What New DMs Need to Know about Curse of Strahd (Spoilers!)

Barovia is a land of darkness and distress, but in the hands of your players, it offers a world of creativity and freedom. This module is incredibly open, more than almost any other D&D experience.

Rather than seeing yourself as running Curse of Strahd, it could be helpful to give yourself the role of overseeing Curse of Strahd.  To put it poetically: You’re not steering this ship, but you can work with the wind and guide her sails. 

Executing the Game

Introducing Barovia:

Lead your players into Barovia in a way that entices them. Each group will be different, how will yours enter the mists?
  1. You’ll need to decide how to begin. Will they receive an intriguing letter that lures the characters to enter a forest thick with fog? Perhaps a mystical dream will transport them far, far away. Once there, consider opening the adventure with a walk through Death House (link to my article on all about Death House) to help your adventurers level up a bit. 
  2. Provide helpful descriptions: You can only creatively describe a dilapidated building and cobweb-filled room a few times before it gets a little tired. A sad world only gets more sad as you keep talking about it. In general, focus on inhabitants, unique locations, and enticing treasures.

Decide what to share.

What will your players know, and what will you keep hidden until the perfect time?
  1. Do your players know that Barovia is inescapable, or will you keep that info to yourself? As the DM, give yourself the freedom to ignore certain areas of the map and keep a few NPCs on the bench. Not everyone has to be in your starting line-up. 
  2. You don’t have to guide your players to explore everything, but understand that some places and buildings are key. They really do need to visit the tavern in Barovia and meet Ismark in order to be introduced to Ireena.  But do your players need to know Bonegrinder exists? Essentially it’s a mini-adventure you can draw them to… or never, ever bring up. *shudders*

Leveling Up

  1. Curse of Strahd depends more on exploration, discoveries, and social encounters for leveling up rather than combat (though there can be plenty of that!) You can award experience points by defeating foes or based on milestones. 
  2. The DM manual provides a list of milestone/level suggestions (pg 6) that is helpful for initial map maneuvering. Try to guide your adventurers towards locations they are strong enough to enjoy. But remember, Barovia is a sandbox, so Death-House-victors are hell-bent on going straight for the Castle, let ‘em. They can rethink their tactics for the next session!
  3. I’d encourage you to decide ahead of time when you’ll promote your characters to new levels. Finding each Artifact (Tome of Strahd, Sunsword, and Holy Symbol of Ravenkind) or identifying an Ally, lighting the beacon of Argynvostholt, defeating key characters at a location, and escaping a powerful building are all great opportunities to reward. I really enjoyed this thread to draw inspiration from.

Staying Inspired 

  1. Most importantly, remember your players’ goal: Save Ireena and Barovia from the demiplane and Strahd’s control!! And of course, defeat Strahd! Along the way make friends, kill some monsters, complete quests, and level up. That being said, it can be tricky to keep your players inspired and bought in rather than just wandering around. It can take upwards of 30-40 sessions to work through this module.
  2. An initial opportunity to amp up the energy is to invite one of the players to be Ireena Kolyana. Rather than a side character who may or may not matter to them, they’ll have a vested interest in her and her safety! Just make sure she knows what she needs to know, and no more.
  3. Create character stories that prompt buy-in. Perhaps a dragonborn adventurer is a descendant of the Silver Dragon Argynvost or someone’s relative disappeared to Barovia years ago. Maybe as a child your hero was kidnapped and taken away from Barovia by Vistani; they’ve tracked their heritage here and hope to find where they truly belong.
  4. Craft inspiring side-quests! Offer good rewards in exchange for completing side-quests engineered to get your players moving in the right direction. Perhaps Madam Eva longs for a trinket in Van Richten’s Tower, or the Abbey of Saint Markovia, or… wherever you need it to be. In return for the trinket you can promise gold or a protection amulet or the answer to a question of psychic proportions.
  5. Exciting Card Readings. There are a couple opportunities throughout the story for your   players to experience a little revelation. As DM you have a lot of free will with the Tarokka readings: Stack the deck to create a compelling adventure, let the cards fall as they may to go on a surprise journey, or even a little of both by removing the cards you dislike most. Tarokka readings can be a bit confusing, and they are important. Read my article on card readings to get your footing and put on a good show for your players.
  6. Also, build deep trust between a few NPCs and your heroes; Barovia can quickly become a land of distrust, so if they know they can always trust a few key villagers it will keep the hope burning bright.
  7. Create opportunities for NPCs to talk up Strahd: Their fear of him, the terror he holds over the land, run-ins they’ve had or have heard of.  

Speaking of Strahd: Role-Playing the Vampire:

