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Count Strahd Von Zarovich is a tough opponent. Fighting Strahd should always feel dangerous, like the conflict will go sour from one moment to the next. He is described in the book in page 240. You would do well by scanning it, taking a picture or taking good notes of all the info in that page for fast reference in game. It’s a big stat block.
Strahd is strong in all areas, his lowest score being Wis (15). However the score of most importance is Intelligence, which is often neglected when deciding what to do or how to roleplay Strahd. He has a score of 20 Intelligence, which is higher than the average mind flayer if you want to compare it with a race that is considered highly intelligent. Strahd became more powerful after becoming a vampire but let’s remember that before that he was a soldier, and expert in strategy and resource management and a conqueror.
While Strahd is really strong and an accomplished spellcaster, he is NOT stupid and understands that if he gets mobbed up by 5 PCs he won’t stand for a long time. We also have to take into account the way action economy works in 5th edition (and other editions as well), 4-5 player characters with an action and possibly a bonus action will always have a lot more to do in a round than Strahd, even with legendary actions.
This is why you should never present Strahd alone (in a fight), there is a table in page 239 titled “Strahd’s Minions”, it serves as a fast encounter builder for Strahd. Just roll or make a choice and that’s what accompanies Strahd at any given time. They serve as meat shields for Strahd, they protect him and if there are enough of them, Strahd can simply disengage from the fight and watch from afar, gauging the PCs abilities. These are some extra suggestions for Strahd’s minions:
- Rahadin, Strahd’s Chamberlain
- 2d4 Vistani minions
- 1d4 ghasts
- 2d6 charmed villagers from Vallaki
- 2d6 evil druids
Alternatively, if Strahd is alone, he can always use his Children of the Night ability to call forth swarms of bats, rats, or a pack of wolves. The ability is supposed to work in 1d4 rounds but I suggest having the effect happen almost immediately, or after 1 turn, or else Strahd will be unguarded for possibly 3 or 4 turns which is too much.
Strahd’s Spell list
Strahd’s spell list is described in his stat block, but it has some spell choices that are not suited for a battle against a party of PCs. I understand why it is like that, it’s trying to convey what spells he has prepared at any given day, but just like any wizard, if he expects to go fighting then he will prepare the spells more likely to be used. Spells like comprehend languages, nondetection and scrying are good examples of the ones you can change.
Also, unless you’re playing an Adventurer’s League legal game, this is the main boss of the adventure, the creature which was imbued by darkness by the elder death gods in the Amber Temple. Plus he’s had access to Exethanter’s tutelage and the spell library in the temple which by the way includes ALL spells in the PHB. So there is no reason to respect the rules here, I’ll write a suggested (legal) spell list below but my real advice is, forget spell lists, forget spell slots and ignore Strahd’s supposed spellcaster level.
I kept my players on their toes because all the time they were trying to guess whether Strahd had access to some spells or not. I went as high as level 6 spells, and if I wanted to cast more than one, Strahd always brought some spell scrolls with him. Anytime Strahd was in need of a certain spell, he just used it. Obviously I restricted it to the Wizard’s spell list, but any spell was fair game. The game was more dramatic this way, my players really bought the idea of Strahd being a really powerful spellcaster and expected anything from him.
Suggested Spell List (A.L. Legal):
Cantrips (at will): Mage hand, Prestidigitation, Ray of Frost
1st level (4 slots): Shield, Fog Cloud, Sleep
2nd level (3 slots): Hold Person, gust of wind, Mirror Image
3rd level (3 slots): Haste, Fireball, Counterspell
4th level (3 slots): Blight, Greater Invisibility, Polymorph
5th level (1 slot): Telekinesis, Conjure Elemental
Getting Strahd out of Danger
Strahd is always protected by the Heart of Sorrow which equates to 50 extra HP. After that is dealt with, or the connection with the heart stopped (Strahd can do this voluntarily as a bonus action) then Strahd really starts taking damage. He is resistant to necrotic and non-magical weapons. And he also regenerates 20 HP per round, unless he takes radiant damage or holy water that turn. He appears invulnerable, but PCs will burn through these layers of protections fast, specially at higher levels, hence my advice of always having Strahd with some monster companions.
