curse of strahd dm advice lessons learned van richten

Top 13 Curse of Strahd DM Tips: Lessons from 3 Campaigns

Featured image credit for Curse of Strahd DM tips to Wizards of the Coast’s D&D 5e Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft book.
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Curse of Strahd is by far my favorite module. I’ve completed the campaign as a DM three times, and I’ve reflected on those campaigns in great detail. Several of my players have considered or started DMing their own Curse of Strahd campaigns. They asked me what I’ll change if I run CoS again. It turned out I had plenty of feedback on the subject!

My missed opportunities (or “mist” opportunities, haha) are learning moments for my next campaign, but they can help you and your group, too! Don’t forget to take the poll to give me feedback at the end of the article. Please comment with your thoughts on whether my Curse of Strahd DM advice inspired or helped you.

First, What Was I Proud of? Curse of Strahd DM Tips

I should probably mention details that I believe I got right when running Curse of Strahd. Here are several points of the campaign that I feel I did excellently before I get to my regrets:

  • Making travel seem risky, but stop doing random encounters for combat after level six. They should only encounter creepy, unsettling sights at that point.
  • The Abbot and Vasilka were creepy and compelling. Fighting the Abbot was epic.
  • Players hated Strahd after their first encounter with him. They invested in beating him for the rest of the campaign.
  • Have the players encounter Strahd early and then frequently after.
  • Dinner was memorable. I had NPCs that the party had beef with at dinner (the Wachters). Lord Strahd mediated their differences before Anastrasya drank the blood of Karl Wachter as everyone had to sit and watch.
  • Strahd tried to find reasons to admire the player characters. He was visibly and vocally disappointed when he eventually wrote them all off.
  • Players told me Barovia felt alive. They knew there were things happening on a timeline that they couldn’t see. They always felt urgency with their decisions and travels.
  • The Amber Temple was deadly, vast, and claustrophobic.
  • Berez was deadly, mysterious, and eerie.
  • Use lingering injuries and exhaustion rules.

Of course, I could give far more Curse of Strahd DM advice than these lessons, but I want to focus on my tops points of advice to assist DMs with different playstyles broadly. In other words, my advice is quality over quantity.

Regrets and Lessons Learned! My Best 13 Curse of Strahd DM Tips

I summarize lessons for my playstyle and focus on what I consider to be missed opportunities. Let’s turn my regrets into your benefits by listing them out one by one! Start reading the list below.

I’d love to hear about your lessons learned and missed opportunities from your Curse of Strahd campaigns! Cast scrying in the comments section and hope Strahd doesn’t intercept your comment.

Lessons one and two are the most important to me, so don’t lose interest before you read those!

Lesson #13: Minimize Player Character Backstory Incorporation

This Curse of Strahd DM tip is usually the opposite of what I’d advise DMs to do. Curse of Strahd is different than an average campaign. I found that players were far more interested in Barovia than their characters’ backstories. Details about their Vistani dad found dead in Castle Ravenloft’s dungeon? Nobody cared. A date with Blinsky? Everyone loves it.

In my second campaign, I tried harder than in my first campaign to use character backstories. The backstory incorporation backfired on me pretty hard. Early in the campaign, players told me they felt the call to adventure wasn’t strong. I attempted to correct the problem by retroactively helping them flesh out their backstories to sprinkle elements into the campaign that would be relevant to them individually.

The lamest, most forced moments in the campaign came from me trying to include character backstories in the events of Curse of Strahd. That didn’t work well. To be fair, I asked players about this later, and they didn’t think it was a big deal.

If I could do it again, I’d use themes from character backstories and explore those themes in Barovia. I wouldn’t make backstories actively part of the campaign, meaning I wouldn’t include actual people or stories that tie into backstories. Instead, for example, a character who didn’t get along with their parents may experience Strahd behaving like an abusive father toward them. Being estranged or banished from a community or village could be relevant as they consider their place in a town like Vallaki.

Let me know if you want me to explain this point more. I’d be happy to talk to you about it in the comments (or any subject from this article).

Lesson #12: Don’t Homebrew Excessively (Read the Book)

I spent too much time reading homebrew ideas on the internet instead of studying the book. There are many small details that can stick out as must-haves for you if you read the book. Review chapters you’re running soon as part of your DM prep. Do not sink time into mods, battle maps, or custom encounters. I believe this module gives you breathing room to develop it as you wish. Learn the skeleton of the story so you can add whatever meat you want.

