Curse of Strahd Sessions 5-10: Game Master Series

You know, before I started DMing Curse of Strahd, I was really nervous. That doesn’t quite cover it. I was terrified. I was going in blind to a group I’d never met, never played with, with a campaign I had only skimmed, off of the legacy of people like Matt Mercer and Chris Perkins, who are masters of storytelling, and who are popular enough in the D&D world now that most people assume their groups will look something, even if only a little, like the ones they see online.

Fast forward to the present, where we’re ten sessions in and I feel like it’s old hat. I mean, I’m by no means comfortable, and I still get fluttery nerves before we start, meaning I need at least one beer to calm me down and get me going, but I feel like I could even pull a fairly decent one-shot out of a hat and not do too badly. It’s a nice feeling.

Other than that, there’s not a whole lot to say on my end of the session. My players are getting better and more creative, the story is picking up and getting really creepy, and I’ve figured out some good resources to use.


Let’s look at Trello. I thought I would use it all the time for planning, and would even have it open at the table to reference NPCs and locations. I don’t do that. I hardly use it at all, to be honest, except to check on the players’ board.

See, I gave my players a board to use as well, to track group funds and give them a place to read the table rules. That’s all I thought they’d use it for, but it’s been astonishing how useful it’s become.

Not only do they track the campaign day and group items, they also track quests – completed, in-progress, and dropped – and keep track of NPCs they’ve met and locations they’ve visited or need to visit. One player also posts his notes post-session every week, which is handy for the others and me. It’s fascinating to see what they’ve focused in on and what they’ve missed or gotten wrong.

(I correct very few things, such as names or spelling, but most other mistakes I let stay, because that’s what the players think, and it makes the game far more interesting to let those play out.)


As for myself, my notes tend to be typed up and then written on in my binder. I’m using the Guide to Curse of Strahd from DMs Guild, and it’s been a life-saver. I feel like I could get away with not using it now, but in the beginning, it was absolutely vital for me to make sense of the intended flow of the story.

Usually, I read through both the section in the campaign book and the notes from the Guide and then plot a simple course of action, laying out key dialogues and all the clues the players will receive. Each session, I mark off what they’ve done and keep what they still have to do, adding notes as needed. I can’t do speeches and such off the cuff, so I type those up as well. I’m much better at writing different voices than speaking them, so I write up a few lines of dialogue for each major NPC and practice them in the accent I want.


Since I’m no voice-actor, I use voices I’ve heard before that are memorable and easy caricatures. Nuances aren’t really my strong suit.

For instance, recently my players encountered an older noblewoman with a prickly personality, and I used Jim Dale’s Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter audiobooks as a reference. She’s got a very unique voice, and even if I didn’t mimic it accurately, it was certainly different enough from my other voices.

I try to do that for most NPCs – have a unique voice – but I’m finding that I’m trying a bit too hard in that direction. It’s more important to remember the goal and desire of the NPC than how they sounded or even their manner of speaking. For the players, the role of the NPC is more important.

Now the big question – do I still enjoy DMing? I can say with complete honesty that yes, I do still love it. And I still prefer it to playing. I like the planning beforehand, the control, and being able to take a back seat to the action in most cases when the players are interacting amongst themselves.

In fact, I’m planning a special Halloween one-shot for my group as well, as a kind of break and also to let them stretch their wings as players and experience other styles of games.

The life of a DM never ends, and it’s wonderful.


Sessions 1-5: Game Master Series

It’s been about two months since I started running Curse of Strahd for my new group of D&D players.

I feel like I can officially call myself a DM. I can buy the badges and the coffee mugs and the t-shirts and not feel a massive sense of imposter syndrome.

Okay, so two months, right? How’d it go, Audra? Um…


I really, really, really like DMing. And I figured out why I like it more than playing. I like being in control of the world. This is totally a personality thing because I don’t like feeling out of control ever, and it translates to my game preferences too. (More on the correlation of personality and play-style another time.) I’m more comfortable presenting the story, being in control of the flow and the events, and seeing where things lead. Of course, I’m not forcing my players into a particular path or style or anything, but I like knowing where things will go. It’s way less stressful, despite how stressful being a DM is (with all the planning and whatnot).

I can’t tell you how my players are doing, except the bits I’ve heard. They seem to be having a blast. They’ve told me they love it, they’re getting creeped out by all the creepy stuff, worried about future encounters, freaked out by dreams and details…I think it’s going well, in other words.

On my end, I’m beginning to see where I need to shore up my weaknesses and what things I can do pretty easily.

