5 Tips for Running the Death House One-Shot From Curse of Strahd (2024)

5 Tips for Running the Death House One-Shot From Curse of Strahd

  • 5 Tips for Running the Death House One-Shot From Curse of Strahd (1) by Jeremy Blum

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Tags Dungeon Master Tips Halloween Curse of Strahd

Death House is a modern Dungeons & Dragons horror classic. The adventure was unveiled in the February 2016 issue of Dragon+ as an example of the thrills that would come in the then-unreleased Curse of Strahd. Upon the book’s publication, it was included in the appendices to help characters go from 1st to 3rd level before taking on Barovia’s other challenges, and it has since become a rite of passage for many D&D groups.

That said, Death House can be a brutal experience. It’s not exactly an adventure for new D&D players, but it often ends up being experienced that way thanks to Curse of Strahdbeingone of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons' premiereadventures. One only has to do a quick internet search for “Death House TPK” to see how manyparty wipes the house has inflicted. When I ran the adventure in October 2018 for Halloween, I quickly found my anxiety spiking as my unsuspecting group of 1st-leveladventurers proceeded to nearly get massacred at least five times in a row.

If you’re a Dungeon Master hoping to run Death Houseas a Halloween one-shot,here are some vital tips:

  1. Start Death House at 2nd level
  2. Use theater of the mind
  3. Emphasize Rose and Thorn
  4. Develop the nursemaid
  5. Tweak the final encounter

Make Prep Easier With Maps!

All maps and creatures fromCurse of Strahdare now inMaps, and a new top-down layout of Castle Ravenloft is also available!

With D&D Beyond’s Maps tool,Master-tier subscriberscan quickly create in-game maps from the sourcebooks they own on D&D Beyond and populate them with creature and player tokens.

Eachtipassumes that you’re running the game for a group of four, have at least three hours of playtime, and hope to subject your players to as much of the Durst house as possible while avoidinga TPK — at least untilthey witness the monstrosity that awaits them in the dungeon. Beware, for massive spoilers await!

1. Start Death House at2nd level

Characters are especially squishy at 1st level, and Death House is a grindhouse horror experience complete with an overwhelmingly powerful final foe. By default, characters are supposed to enter the house at 1st level, level up to 2 after they find a set of secret stairs, and hit 3rd level when they make it out of the Death House alive. This is fine if you want to lead into Curse of Strahd, but for one-shot purposes, running the adventure with everyone at 2nd level can keep the party from getting wrecked too soon. (If you’re feeling generous, or really want your players to see the entirety of the house in a quick Halloween night of gaming, you could even run it at 3rd level.)

Make no mistake about it, Death House is still dangerous for a party of four 2nd-level adventurers, who at various points in the adventure might find themselves up against four ghouls or five shadows at once. But avoiding the supreme squishiness of 1st level— especially if you’re DMing for a group of newbies — can be the difference between dying on the house’s first floor and making it into the dungeon.

5 Tips for Running the Death House One-Shot From Curse of Strahd (2)

2. Use theater of the mind to simplify Death House

Death House comes with a beautiful map, but for a quick Halloween game, it’s faster to avoid all of the deliberations that occur whenever players see a selection of rooms for them to explore. Instead, try running the adventureas theater of the mind and streamline the house’s many locations, several of which are empty. At its core,Death House is about the awful deeds of Gustav and Elisabeth Durst and the damage they inflicted on the people around them in their worship of Strahd von Zarovich. Emphasize the sections of the house that reveal the eerie lore of the Dursts, and simplify all else.

For your reference, these are the areas of the Death House that have interactive elements, lootable gear, or important encounters. The most vital regions are bolded.

