Dark Vale of Barovia: Session #1
“Gargantuan gates emerge from the mist as a lonely traveler wanders through a pine forest.”
“You’re vile,” my players said when I suggested running Curse of Strahd in Mork Borg, but was quickly followed up by, “When can we start.” And so the vampire rises again. Below I’ve summarized the events of our first session, and I’ve provided commentary about my design decisions before the game in red italics beneath the relevant paragraph.
I made two minor rule changes to support campaign play in the land of Barovia. First, everyone starts with max hit points, which still nets under 10 hit points for most players. And second, that falling below zero results in rolling on the broken table, rather than instantaneous death. After all, I'd like to torture my characters for a couple of sessions before they succumb to the dark lord.
Our story begins in the city of Olg, within the walls of the Singing Rat Inn. Our characters have all indulged deeply of ale, and have come to know each other through drunken story slinging. Malador Goiterheim tells of his dead god, challenging his listeners by his stench alone, and by the ichor dripping from his hands down his glass, and onto the table. Luspank Loste tells of how he lost his trade as a sailor and is now landlocked in the Port of Olg, his skin scaly as if he were touched by the sea he is now cursed to never return to. Samdiriel Bloodworth, a man whose skin is charred black, tells of how he was burned at the stake but saved by the Shining Lady, whom he now preaches of by the edge of his sword. Brint, a skilled herbalist, proved himself a good listener and betrayed little of his past.
I started the characters in an unimportant town because putting work into it would be irrelevant since, in the next scene, they're whisked away to Barovia. I asked one of the characters to name the town, and our ex-sailor suggested it was a port as a means of explaining how he arrived at the Singing Rat Inn. I used a random inn name generator to create the name of the inn in advance of the session. As the opening to the story, which happened immediately after Mork Borg's very quick character creation, I asked each of the players in turn "How did you find yourself in the Singing Rat Inn?" Their answers allowed them to anchor their characters in the world and provided the skeletal details of the land they were to be spirited away from.
They retire to bed, their memory of the night's events already fading. Then the dream comes. Individually, they find themselves journeying through a dark mist-enshrouded pine forest. A massive gate towers above this mist as the road leads into its maw. As they pass through the gate, the massive doors shut behind them.
In the Curse of Strahd opening, as written, the characters' journey through the gates and have several encounters before they arrive in Barovia. The intent of this is to set the tone of the adventure and to create the transition from the world of origin to that of Barovia. The first time I ran Strahd, we followed the book, but experience suggested that very little is gained from playing through these scenes, and so I glossed over them by making them a dream, which allowed me to set the tone that Strahd's realm is nightmarish. Barovia is the product of Strahd's mind.
They awake in a different bed than the one in which they remember bedding down. It is desperately cold, and the thin blanket and straw mattress do little to stave off its bite. One by one, they venture out from their dark rooms into the dilapidated upper floor of this mysterious inn. Vaguely remembering one another from the night before, this strange party bound together by circumstance descends into the cold, dimly lit tavern below.
I used this scene to foreshadow that the characters had transitioned to Barovia in winter. In the original setting, winter isn't assumed, but I found it fitting for tone and reminiscent of the actual season that we've started playing in.
A vacant bartender cleans glasses absently behind the bar, a fire burning too far away to provide warmth for the man. Three women in brightly colored scarves sit at a table, while a collection of peasants huddle around dying coals in a fireplace. A man with fire in his eyes sits away from the others, drowning himself in wine.
When I wrote up my versions of these NPCs, most of which appear in the module, I shortened their description to a single sentence that was evocative and would allow me to channel the NPC quickly without a lot of reading.
