• Isaac L. Wheeler

Dark Vale of Barovia: Session #2

"Haunted House" by brunkfordbraun is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Climbing the red marble stairs, bathed in a blood-red reflection incited by his lantern, the dark figure felt, ominously, that this wasn’t the first time blood had stained these steps.

When we last left our characters, the Prophet of the Dead God Nurgle Malador, a landlocked ex-pirate Loste, the sunscorched zealot of the Shining Lady Samdireal, and the occult herb master Brint, they awaited a creature from above as they braced for its arrival. They had entered the Durst family manor at the behest of Ismark, a mysterious noble who took notice of them after their ill-fated arrival in Barovia. Outside the manor, the party found two children, Rose and Thorn, shivering in front of the house. They told them that their parents had been killed by a monster in the basement and that they were worried about Walter, an infant on the third floor of the house. You can read the first part of this campaign diary here. You will notice that there are paragraphs in red throughout the diary, which explain the design decisions that led to those moments.

Footsteps descend the red marble stairs of the Durst family manor. Clank. Clank. Clank. Our party has aligned itself at the base of the stairs on the second floor, shields arrayed in a defensive posture. In a moment of inspiration, the landlocked pirate, Loste surges forward and uses a thin chain to create a makeshift tripwire. Stepping out the darkness, accompanied by a frigid breeze from above, is a suit of armor carrying a sword. Malador, breaks off from the group to push open a nearby door in hopes of finding something useful in the face of this armored figure, but alas it is a bare servant’s bed-chamber. The armor walks into the tripwire, paying it no heed before toppling forward to its knees before the party.

Before the session began, I wanted to discuss with the party some of the different assumptions made in modern Dungeons and Dragons, and those made by games inspired by the original iterations of the game.

  1. Characters have limited abilities because the game wants characters to think creatively and not look to their sheet for a list of options they can utilize in combat and elsewhere.

  2. Encounters in the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, and the OSR games that emerged from it, utilize something called a Reaction Table. This means that not every encounter with monsters is going to turn into a combat encounter.

  3. If the party is becoming overwhelmed, they very much have the option to retreat. This one seems obvious, but in most modern versions of Dungeons and Dragons characters are usually equipped to overcome the majority of encounters by force. The game is designed with balance in mind for this very purpose. In an OSR game, balance is not assumed, and you may have no way of defeating an enemy in combat, but you might be able to find another way to overcome the challenge.

The animated armor encounter above is a bad example of #2 because it is magically programmed to attack intruders in the house. However, in designing this encounter I put a lot of thought into character agency. In the original module, the armor simply waits for the characters and animates in an unexpected attack. I felt that this was boring and instead wanted to have the armor patrolling the house. So behind the screen, I tracked its patrol route so that I could give the party hints that it was there. That way, the characters could decide how to meet it or evade it entirely in a game of cat and mouse.

Malador screams for Samdireal, the charred warrior of light, to flip up its visor, surmising that it is hollow, while pulling a sealed bottle from his bag. Brint, the occult herb master grabs Loste and pulls him away as Samdireal flips up the visor to reveal a dark void within. Malador flings the bottle, as Samdireal brings up his shield, and it flies into the open helmet. The bottle breaks, its contents igniting on contact with air, and bathing the interior of the armor in flame. The armor clambers to its feet seemingly unaffected by the firebomb. Samdireal rushes the armor with his shield out before him and sends the armor plummeting over the edge of the guard rail. It crashes to the marble floor below, a fire shining from within. Brint walks up to the guard rail and drops his torch to the floor below to illuminate the armor in its entirety.

The armor climbs to its feet, sword still clutched in hand, and begins to ascend the stairs undaunted. Loste and Malador push open another door to discover a library with a heavy mahogany desk inside. Buying time for the party, Samdireal stands boldly at the top of the stairs and once again shield bashes the armor over the side of the railing sending it crashing to the floor below. The marble landing shatters beneath the weight of the armor upon the second fall. It rises once more, but this time more slowly. Loste and Malador brush papers and accouterments off the desk, and together, carry/drag it out of the library to the stairs. The armor continues its climb unwavering, and the two send it careening down the stairs into the animated armor. The desk breaks on impact, splinters flying in all directions, and the armor topples down the stairs coming to rest at the base of the stairs unmoving.

