Dark Vale of Barovia: Session #3
Torchlight glinted off of Hedral’s golden, faceted face as he sprinted up the narrow spiral staircase while it transformed into fleshy, hungry steps.
When we last left our heroes, they had descended into the basement of the Durst Manor, which they had been charged with investigating. At the behest of shivering children, they had entered in search of an infant named Walter. Their search revealed a much more complex picture. A cult following ludicrous practices that dissolved into cruelty and infidelity ultimately leading to the demise of the Dursts.
In the basement, to which they had been led by the ghost of the Nursemaid, and the Durst children Rose and Thorn, the characters met the primary driver of the Durst legacy, Gustav, now a ghost. Upon being confronted by the characters and his own daughter's ghost, he attempted to sacrifice her to an Eldritch creature named Naṭcattiram but was killed before he could enact another crime against his family. His death led to the rise of Naṭcattiram, aided by the ghost of Elizabeth Durst. In the final moments of the last chapter, the characters had begun to flee up the narrow spiral staircase leading back to the house’s attic.
This is the third installment in this campaign diary. You can find the first entry here, and the second entry here. You will notice that there are paragraphs in red throughout the diary, which explain the design decisions that led to those moments.
Brint, an herb master, at the front of the group followed by a skeletal animated hand runs to the top of the stairs. Loste, a landlocked pirate, was next on the stairs as they begin to transform into flesh. The prophet Malador struggles up the stairs carrying the zealot Samdireal who has been significantly aged by the touch of Naṭcattiram and is now unconscious.
As Loste, Malador, and Samdireal continue their ascent, the stairs transfigure into vicious mouths. Loste is the first to fall into the jaws, but manages to wrench himself free and turns back to aid Malador and the incapacitated Samdireal. As Loste reaches his friends, Malador falls into the maw of an open step, dropping Samdireal. The watery entity from the basement comes into view just as Loste tries to pull Malador free, but the stairs rip Malador in half with a decisive snap of jaws. Samdireal regains consciousness as he begins sinking into the stairs. Quickly assessing his dire situation and he tells Loste to run, to which he does not argue.
In the original module, the house does come to life as the characters flee, but I significantly ramped up the degree to which it transforms to create a more visceral and terrifying encounter. At moments while I was running this section of the adventure, I seriously considered dialing it back. It’s not fun to watch your friends seem lost. One of my players did say that at this point in the story, he didn’t see any way out of the situation and he was certain this was about to be a TPK. But, I decided to stay the course and I’m glad I did. It led to a tense, desperate scene that is supremely memorable. So if you ever feel this pang, I hope you resist the urge to go easy on them. Most of the party did survive after all.
Adrenaline-induced deftness sees Loste to the top of the stairs just as a flash of light erupts from below. Samdireal has used his nuclear option, unleashing the power of the sun. The biting stairs are left a bloody mess around him, Malador's body incinerated by the blast along with the remnants of Rose's ghost, and Naṭcattiram reels, retreating down the stairs. Samdireal, naked and glowing with the light of a sun triumphantly walks up the stairs.
This was a defining moment that changed the course of the escape. Samdireal rolled 15 damage of Naṭcattiram’s 20 HP, a lot in Mork Borg. If they had pursued Naṭcattiram at this point, they would have undoubtedly defeated him, but instead, I created so much fear that the players fled without giving it a second thought. That feels like a victory.
Brint goes ahead to scout and finds Elizabeth's ghost slinking into the Nursemaid's room, stiletto in hand. Unwilling to face her on his own he returns to the group as they see the ceiling has transformed into a field of eyes. They rush down the stairs and hear a wail from the Nursemaid's room. After a brief conference interrupted by the roiling of the transforming house, the group decides to flee through the Durst's master bedroom abandoning the Nursemaid as her ghost weakly claws her way out of her bed-chamber, Elizabeth Durst stepping into the doorway wearing a hideous grin.
In the original adventure, Elizebeth wasn’t a ghost (she was a mindless ghast), and the Nursemaid is not an active participant in her own story. Giving these two characters motivations led to a dark a meaningful moment. When her husband was killed in the previous session, her motivation for leaving the object of his unfaithfulness “alive” evaporated. The characters had to make a meaningful choice between trying to save the Nursemaid or the very real possibility that the house might consume them.
Samdireal leads the retreat. The doors to the master bedroom, set with stained glass, slam shut as they approach, the doorframe now flesh. Samdireal throws himself at the doors, shattering them to pieces as boney scythes erupt from the doorway striking him down. He slides across the floor leaving a trail of blood as the light of the sun fades leaving his charred ashy visage among the splinters and shards of glass.
Loste picks up a piece of the door and attempts to use it to trigger the door scythes as he rushes through to avoid them. His timing off, the wood is thrust into his body as he passes through with enough force to break his arm. He collapses to the ground next to Samdireal in excruciating pain. Brint drinks an owl spider potion, and attempts the same maneuver, but using his spidery ability to skitter up the walls and ceiling getting a different angle, he manages to slip through unharmed.
