Astral Projections – Play Experience: “Curse of Strahd” (D&D 5e)

© Wizards of the Coast

The Dungeons & Dragons gothic Ravenloft setting has been around since the (first edition) AD&D, but I never played any version of it, even though AD&D was my introduction to the RPG hobby. Partly because I didn’t know anyone playing it, but mostly because it didn’t sound like my cup of tea. However, now that I am part of a fantastic gaming group, I can’t seem to say no to any campaign or one-shot proposed. So when Ogehn suggested he run the 5e reboot of “Curse of Strahd” for us–I said “Sure! I’m in!” or something similar. Previous to this I had only played a single one-shot in the latest version of D&D. I opted to play an Elf Eldritch Knight, which reminded me of the AD&D Fighter/Magic User multiclass. (The other PCs are a Dragonborn Bard, a Human Paladin, and a Human War Cleric.)

First, how do I like 5e? Pretty well, actually, even though I have mostly been playing more narrative systems, except for Mutants & Masterminds. Since it had been years since I’d played D&D3.x and I barely played 4e, I felt like a noob, but to my surprise, the new system wasn’t that hard to get used to–and I really liked most of the changes, especially how spells work. (Although I am still learning what to do with many spells, probably because it has been years since I have played any D&D. )There is the spell slot mechanic, allowing you to use higher level spell slots for lower level spells at greater effect. And the cantrips! The last time I had a PC with cantrips, they weren’t useful for anything but cleaning up the tower after one’s Master or her stupid familiar made a mess. These cantrips will serve you well adventuring for many levels. When I picked Isilwen’s cantrips, my first reaction was, “Wow! These are potent! I really can use one every round, if I want?”

Lady Isilwen, my Eldritch Knight, recommends Green-flame Blade, from Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, allowing even a first level PC to in effect do 2 attacks, each to a different opponent. Even at fifth level, when she could do 2 attacks with her rapier and/or silver dagger, she often opts to use this cantrip instead. If she hits with the melee attack, she does weapon damage plus 1D8 fire damage and 1d8+3 fire damage to a second nearby target of her choice. Since it requires engaging in melee, it is a bad choice for a dedicated caster, but is great for Eldritch Knights, and probably for other combat classes that can use arcane spells.

Other favorite changes? The simplicity of Advantage and Disadvantage on checks (roll a pair of D20s and take the lower or higher) is great too. It’s even easier than the +/- 2 circumstance modifier. Why didn’t anyone think of this ages ago? While it is used in RAW in defined circumstances (such as Fey Ancestry granting Advantage on saves vs. charm), I can see this being used like the 3.x circumstance bonus/penalty, to speed up games. Another improvement is the ability to change out your spells, without throwing yourself on your DM’s mercy, when you level up. And drains don’t set you back on levels permanently, wasting all that work gaining XP. I really love this, since a recent combat was against 7 wights, in which I got natural 1s in two different rounds, and missed at least 1 Con save. (Thanks, Ogehn, for not being a jerk when adjudicating epic fails, or anything else.)

While I haven’t created a PC from “scratch” yet (Isilwen was modified from a published L3 pregen), I have leveled up twice. First, for “Strahd,” leveling up happens not when your PC gains X experience, but when the party reaches specific “milestones” in the adventure–an NPC interaction, finding something, etc. As a result, sometimes level ups may come closer or farther together than you might expect. This may be standard for 5e’s published modules, since I recall at least 1 milestone when I read through “A Great Upheaval,” the free intro adventure (reviewed here) for Storm King’s Thunder. I found leveling up easy to do, except for narrowing down which feat I wanted, with so many that sounded really useful for a “fighter-MU.”

What about the module itself? Before I go into my take, though, two Disclaimers: 1) Minor Spoilers! 2) Ogehn has told us that he has altered and/or added to the module, so your mileage will definitely vary!