Things I’m Good At

And let me clarify – things I feel comfortable doing and are “easy.” My players may have a different opinion on how well I do.

  1. Description – I like this part. I like picturing the environment in my head and translating it via theater of the mind using all five senses. I can do this pretty easily, for the most part. I think my extensive reading history has served me well here.
  2. Music – to me, music is a huge, integral part of the game. It adds that extra panache, that zest, that cherry on the sundae of atmosphere. It sets the mood and can subtly stoke certain feelings in your players…and I have some good stuff picked out. My players have told me they’re noticing, too. At one point the music was too quiet to hear and they thought I’d stopped it and all got nervous that something was about to go down. Delicious.
  3. Thinking of information on the fly – I had a character ask me what the books were about in a house, and the CoS guide didn’t say, so I made up something about the ancient history and myths similar to our Greek mythology. Brief, but I came up with something. Yeah, if you’re reading this, guys, I pull a lot of stuff out of nowhere.
  4. Encounters – so far I feel pretty confident in my encounters. I made a cheat sheet of verbs to use for battle (hack, slash, eviscerate, bisect, crush, etc) because I’ve found in the heat of things my ability to describe attacks goes down. But other than that, I think I do a pretty decent job. And last session, we used crackers as wolves and I made the players cronch them when they took one down.

Things I’m Not Good At

Again, things that don’t come easily or feel comfortable.

  1. Pacing – I haven’t quite gotten how to pace things comfortably. I want to end on a cliffhanger or decent endpoint each session, but I’m terrible at estimating how long encounters are going to last, how many I need and so on. I was actually underprepared for the first time last session, as opposed to way overprepared for all the others, so my estimates still need work.
  2. Speaking as an NPC off the cuff – I’m a much better writer than speaker, and I can make characters have unique styles of talking when writing, but not so much when I’m talking. I’ve never been good at improv, so this is really stretching my skills. I don’t think I’ve done terribly, but I really have to focus when I speak as an NPC.
  3. Encounters – yeah, some parts of this I don’t get. I don’t know much about all the monsters (there’s SO many), and I know I’m not giving my players the full experience, but I honestly think the plot deserves my attention more than the background information of a creature.

I mean, I have more good things than not good things. I’d put myself in the winning camp. I love DMing. I love watching my players interact with the story and get excited and wonder what’s going to happen next. It’s more rewarding than writing in many ways because you get to see their reactions as they come, and they also shape the story. That’s one of the best parts. I have this framework that they’re working in, but they’re making it their own, and other players will make it theirs, and so the story is never quite the same. The adventure never ends.

I. Love. Dungeons and Dragons.


D&D and Life

I am in control of my actions and reactions, not how they turn out, not the things around me, not the problems I face. Only my actions and reactions.

Turns out, the system for D&D combat is a really good tool to help navigate life.

Hear me out.

In D&D (5e), when you’re in combat, your character has only three things they can do on your turn; an action, a bonus action, and movement.

An action is usually something like making an attack or casting a spell, or even holding an action until something else happens (other actions include hiding, dashing, interacting with objects, and so on). A bonus action might be to take a potion or even another attack if you’re one of those classes.

Here’s the thing though. I can choose to attack, but my dice roll determines how I do. If I roll low, no go. If I roll high, hurray! I succeed. I choose what to do, but I can’t control what happens (not until someone develops a wrist technique for rolling dice how you want – I’ll keep you posted on that).

So in life as in D&D.

In life, I can only choose my actions and movements. I can choose whether to pursue this relationship, take that job, move away, move home, write this book, start that blog, exercise, etc. It’s all up to me. What I can’t choose is what happens with it. Maybe I move to a new city and it doesn’t work out. Maybe the relationship doesn’t pay off. Maybe the book is a glorious flop. Or maybe not. I have no way of knowing.

However, also as in D&D, I can stack the odds slightly in my favor. In D&D you use a d20, or 20-sided die, for most ability checks and attack rolls. You roll the dice and add your modifier. A fighter class, for instance, will have a higher chance of doing something strength-based so they will have a higher modifier, and a likelier chance of success. Say they have a +4 modifier, on a d20 that increases the chances of meeting the target number by 20%. Not bad. Magic weapons, spell effects, and other items can also increase the chance of success.

How can I do the same in real life?

Education is one step, and I don’t necessarily mean organized education, although that can help in certain circumstances. But if you want to succeed on your taxes this year, doing some research and learning how to prepare your taxes is essential. Or learning that you can afford someone to prepare your taxes for you.

You might learn a new language, which helps your chances of getting a coveted job posting abroad.

