Sunday, April 3, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Death House


Last night the Curse of Strahd campaign was kicked off in the Game Tavern. I used the Appendix B: adventure, Death House. For the uninitiated, this is an optional mini-adventure designed to advance new characters to 3rd level. If you intend on playing the adventure some point in the future I caution you to stop reading now. This session report will be riddled with spoiler information so you have been warned!

In attendance for the adventure was six players and their stalwart cadre consisted of the following characters:

Derek, a monk who spent some time in an asylum.
Gunter Gerstadt, a roguish monster hunter.
Sophronia Biddleman, a ranger with an undead vendetta.
Caigre, a paladin with post-apocalyptic visions.
Tawny, a warlock who was raised by faeries.
Odi Volkson, a priest of none other than Loki.

Whenever I start a new campaign I offer a permanent 10% XP bonus if the players write a background. Armed with this information I can customize adventures a tad more. Plus it really gets the players thinking about their characters beyond a page with numbers written upon it. That said, Death House uses a Milestone system where the players are just rewarded a level in lieu of raw experience points. I opted in this one time, with plans to return to traditional XP rewards moving forward.

In terms of housekeeping we are using two house rules for our campaign. The first is the Dark Inspiration Pool, which consists of twelve six-sided dice. These are prominently displayed in a gothic bowl in the middle of the game table. Accepting help from the dark lords is so very tempting but has its consequences. In terms of game mechanics, at any time a player can take one six-sided die from the pool. This may be used to add to any attack roll, skill check, or saving throw. The caveat is they must also hand the Dungeon Master one of the dice, who is able to use it whenever they see fit. More then one character death has been caused by the DM having a Dark Inspiration die in the past!

The second house rule comes from the Adventurer’s League DM packet for the Curse of Strahd. When a character under 5th level dies, the player can choose to have the Dark Powers of Ravenloft resurrect the character for free. If the player chooses resurrection, the character returns to play at the start of the next round with full hit points and spells. However, this dark resurrection leaves the character tainted by shadow. The character gains a Dark Gift, which can be both cosmetic and very detrimental in terms of game mechanics.

The DM packet only provides four examples, so I have begun to create my own which may be the subject of a future blog post. Ravenloft is a deadly place and this option allows the DM to take the kid gloves off immediately. Plus Strahd does not want his play things snuffed out like a candle flame just yet! The role-playing opportunities using the dark gift option are really fantastic. After all, this leaves a heavy burden on your soul, or what is left of it.

Curse of Strahd offers many suggestions on just how characters may find themselves in Barovia. For simplicity I opted for a variation of the Creeping Fog choice. Each of the characters wandered into a strange mist at their original location, and then found themselves in Barovia. All of them met in a dilapidated structure which resembled an old inn on the Svalich road. After realizing they were in the same predicament, the group was forced further down the road by the return of the choking mist.

I used this time to offer Gothic flavor descriptions of the area and begin subtle music in the Game Tavern. I use a Bluetooth speaker, and then loop various atmospheric and creepy tracks together to help set the mood. The PCs found some graffiti inside the inn which warned them about the mists and someone named the Devil Strahd. Additionally they found a map of the area but had no idea where they were exactly.

For this I decided to make a prop with the untagged region map of Barovia. Tactile props are another thing when used sparingly which help to set the mood. To age my printout I simply use Folgers instant crystals, some hot water, and then dry the printout at 350 in the oven for about five minutes. This has the added effect of curling the paper some, leaving you with a great looking (and smelling) piece of parchment.

Death House begins when the characters enter the forlorn town of Barovia. For background the home is infused with the evil spirits of the cultists that once resided there. After meeting the illusions of two children, and learning there is a monster in the house, the characters are forced in by the choking mists. Granted this may seem like a railroad to some, but the dark powers want the characters to enter the house, and usually get their way.

Mike Schley illustrated some really awesome maps of the Death House. I was tempted to use my Dwarven Forge to build the locations but there was just too many. Therefore I resized the maps in Photoshop and printed them out for use with miniatures. I then glued them to some black poster board and used painter’s tape to create my fog of war effect. This worked out well and the players enjoyed peeling back the tape to reveal new areas of the maps. The only downside of this approach was secret areas were also covered in tape, which caused some minor Meta gaming.

Death house is a four story structure which uses exploration and mystery as a suspense builder. I think the authors did a good job of the latter although it may be to slow for some groups. For that reason I think Death House is a good gauge to determine if your group will actually enjoy Gothic horror. Ravenloft, it played correctly, is a very different experience from traditional high fantasy. That being said, I found that it may indeed be a tad to slow if the party decided to explore everything. The seasoned veterans at my table left no stone unturned last night and did a complete exploration.

Soon this caused some table jokes to start as boredom slowly was setting in. In particular many of the room descriptions contain something created from mahogany. This was a regal home after all, but that becomes the focus of jokes at our table as the players entered a new room. “Is it made from mahogany?” That all said, I think the room descriptions help to paint the picture of this pseudo Victorian home and all its aged, yet beautiful furniture and accoutrements.

