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Mastering Strahd von Zarovich: The Ultimate Guide to Running a Fierce D&D 5e Curse of Strahd Campaign

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They’re finally there! Your players have reached Curse of Strahd’s climax. All their hardships and efforts, hours of playtime, and months of scheduling culminate in one moment: battling Strahd von Zarovich. You roll Initiative. Wow, the party mostly rolled higher than Strahd. No problem, right? They surround Strahd and destroy him in one round. “Wait, what? That’s not really the ending, right?” What a letdown! Why is mastering Strahd von Zarovich and making him powerful so difficult?

Strahd von Zarovich is the land, but some say he can’t stick the landing for your campaign. You’re about to take a master class in running the man, the myth, the legend: Strahd von Zarovich.

Are you worried that Strahd is too weak, or do you doubt you can run him effectively? This comprehensive guide will give you the best ways to use Strahd, including how to make him a terrifying dread lord (even without homebrew). I can’t guarantee he won’t get obliterated by smart, lucky players, but if this guide can’t help you, perhaps nothing can! You’ll definitely make Strahd into a fun boss fight.

Additionally, it can be difficult to keep track of everything about Strahd. His details are strewn throughout the Curse of Strahd book. This article collects and condenses Strahd’s stats, allies/minions, and other asset information in one place for you!

A quick word of advice: if your players plan wisely, prepare their resources, and they are lucky, they might earn an easy battle overtaking Strahd. Don’t deny them what they’ve earned. Fear not; be confident that the players will enjoy their earned victory. Player agency is critical, so embrace it. Having said that, do everything in your power to make them have to earn it!

Table of Contents – Mastering Strahd von Zarovich

Review this content to become a master of Strahd in battle! Bookmark this article because it will be a valuable source for you that puts a lot of information in one place instead of throughout the CoS module.


Strahd von Zarovich’s Stats (Statblock)

The first thing to review is Strahd’s statblock. It is nowhere near the end of what we need to know about him to control him effectively, but it’s a good start. We’re going to dissect every detail of Strahd’s statblock. After all, mastering Strahd von Zarovich will require you to know everything about him.

Strahd's Statblock as written D&D 5e Curse of Strahd

Strahd von Zarovich Challenge Rating

The first disappointing detail in Strahd’s statblock is his Challenge Rating. His CR reflects that he’s merely the vampire lord’s spellcasting variant statblock from the Monster Manual. It would’ve been nice to see more customization for Strahd’s stats, but we can work with it.

Don’t bother with those Strahd CR 20 builds or Strahd CR 27 builds. Master him as written. Make slight adjustments as needed. I’m a proponent of mastering something before you make changes. Learn principles so they become guidelines.

Is Strahd von Zarovich Too Weak?

Many Redditors and optimizers have long decided Strahd is too weak. Even non-optimizers have asked, “Is Strahd sort of weak?”

baby Strahd von Zarovich

My perspective is that Strahd is probably too weak for the average D&D 5e group. However, he might be too strong if the DM uses him to his fullest potential in Castle Ravenloft. I strive to teach you how to use Strahd as a deadly final boss that your players will marvel at forever!

You’ll prevent conversations like this:

Discord Conversation anonymous strahd conversation
The sad thing is they’re not wrong when looking at the statblock alone.

However, I recommend asking yourself why you want to make Strahd a tough final boss. Your motivation should be to maximize the fun of your players. If that’s what your players will enjoy, let’s make him the deadliest boss fight they’ve ever seen. If your players barely know the rules, rarely coordinate their teamwork, and practically ignore combat as often as possible, you might be fine keeping Strahd simple and straightforward to fight.

By the way, I posted a poll to see our YouTube audience’s experiences with Strahd as a final boss. Here are the results:

Flutes Loot Strahd TPK Poll

Strahd von Zarovich has clearly been more than a match for 14% of respondents, but I don’t know if that was due to Strahd’s stats being homebrewed or if another reason drove the TPK. At least 32% of respondents thought Strahd was not a challenge at all, and one commenter said the PCs toyed with Strahd for a few rounds. It’s impossible for me to know if these groups had DMs who ran Strahd to his fullest potential or homebrewed him to be stronger. I can’t know if they fought Strahd in the castle or elsewhere. There are too many variables to make a definitive statement, but I do know common dialogue online is that Strahd is weak. Let’s fix that by reviewing and mastering his resources, strengths, and weaknesses.


Strahd’s Actions

While he can use all the basic actions of the 5e game, such as Dodge, Dash, and more, Strahd’s statblock provides his unique actions. I’ll cover his spellcasting options, too.

Strahd Attacks

Strahd doesn’t have many attack options in his statblock, but he has good attacks. You need to know how to use them or you’ll get Strahd into a dangerous position. Don’t be afraid to retreat or act defensively instead for a round. He should attack the low-AC enemies first.

Unarmed Strike – Attack Action

Unarmed Strike is useful if Strahd is in an advantageous position with plenty of minions around. Otherwise, he should use Move to shift position. This Unarmed Strike can become a grapple instead of dealing bludgeoning damage (the necrotic damage still happens with the grapple option), potentially leading to Bite attacks later. To make this crystal clear, Strahd can forego dealing damage to instead grapple the target (no check required) with a DC 18 to escape. It’s good that his grapple DC from Unarmed Strikes is fixed at 18, higher than he’d get from his Athletics skill modifier. It would be nice to have him better at grappling for when enemies have high ACs, but it’s a tradeoff I’m ok with.

If Strahd’s turn is next, consider an Unarmed Strike as a Legendary Action to grapple the enemy so he can Bite them with his upcoming action.

Please only try to grapple party members with low Athletics or Acrobatics modifiers so Strahd can actually keep them grappled. There’s almost no point in grappling someone who has Misty Step or another way to escape, either. It makes Strahd fall behind in the action economy.

Additionally, if Strahd grapples someone, he is investing in remaining fairly still. Strahd needs to be mobile for quick retreats to regenerate. Grappling is counterintuitive to that skirmisher style.

Strahd’s Multiattack allows for two Unarmed Strike attacks on his turn.

Bite – Attack Action

Bite is best for killing a character. Strahd must grapple a character to use Bite. Unconscious creatures are great because, in my opinion, Strahd can freely pick them up to bite them. He heals himself with his Bite damage, but it’s not worth it if he’s in a bad position! Dying creatures are prime Bite targets since Strahd will very likely succeed while healing himself. Don’t neglect the detail that creatures charmed by Strahd will freely allow him to bite them.

The Bite ability to create a vampire spawn will not matter in a final fight but might be fun to utilize throughout the campaign. Players often recount how their characters became vampire servants to Strahd when they died early in the campaign.

Reducing a character’s maximum hit points often doesn’t matter because they can rest afterward. Not this time! If Strahd draws out the fight, the players will realize healing becomes less effective because they have fewer hit points to heal. Reducing max HP is useful for skirmishers like Strahd, who will win by attrition.

Strahd’s Multiattack allows for one Bite attack per Attack action, so make it count.

By the way, Strahd’s statblock says he can use his Bite attack while in Bat form. While that sounds fun, he still needs to charm or otherwise knock out a character before using Bite. I don’t foresee a bat grappling anybody.

Shapechanger

Make your players wet their pants by having Strahd shapeshift into a wolf while joining up with a pack of dire wolves. The players will fight the wolves, thinking it’s a normal encounter until Strahd reverts to his humanoid form. You can do the same thing with his bat form and a swarm of bats (perhaps the one from the coffin drop event at Argynvostholt).

Becoming mist allows Strahd to stalk players in the Barovian mists unseen. His mist and bat forms allow him to fly, too. If Strahd becomes grappled or restrained, I highly recommend using his action to shape-change into mist to escape. Trust me; you do not want to use Strahd’s action attempting to break grapples only to fail. An immobilized Strahd is a dead Strahd.

Strahd’s mist form is also immune to nonmagical damage. You can use mist form if Strahd needs to mitigate damage from many summoned creatures or a Barbarian with a mundane club. It could also be fun to become mist and invade a creature’s space to freak them out.

By the way, it’s noteworthy that Strahd is classified as a shapechanger in his creature type. This will be important for spells and abilities that deal with shapechangers outside their base forms, such as Moonbeam.

Decide now if Strahd can regenerate hit points normally while transformed.

I assume that Strahd can’t be grappled by hands when he turns into mist (even if his mist form doesn’t specify immunity to the grappled condition). The mist form says he can’t take actions, but he obviously needs to use an action to change back. Be wise!

dire wolf in barovia

Strahd’s Charm Ability (USE THIS)

This Charm ability is critical to making Strahd a dreadful, frightening villain (a detail I point out in my top 13 lessons learned from running Curse of Strahd three times). Seriously, this is Strahd’s most important action. Why? Charmed creatures become passive in battle. This charm lasts a scary 24 hours. Charm is repeatable until a humanoid fails its saving throw. Unlike other charm abilities with “once you succeed, you’re immune for a while” clauses, this Charm action has no such clause.

By the way, don’t forget that Strahd’s Charm only works on humanoids. There are playable species in D&D 5e classified as fey or construct creatures. Charm won’t work on them. Elves also resist the charmed condition, so watch out! Charm is DC 17 Wisdom to save against it, which is one lower than Strahd’s spellcasting DC.