First Floor
  • Main Hall (has a longsword above the fireplace)
  • Den of Wolves (contains a cabinet full of various crossbows, plus bolts)
  • Kitchen and Pantry (contains a dumbwaiter that a Small character can squeeze into and use to move to different areas of the house)
Second Floor
  • Servant’s Room (connects to the dumbwaiter)
  • Library (contains books on the house’s history)
  • Secret Room (has an important letter from Strahd, as well as a treasure chest)
Third Floor
  • Balcony (has a battle with an animated armor)
  • Master Suite (connects to the dumbwaiter and contains a treasure chest)
  • Storage Room (has a battle with a broom of animated attack)
  • Nursemaid’s Suite (features an encounter with the Durst family’s nursemaid, now a specter)
Attic
  • Storage Room (features another potential encounter with the Durst nursemaid)
  • Children’s Room (contains the skeletal remains of the Durst children, Rose and Thorn)
  • Secret Stairs (leads down to the house’s dungeon)
Dungeon
  • Family Crypts (features the graves of Rose and Thorn)
  • Well and Cultist Quarters (has some lootable cultist belongings worth a few gold pieces)
  • Hidden Spiked Pit (a trap that will potentially kill the PCs)
  • Larder (a grick attack)
  • Ghoulish Encounter (a fight with four former cultists-turned-ghouls)
  • Darklord’s Shrine (a shrine to Strahd and a potential battle with five shadows)
  • Hidden Trapdoor (leads up to the Den of Wolves on the first floor)
  • Cult Leaders’ Den (contains a battle with a mimic)
  • Cult Leader’s Quarters (contains a battle with Gustav and Elisabeth Durst, now two ghasts)
  • Prison (has lootable skeleton remains)
  • Ritual Chamber (the final cultist enclave, where a shambling mound awaits)
Doing a speedrun ofDeath House

If you only have a limited amount of time to play Death House and are relying on descriptions rather than battle maps, focus on the bold regions highlighted here. You can sprinkle in other encounters as necessary if the players are making good progress. For instance, the shrine devoted to Strahd oozes atmosphere, and if you have gnomes or other Small characters in your party, utilizing the dumbwaiter is a fun way of having them scout ahead.

3. Emphasize Rose and Thorn

5 Tips for Running the Death House One-Shot From Curse of Strahd (3)

Make the illusory Rose and Thorn more charismatic

Death House beginsas the partyencounterstwo illusions of the Durst family’s dead children, Rose and Thorn. Created by the house to lure in victims, the illusions drop vague hints about a monster in the basem*nt and the sins of their parents. The party is expected to take them at face value and enter the house as soon as possible. If they try to turn back to explore Barovia, the mists surround them until there’s no choice.

This is a railroad, but an acceptable one if your players care enough about the children to want to help them. Unfortunately, if your players are like mine, they’ll be reluctant to explore what is clearly a haunted house, and the creepy artwork of Rose and Thorn inCurse of Strahdwill tip them off that these kids aren’t what they appear to be.

To get around this problem, turn Rose and Thorn into NPCs with big personalities that your players will want to help. You might also use less-intimidating artwork for the twins.In my game, I gave Rose the personality of a sassy older sister who was fiercely protective of her younger brother. Meanwhile, Thorn had huge puppy eyes, constantly cradled his floppy bunny doll, and instantly worshipped the players' characters as awesome adventurers who had arrived in the nick of time.

Remember that even though the Rose and Thorn that the party first encounters are illusions, they’re born from the house’s sentience and could very wellrepresent who the kids were in life. So, give them vivacious temperaments or accents evocative of your favorite child protagonists in popular media (the Stranger Things kids, anyone?).Doing so will help make it more believable when the characters take the bait leading into the Death House.

Lean into the children's tragic lore and age

Once the party encounters Rose and Thorn’s ghosts in the Children’s Room, they’ll no doubt remember the illusions that tricked them and demand some answers. Death House says the children know they’re dead, so run with that concept. Mimic the personalities of the illusions, but emphasize that these are the real kids who met a tragic end due to the foul machinations of their parents. Stress the wrongdoings of Gustav and Elisabeth Durst, and plant the seed of putting the souls of these poor children to rest by placing their remains in the family crypts.

You can also have Rose and Thorn possess random party members. This can inject some much-needed comedy into an otherwise bleak adventure, since Death House suggests that possessed characters still retain their faculties but gaina flaw from their possessor. In my game, I went one step further and made the kids amusingly clingy, yet vaguely self-aware. Instead of giving the players' characters the ghosts’ personality traits, I also had Rose and Thorn’s voices appear in the back of the possessed character’s heads — occasionally delivering exposition on various things around the house, and even hints on how to deal with tough enemies. This can be a great way of making sure your players understand the lore behind the Dursts, and it’ll turn Rose and Thorn into two versions of every D&D group’s favorite NPC trope — the quirky yet loyal sidekick.

4. Develop the nursemaid

Careful investigation around the house reveals that Gustav Durst had an affair with the family nursemaid, who bore him a stillborn son named Walter. She was then stabbed by the cultists for unexplained reasons and cast aside. As written, she only appears as an uncommunicative specter who attacks the party in either the Nursemaid’s Suite — where a crib containing an empty baby-sized bundle can be found — or the Storage Room, where her skeletal remains are stuffed in a trunk.

