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Monday, May 9, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons - How to Run Curse of Strahd

I've been reading that a lot of newer dungeon masters are having a hard time figuring out how to run Curse of Strahd. In this article, I am going to give you an outline of how you can put this adventure together. If you are a new DM and have other questions, feel free to ask in the comments below or email me.

You can buy Curse of Strahd and the Tarokka deck on amazon here:

Curse of Strahd: A Dungeons & Dragons Sourcebook (D&D Supplement)
D&D: Curse of Strahd Tarokka Deck
Note: I used art from Jason Thompson's Curse of Strahd Walkthrough map, which you can get here. It is a very helpful aid when trying to visualize the adventure.

I made two outlines. One is short and simple. The other one is more detailed. My way is not the "right" way. There is no "right" way. Every DM has their own style. I am just trying to give an example of how to organize this adventure.

This Show Helps: If you have the time and you are new to D&D, you might want to watch Dice Camera Action. On that show, the guy who wrote this adventure runs it for a group. You can see how he ran it and how he handled things. It is very helpful. I write summaries of each episode here.

What Do I Do With This? You might look at the Curse of Strahd book and ask yourself, "What do I do with this?" Your job is to link the different areas and ideas together to form a storyline path. There's a lot of details in a lot of different places, and it can be very difficult to fit it all together. I would suggest that you create an outline of the places you want the group to go to, and in what order. I wrote a Guide to Curse of Strahd which might help you figure out other stuff, too.

Making Your Outline: When planning out your campaign outline, keep in mind that certain things might change once you start running the game, depending on the actions of the players. For the most part, you'll probably be fine. The fact that the magic items that the heroes need to get (the tome, the icon and the sunsword) are in specific areas means that the group has to go to those areas at some point.

Making Connections: The trickiest thing about making an outline for Curse of Strahd is finding out how to connect one section to the next. The details are buried in the text of each chapter. If things get muddled and your group is floundering in the game, remember that you can use the wereravens to nudge them in the right direction. The wereravens are good guy allies of the heroes from start to finish.

How to Handle the Tarokka Reading: In the adventure, it is suggested that the DM do one reading before the game, and then another if the heroes go to Eva's. This way, if the heroes never meet Eva, you have determined where the items are and etc. Be aware that if you do the reading at the table with your players, you might get results that you don't like.

As an example, while I think the Amber Temple is awesome, it just didn't feel right to me. So if I did a reading at the table and I draw the temple, I'm kind of stuck with it.

For the tarokka reading, I just picked the results that I wanted. That way I could put the items in locations that I want to run, use the NPC I like, and put Strahd in the room that I think is the most fitting.

When it came time to run this, I would stack my tarokka deck so that when I did the reading at the table when running the game, it would give me the results I wanted. If you don't own a tarokka deck, that's fine. You can just narrate the reading. That actually makes it easier.

Strahd Encounters: One thing the book leaves in your hands is when, where and how Strahd interacts with the group as they travel through Barovia. There are general guidelines for encounters on page 10, and there are a number of suggested Strahd encounters sprinkled in various chapters, but ultimately it's up to you to decide what you want to do.

I placed four Strahd Encounters prior to the actual trip into Castle Ravenloft. I decided to make one a dramatic introduction encounter, and the other 3 based on each of Strahd's Goals (listed on page 10).

Gaining Levels: I would recommend not giving out experience points when you run this. Just have the group level at certain points, usually after they finish a chapter. I'll note times to level in the outline.

Sometimes the group might fly through a chapter in a single session, and it will feel too soon to level them. In that instance, don't level them for at least another session or two. 5th edition D&D is supposed to be flexible, so that 4th level characters can handle 6th level areas. Some areas will probably take longer than you expected, so the discrepancy in leveling should even out.

Starting at Level 3: If I ran this adventure, I would start the group at level 3. If you decide to start at level one, you could run Death House (page 211) or you could cook up a little introductory adventure in the world the heroes come from, before they are drawn to Barovia.

Be careful, though. If you have new players, they might get attached to your world. They might not want to leave! If you do make up an intro adventure, you might want to use the werewolves and Vistani in your homebrewed adventure so that the tone of Curse of Strahd is ingrained in your campaign from the start.

Short Outline

Here is a simple outline of how you could run this adventure. We'll assume that the characters start at level three.

1. Creeping Fog: (page 22) The group is drawn into the mists

2. Village: The group follows the road and comes to the village of Barovia. They meet vistani who tell them to seek out Madam Eva. They also meet Ismark and Ireena, who want to flee to Vallaki once they bury their father. Strahd attacks the group in the graveyard.

3. Madam Eva: The raven guides the group to Tser Pool (page 36), which is on the way to Vallaki. The vistani talk with the heroes. Madam Eva does her reading. Here's the results I chose:
  • Tome of Strahd is in Van Richten's Tower
  • Icon of Ravenkind is in Krezk
  • Strahd's Enemy is Ezmerelda
  • The Sunsword is in The Ruins of Berez
  • The final battle with Strahd occurs in Strahd's Tomb (page 93).
After the reading, Ismark wants to get Ireena to Vallaki, where he hopes she'll be safe from Strahd.

4. Vallaki: The group travels to Vallaki. They meet the Keepers of the Feather and Rictavio. Rictavio translates Madam Eva's reading. Rictavio has to flee Vallaki, so he tells the group to go to Van Richten's Tower. The Tome of Strahd is there.

5. Van Richten's Tower: The heroes obtain the tome and meet Ezmerelda. Strahd Attacks.

6. Roadblock: The group goes to Krezk, but they aren't allowed in. They must go get wine from the Wizard of Wines first.

7. The Wizard of Wines: The place is over-run with monsters. The group needs to get a magic gem from Yester Hill. I decided not to require the group to get the gem in Berez.

8. Yester Hill: Twig Blights, druids and a statue of Strahd. The group gets the gem. They can now get the wine and will be allowed into Krezk.

