Campaign Prep: The First Session

Last time I went over my pre-session 0 prep list which included giving the players an overview of the campaign and ensuring that everyone was cool with any uncomfortable subjects that may be brought up throughout the game.

I’ve known everyone I’m playing with for over 8 years now. Going into it I knew that this adventure wouldn’t be an issue. However, it never hurts to confirm.

I was admittedly surprised that everyone was all in on me giving them the full Strahd treatment. I’m generally averse to enticing the party to betray each other, but they were very eager to see how these inter-party conflicts may play out. They planned their backstory in a way that breeds initial distrust.

It was a great session 0 which made my job going forward much easier, and more importantly, more fun. I can’t think of a time when I was this excited to run a game, and nervous to get it right.

So let’s talk about what I’ve been doing between session 0 and before the first session this Tuesday!

Castle ravenloft in the distance. An enormous castle with a long stone bridge. A raven sits perched in the foreground.
Assaulting the castle is (hopefully) a way’s off. Although it will always be looming over them until the time is right… Credit: WotC.

Character Creation

Session 0 is not just bookkeeping. It’s also the time for the group to get together and form a party. While it’s possible to run a game without a balanced party composition, I did forewarn them that I don’t intend to change the structure of the game to suit them.

For example, if they chose to play without a trap disarmer I’m not making traps easier to detect/disarm. That was their choice.

However, as experienced players, they formed a team that covers all of the bases without sacrificing anyone’s desires. Here’s what they’ve come up with:

  • ? Artificer
  • Path of the Storm Herald Barbarian
  • College of Lore Bard
  • Grave Domain Cleric
  • Circle of Spores Druid
  • Eldritch Knight Fighter

I’m itching to see how the artificer plays out since none of us have seen one in action yet. Regardless, we stuck to our goal of keeping all the characters “vanilla” or, non-homebrew.

We went about an hour over the expected time just catching up and doing character creation which was a good time. Interestingly enough the only overlap with the party from the last campaign was the cleric. Every other class is unique.

A Conjointed Backstory

My number 1 rule for the players in any long-term campaign is that the party needs a reason to work together. This doesn’t mean that they need to be best friends, but they need some reason that keeps all of these strangers bound together.

The group decided to have a shared backstory. While this isn’t a requirement, they thought it’d be a fun idea to play out.

Barovia is a strange land. That’s downplaying it. Barovia is on its own, private plane of existence, and strangers who enter it do not do so naturally. In the party’s case, they came here as a result of a failed ritual by a strange cult they were all captured by.

One of the members is a member of the cult which sews some seeds of distrust throughout their ranks. However, to survive and escape this strange land, they’ll need to work together despite their differences.

Confirming Character Sheets

My only expectation for the players before session 1 was that they have a completed character sheet. This means all of their class features, stats, spells, etc. are all filled out and ready to go. If they don’t have this done by session 1, they don’t play.

This wasn’t an issue and everyone has been good to go for almost a week now. However, I feel this is a fair expectation for any group. Game night should be playing time, not” 5 people wait for 1 person to make their character sheet” time. It’s just common courtesy.

After they finished I took a look through their sheets and ensured that everyone checked out. I trust them anyway, but point buy was a new character creation method for some of the group so I wanted to review everything just in case.

picture of strahd as a human in dark-colored robes with a breastplate holding a glass of red wine
M E N A C I N G. Credit WotC.

Weaving in the Characters

My games tend to be combat-heavy. I mean, it’s D&D so if it weren’t we’d be playing something else. However, the last campaign was a bit too combat-heavy, especially toward the end. We all wanted to focus more on role-playing and social interaction with this one to try something new.

Including the player’s ideas in the story has always been something I’ve preached, but this time I wanted to make sure I was taking their backstories/backgrounds into account from the get-go.

I asked that people, should they wish to, include a short backstory and/or background information on their character. Keeping in mind that they’re level 1 characters so it shouldn’t be more than half a page at most.

Those that gave me stuff to work with or personality traits will give me more ideas for tying them into various parts of Curse of Strahd. I won’t spoil what I have planned so far, but the grave domain cleric and private eye/detective artificer have a plethora of story tie-ins already due to the info they’ve given me.

Of course, this isn’t set in stone. Some of my players prefer to give me a little at the beginning and discover their characters through play. As they do so I’ll be sure to throw them extra goodies along the way!

Session 1 Prep

Since we’re running the introductory adventure to CoS, Death House, I don’t have a ton of planning to do before it.

Instead, I’ll skim through and re-read the adventure before the session to ensure I have all my ducks in a row. I’ve already read it, and most of the book already so I just need a quick refresher. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of initial campaign prep makes pre-session prep a breeze!

Aside from that is just plotting more spots to squeeze-in additional character development moments, but I’ve got a solid 3-5 for almost everyone already.

OH and music! I’ve been slotting in quite a lot of music from Diablo 2 for gothic horror vibes, but I’m sure I’ll throw in a few tracks from various Supergiant games (especially Hades and Pyre) as I usually do.

Going Forward

One of my initial concerns is that CoS is tuned for a party of 4, maybe 5. I want to keep the difficulty as intended so I’m sure that playing with a party of 6 will warrant some minor combat tweaks.

Death House is going to be my difficulty gauge. I’m going to keep it as-is for the first session, but I will retune it and other early combat encounters to up the difficulty if they breeze through it.

Thanks to Roll 20 throwing me a review copy of Curse of Strahd this will be easy. I’ll throw some extra creatures or maybe give Think DM’s trap system a spin to up the ante. Either way, it’s much less work than rebuilding encounters from scratch since all the encounters and dynamic lighting is prepped for me!

Conclusions

I’m excited. It’s been a while since I’ve been this excited to DM again. Partially because I think CoS is going to teach me a ton about role-playing, incorporating suspense, and general dungeon design.

My initial take in reading and studying CoS is that it’s the peak of 5e’s adventure writing. While more recent adventures have plenty of parts full of game design that push the boundaries of 5e, CoS ties everything together well which is where I feel newer adventures fail to do.

CoS feels fluid. As a DM and a consumer, I value that consistency the most. I want an adventure I can run as-is first and exciting new game design second.

I’m interested to see where my feelings lie about CoS as we start digging into it this upcoming week. I hope that it meets my expectations and the hype that surrounds it!

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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