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  1. Background: Barovia's Origin
  2. Before even getting your players together, there are a few background notes I'd like to go over. While the printed book gives you a fair amount to work with, it surprisingly never covers some key background about the setting of this campaign. Here’s some general info you should know before getting started.
  4. Trapped in Barovia
  6. Most likely, your players are going to want to know why they’re trapped in Barovia. What in the world happened and how could such a place exist? If you have even a slightly inquisitive group, someone is going to want answers somewhere along the line and as the DM, you need to be ready for that.
  8. The following is the most succinct, but still understandable way I can answer those questions.
  10. The Demiplanes of Dread
  12. Once upon a time, there was an entire dimension called the Core as big and wondrous as Faerun. But, over the course of time, this dimension was split into a multitude of small, isolated dimensions. Demiplanes, to be more precise. Barovia is one of these demiplanes.
  14. Click here for a nice map of the Core, complete with misty borders. Barovia is near the middle bottom.
  16. The Dark Powers
  18. Why did the big dimension get split up? Because of the Dark Powers.
  20. The Dark Powers are essentially a pantheon of old, dark gods. They’re very powerful, usually sinister beings.
  22. Each demiplane has a ruling Dark Power. That god basically owns that particular mini world. However, these gods cannot actually own a plane just by wanting it. Instead, they choose a champion amongst mortals and form a sort of pact with them. That mortal becomes the Dark Power’s anchor to that particular demiplane.
  24. The Dark Powers are always at war with one another, essentially fighting for real estate. It’s possible for one Dark Power to supplant another as ruler of a particular demiplane, provided they too have a chosen champion in that plane.
  26. In CoS, the Dark Power that rules over Barovia is named Vampyr (original, I know). As written, Vampyr is trapped in a vestige at the Amber Temple. However, I've changed this so that Vampyr is free, lingering in the mists that surround Barovia. Strahd is Vampyr’s chosen champion to rule over Barovia, therefore giving Vampyr dominion over this demiplane.
  28. While I'm not 100% sure, I believe the Core, the Demiplanes of Dread, and everything else originates in 2e. There's actually no mention of them in the CoS campaign book. However, simply knowing this information and being ready when players ask is a must in my opinion.
  30. Background: Before the Mists
  31. Barovia wasn't always a Demiplane of Dread, of course. What was the valley like before Strahd arrived? The following background is a mix of cannon lore, ideas borrowed from other amazing writers here on reddit, and my own imagination. This is the lore which I use throughout the entire Fleshing Out series.
  33. Druidic Tribes
  35. Long before Strahd's reign and any official settlement, the valley was once home to a collection of nomadic, druidic tribes. These folk lived entirely off the land and were completely unsettled. They are, in fact, the ancient ancestors of the druids and barbarians found in the book.
  37. Forest Folk
  39. I've never liked referring to these people as "Druids" or "Barbarians" in game, because it automatically tips off your players as to the basic stats and abilities of the enemies they're facing. It can break immersion, even if only a little.
  41. Instead, I refer to these tribes of primitive peoples as the Forest Folk. Or, if we're referring to the tribes that live in the mountains, the Mountain Folk. Simple, clean, and easy to remember.
  43. In the present date of the campaign, the native Barovians still refer to the wild peoples who live in the woods as forest folk. Or, sometimes, less flattering terms.
  45. The Fanes of Barovia
  47. The forest folk of old used to worship a trio of archfey known as the Ladies Three. The Ladies were extremely powerful nature goddess who watched over the valley. They were:
  49. The Huntress of the Mountain Fane
  51. The Weaver of the Swamp Fane
  53. The Seeker of the Forest Fane
  55. The Fanes are technically official Ravenloft lore found in previous editions but not mentioned at all in CoS. The subreddit community has resurrected them, and updated them for some awesome storytelling. Now they've become an integral part of the campaign.
  57. Settlements
  59. As time went by, certain forest folk along with a mix of settlers from other lands established small villages in the valley. These settlements were tiny, each home to no more than a handful of families living in makeshift huts.
  61. In time, four major settlements rose in the valley. These were the precursors to the towns in the CoS book. They are: The Village of Barovia, Vallaki, Kresk, and Berez. Although, they were known by other names in the past.
  63. Most of these people, settled or not, still actively worshiped the Ladies Three.
  65. The Mages' Arrival
  67. At one point, a little over a thousand years ago, a great circle of mages wondered into the valley. These mages had dedicated their lives to studying, understanding, and defeating great evils of a magical nature. In their studies, they discovered the Dark Powers and hoped to somehow subdue the evil gods.
  69. The mages were looking for a place to found a base for their research. Not only was the valley beautiful and rich in magic, it was also remote, flanked by impassable mountains. These mages went on to build the Amber Temple on Mount Ghakis, and subsequently all died at the hands of their own good intentions.
