Curse of Strahd – Death House

Okay! So lets talk Curse of Strahd.
Currently, I am running through this campaign with https://twitter.com/CapricornCross running the game.
The idea of this game is to run “By the Book”, meaning Cap’ will try to stick to the book’s writings and rules as much as possible, only planning to make judgement calls when the book is lacking detail.
With this in mind, as we progress through the adventure I shall write my own mini-review of the section we covered.
And keeping this in mind, everything covered in my Curse of Strahd (or any D&D based) posts will contain spoilers, if you wish to avoid spoilers than kindly leave.

Now, we’ve just completed Death House, the introductionary adventure for the Curse of Strahd campaign.
On it’s surface, Death House is everything i want in a beginning, it’s a haunted house dungeon crawl, everything inside is undoubtedly evil so go and hack, slash some, right?
Wrong, and let me explain why.
Death House can’t decide whether it wants to be an introduction for new D&D players (much like Lost Mines of Phandelver) or a quick way to get players up to level, and familiar with the theme of Barovia as a setting.

Wondering what I am talking about? Okay, lets begin.
We start off in the main house, a 4 tiered building that has (depending on your definition) 27 rooms to explore.
In itself, I feel like this is a double-edged sword, the layout of rooms allows new players to track everything with a simple map, giving ample opportunity to see where secrets are hidden, there’s a couple of things to play with, explore and try various skills against and even a combat encounter.
But by this measure by the time players get to the attic, you run the risk of just wanting the entire thing to be over, you’ve come to Barovia and you’re trying to find some basement entrance as a player you know you’re only in the campaigns introduction and the fact it feels more like a dungeon crawl can be tiresome.

While running through the house I truly felt it was an attempt at guided play, letting new players get to grips with the basics of D&D, we’ve set a thoroughly spooky tone and finding the skeletons of Rose and Thorn caused us to pause, and then the ghosts appearance was truly a “What the shit?” moment for my group.
But as I say, as a group we were already tiring of this in expectation of a larger adventure ahead.

Once we found the basement, our concerns wouldn’t abate, and you know why?
We had another 13 rooms to explore, and truthfully, we didn’t even explore the entire basement.
But that’s not the over-arching issues with Death House, as I see it.
I said previously that the main house feels like it’s an introduction for new players, well the basement takes it into another direction.
No longer with your hand held, you’re thrown into close quaters combat with monsters spawning because you opened a cupboard, walked down a hallway or enter a room.
Most of the locations in the basement are just filler, which is great for setting the scene but in this instance serves to make an already long adventure feel longer, but beyond that when you get to the basement you’re essentially presented two choices, which end up being “Fight all the things” or “Get all the treasure”, there’s no real middle ground.
Admittedly, you can get through without any of the combat, without finding the treasure, but in this instance it feels like you choose one path and it’s all reward, choose the other and it’s all punishment.

Lets speak of Combat for a second, you can tell I’m serious as we’re talking big-C Combat.
Through out the entire adventure we had 7 combat encounters, here I will list them.

1) Animated Armour – CR1 (Encountered at Level 1)
2) Specter of Nursemaid – CR1 (Level 1, resists damn near everything)
3) Grick – CR2 (Level 1, resists physical)
4) 4*Ghouls – CR1 (Level 2, fought 4 (deadly))
5) 5*Shadows – CR1/2 (Level 2, Strength Drain)
6) The Dursts: 2*Ghast – CR2

Now I completely understand, at lower levels the margin for death vs success in combat is quite tight, not the easiest thing to manage in a long shot, but here’s the thing that really expounds the feeling I keep talking about (How Death House doesn’t know what it wants to be).
The combat is not just throwing you in at the deep end, it’s putting you in a boat, taking you out to sea and telling you to swim back to shore.

Lets compare the second combat in Death House, to the second Combat in Lost Mines.

1 * Specter (CR1)
2 * Goblin (CR1/4)

Now, I know what you’re going to say “CoS is meant to be deadly, so of course you’re going to fight harder monsters!”
Yep, I agree, it should be deadly, it should be creepy but it should build you up to it, surely?
I don’t mean that the second fight of CoS/DH should be against two CR1/4 monsters, it doesn’t need to be exactly comparative, but here we have the party up against a creature that has resistence against Acid, Cold, Fire, Lightning, Thunder; Bludgeoning, Piercing, And Slashing From Nonmagical Weapons that is also immune to the Charmed, Exhaustion, Grappled, Paralyzed, Petrified, Poisoned, Prone, Restrained, Unconscious conditions.
Now the Specter’s 22 HP might as well be 44 at this point, as your first level party is unlikely to be doing anything it doesn’t have resist against (comapre this to the “boss” of Cragmaw Cavern in Lost Mines, Klarg, has 27HP, but no resistence).