Seriously, imagine the bloodthirsty party ready to destroy Strahd. They one-by-one become charmed by Strahd so they stop fighting. Uncharmed PCs must decide what to do, and they may need to surrender. It would be a shame if Strahd required them to give up valuables like Sergei’s Sunsword as a condition of surrender…

Don’t forget that the charmed humanoids freely allow Strahd to bite them. Sure, they can repeat their saving throw when he bites them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll succeed. Even success could be bittersweet if Strahd has the rest of the party charmed.

Strahd can use his Charm action in bat and wolf forms. This is because Shapechanger does not say it suspends Strahd’s actions that are independent of his physiology. Have fun with that! The mist form specifically says he can’t use actions in that form.

The target must see him. Charm won’t work if Strahd is invisible with Greater Invisibility. Allow players to realize Strahd uses the line of sight for Charm. They avoid Charm if they can’t see Strahd. They may produce interesting plans to combat this (players make crazy plans sometimes). You must decide if players can avert or close their eyes to avoid Charm.

Strahd may use Charm to bring innocent people from Barovia to the castle. They make good meat shields as the party arrives to confront him. Oh, the adventurers are friends with Blinsky? Now Blinsky is defending dear Strahd as his life depends on it.

You might conclude that Strahd spamming Charm is a bad idea because players will not enjoy it. One of my favorite homebrews for the campaign is to make the Tome of Strahd valuable by bestowing immunity to Strahd’s Charm to those who read it. You can adjust that as you desire, but it’s a fine way to make the tome worth finding.

Lastly, dinner at Castle Ravenloft is much more interesting if Strahd can freely charm the players repeatedly until they fail their saving throws. This showcases his power, changes the roleplaying dynamic for a night, and may allow the players to explore the castle.

Strahd charm hypnotize

Children of the Night

Unless Strahd is repeating from a bad position, this will often be his first action in combat. It’s reasonable to use this action prior to combat. I recommend spreading out the bats/rats/wolves to avoid the party wiping them out with a Fireball spell or similar AOE damage feature. In the castle, Strahd will summon swarms of bats or rats, which arrive in 1d4 rounds after using the action. They stick around for one hour, departing early if Strahd dies or dismisses them as a bonus action.

I would also place the minions next to the spellcasters and ranged attackers; doing so will force players to immediately consider if they need to get away from the swarms. Prioritize the low-AC PCs. Remember, you can use Children of the Night once per day.

Strahd's Actions as written

Strahd’s Spell List and Spellcasting

I’ll talk about homebrewing Strahd’s spell list a bit later (sparingly), but let’s analyze his spell list as it appears in the module:

Strahd's spells as written

Here are several tips and highlights to help you squeeze the most value out of this spell list.

  • Mirror Image should always be cast when Strahd retreats to regenerate. It’s an easy way to improve his defenses for a while without concentration.
  • Ray of Frost is Strahd’s ranged attack. Slowing an enemy’s movement is devastating to them because Strahd possesses above-average mobility with his Legendary Action to Move.
  • Fog Cloud is useful when Strahd retreats for a moment. He can create the smokescreen while he heals, then become mist to blend in and reposition himself. Fog is also helpful if the PCs are gaining advantage on attacks with Great Weapon Master or Sharpshooter. You shut down those feats if they’re guessing where they’re attacking and doing so with disadvantage.
    • Casting Fog Cloud evens the field. Gloom Stalker Rangers will take advantage of Strahd’s inability to see them in the dark, but Fog Cloud removes that benefit.
  • Sleep is perfect for knocking out low-health spellcasters, particularly if they have good Constitution saving throws and currently concentrate on a valuable spell.
  • Gust of Wind is perfect for knocking several enemies away from an area or causing them to fall (there are some very high falls to be had in Curse of Strahd). Strahd’s grapple and shove checks aren’t amazing, so Gust of Wind might be valuable.
  • Fireball gotta have it.
  • Greater Invisibility is a powerful spell for a vampire. It doesn’t synergize with Strahd’s Charm ability (sight needed). Strahd attacking while invisible will grant him advantage and defensive benefits. His Stealth modifier is high so he can benefit much from hiding while invisible. It only lasts a minute and requires concentration, so use it wisely.
  • Polymorph is amazing, so I’ll talk more about it below.
  • Animate Objects can be a devastating spell. The damage output and body blocking are both excellent.
  • Scrying isn’t very helpful in combat, but Strahd should scry on the party daily. He needs to gain information about them.
  • Nondetection is generally underrated, but Strahd definitely needs it. If the party possesses any divination spells, like Scrying, you can bet they’ll try to use them on Strahd. Thwart them!

Strahd Polymorph Spell – How to Cast Polymorph Effectively

Strahd cannot cast Polymorph on himself. It will do nothing because he is tagged as a shapechanger. Polymorph specifically says it doesn’t work on shapechangers.

Rahadin is CR is 10, so he can become any of the most powerful beasts in the D&D 5e Monster Manual.

Here are some beasts to be aware of (again, you can re-flavor them to keep to the gothic horror vibe): Tyrannosaurus Rex (8), Giant Ape (7), Mammoth (6), Giant Crocodile (5), Elephant (4), Giant Scorpion (3). This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a useful starting point. Any beast that can burrow, fly, or swim is worth noting.

Players wearing or holding a dangerous item like the Sunsword are good targets for Polymorph. The spell causes the item to become part of the transformation, taking the item out of play for a while. It can take some set up and it’s easy for other player characters to attack the beast form and end the spell, but it’s a good trick to have up your sleeve in a pinch.

You may enjoy my article about the Polymorph spell to help you explore your options with the spell. Mastering Strahd von Zarovich will be incomplete without a thorough knowledge of the Polymorph spell and how he would cast it on others.

polymorph dinosaurs

Should Strahd’s Spellcasting Be Improved by Homebrew?

If I had a dime for each time I’ve heard someone express confusion and disappointment regarding Strahd’s spell list, I could afford that expensive “Curse of Strahd: Revamped” product. For a vampiric lord who has been blessed with the ability to study and learn magic, he doesn’t know many spells and doesn’t have the highest spell slot levels. It may be tempting to drastically homebrew this, but I recommend keeping changes to a minimum (or even making no changes). Mastering Strahd von Zarovich as written is most important than shooting from the hip to homebrew him.

Six spells come to mind for improving Strahd’s spellcasting: Disintegrate, Counterspell, Misty Step, Absorb Elements, Feather Fall, and Shield.

I bring up Disintegrate because a common way to solo-kill Strahd is with generated sunlight and the Wall of Force spell. Disintegrate destroys force constructs like Wall of Force. Plus, Disintegrate is cool to showcase once in a while from Strahd.

Counterspell is a fantastic way to round out a boss monster’s action economy.

Misty Step is an important bonus action escape or aggressive move. It also allows Strahd to quickly mount Beucephalus and get out of grapples. Seriously, Strahd cannot get grappled!

Absorb Elements, Feather Fall, and Shield perfectly round out Strahd’s defenses and action economy. I almost always recommend these spells to spellcasters. In this article about the best Wizard spells, you can learn more about selecting valuable spells for Strahd and wizardly characters.

What Is Strahd’s Spellsave DC and Spell Attack Modifier?

Strahd gets a +10 to spellcasting from his assumed Proficiency Bonus and Intelligence. This gives him a DC of 18 and +10 to hit with spells.


Strahd’s Legendary Actions – Mastering Strahd von Zarovich

It may seem strange or underwhelming that Strahd can move as a Legendary Action, but I promise it’s important. Remember, if he’s in Castle Ravenloft, he can use his Lair Actions. The Lair Action to move through the castle’s walls will make the Move Legendary Action valuable (possibly essential). Strahd often needs to retreat through a wall to cause confusion, separate player characters, and heal his wounds.

Mark my words: the most valuable use of the Move Legendary Action is to move out of sunlight before it harms Strahd. Sunlight hurts him at the start of his turn. If he can move out of the sunlight before his turn arrives, he’ll be safer.

Unarmed Strike can be used if Strahd is in an advantageous position with plenty of minions around. Otherwise, he should use Move to shift position. This Unarmed Strike can become a grapple attempt instead, potentially leading to Bite attacks later. If Strahd’s turn is next, consider an Unarmed Strike to grapple the enemy so he can Bite them with his action.

Bite shouldn’t be used as a Legendary Action unless Strahd is practically finishing off a character. Strahd also must grapple a character first, or he’s ineligible to use Bite. He heals himself with his Bite damage; don’t forget it! The Bite ability to create a vampire spawn will not matter in a final fight but might be fun to utilize throughout the campaign.

Strahd's Legendary Actions as written

Strahd’s Lair Actions – Mastering Strahd von Zarovich

Lair actions are essential for Strahd to succeed. He should never spark a final confrontation outside the castle unless something crazy happens. In fact, he should bait the players into going to the castle. Strahd can use leverage to push the players to the castle, such as hostages or a promise of escape from Barovia. For the players, Ireena could potentially bait Strahd out of the castle, but the module makes it clear that he knows she will be reincarnated. He has eternity to wait, and he is patient.

