With just one week until Halloween, many of us will be getting ready to run Ravenloft again.
Widely considered one of the greatest adventures ever written, the original I6: Ravenloft was updated to 5th edition in 2016’s Curse of Strahd. It’s a lot of fun, and many players and DMs have said that it’s their favourite published adventure so far.
There’s one catch. As written, Strahd von Zarovich is a bit of a pushover. So, in this article, I’m going to suggest some ways to make Strahd scarier as a final boss. Players: look away now.
A couple of quick notes:
- I am running Strahd as written here. Many people run their own version of Strahd. This is a lot of fun, too, but it’s beyond the scope of this article.
- A big part of Strahd is how you use him throughout the adventure. This article is focused on Chapter 4: Castle Ravenloft. However, much of the advice herein applies elsewhere in the adventure!
Location, allies, and party level
Before we start looking at Strahd’s stat block, we need to consider:
- Strahd’s location in Ravenloft
- The ally who fights with the party
- The level of the party.
Let’s tackle location first. The fight will be considerably harder if it happens Strahd’s tomb as he will be accompanied by three vampire spawn. The overlook (K6) and the north tower peak (K60) both allow Strahd the option of an aerial escape.
By the way, a note about the Fortunes of Ravenloft here. Nowhere does the adventure say that this must be the final encounter. There are two implications behind this:
- The players might find a way to defeat him in another location;
- Strahd can choose to flee the fight if he wishes to, even in the location determined by the Fortunes of Ravenloft. More on this in a minute.
Onto allies. These vary enormously in power level. Five of them are less powerful than a 1st-level character.
|The Mad Mage of Mount Baratok
|Sir Godfrey Gwilym
|Nikolai Wachter the elder
A few notes about their key abilities:
- Rictavio has some useful support spells such as protection from evil and good, sanctuary, death ward, and freedom of movement.
- Zuleika is immune to non-magical attacks and cannot be polymorphed.
- The Mad Mage of Mount Baratok has an excellent selection of prepared spells including counterspell, Mordenkainen’s faithful hound, stoneskin, true seeing, and, of course, time stop. He also has magic resistance.
- Victor Vallakovich and Kasimir Velikov are both mages. Their most useful spells are probably counterspell and greater invisibility.
- Sir Godfrey Gwilym has regeneration and several forms of radiant damage (divine favour, branding smite, blinding smite). Branding smite can end Strahd’s invisibility without him making a save.
- Sir Klutz has a bunch of useful immunities and resistances.
- Arrigal can sneak attack and has poison damage, which Strahd is not resistant or immune to (weirdly).
- Ezmerelda d’Avenir has magical weapons, holy water, and some useful spells like shield, mirror image, and greater invisibility.
- Davian Martikov has regeneration and cannot be polymorphed. He can also fly.
- Vasilka the flesh golem can bypass Strahd’s resistance to non-magical damage. However, she also risks going berserk, and Strahd would know about her aversion to fire.
To be honest, I would say Ezmerelda, Sir Godfrey, and the Mad Mage are the only three that would have a significant impact on the party’s chances. Rictavio, Arrigal, and Vasilka are OK, but flawed. The rest will have approximately zero impact on the party’s survival (although Donavich’s bless is useful until he inevitably dies after taking 9 points of damage).
Finally, you have the question of party level. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest flaws with Curse of Strahd: if you follow the adventure’s advice for milestone levelling, most groups will be over-levelled by the time they face the final enemy, especially if he has no allies or air superiority. Throw in the Sunsword and a powerful ally like the Mad Mage of Mount Baratok, and you’re basically playing on easy mode.
Maybe this is controversial, but I think a party of four adventurers should be about 8th level for Strahd to be a climactic solo encounter. If they have a paladin on the party or a powerful ally like the Mad Mage, they could probably even do it at 7th. For every additional party member, reduce the level by one. That’s right: I really think six 6th-level characters could beat Strahd if played by experienced players. That’s just how action economy works.
Consider using traditional XP to slow down the rate of advancement. Either that, or be a bit less generous with milestone levelling.
The only exception to all this would be if Strahd is in his tomb accompanied by the brides. That’s a considerably more challenging fight.
- The fight will be significantly harder if it takes place in Strahd’s tomb.
- Strahd can, and should, run away.
- Most allies don’t make much of a difference. The big exceptions are Ezmerelda d’Avenir, Sir Godfrey Gwilym, and the Mad Mage of Mount Baratok.
- Run the finale at a lower level: 8th for groups of four, 7th for groups of five, 6th for groups of six. If they have a powerful ally, they might even manage the fight at one level lower.
Strahd’s tactics round by round
Strahd’s stat block has a lot going on: resistances, regeneration, spellcasting, legendary resistance, legendary actions, lair actions, children of the night, charm . . . How should we use it all? (There’s also the Heart of Sorrow, which can absorb 50 damage – see Area K20. It’s kind of crazy that this isn’t noted anywhere in Strahd’s stat block.)
I would actually start with his ability scores – specifically, his Intelligence (20) and Wisdom (15). Paraphrasing Keith Ammann (link):
- Intelligence 20 means Strahd knows the best attack or defence for the situation and can accurately assess his enemies’ weaknesses.
- Wisdom 15 means Strahd choose his fights carefully and fights only when sure he will win.