Brint grabs a vanity against the wall and begins dragging it toward a glass door that opens onto the balcony, where the oppressive mist has receded. He throws the vanity through the glass as Elizabeth Durst steps into the bedroom, towering over his fallen comrades. Brint orders the skeletal hand to attack as a distraction and he pulls a medical kit from his bag.
The hand leaps onto Elizabeth, plunging its black claws deep into her throat. Brint attends to Loste's injury and leaves a spider potion and the medkit behind as he scuttles out the broken door onto the balcony and down the side of the house. Elizabeth struggles with the hand as she makes gurgling noises. Loste takes advantage of the situation and attends to Samdireal's wounds as the floor and ceiling begin turning into fields of teeth.
Loste runs out the door with Samdireal close at his heels, just as Elizabeth falls beneath the skeletal grip in her throat. Just as they reach the glass door, the ceiling crashes to the floor gnashing. Loste manages to leap free, but Samdireal's leg is caught in the house's bite. He rips his leg from the jaws, scattering the balcony with teeth and blood to the sound of teeth being torn from gums.
Loste scuttles down the side of the house to join the group, but Samdireal does not have a spider potion. He leaps from the balcony into a snowdrift as the house shakes and moans. His body hot from his blessing of the Shining Lady, he falls through the snow and hits the ground hard, being knocked unconscious for the third time in less than an hour, which can't be good for the brain.
I was overjoyed when the majority of the characters escaped the house. I wasn’t certain they would. Brint’s action to not abandon his companions and the sacrifice of his skeletal hand saved the day. They didn’t walk away unscathed, though. Loste’s broken arm will not heal for two weeks in-game, I’ll be tracking it. The effect I decided on was the loss of use of the arm, obviously, and any impact to the site will cause extra damage, as well as increased target numbers.
The group rouses him and pulls him from the drift, while the house roars and returns to its original state. Hobbling out to the street, beaten down and exhausted, a well-dressed noble holding a corpse greets them. He introduces himself to them as Lord Strahd von Zarovich. They back away from him, remembering that he slaughtered the Dursts and that he has been referred to as a God.
He disappears into the everpresent mist and reappears in their midst, voicing his disappointment in their cowardice, and drops the corpse into Loste's arms. Strahd tells them that the corpse is the last person that he brought to Barovia to entertain him and that he expects them to live up to his expectations of a challenge. Surviving the creature in the Durst house is a good portent of their promise. He then pushes past Brint and nonchalantly walks down the Barovian street.
This was the group's first real encounter with Strahd. Dropping it here, after they are already beaten down, amped up the fear of encountering such a powerful entity.
Exhausted, the heroes search the body coming away with a handful of coins and a scroll. Taking their meager gains, they drag themselves back to the Blood of the Vine Tavern, where Loste gets them a room before they push past the judging eyes of the tavern's occupants, blood dripping on the floor. They knock on the door to Ismark Kolyanovich's room to claim their reward for investigating the Durst Manor and are greeted by a slurred invitation to enter. Inside, they find Ismark hopelessly drunk, wine glass in one hand and a bottle in the other hand.
He expresses a somber excitement to see them, to which Samdireal reacts with vigor throwing the drunkard up against the wall and berating him for sending them into that house where one of their friends was killed, and they barely managed to escape. Ismark pats Samdireal gently and tells him that he needed to test the group to see if they had what it would take to complete his true task, and graciously apologies for their loss. Once Samdireal releases him, Ismark stumbles over to a small chest and retrieves the coin that he had promised them for the task.
As the party counts the money, Malador, whom they witnessed dying, strides through the door and exclaims, "Don't forget my share." Dumbfounded, the party welcomes him back and presses him for details of how he could be here. He explains that in the immediate aftermath of his death, a woman in tattered robes descended the stairs while he could feel his god pulling on his mind. She took him by the hand and they ascended the stairs together, walking easily out of the house. She then laid him to rest in a snowbank. Looking into her eyes, he could see that her face continually shifted between young, old, and everything in-between. Then, without a word, she disappeared down the road. Malador woke an undetermined amount of time later, feeling deeply cold and with a blue tinge to his skin.
In the Adventure League materials released for Curse of Strahd there was a cool table called “Dark Gifts,” which allowed characters to come back to life touched by death and granted an ability that usually had a drawback and an advantage. I enjoyed using it in my 5e CoS game, but upon revisiting it I found I didn’t like a lot of the options. However, I did like the idea and the justification that not even in death can one escape from Strahd’s realm. With that in mind, I wrote my own take on the idea with ideas that I think are a lot more exciting, while remaining thematic to Strahd and Mork Borg, the system I am running the game in. I did make a major change to the idea: you only get to use it once. I thought it was tremendously silly that people in Adventure Leauge games could just rack up these gifts every time they died removing any meaning from death at all. You can find the Death is Not an Escape! Table here if you’re interested. Malador’s deep cold and blue tinge were the result of the gained ability “Deathly Cold.”
