by Mike Shea on 3 October 2016
Note, this is part one of a multi-part series in running Strahd in the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure Curse of Strahd. In this article we cover Strahd's motivations and attempts to end things with the characters without bloodshed. In a future article we will cover combat with the devil of Barovia himself. Let us begin.
Strahd is a smart villain. When we're running Curse of Strahd, it's important that we run Strahd as smart as we can. Strahd isn't doing what he does because he's crazy. He's had a thousand years to get smart and if you're in Barovia, you're in his domain.
Our characters get into all sorts of shenanigans as they roam Barovia. Maybe they fight the witches at the Old Bonegrinder. Maybe they overcome the cursed knights at Argynvostholt. Maybe they defeat Baba Lysaga at the ruins of Berez. Maybe they even beat the lich, Exethanter, in the Amber Temple.
Side note, a lich without spells is like a dragon without claws, teeth, or a breath weapon. Our Exethanter definitely has spells and woe be to the characters who challenge him unprepared. If you're worried that Exethanter wipes out your characters, be prepared to fail forward.
All this time, Strahd is watching. Sometimes he's watching as a big wolf off in the distance. Sometimes he's peering out through the eyes of one of his creatures. Sometimes he's gazing through a scrying mirror or a pool of black water. He's always watching, though, and smart characters know he's always watching.
What happens if Strahd sees that the characters have become really powerful, maybe too powerful? What is his strategy of he realizes that, even in his own home of Castle Ravenloft, that they could actually win? What is his strategy then?
Strahd's brilliant mind will focus on a few questions to get what he wants without putting himself at risk. He wants two main things.
First, he wants Ireena at his side. He wants the rich life she has within her for his own. Even in his own mind he wouldn't be hurting her. He would be saving her. He would be coveting her. Even under a zone of truth his motivations towards her, while not pure, are not hostile.
Second, he wants the characters the fuck out of his land. By this point they've caused all sorts of mayhem and while it was fun at first, he's starting to get worried. He's lost control and he wants them out.
So how does he get these things? He asks another question. What do the characters want?
First, they likely also want to get the fuck out of Barovia. In this, both Strahd and the characters are of like mind. That's a strong starting position. You want out. I want you out. To quote Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (a book no doubt Strahd has read), it's a win-win!
They also might want some treasure and Strahd has a lot to offer. He won't arm them with a barrel full of vorpal swords but money he has. He can offer them enough to live their lives as they wish in the lands outside of the mists.
Good aligned characters also want safety for the people of Barovia. If they leave him to his whims, the devil Strahd still rules over Barovia but he's willing to negotiate. If not peace, he can curb his appetites and the appetites of his minions. Perhaps they might even negotiate a Barovian blood drive between the people of the lands to feed their vampire neighbors. Strahd's fine with this. He might even follow it for a century or two. He has all the time in the world.
What about Ireena? To save her village and the people of the land, she may be willing to stay with Strahd. Perhaps her good heart can push his away from darkness. Her life is but one to save the many of the lands. A fair trade as far as she is concerned.
This is also where Strahd offers up any other rewards the characters might want. He has been watching them a long time and has many spies. What does each of the characters seek more than anything else? If it is within his power, it is another chip he can throw onto the table.
So that is the carrot. But what is the stick? Simple. While he is negotiating with the players, his crypts are opened. Hundreds of his feral vampires surround the village of Barovia and Valliki. They await but a single command of his before descending onto the villages and turning them into oceans of blood. Yes, the adventurers might fight and even defeat Strahd, but not without the blood of dozens to hundreds of innocents on their hands as well.
Thus is Strahd's masterful negotiating position.
At the right moment, Strahd invites our adventurers to dinner so they might negotiate in peace and civility. In this he is not lying. He is not an idiot either, though. His own two vampire bloodknight guards will be in attendance as well as a number of his children, former adventurers turned vampires, who attend the dinner as well. Should things go poorly with the negotiations, he will be well prepared for the battle and the characters know this.
Of course, it is very possible things do not go well with the negotiations. Strahd does have a line none can cross. Once she enters the castle, Ireena may not leave as long as Strahd still remains. It is the one thing he will not allow.
Your group might also come to the realization that mine did:
"Wait a minute. He is totally playing us! We killed his rivals. We brought the one thing he wanted to his very table. Now he wants us gone and then he gets everything he wants! This is bullshit!" - Argjhan the Sorcerer
If the negotiations fail, his calm beautiful demur falls, the blood knights close the doors, and the whole thing turns into the basement tavern scene from Inglourious Bastards.
This should be a very hard encounter, of course, and harder still because Strahd cannot truly be killed here. If he and his vampiric guards are defeated, they all return to their coffins, the feral vampires are released, and the characters have a limited time to find and destroy the devil of Barovia. Every short rest means more dead villagers. Every long rest means the end of entire villages.
No one said it would be easy.
We will cover running Strahd in combat in a future article. Stay tuned!