Several weeks back, I was in the midst of a conversation with some D&D influencers on Twitter (specifically cawoodpublishing & HanCTweets) discussing the published D&D Adventures by Wizards of the Coast. The conversation started from a DM named Drake, who had his group finish the Mines of Phandelver adventure from the Starter Kit, wanted to know which published adventure he should take his players next and in which order. After we had explained that the modules were independent stories and campaigns, then the conversation shifted about running Death House for a higher leveled group and what sort of adaptations might be suggested.
Here’s some backstory regarding myself running Death House. I’ve run Death House at 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level as parts of a campaign, with one iteration with a 5th-level group. The short adventure itself is an excellent introduction to the setting of Barovia and Curse of Strahd. I don’t recommend having a party higher than 5th-level, at that point, you’re better off introducing Curse of Strahd using one of the many adventure hooks that will lure adventures to the mists of Barovia.
Wizards of the Coast provided a free copy Death House here.
Warning: Spoilers for Death House & some Curse of Strahd ahead.
Gothic Horror – Haunted and ghastly
An important lesson with horror (regardless of subgenre) is that you never unveil all of the pieces of terror or dread. You start out subtle or intense depending on the initial impact, but Gothic horror prefers to creep into your skin, so it’s important to describe the mood and environment. Setting your players into a state of relative unease helps draw them into the atmosphere for this setting.
Remember some key points: keep it hidden & mysterious; foreshadow the grim and horrendous; the setting in Curse is aged and decrypted; personification of inanimate things like the wind or buildings renounces the mundane; choose a single detail and focus on it (it does not matter if it’s important or not), and lastly some sprinkling of dark humor is always good. These will help add the eerie and horror alive and well in your game. It’s important to note that while danger is all around the adventurers, there can be moments of temporary safety to ease them in before the terror sets.
If you plan to use Death House as an introduction encounter/crawl, you will want to still use some method to lure the party into the mists whether it be through wolves attacking a helpless messenger with a message from the Burgomeister or a note from the Vistani (either or all written by Strahd). I personally enjoy the creeping fog that traps the party into the mysterious realm, there’s little precedence and offers a variety of fear, uncertainty, and discontent.
Entering the House – How to approach it through different levels
At First Level: Death House supposedly can start with 1st-level characters with the intention to level them up to 3rd level by the end of the adventure. It’s brutal to 1st-level characters, deadly on most occasions. If you have at least the bare minimum of a tank and a healer role in your party, you may survive the first couple of encounters. But once the resources run dry, the house becomes a harrowing experience. Dealing with mortality in this adventure is a great way to invoke higher stakes, but if you do not wish for that, I definitely would suggest some potions of healing (maybe two) at the start.
At Second & Third Level: Having that 2nd level boosts hit points considerably, making it easier to survive the few early encounters. Spellcasters gain an additional 1st-level spell slot to cast their offensive and support spells. But don’t let this extra level fool you, the first parts of the House can still pose a challenge, especially with a few well-placed hits. At this junction, it’s preferred to have the party as-is compared to the additional preparation suggested with a 1st-level party. Many of the classes receive their subclass features at 3rd level, which makes the player-characters (PCs) much more formidable against some of the early portions of the House. Since the original encounter design expected the party to reach this level at the end instead of the beginning, there may be some adjustments needed, but honestly, it can be still difficult for an ill-prepared party.
At Fourth & Fifth Level: At this stage, you’re going to need to definitely make some adjustments to the encounter designs and even the DCs for some checks. A rule of thumb on whether to increase a DC in a published adventure, if an expected PCs modifier plus 10 equals the original DC, increase it by anywhere between 2 to 5 more. If the check was originally supposed to be a medium difficulty, increase it by 2, and at least 4 for hard difficulty. For example, if the original DC for a Wisdom (Perception) check to perceive a secret door was 15, and at least one or two of the party members has a +5 modifier, then it’s suggested that the DC be increased by at least 2 or 3. For aesthetical reasons, we would increase the DC to 18. In some instances, having a DC 20 may seem extreme, at which case it’s suggested to keep using a baseline of DC 15.
As for the monster encounters, I would definitely make some substitutions.
- Animated Armor (CR 1) becomes a Helmed Horror (CR 4)
- Specter (CR 1)of the Nursemaid becomes a Wraith (CR 5)
- Rose and Thorn remain the same.
- The broom of animated attack remains the same as well.
- For the family crypt, you can change the swarm of insects to a swarm of poisonous snakes instead.
- In the Ghoulish Encounter with the four undead cultists, turn the ghouls (CR 1) to wights (CR 3).
- The Dursts were originally statted as ghasts (CR 2), but perhaps Strahd’s minions got a hold of them and made them into vampire spawn (CR 5) instead.
- For the Darklord’s Shrine room, double the number of shadows instead.
- Lorghoth the Decayer can go multiple avenues, instead of a magical construct of undead plant matter, you can use a young black dragon (CR 8), hezrou (CR 8) or use a treant (CR 9) but with the Engulf feature like the original shambling mound minus the Animate Trees action. The cult has supernatural ties to the house, and the Decayer can be a variety of incarnations that guard the altar.
Regarding the Cultist Denied ending, keep the DCs and damage the same for the scythe in each doorway. The smoke from the fireplaces and furnaces will need to get a DC 15 Constitution saving throw and change the damage to 2d10 poison damage. The point is to emphasize the long grueling escape out of the House as it tries to devour the party. We’re aiming for a TPK, but it can still happen with bad rolls but without making the task astronomically harder for the players. By keeping some of the Deadly rated encounters from the original House encounter at a similar level with this rework, the party should have expended considerable resources near the end.
Some Important things to remember about Death House
Death House can serve as an excellent introduction to the setting of Barovia and the Curse of Strahd story. Entry into this story does not have any particular level requirements and honestly, shouldn’t. It’s your game, run it the best way you see fit. I’ve found that some of the modifications for 4th and 5th level groups to feel more combat intensive, always remember to focus on descriptions to keep the gothic horror theme vibrant when guiding this adventure.
If you still want to use Death House for a much higher leveled group, you will need to seriously up the threats and possibly even redesign many of the core elements of the House. The roleplaying opportunities shouldn’t be compromised by this change. I would definitely suggest that the House prevents the party from escaping out of it until either Lorghoth is defeated or a sacrifice is made. Dimensional travel does not allow a character to escape the house, but traversing within it should be okay. If you have characters that can enter into the Ethereal plane like the etherealness spell, perhaps it lures foul creatures like demons or devils, or even more malicious spirits. Perhaps even have the foul demonic/undead creatures hold the souls of the Durst family until the party not only defeats the powerful entity but also puts them to rest.
The most important aspect about Death House and anything in the Curse of Strahd setting is that atmosphere and gothic horror theme. Upgrading the challenge of most encounters and challenges require some time and sifting through appropriate creatures. I would definitely recommend D&D Beyond with their monster compendium (all SRD content) since they can organize creatures by challenge ratings (CR), by type, and by environments to help make your modifications.
Let me know what you think about these changes to Death House. Tell me what other sorts of modifications you’ve made to this adventure that was fun with your group. You’re also free to share your experiences with Death House in the comments below, please be somewhat spoiler free.
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