Full D&D Curse of Strahd Review: Is it Worth Getting?

level up corner curse of strahd review

Most adventure reviews are made from too much speculation. You really need to play through an entire campaign to find all the flaws and high points. After completing the full Curse of Strahd campaign and experiencing it as a Dungeon Master, I have put together this Curse of Strahd review, phase by phase.

Curse of Strahd is a great campaign setting. It is a fantastic adventure if you are able guide your players on which directions to go. The setting is powerful in that it demands that you impart a sense of hopelessness and despair throughout the adventure. This Curse of Strahd review will break down all the pros and cons of this campaign setting.

Curse of Strahd is tough, yet worthwhile adventure to run for your group. Here is our full Curse of Strahd review to help you navigate the dangerous land of Barovia. Be warned – spoilers for the campaign setting await!

Curse of Strahd Review: A Grand Overview

To put it simply, Curse of Strahd is a campaign that takes the players into the demi-plane of horror, Barovia. In there the players must survive the rigorous horrors that are housed in the land and eventually must face off with the ruler of the land, Strahd Von Zarovich. The module includes information on every aspect of Barovia, and the denizens within.

The Curse of Strahd adventure is not really an adventure. Instead, the book is meant to give you information on a campaign setting. The setting includes random elements, such as how you get the players into the land of Barovia and where the items to defeat the vampire, Strahd, are placed. Every location is well thought out and described in detail, but that is where the ease of creating an adventure ends.

As a DM running this setting, I struggled with where to lead the players. Many players like to have some form of direction. We talked about this in our article about railroading but it goes even further in Curse of Strahd. In this setting, if you do not create some form of linear direction, your party will die. Worse, if you don’t give them plenty of detailed description, the players won’t feel that sense of hopelessness or despair we talked about earlier!

This is contradictory to the open-world setting which Curse of Strahd tries to create. Due to the monsters and difficulties in many locations, you need to gently guide your players to level-appropriate areas or they will die. I cannot stress this enough. For example, you might meet an NPC that has dreamed about the Amber Temple. The players will naturally want to go there, but unless they are a higher level they will likely die there.

This is just one example of how the adventure can set your players up for failure, unless you are very actively involved as the DM. But there are other problems.

You have this grand setting with a vampire lord that rules over the citizenry. How does he rule? It’s completely up to the DM. How difficult is he to kill? If you go by the stat sheet, he is quite pathetic.

The DM needs to be experienced in order to put all the pieces together. Curse of Strahd is NOT for new DMs. You need to think about how a vampire lord would fight. Would they fight one on one, or always be flanked with a host of other creatures? If there are dark powers involved, why not allow Strahd to have balanced dark powers for a fight? What about the brides of Strahd? Why not make them into something more?

These are just some examples, but to have a good or even great Curse of Strahd experience, you need a veteran DM.

There are various challenges that only a veteran DM can tackle with a decent chance of success, which will be further explained throughout this article. This is because Curse of Strahd requires flexibility and your own imagination for how to flesh out and enhance the setting.

Starting Out the Adventure

When you start out the campaign, you have two choices. The first is to bring the players into the land of Barovia and get them into the Death House. Or you can bring your players in at level 2 or 3 and skip the Death House.

The Death House has received very mixed results from different groups. It can be extremely lethal near the end, and will either cause the campaign to end right then and there; or set a cautious tone for the rest of the campaign. When deciding whether or not to run the Death House, you need to look at your players. If they are cautious and experienced individuals, they should live. If they are new to D&D, I would highly recommend skipping this area.

This is an example of why an experienced DM is required to run Curse of Strahd. If you make the wrong call here, the game could be doomed at the start. For my players that completed Curse of Strahd, we skipped the Death House and just started at level 2. This is a safe option, and the tone was set when the party almost died to wolves in transit to the Village of Barovia.

I did this because I had new players. Instead of letting them possibly die a horrible death in the Death House, they learned before even entering the Village of Barovia that they might die at any point, as they almost did.

The Village of Barovia is a somber place that perpetuates the miserable horror setting of Barovia. Once your party has decided to continue past the village, you should continue onto Vallaki. On the way, you should also encounter the Tser Pool Encampment to learn about important artifacts and where to find them. Once your players have this knowledge, they should be constantly checking where to find these artifacts (if the DM does their job right).

Every campaign is different depending on when and where the players find the artifacts. If all the artifacts are in Ravenloft, then they will have a hard time getting them. If the artifacts are naturally along the path they are already taking, the players will get a massive power boost while drawing the attention of Strahd.

At this point the adventure will be fairly cut and dry, but some important narrative decisions will quickly start to crop up.

Entering Vallaki

This is where everything can go wrong. The town of Vallaki has so many open-ended quest opportunities that your players can do just about anything. This goes for the DM as well, which lets you make the game your own.

My suggestion would be to lead your party towards either the winery, or Argonvostholt. These are level-appropriate areas and will lead to further quest opportunities. Once one is completed, try to make it ideal for the players to go and explore the other area. Be very cautious. If you unwittingly suggest something dangerous, the players might go to an area that will kill them. That is why this is a very delicate section of the campaign that requires an experienced DM’s touch.