9. Krezk: The group might have a major encounter at the pool (page 156). The Icon of Ravenkind is in room 13 (page 150).

10. Ruins of Berez: The group will have to battle Baba Lysaga and her Creeping Hut to obtain the Sunsword.

11. Invitation: Once the battle is complete, the heroes find the Black Carriage (page 37) waiting for them. Wind blows, and an invitation to the castle (page 251) lands at their feet. The heroes get in, and the carriage takes them to Castle Ravenloft.

12. The Castle: The heroes make their way through the castle and have a final battle with Strahd and his brides in his tomb.

13. Epilogue: The sun is out, and the heroes can at last go home.

Things to Do

That's a simple "road map" for you to follow. The group might decide to go to a place like Argynvostholt just to check it out, and they might decide to go to a location "out of order." But that's our basic framework and we can change it as we like as the campaign progresses.

Things you might want to do when you plan your campaign out:
  • Create an Outline: Plan out the locations that you want to use in order. Use the "Areas by Level" chart as your guide (page 6).
  • Place Encounters: Pick out the random encounters you want to use (on pages 28-33). You can roll them during the game if you want, but I like to place them in advance so I can make sure I get to use the ones that I like when I want. Also, rolling during the game eats up time and can become a pain.
  • Plan Out and Place Your Strahd Encounters: There's a major Strahd Encounter in Krezk (on page 156) that you probably want to use. There's a very scary and deadly one, too ("St. Andral's Feast" on page 124). Even if you use those, you still might want to make up some on your own (see page 10 for guidance). Strahd is supposed to be popping up a number of times before the group gets to the castle.
  • Look at the Marks of Horror: (page 7) Try to add little flourishes in the adventure, like creeping shadows and decay. Doing it in advance is usually better than making those things up on the fly, though you can do either or both.
  • Trinkets: You might want to place trinkets (page 210) in your outline. These types of fun but non-essential things are easy to forget. There's a lot of cool trinkets that deserve to be used. Your players will appreciate little details like this, as it all adds up to an enriched game experience.
Detailed Outline
The short outline is probably all you need to look at. But I'd also like to give an example of a more detailed outline that allows you to foreshadow things and help you get all of your ideas in one place. I started by doing the Tarokka Reading:

Tarokka Results
  • Master of Stars (Van Richten's Tower) Tome of Strahd
  • Monk (Krezk) Holy symbol of Ravenkind
  • Enchanter (Ruins of Berez) The Sunsword
  • Mists (Ezmerelda) The book provides an option for the group to meet her in almost every single chapter. I decided that I want the group to meet her at Van Richten's Tower
  • Darklord The final battle with Strahd occurs in Strahd's Tomb
We start the outline by picking out a hook. Then we are going to organize and connect all of the chapters we want to use. When you make your outline, add in your own ideas and flourishes. Change whatever you want. You do not have to stick to the book.

Creeping Fog: (pg 22) It's evening. The mists draw the heroes into Barovia. You'll have to cook up some reason as to how this happens. You could even have it where the group doesn't know each other, and that they each were drawn into the mists from separate locations. They all emerge in Barovia at the same time.

Skeletal Rider: Upon emerging from the mist, they see a skeletal rider in the distance ("skeletal rider" page 31). It does not attack. It is searching for a way to escape the fog. I decided to make the skeletal rider the "spirit of the campaign," so to speak.

Each time the group sees the rider, a trinket falls off the horse and the rider leaves it. The group may wonder if the rider is trying to help them in some weird way. In my mind, the rider is a person that will never give up trying to get out of Barovia. The rider refuses to "die" for good and dropping a trinket it found in the woods is the rider's way of helping the group defeat Strahd.
  • Trinket: A little black book that records your dreams, and yours alone, when you sleep. This will be useful further along if the heroes have "prophetic dreams."
I decided to start the campaign off with a bang. First the group walks down the road for hours, and then they have their first Strahd Encounter. The journey to the village:
  • Old Svalich Road: (page 33) The group gets a look at the realm.
  • Gates of Barovia: (page 33) The heroes pass through massive gates flanked by headless statues
  • Svalich Woods: (page 34) The group might find a letter.
Strahd Encounter I: It's evening. A thick fog rolls in. The group encounters some Strahd zombies ("Zombies" page 31, Strahd Zombie stats on page 241). One of the zombies must have had an interesting job in life, because it is wearing..
  • Trinket: A black executioner's hood.
During the battle, a black carriage comes down the road. Rahadin (page 236) is driving it. A passenger emerges - it's Strahd. If they peer into the carriage, the heroes might spot one of Strahd's consorts wearing a skull mask (Valenta Popofsky, page 94).

There's a lantern on the carriage that causes Strahd to cast a long shadow. Narrate Strahd's shadow as moving in impossible ways. The shadow's claws extend and it gets larger and larger. The shadow is creeping toward the heroes, reaching for their throats.

Strahd gives the group a single warning about Ireena, who they haven't even met yet: "She is mine!" (perceptive heroes will see the consort Valenta shift uncomfortably in the carriage). If the adventurers give him some of that patented sassy player backtalk, Strahd tries to charm a PC that you think Strahd might want as a consort or a successor. Maybe have Strahd's shadow reach out to caress the target.

The point of the charm attempt is really so that the group can see that the DC of Strahd's charm power is 17, and thus they are warned that Strahd is extremely powerful. Just say the DC out loud, unless you don't like doing that kind of thing. Also remember that Strahd is protected by the heart of sorrow (page 59), which absorbs up to 50 points of damage.

Strahd admires his charmed subject for a moment (to tease that he might want that PC as his own servant/ally), then releases the hold and gets back in the carriage. The black carriage rides away and almost immediately vanishes into the fog, as if it was never there.

Infected Shadows: I had an idea today that I'd probably use in Curse of Strahd. When Strahd's shadow creeps toward the group, I'd have it actually attack the shadows of the adventurers. I'd have each character make a saving throw (charisma?). Those who fail the save now cast a shadow with a mind of its' own. Throughout the adventure, the tainted shadows will make like they are trying to kill the other heroes, and will reflect the feelings of either Strahd or the Dark Powers (you pick). So when the group meets Ismark, the tainted shadow will try to hack his shadow to pieces. When the group meets vistani, the shadow will drink and cavort with them.