Don’t mistake this advice as a call to not homebrew at all; I’m not saying that. I’m saying DMs have a tendency to overdo the homebrew without reading the book, and I believe that’s a mistake with this specific module. Other modules warrant heavy modifications, like Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Curse of Strahd can stand on its own if you know it well enough.

If you’re wondering how much you should commit time to read the book, I highly recommend you put in the time. I slowly read the book over the course of several months before I started setting up the game, and it was critical to my success as a DM. That’s my advice!

By the way, I highly recommend listening to Curse of Strahd: Twice Bitten. It’s a streamed game and podcast of a Curse of Strahd playthrough that goes fully rules/module as written and is roleplay heavy. It’s DMd by the famed DragnaCarta, who also writes for Flutes Loot!

Lesson #11: Use a Sanity, Madness, or Stress System

Creating a mechanic for fear (not the Frightened condition) would’ve been amazing for my game. A sanity/madness system makes roleplaying as risky as combat without making hitpoints the threatened resource. Barovia assaults and jeopardizes mind, body, and spirit. I’ll explain my reasoning as to why this kind of system is worth developing for your Curse of Strahd campaign.

Random encounters stop being interesting after level six in Barovia (maybe sooner). Combat often feels wasted if you use the random encounters from the book for fighting at this point. However, random encounters are perfect for scaring characters and making travel seem risky. They may not lose hitpoints on the road, but they may lose their minds. That’s a threat that players will take seriously, I guarantee it.

An example of a random combat encounter that I did change not to include combat after level six was when the party came across a Yester Hill druid in the woods. They found her eating a deer carcass raw and laughing to herself. When she noticed the player characters, she turned to them with blood soaking her face and chest, bones in her hands, and she smiled a bloody, toothy grin. Two dire wolves darted into the area and mangled her as she began to shriek at them in Druidic. As they began to eat her, she kept yelling and smiling at the player characters to mock them. The encounter unsettled the players.

While I enjoyed these unsettling encounters, giving players something mechanical to experience would’ve been fun. A sanity or madness system would’ve been perfect. I contemplated using a system for fear and sanity when I began the campaign, but I felt I didn’t have time and it wouldn’t be attractive to the players. Though I regret that decision, I’m unsure if my players would’ve had more fun with sanity or stress rules.

I recommend talking about sanity and stress systems in your session zero to see if your players would enjoy it. Your sanity or stress system should lend to roleplaying when their characters are frightened or stressed.

Suggested Sanity/Madness Systems

You can read about the optional Sanity Score in the DMG on page 265. Also, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft (p.195) has rules for fear and stress that are also worth reading. I personally prefer the Stress rules in VRGtR over the DMG’s system, but you might find other systems online that are worth using.

Using rules like these should enhance roleplaying by giving mechanical penalties without being too cumbersome to you and your players. Shop around to find a system that works for you.

Lesson #10: Give Vampire Spawns Personalities and Attitudes

Pyram King gave advice about this and is really good at it. He recommends giving light personas to each vampire spawn you use in your game. They’re former adventurers who know each other and have personalities. They exist now as grotesque undead, but they remain companions. They become enraged when their companions die. Killing one of these vampires will cause the others to stop and acknowledge what happened, then attack anyone responsible with complete ferocity.

A vampire spawn group may also choose to retreat and plan revenge, which could be far more dangerous for the player characters. Vampire spawn characters may have willingly allowed Strahd to turn them into vampires because they feared death while their souls couldn’t move on from Barovia. They’ll still fear death for that reason. Treat them as the people they used to be by remembering why and how they became vampires!

Lesson #9: Accentuate Barovia as a Soul Trap

Carrying on from what I mentioned in tip #10, I recommend making it clear early in the campaign that dying in Barovia is a terrible fate. Elves and Kobolds are particularly concerned because of their lineages. Their races experience reincarnation, so fear soul traps like Barovia. Other races would also fear losing whatever reward they may have had in the afterlife.

Dying in Barovia is a terrible, tragic fate. Make this clear, so they feel the weight of being there. This will enhance roleplaying and encourage players to seek ways out of Barovia. They may be more inclined to bargain with Strahd or believe Luvash’s potions can allow them to leave. Player characters may be tempted to become werewolves so they can occasionally leave Barovia (see my guide on Barovia’s werewolves for more on that).