Luspank orders breakfast and ale from the bartender, followed quickly by the others. While preparing their food, the bartender tells them that they are in the Blood of the Vine Inn which is located in the Village of Barovia, which itself, is in the Land of Barovia. He cuts slices of bread from a stale loaf and cuts a circle from their middle casting them into the fire nearby. Surprised, Luspank asks why part of their meal is being burned. The bartender tells them that it is a sacrifice to their Lord Strahd von Zarovich. He pushes this meager bread toward his customers and pours each one of them a flagon of oxidized wine to which he adds a large spoonful of sludge, which turns out to be a mixture of winter spices that does little to improve the wine. At least it’s warm.
I wanted the tavern's cuisine to be evocative of the setting of Barovia, but also the feel of Mork Borg, so I perused Karl Druid’s Les Miseredibles for inspiration and was greatly rewarded.
Upon this talk of Strahd as a god, Malador and Samdiriel begin to argue about whose god is the true one worthy of worship: Strahd, Nergal, or the Shining Lady. The man who has been drinking alone approaches them and suggests that this is an inappropriate topic of discussion and whisks them upstairs where they learn that his name is Ismark Kolyanovich or Ismark the Lesser to the tavern’s hecklers. He asks them to investigate the strange events at the old Durst Manor in exchange for room and board of improved quality at his estate, not to mention some silver.
In the original module, Ismark is a character who actively seeks the character's help, however, since I skipped the plot hooks provided in the game, I made Ismark the voice of those hooks. The characters are supposed to run into the Durst children as they enter Barovia if you are starting the characters at first level. So, I used Ismark to push them in that direction and also as a way for Ismark to test their muster before asking them to help him protect his sister.
The group agrees, and embark into the cold streets of Barovia. Snow has blanketed the ground, although Samdiriel giving off excess heat melts the snow into the dirt road creating a trail of mud. Icicles hang from roof eaves like jagged fangs. As the party approaches the Durst Manor, they see two children huddled beneath the narrow roof of a guard post in front of the manor.
The shivering children tell the party that they are Rose and Thorn Durst and that their parents Gustav and Elizebeth Durst are dead inside the house. They were killed by a monster in the basement and they’re afraid for their infant brother Walter, who is still on the third floor of the house. The party sends the children to the Blood of the Vine Tavern to seek the protection of Ismark, and they scuttle off in that direction, disappearing into the mist.
The party enters the house, taking a flickering oil lantern from a hook flanking the door, and they go inside. They begin their pillaging by taking the cold-weather clothing in a closet near the door, a shield from the wall that bears the Durst heraldry--a white windmill on a field of red--and a sword bearing the same windmill symbol. The house is clean but eerily empty. They search a couple of rooms with strange decor, like a chandelier that casts the reflection of skulls and a gruesome painting of hunters disemboweling their prey in vivid detail. From there, they scale red marble stairs to the second floor, where they discover a second painting, this one of the Durst family: Gustav, Elizabeth, Rose, and Thorn. Gustav holds an infant-sized bundle--presumable Walter--in his hands, but the face is obscured by the swaddle, and Elizabeth stares at the child with scorn.
Like the NPCs above, I reduced the descriptions of the rooms to the bare minimum required to describe the room basically, I can easily fill in the specific details in my narrative. This also allows me to not spend too much time in rooms that don't matter, rooms that are important I underlined and provided additional details for, especially if there is any treasure or monsters to be found in the room.
As they examine the painting, they hear the sound of clanking footsteps from the floor above them. They form up at the base of the red marble stairs, as echoing metal-on-stone footfalls step ever closer. And that, my friends, is the cliffhanger.
In the original module, the house is entirely reactive. I found this nice the first time I ran it because I was running it out of the book. Upon reflection, however, it fails to create any time pressure on the characters. So I made the animated armor patrol the house and tracked its location, providing narration suggesting its presence and giving the characters some agency about how to deal with the encounter.
I hope that the above was at least mildly entertaining and that my commentary is useful for other GMs out there. Below I’m providing links to my notes that I referenced during the game, for those who are curious. I'd be happy to here any thoughts you might have about the game or my methods in the comments below.
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