Session 71: Castle Ravenloft
The heroes made their way along the Old Svalic Road, their minds filled with thoughts of dread and fear. Every sight was an ill-omen. Crows huddled on broken fences, cawing warnings as they passed. The Old Bone Grinder with its broken windmill blades motionless in the breeze made them shiver. Eventually the Associates reached the gate tower and looked to Castle Ravenloft beyond. It seemed boastful, sneering at them through the wind and rain. Thunder rolled loudly across the sky as they crossed the old stone bridge. This was Strahd’s domain. His home. And they had come to face him.
Last night was the 71st session in our online Curse of Strahd Dungeons & Dragons campaign and we began exploring Castle Ravenloft. It’s been a long time coming, but we finally made it inside the castle, if only we could remember exactly what we were supposed to be doing here…
Last night’s game happened on time and there were no unwanted interruptions. Unfortunately our gnome druid couldn’t make it as he was too busy compiling a book of 100 excuses people give to not do something. He had, however, left instructions that in the event of an encounter with anything dangerous or scary, his character would turn into a mouse and hide in someone’s pocket. Sure enough, as soon as the session began, Brundle Swash, gnome druid extraordinaire, got frightened by a spooky passing cloud and hid. Hopefully next session he will be brave enough to rejoin us.
Previously in Barovia…
Our party of four heroes have been traipsing across Barovia for the past few months, desperately trying to gain enough allies, weapons, and power to defeat the evil vampire overlord Strahd von Zarovich and escape his realm of dread. Now, after many trials and tribulations, we find ourselves at the gates of Castle Ravenloft, with no real plan of attack. We know that he is in there somewhere and that we will have to face him, but have no idea of what to expect within.
Nepharon and Associates: The Kosef Division
Kosef – Human Rogue/Wizard, wants to be leader, played by me;
Baräsh – Dragonborn Paladin, follower of St. Andell and the Morning Lord;
Gimble Timbers – Gnome Fighter, owner of the Sun-Sword, has a pet dog called Kevon;
Brundle Swash – Gnome Druid, gets electrocuted a lot; Absent
Victor – Human (Teenage) Wizard-in-Training, NPC;
Ireena – Human Cleric, Strahd’s would-be bride, blessed by St. Andell, NPC.
The rain hammered down on the Associates until they were wet to their souls. The high walls that encircled the keep leered down at them, silently mocking their futile efforts to find a secret way in. They tried circling the keep only to be stopped half way by an impossible portcullis. Through the gaps between its imposing iron bars they could see a chapel on the edge of the grounds. There was no way to it. Eventually, soaked, they gave in. They trudged silently toward the dark wooden doors at the front of the keep. This was the only way in to Castle Ravenloft, and their last chance to turn back.
We started the session facing the doors to Castle Ravenloft. None of us wanted to be the first to enter.
Being the de facto leader, I took the initiative and pushed gently on the door. It creaked loudly and glided open, revealing a small ante chamber, barely big enough to fit us all in. As we squeezed into this snug lobby area we collectively held our breaths. We had entered Castle Ravenloft.
None of us knew what to expect at this point. Or even what our strategy or aims would be. So, in that 10-foot by 10-foot room, the six of us (including Kevon the dog) debated our plan. We were there for at least five minutes wondering what our next move should be. Was Strahd waiting for us? Did he know we’d arrived? Would he simply let us roam about his castle until we stumbled upon something interesting?
After 71 sessions we had come to expect surprises, and knowing our DM’s penchant for subverting our expectations, we half thought Strahd would be dutifully waiting by the door to take our coats and show us to our rooms.
However, none of this happened. Instead, as we spilled out of the tiny room we entered another, grander lobby area.
Double doors swung open as we bundled out of the initial lobby and into the Great Entry. There were four pillars supporting a vaulted, domed ceiling. Iron sconces and gargoyles adorned the walls and sad majestic organ music filtered in through a pair of bronze doors to our left.
Baräsh was roused by the sounds of organ music, reminding him of worship. He and Gimble began to follow the sound.
Meanwhile Kosef, Victor, and Ireena were exploring the room they were in. I was convinced the gargoyles were going to come to life and attack us, so I began shouting at them. Nothing happened.
Victor noticed on the pillars some writing that had been etched into the stone. Good investigation rolls from Kosef and Ireena revealed these to be the names of previous adventurers that had come to Castle Ravenloft to oppose Strahd. Dutifully, Kosef began carving our names in too. He’d just finished when Gimble and Baräsh called back to join them in the corridor where the music was coming from.
We were in a corridor that was lined with oiled and glistening suits of armor. Swirls of soft organ music wafted in through the cracks of a large door at the end of the passageway. Victor pushed over a suit of armor and the crash rang out through the halls. The music continued.
Gimble Timbers opened the door cautiously and peeked beyond. He saw a vast dining room with a long table set out for a feast. The room was lit with numerous candle that flickered and moved in the eerie light, as if dancing to the sweet music. We’d only been in three rooms but already Castle Ravenloft was giving us the creeps.
Gimble pulled back the door further and saw three enormous crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. He stepped into the room as the music built up to a thrashing crescendo. On the table he saw a place set for each of us. Tall glasses were filled with a deep red liquid.
Beyond the table in the center of the far wall stood the organ. It was vast. From floor to ceiling, it had countless pipes and pedals. The music thundered on. Gimble Timbers stepped aside to let the rest of us in and we all saw a dark, cloaked figure hammering at the keys.
“Hello Friendship!” Baräsh called out. The figure paused. We heard the sound of knuckles cracking and he turned to face us.