Lesson #8: Hint at Strahd’s Return by Using the Gulthias Tree

This Curse of Strahd DM tip is less important if you’re running the module as written. The campaign book does not describe a “happy” or “best” ending for your players where they can defeat Strahd forever; he always returns. If you want the players to remove Strahd from Barovia and send him to hell, you’ll need to tell them how to do that. The Gulthias Tree is a great place to start the hinting.

You can be heavy-handed with this method more than Death House. The Gulthias Tree’s roots are the perfect allegory for how Strahd’s destruction won’t last forever because his evil is rooted in the Dark Powers. You can narrate the foreshadowing explicitly, or you could allow an Insight check for players to realize Strahd can’t be destroyed like a normal vampire. If Rictavio or Ezmerelda is in the party, they could be the ones to deliver the concept (this is supported in the book by Ezmerelda in the epilogue sticking around because she fears Strahd wasn’t destroyed forever).

Lesson #7: Remove the Road to Yester Hill

Yester Hill is meant to be a location that is only visited by Strahd on his flying Beucephalus Nightmare and the uncivilized druidic people who live there. A road to the location doesn’t make sense. It feels odd that the enemies of the winery would also be neighbors down the road. Getting to Yester Hill should be a wilderness exercise that forces players to deal with threats in the woods as the DM gate keeps the hill itself. I found that TPKs were highly possible if players chose to go to Yester Hill at low levels, with little information about it, and low Passive Perceptions to spot the enemies laying in shallow, grassy graves.

Make travel to Yester Hill an encounter that is different from the rest of the travel experiences in Barovia. Allow players to get turned around as the mists play tricks on them, hinting at the looming wall of mist that is present over Yester Hill. Make the plant life itself dangerous as players get shredded by brambles, stung with stinging nettle, and stuck in thick mud. Making these changes will be thematically appropriate to Yester Hill, producing an improved player experience with the barbaric people of the massive mound.

Lesson #6: Give Anonymous Notes and Letters

Players will always suspect Strahd is giving them false information. I’ve heard many people say that Strahd should tell the party that there is a traitor among them. Yeah, right; good luck convincing players of that. They have meta-knowledge on their sides. This might be good advice in fringe campaigns where players genuinely suspect one another, but most players will not trust the guy on the cover of the book.

To make players trust and act on misinformation, they need to wonder if the information is reliable! I recommend having players receive notes and letters from anonymous sources frequently. If some information from these letters is trustworthy, they’ll consider and weigh intel they anonymously receive in other instances.

Friendly NPCs who want to protect themselves may slip information to the players, but enemies with common interests may do the same. Strahd and his servants will do the same to get the players to act in ways that Strahd would find amusing. Brides of Strahd may give players information that will lead to an ambush or deadly situation because the brides want Ireena to die while traveling with the players (as long as the brides can’t be blamed).

You can have heaps of fun with letters in this way. Not only that, but you can play up the value of recognizing handwriting. After all, handwriting is an essential detail in the campaign for identifying Vasili as a Strahd alias.

Lesson #5: Set up Strahd’s Spies to Interact with the Party

I hardly ever made Strahd’s spies apparent. The campaign would probably be more fun if players could observe and catch servants of Strahd. Wolves and bats could be normal animals, spies, or Strahd himself. I’d like to get the players into a sense of security, maybe assuming they can shoot bats that are observing them, only to find out one day that a perched bat is Strahd himself. I appreciate how DragnaCarta, DM of the CoS Twice Bitten campaign, allowed Strahd to charm a player character while he watched them in his bat form.

My best use of the spies was actually to make players wonder if ravens were enemies or friends. Ravens clearly were watching the party on several occasions before revealing who they were, so it was enjoyable to observe players wondering about the birds.

Human spies shouldn’t be left out. Players are often accustomed to enemies attacking, so it can switch things up when a player spots a mysterious, non-hostile observer hidden in the woods. Instead of rolling for Initiative, the player must decide what to do about the situation.

Lesson #4: Baba Lysaga’s Tree of Hanging Heads

I haven’t seen it in any 5e material, but there was once a Ravenloft monster called a Death’s Head Tree. I would homebrew this monstrous plant to be Baba Lysaga’s hut, and I’d change its nature to be that of a tree that knocks off humanoids’ heads and then hangs them in its branches. It can supernaturally cause the heads to cry out as if they’re in need of help. The hut’s stats wouldn’t change, but it would be far more frightening.

