Hey everyone out there, it’s your friendly Dungeon Master Slick here. I’ve had a lot of time to hang out with some friends lately and we decided to play a little game you may have heard of called Dungeons & Dragons. We wanted to go with Curse of Strahd since none of us had played it before. I got to be the Dungeon Master and I have two players playing. Before you ask, yes we did this while practicing social distancing. I stayed in my dungeon and they stayed in theirs and we played online. If you click the link above for Strahd, do be advised that it is for Fantasy Grounds that is an online platform you can use to play Dungeons & Dragons, not just a PDF you can download. I will also provide a link at the end of the post where you could get a physical copy of the book if you want.
A couple notes before I get into the game session here. First, if you have been reading my Kids Kill Monsters series about playing Dungeons & Dragons with kids, this post is not about that. I will get back to doing those posts soon but I really do not recommend Strahd for kids or dungeon masters new to the game because it gets a little complicated, there are dark horror elements to it, and there are so many ways this can end up going wrong. That said, if you have a kid who loves horror (I have since I was like eight years old) and you feel they are mature and sophisticated enough to take on some pretty dark stuff, have at it. Also, there will be spoilers for the module of Curse of Strahd so if you are a player who is either about to play or is currently playing this campaign, you should probably not read this. That goes double for my players! Don’t read this guys.
I’ll wait for players to exit the room and we have all Dungeon Masters or would be Dungeon Masters here.
Okay the coast is clear, DM’s read on.
In these diaries, it’s my intention to tell you what I did to prepare, how the session played out, and what I would try to change or improve the next time. I hope you’ll find the story a little bit entertaining but mostly I hope I can give some advice to anyone interested in running this campaign for themselves. I’m going to be writing these campaign diaries with the assumption that you know at least a little bit about how the game is played but if anything in here seems confusing, feel free to ask about it in the comments. So without further ado, let’s get into it.
I’m going to give you the most obvious advice ever but, if you want to run a campaign well, one thing you have to do is… read the module. Yeah, I know, you probably know this already. In order to prepare I did just that. I read the book. After reading the book, I still had a ton of questions on how I wanted to run certain things, and how certain things worked.
If you have read this module you will know that there is this sort of Tarot card style reading using what they call a Tarokka deck. You can use regular playing cards to do this reading, as long as you have all 54 cards in the deck (jokers included). The module tells you to do this reading once on your own and once with players. I highly recommend practicing this a few times. I think I have it down, but that hasn’t been put to the test yet because my players have not gotten to the point where they would have their reading done.
Once I read the module and I felt like I had a somewhat decent handle on how it’s supposed to run, I started scouring the internet for resources. I love the Gothic horror aspect of the campaign, although I do cringe at some of the parts of the module that seem like they might lead into uncomfortable territory for players. I did find a really handy resource though and if you want to run this campaign, I think you should definitely check out this channel, and the resources on it. Lunch Break Heroes has thoroughly turned up the narration and the horror on this campaign to eleven. I linked to the whole play list of his videos for the campaign below so you might want to start with the earliest videos about adventure hooks and running the “Death House” module first.
If you would rather read through his awesome guide, you can get it here on his Curse of Strahd Reloaded reddit thread.
I took the parts that I liked from the module and from the book and added a little of my own flavor to how I thought things should go. Once I was prepped, we met to make characters.
One player decided to be Lady Ellarian Brysalor, a wood elf noble fighter with a tragic past and the huge burden of having inherited a large estate after her whole family was wiped out in a zombie attack. (My players decided to make it a zombie attack because I have zombie anxiety dreams and they thought it would be funny… so yeah there’s that.)
Also just a side note, I am not sure where the pictures I am posting below come from so if anyone knows, let me know and I will credit the source. Or if you own the image and want it removed just let me know and I will take it down.
The other player created the character of Miles Adelard a human Acolyte Sorcerer also with a tragic back story. When Miles was young, his family was killed by a cult of some kind. Later in life he was adopted by a kind hearted family. They taught him the ways of Lathander and he became a devote religious student. Sadly, his family was also attacked and killed by what may be the same cult as before.
I don’t know why my players both wanted to have their entire families dead at the beginning of this but Strahd is definitely dark enough to encompass this sort of thing.
We decided to start everyone at level one. I’m not going to put all their stats and stuff here but if you really want me to, just let me know in the comments. Since we were going to begin with level one, I had to make a couple of decisions. First, what adventure hook did I want to play and, should I run the so called, “Death House” module that is in the appendix of the book.
I decided to go with the “Mysterious Visitors” adventure hooks with a couple of the changes from the reddit thread I posted above. In this hook, basically, the characters start in Daggerford, are asked to deal with some bandits who turn out to be Vistani from Barovia (the realm that Strahd rules over) who then ask the characters to come and help them. I added in the little plot idea that Madam Eva, an important NPC that shows up later in the game has sent them some dreams that have haunted them for the past few nights.
I also decided to run the Death House module which was a little trickier because we weren’t starting in Barovia. The reason I didn’t want to start in Barovia was twofold. First, my players are quite familiar with The Sword Coast and were pretty good with starting there. Secondly, I like the idea of feeling like you pass from one realm to another, with no way out. Again taking a cue from the reddit thread above, I placed the house, rebranded Durst Manor just outside of the village of Barovia.
