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Spoiler Warning

This question is about Curse of Strahd. It is essentially a completely-spoiler question, so, if you plan to run it (as a player) and you do not want to get spoilers, avoid reading this question or the answers. I will still try to use the spoiler block when appropriate, but keep in mind somethings might slip.

Question

So, if we check p. 6, in the Introduction of Curse of Strahd, it states that the Old Bonegrinder is a 4th level area. However, that area contains

Three Night Hags, each one being CR 7 (as they are in a coven), as well as possibly Nine Dretches that Morgantha can summon.

This makes me confused about what is the point of this area. My assumption is that the characters are supposed to

rescue the two children (or three - if they didn't stop Lucian from being kidnapped, I guess) and stop the operation of the windmill

but I doubt the monsters in the area will let them do that without a fight. They can try a stealthy approach to accomplish the goal I mentioned, but that's very dicey - failing a Stealth roll might be deadly here.

Even if they manage to split the monsters, that still may be a deadly encounter.

So, essentially, what I am asking is: what is the goal of this area and how is that appropriate for 4th level characters? Alternatively: Am I missing something that makes this way easier than I am thinking and doesn't lead to a TPK in half of the possible scenarios?

Note: Yes, I do understand that they could just approach the Windmill, see the Raven, listen to the advice and turn away. What I am asking is: what is the actual goal of the area supposedly appropriate for 4th level? I don't think taking a look in the windmill and turning their backs is exactly a goal (or running away after Morgantha tells them to.)

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You say "TPK" like its a bad thing ...

There are groups that adopt a style of play where the onus is on the players to assess risk and to pay the price when they get this wrong. These groups scoff at your namby-pamby ideas of "level-appropriate challenge".

Curse of Strahd is explicit that this is an appropriate and encouraged style of play in keeping with its theme of gothic horror. Characters in Strahd are tragic heros - both the PC protagonists and the NPC antagonists - there is no escape from their destiny as the Epilogue makes very clear.

If this is an alien mindset then this module may not be for you.

The module gives guidance

From the Introduction (my emphasis):

The adventure is meant for characters of levels 1-10 and includes threats for those levels and beyond. Strahd can be an especially deadly challenge at these levels.

much of the adventure involves social interaction and exploration, rather than combat,

Be prepared for the fact that the adventure is exceedingly open-ended-one of the hallmarks of the original Ravenloft. The card reading in chapter 1 and the adventurers' choices can lead them all over the map, and a party can easily wander into an area well beyond their power. If you'd like to steer them toward places that correspond to their level, consult the Areas by Level table, but beware of undermining the sense that the characters' choices matter. Sometimes the adventurers will simply need to flee or hide when they are out of their depth.

The last highlighted sentence here can be a totally foreign concept to many players. As a DM, you need to be very clear that a) this is an option and b) you should use this option right now!

This is not a combat encounter

These monsters are more than willing to make a deal - they can probably make the PCs an offer they can't refuse given what they have to bargain with (and always assuming your PCs actually care about that). Just remember:

Dark Bargains. Arrogant to a fault, hags believe themselves to be the most cunning of creatures, and they treat all others as inferior. Even so, a hag is open to dealing with mortals as long as those mortals show the proper respect and deference. Over their long lives, hags accumulate much knowledge of local lore, dark creatures, and magic, which they are pleased to sell.

Hags enjoy watching mortals bring about their own downfall, and a bargain with a hag is always dangerous. The terms of such bargains typically involve demands to compromise principles or give up something dear especially if the thing lost diminishes or negates the knowledge gained through the bargain.

Faust's story is entirely in keeping with Strahd's theme of gothic horror.

