by Mike Shea on 31 May 2016
With the release of Curse of Strahd, the latest rewrite of the excellent Dungeons & Dragons adventure, I6 Ravenloft; Wizards of the Coast also released the book's introductory adventure, Death House, online for free. If you haven't grabbed a copy, do so now.
Death House is a fantastic house of horrors adventure for low level PCs and a great introduction to Curse of Strahd and the atmosphere of Barovia. While not as general purpose or introductory as the Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure included with the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, Death House is a superbly written and fun adventure to move D&D into the realm of gothic horror.
In this article we'll discuss how to get the most out of Death House and how to use it as the springboard for our Curse of Strahd campaign.
I've mentioned it before and I'll say it again here; level 1 is the suck when it comes to playing fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Experienced players often hate the over-simplified and super squishy nature of level 1 play and new players are going to hate how fast they drop to zero, or just plain die, because of their low hit points.
Consider either starting the PCs at level 2 or give them ten extra hit points at level 1. Those ten hit points won't matter much at level 8 to level 20 but they will sure help out in the low levels when D&D is at its most lethal.
Death House is no less lethal to level 1 PCs. There are some really tough monsters in this adventure and level 1 to level 2 PCs are likely to get beaten bloody if they're not super careful. If you want to run your adventure Dark Souls 3 style, that's up to you and your players but there's also nothing wrong with beefing up the PCs a bit so everyone has a more enjoyable time. It's always easy to up the power of monsters if they're having too easy a time (hint, maximize their hit points and give them an extra attack if you want to quickly power up a 5e monster).
I am a huge fan of the original introduction to Ravenloft with the Vistani dropping off the note that looks like it's from the Burogomeister but is actually from Strahd. It's a fun campy traditional introduction that players can have a lot of fun with even if they know it's a trap. Later, when the PCs find the bloody note of the real Burgomeister, it's a fun way of trapping the PCs in the land of Barovia.
Death House doesn't start this way on its own but there's no reason you can't run it that way anyway. It's a great way drop some handouts on the players with some clues as to their origins (the penmanship of Strahd and the Burgomeister are quite a bit different). If you need some handouts for this part of the game, look no further.
There's another fun approach to introduce the PCs to Barovia. Stage an ambush around the messenger who holds the bloody note of the real Burgomeister. Wolves are a good choice for this since there is a lot of wolf imagery in the adventure overall and they're a nice challenge for hte PCs.
When the PCs find the mangled body of the messenger (be as graphic about his state of rot and disembowelment as your players are comfortable with), a pack of wolves descends on the PCs. These wolves fight with clear intelligence; they're not just mindless beasts. Standing behind them, watching the battle unfold is a powerful dire wolf with red glowing eyes. This wolf never attacks but just watches as his wolves test the PCs. This wolf is secretly Strahd out to take a first-hand look at these new heroes.
The wolves will never go in for a killing strike since Strahd himself doesn't want the PCs dead. Even if they could kill a PC with massive damage, they will hold their kill on the dire wolf's barked command. This is a special trick since wolves hit way outside of their weight class. They're only CR 1/4 but they hit for 7 damage, have pack tactics, and can knock prone on a failed saving throw. Generally with level 2 PCs you'd want one wolf for every PC on the table.
If anyone attempts to attack the red-eyed direwolf, it will use spells like shield, greater invisibility, and counterspell to avoid the attacks. That should certainly get the players' attention. This is no wolf. This is the master of Barovia himself who has come to see the mettle of these new adventurers himself. When the wolves are slain, the dire wolf fades off into the mists before the PCs can approach him.
With the wolf fight under our belts, our players have had a nice challenging fight before they start exploring Death House. Combat-focused players might not like all of the investigation and NPC interactions with the two kids if they haven't gotten a fight in so the wolf fight helps calm them down for some nice non-combat roleplaying and exploration of the main house.
Players are smart. Anyone who plays with experienced players knows that you can't slip much by them. You have one smart mind working against five other smart minds working together. There's a reason they always sniff out your doppelgangers and succubi before you ever get a chance to use them. They can smell traps and illusions a mile away.
And they might do so easily with Death House. The key is not to have that matter too much. The Death House wants them. The house itself is the main villain in this adventure, like a giant enormous mimic. Like an angler fish, it dangles the very realistic illusion of two children out to bring in sacrifices for the evil that lives in the depths of its bowels.
Most players know that if you have an adventure called "Death House" that its a freaking trap and that they're going in anyway. Good healthy players who want to have fun know that, as much shit as they give it, they should walk into the mouth of this house anyway. Some might be pains in the asses about it but it is likely rare that a group will simply bypass the house.
And if they do? Let them. Sure, you'll all miss out on a cool haunted house adventure but the players may be telling you they really don't want to play it if they all decide to give the two little frightened children the finger as they pass on for loftier goals. There are probably ways you could trick them into the house if you wanted to but why not give the players some agency and let them skip it if they decide to skip it.
Likely most will decide to go in, however, and when they do, thats when the Death House really wakes up.
This adventure is going to be a big test for our ability to evoke horror as we facilitate the story. Every blowing drape appears like a screaming specter. Every chime of the servants bell whispers of an evil awoken and on the prowl. If done right, our players will seek these moments to go along with the haunted house feeling. They'll volunteer to peek under the beds, unwrap the bundle in the black-veiled baby basket, and play the strange harpsichord in the music room. Do they investigate the rotted lion-skin rug by turning it over? Bugs! Hey, are those stuffed wolves moving around the room when we're not looking? Fun-loving players will seek out opportunities to get scared because they want to.
