After roughly two years of fairly consistent play with a group of three players, we have just wrapped our Curse of Strahd campaign. For the purposes of providing DMs new to the campaign with some lessons learned as well as some new ideas, here is my lists of things that went well, things that need improvement, and my favorite player moments during my run of Curse of Strahd. I hope it gives you inspiration!
Overall, if you have the time to dedicate to it, I recommend Strahd to medium and high level DMs. It is a campaign that can be run as written but is flexible enough to adlib and make it your own.
What went well in my Curse of Strahd campaign
Starting with Lost Mines and asking for permission to start Strahd
We started the characters at level 1 and ran them to level 3 in Lost Mines of Phandelver, which was about the time you get the Glass Staff from the mansion. From there, the players (and me, the DM) wanted to run something gothic horror. I informed the party about the length of Curse of Strahd, which everyone agreed to. I think this is important, because Curse of Strahd is a very long campaign.
Adding the Vampyr boss
Because the party took many dark gifts from the Amber Temple and because they were well-equipped to fight Strahd (more on that later), I changed up the end of the campaign. Instead of making Strahd the final boss, I took some advice from the Internet and made Vampyr the final boss.
My twist? Vampyr took over the most evil character in the party. That player was all to eager to play a BBEG, so I just sent him the monster stat block and told him to have fun. This was among the biggest highlights of the campaign.
The quest log
There is a lot to track in Curse of Strahd. The players would sometimes complain if they couldn’t remember the list of quests they had. Sometimes, the rewards given were not up to their expectation in a given quest.
To solve for both of these issues, I downloaded a quest tracker plugin for Foundry VTT. This plugin kept a list of quests and allowed the DM to set checklists to completing quests and set what the rewards were. The brilliance here is that you could share whichever checklist items or rewards you wanted and hide the rest.
While I don’t love Foundry overall, you can create a homegrown quest log without any software. The important thing is, the players know the stakes. If they lit the beacon at Argynvostholt, they would level up. If they fought the Roc at Tsolenka Pass, they would only get a few items. Guess what they prioritized?
What a stellar piece of the storyline. I strongly encourage you guide your players in the direction of the keep of the former silver dragon, Argynvost.
The area is fun, the characters inside are entertaining, and the completion of the quest, which clears up the skies of Barovia, was a general highlight.
To tie Argynvostholt to the nearby Berez, a town with little to draw an adventuring party, I placed the skull of Argynvost with Baba Lysaga, instead of putting it in Castle Ravenloft. She rode it in battle.
Building out fake factions
While Curse of Strahd does not explicitly have factions like other books, the areas of the map of Barovia lend themselves well to factions.
My players made it a point from the beginning to the end to unite the denizens in a call to arms. We took that concept of factions and ran with it, using them to initiate important quests across the map. These “factions” teamed up at the end to help defeat Strahd, including:
- Barovian leaders
- Order of the Silver Dragon
- Vampire hunters
Handling the Tiny Hut
So, my wizard took the spell Tiny Hut.
Tiny Hut is a weird spell. It was also a learning experience for me.
In scouring forums, people have a lot of solutions for this, but most of them punish the player who CHOSE the spell.
Rather than punish the entire purpose of the spell, I found other trade-offs. The big one was time. The more the party relied on Tiny Hut, the more time passed. Events occurred in the background which were often not good for the players.
An early total party kill
I was blessed by an early total party kill. To be fair, the characters did it to themselves. They challenged the entirety of the Vallaki town guard.
Why was this good? The total party kill informed my players that death comes easily in Barovia and that there is real fear of failure. Additionally, it was an opportunity to showcase the magic of the land of Barovia. When my characters woke up in a forest in different bodies from what they had, they learned about the fate of poor souls in the environment.
Having Madam Eva read the fortunes to the party was what drew me to the campaign in the first place, and I did a couple of things to make it more fun.
First, I used a deck of normal playing cards to facilitate the experience and make it more real for the players. Second, I only used card readings that would put the fortunes in very different places across the map. So, it was random, but it was a controlled form of random.
The party was definitely legit afraid of Strahd
I introduced Strahd early and often in the campaign, but never as an overtly bad person. The party was sufficiently terrified to engage with him throughout the campaign until the very end. Introduce him to the party early and use him as often as makes sense. He is one of the game’s strong points.