You might get a certificate in the area of your choice, vastly increasing the odds of getting a job in that field.

Health is another way to stack the odds in your favor. Having more energy, both mental and physical, will help you in any endeavor, whether it’s personal or professional. Being emotionally stable is another huge benefit in work and in life, and though that might require some investment (hey, training in D&D ain’t cheap), it’s well worth it.

How far can this metaphor go?

Well, D&D is a cooperative game, designed to run best for groups of 4-6. A solo player won’t be able to handle much, as their skills aren’t going to be balanced. That’s just how the game works. You can’t be a rogue and a wizard and a barbarian and a cleric. You will have your strong points offset by weaknesses. Everyone does. But in a party (support group of friends/family) everyone is made stronger. You can tackle higher level puzzles, traps and monsters because you all work together.

As in D&D, as in life.

I think this is one reason why people love D&D so much. I’ve even heard (through rumors), that some psychologists treat it as a great place to work through personal issues. Home-therapy, anyone? At the very least, it can teach a receptive player how to cooperate in the face of danger (and believe me, the stress of a combat situation feels very real), how to have interpersonal conflicts in a healthy way, creative problem-solving and a lot more.

D&D is a great metaphor for life and a great tool for how to live it.

Or maybe I’m just looking for any excuse to repackage my problems as dragons.



Session 0: Game Master Series

Guys, I have found a group to Dungeon Master for. We’ve had our Session 0 and I thought I would go over what I had prepared and how it went down. (FYI, I’m running Curse of Strahd – CoS – for our first campaign.) Excuse me while I GEEK OUT!

Prep Tools

After reading this article by Geek Dad, I decided I had to try using a Trello board. I actually made two, one for me and one for players. (I covered over any personal information or information I don’t want my players SNEAKILY FINDING HERE.)


The one for me has most of the same elements of Geek Dad’s, with a few extra cards specific to CoS. It’s been ideal for planning. My brother, also a Dungeon Master, uses pen and paper for the most part, but I love online organization. I’m planning on still using paper during my sessions for notes and so on, as well as monster stat blocks and encounters (trying to switch between cards on the app takes up just a little too much time IMO), but for all my after-session notes and future plans, I intend to use the Trello board. I just like the way it lays out all the information clearly.

I’m also making flowcharts (whoa, what?) because CoS is structured in a way that isn’t exactly linear. You can do some hopping around, so I’ve found that making a chart that connects all possible avenues of travel is helpful. I’m not going to post a picture of that in case any of my players are reading…GUYS GO AWAY.

Finally, I’m using the Guide to Running Curse of Strahd found on DMs Guild. This has been insanely helpful in clarifying the story because the actual campaign book is…dense. And not super transparent for new Dungeon Masters. It was really overwhelming at first, and the guide does an incredible job of getting you to the fundamentals.

Trello Board for Players

Geek Dad seems to use his board just for himself, but I decided to take it a step further and create one for my players as well. My hope is that they can use it to consolidate notes, keep tabs on each PC, and keep party funds information there. I like the idea of having a shared board because in my experience as a player, information that should be shared is often kept by one person and it causes a lot of confusion or time-wasting having to ask over and over again. Also, when you learn something about a PC, like appearance or a bit of backstory, it’s easy to forget after the first introduction, but it’s nice to keep it in mind for RP purposes.


I also thought it would be good for my players to have a place to type up their notes. I know some DMs can be a little precious about PC note-taking, but I think players discussing what did happen and plans for the future is just fine. That’s part of the fun.

We’ll see how it goes down. It may turn out that not everyone uses the board and so it’s not incredibly useful.

I also put the table rules and campaign setting on the board. I take Table Etiquette and Rules very seriously, so I wanted it to be accessible to everyone. Since I have new players as well (never played TTRPGs before), I also put a basic overview of what Dungeons and Dragons is and what my DMing style is. I like that my players can have these references on hand at any time, rather than me telling them at Session 0 and everyone forgetting at some point.

Trello 2

Session 0

Session 0 is generally where players make their characters, roll stats, ask questions, and generally reconcile any background information to the world. It’s a lot of fun, and there are some great videos out there that explain how to run it.

This is my favorite:


Now, I had prepared for my Session 0 to turn into a Session 1 if time allowed, but it didn’t end up working out that way, and that was fine. I actually had two Session 0s, technically, because both times not everyone could make it. So the first one we did a few of the characters and the second we finished up everyone else’s.

