Barovia Goes to the Birds: Curse of Strahd Session #12
“Badger Badger Badger Badger MUFFIN MUFFIN”
By MARK WILSON
DM: A Friend
(Me) Ahk-wa – Female Aarakocra Ranger
Aial – Female Aarakocra Druid
Lhandroval – Male Aarakocra Sorcerer
Gwaihir – Male Aarakocra Bard
System, Setting, Adventure: D&D 5e, Barovia/Ravenloft, Curse of Strahd
PC Level: 5
Previously, the birds had settled in for the night after a long day at Yester Hill.
Before sleeping, Ahk-wa talks with Lhandroval and asks him to use his Shocking Grasp spell on her. She has some command over the winds, and can absorb certain elements and redirect them into melee attacks, but wishes to expand her command of the elements, much as Lhandroval has shown with his lightning spells. He shocks her, and Ahk-wa tries to absorb it and redirect it into an arrow strike. Unsuccessfully. He shocks her again. Still no success. She decides to practice more, but thanks her brother for honoring the somewhat unorthodox request.
We also idly wonder about the Strahd doll that we got..somewhere? Ahk-wa muses that it’s a voodoo doll, and she stabs it repeatedly with a sharpened stake. Aial looks on, mildly perplexed. Having defeated Strahd thusly, we sleep.
OH IT’S A SNAKE!
Having gone to sleep very early, we awaken in the dead of night, to sneak into the attic of the Baron’s mansion to investigate the lights (his recluse son). Lhando’s Mage Hand gets us into an upstairs window, and Ahk-wa’s Pass Without Trace makes us all but invisible (including the highest roll of the campaign yet: a 36 on stealth from Ahk-wa!). We come to a locked door – with the words “All is not well” on it (a clear sign he opposes his father) – with noises behind it.
Aial becomes a snake and slithers in, still being sneaky as hell. She sees a teenager musing over a book and a bunch of skeletal creatures. We decide he’s not openly hostile once Aial returns, so…we knock. Nothing. We knock again. And again, finally speaking up and telling him we mean no harm. Nothing. We eventually enter (triggering a lightning trap that blasts Lhando for considerable damage). We find some skeletal cats and a shoddy – potentially life-threateningly shoddy – teleportation circle, and various plans to make similar circles. An investigation doesn’t produce much else except plans for the circle, and useless ephemera like an unfinished wizard’s robe, halfway through being sewn together. Ahk-wa leaves a note on the teleport circle that says we hope he isn’t dead. She doesn’t really care if he is, but she figures it’s better to be safe that to let him think we were trying to break in.
At Long Last, a Cart
So in like Session #3 we bought a cart from the Vistani, to be delivered to their encampment outside Barovia in a week’s time. Nine sessions later, it’s been a week of in-game time (that we’ve tracked laboriously), so we feel destined to get this thing. We make the trek, and it’s fairly uneventful.
The Vistani are surprised to see us, and openly admit that they didn’t expect us to live this long, as Barovia is not kind to outsiders. We fake some bravado at this, but don’t dally long. Gwaihir – who had befriended some of them earlier – thanks them profusely and, though we paid earlier, tosses them a couple extra gold in thanks.
There’s also a horse, which somehow gets named Squawk-squawk. We were going for a traditional Aarakocran name, then veered a little off course. But the siblings seem pleased with themselves.
On our way back, a shaggy figure – flanked by others – appears in a mist and confronts us. He has the trappings of a hunter, including many furs and large traps hanging by his side, which piques Ahk-wa’s curiosity. The two exchange guarded but respectful pleasantries about our dealings in these lands, and through some non-verbal cues and questions about our gear, we gather that he’s a hunter of beasts and potentially undead.
He asks me about my wolf’s head cowl. I tell him its origin: that I was a young bird, and the full-grown wolf was my first kill, on the foothills of the mountainous area we once called home. I skinned it and fashioned it into a hood, and wear it as a symbol of pride and a reminder of that day. He nods his approval.
“My name is Ahk-wa, of Stormpeak Eyrie,” I say. “What is yours?”
And in the time-honored tradition of the DM allowing the players’ in-jokes to become canon, he replies: “Wolfsteak. Hans Wolfsteak.”
We bid the coolest dude in the land a fond farewell, and say that we hope our paths cross again. OOC, Mark silently marvels that Ahk-wa has now managed to find two NPCs she respects in this land.
Complications in Vallaki
As we round into Vallaki we find the corpse of a woman who we discern had been mauled by an animal. With so many animals in the wild, it’s surely not the tiger we set loose in Vallaki a few sessions ago, so our consciences are perhaps naively clear as we head back to town.
Upon reentering the inn, we’re also told by Erwin the innkeeper that Rictavio is looking for us, he of the now-destroyed cart and previously caged tiger. We thank Erwin, and tell him we’ll keep an eye out. We do learn that Rictavio isn’t part of Erwin’s Society of the Feather that we’re now in, so that’s at least a relief.
Before heading out again, we stash Squawk-squawk and the cart at the inn, with Erwin’s blessing.
Only You Can Start Forest Fires
We still left the giant tree on Yester Hill, which we believe to be the source of the blight infestation. And the staff that the druids used to control the blights was made of the Yester Tree. So we determine to kill it.
We head there and see it surrounded by blights. But we’re birds, so we just stay out of range and kill them methodically with arrows and cantrips. Aial meanwhile talks to the tree, who is somewhat forthcoming about being hard to kill and being mother to the blights, but soon turns on us, as it realizes we’re the ones that tried to destroy it previously. We do exactly the same, and Gwaihir chops at it with an axe while Ahk-wa lights a torch and sets it on all kinds of fire. After a time, it creaks, cracks and the massive tree falls, leaving only a stump. “I am not so easy to kill” it says to Aial after this. We try to shut it up, dousing the stump in some oil and Lhando casts lightning bolt on it. At this, the tree is silent in Aial’s mind, though we don’t know if it’s dead or just decided to shut up. Either way, we fly off from the flaming stump, feeling accomplished.
