One of the bigger problems with Princes of the Apocalypse is that it has an adventure structure that allows the players to very quickly end up in areas that are far too dangerous for them. However, the story is pushing them towards those areas. What’s the quest? Rescue the prisoners. Where are the prisoners? In a dungeon designed for level 12 adventurers. What level are the adventurers? Level 5. Ah…
At any point when the adventurers need to gain levels to face the threats of the story, then something has gone wrong. XP and levels are a very gamist mechanism. They date from the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, where the players could set the difficulty of the adventure by choosing which level of the dungeon they wished to explore. (The deeper you went, the more difficult it became). If the players realized they’d gone too deep, they could run away and return to an easier level. (Knowing when to retreat was very important back then. It’s still important now, but not in the same manner).
If you have an adventure written in a linear style, then milestones work very well to avoid the XP grind. Both Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat are of this style: although each section of the adventure gives the players a lot of latitude in how it is dealt with, the overall structure is linear.
However, if you have an adventure in a sandbox setting, allowing the players to go where they wish, but also have a strong story (goals) for the adventurers, then problems can set in.
If you run Curse of Strahd without thinking through the issues, you can get this exchange: “We need to kill Strahd.” “What level are we?” “Ah… need to kill more dire wolves first!” Thankfully, Curse of Strahd has a stronger quest-based structure than Princes of the Apocalypse that allows the players to avoid thinking about the XP requirement.
This strongest form of this structure is found in the reading of the Tarokka deck. “How do we defeat Strahd?” “You need to find these items”. Having a series of quests gives the adventurers a clear motivation, and gets away from the “You must be this high to face Strahd” problem.
The “proper” play of Curse of Strahd goes like this:
- The adventurers are introduced to the Land and its problem.
- The adventurers are given the prophecy that gives them what they need to find to defeat Strahd.
- The adventurers find the allies and items they need based on the prophecy.
- The adventurers use the items to defeat Strahd.
The bulk of the play of Curse of Strahd is likely to occur in the third point above: as the adventurers search the Land for the way to defeat Strahd, as revealed in by the Tarokka deck.
Curse of Strahd also contains numerous NPCs who can give quests to the adventurers. This provides a parallel way of moving players through the adventure, of giving them reasons to investigate things before the final battle with Strahd. I suspect it’s the primary method most Dungeon Masters use to guide adventurers through the adventure. It’s less of a blunt instrument than the “You need items A, B & C” method, but it has problems if the adventurers decide they don’t need to do what the NPCs want. The quest-line of “you need these items” is a stronger motivating force for such adventurers.
The main issue with the Tarokka reading is this: the random locations can be too dangerous for the players or aren’t varied enough. For this reason, I suggest you predraw the cards before the adventure, then adjust them so the players are sent around the map to find the items. The original Castle Ravenloft adventure was for levels 5-7 and all the items were within the Castle (as was almost all of the adventure). The adventurers not being high-enough level? Didn’t come into it. With the expanded Curse of Strahd adventure, it’s best to have more reasons for the adventurers to explore more of the land.
The other issue with the reading is that the descriptions of where the items are can be too vague. The players need some clues of where to start searching for the Tarokka reading to positively influence their movements. In one of the Curse of Strahd campaigns I’ve run, the players never discovered one of the items because they didn’t realise it was referring to a location within the Abbey. Ah, that’s a problem! If this occurs, further explanation of the clue is needed – either from the seer, or from helpful NPCs the players visit.
There can be a time when an obscure reading is an advantage, however: when you want the adventurers to come to that location later; such as when it’s in Castle Ravenloft or the Amber Temple. That can then be presented to the players as a further quest. You seek the Amber Temple? First you must find the wise man, Van Richten. He can guide you there. How can you find Van Richten? Find his apprentice! Where’s the apprentice? And so on! You can use the steps of the quest to guide the adventurers to places of an appropriate level.
When do you introduce the Tarokka reading to the players? It doesn’t have to be immediately. You can allow it as a site-based encounter that they stumble into, such as in one of the Vistani camps when they explore it. However, if you’ve got a group that have done some of the initial quests and are now lost as to where to go next, you can use a character such as Ezmerelda. Have the NPC find them and do the prophecy. At that point, the adventurers have new goals and potentially an ally to point them in the right direction.
Curse of Strahd is a great adventure, but it does require a little work from the Dungeon Master to keep events occurring in the order they should, and to keep the players engaged.