Friday, February 15, 2013

Ravenloft: What Happened Before

Last entry I talked about my experiences as a GM with the 3.5 Expedition to Castle Ravenloft adventure, and I briefly mentioned that I have decided to revisit the campaign setting in an effort to finish the story that was started six or seven years ago. Now, so you (my dear readers) have an idea of why I have decided to do this, let me explain what happened in the original campaign:

(A preemptive warning: For those who haven't played through Expedition to Castle Ravenloft and intend to in the future, or if you are currently playing through it now, there are massive spoilers ahead. GMs, I would suggest keeping your players away from this entry for fear that I might inadvertently tip them off on things that happen in the campaign. Players, do yourself a favour and avoid reading further; it's for your own good.

I'll try to denote the really big spoilers but no promises!)

Our Cast:
Marvin MacDavid, Evil-Destroying Cleric of Pelor
Jack Vitous, Werewolf-Hunting Ranger
Usopp Sogeking, Conniving Gnome Wizard
Shump, Half-Orc Barbarian
Zath, (Dark) Elf Rogue

The Prep (Spoilers for Players):
Having looked over the starting material, I decided that Strahd's ultimate goal for the campaign was that he was pursuing Ireena Kolyana, the daughter of the burgomaster. That being said, as the game progressed I also formulated a number of different plot lines that tied to other goals for Strahd, each of them weaving together in such a way that, by the end of the game, all five of the listed goals were somehow involved in Strahd's plots. Still, the main goal was for Strahd to obtain Ireena and bring her back to his castle as his bride.

Also, wanting to set this campaign above the others we had played, I decided to utilize props for the characters to interact with. This included maps, letters, pages from journals, using actual tarot cards, and the like. I also utilized ambient music and even tried doing the first session entirely by candlelight (though the latter did not work as well as hoped). I did everything I could to set the environment out of game before trying to emulate it in game, to varying degrees of effectiveness.

Thirdly, as the adventure itself suggested, I had utilized the Heroes of Horror supplement for the campaign, inflicting taint on the characters as they encountered horrific and depraved individuals. By the end of the campaign, all three of the constant characters had some form of both physical and mental illnesses. It was an interesting spin on the campaign that made the difficulties that much harder to deal with.

The Story:
The adventure started off simply enough, with the party receiving a letter asking for aid from the burgomaster in the town of Barovia. Setting off, they arrive at the town only to find that it has been infested with the undead. The party cuts a swathe through the town and finds the town square barricaded and populated with living people. They speak to the people in town, including Ireena Kolyana (daughter to the burgomaster), only to discover that her father has been bed-ridden and sick for some time and it would be impossible for him to send any letters. Ireena does appreciate the characters' help, however, and asks them to investigate the church on the hill nearby, where the priest has gone mad.

The mad priest found and used a foul ritual to restore his dead son to life. The monster channels some serious Frankenstein vibes and the entire exchange is very tense, though the party resorts to killing both the monster and the priest in fairly short order.

After the undead construct was dealt with, the party decided to go and visit Madame Eva, the local fortune teller. All of the Vistani (Madame Eva's people) seem to be modeled after your stereotypical gypsy caravan, and the tarot card reading doesn't really help assuage that assertion. Madame Eva reveals that Strahd is an evil count and that he must be destroyed; she tells the party where they can find the Sunsword, the Tome of Strahd and the Holy Symbol of the Raven, three powerful artifacts that are necessary to destroy the vampire lord and save Barovia.

Sunsword and zombies. Crazy.
At this point, the exact order of events is a bit muddled -- it was six or seven years ago, after all -- but I will try to recount things as I remember them.

The party decided to go and confront Strahd. They found the vampire in his dining hall, enjoying a meal; Marvin, being the headstrong cleric he was, decided to try to kill Strahd right there. Because of his character design (and all the feats and so forth that he had taken), Marvin rolled high enough to completely destroy Strahd in a single attack. I intervened with some GM deus ex machina and stopped the attack from having any effect on Strahd which I later attributed to another step in the adventure.

Eventually, the party retrieved the Tome of Strahd (in the attic of the church), the Sunsword (in the cave of Varikov, a dwarven ranger who specialized in hunting humans and had a penchant for taxidermy) and the Holy Symbol of the Raven (in the possession of Ireena Kolyana, who was tending to her sick father). The Tome was easily found while the location of the Sunsword was something of a riddle, though the party tracked down its whereabouts.

Varikov, the Dwarf Ranger Acrobat, flying through
the air with the greatest of ease!
The Sunsword encounter was one of the most memorable of the entire campaign; they searched through Varikov's cave and ended up fighting him and his wolf. A slide trap opened up under one of the characters, sending him flying through the air as he careened over Lake Barovia. The dwarf jumped after him and the rest of the party followed suit, resulting in a multi-round combat encounter that took place flying through the air. Crossbow bolts were fired, spells were cast, and the Sunsword was recovered. It was very entertaining, to say the least.

Now, remember from last entry how I had to stop Marvin from destroying Strahd in a single attack? I was forced to explain that in some rational way that would make sense to the players; thus, I attributed his resilience to the buffs he had gained from the places of power throughout Barovia. Part of the adventure involves the party discovering three places of power and performing communion over them, in order to wrest their control from Strahd and to themselves. In an effort to restore some semblance of balance to the game, I had Madame Eva explain to the group that, as the land was bound to Strahd's will, it would be impossible to defeat him before his power was diminished.

