Earlier this week I sat down with some friends for the first time in many months (if not years) to play a session of Dungeons & Dragons. I prepared the players ahead of time to start the Curse of Strahd (CoS) adventure, and decided to use the Death House mini-adventure (CoS, Appendix B, pg. 211) to introduce the players to the flavor of Barovia. In reading through Death House, I was impressed with the gothic horror elements of the story. At the same time, I was concerned about the pace of the story and the lack of combat early in the house. This article provides some ideas on props that can be used to add more player engagement to Death House without simply adding more monsters to fight.
*** If you are a player (especially a player in my campaign), then I suggest stopping now. Spoilers for Death House are peppered throughout the article. ***
I was not sure how to get the players to Barovia until the morning of the session — even though I have been preparing to run this adventure for well over a month. I decided to go with the Mysterious Visitors adventure hook (CoS, pg. 19-21) because it accomplishes multiple things. It allows the party to be anchored to the Forgotten Realms so they can easily return there after we conclude Curse of Strahd. The players spend time with Lady Morwen of Daggerford so they have a known NPC to interact with many months from now when they return from Barovia. It allows for some “normal world interaction” before being transported to Barovia where things are more sinister and creepy. Last, it allowed me to interact with the players through a few NPCs (such as Stanimir) to learn about their new characters.
With just a few conversations with the players and their characters, I picked up some juicy nuggets that I can cash in during future sessions. For example, I learned that the Cleric, Ox, is extremely vain and was frustrated when a female NPC brushed off his efforts to impress her; vanity is certainly a flaw Strahd can exploit! Riosh, the Warlock, is not trusting and holds a special disdain for the rich and affluent; there will be many nice targets for his anger in Barovia. Meanwhile, Begby, a Goliath Barbarian, is competitive, overly concerned about lawfulness, and is quick to take justice too far; it will be interesting to see how he responds to tragedies and wrongs that he cannot right. I would not have learned these character bits if I simply threw them in front of Death House to begin; if using Death House, then build up to that mini-adventure with something else first.
This Used To Be a Fun House
Rose and Thorn are two children from Barovia, and their role in the beginning of the Death House mini-adventure is to lure the players inside. By this point, we had been playing for a good 60-90 minutes and the players no longer trusted anything. They were skeptical about traveling with Stanimir in the first place and were unsure of what to do when Creeping Fog (CoS, pg. 22) gets them separated from Stanimir and his group. While navigating out of the forest, they discovered a corpse (bearing a startling resemblance to one of the players) before finally entering Barovia and meeting Rose and Thorn. The players were on guard and suspicious of anything the children had to say. When one of the players made to grab one of the children to determine if they were a trap, I introduced the Creeping Fog again to ensure they went inside the house as the children vanished.
While the Rose and Thorn outside Death House are illusions, I considered them to be real kids before their death and wondered how they would behave while alive. This triggered the thought that the players could get clues about Death House through the perspective of Rose and Thorn. I wanted to introduce these clue on the First Floor of the house since it is otherwise a slow march through clearing out empty rooms. I figured the players would be cautious (checking for traps, thoroughly searching for secret doors, etc.) and that would slow down the pace even more. I used the Dining Room (CoS, pg. 213) to house the props I created. I created four drawings to have on the dining room table; the idea is that these are pictures Rose and Thorn drew to make sense of their world (and the events in their house) before their death.
The Durst House. I know the mini-adventure is called Death House; the players don’t. While the three floors detailed of Death House contain only three monsters (four if the ghosts of Rose and Thorn end up attacking), the basement is a grinder that features a near-unwinnable battle and potential escape through a house determined to kill everyone. Some foreshadowing of that fact seems more than fair. The first image is Thorn’s drawing of his home; it’s subtle, but I drew the windows and front door to resemble a skull. And, yes, this is my very limited drawing ability pretending to draw like a 7 year-old. This also gives the players the surname of the family (if they don’t glean that from Rose and Thorn).
Animated Armor. The second drawing from Thorn shows him enjoying a ride from the animated armor. I like to imagine the armor was almost like a pet in the Durst family. I changed the weapon on the armor to be a sword instead of a spear (as described in CoS) because it was easier to draw. I thought this would give the players a clue that the suit of armor upstairs could come to life. However, when the party advanced upstairs, one player just walked up to the armor and touched it. The result was she was attacked immediately and brought 2 hit points shy of dying! The players did not get the hint; however, I imagine they will closely examine the rest of the art now that this drawing provided useful information.
Nursemaid’s Ghost. Which brings us to the only drawing I created for Rose. Instead of crayons, I used colored pencils and tried to do a “better” drawing since Rose is 10 years old and likely more skilled than her younger brother. I imagine the nursemaid’s ghost (CoS, pg. 215) appeared to the children from time to time before they were neglected to death by their parents. Rose decided to draw her; maybe the ghost was the only creature that listened to her and thus they had a strong bond or even friendship. The players are already picking apart details of this drawing, such as the lantern and locket the ghost is holding. I based the drawing on the ghost pictured in the Monster Manual (pg. 147), and that ghost just happened to have those items so I included them. Now I’m thinking of ways to turn those items into something useful in the campaign when the players discover them in the basement! Best moment was a few minutes after the drawings were passed out, one of the players noted, “Wait a second, she’s decapitated!”
The Monster in the Basement. One of the key pieces of information that Rose and Thorn share with the players is their concern about a monster in the basement and the “terrible howls” they hear from it. Combined with the materials found in the Hunter’s Den on the first floor, the players are under the impression they will encounter a werewolf downstairs (I applaud that interpretation; I even thought about changing the rest of the adventure). The monster is, in fact, a shambling mound, which is likely to kill characters that attempt to fight toe-to-toe with it. The picture is Thorn’s imagination at work since he likely heard the howls while alive but has never seen the beast. I based the drawing on the art for shambling mound (Monster Manual, pg. 270) and left it quite abstract. It’s unlikely the players will make a direct connection to this specific monster, but it may help with eliminating incorrect conclusions such as the werewolf hypothesis.
Collectively, the four drawings above add to the first floor exploration phase in Death House. Even if the players miss their significance of one (like mine did), they are likely to return to them for additional study and speculation after the animated armor encounter (like mine did). Feel free to print these off, or grab some art supplies and create your own. There are any number of plot elements in Death House that could be illustrated from Rose and Thorn’s point of view. Get creative!
Strahd’s Letter of Disapproval
The session ended after the players searched the library and located the secret room. In the room is a the skeleton of a poor adventurer that died while opening a trapped treasure chest. The skeleton is holding a letter, which is penned by none other than Strahd von Zarovich. I typed up the letter, printed it out, and rolled it up to hand to the party during the session. In the past, I might have aged it with tea/coffee stains but this was just a crumbled printout. With the letter, and a successful Arcana check to learn the rituals being practiced are bogus, the players are starting to understand the larger story at work in Death House.
Remember, the players have no idea what is happening in this mini-adventure. Regardless of how you get the players to Barovia, it is likely through some type of disinformation, deception, or disorientation. Death House is a mystery that slowly unfolds for the players, and the drawings from Rose and Thorn and the letter can provide them with tangible clues about what is happening.