Strahd also has 144 HP, which you could bump to the maximum of 204 and still be legal. I’ve seen that when PCs first fight Strahd they’re low level and scared so they make mistakes, but as fights keep occurring, they get the hang of it and they will take advantage of Strahd’s vulnerabilities. Particularly if they focus their attention on him in order to really fight against Strahd’s regeneration ability. You’ll see clerics and paladins bring holy water and radiant spells to battle. Other spellcasters like warlocks and wizards will use the spell Ray of Frost, which actually negates the regeneration too, and it is a cantrip so they can do it all the time. Add to this the possibility of surrounding Strahd and action economy and Strahd will not last long against a level 5-6 party. And that’s why you hear some stories of battles with Strahd that were too easy. That’s the DM not playing Strahd to his full capacity and also forgetting how intelligent he is. These are some things to keep in mind in order to keep Strahd ahead of the PCs as much as he can.
Legendary Move action: This is golden. As a legendary action NOT on his turn he can move up to 30 ft. without provoking opportunity attacks. My players cried of anger because of this. The thing is, you can combine this with Strahd’s Spider Climb ability and move upward and out of the melee PCs reach. For example, Strahd appears and attacks a PC, unarmed strike and hopefully a bite too. After him goes another PC, let him do what he wants. Next Strahd uses his legendary action to move out of both PC’s way and up a wall or a tree, probably 20 ft. above ground. He can stay there the rest of the round if he wants while the melee combatants spend their turn doing nothing and/or preparing action to attack when he returns. Next turn Strahd goes down and attacks again, and then uses the next legendary action to go back up, or to bite a grappled PC. You really have to metagame the initiative order and decide who you want to avoid hitting Strahd, probably a paladin or cleric. In a game we had, the female paladin hated Strahd’s guts because never in the whole campaign could she hit him and do a smite evil. He never let her get close to her, or manipulated the round with the legendary move so that he was always out of her way. This can also be combined with the Lair Action that let’s Strahd walk through walls in the castle. He can just move away into a wall, even stay there for a full minute and return with full HP.
Defensive Spells: This is possible if you ignore the spell rules like I explained above and give Strahd complete command of the magic repertoire of spells, if not, just modify the spell list accordingly, picking the ones you like the most. Some really simple and sometimes low-level spells can really make things difficult for the PCs.
- Shield (level 1) gives Strahd 21 AC for the whole round. Really useful as a reaction when his legendary move was not enough to keep him out of melee range.
- Mirror Image (level 2) is a nice buffer that also works against spell attacks. Since it requires no concentration you can combine it with other defensive spells.
- Expeditious Retreat (level 1) it makes Strahd mobility explode allowing Dash as a bonus action.
- Misty Step (level 2) simple way to get out of a group of enemies as a bonus action. Remember that since you can’t cast two spells in a round, it’s best to attack, and then Misty Step away.
- Counterspell/Dispel Magic (level 3) it explains itself, just remember not to abuse this one because if becomes boring and unrewarding for the PC spellcasters.
- Fog Cloud (level 1) this spell is really important because it’s Strahd’s perfect defense against sun light generated by spells, the Sunsword or the Symbol of Ravenkind. It’s radius is 20 ft. same as a fireball of heavily obscured terrain. Strahd can use it and keep fighting inside or just escape while the PCs find out what happened.
- Fly (level 3) just like the spider climb ability, it’s a way to keep Strahd away from melee range attackers.
- Confusion (level 4) nothing in D&D is better than a full party under the confusion spell, a moment to remember.
- Greater Invisibility (level 4) this spell turns Strahd into the PCs worst nightmare.
- Telekinesis (level 5) this is golden too. With this spell Strahd can take away a weapon or one of the magical relics from a PC. The look on the player’s face when you take the Sunsword from them and throw it out the castle’s window is worth Van Richten’s trousers. Of course you can throw a PC too if you want.
- Wall of Force (level 5) this spell can be used to divide the battlefield. Either to isolate Strahd from the PCs and regenerate in plain sight, or to trap a PC or two with him while the others can only watch. The only way to destroy the wall is with a Disintegrate spell, which the party will probably not have. Only by breaking Strahd’ concentration can the wall disappear.
- True Seeing (level 6) if you allow Strahd to have level 6 spells this one is particularly awesome when combined with Darkness or Fog Cloud. True Seeing does not require concentration and thus is possible. With this Strahd will be immune to sunlight and continue to attack normally while the party decides what to do. Pretty lethal combo.
This is a very powerful ability, and it has plenty of uses outside of combat that are great from a roleplaying standpoint. But if you use this in combat things can get hard for the PCs really fast. I tend not to overuse this ability in combat because it works like a super Charm Person that needs no concentration and lasts 24 hours. I used it more when the party was low level and as they progressed I stopped using it. Specially if the party includes elves or half-elves due to their innate resistance to charm effects. And also If the party includes a paladin because after level 7 the whole party gets a buff to all saves as long as they are close to the paladin.
