Expedition to Castle Ravenloft
Author: Bruce R. Cordell & James Wyatt
|Publisher: Wizards of the Coast|
Publish Date: 10/2006
Retail Price: $34.95
In a recent thread regarding the uncertain future of WotC, Fixxxer commented on the drought of new adventures from the publishers of D&D. As it turns out, last summer WotC unveiled their plans for multiple series of adventures, all of which would feature a new more modular format (meaning, among other things, that individual encounters could more easily be taken from the adventure and transplanted into others). Their answer to the doldrums of creativity debuted in Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, and over the next few pages I'll try to address what Wizards did right and what they royally screwed up.
Before we begin, not enough can be said about Bruce Cordell. His masterful touch when it comes to anything Undead was first recognized, if memory serves, in his work on Return to the Tomb of Horrors nearly ten years ago in 1998. More recently, another critical hit was scored with Libris Mortis: The Book of Undead. Make no mistake: Cordell knows horror.
Expedition to Castle Ravenloft is the first in what is presumably a long line of adventures called the Expedition Series, which promises to revisit classic modules remembered both for their ingenuity and replay value. It's unlikely you'll see an Expedition to the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (no offense, Mr. Gygax) but Ravenloft, considered by many old-school gamers to be the finest module ever published for Dungeons & Dragons, deserves special attention and, yes, a return to the spotlight for a new generation of players. There were a few things Cordell and Wyatt had to address if they wanted to properly pay tribute to such a masterpiece.
First, the fortune telling system turned the idea of what a module was on its head. In the original module, the heroes consulted an old gypsy woman about not only their chances of victory against Count Strahd but also what his intentions and motivations might be. The catch is that every time you played through I6: Ravenloft, the entire outcome of the adventure changed because the answers to the questions the PCs asked were not static. In this new adaptation of the old story, this fortune telling encounter is one of the core attributes of the entire module and, speaking from personal experience, is great fun to roleplay with real Tarot or Three Dragon Ante cards.
Second, the original module's maps for the DM's benefit were not two-dimensional, top-down affairs like in every other adventure. The maps in the original were isometric projections, meaning they were tilted on an axis to give the impression of three dimensions. This, too, made the cut in Expedition to Castle Ravenloft although I have to say some of them are a little difficult to interpret because the hallways and stairwells of the castle, historically accurate though they may be, are very densely arranged. Before you sit down for the first game session, though the PCs' trip to the castle may be weeks away I strongly advise you become intimately familiar with the key and map and make alterations where needed.
What is the most important part of the Ravenloft setting? Fans of the campaign setting, the original modules or even inexperienced gamers who have barely heard of the place will readily answer, "Count Strahd von Zarovich." As the writers insist, "Strahd is the driving force behind everything that goes on in this adventure . . . The PCs come to Barovia because Strahd wants them to. They stay because he will not permit them to leave."1 Strahd is a tragic, all-too-human figure who eerily blurred the line between monster and person in Hickman's original module and in Cordell and Wyatt's retelling of the story, it is clear there is a soft spot in each of their yet-to-be-staked hearts for the guy. If you are concerned the writers would come up short when it came to the primary antagonist, your worries are unfounded.
There are a handful of relics the heroes might find useful in ending Strahd's reign of tyranny, and where to find these items (as well as how to activate their powers) are just some of the hints the fortune telling sequence will reveal to your players. But one pivotal detail that can change each time you run this adventure should be decided on beforehand, and that is what the old bastard really wants. There are half a dozen schemes to choose from that not only influence Strahd's behavior and how other NPCs react to the heroes upon their arrival, but also determine how they are invited to the valley of Barovia in the first place. Of course, I chose zombies because that's just the kind of guy I am. That it was even an option won Expedition to Castle Ravenloft a billion cool points.
Thus far this has been a pretty glowing endorsement but I would be remiss if I didn't touch on some of the areas where the writers struck out. We can start with perhaps the most important part of all, Count Strahd himself: his stat block uses material from Libris Mortis which if you know anything about my tastes really doesn't sit well with me. Not because it is a crummy product; indeed, as I said above, Libris Mortis is awesome and everyone should have it. But because everyone does NOT have it, I would have very much liked to see a Core-only stat block with recommendations for material from other sources, if those are available. Heroes of Horror and the Spell Compendium are also mentioned but only as suggestions; this is what Cordell and Wyatt should have done with all non-Core supplements.