“Well hello there, chaps. It’s great to see you. How are you all? Please do take a seat.” Strahd stood up, and walked toward us. “Come on now. Do join me won’t you. It would be a shame for all this lovely food to go to waste. Sit down. Let’s have a bite.” Our DM stressed the last word in case we missed it. It had been a while since our last encounter with Strahd and we’d forgotten the classic English gentleman’s accent that our DM used for the villain. It was still creepy.
Gimble Timbers was the first to speak. “Why would we join you, Strahd? You still spread desolation and fear throughout the land.”
“Well now, my good gnome, you do have to have a hobby.” Strahd paused. “Come now, don’t just stand there. Tuck in. And when we’re done, do feel free to have a good look around. Feel free to explore.”
Now Baräsh Spoke, “Lord Strahd, we were wondering: would you please stop terrorizing the innocent people?”
Strahd laughed, “Oh sweet naïve Baräsh, if they were innocent, what are they doing in Barovia? But now is not the time to talk of such things. Sit down. Enjoy yourselves. Have some wine, it’s great. Eat drink and be merry. After all tonight might be your last.”
At this point none us knew what to do. Why was Strahd being nice? What was his plan? Should we just attack him? It was really tense and our DM was doing a great job at keeping us on our toes.
Finally Kosef spoke, “Strahd, do you know why we’re here?”
The vampire chuckled. “Why does anyone one come to Castle Ravenloft? To meet a friend. To eat well. To be turned.”
“We’ve come here to leave. We want to leave Barovia,” said the rogue.
“No one leaves.” Now the figure began to laugh hysterically. “It wouldn’t be fun if people just left.” As soon as his finished the sentence, Strahd disappeared into a swirl of mist. A chill wind blasted through the doors causing them to slam loudly. The torches all blew out, sending us into darkness and there was the unmistakable sound of a drawbridge being pulled up and a portcullis slamming down.
We all heaved a collective sigh of relief. Now we remembered what we had to do.
After the encounter with the Strahd illusion, Gimble Timbers and Baräsh discovered a secret passage out of the dining room. But not before Kevon the dog ate most of the food on the table and fell into a deep, unbreakable sleep. We then had a choice to make: could we carry an unconscious dog through Castle Ravenloft or do we leave him here, comfortable, and collect him later? We decided on the latter. We would have regretted either decision and this would be easier for now.
The secret tunnel was behind the organ; playing it caused the instrument to roll forwards revealing a passageway behind. This led us along the outer walls of Castle Ravenloft to one of the towers at the front. Here we found three dead bodies. We didn’t recognize them so left them.
From inside the tower we found a stairway and could go either up or down. Remembering we were searching for a dragon skull and the crypt, we headed down. The first room we came to in the undercastle seemed like a barracks. There were 10 alcoves along a long hallway, each with a bed inside. Closer inspection revealed there was also a skeleton in each small room and, as soon as we discovered them, they began to shake and rattle and rise up from the ground.
The skeletons attacked quickly and fiercely. Being in a tunnel meant we were fighting in a confined space, which made Gimble and Victor, our ranged attackers, next to useless.
Fearing this was only the first encounter of many within Castle Ravenloft, we were sparing with our resources. Kosef attacked with daggers and a lit torch. Baräsh swung his hammer but did not use his divine power. Gimble was running very low on arrows so just shouted insults at the skeletons and Victor and Irena stuck to offensive cantrips to preserve spell slots.
Because we weren’t using powerful attacks, the combat lasted longer than it might have—one well-placed Fireball or Cone of Cold would have dealt with the skeletons, but that’s power best saved for later. Kosef took the brunt of the damage from the skeletons and we were all surprised at how difficult this fight was. Our DM was really using the location and our fear of where we were to his advantage.
Gimble Timbers ran at the last two skeletons just as Baräsh stepped back from taking a swing with his hammer. Kosef side-stepped out of the way and the inimitable gnome slid the length of the tunnel on his knees taking out both skeletons by the shin as he went. Whatever magic held their bodies together evaporated at that moment and all that was left was two crumpled piles of bones either side of the panting Gimble Timbers. END
We were all excited to finally explore some of Castle Ravenloft and our DM did a great job of keeping the tensions ramped up. The meeting with Strahd was really fun too, and we really didn’t know what we were supposed to do. None of us realized that it was an illusion either and I really think we’re going to regret leaving Kevon alone in the dining room.
What did we learn?
DM Tip: Using interesting spaces to heighten combat can really help ramp up the difficulty level of a fight. In this session, we had a classic corridor fight, much like in every Marvel TV series, but instead of it being a chance to easily work through our enemies one-by-one like Daredevil or Luke Cage, it meant our characters who attack from range had no line of sight on their targets. What’s more, because of the bottleneck situation caused by the hallway, Kosef ended up taking almost all the damage from the 10 skeletons because he couldn’t move forward or back away from them.
Player Tip: When it comes to resource management, it always pays off to play the long game. In this session we didn’t use a single spell slot, healing power, ability point, or potion, even though it would have meant the encounter would have ended a lot sooner. We know that we’re going to be in Castle Ravenloft for quite a while and there’s little to no chance of us getting a rejuvenating long rest while we’re here. So all those things will be saved in case of emergency.
Next week we continue our exploration of the basement of Castle Ravenloft. Hopefully all our group will be able to play as our DM has decided to host a live game (not over the internet!). He’s even gone to the trouble of creating a LEGO floor plan of Castle Ravenloft which we’re all excited to see. Let’s just hope we survive long enough to get to see most of it.