The reason I didn’t like to use it was because it tended to turn battles into role playing parts. There nothing wrong with it and I sometimes did it on purpose, but other times you just want a battle. The tricky part is how it is worded: as other charms, It states that the target is not in Strahd’s control, but regards him as a good friend, takes his requests in the most favorable way and let’s Strahd bite it. You’re supposed to explain this to the player and let the player act as he wishes as long as it meets the criteria. It can be really fun too if that’s what you’re looking for, it can break the party.
Strahd can use the charm on a PC and say: “Listen, it’s in your best interest to protect me, what would the Barovians do without their lord?” What’s the PC to do? He won’t attack his friends to protect Strahd, that’s for sure, but he might cover Strahd’s retreat, or grapple a friend to avoid him from attacking Strahd.
Another example: “Is that my brother Sergei’s sword, you must know that is a family heirloom that belongs to my family. Give it to me so I can put it to rest with its rightful owner in the crypts”. What’s the PC to do? He might agree to give the Sunsword away, but his companions will rush and try to stop him or convince him not to. Through roleplay, the affected PC might actually choose not to give the sword to Strahd. It’s like being asked by two best friends to do something, you have to choose one, but you don’t want to let any of them down. The way I explained it in really simple words is “Strahd is now a good friend, you’d even let him bite you, but other than that, do as you want.”
As I said, though it is powerful, I tended not to abuse it in battle to avoid spamming it and to keep battles martial.
Fighting Strahd anywhere except in Castle Ravenloft
Fight encounters with Strahd Von Zarovich outside of Ravenloft is possible and highly recommended to keep Strahd an active and moving part of the adventure. Many question why Strahd would bother to fight lowly adventurers being a man of his range and stature. Or why he would let them live, when he can easily throw three fireballs in a row and be done with it.
I’d say there are two main reasons not to kill visitors outright, the first one is his motivation to find a successor. Obviously he would never achieve this goal by killing everyone. The second is more of a background reason. Strahd used to be a human being, he was already an adult when he became a vampire. By now, he’s been an immortal vampire for almost 400 years. A human was never meant to have such a long lifespan. After the regularly allotted time, the human race falls into boredom and madness if the lifespan is unnaturally increased. Humans do not have the patience of elves. What did Strahd do? His realm is very small and there are very few subjects and towns. He refuged in magic which takes a long time to master. Over time he became an accomplished spellcaster, but what use does it have if there’s no chance to cast it.
So after centuries of magic learning, boredom, thinking and talking to Rahadin, a group of adventurers arriving to Barovia is a welcome sight. It means Strahd gets to play his overlord game one more time. It means he can now try those new spells he learned. And he’s eager to see if the foreigners are tough because the stronger they are, the more entertainment there is.
Fighting Strahd in the wild or in town should be a tough encounter but Strahd has no need to stay until the end and might even wish to retreat at some point, leaving the party fighting with some minions or companions. It’s guerilla style when encountering Strahd in the wilds.
At any given point, Strahd might wish to attack more thoroughly, and see how far he can take them. Strahd can be reckless and be less evasive than he should. Even to the point of start losing a battle. In fact he can even lose a battle and eventually be turned to mist. It doesn’t matter, he can just return to his coffin and reform. There are several uses for this: First, you get a good fight. Second, you give the PCs false hope that Strahd is not so difficult to defeat, when in reality you’re just not using him to his full capacity. This is the important part about encounters with Strahd before the main confrontation in the castle. To build up rapport between Strahd and the party so that each side gets to gauge the other.
Fighting Strahd in Ravenloft
There are two alternatives. Either it’s a regular fight with Strahd in the castle, in which case most of the above still applies. Or this is the final confrontation with Strahd Von Zarovich, the climax of the adventure.
For the final confrontation, the party is probably level 10. They’re not to be underestimated, level 10 parties in D&D 5e are pretty strong and resourceful. If you’re not careful, Strahd will fall very fast. It is my opinion that the trip is more important than the destination, if the party has gotten this far then you and your friends have had awesome hours of fun and nothing can take that away. I say this because some DMs hesitate before a TPK in a final battle. Other game themes might not be suitable for this, but Ravenloft certainly is the perfect place for something like this to happen.
