The Ferryman: An Introduction to Curse of Strahd

I recently started DMing Curse of Strahd, the 5th edition re-introduction to Ravenloft, based on the classic Castle Ravenloft module by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. To say I’m a huge Ravenloft fan is a slight understatement. The AD&D Ravenloft books were some of the few I have ever owned, I purchased nearly every 3.0 and 3.5 Ravenloft book that was produced and I ran 2 fairly long campaigns in the world.

Images used are owned by Wizards of the Coast: Buy Curse of Strahd from your local gaming store, buy WOTC products, and support their artists and writers. The written work in this piece is covered under the Open Gaming License, as I understand it.

5th Edition is cool, and I wrote about Advantage/Disadvantage a few weeks ago. That being said, I haven’t played or run many games yet. I actually purchased Curse of Strahd well before I knew I’d even run it. Heck, when it came out, I was in my last year of Grad School, and there was zero chance I was running or playing any role-playing game. It didn’t matter, I wanted to own a copy of this game. Ravenloft was my jam, man…

Well, last week I finally got the chance to introduce a few friends to Ravenloft and 5th Edition. I wanted to create a short introduction that was deeper than the “Mists Take You” option, but slightly less in-depth than some of the other opening options in the book.

 

What follows is an introduction to Curse of Strahd which I welcome you to incorporate into your own game if you’d like.

 

The Ferryman: An Introduction to Curse of Strahd

For 3-5 1st Level Characters

5th Edition D&D

 

Background

 

You are settled in for the night at the Wizard’s Wand, a tavern on the edges of Lake Galifar in Aundair, near what used to be the city of Arcanix. The mood in the tavern is muted, a few other patrons are sitting drinking their ale speaking rarely to one another. Since Arcanix disappeared, things have been looking more and more like war. No one has proven that the disappearance of Arcanix was performed by Brelish agents, but more and more hawks in the nation are pushing to attack SOMEONE for the event.

Six months ago, a great fog, much like the mists that surround the Mournland of former Cyre flowed off of Lake Galifar and surrounded Arcanix. That night it seemed to choke out the city, and when the sun rose the next day, the city had vanished with the misty fog.

 

The party has known one another for some time, either having done some minor adventuring with one another, or as children growing up in the area. You trust one another, and that trust is important. War is coming, and you need someone to trust when war is on the horizon. It has been a pleasantly warm summer.

 

Scene 1

 

As you drink your ale, the door to the tavern swings open. A man, dressed in thick winter cloak, boots, and hood strides in. As he does so, a thick fog accompanies him. The mists seem to creep toward the other patrons of the tavern, stopping short and then receding as if they were hands scraping the floor. There is not a drop of sweat on the man as he steps up to the bar, in fact, he looks frigid. He takes off a frost coated glove and slides an odd looking silver piece across to the innkeeper.

 

Any party member that looks out the window will see the streets are filled with fog, so thick they can no longer see to the other side of the street. Some of the mist curls around and for a moment, a spectral face will appear and loom toward the player character. A character with the ability to sense undead or see into the ethereal realm will see the streets filled with ghosts and skeletal spectres.

Not Yuri

If the players do not initiate contact with the strange man, he will turn to them and begin to stare. Eventually, he will stride toward them with purpose.

The man is Yuri Iljavanovich. Yuri speaks with a thick accent, clearly not from any of the Kingdoms of Khorvaire. He will ask the characters questions about their lives, what do they do for work, if they are looking for jobs, where they grew up. If a player is a Cyran refugee, he will pay particular attention to them. If the players turn his questions on to him, he will respond with the below.

 

“I am from a place called Barovia, which has been conquered by a demon. We are seeking those who would help us. You all had something, perhaps a look, about you that made me think you would be interested in helping. We are slowly being hobbled by the devil, and need some fresh blood who can fight against him. The devil keeps us from leaving Barovia, only a select few have been able to escape, and even then, not for long.”

 

Yuri will admit to being a Cleric of Ezra. “Ezra is our Guide of the Mists. She allows those of us who worship her to briefly escape the clutches of the Devil Strahd. With this lantern (which he’ll hold up and appears to be a normal gas lamp) we are able to use the Mists to travel to other places. The devil forces our return though, and we can only bring people in, we ourselves cannot escape, though of course, I would be able to return you here if you choose.”

