Playing Curse of Strahd as a One Shot

Halloween is great. Yeah, I know I’m about seven months too early. The release of Curse of Strahd has me thinking about all the awesome things that happen during the season. This most recent Halloween had me sitting at a table playing a fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons conversion of the original I6 Ravenloft module DMed by the one and only Mike Shea. Every year he runs a group through the adventure in an afternoon. Mike isn’t the only person who runs Ravenloft as a one shot during Halloween. When I reviewed the classic adventure on The Tome Show, the amazing Jeff Greiner said he does the same. I imagine they might both try to run Curse of Strahd this coming Halloween as a one shot. Gentlemen, this post is for you.

When I read through Curse of Strahd, it gave me all sorts of D&D hankerings for gothic horror. I want to stake vamps, silver-stab werewolves, and flap with the wereravens. But I’m a busy guy. I already run about four games on and off. There is no way I have time for a fifth consistently and my other groups are invested in the stories they’re currently playing through. They don’t want to take a 6-month break to play another adventure. I could easily wait to play Curse of Strahd, but I don’t want to. If only there was a way to get my fix in a one shot adventure session… Turns out there is. Read on friends and I will show you how to run Curse of Strahd as a one shot. All you need is some friends for about 4 – 12 hours on a single day and you can get a quicky vamp fix.

Step 1! Review Chapter 4 – Castle Ravenloft

You should read the rest of the adventure too because it’s a great read, but get familiar with this chapter in particular. If you’re going to play only part of Curse of Strahd (which is what you need to do if you want to play it as a one shot), then play the most iconic part. There’s a reason the first adventure was simply called Ravenloft. The crawl through the namesake castle captures the heart of the story. Castle Ravenloft isn’t just a location, it’s Strahd’s partner in crime. It’s also by far the longest chapter in the book so it allows you as the DM to mine the most game meat.

In this one shot version you will only visit Castle Ravenloft. You are missing out on some other sweet stuff in the adventure (more on that below), but you are also playing the most important part of the story! This is about getting a quick Strahd fix. The best way to do that is pure, uncut Castle Ravenloft right in your RPG brain.

Step 2! Begin at Level 9 with Barovian Backstories

Have your players make level 9 characters. Why? That’s level the adventure recommends PCs be before they enter Castle Ravenloft. Considering how thoroughly Wizards of the Coast seems to playtest these adventures, I trust this is the appropriate level for characters to not get slaughtered wholesale in the castle, but also keeps the encounters challenging. In other words it hits the fun bullseye.

The big twist is to ask your players to make characters who have lived in Barovia for at least a few months. Maybe one is an adventurer who got taken by the mists long ago and just figured out the only way to leave Barovia is by slaying Strahd. Another could have specifically come to hunt the vampire and has finally amassed a team strong enough to take out the villain. Yet another adventurer could have been born in Barovia and after a life of being terrorized by Strahd, the character is ready to stand up to the monster. Let your players have fun with the ideas. Remember to have them tie their backgrounds together since you’ll be jumping right into the action.

Step 3! Start the Adventure on the Way to Castle Ravenloft

When you’re ready to start playing, read or paraphrase the following text.

Your black carriage rockets through the chilly night air, wild horses speeding you through the woods toward your final destination – Castle Ravenloft. You’ve been preparing for this assault for some time and still your stomach churns in knots of fear. A lone wolf howls in the night as you swallow back your vomit and think of the task before you. To free Barovia and its people from the clutches of monster and mist, Strahd von Zarovich must die. Many have tried before you, but none have triumphed.

The smell of incense burns in your nose. Madam Eva, the old, hunched Vistani woman with piercing eyes and a strange smile, sits in the carriage with you. The fortune-teller offered to take you in her carriage to the castle in exchange for having your fortunes read. At the time it seemed a good way to avoid the wolves and other dangers of the wood, but looking into her inscrutable face, you can’t be sure. Madam Eva pulls a deck of tarokka cards from a box in her lap. She shuffles the cards and begins setting them on a small table in the middle of the carriage…

Madam Eva then reads the characters their fortunes as outlined in step 4. Once the carriage delivers the adventurers to the front courtyard of Castle Ravenloft, the horses and Madam Eva run off into the night.