If you’re a fan of Baba Lysaga’s illusion magic, you make the illusory people of Berez be the people whose heads now hand in the tree. The party would see the people happy in the village of Berez while the illusion is up, but then see those people’s heads in the tree when the true nature of the ruins is revealed. I believe this is a terrifying, necessary upgrade to the Berez encounter with Baba Lysaga and her creeping hut.

Lesson #3: Activate Vistani Curses

I watched The Lighthouse and loved Willem Dafoe’s monologue where he invokes a curse on his companion played by Robert Pattinson. A spoken curse like that makes me want to do the same with the Vistani’s cursing abilities. Those curses were never invoked in my campaigns because I never felt like the Vistani were wronged enough to invoke their curses, or the risk was too high since the curses could harm them when the subjects of their curses overcame the hexes.

Try using the Vistani curses and making people more superstitious. Don’t treat the Vistani curses as tactical options for them; invoking a curse should be an emotional choice, not a cerebral, calculated decision.

The mysticism surrounding the Vistani is highlighted by these curses. I don’t advocate that they be overused and worn out. Use them just enough and early enough to make the players understand the Vistani are different. This will help players perceive the schisms between Barovians and Vistani.

As a side note, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft has rules for curses that are worth reviewing if you want to use curses!

Lesson #2: Use Strahd’s Charm Ability Liberally

I understand now that Strahd’s greatest ability is his Charm ability in his statblock. It can be used on the same creature over and over again until it successfully charms them. This differs from most effects that allow a creature to become immune to the effect for one day after passing a saving throw. If Strahd is not in combat with the players, any of them that can see him could be forced to resist his charm during a conversation, a casual passing, or over dinner!

Speaking of dinner, here’s how I’ll run dinner with Strahd next time: he’ll charm them all while they’re eating as a captive audience, and then they’ll spend the evening talking as friends. I’ll tell each player to roll against charm until they fail (unless they possess immunity or are non-humanoid races), and then I’ll instruct the players to roleplay the evening as if Strahd is a trusted friend who can get them out of Barovia. He’d also allow the players to go on quests in the castle during their evening together. If it suits your style, Strahd could accompany the players as allies for an errand he requests of them, or they could all go on a bender together.

Strahd should also use his Charm off-screen on NPCs. He can convince them to give him information with ease. Lord Strahd can also Incriminate NPCs by asking them to spy on the players, knowing that the player characters will catch them and question them. This can force players to question their alliances and doubt their ability to trust anyone.

Lesson #1: Encourage Exploration of Castle Ravenloft

In the three campaigns I ran, each adventuring party treated a trip to Ravenloft as an endgame trigger. They believed they should only go to Castle Ravenloft to fight Strahd and end the campaign. The exception to this was the dinner, but they were on edge about dining at the castle when they felt weak. When I run this campaign again, I will 100% make it clear to the players that it’s not a death sentence or a campaign-ending move if they go to Castle Ravenloft.

Castle Ravenloft is a massive portion of the book, and it’s packed with interesting NPCs, compelling lore, memorable locations, and tempting magic items. The players should have a chance to navigate it when they’re not seeking to kill Strahd during the visit. I beg you as DMs to give your players reasons to visit the castle and not fear that they’re ruining the campaign or asking for trouble. Sure, they should fear the place and its inhabitants, but it should be a place that should be visited. This is especially true if a Fortunes of Ravenloft item is in the castle.

The endgame battle should be more than a fight with Strahd; it should be a fight with Strahd and his castle itself. Like many horror movies about haunted mansions and castles, the castle should show how horrible it is in the final act. Mundane locations become terrifying and animated when the haunt reaches its apex for a final confrontation. Contrasting the castle in the final battle with the fairly benign state it was in previously would be satisfying and memorable. So do it! I know I will.

Naturally, you’ll want to make sure you actually read chapter four to learn all about Castle Ravenloft. I recommend doing whatever it takes to make sure you understand the layout of the castle and how players can move through it on foot, by flight, or otherwise. Draw lines on the map that comes with the book if you have to so you can visualize all the routes. Note your favorite locations on the map, too. You can’t give yourself too many notes with this castle, so don’t hold back.