Strahd’s dinner and Ireena’s death
One of the ways to get the party to Castle Ravenloft ahead of the final battle is to invite them to dinner with Strahd. In the book, this is glossed over, but I made it an event with dinner with the players and a host of characters at the table. The dinner lasted almost the entire session and was a lot of fun.
At the end of it, I had one of the other jealous wives poison Ireena’s dinner, which killed her before she became Strahd’s new bride, renewing the cycle.
A hex crawl in Berez
I was bored and decided I would try something new for the town of Berez. Namely, I ran the town as written, but turned the swamp into a hex crawl, where Baba Lysaga lived somewhere in the map. This hex crawl went really well, and some of the confusion in direction provided by strong mists led to a really fun exploratory session with the players.
Have the third winery gem be in the heart of sorrow
Though I moved many of the items out of the castle to promote exploration of the world, I did move one thing into Castle Ravenloft. The way I built it, the Heart of Sorrow was powered by the third gem of the winery. This drew the players in and helped give them the courage to travel to the castle and face Strahd.
This dungeon was an absolute joy to run, as it is massive, has unique random encounters, and has a personality of its own. The more your players visit it, the more depravity they will see. It is the best dungeon I have ever run in my admittedly young DM tenure.
The beauty of the castle’s design doesn’t reveal itself until you actually have players exploring it, in which case, it sings.
The Amber Temple
You have seen the memes. But, have you run the dungeon?
The Amber Temple is hard for the party to find on the map and even harder to complete, but it is worth the trouble. We had some of the best moments of the entire campaign in this dungeon, which is deceptively small. More on the moments later, but I thought this place was a triumph.
I made new friends and grew the game
Without getting into the ultimate “gritty realism” setting of reality, there was some turmoil among the players and the general attrition of starting D&D with a group of new people. What started as a game of about seven players at Level 1 in Lost Mines of Phandelver reduced in size to a group of three core players that I BARELY KNEW before D&D started.
Through Curse of Strahd, I formed a new bond with these players and encouraged some of them to try DM their own campaigns when asked. It is an incredible feeling to meet people through the game and inspire them, as a DM once inspired me!
What needed improvement with my Curse of Strahd campaign
Foundry VTT was too much
This campaign is done virtually since some of the members are on the West Coast (I am on the East Coast). Partway through the campaign, I switched Virtual Tabletop (VTT) software from Roll20 to Foundry VTT. This was a mistake.
If you are someone who likes limited virtual help and prefers to do some elements physically with your group, I recommend staying with a simpler service like Roll20. My impression with Foundry VTT is that, while very cool, it plays itself, requiring you to play by its rules. It also takes a lot of the fun out of the moment to moment gameplay of my style of D&D game. I also found it to be bloaty software.
I’m switching back to Roll20 or Owlbear Rodeo for the next campaign, a more lightweight solution.
The Mad Mage kind of ruins things
The storyline of the Mad Mage in Curse of Strahd—and his inclusion in general—is strange. He doesn’t add much to the story except to show the players not to get arrogant in facing Strahd, and his location in a mountain on the far edge of the map is equally weird.
Furthermore, since he is an ultra powerful character, the players will want him to join them in the hunt. If he is not your ally, he just refuses. This is nothing but frustrating. If he is your ally, I would argue he is overpowered. I would remove him as a possible ally and remove him from the game entirely if I could do it again.
The party waited until the end to go to Castle Ravenloft
The downside of moving items and scaring the party with Strahd was that the party had no real reason to visit Strahd until the end game. Despite constant follow up on the dinner invitation and visits from members of the castle, the party never went to Castle Ravenloft until the end of the game.
This is my fault, because I moved things out of the castle and into the world. If I could do it again, I would place at least one fortune and some other quest items in Castle Ravenloft to encourage exploration, early and often. The dungeon is so big and such a core element of the game that your party can easily visit it multiple times and see different things each time.
Strahd felt kind of easy, but then, you got all of the things and leveled up a bunch
While they definitely did good work to avoid and get Strahd off their scent in the overworld, the final battle was underwhelming. The party was level 10 and had accomplished every quest / picked up every tool to defeat Strahd. They had the ally. They had more factions aligned that helped with ancillary activities.
I think more visits to the castle earlier would have made this better, but the Vampyr fight was a good twist after using spells and abilities on Strahd, so it wasn’t all bad.
