We introduced a couple new players to D&D using Death House and with the great fun and success of that one-shot, we decided to move on to Curse of Strahd. It has provided a couple of significant challenges as a DM for me, which I have mentioned a couple times in passing. Today, I wanted to discuss it a little further, especially given last night's session. Never have I killed so many PCs in a session or a campaign. It may seem unlikely, but it is true, the other near TPK situations I have had were generally converted to capture situations. Needless to say, Strahd has been quite an experience so far.
It's Ready For You
The (obvious) thing about published adventures is that they are made for you. You don't have to do any of the normal prep work that goes with a home game. Instead, you have a good amount of reading ahead of you. It may sound odd, but this has not been the easiest way for me to run an adventure.
Preparation for this adventure includes reading more between sessions. Figuring out what the players have done and how their actions have rippled through that book. The problem, for me, is that it's not unlikely that the players have done something that commits drastic changes to the written story. Now, that much should be pretty obvious for most GMs. The players will always derail anything you run for them. As those changes pile up, though, it becomes a little difficult to prepare. The hardest part is when you are leading them down a (narrative) road and discover that the road was destroyed multiple sessions ago by their actions. It isn't the worst thing to happen, it is just a bit annoying because that discovery could come mid-session not during your planning between.
Look It Up Instead Of Make It Up
When running the published game I get as prepared as possible to know what is in that book and keep the most likely relevant information at the top of my thoughts. Of course this always goes to shit, so I also have been getting more familiar with where to find what for the inevitable, "let me look that up," moments. Now, you may be saying that I should just do things on the fly, make it up, and fix it later. For a number of things, I very much do that, but there is a line where I have to decide I don't know enough off the top of my head to make it up. If I did I would create a lot more work for myself later, and possibly create unknown narrative roadblocks elsewhere.
In Curse of Strahd, the thing I end up looking up most is individuals' statuses. Are they allies or enemies of Strahd? Who are they friendly with? I NEED to make sure I get those right when the players ask those questions. The whole story is written around those relationships. Now, my players don't mind me double checking, but I find myself most comfortable in a home brew world where I KNOW those relationships. And the ones I don't know, well that is when I make the decision myself.
The Death Of A Party....Or Two
Curse of Strahd was taken as a difficult, high risk adventure. I knew that, my players knew that. Two of them died in Death House. Death hasn't been a problem for the group or the game, but it has happened. Up until last night, however, the two newbies (through sheer luck) had survived since their arrival to Death House. They provided a narrative backbone for story progression and knowing what was going on and why. At least enough to say, "hey new guy who isn't from here I have some bad news...."
The deaths alone aren't bad. They were all made in doing something good. Death House is cleansed. Ireena and her brother have escaped the Village of Barovia. The Wizards Of Wines vineyard is beat up, but saved and one gem returned. Those who aren't ghosts of Barovia will likely be back, some as vampires. The player's know this and I think it will be a fun session when they have to fight their former selves. It's the line we have gotten to now, with no original party member left, that creates a problem.
But everyone died yesterday. Two at the hands of a vampire nest. One after really bad-mouthing Strahd from the stocks and failing a Wisdom save. The last was hung for murder (a story in its own right). That last one was brought back from the dead, but he was new to the party and only knows what is happening second hand. Now new travelers have come to Barovia, and the party is together as outsiders who know that the only way home will be to defeat Strahd. They even had new cards read and that reading has aided the campaign track nicely.
But what happens if there is a TPK, or close enough to one? If it is too soon, that might be the end of Curse of Strahd. I don't think the players would even find it enjoyable to so quickly make a whole new party and go through introductions, get new card readings, and discover how many may have fallen before them. Maybe at a later date when the horrors of Barovia are a memory. If there is quite a bit of story before any deaths, then the likelihood of deaths lessens and the players get stronger. It will be easier to resurrect or replace one of them, and continue. That problem, though, the problem of too many deaths too soon; it lurks right around the corner.
Running a published game has been quite the learning curve, especially given the added burden of character deaths by the wagon-load. It has been a fun one, however. While I may be more comfortable in my own worlds, I don't dislike the published adventures. In many ways I spend less time preparing, though that may be my many years of student experience. I know how to take notes and look things up. Creating my own things may be easier, but it is certainly time consuming. I get better as the sessions go on, and the start of the next one will prove to be smoother (from my point of view at least). And my home brew games, I can apply what I learn in this form of GMing to those too. There is always something to be learned, and I look forward to learning.
Oh, and if there is a TPK soon, or even if Strahd is eventually defeated, we will have to move onto In Strange Aeons, because why go for a less horrific adventure the second go?