Posts Tagged ‘Ravenloft’

Halloween is great. Yeah, I know I’m about seven months too early. The release of Curse of Strahd has me thinking about all the awesome things that happen during the season. This most recent Halloween had me sitting at a table playing a fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons conversion of the original I6 Ravenloft module DMed by the one and only Mike Shea. Every year he runs a group through the adventure in an afternoon. Mike isn’t the only person who runs Ravenloft as a one shot during Halloween. When I reviewed the classic adventure on The Tome Show, the amazing Jeff Greiner said he does the same. I imagine they might both try to run Curse of Strahd this coming Halloween as a one shot. Gentlemen, this post is for you.

When I read through Curse of Strahd, it gave me all sorts of D&D hankerings for gothic horror. I want to stake vamps, silver-stab werewolves, and flap with the wereravens. But I’m a busy guy. I already run about four games on and off. There is no way I have time for a fifth consistently and my other groups are invested in the stories they’re currently playing through. They don’t want to take a 6-month break to play another adventure. I could easily wait to play Curse of Strahd, but I don’t want to. If only there was a way to get my fix in a one shot adventure session… Turns out there is. Read on friends and I will show you how to run Curse of Strahd as a one shot. All you need is some friends for about 4 – 12 hours on a single day and you can get a quicky vamp fix.

Step 1! Review Chapter 4 – Castle Ravenloft

You should read the rest of the adventure too because it’s a great read, but get familiar with this chapter in particular. If you’re going to play only part of Curse of Strahd (which is what you need to do if you want to play it as a one shot), then play the most iconic part. There’s a reason the first adventure was simply called Ravenloft. The crawl through the namesake castle captures the heart of the story. Castle Ravenloft isn’t just a location, it’s Strahd’s partner in crime. It’s also by far the longest chapter in the book so it allows you as the DM to mine the most game meat.

In this one shot version you will only visit Castle Ravenloft. You are missing out on some other sweet stuff in the adventure (more on that below), but you are also playing the most important part of the story! This is about getting a quick Strahd fix. The best way to do that is pure, uncut Castle Ravenloft right in your RPG brain.

Step 2! Begin at Level 9 with Barovian Backstories

Have your players make level 9 characters. Why? That’s level the adventure recommends PCs be before they enter Castle Ravenloft. Considering how thoroughly Wizards of the Coast seems to playtest these adventures, I trust this is the appropriate level for characters to not get slaughtered wholesale in the castle, but also keeps the encounters challenging. In other words it hits the fun bullseye.

The big twist is to ask your players to make characters who have lived in Barovia for at least a few months. Maybe one is an adventurer who got taken by the mists long ago and just figured out the only way to leave Barovia is by slaying Strahd. Another could have specifically come to hunt the vampire and has finally amassed a team strong enough to take out the villain. Yet another adventurer could have been born in Barovia and after a life of being terrorized by Strahd, the character is ready to stand up to the monster. Let your players have fun with the ideas. Remember to have them tie their backgrounds together since you’ll be jumping right into the action.

Step 3! Start the Adventure on the Way to Castle Ravenloft

When you’re ready to start playing, read or paraphrase the following text.

Your black carriage rockets through the chilly night air, wild horses speeding you through the woods toward your final destination – Castle Ravenloft. You’ve been preparing for this assault for some time and still your stomach churns in knots of fear. A lone wolf howls in the night as you swallow back your vomit and think of the task before you. To free Barovia and its people from the clutches of monster and mist, Strahd von Zarovich must die. Many have tried before you, but none have triumphed.

The smell of incense burns in your nose. Madam Eva, the old, hunched Vistani woman with piercing eyes and a strange smile, sits in the carriage with you. The fortune-teller offered to take you in her carriage to the castle in exchange for having your fortunes read. At the time it seemed a good way to avoid the wolves and other dangers of the wood, but looking into her inscrutable face, you can’t be sure. Madam Eva pulls a deck of tarokka cards from a box in her lap. She shuffles the cards and begins setting them on a small table in the middle of the carriage…

Madam Eva then reads the characters their fortunes as outlined in step 4. Once the carriage delivers the adventurers to the front courtyard of Castle Ravenloft, the horses and Madam Eva run off into the night.