You’d be doing a dishonor to the module and your players if you didn’t use any and all resources in order to defeat the PCs. This is the final battle and Strahd will use every nasty trick up his sleeve to kill the PCs. This is the moment when Strahd stops being the honorable opponent and becomes reckless, shady and cruel. The card reading defines the place where the party will find Strahd for the battle, but it doesn’t mean that the battle should take place only there. And it totally should not, this is not a battle against Strahd, it’s a series of battles against Strahd and friends all over the castle.
Strahd should move all around, from walls to ceilings, crossing closed doors and disappear down the floor. He should be always in company of whatever monster or minion you wish. The castle has virtually endless creatures to come and aid Strahd.
If the party uses sunlight from a spell, the Sunsword or the Symbol of Ravenkind; Strahd responds immediately with a Fog Cloud or Telekinesis spell. And you should do everything in your hands to keep Strahd away from any paladin or other melee attackers. Strahd is not strong in melee. And by this time he’s well aware of who are the dangerous ones. Nothing cowardly about staying most of the fight behind walls and or the ceiling, while other minions attack and Strahd only pops out to throw potent spells.
This is an all-in, and do not underestimate your party. A group of capable gamers can come up with the best strategies and you should do the same. Remember that Strahd is probably more intelligent than any in the party. He knows that being out of their reach, he can win. He knows that dividing the party with a Wall of Fire or Wall of Force will thwart most plans. Area spells like Cloudkill or Darkness will be enough to distract the party and escape. Nothing wrong with Strahd leaving for three rounds and coming back with 60 HP regenerated, this is war.
Vampire Spawn will not be very effective against the party anymore, specially with the Symbol of Ravenkind with its sunlight and Hold Vampires ability. There is a group of Barovian Witches in the castle, they can appear in group and all cast Tasha’s Hideous Laughter at the same time. The spell DC is low (12) but if that works it can wreck the party. Additionally they can cast Invisibility on other stronger minions. Rahadin is also a great ally for Strahd in this last battle, but my suggestion is not to include him, so that he can appear in the epilogue as described in page 207.
There is a sneaky strategy I used with a group, it involves the elevator trap in area K61 (page 75). If the PCs have not encountered this trap, or even if they have, because they might have forgotten it, or could be distracted by the current battle, Strahd will lead them there to divide the party. Strahd can cross walls and go there directly, but he doesn’t do that because there’s no way to follow him that way. So for this to happen Strahd has to be moving from room to room. The battle follows him, other minions can come into the PCs way but they will follow Strahd on whatever route he takes. The purpose is to lead the PCs directly to the trap and have one or two of them activate it and fly all the way up to area K47. I did this in a game and since the two targets of the trap were already hurt by the ongoing battle they were unconscious and dying from the trap. Strahd knows his castle and it should be used as a weapon.
Other location for Strahd to take advantage of is the top of the tower in K20, where the Heart of Sorrow is. If the heart is still there, then the stairs move every round to make the PCs fall. Strahd can bring the battle here and cast a level 5 Hold Person. Any PC who fails the save will also automatically fail the stairs save and will fall to the bottom of the tower. Even if the heart was destroyed, Strahd can bring the battle to any of the tall towers and then try to throw the PCs down to certain death with Telekinesis or Gust of Wind. Or you can have some vampire spawn kamikaze grapple a PC and then jump with him from the highest place possible.
The last weapon in Strahd’s arsenal are the four red dragons in area K7. Strahd can purposefully take the battle there. Use a lair action to close and lock the doors and then climb to the ceiling throw Fireballs. His fire spells will not affect the dragons. As it is, this option in particular can pretty much kill the party outright. Not locking the doors makes it less lethal. Or perhaps this is best used against a level 12 party or so, in case you extended the campaign after 10th level.
Finally, Strahd is aware the party is coming for a real fight and he knows they are very strong by now. There’s no reason why he would not equip for such an event. He was a soldier and conqueror, and he has a vault full of valuable stuff and magic items. In my games he was equipped with a +2 half-plate to raise his AC to 18 and he also wielded a Vorpal Sword.
If you really want to go all-in, this is a buffed up version of Strahd created by James Plunkett (dave2008@enworld). It’s CR17 and will hold his own against a level 10 party more easily. Other stuff by James Plunkett can be referenced here:
The most important part is to have a good time and to have the players believe you role played Strahd to his maximum. After the final confrontation, what’s next to do is to solve the epilogue, depending on the PCs actions and whether they won or lost he fight.
Make sure you follow the rest of this Curse of Strahd DM Guide
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