This presents us with an interesting dynamic for the adventure’s endgame. Once the players have obtained the Sunsword and the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, Strahd knows he has no chance of defeating them in an up-front fight. So why would he try? He does everything he can to avoid it.
The only hope Strahd has of eliminating the adventurers is to harry them like a guerrilla and whittle down their resources while they search for him. Less a boss fight, more cat and mouse.
What does this look like in practice?
If Strahd attacks, he does so for no longer than one or two rounds. Bear in mind that a 9th-level fighter wielding the Sunsword can comfortably do 50 damage in a turn (it sheds sunlight, which deals 20 damage to Strahd and stops him regenerating), and a paladin with 3rd-level divine smites could do more than 90. Even with max hp (204), Strahd isn’t going to last long under such attacks.
When Strahd attacks, he does so with the benefit of surprise. Strahd has a Stealth modifier of +14: few characters will have a passive Perception high enough to spot him reliably. (Remember the −5 penalty for character in dim light with no light source, and yes, that applies to characters with darkvision, too.) Strahd also has access to greater invisibility, nondetection (which has an eight-hour duration and is essentially ‘always on’), and his shapechanger ability (but not polymorph: shapechangers cannot be polymorphed). Strahd has plenty of options for approaching unnoticed, and when he attacks from hiding, he does so with advantage.
My tactics would be as follows:
- Hide. Any character with a passive Perception of 23 or lower (28 in dim light) is surprised.
- Make an unarmed strike with advantage. Grapple. Target a character with low Strength, hp, and AC (probably a squishy wizard-type).
- Follow up with a bite. Note that the target’s hit point maximum is reduced and lasts this way until the target finishes a long rest.
- Use the three legendary actions. Bite (2 actions) then move away without provoking opportunity attacks.
- Use lair actions. Strahd can either pass through solid walls or slam (and lock) doors behind him. If he can make a conventional escape quite easily, he might summon a spectre (which has the potential to lower the hit point maximum again).
- Rinse and repeat.
This has the potential to be very nasty indeed. Strahd instinctively knows who to target and aims for the weak, the isolated, or the unaware. As the DM, you can do this whenever you feel like it. Think of it like a ticking clock.
How can the players combat this? Their main defences are the light of the Sunsword and the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind (although the latter only lasts for 10 minutes and consumes half its charges for the day). At some point, someone in the party is going to be vulnerable. A rogue sneaks off perhaps, or the party gets split up in a fight. He can always use his lair action to slam and lock a door, cutting off a party member at the back.
What about resting? Honestly, it seems kind of ridiculous to me that adventurers could bed down for eight hours in the middle of Castle Ravenloft. It doesn’t make narrative sense. If they did, Strahd would definitely not leave them alone. Even against Leomund’s tiny hut Strahd has options, since the ‘hut’ is only a dome. An incorporeal spectre could rise up through the floor, a shadow could animate . . . Strahd could also charm the spellcaster (‘step outside a moment’) or, you know, just wait patiently until the end of the spell and then cast fireball while the party are in a nice little cluster.
- Hide to gain surprise.
- Attack with advantage.
- Use unarmed strike then bite.
- Bite again with a legendary action.
- Move away with the last legendary action.
- Use lair actions to isolate vulnerable characters while they explore the castle.
The final stand?
What if our adventurers somehow corner Strahd and these cat-and-mouse tactics no longer apply?
Strahd has three main means of causing damage: melee attacks, fireball, and blight. Let’s go through them.
- Strike plus bite can reduce a target’s speed to zero and reduce their hit point maximum by 17. Alternatively, strike-strike could deal 44 damage if both hit. Bear in mind that these attacks would have advantage if Strahd is invisible.
- Fireball is 28 fire damage, 14 on a successful Dex save (and can be upscaled). The DC is reasonably high (DC 18). Strahd should be able to target at least three characters, maybe all four.
- Blight is 36 necrotic damage, 18 on a successful Con save (and can be upscaled a bit). However, it’s short-range and only targets one enemy.
The choice is yours. If you can hit at least three allies, fireball is likely to do more damage overall, but Strahd is intelligent enough to focus his fire, which makes me lean towards unarmed strikes. (Four enemies on half hit points are more of a threat than three enemies on full hit points.) Blight strikes me as the weakest of the three options, and I would probably only use it on an out-of-reach spellcaster who was concentrating on something bothersome.
A couple of other options:
- Charm. A low-Wisdom character could be instructed to dim the Sunsword or cast away the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind.
- Gust of wind.If you’re fighting on the overlook (Area K6) and want to something deliciously evil, this 2nd-level spell could 20d6 damage by pushing someone off the edge of a cliff. Mwahahaha.
One more thing: what about the Heart of Sorrow (assuming it hasn’t been destroyed)? It only has 50 hit points and doesn’t regenerate until dawn. Given how much damage a party of characters can do in one turn, I think Strahd would use this as soon as possible, to buy him time to escape.
- Stay focused on trying to escape.
- Concentrate on greater invisibility.
- Use unarmed strikes (with advantage).
- Pick off characters with lowest hp and AC first.
- Use legendary actions to stay mobile and keep making attacks.
How does this match your own experience of running Strahd? Did I miss something? Add your thoughts in the comments below.
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