When you start Curse of Strahd, the players can do anything.
All the adventure provides is a path through the front gates and some nudges toward a few areas.
But I wanted to do things a little different.
(Spoilers for Curse of Strahd ahead!)
To dive into the adventure, the most recent from Dungeons & Dragons, without some leveling, players will get slaughtered. Some of the first encounters in Barovia involve a battle with vampire spawn, random encounters with skeletal riders and some other dicey stuff.
So I sent them to Death House.
If you haven’t played the adventure yet, Death House is a creepy haunted house in the town of Barovia. (It’s also available for free online.) It’s an optional part of the book, but it levels characters from 1 to 3 with some easier-to-navigate enemies.
But it’s also super hard. Many DMs have said online that it’s a TPK factory, and from my experience, it easily could be if you don’t play it right.
I was lucky in that I had a shortage of players. Both times we ran the game, one of my four players couldn’t be there, so I had to adjust the adventure for only three PCs.
One thing I love about the adventure: It’s so creepy.
From the party meeting one of Strahd’s minions to walking into Barovia, the setting sure is an eerie place. The team at D&D nailed the feeling. My players felt like some weird stuff was up when they were surrounded by fog, encountered a dead body on the side of the road and heard strange cries and moaning when they walked into the town.
Then they got to Death House.
That place is seriously messed up.
Outside, the party ran into two ghostly children, and their story (which I read straight from the adventure) was compelling enough that the party stepped right inside without much question.
The first few floors don’t have much to them except for some really creepy stuff. Complicated carvings on one wall look to be of a beautiful forest, but close inspection shows bodies hanging from trees. Another piece of artwork looks like people dancing, but a close look shows they’re being attacked by swarms of bats.
My players were especially freaked out in the nursemaid’s suite, where they found a black bundle in a crib. Spoiler: It turns out to be nothing at all (just a baby-shaped roll of cloth), but the PCs took turns debating whether to uncover it or not. It was a great moment of tension.
Then the players reached the attic floor. Here’s where I had to do some work: When specters and ghosts started to appear, I had to think on my feet.
My three-player party would have been destroyed if I had run the adventure as-written. The first specter they were supposed to combat, I turned it into a non-combat encounter. I had it rush through a character’s body, leaving him cold and shaken.
Eventually, the players found their way to the basement, which was formerly occupied by cultists. It’s mostly a room-to-room combat, and the players had a lot of fun cutting through the place and trying to discover the source of some ghostly chanting.
Note: The adventure calls for them to reach level 2 when they reach the basement. I let them do it without a rest, so they could keep fighting without delay.
In the basement, I once again had to adjust. Four ghouls would have cut through three level 2 adventurers, so I used three.
Piece of advice: If they’re having trouble anywhere, reduce the number of monsters or their hit points. It’s pretty easy to do on the fly.
One of our players, who didn’t make the first session, joined in our second session. I had his character chained up in section 31 of the adventure, a shrine to Strahd where about a dozen decaying skeletons are chained up.
In-game, I said he was investigating the house when he was overtaken by shadows who knocked him out. He awoke in the shrine room chained to the wall. After some suspicious questioning, he joined up with the rest of the group and helped them through the rest of the adventure.
They proceeded through the dungeon cutting down mimics and ghasts.
Then they got to the the final chamber.
In there, a shambling mound worshiped by cultists will rise unless he is appeased by someone being sacrificed on an altar.
It’s a creepy scene. Ghostly visages chant and demand a life.
The players discussed it quickly, but no one wanted to die.
When no sacrifice was made, Lorghoth the Decayer awoke and began kicking ass.
My players went straight after him. The mage threw a bunch of spells at him, but they mostly did no damage due to the shambling mound’s magical resistance.
The ranger and blood hunter got up in Lorghoth’s face and did some direct damage.
Near the end of the fight, everyone was on their last legs (and one player was unconscious).
Lorghoth was eventually taken down by a spell by the mage (he finally figured out to throw force spells at the shambling mound rather than lightning or fire), and the monster crumpled to the ground.
What they didn’t know then: Lorghoth nearly destroyed them all. He failed several attack rolls, and had he succeeded, they would have been taken out pretty easily.
Now they’re left in the murky basement. All they have to do is escape the Death House.