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I've recently started DMing Curse of Strahd. The players took the bait and ended up in the Death House. Our currently first and only session of this module ended with the party just reaching the third floor and one unconscious PC.

Given the fact that there isn't simply 'read aloud' text that contains all the details for every room, one major problem I had was remembering exactly what kind of things were in each room.

This lead to a very poor deliverance of "creep factor" and because I was then trying to give a descriptive account of what was in the rooms after quickly rereading the text in the book, I would often miss a few, sometimes important, details.

After the session, one of the players even said in a not-overly-impressed tone "we just spent the last out-of-game hour or so exploring rooms". It should be noted, and I do acknowledge, that this person hasn't played D&D before so they may have been expecting something a little more exciting from the get go, but I do feel that statement was at least partially due to my failed deliverance.

What can I do to help me remember details about the areas the PCs are exploring and thus give an accurate description of what the PCs see and what happens within?

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There are many tricks that will help you remember, but most of them boil down to two things: Focus on the important stuff and write things down. That being said, here are a few more detailed pieces of advice that might help you.

1: Get rid of clutter

I don't know anything about the Death House, but it seems to be a large mansion with a lot of rooms. The first thing you should do when tackling something like this is to get rid of the unimportant and uninteresting bits. Instead of saying something like "What door do you open? Second to the right, OK. It's a bedroom with these items in it. What door do you open next?" you should try to streamline your narrative. The players want to have fun and do exciting stuff, but while clicking on every little thing can be fun in an adventure video game, that kind of behaviour doesn't translate well into the realm of roleplaying. The not-overly-impressed player even said it plainly.

Instead, try using this approach: "You search the rooms as you make your way down the dark hallway. Some doors are creaky and hard to open, a few are locked. The rooms are what you'd expect in a house like this, a few bedrooms and closets, a small smoking room and a couple of completely empty rooms. You end up in front of what seems to be just another door to just another room. Who opens the door?" Instant drama and excitement, without having to search through a bunch of red herrings. This makes it a lot easier for you to manage your session since you only need to keep track of the important stuff.

2: Review the important stuff

If you run a published adventure, make sure to read it before you run it and make sure to pay extra attention to the important stuff. If you find there are a lot of small things scattered about that have to fall in place for the adventure to work, try grouping some of them together in the same room so that you have less to focus on and worry about.

As for any and all flavour text, just wing it. If a certain room has an eerie breeze that is just there to discomfort the players, don't sweat it if you add that detail to another room or omit it completely. Add your own flavour.

3: Make a list

I often write something like this:

  • Kitchen: Ordinary kitchen. The herbs needed for the spell hang on a wall.
  • Larder: Mostly has ordinary food, but could have a few potions if the party needs them.
  • Master Bedroom: Luxury and decadence. There is a small pouch of money on a dresser and many unique statues in various places. On the floor there is a large casting circle with lit candles (See chapter 3).

I would not write out an empty cupboard or any other room that has nothing interesting in it.

4: Make a map

A simple map or floorplan can make it a lot easier to be consistent in your narrative.

Give each room a number and keep the details on a separate paper, but add the important things directly to the map. At a glance you can see where the players might find the staff or the herbs.

5: Constantly write stuff down

If you improvise the contents of a room, jot down a few words about the room on your list or your map. This adds consistency and makes it easy to remember things you've just winged into existance. This method can be used to improvise an entire building if needed.

6: Don't bother

A simple advice that works well with locations that are mystical in nature. If you accidently change the details of a room or location between visits, make it a part of the setting. "Hey, where's the doll you said was here earlier?" "Hmm, you can't see it in here. Maybe you just imagined it being here?"

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    \$\begingroup\$ Especially the point of grouping relevant items together would make it far more authentic. If you need ingredients for a cake, chances are you'll find flour and sugar in the pantry and eggs and butter in the fridge. Needing to go to four different room and do stuff like parley with a Succubus, traverse a maze, kill a Mimic and activate a butter churner are just unrealistic fluff that slows the adventure down. similarly, it's unlikely that a dark arts cult would have random ritual objects spread all over the house, instead of in the ritual room itself. \$\endgroup\$ – Nzall Apr 20 '16 at 14:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ For #1: In novels, you can increase suspense by giving the reader information that the main characters don't have, but that can't be done in an RPG, unless your players are very good role players. For the example given, I'm likely to say, "There are X doors, what is your procedure going to be for opening each one and searching each room." before they open any door. Then when they get to the special door, I know who is opening it and who is going in first, etc... \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel T. Jun 2 '18 at 15:39
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Let the players' (and your) imagination do the work.

