The Storming of Ravenloft: Starting the Campaign with a Bang

2021.12.06 09:09 TheRedcrosseKnight The Storming of Ravenloft: Starting the Campaign with a Bang

As I prepare to run CoS again, I've been thinking of ways that I can change up the module. One thing that stands out is the Mad Mage storyline. It's kind of a loose thread that doesn't go anywhere. It's highly unlikely that players will go through all the trouble of tracking him down, capturing him, and curing his insanity. And even if they do manage all of that, unless he's their fated ally, all that effort is a waste. Mordenkainen "declines to join them if asked," refusing to fight Strahd until he finds his staff and spellbook (which he won't allow the party to help him find). Instead, "as a parting gift, the archmage imbues each character with a charm of heroism." Neat.
Mordenkainen is an easter egg for veterans, but his name won't mean all that much to newer players (at best they'll recognize him from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes). His presence in Barovia also doesn't make much sense. Why is he even there? It's not like Strahd is threatening the balance of the multiverse from within the confines of his prison demiplane. I sincerely doubt True Natural Mordenkainen would personally risk himself to save a tiny valley full of soulless shells. Even if he wanted to deal Evil a blow, Mordenkainen has much bigger fish to fry. He's the most famous archmage in the game! He should be dealing with archdevils and demon lords, not vampires who rule over provincial backwaters. The whole thing is really inconsistent with his character, as his his strategy of "frontally assault the castle with a peasant army." Mordenkainen is a genius, renowned for his subtlety. He ought to have come up with something better than that.
On the other hand, storming the castle with a mob of peasants is exactly the sort of thing I'd expect from adventurers. So here's my proposal: have your players replace Mordenkainen. Start the campaign with a one-shot set in the past. Your players are all 10th-level characters leading a small army of peasants armed with torches and pitchforks. Strahd, of course, sees this motley crew approaching and has time to prepare. Chaos erupts as the Barovians fight zombies in the courtyard while skeletal archers stationed on the castle walls rain arrows on them from above. As the battle rages and turns to a rout, the party forces their way through the main doors, starting the session in K7 (the Entry). I'd have them accompanied by a small band of peasants, who might include one or more notable NPCs (like Doru). One of them might be Helga Ruvac's father, an old cobbler named Hans hellbent on rescuing his daughter (their reunion offers a great moment for some horror). Those peasants can be each killed off in gruesome ways, giving the party a sense of being whittled down. The ruckus they cause also attracts random encounters (see "Barovian Commoners" in Chapter 4).
Your goal here is to win, so make sure to play Strahd as ruthlessly as possible. RAW Strahd can mop the floor with a 10th level party, especially one without the Sunsword and Holy Symbol. The one-shot likely ends with the death of the PCs, at which point their souls become trapped in the Mist. The campaign then begins many years later, with the souls of the party having been reborn as native Barovians (your current PCs). The party awakes having suffered a shared dream of the events of that fateful night decades ago. I'd suggest starting them off in the Burgomaster's Manor, where the party has been helping the Kolyanovichs fend off hordes of the undead (you can run a siege encounter if you like). Having grown up with Ireena and Ismark, they should be more invested in their struggle. If a PC managed to escape the slaughter in the castle (or if Strahd let him flee), so much the better. He (or she) can serve the role of the Mad Mage: a paranoid old man living in the woods, nursing his old wounds. If the new party resembles their old selves, he might recognize them.
Alternatively, you might have the party be resurrected by the Dark Powers, bursting from the grave a year (or more) after the failed Peasant's Rebellion. In that case, start them off at the Ivlis River Crossroads or in the church graveyard of Barovia village, having just clawed their way out of the wormy earth. The party is afflicted with amnesia (explaining why they lost their original levels), but certain NPCs might recognize them. These NPCs might well react with horror, remembering their doomed crusade agains the castle. Wether the party is revived or reincarnated, they might have fun piecing together the events of their past lives.
If your players do manage to defeat Strahd in the one-shot, that's OK as well! The Mists part for a time, but Strahd inevitably comes back. Have one of the PCs linger in the valley, perhaps (like Ezmeralda) suspecting Strahd's return. I would drop lots of hints of the events of the rebellion. Perhaps Donavich sighs, remembering the day when the clouds parted and sunlight fell upon the church ("at last the Morninglord smiled upon us!"). Then he recounts how after a few months, the Mists crept back, the skies turned grey, and people barred their doors again. The wolves howled madly in the woods one night, as if to greet their master. The return of Strahd should be a mystery to your players ("didn't we kill this guy?"). They might wonder if he's really back at all. Hold off on introducing Strahd too early. He should be a menacing presence at first: a shadow in the Mist watching the burgomaster's funeral, or a great black wolf with burning red eyes. His eventual reveal should be a dramatic entrance, descending from the clouds on his flaming steed or showing up uninvited at a masquerade ball dressed as the Red Death (à la the Phantom of the Opera). When the PCs meet the original party member, he can explain exactly what took place, confirming that he saw Strahd die with his own eyes.
As a side note, the first time I ran CoS, I replaced Mordenkainen with Evard the Black (of Tentacles fame), who my players were familiar with from a past adventure (4e's Dark Legacy of Evard, a great module!). Unlike Mordenkainen, Evard is Neutral Evil, so I had him venture to Barovia in search of the Amber Temple, hoping to siphon power from the vestiges imprisoned there. Knowing that he'd need to kill Strahd to escape the valley, he used mass suggestion to conscript local Barovians, using them as canon fodder in his attack. Even if this prequel one-shot doesn't appeal to you, I'd still recommend replacing Mordenkainen with Evard. He's another old school archmage from Greyhawk (he's actually an enemy of Mordenkainen's), and I think he works better in this role.
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