As written, the nursemaid is not only a lethal character who could potentially destroy a 1st- or 2nd-level adventurer with fewhit points with her Life Drain ability, but she’s also a horror trope — the cast aside, wronged woman who returns as a vengeful ghost. She deserves more development, especially in a stripped-down Death House emphasizing the evil nature of the Dursts.

For inspiration, consider Gustav Durst’s reasoning for the affair in a letter from Strahd that can be found in the Secret Room. Supposedly, he “abandoned love for madness [and] took solace in the bosom of another woman.” What of the nursemaid’s point of view? Perhaps she legitimately loved Gustav and hoped to free him from the cult’s influence. Maybe as a specter, she now desires vengeance more than anything else and mourns for her son. Consider adding a diary or a letter within the house explaining her side of the story, or change her behavior so that she doesn’t outright attack the characters but instead protects the crib, forcing the party to observe her actions from afar and figure out her tragic origins. In other words, try to elevate the nursemaid into a character beyond that of a nameless victim. Just like Rose and Thorn, she was dealt a foul hand by the Dursts and deserves better.

5 Tips for Running the Death House One-Shot From Curse of Strahd (4)

5. Tweak the final encounter

The final confrontation in Death House is an odd one. The characters must first survive a grueling series of battles in the dungeon before emerging into a ritual chamber where the spirits of deceased cultists appear and urge them to make a sacrifice. If they kill any creature on the altar, the cult is appeased and the characters can leave the house freely. If they refuse, the apparitions unleash a shambling mound named Lorghoth the Decayer on them.

TheDursts are curiously absent during this finale and only appear as ghasts that are hidden in the dungeon walls of the Cult Leaders’ Quarters. You can tweak this finale to make the encounter more interesting and satisfying:

  • Make the Dursts present in the Ritual Chamber. Since everything in the adventure has played up their nefarious actions, inserting Gustav and Elisabeth Durst into the finale adds emotional impact, particularly if Rose and Thorn are possessing player characters. The Dursts could still be ghasts but appearin the Ritual Chamber to encourage the party to carry out the sacrifice. To add inbody horror,make them gibbering mouthers instead. You could even meld them with Lorghoth the Decayer itself. As the shambling mound unearths itself from the ground, their grasping limbs could reach out to strangle the characters, andtheir screaming lips could utterpassionate odes to Strahd.
  • Utilize the environment to make thecombat encounter more interesting.Most groups who end up facing Lorghoth the Destroyer are either going to retreat or kite the shambling mound to avoid its attacks. You can describe a narrow corridor that the party can squeeze through but that Lorghoth cannot. When I ran Death House, I made sure to highlight a portcullis that led into the Ritual Chamber. What ensued was a thrilling scene where two characters worked the wooden wheel that controlled the portcullis while the others led Lorghoth beneath it. The portcullis slammed onto the shambling mound, doing enough damage for the characters to turn the battle in their favor.
  • Play up the anxiety of escaping the Death House. If the party kills Lorghoth or successfully escapes the Ritual Chamber, the house becomes alive and starts to attack them. Windows are bricked up, doors are replaced with scythe blades, and noxious smoke fills the rooms. This is a stellar chance for the Dungeon Master to unleash evocative, tense descriptions and for the characters tomake some last-minute, death-defying rolls. If you want to make the escape even more potent, try tying up the loose ends with Rose, Thorn, and the nursemaid. Maybe Rose and Thorn’s crypts only become visible as the house morphs around the party, forcing them to hastily bury the twins’ remains as chunks of stone fall from the ceiling and rats pour out from the walls. If the characters managed to kill Gustav Durst, perhaps as they escape they could also catch a glimpse of the nursemaid’s specter evaporating, a look of peace on her face as she is finally avenged.

Death House, despite certain quirks, is a rock-solid descent into darkness, as well as excellent fodder for a Halloween one-shot. Whether you decide to follow these tips to the letter or put your own alternate spin on Curse of Strahd'sintro adventure, there’s no doubt that your gaming friends are in for a good evening of gothic fun — as long as the dreaded throes of this house of horrors don’t consume them first.

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Jeremy Blum (@PixelGrotto) is a journalist, gaming blogger, comic book aficionado, and fan of all forms of storytelling who rolled his first polyhedral dice while living in Hong Kong in 2017. Since then, he's never looked back and loves roleplaying games for the chance to tell the tales that have been swirling in his head since childhood.

5 Tips for Running the Death House One-Shot From Curse of Strahd (2024)
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