[RPG] How to make the Tarokka Deck reading in Curse of Strahd suitably dramatic


I'm going to be running Curse of Strahd for my regular group. I'm usually a player and have only DM'd once to give our usual DM a break. This is my first time with a published adventure.

I finished reading the campaign book through, and I'm now assembling notes and thinking deeper about how I want to run the game.

Without spoiling too much:

Early in the campaign, the players can get a Tarroka reading, much like a Tarot card reading. This sets the location of certain critical items, sets the location of Strahd, and identifies a potential ally in the fight against Strahd.

It's also a notable hook into the adventure, since the characters are given some sense of what they are in Ravenloft to undertake. I'm looking for help from those experienced running the campaign on how to spice up this moment.

Here's a few things I've considered:

  • Letting the players keep the cards after they've drawn them.
  • Giving them verbatim notes on what the teller's hints were.
  • Drawing the cards beforehand so I can work on my acting/telling of the results, and using sleight of hand to re-draw the same cards.
  • Drawing the cards on gameday, and doing my best to roleplay the Teller's reaction genuinely.

Given the potential impact, what is the best way to make the card reading dramatic, memorable, and fun for the players (and myself)?

Best Answer

Having studied the book, you have some idea of what each Tarokka result can entail, and you can let this "foreknowledge" inform Madam Eva's reactions to the cards as they appear. If you draw

the 7 of Coins, you can hint that the location of the treasure isn't very far away; if you draw the 9 of Coins, Madam Eva might shake her head despondently and say "Maybe save this one for last."

It's easy to want to add merely emotional clues, to add color without giving too much away: "It is in a place of dread;" "I feel the presence of mournful spirits near this item;" "This place is cold and silent." But there's so little emotional contrast in Barovia that sentences like these can easily fade into the background noise of doom and gloom. Specific information will make your players' ears perk up, and if your goal is to create a memorable experience, you can afford to drop a few extra hints.

For example: Many of the speeches for cards that clue

locations in Castle Ravenloft don't actually refer to the castle ("We know it's in a crypt. Do we know where a crypt is?"), but Eva can add something about "beneath the Devil's tower" or glance nervously in its direction.

If the players feel like gabbing it up with Madam Eva about each card, trying to pry hints out of her, go ahead and respond according to the character you've built in your performance—but to add emotional texture to the scene, make her insist on total silence before she turns over the next card.

The use of a real deck is so effective because everyone loves props. The description of Madam Eva's tent provides a lot of inspiration for additional props: Mysterious lights, a crystal ball, and a black velvet cloth. I think this cloth is a good thing to focus on because you can slowly unroll it before you lay the cards down, which is a very evocative and almost ritualistic action. Even if your players forget what cards you drew, they will remember the appearance of that cloth unrolling across the table.

If you can't get a piece of black velvet, use whatever spooky-looking fabric you can get your hands on, and then change the words "black velvet" to whatever you're using when you read the description, so that the players will think you are following the details in the book exactly.

(On the subject of

Strahd's Enemy: Some of the results are more interesting than others. The book gives you the choice between NPC A and NPC B for some results, apparently according to what kind of Challenge Rating you want for the party's ally. Obviously you want to figure out your choices in this regard ahead of time. But for my purposes, I didn't really want my players to end up with either version of the Broken One, the Horseman, or the Innocent, so I just removed those cards from the deck. If you're not comfortable with the full range of randomness in the book, you can create "massaged randomness" without the players finding out.)