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The best Dungeons & Dragons campaign for beginners, plus 3 different ways to run it

Tabletop role-playing games are having an incredible renaissance, with more people flocking to the hobby than ever before. And no single game system is riding any higher than Dungeons & Dragons, now in its 5th edition.

If you’ve been thinking about giving the newest version of D&D a try, then you’ve probably noticed that there’s a lot of material to choose from. There are no fewer than three current starter sets, a half-dozen rock-solid published adventures, and an entire marketplace of fan-created content to choose from. But one campaign is regularly recommended ahead of all the others — especially for beginners. It’s called Curse of Strahd, and it might just be the most welcoming and adaptable way into the original role-playing game.

Because of its popularity, there are currently three excellent options for buying Curse of Strahd. They run the gamut from old-school do-it-yourself storytelling to a luxurious collectors’ set with high production values. I’ll help you figure out which one is right for you.

But first, a little backstory to whet the appetite.

Why this vampire?

Back in the 1970s, when D&D was young, the game focused mainly on exploration, combat, and loot. Rolling dice with your friends meant crawling around a subterranean dungeon, killing weird monsters, and making off with some magical items. Then, in 1983, the Ravenloft module was published. Written by Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman, it added a rich sense of storytelling to D&D. The secret was a charismatic vampire named Strahd von Zarovich.

Ravenloft was the first D&D adventure that truly felt like a complete narrative, and it centered on Strahd, a complex villain with motivations of his own. Rather than simply describing the action from a distance, Strahd allows the Dungeon Master (DM) to personally engage with the material and with the players at the table through both combat and noncombat encounters. Published in 2016, Curse of Strahd modernizes those mechanics and expands them from a meager 32 pages to a hefty 256. Its version of Strahd is every bit as menacing as the original, and much more fun to play.

Vintage art of Strahd von Varovich shows him lurking among the towers of Castle Ravenloft.
Image: Wizards of the Coast

Why is Strahd such a great villain? Not to give too much away, but the payoff of his personal arc is definitely worth the time spent playing against him. He’s more than just your average B-movie bloodsucker. Strahd is a fully realized character with a Shakespearean backstory and enough guile and cunning to stand up to any party of adventurers.

Where Curse of Strahd differentiates itself from the original, in my opinion, is in fleshing out its setting. The action takes place in a sinister pocket dimension known as the valley of Barovia, which means you can enter or exit the campaign from anywhere in the D&D multiverse. The valley itself is constructed very much like a modern open-world video game. Players are able to explore the environment at their leisure, perusing its numerous side quests. All the while, the specter of Strahd will haunt them — at times literally — serving as a beacon to irrevocably pull them back to the main questline.

There’s even a mini adventure bundled in with the campaign, designed to quickly level up new characters and get players used to the mechanics of modern D&D. Simply put, Curse of Strahd is the complete package.

So, now that I’ve sold you on it, let’s talk about three different ways to actually buy the thing.

The basics

Curse of Strahd was first published as a hardcover book, and the most basic version of that book is still in print. You can find one easily at your friendly local game store or online at places like Amazon. Independent booksellers that carry D&D will likely have a copy, as will larger retailers like Barnes & Noble.

Curse of Strahd

  • $32
  • $50
  • 37% off

Prices taken at time of publishing.

The hardcover campaign book for Curse of Strahd, a reimagined version of the 1983 classic Ravenloft.

  • $32 at Amazon
  • There are several digital options for D&D books now, and the version you want to get depends very much on your platform of choice. The best option for newcomers will be D&D Beyond, which sells the campaign and also gives players access to an online character builder. There’s also virtual tabletops (VTTs) like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, which offer more options for acting out the game’s combat encounters with virtual miniatures and dice. VTTs can tend to slow the action down for newcomers, so take care to learn the toolset before you gather your party.

    Of course, you’ll also need the three other books that form the core of D&D: the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. All three are also available on D&D Beyond.

    Dungeons & Dragons Core Rulebooks Gift Set

    • $92
    • $170
    • 46% off

    Prices taken at time of publishing.

    The 2018 versions of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual include much of the early errata for the original role-playing game. These 5th edition books come with a special foil cover, a slip case, and a Dungeon Master’s screen.

