While any campaign in Dungeons and Dragons can be scary (especially if you start at level 1), The Curse of Strahd takes spooky adventures to a whole new level.
But before we get into it in detail, let’s look at this campaign setting with as few spoilers as possible. If you have no fear of spoilers and want all the details, keep reading past the next two paragraphs!
Dungeons and Dragons, the pillar of fantasy tabletop RPG’s, needs no introduction. But one of its adventures probably does. Curse of Strahd, released in 2016, is an adventure unlike any other in the fifth edition of the game. While players act out the campaign as an adventuring party as usual, this time around the scary things aren’t hidden away in some underground tomb. The world you are entering basically IS the tomb because everywhere you look there are scary things! [Known as Ravenloft, the plane where Strahd takes place is very different than the Forgotten Realms where most standard D&D campaigns take place.]
Curse of Strahd is a campaign that is not only deeply thematic, but also exceptionally open-ended. Filled to the brim with side quests and characters, no two adventures in Barovia will ever be the same. Which is the greatest appeal of the campaign setting. It isn’t often that you can play one multiple times and have drastically different experiences. Curse of Strahd is made for players excited by horror themes, open world adventures, and everyone in between!
With that simple overview out of the way, it’s time for the spoiler-filled review.
You have been warned.
Major spoilers below!
How crazy was it that the entire adventure was a dream inside of an alien hologram inside of a child’s diary entry? So crazy!
Ok, if you’re still reading then you must know that was a fake spoiler. Let’s get into the real stuff.
Curse of Strahd takes players into the mist-laden and monster-filled realm of Barovia. However the party found their way here, once they arrive, there is no getting out. Trapped in this spooky place, the players have to find a way to free themselves and return to wherever they came from. With this goal in mind, players are given only one other clue as to what to do next. And it’s a cryptic clue. At the start of the adventure, the party will be given a tarot card reading, with several cards hinting at potentially important places to explore. But these hints are as difficult to decipher as the mists of Barovia are to see through.
And that’s it! The first steps of the adventure are completely up to the player.
With how expansive and detailed Barovia is, no two campaigns in this country will be the same. Curse of Strahd is well-known for its abundance of side quests and NPCs, so what one party does first may be completely missed by a different party.
One party may have their first encounter with werewolves, another will be ambushed by vampires in a coffin-makers home, and another will be dealing with poltergeists, traveling circuses and evil dolls.
One party may play it safe and never venture off of the many roads connecting Barovia’s towns. But another party may see the faint sight of a long lost companion in the woods just off of the road, enticing them to step off of the safer path.
One party will meet the titular villain Strahd almost immediately, only to be toyed with by him and his abundant power. Whereas another party will hear of Strahd only in hushed tones and frightened whispers, coming face-to-face with him only in the party’s final push for freedom in Castle Ravenloft.
There really is a thousand and one ways this adventure could go!
Which is the campaign’s biggest strength and biggest weakness.
While there are a lot of options for players to choose from, it is very easy to get overwhelmed by it all. Especially for newer, less experienced parties. Where most campaigns have specific end goals and big baddies to defeat, Curse of Strahd allows more freedom for progression than almost any other setting. It’s not uncommon to begin a session in Curse of Strahd with one quest in mind, only to end your session with six new quests on your to-do list. Not everyone is eager for a campaign that almost requires diligent note taking by the players and DM alike.
But, even for newer players, the setting of Barovia can offer something of value. With so many disparate encounters and enemies, a DM could easily pick and choose parts of this setting to use for a custom or homebrew campaign. A DM could also run this campaign with far fewer story hooks and side quests, if that is what they think is best for their party.
As is and always has been the case, Dungeons and Dragons is a template for players to play in whatever way is best for them.
While some may find Curse of Strahd’s approach filled to the brim with too many horror classics and tropes, the excessive nature of it is also a reason to love the adventure. But as overwhelming as the setting may seem in its scope, it doesn’t have to be if you don’t want it to be!
For experienced players looking for a challenge, or for a party full of horror fans, Curse of Strahd has a lot to offer! But if you are a party filled with newer players still getting their feet wet in Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps a different campaign would be a wiser start. Unless a challenging and long campaign is exactly what you were hoping for! Because if Curse of Strahd has nothing else it’s the setting’s ability to offer something for everyone.