This was a really interesting combat. I have run Mork Borg before and was familiar with the combat system, but I wasn’t sure how difficult the armor would be to defeat. I saw this encounter going several ways. The characters took advantage of the armor’s slow movement and low level of intelligence, all the while using their environment to great effect. In more tactical games, it would have been much more difficult to pull off what they did here.

5th Edition Monster Manual's Animated Armor from Wizards of the Coast

Heart rates still high, the party cautiously approaches the desk and digs through the debris to find an iron key with specks of red and green paint on it, as well as the Durst family seal. The party then searches the second floor, finding themselves in the library. Loste examines the books on the shelves and pulls down a book on Barovian history, which contains a map of the Vale. A book with a red leather binding and emblazoned with the seal of the Durst family catches his eye. He reaches for it pulling it, but instead of coming off the shelf, the entire bookcase opens out from the wall revealing a hidden room behind it. Inside is a smaller library containing esoteric texts, that Malador identifies as basically fictional spell books akin to the Necronomicon. Nestled between these bookshelves is a desk containing the inane ramblings of a maniacal cult leader. Above the desk is mounted a human head and beneath the desk is a chest. Loste pulls the chest out into the middle of the room for the entire group to scrutinize.

This scene does a good job of showing how I have started to handle skill checks. Mork Borg does not have skills. Instead, like other OSR/early D&D games, skills are assumed under ability scores, but a skill check doesn’t even need to be rolled in many circumstances. Another group got a little annoyed at me after coming from a modern D&D background because I didn’t ask them to roll constantly. In the example above, Loste is looking over the bookshelves and he finds what he is looking for specifically, a book on Barovian history that contains a map of the region, but he also notices a detail that would stand out to someone looking over these books as the windmill symbol has become a theme. Another example is that since Malador is somewhat well versed in the arcane, I simply allowed him to know about the texts in the esoteric library. This also has the side effect of preventing the game from coming to a standstill because someone failed a skill check. That isn’t interesting. However, information that will allow characters to make informed decisions down the line is interesting.

Inside they discover the deed to the manor, the deed to a windmill, a letter, and three scrolls. Upon investigation, the scrolls are clearly real magic in comparison to the pseudo-magic contained in the room. Malador draws his torch to the scrolls invoking the name of his god Nurgle and his intention to destroy the blasphemous texts. One of the scrolls burns to ash in the chest while Brint rescues the other two. Samdireal pushes Malador back and Loste talks him down. Malador agrees not to destroy the remaining scrolls, against his better judgment. Before moving on they read the letter addressed to Gustav Durst:

My most pathetic servant,

I am not a messiah sent to you by the Dark Powers of this land. I have not come to lead you on a path to immortality. However many souls you have bled on your hidden altar, however many visitors you have tortured in your dungeon, know that you are not the ones who brought me to this beautiful land. You are but worms writhing in my earth. You say that you are cursed, your fortunes spent. You abandoned love for madness, took solace in the bosom of another woman, and sired a stillborn son. Cursed by darkness? Of that I have no doubt. Save you from your wretchedness? I think not. I much prefer you as you are.

Your dread lord and master,

Strahd von Zarovich

With that, the party continues their search of the house for baby Walter who supposedly resides on the third floor of the house. Ascending the stairs, there is a noticeable change in the condition of the house. It transitions from immaculate to abandoned, dust and cobwebs covering everything. The animated armor's tracks in the dust are the only sign of disturbance in the third-floor hall. A careful search of the floor first reveals a master suite with stained glass windmills set into them, beyond which Loste nonchalantly puts an entire jewelry box into a sack. With no contest, the party moved to the other side of the house and pushed open the door to another bedroom. Malador, taking point, found his torch snuffed out as he stepped into the room.

A ghostly figure of a maid appears saying, "Don't worry little one, the stars won't get you. It's alright, the blood is gone. Gustav says I'm going to get to keep you. Go to sleep now," before disappearing through a closed door. Malador accompanied by Samdireal investigates this ghostly haunt to discover a nursery containing only a crib shrouded in black lace. Malador raising a dagger uses the tip of the blade to pull back the lace revealing an infant-sized bundle inside. Using the dagger once more, he gently pulls the bundle open to find it empty as the swaddle collapses. With a shriek, the ghost of the nursemaid manifests in the bedroom and rushes forward shouting “I won't let you hurt my baby!”

