First of all, apologies to everyone for the slow week posting here. Real life is busy, blah blah blah.
We held our fourth D&D session last night. In attendance were myself, my wife Gabby, Kevin and Curtis. Lisa and Joey were unable to make it, and we don't anticipate seeing Joey again, as he and Lisa had a nasty break-up during the week. Bah. Drama. Lame.
Anyways, in Session 3, the Heroes foiled an Arkhosian plot and recovered a magical item, a large crystal ball that was the focus of the Dragonborn spell. The ritual would have caused dragons within a certain radius to become enraged and come attack the island. Fortunately, the heroes disrupted the casting of the ritual and no dragons came to Verys Hiladian.
So, just what is this large crystal ball? It is adorned with an ornate brass dragon circling it again and again, the feet of which come down for the ball to stand upon. No one knows. They informed the village council and the Princess about the dragonborn attack, and there immediately began a debate about whether to evacuate the island or fortify defenses.
However, there was a more pressing matter for the heroes to attend to: the return of the human bodies and rescued prisoners to their home island of Barovia. Khaledra, Tarak, Avenger, and the Ice Queen accompanied the airship; Ember, the genasi swordmage formerly played by Joey, remained on Verys Hiladian to help fortify defenses for the impending Dragonborn invasion. After three uneventful days of travel, the heroes arrived at the mist-shrouded Shadowmote of Barovia. During travel, one of the rescued prisoners, a young widow named Jennalynn, develops a strong infatuation with Tarak, our half-orc ranger. She tells him the story of how her husband disappeared, probably killed by monsters, shortly after their wedding. He has not been seen since. Some think he succumbed to the shadow madness and leapt off the island; others believe he was taken by Count Strahd into Castle Ravenloft for crimes unknown.
Barovia is a small island, just a couple square miles. It is dominated by Castle Ravenloft on one end, atop a large hill, that overlooks the village below. The people here are all human! They are poor, hardscrabble folk who barely survive, and there are just a few hundred of them.
The Mists part and allow them to enter Barovia, land on the island, and begin unloading the bodies, but it is not long at all before the Mists gather again and a messenger comes forth. The ship's crew and the villagers all suddenly fall asleep, all except the heroes. The messenger informs the heroes that their presence has been requested at Castle Ravenloft; Count Strahd wishes to meet them himself. With that, the messenger disappears and the Mists part, showing the heroes the path to the Castle. They follow the path up the hill, all the while feeling like they're being watched. The Castle's drawbridge lowers for them, and they enter.
Into Castle Ravenloft
Here's where the fun begins. Instead of mapping out the monster-infested lower level of the Castle, I took some inspiration (and tiles) from the Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon board games. I built a randomized stack of dungeon tiles from the board game and laid tiles out as the heroes moved deeper into the dungeon. They were searching for the Secret Staircase to allow access to the upper levels of the Castle, and presumably to find Strahd.
This entire dungeon level counted as a single encounter, no resting. I printed out a custom-made "Encounter" deck which consisted of several monsters and a number of Events (such as traps, alarms, ghostly sightings, etc). Each monster dropped treasure, which was rolled for randomly. A strict adherence to initiative was kept, and on each player's turn (for the most part), a card was drawn off the Encounter deck and applied to the board as I saw fit. If a monster was drawn, they were simply added to the initiative stack before the hero whose turn it was. The cards for the monsters had their full stat-blocks printed on them, so there was absolutely no need to flip through the Monster Manual or Open Grave books.
This wound up all working very well. It didn't at all adhere to published encounter standards, but we don't keep track of experience points anyway. Tarak was the only hero who made it to the stairway without being Bloodied. Overall, there was definitely tension at the table as they explored and never knew what was coming around the next corner.
By the end of it all, the heroes took out a swarm of crawling claws, three deathjump spiders, several zombie and skeleton minions, a flaming skeleton, three very hungry ghouls, a couple dire rats and a brain in a broken jar.
Final tally on treasure: 190 gold pieces, vial of Beastbane, 5 potions of healing, 5 random ritual scrolls (to be determined as yet), 5 potions of recovery (homebrewed potion which allows a character to regain the use of a spent encounter or daily power), Hero's Armor +2, Alfsair Spear +2, and a Blooddrinker Axe +2.
It was a long, drawn-out combat encounter, yes, but it was constantly changing and so it didn't get boring. The exploration and combat together worked very well, as did the randomization of the dungeon itself with the board game tiles and the Encounter deck I built. I will be more than happy to make a PDF of the Deck available for download. It contains all the monsters, magical item treasure, randomness charts, events, and character cards for a few NPCs, one of which being Count Strahd. If people are really interested in how I went about putting it all together, I'll be more than happy to do a full blog post on how it works.