenloft, ranked the second greatest adventure of all time. Five years before its publication, Tracy and Laura Hickman ran the classic D&D module every Halloween. Ravenloft is the best open-ended randomly determined adventure produced for Dungeons & Dragons and it's perfect for a Halloween one-shot game.

    With the release of Curse of Strahd, Ravenloft has been fully updated to the 5th edition D&D. Though intended for a long campaign, we can strip Curse of Strahd down to a single five-hour game for 7th level characters perfect for a Halloween one-shot game.

    This article offers suggestions for stripping Curse of Strahd down to a single-session five-hour adventure.

    The Party's Goals: Kill Strahd

    To simplify this adventure, strip down the goals of Ravenloft to one single goal: Kill Strahd. The characters must hunt down the devil of Barovia to save Ireena Kolyana from becoming his dark bride.

    To help them kill Strahd, the characters must seek out three powerful artifacts hidden within the castle including the Sun Sword, the Icon of Ravenloft, and the Tome of Strahd.

    I've replaced the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind with the Icon of Ravenloft because the Icon's abilities better fit the theme of this game and a paralyzed Strahd isn't much fun. That means the Icon of Ravenloft does not sit on the altar in room K15. Instead, replace it with a large bowl of holy water able to restore the vitality of the party once, giving them the equivalent of a short or long rest depending on how hard a time the characters are having.

    We're also going to add a trait to the Tome of Strahd to streamline this single-session run of Ravenloft. When defeated, the characters can burn the Tome of Strahd to destroy Strahd permanently instead of seeking out his coffin. This is likely the only item the characters need to truly defeat Strahd. This item can also shatter the crystalline heart that grants Strahd 50 extra hit points if we choose.

    Changing the Hunted, the Seer, and the Devil

    For a fun change of pace, change up the three main characters of the adventure: the hunted (typically Ireena), the seer (typically Madame Eva), and the devil (typically Strahd).

    Roll three times on the following list; once for the Hunted, once for the Seer, and once for the Devil. Use the results to change up the story of Ravenloft while still following the same adventure model:

    1. Baba Lysaga / Baba Yaga the hag queen of Barovia
    2. Blinsky the Toymaker
    3. Ezmerelda d'Avenir the vampire hunter
    4. Exethanter the lich of the Amber Temple
    5. Ireena Kolyana the daughter of the burgomeister
    6. Ismark Kolyanovich the son of the burgomeister
    7. Izek Strazni the fiendish killer of Vallaki
    8. Kolyan Indirovich the burgomeister of Barovia
    9. Madam Eva the seer of the Vistani
    10. Rudolph van Richten the vampire hunter
    11. Strahd von Zarovich the vampire lord
    12. Tatyana the queen of Barovia

    As an example, the seer might be Baba Yaga seeking to recover the soul of her daughter, Ireena, from Strahd who, in turn, wants to keep the soul away from the hag queen.

    Ireena as a Character

    In this scenario we might let one of the characters play the hunted NPC. For example, one of the characters could play Ireena as a paladin or any other class. This makes the stakes of the adventure stronger since all of the characters are there to save the soul of one of their own.

    Ravenloft Character Bonds

    To keep this game simple, every character has the following bond:

    By blood or by deed you and your companions are sworn to aid and protect the hunted from the devil of Barovia.

    With this bond every character has a built-in motivation to group together, go to Ravenloft and destroy the devil of the castle once for all.

    Intro: The Carriage Ride to Ravenloft and the Drawing

    When following the traditional model, read or summarize the following as the characters begin the adventure:

    The ornate black carriage roars along the narrow winding road leading to Castle Ravenloft. Peering out one window, you watch rocks fall one thousand feet to the river below. Ahead the carriage master turns his cowled face towards you, his eyes shrouded under his tattered leather tricorn hat. Reaching back with an arm too long for his body, he gently pushes you back into the carriage and locks the door.