You can utilize four lair actions, choosing one on Initiative count 20 each round:

  1. Move through the Ravenloft’s structures like a ghost for one round.
    • Unless you are extremely confident that Strahd is in an advantageous position, this will probably be your lair action each round.
    • It does not say what happens if Strahd is inside a wall when he loses this ability or ends his movement.
  2. Force Ravenloft doors and windows to open or close, magically locking closed doors.
    • Perfect for splitting the party. Once Strahd sees the opportunity, this will transition him from playing defensively with the movement through walls to instead go on the offensive.
  3. Summon a Specter next to an enemy.
    • I recommend picking people the players have encountered who have died to be the Specters. It’s for fun as it allows you to call back to player choices throughout the campaign for a proper final session. One of the most fun aspects of a TTRPG is feeling like your choices matter, so remind the players of all their meaningful choices!
  4. Attempt to summon a Shadow from an enemy’s shadow (DC 17 Charisma saving throw) with Initiative 20.
    • This could be a fun one to use earlier in the campaign. The character whose shadow is taken will no longer cast a shadow until they destroy the Shadow and receive either a Greater Restoration or Remove Curse spell.
Strahd's Lair Actions as written

Strahd’s Defenses and Passive Abilities

There are heaps of peripheral details to remember with Strahd. Let’s review them all and identify what they tell us about how he behaves and how he wins battles. Hint: attrition is his friend.

Strahd's Features as written

Misty Escape (Become Mist Instead of Dying)

It’s essential to remember how Misty Escape functions. Strahd can sometimes afford to die! If he’s not in sunlight from something like the Sunsword or in running water, he can live to fight again after time in his coffin. Running water has the same effect as sunlight in this case, though I haven’t found that this comes up. Strahd will likely avoid watery areas.

Vampire Weaknesses

While vampires have many strengths, they’re well known for their weaknesses. Strahd has four weaknesses/limits that you should never forget.

  1. Forbiddance: Strahd requires an invitation to enter a residence. The definition of residence is missing, but it’s assumed to be a structure that houses humanoids.
  2. Harmed by Running Water: Running water deals 20 acid damage to Strahd at the end of his turn. He will definitely not stick around if he’s waterlogged. Spells like Maelstrom you may apply to this weakness.
  3. Stake to the Heart: Piercing weapons made of wood driven through Strahd’s heart will paralyze him. This only works while he’s incapacitated in his coffin (which is in his tomb).
  4. Sunlight Hypersensitivity: 20 radiant damage is devastating to Strahd. This will two-fold disable his regeneration. He takes this damage at the start of his turn; that’s much worse than the running water weakness damage at the end of his turn.
    • Strahd also has disadvantage on attacks and ability checks while he’s in sunlight (devastating). He cannot fight effectively in sunlight. Disadvantage is immediate when he’s in sunlight, so making attacks with disadvantage is a bad idea with legendary actions or opportunity attacks outside his turn.

Legendary Resistances (3/day)

You’re likely familiar with Legendary Resistances, but you can use them thrice daily. You decide when to use them, but they are triggerable when Strahd fails a saving throw. I recommend saving them only for anything that would obliterate him with damage or hinder his ability to retreat and regenerate. Strahd must remain mobile at all times or he’s as good as dead.

Spider Climb (Wall Crawling)

Freely climbing walls and hanging from ceilings can be as good as flight in confined quarters. It’s a shame that Strahd doesn’t have ranged spell attacks that are not spells, but that’s often enough.

I recommend using the rules in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything to fall on other creatures. Strahd can pounce from above to knock PCs prone and share the fall damage with them.

Regeneration (20 hit points per round)

This is one of Strahd’s most important features. If players are not hitting him with sunlight, running water, or radiant damage, he becomes substantially more durable. Strahd will always try to retreat and re-engage if he can’t regenerate. This also applies if he is regenerating slower than he’s being damaged.

Use Strahd’s Lair Action to move through Castle Ravenloft’s structures so Strahd can catch his breath and regenerate. It’s enjoyable to watch players realize Strahd isn’t going to sit around until he dies. They’ll be terrified to realize he is undoing all the damage he took and they don’t know where he is.

Watch out for radiant damage and sunlight that stops regeneration, but also beware of the cantrip Chill Touch that denies healing (see its spell description). Chill Touch also gives undead Strahd disadvantage in attacking the caster.

Is Strahd Immune to Charm and Other Conditions?

Strahd actually has no condition immunities in his regular form. Players could potentially charm, frighten, petrify, or stun him (and that’s not the whole list). I highly recommend saving Strahd’s legendary resistances for a time when he could become afflicted with such conditions.

Strahd's Stats as written

Stealth

Strahd has a strong Stealth modifier at +14. This means he can get the jump on people with fair reliability, especially in the dark.

You can review how Stealth interacts with surprising enemies in my article on the subject.

Perception

Strahd’s Passive Perception is a massive 22 (17 if he’s in the dark). You can review how Passive Perception works in my article about it.

Saving Throws

Strahd wants to avoid Strength and Constitution saving throws. He’s not weak, but those are his lowest saving throw bonuses.

Damage Resistances & Effective Hit Points

Strahd’s resistances can help him survive against non-magical weapons and necrotic damage, but that’s about it. Luckily, there aren’t many magical weapons in the campaign to use against him, but quantity isn’t the issue. The Sunsword is devastating to Strahd, and it only takes one melee enemy (or even someone merely holding it for its sunlight) to put Strahd on his backfoot.

The Heart of Sorrow gives Strahd 50 more hit points, so do not forget about them. If Strahd resists damage, the 50 hit points from the Heart effectively become 100. It absorbs damage he takes, so his resistances apply.

Darkvision 120 feet

It’s too bad Strahd doesn’t have substantial ranged attacks. Most player characters won’t see beyond 60 feet in the dark with their darkvision, and most of them won’t bother with torches and light (in my experience). If Strahd can keep his distance, they won’t be able to see him. He can cast Fireball on the party from a safe distance if he has a line of sight.

Strahd darkness red style charm hypnotize

Strahd’s Hit Points and Armor

Oh boy, Strahd is not the most durable guy in a scrap. You need to play him as a skirmisher. If you send him to the middle of six PCs, he’s gonna die. You need to be smarter with him. Use his lair actions and legendary actions as much as possible.

He should never be sitting around taking shots without a good reason. His regeneration provides an incentive for him to retreat and stalk. If players summon sunlight with one of the Fortunes of Ravenloft items, Strahd can retreat and cast Fog Cloud to protect him from the sunlight (if you believe heavy obscurement blocks sunlight, as I believe).

What Is Strahd’s Proficiency Bonus?

Strahd’s Proficiency Bonus is assumed to be +5 based on his statblock and ability scores. I wish they had printed his Proficiency Bonus, but it should be +5.

Does Strahd Have Expertise in Skills?

Yes! Strahd’s Proficiency Bonus is clearly doubled for several of his skills. He has Expertise with the Arcana, Perception, and Stealth skills.

Strahd Intercepting Planar Communications

In addition to its notes regarding planar travel, consider how Strahd can utilize his interception of contact with beings from other planes. He can eavesdrop and manipulate adventurers when they believe they’re receiving useful information from an ally. After all, when you speak to a deity, do you hear a literal voice, or are words placed in your mind? It may be difficult to discern the words of a greater being compared to Strahd.

The Abbot, for example, surely has prayed over the years, communing with some deity. Strahd will intercept such messages, and may even forge replies. It’s no wonder the Abbot is twisted! He’s praying to Strahd.

Alterations to Magic Strahd crystal ball scrying as written

Can Strahd Fly?

No, but there’s more to consider. Strahd does not have a flying speed, but he can assume bat and mist forms that can fly. He can also ride on Beucephalus, which has a blazing flying speed of 90.

You can give Strahd the Fly or Levitate spells if you want him to have more airborne capabilities, but I’d focus on Beucephalus, shapeshifting, and spider climbing.


Strahd with Castle Ravenloft and Minions

The final boss battle should probably feel like a battle with the castle as much as with Strahd. They should feel like a symbiotic entity gunning for the player characters together. Strahd is the land, but it only feels true for players inside Castle Ravenloft.

I can’t review every single feature and minion within the castle, but I’ll hit some highlights in detail. Mastering Strahd von Zarovich requires a thorough knowledge of Castle Ravenloft (no small task) for the two are symbiotic. Strahd and Ravenloft are tethered together as one massive haunt.

Castle Ravenloft Features

In addition to Strahd’s lair actions, the castle has its own tricks and traps along the way. Strahd will be familiar with and able to utilize these features. The castle should feel like part of Strahd. It should feel alive and hostile to the PCs when Strahd decides to slay them. This is foreshadowed by Death House’s docile nature until the finale when the house tries to kill the players.

You can reference Strahd’s lair actions earlier in this article. Essentially, he can control doors and windows (magically locking and unlocking them), summon angry specters, animate shadows, and pass through the objects and structural features of Castle Ravenloft.

One of the coolest ways to handle the endgame is to use multiple encounters throughout the castle. I like the idea of starting at either the top or bottom of the castle and working your way through it. My caution here would be to not deus ex machina Strahd to safety if the party kills him. If they earn it, they earn it. You don’t need to force a long fight if they’re clever. But I love the idea of moving throughout the castle for the ending.

Strahd von Zarovich’s Tomb

The last place Strahd wants a fight is his tomb. That’s his failsafe place of rest. It’s also the only place besides the destined final location where he won’t automatically receive minions beside him (I’ll talk more about that later). To protect his tomb and himself, if he returns to his coffin, there is a fairly deadly trap and there are Strahd’s wives.

Anastrasya, Volenta, and Ludmilla are basic vampire spawns. DMs commonly give them unique abilities and spells to cast, but as written they’re only special because of their social status and their treasure.