My advice to any DM running this adventure is pay attention to your table. If they players seem to be losing focus then it’s time for you to make something happen. This could be as benign as their torches blowing out, something tapping them on the shoulder, or make a combat occur. The easiest use of the latter would be to have the animated armor on the 3rd floor walk down the marble stairs and attack them. Just the sound of the clanking metal against the stone steps would be scary as they wait to see what is coming for them.

The third floor also contains one of the nastier encounters for first level characters. As the story goes, the master of the house had an affair with the nursemaid, which led to stillborn child. The cult murdered the nursemaid soon thereafter, and she now haunts the area as a specter. Perhaps most hair-raising of all is a crib, covered in a black shroud, inside of which is a wrapped baby sized bundle. Of course our priest of Loki volunteered to investigate the bundle which incurred the wrath of the specter. The battle lasted three rounds, and the warlock died from the specter’s life drain. She opted to let the Dark Powers of Ravenloft resurrect her character, and now is haunted by permanent nightmares of the experience. In terms of game mechanics, she has disadvantage on all saving throws versus fear now.

Eventually the characters will find their way to the attic of the home and make a grisly discovery. Behind a padlocked door is a room with bricked over windows. Here two children starved to death and their frightened ghosts remain. This encounter is relatively heavy since kids are involved and the manner of their demise. I actually applaud the authors for going to this dark place, as it sets the tone for the unforgiving land which is Barovia. There has been plenty of passive aggressive feedback over the years in regard to this type of published material. But like I said earlier, Ravenloft is not for everyone nor is Gothic horror.

I loved this encounter as I believe it gave the players pause and made them angry that someone would do such a thing. We had some great role-playing at our table with the ghosts who eventually possessed two of the PCs for fear of being abandoned. Without giving away everything, this was eventually resolved by the party and they set out to the basement of the Death House. This is where the adventure turns into a more traditional dungeon crawl type setting. The basement is where the cultists would murder people in sacrifice to the dark powers. The screams of these people were the “monsters in the basement” heard by the children in life.

If the players have been waiting for larger combats the basement will not disappoint. Literally thirty feet apart are corridors and a room with ghouls and shadows. I will mention there are some other encounters sprinkled throughout the house which I opted to skip. These include some animated objects and a grick which I found to be uninteresting. In our adventure the characters completed a long rest in the attic and also become second level. With that in mind, I increased the difficulty of the ghoul encounter by making it six instead of four. This proved to be on scary battle with PCs becoming paralyzed and making death saves left and right. The players literally pulled through by the skin of their teeth and ultimately won the battle.

Now exhausted of abilities they slogged onward and unfortunately were set upon by the five shadows. Admittedly I thought this was going to be a total party wipe-out. But a well-placed Faerie Fire spell by the warlock and several amazing rolls later the shadows were repelled. All of the characters with the exception of the ranger were drained of several points of strength. The sounds of chanting and determined grit pushed them on into the deeper bowels of the Death House. As a side note the encounters with the ghouls and shadows are deadly. There has been plenty of talk about them online from other DMs and reducing the threat. Or you could be like me and increase the threat, especially if you opt to use the Dark Powers house rule. My feelings are this is Ravenloft and people die all the time so push the limits now and again!

The pseudo final encounter of the adventure involves a chamber where the cultists committed their heinous sacrifices. Here the PCs are faced with ghostly apparitions who want them to sacrifice someone as they did routinely so long ago. My group decided this was not the path they would follow and the cultists awakened Lorghoth the Decayer. This is a Shambling Mound with a foul disposition that immediately attacks and will pursue the characters. Considering the bad shape the characters were in this battle went exceedingly well for them. Thematically I personally did not like this choice for a monster. That said, the slow movement of the creature, coupled with some space to avoid it, makes a good choice for lower level characters. If I had to do it again I would probably make a bone and rotted flesh amalgamation come out of the refuse pile. A horrific undead abomination of all the cult’s victims.

My favorite part of the adventure occurs when the battered and emotionally drained adventurers attempt to leave the Death House. The house is not amused with their constant victories and attacks them! Windows brick over, doors are replaced with scything blades, and black poison smoke billows forth from stoves and fireplaces. Again there were characters making death saves during this daring escape from the house. To make it even more difficult I required perception checks to find fallen companions in thick black smoke. Eventually the players were able to breathe the fresh air as their characters escaped the Death House.

Our game session lasted 7.5 hours with every nook and cranny of the Death House explored. Again the only parts skipped were the rather uninteresting combat encounters. That was a game day call by me however, as part of being a DM is managing play time. Overall I found the Death House to be an enjoyable introduction to the world of Ravenloft. Make no mistake, this is a brutal world and putting on kid gloves is doing a disservice to the adventure. Before embarking on Curse of Strahd all players should understand this is a grim campaign world and character death is possible and even expected. Obviously a DM running Death House for a smaller group needs to adjust the adventure encounters or start them at a slightly higher level. Death House makes no apologies and will test the mettle of your players and their characters.

Looking for further adventures in the Death House?

Curse of Strahd: Macabre Escape 

For additional Ravenloft tips and inspiration check these posts:

Vampire Killing Kit

Ravenloft Trinkets

Ravenloft DM Tips

I6 Session Report

Strahd's Fifth Motivation