The Curse of Strahd: Horror Classic or Cheesy B-Movie?
D&D has had “The Curse of Strahd” sneaking around since the 80’s, taking players on a dark journey through “Ravenloft” a setting filled with horror tropes and an overbearing sense of dread. Does the Ravenloft 5e update hold up? Lets brave the untold horrors together in this Curse of Strahd review.
What’s the Adventure About?
The Curse of Strahd inexorably drags the PCs from the forgotten realms into the dark and foreboding land of Barovia. Barovia is cursed and hidden away from the rest of the world, trapped in the constant mists and endless machinations of its cold merciless vampiric master, Strahd. The PCs must adventure throughout Barovia, gain power and acquire unique magic items if they’re to have any hope of surviving castle Ravenloft, defeating Strahd, and escaping this land of endless horrors. The adventure starts at 1st level and culminates at 10th level.
What’s in the Book?
The Curse of Strahd clocks in at 256 pages, which seems to be the norm that these official adventures have settled on. The bulk of it is devoted to the setting/adventure path, but it’s also got a couple extras. It includes:
- The Curse of Strahd adventure path / Ravenloft Setting, progressing from 1st to 10th level
- 1 new character background
- 7 powerful magic items
- 18 new monsters/NPCs with lore and stat blocks
- 45 gorgeous maps
The Adventure Path / Setting
I have to combine the setting and adventure path here, and the reasons for that are at once the strongest and weakest elements of the book.
To put it simply, there isn’t really an adventure path here. The Curse of Strahd is a setting book, and somebody has tried to frame a skeleton framework of an adventure path inside it. Now don’t get me wrong, the setting is fantastic. Every inch of Barovia has been lovingly crafted with deep lore, rich visuals, and exciting encounters. Around every corner of the map is some horrible conspiracy or innocent clue that will lead towards an entirely new adventure. Curse of Strahd 5e is filled with classic horror tropes, from werewolf packs and vampire spawn to haunted dolls and even the equivalent of Baba Yaga, complete with walking hut.
I LOVE the setting, but as an adventure path, it’s barely holding together. It’s framed as a sandbox-style adventure, which I love, but there’s barely any plot threads to stop even that from falling apart. I can sum up the entire adventure with “The PCs are tricked into coming, they have to grind for a while then fight Strahd to leave.” There are a few NPCs that have ancillary roles around the main plot, but that’s really it. The SUBplots get incredibly interesting and involved, but there’s no direction. It’s so directionless in fact, that the key items that the PCs are told to get for defeating Strahd are randomly distributed throughout the map in a slew of random locations.
All of this is a real shame since the book is filled to the brim with memorable characters, challenging fights, and intricate dungeon maps that harken back to the early days of high-danger dungeon crawls.
I honestly think that the best way to play D&D Curse of Strahd is to make your own plot and just use this as a setting book. Make up your own reasons to string the sub-plots together, rather than just letting your PCs wander and encouraging them to grind levels.
Even if you want a loose sandbox adventure, it’s a very difficult setup. Your players are strongly incentivized from the start to go to castle Ravenloft, and fight Strahd for their freedom. But they can’t really, especially if they start at level 1, they’re too weak and will just die. But there’s no non-game logic reason why they shouldn’t, nothing stops them from just strolling in and dying. The players have to make the conscious decision to grind for levels, and that’s just not good roleplaying.
The Haunted One Background
If you’re just wanting the pure stats for this, they’re freely available online, but the lore for this background is excellent and fits right in with any horror themes you might be playing around with. All around great addition to the base options.
The Treasures of Barovia
These 7 relics are extremely strong magic items designed to bump up the PCs power level as rewards for exploring barovia and defeating its lesser evils. You probably shouldn’t sprinkle these into other adventures (unless you want to drastically shift some power levels) but they’re absolutely flavorful and well-designed artifacts regardless.
18 New Monsters/NPCs
Most of these are dour and nefarious villagers or are the D&D 5e Ravenloft equivalents of classic horror monsters. I particularly loved the take on classical zombies, with their still living limbs hopping around and causing problems when severed. Excellent stat blocks, and great fodder for any undead-centric adventures you might be cooking up.
45 Gorgeous Maps
One of the bestselling points for this book are its maps. They’re lovingly laid out and do an amazing job of translating complex 3-dimensional structures into maps you can actually use in your adventures. Considering how big and detailed some of these dungeons are, it might be worth picking up for these alone.
What’s Good About the Book?
The setting is saturated with rich lore and every inch of it can lead the PCs towards a new adventure. The numerous dungeons are deep and satisfyingly difficult, and the whole adventure really harkens back to the early days of D&D where it was all about the dungeon crawling. I anticipate most groups spending 3-4 sessions in dungeons for each session they spend exploring. Depending on your playstyle you might not think that’s great, but it makes me ecstatic and nostalgic for some deep diving dungeon crawling goodness. The maps are all beautifully detailed and after doing a long read I plan on stealing most of them to use in my other campaigns.
What’s Bad About the Book?
It’s just not… a good adventure… The random nature of the plot-relevant items is a cute idea, but it just serves to deconstruct the narrative and make the whole adventure seem sort of randomly generated, and not in a good way. The subplots and individual adventures are interesting and good, but it all feels very modular, and the overarching plot threads to keep your PCs on task are few and far between. You essentially just have to count on the players hating Strahd (which they should) but also knowing that they need to grind levels before fighting him. It’s a skeleton of a plotline without anything meaningful tying it together.
Also, if you’re getting the Ravenloft 5e PDF, you might find some very odd text squeezes that made some small sections partially illegible. I’m not sure if that was just a problem on my end, but it might be worth being aware of.
The Curse of Strahd is a strange beast because it’s excellent as a setting book, but terrible as the adventure path it was marketed as. My Curse of Strahd tips would be to take the setting and all the incredible sub-plots and just make up your own new overarching plot. Everything getting the PCs to Borovia and motivating them along is so weak, you can honestly just toss it. Use Borovia and everything in it as a setting for your own adventures, take advantage of the book and let the excellent Curse of Strahd maps and encounters to do the heavy lifting for you.
Just develop your own reason that pushed the PCs to Borovia and give them your own villain or other motivation to keep on exploring the dark and dismal countryside. The Curse of Strahd Death House adventure is a great place to start, and it will set the tone for the rest of the A+ spooky dungeon crawling that awaits them. Or you can even pick and choose the dungeon crawls to run as short adventures all their own.
Final Score as an Adventure Path: 3 out of 10
Final Score as a Setting Book: 8 out of 10
Get The Curse of Strahd Book HERE
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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