It’s possible to teleport into the tomb from K78, but players will not likely trigger the effect. Keep in mind it can happen. Characters who can teleport through or lift the portcullis can enter the tomb from its archway. Strahd could use the portcullis to divide the party if they lack spells and abilities to get through it.

Another way to enter the tomb would be to step into the designated area of Crypt 32 (the only function of that crypt). The teleportation traps outside Strahd’s Tomb will put a character in Crypt 14, swapping places with a Wight there. That character will be in huge trouble surrounded by Wights in an unknown place. The Wight that takes their place outside Strahd’s Tomb could also spell trouble for Strahd’s enemies there if they’re not in a good position to deal with it.

Strahd's Tomb all Crypt 14 Crypt 32 teleport traps info as written

The Heart of Sorrow

Not just a fancy chandelier or undefended treasure, the Heart of Sorrow has its dangers. It gives Strahd more hit points, but it also is guarded. The fall is a real threat, too. This is a great place for Strahd to phase through walls and shove characters from the stairs. The halberds that animate to guard the Heart should probably focus on shoving creatures off the stairs.

Strahd's Heart of Sorrow as written
Strahd’s statblock is accompanied by this Heart of Darkness description,

Try not to get the Heart destroyed. It recovers quickly, but once it’s gone, it’s gone! Strahd will use his bonus action to unbond from it if he senses it nearing destruction. I recommend removing the bond if the Heart has fewer than 20 hit points. Strahd may re-engage it if he’s desperate.

Heart of Sorrow castle location as written
Chapter 4 description of the Heart of Sorrow where it resides. Did you know the Heart is made of crystal?

Don’t neglect the Heart’s defenses! As you can see in the book’s description of the area, Animated Halberds will attack threats to the Heart. Harming the Heart also prompts Strahd to send vampire spawn to defend it within 3 rounds as they climb the walls from below.

heart of sorrow staircase

Strahd’s Guardian Portrait

This portrait packs spells that can devastate a party. If the PCs are chasing after Strahd, they could get hit by Hypnotic Pattern, have a spell countered, become compelled by madness to attack their allies, or float as they’re telekinetically scooped up.

It would be interesting to have the players encounter this painting earlier in the campaign, then find it somewhere else where Strahd anticipates a battle. You could also create multiple portraits of Strahd throughout the castle.

The Guardian Portrait could be considered a minion as much as a castle feature.

Strahd's Guardian Portrait lore and location and stats together as written

Castle Ravenloft Map and Practice

If you’re playing with a VTT, I recommend buying quality map assets. I used “Castle Ravenloft hires colour jpg maps” by G Jensen; they were great!

Playing in person is a challenge. I recommend printing off maps like the VTT ones I mention above. You can waste heaps of time that you don’t need to waste making maps. Plenty of people have prepared assets for you to use. It’s worth it.

Regardless of the art assets you do or do not use, I can’t stress this enough: practice DMing in the castle. I did this by having a player character captured, but you can recruit a friend who isn’t in the campaign to practice with. The way the castle flows is meant to feel labyrinthian, and it does. If you don’t practice, you will fumble running the castle.


Minions of Strahd von Zarovich

Barovia is riddled with minions for Strahd. He should never start a fight alone. If alone, his loneliness won’t be lengthy. In fact, the book specifically says that Strahd will be accompanied when he appears unless he’s in his tomb or the place where the players are destined to fight him from the card reading.

I venture a guess that DMs tend not to care about the destined location from the tarokka card reading. It’s actually important. Players have the upper hand in the destined location because Strahd doesn’t automatically start with a load of minions. See the minion table below that states how it only applies if Strahd is not in his tomb or in the place indicated by the card reading:

Strahd's Minions as written

Beucephalus, Strahd’s Nightmare Mount

This mount’s speed is insane at 60 feet walking and 90 feet flying. Its immunity to fire damage is useful against the common Fireball spell and gives Strahd fire resistance while riding. Curse of Strahd gives Beucephalus 104 hit points instead of the usual 68 hit points of Nightmares.

Beucephalus’ hooves can deal a lot of damage. Strahd’s action economy and mobility become incredible while he rides the Nightmare. Remember, however, that Beucephalus has low AC (and debatably low hit points, depending on the level of the party). Its death can result in Strahd falling from the sky.

Beucephalus Nightmare Statblock

Ethereal Stride is a powerful and debatable ability, especially if Strahd charms someone. He can convince a creature to willingly enter the Ethereal Plane with him, allowing him to escape with a hostage. Strahd and Beucephalus becoming ethereal is a massive problem for player characters (which I’ve experienced often as they try to deal with Morgantha’s cover escaping into the ethereal plane). It’s possible that a DM may choose to remove ethereal abilities to avoid muddying the setting restrictions around leaving the domain of dread, but I believe it’s fine in a gray area.

To be a rules lawyer, the rules in CoS say you can only enter the Border Ethereal, and Nightmares can only go from the Material Plane to the Ethereal Plane. Since Barovia is part of the Shadowfell, you may decide that Beucephalus cannot use Ethereal Stride. It’s up to you, but be consistent with what you decide because it will affect others in the adventure, like Morgantha and her coven of Night Hags.

Strahd becomes enraged if the players slay Beucephalus, so be mindful of that. Beu chills in Crypt 39 of the catacombs of Castle Ravenloft unless Strahd takes it to Yester Hill, or you decide otherwise.

If you want to terrify your players, have Strahd grapple someone as Beucephalus carries them both 90 feet into the air to bite and drop them. That will send a message.

Beucephalus Nightmare Location and Hit Points

Strahd’s Animated Armor

Strahd’s AC of 16 isn’t spectacular, nor are his hit points. It may be tempting to have him don his Animated Armor instead of letting it roam free. In my experience, the Animated Armor is fun if a PC wears it. Otherwise, Strahd is better off with it as a minion providing him cover instead of getting a slight AC boost. In fact, the half-cover bonus is as good as wearing the armor. Refresh your memory on how 5e cover works in my article on the subject. Yes, creatures can provide cover to one another if positioned well.

Strahd's Animated Armor as written

I personally had fun with planting Strahd’s armor somewhere in the campaign where it seems like a suit of armor for the party’s Paladin to use. It comes as a shock (literally with Shocking Bolt) when the Paladin goes to fight Strahd with confidence, only to discover the very armor she’s wearing is her enemy. As an interesting detail, Shocking Bolt is a ranged spell attack that would normally have disadvantage in melee on the person wearing the armor; however, Shocking Bolt has advantage attacking a creature wearing metal armor (including itself). I think that’s hilarious.

The Greatsword attack does decent damage. Players may ask if the sword is magical if they get their hands on it. I say no; its lightning damage was a manifestation of the Strahd Animated Armor’s power.

The book mentions Strahd’s Animated Armor in the castle at the parapets. It patrols that area. Interestingly, this plate armor can be salvaged as regular plate armor after it’s defeated. The armor is a treasured prize for heavy armor wearers in the party.

Strahd Zombies

You may wonder how Strahd Zombies differ mechanically from regular zombies. They have 8 more hit points, CR 1 instead of 1/4, no Undead Fortitude, new Loathsome Limbs, and Multiattack (3 attacks). They make bite/claw attacks compared to regular zombies’ slam attacks. Zombies making three attacks could be brutal.

You can substitute any of those attacks to instead attempt a grapple or shove. This makes Strahd Zombies incredibly dangerous in numbers since multiple zombies can grapple someone to hold them in place. At the end of the campaign, they’ll be useful as grappling meat shields. They can also exchange their attacks for shove attacks to break grapples and free Strahd.

Strahd Zombies are prospective minions that you can roll up for Strahd when he appears. They also appear in several places throughout the module.

Strahd Zombie statblock as written

Spies of Strahd

Barovians, the Vistani, Fiona Wachter’s cultists, and the beasts of the land can all be allies and spies of Strahd. The dark lord receives information frequently from his cloaked servants. They watch the player characters and relay their abilities, achievement, and allies to Strahd. It’s important to justify how Strahd knows to adapt to the player characters’ strengths and plans. I believe these spies are often a missed opportunity in Curse of Strahd campaigns, so don’t forget them! Have fun thinking of how they function and communicate.

The Vistani

Strahd often calls in favors from the Vistani. Additionally, the Vistani willingly sow misinformation and spread false rumors that reap mischief. The book says they will support Strahd with falsehoods imparted to the player characters. They can lie about Strahd’s Charm ability, for example, claiming it occurs when Strahd speaks instead of the true sight-based nature of it.

Don’t forget to utilize the Vistani selling fake potions that they claim will protect people from the fog. You can make the players think they can leave by stealing from the Vistani or doing their bidding.

Vasili von Holtz (Persona as an Asset)

While Vasili isn’t a minion, his persona can be useful to Strahd. In case you miss it (easy to do) in the module, Vasili is a disguise and false persona Strahd wears. How a DM will utilize and reveal Vasili is fun for all DMs, as Vasili is extremely open-ended (probably more than he should be). I recommend using him to plant Strahd’s Animated Armor as a quest reward or something, playing the long game for when the armor comes to life while it’s worn.

I also recommend using Vasili to gather information about the party and Ireena as he gains their trust. Remember, the Abbot knows Vasili is Strahd.

Vasili is often my focus if Ireena stays in Vallaki instead of traveling with the party. Strahd prefers to court and impress her in Vallaki while getting updates from his spies. He may leave Vallaki on occasion to tend to the party or other matters. Vasili is a busy man!

