“I’m dead, aren’t I?”
“You’ve fallen a hundred and thirty feet. You tell me.”
So, when last we left off, Anura (Hark’s Paladin) and Svinish Ingmov (E’s Cleric/Thief) were parked in Strahd’s dining room and had flung abuse (and a chicken leg) at the “it’s all done with mirrors” Strahd, provoking his ire and pitching all things into stormy darkness. Unbeknownst to them, the spectre of the powerful evil cleric from the Chapel was still active, and would return after five hours to deliver its deadly screech at an inopportune moment.
They pressed on, huddled in the Continual Light from Svinish’s enchanted garlic clove, and Anura found the fake organ pipe that led into the passage around the outside wall. (Incidentally, the rather uninspiring “there is a secret door here” required a certain amount of dressing up – I would have preferred this to be more detailed since, again, if I’m lazy enough to run a module I’m lazy enough to not make up my own secret door mechanisms.)
Five Strahd Zombies awaited them in the tower floor at the far end; Anura successfully Turned them into hiding long enough for the party to proceed around the corner and fight a rearguard action. The zombies were overcome in a rather cramped combat where Anura took something of a beating and Ismar was guided to step in and finish things off. The Strahd zombies’ dismembered body parts were a nice touch, and much was made of severed hands, orphaned legs and slithering viscera; this really seemed to have some impact on E., who made eliminating these atrocities something of a priority in Svinish’s turns.
(At this level, combats feel like they take too long, with high HP totals being thwapped to and fro. Descriptive fatigue began to set in and after the fourth or so go, the turns were boiling down to “I roll to hit, I roll damage” in an effort to get this random encounter out of the way. Part of it, as E. noted in our after-action review, was the number of cramped corridor fights; one feels like the fights should be happening in places like Strahd’s dining room where there’s more scenery to play off. I don’t know if this is a weakness of my bad self as a DM, if I should be putting more interactables in corridors a la Diablo III where walls can be crashed down and dubious-quality floors broken in, but again, that feels like work that a module should be doing in and of itself… am I missing the point of modules entirely or something?)
The party ascended the staircase on the bottom right corner of the dining room and found themselves on the ramparts, breaking into Strahd’s cloakroom when they found the window thereto and making a big damn deal out of setting light to his cloaks and evening dress (presumably because they found him to be an insufferable poseur). When they proceeded through to Strahd’s boudoir they found Gertrude, snapped her out of her fairytale illusions with Svinish’s claim that “you think you’re the first? Eighteen other girls, babe, eighteen other girls” making her decide that she didn’t want to be in Bluebeard, and demanded that she lead them to the study, i.e. the room next door, i.e. the room where Strahd himself was lurking, invisible and aloft, alerted by the crashing of windows, the smell of smoke from his dressing room, and the noise of Svinish being oratorical.
This wasn’t the easiest thing for me to administer, since Strahd had Svinish Charmed and his stated objective was to capture Ireena, who was being kept safe in the middle of the party. In the end I had him drop onto the top of them as they entered the room proper, and abuse the surprise round and his superior vampire speed to yank her into the ‘Miss Havisham’ dining room next door, Hold Portal on the door and leave them giving chase the long way round, finding the steel door leading to the back stairs up to the next level Held by the time they got there.
Restraining Ismar for as long as they could, the players ransacked Strahd’s study and eventually found their way into the false treasury behind the fireplace. Svinish opened the chest and with a hiss of gas, the unfortunate and increasingly ineffective NPC Cleric Donavich passed out for the next four hours. The party left Gertrude to keep an eye on him and returned to the steel door (now un-Held).
The corridor beyond held another corridor fight with the two wraiths, and this is where I began to regret my “I’ll give you some extra levels since you’re only two characters” choice at the start of play. At the very least I should have stayed within the upper end of the module’s original threshold – two level sevens with a magic item each would have had a much less awkward/boring/player-frustrating fight here, with their Turns strong enough to pin the wraiths in their alcoves and the fight itself amounting to an exercise in punching fog, since there was so little to do in a cross-shaped otherwise-empty corridor. Ismar, who was in the lead and still only fourth level, lost all his levels in a single blow and perished, while Svinish lost a level in Thief from a hit during the first round before he had Shillelagh up and cast.
