There’s a ton to like about Curse of Strahd as it stands, but I have a slightly different plan.
It has a well-known hook: you get a letter from the Burgomaster, begging you to come and help. You go, crossing a misty boundary, and enter Strahd’s domain. Then you’re trapped until Strahd lets you go, and the DM just terrorizes you. Attempts to leave are met with billowing clouds of mist, which knocks you out. We don’t need that, though.
Here’s my counterproposal:
The boundaries of Ravenloft are not geographical; the Dark Powers have pent your party in time, not space. You travel across the gate, make your way to Strahd’s Castle, maybe get brutally murdered… and then repeat, again and again and again, a loop extending two or three days until Strahd’s anniversary or the first party death, whichever comes first. The trick to this adventure is not “how do we kill Strahd” (he’ll reset), nor even “how do we escape” (you CAN walk out, but you will always reset, and the woods are filled with woods). It’s “how do we break the loop”, which is of course the most interesting thing in the place.
You show up, you learn a little bit more each loop about the abysmal lives of these people, and then they forget you because everything resets.
Most characters don’t remember things from session to session — just the PCs and a few other rare characters.
How do loop?
The players show up in Barovia — it’s a five hour journey. The storm starts as they go, and breaks just as they enter Barovia. This moment — when the skies open up and the first startling burst of lightning — is the beginning of the loop. It is the first night: storms.
The first morning is peaceful if damp: dirt roads and wilds are quite impassible, but stone roads work.
The second night is clear, with a brilliant full moon. The woods are filled with wolves.
The second day is threatening again, but dry.
The third night is tense and filled with summer lightning: electric and oppressive heat, and the stars seem to wink out one by one through the haze.
The third dawn is blood red, and at noon, the world ends in a wild hurricane.
The players awaken in their carriage, rain pouring from the sky and lightning jolting the characters awake: it is the first night, and they have just entered Barovia.
That which ends
Any non-time traveler begins each loop in the same state they ended the last one, regardless of what terrible thing happened to them. The non-loopers mostly make the same choices, but small changes can cause different conditions, which causes different choices.
Natives of Barovia — which always includes undead and lycanthrope — are not time travelers. They begin each loop in the same state. Natives who become undead during a loop shed that state (otherwise Barovia would already be overrun!). Visitors sadly become natives after they become undead — they die, ending the loop immediately; the loop begins with them in their new undead state, and
For time travelers, however, anything that mucks with your soul or your memory sticks with you at the start of the next loop. Anything with an intelligence, wisdom or charisma saving throw has its effects remain.
The states of undeath and lycanthropy make you an NPC with that condition from the beginning of the next loop, no longer a time looper. This means that every session begins with a grisly momento mori.
The worst, however, are death effects. Those kill you permanently; you begin each session as a corpse.
Within a loop, when any of the time travelers die, the third-day storm immediately begins, and within an hour, the loop resets. The same occurs when anyone tries to leave Barovia.
That which changes (Spoilers!)
Not everything resets: the PCs’ memories of course are retained from loop to loop, as are their levels.
Fiends, aberrations and celestials, as visitors, also persist memories across repetitions.
A spoiler-filled list of such visitors includes:
- Rahadin’s Shadow Demon in K72
- Morgantha, Bella and Offalia from the Old Bonegrinder
- Crypt 34’s imp
- Beucephalus from Crypt 39
- Majesto the Imp from N4T
- The Abbot from S13
Since the loop resets on the death of any of the loopers, killing these creatures resets the loop.
Anything made of amber also survives the loop: objects made of amber stay where they were at the end of the loop, changes to amber objects ditto.
What do we do in the loop?
Another way to ask it: what’s the point of this campaign? Obviously even more spoilers follow.
The first session is just Curse of Strahd. Cautious players will run the time out, but I suspect most get eaten by a vampiree.
The second session is probably a second run at Curse of Strahd. By this point, we’re definitely suffering a death.
The third session, though — some of the outsiders probably figure out that there’s visitors. They probably start infiltrating town to learn what’s going on — most likely Majesto is the first to investigate? Which means the fourth session starts with a visit to a different town. And then we’re off!
Obviously, exit from the loop depends upon the Dark Powers in some sense. Would it be so wrong to stick it in X42:West? Alternatively, it could be the Sergei:Ireena love pairing, which I think should hold a hint, but should not actually end the loop. Killing Strahd and reuniting the lovers seems like a worthy goal.