The party trading blows with the ghost, retreats to the bedroom, thrusting the swaddle upon her, and immediately closes the door to the nursery. After a beat, she emerges from the nursery carrying the empty swaddle, tears running down her face. "What have you done with my baby?” she says through sobs. The party retreats to the hall having learned that their weapons have an inconsistent effect, sometimes passing through her, and other times passing through with resistance accompanied by her wails of agony. While the party nurses their wounds in the hall, their life force itself drained by her touch, she passes through the door carrying the swaddle before her. The fight erupts into another barrage of blows until Loste, panting, attempts to console the weeping creature.

In the original module very little of the Death House’s story is directly told to the players and in fact, would be extremely difficult to put together completely. Part of this is because there are nearly no roleplaying encounters in the dungeon outside of the Durst children who have very little information about what is going on. To combat this, I gave the nursemaid dialogue and knew going in that if the characters attempted to engage with her that there would be a chance that they could deescalate the situation, which they succeeded in doing. I did the same with Gustav and Elizebeth Durst who only appear in the original module as mindless ghasts. So instead, I put thought into their motivations and characterization, and made them ghosts with a story to tell should the characters choose to engage with it and also resulting in a more complete telling of the events that led to the current state of the Death House.

This act of empathy gives the Nursemaid pause. She confides in the characters that she has lost her baby and that she fears that Elizabeth Durst may harm him. She notices that one of the characters carries the Durst shield and inquires how they obtained it, clearly worried that she may be dealing with thieves. They assure her that they are relatives of the Dursts and that they will find her baby. She tells them that the entrance to the basement is in the attic. The characters leave the ghost and ascend into the attic, pushing cobwebs out of the way. At the top of the stairs, they find several doors, one of which is painted green and has a rose painted in the center. Loste, pulling the paint flecked key from his pocket uses it to unlock the door.

Inside they find a drab room with the windows bricked up, and the skeletons of two children lying in the center of the room wearing the familiar clothing of the children who had asked them for their help outside the house. As Malador approaches the bodies, two ghostly children appear and ask if their parents sent the party to release them. They died of hunger, and ask the characters to feed them while they approach. Rose tells the party that their father locked them in the room to protect them from the monster in the basement, but then never returned. Malador asks if they know how to get to the basement. Rose walks over to a toy box in the corner and retrieves a dollhouse reproduction of the Durst Manor and shows them where the secret entrance in the neighboring storage room is.

Rose and Thorn, Curse of Strahd, Wizards of the Coast

As the characters prepare to leave, the children protest and ask to come with them. They've been locked in this room so long and they are hungry. They start approaching the party. Malador is possessed by Rose as she throws her arms around him, imbuing the prophet with her bossy nature. Thorn steps forward and when the players seem to be leaving he breaks down crying. Samdireal offers to take him with them and Thorn possesses the zealot imbuing him with constant anxiousness. Following Rose's instructions, the party finds a hidden wall panel and descends a narrow spiral staircase into the basement, a chanting coming from below. Brint leading the group, enters a large reliquary, with objects on display in niches surrounding a regal statue in the middle of the chamber, a chest on the opposite wall. The chanting becomes clear in the chamber, “He is ancient. He is the land. The stars see.”

I feel like I am coming off as very critical of the Death House, and I do think it needs some work, but I really do like the adventure. One of the coolest things they did in my opinion was including the child possession of the characters leading them to gain traits from the children. That is roleplaying gold and my players leaned into it making for some memorable moments.

As Brint approaches the statue, a ghostly man manifests kneeling at the statue’s feet engaged in a melancholy dialogue, “All I wanted was your favor, and I got your blade. The stars were not right it seems. Does Naṭcattiram’s dark power stand for or against the god, Lord Zarovich?” Brint engages the ghost as the rest of the party filters into the chamber, Samdireal hugging the wall in nervousness. Brint discovers that he is speaking to Gustav Durst and spurs him to wonder why these people are in his house. Struggling to find an acceptable answer, he holds up the Durst sword that he had taken from above the fireplace earlier and repeats the lie that they are relatives. Gustav recognizes the sword immediately and accuses the party of being thieves and descends upon Brint who recoils returning the blade to its master.

