One of the major things that you’ll often need as a DM is a non-player character who can drive the plot and give information to the adventurers that they can’t otherwise obtain or, more frequently, have missed. In this game of Curse of Strahd, that character was Ezmerelda. Once a Vistani, now a monster-slayer, she’s got a great backstory, interesting personality, and – most importantly – wants to get things done.
There are several characters in Curse of Strahd who can fulfil this role. Indeed, I could have used either Ireena or Davian Martikov as such. However, it is Ezmerelda who really grabbed my attention. You should trust your instincts; trying to force Davian into that role when I wasn’t that interested in role-playing him would be a mistake. He’s an excellent character in the right hands. For this adventure, they weren’t mine!
The adventurers were immediately charmed by Ezmerelda, and – having finished their exploration of Argynvoltholt (at least for now), were accompanied by her, first to her wagon, then on expeditions to the Amber Temple and Castle Ravenloft… She didn’t take away their agency, but was ‘merely’ there as a source of useful information on where the group might want to go next. So, when the group found Castle Ravenloft just too difficult for them, a quick trip to the Amber Temple was a source of some important information and valuable XP. How did they find out about the Amber Temple? She told them about it, suggesting that it might provide some clues as to how to defeat Strahd.
Ezmerelda’s wagon, of course, can be the source of many items the characters find they need. It’s also useful for moments of comedy. (“I wouldn’t go in there without me.” “Why?” “Well, if you enjoy melting, I guess…”) My group didn’t interact with it overmuch – they basically visited it, explored the tower it was parked beside, then left. But, if needed, it can be used.
Ezmerelda also has a fascinating relationship with an old circus performer. I didn’t play this up. There’s a lot in Curse of Strahd to provide fantastic character moments, but, for the most part, you shouldn’t use them too much. Now, if you can get the characters really involved with Ezmerelda (perhaps as a love interest), then her story can be brought to the fore, especially as she confronts her one-time mentor about his abandonment. However, if you’re not careful, it can bring the ongoing story to a complete stop. The story isn’t about the NPCs interacting with each other, it’s about the players interacting with the NPCs. So, use backstory with care.
The immediate benefit of introducing Ezmerelda was that I could finally run the Tarokka card reading, and let the players know what they needed to defeat Strahd. This was actually quite late in the adventure, normally I would prefer to run the reading long before this, but this was how the adventure played. The reading indicated that Davian was the ally they needed against Strahd, Strahd would be found in his tomb, two of the Items of Power were in the castle, and they never, ever worked out where the final object was. (It was in the monastery).
This was not new information for me. I’d drawn the cards when we began the adventure proper. When we did the reading, I just stacked the deck with the cards I’d drawn previously. (And using the Gale Force 9 Tarokka deck). While it might be fun to find out as the DM halfway through the adventure, having the PCs discover that an item has mysteriously appeared where it wasn’t before can be a bit disconcerting…
As we proceeded through the adventure, the players had a lot of trouble with the clues. What did they mean? Eventually, I had Ezmerelda confirm that, yes, those two items were in the castle (and the third wasn’t that important). It would take almost the entire adventure before the players found the items – they explored every area of the Castle except the ones the items were in!
For now, the group had found a “safe” place for the citizens of Krezk to stay, and were now going to talk to a dressmaker about a wedding dress – catching up on the Abbot’s quest!