  71. However, the coming of the mages also lead to a sort of industrial boom for the settlements of the valley. The villages grew in population and became much more civilized.
  73. Strahd's Arrival
  75. As the book says, Strahd was busy fighting wars in distant lands. At one point, he followed those enemies to the valley and discovered the beautiful land.
  77. Now, I'm not entirely sure about this, but I think the book says Strahd became a vampire about 250 years before the campaign. Even for a vampire, this seems just a tiny bit short in my opinion. I personally pushed the dates back farther to about 700 years.
  79. However, that is entirely my preference. So long as Strahd feels like a concrete, immovable fixture in Barovia, he can be as old as you want him to be so long as he fits okay into the general history.
  81. Strahd claimed the valley as his own, naming it Barovia. He brought another wave of civilization growth to the already established towns and build Castle Ravenloft for his mother.
  83. Though Strahd himself was never a terribly religious man, his people and soldiers also brought the religion of the Morning Lord to the valley, which spread rather quickly.
  85. Strahd also discovered the Amber Temple in these early days and began conversing with the Dark Power Vampyr.
  87. The Mists Cometh
  89. The rest of the fall of Strahd and Barovia occurs as the book says. The Sergei and Tatyana event pushed Strahd over a mental and emotional edge and he gave into the Dark Power who had become his companion. Strahd became a vampire and the mists cut Barovia off from the rest of the universe.
  91. Repressing the Ladies Three
  93. In the very early years of his vampiric reign, Strahd set about making himself even more powerful, so that no one could challenge his post.
  95. Strahd committed three terrible acts of desecration at the main shrines to the Ladies Three and stole their power over the valley. The Ladies, while still alive at the time of the campaign, are almost completely powerless now.
  97. The RAW Story's Shortcomings
  98. Obviously, this campaign is amazing. We wouldn't want to run CoS if we didn't love it. However, we can all spot plot holes and discrepancies when we see them.
  100. Curse of Strahd stands out in many ways from other campaigns. For one, it's only one of two campaign to date with the mega villain in the title (Tiamat being the second), leaving no room for doubt about the big baddie. Players go into this campaign already knowing the end goal: defeat Strahd.
  102. On one hand, this makes Strahd an extremely terrifying villain. Just by knowing his name, he becomes this omnipresent, unbeatable force that could outright crush the PCs if he wanted to. From session 1, CoS's story and environment feel oppressed. That is amazing for a horror campaign.
  104. On the other hand, this turns literally the entire campaign into a series of leveling side quests, all meant to make the PCs powerful enough to beat Strahd. If they entered Barovia at level 10, they'd have absolutely no reason to go anywhere else except Castle Ravenloft. This can make the rest of Barovia feel like a chore. And that is simply not okay.
  106. There's also an additional problem with having Strahd on the cover: the lack of surprise.
  108. Most good stories, be they in dnd, a movie, book, or otherwise, slowly unravel a mystery for the viewer to discover. And this isn't limited to mystery genres at all. In romances, we're lead to discover the lover's pasts and see the relationship's ups and downs. It make us wander, if only for a second, if the pair will end up together in the end.
  110. Alright, so romance might not be the best example for you guys, lol. Instead, let me use something more on point: The Dark Knight. (Minor spoiler for the movie, I guess) In this Batman film, we know from the very beginning that the Joker is the bad guy. He's the one that has to be defeated when the credits roll. And in character, Batman knows his enemy within the first fifteen minutes of the movie.
  112. The intrigue comes with the how. Batman doesn't go lock himself in his private gym, working out until he's muscle-y enough to go fight Joker mano-y-mano. Instead, he has to follow clues and hunt down other plot lines before having his final confrontation. It's about the brain work, not an end fight. (Yes I know there a hundred other things that make this movie good, but if we strip down the plot to its barest roots, this is what we get.)
  114. That required clue hunting is exactly what Curse of Strahd lacks. There's no actual plot inclusive reason for the players to save the winery or deal with the Abbot. If it were a video game, they'd be better off grinding experience on wolves in the woods before heading to the boss fight. As written, even the prophesied items from the Tarroka reading are technically not needed to beat the campaign.
  116. Ireena is the Main Character
  118. This is the last major problem with CoS as a campaign.
  120. Ireena is a great NPC. Okay, as written, she's actually super boring. But modified by the wonderful community on the subreddit, she's pretty cool. That's not the problem.
  122. The problem is that, as written, Ireena is the main character of the campaign, not the players. Instead, the PCs are glorified bodyguards on a prolonged escort mission.
  124. The New Campaign Layout
  125. With all the additions and changes detailed in this series, I hope to have fixed some of these core issues. And, as modified, this is the new plot we get.