It went really well. I was quite nervous going in, partly because I only knew one of my players and partly because I had never been THE DM before, meaning all questions were directed at me. I did a lot better than I expected (turns out I’ve absorbed a lot more about rules and information than I had thought). I also feel that my players felt pretty comfortable making their characters the way they wanted, and most of them even rolled really good on stats (I’m totally taking credit for that).

Most of the questions I got were on the technical side (what does this spell do? what is the difference in domains/circles/etc?), and it was a blast to go over all the options and explain why you might take this or that and how to use it.

In summary, Session 0 (both of them) went amazingly well. My players are excited and ready, I’m excited and ready, and everyone feels equipped to start playing.

(Still working on the eyebrow though…)



If you want to hear more about my experience running Dungeons and Dragons as a new Dungeon Master, check out the series here.

Duet Session: Game Master Series

Duet D&D: A game where there is one PC (player character) and one DM (dungeon master).

Duets are not common in D&D. D&D is above all a social game, and it’s designed for around 4-6 players. Any less and it can be difficult to tackle bigger challenges, any larger and it starts taking an hour just for each person to have a turn in combat.

So why do it? As I trawled the nets looking for information on how to run one, I found a lot of people who had a lot to say (hello, internet comments). Most people wanted to introduce their spouses or kids to it. Some had only one other friend who was interested in playing.

In my case, I did a duet session with a friend who wasn’t sure if she would be interested in D&D and wanted a kind of introduction to it.


I found a few modules designed for duet sessions on DMS Guild and other places, but I knew the session would need to be simple. As it happened, I was watching Matt Colville‘s Running the Game series on Youtube and the very first few videos were about running a dungeon he created on the fly.

It was simple, it was fun, and it included everything a dungeon needed; traps, hidden rooms, a riddle, and the reason for being in the dungeon in the first place.

I promptly printed the map and got underway.

I decided to run two other characters alongside my friend who would be her guides and also buff up the party, since a one-person D&D party can pretty much handle a pack of rats and little else.

My friend had chosen to play as an elf wizard, so I added a dwarf cleric and a human fighter (you might recognize these as the pre-generated characters offered on the Wizards of the Coast website for new players).

Other than that, I had my books (DMG, PHB, MM) and I was ready. I printed the maps, one unmarked for her and marked for me, wrote up a quick opening hook to get the scene underway, and was ready to go.

The Duet

I was nervous. I shouldn’t have been, by any means; after all, I was playing with a dear friend I’d known for years and had a very simple map to play through. But I knew I would get stuck on a description or confuse her by saying the wrong thing or forget some vital mechanic…and all those things did happen, but it was okay.

It took longer than I had anticipated too. I had expected it to be an hour at most, but we played for nearly three (very typical of D&D, by the way). I had a lot of fun being two characters myself, and she got through the dungeon and found the secret room and completed all the objectives.

What Went Well

I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I loved running her through the dungeon and building the mood with music and words.

(I can’t give her impressions, of course. She said she had fun, but as to the particulars, I have no idea.)

The map itself was really good for a first time player or DM. It was simple enough that I didn’t get confused about where I was or where the bad guys were, and there weren’t too many areas or monsters to worry about. The Knightly flavor included in it was a nice touch as well since it took it from basic dungeon to something with a bit of history.

What Didn’t Go Well

As I said before, I was nervous. I forgot to give players and monsters advantage at certain points, and it was a lot harder to track monster HP than I’d realized. I mean, like, stupidly hard for me for some reason. I didn’t have minis, so I had to try and remember where each monster was along with who had struck them, and I didn’t give them names, just numbers, so I had to kind of guess when each one went down.

I realize now I should have created the most basic of charts for that beforehand. I was also way more worried about her experience than I should have been. I wanted to make sure she knew all her options and didn’t feel lost, so I focused on her more than the dungeon. Another difficulty I had was having the characters I was running alongside hers be just companions, not guides. I didn’t want to tell her what to do through them.

In Conclusion…

I don’t think duet sessions are that bad, but I wouldn’t recommend them for new DMs unless you do a much better job of preparing than me (and I thought I had done). Especially since I was running two NPCs alongside my friend, it was simply too much to remember and juggle all at once.

But I did enjoy it, and my friend said she did too, so I’m calling this a success!


Final Note: this is really not how D&D is meant to be played! It was fun, and I think if you have an experienced player who can run several characters it could be fantastic, but the fun for most people lies in the team experience, the social aspect, and in a duet session you just can’t get that. I made sure to tell my friend that this wasn’t how a usual D&D session felt, and if you introduce a friend to the game this way, I’d make sure to tell them that as well.