This is not a mechanical thing at all, it is merely a fun effect that the heroes could use in many ways to their advantage. Once the players see what the shadows do, they might want an infected shadow, too. So in the next Strahd encounter, I'd let them make saves again and if they want to fail, they can. I really like the whole idea of casting a shadow with a mind of its own and I think it could lead to a lot of hilarious things. You could even say sometimes that the shadow plays out what the character is really thinking. Maybe the character needs to make a saving throw to prevent it from happening. You don't want to use this to really screw over your players, so be careful how you use it.

I am thinking that Barovians with no souls can't see the shadows, or don't care. Only those with souls might notice something a tainted shadow is doing. Maybe the shadow abruptly starts acting normal if an NPC sees what it is doing.

Village of Barovia

Raven: The group enters the village and notices that a raven is watching them from a rooftop. This is Muriel Vinshaw (page 161), the wereraven ("wereraven" page 32, wereraven stats page 242). She flies down the street and perches on the sign of the Blood of the Vine tavern. The group doesn't know it yet, but she's watching out for their interests.

Souls and Shells: Check out the stuff on Barovians on page 24. I want to make sure that I demonstrate just what the people are like throughout the adventure, so I'm going to place little moments throughout the outline. Here in Barovia, let's have a scene where a bunch of Barovians wearing brown, white and gray clothes stare openly at the heroes. One Barovian among them is wearing a red vest and has bright blue eyes. He gives the group a slight smile and a nod. This is just to sort of "set the table" and display the difference between souls and shells.

The Hag: I would not use the Morgantha encounter ("Dream Pastries" page 48). Instead, I'd have two villagers fighting over a dream pastry (dream pastry info is on page 125). A villager desperately needs his fix, so to speak. This way, you can get across the story of the dream pastries without potentially putting the group up against the hag, who is really powerful.

Mary: The group will hear crying and they might investigate Mad Mary (who talks about Gertruda, an NPC in the castle on page 68). Her doll, "Morbid Molly," is described in this article.

The group might visit Bildrath's Mercantile to buy supplies.

Blood of the Vine: The heroes will probably (hopefully) enter the Blood of the Vine tavern. A whole bunch of stuff happens here:
  • Vistani Owners: The owners tell the heroes they should visit Madam Eva at Tser Pool (which is on page 36). 
  • The Mirror Character: While in the tavern, pick a character. This character looks in the mirror in the tavern and see that their reflection makes them look significantly older - grey hair, wrinkles, crow's feet. This character is going to have progressively worse visions throughout the adventure. Nobody else sees it - just them! 
  • Radu: Let's put a vistani NPC in the tavern. I want him to try to steal things from the group later on. We'll make up a name: Radu Radovich. Let's go ahead and let the group get a look at him when they enter the tavern. Who knows, maybe they'll figure out he's up to something. He's from the Vistani camp on page 119. He's supposed to be looking for Arabelle, a 7 year old girl (see page 119) but he's a jerk and now he's seeking an opportunity to suck up to Strahd.   
  • Ismark: The heroes meet Ismark, who really needs the group's help. He asks them to come to his mansion.
Ireena Introduction: Ismark brings them to his home (page 44). The group hears cries from upstairs. His sister Ireena is having a fit in her sleep. A healer-type can calm her down. The group will see two puncture marks on her neck. Ismark will sadly tell the tale of what Strahd is doing to her, and that he wants to take her to Vallaki once their father is buried.

I would play up the "abusive boyfriend" subtext that is mentioned in the foreward. I would run Ireena as if she mostly fears and hates Strahd, but a part of her is drawn to him. Maybe throughout the adventure at quiet times, the group sees Ireena touching her puncture marks with a faraway look in her eyes. I added those moments into the outline so I wouldn't forget when the time comes to run it.

The Church: Ireena and Ismark recruit the heroes to bury their father. The group goes to the church (page 45) meets the priest and his son. The priest hands a wineskin to the players and says, "Please take this. I don't think The Morninglord would approve of how I have been using its powers."
  • Trinket: A wineskin that refills when interred with a dead person for a night.
They go out into the graveyard and begin burying the Burgomaster (see page 47). Ireena and Ismark are with the group, of course. This is a great time to do a Strahd Encounter!

Strahd Encounter II

Fog rolls in. The sound of wings flapping fills the air. A massive swarm of bats burst out of the fog and flies into, past and through the party. This does no damage, it's just meant to throw the characters off balance and obscure their vision for a moment. The swarm scatters. The group hears growling. Snarling wolves creep out from the mist and attack the adventurers (except for Ireena)!

As the battle commences, Strahd appears in the mist. He holds a hand out toward Ireena and says, "Tatyana, come to me." Ireena feels drawn to him. She starts approaching him, a mix of fear and yearning etched on her face. If none of the heroes try to stop her, Ismark will hold her back.

After a few rounds of fighting, the wolves back off. If a hero did particularly well in the combat, Strahd compliments them. He says to Ireena in a pained voice, "They cant keep us apart for long." Then he turns to mist and vanishes.

Remember that the heart of sorrow absorbs the first 50 points of damage Strahd takes (see page 59). So if the heroes strike Strahd, you should decide if it looks like he's invincible, or whether some kind of red field appears and blocks the attack. Some groups might get frustrated if they think Strahd has "plot immunity," so I'd probably narrate some kind of effect where it is clear that the field is getting damaged with each strike.

Aftermath: The group may want to check on Ireena who maybe stabs a dead wolf over and over in frustration. Ismark reminds the heroes that they should finish burying his father. As the group puts the last shovelful of dirt on the grave, the March of the Dead (page 48) kicks in. A ghostly procession of the deceased heads toward Castle Ravenloft. This event hopefully will give the group the feeling that "this place is crazy!" and that there is a lot happening here.

The Characters Hit Level Four

Tser Pool
When the Group Rests: A character has a prophetic dream: They see a mansion, a woman lying in bed with what looks like a mannequin, a door with what sounds like a cat scratching on the other side, and a distinctive wedding dress on a display. For a moment, the dress is being worn by a woman with white powdered skin and she looks pleased. This dream gives clues about the Wachters (page 110) and that the wedding gown should be taken and brought to The Abbot (page 155).