As I mentioned, above, I am liking it a lot better than I expected. Yes, it is pretty dark, and it is not the best setting for lighthearted PCs. But even they can work if the player uses some thought. Take our bard, Sunshine. He was a bit annoying at first, partly because the spells he originally took weren’t that useful. But changing them up at his last level has helped a lot, as did the player simply becoming used to our group, as he has only joined us in the past few months. Surviving Barovia, by the way, requires combat PCs, whether martial or magical, including clerics. The War Cleric had a good mix of heavy-hitting hammer and aid/healing, it looks like.)

So far (about 8 two to three hour sessions), we have had what I consider a good mix of social and combat encounters. Yes the latter are tough. But no PC has died yet, although we have had some close calls, like the wights (see above) and the Mad Druid. But they have been exciting and fun. I don’t think these D&D combats have taken longer than the more narrative games we have been playing lately. I do miss initiative order being as fluid as in, say FFG Star Wars, especially since there doesn’t seem to be a way to delay and “reset” your initiative slot, unlike previous versions of D&D.

Social encounters have introduced us to a lot of great characters–and also a number of side quests. Maybe too many side quests, but all of us are having a good time, so no one’s worrying too much about that. Many of these have given us some character growth or insights. The reactions to dream visions several PCs have had, for example. Or lack of them. Isilwen hasn’t gotten any. Ogehn assures me that it is luck of the dice, rather than intent to “leave you out.” I told him that I didn’t feel neglected but that even though I knew otherwise, Isilwen would assume her lack of visions was because an Elf doesn’t sleep the way most other races do. Other encounters have led to serious debates among the entire party about the good/right/moral (take your pick) action in a given situation, such as how to aid a priest with a lycanthropy-infected son. This ended with a hard to make and harder to carry out decision and our usually-merry bard’s serious and compassionate response afterwards.

So if D&D 4, or even 3, wasn’t your thing, give 5e a fair trial. And Curse of Strahd is worth a try, even if you aren’t into horror. Perhaps a change of pace around Halloween?

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Linda Whitson

Linda Whitson

Contributing Writer & Copy Editor at D20 Radio
Linda Whitson is a long-time RPGer, amateur musician & artist, & an officer in the Rebel Legion Star Wars costuming club. Linda met her husband in an AD&D game and they have 2 teenagers, an anime fangirl daughter and a son who plays on his university's quidditch team. She is the Lead Mod of D20 Radio's forums and Copy Editor for the blog. Linda can be reached at
Linda Whitson

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  1. Also, I really like the Death Save mechanic. In my group, we haven’t had any fights where we were really in danger of a party wipe, but we certainly have had characters go down, and it’s always dramatic because you can easily die if you don’t get help within a few rounds.

    In one notable case, the Paladin had two failed Death Saves (one a bad roll and one due to a blast spell that went off nearby), so one more failure would kill him, and nobody was near enough to help except for my kobold sorcerer (who had no potions, no medical training, and a negative wisdom modifier). Everyone was on the edge of their seats — but the kobold managed to make a lucky roll and saved the Paladin’s life.

    I’ve never had a D&D game where we were so much in fear of character death while at the same time didn’t feel like we were being forced to fight an unfairly difficult enemy.

  2. “I can see [Advantage/Disadvantage] being used like the 3.x circumstance bonus/penalty, to speed up games.”
    That’s the idea. You don’t get a horde of mathematical adjustments, you just have advantage if there’s something significantly in your favor, or disadvantage for the opposite.

    The rule that makes it all work, though, is that you can only have one advantage and one disadvantage, and with both they cancel out. So if you’re climbing a rain-slick cliff, in the dark, while angry seabirds peck at your fingers, that’s still just disadvantage, and if you have advantage on climb checks due to a class feature, hey, it’s just a normal roll despite everything.

    The absolute shutdown on bonus-scrounging is wonderful. Nobody needs to hold up play while they manipulate every circumstance in their favor, trying to eke out every bonus possible from the situation. You do one thing to get yourself an advantage, and that’s as good as you can do, so go ahead and roll it. (And conversely, a GM who wants to make the situation really scary-sounding need not worry that they’re piling on too many setbacks, because it’s all just ‘disadvantage’ — or one major setback is enough to make the scene narratively dramatic without having to come up with fifteen things that are going wrong at once.)

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