There followed some discussion over what to do with Ismar’s body, since nobody wanted him coming back as a vengeful undead wossname (good job too since Strahd had that Animate Dead burning a hole in his spell list), and eventually they shut him in the chest in the fake treasury, spending some time staring at the dead guy and the torches, certain that there was something they should be doing but not twigging what it needed to be. In the end they took both the torches and proceeded up the stairs beyond the steel door, where they encountered…
… Leif, the Count’s Accountant! Deploying all the oily charm and Charisma at their disposal, they convinced Leif to show them into the King’s Chamber, wherein were kept the Sunsword and the Holy Symbol of Ravenloft both. Anura’s cursed +1 sword of genericness fused with the Sunsword to create, well, a sword of Strahd-murdering, and Svinish claimed the Holy Symbol. (If the players hadn’t both been kinda pissed at D&D combat I’d have had a random encounter here for them to test out their new toys and pose them a major challenge, but that wraith fight seemed to have left a bad taste in their mouths. Perhaps that evil cleric spectre should have showed up again…)
There then followed some… confused… exploration. My notes on this part are a bit scanty, but I recall a lot of trawling through corridors, finding the deep deep shaft through which the ‘elevator’ trap operates, and E. trying to climb down it, botching the roll and technically sending Svinish to his doom.
(Here follows a lengthy discussion of good DMing practice ‘twixt myself and E., in which I explain that this sort of “you did something dumb and now you reroll and start over” play is meant to be part of the game’s charm. E. was not convinced, or perhaps not entirely clear on why this was a good thing – it wasn’t a death that served any particular dramatic or narrative purpose, and she’d done the stupid thing because she had no idea what else to do with this room, no dungeoneering experience to draw on. Now, building up that experience through repeated character deaths is again, part of the game, and I wonder if we shouldn’t have started out as lowbies and learned those lessons instead of engaging with this module that has a kind of narrative shape to it. At least one of the authors was implicated in Dragonlance, allegedly the true birth of story-gaming, and it’s true that Ravenloft feels at times like something that’s not meant to work as a deathtrap dungeon in the old school sense. You’re meant to get through it and uncover Strahd and once you’re in there it feels a bit contrived to just… have a new PC turn up out of nowhere. I know that’s how old school works, but Ravenloft is so concerned with Strahd and his motivations and its own attempts to be rooted in a literary genre that it fosters a different set of expectations and creates a clash between narrative and the pure game.
For the sake of getting through the module I allowed a backsie, which I still feel was in some way the Wrong decision, a compromise of my integrity – but then I’d fudged around Hark’s arbitrary ‘whoops you rolled less than 5% and now you fall through the drawbridge to your death’ death at the beginning too, which I suppose outs me as a storygamer Swine who has no business feeling guilty about ‘proper DM practice’ in the first place. I think the difference here is that a player did something dumb and I have, in the past, stated that ignorance and carelessness are the things that will get characters killed, so it does feel like a betrayal of my principles. I felt, though, that E. hadn’t engaged with those principles, that we didn’t have the sort of good faith and common understanding that that was how the game worked, and that putting her out of action with this rather self-contained module incomplete would effectively put her out of the game, and leave the implied Gothic novel narrative of Ravenloft with a poor sense of closure. I wonder if that couldn’t be avoided with having each player control more than one character, so that there can be casualties along the way without a player being left out – but the ladies expressed that they definitely didn’t want to do that, so it wasn’t an option.
This is rapidly turning into gamer angst of the sort that I’m trying to get over and give up and avoid. Let’s just admit that I’m a storygamer and that the reason for Orks is Orks and that all this “but was that Right?” is MUKKIN ABAHT and move on.)