Strahd Vasili von Holtz 80s synth style

Rahadin, Strahd’s Chamberlain Wingman

The chamberlain himself, Rahadin is a stealthy dusk elf with a fast scimitar attack. He’s not very strong if he’s fighting the PCs solo at higher levels, but he has his uses. He can dish out damage against one target with three scimitar attacks. His bonus action will be Deathly Choir for an AOE blast.

He can ride a Phantom Steed with his spellcasting for ranged attacks while utilizing his poisoned darts. He should always benefit from Nondetection, and his battles should begin with him casting Magic Weapon on his Scimitar (probably). Misty Step is an essential escape tool or aggressive reposition (depending on the need).

It’s noteworthy that his Mask of the Wild feature allows him to use the Hide action even if he’s only in dim light (or darkness where characters rely on darkvision). Well, I should say that’s my interpretation of Mask of the Wild because it sounds like light obscurement is what it’s alluding to. If you rule that it works this way, Rahadin can fade into the shadows with his +14 Stealth. If not, Barovia is full of mist and foliage to utilize. I believe that dim light works, though. “Lightly obscured” is mechanical language in 5e, and darkness is a natural phenomenon.

Experience tells me Rahadin will probably die before the final confrontation with Strahd, but try your best to keep him alive. He’ll likely die if the players encounter him alone at the Amber Temple, so consider how he might escape or utilize that temple. He’ll know the temple layout well.

Rahadin becomes the perfect sub-villain if the party is allied with Kasimir. Their history is unavoidable as a talking point. Rahadin was responsible for betraying the Dusk Elves, slaying their people, and for Kasimir’s clipped ears.

Rahadin statblock as written

Strahd von Zarovich Allies with Spellcasting Benefits

Barovian Witches can be useful with their Invisibility spells. They can give Strahd an easy escape. They can also cast Sleep on weakened PCs. Alter Self can be used to impersonate Strahd so the players attack a decoy. Tasha’s Hideous Laughter probably won’t succeed in the late campaign, but three or more witches casting it on a single PC with a lower Wisdom saving throw modifier can make a difference.

Can you think of other minions who might help Strahd and cast spells? I personally don’t believe Baba Lysaga should team up with Strahd. The Abbot may help Strahd if he believes Strahd is close to being freed, ending the Barovian purgatory.

Barovian Witches statblock and lore

Strahd Tips: How to Use Him Effectively

I’ve covered a lot of tips already throughout this article, but I have more! You must maximize Strahd’s action economy and resources to make him formidable.

You might enjoy watching this episode of Curse of Strahd: Twice Bitten, where DragnaCarta DMs the final boss fight with Strahd:

Strahd von Zarovich Tactics

Do not play Strahd as a prideful warrior who fights to the death. He is smart. Strahd will not be goaded into disadvantageous situations. Strahd’s mindset is that he always wins because he combines wit and power. His mindset is not that he is invincible at all times; he picks his battles and is willing to retreat and recalculate.

Strahd will learn the party’s weaknesses as he observes them closely through his spies and other methods. He will specifically plan around his Charm ability (I’m telling you, it’s his most dangerous power). It says specifically in the book that he’ll charm someone and order them to defend him. It’s not mind control, but it may effectively end the fight for one character.

You should also consider timing. Strahd attacks when he has the upper hand and he is most likely to succeed in his goal (that goal is up to you).

Strahd's Tactics as written

Tips for Running the Final Strahd Fight

Don’t rush this. Strahd wins by attrition, so play him that way. Not only that, but feel free to end a session if the final fight is about to begin. Trust me; you’ll want to get everything prepared to the utmost.

Here’s a list of preparations a DM should consider when preparing the final battle with Strahd in the D&D 5e Curse of Strahd adventure module:

  1. Review the adventure material: Read through the Curse of Strahd book (or review this article to review the information in one place). Make notes on Strahd’s abilities, tactics, and weaknesses.
  2. Plan the encounter: Decide on the location of the final battle and any terrain or environmental factors that could impact the fight. Consider how you want the encounter to play out and what you want the players to experience.
  3. Take Strahd inventory: Strahd’s resources are key to remember. You should also summarize for yourself everything that Strahd knows about the player characters so he can adapt.
  4. Familiarize yourself with the rules: Make sure you understand the rules for combat and any special abilities or spells that Strahd has.
  5. Stock up on necessary materials: Gather any miniatures, maps, and other materials you need to help run the encounter smoothly.
  6. Review player character information: Review the players’ character sheets, abilities, and gear so you can account for their capabilities in the encounter.
  7. Plan contingencies: Consider what you will do if the players deviate from your planned encounter or if the encounter doesn’t go as planned.
  8. Set the mood: Think about using music, lighting, and other sensory cues to create a tense and dramatic atmosphere for the final battle. Don’t pick battle music that will be disruptive or become bothersome if it’s looped several times. There are playlists on Spotify you can use, for example, but sample them first.
  9. Practice the encounter: Consider running a dry run of the encounter with yourself or other players who aren’t in the campaign to work out any kinks and to help you become more familiar with the mechanics.

By following these steps, a DM can be well-prepared for the final battle with Strahd and ensure that it is a thrilling and memorable experience for the players.

Strahd’s Enemy (the Destined Ally)

Strahd’s behavior toward the destined ally (Strahd’s Enemy) is also an important detail from the tarokka reading. The book says Strahd will sense the NPC selected from the tarokka reading is a threat; he’ll try to eliminate the destined ally as soon as possible. You’ll need to decide what that means for how he behaves, but he shouldn’t lose his cool.

I wrote about the destined allies (tier list and analysis for DMs) if you want help running them.

Strahd's Enemy as written

Curse of Strahd: When to Introduce Strahd

I recommend introducing Strahd early and having him appear frequently. This is not new advice, but I’ll add one bit. The players should slowly learn about what Strahd can do, especially his Charm action. You should have fun with such features during the campaign.

An easy first encounter with Strahd would be in the village of Barovia for Kolyan’s funeral. The road to Vallaki would be a good place, too. You might even do it as the party spills out of Death House. Those stick out as good times to me if the players don’t do something totally unexpected, like run into the woods for days.

Strahd Encounter Ideas before the End

One of the most enjoyable parts of running Curse of Strahd and mastering Strahd von Zarovich is for the DM. It’s endlessly fun to think of ways Strahd will interact with the party directly or indirectly during the adventure. As I mention in my 13 Curse of Strahd lessons learned article, Strahd’s spies, letters, and other tools are delightful to conspire and implement.

Here are my favorite Strahd encounters that I used, invented, or saw online:

  1. Kolyan’s Funeral: As Ismark and Ireena say goodbye to their father, Strahd shows up to express his condolences. As the indirect cause of their father’s death, this may not go well!
  2. Batman: A lone bat has been tailing the party. If they attack, the bat falls to the ground, but then rises up in its true form as Strahd. He congratulates them and asks them how they’re enjoying their stay.
  3. Inn-vasion: Strahd attempts to be let into the bedrooms at the Blue Water Inn. He may charm someone into inviting him in, or swarms of bats will crash through the windows to terrorize people as Strahd speaks through the broken glass.
  4. Fireside chat: The party is approached at night while they camp around a fire. Strahd offers them a dinner invitation in the form of a letter and chats with them for a while. If they reject the letter by throwing it in the fire, he charms them and asks them to pull the letter out of the fire, burning themselves in the process.
  5. Fox Hunt: The party is stopped on the Svalich Road by a panicked fox. A pack of dire wolves appears and surrounds them as if waiting for the fox to be given. The party must decide what to do with the fox. It’s revealed the Strahd is one of the wolves, and he’ll comment on their decision with the fox. The fox’s red fur makes it an allegory for Ireena, so Strahd will comment about how they will help bring Tatyana to him (physically and emotionally), in time.
  6. Horde Gauntlet: Strahd appears in the wilds and tells the party they’ll be fighting his minions. He sends wave after wave until they seem to be nearing defeat, at which point he ends it. Depending on how well they do, you may consider him offering them a magic item, piece of advice, or another interesting reward.
  7. Dinner to Go: The Black carriage pulls up to the party on the Svalich Road. Strahd steps out and welcomes them to Barovia. He expresses how he enjoys becoming more intimate with visitors by allowing him to bite them. If any characters refuse, he stares into their eyes and uses his Charm action repeatedly until they allow the bite.
  8. Dinner at the Castle: This is out of the book, but make it your own. One instance of the dinner as I ran it allowed the players to explore the castle before they dined as Rahadin informed them Strahd would be late (which also put them on edge). Another instance involved having Fiona Wachter and her children there as they approached Strahd about concerns regarding the adventurers. Strahd ordered them all to play violent hide and seek in the castle, but a natural 20 from the Bard convinced Strahd to change his mind as Strahd smirked.
  9. Animate Objects: As the adventurers rest, the objects around them begin to rise up. After a tense moment, the objects attack. This is Strahd casting Animate Objects.
  10. Rescue Offer: If the party is in a difficult fight, and one of them is dying, Strahd may arrive to intervene. He says he’ll end the fight and allow them to help their friend, but Ireena/Tatyana must go to live with him at the castle. This is a good one if Ireena is traveling with the party.
  11. Get in the Coffin: Strahd has a teleportation point in the coffin maker’s shop. If the party is in over its head against the vampire spawn, Strahd may suddenly join them and offer to let them go if they do him a favor.
  12. Fortunes of Ravenloft: Strahd will want any relics the players find, including the three items foretold in the tarokka reading. He may appear and demand that they return his heirlooms.
    • This won’t happen unless Strahd somehow finds out the party has these items, so I recommend stressing the importance of keeping the items secret. “Keep it secret; keep it safe.”
  13. Yester Hill: This one is also from the book. Whatever is going on at Yester Hill when the party arrives, it’s fun to have Strahd riding Beucephalus in the sky, watching with vague interest.
  14. Tser Falls Earns Its Name: The waterfall between Vallaki and the village of Barovia is a great place to trap the players for an introduction. Mouthy PCs will earn themselves a moment to be held over the bridge for a moment by Strahd. He’ll explain that the river is riddled with the bones of fools he’s tossed from the place (foreshadowing the mad mage of Mt. Baratok). “You are new here, so I’ll tell you the name of this place. Tser… FALLS!” (he then drops someone into the river below).
  15. Rahadin Returns: Players love to kill Rahadin, but the consequences catch up with them. Strahd appears with Rahadin as a walking corpse (assuming his body is intact). This is done with the Animate Dead spell. Strahd tells the party that someone killed Rahadin, and he poses yes-or-no questions to Rahadin’s zombie form as it nods or shakes its head. Strahd asks why they took his friend and demands that they give him one of their friends as reconciliation.
  16. Vasili’s Reflection: The players join Vasili at his manor for dinner. The most perceptive character notices a wine glass or wine bottle does not include a reflection of Vasili. Have fun from there.
  17. Abbot Visit: When the players meet with the Abbot, Strahd may be there finishing a conversation.
  18. Ireena Escapes: The pool at Krezk allows Tatyana’s soul to join Sergei and escape the cycle of reincarnation. This is a surefire way to anger Strahd, evidenced by how the book says he reacts! I believe this scenario is a concrete way for Strahd to lose his cool and attempt to kill the party by teleporting to the abbey. Based on the lightning description in the book, Strahd might gain Call Lightning (the spell) as a lair action, but that’s a homebrew idea. Most DMs remove the ability for Ireena to escape through the pool, anyway; they don’t like it in the adventure.
  19. Argynvost History Lesson: When a Vistani carriage drops off a coffin at Argynvostholt, the bat swarm inside may include Strahd himself in bat form. He’ll reveal himself when the kerfuffle ends. Strahd will lecture about Argynvostholt’s fall and how he took the skull of his enemy.