These creatures aren't necessarily encountered together

There is an opportunity to divide and conquer which makes the whole thing much easier. There is a specific encounter with one of these creature's elsewhere and earlier. If your players deal with this one then, as mine did, the CR and the expected level are much more closely aligned.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ For clarification, I don't think a fair TPK is a bad thing - neither do my players. But I certainly would not like my players to die because of 3 Lightning Bolts were fired in a row against their 30 HP. That would just feel... unfair, I guess. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 23 at 5:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Either way the last part was what I was missing: I was imagining my players trying to hide and sneakily accomplish their goal, or straight-on trying to fight, maybe applying some tactics like trying to split the monsters in question, but I could only see all of these attempts failing. Bargaining was something I didn't consider, somehow. That solves it. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 23 at 6:00
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Tracy Hickman, in the forward to CoS, says that "the vampire genre has taken a turn from its roots in recent years. The vampire we so often see today exemplifies the polar opposite of the original archetype: the lie that it's okay to enter into a romance with an abusive monster because if you love it enough, it will change...[Our hope in CoS is to] bring the message of the vampire folktale back to its original cautionary roots."

The "Lunch Box Heroes" video series goes into more detail on one way to run Strahd - as an emotionally abusive lover who systematically destroys Ireena's support network until she has no choice but to depend on him.

These are dark, adult, psychological themes here - and CoS is built to showcase them. It is still D&D, and the characters can still "win" and "beat the module" - but they should have a lot of losses along the way, and should see plenty of unpreventable death and suffering before they get there. Not every encounter is "winnable" in the sense of them feeling like heroes. In fact, most encounters should end up as compromises - victory means staying alive and slowly gathering resources and power for the ultimate confrontation with Strahd, but along the way they should experience plenty of tragedy.

So, I would suggest that the level indicators for the Chapters are not the levels at which the party can "win". Rather, they are indicators of the level at which the party can reasonably safely appreciate that they can't win. Or the level at which they can decide what they might be able to salvage from a bad situation. They are the minimum appropriate level for the party to experience the horror and dread and feeling of overall helplessness to do anything about the evil of the land. Or to rally and decide that whatever they can do, whatever small victory they can achieve, is enough for now.

For example, at level 4 in Vallaki,

The characters might be able to recover the bones of St. Andral if they visit the coffin-maker's shop in the day, but they have no hope of defeating six vampire spawn.

Likewise, they can probably

throw the fate of Vallaki into Lady Wachter's hands by killing Izek, or ensure that the Baron stays in charge by recovering the bones and doing nothing against him. But either outcome means that a tyrant remains in control and that the people of the town continue to suffer.

The module is full of situations like this - the PC's should have the possibility of marginal victories, but never complete ones.

Within this context, what does victory at Old Bonegrinder mean? A clever and careful 4th level party might be able to

rescue one or all of the children currently being held, but they shouldn't be able to defeat the hags or stop the pastry operation. The module makes this clear from the first encounter with Morgantha in Barovia - they can get her to let the child she has go just by talking to her - because she knows she will easily get more in the future, and the characters can't stop her.

I am largely in agreement with what Dale M said, but I might disagree about one thing. He suggested that the level might be more appropriate for combat if the party is able to separate the foes and take them out one at a time. I don't think fighting one of them, at least at the first level indicated, is feasible.

If the hags have any chance of losing a combat with the party, they should go ethereal at the first opportunity and then use nightmares to hound the party any time they try to sleep. Until the party is at a level where they can either do enough damage to a hag to take her down before her first action or can dimensionally anchor her to prevent her from escaping into the ethereal, a combat win is unlikely. It would mean doing over 200hp of damage in a round. An incapacitating spell is possible, but bear in mind the hag is immune to charm, is a fiend (so Hold Person or similar spells that target humanoids won't function), and has a +2 on Wisdom saves with advantage for magical resistance, so they would need a good deal of luck with a first-round spell.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would like to mention I have had a party that defeated them when separated at 4th level, but I don't think it was "appropriate" in any way (one of the reasons, although not explicit, I asked this question, actually). It required them to surprise Morgantha when she was going to town to sell more cookies, she having the worst initiative (so, basically, 2 rounds of free damage before she could do anything), and spending basically all their resources (divine smites, action surges, 2nd level spell slots) in that one encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jul 20 at 18:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, this seems like about the only way a 4th level party could do it - get lucky with initiative and have access to all the things you mention. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Jul 20 at 19:12

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