Ashton Duncan

One unique aspect of Curse of Strahd is how much of the adventure’s structure hinges on a tarokka deck reading, revealing to the players (and GM) the following elements:

  • Strahd’s location inside Castle Ravenloft

  • The placement of three important treasures that can be used against Strahd von Zarovich, including the Tome of Strahd, the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, and the Sunsword

  • The identity of a powerful ally in the fight against Strahd

Chapter 1 of Curse of Strahd outlines how to perform this reading with a simple pack of playing cards, but with the Roll20 edition, either in the Curse of Strahd module or separate Tarokka Deck addon, you can shuffle and deal them onto a specially crafted map for your players… if you want to let fate decide. If you’re keener on taking fate into your own hands (and I recommend it, as a veteran Curse of Strahd dungeon master), here are some things to consider.

Treasure Locations

The cards of the common deck determine the locations of the artifacts and are placed in positions 1 (Tome of Strahd), 2 (Holy Symbol of Ravenkind), and 3 (Sunsword). I like to put these artifacts in places that contribute to the narrative of the object or to encourage my players to visit a place they might otherwise miss. I want these artifacts to feel like gathering power on the way to a climactic fight rather than side quests, so I avoid putting more than one in Castle Ravenloft, and I never put an artifact in the same place as Strahd.

Recommended artifact locations and cards:

  • 7 of Swords (Hooded One) - many adventurers will simply miss the Amber Temple, and the Ravenloft lore there is wonderful and terrible.

  • 4 of Stars (Abjurer) - Argynvostholt has a beautiful, sad story, and this clue encourages players to pay attention and climb through the entire house.

  • 7 of Stars (Illusionist) - Rictavio, otherwise known as Rudolph Van Richten, is a key NPC in Curse of Strahd, and his wagon could easily be confused with Ezmerelda d’Avenir’s. I have accidentally incinerated player characters using this artifact clue, but the reward was worth it in the end.

  • 9 of Coins (Tax Collector) - Arabelle is an unsettling child who may help cement an alliance between the player characters and Vistani, and is one of the only opportunities to end violence against a child in an adventure riddled with it. I consider this a moment of hope amongst misery.

  • 5 of Glyphs (Druid) - This clue hints at so much fun lore and NPC interactions to be had. “An evil tree grows atop a hill of graves where the ancient dead sleep. The ravens can help you find it.”

My players typically like a bit of a riddle, so I try not to pick the easier ones, but if you’re looking for the easiest locations to find and understand the clue I’d recommend 2 of Stars (Diviner) which is Madam Eva’s encampment, where your player characters are likely getting their card reading, 3 of Coins (Trader) for Wizard of Wines, and 7 of Glyphs (Charlatan) for Old Bonegrinder.

Strahd’s Enemy

The fourth card in the reading is drawn from the high deck, which means that whichever card you choose will not be available for Strahd’s location in the castle. Some GMs swear by the inspire ability, but I find that there are many characters who may be marked as Strahd’s enemy that my players would rather not tag along to the castle, because in all other circumstances they’ll be a hindrance. Here are my recommended cards and allies:

  • Artifact (Joker 1), Rictavio or Rudolph Van Richten - What I like about this clue is that it seems at first to be Gadof Blinsky, but ultimately leads the characters to Rictavio. It’s a twist, but one solved within a session as they’re likely both in Vallaki or nearby.

  • Broken One (King of Diamonds) The Mad Mage or Mordenkainen - While I don’t find this plotline particularly compelling (and you may find it difficult to balance with him as an NPC follower), the Mad Mage is Mordenkainen. He knows a lot about the Forgotten Realms and famous characters like Elminster, and could be fun for any lore-seeking players in your group.

  • Darklord (King of Spades) No One - This seems at first to be a death sentence, but I love the possibility of subverting it: gaining allies and counting your fellow player characters as people standing with you.

  • Ghost (King of Hearts) Sir Godfrey Gwilym - Frankly, this poor guy deserves a better ending, and he’s a powerful paladin.

  • Innocent (Queen of Hearts) Ireena Kolyana - Another example of a character that deserves a better ending (and deserves to play a part in choosing that ending), though I recommend leveling her up alongside the party after level 3.

Sir Klutz is a funny option (Ghost, King of Hearts) if your table needs all of the laughs it can get.

Strahd’s Location in the Castle

Finally, Strahd’s location in Castle Ravenloft is drawn from the high deck and placed in the center. The first time the characters arrive at the location (after the dinner invite and presuming he hasn’t been forced back into his coffin from a prior encounter), he will be there. Here are my recommendations:

  • Artifact (Joker 1) Chapel - there’s something haunting about facing Strahd in the desecrated chapel of his castle, and it’s a good battleground.

  • Beast (Jack of Diamonds) Audience Hall - This mimics the image of Strahd on the cover of Curse of Strahd, and it’s iconic. He’s expecting the player characters.

  • Broken One (King of Diamonds) or Innocent (Queen of Hearts) Sergei’s Tomb - I love the narrative resonance of defeating Strahd in his brother’s tomb when his envy for his brother resulted in that brother’s death and, in many ways, Barovia as a Domain of Dread.

  • Marionette (Jack of Hearts) North Tower Peak - I enjoy the danger this one presents with fall damage and the delay of needing to climb back up the tower.

Of course, the easiest answer to this question is “you’ll find out,” which Madam Eva can tell the characters with the Mists (Queen of Spades) card. This card allows you to put Strahd wherever the characters might feel is most narratively compelling after a campaign of awaiting this final battle, or—alternatively—wherever they’ve run out of resources and Strahd feels he can strike. 

However you run Curse of Strahd, the Tarokka deck is an essential tool in building the narrative for your players.