When I was preparing to run the playtests of my rune magic homebrew, I knew I wanted to run a more social focused session alongside the two other sessions. This meant I would have to figure out how to make social encounters both fit into and fill out a (more or less) 4-hour session.
Some character builds are more complex than others, whether you’re multiclassing, spellcasting, or just playing a class you haven’t touched before. Every feature of your character has specific wording that tells you what situations to use it, how to use it, and what its effects are. As your character grows, they’ll pick up more features that either changes one of their existing abilities or adds an entirely new one.
And you know what?
It’s impossible to remember it all.
“Under raging storm clouds, a lone figure stands silhouetted against the ancient walls of Castle Ravenloft. The vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich stares down a sheer cliff at the village below. A cold, bitter wind spins dead leaves about him, billowing his cape in the darkness.
Lightning splits the clouds overhead, casting stark white light across him. Strahd turns to the sky, revealing the angular muscles of his face and hands. He has a look of power — and of madness. His once handsome face is contorted by a tragedy darker than the night itself.
Rumbling thunder pounds the castle spires. The wind’s howling increases as Strahd turns his gaze back to the village. Far below, yet not beyond his ken, a party of adventurers has just entered his domain. Strahd’s face forms a twisted smile as his dark plan unfolds. He knew they were coming, and he knows why they have come — all according to his plan. He, the master of Ravenloft, will attend to them.
Another lightning flash rips through the darkness, its thunder echoing through the castle’s towers. But Strahd is gone. Only the howling of the wind — or perhaps a lone wolf — fills the midnight air. The master of Ravenloft is having guests for dinner. And you are invited.” –Curse of Strahd, Chapter 1, “Introduction”
So begins Wizard of the Coast’s Ravenloft adventure. Curse of Strahd is a favorite of mine and others for many of reasons. One of them, I think, is the book’s dedication to maintaining a dark, gothic atmosphere.
By “atmosphere,” I’m referring to what English classes call “mood.” It’s how authors establish a certain feeling and aesthetic in their stories. As You Like It, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar cultivate different atmospheres, even though Shakespeare wrote all of them. Audiences of shows like One Tree Hill experience feelings different from watching The Office.
And you can use this tool in your campaigns, too! I’m going to go a bit English-major to talk about it, so let’s throw some definitions in here.
As a DM, I’ve created custom (homebrew) magic items and spell-like effects. I’ve also worked with my husband to tinker with the psionic class last year. But right now, I’m working on a slightly larger homebrew project on my own!
No matter how detailed or well-thought out your concept for a character is, that concept isn’t going to survive the trip from your brain to your mouth to your gaming group’s ears unchanged. As much as I’d like to just pull my ideas straight from my head, Athena-style, and throw them into play, that’s just not how things work around here.
Hey, I finally got to start a Curse of Strahd campaign! I’ve been wanting to run one ever since I picked up the adventure a couple years back. I’m excited that enough of my friends were interested in playing to actually get a party together, and I’m hopeful that this will be a fun campaign for everyone (I’m also nervous, but that’s normal—I just need to put that nervous energy into making the experience great for my players).
What’s Curse of Strahd, then?
This is a book published by Wizards of the Coast that contains an adventure module based on the original I6 Ravenloft adventure. Adventurers must contend with one of D&D’s most iconic villains, the vampire Strahd von Zarovich, as they seek a way out of the misty lands of Barovia.
The adventurers have a lot of freedom to run around and explore this gothic land, and there are many secrets to uncover.
Speaking of adventurers…
A one-shot is an adventure that starts and ends in one session. We use one-shot adventures when some players are free but for some reason we can’t do a session in the long-running campaign. I’ve run a handful of one-shot adventures and played in several, and they’re a great way for people to try out characters and concepts they might not necessarily try for a longer campaign.
Here, I’ll talk about the set-up and prep for a one-shot, as well as tips to keep in mind while actually running a one-shot.
Don’t split the party: an oft-repeated maxim in D&D groups. Whether as a guideline or hard rule, the sentence gets thrown around frequently when it comes to tabletop advice! And not without good reason, I think. There are a lot of perfectly good reasons to keep the party together, either as a DM or as a player.
When the party is split, depending on your situation, the individual members can find themselves at a disadvantage.
In combat, front-line fighters need the support of back-line combatants, and vice-versa. Challenge Ratings (CR) of monsters assumes a party of around four PCs, and fewer characters means fewer hits. Your support characters can’t heal or buff other characters when those characters are missing, and there’s more pressure to deal damage when you’re one of two instead of one of five.
This extends outside combat, as well. Dungeons & Dragons assumes that you’re working with a group of diverse individuals, each possessing certain abilities and filling a certain “niche,” so to speak. And I’m not just talking about parties that have a traditional composition, either! Each player character has their own backstory that gives them a unique connection to the campaign world.
Even broader than that, each class and subclass give a character abilities unlike any other character in the party. The pact of the fiend warlock interacts with the world differently from the evocation wizard or the battlemaster fighter. They have different tools in their toolboxes– spells, proficiencies, equipment, even.
I prefer keeping the party together. But, sometimes stuff happens, and it makes more sense in-fiction for the party to split off from each other for a while.
Session notes help you remember, well, what happened last time! Even a week between sessions can blur some of the details, longer breaks even more so. Notes are a great memory tool– they help improve your roleplay, and your DM will appreciate it, too!
I’ve been taking notes since I started playing, and over time I’ve found a process that works well for me. Taking good notes helps me remember what’s going on over a long campaign and keep track of stuff like NPC and organization names!
So, I’m going to share my way of recording session happenings. I have a few ways that I’ve found helpful for different aspects of the game:
- Taking notes during a session
- Typing up recaps after a session
- Keeping a campaign timeline
- Writing an in-character journal