Have you had your annual Halloween playthrough of Ravenloft yet? It's one of my favorite Halloween traditions (even if finagling schedules around a holiday can be a pain in the butt). If you haven’t ever had a D&D Halloween mega-party and battled your way through the halls of the Castle Ravenloft with the sole objective of destroying Count Strahd von Zarovich, then you need to wrangle your friends and try it this week! (If you can’t meet until after Halloween and want to do this in early November instead, that’s fine. It’s still fun, even if it loses a little bit of Halloween energy.)
Your goal is to create a scenario in which it’s possible for the heroes to kill Strahd von Zarovich in a single session of play. Hence the name “Strahd Must Die Tonight.” This means that, instead of preparing all of Curse of Strahd, you will only need to prepare the Fortunes of Ravenloft and Chapter 4: Castle Ravenloft. Ravenloft is a large place, and exploring it thoroughly isn’t really possible in a single 4-hour-ish sitting. You will have to make a few changes to this chapter in order for the characters to fight Strahd before the night ends or people get exhausted. I’ll include the changes and optional rules I use to run Ravenloft as a one-shot “event” adventure, but feel free to mix and match these rules to suit your table.
Some Assembly Required
To battle Strahd in a single night, all you need is a copy of Curse of Strahd and 3 to 6 friends to play with. Some things that will make your play session easier and more exciting include:
- A tarokka deck, like the one produced by GaleForceNine.
- A top-down map of Castle Ravenloft, like this map pack found on the Dungeon Masters Guild. The isometric poster map of the castle that comes with Curse of Strahd is gorgeous, but it can be hard to read on the fly. You can take these maps to a print shop and get a gorgeous set of battle maps, or use it as a reference to hand-draw the maps on a vinyl wet-erase mat.
- Pre-generated characters. If you want your game to be easy to pick up and play, you may want to create enough pre-generated characters for your whole group, since time is of the essence for this dungeon delve.
- A 60-minute hourglass. This is perhaps the most luxurious optional item, but boy is it fun. More on this below.
Single-Night Ravenloft “Event” Rules
This is not a normal session of D&D. Unless you have friends who could play D&D from dawn to dusk, you will most likely need to impose a concrete and—if we’re being honest with ourselves—arbitrary time limit upon the adventure. For most groups, the maximum amount of time they can commit to playing D&D is about 4 hours. I played several 8-hour sessions in high school, but these days I believe in quality over quantity. I think it’s much better to have 4 hours of great gameplay and attentive DMing than to double the duration and halve the engagement. To that end, I created some rules and limitations that turn this exploration of Castle Ravenloft into a deadly race against the clock, haunted by a jeering enemy, always both close at hand and tantalizingly out of reach.
Countdown to the Count
In the past, I’ve struggled to run Ravenloft in a single game session. It’s too big for a one-shot game, especially if your players really want to explore the castle and soak in all the details. My ideal D&D game lasts about 4 hours… or enough time to explore and appreciate about a half of the castle, in my experience. Probably less, depending on how much you’re roleplaying, which I always encourage.
If you like a 4-hour game of D&D, then “Strahd Must Die Tonight” has a four-hour real-life time limit (plus the half hour or so it takes to fight Strahd). I like to have Strahd appear before them in person as they enter the castle and declare that they have “four hours until planar midnight,” which sidesteps the issue of game time passing differently than real time. Once the four hours are up, Strahd immediately appears before the party and attacks. Come life or come death, the hunt ends here.
At the end of every real-life hour, Strahd appears before the party and mocks the party, pitying their inevitable defeat. He offers to bestow a random gift upon one of the characters, determined from the table below—if that character allows Strahd to bite them and drink their blood first (Strahd makes a single Bite attack against the volunteer that always hits). These gifts are designed to speed up play by goading the players into rash action. If you feel an event would drag the game down, you can replace it.
Why does Strahd give these gifts? The same reason he’s set a time limit at all: he’s toying with the characters like a cat toys with a mouse. He believes himself invincible… until any character finds the Sunsword. Once he knows this item has been found, his hourly taunting visits are replaced with hourly surprise attacks against the character wielding the blade. He materializes from thin air, strikes, then flees using his Shapechanger trait as quickly as possible.