  127. Firstly, STRAHD CANNOT DIE.
  129. This is the very first and most important change I made to the campaign. Strahd is quite literally immortal. Not because he’s a vampire, but because he’s connected to a Dark Power. Even if you’ve got a band of level 30 characters all beating him to a pulp, Strahd would simply be resurrected the following dusk. Barovia is eternally under his control and Strahd takes great pleasure in this fact.
  131. In the second third of the campaign or later, various NPCs can actually state this fact to the players. "Other adventures have come and killed Strahd before, you know. But he comes back. He always comes back..."
  133. Secondly, Strahd is Obscenely Powerful
  135. He isn't just a high leveled enemy. Even if he weren't immortal from his connection to Vampyr, a team of level 20 PCs would have trouble fighting him.
  137. There's a popular CR 27 version of Strahd out there if you'd like specific stats. However, just buffing him in every way possible and then giving him every spell on the Wizard list is more than enough to build a working stat block.
  139. Why is Strahd so powerful? Because of the Fanes of Barovia. Strahd stole power from three very powerful nature goddesses when he desecrated their shrines. This power is why Strahd has control over the elements and weather in Barovia. This power is why Strahd is, "The Land."
  141. And Lastly, Ireena
  143. Ireena is a PC
  145. If you can somehow transfer Ireena's narrative function to a PC, eliminating her as an NPC altogether, that'd be ideal. Now, Strahd is after a PC because that player is his reincarnated love. This makes things very personal to the players and makes them the center of the plot.
  147. If this option is of interest to you, I highly recommend checking out my Village of Barovia chapter. It details this process more thoroughly.
  149. Ireena as an NPC Doesn't get a Happy Ending
  151. I'll detail this more in a later post, but know that Ireena is pretty much doomed. I have some of this written in my Village of Barovia Post and will include much more in a future post on the Shrine of the White Sun in Kresk.
  153. Forcing Ireena into a sad ending basically makes her a martyr for the narrative. Her death or other sad fall is no different from that obligatory parent murder in the beginning of so many action movies. Tragedy breeds heroes.
  155. With these three additions, the players can't just go level up until they're ready to kill the big baddie. They'll actually have to do something about Strahd's power and Strahd's immortality if they want to defeat him. And that gives us some plot to work with. ;)
  157. Here's the new baseline plot I've developed for CoS:
  159. Hook Series
  161. Players are trapped in Barovia
  163. Players get mission to escort Ireena to Vallaki. If a PC has replaced Ireena, they head to Vallaki seeking sanctuary from Strahd.
  165. Players find out they are "the chosen ones" from Madam Eva
  167. Building Relationships
  169. Through role play and adventuring, players are more thoroughly introduced to Barovia and its people.
  171. Players should grow to love Ireena and a few other NPCs of the DM's integration.
  173. Players should become an integral part of Vallaki's future, making them care about the citizens there and the future of the town.
  175. Disaster Motivation
  177. Players learn how awful Strahd really is and genuinely come to hate him. He's been a passive name and possible chore so far, but now, they actively want him dead. They feel this way because:
  179. Somehow, Strahd messed with Vallaki and the town they care about.
  181. Strahd has started messing with the players, trying to turn them against each other or otherwise hurting them, making things personal.
  183. Strahd captures Ireena, making the party want to rescue her.
  185. Ireena somehow dies, invoking Strahd's wrath on the party. Players are pushed into a kill or be killed scenario for the rest of the campaign. Luckily, Strahd likes to play with his food and won't kill them right away.
  187. Figuring Things Out
  189. The players follow a series of hooks from one location to another where they piece together important information. The quests for the prophesied items and the ally should facilitate these hooks.
  191. The players discover, vaguely, that Strahd's power is not his own and that he is truly immortal. However, they still do not know how to undo that.
  193. Eventually, they get hooked into the Amber Temple. The Amber Temple will tell the players how to reconsecrate the Fanes, weakening Strahd, and how to unhook Strahd from Vampyr, making Strahd permanently killable.
  195. The Endgame
  197. Players make their way to Castle Ravenloft, reconsecrating the Fanes on the way.
  199. This will also include some quick revisits to various locations in Barovia. The players can revisit some beloved NPCs if they chose, preparing themselves for the final battle and hardening their will.
  201. Players face Strahd and Vampyr in Castle Ravenloft.
  203. Barovia is freed from the mist and Strahd is dead.
  205. This is the most basic and shortest version of the plot I could write for you guys. Of course, there're still side quests and loads of plot in between, but at least now those quests actually lead somewhere. Now, players might confront the Abbott because they're searching for information on the Dark Powers. Now, the players might help the Martikovs at the winery in return for information on the Fanes. The players get to have plot. Imagine that!
