[RPG] Is Curse of Strahd really hard, or am I DMing it wrong

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I'm currently DMing a Curse of Strahd campaign (slightly modified to fit into an existing world I am slowly building (following core rule books for the most part). I am however following the setup/plot within the actual setting exactly. All encounters are done exactly as-is.

One thing I have noticed is that the challenge ratings seem very high for certain encounters. Sometimes massively so. Here are some examples we have come across so far.

While completing the introductory section, "Death House" they were suspicious of the pile of refuse in the corner and attacked it to be sure. It then attacked them back. They were a party of four level 2's at this point – fighting a CR5 monster, Shambling Mound). They survived by sheer luck since I rolled poorly on attack rolls.

There is also an example from later in the story…

While making their way through "Old BoneGrinder", they encountered the hags in the upper two floors. They refused to leave so the mother called her two daughters to help her and attacked the adventurers. At this point the party was level 3, fighting against 3 CR 5s (Hag Coven, Night Hags).

It should also be noted that…

The series of events literally led them straight here after the fortune reading to find an artifact. They did gain two levels after defeating the hags and securing the sword. There was not much room for exploring, they simply followed the road and noted that this was one of the places they were recommended to visit.

It should also be noted – I gave them as much warning as possible prior to the encounters, noting the ominous feelings, and a number of other things to give them every chance. And in fact – both encounters gave them the opportunity to back out prior to the combat, and the option to run away when they realized how hard the fights would be.

Now, I realize there was some obvious deficiencies on these monsters that make them slightly easier in general – for instance the first boss fight, they could have easily kited him around the room and never given it the chance to attack (his movement was only 20ft per round). The second fight, the majority of their spells are not terribly bad, and can be resisted if lucky.

Am I missing something here – or is this the proper sequence? Should my party have been doing these encounters or should they have run away? I should note, although the first encounter seemed easy, the second had them all nearly dead (and frankly, had I been trying to, could have easily killed them all).

Best Answer

Let me start off by saying that Curse of Strahd certainly has some very challenging encounters, many of which can be stumbled into at points when the party is woefully under-levelled. I've only run it once so far, but that did end in a TPK.

In Vallaki, the party has the opportunity to run into a nest of vampire spawn whilst investigating a coffin maker's shop. The coffin maker (at least under my interpretation) is being kept as an unwilling servant/hostage of these vampires. I tried to give as many hints as possible that the coffin maker was scared of something in the shop - he was glancing over his shoulder, refused to let them in, would only speak in a whisper and asked the party to meet him later 'somewhere safe' suggesting the inn. Unfortunately the party didn't take the hint. Instead, they separated, two distracted the coffin maker, whilst the remainder broke into his house. I tried to give further hints - letting them spot many footsteps around large body sized crates in the dust of the storage room. I even pointed out that the cleric in the party felt something deeply disturbing from the room. Irrespective, he cracked open the crates, triggered an enormous fight and ended up dying.

It's important to note, however, that this type of danger is a common feature of sandbox campaigns. On top of that, this is a horror campaign - it is not unreasonable that if the characters poke around the dark corners of Barovia whilst uninformed of what lies within, they may end up angering something much more powerful than themselves. I personally feel that without such a threat, the player paranoia and tension necessary to maintain an effective horror theme can end up being lost or diminished.

Players should be made aware of this when starting the campaign and they should note that often discretion will be the better part of valor. It also behooves the DM to provide more narrative warning in such cases - signs of danger, direct warnings from NPCs, and (for when it all goes awry) avenues of escape. Even with this, however, encounters can and should have the potential to be fatal. At that point it is down to each DM how such an encounter plays out - nothing precludes you from granting strokes of luck, fudging rolls, or throwing in timely ally arrivals when things go south. Only you know your players and the game you are running, hence it's up to you and what you most feel makes for a fun game around your table.

With regards to your specific examples:

Death House - this is a hard starting adventure, but one that I found to really set the scene and vibe of the campaign. The shadows at the statue, the two ghasts, and the shambling mound stand out as all potentially being fatal encounters. The shadows, however, are extremely avoidable and are essentially a consequence of a lack of caution. Much of their threat depends on the party composition and their ability to output magical damage. Contrary to the book I would probably not have the shadows pursue the party out of the room, and may have them vanish if (for example) the orb was returned. The ghasts and the mound are tough, but certainly doable if the characters play smart.

and

Bonegrinder - I feel that warnings discouraging the party from entering too early are key to this adventure. The Vistani at Tser Pool may have warned the party away from there, knowing their destination and based upon what is written on pg. 28. Additionally, the raven should be extremely vocal in trying to ward off the players. Remember, the raven will be in league with the wereravens of Vallaki and essentially a force of good. Hence, assuming the party did head in and end up in fight against the three hags, having the raven summon help in the form of a swarm or a wereraven may be one solution to avoiding a TPK.