While the Devil might be in the details, he's irrelevant here. Paint with big brush strokes. Let the imaginations of the players fill the gaps. And let the players add to the environment!

For example:

You enter a kitchen, the smell of cold roasted meats and fat permeates the place. Over in a corner, there are scarps of food where rats feast on such good picking. In the middle of the room, on a large cutting table rest a shape covered with a bloody rag. Overhead, copper pans slowly hand, like the dead on gallows.

Right, you have an idea of what this slaughter room is. But there are no details whatsoever there: where are the first, the larder, the utensils, ... who cares? Let the players assume they are there, find them if needed, and let the players fill in the rest of the room for you.

For example:

Meredith: Charming place. I slowly approach the shape. I really hope it's not the boy we were told to look for. Ah, wait. I look for a cleaver first. It'll be a good idea to have some weapon.

Nathaniel: While Meredith does that, I'll go and look at the pots that are on the stoves. I have this nasty suspicion we have another occurrence of cannibals. If so, then our suspicion that this is a safe house for Santa Muerte would be confirmed... I hate this.

The stoves, pots, cleavers, and so on where just added by the players but could reasonably be there.

Watch any of Bob Ross's videos on painting. Not to learn how to paint, although that's fun too, but too look how he starts with nothing and does the big things first then fills in details. This is oh-so-similar to any author writing a novel, short story, or script.

Clearly, this works for interesting rooms. For the rest, just skip it. Or rather give a general feel to the place: What's there? What does it smell like? What does it reminds the PCs of? What does it sound like? ...

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @purplemonkey Thank you very much for the bounty. \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion Jun 11 '18 at 6:23
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The biggest thing that helps me with remembering areas is visual factors.

Instead of trying to read it from the book, you could create a simple map, set of dot points of important items, or have a page of "reminders", or even combine all three.

Before the session, set out what you want from each area. Are there X amount of key items they need to find? A NPC that gives them information? Note it down so you have an 'at a glance' reminder of important 'DON'T MISS ME' keys.

If your PC's are bored with just exploring, and if that's all Curse of Strahd offers in the beginning, you could always add your own puzzles, twists and traps to give them something more solid than just exploring.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would second the notion of adding little twists to extensive pre-made dungeons. One time my players were on a dungeon from a published adventure with a trap room, and the moment they came close to the thing, the whole game changed for about 20 minutes while they tried to figure how the room worked. \$\endgroup\$ – Punkgeon Apr 20 '16 at 8:14
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As someone who has DM'd CoS, and specially Death House, I'll add my 50 cents specifically for the scenario you described, while trying to generalize it. I find my answer pretty similar to Szandor's answer, but I think adding examples from the adventure you were running will help.

Also, I'll obviously put the disclaimer: THE ANSWER HAS LOTS OF SPOILERS ABOUT THE DEATH HOUSE.

Prepare a lot

Some adventures require more preparation than others. Sandboxes usually require more preparation, as you need to understand the general concept of everything in the area the players are, since they can go anywhere. Curse of Strahd is such case. Even Death House, which is a railroad adventure (it's suggested the players are forced to enter the house if you go by the book and they can't do anything but explore it to the end), has too many details for a (supposed) one-shot adventure.

Recently I'm running LMoP and it's so much easier, even being a sandbox as well.

The point is: you've got a tough one in your hands. When you come across with a similar one, read the adventure as many times as you might need until you feel you can do it by head.

Map

Page 216 from the CoS gives you a complete map of the Death House. Most of the relevant details are actually included in it and help you remember what is in each place. If you have a hard time understanding the drawing by itself, read the section about the area while seeing the map for that area. That visual memory should help you to remember the details.

Many published adventures (which the question is tagged as) (at least from D&D, which your question is not tagged as, but your problem is), and specially hardcovers, come with such detailed maps.