The town of Barovia is kind of lifeless as written
The initial town of Barovia, without Death House, is fairly boring as written. You really have to activate your creative juices to give Barovia the vibe and purpose that it has. Compared to Vallaki and Krezk, which I feel have more interesting things to do, Barovia leans on its oppression from Strahd’s castle.
I would add more to it, like a zombie outbreak, Death House as a quest, or a few more encounters, to make it come alive. There is an alternate version, where you start near Krezk, but I don’t like this. Building the looming presence of Castle Ravenloft and Strahd from the jump has more impact to me.
Escaping Barovia is a good but ultimately cheap goal
As far as motivation goes, escaping a prison is a pretty good one. The true goal of Curse of Strahd is to escape Barovia. This goal works, but the way it is done is pretty boring. For a campaign stretching half of an adventurer’s lifetime (at least, in getting from Level 1-20), the goal of, “you walked into a trap and need to kill someone to escape it” is cheap and weak.
Ireena. The party could not have cared less about her storyline from the moment it started.
Another motivation presented in the campaign is to bring Ireena (Strahd’s obsession) across the map to the other side of Barovia. The problem was, my players did not like her character or feel a desire to help her. She ended up resenting them. I don’t think the book does a good job of incentivizing helping her, unless you are a bunch of paladins.
If I could do it again, I would better tie her into their success of leaving Barovia or incentivize them with a good quest reward.
I actually think the campaign is way too long and cut off from the rest of the world to tie in to larger stories and it can be a lot.
Curse of Strahd is a wonderful campaign as written. But… if you are expectation setting with your players, I would tell them that this is a very dark story and will probably be the lone adventure of their characters. Unless you wade into high level play following completion, this is where your party will live and spend their time.
That being said, it is very long, and the atmosphere is so oppressive that you physically cannot run long sessions without serious burnout. I had fun, but I was happy to be done with it.
My favorite player moments in Curse of Strahd
And now, for a list of my favorite individual moments from the players. This is proof that you can never prepare for what you think your party will do.
- The wizard counterspelled Strahd’s counterspell.
- On the day before the festival in Vallaki, the party told Izek that the woman he loved was named Ireena and lied that she was in Barovia. He naturally did not show the next day to provide muscle for the burgomaster, which opened the door to the party killing the burgomaster during the festival.
- Despite expecting some resistance, the most evil member of the party (the druid) immediately accepted his takeover by Vampyr at the end of the game. I just gave him the monster stat block and he took it from there.
- I put the bones of St. Andral in a portable hole in a house for the party to find. They burned the house down and triggered wild magic as the portable hole was destroyed, which caused hundreds of rats to stream out of the burning house and into Vallaki.
- The party treated Ireena so badly that she naturally sided with Strahd’s alter ego (Charles Glass, in my campaign) and went with him willingly to Castle Ravenloft.
- To combat the “dark spirit” in the middle of the Amber Temple, the druid summoned a group of Axebeaks that knocked down the statue, which broke open a huge hole through a secret wall.
- The druid spoke to moss growing on the side of Argynvostholt to get answers to ancient questions.
- After hanging with him for a while, the party came to the realization that Charles Glass was Strahd in disguise at the same time and cast a fireball on him.
- The fighter was CONVINCED that the wicker ball in the Vallaki festival was the key to some great mystery and went overboard trying to crack it open and explore every nook and cranny.
- In a random encounter with werewolves in the forest, the wizard fed the wolves and told them where to get more meat, which led to a surprise questline starting.
- The druid immediately solved the dumb/weird door puzzle at Van Ricten Tower on his first-try.
- The party, led by the wizard, made it the quest to bring together all of the factions against Strahd throughout Barovia.
- After killing a flameskull but not destroying it at the Amber Temple, the fighter put it in his backpack and then entered the Tiny Hut to sleep for the night. 🙂
- The fighter asked The Abbot to give him a mongrelfolk-like tail. After some skill checks, he got his tail.
- At the very start of dinner with Strahd, the fighter tried to “poison” Strahd’s wine glass by swiftly pouring holy water into it. He rolled a natural 1.
- The winery basement brown mold went perfectly as planned by the book with the Wizard casting a fire spell inside of it, to warm the place up. Whoops!