Vistani Crook: Radu the gypsy spy (who I talked about above in the Blood of the Vine section) tries to steal a token of some kind from each character (this is described in "Strahd's Spies" on page 29). Strahd can use these tokens for scrying. Radu has the stats of a bandit (Monster Manual page 343). If the heroes catch him, he can give them information about the dusk elves at his camp (page 119).

The Raven: Once the group has rested or whatever, the Raven shows up again. It gets their attention. It flies down the road a bit and tries to get the group to follow it. It wants to lead the group to Madam Eva's, for the all-important tarokka reading.

The Journey to Tser Falls:
  • River Ivlis: (page 35) The group crosses the river.
  • River Ivlis Crossroads: (page 35) There's a gallows here. One of the heroes might see something that will creep them out.
Arrival: The group comes to the Tser Pool Encampment (page 36) and they are welcomed by drunken vistani. The vistani greet the heroes, offer them drinks, and talk about Rictavio. They think there's something up with him. He's mysterious - dangerous. This is just a little added incentive to nudge the group toward Vallaki. They might be skeptical that Ireena will be safe there. A gypsy is drunk and messing with a lock that he "found" in Vallaki.
  • Trinket: A lock that opens when blood is dripped in its keyhole. He'll let them have it. He has other, more reliable locks.
The Tarokka Reading: Madame Eva does the reading (see the results above).

Vistani Debauchery: After the reading, the vistani want to drink with the adventurers some more. They'll try to get the heroes drunk and sell them phony potions. If  things get heated between the heroes and the vistani, this is a golden opportunity to break out the evil eye or curse rules (page 28).

Muriel's Warning: If possible, Muriel the wereraven will assume human form and draw one hero away from the camp. She says: "The vistani are Strahd's minions! You should leave at once. You will find allies and guidance at the Blue Water Inn in Vallaki. Beware - the devil's eyes and ears are everywhere." If you want, have her turn into a raven right in front of the character. Or try to keep her identity a secret for the sake of mystery.


The trip to Vallaki:
  • Tser Falls: (page 37) A massive waterfall.
  • Second Gates of Ravenloft: (page 33) Same as above, headless statues and massive gates.
  • Bonegrinder: Along the way, the group will see Old Bonegrinder. The raven will do what she can to ward the heroes away from this place as it is a very deadly area. You might want to change the hags to green hags, and you might want to say Morgantha is not home.
  • Maybe Some Wolves: If the group doesn't go to the Bonegrinder, you might want to run "Wolves" on page 33. Strahd is testing the group's capabilities.
The Characters Hit Level 5

This chapter (page 95) is overloaded with stuff. It's awesome, but it is hard to figure out what to use when. It might be best to plop the group down and give them a chance to explore Vallaki at their own speed. If the group makes a beeline for Rictavio, you could say that Rictavio is gone but will be back in a few hours. This gives the group time to look around, if that's what they want to do.

Izek Strasni: (pages 231-232) I think Izek is a really cool bad guy, so I want to give him a super cool slow motion movie intro. The heroes are walking down the street checking out Vallaki and they see Izek. Izek is leaning against a wall as his guards question a nervous citizen. As he gives the heroes the stink-eye, he smokes a special pipe...
  • Trinket: A black wooden pipe that creates puffs of smoke that look like skulls.
There's a lot of hijinks they can get up to:
  • Town Square: (page 119) People trapped in the stocks as punishment for "malicious unhappiness."
  • The Burgomaster's Mansion: (page 103) Where criminals are brought in for "malicious unhappiness."
  • The Wachterhaus: Home of the schemer Lady Wachter. The character who had the prophetic dream will instantly recognize this place and have flashbacks to their dream. The group might spot a girl in a window meowing like a cat at them (Upstairs Hall page 113). This is Stella, Lady Wachter's daughter.
  • Rictavio's Wagon: (page 115) There's a lot of stuff in there.
  • Vistani Camp: (page 119) They're looking for Arabelle, a little girl.
  • Lake Zarovich: (page 38) The group might want to check out Lake Zarovich, which is just north of Vallaki. There is a creepy guy there named Bluto and a little girl.
  • The Mad Mage: (page 39) He's across the lake if you want to get a little nutty.
Adding in an NPC: There's a throwaway NPC in the castle that I like. She is Sasha Ivliskova (page 89), a vampire bride (vampire spawn stats, Monster Manual page 298) that Strahd got bored with and locked away in a crypt. I want her to try to join the party and wreak havoc of one kind or another.
  • How She Escaped: Let's say that she tricked Cyrus Belview into letting her out. She just sweet-talked him a little bit. Strahd might know this happened and probably doesn't care.
  • What She Wants: Sasha wants revenge on Strahd. She really does want to help the heroes. The problem is that she's a crazy evil vampire, so things probably aren't going to work out. She can't help but resent Ireena.
Souls and Shells II: Let's say someone is putting on a show. Maybe it's Blinksy doing a puppet show or a schtick with Piccolo. Maybe it's Rictavio doing a performance. Whatever seems fun to you. The characters are wandering the streets and see about 30 people watching. Almost all of them are wearing dusty black and white clothing. There are three people among the crowd laughing uproariously. They are wearing a bright green dress, a bunch of shiny jewelry and a red scarf, respectively. All of the shells are not laughing, because shells don't laugh or cry. Once they notice the group though, they think the heroes might be new guards. So they give really pathetic fake laughs so as not to be accused of "malicious unhappiness."

If you want to put the story in motion, I'd do this:

The Dancing Monkey: Piccolo the dancing monkey does a little jig and hands the group a card that says: "Is no fun, is no Blinsky!" He tries to lead the group to Blinsky's toy shop.

Blinsky's: If the group follows Piccolo, he brings them to Blinsky's (page 118). If the group doesn't ask, Blinsky will mention how kind and gracious Rictavio is. Blinsky is very loyal to him. He will gladly direct the group to the Blue Water Inn, and says, "Tell him Blinsky sent you."

