Hello, and welcome – or welcome back! This post contains spoilers for the Curse of Strahd campaign!
As a response, and a “thank you” to the overwhelming success of my first post on the Curse of Strahd campaign area known as Vallaki (check that out here), I’ve decided to write a follow-up detailing how I transformed the complicated area based on how the adventuring party left it, and turned it into a place with a very different tone and feel – and how it spooked the crap out of my players!
If you haven’t yet seen my first Vallaki post, I recommend checking it out. I not only detail EVERY part of the town and what can go on there, but I also talk about which events and storylines I hand-picked for my campaign run-through, and I discuss how everything went perfectly during gameplay.
I want to use this post to talk about how I took those gameplay seeds and grew them over time after the party had left the town in the shape they did, and how I developed those into very real consequences that my group may or may not have to deal with upon their return.
I understand that this particular set of circumstances might not work for some groups playing Curse of Strahd – because things will have gone differently. So I’ll also include some tips and suggestions about how to grow and evolve areas within campaign settings on multiple revisits from the adventuring group – using Vallaki as an example.
I had to plan for my players’ return to Vallaki by deciding how things will have changed after they ousted the Vallakoviches (actually getting Baron Vargas Vallakovich and his son, the baronet Victor Vallakovich, killed in the partial destruction of the burgomaster’s mansion), and leaving the scheming Lady Fiona Wachter in charge.
The players, so far, had little reason at all to suspect that Lady Wachter was, in fact, evil and in league with Strahd. She had duped them into helping her stage the coup by preying on their sympathies towards the townspeople that the Baron punished for their, quote, “malicious unhappiness.” They saw the Baron as unstable, and Lady Wachter used them to get rid of him so that she could supplant the Vallakovich family.
The St. Andral’s Feast event listed in the book also took place, as I was successfully able to keep the player-characters away from St. Andral’s Church so that they could not return the bones of the Saint that they found at Henrik’s coffin shop in time. This also became their first encounter with Strahd, during which both the altar boy, Yeska, and Father Lucien Petrovich were murdered by the dread vampire.
Father Lucien was the Lady Baroness Lydia Petrovna’s brother, which means that – in the span of one evening – Lady Petrovna’s entire family was killed. She was in no state to take her late husband’s place as burgomistress of Vallaki. So Lady Wachter said she would do it (which was her plan all along). More on Lady Petrovna real quick – I made her super icy toward the returning characters. She does not like them because of what they did last time they were in Vallaki. She accepts their help, but is really using her sass to lay on the guilt of the deaths of her family and the ruination of Vallaki.
So how would Lady Wachter run Vallaki?
Well, I really liked this whole thing about her in the campaign book about her rumored “devil worship,” and how she had a cult that followed her called the “book club.” This is really interesting. What if Lady Wachter did worship devils, and had actually struck a deal with one in exchange for power? And, with this power, Lady Wachter could stamp out any opposition to her rule.
That then begs the question – who would oppose Lady Wachter? Well, the Keepers of the Feather, for one – the group of wereravens that live in Barovia and who oppose Strahd. So, what is Lady Wachter going to do about these wereravens? Killing them is just too blah, too boring. What if, with her new devil-granted power, she could harness the lycanthropy present within the wereravens, and use them for her own ends?
What if she could create new lycanthropes to command and use to enforce her will upon Vallaki? What if these new lycanthropes were devil-related, seeing as how we’re going with a theme here?
So I created a custom monster – the weredevil.
When I ran these creatures, I changed their sin aura ability to something that they’d have to “activate,” like a vampire’s charm or a dragon’s breath weapon. If I were to recreate this stat block, I’d change the sin aura to be an Action, Recharge 5-6. But that’s about it.
So now, Lady Wachter is using her own book club and the guards of Vallaki who are loyal to her to capture members of the Keepers of the Feather and is taking them into her cellar, where the devil worship happens. Here, she chains them to the stools around the pentagram and binds them there with magic, and siphons off some lycanthropic energy and uses a ritual to change people – mainly her guards – into these weredevils (check out the art I found to represent these creatures in my campaign diary post, here).
Lady Wachter keeps doing this, until she eventually has nearly all of the Keepers of the Feather in Vallaki under her control, and LOTS of these weredevils roaming around Vallaki, kidnapping more citizens for the transformation ritual, or enforcing her rule. Even Urwin Martikov’s family – Danika and their two sons, Brom and Bray – are kidnapped and held captive in raven-form in Lady Wachter’s cellar. Urwin was with the party at the time, so he was not captured – and didn’t find out about this until after his return to Vallaki.
