Sunday, June 12, 2016

Running Curse of Strahd (and gussying it up a bit)

I like Curse of Strahd. I wanted to run it. So I am.


This is still quite a beast. I've been running a number of modules these days with my Al-Qadim Church game, and starting to get a better feel for what I really need to run them successfully. Some have been great. Some... not as great. Organization has been the biggest problem for most of them. So while its been quite an endeavor to get through the material for the big picture with Strahd, its all the little details of running it at the table that were most frustrating. Four examples:

  1. I knew that Ireena wanted to bury her father. But I couldn't remember why Donovich wouldn't do it. Or why they were able to make a coffin on their own but couldn't drag it across town on their own. Had to wing that and it didn't quite work. Alas.
  2. The card reading was pretty slick. However, afterwards the players wanted more advice on interpreting the cards. I wasn't overly forthcoming. Not quite sure who other than Rictavio or Ezmerelda would help out there.
  3. The maps of places have ridiculous things labeled and described, like the well outside of the Blue Water Inn. There's a well on the map, I'm not sure it needs to be numbered and described. If the map was labeled "well" that would have more than sufficed.
  4. Yeska. This kid is named in St. Andral's church and its plot, but there's no details about him. So I was frustrated that I couldn't find where he was described in more detail in the book, but it turns out he isn't.

I think a bit more organization could have helped with all of these: better overviews and some input from playtesting. And Bryce's suggestion of cutting 75% of the text. I still don't get why location Z has so many named NPCs and other locations have few-to-none.  I assume its because literally a lot of the castle text is word-for-word what is in the old modules (well, I've got House of Strahd from 2nd edition, not the original I6, but still).

But what I want to do here is set out a few resources and tricks that I've decided to look into and try as I make my own notes on how to run it, so I can hopefully run it again in the fall and do it better. Because the book is big, and you need a quick overview of the big picture, a few ways to address some of its faults, and some tips for running things at the table.

One of the best resources is the powerscore Guide to Curse of Strahd. Pretty helpful for getting a solid overview of each chapter. Its got some nice suggestions for gussying the module up a bit and making minor changes. One of the best resources, and I've now realized I need to write my own version of it soon. Because I think I can maybe do better, at least for the material I have left, or at least do it better for me to help me run Strahd. This is great, but not quite enough for me at the table. I need to spend a bit of time really making decent notes for each location, and if they're good I might put it out there as my own gussied up Strahd guide.

The second most helpful item thus far is the Curse of Strahd DM's Kit & Screen. It has material both for gussying and for actually running the adventure, but its not as helpful as the powerscore blog. I thought a few of its suggestions were wishy-washy and untested, but it definitely gave me some inspiration and a nice index of named characters and entities. And the tables on its "screen" are actually useful, unlike the official Curse of Strahd DM's Screen which includes maps for no good reason. I mean... the Barovia map isn't half bad on the screen except you can't count the hexes. Basically I feel like unless you want the front screen art (and even that I didn't find impressive) its not useful.

The Tarokka cards are nice, though I could have easily gotten by with the old deck I had from the 90s. In fact, I love how the 90s deck is still colored red and black, which actually makes it easier to use for more than just the reading in game. I bought two DMs Guild products that were supposed to let me make more use out of it (Tarokka Deck Unleashed and Tarokka Expansion) but neither actually made me want to use the products. They both include some pretty wicked-hard tables to use in game. Good ideas, not implemented that well. Instead I took the idea of using the deck as dice and made it better by removing the high cards so you just have 4 suits of 10 cards each (you separate them anyway for the reading). Without needing to consult a ridiculous table I've got a d4 (suits 1-4), d8 (4 suits 1-4, add 4 if the card is even),  d10 (number), d20 (number +10 for 2 suits), d100 (number draw twice). If you need a d6 or d12 its doable but not as clean still, but none of this requires looking at a table really. Also, the encounter rolls of d8 + d12 are equivalent to 2d10 so no worries there, just adjust the probabilities for road/wilderness stuff as needed. The reason the old deck is a little nicer is that is has two color suits vs all black suits: this makes the d20 easy (red = number +10, black = number). I rarely remember to use inspiration in 5e, but I plan on handing out the high cards to represent inspiration when needed, and stealing the Wraith: The Oblivion shadowguide model of passing your personality traits to the player on your left so they're watching out for you.

A few of the suggestions for gussying the game up then:

Rolling ability scores. I used my now standard-ish ploy of letting humans use the standard array but needing to roll ability scores in order to play other races. Standard humans can re-arrange their scores, or either standard or variant humans can take the array. Everyone is human, but a couple picked standard human to keep the natural 17s they rolled. I mostly like this system because there may be inspiration to play what you rolled, there's a back-up if your rolls are terrible, and the party isn't a Mos Eisley cantina of strange folks in a human world.

Cut the cards. Rather than remove any locations from the adventure, I pulled out about 13 cards from the reading. I picked some of the less exciting locations and removed the possibility that the fortunes of Ravenloft would require the PCs to go to these places. That seemed to be the easiest cut to make rather than trying to legit remove the Amber Temple or silver dragon knights or have Sir Klutz be the party's greatest ally.

XP. I've tried to break down all the "heroic acts" in the adventure and am planning on giving XP for every 2-3 things they accomplish. I like this much more than the generic milestones because its more like XP but less number intensive. Much more like the 13th Age style of incremental advances: 4 sessions and you level, but here I'm making them earn each one. I still need to solidify this list a bit, its likely I can make a decent subsystem out of it that others will find useful.

Spells. Back when I thought one player was going to play a wizard, I made a random table to add some basic rituals and a few other spells to the Barovian witches' spellbooks (or other NPCs). I don't think I need to do that now since no one is a wizard or tome-pact warlock. This felt like a really satisfying gussy though because as a tome-pact warlock in Princes of the Apocalypse, I'm not finding any ritual scrolls except when the DM let me pick which scrolls we found.

Enemies prepare (moar spells). I might use some of the above spell ideas when Strahd, Baba Lysaga, and Morgantha start fucking with the party. I'm excited for them to use animal messenger or sending to get messages to the PCs. PCs will be making Wisdom saves to avoid Scrying each day now. I'm also excited to fuck the PCs using the dream spell. Basically the idea is to adjust spell lists for when the enemies become aware of the PCs as a threat. I might also create a few new spells like this (an undead version of animal messenger?) or look through the old books to see if there are some other spells for spying and communication that have gotten lost in the editions.

So this isn't too much gussying, I'm going to rush the players through this, but if I get the chance to run this again I think I'll keep what works for sure and decide what else I might could add in or change. The weird part though is while people say the adventure is replayable, I feel like there could be more that's card-dependent. Like... each of the interesting events in a location could be card-cued, or even the creature type of some of the allies/enemies. Its a bit of a disappointment at the moment, actually, that more isn't randomly determined. But that's musing for another day.

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