The newest season of D&D is upon us! Curse of Strahd, the first 5E adventure set in the land of Ravenloft, a dark gothic horror setting, will be released in select game stores on March 4th and more widely on March 15th. Many stores around the world will be running the Launch Event Death House, an introduction to the full adventure, which provides an adventure for levels one and two characters. The adventure is also available as part of Dragon+, although there are additional benefits for playing it in stores as part of the D&D Adventurers League.
The Launch Event adventure document does leave out a few details which will be covered in the full adventure, such as the map of the village of Barovia and the effects of the Mists. These details aren’t that important for running Death House, but a couple of words on beginning the adventure wouldn’t go astray. Note that you can find the map of the village here, or in the Dragon+ version.
On Character Creation and Entering the Mists
Characters in Death House are not native to Barovia or the domain of Ravenloft. They come from other D&D worlds: if you’re playing it as a D&D Adventurers League game, you come from the Forgotten Realms. Players should create new first-level characters for the adventure, although existing 1st or 2nd-level characters could participate. The background of the characters will be important for a couple of reasons. First, it gives the players a basis for role-playing. Role-playing is going to be very important in Curse of Strahd, as a large part of it will be shaped by how the characters react to the events of the adventure. Second, it gives the DM a basis to engage the individual players in the story. Their flaws and bonds can be tremendously important. Good horror stories probe the flaws, and test the relationships. Is the character compassionate? Hard-hearted? Secretly envious of another? All are elements that the players and their DM can use to enrich the story.
Thinking in terms of relationships and drawbacks is a good starting point for creating characters.
Players who prefer to play chaotic-neutral, no-personality, “kill everything that moves” characters are probably not going to get as much out of this adventure. I really recommend that players create characters that can relate to the other player characters and the people they meet. Strahd might end up driving a character insane, but it’s better not to start that way!
How do characters reach the land? Think of it as a terrible version of Narnia. You are traveling through a forest along a road towards your destination, only to find mists slowly creeping out between the trees. Strange wolf-howls and owl-cries echo through the forest. Then the mists begin to clear, and you find yourself coming towards a village… Welcome to Barovia!
This beginning can be played in a couple of ways. The first has the party travelling in lands that they’re unfamiliar with. In this version, Barovia isn’t obviously another plane or anything like that. It’s just another place in the world. I personally like this version more: there’s no big sign that the characters have entered a horror adventure. They’ve just reached the next town on the road… and then things start going wrong and they find they can’t escape!
The second may be more unsettling: The players are travelling in lands they are familiar with, but the mists change everything around them until they realise they’re no longer where they thought they were: they’ve been transported to a new land, one with an unsettling darkness upon it. With this start, the players know something is wrong from the very beginning.
Which one is better? It depends a lot on how you judge your players (and whether or not you’ve told them what adventure you’re running…)
Tone and Approach
Death House is primarily an exploration-focused adventure. Yes, it has combat, and a small amount of role-playing, but far more of the adventure is focused on exploring the strange, apparently deserted house.
My feeling is that horror works best when it’s rooted in the familiar. Things should appear normal at first, and the players lulled into thinking they understand the environment. Then, when strange things start happening, they have more impact.
There’s a tragedy at the heart of Death House, and it helps if you can bring it home to the players: let them understand that innocents have died here. If you can make the players think about the consequences of their actions, so much the better!
The pacing of the adventure ramps up as it progresses: first everything seems normal, then one or two wrong things appear, then more, until finally – at the climax of the adventure – everything goes wrong and the players must scramble to survive. I’d keep the gloves off myself: there’s nothing like killing a player character to make the rest pay attention. It’s great to have consequences!
The ghosts are your chief tools for imparting the tragedy and history of the house; they can also inspire good-hearted characters to avenge their deaths, which makes the second act of the adventure far more interesting. When preparing the adventure, think of how you could employ them. (The ghosts will work even better if they possess a player who is good at role-playing. If you’ve got a budding actor in the group, you’ve got a real opportunity here!)
Notes and Emendations
Death House references a monster that is in the full Curse of Strahd adventure but not in the free adventure: an animated object. Use the stats for the Animated Sword from the Monster Manual, but it deals bludgeoning damage instead.
The Mists of Ravenloft disorientate all who enter them, so that they end up turned around and returning to their entry point after a few minutes of wandering blindly through the fog. The original Ravenloft adventure also had them begin to choke characters who continued to persist in travelling through them; you might choose to use that as an additional deterrent if the players don’t get the hint.
Dungeon Masters running the adventure as part of the D&D Adventurers League should see the additional notes on the DDAL website. In particular, only new DMs should use the milestone XP system; it’s recommended that instead you give regular XP.
Those are my initial thoughts on running Death House. We’ll be running part of it this weekend – I hope to soon bring you reports of how it went for us, and inspiration for how you might employ it with your players!