Curse of Strahd is a popular adventure choice, especially for new Dungeon Masters. But due to the heavy tone and the adventure’s expansive, complex nature, I believe it is one of the more difficult options for a DM just starting out. Let’s take a look at some of the challenges and how to potentially overcome them if your heart is set on running this one.
This article contains minor spoilers for this adventure. If you are planning on enjoying this story as a player, why not check out this article about building an awesome character instead? I also have an epic list of character building questions if you’re ready to work on your backstory.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.
Curse of Strahd is Challenging in Both Content Weight and Execution
Every adventure will have its unique challenges and special moments. Players diving into D&D for the first time are often wooed by the edgy, interesting background story in CoS. They don’t always consider the difficulty associated with running such a dark and emotionally heavy campaign with so many moving pieces.
The adventure is designed to test even an experienced Dungeon Master due to thematic inclusions. The campaign setting, Ravenloft, is a dark and foreboding realm that requires a strong understanding of horror themes, player psychology, and narrative pacing. Roleplaying a major villain in noncombat encounters early in the adventure can also be intimidating for a new Dungeon Master.
A Caveat: Do What YOU Are Excited About
I’ve been running games for about twenty years. I have experience in a variety of storytelling modes, but there are lots of areas I want to improve in and I am a real believer in life-long learning. My experience and opinion doesn’t mean you should drop all of your plans.
You should not change what you’re doing just because a random stranger on the internet has said something is challenging to play as a new Dungeon Master. Use the content here to help you make an informed decision on what’s best for you and your table.
If you have landed here and have already decided to play Curse of Strahd, please don’t let me dissuade you. I love that freshness and excitement of wanting to crack open a new adventure with a group, and I want you to have a blast. If that sounds like you, take the advice I have presented below to know what to look for so you can feel as prepared as possible.
CoS is doable by a new DM. I simply posit that there are much easier, more “new-player” friendly adventures to learn the ropes and overcome some common DM beginner mistakes before diving into such a complex and heavy story with a group. I have a couple of the most beginner-friendly adventures listed and described at the bottom of this article for you, if you’re interested.
Where Curse of Strahd Shines
I want to start by highlighting something that CoS does really well. This adventure is a bit unique in the amount of advice it provides to Dungeon Masters. While I have not read every official Wizards of the Coast adventure module cover to cover, I own nearly all of them and have a good understanding of the basic content offered in most. CoS stands apart. Despite it being a more advanced adventure to run in many ways, it provides a new Dungeon Master with help and advice along the way.
The current adventure I am running, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, is a great example of the complete opposite. I find this to be more common in official adventures. The story in this module basically goes, Chapter 1: Intro Quest. Chapter 2: Here, have a giant, famous city with next to nothing in it. Go ahead, DM. Fill it up. Let the players live there for a while. (And I did fill it.)
Many Wizards of the Coast adventures are like this: they lack detail in many areas. These modules often expect the Dungeon Master to do the heavy lifting and provide little context for some of the quest line offerings. Curse of Strahd provides a lot more support than others. I suspect this is because the adventure itself is more challenging. Since it takes place in their beloved Ravenloft setting, my guess is the company wanted it to be well-received.
Curse of Strahd also provides a popular mini-adventure called Death House. This is designed to introduce players to the cursed demi-plane, show off the story’s tone, and get the characters up to level three. This is a great way to make sure the party is tough enough to survive the first scripted encounters presented within the town of Barovia. And I will say, the encounters are quite memorable. This adventure is popular for a reason. It is the only one to be rereleased with a fancy box!
Where Curse of Strahd Becomes Challenging, and Some Help
Managing narrative pacing, intense story-driven roleplaying moments, and combat frequency can already be challenging for a new Dungeon Master. Next, factor in the need to infuse humor or positivity into such a dark setting to keep morale up. Combat is also notoriously difficult for new players in this campaign. And don’t forget to consider the story’s length and nonlinear structure. After all this, it’s no wonder that so many groups don’t make it to the finish line.