If the players choose to accompany Yuri, have him instruct the players to put warmer clothing on, as Barovia is in the middle of a harsh winter. If the players choose not to follow Yuri, you may of course ensnare them with Mists when they leave the Wizard’s Wand, or not, the choice is yours.

 

Scene 2

 

When the players leave the tavern with Yuri, the mists seem to part only slightly from himself and the party. He turns the lantern on, and the fog recedes a few feet. If asked, Yuri will tell them the journey will take a minimum of three days in the mists. If pressed, Yuri will tell the party very little about Barovia, except that the Devil Strahd is a great beast that feasts and hunts his people. They have tried to fight him themselves, but have always failed.

 

The Mists wrap around the characters and they are quickly far away from Arcanix, Aundair, and even Eberron. The thick fog wraps around them, masking their journey, and they cannot even see if they are on a road, and it appears they are simply walking within dark clouds. Eventually, they will come to a clearing, after almost a day’s walk. Before them will be a few large boulders and a makeshift lean-to. A fire pit has been used recently, and the Mark of Ezra is painted on a boulder facing the party as they arrive.

 

Either before bedding down, or in the morning, run the first encounter.

 

Encounter 1

Though the mists are not quite as close as they were while you were walking, they are still close and it is hard to see far from your resting place. The fire isn’t really warm, but it gives you something to crowd around. Everything around you seems to devour your body heat, and you find yourselves shivering with little provocation. Sleep helps, but standing watch is a thankless job. Yuri ignores any request to join a watch rotation, he goes immediately to sleep.

 

As you gaze into the fog, you smell the thick scent of pine and then you hear an odd sound. Scrape, thump, scraaaapppeeee, thump, scrape, thump. The sound seems to both echo and be muted. It becomes louder, and stronger, and finally, the mists peel back farther. You can seen pines all around you, and 10 – 15 feet away, are 3 Skeletons. These skeletons are wrapped in the remains of Cyran armor, holding rusty swords and tattered shields. One skeleton has on a thick iron boot, which appears to be some form of prison gear.

 

Any magic used against the skeleton with the boot only causes half damage. The boot is immune to all magic, but it incredibly heavy and largely useless to the players. If hit with any spell that is force related, like lighting or eldritch blasts, the boot will glow with runes describing its use to restrain magic using prisoners. The skeletons laugh every other turn in which they are hit for damage. This laughter sounds like dried bones hitting against each other.

 

During the fight, Yuri will be praying in incomprehensible gibberish. He will not attack the skeletons. They will generally avoid him, unless one of the players intentionally pushes him into their path.

 

After this encounter, Yuri will finish praying and will ask if the characters wish to continue along their journey. If asked, he will say that he knows that there are many undead in the area wearing similar clothes to these skeletons, and he believes they are related to the a group of refugees that entered Barovia a few years ago. They call themselves Cyrans, and a few have integrated into the local population.

Scene 3

On the second day, have the party reach a river. Yuri seems shocked and concerned when you reach the river. You can see a rope has been cut that used to cross the raging river. There are no mists around the river area, which is odd, as the mists hang thick not 500 feet or so on either side of the river.

 

“There used to be a ferry here, it looks like someone cut the rope.” If pushed, he will suggest heading north, as there is the possibility of another way to ford the river in that direction. He will refuse to try and wade or ford the river without a rope and boat. If the party constructs a way across at this point, hold the next encounter until they reach the other side. If the party heads north, or south, run the following encounter there.

 

Encounter 2

Please take your time….

Whichever way the party chooses to go, they will hear the same horrid skeletal laughing from their last fight. This warning will allow them to attempt to sneak up on the enemies. They will crest a small hill, and then be able to see through the trees, that there are 3 figures crowded around one another, swaying, making an eerie creaking laugh. When the players get within sight of them, they will notice 3 zombies, wearing the same outfits as the skeletons, with similar weapons. If the players have not crossed the river, the zombies will be guarding a boat which is attached to another ferry line across the river.

 

Once the players have defeated the zombies, they will be able to commandeer their boat, or, if they found another way to cross the river, they will find a small pouch of silver coins. There are 7 pieces of silver in the pouch. This pouch will be in the boat, and can be found by attentive characters or by Yuri at the least opportune time. If Yuri finds the pouch, he will inadvertently scare the characters who will have to make a strength check to keep hold of the ferry rope.

