This summer, I decided to run The Curse of Strahd for my three players. The party consists of a fighter and a pair of rangers. Aside from low-level ranger spellcasting, the party has almost no access to magic. The intent of this campaign is to set a tone of truly Gothic horror from the first encounter on. As this is a sunless, colorless, and soulless land, I needed monsters that created paranoia, fear—and, ultimately, horror. Part of this lies in the deadliness of encounters when there is no healing magic; the other part lies in using effective monsters.
At the same time as we initiated play, my Tome of Beasts arrived! Upon reading the stories of several monsters, it struck me that I could piece them together in my own version of Barovia as they are perfect for creating Gothic horror. The monsters are: the mylings, the beggar ghouls, and the drowned maiden…
The party had left the village of Barovia to escort one of its denizens to another village, halfway across the valley. During discussion of in-game travel, one of the players said that random encounters are “necessary but boring,” so I decided to spice things up by pre-rolling for random encounters and setting them at key points. In both encounters, I used the aforementioned monsters from the Tome of Beasts.
The first encounter was at a fork in the road, coming upon a gallows surrounded by graves. Originally, the monsters were to be Strahd zombies from the source book. However, stumbling upon the absolute best monster in the Tome, I substituted three mylings—small, murderous, childlike undead. The players had already encountered monstrous children at Death House in Barovia, making them nervous from the beginning. The mylings begged the characters for help, and because they were trying to be heroic, the characters agreed. The effect of the mylings was terrifying, to say the least! As the scene developed, two of the PCs were nearly buried by the mylings and all three PCs barely survived. The mylings’ habit of burying victims alive, all while remaining cute and innocent, is a perfect fit for Barovian Gothic horror!
The second encounter, sticking with the theme of lost children, involved rescuing a child from a massacre and returning it to its mother. Originally, it was to be more of an investigation and straightforward fight. However, upon stumbling across an entire section of ghouls in the Tome, I substituted beggar ghouls in place of a pre-set encounter on the road with more Strahd zombies.
I included an encounter with clockwork watchmen for flavor, highlighting the unknown with descriptions of the cannon-looking thing on their chests without divulging its effect. There was no combat with the watchmen, so the party continued down the road only to see a group of dead travelers (the beggar ghouls) lying in the road surrounding a tiny, terrified child. The party’s fighter went to the child’s aid, only to be caught in the middle of a circle of beggar ghouls! Although one of the PCs was paralyzed during the fight, it only served to drain their resources for the next encounter.
The child informed them that his mother was waiting for him at the nearby Lake Zarovich. Following his directions, the party found themselves on the shore of the lake, where they realized that the child’s mother was drowning. One of the party members could not swim and was sidelined as a result. The other two took boats onto the lake in an attempt to save the woman (a drowned maiden). One of the PCs was brought down to a Strength score of 1, another spent three rounds fighting the drowned maiden’s hair, and the third made it to the fight just in time to finish off the undead—not exactly an encounter made for heroics!
By the end of the night, the PCs were exhausted, battered, and paranoid—all thanks to the monsters from the Tome of Beasts. Undead are a dime a dozen, but having some exceptionally well written and developed undead nasties at my fingertips really made the encounters feel that much more dangerous and macabre, adding a more intense sense of dread. All three of the monsters the PCs fought started out as non-threatening people, who in an ordinary campaign would be NPCs to be helped and saved. By turning them from innocent to deadly, the players (all three well-versed in horror and heroic fantasy) were thrown off-balance in game and in real life. This effectively created the atmosphere I was originally looking for—dark, dreadful, and hopeless.
I now have a theme of sorts—the use of apparent innocence to disguise utter malevolence—but I only have the latter two by adding creatures from the Tome of Beasts to fill the purpose of the story. Indeed, I have already begun to change a couple things in area K84, the crypts of Ravenloft, with a few choice nasty lil’ beasties to surprise and haunt my players!