Moving Parts Within the Storyline
Curse of Strahd contains a lot of moving parts. It includes many NPCs with hidden motivations, complex locations, and various plotlines that intersect and overlap. There are timed events occurring in the background in multiple cases, changing the outcome of events based on how a party responds to certain environments or conflicts.
Advice and Help
There is no magic pill for helping with this. You need to know the content presented in the adventure, and be prepared for your players to wiggle around in it. I suggest using a mind palace playset approach to make sure you are prepared.
Combat Difficulty and New Player Frustration
Curse of Strahd is also infamous for its combat difficulty to new players. Many encounters are designed to push them to their limits. While this can be thrilling and rewarding for experienced players, it can be frustrating for new players who may not yet have a strong grasp of game mechanics or their character’s abilities. Combat tactics need to be learned and practiced. It’s not an area most new players will be adept in when beginning to play.
There is significant homebrew content available on disallowing character deaths for this reason – players instead take some kind of permanent injury or madness, slowly devolving their character’s psyche and functionality. While there is definitely an appeal to this type of difficulty and an audience that thrives in it, it’s not for everyone.
Advice and Help
If you choose to launch right into Curse of Strahd, I’d suggest using the combat in Death House as a tutorial for your players. Help them with their tactics. Let them try synergies with the limited skills they have at level one. At the very least, make sure they know who takes the hits and who helps with healing.
Nonlinear Storyline: DM, You Must Know Everything Always
The campaign is designed to be nonlinear, with multiple potential paths for the players to follow. This does provide a sense of freedom and agency for the players. Many new DMs are concerned about railroading, and want a nonlinear campaign to help them avoid it; however, it can be challenging for new Dungeon Masters to improvise and adapt to unexpected player choices.
Advice and Help
You need to study and fill your mind palace with all the things. Notes are obviously helpful. I like to use OneNote. It’s made by Microsoft, it’s free, and your content saves in the cloud so you can access it across multiple devices. I usually make a notebook for the current campaign I’m running and categorize important NPCs, locations, and other information into subpages so I can access it quickly.
Challenging Roleplaying Encounters
In Curse of Strahd, players are often faced with difficult moral dilemmas and must navigate complex social situations in order to progress through the story. This requires the Dungeon Master to have a good understanding of the NPC’s motivations and personalities. For new Dungeon Masters who are still learning to manage this type of information and roleplay comfortably, it can be difficult to maintain engaging interactions between these characters.
Advice and Help
You’ll need to know what limits your players have.
Curse of Strahd features numerous instances of horror and gore, including descriptions of violence, torture, and other disturbing imagery. For some players, this can be triggering or uncomfortable, and it is important for the Dungeon Master to be aware of these potential issues and handle them with sensitivity and care. For new Dungeon Masters who are still developing their ability to read and respond to player emotions, this can be a daunting task.
If there are players at your table who are uncomfortable with violence or certain darker aspects of the story, this is something you need to know ahead of time. You don’t want to make your players feel crummy in the middle of a game that’s supposed to be fun. Session zero is a good time to distribute a safety checklist.
If you’d like a little guidance on running your NPCs, I have some advice on that, too.
The Content’s Length, Emotional Weight and Bleakness
The module explains an ideal length for a session in this campaign is about an hour and a half – about the length of a standard movie. This is intentional to keep your players from becoming too emotionally weighed down by the adventure’s content. When your players are doing things like rescuing children from a bakery that grinds their bones into flour, or diving into a lake to save a child from being sacrificed by a local fisherman… constantly… it gets heavy. The advice given is to take extra time to describe things like a beautiful flower in the bleak landscape.
In the first major town the players reach, the town of Barovia, much of the population suffers from a flat affect. I won’t get into the details of trapped souls here, but the basic concept is that not everyone gets to have a soul. A lot of the people function more like stoic automatons than lively humans. Everything is described as being gray and dilapidated. The only lively scenes involve interactions with dangerous creatures or villains. It’s a lot of gray.
