Curse of Strahd is a low-magic, high-fantasy setting. This is because the commodity of magic within Strahd’s domain of Barovia is scarce and the magic that once existed is either hidden away or practiced only by the evil or insane. While the setting is high fantasy, it is low magic, making it a really unique adventure for your players with lots of implications for DMs to consider!
What is a "Low Magic" Setting in D&D?
For a complete break-down on the differences between high and low magic settings, I recommend this article by Campfire Writing. But the basic question to ask when deciding if a setting is high or low magic is: “How common is magic for the average citizen?”
If magic is so common and readily available that citizens almost take it for granted (like our modern day electricity) then you have a high magic setting. If magic and magic items are rare and the average citizen has no interaction with them, then you have a low magic setting.
In Curse of Strahd, the average Barovian has no access to magic, and the magic they could access (Dream Pies) are created by evil beings. It isn’t that magic has never existed in Baroiva, Strahd himself is a powerful wizard, but when Strahd cursed his lands and turned Barovia into a Domain of Dread, everything changed.
How Does Curse of Strahd Approach Magic?
After Strahd’s curse banished Barovia to a Domain of Dread, magic became something practiced only by the evil or the insane and magical items were hidden away.
Think about the magic in Barovia.
Who practices magic? Strahd, Baba Lysaga, the witches of Barovia, the Druids of Yesterhill, the Hags, and the reclusive Abbot are just a few examples. None of these are examples of magic being used for good.
It was dark magic that brought the curse to Barovia. It was dark magic that brought the werewolves and vampires. So it makes sense that the average Barovian would fear and hate magic as a source of evil and sorrow.
Really, the only good use of magic in Barovia is the gems that allow the Wizard of Wines to produce so much wine, and no one knows about them (hidden).
The only magic that would still be appreciated by the people of Barovia would be divine magic, but that magic faded away long ago when the connection to the other planes was severed.
Do Domains of Dread Interfere with Magic?
Another important part of this setting to consider is that Barovia is a Domain of Dread. That means that it has been ripped out of the material plane and exists in a completely different and separate plane of its own.
A Domain of Dread is meant to be a prison for its Dread Lord. This means that it is almost impossible to escape and no magic that allows travel between planes works in a Domain of Dread. This includes the following spells according to CoS p. 24):
- Astral projection
- Plane shift
Or any other spell the player might try to use with the purpose of escaping Barovia.
Strahd and Magic in His Domain
As the Dread Lord of Barovia and one of the most powerful Wizard to have ever lived, Strahd has a unique understanding of magic in his realm. When magic is given to a player by an other worldly being, such as a deity or patron, Strahd can actually sense this happening.
In addition, if a player tries to communicate with that other worldly being through magic (such as the Commune) Strahd can choose to make himself the recipient of that spell, making him the one who is contacted instead. (CoS p.24)
This is an often overlooked ability of Strahd but one that could be used in powerful ways if you have a cleric who is often turning to their deity for guidance.
Cosmetic Alterations to Magic While in Barovia
Domains of Dread can also alter the cosmetic appearance of magic. The Adventure Guide gives specific examples, such as
“Bigby’s Hand: the conjured hand is skeletal” or “Find Familiar: The familiar is undead -not a celestial, fey, or fiend- and is immune to features that turn undead.”
These alterations keep with the theme of the adventure and serve as constant reminders of where the players are. They have no effect on the magic and the spells work like normal, but they are fun and I recommend giving it a try!
What Does This Mean for Your PCs?
If your players want to play a class that uses magic that is not divine, such as a bard, wizard or sorcerer, they will likely not receive a warm welcome from Barovians when they show off their abilities.
In fact, places like Vallaki might even try to run them out of town (or worse). We will talk more about this with examples later in this article!
No Healing Potions for Sale
Aside from earning the dislike of Barovians, your players will also have very limited access to magic items and potions. There are only a few vendors in Barovia, and none of them will carry even basic magic items.
The Arasek Stockyard, the only general goods store in the largest town in Barovia, carries only, “items from the Adventuring Gear table in the Player’s Handbook that have a price of 25 gp or less, but at five times the price.” (CoS p. 115)
This means there are no healing potions to be bought in Barovia, making this adventure far more dangerous for your party. Instead of purchasing items, your players will need to either create them or scavenge them from the corpses of previous adventurers.
The lack of readily available potions makes healing spells and potions infinitely more valuable in this adventure compared to other high magic settings.
Finding Magical Items
The lack of ability to purchase magic items also means your players will need to go on specific quests to find them. There are a few magic items listed in CoS, two of which your players need to destroy Strahd.
There are only three other magical items listed in the adventure: the Gulthias Staff (p.221) Icon of Ravenloft (p.222) and Saint Markovia’s Thighbone (p.223). But this doesn’t mean other adventurers didn’t bring magical items into Barovia, here are some ideas to for how to reward players with magical items:
Werewolves Den: “In a corner you see a pile of rotten corpses and old bones. Most have been stripped down, but you see something glimmer very faintly. On one skeletal finger, caked in mud, is a ring.” Depending on what your party needs, this can be a Ring of Feather Fall, Ring of Evasion or Ring of Mind Shielding.
Svalich Woods: *On a very high Perception Check roll* “A short distance away you see an oddly shaped tree. It looks as though it has something growing out of its side. You approach and the odd shape seems to be something lodged into the tree, covered in moss. Removing the moss reveals an expertly made battle axe.” This is +2 Battle Axe.
Adding magical items to the end of quests, tough battles or even as elements of the landscape encourages players to take risks, explore Barovia and search every nook and cranny. If you are looking for more ways to include Magical Items in your CoS campaign, join Patreon to get my full Curse of Strahd Companion Binder!