Having a 60-minute hourglass at the table that you use to track time at the table instead of a digital timer makes this event particularly memorable, dramatic, and campy. The players can see their time trickling away before their very eyes—and you can make a big show of tipping it over again once Strahd appears. It makes me feel like the Wicked Witch of the West taunting Dorothy with how long she has left to live.
Strahd Random Event Table
The following effects only function while within Castle Ravenloft.
One melee weapon of the character’s choice in their possession deals an extra 2d6 radiant damage against all undead except Strahd.
The character’s damage-dealing cantrips deal an addition 2d6 radiant damage against all undead except Strahd.
The character regains 2d6 hit points whenever they kill a living creature with blood in its body.
The character and up to six other creatures that they are touching can teleport to the castle’s Chapel (area K15) by spending 10 minutes in meditation.
The character instantly regains a spell slot of a level of their choice.
The character is immune to being charmed by all creatures except Strahd.
The character learns the fastest way to the room containing the closest item or being determined by the Fortunes of Ravenloft, as if under the effects of a find the path spell.
No Wandering Monsters
There’s already no way the characters will get through all of Castle Ravenloft in one night, there’s no need to bog play down with random encounters. If the characters decide to “camp” and wait for Strahd rather than searching for him—and this makes the game less fun for you or the players—roll on the Random Encounters in Castle Ravenloft table once every ten minutes of real time until they leave the area they’re camping in as Strahd tries to “smoke them out.” If you have to roll again during an encounter in progress, the new creatures join the encounter and roll initiative if necessary.
In the past, I’ve had my players use Ireena Kolyana, Ezmerelda d’Avenir, Rudolph van Richten, and other major Ravenloft NPCs as their player characters, rebuilt as pregenerated characters. This is a fun idea, but if you’re not planning on using pregens and want to keep the predatory story of Strahd and Ireena intact, you can cast Ireena as Strahd’s Enemy (see “Fortunes of Ravenloft,” below).
In this scenario, Ireena has already been spirited away to Castle Ravenloft. She may be in need of rescuing, Princess Zelda-style, or she may be mounting a desperate escape of her own. Either way, she uses Veteran statistics and appears somewhere in the castle based on your tarokka reading.
The Mists Constrict
The Mists of Ravenloft constrict tightly around the master’s castle, preventing all living creatures from exiting the castle grounds, even using magical means. Spells and effects that teleport creatures out of the castle (such as some effects of the brazier in area 78), instantly fail.
The mists form a wall of opaque fog just beyond the gate towers (area J), and otherwise surrounds the castle’s outer walls at a range of 100 feet. See the “Walls of Ravenloft” map.
I recommend creating characters using the array or point buy, and allowing them to choose one piece of armor of their choice (plus a shield, if desired), two weapons of their choice (or three weapons, if they are dual-wielding), plus 100 gp to purchase other adventuring gear and a single rare magic item of their choice.
See “Choose your Difficulty” to see what level the characters should be.
Choose your Difficulty
You can make this adventure easier or harder by changing the level of your characters. Strahd von Zarovich may be a CR 15 vampire, but the legendary artifacts of Ravenloft possess incredible power. If your party is skilled (or lucky) enough to find all three artifacts, it’s possible that with good strategy, even a party of 5th-level characters can defeat Strahd.
A party seeking a hard adventure should play 6th-level characters, a medium adventure caters to 8th-level characters, and an easy attack on the castle can be accomplished by 10th-levl characters. Start from this baseline, and adjust according to party size and time limit.
Party Size. This adventure is balanced around a party of 4 characters. For every character you add to the party above 4, each character starts 1 level lower. For example, a party of 5 characters on a medium-difficulty adventure should each be 7th level. Likewise, every character you remove from the party below 4, each character gains 1 level.
Time Limit. This adventure is balanced around a 4-hour time limit (plus the time it takes to fight Strahd). For every 2 hours you add to this time, each character starts 1 level lower. For example, a party of 5 characters on a medium-difficulty adventure with a 6-hour timer should each be 6th level. For every 1 hour you detract from this time, each character starts 1 level higher.
Character Death and “Losing” the Adventure
What happens if a character dies? That’s entirely up to you. Odds are, your players don’t want to sit idly at the table with a torn-up character sheet while the rest of their friends struggle through the adventure, minus one player. This is a party event, not a hardcore dungeon crawl. Here are some options:
- Casual Revival. When a character would die, they instead fall unconscious and gain 1 level of exhaustion.
