Curse of Strahd is an iconic module adventure in DND, especially since the release of 5th edition. But a lot of DMs out there have been asking, “What’s up with Death House?”
What is Death House?
Death House is an optional mini-adventure of terror and discovery you can guide your players through. As the “Curse of Strahd” module is for Level 3-10 characters (and a party of 3-7 players) this adventure provides an opportunity for your players to jump from Level 1 to Level 3, should they survive. Players level up when they discover the dungeon entrance and Level 3 is reached upon successfully escaping the House.
More specifically, “Death House” is the name given to a mysterious four-story house on the edge of town, complete with a two-level dungeon of horrors. This was the home of Gustav and Elisabeth Durst, practitioners of the dark arts, who, centuries ago, led a cannibalistic cult in many bizarre rituals. The cult was ultimately slaughtered by Strahd after interfering in his business. While the cultists are long gone their spirits and dark ways have infiltrated the house, which, itself, seems to long for blood.
Your players are initially drawn to the manor by the promptings of two children (only the “children” are really illusions created by the sentient home to pull passersby in). Once your players head toward the house there is no turning back as the mists of Ravenloft force them inside.
Your players make their way through each floor of the home, and are repeatedly attacked and surprised by all sorts of misfortune. After discovering a secret staircase they are ushered to the dungeon below. In the depths of the Cultists’ lair a few final monsters seek the lives of your players, whose only hope is to make an offering, make a final escape, or die trying.
How long does Death House take to run?
The Death House adventure often takes 3-4 hours. Many DMs let it stretch into a 2-shot campaign, but if your party is up for it a 1-shot is totally doable.
Alternatively, if your players want to investigate every room they wander into it could take upwards of 6 hours, so either hunker down or look for a nice spot to put a pin in it for the night.
What makes Death House Iconic?
Death House envelopes you in the world of Ravenloft’s mystery and magic. If your players have never adventured in the realm of Ravenloft, Death House will immerse their characters in all its glory. In a way, Death House is its own mini Barovia:
- The mists that push you to the demi-plane of Barovia push you further into the manor, in effect a barely escapable demi-plane of its own.
- Death House introduces you to the pain that children experience in Barovia as you meet the long-dead Durst children: Rosavalda and Thornbolt, locked away and forgotten by their parents. The youth and innocence of Rose and Thorn even mirrors the memory of Sergei and Tatyana, victims of Barovia in their own way.
- It’s architecture and decor give constant nods to the world outside it: The house itself has many components only found elsewhere in Castle Ravenloft (a water-filled dungeon, secret crypts, and spiral staircases). Upon closer inspection beautiful artwork gives way to terror-filled scenes. And many references are made to the ominous Old Bonegrinder Windmill, planting seeds for future player endeavors..
- The Durst Manor cult’s obsession with dark beings, and later their worship of Strahd, gives way to the Broader storyline of Strahd’s pact with Vampyr as well as your party’s later discovery of other Strahd-worshippers throughout Ravenloft.
- The inescapable danger of Death House should impart to the players the level of danger they’ll experience as they venture into the realm of Ravenloft.
- Toward the end of the “Curse of Strahd” as players come face to face with Strahd, the house’s chant, “one must die, one must die” has an eerie irony as your party tries to defeat him.
- The biggest foreshadowing of them all: As the house collapses in on itself in an attempt to trap any fleeing adventurers, a look back at the house reveals no damage at all. In the same way Curse of Strahd allows the immortal ruler to remanifest himself again and again… should he ever die at the hands of your players.
- If all this foreshadowing is as exciting to you as it is to me, check out FlutesLoot.com for an even more in depth explanation of all there is to be seen.
Why DM’s skip Death House?
-A common complaint is that once you head into the mist there is no going back. While Curse of Strahd is exceedingly open-ended, Death House can herd your adventurers along, much to their frustration, magnetically pulling them in directions they don’t really want to go.
-Honestly, there’s no reason to actually explore the dungeon. The hook to get you into the house is to find a baby and save it from a monster. For some DM’s and parties the logic just doesn’t drum up an enticing adventure.
-To put it simply: Your party could die. Death House is…drumroll please… a house of death. Sometimes Level One characters simply don’t have the chops for it. Stumble into a Specter and they’ll hit your players with 3D6 Life Drain; enough to take out many inexperienced characters. And how do you beat multiple ghouls and shadows within feet of each other except by sheer luck?
Other options if Death House isn’t your kind of party:
- Start your characters at Level 3 (or even 5)
- Make it a little easier. As the DM you have the right to adjust the house to your liking and to provide an engaging experience for your players. Jacob over at XP to Level 3 offers a few ideas of edits you can make so Death House is a little more palatable… and survivable. The Death House Sucks (and how to fix it)
So Should you run Death House?
Some of your decision depends on your party: Would they enjoy beginning this overpowered adventure as rookies? Would they be disappointed they didn’t have to earn their first few character levels? Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Nothing beats a classic dungeon.
- Eternal bragging rights as your players escape by the skin of their teeth.
- A really gritty way for players to level up quickly.
- It’s great for introducing your players to the threats and danger of Barovia.
- Gosh it’s beautiful. Death House has been masterfully developed. Great backstories, so much history partnered with meaningful foreshadowing, incredible detail and creativity. Just bask in it.
- It’s thick. The house is a heyday for discovery, distraction, and danger. Every nook and cranny can be explored, forever, and ever, and when you’re still on the third floor after 5 hours… you get my drift.
- If you or your party appreciate logical consistency, the goal of saving the baby can’t be achieved. This could be frustrating. (But if your party’s goal is to level up they’re going to have a mighty-fine time.) What lens should you view it through?
- They could all die, and the ruthless slaughter of beloved characters is never a fun way to end a day…or begin a new adventure.
Think about it:
- If you want to start your players at Level 1 but aren’t sure about Death House, there are other Ravenloft adventures you can consider. House of Lament found in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, Lost Mines of Phandelver, or even creating your own mini-adventure (utilizing VR’s Guide to Ravenloft) are all viable options!
- As a DM, running Death House isn’t a walk in the park. In fact, it’ll probably be a challenge for you, too! It has so much to offer, and so much to describe, so know you’ll be taking a lot of time casting the scenes for your players.
- As the DM, you can make some calls on how hard certain aspects are. Use your gut.
- Ask your party! You can introduce them to the general challenge of the adventure and you all can make the call together.
Whether you decide to use Death House or not in your campaign, you can be sure your players are going to have a great time in Baroiva. Death House can be skipped or used without fear of “missing out.”
I hope this gives you some peace and I really hope it gives your game advantage!