Curse of Strahd Review (5e)
What makes this the best-reviewed 5e adventure? And where could it still improve?
By MARK WILSON
System: 5e D&D
Curse of Strahd (CoS) is one of the more well-regarded and fully-covered adventures in 5e D&D, so I’m not going to belabor an explanation of the premise. In brief, you get pulled into the demi-plane of Barovia, run by the mad demigod – and vampire – Strahd von Zarovich.
The entire campaign is interacting with the denizens of this macabre land with the goal of killing Strahd and escaping the cursed land. It’s gothic horror, so the tone is more dour than the standard D&D fare.
I want to focus on some of the things Strahd does really, really well, and a couple that it fails on, in order to frame its popularity in 5e.
Great: The Death House Intro
The introduction to this campaign – The Death House – is excellent. Horror is magnified by the PCs’ low level, and the descriptions and ambiance hasn’t begun to grow tiring since everything is new. The whole thing feels tense from start to finish. It’s available for free from Wizards of the Coast. You should download it and run it if you need a low-level horror one- or two-shot.
Ironically, this section is also the most devoid of read-aloud text, which I rail against later on.
Great: The World is Alive in the Land of the Dead
Strahd is, somewhat notoriously, a sandbox adventure. The term sandbox is thrown around a lot, and I want to clarify why this one is good.
Lots of sandboxes allow you to go from A to B to C, or C to A to B, or whatever. But how often do you legitimately want to travel back to A after you’ve been there and Did The Plot Thing? Not often, I’m guessing. Not so in CoS.
Barovia is small by campaign setting standards, to the point that inter-location travel isn’t overly annoying. You can hit two “cities” in a day, or four keyed locations on the region map in a single session, provided you don’t get caught in a lengthy combat. It promotes traveling back and forth to interact at multiple points with different NPCs and locations. To support this, the locations aren’t static. They give you a reason to want to go back and forth, on numerous occasions. This is amazing! So many supposed sandboxes are functionally linear, including ones I’ve run, but no campaign of Strahd will be without ample backtracking and loose-end-tying at various points. GM’s everywhere should take note of this.
Adding to this is the fact that plot hooks both large and small are not uniformly distributed. I like this, because it feels more organic. You’re not going to get to resolve every hook, and that’s as it should be in a sandbox.
Occasionally Good, Plenty of Bad: Read-Aloud Descriptions
There are enough creepy gothic passages in this to write entire novels’ worth of descriptive text. The imagery is often excellently evocative.
But there’s a ton of it. Like, way too much. Let’s grab a random room for an example:
Dim light from the courtyard falls into this great hall through the broken glass and iron latticework of a large window in the west wall. This immense room is a place of chilly, brooding darkness. Empty iron sconces dot the walls. Hundreds of dust-laden cobwebs drape the hall, hiding the ceiling from view. Directly across from the window stand a set of double doors in the east wall. Farther south, a single door also leads from the east wall. Staircases at both ends of the north wall lead down. At the far southern end of the hall, a large wooden throne stands atop a marble dais. The high-backed throne faces south, away from most of the room.
This is just the read-aloud, not the functional stuff for the GM. Further, this is the 25th location described in this particular area. The broken glass and brooding darkness probably sound fine in this review, since I’m only posting one passage. Less so when it’s the 25th passage of similar length the GM has read this session. This obsessive description doesn’t let up.
Let’s jump ahead to the 36th location in this chapter…
Dust assaults your lungs. A sweet yet pungent smell of decay fills this room, in the center of which stands a long oak table. A blanket of dust covers the tabletop and its fine china and silverware. In the center of the table, a large, tiered cake leans heavily to one side. The once white frosting has turned green with age. Cobwebs hang like dusty lace down every side of the cake. A single doll figure of a well-dressed woman adorns the crest of the cake. Suspended above is a web-shrouded chandelier of forged iron. An arched window in the south wall is draped with heavy curtains. Resting in a wooden stand by the window is a dusty lute, and standing quietly in the southwest corner is a tall harp shrouded in cobwebs.
I didn’t count exactly, but this is probably the 15th iteration of cobwebs in this dungeon, not to mention the rest of the adventure. Look, dust assaulting your lungs, a single doll, sure, whatever, there’s good stuff here. This is the imagery Strahd is built upon. But it becomes monotonous in the extreme after a while. Pick the best stuff, cut the text by like 50% or more.
The latter passage there is also notable because it’s dwarfed by the non-read-aloud text that follows it. It’s actually not even the only read-aloud in the room, it’s just the introductory read-aloud. In all, a GM is going to have to read about three columns – a page and a half! – just to run a dining hall. Ridiculous.
I’m picking on this section a little bit, since this is the adventure’s largest dungeon and is meant to be one of the more atmospheric. But the other chapters follow suit. Even if they aren’t as long in and of themselves, the collective weight of extraneous text is considerable.
I ignore read-aloud as GM when I run games. Or I pick the single best sentence and extrapolate from it on my own. This length would bother me as I prepped but not during play, because I’d just be describing it in my own words, often differently than what’s in the adventure. Wizards of the Coast knows empirically that people don’t pay attention to read-aloud text. Yet I’ve seen almost no negative feedback in this area for CoS. Ah well.
Good: Vistani Fortune Cards as GM Fiat or Randomization
There’s a Tarot – sorry, Terroka – card reading that most groups will stumble into early on. This is a way to lay out the major plot beats of the adventure in abstract terms, which is nice for players. It’s also randomized to an actual deck of cards, which can add some variance. The ally who will help you, the magic items you can find (and where to find them), even where your final encounter is with Strahd, can all be randomly determined here.
