Dark Vale of Barovia: Session #4
Standing over the grave of someone you don’t know, but who meant so much to so many people was a strange thing. How would the people around him react to his untimely death?
When we last left our characters, they had limped out of the Durst Manor having narrowly escaped death at the hands of an ethereal entity, homicidal ghosts, and the living manor itself. They returned to their patron Ismark, who told them the house was a test of their muster and ability to help him protect his sister, Ireena. They followed Ismark to his home which appeared to have been under a significant assault. Inside they met Ireena and learned that Strahd has some kind of infatuation with her and her refusal of his advances has resulted in the condition of her home, and the death of her father, the mayor of Barovia.
The Zealot of the Shining Lady Samdireal awakes the next morning and while he throws off his sheets, he notices that his touch singes them. He recognizes that his touch now sets objects ablaze, and with a practiced forearm and elbow, he opens the door to his room and heads downstairs, still in his nightclothes. He meets Loste, his pirate companion, at the top of the stairs where they smell the odor of cooking bacon. They head downstairs together and find Ireena, their host, cooking breakfast for them.
Samdireal and Loste sit down at the table, and Ireena brings over a plate of still sizzling bacon for them and inquires why Samdireal has neglected to dress, especially considering her gift of her father's clothing. In response, the zealot touches the ornate tablecloth on the table lighting it ablaze as Brint enters the dining room. Loste, one arm in a sling, and Brint rush to put out the fire. Ireena scolds Samdireal for igniting her heirloom tablecloth and assures him that he will be paying for it, although it is priceless.
Malador, the Prophet of Nurgle, enters shortly after this exchange and takes a seat at the table. He helps himself to the food, dripping black ichor on the tablecloth. Ireena throws a fit and rants about respect until Ismark, Ireena's brother and the party's employer, walks in and starts rifling through the wine cupboard. She turns her frustration on him, and berates him about drinking so early, and then informs him that he will be doing all the cleanup. Everyone thoroughly chastised, and with Loste feeding Samdireal so he wouldn’t ignite anything else, the group discusses organizing the burial of Ireena and Ismark's father, the former mayor of Barovia, and their plan to escort Ireena to the Town of Vallaki, which is rumored to be protected from Strahd's influence.
It’s fascinating what kinds of strange roleplaying opportunities arise from the powers that characters get from classes designed for MÖRK BORG. I’ve tried to incorporate these kinds of drawbacks into the classes that I’ve created for the game. Nothing is free in the world of MÖRK BORG. If you’re interested, you can check out what I’m talking about by taking a look at the classes.
Brint takes Samdireal upstairs and helps him dress so that he can be appropriately dressed for their meeting with the town priest, Father Donavich of the Morninglord church. Shortly later, the group heads out from the mayor's estate to find the church on the other side of town. On their way to the church, they see Bilderath's Mercantile, Barovia's only general store, and decide to make a stop to see if they can find any supplies.
Inside, there is a relatively well-stocked store with Bilderath, himself, sitting behind a counter and the porter Perriwimple cleaning the floors. Malador finds some bottles that he would like to use to collect the black ichor that drips from his hands and carries them to the counter under the scrutiny of Bilderath's beady eyes. The Prophet sets the bottles down and asks how much they will cost.
With a smirk, Bilderath tells him that they will cost 20 silver, easily four times what they are worth. Malador questions the price to which the merchant decries supply and demand. Resources in Barovia are scarce, and since the Mercantile is the only place people can shop in town, the demand is high. Malador declines to pay for the bottles but drags his hand across the counter leaving a streak of ichor. He turns to leave and Bilderath angrily orders him to come back here and clean up this mess.
Malador turns and agrees, a plot brewing in his mind. Perriwimple brings over a bucket and a rag for Malador at Bilderath's behest. The prophet cleans up the ichorous mess and holds out the rag to Bilderath, who tells Perriwimple to take it and dispose of the mess. Perriwimple takes the cloth from Malador touching the black ichor, which causes convulsions in anyone but the Prophet. Perriwimple shivers but leaves Malador unsatisfied as he lumbers out of the shop.