- Gothic Revival. When a character would die, they instead fall unconscious and gain a permanent Lingering Injury.
- Casual Perma-death. When a character dies, their player must make a new character, who is introduced at any time before the next encounter.
- Gothic Perma-death. When a character dies, their player must make a new character of one level lower than their last character, who is introduced at any time before the next encounter.
The only situation in which the characters lose the adventure is if the entire party is killed at once. There’s just no coming back from that.
Fortunes of Ravenloft
There are three powerful artifacts which can defeat Strahd scattered throughout the realm of Barovia. Unfortunately, your players do not have the luxury of wandering all over Barovia, they can only explore Castle Ravenloft itself. The location of these items are determined by a random tarokka reading, which prevents players from memorizing the exact location of the artifacts. It’s an excellent way to make this adventure replayable in future years!
If you want, you can simply do a tarokka reading as prescribed in Curse of Strahd and consider any artifacts drawn outside of the castle “unobtainable,” adding a level of randomized difficulty to the adventure. I’m not a fan of that. When I run a Ravenloft one-shot, I use a modified version of the tarokka drawing in Curse of Strahd that removes locations outside of the castle. You’ll need either an actual tarokka deck or a modified deck of standard playing cards.
Before the game begins, you’ll want to separate your tarokka deck into the High Deck and the Low Deck. The first three cards are drawn from the low deck, and determine the location of the three artifacts capable of defeating Strahd. The first card determines the location of the Tome of Strahd. The second card determines the location of the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. The third card determines the location of the Sunsword, the fourth card determines the location of Strahd’s enemy, and the fifth card determines the location of Strahd himself.
Variant: Empowered Tome of Strahd. In Curse of Strahd, the Tome of Strahd possesses no magical powers. If you wish to make finding the tome more exciting, you can have the tome grant the following trait to anyone who attunes to it.
Bearer of Strahd’s Truth. While attuned to the Tome of Strahd, you have advantage on saving throws made to resist Strahd’s spells and effects. If you succeed on a saving throw against Strahd’s Charm feature, Strahd takes 22 (4d10) psychic damage.
The Low Deck
First, separate your tarokka deck into the High Deck and the Low Deck. The Low Deck is usually larger, but it’s been modified for this adventure to remove results outside of the castle. This modified Low Deck consists of the following cards:
- The Paladin (2 of Spades)
- The Mercenary (4 of Spades)
- The Dictator (8 of Spades)
- The Warrior (10 of Spades)
- The Transmuter (1 of Clubs)
- The Necromancer (8 of Clubs)
- The Merchant (4 of Diamonds)
- The Miser (9 of Diamonds)
- The Shepherd (4 of Hearts)
- The Anarchist (6 of Hearts)
- The Priest (10 of Hearts)
The High Deck
The High Deck consists of the following cards; if you’re using a standard deck of playing cards, the High deck is comprised of both Jokers, and the Jack, Queen, and King of each suit:
- The Artifact (Joker 1)
- The Beast (Jack of Diamonds)
- The Broken One (King of Diamonds)
- The Darklord (King of Spades)
- The Donjon (King of Clubs)
- The Seer (Jack of Clubs)
- The Ghost (King of Hearts)
- The Executioner (Jack of Spades)
- The Horseman (Joker 2)
- The Innocent (Queen of Hearts)
- The Marionette (Jack of Hearts)
- The Mists (Queen of Spades)
- The Raven (Queen of Clubs)
- The Tempter (Queen of Diamonds)
The Card Reading
With the decks thus separated, you are prepared to do a tarokka reading and randomize the assorted treasures of Ravenloft, as well as the location of Strahd’s enemy and the vampire himself. If this is your first time running Ravenloft, you may wish to perform the card reading in private ahead of time so that you can prepare for these locations instead of taking notes on the fly.
I recommend reading the “Fortunes of Ravenloft” section of Curse of Strahd at least once in full if you intend to perform the card reading for your players as a prologue to the adventure. This card reading could take many forms; see “Starting the Adventure,” below.