Sasha: As the group leaves Blinsky's, a woman comes in and brushes past the group. This is Sasha. She's trying to make a first impression. She's got a hooded cloak on during the day, even though it's always cloudy, a bit of sunlight comes through that makes her uncomfortable. She's wearing vistani clothes and has a dagger and a bow. This is because the previous night, she drank a vistani's blood and dumped the body in the Arasek Stockyard (page 115).

She will not join the party now. She wants them to want her to. If she talks about herself, she will mention that she wanders the land alone, and that she is searching for someone. By sheer coincidence, this matches up with what Madam Eva said in the tarokka reading (see "Mists" (Queen of Spades on page 17). The group might think that Sasha is the ally that Madam Eva foretold.

The Blue Water Inn: When the group enters the inn, the same character as before looks in the mirror and this time their reflection is of a very old person with liver spots, little to no hair, yellow teeth and is struggling to breathe.

The Allies: The group meets the Keepers and they will allow the heroes to visit Rictavio. Rictavio is tense - he thinks Strahd is onto him. Rictavio will interpret Madam Eva's reading for them, literally telling them where the items are. He wants to say more, but there's a commotion downstairs. Guards have come for him. Rictavio may have caused "malicious unhappiness."

Escape: The keepers help the group slip out of the inn (or maybe the group just wants to fight the guards). Rictavio asks the heroes to escort him to his wagon in the stockyards. When they get there, Izek Strasni (pages 231-232) and a pile of guards are waiting.

Izek reveals that he knows the devil Strahd is looking for him. "We're going to hand you over to him..." Izek then sees Ireena. He's been dreaming of her (see "family is forever" on page 232). He orders his men to kill everyone except "that woman"(Ireena).

Tiger: A couple of fun things can happen in this fight. Van Richten has a tiger in his wagon who can jump in to help the group. Sasha will also run in at an opportune time to save a hero and prove her worth as an ally. Now she's ready to join the party.

Sasha is going to crash and burn. I want her out of the picture by the time the group gets to Van Richten's Tower. So her jealousy of Ireena and her bloodlust should seep out in short order.

Once the guards are defeated, Rictavio flees town and wishes the group good luck. The deaths of the guards have no witnesses. People blame it all on the mysterious Rictavio.

Invitation: At this point, the group might want to just get out of Vallaki. If they haven't been to Lady Wachter's, they are invited there to have a meal with her. She will want to try to recruit the group to kill the Burgomaster or to join her "book club" (devil worshiping cult).

During the meal, she excuses herself, and Stella peers into the room and meows. She'll scamper up to her room. This might entice the group to explore.

The Characters Hit Level 6

Van Richten's Tower

The Journey to the Tower:
  • Skeletal Rider Again: On the road to Van Richten's Tower, the group again spots the skeletal rider. Ireena explains that she believes the rider is eternally searching for a way out of Barovia - but there is no way out. Trinket: The rider drops a trinket wrapped in cloth. It is a vial of perfume, the scent of which only certain creatures can detect.  Let's say that it is called "Conjunction" and the vial is engraved with the image of a happy wolf. When this perfume is worn, Strahd's wolves will like the smell and won't attack that character. In fact, they might even act like happy dogs around the character.
  • The End of Sasha: If Sasha is still with the party on the road to Van Richten's, it's time for her to turn. If the group makes camp for the night, she'll take a watch if they let her. She won't be able to control her bloodlust. If everyone's asleep, she'll try to drink Ismark's blood and kill him. If there's a PC that has been particularly nice to her, she'll nudge them awake. Blood is running down her chin. She'll ask for forgiveness. The group will either have to kill her, or she'll flee back to crypt 20 in Castle Ravenloft.
  • Zombies: If they don't camp and are walking on the road near Van Richten's Tower, a horde of Strahd Zombies lumbers out of the fog ("Zombies" page 33). A massive battle breaks out. Blood spilled puts her into a frenzy. Sasha will jump Ismark and drain him dry if she can.
  • Luna River Crossroads: (page 40) Crossroads with some flavor text.
  • The Aging Tree: The heroes spot a tree shedding its leaves. Wind blows and the leaves swirl around the characters. The leaves turn yellow, then grey, then crumble into nothing. The tree literally ages before their eyes, growing a few feet and then turning almost black. Its branches droop down and fall off. One touch will cause the brittle wood of the trunk to break and tip over.
The Tower: The group will have to deal with the crazy traps here. The Tome Of Strahd is on the Fourth Floor (page 171)

Ezmerelda: As the group emerges from the tower, Ezmerelda shows up ("Ezmerelda's Retreat" page 172). She just tried to fight Strahd in Castle Ravenloft and it didn't go well. She's hurt bad. As she talks to the group, slip in this comment: "I'm searching for my mentor. I try not to stay in one place long. I had been staying near St. Markovia's Abbey..." This is wording right out of Madame Eva's fortune. But the group probably got burned by Sasha, who said similar things. I just think it's an amusing thing to do.

Strahd Encounter III

As the group talks with their new buddy, it starts to rain. She tells them that she knows where the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind is - it's in St. Markovia's Abbey in a secret compartment. Fog rolls in. Thunder rumbles.

As the group starts to head out into the suddenly-thick fog, Strahd arrives with swarms of bats. He will mock Ezmerelda for failing to kill him, and he will demand to know where Van Richten is.

The bat swarms and Strahd attacks. Strahd focuses on the hero with the tome. During this entire encounter, Strahd ignores Ireena. He can feel her watching him. He is giving her the cold shoulder to try to make her realize that she actually wants his attention.

Strahd will back off after a few rounds. Perhaps during the battle, he takes notice of any PCs who he thinks might make for a good consort/successor. He goes from angry to intrigued. He compliments that person and tells the group "Do as I have done and accept Barovia as your prison. You are all my subjects!" He turns into mist and vanishes into the fog.