Step 4! Fortunes of Ravenloft

Ravenloft and now Curse of Strahd are hailed as some of the most re-playable modules of all time because the Fortunes of Ravenloft feature (pages 11 – 18 in Curse of Strahd). This card reading determines the location of important items within the story. Different card readings mean the adventurers are going to visit different locations each time they play the adventure. These items are spread throughout the lands of Barovia in Curse of Strahd. (The original adventure, Ravenloft, places all the story items within Castle Ravenloft.) Since the one shot version of Curse of Strahd really only takes place in Castle Ravenloft, you need to set the deck up so you don’t end up with any items outside of that location. Here’s how you want to set up your cards.

Put only the following cards in the common deck:

  • Paladin (2 of Swords/Spades)
  • Mercenary (4 of Swords/Spades)
  • Berserker (6 of Swords/Spades)
  • Dictator (8 of Swords/Spades)
  • Warrior (Master of Swords/10 of Spades)
  • Transmuter (1 of Stars/Ace of Clubs)
  • Evoker (6 of Stars/Clubs)
  • Necromancer (8 of Stars/Clubs)
  • Swashbuckler (1 of Coins/Ace of Diamonds)
  • Merchant (4 of Coins/Diamonds)
  • Guild Member (5 of Coins/Diamonds)
  • Miser (9 of Coins/Diamonds)
  • Shepherd (4 of Glyphs/Hearts)
  • Anarchist (6 of Glyphs/Hearts)
  • Priest (Master of Glyphs/10 of Hearts)

Now when you do the Fortunes of Ravenloft reading for the first three cards, all the items will be in Castle Ravenloft.

The only other change you need to make is with card 4. When you draw card 4 from the high deck, draw a second card and put it next to card 4. We’ll call these cards 4A and 4B respectively. 4A tells you which of Strahd’s enemies will aid the characters as normal. Card 4B tells you where you can find the ally in Castle Ravenloft. To determine this use the Strahd’s Location in the Castle section on pages 17 and 18 of Curse of Strahd. For instance if card 4A is the Mists (Queen of Spades) which corresponds to Ezmerelda d’Avenir and card 4B is the Beast (Jack of Diamonds) which corresponds to the audience hall, then the characters can find Ezmerelda d’Avenir in the audience hall. You’ll need to have a motivation for the NPC to be in the castle. The two most obvious are the ally has also come to kill Strahd or was captured by Strahd. Those work for most of the NPC allies. If the character is a servant of Strahd, like the Vistani assassin Arrigal, they might be in the castle because they have business with the vampire.

You can lay your one shot reading out like this.

You can lay your one shot reading out like this.

Note that Ghost (King of Hearts) ally B, Sir Klutz, and Marionette (Jack of Hearts) ally A, Pidlwick II, already have starting locations in Castle Ravenloft. If you draw these cards as 4A and want to use those ally options, either change their location according to the 4B card or ignore the 4B card.

Step 5! Get Hunting

Now play through Chapter 4 of Curse of Strahd. Meet interesting people, fight terrifying monsters, explore a spooky castle, and stake a vamp.

What You Lose

Is this the ideal way to run Curse of Strahd? For many the answer is no. You miss out on 11 other awesome chapters of content. You don’t walk the sad streets of Barovia, you don’t enter a creepy mill, and you don’t get to visit the Amber Temple. What you do get is the chance to take down Strahd, a fun afternoon of gothic horror, and a crawl through one of the most iconic D&D dungeons ever.

Good News – Modularity

The good news about Curse of Strahd is that it’s totally modular and re-playable. Playing a single chapter of the adventure during a one shot does not ruin the enjoyment of a second (or third or fourth) play-through of the same chapter or even the entire adventure. If you’ve been hankering to try Curse of Strahd, but haven’t had the time, or you just want Halloween to come early, why not give my one shot Strahd method a try?

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below!

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I sit down with Allison Rossi, Rudy Basso, and Round Table newbie Patrick Dennis to discuss the official Curse of Strahd announcement. Then it’s a bonus panel with Liz TheisRich HowardDave Gibson, and Topher Kohan dishing on the free Adventurers League adventure The Occupation of Szith Morcane available through Dragon+ and on the DMs Guild. Then it’s an interview with designers Gregory Schulze and Stone Lovecharm of Creepy Assassin about their new RPG StoryCube. This podcast was recorded on January 12 and 22, 2016.


James Introcaso sits down with the largest Round Table crew ever to talk about the Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition Open Gaming License and System Reference Document and the surprising new Dungeon Masters Guild. Topher Kohan, Dave Gibson, Rich Howard, Sam Dillon, Jeff Greiner, Liz Theis of Lone Wolf Development, Shawn Merwin of Encoded Designs, and Wolfgang Baur of Kobold Press talk about the big news. Included are two interviews, one with Nolan Jones of Roll20 and another with Robert Adducci of the Adventurers League to discuss how the announcement will affect their companies. They even touch on the Ravenloft leak and the announcement that Wizards of the Coast D&D team will not be at Gen Con. This podcast was recorded on January 12, 13, and 17, 2016.