By the way, here are the maps I used for Castle Ravenloft when I ran Curse of Strahd online with Roll20.

What Do You Think of My Curse of Strahd DM Tips?

Those are my lessons learned from my missed opportunities! Which of my lessons stuck out to you?

Do you have your own lessons learned that you’d like to share? Cast Message in the comments section below to tell me about your wins and regrets. We can all learn from one another!

Have a great adventure this weekend, and check out more Ravenloft and Curse of Strahd content here on Flutes Loot before you go wandering into the mists. Take the poll below and take care!

10 thoughts on “<b>Top 13 Curse of Strahd DM Tips</b>: Lessons from 3 Campaigns”

  1. you mention several times a dinner with strahd, but in the book I can’t find any event describing this, apart from when they arrive at the castle and get to the dinning hall, but there is only an illusion of strahd that lasts for 3 rounds and then goes away. Did I miss something? Could you tell me more about this dinner.

    1. Of course! The book describes how Strahd will have a letter delivered to the player characters when they do something impressive. The letter invites them to dinner at the castle. I find that one of the most fun parts of the module is this dinner invitation. Deciding how Strahd will behave during the dinner and what the motive is behind the invitation is fun to explore as the DM.

  2. Hey I’m just wondering if you maybe got the page number wrong for lesson #11 because I combed through the entirety of van richtens guide to ravenloft and I couldn’t find what you were talking about

  3. My thoughts? This is great stuff! It is nice to hear from someone who has run this several times.
    Strahd’s charm was one of the most interesting. At first I loved it, and then the more I thought about it- the more intimidating it is. It feels like the front end of a TPK and the most diabolical twist ever.
    I hope to incorporate several of these.
    Thanks again!

  4. William Gleason

    Awesome article! Inexperienced DM here, and I have a couple questions! Firstly, I’m trying to follow your advice on including player themes more than player backstory. The trouble is I’m adding CoS to a preexisting homebrewed campaign world, and struggling to find a way to have my players care about Barovia, when the original module is naturally unrelated to the adventures they’ve had so far. How do I relate CoS to my preexisting campaign in a way that feels natural, without it hinging on the backstories of my players?
    Secondly, it seems like a lot of people homebrew that dinner with Strahd to enormous proportions beyond the illusion in the book. How do you suggest I go about making that dinner interesting at a base level? is it just a big “screw with the players” hour? what threads can make the dinner an important plot point with an outcome that matters?
    Thirdly, you say charm is Strahd’s most important ability. Besides the example you provided about dinner with Strahd, how should I make the most of Strahd’s charm ability without depriving my players of their agency (and thereby their fun)? Thank you! Lovely article!

    1. Hi William, I’ll see if I can give helpful suggestions.
      1) If you’re incorporating CoS into a greater campaign, it makes more sense to incorporate backstories. You can do this in the form of visions, NPCs that look like the player characters’ loved ones, Strahd potentially bringing those loved ones to Barovia, etc. Maybe there is something the players can acquire or learn in Barovia that will contribute to their main campaign goals and backstories. If anyone in the PC backstories has ever gone missing, maybe Strahd mentions that they are in his dungeon or something. You could also play up the “escape” goal in Barovia where players need to find a method of going through the mists. This would make the Vistani offer of a false potion that allows mist travel to appeal. In other words, you can make it less about destroying Strahd and more about escaping, but the players find that they ultimately need to destroy Strahd to escape.
      2) I think the dinner is one of the most fun scenes to plan for without needing grand homebrewing. It can be simple. To make its outcome matter, Strahd can extend one or several offers or deals to the players. Maybe if they find Van Richten, he offers to let them escape (and maybe he actually will allow it given the nature of your campaign). There can be other NPCs at the table that have an issue to resolve. Maybe you can speed things up by having Fiona Wachter and Baron Vallakovich at the table and Strahd asks the party to help decide who should rule Vallaki. Other than that, I think the players should be allowed to explore the castle before or after dinner, and the information and items they gather there can be important for the greater story.
      3) I recommend having NPCs charmed by Strahd once in a while. Maybe he turns their allies against them temporarily, making the party realize they can’t divulge too much information to allies who could become charmed, thus giving up all information. I recommend showcasing the charm’s mechanics to the player characters by having them experience it at least once in the campaign, but the charm can otherwise be experienced through NPCs as they are charmed.

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