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Running Ravenloft / Curse of Strahd in a Single Session

by Mike on 19 October 2020

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 Ravenloft 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 us to run on or around Halloween every year.

Here's one way to run Curse of Strahd in a single session Halloween-themed adventure.

The Party's Goals

Strip down the goals of Ravenloft to one single goal: Kill Strahd. Expanding this a bit, the characters must hunt down the devil Strahd 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.

Ireena as a Character

In this scenario Ireena accompanies the group into Ravenloft. She isn't putting up with his creepy stalker ways and is taking the fight right to him. You can either let one of the players run Ireena as a veteran along with their main character or you can have one of the characters play Ireena herself as their main character. Ireena is a human but can be of any class the players choose and is the same level as the rest of the party.

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 Ireena from the devil Strahd.

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

Intro: The Carriage Ride to Ravenloft and the Drawing

When the characters begin the adventure, read or summarize the following:

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, we'll 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 three artifacts and Strahd's location. 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. 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 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 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. Strahd himself may battle the characters but leaves the characters to his vampire spawn and departs.

Recover the Three Artifacts Before Facing Strahd

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 artifacts they have received. If the party does not have the Tome of Strahd, they cannot truly defeat the vampire in this scenario.

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 top-down maps on the DM's Guild. I preferred these realistic Ravenloft maps.

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.

Strahd's Interjections

Throughout the session, Strahd might join in another encounter and harass the party. He may 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 ability.

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 full entry 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 may end up his most dangerous spell, 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. Whether he casts it before he engages in combat or if things start to look bad for him is up to you. Strahd's spider climb is an effective way of staying out of reach of powerful melee characters. His charm ability is likely best dropped on those with poor wisdom saving throws and Strahd is smart enough to avoid elves (who have advantage against charms) or paladins with crazy-high saving throw bonuses. Non-elven fighters and non-wisdom spellcasters are the best targets. 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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