so, there was this one time when I was DMing a game set in the Ravenloft setting. my players included a very angsty Bard who was going for an Avenging Executioner build (trust me, it worked more smoothly than you’d think), a Rogue who was cursed to be malformed (the Caliban race, which basically has the racial traits of Half-Orcs but is technically human. represents characters like Quasi Modo from Hunchback, or Eric from Phantom of The Opera), a third character who I can’t seem to remember at the moment, and a Human Paladin who was largely based off of Simon Belmont from Castlevania.
now, when I heard that one of my players wanted to play a Paladin in the Ravenloft setting, I got very excited. I thought to myself, this couldn’t get any better. to be fair I let them know that Paladins had a couple extra handicaps in this setting. and he was still cool with it because he knew that only a Paladin could really have the tools to effectively handle some of the threats that they would face. needless to say I was stoked.
and I was right to be. throughout the course of the campaign, my players each got plenty of moments to shine, and they surprised me at every turn. in a world so full of danger and suspicion, they were consistently compassionate and merciful. when they tracked down a mysterious murderer and learned that his murderous hatred stems from mistreatment by the village he targeted, they took steps to reform him instead of slay him, with the Paladin taking a direct role in mentoring him (though later on in the campaign, during one of their visits, they would find the murderer-in-reform hung himself). when they were ambushed by a Water Naga along the river the Bard befriended the creature, it was almost romantic in a certain sense. when they met a powerful Rakshasa who played them like puppets, the Paladin (who was able to effortlessly see through the fiend’s illusions and disguises every time) never hesitated to stand against him as righteous rival. this Rakshasa became a long-term villain under the shadow of Strahd. when the party took a side quest to try to free a clan of Dwarves from the rule of a Vampire, the Paladin was visibly shaking in his boots at the dinner table, but ultimately negotiated with the Vampire lord (and in so doing, despite taking charge to do the right thing and save literally every victim, became an ex-Paladin because he willingly associated with an evil being). the best part? instead of going Blackguard, or replacing Paladin Levels with Knight-Errant levels, he insisted on seeking atonement. he came so close to being forced to take a non-Paladin level before completing an atonement quest and being granted an Atonement spell, the very encounter in which he completed it all was worth the EXP to level up. so he took his Paladin level and received his Bonded Weapon (alternate class feature to Paladin Mount).
this was it. the moment to begin the climax. the main adventure began. I started the Expedition To Castle Ravenloft adventure module here (supplemented with some elements taken directly from the 2nd-edition AD&D Curse of Strahd module). covens of whiches led by powerful hags bound to Strahd and who were attempting to summon a demon to depose him; werewolves riled up by Strahd to misdirect any would be threats and force them to work for him instead of against him to quell the lycanthrope threat; various agents and hunters and assassins sent by Strahd to spy on the players; HORDES of undead caused by a foul magical plague Strahd released on the village; and Strahd himself in his castle, attempting to make the woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his ancient lover into his vampire queen.
along the way, the party teams up with a divine order of undead-hunters, and makes their way to the church. there, the Paladin’s pastor, the town Cleric, was revealed to have gone crazy and evil, tormented by the sudden death of his nephew, and corrupted by a foul necromantic book he thought he could use to ressurect the boy. of course, the ressurection created a terrible undead monster instead. the party faced off against both the monster, and the cleric, with undead under the cleric’s control. and in the fight the Paladin fell to a death spell and was reanimated as a ghoul. he was able to shake off the cleric’s control, and sacrificed himself to defeat both the cleric and the undead nephew.
he rolled up a new character for the rest of the adventure. a wizard who would help them out while being crotchety and old. but that’s less relevant to this story.
that Paladin had, I am completely convinced, the FULL Paladin experience. a righteous quest, a Paladin’s Dilemma resulting in an unavoidable Fall, a devoted Atonement, newfound holy power, and a Heroic Sacrifice. and all within the Dread Realms. it was the perfect drama.
in the end, when the party finally faced off against Strahd for the final battle, it was quite intense. spells were flung, steel clashed, so many dice were rolled, and so much strategy was tensely rehearsed, implemented, and adjusted on-the-spot. we ended the adventure on a cliff-hanger mid-battle, and at that point it was anyone’s game. at any point one die roll now could decide the entire battle. Strahd could strike a decisive blow at any moment and effectively ensure his victory. or one of the party members could end him with one well-struck blow. in my mind we ended on a freeze-frame like when two anime characters are charging eachother with their final simultaneous attack. we never picked up the campaign, leaving the battle undecided. and I kind of like it that way.