Step 4! Fortunes of Ravenloft

Ravenloft and now Curse of Strahd are hailed as some of the most re-playable modules of all time because the Fortunes of Ravenloft feature (pages 11 – 18 in Curse of Strahd). This card reading determines the location of important items within the story. Different card readings mean the adventurers are going to visit different locations each time they play the adventure. These items are spread throughout the lands of Barovia in Curse of Strahd. (The original adventure, Ravenloft, places all the story items within Castle Ravenloft.) Since the one shot version of Curse of Strahd really only takes place in Castle Ravenloft, you need to set the deck up so you don’t end up with any items outside of that location. Here’s how you want to set up your cards.

Put only the following cards in the common deck:

  • Paladin (2 of Swords/Spades)
  • Mercenary (4 of Swords/Spades)
  • Berserker (6 of Swords/Spades)
  • Dictator (8 of Swords/Spades)
  • Warrior (Master of Swords/10 of Spades)
  • Transmuter (1 of Stars/Ace of Clubs)
  • Evoker (6 of Stars/Clubs)
  • Necromancer (8 of Stars/Clubs)
  • Swashbuckler (1 of Coins/Ace of Diamonds)
  • Merchant (4 of Coins/Diamonds)
  • Guild Member (5 of Coins/Diamonds)
  • Miser (9 of Coins/Diamonds)
  • Shepherd (4 of Glyphs/Hearts)
  • Anarchist (6 of Glyphs/Hearts)
  • Priest (Master of Glyphs/10 of Hearts)

Now when you do the Fortunes of Ravenloft reading for the first three cards, all the items will be in Castle Ravenloft.

The only other change you need to make is with card 4. When you draw card 4 from the high deck, draw a second card and put it next to card 4. We’ll call these cards 4A and 4B respectively. 4A tells you which of Strahd’s enemies will aid the characters as normal. Card 4B tells you where you can find the ally in Castle Ravenloft. To determine this use the Strahd’s Location in the Castle section on pages 17 and 18 of Curse of Strahd. For instance if card 4A is the Mists (Queen of Spades) which corresponds to Ezmerelda d’Avenir and card 4B is the Beast (Jack of Diamonds) which corresponds to the audience hall, then the characters can find Ezmerelda d’Avenir in the audience hall. You’ll need to have a motivation for the NPC to be in the castle. The two most obvious are the ally has also come to kill Strahd or was captured by Strahd. Those work for most of the NPC allies. If the character is a servant of Strahd, like the Vistani assassin Arrigal, they might be in the castle because they have business with the vampire.

You can lay your one shot reading out like this.
You can lay your one shot reading out like this.

Note that Ghost (King of Hearts) ally B, Sir Klutz, and Marionette (Jack of Hearts) ally A, Pidlwick II, already have starting locations in Castle Ravenloft. If you draw these cards as 4A and want to use those ally options, either change their location according to the 4B card or ignore the 4B card.

Step 5! Get Hunting

Now play through Chapter 4 of Curse of Strahd. Meet interesting people, fight terrifying monsters, explore a spooky castle, and stake a vamp.

What You Lose

Is this the ideal way to run Curse of Strahd? For many the answer is no. You miss out on 11 other awesome chapters of content. You don’t walk the sad streets of Barovia, you don’t enter a creepy mill, and you don’t get to visit the Amber Temple. What you do get is the chance to take down Strahd, a fun afternoon of gothic horror, and a crawl through one of the most iconic D&D dungeons ever.

Good News – Modularity

The good news about Curse of Strahd is that it’s totally modular and re-playable. Playing a single chapter of the adventure during a one shot does not ruin the enjoyment of a second (or third or fourth) play-through of the same chapter or even the entire adventure. If you’ve been hankering to try Curse of Strahd, but haven’t had the time, or you just want Halloween to come early, why not give my one shot Strahd method a try?

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below!

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