One more thing about Lady Wachter’s plan. This deal she made with a devil for power? You might be asking yourself, what does the devil get out of it? Well…how about access to a dark domain that remains otherwise cut-off from the realms? And the chance to influence it enough to take control of it and become a more powerful devil within the caste in the Nine Hells?
So in Lady Wachter’s cellar, I also put an open portal to the Nine Hells. Yeah, that’s right. It’s there to hint at the new power that Lady Wachter possesses, and it’s also there to entice my players to leave Barovia. I wanted to tempt them with that possibility just to see if they would take it. I was fully prepared to let that happen. That’s what made this so fun for me.
Now we have to ask what does Lady Wachter do to that refuse her and her rule? Well, let’s say that it’s harder for her to do the transformation ritual on people who are unwilling – just for the sake of not having EVERYONE in Vallaki being a weredevil. So she has to do something with them. Let’s use St. Andral’s Church.
Even though my players eventually did return the bones to their hiding place within the church and performed a consecration ritual, we’ll say that the place no longer provides the same protection that it did before. This is easy in my campaign, because of the fight that took place in the church, and all the innocent blood that Strahd shed inside – especially Yeska’s (let’s give this NPC some more purpose in the campaign – if Strahd kills him inside the church, the blood of this particular innocent – a youth – forever desecrates the location).
So, now, Lady Wachter sends the detractors to St. Andral’s Church, which is now all boarded up and houses SEVERAL vampire spawn courtesy of Strahd. Their favorite food is detractors, in fact. Great, that deals with that location and how it has changed. Even if your campaign group was able to keep St. Andral’s Feast from happening, and no one died there, it’s easy enough to have someone loyal to Lady Wachter steal the bones again.
Normally I’d be against just undoing some accomplishment your players achieved in the game, but the goal here with the revisit to Vallaki is to create an atmosphere of hopelessness, so I think it’s acceptable in this case.
Let’s keep going on the people left in Vallaki.
My group never went to Arasek Stockyard, so I didn’t have anything here to grow. But I did make a note that this place would be under lock and key, and heavily guarded by those loyal to Lady Wachter. I was going to put van Richten’s wagon in there – but I also haven’t had van Richten mention to the party that his wagon was there, so I may drop that altogether. But it could be fun if van Richten is in your group, and he’s like, “yeah, I could really use stuff in that wagon.” There you go – encounter for your campaign.
Lady Petrovna and Urwin will have formed a sort of resistance effort inside the Blue Water Inn. Milivoj – feeling guilty about his part in all this – will have militarized and armed himself, but he still carries his shovel, and can use it as a secondary weapon if he wants. I wanted Milivoj to have the chance at having a bigger hand in this campaign, since Khurz – our cleric – left such a big impact on the young man. I debated several times about inserting Milivoj into the campaign in various spots, especially after Khurz came back to life. I decided he will try to work alongside Khurz when they return out of admiration.
There are two wolf hunters in Vallaki – Yevgeni Krushkin and Szoldar Szoldarovich. They will join the resistance as well. In my campaign, one of the players was on his own for a minute and Strahd – in an effort to turn the character to his side – ordered the character to attack the wolf hunters out on the road. He dealt a serious wound to one of them (I chose Yevgeni) before fleeing to recover from his own wounds. The hunters returned to Vallaki that night and the rest of the party helped Yevgeni to recover.
On the return visit, I thought it would be interesting if one of the two hunters had been killed and made an example of by Lady Wachter. Remember how the book says when players first come to Vallaki, the wolf heads are on pikes outside the palisade because of the recent festival the Baron had done? I thought it’d be a nice turn of irony to put human heads on pikes when the party returned to Wachter-controlled Vallaki. And I thought it’d be fitting to put the heads of one of the wolf hunters out there too – as someone the group would recognize.
I struggled with the choice, but ended up choosing Szoldar. That way Yevgeni – the one previously wounded – could still struggle with the residual pain of that fight, and be something of a less-than-useful ally to the party (again, inspiring hopelessness – the healthier one was killed, leaving the weaker one behind). To add to the drama, I also suggested that Szoldar and Yevgeni had been more than friends. This added some depth to Yevgeni’s pain at the loss of Szoldar, and made for a nice dramatic moment in-game.
