When I was running Tyranny of Dragons the prep-work involved was fairly straight forward. I’d look ahead at the next chapter, read about the key events and locales, figure out where the NPC’s were and what was going on with the encounters and then I’d sprinkle a little bit of personalisation across it to bring my players in. Easy! But then, it was a fairly linear on-rails adventure without much room for players to deviate from the pre-written path. Curse of Strahd on the other hand is whole different beast entirely.
How do you prepare for a sandbox adventure? How do you know where your players are going to go and when? What bits of this book do I need to read before each session?! HELP!
First thing I did was probably the first piece of advice budding Dungeon Master’s find all over the internet – read the book. It sounds obvious and it is, but it’s also SO obvious that it’s one thing I can think can easily slip your mind. So what I did was I read the book. Cover to cover. Especially the first few chapters detailing Barovian lore and the people that live there. I wanted to make sure that if anything else, I got the tone and setting right because this isn’t your typical fantasy tale. I think I read this book in it’s entirety three times before even running our first game. I really wanted to do it justice.
So. Fantasy Horror. Check. Getting that tone right for this adventure is important. It’s oppressive, it’s dreary, there’s a constant feeling of hopelessness and abandonment. As if even the most mundane background prop is somehow threatening you. I wanted the guys to feel as if anything could happen at any time and the threat of being attacked was round every corner, in every room, behind every door. Because, in all fairness, that’s how this adventure is. Every step could be the characters’ last.
With the tone solidified in my mind I wanted to look into the main antagonist, the titular Strahd von Zarovich. Luckily for me this guy has been present in D&D lore for years and the articles and stories and adventures based around him are seemingly endless. I read through the old Ravenloft adventure book as well as the novel I, Strahd by P.N Elrod (which I thoroughly recommend!) and I watched a fair share of vampire films – Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Van Helsing and Dracula Untold to name a few.
Getting into Strahd’s abusive, calculating and yet tortured mind was a worthwhile process. You have to figure out how this guy ticks to portray him properly and I can’t recommend a better way to do that than the aforementioned novel. The fact that it’s written in the first person is a huge boon because you realise that no matter how evil and depraved the event, Strahd always views himself as the good guy. Knowing how he feels, how he acts and how he thinks is paramount to making him as threatening as possible.
So with the tone down and Strahd’s background and psyche researched and understood I needed to piece together the story and how the characters would fit into it. There are alot of moving parts in this adventure and being a sandbox there are alot of places the players can go that you aren’t going to be prepared for. I knew I was going to be running the Death House as an intro to the campaign so my first game was sorted in terms of preparation. After that, given that the players had the whole of Barovia before them I wasn’t so sure. Would they follow the plot hooks or would they want to explore?
I looked over the adventure and the map, I figured out the travelling times to and from destinations and how much content the players would be be able to visit in the first proper session. By this point I’d read the adventure so many times that even if I wasn’t sure on the names of NPC’s I at least knew the story of the campaign and how it progress to be adaptable and able to change things on the fly. So I was able to work out that the characters would only feasibly be able to reach three locations and I prepared as much as I could for those. I read up on what was there, who was there and what the story of that part of the world was and how it connected to the overarching plot.
We all have movies we’ve watched a hundred times. Characters we know as if they were real. What would have happened if Luke Skywalker was a girl, how would have Han reacted to him in the cantina? How would there relationship had been different? What if Frodo and Sam encountered another party of adventurers on their way to Mount Doom? What if they offered to help?
That was how I approached Curse of Strahd. I took the story and learnt as much about it as I could. I wanted it so familiar in my mind that a group of characters running around throwing spanners at things wasn’t something that was disruptive but rather something that I was able to adapt to and adjust the adventure to because I was familiar with it.
Right now the characters stand at a point where I think they have around a dozen plot hooks to follow. A few months ago I would have been terrified at the thought of them having this choice because I’d have to prepare for each of those outcomes but by knowing the story, knowing the land of Barovia and knowing Strahd as a character I feel ready for anything. Almost. Sort of.
In a strange way, preparing for and a running a sandbox adventure feels like less work than running a more linear campaign. When I was running Tyranny of Dragons I felt as if I was memorising lines for a play. I had to know what happened when and what the next person said and where they were stood because the entire campaign didn’t feel like it let the players make many meaningful decisions and those that they were able to make all lead to the same outcome.
With Curse of Strahd I felt like all I’ve had to do is absorb a story and then just recap over the areas they players are likely to visit before each session. I feel as if I have alot more freedom in terms of running it and I’m sure the guys feel as though they have a lot more freedom in choice too. It’s flipped my preconceived notion of a sandbox being harder on it’s head. Going forward I’d much prefer to run a campaign like this than one on rails. The creativity, the freedom, the ability to do what you like and change your mind – it’s pretty liberating.