Before there was Curse of Strahd (CoS), possibly the most famous 5e adventure, there was the 3rd edition adventure Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. Instead of running CoS, I sometimes run Expedition over Halloween. It's fun for players who have never experienced Ravenloft before, and it's got a few surprises for players already familiar with Curse of Strahd. I'm reviewing the 3rd edition book, chapter by chapter. There will be minor spoilers in these posts, so this is primarily intended for Dungeon Masters.
Chapter 2 is all about the village of Barovia.
Players wandering into Barovia in this adventure find the mountain village of Barovia boarded and barricaded. The townsfolk aren't trying to keep out vampires, but a horde of zombies. While there have always been stories of ghouls and ghasts roaming the woodlands outside of town, a zombie invasion isn't normal even for Barovia. The players are greeted by gangs of wandering undead almost immediately though, so from the very beginning of the adventure (assuming you start them in Barovia and not the forests surrounding it) they're fighting for their lives.
This can make for an abrupt start to the adventure, and in a way it's a misleading beginning. The zombie plague has only a tenuous connection to the main plot. It's mostly incidental, but it serves a few important purposes for the game. First, it gets the players caught up in a plot that doesn't propel them straight to Strahd, who they couldn't handle in a fight yet anyway. Secondly, it sets the tone and establishes the world they're playing in. Thirdly, it places the players on high alert, as they navigate a town beseiged by enemies, and then transforms them into heroes as they fight for the town. And finally, it serves as a really good first adventure in Ravenloft.
The one thing the adventure doesn't address is how the players are meant to get past the anti-zombie barricades. I would assume that the barricade in the town square meant to keep out zombies would also keep out living PCs, but in the book it assumes that the PCs just walk right into town. There are mini-scenarios in which pubcrawlers step outside to help repair the barricade, but never a mention of how the PCs can get past it. I understand that the Dungeon Master can improvise an encounter at the barricade, but it strikes me as odd that it's not addressed or described in the book. Is the barricade just a nominal blockade, creating difficult terrain for incoming zombies? Or is it a makeshift city wall? Are there guards shooting anything that approaches or is it unmanned? Ultimately you'll have to play it however you envision it, or based on player expectation.
As a Dungeon Master, reading the description of Barovia and looking at the encounter map for the first time can be a little deceptive. As is often the case, the way forward will seem obvious. But to players who are thrown into a darkened town and then immediately attacked by groups of zombies, Barovia can be a strangely overwhelming place. You can let them wander the streets in a panic, or you can help them find their way to the place where quest givers hang out (they could meet an NPC in an alley or a building, or they might overhear signs of life in a nearby building), but take care not to scare them away from town early on. Barovia is where most of the story structure happens, so balance the frenetic energy of a zombie incursion with the reality that Barovia hasn't experienced a "zombie apocalypse," it's just a little under the weather.
Once players find the right spot for lore dumps and quests, they'll be ready to take on the sandbox that is Expedition to Castle Ravenloft.
Ashlyn, a paladin of an organization called the Lightbringers, is one of my favourite characters in this book. She's a reliable NPC dedicated to fighting the undead, and a spark of hope in a setting that's pretty obviously dismal from the start. For me, she is to Ravenloft what Avacyn is for Innistrad, and as I'm often looking to Ravenloft for help in building that Innistrad campaign I keep meaning to run, I find her particularly inspiring. Admittedly, she isn't terribly noteworthy as written, and mostly she's a way for you to ensure that the player characters get ushered off to the church, and she serves as the avenue by which the players can learn of, and optionally join, the Lightbringers.
Mechanically, the Lightbringers is a guild, which were introduced in 3rd edition on page 223 of the Dungeon Master's Guide II. Guilds in 3rd edition typically required specific ranking in an applicable skill and a membership fee. In return, you received mechanical and story benefits. A guild might supply you with resources, or information, free healing, or just a place to stay.
The Lightbringers is, unfortunately, in dire straits when the PCs learn about it from Ashlyn. While Ashlyn is eager to help, the local chapter of the guild doesn't have much to offer its members. At least, that's the in-game story. Mechanically, membership in the Lightbringers is a really flavourful way to optimize a character for Ravenloft. If you join the Lightbringers, you gain access to alternate class abilities, most of which are designed to fight undead evil. Ravenloft's greatest threats are evil undead creatures, so membership could be well worth it for many players.
The class abilities listed in the appendix are designed for 3rd edition. They fit right in with a Pathfinder campaign, but you have to adapt them for 5e. At some point, I hope to organise and perfect my adaptations of these abilities for 5e and post them, but so far I've just impovised as needed. I love the Lightbringers, though, because they're a strong symbol of good within Ravenloft, and as such they can be a guide for players who aren't sure who to trust, an aid to players who overwhelmed, and a cause to defend or avenge when a little extra motivation is required.
In addition to being full of great gaming content, the chapter on Barovia effectively demonstrates to you how the story of this adventure is going to happen. It's going to get pieced together, little by little, through player investigation and exploration. Player's aren't going to find one quest giver and get the plot explained to them. They'll need to stumble upon key NPCs like Ismark and Ireena and Ashlyn and Madam Eva and many others, get the full story about the "Devil Strahd", and formulate a plan for how they intend to bring him down.
If Ravenloft seems overwhelming to run, this chapter alone proves that it won't be. Each chapter loosely represents a phase within the game. Chapter 2 covers Barovia, and you can reasonably expect your players to be in Barovia first and often. Chapter 3 is about the land around Barovia, and you can reasonably expect your players to venture out into those lands after they gather information from the pepole in Barovia. Chapter 4 is the castle, which will almost certainly be the last stop for the players characters. That's not to say that it's complex to allow players the freedom to deviate from that expected path, but you won't need an in-depth understanding of, say, the castle until later in the game. So you can let the players visit the castle, if that's what they want to do, but if they start snooping around too much then it's pretty easy to scare them back to familiar territory with an unpleasant encounter.
Encounter design in this book is amazingly clear, too. All combat encounters are grouped together in an encounter section at the end of each chapter. Each chapter has at least one map, with several pre-programmed encounters indicated on it. You can let your players explore, and you can fill in encounters of your own until they hit a combat encounter listed in the book, at which point combat and usually a significant plot point occurs.
It's the easiest adventure to run, and I wish 5e D&D books followed this excellent format.
Chapter 2 is, like the rest of the book, written with a clarity and sense of organization that ensures the Dungeon Master understands exactly what's going on, what's important, where to find more information, and what to tell players. It's astonishingly well done. I've read my share of confusing and over-long, or terse and non-specific, prose in adventure books, and this is decidedly not that. This is different. Yes, there's a lot going on in this adventure, but amazingly it all makes sense. Everything connects. Next up is Chapter 3, all about the lands surrounding Barovia.