Before the game begins, the DM of Curse of Strahd draws 5 cards to determine key elements of the game. They are as follows: Strahd’s location in the castle, the location of 3 treasures, and the identity of your party’s key ally.
At some point within the game, your players may meet Madam Eva and have a card reading. And they may even have one done by Ezmerelda d’Avenir. In layman’s terms: Whatever scenario your experience of Curse of Strahd starts with, it could get flipped on its head at least once. If you’re ok with a jumble, I encourage you to hold your prep goals and end goals loosely!
*No idea where Madam Eva or Ezmerelda are in Barovia, or how your players are suppose to find them? No problem! Be sure to check out our handy guide to all the villages in Barovia! *
How to do a Tarokka reading
- Find a normal deck of playing cards and separate it into 2 piles: face cards & jokers (14 cards, the “high deck”) and aces & numbers (40 cards, the “common deck”). Shuffle these decks independently. Alternatively, you can purchase a CoS Tarokka Deck online.
- You will draw 3 common and 2 high cards for your reading.
- Now imagine a wall clock, numbered 1-12. Beginning with your common cards,reveal and lay them at ‘9,’ ‘12,’ and ‘3.’ Then lay your high deck cards at ‘6’ and center.
- Reveal and explain each card one at a time.
- You can add extra detail around the prompt if you think it’s pertinent.
Reading the Cards
Card 1 (9 o’clock): The Tome of Strahd location.
Card 2 (12 o’clock): The Holy Symbol of Ravenkind location.
Card 3 (3 o’clock): The Sunsword location.
Card 4 (6 o’clock): Strahd’s Enemy identity.
Card 5 (center): Strahd’s location in Castle Ravenloft.
If you are using a normal playing deck, we aren’t dealing in Diamonds and Spades and Hearts… We get to interpret special terms:
- Hearts = Glyphs
- Diamonds = Coins
- Spades = Swords
- Clubs = Stars
- (and to clarify, aces are called “1” and 10s are called “master” in the Tarokka deck).
The first three cards you draw will be of the common deck to determine the locations of the 3 major treasures. Locations are laid out in chapter one of the adventure module. It does a very good job of explaining exactly where a treasure will be based on the card you draw.
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For example: Draw a “4 of spades/swords for the Sunsword location? The treasure will be “in Crypt 31 in Castle Ravenloft.” Pull a 10 of Diamonds (“Master of Coins”) for the Tome of Strahd location? You can find it tucked away in the Attic of the Blue Water Inn.
Each of these cards also has an identity with them. So if you are enacting a fortune reading by Madam Eva and draw an 8 of glyphs/hearts, you get to say, “Ahhhh, a bishop has revealed himself today!” and then read the prompt from the book, “What you seek lies in a pile of treasure, beyond a set of amber doors.” Get into it!
Strahd’s Enemy’s Location
The first card drawn off your high deck (and placed at 6 o’clock) will reveal your party’s greatest ally. No matter what is said about this character elsewhere in the DM Guide, THIS information NOW takes precedence.
Secondly, many of the cards have 2 options to choose from (A or B). Just choose whichever one seems best to you and fits the direction the adventure seems to be going. These cards have a normal key (clubs, spades, etc), but can be called “crowns.” They also have fun names like “Mists” and “Seer” and “DonJon.”
The final high card flipped, from the center of the 5 cards, reveals where the final showdown will happen in the castle. The first time the players arrive at the location Strahd will be there (unless he’s been forced into a coffin).
- Your players should never know the results of your pre-game drawing. You know the results, and can reveal elements to your players when they stumble upon them (or are steered towards them).
- Your players do know the results, immediately, for a Tarokka reading by Madam Eva and Ezmerelda d’Avenir.
- You perform a Tarokka reading for your party, not for each player. On the other hand you CAN perform personal readings for players. See “Personal Quests” below.
- Tarokka cards must be wrapped in silk and stored in a wooden box in order to retain their gift of prophecy (in the game, not real life 😉 ).
- Many DM’s believe that some results are terrible. You can take the liberty to remove the ones you think are truly wretched in order to craft a cleaner game play. Or you can do a raw reading and let the cards fall where they may! Both can be great fun. Or you can go so far as to pick the 5 cards you want to utilize for the game.
- If you opt for random, you can change the cards at each reading by having the NPC discount the legitimacy of a prior reading/reader, or you can stack the deck so you always get the same reading, validating the truth of the seers. It’s all up to your improv skills. Or, if they’ve already acquired an item or two you may just want to stick with redeploying the initial reading.
- Descriptions and art for each of the Tarokka cards can be found in Appendix E of the adventure module.
- Both the Card Readings and Death House are considered key parts of the adventure. However, unlike Death House, the Card Readings cannot be removed from the game. They players need all the items and an ally in order to defeat Strahd.
Want to learn more about Death House and whether or not you should use it in your Curse of Strahd campaign? See our article on Death House here!
If you have wound the characters’ backstories into the adventure and endowed them with personal quests (avenging the death of a father, reclaiming a long-lost family heirloom, etc), you can consider having individual fortune tellings for one or more characters.
In this instance, you would have each player draw 2 cards (one from the high deck and one from the low). The card from the low deck tells the character something about their past or an inner conflict. The high deck card gives guidance to overcome that turmoil.
You can use whatever results appear, and your creativity, to lead your player towards a location you want them to explore or can encourage them to strengthen a trait (seek to restrain their anger, be a better team member, etc.) These personal readings can be performed in the sight of the whole party or can be done privately to increase secrecy.
You can also have predetermined results; perhaps 2 cards placed in an envelope ready to be revealed to your players. Fate is a strong thing and Barovia is a mysterious land.
Keeping it Straight
Unless you are stacking the deck for all reading opportunities, it’s hard to keep track of things. I encourage you to keep good notes, perhaps on index cards, whenever a reading takes place. If you are stacking the deck, record which card correlates with which location or person:
Card: 4 of glyphs/hearts = Shepherd.
Prompt: “Find the mother—she who gave birth to evil.”
Location: the King and Queen’s Crypt
If you are letting the cards fall where they may, have some extra index cards ready to write down your new results and discard the old ones.
Optionally, check out this graphic for how to keep your players’ fortunes organized:
If you found this guide helpful, be sure to share it with other DMs! We want to help as many DMs as possible and we can only do that with help from amazing DMs like you!
I hope this gives your game advantage, my friend!
Until next time,