The Artifacts. The first step of the reading is fairly simple. Draw three cards from the Low Deck, and compare them in order to the Treasure Locations table in Curse of Strahd. Set these cards aside.
Strahd’s Enemy. Next, draw one more card from the Low Deck and compare it to the Treasure Locations table in Curse of Strahd, just as before. I always cast Ireena Kolyana as Strahd’s enemy and give her Veteran statistics, and the card you draw from the Low Deck determines where Ireena is within Castle Ravenloft. She is either captured or fighting for her life against Strahd’s minions.
Strahd’s Location. Finally, draw a single card from the High Deck and compare it to the Strahd’s Location in the Castle table in Curse of Strahd. This determines where in the castle Strahd lurks when he is not antagonizing the characters.
Starting the Adventure
Do you want to start this adventure with a dramatic inciting incident that urges the characters to explore the castle? Or do you want the characters to begin their exploration of Castle Ravenloft solemnly, with dread and caution hanging over every room?
Personally, I prefer the explosive beginning. Here’s one way:
The characters are all in a carriage racing towards Castle Ravenloft. Lightning streaks through the sky and thunder rumbles all around them. They are traveling at this breakneck pace with legendary vampire hunter Rudolph van Richten, after he gathered them in a last-ditch effort to kill Strahd von Zarovich. He frantically explains what he has learned to them, and displays the tarokka cards and their cryptic clues. Then, as the carriage crosses the rickety bridge to Castle Ravenloft, a gargoyle swoops from the sky and tears Van Richten from the cart and the two plummet over one thousand feet into the gorge beneath the castle.
The carriage careens into courtyard of Castle Ravenloft and crashes as the horses fall mysteriously dead. The characters are hurled from the carriage into the courtyard. As they rise, muddy and soaked through, a massive and ghostly apparition of Strahd appears before them. He cackles at their misfortune and raises an hourglass filled with blood-red sand. He looks down upon them and says:
“I am the ancient. I am the land. I am Count Strahd von Zarovich. Gaze upon me and tremble, foolish hunters. The walls of Castle Ravenloft are my domain, and here, I reign supreme. You wish to hunt me down? So be it. I grant you four cosmic hours to explore the castle, uncover its mysteries, and confront me." Strahd turns over the hourglass and the sands begin to trickle into the bottom bell. "But when the sands of time run out, so too will your lives. Welcome to Castle Ravenloft. Welcome… to your doom!”
Strahd cackles, and his apparition and his voice fade into the mist as the doors of Castle Ravenloft swing open behind him. The characters stand in the Front Courtyard (area K1), and the door opens into the Entry (area K7). Let the games begin.
Ending the Adventure
In Curse of Strahd, Strahd’s death marks the climax of the adventure. The ending is how the rest of Barovia begins to rebuild after the tyrant’s death, and the fates of the characters, Ireena, the spirits of Sergei and Tatyana, and so forth. In this abridged version, Strahd’s death is probably the end. Because this adventure strips out a lot of the deliciously gothic melodrama to streamline the experience, there isn’t much character drama to resolve in the wake of Strahd’s death. In my experience, the best way to end this adventure is to describe Strahd’s death in extravagant detail, then stand and declare “congratulations!” and then pull over the candy bowl and cool down with your friends for a bit.
Of course, that assumes your party killed Strahd. If they TPK’d before they could do that, well… bring that candy bowl anyway. They might need a little pick-me-up. Happy Halloween!
Did you like this adventure? You can pick up more adventures I've written on the DMs Guild, such as The Temple of Shattered Minds, a suspenseful eldritch mystery with a mind flayer villain (for 3rd level characters). Fire, Ash, and Ruin, an expedition into a demon-infested volcano where you can ally with a red dragon and fight a balor (part of Season 7 of the D&D Adventurers League, for 11th–16th-level characters). The Cannith Code, an Eberron adventure in which you infiltrate a secret weapons research facility and bust out a master codebreaker (part of Embers of the Last War, a D&D Adventurers League storyline, for 1st–4th-level characters). All Eyes on Chult, in which the Xanathar Guild tries to wriggle its way into a position of power in Port Nyanzaru (Only available as part of Xanathar's Lost Notes to Everything Else; Adventurers League-legal, for 1st-level characters).
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his Halloween-colored familiars, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.