By the way, it’s not an absolute, but Strahd generally will avoid watery areas because of his weakness in running bodies of water. I don’t tend to plan encounters for him in the swampy ruins of Berez for this reason (and I like to separate Baba Lysaga from him entirely).

As a point of advice, don’t be afraid to have Strahd harm or manipulate the party if they get mouthy. I’ve experienced players pushing the boundary because they think Strahd won’t harm them. They were wrong! If you don’t keep the threat of violence from Strahd, and the players begin to think they have plot armor, a sense of danger will be missing.

While I can offer inspiration and help regarding Strahd encounters, they’re ultimately yours to make unique. They’re a joy to prepare. Mastering Strahd von Zarovich will help you craft unforgettable Strahd encounters that crescendo in the final battle.

What Level to Fight Strahd and End the Campaign?

The player characters will probably be between levels 9 and 12 when they confront Strahd to end the campaign. Those seem like fine levels to end the campaign. It’s noteworthy that level 9 is when players can get spells like Wall of Force (more on why that matters later).

Honestly, I recommend Strahd fighting the party at least once when they’re low levels. In other words, a battle of some kind with Strahd before the final confrontation is useful and fun. This allows the party to learn some of his abilities to combat those abilities later, such as his devastating Charm ability or what may seem like invincibility from the Heart of Sorrow.

Players often assume Strahd won’t harm them until the end; if they get cocky or mouthy, Strahd won’t hesitate to put them in their place. I don’t believe he’d kill them, but he’d at least lay them low and leave them in a bad spot, perhaps against some dire wolves as he leaves. “Prove you deserve to survive.”

I also had luck with Strahd fighting the party and forcing them to surrender. He required the provoker in the party to accompany him to Castle Ravenloft alone as a prisoner in exchange for the lives of his friends. It was fun for the player to work with me one-on-one as they were forced to perform chores at the castle under the management of Cyrus Belview (the castle groundskeeper). There’s so much fun to be had with a character captured in Castle Ravenloft (leave a comment if you want to hear more about what I did there).

By the way, if you use the random encounters table in Castle Ravenloft, I don’t recommend Strahd attacking the party unless you have a way to make it interesting. It shouldn’t feel like the final battle has been forced. I do recommend allowing the players to explore the castle before their final confrontation, which I speak more about in my top 13 tips for running Curse of Strahd.

Strahd comicbook energy dash

Does Strahd Have Magic Items?

The module doesn’t give Strahd any magic items.

Honorable mention of Sergei’s embalmed body in Sergei’s Tomb that has +2 plate armor (K85). There are plenty of interesting magic items in the module, but Strahd doesn’t utilize them. Would you allow him to use the Luck Blade from the catacombs? That would be nutty.


Killing Strahd Early

You don’t want to let Strahd die early in the campaign. The campaign effectively ends when he’s destroyed. To avoid this problem, he should never stick around if he loses half his hit points or the Heart of Sorrow is destroyed. He’s not above a tactical retreat.

I’ll describe some of the most deadly problems Strahd could face so you can plan for them.

How Do You Defeat Strahd?

Strahd is defeated when he’s destroyed in his coffin. He can’t return to this coffin if he’s in sunlight or running water when he’s killed, removing the need to finish him off in his coffin. Yeah, sunlight wrecks Strahd.

I recommend pushing players to want to make a deal with Strahd or find some way to leave Barovia. When their options run out, their desperation should drive them to confront Strahd with violence.

Of course, the module says Strahd never stays dead forever. This is foreshadowed by the way Death House rebuilds if it’s destroyed. I recommend making it clear to the players that destroying Strahd will not last forever, but it will allow them to escape. Their escape should be their primary goal by default, so play up how bad Barovia is as a soul trap and purgatory. Players should want to avoid being in the march of the damned. If you don’t signal to the players that their goal is to escape, not the final destruction of Strahd, they will feel miffed when they learn that he returns. You never want players to feel like their actions don’t matter.

Many DMs homebrew that Strahd can be destroyed forever by dealing with the Amber Temple’s Dark Powers (Vampyr, in particular) or by replacing him with a new Dark Lord. Feel free to do that if it fits your style and goals.

How Can Players Kill Strahd Easily?

I’ve seen many posts from DMs who have been concerned that their players killed Strahd too easily or prematurely. Strahd has even been listed as one of the most underwhelming fights in D&D campaigns (oof). “Players think Strahd isn’t actually so bad.” Here are some ways that a fight with Strahd can become trivial.

Wall of Force + Sunlight

This is the most infamous way to kill Strahd because a level-nine spellcaster can do it alone. They need to create a dome of force with the Wall of Force spell (it needs to prevent Strahd from going through a wall or floor to escape with his lair actions). Sunlight from the Sunsword will then microwave Strahd in the dome of force until he’s destroyed outright without Misty Escape or needing to approach Strahd’s tomb/coffin.

Sergei’s Sunsword (a Sun Blade)

The most powerful weapon against Strahd is debatably the Sunsword. The other Fortunes of Ravenloft are good to find, but this has been the most important one for securing victory against Strahd. It possesses a potent combination of radiant damage, sunlight, and sentimental value to Strahd. Even Rogues can use it well with its finesse property.

Sunsword all info as written
Devastating Conditions

Getting grappled is catastrophic for Strahd since he lacks Misty Step for quick escapes. You definitely want to avoid the Hold Vampires feature from the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind.

Holy Symbol of Ravenkind as written
The Holy Symbol of Ravenkind’s threat is the production of sunlight, but players naturally want to use Hold Vampires to paralyze Strahd. Save your Legendary Resistances for this paralysis or Strahd will die quickly.
Gloom Stalker Rangers

One of the coolest Gloom Stalker features is remaining invisible in the dark to creatures relying on darkvision. Strahd doesn’t often carry a torch, and his castle is dark! Fog Cloud is a good spell to use if Strahd is being overwhelmed by a Gloom Stalker. It removes the Ranger’s advantages.

Powerful Destined Allies and NPCs

Watch out if Strahd’s Enemy from the tarokka reading is either Kasimir (and indirectly archmage Patrina) or Godfrey (the mighty revenant paladin). Godfrey + Sunsword is GG (good game, let’s go home) for Strahd. Vasilka is also a mighty foe.

I seriously recommend my article about the destined allies.

Burst Damage

DMs who plop Strahd in front of the players without moving him around will see him obliterated as players nova their abilities. That means they spend all their resources without worrying about anything that follows. A mobile Strahd wants the party to spend their best abilities and spells early as long as he can survive it. This means he can retreat, and when he returns within one minute, the party will realize they wasted their figurative ammo.

Even with minor resource investment, a Battle Master Fighter at tenth level can dish out 100 damage in a round. You need to know if any of the player characters are cabable of that because Strahd will try to deal with them subtly. As I mentioned earlier, Strahd spends the campaign learning about the player characters; he should know what they can do.

Dealing with a DPR (damage per round) powerhouse character can be as straightforward as charming them into giving up a magic weapon or charming them first to take them out of the fight. Use Strahd’s +14 Stealth and the darkness in the castle so he can ambush the players and charm someone immediately (hopefully).