At first, this bleakness is actually very exciting. “Ooh, we’re in a spooky horror town!” But after 10, 20… 50+ hours of bleakness and misery, it gets old for most people.
At first, this bleakness is actually very exciting. “Ooh, we’re in a spooky horror town!” But after 10, 20… 50+ hours of bleakness and misery, it gets old for most people. As the Dungeon Master, it’s your responsibility to keep the mood up. The environment should feel fresh, interesting, and worth returning to. Remember that if your players are not enjoying themselves, they are unlikely to show up, which stinks for everyone.
Curse of Strahd is a long campaign. Many sessions are required to explore all the different plotlines, quests and locations. This can make it extra challenging to keep the mood up when so much of the story is bleak.
How to Handle Curse of Strahd’s Bleakness as a New Dungeon Master
You have a few options here. You can add homebrew events that enliven the story. You can embellish positive interactions with NPCs. I really focused on the “hero” aspect the last time I ran this one, making the players aware of their positive impact as the story progressed. Orphan children they saved joined the party, making pleasant comments about scenery or interactions as they travelled. One of my players was of a noble lineage and had a small entourage of noncombatants along for the adventure – they served as comic relief. Work with what you can.
I want to end on a high note here. I actually love the edginess of this campaign, and I know I’m not alone in that. So… a little shameless self-promotion: I made a character sheet inspired by Curse of Strahd if you’d like to check it out. All the character sheets I make are printable in U.S. Letter and A4 sizing, and are completely form-fillable in a program like Adobe Acrobat. Here’s a quick little overview of what it looks like and a link, if you’re interested.
My Suggestion for a New DM
Curse of Strahd begins at level three, officially. Why not start your party with something that’s designed to show you the ropes of D&D to begin? Your players can feel more comfortable with roleplaying and combat; you can feel more confident in your ability to wield a universe for their delight. And, you’ll still get to play the horror-themed adventure you’ve got your dark heart set on.
Two Starting Options
I’ve listed two of the most popular starting kits for D&D below.
The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set
This starter set is designed for players who are new to D&D and want to learn how to play the game.
It includes a basic rulebook that covers the essentials of character creation, combat, and exploration. It also packs in a set of plastic dice, pre-generated character sheets, and an introductory adventure booklet. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Lost Mine of Phandelver story; it’s pretty popular in streams.
Players do not need to use the premade characters. They are simply an option provided to help expedite starting the game. Either way, make sure you are running a session zero to set expectations and help get your party started.
The adventure is designed to teach new players the game’s basics, while also providing a fun storyline that can be completed over several few sessions. This set is a great option if the DM or players aren’t as familiar with high fantasy settings. It is pretty introductory feeling in that regard. If you and your table are high-fiving over obscure references to The Lord of the Rings, you may find the “starter fantasy” concepts a bit too tropey for your tastes.
Many, many people have played this adventure on their podcasts and streams. If you’ve ever heard of Klarg the bugbear, you’ve likely listened to at least part of this adventure in your internet travels.
The Essentials Kit
The Essentials Kit is a more recent addition to the D&D product line. It was initially designed to build on the foundation established by the Starter Set. Using both is not necessary, though.
This set includes a rulebook that covers character creation, combat, and exploration in a bit more detail than the Starter Set above. It also includes a set of plastic dice, a DM screen, magic item cards, and an adventure called Dragon of Icespire Peak. This story is a little more open-ended than the Lost Mine of Phandelver, but is still very easy to run.
I’m going to repeat what I said above: Your excitement is the most important ingredient here. If you are super jazzed about running this adventure, then you absolutely should do it. That trumps any difficulty the content may present. The enthusiasm we bring to the table as Dungeon Masters is infectious to our players. It always makes the game more fun.
Update: I just found super amazing background music for this campaign. It’s by Cthulhu Mythos Music, and it is seriously the best premade soundtrack I’ve found. I had to share it with you.
Use the tips and and ideas I presented above to help you run the game more smoothly. Or, launch into one of the starter sets to “warm up” a bit before you take your group through Curse of Strahd. Either way, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below. Roll high!
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