The party then set out to find these places of power and take them from Strahd. The first they discovered was in the middle of the Ivlis Marshes, and it nearly proved to be the end of the entire party. The marshes are inhabited by a bog hag who has a number of powerful eels at her disposal. While Marvin, who time and again proved to be the heavy hitter of the party, had specialized himself to deal massive damage to any creatures of evil alignment, the eels and the hag were technically neutral creatures, so his powers had very little effect on any of them. This resulted in the entire party being paralyzed and taking massive damage, to the point where two PCs (their players not present) and an important NPC (Ashlyn, one of the Lightbringers) were outright killed and the remaining three PCs were very nearly dead. Again, it was only through some GM intervention that the TPK was halted and the enemies destroyed. The party managed to perform communion over the place of power in the marsh but I remember the session ending with them feeling fairly dejected, considering they very nearly died.

The second place of power was found on Lysaga Hill; when the party arrived, a coven of witches were summoning a demonic creature in an attempt to destroy Strahd. The party had recruited a second important NPC (Sir Uric, Knight of the Raven) and brought him along for this fight, only to have him killed in the process of destroying the demon and the witches. Again, they managed to perform communion over the place of power but the feeling of dread was starting to really hit home; twice, they had nearly died, and they still had to confront and defeat Strahd to save Barovia. Not to mention that they had yet to find the third place of power and wrest it from Strahd's control.

At some point through the adventure, the party also ventured into the Svalich Woods, though they only encountered a pack of werewolves before deciding to return to town. During that encounter, Jack Vitous, the PC ranger, was bitten and infected with lycanthropy and did little to try to cure the disease, hoping instead that the others would not notice any ill effects.

The Plan for the Ending:
Instead of seeking the third place of power, however, the party returned to Barovia with a plan. The party had figured out that Strahd was seeking Ireena and wished to take her away, though they were not fully aware why. Ireena had also told them that, each night, she dreamed that Strahd came to her bedside and spoke to her, promising her all sorts of untold power; the party figured that Strahd really was coming to Ireena at night and speaking to her.

Ultimately, the party decided the best course of action would be to bring Strahd to them, as opposed to taking the fight into foreign territory within Castle Ravenloft. The plan was to use Ireena as bait and draw Strahd to the burgomaster's house, where they could surprise, confront and kill the vampire lord.

Preamble to the Ending:
Throughout the campaign, tensions had been rising between the characters. Usopp, the gnome wizard, had become increasingly secretive and would share very little with the other characters; Marvin was very headstrong and would often forge ahead without consulting the others, or even caring if they followed; and Jack became more reserved and simply followed, fuming at how things had developed. Further, each of them had started exhibiting forms of taint, putting further strain on the group.

It got to the point where things were coming to a head between the characters and some of them were sending me secret messages. Usopp, especially, was communicating things to me that he didn't want the others knowing about. This all led up to the incredible ending where everything exploded.

The Ending:
The party went through with their plan, hiding out in the burgomaster's house and waiting for Strahd to arrive and speak to Ireena. As the night wore on, though, the party noticed lights coming from the heart of Barovia; Marvin and Jack ran off to investigate, leaving Usopp behind to protect Ireena -- and ultimately confront Strahd.

Pretty much this exactly.
When Marvin and Jack arrived at the center of town, they found the buildings on fire and the streets filled with hundreds of undead. The two of them fought valiantly, destroying many undead, until they simply could not handle the numbers. Marvin, standing atop the well at the center of the town, fell down the well, zombies falling after him. Jack, fighting his way back to the burgomaster's house, found himself staring at a full moon, and then transformed into a wolf (his lycanthropy finally activating) and barreled into the woods nearby. Usopp found himself in a duel with Strahd, firing fireballs down hallways and eventually coming upon a horrific scene; Strahd stroking Ireena's hair as she lay unconscious in bed.

And that was where the group sessions ended. I tried to continue the game with individual sessions, wanting to finish the story. Jack awoke in a camp of peaceable werewolves, Marvin awoke at the bottom of the well, and Usopp awoke somewhere in Castle Ravenloft, but it was harder to continue the story with haphazardly-arranged one-on-one sessions. And so the expedition to Castle Ravenloft was ended, an abject failure in the face of such strong evil. (Or was it? I omitted a few details of the one-on-one sessions, as they will play into the revisit campaign...)

The Aftermath:
Anyone familiar with the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft adventure probably noticed many of the things I did deviated from the published adventure, or utilized things in a different way. In some ways, they were necessary changes simply because of the choices the characters made, while others were done more out of convenience.

Valicia, the insane water nymph. Good times.
One of the biggest changes I made was for the one-on-one sessions: The werewolves that Jack found himself among were led by a dryad by the name of Valicia. The dryad was present in the adventure, though she originally a water nymph and was completely insane. In my version, the werewolves still looked at Valicia as a leader; however, she was quite lucid and was trying to lead the werewolves as a collective force against Strahd. One of the goals for Strahd was to quash the werewolves rising against him and so I wove a plot around that story explaining that the werewolves had once worked for Strahd but the vampire had grown tired of them and wanted to bring them to heel, so to speak. They rose up in rebellion and were trying to find a way to destroy the vampire lord but were having no luck until Valicia came to lead them.

Valicia also happened to be an agent of a primordial being known as the Greenspeaker -- but that is something that I will detail in a later entry.

There were shortfalls I suffered along the way, small errors in judgement or story ties that could have played out better, but I attribute most of those difficulties to the learning experience of being a first-time GM. As it stands, the experience made me an infinitely better GM simply because I learned from my mistakes. I still look back on the experience fondly and regard it as one of the greatest successes I've ever had in D&D, either as a player or a GM.

Moving Forward:
So what does this all mean moving forward and creating a campaign to revisit Barovia? That is something that I will discuss in the next entry! As always, thanks for reading and stay tuned: the next installment in my Ravenloft series will be up very soon!

Next Entry: Ravenloft: Revisiting Barovia

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