I sit down with Jeff Greiner, Sam Dillon, Greg Blair, and Dave Gibson to speculate what the next setting might be in the official D&D fifth edition rules. We discuss Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Planescape, Mystara, and more. This podcast was recorded on December 16, 2014.


If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, Bonus Action and Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Well, fifth edition has been released! The D&D Starter Set hit local friendly game stores last week and the D&D Basic rules are up… for FREE! Go download and check out over 100 pages of new D&D content for $0. In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting many a podcast about my thoughts on the new edition, but spoiler alert… I feel very positive about it. Maybe you’re not feeling these new rules or maybe you agree with me that this could be our finest D&D yet. Let me know if you think I’m right/wrong and sound off in the comments or hit me up on Twitter. I love to hear others thoughts and opinions. Remember, in the coming days of discussion and possible disagreement – just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean he or she is a Nazi. Be polite and respectful and people will respect your own view-point more. In the end this is just a game.


Anyway, with this release I know the DMs out there are beginning to craft worlds of their own. I thought I’d talk with you all a bit about how I built some adventure sites into Exploration Age and then give you some examples (which you can feel free to pillage for your home campaign).

Write Down What You Got

Before you begin adding adventure sites to your world, make a quick list of all the ideas for cool dungeons, forests, castles, and more that you have. You don’t need more than a line for each site and the description only needs to make sense to you. For instance, maybe you’ve got an idea for red dragon’s volcanic lair which also serves as a portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire. You could simply write – red dragon, volcano, portal and know what that meant. The important thing is to get any ideas you have down on (virtual) paper so you don’t forget them.

As you know I love Google Drive, so I recommend starting a document there, so you can add ideas as you get them. You never know when you’ll feel inspired! If you don’t have any ideas, have a good old-fashioned brainstorm session, or have no fear and continue on. Tips for idea generation are below!

Map It Up

My latest map of Canus... still needs some tweaks

My latest map of Canus… still needs some tweaks

I’ve already written about how I made the maps for Exploration Age. Once you’ve got all of your continents and oceans created, it’s time to start dropping in adventure sites. I had my idea list, but it wasn’t enough to fill the giant world I had created. I began adding ruins, castles, and more to the map. I didn’t do this totally randomly, I looked for places that might make sense. A dangerous ruin might be in a swamp, away from a lot of other areas of civilization, and a fortress might sit with its back to the mountains or on a border between two countries in a defensible or valuable position.

Once I had placed these sites I went around naming them. I tried to look at the names of some of D&D most classic adventure sites. The Tomb of Horrors, The Temple of Elemental Evil, and Castle Ravenloft all have names which evoke a particular feeling of grand adventure while also giving you little hints about what to expect from the site. So for the sites that weren’t part of my original list, I came up with their names first and concepts second. Sometimes their names were based on the location in which they were found. For instance, within a patch of dead forest in Taliana I placed the Deadwood Castle. Other times these names were something evocative that popped into my head that I knew I would sort out later – like Gnome Graves in Parian’s Niro Swamp.

Make Your Lists

Once I had all my adventure sites and my map finished, I wrote down every single site I had placed on the map. In my case, since the map is so large, I divided my list into sublists by country. However, your map may be smaller than my own, so you may just make one list or perhaps your map is way bigger than mine and you want to find some other method of dividing your list (maybe by terrain or region – really whatever is easiest for you). Any notes or ideas I had about what the sites might be, I included on the list.

Once I had that master list of adventure sites, I set it aside. It’s always good to shift gears and let the mind rest for a bit. Many of your best ideas come when you brain is just wandering so let it (but keep that list handy so when an idea comes up you can add that detail or note to the list so you don’t forget).

A lot of folks get their best ideas in the shower. So get cleaning yourself!

Adding the Details

Finally, I began detailing each site. Obviously, with so many adventure sites on the world map, I wasn’t going to create a unique dungeon map and stat out every single resident monster for each. Besides, I want to keep things a little more open so I can tie an adventure site into the larger campaign’s story arc as it unfolds. However, should my players decide to travel through a site, spend the night in one, or just go delving into some dungeon on a side mission, I wanted to be prepared. I decided I would write at least a quick paragraph for each adventure site to have the basics covered. This will also help me if I’m running a more sandbox style adventure where the players feel free to roam all over the map.