The beauty of Vallaki is that you can further your narrative in other ways. Need your players to make deals with the werewolves? Now is the time.

Vallaki is meant to be a good base of operations while allowing your players to gain allies and further quest hooks. Here is where you lead them into a narrative, or even two to three. In this way, you strap the players for time. They never feel comfortable when one problem is solved because it opened up two more problems. Not to mention all the other problems that they still need to solve!

In Vallaki, you must push the feeling of discomfort while giving your players things to do. You should make them feel like they are making headway, but that everything is overwhelming. There is simply too much for them to do, and they need to focus on one or two things to accomplish anything worthwhile. Now, your players have a purpose and aren’t just running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

The Mad Scramble

In the next stage of the adventure, the DM will have to keep track of many different moving pieces while trying to push players towards specific areas. There is a lot of variability in what the players can choose to do. They still have a choice on where to go, but make it clear that some places are way out of their league. For example, they should get hints to avoid the higher level location, Amber Temple. Instead, push the players to go to Krezk, explore the abbey, and eventually to go to Van Richten’s Tower, Yester Hill, and wherever else you want.

Everything should have a negative result with just a glimmer of hope to keep your players in the game. Dejected and miserable, but slightly hopeful to turn the tide is how they should feel in this stage.

Many groups have a hard time during this stage, and that is by design. If you were in a wretched land of misfortune and horror for weeks on end, you would also start to feel drained. This portion of the campaign exemplifies that feeling. Even if fights go your way, the aftermath is always somehow bad.

It doesn’t sound like a nice setting, and that is because it isn’t. With the game being extremely open-ended here, most DMs will struggle to find out when to level their party. Generally, one level per major area will level the party to where they need to be in the end. Just continue trudging along until your players feel like they have clear goals.

The Preparation Phase

At this late stage in Curse of Strahd, players have clear goals that they need to accomplish before they can face Strahd. No longer are they running around trying to help everyone. Now, it is time to prepare for the final battle. This preparation can take a few forms:

  1. The Amber Temple needs to be explored to grant them power.
  2. The artifacts all need to be found.
  3. Ravenloft needs to be explored, and the party needs to find a way to kill Strahd alone.

I added a 4th option to my game by making the brides of Strahd an important component. You can do something similar by adding something else the players need to do before they can face Strahd. I highly recommend this since it forces the players to chose how they want to face Strahd. Make sure that the players can’t do everything on their list, and you continue the same feeling of helplessness with a little bit of hope.

This preparation phase shouldn’t be as hopeless as the scrambling phase. Your players should have an idea of what they want to do since they have enough information now to call the shots. This makes the DM’s job much easier. No longer do you need to lead your players in a direction. They fully run the game since they are calling the shots on how to bring down Strahd. This 180 degree turn in narrative is exactly as it should be, and you are there to just watch how the players put together a desperate plan.

Curse of Strahd Review: The Finale

Strahd should be extremely difficult to kill. Unfortunately, his base stat block is rather pathetic. Instead of making Strahd fight the players alone, it is necessary to surround Strahd with minions. Make it like a mini-game where the players have to get around the minions before they can fight Strahd, or augment him with enhanced dark powers. You can also do both options. Make it an even grander finale with all of Barovia rising up to face Strahd.

This is the climax that should once again be an almost hopeless situation that only has a glimmer of hope. The players should know the odds are not in their favor, but they have a chance. Even if it is only a fool’s chance, they have to seize the opportunity that they have created. The possibility for everyone to die in this fight should be a real one.

Everything about this finale should be difficult. The players’ preparations should never have been perfect, and Strahd himself will not play nice.

This part is going to hinge on the DM’s experience. If you are a new DM and just have the players fight Strahd on his own, without enhancements, the campaign will be remembered as lackluster. Make sure he is given the buffs he needs to make this fight difficult. If the players do manage to kill Strahd, they should feel exhausted by the end. Satisfied in their heroic deeds, but exhausted.

Lastly, the players should not have a clean ending. There is no ‘happy ever after’ in Barovia. As you have done in previous player victories, their triumphs should be numbed in some way. Perhaps Strahd will be resurrected by the dark powers in time, or if a new ruler is found they will be corrupted by the dark powers in some fashion. There cannot be a truly happy ending in Barovia, and this heavy ending differs greatly from most D&D games.

Conclusion

That about wraps up this Curse of Strahd review. As stated before, Curse of Strahd is a harsh campaign setting that is best run with a more experienced DM. Players may need some help moving through the setting, but it can be very worthwhile if you have an experienced DM run it.

If I had to give Curse of Strahd a review score, I would give this adventure a 10/10. Assuming of course, that you have an experienced DM that can make this module their own. If you need help on how to run a horror game, we have an article on how to run D&D horror games here.

If dark and depressing campaign settings are up your alley and you think you have the skills to handle it, I highly suggest running Curse of Strahd with your group.

I hope you found this Curse of Strahd review helpful.

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