Curse of Strahd, session six: Cliff-Hangers and Indefinite Madness
Last night was the sixth session of our Skype-based play through of Dungeons and Dragons’ gothic adventure, Curse of Strahd. It happened on time, didn’t overrun, and suffered no technical hitches; this was pretty much a first on all counts.
Each week, we either start late because I have to deal with my now five-month-old son who has decided he cannot remember how to sleep for more than 20 minutes, even though he’s tired, he’s fed, it’s late, and he was doing this so well before; or we get interrupted at exactly nine o’clock as the wi-fi in one of our party members’ houses lags, forgetting it’s now the 21st century and not 1999 when this was an acceptable thing for the internet to do. Thankfully, last night’s session was free of such complications and ran very smoothly indeed.
However, all this meant was that our DM was able to maniacally torment us for the full two-and-a-half hours without interruption. If we weren’t already sure, this session proved to us the real horror of Barovia. It also ended on a cliff-hanger that has left us truly scared about what will happen to our heroes next week. Click here catch up on last week’s session.
As a DM, I love a cliff-hanger. There’s no better way to end a session than with your players excited and anxious to find out what will happen next. So far, in my relatively brief career as DM, my top three cliff hangers include:
- The party of wounded adventurers paddling desperately across a mysterious lake when suddenly Demogorgon, prince of demons, rises up behind them and smashes their boat in half. END SCENE.
- An adult green dragon leers over the bloodied dwarf cleric, the only man left standing after his entire party is wiped out and unconscious. The Dragon smiles and takes a deep, slow, purposeful breath inwards. TO BE CONTINUED
- A half-elf wizard is engulfed by a sentient gelatinous cube that has been convinced to give up his precious treasure in return for human flesh by a sneaky halfling monk companion taken by demonic madness. UNTIL NEXT TIME
These moments are full of suspense and desperation, and in each scenario it really seemed like there could be no way for the PCs to survive. And sometimes they didn’t.
But last night’s session was the first time I’ve experienced this from the other side of the screen. And now I know how it feels.
Back to the action…
Again, our party consisted of:
Gimble Timbers – Gnome Fighter, wearing a top hat and eye-patch, wielding a wooden mannequin arm;
Engong – Half-Orc Monk, sneaky, taciturn and really fast, not a “people person”;
Baräsh – Dragonborn Paladin, strong but stupid, no longer believes Kevon is his prophet;
Kevon – Tiefling Wild Magic Sorcerer, paranoid, recently undead, played by me.
We awoke in the morning, refreshed. We felt rejuvenated and happy for the first time since we met in the abandoned caravan site a few days earlier. And then the memories of the past days’ events came back to us. Our host Ismark told us that his sister Ireena had been haunted by the vampire lord Strahd von Zarovich once more in the night. Strahd is apparently convinced that Ireena is the reincarnation of his lost lover.
The pair’s father was the town Burgomaster and had recently passed away due to the strain of dealing with Strahd, leaving Ismark in charge. They insisted that Donavich performs the funeral rites, but after the events of the previous night, the priest was nowhere to be seen. They would need our help to find Donavich and convince him to help. However, after destroying his church and killing his son, he may not be the easiest person for us to persuade.
So, with our goals clearly set out, we knew exactly what we had to do. Ismark gave us a list of places to visit in town where Donavich might be, and agreed to meet us in the Blood on the Vine tavern later that day. So we went shopping.
As we made our way to Bildrath’s Mercantile, the streets were busy and we spotted an old lady selling pastries from a stall on the side of the road. Still cursed with indefinite madness, I see enemies everywhere, Kevon screamed, thinking she was “one of them! She’s following us. She’s a spy.”
“Free pies,” she called out innocently.
Having spent enough time already in this demonic place, my companions trusted my—albeit corrupted—instincts, and Gimble Timbers tested his insight to reveal a strong suspicion surrounding the pastries.
“It’s local meat,” she said.
Suitably convinced that it must be something evil, Baräsh decided to attack the old lady, doing five bludgeoning damage and knocking her prone.
For once, Baräsh’s reaction was spot-on and a fierce battle with an evil, child-murdering hag ensued. After a couple of rounds of fighting we managed to restrain her, but she broke free, issued a curse for our meddling and cast Plane Shift and vanished.
With the combat quickly over, Gimble Timbers decided to wander off in search of more “fun,” Baräsh collected the pastries to bury them in the ground, and Engong began to search the cart. Meanwhile, Kevon had spotted another elderly lady crossing the street and screamed once more, dashing into the shadows to hide from her evil glare. The paladin cast divine senses on this old lady and revealed that she was in fact just an innocent old lady.
After that we made it to the shop. Gimble Timbers had already arrived and was in the middle of a push-up competition with Bildrath’s muscly bodyguard Periwinkle as we entered. He then proceeded to buy some overpriced crossbow bolts, and we learned about the Vistani, a group of gypsy wanderers who lived in camps outside the village.