Denied Regeneration

Strahd needs his regeneration each round. If the party denies the regeneration with sunlight, radiant damage, or the Chill Touch cantrip, Strahd won’t last 3 rounds. Make sure he retreats as soon as he can’t regenerate.

Angering Strahd When Ireena Is Harmed or When Sergei’s Tomb Is Pillaged

This happened with my first group when I ran Curse of Strahd. Ireena died while Strahd was present, and he decided then and there to attempt to slay the party. He almost got the upper hand but was ultimately defeated. That version of Strahd was a more powerful spellcaster, too. Outside of the castle, Strahd truly suffers. Consider what you’ll allow Strahd to be angered about that would cause him to proceed foolishly. It’s tough to make Strahd lose his cool.

Strahd von Zarovich loves his brother. He weeps for him. If the players do anything to Sergei’s tomb, there will be hell to pay!


How to Make Strahd More Powerful

Now that we’ve reviewed Strahd’s resources let’s summarize how to make him more dangerous.

Making Strahd Dangerous (As Written)

The key to making players scared of Strahd is to keep them busy with minions while Strahd is able to retreat and regenerate. They’ll need to identify a way to immobilize him. It’s fun to see them realize he won’t merely sit still until he’s dead. Players who have been coasting through the campaign will receive a harsh awakening!

Each round, decide what lair action to use, what Strahd will do on his main turn, and what he’ll do with legendary actions (and when).

Where in the Castle Does Strahd Have the Upper Hand?

I believe Strahd can mess a party up in the catacombs. He can retreat quickly into the various crypts, some of which have traps and monsters for the party to deal with. There are also teleport traps, Strahd’s wives, and other resources for Strahd to leverage in the catacombs. He can also toss them out the windows of his parents’ tomb.

Ravenloft Catacombs map and visual aid

Making Strahd Stronger (Homebrew)

Don’t approach homebrewing Strahd with a heavy hand. Be delicate. You don’t want to lose the finesse, intrigue, and charm of fighting Strahd. Common homebrews for Strahd include ramping up his spellcasting and giving him Battle Master Maneuvers (from the Fighter class).

Giving Strahd more spells can be fun. You can go through spells that would relate to nature since he’s the land, or you can consider the haunted nature of his castle and his vampiric abilities to determine what spells he may know.

You can also beef up his lair actions. Instead of summoning one Shadow, he could summon one Shadow for every enemy he sees. Maybe he could even do it to allies; I’m picturing his dire wolves whimpering as their shadows tear away from them.

Giving him proficiency or Expertise in Athletics is important for avoiding grapples (remember his grapples have a fixed 18 DC to escape, not a contested roll). As mundane as it seems, being grappled is a massive problem for Strahd. Another easy change would be to make Strahd’s unarmed strike attacks automatically grapple a creature (without foregoing damage) if Strahd is willing to have one hand hold the target.

I’ve experimented with homebrewing Strahd. I found it made him less fun. I highly recommend running him as written with the resources I’ve provided in this article.


Strahd von Zarovich Quotes for Dialogue

Planning some zingers for Strahd is extremely enjoyable! I recommend writing down quotes you like from poetry, movies, or any sources that you find inspiring. Keep them within arm’s reach if you’re roleplaying Strahd. You never know when they may come in handy. I enjoyed doing this, and my players sometimes took the time to compliment the dialogue moment.

Here are favorites I used (I haven’t kept track of whether I invented them or got them somewhere online):

  • Drinking wine: “It doesn’t satisfy me like it used to; I taste nothing…. But blood is something else… Please come forth; I’d like to sample yours. Become more intimate with you all.”
  • Waterfall feature: “A wizard once stood up to me, thinking he could defeat me. I threw him from this waterfall to his death.” As he holds the party’s Wizard off the ground and over the ledge. (I think I got this from a Reddit post)
  • “Fool that you are. The ant can bite and sting for days, and yet its greatest victory can only be to be noticed, and in being so it is crushed beneath the magnitude of its foe’s attention. Do you dare draw my gaze and risk that fate?”
  • “Birth is a curse, and existence is a prison.”
  • “You do not know pain. Not yet.”
  • “‘Kill them all,’ he sighed as if the sentiment was barely worth the breath it wasted. Then, he stopped, a thought occurring to him. He turned around, and one could see the wheels of his mind turning clear as day, as a slight smile started to creep onto his normally lifeless face. ‘On second thought,’ he mused, ‘just kill one of them.’”
  • “And to the witch hunter and holy man… I think you’ll take great enjoyment in knowing that hell is empty… and all the devils are here”
  • “Dreams are for the living.”
Strahd blue catacombs somber

Strahd von Zarovich Quotes from the Curse of Strahd Book

Here are Strahd quotes given in the book’s margins:

“I was looking at dead men. Before another hour passed, I’d sent them wailing on their way to rotting hell. All of them.”

“There is no light in the eyes of the men that feed off this land. They are as dead as the dead.” (Vasili said, Abbot quoted)

“I called for my family, long unseated from their ancient thrones, and brought them here to settle in the castle Ravenloft.”

(of Tatyana) “Same voice, same face, same graceful body, she was Tatyana come back to life again. I was absolutely witless from astonishment . . . . The gleam in her eyes was like warm sunlight on a still pond. That light is gone forever. When I try to imagine those eyes, all I see is a mad abyss.”

“My army settled in the valley of Barovia and took power over the people in the name of a just god, but with none of a god’s grace or justice.”

“I am ancient; I am the land. My beginnings are lost in the darkness of the past. I am not dead. Nor am I alive. I am undead, forever.”

“The road curved and climbed, making a lengthy switchback into this edge of Mount Ghakis. The air grew colder, not warmer, and patches of snow became more frequent until they were unbroken.”

“I was looking at dead men. Before another hour passed, I’d send them wailing on their way to rotting hell.”

“A dog can only chew on the same bone for so long before there is no marrow to suck…”

How to Roleplay Strahd and Approach His Goals

Read the book’s guidance on roleplaying Strahd if you haven’t reviewed it for a while. His goals are also worth reviewing.

There are three primary fixations for Strahd in the module:

  1. Turn Ireena Kolyana into a vampire and seal her away in the catacombs of Castle Ravenloft.
  2. Find Rudolph van Richten. He doesn’t want to kill Rudolph, though. Strahd wants to find him with his spies and capture him alive to break his spirit in the dungeons of Castle Ravenloft. If captured, Rudolph will likely be in the waterlogged torture chamber in the castle’s dungeon.
  3. Search for a successor or consort among the player characters. The book leads me to believe this is Strahd’s priority because it says his focus shifts from Ireena and van Richten when the players come around. Strahd will entertain the idea that one of them could be his successor until he inevitably decides they cannot handle it. Arrogance, charisma, uncommon knowledge, and beauty are important to Strahd when he evaluates PCs, and he’ll be the hardest on them with his abuses. His interest is piqued by fortitude and defiance. The book mentions searching for consorts, so Strahd may settle for offering vampirism and slavery to him instead of death. Regardless, Strahd sees the player characters as toys once he decides they are unsuitable successors.

There is a fourth goal that can be unlocked regarding the Tome of Strahd. When he hears the Tome of Strahd has been found, Strahd puts his other goals on hold to get it back. He will target the person who carries it.

Strahd can be fierce and merciless, but he can also be charismatic, diplomatic, subtle, and seductive (which does not solely refer to sexual advances for all you thirsty folks out there). He makes offers, deals, and otherwise toys with people. The undead lord conquers people, no longer conquesting lands. He seeks to corrupt people in the same way Night Hags enjoy. It’s a sport to him.

You cannot count on Strahd to keep his word, at least not entirely. He’ll offer to make full vampires of people who deal with him, but he’ll always make them vampire spawns who serve him. It’s worth reviewing the vampire spawn and vampire lord lore in the Monster Manual to familiarize yourself with the relationship.

Many online discourses talk about how Strahd is a pathetic SIMP. Strahd will never see it that way. To him, Tatyana (he will never call her Ireena) is his possession. He paid for her with his brother’s blood.

Roleplaying Strahd and Strahd's Goals as written

Can Strahd Be Saved? Is Strahd Evil?

Strahd is absolutely evil (no doubt about it). However, he’s a ruler who will do things that the people in the Barovian valley may receive or interpret in diverse ways. For example, Lady Wachter looks up to him and even worships him. The Vistani are on good terms with Strahd. I recommend allowing the players to see Strahd in positive interactions with Barovians, but they’ll ultimately have to discover his depravity as the campaign progresses.

Players may think Strahd is redeemable, but that is not the case. Sure, they can wonder if he can be saved, but the result should always be the same: his decision to dispose of the player characters.

Why Is the Tome of Strahd Important?

The Tome of Strahd is notorious for being the weakest Fortunes of Ravenloft item. Sure, obtaining it can prompt a level-up, but it usually does little else except prompt Strahd to take it back by targeting its carrier. I’ll discuss my favorite ideas to make the Tome of Strahd more interesting (with or without homebrew).

