I’ve been back playing D&D for just over a year and a half now and for pretty much all of that time I’ve been DMing rather than playing. I’ve been running a long term campaign since May 2016 which started with Lost Mine of Phandelver, continuing on through some (at times ropey) homebrew before settling into some Yawning Portal content (namely White Plume Mountain with a plan to segue into Dead in Thay afterwards).
The sandbox nature of the Phandalin portion of LMOP was pretty intimidating given I was basically a new DM (or at least a DM who hadn’t DM’d for 23 years). I got through it though, largely because LMOP’s sandbox element is still slightly railroady and the side quests aren’t particularly complex encounters.
Recently though, I decided to push myself and with a new group, decided to run the mother of all sandbox adventures that is Curse of Strahd. Even a year and a half into my DMing re-awakening, running Strahd is a terrifying prospect. Some of the locations are sizeable (Argynvostholt, Abbey of St Markovia, Vallaki) and often politically and narratively complex. All of this is compounded by the fact that I started Strahd without reading through the whole book. My life is busy. This has meant a certain amount of anticipating where the party might go next. No easy feat in an adventure where the hooks in any particular session could lead them anywhere.
The town of Vallaki is particularly complex. Locations which you can usually ‘wing’ such as the local inn, are large and detailed locations with their own battlemap and room by room descriptions. Most of these rooms are in some way pertinent to the story and can’t be ignored or moulded into a generic ‘inn experience’. There’s a real need to be prepared for every eventuality.
With that comes the flip side of that need to prepare in depth – the fact that (as happened to me) your players can choose to just breeze past carefully crafted encounters which shape the whole adventure (Madame Eva for instance), leaving you to figure out how to either guide the players back there or how to reintroduce those key plot elements in a different way.
Curse of Strahd is probably my favourite published adventure of all the adventures I’ve ever run in any system. It has depth beyond belief, a pulsating story line and a villain who knocks all other villains into irrelevance. It’s also a sign of my growing confidence as a DM that I would even attempt to run it. God knows, I sweated over it for about 9 months before even daring to attempt running it.
I think largely I’m up to the challenge. There are still a lot of places where the wheels could come off the bus but both myself and the group are having lots of fun. We had to end the last session half way through the battle in the Coffin Maker’s Shop and we’re all keen to get back to it tomorrow night.
I feel that if I can get a handle on running Strahd then I can get a handle on anything. Then the DM will not only have returned but returned in a blaze of glory. And mist. Don’t forget the mist.