Resting: A lot happens during the next rest:
  • Ireena: During a rest, Ireena gets a far away look in her eye. In the middle of the night she wakes up, petrified. She felt Strahd calling to her, speaking in her mind. 
  • Info Dump: Ezmerelda dishes out some of her backstory. She was a vistani but turned on them, she is missing part of her leg, and she is actually searching for Van Richten, her former mentor. 
  • It Was All a Dream: A character has a prophetic dream about a statue of Strahd on a hill. There is a green glow coming from inside the statue's head. This foreshadows the statue at Yester Hill (page 198).
The Journey to Krezk:
  • Raven River Crossroads: (page 40) An intersection with some flavor.
  • A Delicious Snack: Muriel, in raven form, flies over the group. She is carrying a small sack in her beak. She drops it to the heroes and flies off. In the sack is a loaf of dark nut bread from the Blue Water Inn. The point of this is to reinforce the idea that the wereravens are allies. Additionally, we can show the players that some kind of encounter doesn't happen every time Muriel shows up and that she's not just a plot device.
  • Along the way to Krezk: The hero who has the Tome of Strahd comes upon a corpse that looks just like them (see "corpse" page 30).
Approaching Krezk: As the heroes approach Krezk (page 143), Ezmerelda again reiterates: "We may have to jump through some hoops before they let us in." If anyone asks why, she says "They caught me sneaking around in there and it got a little ugly." This is not meant to be anything major, it's just a way to let Ezmerelda show some personality and reinforce the fact that the place is under lockdown.

Souls and Shells III: Let's say that the guards are shells. Dark circles under their eyes, faded armor. Like all shells, these guards are pointedly rude and have a violent temper. Once the guards start insulting the heroes, let's have the Burgomaster show up to calm them down. Describe the Burgomaster as wearing a a big shiny ring with his family crest on it, and maybe a buttoned-up red jacket with the symbol of Krezk emblazoned boldly in gold on the front.

GemQuest: The place is walled in. The burgomaster will talk with them over the wall ("Burgomaster Dmitri Krezkov" page 145). He is worried that they are allies of the devil Strahd. He asks the adventurers to get a wagonload of wine from the Wizard of Wines winery. The next delivery is long overdue. If they do this, he'll let them in.

The Wizard of Wines

Journey to the Wizard of Wines:
  • Scarecrows: A freak lightning storm hits. On the way to the Wizard of Wines, Baba Lysaga's scarecrows attack ("Scarecrow" encounter page 31, stats page 231). During the battle, lightning strikes a tree and it topples onto the scene.
  • Allies: As the group nears the winery, they meet Davian Martikov and his family (wereravens). He explains that this is his winery, and that it's been overrun by invaders.
Invaders: I do not like twig blights. So I'd replace them with Strahd Zombies controlled by necromancers. The group will be up to their necks in zombies, but hopefully they can clear the place out. Let's put one zombie in pirate clothes. It has a wooden hand...
  • Trinket: The wooden hand of a notorious pirate. Carved into the hand is a crude 'treasure map', which leads to the treasury in Castle Ravenloft (page 67).
More Bad News: The winery is powered by magic gems, and all of them have been stolen. Damian will need at least one - which was stolen by the villains at Yester Hill. I won't mention the gem at Lysaga's as I don't want the group to go there yet (it's dangerous). We'll say that Damian is happy just to get one gem back and feels that he's asked more than enough of the group.

Yester Hill: (page 197) We're going to revamp this area to use undead instead of twig blights. The "Hidden Graves" have zombies, the druid circle is a "Circle of Bones," the druids are mages, and the Gulthias Tree is a "Desecration" from the 4th edition book Open Grave. A Desecration is the "animated remains of a deserted cemetery." We'll just re-flavor the Gulthias tree stats and boom, done. The group obtains the gem.

Now the group can bring the wine back to Krezk.

The Heroes Hit Level 7

Village of Krezk

Rest:  More fateful resting:
  • Ezmerelda's Adventure: Ezmerelda describes some of the areas she saw in Castle Ravenloft. She mentions the painting of Tatyana in room 37 (page 66). Ezmerelda realizes that Ireena looks almost exactly like the woman in the painting. Ireena touches her bite marks and looks off into the distance.
  • Dreaming About Horses: A character has a prophetic dream of a horse with flaming hooves (Beucephalus, page 39), a prisoner in a cell transforming into a werewolf (Emil, page 81) and a youthful man sipping wine looking at a portrait of Strahd. He angrily tosses the glass against a wall (Escher, page 70). We're giving clues to NPCs that lurk in Castle Ravenloft.
Return to Krezk: The heroes can come in if they brought the wine. Ezmerelda says there's a magic pool that has healing powers in Krezk and leads them to it ("Pool and Shrine" page 146). This triggers a major event...

Strahd Encounter IV

Something Blue: (page 156) Ireena sees Sergei in the pool. If the heroes don't stop her, Sergei frees her spirit and both of them vanish.

Strahd immediately goes crazy and sends lightning down on the group. From this moment on, he wants to destroy the characters.

Souls and Shells IV: If the group goes near a commoner cottage (pages 145-146), they hear a screeching noise. A Barovian is about to cut the head off of a chicken. The Barovian's young kid watches, staring in silence. Both are wearing drab brown clothing and their eyes are very dark. The Barovian cuts off the chicken's head and blood splatters on the kid. The kid doesn't react or wipe the blood off of their face. The kid follows the Barovian inside the cottage to cook up the chicken or whatever.

After that, the group needs to get the Icon of Ravenkind from the Abbey (page 147). It's in...

The Main Hall: (page 150) The Icon is in a secret compartment. Ezmerelda knows this but wasn't able to snatch it when she was last here.

The Abbot: When the group meets the abbot, he will look the group over up and down excitedly. He'd love to make a golem of their parts! He asks if they would donate their parts to him - once they've died far in the future, of course. He looks at a female character's hands, and exclaims that her hands would be perfect for the bride. The bride's hands are from two different people and look very mismatched once it is pointed out to the viewer.

Master Bedroom: (page 178) The 'mirror' character looks into the freestanding mirror and their reflection is literally them as a fresh corpse with a pair of puncture wounds on their neck.