Strahd Statue edited from original image by Jacob Garcia

He holds the blade to Brint, spurring Malador to action. He steps forward urging a frightened Rose to come forth and speak on their behalf. He persuades her into doing so, and she emerges telling her father that the party rescued her and Thorn. Gustav, having intentionally locked the children in the room with the express intention of starving them, seizes her arm in anger and drags her through an archway. Loste coming to her aid is stricken with a spell partially blinding him with visions of a starfield. Brint uses a spell to summon a skeleton and animates one of the relics in the reliquary: a skeletal clawed hand with a cord tied to it. Walking upon its fingertips, the hand joins them in pursuit of Gustav.

The moment where the characters decided to use Rose to gain Gustav’s trust couldn’t have happened the way the original module was written. I loved how this scene played out, really giving the ensuing moments meaning. The party was shocked when Gustav decided to kill Rose, rather than show some compassion. It shows his true nature.

As the party enters a large chamber with a water covered floor, the chanting changes, “One must die, for the stars.” Gustav drags Rose to the center of the room, onto a raised dais containing an altar, clearly meaning to sacrifice her. Malador and Samdireal make pursuit, but as they enter the water, black hooded cultists chanting appear, their faces void. Gustav raises the sword to slay Rose once more upon the altar when Loste chucks a handaxe across the chamber sinking it deep into his ghostly skull. Gustav crumples to the ground dropping the sword, but still somehow holding onto undeath. Samdireal seizes the sword and brings it down upon the crippled ghost slaying him with his own weapon. Malador arrives at the altar and encourages Rose to possess him again so that he can protect her.

Loste’s axe throw was a natural 20 at just the right moment for an epic result. Beautiful.

She doesn't hesitate and Samdireal and Malador turn to rejoin the group, which remain in the corridor leading into the sacrificial chamber. However, Elizabeth Durst's ghost has manifested before the control to a portcullis and drops it, separating the party and trapping Samdireal and Malador in the chamber. Loste showing uncharacteristic strength begins lifting the portcullis. As Malador and Samdireal rush towards the exit, the chanting changes again, “Rise Naṭcattiram! Rise Naṭcattiram!” The water itself rises as if it's the cloak of some kind of being, a hood emerging frames a face of swirling cosmos.

The creature reaches out touching Samdireal with its tendrils, visibly aging him. Elizabeth steps under the portcullis and stabs Loste with a stiletto blade, however, he doesn't waver from holding up the portcullis. Brint slips past Elizabeth and Loste and uses the controls to raise the portcullis and freeing Loste, who immediately engages Elizabeth defending himself, as he feels his life force being drained by her attack.

The creature Naṭcattiram was a creation of my own. In the original module, the creature is a Shambling Mound, but that just didn’t create the vibes that I wanted in a Mork Borg game or the motivation for Strahd to kill the Durst family. Their summoning of this creature forced his hand. Since the characters hadn’t met Elizebeth Durst in the prison cells, it only made sense that she would attempt to hinder their escape, which added a wonderful level of complexity to what was happening in the sacrificial chamber.

Samdireal is caught by another tendril from the creature, and ages further falling unconscious. Malador grabs him and carries him out of the chamber. Brint and Loste retreat to the stairs with Elizabeth and the creature in pursuit. Malador following close behind the others carries Samdireal into the reliquary where he hesitates. He seriously considers searching the chest, but ultimately makes the rational decision to flee. The party ascends the spiral staircase, and the scene goes to black as the session draws to another epic cliffhanger.

This was a wonderful session full of excellent combat encounters (some of the best I have run in 25 years), roleplaying, and tension. The roleplaying encounters in particular have inspired me to concoct a couple of encounters that I had not originally planned.

  1. I think that it would be fun for Elizebeth Durst’s ghost to confront the Nursemaid’s ghost now that she has nothing to lose with the second death of her husband. When the characters come near the Nursemaid’s bed-chamber, they will find Elizabeth slinking inside.

  2. Something the characters didn’t discover because they evaded the prison cells was that Walter was sacrificed in the summoning of Naṭcattiram before he was born, thus the empty crib and swaddle. How cool would it be if the characters don’t face and defeat Naṭcattiram, that he reappears later in the game with an adult Walter as his avatar! That would be jaw-dropping. We’ll see if my players leave me enough to make that happen at the conclusion of the next session…

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 hear any thoughts you might have about the game or my methods in the comments below.

Village of Barovia Notes

Death House Notes

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