  • (Homebrew) Charm Immunity: After reading the book’s pages during a long rest, a character becomes immune to Strahd’s Charm ability. This is immensely helpful, as one of the three items from the tarokka card reading should be. You can tone it down by giving them advantage on the saving throw or limited resistances (like Legendary Resistance against Charm).
  • Settle Misinformation and Metagaming: Vampires are part of our pop culture. It’s difficult for players to separate real-life assumptions from what may or may not be true in this game. After all, the lore around vampires varies radically by fictional works. I highly recommend that Barovians will know little about Strahd beyond rumors. The party will hear conflicting information during the campaign. The Tome of Strahd should resolve several of those points, including why Strahd cares about Ireena, his weaknesses, and who he really is. They should learn that he is truly evil if they entertain the idea of his redemption. There may also be people in the world who play Curse of Strahd with no knowledge of vampires or Strahd’s vampiric nature, so they need ways to learn about the details.
  • Reveal Strahd’s Resting Place: The party needs to know where Strahd revives after his Misty Escape at zero hit points. This allows them to get there with haste to finish him off. This doesn’t matter, though, if they destroy him with sunlight created from the other Fortunes of Ravenloft items. Strahd also reveals in this diary that he has sealed his tome, so the party will know there is an obstacle there with possible traps.
  • Info Dump: This text provides information about Tatyana, Sergei, Sergei’s sword, and more. It even mentions the Fanes, a common concept that is homebrewed to be meaningful in the campaign. Insert your own homebrew lore into this info dump!
Tome of Strahd as written

What Does the Tome of Strahd Say without Cursive?

The handouts’ cursive is not easy for everyone to read. Here is what it says:

I am The Ancient, I am The Land. My beginnings are lost in the darkness of the past. I was the warrior. I was good and just. I thundered across the land like the wrath of a just god, but the war years and the killing years wore down my soul as the wind wears stone into sand. … All goodness slipped from my life; I found my youth and strength gone and all I had left was death. My army settled in the valley of Barovia and took power over the people in the name of a just god, but with none of a god’s grace or justice. I called for my family, long unseated from their ancient thrones, and brought them here to settle in the castle Ravenloft. They came with a younger brother of mine, Sergei. He was handsome and youthful. I hated him for both. … From the families of the valley, one spirit shone above all others. A rare beauty, who was called “perfection,” “joy,” and “treasure.”

Her name was Tatyana and I longed for her to be mine. I loved her with all my heart. I loved her for her youth. I loved her for her joy. But she spurned me! “Old One” was my name to her – “elder” and “brother” also. Her heart went to Sergei. They were betrothed. The date was set. … With words she called me “brother,” but when I looked into her eyes they reflected another name – “death.” It was the death of the aged that she saw in me. She loved her youth and enjoyed it. But I had squandered mine. The death she saw in me turned her from me. And so I came to hate death, my death. My hate isvery strong: I would not be called “death” so soon.

I made a pact with Vol, a pact of Blood. On the day of the wedding, I killed Sergei, my brother. My pact was sealed with his blood, his…divinity. I found Taryana weeping in the garden east of the Chapel. She fled from me. She would not let me explain, and a great anger swelled within me. She had to understand the pact I made for her!

I pursued her. Finally, in despair, she flung herself from the walls of Ravenloft and I watched everything I ever wanted fall from my grasp forever. It was a thousand feet through the mists. No trace of her was ever found. Not even I know her final fate. Arrows from the castle guards pierced me to my soul, but I did not die. Nor did I live. I became undead, forever. … I have studied much since then. “Vampyr” is my new name. I still lust for life and youth, and I curse the living that took them from me. Even the sun is against me. it is the sun and light I fear the most. But little else can harm me now. Even a stake through my heart does not kill me, though it holds me from movement.

But the sword, that cursed sword that Sergei brought! I must dispose of that awful tool! I fear and hate it as much as the sun. … I have learned much, too, about this land of Barovia. Ancient are its ways, ancient beyond the knowledge of the simple folk of the valley. Ancient saints dwelt in this valley long before my coming, and three hidden fanes still give tribute to their memories. I visted the Swamp Fane, the Forest Fane, and the Mountain Fane, and claimed their power for my own. Their servants now serve me, and thus I have become the Land. … I have often hunted for Tatyana. I have even felt her within my grasp, but she escapes me! She taunts me! She taunts me! What will it take to bend her love to me? I now reside far below Ravenloft. I live among the dead and sleep beneath the very stones of this hollow castle of despair. I shall seal shut the walls of the stairs that none may disturb me.

The Tome of Strahd

Strahd’s Fake Letter from Kolyan Indorovich without Cursive

Here is what the fake letter says without cursive:

Hail to thee of might and valor, I, a lowly servant of Barovia, send honor to thee. We plead for thy so desperately needed assistance. The love of my life, Ireena Kolyana, has been afflicted by an evil so deadly that even the good people of our village cannot protect her. She languishes from her wound, and I would have her saved from this menace. There is much wealth in this community. I offer all that might be had to thee and thy fellows if thou shalt but answer my desperate plea. Come quickly, for her time is at hand! All that I have shall be thine!

Kolyan Indirovich

Strahd’s Invitation to Dinner without Cursive

Here is the invitation without cursive:

My friends, Know that it is I who have brought you to this land, my home, and know that I alone can release you from it. I bid you dine at my castle so that we can meet in civilized surroundings. Your passage here will be a safe one. I await your arrival.

Your host, Strahd von Zarovich

Strahd Miniature Figure Recommendations

It’s fun to pick a figurine to use for Strahd when you play in person! As of today, I’ve only run Curse of Strahd online through a VTT, so I’m not familiar with miniatures for the campaign. I also tend to use poker chips and assorted kid’s toys for my minis when I play in person. However, I quickly looked around to see what options are out there.

There are sites where you can find bargains from resellers and Etsy stores, or you can go for new miniatures that are painted or unpainted.

Here are unpainted minis that look alright to me:

And here is a set of painted minis with Strahd and several other prominent NPCs in the campaign (questionable inclusion of Cyrus and style of Madam Eva): D&D Icons of the Realms: Curse of Strahd Legends of Barovia | WizKids Miniatures

wizkids cos figures

Unpainted minis are cheaper. Here are some that look alright and have bases:

If you want to have a laugh, go with this mini for Strahd.

I don’t know of any sources for Strahd minis from 3D printers (let me know if you find STLs for a good vampire lord so I can add to this article).

count von count

Is Strahd von Zarovich the First Vampire?

No… Strahd is not the first vampire.

I’m not going to get into the lore of different editions and multiverses; for simplicity’s sake, let’s say he’s not the first vampire if you’re running Curse of Strahd. There’s no tangible reason to make him the first vampire, though you could make the domain older or make the lore your own for your homebrew setting. The module says Barovia has been a domain of dread for 400 years. That’s not ancient, and that’s definitely not the Forgotten Realms’ first vampire.

Do you know what is actually ancient? The Dark Powers. When Strahd says he is ancient/the land, I interpret that as a person being possessed by an apparition with the Dark Powers speaking through Strahd. “I am Legion,” kind of stuff. That’s just me.

zarovich seal

Conclusion

You can make Strahd a formidable endgame boss by mastering his resources, leveraging his strengths, and compensating for his weaknesses. Making Strahd a dangerous, fulfilling boss fight for players is critical to sticking the landing of your Curse of Strahd campaign. It’s the icing on the cake.

Share your experiences (good or bad) with running Strahd. Did you use any of the tips that I outlined? Do you have more to share? Cast Sending in the comments below to tell me about your experiences. I promise Strahd won’t intercept your comment, though I’ll need to approve your comment as I wade through all the spam comments from bots.

Have a great adventure this weekend!

-Flutes

Strahd Ismark think Ismark Invincible meme
“THINK, ISMARK!”

4 thoughts on “<b>Mastering Strahd von Zarovich: The Ultimate Guide to Running a Fierce D&D 5e Curse of Strahd Campaign</b>”

    1. Thank you! I had someone point this out a few weeks ago, and I thought I updated the article. I see that I still had a bunch of erroneous suggestions, so I fixed them. No more Strahd Polymorph.

  1. Love the walk through!

    I’m running Strahd for the first time with some friends. Something that I did in the Death House off the cuff accidentally aligned really nicely with Ravenloft lair powers and I thought I’d share.

    I decided that for spook factor that the shadows in area 31 of the basement would be the player’s shadows, that detached over the course of their time in the house. I had individual characters make charisma checks when they encountered things that were particularly spooky (investigating decorations, being startled by an encounter, etc). If they failed I noted them as having a roaming shadow. Whenever they actively searched with a torch or light cantrip I’d casually describe a character without a roaming shadow as casting an extra shadow against a wall opposite the light source. They thought it was all ambiance.

    In the basement I started rolling perception/stealth checks of players vs shadows behind the DM screen, and telling players that something seemed off about whomever had extra shadows or a lack of a shadow at the time. I then asked them for an insight check into the target of their suspicion.

    Finally, someone passed the insight check, and realized that someone was lacking a shadow. After a round of wild accusations, they started counting their shadows and realized it was off. Some had none, some had too many, some were entirely unaccounted for.

    Once they reached area 31 they fought the shadows, and until they left the house and awoke (in our setting their presence there was a dream sequence), they had no shadows. Since then, periodically, they take an accounting of their shadows whenever their paranoia creeps up.

    Realizing reading this article that stealing shadows is a very Strahd in his lair thing to do, and that my next session is the dinner date… I had planned to have Millivoj be made an example of during dinner (my players got him out of a scrape with Izek, and encouraged him to be a revolutionary). I think he may steal their shadows again to do it 🙂

    Cheers! Bookmarked and I’m sure to read this repeatedly!

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