by Mike Shea on 12 October 2018
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 every Halloween. Ravenloft contains one of the best open-ended randomly determined adventures produced for Dungeons & Dragons and it's perfect for a Halloween one-shot game.
With the release of Curse of Strahd, we have a fully updated 5th edition D&D version of Ravenloft. Though intended for a long campaign, we're going to strip Curse of Strahd down to a single five-hour game for 8th level characters perfect for us to run on or around Halloween every year.
Let's take a look at how to run Curse of Strahd in a single session Halloween-themed adventure.
We'll start by stripping down the goals of this adventure to one single goal: Kill Strahd. Expanding this a bit, we're killing Strahd to prevent him from enthralling Ireena Kolyana and making her his dark bride.
To help them kill Strahd, the characters must seek out three powerful artifacts hidden within the castle. These three artifacts include the Sun Sword, the Icon of Ravenloft, and the Tome of Strahd.
You'll notice that we replaced the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind with the Icon of Ravenloft because the Icon's abilities better fit with the theme of the game. A paralyzed Strahd isn't much fun. That means the Icon of Ravenloft does not sit on the altar in room K15. We can replace this with a large bowl of clear water suitable 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 the Tome of Strahd that helps streamline this adventure. If Strahd is defeated, the Tome of Strahd can be burned to destroy him within his coffin regardless of where the characters are when they set it ablaze. In truth, this is the only item the characters actually need assuming they can defeat Strahd without the Sun Sword or the Icon.
Ireena accompanies the group into Ravenloft. She isn't putting up with his stalkerish ways and is taking the fight right to him. Ireena is a veteran and can be controlled by a volunteer player who is already running a simple character.
Alternatively one of the players can play Ireena. She is human but otherwise can be any class the players choose and is the same level as the rest of the party.
We're going to keep the bonds between characters very simple. Instead of a whole slew of interconnecting bonds, every character has the following bond for this one-shot adventure:
By blood or by deed you and your companions are sworn to aid and protect Ireena from the devil Strahd.
Now every character has a built-in motivation to group together, go to Ravenloft with Ireena, and destroy the vampire once and for all.
When the characters begin the adventure, read or summarize the following:
The ornate black carriage roars along the narrow winding road that leads to Castle Ravenloft. As you peer out one window, you watch rocks from the road fall one thousand feet to the river below. Looking ahead you see the carriage master, his cowled face turned your way and staring at you with invisible eyes shrouded under his tattered leather tricorn hat. Reaching back impossibly far with an arm too long for his body, he gently pushes you back into the carriage and locks the door.
A raspy laughter rattles the glyphed coins that make up Madame Eva's veil. Sitting across from you, she draws an ancient worn deck of cards from her colored robes and begins to place them on the small table in the center of the inside of the carriage.
We will be using the simplified fortune drawing described in James Introcaso's Guide to Running Curse of Strahd as a one-shot adventure with one minor exception: we're going to skip the ally and just stick to the three artifacts and Strahd's location. Remove all but the following cards from the common cards in the Tarokka deck:
Ireena 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.
The characters arrive at Castle Ravenloft under the invitation of Strahd as described in the book. Instead of an illusion of Strahd playing the grand organ, it is Strahd himself. 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 yourself to me now, my love, 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 very disappointed.
"They are obviously not worth your affection. Let them rot in this castle. Let you walk with them and see the results of their cowardice first hand."
Strahd then departs from the dinner as the room grows cold.
Should the characters decide to confront Strahd there and then, Strahd is accompanied by two vampire spawns and has an additional spawn for every character above four. They're not likely to survive.
The party must find all three artifacts before facing Strahd. 45 minutes before the end of the game, Strahd attacks the characters wherever they are and with whatever they have. If the party does not have the Tome of Strahd, they cannot defeat the vampire. Depending on how difficult you want the fight, he might come with his three brides, each a vampire spawn. One of these vampire brides has the casting capabilities of a mage. One has the fighting capabilities of a veteran, and one has the capabilities of an assassin without the poison.
Throughout the session, Strahd might decide to jump into a situation to harass the party if they have been having too easy a time. Strahd will arrive in his hybrid bat form or his hybrid wolf form, poke at the party, and then leave. Each time Strahd arrives, his entrance is foreshadowed by his children of the night.
45 minute before the end of the game, Strahd arrives and unleashes his full power. Take a few minutes to read Strahd's full entry in the book before the game to remember all of his intricacies.
If we want to run Strahd on "hard mode" if the characters have been having too easy a time of it, we can use our "nastier specials" from our Running Strahd article. This includes the following:
Use the following changes to increase Strahd's difficulty:
Beguiling Gaze. As a bonus action, the vampire fixes its gaze on a creature it can see within 30 feet of it. If the target can see the vampire, the target must succeed on a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or the vampire has advantage on attack rolls against the target. The effect lasts until the target takes damage or until the start of the vampire’s next turn. For that time, the affected creature is also a willing target for the vampire’s bite attack. A creature that can’t be charmed is immune to this effect. A creature that successfully saves against the vampire’s gaze is immune to it for 1 hour.
With Curse of Strahd in hand and our streamlined plans in place, we can make Castle Ravenloft our very own Halloween tradition. Give it a try!