Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Curse of Strahd Review

"X is a love letter to Y" has become the tired workhorse of RPG product reviews. And yet, it's hard to escape the feeling that Curse of Strahd is a love letter to I6: Ravenloft. Curse of Strahd lovingly recreates the original Ravenloft adventure; it also expands on the ideas of the classic module and crafts a thematically-cohesive sandbox that should give you enough material to run a 5e D&D campaign that spans levels 1-10. To give you a sense of how much Curse of Strahd is intended as a love letter to Ravenloft, note that they brought I6's authors, Tracy and Laura Hickman, on-board as consultants for the book.

If you're unfamiliar with the original Ravenloft, it brought a heavy dose of Gothic and Hammer Horror-inspired atmosphere to the usual S&S-meets-Tolkien "milieu" of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The adventure centers on defeating a vampire lord, Strahd von Zarovich, and exploring his haunted Castle Ravenloft. Although the module plays out in a fairly typical way, it did innovate a bit by adding randomized story elements, such as the placement of important magic items and the main villain's motivation. I6: Ravenloft is generally regarded as a classic, and justifiably so.

Curse of Strahd, the Adventure
Curse of Strahd preserves the experience of exploring Castle Ravenloft (as well as its randomized elements)--with some canny additions. Although there are additional NPCs and new situations to encounter within Castle Ravenloft, the content surrounding castle is even more expansive and noteworthy. Curse of Strahd makes Barovia (Strahd's valley domain of bleak villages, perilous mountains, and dark forests) a proper sandbox for in-game exploration. And it is a proper sandbox; though certain sequences of events are more likely than others, the players are given the room in the adventure to travel where they want, explore where they want, and generally take agency over what comes next for their characters.

The adventure areas that comprise the Barovian sandbox utilize Gothic tropes particularly well; it details accursed temples, a mobile witch's hut, an asylum wherein horrible deeds are committed, et al. The non-player characters seem well conceived; each fits a Gothic stereotype, but also have enough clear-cut motivation to work in the context of the game. (My favorite bit is definitely the asylum; that particular mix of characters in a creepy setting has a lot of strong inspiration behind it.) Although Barovia seems like a small area for sandbox adventures, is also feels like there is a lot to do--and a good variety of plots to become involved with and characters to interact with--within its span. There also seems to be enough "blank space" to add whatever side-treks or adventure tangents into the campaign if you want to extend it further.

Curse of Strahd, the Gazetteer
The original Ravenloft adventure inspired an entire campaign setting of the same name, a somewhat patchwork setting that stitched together every cliche to be found in Gothic fiction and Universal monster movies. Fans of the 2e AD&D-era Ravenloft setting might be disappointed in Curse of Strahd, as it only focuses on Barovia and is noticeably silent about the larger world outside Strahd's domain. However, though Curse of Strahd isn't billed as a setting sourcebook, it functions very well as a gazetteer of Barovia. There is enough setting material in the book to successfully run other adventures in Ravenloft. The supernaturally-malleable nature of the domain also makes it easy to add whatever setting elements you like without having to rewrite Barovia from the ground up. Barovia, as presented in Curse of Strahd, could be part of the 2e Domains of Dread, but it could just as easily be slotted into some obscure corner of just about any setting.

Surprisingly, the background information presented on Barovia in Curse of Strahd fixes many of the problems I had with previous incarnations of the Ravenloft setting. I like the smaller, claustrophobic focus on Barovia, its master, and its inhabitants. The level of detail feels just right: the information on Barovian superstitions, local religion, the Vistani, etc., is more fleshed-out than what we got in the Realm of Terror boxed set, but not as stifling and overly-detailed as the 3e version of the setting. (And this time the people of Barovia know that Strahd is a vampire! Finally.) The default set-up of the player characters being drawn into Ravenloft and trapped there works well here because it doesn't assume that the characters will have an easy escape; this isn't the "weekend in hell" style of 1990s Ravenloft. As presented, this version of Barovia feels internally consistent, thematically tight, and rich in adventure possibilities. 

Curse of Strahd, What Might Not Work For You
Of course, it's not perfect because that is the way of published adventures:
  • The adventure material in Curse of Strahd is presented in typical fashion, which means: its descriptions can be over-long, you're going to have to read the whole thing through before you start running it, and you'll probably need to take some notes to get your head around all the characters, places, and events in the adventure.
  • It has boxed text, which might put you off. Oddly, the boxed text that is mercifully short is the worst. Check out the boxed text for randomly encountering a corpse: "You find a corpse." The lack of effort and imagination that went into those four words is astounding.
  • It's a little weird that most of the peasants in Barovia are lawful good, but most of the Vistani gypsies are chaotic neutral (or some shade of evil) and the dusk elves are similarly differently-aligned than the strangely paragon Barovians.
  • The only new background in the book, the Haunted One, is noticeably inconsistent with the mechanics for backgrounds in 5e: it only grants one skill instead of the usual two, only grants one other proficiency, and its special ability gathers peasants to fight evil alongside you--which seems an awful lot like the kind of combat effect the 5e DMG warns you against giving new backgrounds. Also, it seems to be the only background that doesn't grant you any starting money--even the lowly Hermit gets 5 gp. (Perhaps having the pricey monster hunter's pack is supposed to compensate for that). WotC has released an updated version of the background here that gives it two skill picks. That should have made it into the book.
  • There is a pull-out map in the back. People love poster-sized maps! Except this one is a poster-sized map made up of small maps, which makes it really difficult to use at the table. Thankfully, WotC has made the maps and handouts available as pdfs here and here.
  • The adventure makes some definitive statements about the Dark Powers of Ravenloft, which may be off-putting to people who preferred that they were never defined. There's also some canon-busting, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Curse of Strahd, Other Things to Praise

  • I like the art. It's moody, has a strong Gothic flavor, but still manages to look like it belongs with the rest of 5e's product line. The new ethnic diversity to be found in Barovia is non-intrusive; visually, the idea of a more cosmopolitan populace trapped in Ravenloft works well.
  • The muted tone of the page backgrounds make this one of the easier to read 5e books. It simply looks less "busy" on the page.
  • The use of cosmetic changes to a few spells to signal that things in Ravenloft work differently than in most fantasy worlds is a nice touch without being the similar-but-difficult-to-reference screw-job that was in the 2e setting.
  • The brief discussion of how to bring horror elements into a D&D game has solid advice.
  • Everybody loves new monsters, and Curse of Strahd has creeping huts, animate brooms, guardian portraits, accursed armor, witches, tree blights, mongrelfolk, phantom warriors, Strahd's zombies, wereravens, and a whole host of fully-stated NPCs.
  • This version of Strahd seems like a tragic Gothic villain rather than a tragic Gothic antihero. Also, the did not give us any Smurf Strahd illustrations, for which I am grateful.

For me, this is one of the best adventures yet for 5e--it's right up there with Out of the Abyss, but admittedly even more geared toward my personal tastes. I definitely recommend it if the idea of Hammer Horror-meets-D&D appeals to you, or if you'd like to experience (or re-experience) a classic from D&D's storied past. I would warn you off Curse of Strahd if what you are really interested in is a more traditional fantasy adventure, or if what you really want is a repackaged version of the 2e-era campaign world. For me, this is one of the rare adventures I've read where I've wanted to run it immediately.