In my mind, good adventure sites need three details.

  1. History How did a ruin become ruined? What was it before? Who built the structure? What are the stories locals tell about the place? If it’s a natural land formation why is it special and different from other places created by nature? What is unknown about its history? Who is alive today and still tied to the history of the place? Do they want people delving into the site or not? Giving a site history roots it solidly in the game world. It gives adventurers a chance to hear about a place through word of mouth instead of just stumbling onto it and it can inspire the dangers and draws of the place.
  2. Danger It wouldn’t be much of an adventure site if it weren’t dangerous. If you’re playing D&D 99% of the time that danger is one or more monsters, so think about the kind of baddies that populate a place. Is this one creature’s lair or home to a host of baddies? Of course, danger need not always come in the form of killer claws and jaws. Maybe the danger is some ancient curse, magical phenomena, natural hazard, supernatural disease, or mechanical trap. Your players may be more curious and probably more terrified if they wander into an adventure site and find no one at all… because an ancient curse drives any intruders so mad that they throw themselves into the tar pit in the basement.
  3. Draw What makes delving into the adventure site worth while? Are there riches to be uncovered? A dragon’s treasure hoard? A vein of mithral? Is there someone to be rescued or liberated in the site? Is the defeat of the evil inside the draw, because that evil is threatening a local village or something greater? Is there information that can only be learned within the site? Is traversing the adventure site the only way to get from one area to the next? Whatever the draw, every adventure site needs one, otherwise why bother risking life and limb to explore the place?


Here are some examples of adventure sites from the Exploration Age Campaign Guide.

  • Sunken Hold of Hymore (Aeranore) Even the trolls of the Cold Marsh won’t go near the Sunken Hold of Hymore. The old estate which once belonged to a noble family known for their gold jewelry collection is now buried three-fourths of the way into the marsh. It is said that Hymore, a well-known angry drunk, struck the life out of his wife one night. His young daughter, who had shown great psionic ability, buried the house into the ground, suffocating her family and the servants. Some travelers and treasure-seekers who explored parts of the hold say they’ve found undead with strange psionic abilities and heard the voice of an eerie little girl singing a lullaby throughout the house.
  • The Wastes (Bragonay) Bragonay is mostly desert, rocky in the North, sandy in the South. The Wastes are vast expanses of dangerous sandstorms, killer predators, warforged bandits, and countless other dangers. However, merchants constantly cross these wastes when they cannot transport their goods on the Jackrabbit due to cost, limited space, or their destination not being one of the stops on the line. Adventurers may be hired to protect a merchant caravan crossing The Wastes as guards or simply be getting from point A to point B themselves. They better bring plenty of food and water… and a good weapon. There are other reasons to go delving into The Wastes.
    • There are magical twin cacti right outside Mt. Thraxallis. The needles of these cacti can be collected and be used as magic arrows. Stripping both cacti yields 10d10 +2 arrows, however adventurers who do so risk angering the volcano’s resident, an ancient red dragon named Thraxallis who believes the cacti are his alone.
    • It is said that a camp of djinn nomads wander the desert waiting for travelers to happen upon them. If a traveler can best their champion in combat, he or she is granted a wish per the spell.
    • Sand krakens attack from below, but have beaks of solid diamond that can be harvested once they are killed.
  • Troll Lake (Verda) The scrags and trolls who live on the banks of Troll Lake are not to be trifled with. There is an odd magical effect within the waters of the lake and the surrounding lands – elemental magics cease to function. Melf’s acid arrow quiver is empty, lightning bolts do not crackle, and flame tongues cannot produce their fire. This has made it the perfect sanctuary for the denizens of Troll Lake, as only natural fire and acid can be used against them in that area. It is best to avoid the huge lake all together, as the trolls have begun to multiply. The monsters now have an army and the areas around Troll Lake have grown crowded. It is only a matter of time before they march.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcast on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I was honored to be on and episode of The Tome Show with Jeff Greiner, Sam Dillon, and Jay Klint. We reviewed a whole bunch of old adventures available as pdfs on Eyes of the Lich Queen, Eye of Pain, Ravenloft, and Against the Cult of the Reptile God are all covered in the sweet, sweet aural experience. It was so much fun, and I hope you have fun listening as well. If you like the show, check out everything else The Tome Show has to offer, including the podcast I host and produce – The Round Table.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Daunting. That’s what the beginning of this process is. Where does one start? History? Geography? Religion? Science? Culture? There’s so many ways to go it could drive a person insane and make him wonder why he’d ever want to do this in the first place. I want to create so many things, but I have no idea where to begin.

