House of Strahd
Authors: Tracy and Laura Hickman, revised by Bruce Nesmith
David "Jester" Gibson
As any true Ravenloft fan knows the inspiration for the setting (other than the source novels, classic myths, Gothic literary tradition and those old Universal Studios monster films) was a single adventure published as I6: Ravenloft. This ancient adventure was a great success over the years earning a complete reprint, a sequel and a translation into Endless Quest form. However, as the years went on and the Campaign Setting emerged there grew some problems. First was the change in game editions, and secondly was the increase of Strahd’s powers, resources and abilities as a Darklord. So the module was updated yet again, this time as House of Strahd.
The new module is very much a part of the Ravenloft line and comes complete with two versions of some encounters and important NPCs; there is the ‘original’ version, as it appeared in I6, and the revamped difficulty to accommodate the higher-level players and Strahd. Hence the blurb on the front that it is for 4-6 characters of levels 6-13, it allows for some nice diversity of challenges. It is almost sad that more products did not follow this allowing for a greater level range supplying both harder and weaker monsters.
However, with its place within the greater Ravenloft product line this adventure is less a stand-alone adventure and more a component of the overall setting. What does this mean? It means that several key items such as the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, Holy Icon of Ravenkind, and Sergei’s Bright Blade are not given full game statistics here. Instead readers are directed to the Realm of Terror boxed set (aka the Black Box). Likewise, there are numerous spells and occasional monsters that are not fully detailed, simply references back to the Black Box. Much of Strahd’s back-story and some of the finer details of his motives have been excluded from this product in favour of the background he was given -again- in the Black Box. It feels as if many pertinent and important details are left vague unless you are already familiar with the characters and plot lines such as Tatyana’s reincarnation.
The plot itself is also the classic plot. Which means it could be far better. Despite the mythic status now afforded the original I6 adventure making is hard to poke at it, some parts fail to hold up well over the years. It is a glamorised dungeon crawl with the sole intent being to find the bad guy and whacking him. It simply does it with more style and a particularly cunning foe with slightly different environs than most crawls.
One of the more memorable, flavour-adding, elements is the fortune telling; a fun break in the action that highly adds to the mood and style when done correctly as well as adding a nice random element. However, with the frequent page turning and the meaninglessness of many of the cards the fortune telling has a high possibility of being slow and awkward. It should be rehearsed and practised before hand. That and the items, being randomly placed, often end up in the most bizarre of places. The Tome of Strahd can easily end up in the one room in the castle Strahd is said to have never entered. Likewise, the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind (stolen for some reason from the Burgomaster, although this plot point is mentioned but once and never explained) can equally be placed in some improbably local. The update from the original does make one obvious change giving rules for use of the Tarokka deck in place of regular cards.
The plot begins generically with the players located in a tavern, resting, presumably between heroic escapades. A mysterious gypsy greets the players with a letter asking for them to come to the village of Barovia. However, as is soon learned by our heroes, this was not the original messenger and the players were instead supposed to flee. Have our heroes really been summoned by the villain, he whom they hope to oppose and/or slay? Yes, it looks like they have. Why? It is not said. The players may be crucial to Strahd’s goal based on the variable results of the ‘Fortunes of Ravenloft’ card session, but this is by no means a certainty. Otherwise it is simply a mystery. Also a mystery are the attacks on the Burgomaster, which occurred every night until the time of his death. Presumably because he sheltered Ireena and kept her from Strahd. Or possibly because he tried to contact heroes to trap the Count. Maybe even for some undisclosed third reason. Simple boredom on the part of the Count? Regardless the plot continues, now with the players trapped by the plot-device ring of fog that surrounds the village and railroads the players to face the Lord of the Land.
The castle itself is fairly erratically designed with no functionality or reason behind some of the designs. It would be a nightmare to live in, having to go down two or three floors then back up through a different staircase just to reach the bedrooms. There are almost no living quarters or other locales for people to stay in; the castle, with all its odd rooms, seems only fit for three people to live in at any given time. Presumably Strahd has done much remodelling since his rebirth, although he apparently restricts his activities to three or four rooms in the entire building. It should be noted that the castle was designed more with dungeon crawls in mind that actual architecture so much of this can be overlooked. It was designed in a time when monster ecology and realism were optional so only the truly anal retentive get bent out of shape asking questions such as “where are the privies?” or “where does the castle get its water from, especially during a long siege?” One final note regarding the maps are the vast and expansive catacombs beneath the castle, which are disgustingly large, so large that exploration of them is almost daunting and overwhelming. More annoying than anything greatly slowing down the adventure for hammering repetitiveness. And many of the plaques seem far too humorous and silly for such a grim setting.
Criticisms out of the way the adventure is quite memorable and is filled with some lovely descriptions and excellent touches. The traps are evil with some being fiendishly well done. Equally nice are Strahd’s strategies, which allow for maximum damage and are often quite cunning. Too bad the majority seem to automatically assume Strahd is of the higher power level, but this is a very minor quibble. This adventure is designed as a player-killer dungeon; the traps and Strahd’s strategies are malicious, merciless and almost certain to kill at least one hero. Not that I would have it any other way. Strahd’s power and cunning truly lives up to his reputation and his hit-and-run tactics are very useful in wearing down opponents.
Use of any of the modules for Castle Ravenloft have become more complicated with the change to Third Edition but they are reasonably easy and quick to convert, at least compared to other modules. Thankfully there are many versions of Strahd available from the official one in Gazetteer III to the direct updates of the original Strahd and original Ravenloft Strahd in Dragon Magazine #315. Most of the included monsters are featured in Denizens of Darkness or the Monster Manual and there are very few NPCs whose stats are required.
Despite the minor plot points and illogical moments there is something really satisfying about confronting Strahd and seeing the inner-workings of his castle, just facing the Lord of Barovia makes this a great product. Even if death is the result at least it was attempted. Facing Strahd is the Ravenloft-ian equivalent of meeting Elminster or encountering Raistlin. The flaws should be taken lightly and viewed in the same accepting and forgiving gaze as old ‘70s comic books or now unintentionally cheesy movies of the past. If the presented plot itself is done away with in favour of simply inserting Castle Ravenloft into an existing campaign then the excitement of meeting Strahd himself is enough to overlook the creak in the joints of the ol’ guy.
It should be a three but nostalgia and name-value push this up to four severed digits out of five!
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