  • $92 at Amazon
  • Level up

    Curse of Strahd is now also being sold as a boxed set titled Curse of Strahd: Revamped Premium Edition. First published in October 2020, it has a hefty list price of $99.99, and given what’s included in the box, it’s hard to recommend it at that price. Thankfully, you can now find it for sale online at places like Amazon for quite a bit less.

    The box itself is actually pretty clever. It’s shaped like a coffin, and the set includes a full-color portrait of Strahd so that you can leave him resting fitfully inside for your players to discover. Another perk of the Premium Edition is that it includes a more robust version of the campaign’s double-sided map (the same one that comes with the basic hardcover book).

    The opposite side of Strahd’s portrait includes the stat block needed to run him at the table.
    Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

    The downside, however, is that the campaign book in this boxed set is a paperback, not a hardcover like the original.

    My favorite part of the boxed set is a handy set of in-fiction tarot cards called Tarokka cards. The oversized foil-stamped deck will come in handy for a major plot point in the campaign. Of course, you can also pick up a set of Tarokka cards — a regular-sized, non-foil-stamped version — separately for just $15.

    Clockwise from the top you’ve got an oversized Tarokka deck, a map, a set of postcards, handouts written in Strahd’s hand, and a four-panel DM screen.
    Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

    What the Premium Edition is truly lacking, in my opinion, is a proper two-dimensional map of Castle Ravenloft, Strahd’s lair and the setting for the campaign’s final showdown. There’s a 3D isometric version of the floor plan included on one side of the campaign map (which, you’ll remember, comes with both the original hardcover book and the Premium Edition). But it’s up to DMs to plot that floor plan in 2D for their players at the table. That requires pen and paper, and can tend to slow down gameplay significantly.

    If you’re using a VTT solution, plotting out the map of Castle Ravenloft can also be a real hassle. Thankfully, the Roll20 version of the campaign comes with 30 pre-rendered battle maps — including a 2D floor plan of the entire castle.

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    There’s also a tremendously well-executed set of 2D Castle Ravenloft maps available on the Dungeon Master’s Guild. For just $10, you get everything you need to print that floor plan out as multiple large maps at a commercial printer, or on dozens of regular sheets of paper at home. There’s even a version of the maps formatted for use with VTT software like Fantasy Grounds.

    For my home campaign, I printed out every inch of Castle Ravenloft in black and white, and then mounted the tiles to black foam core. After just a few nights of work with a glue stick and a box cutter, I had the entirety of Strahd’s lair stacked up and stored inside a paper grocery bag.

    High-level play

    For those seeking the most luxurious way to experience Curse of Strahd, look no further than Beadle & Grimm’s. The company makes licensed deluxe editions of many of the official D&D campaigns, and its take on the valley of Barovia is extraordinary. Called The Legendary Edition of Curse of Strahd, it runs $399.

    It’s also currently sold out, so keep tabs on the website to see if more copies become available later this year.

    The maps of Castle Ravenloft from Beadle & Grimm’s are massive, and feature a smooth linen finish.
    Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

    What could be a drab collection of gray walls is given lots of texture and detail throughout.
    Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

    What makes The Legendary Edition so special — aside from the full-color prints of the entire Castle Ravenloft and many other key battlefields in the game — are the ephemera. Not only does it come with extremely well-executed paper handouts, including weathered letters from Strahd himself, it also includes lots of mixed-media objects to pass around the table. There’s a handful of faux wax seals with Strahd’s personal signet; a set of in-fiction labels to apply to real wine bottles; several coins of the realm emblazoned with Strahd’s profile; and even a set of in-fiction toy finger puppets.

    Do you need Ravenloft-themed finger puppets to run Curse of Strahd? No. But they are adorable.
    Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

    A key item that players will search for in Barovia, next to three coins of the realm.
    Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

    Admittedly, a $399 price tag may seem extravagant. But having run the campaign myself over the course of an entire year, I can’t tell you how much time and energy The Legendary Edition would have saved me. Here’s hoping that Beadle & Grimm’s puts another deluxe version together soon, perhaps without so many of the lavish physical props, to help bring the price down. In the meantime, there are a few still available (at slightly inflated prices) on the secondary market.

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