Death House Review

Before I get into today’s review, I want to bring up the metal dice from Norse Foundry  again.  We got to use them for our Brave New Worlds game over the weekend.  Everyone took one to use as their wild die.  Having had a chance to use them throughout a game allowed me to get a little more input for them.  As I said, they are heavy.  This ended up being more than just a good feeling when rolling.  The dice don’t go very far.  I don’t know about you but sometimes dice like to try to escape, but these metal dice don’t.  As for damaging the table, the handful of rolls didn’t do anything to the table, but we were being careful.  Most of the rolls were on a notebook, or something similar, and this worked just fine.  Despite the lack of damage, I still suggest being careful on your tables!

Now, let’s get into Death House!  Two and a half weeks ago I ran this intro adventure for four people.  Two of them were veterans of my games and two of them were completely new to tabletop role-playing.  We used pre-generated characters from the DM’s Guild (you know the ones I reviewed last week).  We let the newbies pick first and the veterans filled out the team, and it worked great.  After a brief overview of rules we got right into it.

Before I tell you how it went and my opinions based on that session let’s get to the nuts and bolts of Death House.  This adventure is designed to be an introduction to Curse of Strahd which came out last week.  It can be found in Dragon+.  That adventure path runs from level 3 and up, and Death House allows you to become introduced to the land of Barovia, the gothic horror aspect of the setting, and get players to level 3.  In all it is an absolutely fantastic adventure.  I loved reading what was going on and what could happen.  Running it for the players was even more fun as they ran around wondering what would happen, while also having a good idea about how horrible things could be.

Warning the following will include spoilers!

In its basic layout the game runs smoothly.  The PCs are forced into Barovia, giving them the hook to just wonder what is going on.  With virtually no stimulus within the town, the PCs cannot ignore the crying child.  Then, the mists do well to force the player’s into the house and the namesake of the adventure.  By that point they are creeped out, curious, and left with few options.  It is a bit of a railroad in, but at that point the exploration is completely up to them.  The house itself is given great thought and detail, throughout, even down to what will and won’t (mostly will) age when removed from the mystic house.  It is very careful to make sure the DM understands the house is, itself, an entity.

The adventure hinges on finding a secret, but provides a few ways to reveal that secret, ensuring that the adventurers are likely to discover it one way or another.  Finally, the ultimate ending allows two outcomes, neither of which are easy to deal with.  If the PCs take the “easy” way out, they must still make a sacrifice and have only themselves to choose from.  The more difficult way out includes not only a fight, but a gauntlet through the house as it tries to murder them all.  There is every possibility that they don’t all make it out, assuming they all make it to the end.

There are a few problems I have with the adventure.  The first part of it is there are some layout problems.  There is a section called adventure hooks.  No surprise, this section implies a number of hooks, but only gives the Creeping Fog.  Other hooks are supposedly presented in the Curse of Strahd, and I am sure they’re there.  But that does little to help this adventure, especially when run before the release of the adventure path.  Now, its a good opening to such an adventure, but there is no need to imply other hooks.

Part of the layout problem I have are the descriptions.  They are incredibly written, but few in number.  In fact they specifically only occur in the most important rooms in the game.  This is not really a surprise, but is a bit of a dead give away to players at the table.  Now, perhaps they find nothing in the library and that breaks down the assumed importance of written narration, but if they find the secret…  I would have liked to see two or three more narrations.  These could have been on some of the more detailed rooms that ended up having nothing in them.  While I understand this could hinder the party’s ability to find the secrets advancing the adventure, but I think the adventure is better designed than that.

Let’s see, other problems.  This one is a bit nit-picky, but I would have liked the maps spread onto two sheets and zoomed in.  It was cramped and sometimes you could lose where you were describing.  The last problem I had with this adventure is the speed at which it progresses.  This is not so much as it being too fast or too slow.  In fact, my players skipped very little and we played the whole thing in one long session.  However, we didn’t level.  That would have taken significant table-time from us in describing new abilities or spells to the new players.

Now, here’s the problem: if the players had not skipped that little bit, the ensuing battle would have meant not finishing in one night.  Leveling them up means that we would have not finished in one night.  Frankly, it should have been obvious to end the session with leveling to 2, but the game was going very well.  The only way I can see this being solved is to warn the DM.  I know there is no way to predict session times, but in terms of “expected” session times and adventure layout the suggestion slapping me in the face would have been nice.

So, now let’s talk a little about how awesome this was to play.  We had secrets, traps, ghosts, sounds, hidden images, background story, creepy mists, and classic monsters.  This little game was prefect for the new players.  It showed them what D&D was all about, and they got into it.  So much so that we are waiting on the Curse of Strahd to arrive so we can continue playing!  I must say that the game is a bit brutal too.  The spectre of the nursemaid?  That murdered on player outright.  In an amazing display of attempted diplomacy, our cleric rolled a 4.  He assumed that she may be like the ghost children and willing to talk.  Instead she attacked.  The roll was just enough to take him from full to 0.  And then he rolled a 3 on his Con save.  Needless to say, the newbies learned how dangerous things can be as they watched one character wither before their eyes and die.  I am just REALLY glad one of the veteran players died.

The adventure was also very good at getting the players into what was happening.  They searched for secrets, traps, and monsters.  They looted all the treasure they could, even throwing curtains full of silverware out the windows.  They saved each other from getting sacrificed (I played the shambling mound as trying to take a sacrifice from them) and avenged the one who died (though they could have left).  Finally, even as the house tried to eat them, one of the newbies went back for the children’s bones to bury later because the children begged them not to leave and she had successfully promised that she would be back for them.

If you don’t have Curse of Strahd yet, or want to earn your way to level 3, I would definitely play Death House.  Over two session though.  It will prove to be a great adventure and nice entryway into the brutal creepiness of the Demiplane of Dread.