All that's left to get is The Sunsword. It's time to face Baba Lysaga

The Heroes Hit Level 8

Ruins of Berez

This place is dangerous. Muriel is here and ready to help. She can direct the heroes to the ghost.

Big Battle: The ghost can lead the group to the sunsword, which is under Marina's monument. The creeping hut will likely charge and Baba will fly around in her giant skull. It should be an epic battle. The group will probably find the other gem in the creeping hut, and if they want, Muriel could fly it over to the Wizard of Wines

Rest: Once the battle is over, the group might rest. A character has a prophetic dream of a pulsing red heart. The heartbeat pulses through Strahd's body somehow. This is a clue to the Heart of Sorrow (page 59). When the heroes awaken, the skeletal rider is watching them. The rider leaves a trinket that might help them out in the castle in a small way...
  • Trinket: A bouquet of funerary flowers that always looks and smells fresh. There are two cards. One says "for Helga" (she's on page 64) and the other says "for Gertuda" (she's on page 68). Giving this bouquet to one of those NPCs will cause them to like and become loyal to the character who hands her the bouquet. The roses are all pink (which, according to, signifies love, grace, appreciation and gentility). Let's say that as soon as a rose is separated from the others, it rots. That way the group doesn't split the bouquet and give the roses to both. We want them to make a choice here.
The Invitation: After the group is rested or if they prepare to leave Berez, thunder rumbles in the distance. A warm breeze blows. There's a flash of lightning, and the heroes see The Black Carriage waiting for them (change the flavor text and use it, pages 37-38). A sealed envelope is carried on a breeze from the carriage and lands at the feet of the heroes (Invitation is on page 251).

When the heroes get in, the carriage takes the group to the gates of Castle Ravenloft (page 38).

The Characters Hit Level 9

Castle Ravenloft

Dining Hall: (page 56) Once this crazy encounter is over, the "mirror" character looks at their reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors and sees a Strahd zombie looking back at them. The zombie is wearing tattered remnants of the character's equipment and is holding Van Richten's severed head in its hands. Nobody else can see it! If it seems more creepy/amusing, have the severed head be another member of the party.

The heroes make their way through the gigantic castle and fight Strahd for the final time in his crypt (Strahd's Tomb page 93). His brides are in there, too! When Strahd dies, read the flavor text on page 207.

The Group Should Hit Level 10


The fog around the land thins ("Escape from Barovia" page 208). The sun comes out. Escape is now possible through the mists.

One Last Reflection: The group celebrates at the Blue Water Inn with Muriel, the Martikovs, Rictavio, Ezmerelda, Piccolo the monkey and whatever other friends they made during the campaign. This might be too goofy or cheesy for you, but I think it would be funny for the "mirror" character to look in a mirror one final time. The character is relieved to see that they look normal, but is shocked to see Sergei's ghost behind them. Sergei pats the character on the back and says, "Well done! Well done, indeed!" And you know what else? Everybody in the bar sees Sergei in the mirror, too.

The Warrior: As the heroes leave Barovia, they spot the skeletal rider at the edge of the realm. He nods to the heroes, steps into the mists, and disappears. He leaves them one final trinket (I altered the "87-88 old little doll..." trinket):
  • Trinket: An old little doll of Strahd. The doll's body has wounds on it which match up to the big attacks the group used to kill Strahd. Months later, when Strahd is reborn in Barovia, the "wounds" heal and the doll is like new.
The Best Thing

Outline done! You know what the best thing is? You are going to have months to refine the back end of this outline as you play through the adventure. You'll likely have a million more great ideas that you can add into your document.

Thanks for reading, and good luck!


Unknown said...

This is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing it. My party is only up to Vallaki, but I'm finding it quite dull just going by the book, and this has given me a ton of ideas to hopefully spice things up a bit.

Sean said...

Andrew Morris: You are most welcome! I would very highly recommend that you watch the newest episode of Dice, Camera, Action (episode 7, 5/10/16). Chris Perkins runs Vallaki and he works Lady Wachter, Rictavio, the Keepers, the Burgomaster, Izek and the stocks all into one big cohesive story. I never would have been able to run it like that, as there are just too many things to keep track of. But now that I've seen him do it I "get" Vallaki much better. Good luck!

Unknown said...

Oh I've definitely been watching that. Chris Perkins is amazing! I've been watching him for years with Acq Inc as well. That being said, it's sometimes hard to tell from watching the end result all the DM planning that went into it, and your post was very helpful from that standpoint.

Sean said...

Andrew Morris: Thanks! I think that after episode 6, Chris must have mulled over what to do this time around. Judging from the fact that Diath was the character that saw himself being hung, Chris must have decided that since Diath had killed a guard, he was going to be hung. It was such an impressive connection he made there, it really kind of blew my mind.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot, this is great. I thought CoS was a hot mess when I gave it a quick scan and regretted buying it.
My group only plays for about 2.5 hours at a pop, which in this case is a good thing! I can break the whole shebang up into episodes and follow your outline.
I don't have tarokka deck and don't plan on buying one, was going to use normal playing cards. Since the players don't know what the cards should be / mean, I can have them shuffle & draw randomly and already have goals assigned (unless I'm missing something?).

Sean said...

Anonymous: You can do that with the deck, just be careful when you read the flavor text as it might say tings that don't match the card you drew. 2.5 hours is a good amount of time for D&D! I'm glad this was useful - Curse of Strahd a great adventure, you should definitely give it a shot.

Anonymous said...

I've just begun running this campaign and I refer to this article almost DAILY. This so great!! As far as things I myself have added I've created a pretty over-powered NPC named "Revansa Sabie Dans". She's a wereraven-revenant, one I'm using to build the origins of the wereravens of Barovia. She began as the personal agent/bodyguard of Queen Ravenovia, but when the queen passed Strahd used it as a way to frame and imprison Revansa. She was outfitted with tons of sweet gear (as she WAS the Queen's personal servant) like a custom magic whip I designed because Im a huge Castlevania nerd. She was turned into a wereraven by the Raven Queen who personally took an interest in throwing a wrench into the Dark Powers' game (this was JUST before Strahd turned and Barovia was spirited away by the mists). She's basically the parties guide in the shadows, helping them along and in the end confronting Strahd with them. She's blind and mutee, as they are carried over aspects of from when Strahd tortured her. She sees with a magic item I also made, a "Mask of Trueseeing". It's basically just a renaissance mask.

