NEW DM SERIES
Running Curse of Strahd for the First Time
APR 30, 2022
This article is for first-time Curse of Strahd dungeon masters to act as a sort of “Barovia for Beginners” to help you build immersion and enable fun for your players in Ravenloft. But first, a warning to players: you’re now treading through the Mists and into spoiler territory—beware!
The Ravenloft Setting and Setting Expectations
Any Domain of Dread is a fascinating setting for an adventure; each is a limited sandbox for player characters to explore encompassed by the Mists. Like so many RPG video game sandboxes, the mists surrounding Barovia act as a “warning: leaving the playable area” that limits the narrative of the game, but they are especially unique in one regard: they act as both barrier and catalyst for adventure. Most player characters know they are trapped, and the Mists of Ravenloft are an omnipresent reminder of the stakes of their adventure and the challenges they must overcome.
What player characters don’t know is that, like them, Strahd von Zarovich is trapped by the Dark Powers in his Domain of Dread. Barovia is an ironic twist of Strahd’s desires where the people and land itself act out an endless cycle of despair and horror, and by defeating Strahd they may only save Barovia for a short period of time. Strahd is the Darklord whose dominion is Barovia, but beyond him are the Dark Powers, the omnipotent and immortal beings that control the Mists of Ravenloft and all of the Domains of Dread, each housing its own horrible Darklord.
Your players likely know to expect monsters and adventure from their Dungeons & Dragons games, but Barovia provides a suspenseful atmosphere for your players to immerse themselves in. You and your players should communicate about the game’s rules, plots, and content before starting play, but during play you can use tools like Lines and Veils and the Safety Deck available in every Roll20 game to ensure everyone’s having fun.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, which expands the Domains of Dread for fifth edition, has an excellent sidebar on the importance of cultivating hope in your Ravenloft games. “The Dark Powers delight in tormenting villains as much as they do innocents, the Mists equally confound both predators and prey, and Darklords frequently exhibit hubris or other exploitable flaws. [...] Punctuate your horror tales with moments of relief, comedy, and fortuitous consequences. These moments of hope help characters push through the dark to the thrill of dawn.”
Starting Curse of Strahd
If you’re a new GM preparing to run Curse of Strahd, you’ll need to know: your players can either start at third level, or they can run through the introductory adventure "Death House." Before "Death House" you’ll likely want to run one of the initial adventure hooks: “Plea For Help,” “Mysterious Visitors,” “Werewolves in the Mist,” and “Creeping Fog”. Before running the hook, establish who the player characters are and how/if they know each other in their initial setting. A few things to consider when choosing:
“Plea for Help” requires the player characters’ presence in a generic “old tavern,” which is simple enough to manage but doesn’t lend itself well to the "Death House" introductory adventure.
“Mysterious Visitors” assumes that your campaign is based in or near Daggerford, a town on the Sword Coast in the Forgotten Realms. This adventure hook leads into the Tarokka deck reading with Madam Eva very well, but not "Death House."
“Werewolves in the Mist” is excellent for player characters built for Adventurer’s League and for uniting characters with disparate faction allegiances. This is a great lead into “Death House,” with little additional work required.
“Creeping Fog” is perhaps the easiest lead into “Death House” if you deposit your player characters near the village of Barovia, but also the least ceremonious. In this case, you can have your player characters meet in the mist or camping together, but I would caution against starting in Barovia near Krezk.
"Death House" will run your player characters through levels 1-3 if they survive. Keeping level 1 characters alive is no small task, and "Death House" monsters have high armor classes and hit hard. I’d recommend—at the least—encouraging your players to long rest. If you don’t have a healer (or they don’t have that ability yet, like paladins or rangers), consider adding a potion of healing or two to the hidden room in the library. Even so, multiple encounters could TPK your party in one round, especially if they run away through the territory of another creature. The specter and the animated armor might seem obvious threats, but the shadows that surround characters, the ghouls in maze-like corridors, the mimic door that prevents escape, and the ghasts guarding needed supplies are even more deadly.
Even if they survive to the final basement battle and reveal, the chase upstairs and the house’s own mechanisms may well kill them. Encourage and reward creative problem-solving. Preparing to take a character into Curse of Strahd and having them die in the optional introductory adventure may feel like an anticlimax to your players.