  207. Additionally, adding a Vampyr fight to the end of the game gives the players a big baddie that's not on the cover. It's a name they'll only learn in the last stage of the campaign, making things a bit more surprising.
  209. Endings for the Campaign
  210. Lastly, I'd like to talk about the possible endings for CoS. Having an ideal plot all lined out and defined is great and all, but players are always going to surprise you.
  212. So how can your players actually win?
  214. After looking at a few different sources as well as brainstorming myself, I’ve come up with some viable options for characters to come across in order to defeat Strahd and escape Barovia. I think of this like a video game with multiple endings. There’s the good ending, the bad ending, and the true ending, ect. Here they are:
  216. Trap Strahd
  218. This idea comes from the series, “Dice, Camera, Action.” You can find the whole thing on YouTube and I highly recommend watching it. Their first season takes them through CoS and I learned a great deal simply from watching them play together.
  220. Their solution to defeating Strahd was to trap him within a doll, body and soul. If Strahd’s not around to rule Barovia, Barovia is basically free. Even though the Dark Power still technically has dominion, it can’t do anything without a champion in which to rule through.
  222. You don’t have to use a doll to trap Strahd, of course. But this is a solid solution to beating the campaign.
  224. Change Strahd’s Heart
  226. If you’ve read the background about him in the printed book, you’ll know Strahd’s a pretty jaded guy. He’s bitter about a lot of things, especially the bit about Tatyana and Sergei. If, somehow, your players manage to change Strahd from a bad guy into a good guy, he won’t torture Barovia anymore and your players win.
  228. While this ending is technically possible, I honestly think this solution is the least feasible. After all, Strahd isn’t just jaded, he’s also an awful person. It’s not impossible that players may be able to change his heart, but I think it’s pretty improbable.
  230. Replace Strahd
  232. This is the option I find the most interesting. While technically considered a “bad” ending, supplanting Strahd as ruler of Barovia is a pretty neat idea. The problem is, how far would someone have to fall, morally speaking, in order to do this? How far are your players willing to go?
  234. Who can replace Strahd?
  236. A Family Member
  238. There are a few mentioned family members in CoS, but the only one that matters is Arabelle, the Vistani Child. As an fyi, I completely changed Madam Eva's background so that she is no longer related. For flavor, you may even want to add another related NPC somewhere. Or, perhaps one of your player characters a distant relative (unknown to them of course).
  240. The idea behind this option is that it would be easy to transfer the Dark Power’s sway from Strahd to someone of his own blood. The Dark Power wouldn’t see much of a difference. However, coming under the influence of any Dark Power does terrible things to a person’s soul and personality. Even if Arabelle becomes the next ruler of Barovia, for instance, she’ll likely have a descent before too long and become an even worse ruler than Strahd.
  242. The players would feel all successful and the new ruler would let them leave Barovia. But within a year or so, unknown to the players, Barovia would again be plunged into a terrible darkness.
  244. A Player Character
  246. Throughout the campaign, you should design several opportunities for your characters to draw the attention of a Dark Power. Remember, even though Vampyr rules over this demiplane at the moment, another god can take over at any time. If your players start to behave more and more morally ambiguous, or show off their growing strength and potential, they’ll start to draw that attention.
  248. If a Dark Power chooses a character as their champion, the character will gain great power and may supplant both Strahd and Vampyr as rulers of Barovia.
  250. This comes at a cost of course. The characters will have to fall from grace more than once. And if they succeed, they’ll be as trapped in Barovia as Strahd was.
  252. This is what I personally consider the ultimate Bad Ending, in which the good guys actually become the bad guys at the end. But let’s face it, that’s pretty cool though, huh?
  254. Kill the Dark Power
  256. If trapping Strahd or changing his heart are the Good Endings and replacing him is the Bad Ending, I consider this the True Ending. Killing the Dark Power, Vampyr, would not only end Strahd, but also completely release Barovia as a Demiplane of Dread. No god or their twisted champion would hold sway over the land anymore.
  258. There are a few things that would need to happen for this to go well.
  260. One, none of your player characters can have a deal with a Dark Power. If they do, killing Vampyr will be no different from supplanting him. The player’s Dark Power would simply take over.
  262. And two, the characters will actually have to figure all this out. This should sort of automatically happen when your players reach the Amber Temple. They'll find out how and why Strahd is immortal, but what they actually do about that is up to them. The library in the Temple can tell them how to kill a Dark Power, but it can also tell them how to supplant a champion, and many other things. Players will have to agree upon a solution and that decision can directly influence the ending they get.
  264. ----
  266. And that concludes this first chapter! This is what I consider the full, general overview of the campaign's story and progression. This chapter alone should give you a baseline to work with when prepping the adventure's narrative.
  268. - Mandy
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