I then gave the resistance two remaining Vallaki guards loyal to Lady Petrovna. That totaled six people left. Once again – hopelessness. For the Blue Water Inn, I put a makeshift barricade around the building made of broken furniture and whatnot, and pointed out that some of the building had recently been dealt some fire damage. The windows were all boarded up, too. I wanted to create a sense that the Inn had been under siege several times, and is the last place left that resists Lady Wachter’s rule.
Lastly, with the Blue Water Inn, I made a note that Majesto – Lady Wachter’s pet imp – had infiltrated the place and was always invisibly spying on the resistance and reporting back to Lady Wachter. That way, when the players concocted their plan for confronting Vallaki’s new ruler, she was already aware of it and could plan and counter them.
I would have left the burgomaster’s mansion abandoned, but I had planned to make it so Lady Petrovna discovered what her son, Victor, had been up to… and now had possession of his spellbook, and was learning some of the spells to use against Lady Wachter when the time comes. I also had planned to have even the Inn abandoned, and had the resistance taken up root within an old building behind the Inn. But I threw that out on game day and kept them in the Inn.
Blinsky’s Toys will have been closed up, and if my group had made their way to the town square, they would have found a handful of guards and a weredevil there, about to execute Gadof Blinsky by way of beheading as he begs for his life. There would have been another encounter.
As for the coffin maker, Henrik van der Voort? The man tricked by Vasili von Holtz to steal the bones of St. Andral? Well, his guilt drove him to suicide by hanging, and his body can be found in his shop.
Besides Wachterhaus and the Vistani Camp outside of town, that takes care of all the major locations of Vallaki for this second visit. The Vistani Camp I left pretty unchanged. Wachterhaus is unchanged from the guide book, but then my players never really had the chance to explore it before. So it was all-new to them. Had they gone through it before, I might’ve changed some things.
That covers all the setup and notes I had taken about how Vallaki changed since the players left Lady Wachter in charge.
Here’s how it went down.
When my character approached the western palisade, returning from their journeys in Krezk and beyond, they noticed the human heads on pikes, and recognized Szoldar’s as they got nearer. This immediately set them on edge, and they started talking about how they would just get in and get out and move on.
See, they had encountered Ilya – the inflicted son of the Krezk burgomaster – in the forest and he said he was hoping to find his friends, Father Lucien, Milivoj, and Yeska, to help him with his werewolf curse. So the group agreed to take him to Vallaki. That was what got my players to go there.
They go into Vallaki, noting that no guards walk the palisade wall like before. Immediately they notice the streets are empty, and no one seems to be moving about. As they near St. Andral’s Church, they find its windows all boarded up, completely shut off from the rest of Vallaki. Something unnerving wisely keeps them moving.
The group eventually finds the Blue Water Inn, and sees the makeshift barricade surrounding the building. They climb it and go to the door, knocking. When Khurz announces himself, they all hear a heavy beam being moved from behind the doors before they open, and Milivoj greets them, now wearing a cobbled-together version of the Vallaki town guard armor.
Inside, the party sees those that are left in the resistance to Lady Wachter’s rule. Urwin is behind the bar, looking lost and like he hasn’t slept in days. Milivoj and Ilya greet each other, and go to a table while Lady Petrovna approaches the group. She’s none to happy to see the characters she remembers from last time, but is determined and strong now that she no longer stands in her late husband’s shadow. She has traded her lush clothing for slick, black leather armor and a bow.
Once the players understand the situation in Vallaki, they agree to help unseat Lady Wachter and return control of the town to Lady Petrovna. They come up with a plan to send 3 party members to infiltrate Lady Wachter’s cult under the false pretenses of joining her. The others will wait and watch Wachterhaus for a signal flare of some kind that will tell the rest of the resistance to come and aid them.
Of course, this doesn’t work because Majesto was listening, and he makes it back to Wachterhaus before the characters are able to arrive and warns Lady Wachter. Upon meeting the characters who wish to “join” her, Lady Wachter takes them downstairs and into the cellar to see the wereravens she’s keeping there. Once there, with the character surrounded by two weredevils, and standing before a large open portal to the Nine Hells, Lady Wachter reveals her knowledge of their plan, and gives them a choice: become one of her new servants, or enter the portal to the Hells.