I covered the Tarokka reading in another article, but it solidifies the structure of your Curse of Strahd campaign from here, and in short, my advice is: rig it. Figure out what your players care about and what leans into the aspects of play they enjoy, and make that narrative happen in the cards. In my many times through Curse of Strahd as a marathon, in one night, and as a long campaign, I’ve had the most fun running and playing in games with pre-chosen rather than randomized Tarokka readings. On a more practical level this will help you prepare ahead rather than waiting for your players to do that reading. After all: their ally or an artifact may be very nearby!
Curse of Strahd runs to level 10, but if you level your characters every time the texts suggest you do (typically at the end of a chapter), they’ll be massively overleveled for the titular villain and climactic end of adventure fight. I’d recommend simultaneously improving Strahd’s abilities alongside the characters starting at level 7-8, and especially once they have access to magic that generates sunlight. Bumping up HP and AC are obvious first choices, but giving him access to a mythic action and regenerated health after initially being reduced to zero may be more fun for your players (and mimics the final form video game boss experience players may be familiar with from other Dracula-inspired vampires).
A few miscellaneous notes on locations, things to remember, and further suggestions:
Castle Ravenloft is a massive dungeon crawl that will drain your characters’ resources, but they may never need to go there. Attending dinner at Strahd’s invitation can be a fun and unsettling peek at horrors to come, but consider your players’ stamina and level before encouraging them to explore further.
Fall damage: a creature takes 1d6 bludgeoning damage for every 10 feet fallen to a maximum of 20d6. Just in case someone or something tries to push them down the stairs.
Don’t forget cosmetic spell modifications (outlined in chapter 2). These include changes like undead familiars and steeds as well as alarm screams and ominous telepathic eavesdropping.
The daylight spell produces light that is not considered sunlight.
It’s worth considering leveling up Strahd’s Enemy (the party’s ally from the Tarokka reading) and any NPC tagalongs alongside the characters. Ireena is useful at level 3 but quickly becomes a real liability on the way to Krezk.
Unique Roll20 Features To Utilize
First of all, the Roll20 Curse of Strahd conversion includes the Castle Ravenloft maps and Tarokka deck addon, so no need to buy them separately. The module contains everything you need to run Curse of Strahd. It has also been updated to reflect Wizards of the Coast’s June 2020 errata. Let’s talk a little bit about the things the conversion has that the book doesn’t have:
The topdown Castle Ravenloft maps in Roll20’s conversion were lovingly, painstakingly crafted by Kristin Carlson, and—while the isometric maps provided in the original content really capture that Curse of Strahd unique aesthetic style—we’ve only introduced isometric support recently on Roll20! The square grid maps will help your players navigate Castle Ravenloft on the virtual tabletop.
There are many shapeshifters in Barovia, from vampires to hags to werewolves, and each has a rollable token on the Roll20 virtual tabletop. That means by right-clicking you can change the appearance of that character’s token. The module also includes the Tarokka card decks using the Roll20 interface to shuffle and deal, as well as the deck of illusions, which appears in the adventure.
Each magic item and named NPC has a distinct handout you can show to your players, and the adventure text interlinks to these, to descriptions of locations, and to included rules text, so you never have to leave the virtual tabletop to look up pale tincture or desecrated ground. The Dungeons & Dragons SRD rules are available by search in the sidebar, as well as any other content you own and have added to the game via Compendium Sharing.
Dynamic lighting and the Jukebox are your best friends in a horror game. They add so much to the atmosphere of creeping down a hallway or a climactic trek to a forbidden mountain temple. Dynamic lighting is included for Plus and Pro subscribers with the Curse of Strahd module, and you’re able to add your own Jukebox tracks in the VTT sidebar. Tabletop Audio has “Barovian Castle,” “Vampire’s Castle,” and “Barovian Village” available for free through the Roll20 Jukebox.
Curse of Strahd was the first project I worked on as a Roll20 content conversion contractor in 2017 and the first Wizards of the Coast storyline I ever played (my ranger survived “Death House” in a particularly cutthroat way), so it’s a sentimental storyline for me. Have fun storming the castle!