Our campaign just hit a big turning point - all of the work that went into the characters forming their adventuring party and getting a handful of experience levels under their belt is done, and they're ready to start on the next arc of their careers - the mid-levels. Last game session they entered the Valley of Mist, discovered the death-haunted village of Barovia, and before the night was through, came face to face with their nemesis - the vampire Strahd Von Zarovich.
I realize with intermittent game reports it's likely readers lose the scope and sweep of a campaign, so a recap of what has gone before is in order, tracing the events that led the group to the base of the high cliff on which Strahd's castle, Ravenloft, perches high above the deathly still village. (There's an old campaign map at the bottom of one of the first Gothic Greyhawk posts on the blog).
Back then they didn't think of themselves as "heroes", they were just a bunch of low level guys that heard about an abandoned wizard tower a few days away from their home town of Mittleberg (The Tower of the Stargazer). They cleared the tower and claimed it for themselves, eventually walling a prisoner within the tower behind blocks of brick and mortar, "cask of amontillado" style, so they wouldn't have to listen to him beg. They really weren't nice people back then.
In fact, they were concerned that other people (a band of thieves) might know the location of their new tower hideout, too, and wanted it kept secret - so they tracked the thieves to a ruined village to make sure they'd keep it secret - permanently. Dead men tell no tales. They ended up fighting the rival party down in a death-trap puzzle dungeon and then went on to explore the whole thing (The Grinding Gear).
It was close to the autumn equinox and a nearby village, Poignard, was hosting its annual tournament, and the fighting men amongst the group chose to compete. Along the way they stopped a madman from opening a demonic gate and flooding the countryside with shadow demons (Blood Moon Rising).
One other thing that happened was they helped a fairy Pookah named Hogsbottom reopen a portal to the Otherworld and allowed a sidhe lady, the Lady of Dawn, back into her sacred grove. They learned a bit about an ancient struggle between Law and Chaos, and that Chaos was on the move again. Some of the characters received boons from the fey.
The group's next major patron was Ismark, a gypsy man from a remote mountain village named Barovia. Ismark had been given a dire prophecy by a fortune teller - an evil that lay sleeping in the mountains would soon awaken, but a great weapon against the evil lay beneath the mountain of death. Ismark had descended from the highlands seeking a group of adventurers for hire to go and help him find this powerful item on Death Mountain. The good news is, the group found Ismark's magic sword. The bad news is, Ismark died beneath Death Mountain in the dungeons of a death cult. The worse news is, they unleashed an ancient vampire - a servant of Orcus - and 13,000 hungry dead, which proceeded to overrun their hometown of Mittleberg and turn the settled parts of the upper valley into a lifeless wasteland. (Death Frost Doom).
The group still had Ismark's letter of credit, promising 10,000gp for the sword if they returned it to Barovia, so they went in the opposite direction of the zombie horde and went deeper into the mountains, taking the long way around to avoid the carnage. (Still not acting much like heroes at this point). Along the way, they made a pact with an evil witch to retrieve an elf-killing hammer for her to aid the side of Law in an upcoming struggle with Chaos, and sacked a dwarven tomb to find it (Hammers of the God). The players began to learn that Law and Chaos don't necessarily correspond to good and evil...
By this point, the cleric was having trouble getting some of his 3rd level spells - his lack of faith was, in fact, disturbing. So he took a vow of poverty and rededicated himself to smiting evil - "We really need to get this magic sword back to Barovia". The 10,000gp promised reward might have motivated some of the others, too. It was like 4 months of game time prior when they first met Ismark, before winter, and he had warned them he needed to get the magic sword back "before the ancient evil near Barovia fully awakens…" Months later, they finally set out for the remote 'Valley of the Mists'. (They wintered over at a dwarven mountain stronghold named Stonegate).
Before entering the valley of Barovia, they detoured down a worn track off the main road that led to a warm and inviting mansion - which turned out to be a monster-filled haunted house (The Cursed Chateau). It turned out to be only a slight delay. But Barovia was soon in sight, albeit without too many people around. "Maybe we should have got here sooner", they remarked, walking down the empty cobblestone streets, doors and shutters on the numerous abandoned houses banging gently in the winter breeze.
They would soon find out why there didn't seem to be anyone left in Barovia… (I'll post the next game report in a day or so).
So that's where we stand. The players have lost touch with the progress of the zombie war down in the valley; the last refugees that made it to Stonegate spoke of how the ghouls and zombies overran the upper villages and were now swarming down the valley, into the more peaceful and populated lowlands. Meanwhile, the Flannish hillfolk of the mountains, ever hateful of the lowland Oeridian knights and lords, had declared sovereignty over the upper valley.
If the characters survive Barovia and ever leave the isolated Valley of Mists, it's likely a civil war will divide the Earldom of Sterich as Flan Hillmen and Oeridian knights of Istvin take up arms against each other (assuming the ghoul apocalypse is even contained). And all the time, supernatural agents of Law and Chaos begin to make their presence known.
A few other interesting notes - we started this campaign as BX, switched to LOTFP (Deluxe Rules) while we were playing all the cool exploratory OSR modules, and now that we'll be doing Ravenloft (and a slew of AD&D modules to follow), we switched back to BX with the Advanced Edition Companion in effect. The players really wanted the higher powered spells and options from AEC to be in effect with those meat-grinder TSR AD&D 1E modules. I find I prefer the more investigative, exporation-based modules, but c'est la vie - the tour-de-Greyhawk is still huge fun.
Incidentally, a while ago I did a treasure-by-adventure module post that tied in encounter density, XP and treasure to get a sense on how some of my favorite new school modules were comparing to the golden age - one thing is clear, a lot of those TSR modules were packed with fight fight fight. No wonder each new rules set had the power creep!