- Nik Vinter
Player Options, Initial Prep, Hooks and More
So, you just bought Curse Of Strahd and you want to jump straight into action? Well, you're almost there. First we need to make some busywork so your adventure goes as smooth as it can. Don't worry, it won't take long!
One big thing to consider is how much your players will be invested in the story. CoS is a big sandbox adventure and in some points if you're players don't have a motif they'll be left wandering in the lands of Barovia without a goal. As a DM you, of course, want to avoid it.
A good option often suggested is to make one of the players take the role of Ireena Kolyana which is basically the damsel in distress of the adventure. She is mostly considered to be a drag for the party and making her a PC is a good way of solving this problem. If you want to use this approach be sure to read her whole backstory and plot-line! Briefly Strahd wants to marry her and she has to escape first to Vallaki and then to Krezk with the help of the party. Be wary that by doing so you'll probably make one of your players more important than the others!
Another cool idea is to make one character tied to Barovia somehow. Maybe he was born here, or maybe he is a paladin whose goal is to defeat Strahd. Maybe his patron is one of the Dark Powers! (More on them later) Who knows? You have unlimited possibilities, be sure to use them. Let the players make the story, don't let them just play it.
Before you start you want to have some stuff ready. First of all read the Introduction and the First Chapter of the book. There you will learn a bit about the backstory of the land and about something called the Tarot Cards, we'll talk about them in a bit. In the introduction you'll also find some good ideas on how to convey horror to your players, this is supposed to be a scary adventure after all!
You don't need to remember everything but you want to get the general feel of the adventure. What is Barovia? What kind of person is Strahd? Etc.
You'll also need to choose a story hook. I suggest Plea For Help since it's one of the most interesting ones in my opinion. Arrigal is your typical sly and mysterious guy with a slavic accent. The letter also helps to subvert the expectations of the players later on and you can easily use it to bring multiple characters together.
On the following day after receiving the letter everyone of you decided to check the meeting place mentioned in the envelope ready to find an army of people waiting to reclaim the treasures of Barovia. To your great surprise you discover just a handful of people looking all surprised as you do.
The players don't have to be all in a tavern if you don't like starting your game in a "mainstream" way, and also there's a physical prop if you play in person. Those are always cool!
It's not explained that well in the book (at least in my opinion) but that's how you do it: you do it before starting the adventure by yourself and write down the readings, and then once the players reach Madame Eva at the Tser Pool encampment you redo the reading with the same outcome.
In my opion random results, while being cool and interesting, are always inferior than something finely crafted. That's why my suggestion is to choose the results instead of randomly drawing them, especially since you'll have to do a fake reading for your players anyways.
I don't have a list of best options but I can give you a couple of suggestions. Mordekainen is a really interesting ally, given his backstory and relevance. Ezmerelda is really powerful (but a bit lacking lore-wise). Ireena could be an interesting choice as well, especially since most of the players will be already invested in her (be ready to buff her up a bit though). As for the items for defeating Strahd try placing them in significant spots for your party. There are lots of locations in Barovia and some of them won't be really relevant to your players. Making them go there just because of some profecy isn't that great.
Player Death and Dark Powers
I'm one of those DMs that don't like randomly killing players. Even if they deserved it, even if they did something really stupid. Their actions should have consequences, but none of them should be death. And Barovia is a grim and unforgiving place. If you play it as written then many characters will perish. That's when the Dark Powers come into play. They are the true enemy of this campaign and they control Strahd and the land itself. They don't come into play until late in the game (Amber Temple) but I think it's a missed opportunity.
Vampyr is the one that has chosen Strahd as his champion so it should have very big interest in the party. But generically speaking every Dark Power will have eyes on every evil (or even powerful) character in the group. If one of your players dies take this opportunity and introduce the beings to your party. Show the dead player an illusion and let them choose if to take the weird offering. If they do they come back with a Dark Gift as well as a new flaw (those are listed in the Amber Temple section of the book). Now not only you prevented a character's death but you also created a memorable moment!
It's a bit early for this but you should start thinking about it, how do you want your adventure to end? This post has some really great ideas. I really like the idea of having three endings.
- Bad ending: One of the players learns about the Dark Gifts and decides that he wants to replace Strahd. In the book is written that Strahd would never allow such a thing but it's really a wasted opportunity. Let your party learn about Vampyr during the campaign and give someone the chance to accept his Gift. Now the goal of that player becomes to defeat Strahd and take his place
- Neutral enging: This is the ending present in the book. The players defeat Strahd, free some people from Barovia and escape themselves, just to find out that he came back. Welp, I guess it's time to come back for him!
- Good enging: The true ending. Instead of accepting Vampyr's gift they destroy his vestige thus freeing him into the world. The players are transported into a new demiplane and you can go all crazy with that. Remember that he should be almost as powerful as a god (~CR25) so you'll need to buff the party somehow (and get ready for an epic fight).
Now that you fleshed out all of these details you're ready to do a Session Zero with your players and create your characters. Just be sure not to tell them too much about the world so they can discover it by themselves! One of the best parts of the adventure is crossing the gates and realizing there's no way back.