Reward those who dive head-long into the story. Reward those who do things they clearly know they shouldn't for the good of a fun story. Inspiration is the perfect way to reward their play. It's decisions like these that inspiration is designed to reward.
Its worth noting that things get significantly creeper as the PCs explore the house. The lower floors are clean and pretty, although there are bits of creepiness all around. As the PCs go up the house, things get dirtier, older, and definitely more creepy. When the PCs discover the secret room with Strahd's letter, thats when things turn around. That room is where the PCs really see the veil pulled back and at that point the house itself knows that the PCs know and does less to hide its malevolence. Strahd's letter itself is a good way to invoke some madness. Whoever reads the letter must make a DC 13 charisma saving throw or suffer short-term madness as described on page 258 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. This madness effect is a great equalizer among all groups of PCs, whether they be powergamers or not.
Death House, and all of Curse of Strahd for that matter, can seem really bleak if you don't add a little bit of humor. The fact that this is a haunted house filled with armed and armored adventurers is already in a good state for some laughs. Do what you can to add and reinforce some humor intermixed with the horror, desperation, and hopelessness of Death House. One example is the animated broom on the third floor. It's an odd encounter but, if handled right, it can be good for laughs. Was that broom really animated or did it simply fall on the knight and he overreacted Three-Stooges like?
The floor plan for Death House isn't very big. Rooms are usually little more than ten to fifteen feet wide. There's not a lot of room for tactical combat in here so why not practice your "theater of the mind" and run combat in the narrative? You don't have to do it for ALL of the battles in the adventure but a lot of them can work well when included in the general flow of the story without having to whip out maps and miniatures.
It's worth mentioning, however, that the floor plan of the Death House can be confusing if you don't draw it out. Drawing sketches of the rooms and the layout on a Pathfinder Flip Mat helps everyone get a good idea of where things are and what they can do. You can treat the rooms as zones when people describe where they are and what they want to do instead of worrying about every five foot step.
In the adventure itself, PCs are free to enter and leave the house but if they leave, they might never come back. It also doesn't make sense that the house would let them leave. If the house itself is the villain, why wouldn't it trap them inside so it can digest them over thousands of years. If the PCs need a rest, there are a few good places they can do so. The best place is likely in the room with the children in the attic once they've made peace with the real ghostly children and not the monsters outside who are little more than a lure. When the PCs try to leave, the doors slam shut or maybe even turn into a mimic. The railings around the balcony raise up and aim their barbed tips at the throats of the PCs.
The Death House is a perfect place for us to sprinkle in discoverable secrets. Some of these are built right into the game, like the note from Strahd to the Dursts (see the handouts) calling them a bunch of losers. Others we know as the DM but might not be as easily discovered by the players. Here are examples of secrets we can drop into the game, either through the mouths of the ghosts and specters in the house, as torn journal entries, or as strange visions that flow into the heads of those mortals within. Keep in mind that, while many of these are reinforced in the adventure itself, some I simply made up because they sounded cool.
Just because the party laid Rose and Thorn to rest doesn't mean these spirits have to go away. These NPCs can be fun little additions for the rest of the Curse of Strahd. Those who they possess might hear from the ghosts from time to time, who give them useful clues as they strive to dethrone Strahd from his command of the region.
It also makes more sense that Rose and Thorn wouldn't want to be buried deep in the Death House but would, instead, like to be buried in the Barovia cemetery. This can help the PCs meet the priest and touch on his future threads such as his son in the basement and the risk to the life of Ireena.
Unlike the upper house, the dungeon has many combat encounters. If you want to ensure the PCs get to see most of the dungeon, put a door that leads down to the lower level that can only be unlocked by a key hanging from the neck of the ghast version of Gustav Durst. This way the players won't miss some of the fun to be had in the upper levels.
There are probably too many combat encounters right in a row down in the cellar. A big pile of ghouls is followed by a big pile of shadows and then the ghasts. Instead, either skip the ghouls or lower the number of shadows to maybe two. Before you run this section of the adventure, read through it and decide what combination of encounters you think will be the most fun for the group.
When the PCs succeed in ridding the house of the horror below and make their escape, the house can end up swallowing itself just like the house in Poltergeist. When the PCs step away, they might notice a sign, pointed the wrong way that says "Death House. Don't Talk to the Children!" just before a voice echoes out from one of the houses with a drunken slur "welcome to Barovia!"
One NPC that doesn't get much love in the adventure is the poor housemaid. First of all, we can avoid the uncomfortable topic of how she became impregnated by Gustav by suggesting that he convinced her that she could bring light into a dark house with a child born of their love. Second, we can conclude her part in the story by giving the PCs a vision of the poor housemaid after the collapse of the house who lifts a hand in thanks atop the ruins of the accursed house.
The players and DMs who will most enjoy Death House know it is a horror movie, but instead of hapless sex-starved teenagers, we have barbarians and druids and paladins armed to the teeth. There's a lot of fun to be had in Death House with the right attitudes. This isn't a simple dungeon of monsters and loot. There's a dark story to discover and some fun to be had. Discuss the approach of Death House with your players and enjoy the results.