"Curse Of Strahd" is a adventure supplement for fifth edition Dungeons And Dragons. Its based on the classic Ravenloft campaign setting inspired by gothic horror stories like Bram Stoker's "Dracula". Its always been a popular adventure for game masters and for players. But this isn't a story about the setting itself. No, this is a story of how a simple pack animal inspires some of the most creative and entertaining roleplaying I've witnessed in a long while.
So, a couple months ago, six friends and I decided to play through "Curse Of Strahd". I was trusted to be the game master for the campaign. During the standard character creation process, one of the players spent some of his gold coins on a donkey and a cart. He named the donkey Steve. He did not name the cart.
Since any Ravenloft game can be oppressively dark and often depressing, I use Steve for comedic effect, you know, to lighten the mood as need be. Steve doesn't "hee-haw", instead he "baas". Steve casually eats anything within reach, including rotten wooden crates and parts of wrought-iron fences. Steve always looks upon the characters with impotent distain. Its possible that Steve thinks he's a goat, or that Steve's owner doesn't actually know what a donkey looks like.
Now, during the character creation process, I asked that everyone play Good characters. "Curse Of Strahd" is supposed to be an adventure of dread and awe. I wanted characters that'd be uncomfortable with the setting, disturbed by the moments, creeped out by the creatures. I didn't want "tough guy loners" that'd "seen worse than that" or morally compromised mercenaries taking advantage of a situation. After all, what's the point of running a campaign based on classic horror if everyone's going to treat zombies and ghosts with "oh hums" and yawns? I wanted characters that cared, that worried, that could be afraid.
I also wanted to reenforce that idea mechanically. I wanted the players to feel concern and loss, even if it was just on a statistical game-play level. So I made a deal with them. If any of their characters died, they could roll up new ones under two restrictions: the new characters were natives of Barovia and the new characters would always be one level lower than any of the original party members.
The first restriction is just thematic. The characters the players start with are the ones that bring hope to the cursed province of Barovia. They represent the best chance to defeat Count Strahd, the big bad vampire lord. That concept gets diluted a bit if another outsider can just "show up" whenever a player makes a new character. But a native of the province, they might be inspired by the successes of the party, to take up the family sword, to join the fight! This does limits what player's choices of races and classes a bit, but it enforces the concept that the player's original characters were "special".
That limitation of race and class is part of the second restriction. The idea is to add a little healthy paranoia to player choices. Its not meant to be a punishment, and the idea of being a level lower than the original party members isn't cumulative... If there are 3 surviving original party members at level 6, then any "replacement" characters (our inspired Barovians) will be level 5. It doesn't matter how many the players cycle through. And since the players all level up at the same time, its easy enough to keep track of.
The effect is, if a character dies, that player can only play a character mechanically worse than any of the original party members. Also, the "surviving" party is weaker overall as their total average effectiveness goes down. Everyone gets to keep playing, but each lose is felt both in-character and out-of-character. Its felt through roleplaying, but now it can also be felt on paper.
So maybe a less brash plan of action is worth considering, whenever coming across situation or encounter... Especially since we agreed, if all the original party members died, the campaign ends. Any and all those "replacement' characters, the natives of Barovia, they become disheartened, realize its was all just another malicious cycle in the vampire lord's curse, and give up. It effectively gives the players six "lives" to succeed. Otherwise, "game over".
And here's where we come back to Steve.
My players were already pretty open to the above ideas. I proposed it at the beginning of a session and we talked about all the reasonings behind it. We all agreed it added an appropriate layer of foreboding to the game. As we discussed the above parameters, a question about "the "original party members" came up.
It had to specifically be those who started the campaign? Yes, at least one "outsider" has to remain, to "inspire" any native Barovia player characters.
Well, what about Steve? What about him?
We started the game with the donkey. The player bought him (and his cart) right at character creation. Steve came into Barovia with the players. Does Steve count as an "original party member" for continuing the game?
That idea evolved preety quickly...
So when the first player dies, who every it is, rather than playing a lower-level native, they could play Steve, right? And if Steve counts as an original party member, then he should be the same level as the original party members!
But Steve is a donkey. How are you supposed to play a donkey? He's a donkey now, but maybe he's a druid stuck in an animal form! Or an adventurer trapped in a polymorph!
You know what? Sure. I love the idea.
We all thought this was brilliant! After all, who doesn't love a loophole? The players had found an "extra life" in their campaign.
And, wow, do they take care of that donkey!
In other campaigns, horses and pack animals are acquired and abandoned willy-nilly. Unless they're a mount or a familiar, they're treated with a hand wave, mostly to keep the story moving. Not so for Steve! The players make sure Steve is always safe. They make sure they know where he is at all times.
I've seen them concern themselves about Steve's provisions more than their own. I've seen them them put their characters in mortal peril to save Steve. I've seen players refuse much-needed healing so that the hit-points could be given to Steve instead!
As a reminder, Steve has no character sheet. Steve has no skills, no statistics. Steve doesn't get an initiative roll. Steve doesn't get an attack. Steve often doesn't get an AC value, because Steve isn't smart enough to dodge or to defend himself. Steve is lucky to have a dozen hit-points to his name.
Steve is a donkey. A non-player pack animal.
And Steve is the heart of the party. As long as Steve is around, its all going to work out.
Everyone loves Steve.