Our second session of Death House saw my four players travel down the spiral stairs from the attic down into the basement. And with that simple trip, the character of the adventure changed. For one thing, it got a lot more brutal and similar to a regular D&D session.
It is hard maintaining a sense of horror, especially when you start a new session, and especially in D&D, where players are not typically in that mode. (It’s a lot easier in Call of Cthulhu). So, I found the players in a more cheerful mood from the beginning of this session, and one that I had to work hard to dispel. Where the first session played up the difference between the mundane and supernatural, this one was set in a dungeon. That’s hardly mundane and familiar to the players (although it’s sort of familiar for D&D players…) The horror here would have to come from the brutality and danger of the monsters.
Not that the group found any for a while, as they wandered through a number of abandoned rooms that had been used as living quarters for quite a number of people. I don’t know who the players thought had once used the rooms. Thinking back now, I should have asked them, because it’s something that might have pushed their thinking into the right direction for the session. Normal families don’t have cults in their basements!
The group managed somehow to avoid walking into a nasty trap – they suddenly decided to go another way and avoided it! – and made a slow circle through the corridors and chambers back to their starting point, ignoring some of the side-passages they found. As they travelled, they became quite aware of a ghostly chanting sound that filled the dungeon, and when faced with a choice of direction went away from wherever the chanting sounded louder. Their thought was they didn’t want to be attacked from behind. I quite agreed.
A rough dining chamber was unsettling: human bones littered the floor, some with human teeth marks upon them. A monster, all tentacles and maw, slithered at them from a dark corner of the chamber, but the group were to slay it quite quickly, with Jesse’s druid making good effect of the shillelagh spell – after the last session, the cantrips chosen by the players had been swapped around a bit. Incidentally, just on a flavour note, this is the one monster that I don’t think fits in the adventure. Tentacle beasts fit better in the Cthulhu mythos than in Gothic Horror. Some giant rats would have felt a lot better here. It felt thematically wrong to me.
The group then found a number of the family’s tombs, although it took them a while to work out what they were, as the first ones they found were empty and unused. Then they found the sealed tombs, and the group were split over whether to investigate or not. Eventually the vote came down to two against investigating, one for investigating, and one abstaining. So they investigated the tombs. How did that work? I had no idea!
They found a wooden coffin inside, on top of a stone bier. When they attempted to open it, a swarm of centipedes skittered out of the far wall, engulfing the players. They drove them off, although not before the centipedes inflicted a few nasty bites. The coffin proved to be empty, but the group were spooked enough that they didn’t investigate any of the other tombs, preferring to leave their inhabitants in peace.
Having now explored the initial set of chambers, they now made their way towards the chanting. As they made their way along a corridor, the dirt floor heaved as four skeletal forms pushed their way through it, surrounding the party. The players fended off the undeads’ blows, and slew them quickly. In contrast to last session, where Dean’s monk couldn’t hit anything, his dice were running hot tonight: he hit with almost every attack roll during the session. This encounter could have been very scary for the party if they’d rolled worse and I’d rolled better, but it was not to be.
The greatest danger they’d discovered so far was in a chamber dressed as a shrine, dominated by a wooden statue of a well-dressed man with his hand on the back of a wolf. In his other hand, he held a crystal ball. Shaun used a ritual to determine that the ball was magical, but his investigations discovered no trap. There wasn’t a trap… just angry shadows that flew out of the walls and surrounded the party. I must say that I expected the party to flee, but they stood and fight. This wasn’t good for Josh – his fighter was badly affected by the strength-draining attacks, which finally reduced his Strength score to 8! Somehow, the group survived and defeated the shadows, despite Jesse missing with almost all of his shillelagh attacks.
However, the group were so badly hurt by this experience that they returned to the attic to have a short rest.
An hour later, they continued to explore. This time, they encountered a door. And the door killed Jesse’s cleric. It animated, grabbed him, and a critical hit ensured his immediate death – no death saving throws for a character slowly dying – the damage was just too high. The group were shocked, and they could do nothing to save him. They slew the door, and – with no other option – proceeded onwards.
They found good-quality chambers beyond, with a great bed and many chests and cabinets. As Shaun used mage hand to lift the lid of a chest, more undead creatures appeared, breaking free of the walls and attacking. The group were very glad of Dean’s good rolling, but they were badly hurt when the undead were destroyed. They gathered the items they found in the chest – including, to Dean’s great delight, a set of thieves’ tool – and returned upstairs.
It was time for a long rest, and the end of the session. We’ll finish this adventure next session (which will be in a couple of weeks, due to our current schedule).
As you might have gathered, the dungeon changes the aspect of the adventure from “this is weird and disturbing” to “this is dangerous and we might die unexpectedly”. It’s a different kind of horror, and one that can be difficult to convey properly to players. Actually killing one of the PCs raises the stakes dramatically, and lets the players know you’re not holding their hands, something that is very important to establish. You shouldn’t force a PC death, but this is one of those adventures where I won’t be fudging die rolls in the PCs favour: you want to let it play naturally.
This does leave me with the problem of what to do with Jesse next session. Does he create a new character? (We’ll probably have a couple of new players as well who will join us). Do I use the Dark Powers of Ravenloft to resurrect him… wrong? Honestly, I think leaving him dead fits the purpose of the Death House a lot better, but I haven’t decided yet. I’ll talk to him about it next week.