Welcome to this blog’s first review! I love running published adventures, and I find that writing a review is a good way to reflect on my experience and learn from my mistakes and successes. So enjoy this review of Death House, a free mini-adventure for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition.
About this review
This is based on my recent experience of running this module for the second time. The first time I ran it, I used it pretty much as is. Although it was fun, it took a lot of time to prepare and to play. That worked out fine for what we wanted, but I am not convinced that it was the best way to use the module. So I was quite keen to make a few changes and try it again. Finally, this week, I had the opportunity, and this review tries to capture what I did differently and what I would change if I ran it again.
Note: Even if you want to run it exactly as written, you should still find something useful in this review – especially if you plan to run this only once.
TL;DR Be warned: This module takes a lot of preparation and you will need to change it a lot to suit your purposes. Also, spoilers ahead. Content warning: Child endangerment and neglect.
About the module
This module is supposed to help DMs introduce new players and characters to the much-vaunted world of Ravenloft, but you could easily run it as a generic haunted house scenario. I’m still not convinced which approach would work better. The plot revolves around themes of criminally bad parents, child neglect, death by starvation, and an evil cult. So I advise caution. Like Ravenloft more generally, this scenario is not for everyone. This is definitely something you need to discuss with your players before you begin.
What I changed, and why I changed it
There are many things I loved about the setting, and I wanted to capture some of my favourite aspects of Ravenloft when I ran this introductory module. So when I decided to run this adventure again, I made quite a few changes. I based these on my own experiences, and two other reviews that I found really useful. The first was by Sly Flourish (here) and the second was by PowerscoreRPG (and here!). Now you know. Both these people are worth checking out if you don’t know them yet.
In any case, I ended up running my version for a group of relatively inexperienced players at a university gaming club on Tuesday. I aimed to finish the entire module in 3 1/2 hours, because that is how long the group’s sessions usually run and I didn’t want to leave the story in the middle. My main goal was to give them a taste of what it is like to go adventuring in Barovia, without overstaying our welcome or requiring intense commitment. It was also an experiment to see if I could boil down a 12-hour-plus experience into a shorter time frame, and whether it would be more effective.
The first time I ran this scenario, I experienced a lot of difficulties with the house itself: it is large, and the map can get confusing quickly. I am not great with directions and geography in real life, so whenever I play RPGs, I never offer to be the map-maker. Although I love maps, and the people who make them, I tend to struggle with them as a DM. I decided to solve this by printing out a separate image for each room, labelling each with the room number, and then organising them into envelopes according to floor, so that I could find them easily. This was much easier than trying to explain the exact dimensions to the players. However, next time I would actually just print out each floor separately and give the players access to the whole floor plan at once. It means they might spend less time on the chore of exploring multiple, uninteresting rooms.
In the interests of time, I also reduced the number of combat encounters. In my experience, each combat takes at least 15 minutes – and that’s if you try to run it quickly, or choose easy opponents. It also detracts from the mystery aspect of the scenario, since it creates the expectation that you can just punch your way through the mystery. The first thing I did was to ditch the shambling mound “end boss”. It never made sense that a cult would worship a pile of half-digested garbage because they got jilted by their vampire lord. At best you could argue that the monster foreshadows the presence of the druids, but you would have to start off with that link as your reason the party is in Ravenloft.
Instead, I planned to let the players fight the children’s dead parents, whose undead bodies were lying in the pile of refuse where the mound would have been.
Based on the Sly Flourish review, I used the Werewolves in the Mist opening, and gave the players an opportunity to chase the wolves in the mist (once they had been transported to Barovia). It’s a fun entry point to the campaign setting, and hopefully I get to refer back to it in future sessions. But I’m not sure it added anything to the scenario on its own. At least it set the tone for the campaign world. If these players ever attend a similar session in future, they will definitely have a motivation to pursue werewolf-related clues. Werewolves and vampires, oh my! (Although next time, I would definitely add more werewolf- and vampire-related elements and clues to all those empty rooms. Damn.)
One thing I’m glad I did was to compile all the descriptive introductory text into a single “opening narration”. Doing this beforehand made it clear where I needed to add some bridging text, or add description and context. It also helped me get a sense of how long it would take just to get them there. In this session, it took them half an hour to introduce themselves to one another, reach Barovia, meet the children, and enter the house.
Changes during the game
This group took roughly 2 1/2 hours to reach the basement. Since we had 3 1/2 hours for the whole module, that left us with about an hour for the basement level and a final battle. So I decided in-game to skip the first level of the basement. That left the reliquary with its collection of grotesque trinkets, which worked marvellously. (Why doesn’t the rest of the house look more like a den of cultists?)
As it turns out, one of the players chose a cleric and chose to ‘sense undead’ right when they entered the final area. And since the players had only played one previous game, I decided not to throw all of the undead at them at once. So instead of sticking to my original idea, I just had them battle the four ghouls who were supposed to be asleep and/or dungeon dressing. It worked out really well, considering, and the monsters were a much better fit for the setting.
Previously, the party bypassed the few rooms that actually did have anything interesting in them, apart from one where the spectre was. (They missed most of the clues explaining why the nurse was murdered.) In particular, they missed the room with the letter from Strahd – the only direct link to the setting. So instead, they found it on the dead bodies of the two parents.
Feedback from players
I had a few minutes after the session to discuss the scenario with the players. They were disappointed that we didn’t see werewolves again, and they regretted not looking for the wolves at the beginning. They also complained about the number of empty rooms they had to trawl through. At the same time, it was pretty clear to them that they had missed a lot of clues. Overall, they seemed to have fun. Although I can tell that at least one of the players would not be travelling to Barovia again, unless they could create a much more cheerful character.
This scenario actually takes a LOT of preparation and adaptation. You can run it as is, but players are likely to get bored or annoyed. And if you want to give players a sense of the land itself, you will definitely need to read the description of how they travel to Barovia, because the module itself doesn’t cover that.
It also brings up a really critical problem with the D&D model: combat does not equal story; a complex, complicated, or confusing map does not equal fun. To be honest, I enjoyed planning and preparing the scenario more than I enjoyed running it, and I suspect the players enjoyed it less than they thought they did.
On reflection, I am not sure the adventure “as written” contains enough elements that emphasise Ravenloft or Strahd von Zarovich, specifically. Apart from a letter from the vampire, this house could have belonged to any cult. The themes of child endangerment are in keeping with the mood of Ravenloft, and it reoccurs in other parts of the campaign. But there are many rooms where they could have linked this module to other themes that reoccur in the setting. As I mentioned, I love map-makers, and Mike Schley’s maps are amazing. But if you relocate or remove the (often random) combat, there simply isn’t enough going on in each room. That’s not a cartography problem, that’s a story problem.
You can find the full, original version online for free, from the WotC website.