Whew! What a campaign! I really enjoyed this campaign and am very pleased with the alternate ended that arose. Herein lies my thoughts behind the campaign.
The game Dead Space really got me in a horror mood (enough that I influenced Big Dog to run a horror Ohiogame). I thought it would be a great challenge for me as a GM. Horror requires you to expand your skill set in order to set the mood – build up and released, etc. I really could see where I had improved by the finale of the module.
I did not consider any other campaign world, as Eberron is my go-to setting. Ravenloft fit smoothly into the world with no rework. As a matter of fact, Eberron really enhanced the plot of module. I, of course, rejected Wizard’s Eberron Plot – A race against the Emerald Claw for the Tome of Strahd – boooooring. The Emerald Claw is now a joke to my group – so mine was much more elaborate.
The plot starts with Syan Jarus. Syan Jarus, a Magistrate of the Tribunal of Thronehold hears of the exploits of the PCs. Syan is a half-elf who is secretly a part of the At All Costs suborder of the OrdRekk . This order secretly works against King Kaius as they believe the war was not at its natural end. When Syan came across the accusations of Kavan the Grim, she decides to use that to goad the greatest of the AAC members into action—Count Strahd von Zarovich. The fallen General has sulked away that last couple of years in Castle Ravenloft and has been unresponsive to AAC inquiries. She suspects that any negative action by the King to one of Strahd’s trusted henchmen will set into motion a plot to weaken or overthrow the current king.
In the grand scheme of things, Syan has no idea the hornet nest she is poking.
The module discusses the reason for Strahds fall into vampirism – his unconsummated love of Tatyana, the bride to be of his younger brother Sergio. Tatyana considered Strahd to be nothing more than an older Uncle at best. Strahd disparately sought ways to regain his youth and lengthen his lifespan. He dabbled in the Necromantic arts with little success – it seems to take more out of him than it gave to him.
Then, he turned to religion. In the past, he gave the usual lip service to The Sovereign Host. But, then he discovered the Blood of Vol. This cult believes that divinity comes from within – blood itself is holy. Although the religion is generally underground, even everyday people joined the Cult. They were seeking more than just the endless drudgery that the Host tells its followers is the afterlife. Higher levels know that Seekers may look to become intelligent undead. This is a necessary evil in order to pursue true immortality – until true divinity can be found.
In reality, Vol saw this as a way to make headway into Karrnath. Strahd, a part of the Nobility, became a vampire. Vol saw the long-range possibilities and arranged for the Dayheart to be placed in Castle Ravenloft.
Eventually, Strahd was able to break his old cycle with a new-found love – Patriotism. Strahd was lured out of his castle to fight for Karrnath. He sought to ease his pain by inflicting it on his enemies on the battlefield. As rough times hit Karrnath (famine), he eventually helped convince Kaius I to seek Vol’s help, utilize the Emerald Claw, and become a Vampire himself (both are free-reigned Vamps—they became vamps via a blood ritual and not by the normal “taking” via another vampire). Thus, Kaius is also tied to the DayHeart!
Strahd generally ignores the Blood of Vol and the Emerald Claw. He sees his vampirism as both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing, as he gets to continue to search for the reincarnated Tatyana. It is a curse, as he falls into depression every time he is wrong about the mortal woman he would make his eternal bride.
Getting the Plot Moving
I ran a short adventure as a lead into the module. I used Kavan the Grim has the primary hook (see Syan above). He was perfect – a bloody-thirsty killed the PCs could learn to hate. The adventure revealed is despicable crimes during the War. This was further built on in the basement of Kavan House. I liked how the players got to “know” Kavan without ever meeting him. I think the players (especially Kathy) was motivated to see the work through.
But before they could go after Kavan, he had to get the true Antagonist into play – Strahd von Zarovich. Before they could just snatch Kavan, they had to try the official route first.