 

Scene 4

My favorite vampire meme

Night will fall, and players will be able to rest again at another similar way station to before. In the morning, Yuri will wake the party and push them to continue on. As they crest a high hill, they will see the valley of Barovia spread out before them. A dark shape takes flight from Castle Ravenloft in the distance, and a thunderstorm can be heard from far away.

 

“Welcome to Barovia, my friends. The Devil Strahd awaits you, I hope you do not make the same mistake I did, all those years ago. Go to the village below the mountain, it is a good place to begin your journey to hell”

 

The characters turn, and see Yuri become a spectral form before them, he smiles horrifically and lets out the same laugh which the zombies and skeletons made. Then, he vanishes.
From there, have your players follow the road into the village of Barovia.

Weather Engine – Worldbuilding 1

Previously we’ve spent some time together talking at a high level about being a godling in a technological universe.  Now let’s look at just being Gawd and creating your own world to run or play your game in.  The art of world creation isn’t easy or for the faint of heart.  Sure, any fella out there can throw together some two-bit town with a single road and a donkey but I’m talking about real world building.  They always say write what you know and so I’ll be approaching this from the angle of how I build a setting.  Please note that my method may not fit you or the type of world you want to create.  That’s ok; if any of this is useful than I’ve succeeded at my job..err..position…no…favor for a friend?  Whatever this gig is.  

weathermh47

I’m going to convince you that weather is the most important element of your world building.  Weather drives so much about a place, and a people, and it’s always my starting position for world building.  Is it rainy or dry?  Is it neutral?  Are there the usual four seasons?  Any of them particularly long?  If the land is windy all the time the trees will be short and twisted, shrubs and tough grass will cover the land.  If it’s a long winter you’ll have fast growing plants and animals adapted for cold more than heat.  The weather can also drive how technologically advanced a people can be.  A land where nothing grows like Arctic tundra or desert dunes will encourage a people towards hunting and nomadic life-styles with an emphasis on weapon and travel technologies.  While a land with sunny days and green lush land with plenty of water will develop farming and fortification technologies.  

From Weather we can draw direct connections to technological orientation but we can also draw direct lines to diet based on the kinds of animals and plants to be found in an environment with those weather patterns.  A desert dwelling people are some of the heaviest users of spice for their foods as what they’re consuming tends toward bland and they have the right environment for growing many of these spices at the edges of said desert. If you wished to dive deep you could take a look at the types of spices used in various environments and use those flavors to, ahem, flavor your flavor text.  A people’s diet can also inform things like average height and weight with heavier meat filled diets lending people height and weight while a primarily vegetarian people would be shorter and sparser of frame.  

fuji

Weather and food connect directly to clothing choices and the materials to make those clothes.  This also informs what kind of armor they likely favor, weaponry preferences, and even the type of building materials and designs they favor.  An area like Japan, a hilly forested island doesn’t lend itself towards large herds of animals, nor are large herds of animals the most efficient ratio of land use to calories, so an agrarian society with very little red meat creates a population of shorter and smaller framed people.  As a place with few mineral resources the use of plant materials for construction, clothing, armor, etc. becomes the next logical step.  These lines of thought can be very sparse, a sketch of a region and its people, to help a GM add a little character to a small village. They can also be very complicated interconnected webs, the decision is completely up to you.     

An important note to remember, culture; the culmination of spiritual, religious, superstitious, entertainment, and traditional practices; is not the same as what we’ve laid out so far.  A culture is certainly influenced by region, weather, and environment but is equally affected by interactions with other cultures, politics, and the murky origins of a people’s faith.  That’s right, religion conversation, full steam ahead!

key-compa

The spirituality of a nation grows out of a desire to explain things and to some extent to tell stories.  A father tells his son how those bright lights in the sky make the shape of a horse and comes with up some tale to entertain the lad.  He tells his son, then onto the next son, and the next until it becomes a corner of spirituality.  The gods put the first horse into the sky to pull the night behind him as he gallops across. This tale grows and either finds it way into a manuscript on the origins of the names of the constellations or as part of a religion; the steed of Zaphaeus, archangel of wrath of the creator god Eloi!

