Content of the article: "Strahd is an evil manipulator: Make your players hate him."
Originally posted on r/CurseofStrahd – posted here as the core ideas can be applied to any manipulative villains.
Warning: This post discusses dark themes that are not suitable for all tables. Topics include manipulation, gaslighting and abusive behaviour.
Note: This is a tool for the DM to use to create drama and tension, but can be dialed up and down to suit the table. Consent should be gained from the players before and during the game: "Is it ok if your character takes this permanent injury?" etc. All the players should still be having fun, if taken too far, the manipulation, madness and mutilation can ruin enjoyment. Be judicious. Players should be having fun and be ok with everything that happens – Characters should not be wanting to wake up the next day.
The closer Strahd can push the characters to breaking point, the more rewarding and heroic the players will feel when they defeat the evil that is Strahd.
Vampires have always been a metaphor for abusive partners. They seduce, hurt, and eventually kill their victims. Strahd is not "redeemable" or "misunderstood", he's a sad old man who could leave Barovia at any time but chooses to stay because Tatyana's soul remains and he tries again and again to win her over, and every single time she dies without returning his
Vampires/abusive partners have two sides to them, a seductive mask hiding the manipulative evil beneath, and indeed, there are two sides to Count Strahd Von Zarovich: The Count and The Monster.
The Count is an aristocrat. He's polite and charming and seductive. Strahd the Count should have favourites in the party: the attractive one, or the noble one. Or perhaps even the one that seeks power who could be charmed or swayed to his side.
The Monster should also have favourites: the one that has the most to lose, the one who would be fun to break, the one that he can make beg.
Stereotypically, Strahd the Count would seduce the pretty noble of the group, whilst the Monster would enjoy demeaning and trying to break the spirit of the young hopeful paladin or headstrong fighter of the group. Alternatively, Strahd the Count could try and seduce the paladin and sow seeds of corruption, whilst the Monster side of him could take a immediate dislike to the young woman in the group who hates being controlled or perhaps ran away from an arranged marriage. The Count's favourites and the Monster's favourites can change as the story progresses, and can be tailored specifically to each party. Personally I would recommend one of each, so Strahd can play them against each other, and forces the others in the party to choose sides. The "neutral" characters are not lesser, but instead have the privilege of seeing both sides of Strahd – "the full package", allowing them to be more objective and pragmatic.
Strahd has many manipulative and abusive traits:
- Attention seeking: Strahd has brought these players to Barovia. He's not just bored, he's lonely. He's trapped in Barovia as much as the party is. A long time ago, he pushed everyone he cared about away with his behaviour, and deep down he needs attention. Strahd should crave interactions with the party; it doesn't matter if the PC's are polite to him or actively hating him, because they're thinking about him. He wants to be the centre of attention.The Count and the Monster side of Strahd seek attention in different ways. The Count is the one that invites the PC's to dinner (or even just a single PC), and shows up to congratulate them on a victory against a lesser monster in his domain. The Monster in Strahd shows up to belittle the characters, to screw them over because he can.
- Jealousy: Similar to his attention seeking, Strahd can be jealous of the party talking to, fighting or even interacting with other people or creatures in Barovia. He wouldn't want the hags to kill his playthings. He is possessive, perhaps even constantly checking up on the party, following them, even watching them fight for their lives while he stands leaning against a tree making unhelpful comments.Again, the Count side of Strahd could become jealous of his favourite talking to or flirting with another, or with an NPC flirting with them. This could lead to NPC's being later torn apart by wolves or members of the party being cruelly punished. Strahd the Monster also gets jealous – if his favourite spends too much time hating someone other than Strahd, he might have to show up to remind them who the real villain is.
- Isolating and Gaslighting: Both sides of Strahd are trying to control the party in different ways. Strahd should be trying to create a rift in the party, to divide, crush and conquer. Characters should have moments alone with Strahd, which he would use to twist their views on him. And if this behaviour is called out, Strahd would try to make them doubt and question themselves by denying any problems with his behaviour.Ideally Strahd should appear when characters are alone, to praise, and compliment or to demean depending on the character. The Count's favourite could recieve gifts: to have Strahd drap the clock of protection (from the death house) around his favourite's shoulders and to feel his touch on their arm as he tells them to "take care of themselves" should have the player torn between excitement (about the magic item) and disgust (at Strahd's creepy behaviour. On the flip side of that, the Monster's favourite could have their locket of a loved one crushed beneath Strahd's boot with a flippant "Oops". The players should see both sides of Strahd and hate him for it, but half of the characters might admire, or even have a crush on Strahd, while the other half despise him.Bonus points here for using illusion magic during a full party meeting with Strahd, where one side see Strahd compliment and cure wounds of PC's and another gets humiliated and sneered at by Strahd at the same time.