At some point during the confused ramble through corridors, with player frustration mounting due to Ravenloft’s no-real-castle-is-like-this internal structure, the party elected to go down the set of stairs through which Strahd had escaped. Hark expressed no desire whatsoever to pass through the guardroom full of mould – “stuff’s going to jump out at us, probably skeletons, we’ll all get poisoned, let’s not” (at least one of us has a sense of old-school dungeon savvy). Instead, the party went on and startled Cyrus. By this stage the girls were sick of Ravenloft’s interior bullshit and I was sick of the schizoid module and the further disconnect between the players’ expectations and the provided material and so I did what I always do when I try to run anything By The Book and skipped to something dramatic. Cyrus was startled and fled up the servants’ staircase and ladder into the spires, the party followed, and there was a final confrontation at the top of the 230-foot shaft.
Strahd was there, attempting to put his ‘fluence in Ireena, who had her back to the drop. When she saw the players arrive, she took a dive into the shaft. (Note: for reasons of Making This Thing Interesting I’d made Ireena a Bard rather than a Fighter, which was a mistake and something I’d not do again. She cast Feather Fall on herself as she fell. Now, in another time and place I would have killed Ireena off and let the whole thing stand as a Pyrrhic victory, a no score draw as it were. Doing so would have underlined the futility of Strahd and his curse – no matter what he does his ‘bride’ always ends up plunging to her doom. I sort of regret not doing that but I think it would have been a wasted effort since the ladies were both sick to death of the module and of Strahd by that stage and we all wanted proper closure.)
This ended up as a weirdly bathetic climax, and yet with traces of the epic about it. Anura managed to lose the Sunsword on her first attack, a natural 1 sending it spiralling down the shaft. (I have no idea if that’s actually in the rules but we were already mishmashing OSRIC and 2e and fuck knows what else, and I’ve always had the ‘lowest natural roll is a fumble, highest natural roll is a cric’ house rule in play and I don’t intend to stop now. Von fails at Refereeing yet again.) Hark lost two levels to Strahd’s return attack, but Svinish’s Turn Undead triggered the Holy Symbol‘s sunlight power and pinned him in place long enough for a Call Lightning to mostly fry him and the Shillelagh to batter off his head while Anura rammed the stake-dagger from the first session into his heart, mercifully sparing us the obligation to do another session of catacomb crawling to find his tomb. Another lightning bolt took the roof off the Spires as the party descended to find Ireena alive and well, lowering the drawbridge to admit the mob of peasants roused in the second session. Sergei manifests, is reunited with ‘Ireena’, Ravenloft is reclaimed for the followers of the Raven Goddess and her last surviving cleric, and all is once again well.
Now. Despite this being a mixed bag of a long session which left my DM chops on questionable territory, neither of the ladies hate either my DMing or the game of D&D – they just want some better material next time. E. even has an interest in taking over the throne once we’ve done a few one-shots to give her an idea of what other rules systems and other, less schizoid games are like (see above point about Ravenloft kind of pulling against itself a lot of the time). The irony of it all is that what E. is interested in is the kind of political, discursive domain-level play which a) forms the Original Game’s ‘endgame’ and b) is my default setting as a World of Darkness GM, and following the clearance of Castle Ravenloft I can see how that form of play could easily unfold.
With Barovia freed from Count Strahd’s curse and the upper Spires of Ravenloft destroyed, the old monastery can be rededicated and serve as the centre of the PCs’ domain. There’s the small matter of the catacombs themselves left to be cleared, possibly by a group of lowbies so that some proper dungeoneering can be learned. Strahd’s banshee apprentice/lover Patrina could well make an appearance there. Helga, the other named vampire in the module, wasn’t encountered and would be interesting to deploy. There’s a lot that I could do to redeem the experience of Ravenloft, but I think we’re all a bit sick of it and want to move on, find or build something that’s more in tune with itself and with the expectations of these players.
For my part, I feel vaguely unsatisfied, but I’m determined not to brood over it. Posting and writing these reports has served as reflection, but it’s left me with no clear resolution. Rather than sit here being all autistic-persistent and fretting over the same dilemmas I’m turning the conclusion over to you, dear readers. What lessons do you think I should learn from this?