Religion and to a lesser extent spirituality is where we can really see formalized politics developing.  Imagine a tribe, stone age, barely getting by.  They’re led by the strongest male who is either great at hunting or great getting others motivated to hunt.  As spirituality develops, a separate position of power forms in the group; the shaman.  Or medicine man, priest, magus, seer, etc.  This creates two positions of influence in a group that previously had only one.  The first formalized politics form.  Just as religious practices can severely alter a nation; for example, a land with miles and miles of coast with a religious proscription against eating shellfish, due to them eating carrion; so can political upheavals and power shifts.

industrial-rev

Once a nation passes a technological threshold, say late medieval to early renaissance, weather loses impact as a driving societal force.  There are obviously exceptions for extreme circumstances and some environments discourage ever reaching that technological level naturally.  A desert, for example, does not encourage cities nor generally produces the food resources necessary for a large idle population, which is a must for a nation to innovate, technologically speaking.  

There’s a barrier between survival level culture and knowledge and the level beyond with idle urban populations and farms producing far more than they can consume.  Some environments actively assist crossing this barrier in the case of temperate, plains, and deciduous forests.  Others can actively oppose such development such as deserts, rain forests, and heavily mountainous terrain.  As an additional note I understand that terrain doesn’t actively oppose or assist anything; just a word choice people, put away the literary knives.  

Exotic environment can be treated much the same way; frozen glaciers, deserts made of glass, underground tunnels, floating islands, and undersea kingdoms can all be sketched out and then filled out using the same ideas.  Let’s take a look at an undersea kingdom.

Weather is non-stop rain.  Did you hear the drum and cymbal in the background?  No?  Fine then.  An undersea kingdom has very limited “weather”; but there are consistent weather like effects.  The tides would act like a highway system creating the option for extensive trade networks and/or expansive kingdoms.  The diet would be exclusively fish, crustacean, and some plant matter.  While fish scales would be useful for little more than ornamentation, the hides of sharks and cloth made of kelp would be common materials for clothing.  There would be no concept of fire and little to no metal or wood working.

atlantis

Unless of course this nation bordered land and the people were amphibious.  The population wouldn’t be afraid of the dark and be would very resistant to cold and pressure.  The artifacts of the surface world would have variable value determined by how isolated this undersea nation is.  The spear would be the most popular weapon, anything else would be slowed on a swing by the water and not very effective.


In one paragraph I’ve shaped an undersea culture and I did so by establishing my weather, an interesting incidental effect of that weather, the type of animal and the type of plant most often eaten, what they would make clothes out of, a scarce resource, a common resource, a note on the psychology, and the popular weapon of choice.  In nine words; undersea, tides, fish, kelp, metal, wood, dark, cold, and spear we can create a skeleton to remind the GM of the kind of people these are and the place they inhabit.  A description is a powerful tool for creating a mood or enforcing a theme and world creation is all about the description and more specifically the description words.  

As a final note; always remember that while national borders can and do influence people and segregate cultures it’s the land, the place, the world these nations rose out of that are the start point and the land is a result of the weather.  Weather begets land, land begets resources, resources begets technology, and all of them combine mark a culture.  Good luck, and may Eloi watch over you.

 

Justin has been playing, running, and designing games since he was 14.  He enjoys reading, writing, eating, and sleeping.  He also enjoys a good think but not too often as he’s very heat sensitive and doesn’t want his brain to boil over.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

ONE METHOD TO USE GAMING AS A FORM OF DIALOGUE

One of the goals of Reach-Out Roleplaying Games is to encourage cross-cultural dialogue using gaming as a venue. What exactly do I mean by that though?

ror_final

WHAT IS DIALOGUE?

Dialogue is a method of semi-formal to formal discussion surrounding difficult topics. Dialogue is often facilitated by a neutral or semi-neutral party to help the participants in dialogue understand and respect one another. Dialogue is not debate, the goal of the discussion is not for anyone to win or lose, though understanding and perhaps acceptance of another viewpoint is a potential benefit of dialogue. In a lot of ways, dialogue is very similar to table-top gaming already. You have a Game Master who facilitates a world-building discussion and shared story. Dialogue is about understanding each other’s stories, lives, and circumstances.

