This is the most female-run D&D ever. We’ve made sure the gypsies were packed off safely, grief-counselled a working-class mother and, for the record, I still think we should fuck off and wait for the army.
— Housemate E
In line with my new philosophy of actually playing games and following through on promises and generally being less of a bone-idle turd-burglar, I’ve been running some D&D for Hark and Housemate E like I promised I’d do two years ago. In fairness we did start but it didn’t really work too well at the time: for this go around I was encouraged not to think too much and just pick something and run it in a finite number of sessions so it could be tried, completed, and a decision made. With that in mind I decided not to invest loads of time and energy in something that might keel over and die, and say to myself “self, you handsome dog, this is exactly the right time to run a module.” Since I’d been reading a lot of Anne Radcliffe at the time I was feeling a bit capital-G Gothic and that meant there was only one choice.
Obviously I’ve been buggering around with it, because that’s the way of me, but I’m trying to stick closer the book than is my usual wont. I’ve built two ninth-level PCs, who are sliiiightly too powerful according to the module itself, but that should compensate for the finite number of characters (they didn’t want to control multiple PCs each, you see). To alleviate the numbers issue further I’ve made it clear that recruiting henchpersons from the village of Barovia is par for the course and will be none-too-subtly indicating that both Ismar and Ireena should be going with them. Other than that it’s basically core rules out of OSRIC (a searchable PDF being infinitely preferable to the dodgy scans and retypes of AD&D that are doing the rounds).
Anura Toadarov, a Paladin of the Church of St. Thoggua (this is what happens when you let Hark pick her own Paladin mounts), played by Hark. Notable features: +1 Cursed Bastard Sword which doesn’t seem to go away.
Svinnish Ingmov, a Cleric/Thief of same Church, played by E. Notable features: CG alignment, a distinct lack of sneaking skills and AC2 Bracers of Protection.
Should Hark or E be reading this I must ask that you go no further, for there be insights into the secrets of the DM beyond the cut.
Our heroes are dispatched on a mission to explore the lost province of Barovia. E asks “why exactly have I accepted this mission?” and a combination of four reasons is presented: “it used to be a major religious seat, four other missions have disappeared there over the last century since contact was lost, you’re at the stage where ‘promotion’ in the church hierarchy means setting up a monastery of your own and there might be phat lewtz.” That seems to work.
So they get into Barovia and, while investigating the body of a dead messenger, are attacked by the five standard issue wolves. I roll unhelpfully well for the wolves and some quite serious injuries are taken before the various Magical Stones find their mark and Anura starts using her bastard sword two-handed. Svinish sits down to skin wolves for trading purposes and hats while Anura goes off into the woods to Lay Hands On herself. The pair proceed downhill into Madame Eva’s encampment and the gypsies display some confusion over how long they’ve been in Barovia (I’m playing up the temporal inconsistencies within Barovia because we all like Doctor Who and I also fancy tying in with Red and Pleasant Land if this does go to a full campaign). Svinish begins to suspect some sort of temporal shenanigans are afoot. The totally-not-Tarot cards are read and the fortunes (locations of the various significant artefacts and NPCs, as well as Strahd’s goals in the narrative, determined).
E earns 50 bonus XP for giving the first accurate, clear and succinct recap of a previous session that I have ever heard in fifteen years of Mastery.
A decision is made to try and get the poor confused gypsies out of Barovia and the gypsies seem to go along with this, with Eva brewing up some ‘lucky brose’ for the journey. (To those who are familiar with Ravenloft: yes, that’s the potion that lets the gypsies come and go as they please from Barovia, since they are in league with Strahd and have been all along.) Although the gates on the main road can’t be re-opened, the gypsies seem willing to find another way through the woods, leaving a couple of wagons behind in which the missionaries can shelter for the night. They draw a circle of chalk, salt and garlic (E’s historian tendencies coming to light with the observation that salt is a valuable trading commodity in these petty Balkan communities) ‘for protection’ (and I decide that Strahd will not be able to cross the circle unless invited to do so).
During the night, Strahd descends from the heavens with his attendant wolf and bat swarms and attacks. Anura has no intention of fighting a swarm of bats and so they hole up in a wagon, shuttering and barring the windows. Wolves throw themselves at the wagon in an attempt to tip it over, while the bats start to batter themselves against the roof and knock the tiles off. Svinish moves under the hole, being sufficiently ‘outside’ to cast Call Lightning and immolate a good few of Strahd’s pets; alerted to the presence of significant magic, Strahd tosses a Fireball in retaliation and blasts the wagon to ashes. Neither player saves, leaving Anura on fewer than 20 HP and Svinish on about -4.
(House rule: I tend to treat negative hit points as indicating serious injury, relative to the nature of the engagement, rather than necessarily gibbing. I invited E to make two saves vs. spell. Passing one indicated Svinish was flung free of the wreckage, badly burned, with six rounds to live; failing the other made Svinish subject to the Charm Person spell Strahd cast before disappearing. Strahd’s goal is to turn the PCs against one another and ‘rescue’ Ireena from them, or something to that effect; I rolled the ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ romance goal on the fortune-telling table and I’ll be playing with the precise interpretation as we go along. At the moment I’m thinking Strahd will appeal to the charmed Svinish to surrender Ireena and lift the curse on Barovia that way, failing to divulge that it’s Strahd himself who is the curse – if he even knows.)
Strahd melts away into the night after the fifth round, taking his minions with him, and the missionaries pass a sleepless night in the second wagon. In the morning, they rest up, scoff down some Goodberries, and make their way into Barovia proper.
They elect to skirt around the south side of the village, passing the Burgomeister’s house and Mad Mary’s abode (they stop in and spend some time prising her story out of her, cleaning her up and encouraging her into giving her filthy rags a good scrub – apparently repetitive tasks help ease trauma) before stopping in at the tavern. In the absence of any communication from Arik the barman they fall in with Ismar the Lesser, who hints that the gypsies in the inn aren’t to be trusted and that his father’s house is the safest place to talk.