After all that was set, we were ready to play.
The first session
At the beginning I leaned hard into the roleplay. I wanted to set the tone and the mood early on, so I didn’t just read the boxed text that says the characters are having dinner with Lady Morwen. She’s a noble character so I thought it made sense that she would know Lady Ellarian Brysalor. Miles was accompanying her because they had in the past befriended one another when Miles was curing one of Ellarian’s townsfolk and asked for no repayment or reward. From then on, the two of them had become fast friends and often traveled together. Ellarian had some business to take care of in Daggerford and got the invite to dinner with Lady Morwen.
While at dinner, Lady Morwen made it known that there had been some trouble outside the gates of town and her guards seemed like they had potentially been the subjects of a charm spell. Naturally the players offered up their assistance immediately.
When Miles and Ellarian approached the Vistani wagons, they wanted to go in stealthily but Miles failed his stealth check badly so he fell on his face and the Vistani were well aware that the characters were traipsing around the camp.
In the book, Stanimir is supposed to be the leader of the Vistani here and tells a little story about Strahd and how he is more or less cursed and a tyrant. Then he is supposed to ask the players to come and free Strahd. I felt like that was a little too straight forward so I played Stanimir as if he was a little sketchy bur really friendly and warm. I think the book expects for the players to suddenly think these people are totally harmless even though Lady Morwen is suspicious of them. If I did this over, I think I would have just made Lady Morwen ask the characters to conduct some business on her behalf instead of cast the Vistani in a poor light right from the get-go. I did even have one player say during the story that it felt like an adventure hook. He was right of course and he’s an experienced player so I am not surprised by it, but I didn’t want it to feel quite so railroaded. I also took the advice from that reddit thread above to say that the characters could share stories with the Vistani before Stanimir did his. Miles told an excellent impromptu legend about a dragon that swooped in to save some heroes during a mighty battle. It was a really great role playing experience and was my favorite part of the session. Then Stanimir started talking about the same woman that the characters had seen in their dreams, Madam Eva. I won’t say it convinced the players to go, but it didn’t hurt.
In the module Lady Morwen basically wants the characters to leave by dawn but the characters are supposed to go with them. I felt like this part did not work at all because also in the module the Vistani in this camp agree immediately to leave at dawn anyway. So mission accomplished. Like I said above, if I ran this again I would change a bit of what Lady Morwen is asking here. Lesson learned for next time.
After a bit of back and forth, the players went back and reported to Lady Morwen what they had seen. The players were still really suspicious of Stanimir. In order to get them to sympathize a little more with the Vistani I revealed that Lady Morwen’s servant had been caught trying to steal the Vistani’s wine, so they roughed him up for that. I even had Lady Morwen go apologize to Stanimir to get them to agree to go in the wagons toward Barovia.
In the module as written, the characters travel a while with the Vistani and then the forest suddenly becomes unrecognizable as the fog creeps in around everyone. The players don’t know it but this is a plane shift. Of course, when I described it to them, the players lost it on Stanimir and got pretty mad at him. Stanimir talked them down a bit as if it was no big deal but told them that it would be a bad idea to go into the fog on their own.
In order for the Death House module to work, it made the most sense to me to have Stanimir leave the characters when they were just outside Barovia. He stops the wagons, confesses that Madam Eva has banished Stanimir and his group and that his punishment is to bring people to these lands until someone frees Barovia of Strahd. He then splits out of town in a hurry.
The rain starts to pour and it gets late. As the characters are stumbling around in the dark, they see a lantern. They make their way over to it and see a girl with her little brother. The girl tells the characters that there is a monster in their house and they are worried about their little brother. I honestly thought I would get to role play this part a little more. Rose and Thorn are the siblings here and I did find them pretty interesting in the book. But the players were just like, yep, let’s go save that kid, find the basement! Hehehe… trap sprung.
I will say that one of the really smart bits of advice in the reddit thread is to not call this part Death House. I’ve just been referring to it as Durst Manor. I think the players are aware that they are in a haunted house but they have no idea what they are really in for.
They spent the rest of the session trying to figure out how to get to the basement. In the dining room there was a magnificent feast laid out and Miles took a huge bite out of a pheasant. I had him make a DC 15 wisdom save. He rolled a 7. After a minute the food turned rotted and to what it really was and Miles is currently poisoned.
It wasn’t all bad for poor Miles though, as he did find a very serviceable crossbow in one of the cabinets. The players then figured out that there was no access to the basement from the first floor, that the front door was locked, and that the only way to go on is up.
That’s where we will be headed next time.
What I would do different
Here’s what I would do different next time I run this part.
- Reduce the role of Lady Morwen and her demands or start the characters right in Barovia.
- . Play up the dreams that Madam Eva sends more (this is straight from the reddit thread not from the Curse of Strahd module so don’t look for it there)
- Find a way to get a little more star time for Rose and Thorn.
- Make the Vistani a little less suspicious but definitely keep the storytelling around the fire.
I’m sure there are lots of other mistakes I made but I would say overall it was a really fun session. I’ll be back to tell you all how the next session goes once we have had it.
If you want to get a physical copy of Curse of Strahd for yourself, check it out below.
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