I was hired to host a dialogue at American University during my first semester of Graduate School, and part of my sales pitch was that I had run so many games over the years. Game Mastering or Storytelling is a really similar skill-set. You have to arbitrate the discussion, you have to give everyone a chance to contribute, and you have to be able to ask follow-up questions to get to the heart of what a person is looking to say. This is part of why I think gaming can be used in a dialogue to deepen that process.

au-igd-image

Dialogue as a process is usually used to deal with heavy issues. For example, dialogue is used to bring Jewish and Muslim families together to discuss the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Most games are not overtly designed to talk about heavy ideas, but they can. Imagine getting a group of people from the same conflict above together in a gaming session. Instead of having them discuss the conflict over land that they are familiar with, you could develop a story that shows two groups of fantasy creatures fighting over shared space. You don’t want to be too ham-fisted about that, but if you mirror some elements of the shared experience participants are familiar with, you may be able to open eyes that didn’t see such parallels before.

HOW TO DESIGN A CHRONICLE FOR DIALOGUE PURPOSES

Normally dialogue happens over a series of discussions. Sometimes these are in chunks over a few short days or a weekend, and sometimes they are split over a series of weeks. For example, the dialogue I ran occurred over 7 weeks. This is a good time frame for a 7 game storyline; imagine sessions running for 4-5 hours each week. During a dialogue session, you would create a theme or series of specific questions to ask during that session. For our gaming method, you are replicating a similar process by outlining what sort of events you’d like to have occur in each episode/session/game.

Create 80% complete pre-generated characters. As the game master this gives you some more control over what sort of skills, powers, abilities, or interests each character will have. That allows you to plan the story more effectively. At the same time, you want the players to invest some of themselves into the characters. Depending on the game you are creating this 80/20 rule will look a bit different, but you want to ensure you give the players just enough customization to matter and you don’t want to overwhelm them with a GURPS level character creation either.

gurpscharactersheet-ths-moreskil-1

Set a topic, and recruit players that are interested in addressing the topic you are going to use. You want to design your story to address some of the real-world elements you are working into the dialogue. For example, you want to host a dialogue session on racial tension in the United States? Cool, first thing you want to do is recruit players willing to dialogue over this issue, try and create a diverse group, and then incorporate concepts of race relations into your chronicle design. There are a lot of ways to do this. If you are playing a fantasy game, having two actually different game races in conflict may seem a bit too heavy handed. At the same time, discussing tensions between Dwarves and Elves might work perfectly for the story you want to tell. Balance it; find the right elements that fit your goals. The Eberron setting for D&D has some effective interpretations of Goblins as an underprivileged group. Games like Urban Shadows allow for modern fantasy investigations into concepts that would be good to dialogue with as well. The goal here is to address a topic your players want to investigate and weave it into your story.

At the same time as you are designing your chronicle, you would want to plan for and develop a short ground rules and debrief before and after each gaming session. The ground rules let you as the game master/facilitator establish what the group understands about dialogue, gaming, and lets you set some ground rules for how you will interact with one another. No swearing, no shouting, are good examples, as well as dice should be rolled on the table, and perhaps no chips at the table. (That is a mix of dialogue and gaming rules I’ve instituted over the years at different times) From the rules, you have a framework to hold your players accountable during the game and after during the debrief sessions. You may want to either hold the debrief at a different time, or set-aside an hour or two at the end of every game to work through it. This debrief will help the players internalize the concepts they dealt with in-character, it may help them either notice or eliminate negative bleed, or it might help them identify positive bleed. Bleed is a concept normally discussed in LARP, but also can be experienced at the table. Using role-playing as a dialogue method, you’ll likely see more bleed than usual.

bleed

From a gaming perspective you want the sessions to be interesting, engaging, and fun. From the dialogue perspective you want the sessions to be deep, and dive into topics that might be sensitive. This requires you actively engage your players for feedback and approval throughout the session. Every player should know what they are getting into. Trigger warnings are beneficial prior to sessions, as are methods of leaving a scene. There are some methods that are used in Nordic LARPS that could be useful to adopt. Around a table, with smaller groups, it should be easier to do verbal check-ins to ensure that players are comfortable with the game. If not, stop. Consent and collaboration are important to the process.

Sample Questions to Ask During Debrief

How is the game going so far? Do you have any questions?
Do you have questions about how your character is acting in relation to others?
Are you comfortable with the items the story is addressing?

Do you want to discuss any actions taken by a player that occurred in-character?

Is anyone concerned with IC or OOC action taken by anyone?

Are there aspects of the game you want to play more of?

This is an early model of this type of gaming as dialogue model. If you have questions, ideas, suggestions, or would like to provide feedback I am more than open to discussing this idea further.

Josh is the Admin@KeepontheHeathlands, he’s got a degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University.