- Frequent mood changes: Initially, Strahd is trying to keep his two sides separate, certainly Ireena and the Count's favourite should not see the monstrous side of Strahd, or at least that part of him should not be directed at them. The Count is seeking to build a relationship between himself and his favourites, and he'll use other methods, isolating and gaslighting to achieve that. In the later game,when Strahd's patience is wearing thin, the mask may start to slip. The switch between Count and Monster can be instantaneous, triggered by rude PC's, or indeed "boring" PC's.
- Controlling: At the end of the day, Strahd wants to break these characters. He's not trying to kill them, he's trying to tear away ever last shred of hope that they have until they have a mental breakdown and beg for an end to their misery. To this end, Strahd isn't going to kill any PC, unless he is both done with playing with them and they're no longer fun and it would utterly crush another PC.Strahd is likely to step in to prevent a character death – imagine a monster about to kill a PC on the floor when suddenly it freezes and locks up, jaws inches from a fallen PC's head, drool dripping onto their face. Strahd enters, "Beg, and I'll let your friend live. Come, lick my boot and ask for mercy." Players and characters alike should HATE Strahd.
Curse of Strahd is a perfect place to add injury tables and madness effects. Characters shouldn't die, but they should gain permanent injuries and long term madness traits that should slowly cripple the party's hope as well as their physical selves. Again, Strahd wants the characters to break and beg him for the sweet release of death.
Do be careful when applying injuries to characters, as at a certain point, the character will no longer be fun to play – a spell caster losing his hands is not fun. Allow your player to say "No, I want my character to die instead."
Personally I use this injury table as written by one of my players, as it gives a chance for characters to heal from their injuries and has lots of minor/moderate injuries – but feel free to use the many other tables that are out there.
A Case Study from my Campaign
There's four PC's in my campaign: Stick, Marguerite, Yilli and Cayl.
Stick, formally Sir Corin Vendico arrived in Barovia a young optimistic Knight of Helm, with his fiancée, a wood elf druid, a tiefling wizard and a half elf rogue. Stick's party got through the village of Barovia, and up to the castle gates, but they bored Strahd. Strahd broke every bone in Sir Corin's body, and made him watch as the wizard and the rogue were dragging away screaming into the darkness by wolves and as his fiancée was ripped apart in front of him. Strahd broke Sir Corin, physically and mentally, and then left him alone in Barovia for 20 years – though occasionally stopping by to degrade him a little. Stick is the Monster's favourite, and Strahd loves to torment Stick, who can do nothing about it.
Now, Strahd has brought Yilli, a wood elf ranger (specifically to torment Stick), and Marguerite a young noble warlock to Barovia. Marguerite is the Count's favourite, gifted with a cloak of protection, and in her own words, "Strahd really doesn't seem that bad". Unbeknown to her, Strahd has been giving Marguerite visions and nightmares of becoming old, and will eventually use this, along with knowledge of dark powers, to seduce her over to his side ("You can be young and beautiful forever my dear, and powerful too" – with the potential for her to switch her warlock pact to Pact of the Undead.)
Though Stick and Marguerite are Strahd's favourites, it doesn't mean Yilli and Cayl are left out. Yilli has a wonderful dynamic with Stick, as Stick can't stand to look or interact with Yilli, and she has no idea why. Yilli doesn't get on with Stick, and doesn't fully believe him when he goes on about how evil Strahd is. Yilli is friends with Marguerite however, and has seen the nice side of Strahd making her very conflicted.
Cayl is a young teen fighter from the village of Barovia, living his life in the shadow of Castle Ravenloft. His father was killed personally by Strahd and Cayl's goal is to bring light to Barovia. In many ways, Cayl is a younger version of Stick, and Strahd knows this. There's very much a student/teacher relationship between Cayl and Stick, and Strahd intends on using this to utterly crush the two.
Strahd's plan for this group is to grow the rift that's already formed, and mentally and physically break each member, whilst grooming Marguerite to join him – ideally during or just before the final fight.
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