Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Death House Survival Horror

Spoilers for Curse of Strahd ahead!
If a player starts making Knock Knock jokes, play along
In the coming months, I am planning to end a couple of my current campaigns. The epic-level campaign is about to kill their final boss/creator, and the 14-person game is closing in on the secret cult that has been plaguing the city. So, I am going to need some new campaigns to make sure everyone can keep playing! And hopefully some help from my players. A couple of them are interested in running a campaign, and I am doing my best to encourage that so I can take a breather!

After watching the fantastic series Dice, Camera, Action, (which ends today!), I am extremely excited to run Curse of Strahd. I think it is the best module put out by Wizards of the Coast for 5th Edition so far, and the location-based formula will work well with the semi-monthly schedule I'm currently on with my groups.

It's not a wine glass, it's a scaaaary wine glass

I also plan to run the mini-adventure Death House. However, I've read that many groups have trouble with the first half of the adventure, partially because they think of it as a standard Hack-and-Slash adventure rather than buying in to the horror aspect of the game. The pacing is combat-light and is meant to emphasize tension rather than combat.

While thinking of a solution to this, and reading through the adventure, I realized that the house includes a lot of adventure gear, even things 1st-level characters should already have. Things like shields, an arcane focus, thieves' tools. What if the PCs didn't have that equipment when they entered the house?

Obviously, they can't go in completely empty-handed. But I want to evoke the feeling that even the barbarian, with 15 HP and resistance to physical damage, should be afraid. This entire campaign is about the unknowable, the darkness, the fear. If they walk in with their battle-axes and adventuring gear, I think it could kill the tone of the entire campaign. However, if they creep fearfully through a haunted house, stealing and using a dagger with a demonic hilt out of desperation, they might be more prepared for what Barovia has to offer them.

So, here is what I plan to run for the intro to Death House:

Death House

The Village of Barovia: not featured in this adventure
The Players start out around a campfire. The mists of Barovia bring them into the demiplane.

The players start out at level one. They have no equipment, weapons, or armor, except for what is listed below, an explorer's kit, a trinket, and what they received from their background:
Barbarian: Handaxe
Bard: Instrument
Cleric: Holy Symbol
Druid: Druidic Focus
Fighter: Spear
Monk: Quarterstaff
Paladin: Mace
Ranger: Shortbow and 10 arrows
Rogue: Dagger
Sorcerer: Arcane Focus
Warlock: Component Pouch (enough components to cast known spells)
Wizard: Spellbook

Before the adventure, select one uncommon magic item for each character. Try to avoid giving them consumable items (scrolls, potions, etc). These items will be placed throughout the house, and "call" to the players. Make sure to give them minor effects and traits (DMG pg. 142). A Ring of Warmth is good, but a ring that makes your finger appear undead, whispers to its wearer, and has a gemstone with a skull inside it is much better.

The items will be placed in areas 9, 20, 23, 25, and 34. If you have more than 5 players, areas 9, 25, and 34 are a good place to put more than one item. If you have less than 5, areas 25 and 34 already contain treasure and can be easily removed.


After allowing the characters to introduce themselves and interact around the campfire, read the following:
You hear a soft whimpering, accompanied by two sets of small footfalls. At the edge of your camp, a pair of small children appear. The younger one, a seven-year-old boy, is weeping and clutching a stuffed doll. His sister, a ten-year-old, is leading him by his other hand. They are pale-skinned, and their finely made clothing looks ragged and beaten by travel.
Rose introduces them, Thorn stays quiet, and sniffly. She says they ran away from home because they were scared, and now they are lost. Rose can provide the information listed in the book (CoS pg. 211). She asks if the PCs can lead them home, not so much if they can help with the monster. If the characters agree to take the children home, a character can easily track their trail back to the house.

The children have traits, which are important later when characters could be possessed by the ghosts of the children. Make sure to play them up, but garner sympathy. Make these kids cute and precocious, not annoying.
  • Rose: "I like being in charge and get angry when other people tell me what to do."
  • Thorn: I'm scared of everything, even my own shadow, and I weep with despair when things don't go my way."

This being Barovia, the sky is dark and overcast even if they wait until daylight. When they decide to follow the trail, read the following:

If the players say there's no such thing as Victorian architecture, just call it Zarovichian instead
You follow the trail back to a path. Rose tells you her house is to the west. Black pools of water stand like dark mirrors in and around the muddy roadway. Giant trees loom on both sides of the road, their branches clawing at the mist. The path leads to a tall brick house standing alone on a small hill. Its windows are dark, and the house has seen better days. It has a gated portico on the ground floor, and the rusty gate is slightly ajar.
As you get closer to the house, you notice a foggy mist creeping into the woods behind you. It becomes thicker and thicker, seeming to choke off all escape, pressing you towards the house.
Remember, the characters don't know this is called "Death House". However, you could certainly call it "Durst House" (the children's surname). At this point, if players approach or ask for more detail, you can provide it from the description of area 1 (CoS pg. 212).
Thorn begins to cry, and Rose hushes him. She turns to you. "Can you please go in and make sure everything is okay before we do? I'm sure that will make him calm down."
When the players enter, continue the description of area 1. For some reason area 1 covers both the outside porch of the house and the entrance hall.
As you turn to tell the children everything is alright, the door slams shut behind you, cutting off all light. 
You open the door, and a wall of fog greets you. The children are gone, and all that is left outside is thick, menacing fog.
 If the PCs inspect the fog, they can see ghostly shapes moving around in it.

Here are the rules for the fog from Chapter 2 of Curse of Strahd:
  • If you start your turn in the fog, ST C 20 or gain one level of exhaustion. You can't heal this exhaustion while in the fog.
  • No matter what direction you go, you end up going back up the hill and finding the house within 1d4 rounds.
  • The fog is heavy obscurement - you are effectively blind when trying to see something.
A level of exhaustion per round?! I think I would ignore that rule for my playthrough. I've already hamstringed the players enough, and my group would definitely get the picture when they end up back at the house.

Resting in Death House

At the end of all this mess
One last thing before we get into the actual areas of the house. I want to foreshadow the end of the adventure, where rats come pouring out of the interior walls if they are broken down. So, if the players find a place to take a long or short rest, the following should happen:
As you lock the door and take your rest, you hear a scratching sound coming from the walls. As if something... lots of something was crawling around inside them.
If they break down the walls at this point,  at least one character will have to forego their rest to hack at the walls. The walls are not yet brittle and rotted, as they are at the end of the adventure. However, the character only finds cobwebs and timbers.

Shiny happy people holding hands
This ended up being a much longer introduction than I expected. I will begin breaking down the actual rooms in another post, but here's the outline of the plan:
  1. Place more weapons, items, and gear in the rooms to make up for lack of equipment
  2. Weaken some of the monsters a bit. We still want them to be scary, but facing a specter or suit of animated armor would be suicide without proper gear.
  3. Make sure to emphasize the Marks of Horror (CoS pg. 7) in each room and add some to areas that seem too normal.
It's going to be a bit of extra work, but I think the end result will be worth it!

Thanks for reading!

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