Raven Spy Network
On our way back, we decide that we can’t abide the old ladies in the windmill any longer, as we know them to be kidnapping and baking children into “dream pastries.” Well, the others decide this. But Ahk-wa has the deed to the windwill, and likes that it has the word “wind” in its name. So she’s happy to help annex it.
We stop at the Martokov winery and after some discussion with them (and leaving the magical tree-cutting axe with them), they agree to spy on the old ladies in their raven forms, to inform us of their routines. They’ll spend the next day spying, so that the day after we will have info to work from. A good plan. We thank them and vow to return once their task is complete.
We also get more information on the likely location of a 2nd of their “wine seeds,” an abandoned town named Beraz that incurred Strahd’s wrath many generations ago, with a Baba Lestaga there, apparently.
The Mad Mage is Mollified by Muffins
So all of this happened pretty quickly in-game. Barovia’s not a huge place, we can fly, and we woke up at like 3am. So we have some daylight – and the following day – to venture out before we have a date at the windmill. Deciding that the wine seed is secondary to our main quest, we head toward Mount Baratok in the north, hoping to befriend a prophecied mage in our quest against Strahd.
He’s not hard to find; he’s zapping birds (a great sign!) on a cliff edge. We attempt to approach as friends. Lhando gets the first lightning blast (his 3rd this campaign, as the Storm Sorcerer no less!). Out of game, we muse on nicknaming him Lightning Rod Lhando. The entire group tries to use varying forms of diplomacy, but the mage calls us spies and attacks, directing the next couple attacks at Ahk-wa. “I am the supreme mage in these lands!” he yells. This angers Ahk-wa and she absorbs/redirects some of his energy, stabbing him while growling “And I’m this land’s supreme hunter.” He seems annoyed and amused at the same time, and Misty Steps away. The group seems to shift toward wanting to knock him out non-lethally. Aial throws a badger at him from her bag of tricks. It slips and falls to its death off the cliff, but the mage seems to like it. “I love badgers! Badgers aren’t spies.” he says.
Then…he casts Time Stop, flying around and inspecting our gear before temporarily turning Ahk-wa’s cowl blue and making Lhando’s top hat glow. Both characters and players realize we’re out of our depth with that level of magic, and head back to diplomacy. Picking up on his inspection of our gear, Gwaihir produces the light sword and claims it as proof that we’re enemies of Strahd. This at least gets him to talk to us. We realize that weird sh*t might be the key. “I see you like badgers.” says Gwaihir. “Badgers clearly aren’t spies, and we’re good friends with numerous badgers. If you would direct your gaze just over there…” he says as he makes eye contact with Aial. At this, Aial summons 8 (maybe 6?) badgers, who begin doing silly tricks. This pleases him. Lhando gives him a muffin from his endless muffin tin. Then another, and another. He loves the the muffins.
With this temporary reprieve, we try to get some information out of him, but he really is batty as hell, and clearly doesn’t remember much except living on the mountain. He shows us into his hidden cliffside mansion (Mordenkainen’s) and we have a feast while discussing spies (i.e. everyone, as far as he’s concerned). It becomes clear that we can’t persuade him to come with us – even by magical means (which we attempt) – or get much in the way of exposition on Strahd (whom he doesn’t remember). But we’re able to establish that he won’t attack us and will trust us due to our badger allegiance and muffins. After the conversation as we fly back, we muse that if we can lure our enemies to the mountain, that may be the best use of this potentially powerful ally. We also make a mental note to watch out for powerful healers who might be able to restore the mad mage’s mind to sanity (i.e. Greater Restoration).
We fly back as night sets in, entering the inn.
We have an open day tomorrow before heading to the windmill the following day. Likely destinations are Beraz for the wine seed, or setting up a meeting with Lady Wachter (who I’ve been calling Watcher, alas) in Vallaki to establish her motivations. There’s a whole town (Krezk) that we haven’t been to, but I think we’re trying to tie up as many plot threads here as we can before moving on.
As a player, I stumble over social encounters a bunch. As a regular DM who tends not to slip too often on the other side of the DM’s screen, I feel like I should be better at it. But I am consistently terrible. So Ahk-wa’s smoothness during the conversation with Wolfsteak was a surprise to me. The story about the cowl was pure, off-the-cuff improv, but it sounded like I had had that in my backstory since the beginning. I’m not usually one to pat my own back, but excuse the indulgence for what was a very rare bit of good roleplaying.
We…got a lot done this session. Helped that we avoided initiative-order combat at the tree. And a couple plot threads didn’t end like we might have hoped. Namely, the kid’s presumed teleportation disappearance and the reluctance of the Mad Mage to do much but chill on the mountain. But I don’t know what we realistically could have done differently in either encounter. In either case, the world is starting to seem more manageable now. At least until the next catastrophe hits.
DMing definitely helped playing both Ahk-wa and Gwaihir this session. Mind you, I don’t actively try to roleplay absent players’ characters, and Lhando’s player gamely stepped in during some social encounters. But Gwaihir has become the outgoing “face” of our group in many ways, so it’s far harder to just have him in the background for a session than it would be for, say, Ahk-wa. But they are polar opposites, and jumping between such disparate personalities isn’t something that was as fluid to me until I started DMing a bunch. So it’s a cool proof-of-concept of how DMing can help your playing, and undoubtedly vice-versa in other important ways.