by Mike Shea on 14 November 2016
When writing about the adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen we here at Sly Flourish wrote chapter-by-chapter deep dives of the whole book to help DMs run this adventure. With more recent adventures, Sean McGovern over at the Power Score has written fantasic guides of each of the Wizards of the Coast published adventures that put our Sly Flourish chapter-by-chapter writeups to shame. The same is definitely true with his excellent guide to the Curse of Strahd also available on the DM's Guild. For that reason, we're not writing in-depth coverage of the entire Curse of Strahd adventure. Go read his in its place.
Instead, we're going to cover a few big thoughts and a few concepts that might make running Curse of Strahd more fun. This isn't a deep dive into the adventures. This is more of a "what if" scenario. These ideas aren't for everyone and likely each DM will have their own thoughts on how to run it. That is, of course, how adventures run best.
I've written a bunch of other articles about Curse of Strahd that might be worth your time. Here's a list:
These each cover specific pieces of the adventure and offer tools to help run Curse of Strahd. This article, however, will cover some larger overall thoughts and ideas on this large campaign adventure. Let's dig in.
This adventure is all about Strahd. Based on his motivations and potential interactions with the characters, he's almost the perfect D&D villain. He's powerful but his goal isn't to just wipe the characters out. We don't have to worry about the hypocrisy of not killing characters the minute they step into Barovia. That's not his goal. Strahd brought the characters to Barovia because he's bored. He wants to add some excitement to the land, some new variables, and those variables are our heroes.
When we run Curse of Strahd, it works really well when Strahd is in their faces a lot. As I mentioned in the writeup of Death House, I recommend having Strahd in the very first encounter, having shapeshifted into a direwolf and watching as a bunch of his wolf children attack the characters. This can happen right before the characters discover that their journey to Barovia was a ruse. He wants to see them first hand. If they try to attack him? Great! He's not really going to fight back but he's not beyond throwing up a counterspell or shield to show them that he's no simple direwolf himself.
We can bring Strahd in like this a lot throughout the adventure. In graveyards, hovering over ancient bridges, standing at the tops of ruined towers, whenever they think they just had a huge victory—there he is smiling at them.
You can do a lot of this outside the view of the characters as well, with some well-placed flash fiction to give players the impression that he's always paying attention even if the character's don't know it. Follow Alfred Hitchcock's rules for suspense here. A surprise is when the viewer doesn't know if there's a bomb under the seat of the hero. Suspense is when the viewer sees the bomb under the seat but the character doesn't know it's there.
Strahd's plot may change depending on what the characters do. As the game evolves, as we look at the backgrounds of the characters, Strahd's actions might change. For example, Strahd might design a much more dastardly plot by attempting to convert Ireena not just into a vampire, but into THE vampire—the Red Queen! He might know that his time in Barovia is done and it's time to put a new leader in charge, one more benevolent, one more lawful, than he.
It's also possible that, should they go to the Amber Temple, the characters awaken a darkness or an evil even worse than Strahd. This might be unleashing the lich, Exethanter. It might be awakening a being of horror yet unseen in the worlds. It might even be the Ancient One, the first vampire born a quarter of a million years ago whose blood created Strahd in the Amber Temple.
Any of these threats can change the landscape of Barovia and change Strahd's motivations and interactions with the characters. With an Ancient One loose in Barovia, it's possible Strahd himself becomes a quest-giving NPC instead of the primary villain.
When you run Curse of Strahd, you have full authority to change Strahd's motivations and actions however the flow of the story goes. He is always watching and always reacting.
Curse of Strahd is a big book with a lot of locations in it. You certainly don't have to run them all. It's worth your time to read through the adventure and decide which parts of the adventure resonate with you and which ones don't. Sean McGovern, for example, didn't feel like the Amber Temple fit with the rest of the storyline while I thought it was a neat way to see Strahd's origins and add a new powerful villain, the lich Exethanter, into the mix.