I have conflicting feelings over the new, modular format for encounters introduced in this book. Essentially, for each encounter everything you need to run it can be found on one or two pages. Also, future encounters in the book might reference this one if they are similar enough that you need only make minor alterations to use the same enemies over and over again. For example, early in the adventure there is a ransacked building full of zombie villagers and rats. A few sentences at the end explain that if you want to use this same encounter in a different building somewhere else in the village, just swap out the rats and change a few things about the furniture in the rooms.
This is good and bad. First of all, as Fixxxer pointed out in his review for Scourge of the Howling Horde, some aspects of a monster's stats are summarized or omitted altogether presumably to save space. This is as much the fault of the new encounter format as it is the new stat block format introduced in the DMG II. On the other hand (and this is particularly true for outdoor encounters) rules for unusual terrain like how many squares of movement it takes to wade through a shallow bog or the Balance DC for perching on top of a tombstone during a fight are also provided, and this is due in no small part to the space-saving new stat block format. I am all too familiar with modules where the maps are in a different part of the book from the key or in a separate book altogether, so conveniently having everything in one place is a welcome departure from that tradition.
As you might expect in a product over 200 pages long, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft has its share (some might argue more than its share) of typographical errors as well as the unfortunate occasional mechanical error. For example, I am in fact running this adventure as part of a horror campaign using the Heroes of Horror supplement. That book uses something called Taint, which basically equates evil with a blight on the world that manifests physically when people do bad things. Well, one NPC with a substantial Taint score did not have his physical symptoms listed; I understand that Heroes of Horror is optional here but if you're going to bother to list his score, why not go all the way? These errors are mostly annoying and anyway, I'm a fascist who feels like he has to edit everything to suit his needs so I rewrote a lot of the problem areas of the module even if they were fine. But if you're looking for an adventure you can pick up on Monday, read through during the week and start running on Friday without any additional work, expect some inconsistencies.
Perhaps one of the module's greatest strengths is its adaptability. Not only can you decide how many times you want to use individual encounters or even if you want to lift them, as is, from Expedition to Castle Ravenloft for use in other adventures, how much or little of the entire book you want to use is entirely up to you. I chose to run this as a minicampaign stretching from 6th to 9th level, which means my group will be dealing with Strahd's machinations for at least the next few months of real time.
But there are shorter options: anything from a Halloween one-shot to two months of weekly gaming is acceptable and the writers graciously provide tips on what to put in, what to leave out, and where to begin the adventure depending on how long you want it to be. Of course, Cordell and Wyatt also gave tips on how to kick the adventure off in various campaign settings and even some helpful advice on alterations you should make if running the adventure for a d20 Modern game! If one part of this entire product makes the cut for future releases I hope it is this adaptability.
A product from Wizards of the Coast would not be complete without new, "crunchy" material. Surprisingly enough, for such a magic-oriented plotline only one spell was introduced (and even it appeared first in other supplements) but twenty new magic items and three new artifacts play both minor and major roles in the adventure. I should say a word here about two specific items, the Sunsword and Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. Rules introduced in the Weapons of Legacy supplement are adapted for use here for both items but, in their wisdom, the writers also included non-Legacy versions of the items for use during the adventure.
Finally, a new prestige class (the Knight of the Raven) is introduced; which in my opinion is far too powerful as-is, considering how easy it is to qualify for, but almost all of its special abilities are undead-centric and if this is the only part of your campaign where that creature type plays a role, I guess the impact won't be too severe. There are also a few alternative class features for PCs in a new organization called the Lightbringers that, similarly, are quite powerful against the undead but practically useless in other situations. Caveat emptor.
In closing, this is an absolute beast of an adventure and "minicampaign," for the full 20-session version, is an understatement. As I said before, do not expect to run this without doing your homework; I suggest reading the module from cover to cover at least twice then working extensively to ensure the parts you want to use for your campaign are in working order. Despite the omnipresent specter of "BUY OTHER BOOKS WE HAVE PUBLISHED," I believe as much was done as possible to make the module adaptable and, most importantly, enjoyable. My group is having loads of fun with it so far and I think yours will too, but I only recommend Expedition to Castle Ravenloft to very experienced DMs with mature players.
1 Bruce Cordell and James Wyatt, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft (Renton: Wizards of the Coast, 2006), 13