Once the PCs have recovered the journal from Digging Up the Past, they are given the task to locate Kavan the Grim. This will take them Korth, the capital of Karrnath. They will present their papers and request to Kaius ir’ Wyanarn III, the current sovereign. After some discussions with his advisors, Kaius surprisingly agrees to the investigation without hindrance. He even provides a writ so that the PCs may freely travel his lands under the king’s protection. The reason is that Kaius and Strahd are basically enemies. At the end of the War, Kaius worked hardest for peace. Strahd publically called Kaius a coward for “surrendering.” Of course, Kaius striped Strahd of most of his lands titles and forced him to retire back to Barovia.
The PCs will travel to Lands of Barovia, as that is where divination magic indicates that Kavan resides. The PCs get to know the Village of Barovia as it stands before the ECR adventure starts – flavorful but dark. They have a chance to meet some of the key personalities such as the Burgomaster, Ireena, the priest Danovich and his son, and have a reading by Madame Eva, as the PCs will be there on a market and festival day.
Protocol is to always talk with the authorities. Meeting with the Burgomaster leads to the PCs, the Burgomaster and his daughter Ireena travelling to the Castle Ravenloft to meet Count Strahd von Zarovich. This is done in the classic module fashion. There is a disturbance outside of the Burgomaster’s home and it is the black carriage from the original module. It gives the PCs quite a ride up to the castle.
I do this to give a “face” to the villan. Complex villans are always more interesting than just mindless evil. Slaughting pure evil is easy (emotionally). But if you meet the villan, like them, and can empathize with the them – then you have a more rich experience as a player.
Dinner is served and the Count is quite charming. Note that we did a real sit down dinner. It went well, it hit about 90% of my expectations. Over the course of the evening, it seems he becomes smitten with Ireena. PC business is held over to the next day. Strahd is enraged at the accusations to one of his former soldiers and throws the group out.
This 24 hour period creates the start of the adventure. Strahd is now caught back into his old cycle (Ireena/Tatyana) plus his hatred of King Kaius is brought back to the forefront. As he plots, he slips into insanity under the weight of these two pounding problems…
Why does Strahd “summon” the PCs back into his lands?
The module is very clear – the PCs are in his lands for a Reason. The secondary plots in the book are “generic” in that anyone of the PC’s abilities would be useful to his plots. For example, if the secondary plot is to get the Werewolves under Strahds power then it would not matter if it were these PCs or some other set of heroes. But I wanted something more personal. This decision drove all the other design ideas, especially about how to integrate the module with the Eberron setting.
The basic plot is that Strahd is going insane and is lashing out. It results in a two-pronged attack. One is to personally discredit the King. He plans to do this by letting the Tome of Strahd be found, which documents Kaius’ fall into vampirism. The second is to destroy Karrnath. This is where insanity is driving his thoughts. Basically, the people failed Karrnath, thus the people should be destroyed. Hence the Zombie Plague subplot (so I really blended the Insanity and Zombie Plague secondary plots together).
So who better to carry out these plans? Why the PCs, who are working for the old Throne. Perfect credibility. So they get the letter from the Burgomaster that Strahd has OK’d for them to come after Kavan. Then the module is on!
Two historical events, not all that far apart, influence the big picture plot. The obvious one is Kaius’a and Strahd’s relationship. This Truman/McArthur in the Korean War (Truman Fires McArthur after several heated public exchanges about the war). The other is from WWII. Late in the War, Hitler came to terms with the losing war effort by blaming the German people. They were not up to the task/glory that he envisioned for them. Since they were not up to the task, they were not worthy of saving. Hitler ordered much of the German infastructure destroyed. Thankfully, most people ignore the orders. This is the mindset that Strahd fell into during his madness about the people of Karrnath (ie – Patriotism turns to self loathing).
Movie/Video Game/Book Influences
The Blaspheme was a direct lift from Pet Cemetary. In the book and movie, their is a short discussion about how people buried at the cemetary where “changed.” They knew things about people, and were very cruel. Thus, I made each player submit a dark secret about their PC. This came into play both in the original encounter and in the final session.
The movie Sphere had an influence on the description of the sphere at the end – notably that the sphere does not reflect an image of the PCs. Any reason? No – just something creepy.
Otherwise, I watched a number of horror movies and played Dead Space. See my Horror section in the Laborator for details.