I, on the other hand, didn't dig the whole Island of Doctor Moreau theme going on over at Krezk. Small baby heads growing out of the backs of deformed mongrel-men creeped me out.
The point is, each of us gets to choose which parts we want to run. It helps if you know which of these parts you're going to want to run before you dig into the game, of course.
Like Out of the Abyss, each chapter in Curse of Strahd is its own little sandbox with interesting NPCs, strange happenings, cool locations, powerful events, and lots of potential plot hooks. Feel free to fill them out as little or as much as you want.
Keep in mind that, as your characters travel through Barovia, you'll have to stay two steps ahead of them. If they are just about to head into Vallaki, read up ahead of time on the Ruins of Berez, the Wizard of Wines, or the old wizard's tower so you're ready to drop in the hooks to go to these locations as the characters wander around Vallaki.
This is a good general rule of thumb for adventure prep. Always be two steps ahead of the characters so you can drop in next session's plot hooks now.
Right from the beginning we can tie in the backgrounds of the characters into the game. Maybe one of the characters is a former werewolf who seeks redemption within the walls of Ravenloft. Maybe another character seeks her former mentor, the amazing Rictavio, who became lost in the fog. Maybe a character seeks to eliminate the cursed barbarian tribe of the Dire Wolf who have become the servants of the devil Strahd.
We can incorporate these backgrounds by changing some of the events that take place in the adventure. Instead of vampires attacking the town of Vallaki, maybe it's a pack of werewolves to which one of the characters formerly belonged. Maybe the barbarian character learns that the Dire Wolf barbarian clan worships the twisted tree containing one of the three gems of the Wizard of Wines. Maybe the younger sister of one of the characters had been kidnapped and drawn to Barovia to serve as Baba Lysaga's servant two decades earlier.
The more we can tie in the backgrounds of the characters to pieces of the adventure and into the evolving story of Strahd, the more investment our players will have in the game. Start and end with the backgrounds of the characters and we'll share a story everyone will remember.
When we think about the various factions in Barovia, there's one more we can add that can create quite a bit of fun. What if, over the years, members of the villages of Barovia banned together under the banner of the Knights of the Silver Dragon? These self-ordaned knights might act as crusaders of the light, seeking those who have fallen under Strahd's corruption and bringing those they deem "corrupted" to the torch.
Though these Knights of the Silver Dragon revere the revenants at Argynvostholt, the revenants themselves care none at all for these false knights. As the characters travel through Barovia, they might find themselves fighting with, or fighting against, the Order. If the characters can get the revenants at Argynvostholt to vouch for them, the characters might find themselves in a position to direct and lead the knights.
Depending on what happens in Vallaki, it can become a home-base of sorts for the characters throughout most of the game. If they become allies with the Order of the Raven, they will find respite at the Blue Water Inn. Depending on how things go with the mayor, they might find themselves in service to the leader or watching his corpse hang from a nearby tree by angry villagers. As events in Barovia unfold, its possible the Order of the Silver Dragon takes over, fortifying the town and instating martial law. As a central town, Vallaki makes for a nice spot to return to as the characters explore the rest of Barovia.
South of Argynvostholt and the Ruins of Berez the lands become wild. The icy mountains hide a chaos well beyond the structured madness found in the more "civilized" domains under Strahd's control. We can make these southern mountains our own by placing long forgotten ruins within them. These ruins can hold secrets of the world of Barovia before Strahd. They can speak of the vampire's origins and the origins of those he destroyed upon his ascendancy. They can speak of the noble knights and adventurers who attempted to guard against the evils of the Amber Temple centuries ago.
There is a lot of room for expanding the depth of Barovia in these lost lands if we want to take it. And, if we don't, there's much to be said for focusing in on the core story of Curse of Strahd.
When we sit down to run it, Curse of Strahd is our own campaign. We can use everything in this book or use nothing at all. We can select what pieces speak to us and our players and discard those that don't. Each of us builds the adventure we want from Curse of Strahd and each story, as it unfolds, becomes something filled with beauty and horror. Make this beautiful horror your own.