If you are a good drawer, you can make the map yourself and add the details you want to remember. You can also just note these details with letters/symbols if you want, instead. Make something simple ennough that you can understand and remember by just seeing it.

What's the point?

I would say this is the most important section of my answer, btw.

For Death House, it's a great hook for CoS because it sets the tone of the adventure. You want to make them scared. You want to be clear that the adventure is often over by a TPK rather than by winning. The second thing you want to say about the Death House is: it's old. Nobody lives there for years. These are the two messages you want to deliver in the Death House. (The old is specifically for the Third Floor, as the first two are under magic effects that make them look new.)

Which details actually help you to deliver what you want and which are... actually useless?

Also, how many times do you need to include these details?

For example, every room in the third floor talks about dust, cobwebs and other signals of age. When I was playing it, my players interrupted me saying "ok, we already know everything here has dust and cobwebs. Tell us when it doesn't." (I don't mind being interrupted if they are getting bored :P). That's a signal that some details get boring when repeated.

As an example of details that don't help to deliver the message at all, the Spare Bedroom (19) states

This web-filled room contains a slender bed, a nightstand, a rocking chair, an empty wardrobe, and a small iron stove.

This helps with the immersion that this is a house where people used to live, but that's all. You could just describe your own guest bedroom, your own bedroom, anything you wanted here and achieve the same thing.

In general, think about the point of the adventure/place you want to make. Is it a dungeon crawling? Then usually the players are more worried about the Goblins they are going to face than the details on the walls. Is it a terror adventure similar to Death House? Focus on the details that instill fear and shadiness. Is this a dragon's lair? Put dragon things - bones of eaten cows, hoards of treasures. Archmage tower? Spellbooks, spell scrolls. You got the point.

Have a cheat sheet

Which actually can be the book opened in the relevant chapter of the adventure. I have some ability to multi-task, so while my players are talking and thinking about their actions, I'm often reading the book sections about near areas. Sometimes I screw up and either lose concentration and have to ask them to repeat though, so if they mind it just don't do it and have a smaller cheat sheet including the details you think are essential.

Improvise

I've mentioned in the Spare Bedroom that you could describe any bedroom and would get the same effect - so, if you don't remember the specifics about this bedroom, just do it. Describe something else. Obviously now you need to remember whatever you described (mainly if they are coming back), but you should be able to. Write down in the cheat sheet the new features of that place if you think something is really important.

I messed up, now what?

Well, Death House is easy on that. MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD

After you deny the cult (implying the players will, since sacrificing someone is usually not the way to play it) the entire house changes anyway. The doors becoming Scythe-blades should worry your players more than that wardrobe having 2 doors instead of 3 now. Even if you burn the house down, it comes back. Obviously things that aren't exactly explainable are happening here. Some things should worry your players more than others.

If you don't have that freedom... Well, people make mistakes. Someone as genius as Tolkien has inconsistencies in his works. Don't expect to be perfect. Try your best, but you and your players should know that sometimes you will mess up and forget you had put a table there.


Side Note

After the session, one of the players even said in a not-overly-impressed tone "we just spent the last out-of-game hour or so exploring rooms".

That's on them and on the adventure. You might have failed to deliver the message about fear and oldness, but spending too much time doing something not needed and not liking it afterwards is usually more a player's problem than yours.

As a second side note, talking from experience, throwing a player in CoS as their first adventure was one of the worst things I've done.

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Use mnemo-techniques like method of loci. This should be fairly easy - because you have to imagine the place where you and your players (virtually) go anyways. Make yourself comfortable with the location you are going to visit. Think in strong absurd pictures. If there are creatures lurking imagine them with unusal colors: a pink goblin, a yellow ork, a skeleton with a red nose. The more absurd the picture, the more vivid is your picture the more likely you remember.

Walk through the scenes one after the other and try to remember, what was special about it.

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For key areas where you know you'll need to fill in details, you can throw together a quick "mood board" of images you've searched out ahead of time. Just collect a bunch of images that have elements you'd like to use for details and put them together on a page- not for the players to see, but as a style guide and inspiration for you to flesh things out. Having a visual reference makes it a lot easier to refer back to later when someone asks "what shape were the doorknobs in that last room again?". Using DeviantArt, Pinterest, Art Station and Google, you should be able to find plenty of inspiring images quickly

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