Needless to say, the adventurers chose neither, and began attacking. The fight goes about as well as you’d expect. Though only one character succumbed to the sin aura effect, and only one other character fell unconscious, and almost died. Another character was thrown through the Hells portal with telekinesis, and was at risk of not being able to make it back.
When things looked desperate, Strahd arrived, phasing into the room upon Bucephalus.
See, Strahd isn’t one who likes his position or his power challenged. And it’s very possible that, through the devil ritual, Lady Wachter was able to shield Wachterhaus from Strahd’s piercing vision and notice. But when the heroes came to fight, he got a glimpse by scrying on them – or whatever excuse you want to use. And, so, Strahd has only one thing to say to his once-ally.
Strahd grabs Lady Wachter by the neck, and says, “I am the ruler here.” Then he uses his magic to burn Lady Wachter head off, ending the devil ritual and contract. There weredevils revert back to humans, and the portal to the Hells closes. I had Strahd use this opportunity to finally extend the invite to join him in Castle Ravenloft to discuss their future in Barovia (as he, up to that point, hadn’t invited them yet).
This provided a really cool result – my players suddenly felt like they were saved by Strahd. And now it seems the dread lord wants to keep them in Barovia as his warriors or something (they were speculating). I like that things now seem different than before – the tone has shifted slightly. Granted, my players were like, “no, screw that and screw Strahd,” and had no plans of taking his invitation. Oh well. You can lead a phase-stepping horse to water….
Overall, the changes to Vallaki on the second visit made for a really fun and dark twist on an already troubled location in Barovia and in Curse of Strahd. It took something bleak and hopeless, and made it even more bleak and hopeless. And that’s fun.
But because this location is so massive, and has so much to do, there’s a TON of different ways you can change things! There are plenty of NPCs the party can become friendly with, that maybe Strahd can corrupt and turn against them upon their return journey.
- Maybe Izek finally kills Blinsky because the toymaker gets brave and denies to make Izek any more Ireena dolls, and now there’s a rift or power struggle in Vallaki as people start to stand up to the Baron and his monstrous servant because they don’t want a murderer in town – which, honestly, would go against the Baron’s mantra of maintaining happiness and hope at any cost. What would the Baron do? Would he try to sweep Izek’s actions under the rug, and be a hypocrite?
- What if Victor, the Baron’s son, finally finds a way out of the dark domain with his magic? How would Lady Wachter react to learning this information? Remember, she not only has an invisible imp, she has her spy, Ernst. Would she tell Strahd, and would the dark lord of Barovia do everything in his power to try to reach Victor’s way out and escape his personal hell? What would he do to Vallaki to get to it? To those that stood in his way? To those that helped him?
- What if the town revolted against the Baron without the help of Lady Wachter? What lengths would the Baron go to in order to defend himself and his position of power? Would he become even more of a tyrant?
- What if Vallaki was besieged by Baba Lysaga’s scarecrows and zombies, because she found out that a large portion of the Keepers of the Feather use the Blue Water Inn as a base of operations? Would the hags from Old Bonegrinder help her by attacking the town as well?
- Or maybe you could bring in the most unlikely NPC any party will ever find in Curse of Strahd – Mordenkainen, who’s wandering the mountains to the north of Vallaki. Maybe he gets a wild hair and comes to Vallaki…. for something. Maybe he’s gone truly mad and starts attacking everyone, or he’s seeking a very strange particular ingredient to some major spell he’s casting (maybe it’s for Gate, maybe it’s for Goodberry, who knows?). There are a million possibilities here.
- Maybe, maybe, Mordenkainen is pulling Lady Wachter’s strings! Maybe he’s been doing this for years! Because he believes she’s the key to truly overthrowing Strahd and escaping Barovia! So Lady Wachter’s plans are actually his plans! Could work.
So there you go. Lots of options, ideas, and possibilities for how Vallaki can evolve after the players first tear through the poor, unsuspecting town. I rather like how it worked out in my campaign, mainly because their first time through Vallaki went so perfectly, and was very cinematic and story-driven. I knew I had to make it something special for their return visit.
I encourage you to do the same when you run Curse of Strahd. Pick out the best pieces of story from the massive location and extrapolate where those story seeds can go in the future and how they can grow and blossom based on the actions of the party. If you can do that, then I’m sure you’ll create something memorable for your players. Leave their jaws on the floor.
Until next time – Well Met!