Running Curse of Strahd for kids: the set-up

Between having a cold and a visit from the grandparents, I haven’t had time to run my OD&D game recently, so I thought I’d start on the stories from the 5E game I run for my daughter, her cousins, and their dad. Apart from the two grown-ups, the age range is 8-12, and when people found out I was running Curse of Strahd, they were like “You can’t run that for kids!” (Though strangely no one has batted an eyelid about me running Rappan Athuk for my 5yo.)

Obviously, when something really heavy or age-inappropriate comes up, I omit it or Bowdlerize it (I mean, c’mon, they’re kids). But there’s plenty of stuff that they can handle as is. And it has one of the best dungeon-crawls ever.

When I began running D&D for just my daughter, I used a homebrew adventure, but when I started running for her cousins, I decided to put that 5E Starter Set to work and run Lost Mines of Phandelver, transplanted into my homebrew setting because I hate the Forgotten Realms.

Not long after the game started, Wizards of the Coast released Curse of Strahd. I’m a big fan of Chris Perkins, Gothic horror, and the original Ravenloft module, so I just had to run this, and I began setting it up.

[Spoiler alert: if you haven’t played through Lost Mines of Phandelver, you may want to skip the rest of this post. Also I name-drop a lot of NPCs from Phandelver and Strahd without really explaining them, so heads up on that.]

The first thing I did to tempt the party to (eventually) travel to Barovia was reskin the +1 longssword they found in the dungeon beneath Tresendar Manor to have a raven motif on the hilt, instead of a “bird of prey”. I also changed Aldith Tresendar’s nickname from the Black Hawk to the Raven. Though the players still don’t know it, the blade of this sword is the blade of the Sunsword, and when reunited with its original hilt in Barovia, will become fully functional. (That isn’t how the Sunsword works in Curse of Strahd, but it is how it works in the original Ravenloft, so it’s what I’m doing).

As the fighter attuned to the sword, he had a vision of the wizard Khazan’s apprentice smuggling the blade, sans hilt, out of a deep dark wood (the Svalich Woods), pursued by wolves. He manages to pass the blade to a mounted warrior – a young Aldith Tresendar – before the wolves take him down. Tresendar escapes and returns to his home in the country of Frisjen, where he has a custom hilt fashioned in a Raven motif (ravens had tried to defend the apprentice from the wolves) and has an illustrious career fighting evil, earning the title Knight of the Raven.

The players were so impressed by this that they began calling themselves The Order of the Silver Raven, after the sword and the trinket the fighter just happened to roll at character creation.

This will probably start to sound very railroady, and in my defence, I seeded some other adventures as well, such as Temple of the Frog (which I linked to the frog statuette they found in the Cragmaw Hideout), and some other homebrew adventures. But the Raven stuff was what they were biting on, so I carried on developing that.

The next seed I planted had to do with the Black Spider himself. Why does he want the forge of spells? What does it do? It makes magic weapons. So either he or his employer wants a magic weapon.

The Black Spider is a male drow, and males are de-valued in drow society, which is why ambitious male drow pursue their careers in the over-world. But up here, he’s an upstart and an outsider, and in any case he’s probably used to taking orders, so likely he’s a lieutenant or high-ranking henchman for someone else.

Who? Strahd!

In my game, Strahd hired the Black Spider to find the fabled forge of spells and use it to craft a magic sword, the Darkblade, which would be a foil to the Sunsword. Strahd has learned that the Sunsword wasn’t actually destroyed, but deconstructed and hidden, and thus could be remade and threaten him again. He would like some insurance against that eventuality. He’d seek the forge of spells himself, but he can’t leave Barovia.

The players haven’t uncovered all of this yet, but they do know, from the Black Spider’s letter to Glasstaff, that he was working for someone called “Strahd” and that he wanted to make a magic sword. (They killed the Black Spider dead with a fireball in the final encounter, so he won’t be telling any more tales, and I learned a valuable lesson about what happens when you level a party up too early.)

The last and final “clue” was my favourite. Part of the treasure in the lair of Mormesk the Wraith included a map that “shows the location of a dungeon of your own creation.” This is one of my favourite tropes in D&D adventures: the blank spot for the hook for the next adventure.

When the party found this treasure, it was in a tattered book with draconic runes on the spine. The runes read “The Journal of Argynvost”. Unfortunately, the words in the journal were not in draconic runes. They were in a spindly script never seen before in Frisjen. The party had to roll some History checks before they realized that, though it was unfamiliar, it was related to the Latian “legal hand” used for documents in Frisjen and other parts of the Freefolk Empire (all of this is flavour from my homebrew setting, btw.). Once they had deciphered the script, I gave the fighter the “Journal of Argynvost” handout from Curse of Strahd, and a copy of the players’ map of Barovia, which “slipped out of the journal.”

The party’s fighter (played by the only adult player) is a dragonborn, and part of his backstory is that he’s an oprhan. His family was killed in a mountain pass when he was a baby. They were warriors, on their way to protect an area from evil. Presumably, the evil forces got the jump on them. I decided that this mountain pass was the Bjorgir Pass, which in my setting connects the Freefolk lands to Barovia. His parents were party of the Order of the Silver Dragon. They were fleeing Barovia after the fall of Argynvost, and Strahd had evil Vistani ambush them. Again, not all of this has been revealed to the party, but they are starting to piece it together.

With three adventure hooks in play, I probably didn’t need to do any more, but the players themselves actually gave me one more thing to use to entice them. More than anything in the adventure, they enjoyed clearing out Tresendar Manor, and immediately talked about fixing it up and using it as a base of operations. I cracked open the Dungeon Master’s Guide and started doing some calculations, taking into account that they wouldn’t be building from scratch, but restoring an existing structure. Of course, they have nowhere near sufficient funds, and were appropriately disappointed.

Enter Sildar Hallwinter, who has become the party’s patron, and has invited the fighter to join the Lord’s Alliance. Sildar informs the party that the Bjorgir Pass is becoming a problem. It has long had an evil reputation, but until recently, the creatures that dwelt there stayed on the far side. Now they are passing into the Freefolk lands and terrorizing the locals. Unfortunately, the Freefolk cannot send any troops to deal with the problem, as they are all busy putting down rebellions among the Shortsword people, whose lands lie between Frisjen and the Freefolk. Sildar has been asked to find a small band of capable people to travel to the Bjorgir Pass and investigate the goings on, deal with it if possible, and otherwise report back on their findings.

In return for this, Sildar assured them, the Freefolk Empire will grant them funds to convert Tresendar Manor into a stronghold.

My thinking here was that, if they survive Curse of Strahd, they’ll be 10th Level, which is the traditional level you should build a stronghold. Then they can hire retainers and all that good stuff. Then maybe they can finally sort out that pesky Temple of the Frog.

In forthcoming installments, I’ll talk about the long route from Frisjen to the Bjorgir Pass, the introductory adventure I selected, and how I linked each character’s backstory to adventure, so they all have a personal stake.