Damage-wise, 2 Goblin’s each get a 1d6+2 (averages out at 5) attack, whether they use bow or scimitar, versus the Specter’s 3d6 (average of 9) which can also reduce the targets hit point maximum.
So, where as the Goblin’s might take half the health off 2 of 4 characters, the Spectre can not only take half the party down to 0, but on a failed save it can become a one shot kill.

This carries on through to the Shadows, a CR1/2 monster that is once again resistent to almost everything, and immune to a lot of conditions, doing 2d6+2 (avg 8) damage, that drains strength by 1d4 with no save, and again if strength reaches 0, you die.

Personally, I love the idea of these monsters, but they seem like they could easily overwhelm a low-level/inexperienced party, and they don’t have any other written-win factor, so when playing by the book there’s little getting in the way of a TPK.
For my own experience, I was playing a Wizard, the Rogue and I had explored the Statue room and I touched the orb we summoned the Shadows, with two of us in the room and the other character at the other end of the room, the Shadows swarmed my character, and it only took 3 out of 5 attacks to hit for my character to be insta-killed, no death saves just down so far I was an ex-Wizard.

Would I ask that the combat be made easier? See, this is a tough one, I don’t want things too easy, this is Barovia after all, but it feels that for an introductionary adventure that these fights are massively stacked against new or unwary players.
Honestly, I feel like aspects of the Death House are aimed at new players, but the combat is definitely not in the slightest.
So with that in mind, how do we balance the house?

Here’s my feelings on the matter, and I will attach a couple of interesting Reddit posts below that talk about more ideas (Lessons learned from CoS and Notes on Death House).
I think there should be two variations of the map, I know this might sound odd but hear me out.
For new players, I feel like the main house is a little too large, I might be inclined to half the room numbers above ground.
For experienced players, I feel like the straight forwardness of the house is going to be underwhelming, especially once we find out that the house itself is alive, in a world of magic with a Vampire Lord and more, I think taking the players into non-Euclidean spaces would be an amazing way to fuck with their heads, or simply put, the rooms are out of order, and do not conform to any order, a door closes and the next time it opens it leads elsewhere.
I feel like starting the first floor normally, and then when you get to the second, you find yourself in a room you’ve already explored from the ground floor, it may not be the most straight forward of games to play, but would add an insane level for experienced players but would take a lot to balance so it doesn’t get boring quickly.

Then there’s the combat, experienced players may be taking things cautiously, so that’s fine but new players? There’s no reason the Specter can’t be placated as she’s a victim of the house and not malicious, there’s no reason why the Shadows can’t be protective of the crystal ball, but not chase players through out the entire house.

The arguments are always going to be that the House needs to be deadly, set the tone for the campaign, but you know what also sets the tone for a dark campaign? Being forced to sacrifice a living being, or else the very house turns to attack you.
Incidentally, my team managed to sacrifice my dead Wizards familiar, “How?” you ask!
Well, you see, the Find Familiar spell doesn’t require concentration, allows you to essentially summon a creature and then forget it and can only be dismissed if the Familiar reaches 0hp, or is dismissed by the spellcaster, ie: the spell doesn’t actually say “This spell ends when the caster dies”.
Since the Cult in the house doesn’t care what kind of creature is killed, a magical familiar can be ruled to work just as well.
I guess that is the benefit of playing a game By the Book, there may be moments when it is possible to die so very easily, but there will also be loopholes you can play around with.

Finally, I know what you will say, D&D 5E is a system built on the concept of DM-fiat, and I agree it is a great strength of the system as far as I am concerned, but that doesn’t change the feeling to me, that when designing the adventure, there was an attempt to build something that works for both new players as well as experienced adventurers, and in that it definitely falls short, so I have listed my solutions but they’re not merely for “How would I fix Death House”, they’re for “How would I have made Death House work as an introduction for new players, and for returning players too”

Would I run Death House? Fuck yeah, in fact I am contemplating it, but I would *want* to adapt it for my players, there is just no way I could justify playing it otherwise.

Further reading:
https://old.reddit.com/r/dndnext/comments/49bvms/notes_from_running_death_house/
https://old.reddit.com/r/DnDBehindTheScreen/comments/70o4b7/lessons_from_running_curse_of_strahd_death_house/

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