    Raspy laughter rattles the glyphed coins of Madame Eva's veil. Sitting across from you, she draws an ancient worn deck of cards from her colored robes and begins placing them face up on the small table inside the carriage.

    When using Curse of Strahd for this run of Ravenloft, use the simplified fortune drawing described in James Introcaso's Guide to Running Curse of Strahd as a one-shot adventure with one minor exception: skip the ally and stick to the location of the three artifacts and Strahd himself. Remove all but the following cards from the common cards in the Tarokka deck or a normal deck of cards:

    Madame Eva places out four cards, three from the common deck (one for each artifact) and one from the high deck which represents Strahd's location. With those cards placed, the adventure is ready to begin.

    Strahd's Invitation

    The characters arrive at Castle Ravenloft under the invitation of Strahd as described in the book. As they dine, Strahd lays out the rules of his "game" which, in short is the following:

    "Defeat me and you save Ireena. Perish and she is mine."

    In his unfathomable cruelty he asks Ireena a simple question:

    "Give your soul to me now and you can save their lives."

    Ireena looks to the party for guidance. If she appears as though she will give herself to Strahd, he turns to them and asks:

    "and you would allow this?".

    Should they choose to hand her over, Strahd looks disappointed.

    "They are not worth your affection. Let them rot in this castle and let you walk with them and see the results of their cowardice first hand."

    Strahd's image departs from the dinner as the room grows cold.

    Recover the Three Artifacts Before Facing Strahd

    Once the adventures begin, set a timer for three hours and fifteen minutes, leaving 45 minutes for the final confrontation with Strahd. When the timer runs out Strahd attacks the characters wherever they are and with whatever artifacts they have received.

    Maps for Online Play

    Because of the timing, it's best to run this scenario mostly in the theater of the mind. It can help, however, for the players to see the rooms they're in and what rooms they've already explored. The maps in Curse of Strahd follow the isometric versions found in the original I6 Ravenloft module but you can find excellent Ravenloft battle maps on the DM's Guild.

    When running online, you can use a lasso-style copy and paste utility to grab the part of the map the characters have seen and avoid showing rooms they haven't yet gotten to. With some practice, this is a fast way to show off parts of this massive dungeon. Owlbear Rodeo is another great option for a fast and lightwight virtual tabletop.

    With Owlbear Rodeo and the Ravenloft battle maps I was able to get all of Ravenloft loaded up and ready to go in less than ten minutes!

    Change Up Room K78

    Room K78 in the dungeons of Ravenloft, as written in Curse of Strahd, can teleport the characters outside the castle which isn't any good for our one-shot version. You can limit the stones to Red, Orange, and Yellow to keep the teleporters within the castle itself.

    Alternatively remove the golems and the teleporters and put your own encounter in this room.

    Facing Strahd von Zarovich

    45 minute before the end of the game, Strahd arrives and unleashes his full power. Take a few minutes to read Strahd's stat block in the book before the game to remember all of his intricacies. As a spellcasting vampire, Strahd is a complicated monster to run.

    If the characters have the three items, Strahd may find himself at at a great disadvantage. Greater invisibility is Strahd's best weapon, removing any disadvantage he has, preventing him from being targeted by spells that require sight, letting him move freely without opportunity attacks, and preventing his spells from getting countered.

    This does, however, remove his ability to charm, which we can safely ignore since many characters are either immune or block it from others.

    Strahd's spider climb is an effective way of staying out of reach of powerful melee characters. For more tactics on running vampires, see the Monster Knows What They're Doing on Vampires.

    Strahd is likely a hard challenge for a group of 7th level characters. If you happen to be running him at a higher level or feel he needs to be beefed up, add one or more of the following enhancements:

    If you have more than four characters, consider adding one vampire spawn for each character above four. These spawn may serve as Strahd's brides. If you want to give them some mechanical flavor, you can give them the capabilities of a mage, veteran, or assassin (without the poison).

    A Halloween Tradition

    With Curse of Strahd in hand and your streamlined plans in place, you can make Castle Ravenloft your very own Halloween D&D tradition.

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