But then I remembered, this world is not just for me. This world is for my players. Sure, I’m building the sandbox and turning some of the sand into cities or monsters or gods, but they’re the ones who jump into the sand and play with the stuff I create. So I figured, before beginning anything in-depth, I would ask them what they love and hate about the D&D campaigns they’ve played and what they want to explore in the future. That way, I wouldn’t spend too much time creating a rich world history full of political intrigue and scandal if they would rather play in a world full where anarchy reigns supreme.

The Questionnaire

Well, I couldn’t rightly just put my players on the spot and ask them what kind of campaign world in which they wanted to play. Some of them may have never thought about it beyond, “One with my friends in it.” So I thought up some big, general questions that I could ask my players about the world I’m building. I decided the questions should be short in words. Bullet-pointing things makes it easier for folks to answer all your questions. My advice in getting anyone (D&D players or otherwise) to respond to your emails is to keep the questions short, clear, and bullet-pointed. Do that and you’ll have everything answered in a timely manner.

In the case of the questionnaire below, I used Eberron, Dark Sun, and Forgotten Realms to define some of the questions. I picked those three because my players have quested in all of those worlds. You could use anything for an example though, and it can come from outside the world of tabletop RPGs. Video games, movies, books, comics, television, and any other medium that you share with your friends will work. I find people understand better what you’re saying when you ask, “Do you want to play in a world like Lord of the Rings?” as opposed to “Do you want to play in a game with a medium amount of magical technology?” Check out the questions I asked below.

  • High magic (like Eberron)? Mid Magic (Forgotten Realms)? Low magic (Dark Sun)?
  • Do you like your gods interventional (Forgotten Realms)? Non-interventional (Eberron)? Or Dead (Dark Sun)? Or maybe just on God (Christianity)?
  • Do you want a world where most people are basically good?
  • What about a world where evil rules (like Ravenloft)?
  • What movies should it be like?
  • What books should it be like?
  • What genre is should this world be?
  • If you were to give it a place and time period in history what would it be?
  • What is the one thing you must see in the world?
  • The one thing you’d hate to see?
  • What interests you in a game?

Then I threw out some ideas to get their creative juices flowing. I didn’t throw out every idea I had, just a few – some normal and some weird. This was a two-fold strategy, first to inspire creativity and second to let the players know no idea is lame or stupid. I wanted to hear anything and everything they had to say. Here’s what I threw out to them, letting them know these were hypotheticals that didn’t actually need a response from them since they were so specific. Though if they wanted to comment on any of them it would give me some excellent insights.

  • Do you want war to ravage the land?
  • Sea-faring?
  • A world stuck in perpetual night?
  • Hoth? Tatooine? Naboo?
  • Are shardminds a playable race? Are they existent?
  • Should there be dinosaur riders?
  • Should there be volcanoes that spew blood?

The last thing I did was NOT BCC everyone, but rather put them in the TO line of the email. This was also a two-fold in purpose. One, it could inspire some great “reply all” discussions and have my players building ideas off each other. Two, it would remind the players who were straggling to answer that they should do so, as they saw multiple emails of the same subject line fill up their inbox. Any player who didn’t want to reply all had the option of responding to me directly, of course, and I made that clear as well so anyone with any reservations about their ideas had the option of sharing privately.

The Response

What followed the sending of the questionnaire email was another 61 emails amongst ten people. I was in world builder heaven. Many of the emails were short, just someone saying, “Oh I like that thing too and didn’t say it in my initial response,” so it wasn’t overwhelming to read. I also found that the players who initially responded only to me, after reading the reply all messages felt comfortable enough to bring their ideas to everyone. So the reply all thing really paid off.

Here’s what I found out about my players.

  • They like a world with high magic.
  • They like a world with non-interventional gods.
  • They prefer more than one religion or pantheon.
  • They like a world with blank spots on the map.
  • They prefer shades of grey in their morality.
  • They want cultures with a rich history and tension between nations because of that history.
  • They want complex relationships between cultures.
  • They want to see competition amongst nations not just on the battlefield, but in commerce, diplomacy, land grabbing, resources, and other areas where real world countries could get into it.
  • They want all races and classes to be playable

Essentially, my players like a world of high magic that feels real in its history and culture, but is still young and uncharted. That’s great direction for me to have and now I’m looking to get inspired…