Ismark exclaims his excitement that their friend isn't dead, and promptly drops his glass, shattering it on the floor. After giving it a long forlorn look, he attempts to take a swig from the bottle only to find that it too is empty. He then begins to explain his true purpose to move his sister Ireena to a safer place. She has drawn the attention of the vampire Strahd for some reason, but he is afraid to move her alone. The people of Barovia are crippled with fear of Strahd, and so offer no aid.
Ismark then suggests moving their conference to his estate where he promised them room and board. The group asks for a few moments to collect themselves, and Ismark begins getting his things together. Loste heads downstairs to ask Arik, the barkeep, if he can have a refund for his room since they've made other arrangements. Arik informs him in his characteristically monotone voice that there are no refunds.
Loste hesitantly agrees and steps outside into the cold snowy night to see if any homeless people might benefit from his room. He notices a woman about a block down who is dressed in threadbare clothing, has matted hair, and is muttering to herself. He approaches her and asks her name. She looks at him with crazy eyes that don't seem to focus on him. She tells him that her name is Mary, but then immediately barrages him asking if he has seen her daughter, Gertruda, and thrusting a soiled doll at him. He learns that the doll belongs to Gertruda and offers Mary his room for the night. After shaking off her disbelief, she agrees and allows Loste to guide her back to the inn. She presses the doll into his hands and insists that he agrees to find her daughter, which he does by taking the doll. She scuttles upstairs as the three women in colorful scarves seated nearby begin to gossip.
Loste learns that Mary once owned the derelict house she squats in front of and that she went mad after her six-year old daughter disappeared twelve years ago. Even before that, she never let her daughter leave the house. Rumor has it that the vampire took her under his guardianship. With that, Loste joins the rest of the group as they begin their trek to Ismark's estate.
In the original module, Mary is in her attic crying and the characters are expected to essentially trespass in her home to get this plot hook, which I don’t find believable, so I moved it outside. To add some grimdark flavor, I made her a derelict and made her daughter disappear a long time ago. I think I’m going to make Gertruda a more important character in the story.
Ismark is still insufferably drunk and so Samdireal and Loste put themselves to work helping him walk after he faceplants in a snowbank, spilling his recently acquired wine bottle turning the snow the color of blood. As they make their way through Barovia's streets, they see an old woman in tattered robes pushing a cart. She stops in front of a residence half-a-block distant and knocks. A beat later, someone answers the door. Malador moves closer to see what is happening. The woman hands the resident a basket of what appears to be food, and in return is passed an infant-sized bundle, bringing back some very uncomfortable recent memories.
They choose to add this mysterious woman to the top of their list of things that need to be investigated but opt for the moment to seek rest in the face of their ordeal. Ismark leads them to the edge of town and a large dilapidated manor. The wrought iron fence is mangled, the grounds are trampled by what appear to be bestial footprints, and the walls have been rent and torn. With some reticence, the party asks if Ismark has been encountering trouble recently. He explains that they have since Ireena refused Strahd's advances, but the last few days have been quiet.
He pushes his way inside, followed closely by the party, and collapses into a plush, but torn armchair. As everyone filters into the room, which hasn't been attended to for some time by any servants, a woman wearing plate armor enters the room. She is regal and beautiful. She greets the party and inquires about what Ismark has gotten them into this time. They recount the events of their meeting and the Durst Manor at which point Ireena slaps a sleeping Ismark awake and berates him for putting anyone in that sort of peril. He mutters about needing to know and eventually departs to his upstairs chamber.
Ireena takes note of Loste's broken arm, poorly set, and Samdireal's nakedness. She offers to bring Samdireal some of her father's clothes, which will sorely need tailoring and promises to properly attend Loste's wound. As she takes Samdireal to her father's chamber he notices that there is a coffin in an adjoining drawing-room. She explains that her father was killed in one of Strahd's attacks. She blames herself for his death, due to her refusal to marry Strahd. For some reason, he seems reticent to take her by force.
After Samdireal selects a couple of elegant clothing pieces and a long coat, they return to the group and Ireena sits down with Loste to treat his wounds. Loste asks Ireena what they're going to do with their father's corpse. She tells him that the villagers of Barovia are frightened of the Dark Lord Zarovich and that they fear that the Kolyanovich family has been marked, so they refuse to aid them. Those who stand against the vampire are known to join the Procession of the Dead. Loste asks her what that is, and she tells him to visit the graveyard at midnight to witness the event, but he declines for the evening due to his sure need for rest. She tells Loste that she wishes to bury her father in the local graveyard, but the coffin is too heavy for Ismark and herself to carry on their own. With that, Ireena bids them good night and departs for her chambers. The party lays down for a night of well-earned rest.
And there we ended our session. It was a tense, fear drenched game, as I think a Strahd game should be if you can manage it (although I suspect that may not be true at all tables). I’m excited to see where we go from here in the game. I’ve got some plotting to do…
I hope that the above was 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.
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