Tuesday, June 7, 2016

House Rules for Ravenloft

In a few weeks, I will be running a continuation of a Ravenloft campaign that started a couple of years ago and ran for seven awesome months. My surprise and glee when Curse of Strahd was announced and subsequently released can't be adequately described here, so when it arrived I had no choice but to commit to running a follow-up campaign.

In the last campaign, the company ended up unwittingly working with Strahd, though they had good reasons for doing so -- a genocidal Gundarakite ghost who wanted to eradicate all Barovians proved to be the more imminent threat. It's a lot more complicated than that, but suffice it to say, the company ended up surviving by the skin of their teeth and safely fleeing the Land of Mists -- at least, for a time.

Now they are due to return. I need to make heavy modifications to the proposed adventure material in Curse of Strahd to align with what came before, but this in and of itself is not overly challenging. Instead, I want to try my hand at refining some mechanics and introducing some slight randomness to the game each time we play.

To wit, my proposed house rules, a work in progress at the moment. Among these are a small expansion of the Fortunes of Ravenloft mechanic from the adventure module, a Frankenstein's monster of various reincarnations of skill challenges that some of my cohorts have made, and the idea of an Inspiration pool.

Fortunes of Ravenloft and Tides of the Mists

The Tarokka deck is an instrument of prophecy and divination for the Vistani, wanderers of the land whom the common folk shun and fear -- unfairly or not -- for their strange ways. While a card reader may be located throughout the course of your travels in Ravenloft, there are two ways by which the adventure will be influenced based on this deck of mysterious cards.

First and foremost, as the adventure begins, an elected member of the company will draw a single card from a freshly-shuffled deck. This draw determines the Fortunes of Ravenloft, which will alter one aspect of the campaign permanently. This may manifest as a hidden item of power somewhere in Barovia, or a special encounter that only occurs due to the draw of the card. The result of this draw will not be immediately apparent, but clues will reveal themselves throughout the course of the campaign.

Additionally, at the beginning of each session, an elected member of the company will draw one card from a shuffled Tarokka deck. This draw determines the Tides of the Mists, the subtle twists of fate that influence each session. The result will be made clear when the card is drawn, and may manifest as a blessing or a curse -- the Dark Powers are fickle, and may help or hinder you in your quest.

While I don't go into detail here, the effects could be beneficial or not based on what occurs that session. I like a little randomness in my games to keep the players and myself on our toes. For example, drawing the Darklord will have Strahd or one of his minions make an appearance in the session to hinder the players. Drawing the Artifact will place a magic item from my prepared list of treasures somewhere in the session for the party to potentially acquire. It's a little metagamey, so I'll see how it feels for a few sessions. 

Skill Challenges

Difficult situations, or challenges that require staged progress, may call for skill challenges. During these situations, any player may contribute skills relevant to the situation (which the Dungeon Master will call out) to help achieve success. Each member of the company is allowed a single contribution to the challenge, and the number of total successes required will differ based on the situation at hand.

If the skills relevant to the situation are not ones you feel comfortable rolling (be it due to low bonuses or lack of faith in the dice), you may instead elect to give one other member of the company advantage on their roll. This increases the chances of a success, but lowers the net number of total successes the company might achieve. Each player states whether they wish to roll or give advantage to someone before any dice fall. You may also propose an additional skill that may be relevant to the situation, with sufficient explanation.

For example, examining the scene of a gruesome murder for clues allows everyone to contribute an Investigation or Perception roll. Three members of the company are proficient in one of those two skills, and so elect to roll. One is not proficient in either skill, but proposes that they can use their training in Medicine to examine the body; the DM agrees and allows that skill to be used. The fifth member is not proficient in any of the proposed skills and has poor flat bonuses, so instead elects to give one of the proficient members advantage on their roll.

The number of total group successes determines the significance and clarity of the clues gained. Continuing our example, three members succeed on the checks, which the DM has set to DC 12. One fails. The group has accrued three total successes, revealing the largest number of clues with the most clarity.

If all contributors to a skill challenge fail, the challenge is unsuccessful. Even if there is a seemingly total failure, there will always be another potential way of circumventing a situation -- never give up even if fate is cruel.

This is really just 4E's skill challenges with a new coat of paint. I mostly go for this method to reduce the number of times people will fail a roll and then someone else says, "Well, can I try instead?" and succeeds, making the first player feel crappy. Instead, everyone can try -- succeeding or failing -- together. This will be used for searching rooms, investigating crimes, chase scenes, and similar situations. I've borrowed elements from skill challenge discussions from both Harbinger and Stands-in-Fire over the years I've known them, so credit to them for their ideas even if I've altered or butchered them for my own necromantic purposes.

Inspiration Pool

Inspiration is a useful mechanic, but not all players will necessarily be able to make use of it, or may accrue Inspiration when they already have it. As such, rather than losing the Inspiration, all Inspiration is accrued in a pool that any player may draw from on their turn. Players may hoard Inspiration in this way, but never will the pool be able to contain more than five Inspiration tokens -- one for each member of the company.

Inspiration is retained between sessions. At the beginning of the campaign, the Inspiration pool is empty. The company gains Inspiration tokens in the following ways:

  • Commitment to roleplaying. Doing something at a detriment to yourself because it is what your character would do is always rewarded, provided such behavior does not become masochistic.
  • Acts of true heroism and valor. Ravenloft is a land of horrors and despair, and only true heroes can push back the darkness.
  • Unveiling secrets of the Domains of Dread. The natives of Barovia know very little of the true nature of the land in which they dwell. Bringing light into the darkness will reward you with knowledge -- but not all secrets are meant to be dragged into daylight.

Inspiration is a great mechanic, but all too often I see it go unused or I forget to hand it out. With a dish of little blood-red beads in the center of the table that is consumed and resupplied with regularity, I hope to encourage more use of it. I almost went more insidious with it, allowing it to pool above five, but amounts over five that are expended go into the DM's pool for use... but that felt too evil. I already have a lot of tools for mayhem at my disposal, after all, so I didn't want to go overboard.

I'm really looking forward to this campaign in general, so expect more updates on it as I go along. I adore Ravenloft and can't wait to drag my players back into the mists -- perhaps to their doom.


  1. I like your variant on Inspiration. I'm interested to hear how it plays for you, as I've definitely been unsatisfied with Inspiration as presented in the core books.

  2. I like the draw a Tarokka card at the beginning of the session idea, both to reinforce the "fate" theme, as well as get a bit more mileage out of the deck. Did you get the list of results from somewhere, or are you just kind of making something up for whatever happens to get pulled?

    1. I've got a list of outcomes prepared separately; I did not list them here since a few of my players browse my blog and I wanted to avoid spoilers. Plus I got wordy and it would take up a lot of space.

      That said, it's a great exercise to come up with the result on the fly, so I may do just that in a session or two.

    2. I'd love to see that list, even if its a download. Also how are you doing fortunes jst using the reading in the book or is it seperate?

    3. I can probably part with a few of the results in my next entry, which I'll put up tonight. :)

      As for the Fortunes themselves, I'm taking them mostly as-is from the book reading, adjusting accordingly based on the facts of their previous adventures. I'll talk more about what specifically is different in my next entry.