The funniest thing about this scene was that nobody got what they wanted. Perriwhimple rolled well to avoid the convulsive effects of Malador’s ichor.
No one involved satisfied, the group carries on their quest to the church. The church sags into the earth, and obviously has been ablaze and rent by wild animals at some point, although the scars look old. Samdireal and Malador discuss converting the priest to one of their two religions, to which Brint proposes a bet on the outcome. The group decides the odds favor Samdireal, since the Morninglord and the Shining Lady seems to share some characteristics.
The zealot leads the group into the church, noting its iconography, which includes what he recognizes as the Shining Lady. Malador quips that he has already lost this bet as they push on. They hear prayers coming from the chapel. Following the words, they enter an empty chapel, save for a priest kneeling at the altar and repeating prayers to the Morninglord. The priest, Father Donavich, notices them and rises, the floorboards of the chapel creaking under his weight. He greets them and a moment later, a scream issues through the church.
Father Donavich explains after some evasion, and rumbling of not wanting to burden them with his troubles, that the screaming comes from his son, Doru. Doru participated in an uprising against Strahd roughly a year ago and was turned into a vampire for his trouble. Donavich locked him in the basement of the church and has prayed to the Morninglord for a cure for vampirism so he can save his son. In all that time, Doru hasn't eaten anything. With the wailing addressed the party asks the priest to preside over the mayor's funeral. He agrees, but before Samdireal leaves, he mentions that the Shining Lady appears in the church's iconography. Donavich provides some history of the church and tells them that the Shining Lady was a pagan deity from before the time of the Morninglord and that it is generally accepted today that the Shining Lady is actually the Morninglord misunderstood.
With that morsel of information, Samdireal suggests that the reason the Morninglord is not answering his prayers is that he is praying to the wrong god. The Shining Lady is the true manifestation of the Morninglord and he, Samdireal, is her avatar. As proof of his claim, he demonstrates his power igniting an insignificant object. Donavich expresses some skepticism saying that Samdireal is making a bold claim. However, he doesn’t discount it out of hand. The group takes its leave, and heading back to the Kolyanovich Estate, Malador exclaims that he's definitely lost this bet. The topic of Doru comes up, and the group decides they want to help Donavich find a way to cure his son.
The friendly rivalry between Samdireal and Malador in their quest to convert people to their religions is definitely a highlight of the game thus far. It wouldn’t work as well if the players hadn’t decided that they were on the same side to remove the false god Lord Zarovich. When players don’t take on the initiative to find this common ground themselves, it often falls to the GM to facilitate why these people are working together. In my ignorant youth, I often had this problem crop up and it always became an unsatisfying diversion from the game that nobody enjoyed, not even the people in the rivalry most of the time. This kind of antagonism might work with some groups, but it would have to be a really special group.
When I was altering the lore of Barovia to suit my whims, I noticed the similarity between the Morninglord and the Shining Lady. I decided there had to be some kind of connection there to make the story more interesting for Samdireal and to provide investment for Samdireal’s story. This thread goes deeper, and I look forward to sharing it with you all as we continue to explore the story.
After being apprised that the funeral is going forward, the group, with the exception of fire hands, move the coffin into a cart. Ismark goes on ahead of the group after changing into funeral attire to dig the grave. Ireena comes down in a black dress complete with a veil and the group forms a procession to the cemetery. Barovian citizens watch them go by without a word, but their notice is telling. Upon arrival at the cemetery, the group helps Ismark move the casket into the newly dug grave.
Father Donavich expresses his feelings about Kolyanovich, the mayor, and specifically uses Ireena's adoption as an example of his charitable heart. Ireena seems somewhat taken aback by this revelation, as does Ismark. Clearly, they were unaware that they were not blood siblings. Samdireal steps around the back of the gravestone and burns a handprint into the back of the stone while reciting a blessing from the Shining Lady. Ireena is visibly surprised, and Father Donavich makes an expression that is difficult to parse.
