Two tables at Guf Ballarat began playing through the new season of the D&D Adventurers League on Saturday – the other tables are yet to finish Princes of the Apocalypse, so we’re allowing them the time to do so. I was able to move people around a little bit, so for the first time in two years I don’t have Josh F and Danielle at my table. I’m going to really miss Danielle’s characters (Thumbalina being the most recent), but it was time to change up the table dynamics. (I’ll still see a lot of Josh’s characters, as he regularly plays the Adventures Formerly Known as Expeditions with me).
My new table had four players: Shaun, Josh S (who had been DMing Princes for the last year and needed a break), Jesse and Dean. I expect we’ll gain one or two people later in the season, as a few of our regulars weren’t able to make it.
The first thing we needed to do was finalise character choices. I’d let all of the Death House players know when they arrived that Chaotic-Neutral characters would be a poor fit for this season. I was a little surprised at how many players had to redo their characters as a result! I believe, very strongly, that this season requires characters with an element of compassion if it’s to be properly effective. You need to care about the characters you encounter.
The other element we needed to create was a shared background for the player characters. Why were they travelling with each other? Why were they friends?
The starting point came from Josh’s character (a dragonborn fighter), who Josh said had left his position as a soldier of Waterdeep (for the high life of caravan-guarding and a little adventuring) due to a disagreement with an officer who didn’t like him very much. Shaun ran with this, and said the same officer had run him out of Waterdeep due to the officer being worried about Shaun’s PC hanging around in graves. Shaun’s playing a tiefling wizard who is tending towards being a necromancer, so it isn’t hard to see that being a concern to the good folk of Waterdeep. Dean was playing a human monk who had been a criminal; and had likewise run into trouble with this officer. All three had then ended up as caravan guards on the same caravan and had become friends.
Jesse’s initial inclination was for his outlander half-elf druid to also have some dealings with this officer, but I thought that most unlikely. Instead, Jesse had been saved by the rest of the party from goblins. Now, with the caravan guard job ending, they were going in search of a dungeon that Jesse knew of, and he was guiding them to a town that lay near the dungeon. It was quite late at night when they finally came to the town, and there they discovered two children shivering outside of a well-built house, afraid of a monster that was living in the basement.
If you’re familiar with the Curse of Strahd adventure from which Death House is taken, you’ll notice I haven’t referred to the mists of Ravenloft once here. That is quite intentional. Is this town they’ve come to actually in the Forgotten Realms? It well could be. Can they leave? Nothing stopping them – at least they haven’t encountered anything yet that would do so. As I mentioned in a previous article, I prefer it when horror comes upon players subtly. In my home campaign, I wouldn’t even let them know they were in a horror adventure until they realised it for themselves.
The players agreed to help the children. In a typical bit of player inattention or carelessness, they neglected to ask the children their names. It’s funny how that works. It wasn’t tremendously important here, but I find it amusing when the players fail to do things that seem obvious. (The standard “mistake” made by players in my experience is to not ask where they have to go when given a quest). They did learn that while the children were unsure and vague about where their parents were (“visiting their aunt” was their reply), they did say there was a baby on the third floor.
So, the players entered the house. It was obviously a house owned by wealthy people of some importance. A windmill featured prominently as part of a coat of arms, and the wooden panelling was carved with various woodland scenes. A great black marble fireplace stood at one end of the main hall; at the other a red marble staircase. Double doors led into the further sections of the house. The players considered the hallway, and decided to seek out the children’s baby sibling first, and thus began to ascend the staircase, reaching first a well-kept hallway where four sets of platemail stood, with helmets shaped like wolves, and then a dustier, chilly hallway, where only a single set of cobwebbed armour stood.
Dean was immediately suspicious, especially of the armour. The rest of the party dismissed his concerns, and opted to investigate the one set of double-doors that led off the hall. Dean had his suspicions rewarded immediately when the armour lurched into motion and attacked the party, landing a few blows on Jesse and Josh before the players were able to disable it (through hitting it really hard). Jesse’s druid discovered that his one offensive cantrip, poison spray, was particularly ineffective against the armour.
The upper level of the house showed no sign of recent habitation, in great contrast to the well-kept appearance of the lower floors. The double-doors led into a master bedroom, cobwebbed and abandoned. A dumbwaiter was set into the corner, with a button next to it. Josh pressed the button, but it had no effect. Dean took a jewellery box with a platinum pendant and three gold rings from the vanity, and the players attempted to rationalise the abandoned top floor with what they’d seen below. In the end they came to the conclusion that the family were living in lower levels, and the children were confused as to where their room was. (That, or the American numbering of floors was confusing to us Commonwealth types).
However, this upper level did contain a nursery, where a bundle of blankets resembling a baby was in a cobweb-shrouded crib. No baby was in the blankets, but the spectral form of a nursemaid manifested as Dean investigated and attacked the party. In this combat, Shaun discovered his own offensive cantrip – chill touch – was as ineffective as Jesse’s poison spray, and so both had to resort to using their limited number of first-level spells or melee attacks. Shaun’s magic missile spell proved especially effective, and Dean and Josh were able to defeat the spectre; luckily, the spectre had not been able to damage any of the party with its life-draining attack.
(It should be noted that when describing the apparition to the players I didn’t use the term “spectre”, instead using terms like “spectral” and “ghostly” to describe it, so that the players weren’t aware of its exact game statistics.)
The group returned downstairs, where they continued their investigations, finding that everything on the ground level was well-maintained and looked like it was inhabited. They checked on the children on the porch, who still huddled there, worried and terrified. The children confirmed that they lived on the second floor, but had no clue as to what had happened to the baby.
Climbing to the second floor, they found no sign of the children’s chamber, but they did find a library which concealed a secret chamber full of books on necromantic rituals and demonic summonings. Shaun was very happy to see this, and stayed back to investigate as the others continued their search. Amongst a set of notes, they discovered a letter from a mysterious “master” who denied the family his help, writing that he preferred them in their wretched state. This family? It didn’t seem that well-adjusted…
The group had become convinced that there were secret doors they hadn’t found – there was certainly no access to the basement, nor to the attic. They finally discovered the way to the attic, although in doing so, they needed to look more closely at the wooden panelling. In the process they discovered how disturbing the design truly was: a woodland scene contained bodies hanging from trees and worms writhing in the earth! More abandoned bedrooms and storage places were found in the attic, along with one padlocked room. The group attempted to break the door down, for no-one had the tools to pick the lock (although Dean was trained in the use of thieves’ tools, he didn’t have a set).
One of the unlocked rooms contained a bloodstained blanket wrapped around a woman’s skeleton. The group correctly deduced it was the remains of the spectral nursemaid that had attacked them below.
Finally, the group found a secret door that led to a spiral staircase that spiralled down to the basement. Shaun rejoined them, having discovered that the ritual books were clueless nonsense. Together, they began to head down the stairs…
And so ended the first session of Death House. It took us a little under two hours to play through; I expect the basement will take one or two more sessions of that length to complete.
The tension between the normal-appearing house and the gradual introduction of supernatural elements worked wonderfully well. All of the players greatly enjoyed it, and found some of the events quite disturbing. They didn’t discover everything in the house. One of the main reasons for this is that they were becoming quite paranoid. Although most things were as they seemed, just enough was wrong to put them on edge. I’ve allowed the group a “long rest” and the acquirement of a new level before they begin the basement. In fact, it’s likely that they haven’t spent any time resting at all, but for purpose of game balance and story flow, it works better to assume they’ve had a long rest.
We’ll continue the adventure next week. See you then!