  1. Have Strahd show up, powerfully and playfully; keep him in the back of your players’ minds. In an encounter, let him knock them around… maybe even kill one. And then disappear as he leaves them to his wolves. Have him leave notes and hints (whether personally or through a terrified messenger) when you need to put a little pep in their step. Maybe he summons the characters to his castle (or maybe just ONE character via the black carriage!) after a major discovery or a fight. Their visit can be an uneventful meal where Strahd basks in his history, or it could escalate to a dynamic escape from his clutches. Let the characters be toyed with to increase their animosity; players love the opportunity for sweet revenge.
  2. Utilize his powers! Strahd has “Scrying”… and the unique station of knowing almost as much as the DM. In an early-game encounter have him snag a strand of hair or a small item from your players. Later it can be influential to remind a character, every once in a while, that they “Just can’t shake the feeling they are being watched.” He can also shapeshift, and that can be infuriating! Just as the players are getting some hits in *poof* he transforms into a cloud of smoke or a bat, disappearing into the night.
  3. Remember, he invited the characters to Barovia; he’s pulling the strings. Strahd is a bored mastermind. If your players leave Ireena somewhere “safe,” maybe Strahd shows up and off-handedly mentions he’s going to be visiting that somewhere soon.
  4. Bring his minions to life. Strahd has vampire spawn, spirits, magical items, vistani, and cohorts all working for him. If your players are a little too confident, knock them back a couple steps with a run-in. 
  5. Allow Strahd’s plot to change, and therein your own! Perhaps the heroes awaken The Ancient One in the Amber Temple… and suddenly Strahd becomes a quest-giving NPC hoping to partner with the adventurers! That’d be a fun twist. 

Keeping it Straight: 

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Barovia is a WEB. It all connects, it all overlaps. You have van Richten the Monster Hunter masquerading as Ristavio the Bard, broken up families held together by the subconscious of a creepy brother, backstories and crossed paths galore. If you don’t think you’re up for it, turn back now. 

But I know you’re up for it!! Here are some tips for keeping it all straight:

Internalize the Timeline and the History of Barovia’s transmutation.

  1. Strahd brought the characters here because he is bored; the heroes are his playthings.
  2. Know Strahd’s history, how his parents and Sergei and Tatyana tie in. How He became a vampire. How Barovia used to be.
  3. Internalize the important “who knows what’s”. What does Madam Eva know? How about The Mad Mage? Esmerelda followed who here? 

Familiarize yourself with the CoS Maps you plan to use (my favorites are in the link!). If you decide to cut out any locations, make sure your maps reflect that.

It’s all in the details. 

  1. The plot is a beast. Keep notes of which plot lines you want to follow (because it’s impossible to intertwine them all.) Note the major characters in those plot lines and their locations. Pick a few locations you like and create a reason for them to go there.
  2. Determining Fortunes of Ravenloft: Many opportunities lie in the cards of Madam Eva; perhaps too many. If you want to simplify the game a bit consider removing the locations and trinkets you don’t love. This article I wrote on Tarokka Readings will set you up for success. 
  3. Cities: There are three major population hubs in Barovia (check out the link for an overview of the all!). The village of Barovia is thankfully simple and a great location to begin the adventure. Vallaki has a lot of people to get to know and some complex buildings to move through. Kresk is a simple place whose citizens turn a blind eye to the evils up the hill…
  4. Buildings: There are so many buildings to explore! Some are important (The Castle!!) Some are just fun and great for side-quests and leveling up. Study the maps before you wander in!
  5. NPCs & People Groups: There are a lot of people to get to know, and it can be tricky to keep it straight. 
    1. In your event notes be sure to write down any key speaking/info that NPCs are likely to have. Also have a way to quickly access any NPC stats for Combat.
    2. Pre-roll NPC initiatives so you can just plug-n-play.
    3. Cut out some NPC’s if it’s getting too messy for you. 

Helpful Tips for organizing the mess…  

  1. Read “Areas of Barovia” thoroughly (pp 33-40). That will help you significantly as you launch the campaign.
  2. Read Appendix D thoroughly to learn about key characters. 
  3. During session-prep, decide which events are most likely to occur. Feel free to pre-roll random events so you can focus on the story rather than your surprise role.
  4. At the end of each session, ask your players where they plan to go for the next session.
    1. Provide your players with a map of the land of Barovia (…perhaps edited if you want to ignore certain locations) so they can orient themselves to this complex world. 
    2. Try to prep at least 2 locations for your next session and consider what events may take place along the way.
  5. Summarize your sessions at the end. What happened where? Who learned what? Did they make it to…? I like to have this recorded to be played before the next session begins.
    1. You could spend a year or more in this module… and you cannot remember that amount of adventure! Keep a digital record of the sessions’ experiences so you can easily search and refresh your mind too long-forgotten details and encounters. World Anvil is a great option for this, so a simple Google Doc. It is really up to you how complicated you want the process to be!
  6. Try Trello or another organizational program. Gives you the opportunity to link characters, locations, and details like hidden treasure and key places to explore. With Trello you can create cards for every single NPC, item, Quest, and plot point you want  and link them all together. You can also keep updated notes of who knows what, your heroes’ tarokka readings, and any special info you need to keep on hand. This is best accomplished by piecemealing through the DM Guide and taking notes on, like, everything. 
  7. Read Articles online (:
  8. Read the DM Book. READ IT. Read it ALLLLL. Take notes. 
  9. Go read “How to use the Adventure Book” (because even THAT is complicated!)

In the end the plots of COS are a lot like Whose Line is it Anyway: “Everything is made up and the points don’t matter!”

You have full authority to add or remove anything you want. Werewolves? What werewolves? Izek and his little dolls feel random and give you the creeps? Just have the toymaker make toys for him. Don’t even want to reference Berez? Then don’t; no one will ever know and the overall plot will not be harmed. In Theory, you could remove almost EVERYTHING except your adventurers, Strahd, a few NPC’s, and a location or three and still run a killer Strahd Campaign

I hope the ideas shared here are helpful for you to see what options you have and some directions you can take with cracking open the land of Strahd. 

Barovia is your oyster. Go have fun!

-Halfling Hannah

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