As the funeral rites are coming to a close, the group hears the sound of a carriage and a moment later, a black carriage drawn by black stallions appears from around the church driven by an elf with dusty gray skin. He steps down from the driver's seat and opens the carriage's door announcing Lord Strahd von Zarovich and his entourage of four women, Anastrasya Karelova, Valenta Popofsky, Ludmilla Vilisevic, and most notably Gertruda Maddis. Loste perks up at the name and makes the connection with Mad Mary's missing daughter.
This scene had a lot of reasons to exist. First, it gave the characters another opportunity to engage with Strahd, which should happen as often as organically possible in a Curse of Strahd game in my opinion. My last game kind of overshadowed Strahd with other villains that emerged, and I think that was a disservice to the game, although it was a great deal of fun. Two, we get to introduce some more characters that are connected to Strahd and throw out some story threads. Strahd has four consorts who despise Ireena for taking away Strahd’s attention, but who can do nothing about it because Strahd would kill anyone who harmed Ireena. There’s some good drama in there. Like others have done before me, I decided I wanted these consorts to play a larger role in the story. I knew to accomplish that I needed Chekhov’s Gun. They need to see these characters so that when they show up later in the game it isn’t as some kind of Deus Ex Machina. Gertruda in the original module is an unharmed innocent waiting patiently to be saved in Ravenloft Castle. To make Gertruda’s story more meaningful and defy the classic maiden in distress trope, I wanted to make this story thread much more dramatic. Saving Gertruda will be work. I must remember to make her character show doubt, empathy, and/or some beacon that she is redeemable.
Strahd approaches and gives his regards to Ireena and Ismark for the loss of their father and expresses the sentiment that he was a good servant. Ismark scoffs and accuses Strahd of being the murderer, to which he replies that it was wild animals that slew their father. Ismark retorts that the wolves were clearly under Strahd's control. Strahd bids the group farewell and retreats to his carriage. Loste runs up to Gertruda and offers her the doll given to him by Mary and explains that it's from her mother. Gertruda exclaims with derision that she has no memory of her mother and turns her back on him heading to the carriage.
Strahd's attendant Rahudan emerges from behind the church and climbs aboard the carriage taking up the reins. Just as Strahd steps into the carriage Samdireal calls to him to wait. Strahd turns with some interest and the zealot asks him if he knows a cure for vampirism. Strahd laughs out loud and tells him that no one has dared ask him that before and that if he did know surely he wouldn't reveal that information to them. With that Strahd's entourage leaves the cemetery.
As the party is regrouping they hear a scream and an emaciated figure stumbles out from the church. He cries, “I'm so hungry,” and rushes Malador with remarkable speed. Father Donavich cries out as the vampire tears at Malador's clothes trying to expose skin. Samdireal, avoiding the use of his hands, tackles Doru pinning him to the ground. Brint using the pommel of his sword strikes the incapacitated vampire on the back of the head rendering him unconscious. Father Donavich rushes to his son's side thanking the party for not killing Doru. He takes up his son and returns him to the basement of the church. And here we leave our heroes until our tale continues.
The session had been so action light that I wanted to end it with some action. I hadn’t planned for Rahudan to release Doru, but it made sense and it provided an opportunity for meaningful combat, albeit a short one because the players rolled exceedingly well and I think I didn’t make Doru powerful enough to be a real threat. That said, not all combats need to be life-threatening. In this case, the combat actually became a venue for the characters to show empathy and explore non-lethal ways of dealing with challenges. Easy defeats also make the players feel good, feel like cinematic badasses. This can do two things. One, provide a respite from exceeding challenging combats, like what they experienced in the Durst Manor last session. And two, it can make them a little cocky, so that the next thing you throw at them might catch them off guard...
This was a very roleplay heavy session, that was light on the action. Nevertheless, we had a great time playing and getting to know some of the movers and shakers of Barovia, at least in this humble village.
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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