Resources for Crafting Magical Items
Another option for adding magical items to your CoS campaign is giving your players the option to craft their own magical items! As players slay creatures they can harvest parts from them to enchant and craft magic items or potions.
Here are a few of my favorite resources for this! While it seems complicated at first, these resources explain everything and give your players the ability to craft anything they might need.
This compendium allows you to easily add crafting to your game!
This compendium will:
- Let you make anything that exists in the game (as much as possible) and give concrete and extensible rules for everything else that could exist in your game.
- Open the door to new kinds of loot. Allow a player to be excited by something they cannot even use because of the possibilities of what they can make it into. This opens the door to loot and rewards that make sense in a world and give the players incremental but satisfying rewards that build toward something they want.
- Make it a player driven system. An aspirational system you can put in front of the players and let them drive toward their goals.
- A system that is easy to use for the GM and players alike, but offers a satisfying depth.
This supplement provides individual loot for each monster in the Monster Manual, as well as a basic crafting and harvesting system that works well with 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
With this supplement, these brave adventurers will be able to craft the hide, teeth, and claws of their enemies into dangerous weapons and equipment that is sure to mark them as legendary heroes of the realm.”
How Should NPCs React to Magic in CoS?
As a general rule, common Barovians should fear, or at least be cautious, of those practicing magic that is not divine. Divine magic from Clerics and Paladins should be treated with respect, perhaps even worship given how long it has been since the divine has had any influence in Baroiva. But even with this, most Barovians will be disillusioned with magic and see it only as a source of trouble and an invitation for Strahd.
There are a few important NPCs who would be very interested in players with magical abilities in the hopes of progressing their own goals! Use them as fun interactions or even full side quests depending on what your players want to do!
Baron Vargas Vallakovich
The Burgomaster of Vallaki is obsessed with forcing all the citizens of his town to be “happy.” He is convinced that if everyone could be happy that this would break the curse and release Vallaki from Strahd’s dominion.
You can play the Baron one of two ways. Either he is very excited about the players’ magical abilities (so long as they help his cause) or as deeply threatened by the players, thinking that they will bring Strahd’s wrath on the village!
If you have the Burgomaster excited to see magic, then depending on the type of magic the players practice the Baron might try to convince or threaten the players to help in the following ways:
Bard– Preform at the upcoming festival to lift the spirits of the citizens! (And they had better be lifted…or else!)
Wizard or Sorcerer- Cast spells during the festival, such as Prestidigitation, Dancing Lights, etc to make the Festival more magical!
Druid– Wild Shape into a dire wolf to be “killed” as part of the main event at the Festival.
Baronet Victor Vallakovich
Victor is the unhappy son of Burgomaster Vargas Vallakovich. He spends all of his time locked in the attic studying the few magic books he could find in his father’s library and attempting to make a teleportation circle to escape Barovia.
If he finds out one of the players is a Wizard, either from his father or one of the servants, he might try to bribe or persuade the player to help him with his teleportation circle. If this fails he might try to either kidnap the PC with the help of Izek, or steal the PC’s tome of spells.
Lady Fiona Wachter
Fiona is plotting to overthrow the Burgomaster of Vallaki. She already has a plan in place, but if she thinks she can manipulate the PCs into helping her, that is all the better for her! She might try to convince the PC to use their magic to ruin the festival, create a distraction so her cultists can take over, or kill the Burgomaster’s right hand man, Izek Strazni.
Burgomaster Dmitri Krezkov
Dmitri is the Burgomaster of Krezk, he is a serious man who is mourning the loss of his last child. Normally Dmitri would not allow the players into Krezk unless they did something for Krezk, such as bringing a shipment of wine.
However, if they players have already solved the problem at the Wizard of Wines Vineyard, the desperate Burgomaster might invite them into his home to ask if they could possibly use their magic to bring back his son.
If the PC cannot help, he will allow them to stay for the night, saying they must leave in the morning. That night the players will meet the Abbot of Markovia.
Why the Lack of Magic in this Setting?
Curse of Strahd has one clear goal, Kill Strahd Von Zarovich. To do this, players must collect 3 items and there are clear tasks set in place for them to do so. The game starts off with a fortune telling instructing them to find these items. If players had access to the normal level of magic that is in most DnD games, the necessity of these items would be lost.
In a world where time has stopped and magic is used only by the evil to maintain their power, these items become beacons of hope and a means of escape, driving the plot of the campaign.
Grim Dark Fantasy and Low Magic Go Hand-in-Hand
The lack of magic is also important to the setting of Curse of Strahd. CoS is a grim fantasy. It is dark, dirty and full of sorrows. Magic brings many creature comforts and conveniences which are just not a part of the grim fantasy genre. Everyone in Barovia is miserable (with the exception of Blinsky!), they are stuck in the past in a closed economy where nothing new ever happens.
This monotony of existence is broken only by the arrival of the occasional adventurer who always ends up dead. In Barovia, the only magic that brings comfort is from the Divine, the Dawn Father, and even that faded long ago.
Magic in Barovia
Magic in Barovia is rare but certainly not non-existent. With these resources you can certainly find ways to make this low magic setting both challenging and rewarding for your players!
Low magic settings like Curse of Strahd are difficult, dangerous and often deadly, just what a gritty bunch of adventurers are looking for! Don’t “fix” it by adding lots of magic options, lean into it and allow your players to struggle and find their own solutions!
However you chose to run this campaign, I certainly hope this article gives your game advantage, my friends!
Until next time!