Ben "Bee" Scerri said...

Thanks for the write up. Lots of cool ideas, and threads which have spawned more ideas!

I've been searching for a way to make good notes on CoS, and this outline method should work well. Not sure how to handle it for more sandbox play, as I tend to let my players go or do anything, but I'll give it a go.

Thanks heaps :)

Sean said...

Anonymous: Thank you! I am glad it is useful! I like how you added in the Raven Queen, she really should be involved in this adventure in some way. That sounds like an awesome NPC. I hope your game goes well!

Ben Scerri: Thanks! Yeah, the outline definitely doesn't account for player curveballs. I think that as long as you are familiar with the locations in the book and have a basic grasp of the story, you can "ride the lightning" for a session. Then you can regroup and prepare properly for next session. Worst case, you can just have the group take a ten minute break and quickly go through the book and get a basic idea of what to do. Thanks for the kind words and good luck!

Unknown said...

Great Post. I am quite new to Dming in the long run and the book feels sometimes all over the place. this gives a good foundation on how i can follow the rest of my campaign.

Sean said...

Chris Traill: Awesome, thank you! The book is gigantic and definitely is a real project to run. Good luck with your game! Watch Dice, Camera, Action if you have the time - that show makes everything crystal clear.

Gaz said...

Awesome Post!! I'll be following this pretty much as is for the major plot outline after my players finish (maybe that should read survive) Death House. Lots of really good ideas and little touches that I'll be borrowing as well (got the perfect vain PC that I'm going to use the repeatedly and worsening aged reflection) and will be including a lot of your other ideas. Thanks for sharing!

Sean said...

Gaz: Awesome! Thank you. If you have the time, watch Dice, Camera Action. It really lodges the adventure in your brain to the point that you'll be able to run it really smoothly.

TheGame said...

Thank you so much for all the valuable advices!

Sean said...

TheGame: You are most welcome!

matthew said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to make this!!!

Sean said...

matthew: No problem! It was definitely worth it. Thanks!

titoy2k said...

Thanks for this. A lot of incredibles ideas and a tremendous help for DM's.
Thanks again!!

Sean said...

titoy2k: No problem! Thanks for the encouragement, I appreciate it!

Silverdust said...

I'm running this adventure now, so I'm grateful for this. However, I think this is a very minimalist approach. The druids loyal to Strahd are very proeminent in the adventure. Leaving them out seems cheap. No werewolves either? And Argynvostholt is probably one of the best dungeons I've ever seen in terms of history. Without these enriching details, the whole adventure will look like a 'kill this guy' dungeon crawl, and I feel many people wouldn't enjoy it that way.

Sean said...

Silverdust: That's just the way I would do it. I felt like there was more than enough stuff to fill a million sessions, and I threw out all the content that looked boring to me. I think I would have dreaded running the druids, because I find druids generally dull and I hate twig blights. Also, I want the focus to be on Strahd. I don't want to have that "filler episode" feel in any of my sessions. Thanks!

Sammy said...

Thank you for sharing your work ! I am currently running CoS. The characters went already to half of the places and I was feeling that the dark ambience was somehow decreasing as a conseqence of the sandbox. I will definitely use some of your ideas to reboost the campaign.

Some of my ideas that could be of interest to other DMs:

-We started with characters at level 1. I used the Ravenloft netbook "The Forgotten Children" - Barton De Foret as an introduction to the horror of Ravenloft. The house was located in the Svalich woods. The dad was a lumberjack.

-I was concerned about showing Sthrad before they were ready. So I used one infant to hassle them on behalf of Shtrad.

-They had to join a caravan lead by a Vistani to cross a misty area. This helped me to indroduce some NPCs. In the caravan, there was also a hidden werewolf. And some travelers were found dead every night. There was some kind of investigation to find out wwho was the murderer.

-To guide them a little bit and provide them with some background information, I placed pieces of the journal from Van Richten everywhere. This way, I can ensure that they have reasons to go nearly everywhere.

Wil said...

Hey great blog! I am new to CoS and trying to run my players through it and have a pretty good handle on most things. However one thing still bothers me. The region map. I don't want to draw it, but I also don't want the players having full access to all of it at once.

What is the best/easiest way you've seen to deal with this?


Rob said...

Amazing work and effort. Purchased over at the Guild after spending time reading here. Sly Flourish link sent to your page. Great work and thanks. Going over the book from scratch is daunting and I've been playing forever.

Unknown said...

Here's some recaps from our curse Of Strahd game:

Thanks for the advice!

Sean said...

Learning DnD: Awesome, I'll add a link in the guide!

chii said...

thank you so much for this write up! an incredibly helpful tool for a newer DM like me :) <3

appreciate it!

TehTpyoKing said...

Thanks so much for this. I'm getting ready to run CoS for a group of friends as a first time DM. I've been reading through the book obsessively and watching/listening to Dice, Camera, Action at time where I can't read. Between you and Chris Perkins I feel really well prepared to tackle my first foray into DMing.

I can already see areas where I would make different choices (I really hope my players go to Argynvostholt) but your outline has given me dozens of new ideas about how to use things like the Skeletal Rider, Trinkets, and Dreams to really sell the setting and move the characters along without railroading them. I'm really looking forward now to working out my own outline now. Thanks!

Matt said...

As a 40 year veteran of DMing, this is the best planning outline I've read. Clearly a very experienced DM wrote this. Thank you.

Unknown said...

I'm currently running a group through a couple of adventures in Lost Tales of Myth Drannor to get them up to level 3, and when those are done I'll be pushing them through the mists and into Curse of Strahd. I've already talked to the group about this, and they are really excited to do this adventure.

I wanted to say that this outline is awesome and will help me plan out what needs to happen and when/where. I'm going to take some stuff from here and combine it with my own stuff, and I hope it comes out. But this is a great start; you've already done the hard part!