Leaving the shop, Engong decided to go to the tavern in search of a short ugly man she had heard about earlier. Once she found him, she told him that he must be the short ugly man she had heard so much about. Sure enough, he was.
His name was Rashtoff and he took us to a small encampment where he bartered with us, selling us a grappling hook, a shovel, and a healing potion in exchange for some trinkets we had acquired in the death house, and Gimble Timbers’ mannequin arm. As soon as the exchange was complete, the short ugly man dashed off into the woods giggling.
We then bumped into another man who introduced himself as Boris. He was looking for a little girl called Arabell. We suggested that perhaps she was one of the children in the pies, which he wasn’t happy about at all. He told us where to find the Vistani camp and to beware of a man called Aragol, the little girl’s father.
We then realized it was time to head back to the tavern and meet up with Ismark. As we traveled through the woods, we found a leather-wrapped bundle in a tree that was covered in dried blood. As Engong investigated, the rest of us heard a rustling in the tress around us and were beset by a pack of twig blights. A short battle followed and we quickly dealt with the blights. But before we had time to catch our breath, we heard a deep rumbling coming from the woods and decided the best course of action was to run away.
A few moments later, we reached the tavern and found Ismark drunk and distressed. He was not successful in his search for Donavich. “He is gone!” he cried, “What do I do?”
The paladin said that the priest was a good man and that we must help him. “Where would he go if he was desperate?” he asked Ismark.
“Maybe into the woods, or to the castle,” replied Ismark. None of us were keen to hear this. We were definitely not ready to go Castle Ravenloft, no matter how keen the paladin was to do the right thing.
We decided that the best plan was to trust in our monk’s tracking ability and see if we could trace the priest’s steps away from the Church. After a short time we found Donavich bound and unconscious in a clearing in the woods. Seeing no one else there, Engong rushed forward and tried to wake him. He awoke and cried, “The Morning Lord has left me. My son is gone. My life is over. These witches can have me now.” Not knowing what else to do, and not for the first time, Engong knocked the priest unconscious, picked him up and turned to carry him out of the clearing.
At that point the inevitable happened and the DM asked for a wisdom save, which the monk failed. Engong fell to the floor in fits of giggles as Tasha’s Hideous Laughter took hold.
Three witches suddenly appeared before us and Gimble Timbers, who was unseen in the woods, fired his crossbow at one of them, using his surprise round to great effect. Kevon followed up with a firebolt, now absolutely convinced that there really were invisible fiends out there to get him. Then it was the witches’ turn; one sent a ray of sickness towards Baräsh and he was poisoned. The second witch appeared behind Kevon and jabbed into his flesh with a rusty blade, as the third sent a curse towards Engong, but missed. On her turn, Engong saved against the hideous laughter and then Baräsh missed the third witch with his hammer attack.
Gimble Timbers made multiple strikes against one of the witches, using an action surge to get an extra attack and killing it. Kevon then used misty step to teleport as far away from the melee as possible, causing a wild magic surge in the process. This had the effect of making one of the witches levitate in the air, which he then targeted with three scorching rays that all hit simultaneously, one was a critical hit, totally immolating the witch in mid-air. The last remaining enemy used her turn to utter a curse and become invisible, attempting to flee. However, the monk was able to find her, hitting with multiple punches and kicks, using her Ki points very effectively, and leaving the witch open to a final killing blow from the paladin, who destroyed the now helpless old lady with his divine smite.
The combat over, we collected Donavich just as Ismark ran into the clearing having finally caught up with us. “Oh, Donavich! What has happened? Are you OK?”
As the priest began to regain consciousness, a deep lupine howl rang out into the night. Twenty pairs of evil eyes suddenly lit up the edge of the clearing, as a dark figure coalesced out of the mists. We stood paralyzed, staring into the smoke as it strode towards us. We saw two wolves prowl forward as, out of the fog, stepped a very tall, well-dressed man with slicked back hair. “Well, hello, I didn’t know we had such entertaining guests. Now if you’ll just let me collect my friend here, I’m afraid I’m not finished with him just yet. Oh, where are my manners? My name is Strahd von Zarovich, you may have heard of me.” The man turned to Ismark, “How is your sister, Ismark?” END
Wow. That is how you do a cliff hanger. As soon as we realized what was happening you could sense the tension. I think I can safely say that none of us were expecting to run into the “big bad” of this campaign so early on. We are only level three after all!
So much cool stuff happened in this session. Our DM really outdid himself, especially seeing as he had no way of predicting where we would go or how we’d react. It was also really fun to see us getting deeper and deeper into our characters. The gnome fighter challenging Periwinkle to a push-up competition, and the half-orc knocking the priest out because she didn’t know what else to do, were both stand out moments from the campaign so far. Also, I really don’t fancy the chances of the next old woman we bump into, innocent or not.
We’ve now got a whole week to figure out how to react. It really does seem like we’ve got no choice but to cave into to Strahd’s demands, but I have a feeling that neither the paladin nor the monk will be willing to give up the priest. We’ll just have wait until then to see what happens.