Our GM ran most of it as entirely random, but rigged the deck for one particular element. This is exactly what I’d do. I want my GM to run the material they’re most passionate about, or that they think will make the best adventure. I don’t mind random, but I enjoy intentional decisions that cater to a particular GM or player group’s play style.
Mind you, this isn’t like fudging dice rolls, which I don’t do. It’s figuring out where the best story is, and making reasonable decisions about that while still allowing for player agency once the broad outline is determined.
If you have a d20 chart for an encounter and see one that looks 5x cooler than the others, forget the roll and do that one, not the other 19. And if you don’t have a favorite, roll and enjoy the unexpected along with everyone else. Adventures that give you this sort of option on a campaign level are (usually) good in my book.
The OK: Formatting
The fact that the world is as alive as I mentioned earlier means that there’s no perfect way to format this adventure. Still, cross-referencing stuff can be tedious, and there doesn’t seem to be much thought paid to things like including NPC information in the areas where you’ll encounter them.
The I’m Not Sure: Amber Temple
The Amber Temple is the hardest encounter here, not Strahd. And it’s because it’s old-school. It doesn’t care that you’ve nurtured your perfect PC through the campaign and want to be the golden guardian of Barovia. It’s going to kick you in the face, pull you to the ground, and stuff your head with dark motivations.
The danger in the Amber Temple is potentially to your life, but more so to your conscience and sense of self. Your motivations and alignment can all – easily – be altered for the worse. If a GM runs it as-written, a lot of PCs will actually lose control of their character to the GM and have to re-roll because they’ll become hopelessly corrupted.
The biggest sh*t of it is, this might not even be in the heart of the complex, in the final, climactic room where you make a choice between a dark pact to grant you power and keeping your persona. No, this could happen in a side room moments after you wander inside, just from touching a strange object and deciding it’ll be ok if you take a risk to see what it does. The dire, campaign-altering stakes don’t necessarily match the occasionally nonexistent narrative buildup, is what I’m saying.
Even in the darkened world of Barovia, this is tonally far, far different from the rest of the campaign. It feels like a Gygaxian 1e creation snuck into a distinctly 5e adventure. It was jarring to me, and I consider myself more accepting of seemingly arbitrary or unexpected turns of fortune. I initially hated it.
A fellow player convinced me that it was a chance to make the choice that Strahd didn’t and stick to the light, so to speak, and that it showed how – in a world of magic and overtly dark forces – it can be easy to lose yourself.
It’s a fair point, but it’s still an area that’s different from the rest of the adventure by orders of magnitude. I’ve heard that some GM’s omit this dungeon. Having been at least partially swayed by my friend, I wouldn’t go that far, but I see why some decide to. Proceed with caution, and probably find some ways to foreshadow the danger(s) to your group so they’re at least partially aware of the nature of what they’ve encountered.
It Depends: Strahd Encounters
Outside the final encounter, Strahd is curiously absent from the text except in oblique references. The GM is asked by the adventure to come up with their own Strahd encounters that are thematic.
Well, alright then. For reference, I played in this campaign instead of running it (then I read it afterward), so my perspective isn’t that of a GM. I wouldn’t mind this as GM: I’m cool with inserting lots of my own material, and often prefer it to having to stick exactly to the text.
For others, they buy an adventure to avoid having to do that. Whether or not this is good or bad will depend on how you like to run games.
It Depends: Magic Items
I floundered a bit as a Ranger with the magic items the adventure doled out, which seem tailored to the min-maxing group that meta-games the setting and rolls up the holiest of paladins and clerics to be able to roll through undead with ease. I didn’t mind, though, and our GM hilariously threw me a sarcastic bone after the final encounter with the perfect item for me that obviously didn’t actually exist in the adventure. Not a big issue, frankly, just something to keep in mind.
The Great: Gothic Trinket Table
The trinket table it provides is cool. I realize my one campaign is anecdotal, but we had multiple narratively powerful moments that came about as a result of threads begun by the trinkets we rolled. In particular, “An urn with the ashes of a dead relative” led to probably the coolest session of roleplaying I’ve ever experienced as player or GM in my life.
If you get the adventure and end up not running it (or even if you do), do yourself a favor and use the trinket table for other, non-Strahd adventures anyway.
Curse of Strahd – Conclusions
I’m a little unsure that I’ll ever give a full endorsement to an official D&D adventure, because nothing printed will ever be as tailored to my GMing style as my homebrew notes. Maybe I’m just not wired to run these adventures as-is.
That said, Curse of Strahd deserves the praise it gets. It’s a remarkably coherent adventure in the sense that everything ties into the same, driving narrative that captures the party’s interest and never loses it. There’s momentum here, and there are opportunities for true investment in roleplaying within the world that is at once tied to the central plot while also feeling like it’s not all tied to a narrative but is an organic end to the conceptual sickness that pervades Barovia.
The hooks are excellent, the locations and NPCs are excellent, the sandbox structure is excellent, and you can even slog through too much text to find some really creepy ideas and imagery.
On a personal note, it was – and is – the best roleplaying experience I’ve had in RPGs. A lot of that is the magic of time and place, of the group of people you play with and your character dynamics, so it’s not necessarily attributable to the adventure itself. But an adventure can certainly aid those elements and give them a cauldron in which to stew. Strahd provides that, for which I’ll always be grateful.
FURTHER READING: Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Review